Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Stories from the Classroom

Sometimes, entertaining things happen in my classroom.  Usually the stories are not long enough to merit an entire blog post, so I’m going to group a few of them together here to share them.

I've started something new before homeroom every morning.  I’m using my resources (in this case, a classroom full of native Spanish speakers) wisely.  The kids are allowed in my room at 7:45, but homeroom doesn't technically start until 8:05am.  So I've told them that from 7:45-8:00, my room is now a Spanish-only zone.  It’s great.  I get to practice Spanish.  My students get to teach me something.  AND they get to laugh at my accent, pronunciation, and grammar mistakes.   The kids love it.  The second morning I did this, my homeroom increased in size by a third…all of my other students heard about the new experiment and came in to marvel at the “amazing Spanish-speaking English teacher.”  Now, one of my homeroom kids has upped the stakes.  If I speak a word of English, she gains a point.  If she speaks English, she loses a point.  If at 8:00am she has any points, I owe her candy.  Hey, if it keeps her interested in talking to me and keeps me honest about how hard I’m trying, I’ll go for it.  

Sometimes my kids make me laugh…like the day my students decided to make guesses and deductions about my personal life and came to the conclusion that it’s not acceptable for me to be single.  And then one smart-mouth mentioned, under his breath, “Mr. _____ está available.”  (the teacher in question happens to be a great guy…who is in his 60s).  The class erupted in laughter.  At least their next 2 suggestions were teachers in my age bracket. 

And of course as a teacher, there are moments that make me proud.  For example, I have one student who struggles in my class, but for some reason finds poetry a little easier than everything else.  He came up to me to show me a poem he’d finished, and was so excited about it, he asked to read it aloud to me rather than letting me read it silently. 

I've also experienced serendipity.  One period we were in the library working on presentations.  My students’ job is to convince their classmates to travel to the country they've studied.  My students had already sent email questions to contacts (friends of mine) in other countries as well as done some internet research, (and they've each written a research paper on their country).  That day in the library we were working on putting all of their information together into a presentation.  Someone alerted the Mexico group that “there is someone from Mexico sitting very close to you,” and within minutes the three of them had converged on the high school social studies teacher who is from Mexico (and was in the library on her prep period).  She was willing to talk to them, and they spent the next half hour essentially conducting a 2nd interview (and taking up the poor woman’s prep period).  I’m please they value a primary research source so highly, and I’m excited to hear the authentic information they've gained!  (And I will personally be sending a thank-you note to the teacher for her willingness to help). 

And to close…a poem.  Written by one of my students after I’d given him detention for being late to class for the 4th day in a row, because he chose (wisely) to visit the restroom before class, yet failed to make it to the room in an adequate amount of time. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013


I need to have more days like today.  Our excursion to the Toro Negro Forest today was the perfect mix of activity, adventure, natural beauty, and tranquility. 

Robert and Sonja picked me up just after 8am today, and by 9:30am, we were parked at the Toro Negro Forest and ready to embark on our hike up El Bolo Trail to the watchtower.  (Quite a different travel time than when we went to Toro Negro the first time, which you can read about in this post!)   Traveling with Robert and Sonja, in some ways, feels to me like going on a family vacation when I was a child.  Now, before anyone misinterprets what I mean to imply about my relationship with the two of them, let me explain.  When I was a little girl, sitting in the back seat and ready for a car trip, I always knew that Mom and Dad knew exactly where we were going, that we’d see everything worth seeing along the way, and that it’d be a great time, because they had a plan and knew what they were doing.  Traveling with Robert and Sonja feels the same way.  We didn’t get lost once, and we made the most out of our day, taking advantage of everything around us. 

Today, we started by making our way to the observation tower.  The way was pretty un-strenuous, and took us just over an hour.  At the top, we were rewarded with fabulous views of nearly the entire island.  Since it was clear day, we could see both the north and south coasts—the Atlantic and the Caribbean at the same time.  We’re also fairly certain we could see both San Juan and Ponce.  How cool is that? 
It was a peaceful, relaxed period we spent sitting at the top of the tower, completely alone, enjoying the view and the moment. 

The Atlantic Ocean on the horizon
and, in the valley to the right, San Juan 

At our leisure, we decided to make our way back down the trail.  We walked slowly, stopping to take a picture or examine a snail or a cool tree.  

Eventually, La Piscina Trail branched off from El Bolo, and we followed it.  This took us to an abandoned river-fed swimming pool.  The pool is dry now, and obviously hasn’t been used in years.  There’s a sign that says the area is being renovated, which would be really amazing, because I can only imagine how fantastic the pool must have been in its hay-day.  

The dried-up pool

Still, the path around it was beautiful, and we ventured off the path to find a small, pristine pool fed by a little waterfall. 

Engagement photo?  Done.  ;) 

We finished our hike at about noon, and drove back down the road a bit towards the Cabanas Doña Juana, a little restaurant we’d passed on our way up.  Driving with the windows down, the smells of BBQ wafted towards us before we rounded the final bend in the road.  Lunch was a delicious combination of roasted chicken and tostones. 

From there, we took a short detour to experience the Doña Juana Falls, which are just down the road on the right.  We stopped, and Robert and I scrambled down the rocks to sit at the base of the falls and enjoy the view for a bit.  It was another calm, clear swimming hole where, on another day, a dip might have been lovely.

After the falls, we took Rte 143, which is part of the Ruta Panoramica that cuts through the central mountains of Puerto Rico.  We had no time schedule, and the day was beautiful, so it was the perfect opportunity to take the scenic route.  (Literally—we experienced breathtaking views of valleys, rainforest, and rock walls covered in vines at every turn). 

In Coamo, we went to the thermal hot springs and relaxed in the warm waters for an hour or so.  Quite refreshing!  It was, surprisingly enough, my first time at the springs, and I really enjoyed them. 

From there, we finished our day in Salinas, sitting on the water at Ladi’s Place restaurant, enjoying a few cool beverages, each other’s company, and a beautiful view of the sun over the sea. 

Today was laid-back, relaxed, peaceful, and yet at the same time, we did and saw quite a lot.  I filled my senses with everything that makes this island Puerto Rico.  And I came home feeling rejuvenated and refreshed.  I love this island.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

LO HICE! San Blas Half Marathon: Take 2.

I love the San Blas Half Marathon in Coamo, PR.  LOVE it.  If I had the resources to make an annual trip to PR in February each year after this one, I probably would, just for this race.  The crowd and festive atmosphere in Coamo make running the race so enjoyable and worth it.

Let’s backtrack a bit, before I get into my experience yesterday. 
Last year, I went into the medio maratón unprepared for what I was about to face.  This year, I was determined to train hard and intelligently and come out with a better time.  I resolved to follow an actual training program (rather than running 3-4 days a week with one long run, as I did last year), and I made sure my long rungs included as big a hill as I could manage in Guayama.  At the end of November, training was going great.  In the two races I ran in the fall (a 5K and a 5 mile), I set personal records.  I was on top of the world, sure that not only would I beat last year’s time, maybe I could even break 2 hours. 
And then, I started to hurt myself.  First it was my Achilles tendon.  So I cut way back for about three weeks to give that a chance to heal.  Then my ankles gave me trouble, as well as my feet.  By the time I came back to Puerto Rico after Christmas, I had 3 weeks left to train, but I was feeling healthy again. 
So of course, I increased distance too fast and gave myself “Runner’s Knee.”  Nine days before the race.  I cut back, gave my knee some rest, while still going on short, easy runs to keep my form (icing after each).  But when a 2 mile run 2 days before the race was painful, I was really, really nervous to attempt 13 miles in the mountains. 

But I’d signed up and prepared for months, and there was no way I wasn’t going to at least try.  So, with visions of myself finishing the race in the back of an ambulance in my mind, we set off for the race.

This year’s race experience was different from last year’s for multiple reasons.  First, rather than staying in Coamo the night before, we drove up the day of.  We knew traffic would be intense, so we left Guayama before 9am, even though the race didn’t start until 4pm.  We got to Coamo a little bit before 10, and were able to find a good parking spot and relax for a few hours.  Second, the group that went was different.  This year I had someone to run with!  I actually only met Lucy a few weeks ago, when we were introduced by a teacher at school.  She was interested in running San Blas, so she came along with us.  Also, the experience was different for my supporters.  Kelsey and Kezia came, as well as two of Kezia’s brothers.  They had a canopy to sit under and pass the day enjoying the crowds and party atmosphere of the race. 

Lucy and I, pre-race

I, meanwhile, spent the afternoon waiting.  Lucy and I sat inside the basketball stadium, where many of the athletes waited.  We ate free pasta for lunch and then relaxed in the air conditioning.  Lucy spotted Alejandro Garcia Padilla, the new governor of Puerto Rico, and after blowing him kisses across the court, when he came over near where we were sitting, she was able to run down and get a picture with him.  

At 2:00, we boarded the school buses that would take us to the starting line.  As our driver navigated up the route, laying on the horn the entire way, I felt like I was living out the scene in The Hunger Games in which Katniss and Peeta arrive by train to the Capitol, to multitudes cheering for them just outside the windows.  Athletes are the celebrities of the day in Coamo, no matter who you are or whether people know you. 
We got to the park at the starting line and…waited some more.  Through a string of Lucy’s connections (she had a friend, who had a friend, who had 2 more friends) before the start of the race, we ended up in a circle of about 12 people who thought they’d have about the same pace and thought they might more or less stay together.  What a feeling of camaraderie!  Again, it was a completely different experience from last year’s race.

Of course, when the race began, most of the 12 took off at a much faster pace than I was comfortable with, so I hung back and started slow and steady.  Even so, checking the time on my watch as I passed each kilometer marker, I thought maybe I’d started too fast.  But I felt good, and my knee wasn’t hurting at all, so I kept with it. 

Lucy speeding by at kilometer 5

As I began the climb of the Ajoguillo Slope (the highest and most challenging climb of the route) my knee still felt good, and I was still on pace to run the race in my goal time.  By that time—at Kilometer 10/11, I had passed most of the people from our starting circle.  As I approached Kilometer 12 (at which point I again chose to walk up the steepest part of the climb, just as I did last year), I saw Lucy in the distance, also walking.  We both started running again, and I almost caught her at about Kilometer 14.  But then the route sloped downhill, she sped up, and my knee started aching for the first time in the race.  I gritted my teeth, slowed down, and actually hoped for the uphill climbs I knew were still coming.  When they did come, my knee felt better, and I surprisingly gained back time climbing them. 

And through it all, the crowds were cheering.  I’m quite sure I ran faster each time I passed a particularely enthusiastic group, cheering “Dale, dale!  Vaya!”  My favorite cheers, though, were calls like, “Para las mujeres!”  and “Dale nieve, dale!”  (Go, snow, go!)  They always brought a smile to my face and gave me the energy to keep going. 

What gave me the boost of adrenaline needed to pass Lucy at Kilometer 18, though, what when I saw one of my 8th grade students.  We made eye contact, and I honestly don’t know which of us was more excited to see the other.  I think we both squealed and waved.  I powered past my student, and closed in on Lucy.  She actually paused to give some energy gel to a runner who had stopped with a cramp at the exact moment I passed her…so her good Samaritan act was more likely the reason I ended just ahead of her rather than my endurance. 

This year’s race ended on the baseball field, and I ran around the outfield with good energy left in my legs.  I finished strong, with an ending time of 2:10:22. 
For me, that’s AWESOME!! 
1)      It’s just under a 10 minute mile pace for the entire race.  This was my goal.
2)      It is a full FIFTEEN minutes faster than my finish time last year. 

Rounding the final corner and climbing one last hill before the
finish line.  At least there's a smile on my face!

I can only imagine what I could have achieved if not for all those pesky over-training injuries. 
If only I could come back next year. 

Until then, I’m going to give my knee some time to recover.  And if it’s feeling good in a few weeks…there’s a half marathon in Utuado, PR coming up in 6 weeks that Lucy and I have our eyes on…si Dios lo permite.    

Saturday, February 2, 2013


The day finally arrived.  I’d read great reviews of the caving adventure offered by Aventuras Tierra Adentro, and I’d stalked their website, and paged through tons of photos, and I was PUMPED to go on the tour. 
And last Saturday was the day.  And it lived up to expectations.

From the moment our bus pulled up at the meeting spot in San Juan at 5:45am (yes, that meant leaving Guayama at 4:30 in the morning on a Saturday), I sort of felt like I’d been transported out of Puerto Rico. 

Simply put, this company has their sh** together. 
It’s not that most tourism companies in PR don’t…but I had never experienced the level of professionalism, organization, and technology that this company uses. 

The guides, Hannibal and Rossano, hopped out of the bus (literally—bounded with high energy) and greeted all of us.  After we’d checked that everyone was present, Rossano rolled out the red carpet to the bus (I’m not kidding), and we boarded to the Indiana Jones Theme music. 

The one hour bus ride to the bakery in Hatillo was anything but your average 6am sleepy-headed ride in the darkness.  Rossano gave us the intro to the day, complete with videos, sound effects, lighting effects on the bus, and side commentary from Hannibal that kept everyone entertained and engaged. 

When we arrived at the bakery, we had breakfast (the guides had taken our orders and called them in ahead, so they were ready when we got there), filled out our release forms, picked up our knee pads and “safety kits” (backpacks with our helmets and life vests), and packed our backpacks (food and water, double-packed in ziplock bags they provided so we’d have dry food for lunch). 

Then, it was off to the start of the adventure.  We received our harnesses and put them on.  I lucked out both times we had to harness up that day—each time after I’d slipped it on and started to attempt to adjust it, a guide just came up and cinched it up for me snuggly.  

See?  The guides have got us covered. 

Then there were more safety instructions (all comically scripted between Rossano and Hannibal, of course).
Plan A: Don’t fall.
Plan B: Do it right, and you’ll always be securely clipped in while climbing or descending, so you won’t die. 

Finally, all our harnesses had been checked and double-checked, and we’d proved we could clip and unclip properly, and it was time to go. 

The adventure started with 3 ziplines, descending us down through  a sinkhole to get to the mouth of the cave.  The first was a warm-up.  The second was long and with a great view—we didn’t worry about braking.  The third was short and fast.  The guides had the trip down to a science, and we never had to wait long to begin the next zipline. 
After the 3rd, it was time for the rappel.

What a difference for me between the first time I rappelled (2 years ago, in Costa Rica) and yesterday.  The first time I rappelled, I was petrified.  It was a free descend from a 50’ platform on a tree.  The second time I rappelled, it was an 80 foot drop along a waterfall.  Not as scary.  Yesterday, I’m ashamed to admit I sort of zoned out for the rappelling section of the safety talks.  And I didn’t even think for a second as I got clipped in and started descending 130 feet over the sink hole.    When I was about halfway down, the guide at the bottom started telling me, “let go of the rope!”  I let myself descend faster, but it took me a moment to realize he actually wanted me to let go completely.  When I did, he controlled my descent, and gave me a speedy ride!  It was pretty exhilarating. 

Let go of the rope! 

After the rappel, we took off our climbing harnesses and put on our life jackets and gloves.  And then, into the cave we went! 

At the mouth of the cave

Being in the cave was awesome.  We picked our way over and around boulders, and sometimes walked through shallow water of the river running through the cave.  After only a few minutes of walking, we came to the first point where we climbed a rock and jumped from it into the water.  The first jump was a short fall, and the point was really to make sure that we were all comfortable doing it, because later on, there would be a few jumps that we’d have to make, or be left behind. 

Once in the water, we stayed in it for a little bit, and swam along the quiet underground river.  Then there was more walking, with Rossano pointing out beautiful cave formations along the way.  We also saw lots of bats, a few cave spiders (which are pretty huge), one little scorpion, and some people saw a shrimp swimming in the water. 

One of my favorite parts of the tour was the “nutella swamp.”  What was once more or less a lake in the cave has dried up, but is now one big mud pit.  We had to go through it to get where we were going.  Twice, actually (there and back).  Before we began to cross it, we stopped and were given a very important instruction: “DON’T LOSE YOUR SHOES!”  We all tightened our laces to the point of discomfort, and then we began.  I was picking my way through the ankle-deep muck when Josh sprinted past my left side.  With a laugh, I took off behind him.  A much  quicker and more fun way to traverse the mud!!  Of course, being the graceful swan I am, I did fall.  Soft landing, though, and just ended up with one arm covered in mud up to my elbow from catching myself. 

Not to worry, though.  We were back swimming in the water again before the mud could dry. 

At one point, we came to a jump, and Rossano instructed all of us to turn off our headlights.  Then, one at a time, turning on a light briefly in between, each of us jumped into the water in total darkness.  Taking that jump without being able to see the water beneath was a little disconcerting…but pretty awesome.

Once we were all in the water, we swam through a section of the cave Rossano calls “the sump.”  The ceiling is low, and so if the water rises (which it can do quickly in a flash flood), sometimes the water comes to the ceiling.  Because of some rain on the south side of the island, Rossano had made sure we hurried along until the sump, in case the water started to rise.  Thankfully for us, we had a good 2-3 feet of headroom, and the swim was really cool!! 

At about the midway point of the cave, we stopped for lunch in a pretty large cavern.  One or two of the guides must have run ahead unnoticed (or maybe they went down and set it up before any of us got there in the morning—I don’t know), and the place was filled with tons of candles.  Soft mood music was playing, and the guides passed out cushions and directed each of us to our “table for three” …or four… or two.  Little touches like that made this tour really special! 

After we swam out of the cave into the daylight of the sinkhole once again, we traded our lifejackets for climbing harnesses once more and began the climb back to our starting point.  The trip included ladders, via ferratas, a zipline, and my favorite part—a monkey bridge.  A monkey bridge is 2 horizontal cables, one directly above the other.  You stand on one, hold onto the one above your head (and you’re clipped in, of course, so if you slip you’ll only fall 3 feet), and walk sideways across the cable.  It should be scary.  We were up pretty high, and I definitely looked down and enjoyed the view—and the fact that there was only a cable supporting me, no bridge—but I felt completely safe and enjoyed every minute! 

Josh and Amanda and I were the first ones back, and we were far enough ahead of the others that we took our time and filmed a slow-motion video of us coming across the finish line to the victorious music the guides had playing.  Nothing like a little fun to end the day.  J 

Survival!  ;) 

The day was definitely one to remember.  We did so much, and the tour company was just phenomenal.  I’d definitely recommend Aventuras Tierra Adentro if you’re looking for an extreme adventure in Puerto Rico.