Thursday, August 29, 2013

Little Victories

Last weekend was filled with little successes for me.  Nothing major.  Nothing life-changing.  But there have been multiple moments that made me smile to myself and think, “You did it!”  or “That worked out well!” 

Saturday morning I went for a run around the school grounds.  For the first time since I’ve been here, I made it way all the way up the hill and into the school without stopping to walk.  It’s a minor success, but I was happy as I realized I was passing the school guards and hadn’t yet walked. 
Then, on my run, I successfully found the “perimeter path” that circles all of the ball fields and buildings within the school walls—approximately ¾ of a mile.  It’s not a nice 6 mile loop, but it’s at least more of a change of scenery than running around the track over and over and over again. 

When I got home, I finally figured out how to lock my phone, so people here should be receiving many less pocket-dials from me now. 

Later Saturday afternoon, I successfully called not one, but several taxis.  After calling so many times that day, I now feel pretty comfortable with it, and I would be fine calling a taxi for just myself the next time I want to go grocery shopping. 

On Sunday, I played Ultimate Frisbee in the morning.  It wasn’t really a success in the typical sense of the word—actually if we’re talking about my Frisbee skills, it was a pretty big fail.  But I still had a lot of fun and got a nice workout in for the day. 

At home that afternoon, I successfully hung 4 pictures on my living room wall.  The process only involved 3 or 4 bent nails.  Thankfully, I had extras. 

And then on Sunday evening, a few of us finally managed to make it to the VIP movie theater in Oakland Mall.  The VIP is definitely an experience worth having.  Rather than the conventional movie theater seating, the theater is filled with reclining leather love seats.  Next to each is a side table and a lamp, and waiters will bring you food and beverages (for an additional charge, of course) at the beginning of the movie.  Sitting there with my feet up and my head against the head rest felt like I was cuddled up in my parents’ living room—except with all the awesome of being in a movie theater.  It’s like the best combination of both worlds possible. 

So needless to say, I went to bed Sunday night happy and ready for the first full week of classes.  …And you can guess how that’s gone based solely on the fact that I’m posting about the weekend on Thursday night!  Busy—but good.  More on school later.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

First Day of School... In Guate

What a difference 2 years makes!  I remember (vaguely) how I felt my first day as a “real teacher” in Puerto Rico.  I’m pretty sure I was as petrified as the new 7th graders.  Last year was much easier, because I knew half of my students already, and I felt comfortable in my classroom and with what we’d be doing. 

This year, I’m at a new school in a new country.  So although it’s my 3rd year teaching, in some ways, I feel like a brand new teacher because I’m in such a new environment.  However, I do still have those years of experience under my belt, and I noticed it in the difference in my attitude the night before the first day of school.  I wasn’t nervous…I was excited.

First days are easy.  You meet the kids, create a welcoming environment, do an icebreaker or two, and go over the rules and procedures for the year.  So, while I may not be 100% sure yet where I’m going with instruction this first trimester, I felt comfortable with the first week of lesson plans.  My room is more or less set up how I want it, and I was SO EXCITED to meet my new students! 

And so, the first day went really well. We met with our advisories (like homerooms) for almost an hour and a half, getting to know each other and going over school-wide procedures, and then we cycled quickly through each of Day 1’s 5 classes, spending just 30 minutes in each.  At the end of the day, it was time for an assembly.  Our principal came out on stage with his electric guitar and a snazzy pair of sunglasses and sang a wacky song called “Middle School” to the tune of “Wild Thing” (apparently this has become a tradition), and then each grade-level team introduced itself to the students in an interesting way.  8th grade put together a really cool video.  We on the 7th grade team created a skit involving a mischievous translator.  And the 6th grade teachers introduced themselves in 10 seconds, then quizzed the students on “who said what,” game-show style.  Then, it was back to advisory for just long enough to teach my kids how to play Silent Ball, and we were out the door. 

Day 2 (and all of the days that follow) will be just as good, if I have anything to do with it.

Looking from the back of my room towards the front.
There are already more things up on the walls than in this picture.

Taken from the front door.  In the previous picture, I was standing
right in front of that bright green poster on the back wall.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

My First Volcano Hike: Pacaya

Thursday, we had a day off of school because of a Guatemalan holiday.  So naturally, a few of us decided we should go on an adventure—preferably hiking.  There’s a volcano (well, there are several) about an hour’s drive from Guate.  So we spread the word, and sure enough, plenty of people were interested.  We talked to Annette, one of the new teachers who has been working in Guatemala for the past 3 years with an organization called Young Life, and she just so happened to have a contact for a driver and a guide for us.  The driver had a 15 passenger van and charged $125 for the day.  We easily came up with 12 people who were interested in going, and we made it happen.    Talk about a reasonable price!  And when Annette told me the guide’s fee for taking us up the volcano—the equivalent of $12 US, my first question was, “Per person, right?”  No.  For the whole group.  We tipped a little more, because isn’t a 4 hour hike with 12 people worth a bit more than $12? 

The whole trip came together really smoothly and easily.  We left our homes at around 8:30am and got out of the city.  Our guide, Fredy, didn’t speak much English, but there were enough of us on the trip who understand that we could translate for the others. 

The hike started in the forest, with plenty of stops at look-out points affording us fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.  Fredy pointed out various types of trees and points of interest along the way. 

Then we came to the summit, where dirt and grass gave way to rocks and ash.  We were now walking on the area which had been covered with lava in the 2005 eruption. 

We traversed the rocky area on the loose gravel, stopping to spell out “CAG 13” with larger rocks, and then stopping at a steam vent to roast marshmallows.  It wasn’t hot enough right there to catch them on fire, but they did get nice and soft and delicious.  We were pretty excited about our marshmallow roasting experiment. 

As we walked along, we heard a rumble and turned toward the crater to see it spewing rocks out its top!  It was possibly one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my lifetime, knowing that we were that close to an active volcano, and it was active enough to puff rocks and smoke.  (We later found out that a few hours after we left, Pacaya erupted, spewing red-hot lava.  32 people were evacuated.) 

As the clouds rolled in, we walked into the mist along a ridge, then came to the “skiing” part of the trail.  There, the path became very steep, and covered in loose dirt and gravel.  We sort or ran/slid down the hill.  No one lost their footing or fell, and we all came to the bottom and had to empty out our shoes.  Being in the middle of the cloud during the experience added another dimension, because all we could really see was the path in front of us. 

After we bid Fredy good-bye at the bottom of the mountain, we finished the day at the Santa Teresita Spa for a good meal and then swimming in the thermal hot springs.  It was relaxing and just what we needed after a good hike! 

Tired but refreshed…ready for another day at school!  

Friday, August 16, 2013

Teacher Appreciation

Classes haven’t even started yet, but I am completely impressed with my new school.  I’m fairly certain the other new teachers would all agree with me.  The past six days at school, we’ve attended meetings, gone to professional development workshops, and begun to get situated in our classrooms. 

I think so far, one of the things that makes this place so special is the atmosphere.  The message from administrators is very clear: We respect you and we value you.  We expect that you are an excellent teacher, and we have confidence that you will do high quality work for us.  In exchange, we will continue treating you with respect. 

This confidence and respect, and the feeling we’re appreciated, is what makes things so fantastic right here.  I think a lot of people probably take this atmosphere for granted, but for me, it’s the first time I’ve really experienced it in a job.  It’s really refreshing.  Like breathing clean air after being in a smoggy city a long while.   You probably didn’t even realize the air was dirty until you took a deep breath of fresh, crisp, clean air again. 

Both inside and out of school, we’ve really been pampered so far.  I mentioned already that our housing is fantastic, and that the campus is beautiful, but in addition to that, the school also makes sure we’re well fed.  They took us out for a four course meal in Antigua last Saturday, and on Monday we were treated to pizza at a place called Margherita.  There were no limits in what or how much we were allowed to order.  I think we all took home leftovers.  Lunch is provided for us every day at school, too.  Even the days that said on our schedule we would have “lunch on our own,” were not; our principals ordered food for us and we had a picnic on the grounds.  Middle School rocks! 

The students will start on Wednesday.  Yesterday was a holiday and a group of us hiked a volcano not far from here.  Today all of the returning teachers came back, and after a big breakfast provided by the school, the real work and teaming began and will continue through the beginning of next week, I imagine.  I can’t wait to have kiddos in my classroom.  All of the “administrivia” (as my principal calls it) that we’ve been going through is useful and important and a lot to try and remember and wrap my brain around…but teaching a class is something I know how to do.  I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a great year.    

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


On Saturday, the school took all of the new teachers to Antigua, an hour’s drive from home.  It was our first taste of Guatemala outside of our little corner of the city.  Antigua is, in my opinion, Guatemala’s version of Old San Juan.  It’s a picturesque, historic town which caters to tourists.  Everywhere there is history, color, marketplaces and churches. 

We didn’t actually spend much time in the city on Saturday.  We arrived around 10:30 and divided into teams.  Each team was given a list of about 6 things to take pictures of—a scavenger hunt!  Each group was also paired with a returning teacher and an administrator, so “finding” the things wasn’t really an issue, as our guides knew their ways around.  It was still an entertaining way to get us to see some of the city, though.  Our group tried to take as many silly pictures as possible (which may have been partly my idea), and we also enjoyed two markets.  I purchased a huipil—a traditional woman’s top.  I don’t plan to wear it, however.  It’s going up on my wall to bring some color to my blank white walls.  I also got myself a set of placemats.  I’m determined to make my home come alive sooner rather than later. 

So we saw this fountain...

And that prompted us to take this picture.

One of the things on our scavenger hunt:
team members with interesting doors

Not on the scavenger hunt, but fun:
team members in a tuk tuk 

After the scavenger hunt and shopping, we went to the Hotel Santo Domingo for lunch.  This hotel is gorgeous.  I mean just breathtaking, every direction you look.  My pictures didn’t really capture the essence of the place.  And of course, our lunch matched the rest of the hotel in quality and beauty.  We had an extravagant 4 course meal highlighting Guatemalan flavors.

2nd course: a bean/squash soup (?)
(Some things are still lost in translation). 

After stuffing ourselves, we loaded our bus and headed back to the city.  The administrator riding with us told us she thinks we’re the first group of new teachers who hasn’t slept on the way back home.  But we were (are) just a lively bunch!  Though it’s true we could have all probably fallen into food comas if we’d been alone, since we were all together, we spent the entire drive laughing rather boisterously.  The good time we had in the car and in Antigua kind of summarizes the way our group works and encapsulates what I hope the rest of this year will bring.  

Thursday, August 8, 2013

First Impressions

It all comes down to first impressions.  Maybe it shouldn’t.  But, though we tell each other “not to judge a book by its cover,” realistically, it’s hard not to do so.  With international teaching, I think this is especially true.  When you’re setting yourself in a new country where you know no one or almost no one, a good first impression will color your entire experience. 

Thankfully, I’m happy to say my first impression of Guatemala and my new school has been a great one. 

But let’s backtrack a bit so I can tell you about the journey to get there.

When I was packing on Tuesday (because I always leave packing until the day before leaving), I was chatting with my friend Lucas, who has been teaching in Guatemala the past 2 years.  He brought up the travel embargo during the summer—which I hadn’t bothered to read or learn about.  See, for some reason, in the summer, you’re only allowed to bring 2 50lb bags into Guatemala City (unless you have a 1st class ticket—then you get 3).  Lucas told me to call the airline and make sure I could take 3.  So I did, and they said it would be fine.

Jump to Wednesday morning, 8:30am, at the La Crosse airport.  The lady, sure enough, told me I could only check 2.  Thankfully, I was ridiculously early so no one was behind me in line, because I just stood there until she figured out a way to override the system and print luggage tags for all 3 of my bags.  She did charge me for them, of course, and the price was hefty, but it was worth it.

My luggage concerns didn’t quite stop there, though.  As I passed through security, they flagged my carry-on and stopped to search it.  They pulled out my 3lb hand weights and told me whoever had dropped me off could pick them up as long as they got back to the airport before my flight left.  They did NOT pull out and confiscate my pair of full size scissors.  (What was I thinking bringing them in my carry on?  Answer: I clearly wasn’t.) 

And then I got to Chicago (my first layover) and they made me check my rolling carry on (free, of course, but still mildly annoying just for the peace of mind factor). 

And then, I got to Dallas Fort Worth.  My flight was already delayed by a half hour when I got there.  We changed gates shortly after that, and in the process, I bumped into another teacher who had been hired at the same job fair as me, so we got to chatting.  Talking loudly enough about going to Guatemala to teach while sitting at the gate, and you’re sure to find other teachers.  The guy sitting right next to us turned out to be new to our school too.  One hour later and another gate change, and we met up with 2 more girls who were headed to Guate to teach on the elementary side. 

We finally got into the air 3 ½ hours later than planned, which put us in Guatemala City not at 7pm as planned, but closer to 11pm.  The advantage to this, however, was that there was almost no one in line at customs or immigration.  Everyone’s bags came through and no one had problems in the lines.  As we walked outside, our principals were there waiting, calling us by name and herding us to various vans and cars to get us home.  Even so late at night, it was the epitome of a warm welcome.  There was even cold Domino’s pizza waiting for us in the car.

And then we arrived.  My place…oh my goodness.  I spent probably 15 minutes just exploring it, and jumping up and down in glee, and then I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.  It’s new—sparsely furnished at the moment, but furnished.  And it’s HUGE.  I have 3 bedrooms and 3 ½ baths.  And then I have 3 other rooms that I just don’t know what to do with on the 1st floor.  The place is airy and light and full of windows.  It’s nothing like the dark cement cell of a house I had in Puerto Rico (even though I loved that house too, in its own right).  This house actually allows air flow through the windows!  Heck, it has windows that open, period!  I’m kind of in heaven. 
Oh, and the best part?  I can see stars outside my bedroom window at night.  I was so afraid that being in such a big city, I’d never see stars again!  But I can see them!  And I have trees in my view. 

Suffice it to say, I’ve had a very good first impression.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sweet Summer

I’m not the type of person who sits still very often.  So this summer was right up my alley.  I was home for one short week in June, then set off for a whirlwind month in Europe.  And I finished my summer with nearly 3 weeks in my hometown.  I wasn’t in any one place for a very long time.  And yet, I managed to do more than I thought possible. 

I spent a lot of time running and enjoying beautiful weather and beautiful countryside.  I ran past misty bluffs, bright green lawns, and past sunsets over corn fields.  I really enjoyed my time on my own two feet. 

I played board games—even learned a few new ones.  I visited my favorite restaurants—ate ice cream at The Pearl, sushi at Sushi Pirate, hearty breakfasts at the La Crosse Family Restaurant and Perkins.
  I discovered new places, and realized there are indeed several establishments in the area where it’s possible to sit outside in the fresh air.  I enjoyed the company of friends at 4 Sisters, Shenanigans, Dublin Square, and Seasons by the Lake—all in the open air.

Dining with friends at 4 Sisters 

I saw all the friends who have, over the years, become the ones I “must see every time I’m home,” and was able to spend time with some friends I haven’t seen in years.  I even met new friends.  Heck, I even found time to go on a date. 

I hiked the bluffs.  And then I hiked them again.  And again.  I took a walk by myself in the woods on the 7 Bridges path that was one of my favorites as a child.  
Bridge 4 on McGilvray Bottoms Trail
I used the swing set in my parents’ backyard, laughing as I did so.  I baked cookies.  I visited my grandma.  I stood up in my good friend’s wedding, then spent the night dancing up a storm with her new stepsons.  I played the piano (badly).  I watched a girly movie with my best friend. 
Photo credit to Cindy Pierce

Photo credit to Cindy Pierce 

Somehow, despite a lack of time this summer, I found the perfect balance between trying new things, experiencing my favorite things, and reliving my best memories of childhood and college.  It’s been a sweet, sweet summer.    

Saturday, August 3, 2013

"Shrek, I'm Looking Down!"

I think that the movie Shrek probably falls into the category of “lifelong favorites” for me.  I’ve seen it several times over the years, have the soundtrack memorized, and really enjoy the way the story-line and humor blend together. 

In one scene in the movie, Shrek and Donkey have to cross a very rickety old bridge.  Of course it’s towering over a pit of boiling lava, and Donkey has some trepidation about crossing.  Shrek crosses easily, looking straight ahead of him and focusing on the walking along the bridge, not the lava.  He tells Donkey to do the same.  Donkey makes it about halfway, but then a board breaks beneath his foot, and Donkey exclaims in a panic, “Shrek, I’m looking down!!!” 

Today feels like I’m looking down.  Leading up to the move to Guatemala, I’ve been remarkably calm and relaxed.  I haven’t had any nervousness about it at all, really.  I’ve gotten a few things in order, kept myself organized, and for the most part have felt confident that the school has been doing a lot to ease the transition for new teachers and that I’ll be taken care of once I get there.  Heck, I even have a friend at the school already.  I have nothing to be scared of.  I’ve been walking along that bridge, my eyes on the other side, completely confident I’ll reach it safe and sound. 

Except today I looked at the calendar, and suddenly I’m 4 days away from moving.  And it certainly feels like I should have been doing more to get ready to leave.  Like there’s got to be something I’m forgetting and the fact that I’ve forgotten will make my life pretty miserable my first few weeks in Guate.  I’m looking down.  And that boiling lava looks pretty perilous as it swirls below me. 

The thing is, it’s hard to get to the other side of the bridge when you’re frozen in the middle, staring at the danger below you.  Being scared doesn’t solve your problem.  In the movie, Donkey has Shrek, who distracts him and by doing so, gets him safely across the bridge.  Sometimes, despite being a grown adult, I need someone to make the simple tasks which have suddenly become overwhelming seem less so.  Thankfully, moms are really good for that.  Even when they just sit in the same room as you and laugh at how much you’re freaking out and then maybe make a common sense suggestion or two.   I know I’ll get across my bridge just fine, and on the other side, the next big adventure will be waiting for me.