Monday, June 15, 2015

I did Guatemala?!

When I think of life in a foreign culture, there are a variety of new experiences that I assume I will have.  Living in Guatemala conjures up images of me being privy to Semana Santa celebrations for the first time, or glimpsing Maya culture in the clothes locals wear, or salsa dancing on a Friday night.  But of course, real life goes on in other countries too, and this spring, I had several experiences which were surprising only in the fact that I lived them for the first time in Guatemala.

I never would have guessed, for example, that I would first taste escargot not in France or a fancy restaurant, but in...Guatemala.  In my own home.  But that’s where it happened.  When a friend first told me his dad was preparing escargot and asked if I wanted to try some, I told him I gladly would, but he’d have to teach me how to eat them.  (I pictured a snail flying across my dining room Pretty Woman style).  Turns out they are not only easy to eat, but absolutely delicious.  No fancy French restaurant needed!

Likewise, I knew that at some point in my life, I would find myself sitting in a hospital waiting room supporting an expectant father as his child came into the world.  But I did not expect that experience to happen in Guatemala.  Yet it did.  I was privileged to be included in a group of friends who dropped what they were doing and came to support and keep their friend company as he waited to become a father.  It was pretty amazing to be a part of.

And lastly, I never would have guessed that my first time attending a boy’s bar mitzvah would be in Guatemala City.  I mean, bar mitzvah?  Really?  In such a Catholic country?  But all religions are present here, and when a student invited all of his teachers to come and celebrate with him, not only did we get permission from our administrator to go during a teacher workday, but the school also provided transportation to get us there and back.

The ceremony started at 7:30am, and we quickly realized we were at a very conservative Jewish celebration as all of the women were herded to one side of the synagogue, where we sat in wooden chairs separated from the men (and our student) by a tall screen.  Seated, we couldn’t really see or hear anything that was going on on the other side.  A mix of languages washed over me--English (more prominent at this event than in most other places in the country), Hebrew, and Spanish--as everyone quietly chatted while the prayers were being read.  Our student’s aunt recognized us as the teachers and came over to explain what was going on, show us the prayer book, and explain that the screen is meant to keep the men from being “distracted by women’s beauty.”  She also let us know that when our student finished reading from the Torah (his first time doing so, and really the “main event” of the bar mitzvah), everyone would throw candies at him.  (Soft ones that wouldn’t hurt him, of course).  

When our student stepped up to read, all of the women stood up and moved to see through over over or around the screen.  I’m not sure how, but I ended up with one of the best spots, ushered right up to where I could look through the ornate Star of David patterned slats and able to see everything that was going on.

After the ceremony, we moved over to the tables.  Our student and his parents gave short speeches of thanks, and then it was time to eat.  Breakfast was an ornate, amazingly delicious affair.  There was barely room on my plate (or in my stomach) for all of the delicious treats provided--bagels and breads, muffins, eggs cooked to order, creme brulee french toast, yogurt, cheese and olives, fruit, and pastries.  We left stuffed and very happy to have been invited to celebrate such a special occasion with our student.  

Life is funny.  You really never know when good things will happen, when special people will come into your life or when you’ll have the opportunity to be a part of something memorable and extraordinary.  I try to take advantage of those moments, no matter where I am when they occur.  And I am glad that I do.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Getting to Globals

This post is long overdue.  First life was stressful and busy and overwhelming.  And then I was traveling with my students.  And then life was still stressful and busy and overwhelming, but for different reasons.  This week, finally, I feel I have the time to take to myself to write. 

So let’s talk about that student travel bit that I mentioned.

Once again this year, I took a team of students to compete at Destination Imagination Global Finals in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (You can take a stroll down memory lane and remind yourself about my first experience there by clicking here). 

This year, I had a new team of students.  There were 5 girls and 1 sixth grade boy in contrast to 4 seventh boys from last year.  “Unruly” was the term I used to describe last year’s team, and this year my group was anything but.  These kids are responsible, creative, and full of life.  They were all Globals veterans who knew what to expect from the week long competition and how to make the most out of their time there.

But first, we had to get there. 
And that turned out to be a little bit stressful this year.

The journey started in the Guatemala airport at 4:30am on a Monday morning.  We were traveling with 7 teams from our school and a total of 47 people.  Team managers (that’d be me) waited to gather entire teams together so we could then pass through customs and security.  Everyone on my team arrived and we got in line, passed the first checkpoint, and went down the stairs to customs.
…And we were met with the longest customs line I have ever seen at the Guate airport. 

We stood in it, and of course still had time to get to our gate, thanks to solid planning by our Regional Director of DI.  The moms and kids all got through customs with no problem. 

I, on the other hand, was another matter.  I slid the agent my passport and customs form, all smiles and confidence, and he looked up and asked me, “You don’t have another passport?” 
I looked at him, confused.  “Another passport?  No…just that one.” 

He flipped through the booklet again, then said to me, “But this one’s blank.  No stamps.  When did you arrive in Guatemala?” 

And suddenly my stupidity dawned.  My passport expired in March 2015, so I renewed it at the US Embassy here in Guatemala City.  The customs agent was looking at my brand new shiny passport.  And my old one, with its entrance stamps and my work visa enabling me to be in the country for more than 90 days, was sitting on a shelf back in my bedroom.  Completely useless to me.  Needless to say, my heart dropped into my stomach and I kicked myself about a hundred times for being the opposite of a responsible chaperone. 

Thankfully, there was a solution.  I was escorted to an immigration window where they were able to look up on the computer when I’d entered the country.  No such luck looking up my visa, so they sent me to the airport bank with an invoice so I could pay for each day past 90 that I’d been in the country.  $62 later (could have been worse), I had my receipt, had made my way through the long customs line again, and passed on to security.  I met up with my team at the gate and even had time to scarf down a bagel before we boarded the plane. 

In Dallas/Fort Worth, we had a short layover.  In just over an hour, we attempted to get 47 people through customs, immigration, baggage claim, and security…and then get to the complete opposite side of the airport.  Needless to say, we ran into stumbling blocks.  Our huge group separated into teams, so I was leading only ten people through the airport.  First our team waited 20 minutes for one girl and her mom to get through the line because their US visas were apparently different sizes.  Then we waited another ten minutes because a different mom confessed to having two apples in her bag and was pulled aside for the third degree.  Finally, after fifteen minutes on the Skylink shuttle to arrive at the correct terminal, we emerged in the hallway to the announcement, “Now boarding all rows all passengers for flight 74 to Atlanta.  All passengers on this flight should now be in the boarding process.”  My team picked up our pace and jogged to the gate.  We hurriedly told the gate agent that more people from our group were not far behind.  After affirming we were connecting from Guatemala, the agent told us she was still missing a lot of people from that plane and that they were checking to see if they could hold the flight.  As she said it, the man next to her hung up a phone and told us, “Nope.  They say they won’t hold the flight for 39 people.  Your friends have nine minutes to make the plane.” 

Thankfully, everyone made it on board, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief as the plane began its taxi with all of us present.
But the adventure didn’t end there.

From Atlanta, we were to catch a bus provided by DI transportation to get us to Knoxville, four hours away.  But as we emerged from the plane, our Regional Director was on the phone and in a frazzle.  Apparently there was a 5:00pm bus, and an 8:00pm bus, and nothing in between.  I looked at my watch.  4:54pm.  We still had to pick up our bags; there was no way we would make a bus that was leaving in six minutes. 

We were in the process of discussing our options—pick up bags first, exit the secure gate area, and be forced to wait three hours with minimal dinner options, or eat first and hope all our luggage would be waiting for us after a meal? 

Thankfully we were saved having to make this decision by getting confirmation that the bus would wait for us.  By the time we picked up our bags, located the bus, took ten minutes to visit the food court, and waited for another group from a different plane to share our bus, we were finally on the road a little after 6:00pm. 

The four hour bus ride was long and uneventful.  A little after 10:00pm, we arrived at the University of Tennessee,  waited for the other group to complete their registration, had a few snacks, and were finally at our hotel and in bed a bit before midnight. 

It was a long, stressful day filled with near-catastrophes.  Yet somehow, we all made it safe and sound and were able to enjoy a successful week at DI Global Finals.