Sunday, December 13, 2009

Movies and Down Time

Geoff and I have been watching a lot of movies, because he has recently cut back (ie. temporarily stopped) drinking, in hopes of getting back on track with a healthier lifestyle before Christmas. As a result, neither of us has been too excited about hanging out at bars the last couple of weeks. Instead, over the weekend, we went to the movie theatre twice and watched Julie and Julia and Unglorious Bastards.

Unglorious Bastards was an excellent film about the Nazi occupation of France (set during WWII, but it's actually historically inaccurate, so it doesn't matter). The entire film kept us on the edge of our seats, and the plot twists were clever and intricate. To add to the experience, much of the movie was spoken in either German or French, and Geoff and I had to rely on our ability to read the Spanish subtitles to follow the plot. Fortunately, reading is always easier than listening, and we were actually fairly surprised by our ability to follow most of the film! (Our Spanish is getting better, for sure, but when native speakers begin to speak fast, we still have trouble understanding sometimes. Thus, watching dubbed movies is still very challenging.)

Julie and Julia is a much slower film. It got me thinking, however, about the blogosphere. I used to read various blogs written by friends. Over the years, as everyone got busier, the frequency of both their writing and my reading of their blogs had waned. Once in a while, I still go through short phases where I would follow blogs of some random teachers or swing dancers, to keep me in the loop of what others with similar interests are finding and exploring. But, there is nothing out there that really keeps my interest consistently as a reader. I would, however, be interested in reading in real time about someone else's ambitious undertaking of a task, similar to what Julie had set out to do in the movie. Are you familiar with some such blog? (Google seemed to fail me in finding anything of interest. But then again, I couldn't think of good keywords to use to help filter out the bloggers who blog mostly about their careers.)


Anyway, as for my own life, things are going slowly. School has almost slowed to a halt, with kids taking midterms and teachers grading only idly before the holidays. I'm looking forward to having a few days off between school and going back to the States to unwind, read some books, watch some Law and Order, and maybe even get a haircut. :)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Geoff and I had a fabulous time in Nicaragua! It is a breath-taking country, with friendly people and very affordable tourism options.

Since Geoff's visa was approved recently, we booked last-minute tickets for Thanksgiving to go to Nicaragua. We caught a good deal, and paid only $167/person for our round-trip flights on Copa Airline! And, thank goodness for the foresight to fly instead of taking the bus, because on our way back, we heard from other passengers at the airport that the Honduran borders had indeed been closed because of the elections. (Our friend Andrea had vaguely mentioned that as a possibility, but even she had not really believed it. I had decided to stand my ground and to refuse to take those chances, since I couldn't afford to be back to school late again after the Guatemalan shinanigans the last time we had undertaken a weekend getaway. Thus the decision to fly, despite it being the more expensive option...)

Anyway, Nicaragua was excellent. We spent one night in Leon and two nights in Granada. Both were colonial cities, but Granada has a more vibrant night life, a far richer history, and more character overall. While in Leon, we went "volcano-surfing", which is basically sliding down the sandy side of volcano Cerro Negro on a board made of wood and removable plastic. We hiked up to the top of the active volcano (it has erupted 23 times within the last 160 years) with our boards, walked along the rim of the crater to the sandy side of the volcano, put on our protective gear (jumpsuits and goggles), sat down on the boards facing the bottom of the hill, and then braced ourselves as we slid down the 45-degree incline. From the top of the hill, you can't see the bottom half of the hill, because the hill has a sharp dropoff after that halfway point. We could only see what appeared to be a tiny white speck at the bottom, which the tour guide explained was our truck, waiting for us at the bottom. The actual "surfing" part went rather quickly. Even though I was very nervous, once I started sliding and the wind started to blow tons of dirt in my face, I had forgotten all about the fear. Of course, I had to be the only person who actually lost balance and fell off my board halfway. :) Geoff took a video of me at the end, but that being after my fall, I had already lost most of my momentum and was easing my way down the rest of the hill. Still, it was an awesome experience! I would highly recommend it.

In Granada, Geoff and I also did a canopy tour, since neither of us had done it before. I was nervous, once again -- not because I didn't trust our tour guides. In fact, our tour guides lead about 150 people through their setup each day, and are very professional. Instead, I was nervous about messing up myself. In the end, it was amazing, and for being out there for about an hour, plus the rides to and from the beautifully lush forest, it was only $30 for each of us! That's an awesome deal!

Greg, Andrea, Geoff, and I also had a good time just hanging out at the local bars at night. I have developed a brand new appreciation for Flor de Caña, a type of Nicaraguan rum. :) I also particularly enjoyed the local "nacatamal", which is a tamale stuffed with juicy meat. Yum!

And now, happy December! I really cannot believe that Christmas is right around the corner. I cannot WAIT!

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Geoff's visa app finally got approved yesterday! yay! I cannot tell you how long and grueling this process has been. We had started it months before moving here, but he actually had to go back to the States to gather additional paperwork in September, because his lawyer had been unclear about which papers were needed the first time around. (It was v. fortunate that this trip coincided with M&M's wedding, so he could just extend the wedding trip to take care of the stuff instead of making a separate trip just for the sake of gathering papers...)

The problem is that he currently lives here on 90-day tourist visas only, and every time he exits the country (to go to even a neighboring country for a short trip), he would have to go back to the States to obtain all of those docs again; the docs required need to be date-stamped around his latest entry to El Salvador.

He and his lawyers had been down to the immigration offices several times, and each time they would ask him to obtain more paperwork, mostly from the States. It would take weeks to pull together and get mailed here, and the process would repeat itself. Finally, yesterday his stars were all aligned, and they accepted his application! yay! (It actually helped out that I am working for the American school, because apparently my work visa is issued by a higher authority -- something like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- and so it helped legitimize both his overall application and his particular reason to wish to stay in El Salvador.) It still was a pain and took a whole day, but at least for now they've accepted his money and taken his picture, so we think it's going to be all good. :)

So, in celebration, we took his lawyer's assistant out to dinner. It was good times, and the steaks we had were amazing... :) Afterwards, Geoff and I were both feeling serious food coma, so we called it a quiet Friday night. We watched "Changeling" at home, which is really intense! Much better than what we had expected based on its RottenTomatoes ratings. I would definitely recommend it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Rain Damage in El Salvador

As some of you may have heard or read in the news, well over a hundred lives were lost last weekend in El Salvador as a result of the flooding and landslides caused by the heavy rain. Basically, the poor of the country cannot afford to live in areas that are well-insulated from weathering elements, and many of them resort to living in potential landslide areas. While people were still sleeping on early Sunday, the rain grew very heavy and buried entire houses or townships under the mud. It has been several days, and the death tolls are still rising steadily as they search for the missing people.

Even areas near lakes and the ocean were severely impacted. A country club that Geoff and I had only very recently visited near Lago de Ilopango was completely destroyed. One of my friends who lives by the beach said that although her particular area (El Tunco) is fine, just down the street (within about a 15-minute drive), other people had to swim to get out of the shoulder-high muddy water. Those people lost their homes and all of their clothes and their belongings in the flood. The situation is very sad, because I am not sure whether there is a plan yet for helping the people rebuild their homes, beyond providing them with immediate relief. One of the American teacher's maid lost her nephew, her nephew's wife, and their 7-year-old child in the flood. Her own home is destroyed as well, but her family's lives were spared as they had been staying with her sister for the weekend.

The irony is that our lives, for the most part, were relatively unaffected by the rain. Geoff and I were out late last Saturday at the Marine Birthday Ball held by the US Embassy, and didn't get home until about 5am Sunday. Sure, it was raining for a good amount of the time, but we had no idea the extent of damage that the rain had done to other people's lives until we woke up with a slight hangover and read the news Sunday afternoon. It's just another example of the vast disparity between the social classes here in El Salvador...

Please keep El Salvador's victims in your prayers. If you wish to help out in some way financially, Tim's blog post lists some options for donations at the bottom.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Beach and Halloween weekends

It has been two weekends since Andrea's Oktoberfest party. True to our words, Geoff and I rented a car and planned to get away last weekend. It happened to be an international surf competition weekend in El Tunco, so the beach town was particularly lively with activities throughout the night. Greg came along, and at the beach we ran into Brad and Dave (who go down there every chance they get, to surf). Dave decided to share our small cabin and to stick around overnight to party, so the four of us spent the weekend eating a lot of yummy tacos and burritos, and relaxing by the lovely beach. :) Dave also took Geoff out to surf on the ocean, and the boys stayed out on the water until dark. The weekend was so relaxing, it was exactly what we had been missing...

This past weekend was a long weekend down here in El Salvador. Coinciding with Halloween is All Saints' Day or All Souls' Day, when the locals celebrate family members who have passed, as well as all of the Catholic saints. So, we got Monday off as a holiday. Since there were some talks of going out for Halloween, Geoff and I decided to stick around to take part in the celebrations. On Saturday night, we donned our home-made costumes, and headed out on the town. (I was "Comma Sutra", and Geoff was a guy with a cup-"telephone" connecting him to his penis, wearing a shirt that said, "Who Says Men Don't Listen?") We started at Zanzibar and met some pretty nice folks who were Jon's friends, and then we went with Andrea and her friends to Alambique (spelling) at the Multi-Plaza. We danced there for a long time, and the boys split a bottle of vodka -- it was a pretty fierce drinking night, for them anyway. By the time we all rolled out of there, it was about 2:30am.

Sunday night was pretty chill. In fact, we slept in on Sunday for much of the day. :) Geoff and I had planned on inviting a few people over for dinner (our first dinner party!), so as soon as we woke up from our hangover nap, we had to get rolling on purchasing supplies and cooking. I wanted to cook Chinese food, but none of our friends eats very spicy foods and one of our friends is vegetarian, so Geoff and I brainstormed some options that would meet everyone's dietary preferences. In the end, we cooked: stirfried eggplant; tofu in spicy bean sauce; mushrooms with garlic; and "three-cup" chicken drumsticks. Geoff also made capirinas for everyone, which tasted fresh and amazing. :) After dinner, we set up a projector (brought over by one of our friends) and watched Cidade de Deus, which was fantastic.

All in all, it has been a couple of beautiful weekends! Next week will be the Marine ball, which is a black-tie event held by the US Embassy, including dinner and dancing. I'm thrilled about it! I love playing dress-up. :)


PS. We bought a car! yay! We're keeping our fingers crossed that there won't be major repairs necessary. So far, we've only found very minor issues with the car, but we're taking it to the mechanic on Monday to get them examined more thoroughly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Oktoberfest, El Centro

Geoff and I have had a few very uneventful weekends, because I've had to catch up on work before the quarter ends. By this weekend, both of us were going stir-crazy and wanting to go away somewhere for the weekend. But, we had promised our friend Andrea that we would go to her Oktoberfest party, so we decided to stick around the city...

We decided, instead, to make the best out of Andrea's party. We went and bought a ton of beers (a mix of cheap and nice beers), bought two giant beer mugs, got some plastic cups for beer pong, and made jello shots! Andrea's party turned out to be totally fun, even though the Americans mostly turned in somewhat early. We ended up partying with her Salvadorean friends, plus Jon, after everyone else had left. We taught the Salvadorean girls how to play flip cup and beer pong, and they taught us how to play Vikingo and Marcas. And we silly-danced. It was pretty awesome times. :)


One thing we did try to do this weekend was to go down to El Centro to visit the Palacio Nacional, the Catedral Metropolitana, and the Teatro Nacional, which are all on the same block in El Centro. We got inside the cathedral, and it was pretty neat, but both the National Palace and the National Theatre were closed to visitors. What a shame! We were also warned by our taxi driver to not walk around past the 2 block-by-3 block area, since El Centro is not at all a safe barrio. Anyway, the cab driver said we'd be OK if we stayed around the very bustling parts of town, so we didn't press our luck. We left pretty soon after visiting the cathedral, since I wasn't feeling very safe. Afterwards, Geoff said that he felt like people were giving him pretty unfriendly vibes. I am not sure whether I had felt the same, but it was definitely a very impoverished part of the city. As soon as we had gotten out of the cab, a waft of something in the air had told me that there were homeless people nearby; and sure enough, you could see them every few feet, huddled next to a building or holding out their hands to beg for money. According to things I've read on the internet, El Centro suffers from a lot of street violence, and isn't really safe to visit at any hour.

Generally speaking, I'm feeling a little frustrated by the security situation here. Some days, it seems like we cannot really go anywhere. Even on our way down to a popular bar one night (La Luna Arte y Casa), a kid jumped out in front of our taxi cab in an attempt to stop us -- probably for no good. The cab driver eventually drove around the kid, and the cop car behind us picked up the kid and took him down to the station, but it's hard to say that we're going to keep being so lucky.


Anyway, the first quarter is already over! Can you believe it?

I need a break. We've only had one long weekend since the school started. The next 3-day weekend will be the weekend of Halloween. I cannot wait!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Unconventional" measurement methods

I have been thinking about doing a mini Geometry unit on non-conventional measurement methods. My inspiration comes from the fact that, in order to measure the exact height from the second-floor balcony to the ground, I had to tie a string to a weight, lower the weight to the ground while keeping the string taut, and then measure the length of the string afterwards. (I was measuring the height in preparation for an Algebra 2 linear regression project.) There are other "non-conventional" measurement methods, such as using water to measure an irregular volume, that my 9th-graders almost certainly are not familiar with. Same goes for measuring perimeters around irregular shapes using a string or a rope. I think the mini unit has potential to be really fun for the kids, and also very educational / directly relevant to our Geometry content strands. :)

After some quick brainstorming, I recalled vaguely a classic puzzle of how to measure the weight of an elephant. I guessed that it would involve using buoyancy / weight of displaced water*, which, after looking the problem up on the internet, is indeed one standard way of measuring something that heavy. That might be cool to teach the kids. Another really awesome story that I found while looking this up was the story of the Chinese emperor who received advice from a kid for weighing an elephant. They sort of do use buoyancy, but in a much more intuitive / elegant way! I think my kids would dig that.

...Some days, I love teaching Geometry. It's pretty funny, because Geometry was my least favorite math topic in high school! (I did like it in grad school though.)

*Another way of doing it, I think, is to use pulleys to keep dividing the weight, until you can suspend the elephant in the air. But, that would take a whole lot of pulleys...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Math Videos

How do you feel about the usefulness of videos inside the classroom? I was wondering about this today, and did some research to look up interesting math videos online. Sadly, there really aren't very many math videos out there -- definitely not as readily available as videos for history, English, or science. What a shame!! Seems like we are missing an entire medium of instruction this way. Videos in other classes can evoke emotions, which can then help to trigger a higher level of engagement during the class discussions that follow. I have decided that I would explore this method of teaching a little bit further.

I did manage to find one source: , which appears to be promising, at least in terms of its Geometry videos clips. One thing I liked, for instance, was a clip where they showed a fun animation of a shape transforming into another similar shape -- something you just can't visualize quite as well on a whiteboard. I'm going to try to get a hold of this video in order to evaluate it further. The same website also sells another video about the historic applications of math (something that I think is so rich, yet so rarely discussed with kids). I'm very tempted to buy it, but I think I'm going to wait on this. No $40 impulse buys. --Here, that money could buy you 40 beers! :)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Things that drive me nuts

...Oh, obviously (as an addendum to the last entry), there are things about living in El Salvador that drive me absolutely nuts. For instance, I've been trying to go pick up my ATM card from the bank near my school. The first time I went there, I got there at 4:30pm and only the express window was still open. They told me to return between 9am and 4pm the next day -- a near impossibility on a school day, unless I grab my stuff, abandon all meetings with parents/teachers/kids, and run out the door after my last period. So, finally I went back a week later to pick up my ATM card. The customer-service agent who spoke to me briefly made me sign a form and told me to return 3 days later, when the card would be ready. I waited a full week, and went back on a Saturday. This time, I had to walk 40 minutes from home to the bank. When I got there, I waited 20 or so minutes -- a very moderate wait time, for El Salvador --- to see a customer-service agent. Then, she took my ID and left me waiting at her desk for another 20 to 30 minutes, while she went to the backroom to fetch my ATM card. After waiting for what seemed like forever, she came back and told me that -- surprise, surprise! -- the card was not ready, and that it wouldn't be ready until the following Tuesday. Too tired to argue with her, I told her that I needed to withdraw some money. She asked in surprise, "You don't have your checkbook with you?" I told her dryly that I had anticipated having my ATM card in hand. So, she wrote a letter to the bank teller and took my ID to the teller. I had to wait in another line for about another 20 minutes in order to see the teller, before I could withdraw my money. Following that, I walked 40 minutes home, having really accomplished nothing and having already wasted half of my Saturday at the bank.

And on the same day, at a different bank, my friend Andrea had the same exact experience trying to do something else that's very simple. I don't understand why everything has to be so complicated down here. Everything!! Efficiency surely is not of critical importance here. Coming from NYC, this type of stuff just drives me nuts.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Luxuries, PSAT

I'm not going to lie: One of the beautiful things about living in El Salvador is having a weekly maid service. We pay her $12 to come for a full 8-hour day once a week, which is actually higher than the usual rate for maids. She cleans our apartment, cooks, and -- most importantly -- does laundry and irons my clothes! (Those who have worked at my old school know how I don't iron, like, ever. I actually don't know how, really. My clothes are still wrinkly after I iron them, so I just never bother.) It's really fabulous. I don't think my life will ever be the same again, without having to worry about laundry ever.

Another item of luxury is our beautiful sunshine year-round, which allows for things like hammocks. Geoff and I sometimes complain about one of our hammocks being less comfortable than the other, but then we both feel silly: complaining about a hammock is about as ridiculous-sounding as complaining about a massage (which, believe it or not, people do around here).

But, no complaints about our massages! All of the international teachers who live in the complejo have regularly scheduled visits from a local masseuse; that, too, is really cheap. The standard rate is $15 for an hour of massage. Well, Geoff and I hadn't been on the bandwagon, but we serendipitously found a masseuse to come to our apartment today for the first time. (The girl was already in the building servicing someone else, when she stopped us in the stairwell over the weekend and handed us her business card. Funny thing is that we had been trying in vain to contact the complejo masseuse, so we gladly made an appointment with her on the spot.) Anyway, she came today, and she was brilliant!! Geoff and I feel completely relaxed afterwards and couldn't stop raving about her.

Life is really lovely these days...


In school news, I can't believe how quickly time is passing by! It's already near the end of the first quarter, and so I have to rush to give a round of tests this week in each class, to allow for last-minute makeup points next week. I've already warned Geoff that this weekend I will be mired in work, in order to finish grading ~90 tests...

I am also helping to prep my kids for the PSAT this year. It's the first time in many years that I've taken a look at that material, and I'm amazed by how clever some of the questions are. For instance, this one in particular tugged at my Algebra-teacher heart:

You are told that k and L are perpendicular, and that (4, n) lies on line k. Your task is to find the value of n. Such an elegant way to test that the kids know a slew of stuff dealing with linearity!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Portezuelo Coffee Finca

Holly, who works at our school as a community-service coordinator, also is experienced working in eco-tourism (which is a buzzword for sustainable tourism, for those of you who are un-hip like me). She organized a trip this weekend up to a coffee finca (farm) up in the mountains, about an hour drive away from the Guatemalan border, and happily I went along.

It was fantastic! We got there in the afternoon, and it was pretty rainy. Everyone was a good sport, so we all huddled indoors and drank hot chocolates and coffees to keep warm. Our hosts at the farm came out to greet us, and they talked about the history of the farm, as well as their motivation for running a part-time eco-tourism business to help supplement their income. They have horses, mountain bikes, hiking trails, and even a few neat ropes courses on the farm! Not to mention delicious food and amazing hospitality. (They had even arranged for us to roast marshmellows at night. Mmmm marshmellows for gringos...) :) There is also a charming remnant of a church where the young couple had gotten married 10 years ago; the actual church collapsed a few years after their wedding, in an earthquake, so now it's just a beautiful empty courtyard, with a wall where the chapel used to stand. Because they had wanted to explore the possibility of offering yoga (and other therapeutic activities) on site, they had asked a yoga teacher to come from San Salvador to stay for the night at the finca. Early the next day, at around 7am, five of us girls rose early to do yoga with Visel the yoga teacher in the chapel courtyard. I'm not really a yoga person, but doing yoga outdoors on a Sunday is such a beautiful feeling! She said that she is down at El Tunco on some weekends, so I might have to look her up so I can check out her morning yoga class on the beach!!

Anyway, after breakfast, since we didn't have a ton of time (it's Sunday, and we teachers had to get back to the city to do work before the day ends), we all got to choose just one activity out of the many things to do at the farm. I had originally planned on going horseback-riding (because I had only done it once in college, and it had been so much fun), but I last-minute changed my mind and decided to go on a hike to the geiser instead. Either way, I had figured I couldn't lose, and visiting the geiser seemed more like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. It was a surprisingly leisurely hike down to the geiser, actually. The floor was muddy and slippery from the rain, but otherwise the trail was fairly well-maintained and the terrain was pretty easy to traverse. The actual geiser itself was amazing! When asked how hot the water is in temperature, the guide said, "Demaciado!" and then quickly explained that it's hotter than water that is boiling over fire. You could see the steam and smell the sulfur (sulfre) from even a short distance away. The Earth Science teacher in me swooned obligatorily. :)

This weekend was fantastic, but I missed Geoff a lot. We'll have to go back there together sometime, because I'm sure he would want to check it out, and also because I'd like to check out their horses! (The ladies who went horseback-riding said they went from one hill across to another hill before they finally turned around. Sounds incredible!!)

Yay eco-tourism!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mini updates!

This week has been somewhat distressing. Geoff and I had some noticeable water problems -- as in, our water got turned off by the water company! --Not fun. We learned the hard way that the ANDA water bills here are not cumulative; if you miss a payment (which we did in the beginning, since we didn't know whether we were supposed to be paying the bills ourselves, or how), the next bill that comes doesn't contain or refer to the overdue amount. Each bill stands alone, which doesn't make much sense to us, but that's just the way it works here. So, we had paid off the most recent bill online, thinking that would suffice, but that was apparently the wrong assumption. And, after a couple months of an unpaid old bill... tada! off goes the water. FOR THREE DAYS!!! Geoff and I couldn't get down to the office in person to take care of the issue during the work week, so we had our super-ish person look into it for us. She spoke to the company and they said it was coming back on, blah blah. Predictably, nothing happened following that promise. Eventually, because of a fluke, a maintenance guy from a different company turned the water back on for us today. So, in short, we don't know whether the water is here to stay, or if the water company is going to come back and turn it back off, or what. We can only hope for the best.

And, you know, it's amazing how difficult this was. The amazing thing is that we sort of did have water; we still had drinking water in tubs, and we took our empty tubs to the pool out in the back and filled them to flush the toilets. But still, we were frustrated as hell. We can only hope that this is a permanent fix, and that the water company just flakes out altogether and doesn't send anyone else down to toggle with our water supply. But, as the running joke goes, it's El Salvador, and anything is possible.


I learned while talking to a friend that once you employ a maid here, you are responsible for paying the maid weekly even if you aren't going to be around that week (ie. the maid gets the week off). This is because the $10 to $15 you pay your maid each week is, in fact, their main source of income, so if you go on vacation and decide not to pay them, then they are unemployed for that duration. Good to know, since Christmas break is coming up. I would NOT want to cause our maid to be unemployed and to be in financial difficulty when we are away.

It's one of those small things that showcase the income disparity in this country.


On a brilliantly good note, Geoff and I went to scope out a salsa dancing class yesterday, and it was fantastic! The dance teacher, Raul, had been dancing for 16 years. It was basically like a private session, because he thinks we're not good enough to be with the rest of the class. So, for the whole hour, Geoff and I practiced on the side, and he showed us several moves. I have taken a number of social dance classes and am usually pretty good with following the rapid-fire instructions, but this instructor was moving fast. I love it! He says that in two months, he thinks we'll be good enough to join the rest of the crew in learning fancier moves. It sounds lovely...

We want to go back there at least once a week. The only problem is that getting a cab ride to and from that place isn't totally easy, so we have to resume looking for a car to buy...


Geoff won't be around this weekend, because he is heading to Jersey for a wedding! I'm totally envious, because I want to be in NY and I wish I could be at this beautiful wedding of two really good people. But, it's good that the local crowd is organizing a weekend getaway, so I wouldn't just be hanging out at home feeling bored. Congrats, M&M!! Enjoy your big day!!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Anniversary weekend

Geoff and I celebrated our third-year anniversary this weekend. :) It was kind of a big deal, since I think we had hit a few big milestones in this past year (ie. moving in together and moving to another country), and everything had been as smooth and fun as can be. We don't eat at expensive restaurants much (since we cook decently well during the week, and we also enjoy eating at mom-and-pop Salvadorean places that cost only a few bucks for the whole meal), but we decided that for this particular occasion, we would splurge a little...

Colleen and Eric had highly recommended an Italian restaurant in Zona Rosa called "Vittorio's", so G and I decided to start our night there. It was by far the most expensive meal we have yet had in this country! A bottle of wine, a fabulous calamari appetizer, two entrees (fish and pasta) muy ricos, and two cappuccinos all added up to be about $70, but we thought it was well worth the price. The food at the restaurant was fantastic, and the ambiance was also lovely. Even though it had rained on-and-off throughout the night, Geoff and I sat in a covered section of the garden outside, surrounded by decorative wine, wooden wine racks, and lush tropical plants.

After dinner, we went to a couple of different spots, eventually landing in the "Jungle", which is now officially Geoff's and my favorite dancing spot on the Zona Rosa strip! We were already pretty tipsy when we started dancing there, and after a short while, the DJ offered us a free bucket of beers! --WHAT?! We were really surprised and a little confused; we never quite figured out what the free beers were for, but we were told it had something to do with our dancing. Anyway, we had a pretty great time there; a few of the locals were talking to us and being very friendly, and by the time we finally got home, it was already past 2am! For partying by ourselves, we didn't do too badly. :)

The rest of the weekend was also deeply relaxing, complete with naps in our two hammocks and some old-school video game-playing. (Geoff and I have been downloading old Nintendo games and playing them on my laptop, with the $7 game controllers we bought. It feels pretty silly to be playing games from the 80s, but G gets really excited about them. The only caveat is that I have short attention span and can barely sit still through a game, if we last through multiple levels...) I think I am almost ready for a full week of work. Almost.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Geoff, Colleen, Eric, and I had a most unforgettable weekend in Guatemala! I won't go into all the details here, but some unpleasant things happened on our way back from Guate and we were delayed a day in getting back to work. We also experienced various car troubles throughout the trip, which were worrisome only because they meant that we had to get out in rural areas to fix the muffler or to crash in a random rural town for the night. At one point, our brakes overheated and started to fail while descending very steep mountainous roads. (None of us even knew that overheating was possible for brakes!) It was scary as shit, as Eric would say...

Alas, we made it back safely! So, let's focus on how beautiful the rest of the weekend was. This weekend lasted 4 days long, in celebration of Central American independence from Spain*, so the crew had decided that we would take the opportunity to go across the border to check out Antigua and Lake Atitlan, both located in Guatemala. As it turns out, Antigua is a beautiful cobble-stoned city that has retained much of its colonial look and feel, but mixed in with an international crowd and awesome restaurants and bars. Geoff and I loved Cafe No Se, which is a bar with an eclectic crowd, great tequila (although they call it something else there), and very interesting internal decor. The town is also filled with colonial ruins, and just generally had a lot of character. It being independence weekend, there were performers and crowds galore, and we had a fun time just walking around this pedestrian-friendly tourist town. At night, Geoff and I closed down Cafe No Se (which wasn't hard to do -- bars closed in the town at 1am).

The next day, we set out for Chichitenango, which has a weekly Sunday market that sells everything from food to traditional goods. Geoff and I had been looking for a cheap and water-proof hammock, which we found there for 150 quetzales. (The exchange rate is about 8 quetzales to 1 dollar, so it was a pretty good deal. Similar hammocks we found in El Salvador for at least twice the cost!) Geoff also began shopping for his parents for Christmas, since we saw something very unique that they would like. I bought a traditional weaved Guatemalan skirt, along with a belt (also weaved/embroidered) to hold it up. Colleen and Eric bought a ton more stuff than us, so it was a good day trip for everyone. :) At night, our brakes failed while on the way to Lago de Atitlan, so we decided to crash in a small town called San Juan to wait for the daylight to come. In San Juan (a tiny town about 15 or 20 minutes from the lake), we found a hotel right across the street from the police station. There, all of us just relaxed and chatted, finishing the bottle of wine that we had brought on the trip...

As it turns out, the brakes often fail for cars going down those windy mountainous roads, because of how many tumulos (speed bumps) there are, the steep grade of the roads, and the many sharp turns that lead to the bottom of the mountains. The mechanic told us not to worry, so we headed on down to Lake Atitlan on Monday to enjoy the beautiful view. Lake Atitlan is amazing! It's huge and gorgeous, surrounded by volcanic mountains, and has really cool little bars and restaurants -- and hippies! I think I had the most amazing sandwich of my life there, at an organic bar called Freedom. (I don't even like sandwiches normally!) During the day, we also took the boats out to another town, hiked a little, and then jumped off a cliff! Everyone else (Geoff, Colleen, and Eric) had done something like it before, except for me, so I was scared as hell. The cliff was about 20 to 30 feet according to Geoff and Colleen, and there were rocks in the water. The lake itself was really, really deep, so we weren't really worried about hitting the bottom of the lake, as long as we could jump far enough to get away from the rocky shore. Anyway, I put my hand over my heart and felt my heart pumping like crazy, and when I jumped, Geoff was scared out of his mind because he saw me almost hitting the side of the cliff and going with my head first into the water. It was so fast, I really didn't know what was going on, but I felt a little dizzy upon entering the water, like someone had hit me over the head. Fortunately, I was OK and didn't pass out or anything. :) Colleen and Eric helped guide me to the shore, because I was feeling a little disoriented at that point. Honestly, I don't know if I will do it again. I really wanted to do it this time, just to know what it feels like. Not sure if I should tempt fate in the future, especially because I was so clumsy about it this time. :)

All in all, we had a brilliant time. (I'll post pictures very soon, I promise!) The only bummer is that I had to miss work today, because I had been looking forward to a really productive day at school with the kids, and returning late from Guate definitely is going to throw things off. But, I'm really glad to be home after a long weekend, and in the grand scheme, things could have certainly been a lot worse. :)

Ciao! Next weekend is Geoff's and my three-year anniversary! I almost can't believe it; time has really flown by!

*Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador all celebrate their independence from Spain on September 15.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Partido de Fútbol!

Yesterday, I went to my first soccer game!! It was really great. We had gotten there late, because we were disorganized and running late, and by the time we got to the stadium, the game was only a few minutes from starting, and the box offices were long closed. Since we had been forewarned to not purchase tickets to the $5 "Vietnam" section, we tried to avoid all the scalpers along the street. (People reputedly piss into bags and throw them around in the $5 section.) We were directed to a nearby cell-phone booth to purchase tickets, and eventually purchased five $15 tickets for the Sombras Sur section. En route, we also bought $5 blue jerseys to show off our Salvadorean pride, and ate some yummy street food out in the parking lot. :)

--The game was fantastic! As soon as we had walked in, the vibe made me miss going to college football games. The crowd was so excited the entire game, chanting (in Spanish), "Yes! We can!" and "Salvador!" while the game stayed a deadlocked zero-zero. Eventually, during the last minute of the second half, El Salvador scored a goal and beat the number one-ranked Costa Rica!! Needless to say, the crowd went wild, and they threw (amongst other things) half-empty beer cups into the air. There was also immediate celebratory dancing.

(...The low light of the night was the stadium bathroom. There was no toilet paper, nor sink to speak of. The faucet spits water out onto the floor, and it doesn't seem like there is a drain anywhere, so the water just collects on the floor. Not my favorite...)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Climbing Volcano Izalco

A few weeks ago, when Geoff and I drove out to see Volcano Izalco for the first time, we had found out from the locals that there are guided tours to climb the volcano. The tours cost $1, and they start actually at a recreational campsite on top of a nearby volcano, Cerra Verde. We had decided that this sounded like a climb not to be missed, so yesterday, with a group of other teachers, we set out to climb the volcano.

To give a little bit of background about this volcano, Izalco had been continuously active between the 1700s and 1966, and was called the "Lighthouse of the Pacific", because ships would use its light to help guide their navigation at night. It is perfectly cone-shaped, and has a height of 650 meters, with a crater that measures 40 meters deep and 200 meters wide. At some point, some businessman decided to build a hotel on top of the nearby dormant volcano Cerra Verde, to try and make a profit off of the beautiful erupting Izalco. The hotel costed a lot of money to build, and you were supposed to be able to have a beautiful night view of the erupting volcano from the hotel. But, as the local lores have it, the day before the hotel was finished, the volcano erupted for the last time! Nature, in fact, had the last laugh... :)

Since its last eruption was relatively recent, Volcano Izalco still looks like a pile of rocks, only sparsely covered with vegetation. The so-called "path" to the top is also rough, at best. Most people in my group were in great shape, but I was pretty nervous ascending the volcano. I had to grab on to the rocks for the most part, and to lean into the mountain because I was nervous that I would slip down the side of the steep mountainside. At one point, I fell and was lying flat on the ground, because the rocks I was grabbing onto were loose and slippery themselves. When, finally, we got to the top, the view from top of the volcano was absolutely stunning! You are literally sitting on the edge of the crater, looking both into the crater of the volcano and looking out to the surrounding farmland! We walked almost all the way around the crater to the vent that was still emitting hot steam from underground. (Oddly, it didn't smell like sulfur, unlike the volcanoes I remember visiting in Hawaii.) Geoff and I had brought some bread, so we had a quick bite at the top before it came time to head back down. (By that time, the clouds had set in, and the view was obstructed. It was pretty clear that the guides wanted to get back before the rain would arrive, because I can imagine that hiking down that already-slippery mountainside in the rain would NOT be fun!)

Climbing down the volcano was much easier than going up, I thought, even though the gravel was definitely loose under our feet, and you slip downwards with every step. I fell once on the way down and was cut on a sharp rock, adding to my battle wound scratch marks for the day. The hardest part of the whole day was that after we had descended Izalco, we still needed to climb back up the other mountain -- to an even higher ground than the summit of Izalco -- to get back to our cars on top of Cerra Verde! Holy smack. That trail is well-paved and maintained, but the steepness of the incline makes it really exhausting. By the time we finally got back to the top, everyone was eager for some drinks and food.

We wrapped up the beautiful day by driving down the mountain to Lago de Coatepeque. The last time Geoff and I had gone there, we had found a nice little "restaubar" that is right on the water. This time, the gang went to the same place to grab some food and drinks, and Geoff and Greg both went for a quick dip in the lake. It was a perfect wind-down time after a day of hiking! I think everybody had a really great time. Even the weather remained beautiful the rest of the afternoon! :)

--Oh, and throughout the day, we had continued to encounter some amazing wildlife. Geoff took a picture of a giant grasshopper on top of the volcano; it was about 2/3 the length of my hand! And earlier, during our drive, Geoff and I had seen a vulture dragging a roadkill off to the side. We continued to see similar (big) black birds -- maybe vultures, maybe hawks -- as we were climbing the volcano...

I love El Salvador. I miss many things about New York City, but I really love it here. :)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Math Projects

In the work department:

I came up with a new algebra project for comparing the per-capita stats of different countries. It is loosely connected to the domain / range stuff we have been learning about in the introduction to functions unit. The kids will take a look at a website that tracks stats across different countries and compare El Salvador to other countries in everyday issues such as health, economy, technology, lifestyle, crime, etc. The math part of the project will be to create bar graphs comparing numbers from different countries, and A.) to explain why the bar graph represents a function and B.) to identify the domain and range for the function. Following that, the kids will write a short reflection about the contrast in numbers, incorporating some researched facts about the story behind those numbers.

This may turn out to be a flop, but I'm pretty excited anyway. It's my first socioeconomic project that I've ever designed! With my honors 10th graders, I feel that they have both the maturity and the motivation necessary to do a project like this, and I'm excited to see how it will turn out. (It's OK if it flops in the end; I'll know what to fix for next year.)

As for my first project of the year for my regular 9th-grade Geometry classes, I have designed an architectural project incorporating various irregular areas and perimeters to be calculated. There will be a significant writing component, since I think the kids can really use some practice articulating their ideas. I am pretty excited about this project as well, even though I am also worried about the complexity of the math, as well as the kids' lack of regularity in completing work outside the class...

Anyway, that's how work is going. Pretty well, I think. There are things that could be better, like kids could be more motivated on their own to do work. But, I think that's always the case... It's somehow sad to me that these privileged children are not taking advantage of all the opportunities that they have. Reminds me of something my high-school English teacher once said to our class: "You owe it to other people to do your best in life. There are people whose parents would kill for their kids to have half of the gift and opportunity that you have." If you never think that the things you say to a 16-year-old are going to stay with them, think again.


Addendum July 2, 2010: Here are the screenshots for the country stats project. The kids complained tremendously about researching for their math class, but they turned in beautiful projects! I also have the files for the perimeter/circumference project, but the aerial blueprints for the buildings were hand-drawn, so those are not included here.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Day trip!

As part of the welcoming process for the new international hires, the school organized a day trip led by a Salvadorean Spanish teacher who holds a Master's in Salvadorean history and who had worked for years at the national museum. As it turns out, Vicky is brilliant in both historical and current knowledge and was very kind to tell us all kinds of wonderful stories about her people. It is apparent that she takes a lot of pride in the culture of El Salvador, even though she has lived through some hard times here.

After a couple of quick stops, we stopped for lunch at a local food festival. Geoff and I gorged ourselves on grilled meat, chicken, shrimp, and sausage links. They had really amazing spices on them, and were one of the best meals we've had yet. On our way out, we had a bite of Jon's order of armadillo! It was very interesting. The meat is smooth but dense, and it has a strong salty aftertaste. Next time, I will keep my eyes peeled for "cusuco," which is the Spanish word for armadillo. :)

After lunch, the gang headed to Ataco, which is a very charming little coffee plantation town up in the mountains. There were some really cute artesan shops and cafes here, that the group decided we would stay here for the rest of the day. Geoff, Colleen, Eric, and I hiked up to the cross that we saw up the hill, and en route saw some interesting creatures -- big spiders and what looked like a flying ant hive.* Here in Ataco, we also bought some delicious goat cheese, a beautiful stool, and a couple of pieces of hand-painted art.

All in all, it was a really fun trip. :) Since we didn't have time to go try out the indigo-dying at the museum, Vicky promised to take us on a separate day trip just for that. --I can't wait!

*You can check out pictures on Flickr. Just click on the Flickr app on the right of your screen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Phrase of the day... duro blandito. Literally, it means "hard soft", and is a Salvadorean oxymoron used to describe the complexities of life. It is also a type of cheese, which seems appropriate somehow. Salvadoreans are practical, so they like to pack as much use into everything as humanly possible. Even speech, I suppose. :)


I feel a bit like I have been grading non-stop since Sunday. Now that it is mid-unit quiz season and I teach 100 kids, I could easily spend hours grading just quizzes every week. I gave a round of practice quizzes in each class, followed by quiz makeup points, which all added to the load of stuff to grade and return even before administering the actual quizzes!

I've noticed that my new students appear to have only been taught rote math their whole lives. This is frustrating, even with the topics they are good at, because they can't explain any of the concepts to me. (The worst is when they've learned something solely by rote, didn't understand the concept, and now do the rote procedure incorrectly.) I have to keep reminding myself that I only have control over now, over what happens in my classroom. I don't know how much I can fix in a year, but I will try, obviously.

Ciao! The rest of this week is going to be busy with work!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Good People

We had a really fun and relaxing weekend. On Friday, two other teachers Dave and Beth hosted a rockin' house party, and somehow at 1am, I found myself surrounded by musicians after everyone else had left the party. Geoff, Beth, and Eric took turns jamming on the two guitars they had and harmonizing softly, and Dave played percussion along to their melodic voices. I was given a set of bells -- very appropriate, considering that I can barely hold a beat on the drums -- but after a while, worked my way to "playing" a less obnoxious small drum. They played all kinds of classic rock songs, and time literally flew by until everyone looked bleary-eyed and we had to call it a night. By the time Geoff and I finally got home, it was already 3:30am! (On a Friday, for teachers, that's really late.) It really was a beautiful time. :)

Geoff and I had planned on visiting El Tunco over the weekend. Ali has been somewhat overwhelmed by work, so we figured it'd be good to go down and party with her and Bamba at least one night this week. And, as it turned out, the other teachers were already planning on a trip down there as well! We ended up spending Saturday night hanging out with a group of really good people from school. Geoff and I stayed out for a while down at the beach, checking out a local dance spot. (It had mostly reggaeton music -- not our favorite. But, the company was good, and I knew Geoff had been yearning for a late night out on the town, so I did my best to hang...) By the time we finally got back to the beach hostel, we were soaked with rain but satisfied from all the fun. --In the end, the only shame from this weekend was that the waves were huge down there this weekend, so we couldn't take any surf lessons! Maybe next time.

Life couldn't be more perfect right now. I'm loving the teaching gig, and thus far, I've been reaping a lot of rewards from the lessons I have planned. It being my fourth year of teaching, everything feels different. The kids are nice; I'm feeling completely in control; and that leaves me with so much energy to make the lessons the most fun that they could be. Having great textbooks to use as a guide is also no small advantage. I am still tired from school each day just from the sheer enery it takes to teach 100 kids, but I love it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nature? Yes, I've read about it...

Last night, I saw a big pink iguana dart across our bathroom after it had entered through the window. I was freaked out! Geoff had to grab our pot in order to catch it and to put it outside. It was scaling the wall at a crazy speed, and even jumped during the Geoff vs. Iguana hand-to-hand combat.

Then, an owl was stuck in my classroom today! It was small, and apparently couldn't find its way out. I wish I had a camera with me, because it was the cutest thing I had seen in days. It kept eyeing me suspiciously by turning its head to a weird angle to follow me with its eyes. Eventually, it let me get close enough to open all of the windows to let it out. SUPER CUTE!

--This place is crazy. There are iguanas, armies of ants, killer mosquitoes, (dead birds on our porch,) and now an owl!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Re-focusing on School

It has been a very productive weekend for me, now that school is in session. I was worried that I would have trouble re-focusing once school started, since the summer had been so short, but I found myself really enjoying being back at school and looking forward to being a better teacher this year than in the past. It being the first week, the kids were obviously very nice. And, most of them did their homework from Day 1! I was glad that the year is off to a good start. As far as classes go, the most challenging part thus far is taking roll and learning names, even though the kids are eager to help. (How reliable they are at taking roll is still a question, since I can't yet visually check who is there and who is not at a quick glance, and on Friday, I noticed after class that there was a mistake on at least one of the attendance sheets.) It turns out that one out of every two or three Salvadorean girls is either named Camila or Alejandra, which means that I also have to learn their last names, in addition to learning their first names. And, teaching 5 classes -- many of them back-to-back -- means that my mind is more scattered than usual. So, even with the kids now being assigned to permanent seats, I think I am still going to struggle with distinguishing them for a while. They will have to be patient with me. :)


It's funny how, at the new school, I am one of the youngest-looking teachers around. I suppose I've always looked young, but at AMS it wasn't so noticeable, since other teachers actually are younger than me. Here, it's much more traditional, and there is a greater mix of teachers of all ages. It's definitely interesting, because I can sense that some of the other teachers didn't quite know what to think when I showed up, looking a bit like one of the kids. Even though I dress very conservatively at school, I think it only helps matters a bit, and I am pretty sure that some of the other staffers are still worried about my classroom discipline...

It's kind of funny. Geoff says it's also because I am pretty friendly, so people who meet me think that I don't have a strong personality. If only they knew.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

First Surfing Lesson!!

Geoff and I had a fabulous week! On Tuesday, the new international hires played a hilarious game of Charades at Eric's and Colleen's apartment over drinks and popcorn. Then, on Thursday night, some of the same people went salsa-dancing with us at an awesome salsa spot in the neighborhood. The cover charge was $5, but there was a live band and some serious salsa-dancers there! I had a ton of fun asking the locals to dance, and Geoff and I are definitely planning on returning to that place regularly once we start taking salsa lessons. :) Finally, over the weekend, Geoff and I caught a movie (G.I. Joe, which was surprisingly decent), went to scope out the famous volcanoes and the beautiful Lago Coatepeque, and even took our first surfing lesson down at El Tunco!!!

...Surfing was really fun, but also a lot harder than I had imagined. Admittedly, I'm not the strongest swimmer, and my upper-body strength is definitely non-existent. Paddling my way on the long surfboard all the way out to where the waves break was so discouraging, that I actually almost asked my surfing coach to let me go back to the shore. Literally, he had to drag my board all the way out there each time, in addition to paddling for himself. --So embarrassing! It was only later that Ali and Jose told us that it is pretty common that the surfing instructors have to drag the newbies out there, because you just don't build the same upper-body strength doing anything else than surfing. Anyway, the actual surfing part was a BLAST. It's not easy to stand up on the board, obviously, but the long boards we had actually felt really stable; even I caught a wave that pushed me all the way out to the beach! It was awesome! And a definite do-over at some point (after we do some pushups, perhaps).

There were some other things I had wanted to say, but I'm so exhausted from the week that I'm going to just crash now. Tomorrow's the first official day back at work for all teachers, so I'm going to start being very busy! Our school day here starts early -- I will have to leave home at 6:30am everyday from now on, to arrive at school with a little bit of time to spare. Yikes...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Price of "Bling"

On July 15, the day that Geoff and I arrived in El Salvador, an anti-mining environmental activist was found murdered at the bottom of a well in San Isidro, El Salvador. He had been missing for nearly a month, and his body showed visible signs of torture. Since then, 4 reporters who have been covering the news of his disappearance and death have received death threats themselves, and another priest who is also aligned with the left-wing activists has nearly also been kidnapped and killed, escaping his armed aggressors ever-narrowly only by jumping into a ravine.

Concerned about the issues surrounding the obviously heated environmental activism, I looked up some relevant information about mining in El Salvador. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that El Salvador is a rich source for natural elements such as gold and silver, seeing that 90% of the country originated from volcanic activities. Mining companies based in U.S. and Canada are eager to come in and reap the benefits of the abundant resources this country has to offer. The local proponents of the mining law point to the jobs it would create and the income that the local government would receive as a percentage of the proceeds, but the environmental and social activists point to the amount of acidic toxins -- specifically, of mercury, cyanide, arsenic, zinc and aluminium -- that would be released into the water. Leaching, the process of extracting gold and silver from the rocks, requires an enormous amount of water and exposes chemicals to open air, allowing them to evaporate and to be absorbed into the surroundings. Mercury evaporates readily at 26 degrees Celsius, and then redistributes in the form of rainfall. The mixing of the chemicals with water also would exacerbate the existing water shortage. Already, 1.5 million Salvadoreans (out of a total population estimated to be somewhere between 6 to 7 million) do not have access to drinking water. The "acidic drainage", as it is called, is going to make things worse. Already, there have been hillsides and wells that have dried up in San Isidro as a result of "an error" committed by one of the mining company's employees. Instead of receiving water deliveries in exchange for keeping quiet, the residents of San Isidro have opted to speak up against further mining activities by these foreign companies -- hence, the recent wave of environmental activism.

In any case, the laws right now are in limbo. The mining companies are hoping for the drafted mining law to be passed, so that the suspended mining activities may resume. I don't think you need me to say where I stand on the issue.

...What an absolute outrage!


I finished reading One L, a personal account of one guy's experience as a first-year law student at Harvard Law School. The author describes the fearful manipulation that the professors used to run their first-year classes, and the resulting degradation in decency he observed in his peers and in himself as the academic year progressed. Even though he attended HLS back in the 70s and his account is clearly outdated, the story was still pretty interesting for me to read. It made me think about what my friend Ron once said about being a witness to injustice: "Either together we stand [against what we perceive of as injustice], or individually we will fall. Today it could be them, but tomorrow it might be you... or me." I think that concept applies broadly to a lot of things, and it is an idea that I keep coming back to. Why is it that we should stand up for someone whom we think is treated unfairly? What is the broader implication of justice, for us individually and, then, collectively?

Anyway, I picked up a Spanish novel yesterday from the bookstore. --Ambitious, I know! I figured that I would try to build my vocabulary the best way I know how -- by tediously working my way through a book I'd like to read. That's how I learned English, anyway, so doing this again actually feels familiar and warm, a bit like coming home again after many years. It's going slowly, obviously; took me about 30 minutes to cover 3 pages, because the structure of written Spanish is more difficult than spoken Spanish, and words often mean different things once you string them together into a phrase. But, I love the feeling of piecing together meaning, one word at a time. I'm excited. :)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Weekend at a Beach House

Since a couple of people have asked: Yes! We finally have cell-phone service and internet at home!! :) :) It took 5 trips down to the Claro store, but we eventually prevailed. The funny thing is that their computer system is so archaic, that 1. Even after we had submitted all of the necessary documents, we had to wait another few hours in the store for the guys to finish inputting everything into the computer, and 2. We had to go back the next day (Trip #6) to purchase a related monthly service, since the computer system does not update in real-time and it would take 24 hours for the system to begin recognizing us as existing customers. Goodness. We were in that store for so long each time just sitting and waiting, that the (extremely nice) sales clerk even taught me the word aburrido, meaning "boring."

The good news is that Geoff purchased a mobile internet service that would allow him to do work at any time on his laptop, even if our home network is down. If we decide to start traveling, we can also tag on $10 a month to extend the mobile coverage to other Central American countries, like Guatemala and Costa Rica, so that he can log on at any time and do emergency fixes. Pretty sweet.


Geoff and I spent a chunk of the weekend at an amazing beach house, along with the rest of the new international hires and their families. The beach house is owned by our principal, and -- I don't know what I had expected before getting there, but -- I was completely blown away by how luxurious it was. We had driven a long time to get there, since it was near the border of Guatemala, and by the time we were finally there, it was dark. We had passed various corn and sugar cane fields (El Salvador is lush with agriculture), and eventually turned down a bumpy little alley way. His maid's family came to open the front gate, and it looked almost like we had arrived on a FARM!! He has so much land in front of the house, that he actually keeps two goats, a big dog, and a number of roosters as pets. The house itself is gorgeous, with brick arches everywhere and a feeling of openness typical to this warm-weathered country. The back yard has a serious pool, some hammocks, an outdoors sitting area, and it opens right onto a beautiful sandy beach that is essentially private. There are palm trees everywhere in front of and behind his house, and his maid's family has done a fabulous job with the upkeep of it all.

Needless to say, the next day or so was extremely relaxing. Even though the electricity was out for a good amount of time during our stay, the people were great and we had a good time anyway. We swam in the ocean, chatted late into the night, read and napped in the hammocks, and drank many a coconut's juice. Geoff also went running in the morning with Brian along the beach, and even played a song or two on Eric's guitar for everyone! It was really a beautiful time. :)

After we got back from the beach house, Geoff and I finally set up a sort of bare-bones "entertainment system" for ourselves at home. We can download movies off of BitTorrent fairly easily, and then if we hook the computer up to our mini stereo-radio-thing, then we can watch movies in our bedroom. Hurray! We spent a lazy Sunday cooking, drinking, swimming, listening to Spanish lessons, and watching movies... I highly recommend He's Just Not That Into You, a decidedly gender-neutral flick. ;) (No, seriously -- Geoff liked it a lot, too.)


It's looking like I'll have to go out and purchase some practical things this week, including short-sleeved work shirts and a battery-powered alarm clock. This morning, our power was out, and if that had happened on a school day, my plugged-in radio alarm wouldn't have worked, and I would have surely been late to school. That's a Must Fix! :(

We're learning to cope with the unreliable infrastructure here, slowly but surely. This is the third time in less than 3 weeks that we have experienced power outage -- each time in a different setting -- so there is a good chance that this is a common occurrence around here. Along with the electricity goes the water, since the water we use is pumped from underground somewhere. Just have to learn to roll with the punches, that's all.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A History of Poverty

To help understand why things are the way they are down here, I think we need to talk briefly about the recent history of El Salvador. Some of this information I gathered from various readings on the internet; others came from word-of-mouth (ie. from talking to my principal, who has lived here for 3+ years).

In El Salvador, for many generations the country had no middle class. There were the land-owning elite, namely "the 14 families", who literally divided the entire country into 14 gigantic jigsaw pieces (after driving out the native Indians), and those who were landless and impoverished. To give an idea of how far-reaching the wealth is of those elite families, my principal pointed to the giant volcano that backdrops the city of San Salvador, and said that two-thirds of that mountain is still owned by a single board member of our school today! All of that land teems with coffee plantations, and one can only imagine how much money is associated with that volume of production.

As with any sort of wealth disparity comes social unrest. The country divided itself over time into two parties -- the same two parties that still exist today -- the Republican party, or ARENA, and the Socialist party, or FMLN. Locals simply refer to the latter as Frente, which literally means "Front" and refers to the idea that the FMLN came about as a coalition of smaller populist parties. Over time, both parties began to use violence -- torture, rape, and killings -- to further their cause, and by the late 1970s, the situation had boiled over to a full-blown Civil War.

Because the landless Salvadoreans were sympathizers of Fidel Castro and because this period in Salvadorean history corresponded in timeline to the U.S. fear of the spread of Communism, the U.S. administrations from Carter to Bush Sr. gave a total of 7 billion dollars in aid to El Salvador in support of the ruling elite. Sadly, since this choosing of sides was political in nature, whether it was justified remains questionable. An excerpt from Amnesty International's 1985 annual report states, "Many of the 40,000 people killed in the preceding five years had been murdered, by government forces, who openly dumped mutilated corpses, in an apparent effort, to terrorize the population." --This is not to gloss over the violence brought on by the opposing guerrillas, but simply to state that both sides were definitely violent to an extreme in this internal conflict.

In any case, in 1992 a peace accord was signed, partly because the guerrillas were running out of steam. For a period of 5 years that followed, parts of the land were re-distributed slowly to eligible soldiers on both sides under the supervision of the United Nations, and the guerrillas re-established themselves as a legitimate political party.

In June, the first ever Frente president took over in a legitimate election. It had been expected to be a landslide victory, ever since he had emerged as a popular, moderate, and charismatic candidate. But, the 6 months before the election saw a lot of rumors spreading fear that he was a Communist and was going to drive away all the business owners in the country. In the end, he won by a margin less than 3%. The jury is still out, since he is so new, but we can only hope for the best.


Some worrisome news from a Salvadorean blog I read:

The online periodical Contra Punto reports the latest homicide statistics for the first 7 months of 2009 and they are troubling. Murders are up 37% in El Salvador for the first seven months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008. So far in 2009, there have been 2428 violent deaths, compared to 1767 in 2008. These statistics come from the Attorney General's office who asserts that the majority of these murders are gang-related.

Speaking of gangs, supposedly the rampant gang activity down here is, again, closely tied to the history of poverty in this country -- and maybe surprisingly, also related to the Salvadorean immigration to/deportation from the States.

In any case, Geoff's and my neighborhood is relatively safe. Like most of our neighbors, we have 24-hour security guards who hold machine guns behind closed gates -- not that they actually would use the guns in a time of need, but as far as appearances go, I think they give off some sort of a protective vibe, anyway. And for now, Geoff and I have given up on walking home at night, just to be on the safe side. Cab rides are only a few dollars to get to anywhere in the city, so it's really not worth it to walk even 15 minutes in the dark...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Erratum on Taxing and Social Security

The school gave us new international hires a talk on money today, amongst other things. Some of the info I had previously gathered about the social security system wasn't entirely correct, so here is the updated version (Sorry!):

In El Salvador, there is really a three-tiered health care system. The top tier is private healthcare, which only the wealthy locals and the international residents can afford. The middle tier is what is called the Social Security, in which all workers who pay taxes take part. The bottom tier of health care applies to those who make little to no money, ie. the kids who come around to sell you necklaces at the beach. Those "workers" are not covered by the Social Security, because they do not report taxes on their cash income. Maids, who make anywhere between $8 and $12 a day, also fall into this third category, since they typically do not report their earnings.

Deducted from our monthly salary are three things: Salvadorean income tax, Salvadorean Social Security tax, and the Salvadorean pension. The only part that you get back at the end of your service is the pension -- and there is no guarantee on that money, since the newly elected government could opt to pass laws to forbid foreigners from taking that money back. The rest goes to the communal fund, whether for healthcare or otherwise.

Just thought I'd clear that up, in case anyone was curious. I am sure I will continue to learn many things about the tax process as we move along... :)


Also good information to know, speaking of money: Even though El Salvador has a dollarized currency...

1. Regular checks written from local banks are not redeemable in the States.
2. You have to purchase a "draft" check in order to redeem it in the States.
3. Checks written from U.S. banks are redeemable here, but they do take about a month to clear.

Just the way it is. Doing everything takes some time down here, even though most things can be done...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Weekend Excursion

Geoff and I spent the weekend by ourselves, because the rest of the new international teachers were busy settling into their apartments. In El Salvador, we have thus far met a lot of really nice locals, but because of the disparity in income, we think that many of them would not be able to afford the lifestyle that we want to have, ie. going out regularly. To give you an idea of what a "regular Salvadorean" makes in income, Geoff and I could go out and have a FULL meal -- with two pupusas and a drink for each of us -- and the total for BOTH of our meals would be around $2.50. And many "restaurants" and snack stores are holes-in-the-wall that are run literally out of someone's home or front yard. You can get a chocolanana, or frozen chocolate banana, for around 35 cents. Clearly, that's not a very high profit margin; the vendors make those right at home and sell them through a little window that faces the street, in order to keep their costs low.

International school teachers are considered upper-middle class here. In truth, my salary here is far lower than my salary back in NYC, but because the cost of living is so much lower here, our life is much more luxurious than what we once had back in NYC. Geoff and I could afford a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom apartment here, with a pool and 24-hour security, in a nice neighborhood. In NYC, for the same amount of money, we couldn't even get a single room in a shared apartment in Manhattan!

Anyway, on Friday, we had gone out in Zona Rosa, which is a posh partying district here in the city. After having a delicious steak dinner and drinking in an outdoor bar typical of this area, we checked out another indoors bar, Riconcitos, which had an awesome vibe and a cover band. The band's music was upbeat and diverse -- I think they started out with some electronica and ska, and then wrapped up with some reggaeton and salsa. The crowd was young; here in San Salvador, high-schoolers can go out and drink and party as well, and you definitely can spot their young faces in the hip bars around town. Afterwards, Geoff and I went and danced in another cool little spot across the street, where they were playing some American music, mixed with a lot of merengue. --All in all, a really fun night. :)

We ran some errands on Saturday, and then headed down to the beach. We had our minds set on going to el Tunco, which is a beach named for its giant pig-shaped rock. (Actually, the rock looked awesome, but it also looked more like a whale to us than a pig.) This beach is a famous surf spot, but we didn't get to surf this weekend. Instead, we swam in the ocean and had some delicious pupusas and seafood. We also stayed with a semi-creepy artist at his guesthouse, and that was very interesting. While we were hanging out with him on his porch, the electricity went out for the whole village, and momentarily we were sitting in complete darkness -- with a creepy guy who had already demonstrated his prowess with his machete and had reiterated his love for Asian women! Yikes. ...Fortunately, everything was OK in the end, and we even ran into our friends Alison and José the next day at the beach! :)

On Sunday night, we drove our rental car back to the city and went to a barbeque at the school's complejo, where the rest of the international hires live. That was fun, because teachers are almost always a social bunch. I'm hopeful that once they are settled in, they'll be up for going out and exploring the neighborhoods with us. :)


A pictoral illustration of a crazy bus that went into the lane of on-coming traffic in order to pass cars in our lane; it eventually gave up and came back into our lane. (Taken on the way back from the beach.)


As you might have read, the swine flu has been in full-swing in El Salvador for 4 months. Well, the ministry is closing schools for two weeks -- this week and next week. What that means is that we are not allowed to go into the school itself, and all of the paperwork and professional development meetings we were supposed to have this week have been moved to another location. School will be delayed at least one day in opening, which I'm certainly not complaining about. Other teachers are keeping their fingers crossed that the school will be delayed even further, to allow us a last long weekend before school re-opens.
We'll see about that, I guess. I'm not too worried.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Zones, Roads, and Mail

The country of El Salvador is divided into 14 departamentos, or states. Within each state are many cities, or ciudads. Geoff and I reside in the city of San Salvador, which is also located in the state of San Salvador. This city is the capital city of the country, but even within it there appears to be a vast disparity in wealth. The city further subdivides into zonas, or zones. Our apartment is in Colonia de San Benito, which -- depending on whom you ask -- is either itself a tiny zone spanning a few blocks in diameter, or is embedded in a bigger zone (Zona Rosa). In any case, we finally got some sort of address for the apartment when we signed the lease, but even without it, our mattress delivery guys had figured out where to find us based only on the zone information and the building name. Because the city is so small and compact, things are easy to find here and addresses are not too specific.

That said, we still need to test out our address before we set up permanent mail-forwarding from the States. Geoff has been doing a good amount of research, and it looks like we can either get a service that scans in our mail, or one that forwards them periodically without examining the mail. I think we are going with the latter. For now, all of our mail is sent to and held by Geoff's parents in New Jersey.


Speaking of geography, trying to find a good city map here has been nearly impossible, and I have just about given up on the notion altogether. A free map that we got from a local restaurateur has turned out to be the best thus far. It highlights the roundabouts and major streets, even though it does unfortunately omit certain smaller streets. The roundabouts are important, because here you are very restricted in where you can make left turns. I would say maybe one out of every 6 or 7 streets allows left turns, and -- because the streets themselves curve -- before you know it, you are already going in the wrong direction altogether. The roundabouts are useful in allowing you to make all kinds of turns. Another traffic peculiarity here is that when you come to an intersection of two major streets, where there is no roundabout there is often a road bridge that raises the traffic from one road to be above the other. This avoids unnecessary waiting at the intersection, and is actually very useful, if you're familiar enough with the roads to anticipate the intersection. Their labeling of the roads is different from that of the States. When I get a chance, I'll take a picture. Geoff and I had a wild ride on the first day, trying to figure out what those signs mean and where we were on the map...

But, all is well. :) Still missing internet and phone services, but for now Geoff and I are stealing wireless bandwidth from our neighbor, so things are OK. I also miss dancing, but until we buy a car and are able to get out more regularly, my assignment for myself is to expand my jazz collection and jazz knowledge. It's something I had always wanted to do, but hadn't had time for. If you have killer jazz playlists, please do send them my way. :) Adios!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dinero, Manejo, y Otras Cosas

Everyone here rocks the Hamiltons, or $10. In fact, that is the largest denomination dispursed by the ATM. :)


In El Salvador, since the late 90s there has existed a privatized Social Security system. Anyone who works in El Salvador would see an automatic payroll deduction (for me, I believe it will be roughly 6.5%), but it is money that they can reclaim either at retirement, as pension, or at the time when they permanently leave the country, as a lump sum. Employers also contribute to this Social Security. The same Social Security system also provides a form of socialized health care in this country. Although foreigners like us are also eligible for the ubiquitous health care, they typically go to private doctors to avoid the long lines (and to ensure "better care", whatever that means) -- hence the private health insurance that we pay for. But, it's good to know that the poor is somewhat provided for in this country, at least in theory.


Thus far, Geoff and I have had a fantastic experience in El Salvador! People have been super friendly and helpful -- not to mention extremely patient with our Spanish. Things are definitely much slower here, except when we are driving. As in many developing countries, speed limits and traffic signs/signals work more as recommendations than as hard-and-fast rules here. Even lane divisions aren't so clear-cut; people habitually cross over to the opposite lane (in face of on-coming traffic) in order to pass a slower car. Maybe surprisingly, the craziest drivers appear to be those of busses. On our first day with a car rental, Geoff and I had a few close encounters with busses coming at us at full speeds while we are stopped, or witnessing bus drivers making 3-point turns in the middle of a busy street! Holy mother of God. They are CRAZY! Also crazy is the fact that pedestrians are literally everywhere. In the busier parts of town, at every traffic light there would be teenagers coming up to wash your windshield. They don't take "no" for an answer, even though most cars do not pay them for the unsolicited service. The same goes for street vendors who weave in and out of traffic to sell all kinds of stuff. We even saw a juggler in front of a taxi cab that was stopped at a light. On the way to the beach last weekend, we also saw cows and horses walking unsupervised alongside the cars on the highway. One kid crossed the highway in front of us on a skinny horse, which he was spurring along with a random tree branch. Geoff and I could not stop exclaiming how crazy people are down here, but it seems to be just a way of life for them, no hay drama.

I really like how things are different here. As it turns out, getting an apartment wasn't so hard; obtaining a permanent visa also seems to be fairly straight forward, albeit a matter of time. What Geoff and I have spent the last few days agonizing over, ironically enough, is setting up our phone and internet services. To get those set up, not only do we need a passport and a NIT card, but we also need apartment contracts and formal letters from my school, vouching for my employment contract and salary. And, as you can imagine, pulling those details together is not just a matter of hours, especially down here. It is a bit frustrating, because even though we are gaining basic Spanish proficiency pretty fast, it isn't helping to hurry along the settling-in process, and Geoff is losing time daily for work as long as he does not have reliable internet access at home...

I am holding my breath that everything will be OK by the end of today. The 85-degree ocean is, too, holding its breath...

Friday, July 17, 2009

First Tasks

Upon arrival in El Salvador, the customs officers issue you a 90-day tourist visa at the border. After that, your first order of business should be to obtain a "NIT" card.

The NIT, Número de Identificación Tributaria, is the local equivalent of the Taxpayer Identification Number, issuable to any individual who holds a valid passport -- even if they only have a 90-day tourist visa. It is a stepping stone to doing other important things, like setting up a local bank account.

Fortunately for us, one of the school staffers took Geoff and me to apply for a NIT on the first day. The whole process took about 10 minutes and 50 cents. --You read that right, 50 cents! For both of us combined! The same awesome lady also took me to open a local bank account, which took significantly longer. There were a lot of papers to sign, and it looked like the only reason why things went through so smoothly was because I was backed by the Escuela Americana staffer.

Then, Geoff and I spent the rest of the day looking at apartments (putting what little Spanish we know to the test). Even though there is still paperwork stuff to iron out, we are pretty sure we have found our first home! yay! For future reference, doing everything in El Salvador is about whom you know. There is no Craigslist or real-estate agency... You go look at apartments that are owned by a friend-of-a-friend, or by the mom of a cousin of a co-worker. Pretty funny. :)

Keeping our fingers crossed, Geoff and I will be in our home by Sunday, minimally settled by next week (with cellular phones and internet access all hooked up, and our bed delivered), so that we can start taking surf lessons! :) (As it turns out, one of my new co-workers dates one of the top-ranked surfers in El Salvador, and he offers $10 surf lessons... As you might expect, Geoff has already enthusiastically chatted him up and gotten him to agree to teach us to surf!)


Incidentally, I looked it up briefly out of curiosity, and it looks like the requirements for getting a tax ID number are indeed much stricter in the US than in El Salvador, as one might expect. As a foreigner looking to apply for a Social Security number, you would have to either prove that you have permission to work in the States or prove that you are part of a federal program (ie. federal funding) that requires an SSN.

As for opening US bank accounts as a foreigner, the process is so mind-bogglingly complex that I would have to recommend browsing through this link to get a sense of the difficulties involved. It is pretty insane how unfriendly the US framework is to foreign businesses, and yet how many people still want to do business with us. ...For now, anyway.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Last-minute preparations

Last day before flying out! Perhaps predictably, these last few days have been very busy. Most of it has been purely logistical.

  • Getting follow-up immunization shots. I am now mostly immunized against common illnesses in Central America. Among other things, you can stab me a few times with a rusty knife, and I will still be OK (possibly unhappy, but physically OK).

  • Printing out handy docs. We will be meeting up at the hotel, so we each will need a copy of the hotel reservations to get through customs. We may also need each other's itineraries (in case the customs folks give us trouble) and maps to the hotel...

  • Mailing teaching materials to El Salvador. Note to future mailers of packages: You will need to fill out American customs forms for your goodies, and the items will be held at the Salvadorean customs for me to pick up.

  • Scanning important documents. We are storing all of the actual copies at Geoff's parents' place, but we will be bringing digital versions with us. That includes teaching papers, medical reports, my diploma and transcripts, etc.

  • Doing last rounds of laundry, packing, taking measurements and weights of packages. Even though it differs a bit from airline to airline, generally speaking, we are each allowed two check-in bags weighing 50 lbs, with "linear measurements" of 62 inches or less. Linear measurements indicate length + width + height. Because of the various constraints, we have had to change up our plans and go with regular suitcases instead of the sexy duffel bags. In the end, our suitcases are too wide to sit directly on top of our scales, so Geoff has had to weigh himself standing on top of the scales with and without holding the luggage, in order to find out their weights. It's a good technique to use, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation! :)

  • Storing things at Geoff's parents' place. There are a few sentimental things I needed to keep, like Frankie Manning's signed autobiography, my HKN scrapbook, some baby pictures, and my old records. Besides that, Geoff is storing some clothes and shoes, his guitar, and various paperwork.

  • Booking a hotel. We will be staying temporarily at the Tazumal Guesthouse, hopefully only for a few days while we look for a permanent apartment. It's a pretty cheap place -- $40 a day between the two of us. We are keeping our fingers crossed that they will have reliable internet and allow Geoff to do some work while we are in transit. If you don't hear from us within a week after our arrival in El Salvador, you'll know where to begin looking for missing bodies. --Just kidding! Sort of. harhar.

  • Buying medical supplies. It looks like both CVS and Duane Reade have stopped selling the facial lotion that I use. A bit worrisome, but I bought an alternative type instead. Hopefully it will not make me break out while I am down in San Salvador. We have both replenished our supplies of contact lenses. I have also gone and refilled my inhaler meds. Even though my Albuterol is almost out and so is my prescription for that type of emergency inhaler, I think I will be OK to have just my Advair and the allergy meds for a while, as long as we don't move into a cat farm.

  • Figuring out our insurance plans. Geoff researched various options of international insurance plans, and has hopped on board with Goodhealth already. I will be covered by EduCare, which seems to have a pretty good coverage both within the States and in El Salvador. The best part is that the school covers 75% of the premium for me. The bad part is that dental and vision are not covered. I may have to look around for a vision insurance when I get there. (It's not a big deal in the short term, but I do need to go to the ophthalmologist regularly to check up on my retina. There is a chance that I could need emergency surgery some day, despite my optimism...)

  • Cleaning Geoff's apartment. Living in a transitional place with transitional roommates and no lease is great for commitment-phobes like us, but as you can imagine, the bathroom is grimy! ugh. This was definitely my least favorite part of moving.

  • Bonus: Geoff has had to spend hours dealing with some unexpected technical snafoo. :( Thankfully, it all worked out beautifully in the end.

...But, with all of that said, I think we are finally, finally ready to go. This is where the craziness starts!!


PS. What do you think we are doing in NYC on the eve of our departure? --We are heading up to midtown to grub on Chicken and Rice, and then heading over to Lincoln Center to buy Spanish-English phrasebooks and to watch the midnight showing of Harry Potter! :) There is no doubt that we are going to miss NYC... what a great city.