Sunday, December 13, 2009
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
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...)
Saturday, November 14, 2009
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
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
Sunday, October 18, 2009
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
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
I did manage to find one source: http://www.projectmathematics.com/index.htm , 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
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
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
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!!)
Thursday, September 24, 2009
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
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
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
--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
Monday, August 31, 2009
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
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.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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
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
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
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
...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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Friday, July 17, 2009
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!)
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
- 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.