exploring, examining, exchanging, expressing
Monday, July 30, 2007
Cartoons and Craters
I was invited by a former student to go with him and some friends to see The Simpsons Movie last Friday. Getting movie tickets is serious business in the rainy season. He'd already gotten his on Wednesday. I took a chance and went on Friday afternoon. Luckily, I was able to get two (roomie went with us).

Then, of course, we had to get in line early to make sure we got good seats. That meant getting to the theatre almost two hours early. It was an odd way to spend the evening considering I wasn't even that interested in the movie. Since it's a cartoon, it was dubbed in Spanish (instead of having subtitles). I understood... some of it. But I missed much of the subtle humor, I'm sure. Really, it was just an excuse to get out of the house.

Afterwards, we went to a bar in San Rafael de Heredia called "Reflections." It was a great neighborhood place with classic rock videos playing on the wall and plenty of cheap beer. My student and I drank big liter bottles of Pilsen. Encouraged by the alcohol, I practiced a bit of Spanish. It amused everyone.

Sunday, me and the roomies got up very early so we could catch the bus to the IrazĂș Volcano. There's only one bus on the weekend and it leaves at 8am. The volcano is close to the city of Cartago, which isn't too far from San Jose, but it still took over 2 hours because of traffic, many stops, and slow-going up the mountain. The bus driver's "assistant" played the pan flute for us along the way. It was painful. People begged him to stop.

We were blessed with a clear sky when we got to the park. We had an excellent view of the crater lake.

Vulcan Irazu, Crater

Although the craters at Poas might be prettier, Irazu is nice because you can actually walk around in one of the craters and feel the lava rocks. You can see the plants and flowers up-close. And you can even see some animals if you're lucky.

Vulcan Irazu Vulcan Irazu, Plants and Flowers Vulcan Irazu, Wildlife

Plus, it's the tallest volcano in Costa Rica. Climbing to the highest point provides an amazing view.

Vulcan Irazu, Highest Point

More pictures here.


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Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Churches, Chorros, and Churros
Saturday, roommate and I went to the mall because we wanted to see a movie. But everything was sold out! Apparently that's the way it is on weekends in the rainy season. Everybody goes to the movies. So we just walked around and had a snack at the food court. It's surreal going to the mall here. It's so... American. Almost exactly like the malls in the US. Same stores. It even has that same "mall smell." I had ceviche at the food court. I should've known better. It wasn't the best ceviche I've had here. But I didn't get sick.

Sunday, we decided to go to Grecia and Sarchi, a couple of nearby towns. Our German roommate went with us. We started at Grecia, where the main attraction is a big red metal church. So I went to church on a Sunday! Sort of.

Grecia's Church

Then we went to Los Cataratas de los Chorros, which I'm told translates to "The Waterfalls of the Waterfalls" since both cataratas and chorros mean waterfalls. It was beautiful. The whole area reminded me of the trails and waterfalls in Tennessee.

Los Chorros, Grecia

Leaving the park, we had to wait quite a while for our bus. A little old man in a big floppy white hat came over to talk to the roommates. I'm not sure they appreciated the company, but I thought he was hilarious. He gave them big ol' hugs before we left.

Finally, we made it to Sarchi, where there was a little festival going on downtown. There were tents with arts and crafts, which Sarchi is famous for. The town itself is full of souvineer and furniture shops, but not much else

Sarchi Festival Sarchi Festival

Sarchi Festival

We didn't feel like browsing, so we made our way back home. I can't even explain how many different buses this little daytrip took! But it was nice to get out and see a few different places.

More photos of Grecia are here.

More photos of Sarchi are here.


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Thursday, July 19, 2007
Yes, Minister
Yesterday my morning class was chaos, and I loved it! I think they did, too. We started out by talking about jobs. Then we moved on to vacations, then movies, then drugs and crime. I had only meant to get them warmed up and jump into another activity, but we were having such a good discussion I didn't stop them.

After that, a former student showed up and asked if she could use my class for a survey for her university project. It was in English, so I let her do it. It turned out to be an IQ test, which prompted quite a few questions from my students and led to a fun impromptu lesson.

Just when I was getting back on track, one of the admins brought an elderly Costa Rican gentleman into my classroom. She didn't explain why. I couldn't tell if he was a prospective student or a potential teacher or something else entirely. He just sat and watched my class for awhile. Finally, he called me over and explained that he was a representative from the Ministry of Education in Heredia. He's concerned about the English education that high school students are receiving in this province. They get 6 years of language classes and still can't speak properly because they're not taught by native speakers. So he's interested in our methods and might have us teach his teachers. He also gave me his contact information and invited me out to his beach house, which seemed a bit odd.

A few moments later, another school admin pulled me aside and said that I couldn't talk to the man any more. At this point, I really had no idea what was going on. I was in the middle of something I didn't understand.

After class, my academic coordinator asked to speak to me. What now?! Well, she wanted to know what the mysterious man talked to me about. Apparently he just showed up at our academy and asked to see the qualifications of all the teachers and wanted to watch a class. So even my school didn't know why he was there. Everyone was just as confused as I was.

Strangeness is afoot.

As always.


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Friday, July 13, 2007
My schedule is changing again. I'm getting used to it, of course. I'll still teach in the mornings, but I'll also have a class in the evening. I'll normally have 5 hours in between, which is enough time to get some things done. But this Monday, I'm also subbing for someone. So I'll teach from 9am till noon. Then I'll catch a cab to an offsite location to teach from 1 till 3. Then I'll get on the bus to be back at the school to teach from 5 till 7. I'm tired just thinking about it.

It sounds like I really work, doesn't it? But to be fair, I need to tell you about last night and this morning.

Yesterday another teacher was having a party for her graduating class and she invited me. So they set up a grill in our outdoor classroom, put on some music, and had me make a beer run. We had hotdogs, sausages, and beef (all served on tortillas instead of buns, of course). We played Jenga. And one student got out a deck of cards and told fortunes.

Today, I had a party for a couple of my students that finished the course. So we watched a movie, had chips and dip, and sat around talking for a couple of hours. Not a bad way to spend a Friday morning, really.

I think the good days, so far, more than make up for the bad.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007
An International Individual
I read an article in AM Costa Rica that I thought would be great material for discussion in class: Modern society is creating an international individual. (Scroll way down towards the bottom - there is no direct link to the article). For those too lazy to click, scroll, and read, I think the article can be sumarized by one line from the author:
I sometimes feel more like a citizen of the world than one particular place.
We talked about this for almost an hour and a half. The students even stayed several minutes after class, they were so involved in the conversation. I loved it. That's what makes teaching here so enriching.

What does it mean to be an "international individual?" Does it mean losing one's cultural identity? Is it possible to have a global mentality while still embracing the uniqueness of each society?

I struggle with these questions often, so I welcomed the opportunity to share them with my students. As a teacher of English in a foreign country, I sometimes feel a bit imperialistic. Am I imposing my language, and consequently my culture, on my students? Sure, they're attending class on their own free will, but is it really a choice? In one sense, they really must learn English to get ahead. It's not like they're learning English for the sheer pleasure of the language. English-speaking countries are the current economic powers, so English is the language of international business now.

The US has an influence on the world, for better or worse. It spreads its language, its media, its companies, and its culture in general. Seeing McDonalds and WalMart here, I know it's true. In return, of course, it also imports many different cultures. But what is the end result? Are we creating a global society that contains the best parts of every country? Or are we creating clones of the US?

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Shaky Ground
There is no stability in teaching ESL. I'm sure I've said it before, in many different ways, but it's worth repeating. It is the polar opposite of a steady, 40 hour per week, corporate job. My schedule changes not only week to week, but sometimes hour to hour. Sometimes I get ambushed in the hallway and am asked to substitute for someone at the last minute. I always know I'm in for a surprise when I hear these words from our academic coordinator: "I'm so glad to see you!"

This month is especially mixed up. Just about every teacher is taking time off. So I'm picking up a few extra hours here and there. Today I realized I should attempt to write down my schedule. That's when I noticed that next Monday I would be teaching three classes at various times and locations from 9am till 9pm. I know I could do it, but I really don't want to. It was my turn to be so glad to see the academic coordinator. I gave up a few hours. And I warned her that since everyone else is taking time off this month, I plan on taking some time off next month.

Then, when I checked my mail after class, I saw the notice that we're having a mandatory meeting on a Saturday morning. Unpaid, of course. And offsite. Harsh. I bet they won't even provide coffee, let alone booze.

But, what the heck? I never expected teaching to be glamorous. And I really can't complain. It still beats corporate life.

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Monday, July 09, 2007
Toots and Fruits
I've heard live jazz performances in a variety of places: New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Columbus, and more. The venue is as important to the performance as the music itself. It sets the mood. It adds to the vibe.

Friday night, I had the opportunity to add Santo Domingo to my list. I went to hear Swing En 4. The performance was in the ampitheatre at INBIOparque, which provided a lush, beautiful background. The music was an eclectic mix of jazz styles, occassionally infused with latin beats. Most of it was excellent and had me tapping my feet. Coltrane and Salsa - what's not to love? On a few occassions, they slipped into something a little more like Kenny G, which I didn't enjoy as much. But overall, it was a great evening.

Saturday morning, I went to the feria to get fruits and veggies for the week. My plan was to make salsa picante, so I loaded up on fixings (tomatoes, onions, limes, cilantro, various peppers, and even a few mangos). Then I saw something that I had to try. It was huge, bigger than my head. And it was green and spikey. But I knew it wasn't a guanabana because it was too cheap - only 300 colones. It was breadfruit! After I bought it, the vendor tried to explain how to prepare it. But the only word I understood was "salt." Luckily, I've found a few recipes, so I'm not completely lost.


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Friday, July 06, 2007
The Pressure
Today, at my students' request, I gave a lesson on situational job interview questions. "Tell me about a time that you... blah blah blah." These questions are hard, but they're great practice both for English in general and for job skills. I had them practice in groups for awhile, to get them used to the questions. Then they took turns in the Hot Seat, with one person in front of the whole class, being critiqued by his or her peers. Lots of pressure! But they all did quite well.

When the last student was finished, I was prepared to change the topic. But one student got a big grin on his face. He explained to the class that it might be good for them to hear from a real expert. And then he looked at me. They all agreed that I should get in the Hot Seat. Okay, that's fair. I got in front of them, just a little nervous.

Then the bold student turned to another student, telling her to ask the question. This woman is studying psychology and has recently interviewed with a major corporation in Costa Rica. When I realized they weren't going to ask me one of the prepared questions, I got a little nervous.

A teacher can show no fear.

She asked a doozie: "Tell me about a time from your childhood that has affected your present life in both a positive and negative way." I collected my thoughts and told my story. They were impressed with my answer. I must say, I was a little impressed with myself, too, since I'd never been asked that particular question before. Plus, it's been over 5 years since I've had a real job interview.

I maintained my status of authority. Woohoo!

They all agreed that I gave a great answer, and then they wanted another example. I had to answer the same question again! I pulled out another story and they were satisfied.

I had to admit to them that, even though this was just for practice, I still felt nervous. Job interviews are always difficult, even when they are fake. And it struck me how much harder it must be for them, interviewing in a different language. So I took a moment to tell them how proud I was of them, congratulating them on their hard work. They continue to impress me.


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Three's Company
Our new roommate is here! She's German. And tall. We are a house of giants, compared to our neighbors (and most of Costa Rica). I haven't had too many opportunities to talk to her, but she seems nice and friendly. I think it'll work out just fine. In fact, it might be good for us to have a new person around. Perhaps she will inspire us to get out and see a bit more of the country.

My only concern is that both roommates speak Spanish. It's troublesome enough to live with two women. But it's downright nerve-wracking to living with two women who could conspire against me in a different language. I'm at a severe disadvantage. Wish me luck.


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Monday, July 02, 2007
A Mixed Bag
Friday night was the school owner's birthday, so a bunch of us piled into an SUV and went to his house for a party. It was mostly just people from the school for the first couple of hours. That period of time was a blur of rapid-fire Spanish, salsa music, and quickly-downed Imperial tallboys. More people arrived and eventually I started hearing a bit more English.

I wandered around, meeting people unconnected with the school. It was an odd mix, no doubt. Yet it seemed completely normal. Costa Rica isn't a melting pot - it's more of a grab bag. Random people thrown together for random reasons. There's a red-eyed surfer dude from Michigan. There's a well-dressed businessman with million dollar dreams. There are travelers and Ticos. And they all have pretty good stories.


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