Friday, February 25, 2011

¿Es común aquí?

Tuesday night we came home, and as we passed through the fence two neighborhood kids came running up, saying something about our dog.  Eventually we got it out of them that our neighbor up the street, who own a beauty salon there, wanted to know if they could borrow our dog, for a “ratotito,” just a short time.  Apparently, their dog was in heat and  they wanted ours to be the lucky perro to sire the puppies.
At first I thought this was a joke (we just don’t get their humor a lot of the time, nor they ours), but then they pointed up the street to where the grandmother was waiting outside for an answer.  So, Cassie and I went up the street to talk to her, I of course complaining  the whole time about how outrageous this was, but I really just found the whole thing pretty funny, ridiculous, and more than a little awkward.  Trying to keep an open mind, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt that this could be something that happens often here, and thus was not strange of them to ask.  
We went up to their house to talk with the grandmother, who tried to make a strong case  for their dog, saying that she was only going to be in heat for a short time more, that it was a good dog, and the same species as ours.  First I told her, laughing a little, that our dog is pretty stupid and they wouldn’t want its puppies, but she said that she’s seen him, and that he’s the right size; they want puppies who are bigger and look more menacing (she acted this out).  By the way, Ranger really is pretty dumb and a horrible guard dog because he’s also overly friendly--he’s the only dog in Guaimaca who doesn’t bark when someone walks by at night.  We think it’s because his mother is also his aunt and his father is also his uncle.  
So, the joke about him being dumb didn’t work, and neither did Cassie’s attempts to get more information out of her.  We could tell she really was dead set on using our dog as a breeder, so I told her that neither the dog nor the house were actually ours, that they belonged to the nuns at the Center, so we couldn’t say yes to them.  Her response, of course, was “They don’t have to know...”
She even took us inside to show us their dog, which by the way is definitely not the same species and is a lot smaller than Ranger.  We repeated that we couldn’t say yes because he was not our dog, which fortunately the mother of the family understood and accepted as an answer, so we walked out past all the kids, who seemed to have gotten dressed up for the occasion and who kept smiling and saying “They’re the same species.”  It hurt me, as a Biology teacher, to hear that repeated over and over again.
The next day, we spoke with one of the sisters about the proposed business arrangement, who told us that it was actually common here for people to set up their dogs like that if they wanted puppies.  This did not surprise me because I have come to expect that nothing is as you expect it to be here.  
Sister said that she would talk with the other nuns about it, and then let us know what they thought.  I told my roommates that, if this goes through, it’s definitely not going down in our front yard.
Fortunately, today in our weekly lunch with the sisters they told us that, yes, they had discussed it and that they don’t want it to happen because the last guard dog they had here apparently got diseases from its encounters with other dogs, and that they think the amount of antibiotics they had to give it eventually killed it.  I think we were all a little relieved that we wouldn’t have to participate in this arrangement, now all that’s left is to break the news to the proud, would-be human parents. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Los Fines de las Semanas (Weekends)

I wrote most of this Sunday night, so when I say "today" or "yesterday," I'm referring to Sunday and Saturday.  This weekend was our fifth one here in Guaimaca.  So far, the weekends have been restful and interesting, but also somewhat slow.  Usually I get up on Saturday morning, meditate and think in my room for an hour or so, cook and eat breakfast, and then start washing my clothes from the week.  Doing laundry here usually takes about least two hours because we have to carry our clothes to the pila out back, soak them in the basin, streak them with soap using the cylinder of pink soap we buy at the grocery store, then scrub the clothes by hand on the washboard on top of the basin.  At some point I will try to post some pictures of the pila and a description of its many other uses--just like almost everything else here, it has multiple uses.
After I finish laundry, we usually bike out to the supermarket and the market to pick up food for the weekend.  We really only have to buy food on the weekends because we eat almost every meal during the week at the school, but that also means that we can’t usually buy and save much food because it goes bad during the week.  Every time I go to the market, it’s one way for me to check up on my Spanish because, that first weekend here, it was kind of difficult to move around and buy what we needed, especially since we always have to check the store owner’s math.  If it’s wrong, most of the time they just mess up the simple subtraction needed to figure out how much change I need, but sometimes I get the feeling that it’s part of the process with Americans...see how much you can get away with because they (we) don’t know Spanish numbers that well.  However, I can now comfortably navigate my way through situations like the market, which feels good because I know that I’m at least able to take care of my necessities.  
One Saturday we were invited to a wedding held at the church, which was a pretty cool experience.  It was, of course, simpler than our weddings, and there were a lot of people there who didn’t necessarily know the couple, like us.  The church was full, but it surprised me that there weren’t more people there because everyone here has at least 50 cousins, and is related to many other people through more distant relationships.  There were a lot of similarities between our weddings and theirs, but I’m not sure if that is because the church, with a priest from the US, and the Center, with nuns from several other countries, have such strong international influences.  
More common here is that two people just run away together, or get “paired,” or simply just get pregnant.  Don’t read that the wrong way--there are certainly circumstances, here and in the States, where two people who love each other have been paired and lived together for many years in a stable, loving relationship without marriage.  However, when I mention pairings, running away together, and getting pregnant, keep in mind that the people involved are usually about 15 and either drop out of school or have just finished sixth or seventh grade.  A lot of the work of the mission is to try to change this mentality and make marriage a more common occurrence, which so far has been showing some success.  Last year the parish had a record high of eleven marriages, and more people are using the family planning center they staff at the parish center.
Usually, on Sunday, I get up and again spend some time alone with my thoughts before starting the day, then there’s usually something random going on that I have been able to do.  One week, I went to Norlan’s soccer game with him, which was really cool because I not only got to watch a good game, but I sat by myself with the other spectators, who were mostly all guys from Guaimaca, aficionados of the sport.  I expected to feel a little nervous, but instead, felt like another member of the community because the spectators and players all seemed to accept me more than the first game we went to.  I don’t know if it was because they had already seen me at a game, or if it was because I arrived alone with Norlan instead of biking there with my roommates and was seen as Norlan’s friend instead of a random white person trying to get culture.  Also, it doesn’t hurt that everyone loves Norlan.
Almost every weekend, we have also met up with some of our neighbors for lunch or dinner either at their house or ours.  After Norlan and I returned from his soccer game, I hung out in his house and saw his (three week old) puppies, and then my roommates also came over to eat lunch with him.  The night of the wedding, we had dinner with Emilio and his family, which, funny story, almost didn’t happen because someone right after the mass threw their car into the wrong gear and reversed right into the front end of his truck.  Fortunately he had a grill, so there wasn’t much damage, and even more fortunately, ten seconds before I had decided to wait for everyone else before walking in front of his car and around to the back.  
The week before that, we had Emilio over for dinner, which had a strange ending because a cousin he had never met before showed up at his house, and they had to run out with barely having finished.  In the beginning of that night I tried to teach him and Sonia, his wife, how to play Rummy, but they have a similar game here, with slightly different rules, which they started playing when it benefitted them.  One other Sunday afternoon, Digna, the cook at the Center, came over and swapped recipes with Cassie.  Her son came with her, so we also played with him, and since then he has been popping out of nowhere all over town and catching me off guard with “Tic!” which means that, if I don’t have my fingers crossed, I have to freeze in place until he releases me by saying “Tac.”  If I move, he gets to pinch me.  This is somehow a game that all the children we meet play, so my skin has been getting pretty tough from the pinches.  When they came over our house, we tried to teach them BS (renamed Mentirosa), which did not work well (but was hilarious), and Go Fish, which worked slightly better.
Today, we had Margarita and her family over for lunch.  Margarita is another neighbor, and the woman we pay to wash some of the clothes we don’t have the time (or patience) for, like our sheets and jeans.  Just the things that are pretty large and would be very difficult for us, although this was not communicated well in the beginning, and the first week when she saw that I had washed my other clothes, we had an awkward time of explaining that we weren’t snubbing her.  
Anyway, today we had them over for lunch, and pity the poor gringos, that started off pretty awkwardly as well.  We had told them, as recently as 11:15 am, that we would see them at 12 pm, so we had everything all ready and hot at noon, expecting them to be a little late (Honduran time is very different from our sense of time).  However, it was getting pretty late, later than is normally expected, and we could clearly see that they were home.  At some point, Margarita’s husband came out when Cassie was outside, so Cassie waved at him, but he still didn’t come over.  Ten minutes later, he got his bike out and rode slowly past our house towards town, kind of peering in our door and whistling, then turned around a little ways up the street and rode back to his house as if he forgot something.  He went back inside, got something trivial to put in the basket of his bike, and then rode slowly back up towards our house.  This time he stopped at our gate, looked in and obviously whistled at us.  So, I went outside and asked him if he was ready for lunch, to which he replied, “Yes of course we are, we were waiting for you to call us.”  We were pretty embarrassed, but so were they because they realized that we had no idea that was the norm here, and we all laughed about it afterwards when we were inside.  
So, apparently, while we were sitting inside expecting them to be late like every other person here, they were sitting inside waiting for our call, but they were also giving us extra time because the power in the town was out today, and they weren’t sure if our oven/stove would work without it.   Then, both them and us started to get antsy right around the same time, hence the awkward dance of waves and slow bike trips.  
Finally, yesterday morning we went to and helped out at the parish’s tele-radio-maraton, which was an all day event to raise money for repairs and upkeep that the church desperately needs.  I headed over there at 8, and met up with Andrea, one of the other tutors at the center who is also extremely involved in the parish.  I think she tried to tell me to do something with collecting money with a group of people at the entrance/exit to the town, but I ended up walking around town with her to collect donation envelopes from certain families.  I’m not sure if that happened because I didn’t understand what she was saying and I just ended up following her around, or if she actually meant me to come with her, but it was a good way to see the town in a way I hadn’t before.  
I have definitely seen all those streets and stores, but while we were walking she told me a lot about things that I could never have learned another way, like how one of the women we saw used to be the mayor of the town, and then Andrea answered a lot of answers to questions I had about how that process works.  She also told me more about herself and her family, about how families work here; for example, her grandmother had 24 children, and she is therefore related to many people in town, many of whom she doesn’t even know.  Talking with her is good for me because she not only teaches me a lot of information, she has also started to correct some of the errors I make in Spanish.  I think she feels more comfortable doing so now because last week I started teaching her some English during some of our free time, which I am excited to keep doing throughout the year.
After we finished up our rounds, we went over to the Center to collect some of the girls in my class and the juniors who were going to dance some traditional dances at the TRM.  Half of them were dressed as men, and the other half, their partners, wore beautiful traditional dresses and head garb.  Andrea has been working with them on these dances several days a week this year, but they are also dances that they have been learning for years and years.  You can tell that they have put a lot of time into it just by watching their feet move in time to the music...when us Americans dance we bob our head to a bass line or tap our foot in time like a metronome, but when I watched the dance Saturday morning, it was pretty obvious that every little note played had an accompanying movement.  It really was very cool to watch, and is just one more thing that I will have to try to post pictures of.  
In all, our weekends have been relaxing and fun, with a splash of culture.  It’s nice to come home on Friday afternoon and have dinner plans with neighbors, soccer games to go to, church activities to help out with, and church to go to on Sunday night because, by the end of the week, we definitely want to do something other than school work.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Horario Diario

Miercoles y Jueves (un día típico):
6:15 am--Me despierto
7:10--Llego al Centro
7:35--Primera Clase
9:00--Segunda Clase
10:30--Clase, o tengo tiempo para preparación
11:30--Supervisar Almuerzo
1:00--Tiempo libre para las alumnas
2:00--Radio, o Tutoría
3:00--Educación física
4:30--Supervisar Cena, Tutoría, o Radio
7:00--Animacion Juvenil, Misa, Hora Santo, Guitarra (Miercoles) o Ayuda extra
8:30--Regreso a mi casa, preparo para el día siguiente
11:30 (más o menos)--Me descanso

Las alumnas vienen en la mañana, tenemos una misa a las 11:30, y un tarde regular.

Estoy en la finca desde las 7:30 hasta las 12:30 para los laboratorios y trabajo en la finca con las alumnas, luego tenemos un tarde regular.

Tenemos una mañana típica, pero las alumnas regresan a sus casas después del almuerzo.

Las alumnas tienen clases de computadora, costura y baila también.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Today, for some reason, was mentally exhausting.  I don't even have any real classes on Monday, just one phys ed class with the youngest grade, and a radio session with my seniors (although today I taught about meiosis instead of playing a radio program).  

Maybe it has something to do with Spanish being more of an effort after having two easier days, or maybe it’s just because there is a lot of technical prep work we need to do to get everything ready for the following week, to catalog and organize the students’ contributions, and to get them situated.  At dinner, I was thinking about how there are very few boundaries between us and the students.  We are there for at least 12 hours each day, which means that the students and I see each other when we’re tired in the morning, when we’re hungry in the afternoon, and very tired again come dinner time.  Honestly, today at dinner I had a difficult time keeping it together and putting a brave face on things--all I wanted to do was put my head on the table and sleep.  As I said, however, the students are always there, and we always need to be on the ball.
After dinner and a meeting with Manuel about the labs tomorrow, I was leaving the building when I heard my name being yelled and one of my students came running after me.  While she was asking me a few questions about the lab tomorrow and the report that’s due tomorrow, and I was copying tomorrow’s lab handouts for her, another student came up and started asking the same questions.  I didn’t understand them much at first because my brain was so tired and they just couldn’t slow down enough, but I told them to gather the other students and meet in our classroom to go over everything.  
So, at 7 pm, I started going over the lab report, parts of experiments (again) and answered specific questions they had.  I know that a lot of their confusion was because I was not able to explain myself very well last week, but also I’m pretty sure that they have never had to do anything like this before.  I really didn’t mind staying late to go over information with them, because it made me very happy that they were thinking about it and asking questions in the first place.  It has been a struggle to get them to participate and to ask for help, so I felt like this was huge progress.  
I really was very happy that they came to me for help and that they are putting in the effort and thinking about what needs to be done.  I think that it bodes well for the future and for their further learning.  Skills like writing and presenting results/conclusions are very important, and hopefully my plans will help them obtain or improve these skills.  Also, as a side note, it also made me happy when one of my students asked me if I was sad because she could tell that something was off.  Although, again with the borders thing.  It’s weird being around them so much that if I start to crash at night it is hard to conceal and they notice it.  For sure, it is quite a different experience and relationship than the student-teacher relationship in the US school systems.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

After the First Week of Classes

So, this is the end of the first week of school, and I’m starting to write this after taking a nap--it was pretty exhausting; every day has been a challenge emotionally, mentally and physically.  Even though I really needed sleep each night, I have not been sleeping well because there has been so much on my mind and I feel like, as soon as I close my eyes, my alarm goes off.  This week has been exhausting, but so far it has been exactly what I was looking for when I decided to do a year of service.
I was getting frustrated towards the end of last week because I had very little human contact, which is exactly why I was getting frustrated with the path that my studies were taking towards the end of college.  For some reason I feel so much more complete and useful when I’m actually working directly with people.  The research I did senior year, although it was pretty intense and may end up eventually helping people, left me pretty dissatisfied.  The best part of that was traveling to the research conferences in Texas, presenting my own research and hearing ideas and projects from high-powered international researchers.  That really stimulated my curiosity and thirst for knowledge, but it also showed me that I was missing something.
This week at the school, it has been virtually the opposite intellectually, but I feel so much more at home in my work.  Every day we arrive at ten past 7 in the morning, and every night we leave the school around 7 or 8 at night, sometimes later.  Fridays are half days because the students travel back to their aldeas in the afternoon, so we got home today around 3:30.  The days are long, and there is rarely down time, but so far I’m loving it.  When we’re not teaching, we’re supervising meal preparation, or cleanup, instructing physical education classes, praying with the girls in the chapel, holding tutoring sessions, or setting up the radio learning hours.  
Each time I have interacted with the girls so far, I really feel like I’m helping them develop into an integrated, well rounded person.  They learn the importance of faith and community in the chapel and their reflection periods, teamwork while preparing meals and cleaning up, the importance of hard work and education in their classes, and how to responsibly have fun and develop healthy interactions in the extracurricular classes and activities like physical education, sewing, guitar and choral lessons with Norlan, and computer classes.  During all of this, the girls constantly look to us as examples and, cautiously, for reassurance and a smile.  I always feel eyes on me, which definitely has a lot to do with being a white male with blue eyes, but I also think that sometimes it’s about trust and a silent request for guidance.  
Tuesday night, we all went to a mass on the street in front of a woman’s house with some other members of the parish and a volunteer group from Seekonk that was leaving the next morning.  The mass was lit by the street lamps and the candles on the altar, and was a really beautiful service that helped us to feel more of a part of things, but it was also when I started to feel responsible for the students and a sense of almost paternal protectiveness.  Since we were all in the street, there were people occasionally passing through, and there were groups of boys who would stop on the corner and watch.  At one point a group of boys, who had been hanging around the end of the street a bit too much, laughed loudly so I turned around, walked down the street and asked them to be silent because we were having a mass.  My heart was beating pretty fast as I turned around and returned to the congregation because you can be almost 100% sure that people like them around here are carrying some sort of weapon.  However, I hadn’t thought twice about going back there and telling them off because it obviously made the girls feel uncomfortable--several of the girls had been turning around nervously and looking back at the corner where the boys were hanging out.  
I have never really been in an unsafe situation before with people for whom I felt responsible, and I had no idea how I would react, so my reaction in this situation really surprised me.  It definitely made me stop and think about how much we have already started connecting with the students after only a couple of days, and the relationship that we will develop with them after spending 13 hours a day, four and a half days a week, for nine months.  As a side note, I was probably more surprised that the boys (and one older man) listened to me and shoved off after I spoke to them.
Classes this week started off pretty rough, but each day has consistently gotten a little better.  Monday was the day they all arrived and had orientation for the school and with their parents, so Tuesday was the first day of actual instruction.  That morning I went to the farm with my class of seniors for our lab and work in the fields, which I expected to be a good way to just ease into getting to know the students and the routine of things.  Although I had prepared the lab we were going to do, I was under the impression from Manuel that he would do the explaining, and I certainly didn’t want to step on his toes by taking his job and explaining everything.  However, we got there and he said something like, “Ok, I’m going to go get the materials now, I’ll be back in a little bit after you’ve explained the lab.”  So, I got up in front of the class for the first time, and tried to start asking them questions about the variables in experiments.  To put it simply, it did not go so well.  They couldn’t understand me, I couldn’t really understand them, and I didn’t realize until later that they have little or no background information.
I had to keep backing up and making things simpler, until we got to a point where they could understand.  Eventually they started understanding some things, but I was very grateful when Manuel came back and started rewording what I was saying, or just repeating it with a better accent.  We were able to get through a few important topics, but I definitely breathed a little easier when they started working on the actual lab, which was pretty simple and didn’t need much explaining.
Wednesday I had Biology, Chemistry, a Math review, a radio session, and a physical education class.  The academic classes went ok, although I still hadn’t gotten into the hang of things and the classes definitely lacked a good flow.  We made some progress on topics like the scientific method, and cellular structure, but there were pauses and choppy moments during transitions and when I was trying to figure out what to say.  Fortunately, most of the class time was taken up by the review quizzes and activities I made for them, so it was a better way to ease into things than the lab the day before.
The really, really, did not want to take the quizzes that I gave them, and just as much as they didn’t want to do the quizzes, they didn’t want to do any type of math.  Most of them were not able to answer any of the questions on any of the quizzes, except for a couple of students, who were able to give some half answers for a couple of questions.  They also did not know any of the previous years’ information that they needed for the activities; even simple things like the nucleus of a cell, chromosomes, or cell membranes threw them off.  It was very frustrating because it was as if they had retained nothing from previous years, and I now have to choose the most important topics to reteach them before we begin our classes’ information.  
That is the downfall to the trimester system.  The way the classes are set up, their Bio and Chem classes for the tenth and eleventh grades combined contains a single year of Biology or Chemistry information that high schoolers in the States receive.  However, they have a good nine months between the end of the first half of the course (the end of the first trimester of Primero Bachillerato) and the beginning of the second half of the course (the beginning of the first trimester of Segundo Bachillerato).  Between this length of time, the lack of adequate teacher presence (even now, with my lack of Spanish), and the general philosophy behind the national method, it seems like the students don’t actually learn anything.  They have been able to spout out a couple of memorized definitions, like the full name of DNA, but when I asked them what DNA is, what it’s used for, or where it’s found in the cell, all I got in response was blank stares.  Their retention problem is something that I will try to fix by reinforcing our material with activities, labs and more frequent tests and quizzes (I am suspicious that, in previous years, they never had tests other than the final exam).  
More frustrating than their lack of knowledge, however, is their inability to think.  They just don’t know how to apply information that they already know, to questions about something they don’t know.  On Friday they presented some information that they had researched in a group activity on Thursday, but when I would ask them a question that they should have been able to answer with their research information, for the most part they just couldn’t.  It wasn’t that they didn’t understand what I was saying (I tried to make sure of that) they just could not extrapolate information.  As the year goes on I expect to give them less hints and support to try get them to think on their own.  If I can teach them this skill, I will consider my time here very successful because the ability to think and apply is more important than any set of knowledge or information.
Overall, I’m very happy with this first week of classes.  Although there were definitely frustrating moments and I have my work cut out for me, this is exactly what I was looking for.  I love the challenge that I am deeply involved in--the language, the teaching and the culture--the challenge feeds my curiosity, my perfectionism and my desire to accomplish.  Even more, I love the daily interactions I have with the students and the other tutors.  It’s the little things each day that I appreciate, like the timid smiles we get from the youngest students, the jokes that I have been able to share with the older students, and the moments when I can literally see my students’ desire to learn.  A few of the girls are so attentive and try so hard, that when I get a little frustrated with not being able to express myself, I can take a deep breath, look at how patiently they are waiting for me, and continue the best I can.  It seems like many of them really want to learn, so all I have to do is continue to arrive each week prepared and excited for this opportunity.