Thursday, November 19, 2009

Valencia - City of Oranges, Cervantes, and progressivism?

Posted by Picasa(Valencia, Comunidad Valenciana, Espana) -

Yesterday, I took a city tour led by an Englishman in the city of Valencia. Valencia is famous for many things, for example: oranges, Don Quijote author Cervantes, and of course progressivism. After my free city tour, I stopped at a famous horchateria to try Valencia style horchata. The horchata here is nothing like Mexican horchata. Horchata valenciana is more like drinking very sweet almond milk, pleasing to the palette especially when teamed with pastry. Go figure, never thought I'd find horchata on this side of the world.
I am getting ready to leave Valencia soon as it is just an accidental stop along the way as I tour the easiest and less costly route along the Spanish coast. Happily, the weather has been nice and easily fits the description of a mediterranean climate. I also hear that many Europeans come to Spain this time of year due to climate and for the cultural experience. Valencia is indeed full of culture.
What I notice about this city is the preponderance of pedestrians. Maybe what is a novelty for me is probably a fact of life for most Europeans in big cities. I also notice the city's elderly walking hand in hand and it makes me wonder why I don't see this back home. Could it be because I am driving along in my vehicle and don't stop to notice the foot traffic? Sadly, I think it has to do with the fact that many of our elderly are tucked away in nursing homes or they have been taught to fear that it is not safe for them to wander outside of the safety of their homes. It's akin to keeping children who live in the ghetto inside the home for fear that they'll get hurt in some way. I am not belittling the need for safety and security but the environment here makes me wonder about my everyday life is all. I feel generally pretty safe here and am careful to practice common sense when wandering around.

What do I like best about Valencia? The climate, the food, and the hospitality. People here are very friendly and are honestly very proud of the city and of their unique contribution to Spain. Much like in Barcelona, the Valencianos have a distinct dialect (despite efforts it is not formally recognized as a language) all their own. My lack of spatial awareness is heightened due to the city street names which meander between Castellano and Valenciano. It's confusing for me on the one hand and fascinating on another level to feel like an outsider and also like I'm in on the joke somehow.

One neat thing is that there are many South Americans and other Latinos that have emigrated here and actually, I feel quite at home here. Spain is becoming a multicultural society due to the immigration of it's Spanish-speaking neighbors in South America and less commonly from North America. So, difference is a good thing around here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Trilingualism in the public schools, OMW!!

El Prat (Barcelona, Spain) -

Public money can be used to successfuly cater to the desires of those who came of age in post-Franco Spain. Recently, I visited a primary school in the outer city limits of Barcelona and was impressed by the cultural presence of the Catalan language which was once banned here by the Spanish government.

According to the curriculum coordinator at Josep Tarradellas Elementary School, during the course of a 35 hour school week, students are offered the equivalent of three hours each of English and Castilian Spanish with the remaining instructional hours assigned to Catalan. The impact of multiculturalism requires that public education serve the traditional student as well as the newcomer whom is also instructed in all three languages. It appears that this particular institution is doing a fare job of responding to the changing needs of its' residents.

School personnel are very proud of this fact as evidenced by the tour I received upon arriving here. The school headmaster eagerly touted the enrichment courses offered through public education like technology, religion, music and fine arts. I asked the headmaster if offering religion in the public school system was problematic to parents. ¨Spain has been Catholic for over 500 years and those who don´t want religious education can opt out [sic],¨ he offered. In contrast, the American school system generally does not allow for the inclusion of religious education in a public school setting. U.S. Schools have a variety of religions to represent and I would hate the task of meeting everyone´s needs for religious education. Sunday school in all of its' encarnations is fine by me. What factors impact the ability of bilingual schoolchildren in the US to receive a varied and quality public school education?

From my experience as a bilingual instructor, it is my opinion that the accountability movement in education has been harmful and has single-handedly helped to erode bilingualism in the public schools. Bilingual children in the U.S. are unfortunately impacted by NCLB legislation and its' requisite high-stakes testing. Thus, the achievement of dual-literacy is downplayed for fear of an educational backlash. American students are held accountable for showing improvement in their performance on an English test, a language in which they are instructed in only 50% of the time. In contrast, students at Tarradellas elementary school are not impacted by the accountability movement in education and thus are free to receive small group instruction which honors the value of the Castilian, Catalan, and now English languages. Good job Tarradellas!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Help! I have no money and I am in a foreign country!!

(Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo)-

Mexico hurries for no one and those who aren´t used to a slower pace of life are in for a huge disappointment. This "hasta manana" attitude is common throughout Mexico - especially as you go south of Mexico City.

The aftermath of the theft I experienced in Palenque, Chiapas ranged from the positive to the unexpected. Of course we always remember the negative and draining outcomes unless we decide to reframe the experience as an adventure. Recovering my atm card took all the patience, sweat, and the fighting back of tears I could muster.

On Friday, September 18 th, I communicated from a caseta telefonica to my bank about mailing out a replacement atm card to a shipping company in Palenque. Human error on the part of my bank and the bureaucratic idiocy of UPS Mexico were the principal factors in my 5 days of needless anguish and sheer anxiety.

After returning from a blissful tour of Guatemala I soon realized that the package containing my atm card had been lost and I was soon burning through the money my sister had wired me about a week before. This realization and the subsequent discomfort were quickly souring me and ruining my Mexican vacation.

Over a period of 5 days, I frantically set about making phone calls to both Washington Mutual and UPS Mexico. I was frustruated throughout this ordeal by the abundant misinformation I received from both the US and Mexico. The constant failure of Mexican phone lines which resulted in many dropped calls to my bank in the states did not help to speed up the process of retrieving my atm card (which was now lost somewhere in Mexico!!)
Finally, after running low on cash I went down to the Palenque police station and tearfully told them that I needed to use their public phone because I was a foreigner whose resources were about dwindle. Unsympathetically I was told by the police officer on duty that people were robbed everywhere. I ignored the officers' unkind behavior and insisted on using their phone. Land lines are not common throughout Mexico and you have to pay to make phone calls either in a caseta or from a public phone and there is often interference from frustruatingly noisy city streets.

In the meantime, UPS Mexico was very bureaucratic and had strict operating times and varied in the misinformation they gave me from day to day - on one day I was told the card would be delivered the next day and then several days later that the card was en route back to the US. After hearing this last bit of news, I hit a wall. I cried, I prayed and wondered what kind of lesson I was supposed to be learning from all of this. I thought of The Secret and wondered if my negative thinking had spawned this process. I called UPS again and got a kinder customer service agent who told me where and how i could pick up the package. I took a bus to Villahermosa, Tabasco which is anything but beautiful. I picked up my atm card. I called my bank and another dose of human error led to more frustruation on my part. The customer service agent who answered informed me that my atm card was now cancelled. Again I blamed myself and all of my negative thinking. What else could go wrong, I wondered? I was deeply saddened.
Finally, I decided that I had to let this issue go for awhile. I booked a second-class bus to Playa Del Carmen in the Mayan Riviera. I love the beach and I was instantly soothed by the natural beauty and the calmness of this town. I took a deep breath and called my bank again and amazingly I was told that my atm card had not been cancelled and that I had simply been misinformed!!!

I did not even have the energy to get upset. I had acces to money again. Life was good once more and I could go back and resume my tourist behavior and let go of my crazy anxiety-filled mode of the past 5 days. Thank you friends and family who loaned me or sent me wire transfers during this crazy time.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sweet Central America

(San Andres, Peten, Guatemala)-
My travel in Mexico took a sudden but pleasant change of course after my loss in Palenque, Chiapas. My travel buddies, los Espanoles de Barcelona y las Americanas de Seattle, invited me to nearby Guatemala and I figured it was way better than hot, humid, miserable Palenque. We arrived in Flores, and spent the day at the Tikal ruins. I felt like a kid again as I gleefully watched monkeys swing from tree to tree and spent time taking in the amazing Mayan ruins in the middle of the jungle. I wish I had a photo to post but I don´t have my digital camera anymore...grrr. I´ll have to wait and develop my photos from the insta-cam given to me by a fellow traveler.
After Tikal, I leave Flores for nearby San Andres, in the Peten Peninsula.

Guatemalans living in thatched homes with live-in livestock have a beautiful lakefront view of the world. Guatemalans in San Andres have it all. People here are very warm and still follow the traditions of the Maya. During my homestay, I am placed with a Mayan family, the Chibli Chi´s - what an awesome last name! I have to admit that adapting to third world conditions is a little tough at first but eventually I get used to living differently. Hanging out in a hammock and watching my Guatemalan mom, Marcelina, tortear is more interesting than sleeping in a smelly hostel dorm.
During my short stay here I volunteered my time and efforts to an organization called Volunteer Peten, Matt, the founder of VP, runs a school and reforrestation project for local Guatemalan high schoolers. It is a worthwhile cause that educates Mayans about the value of taking care of their natural resources.Education is not compulsory after junior high and most Guatemalans do not continue their studies beyond this point. Literacy and math skills among youth are seriously lacking and could certainly benefit from the help of any volunteer.

I don´t have much time to volunteer here but the time I do have I´ll use to spend time with local teens, whom I don´t have much experience with. Like youth everywhere, kids here are very interested in music especially reggaeton and Michael Jackson! I spend some time tutoring a teenaged Chapino who really loves to speak English. Later in the week I take a class in the old mayan tradition of making drinks and bread out of Ramon, or the very nutritious bread nut.
I would have liked to spend more time volunteering in San Andres but my time in Mexico is drawing to a close and I must get ready for my return to the US of A. One of the things that was fun to see was how the people of Guatemal let their livestock, pigs, chickens, and even baby lambs walk freely in the street. No one seems to be bothered by their presence! Guatemalans it seems, don´t worry too much.

Sunday, September 20, 2009



The bus announcers' early morning shouts of "Zapata, Ocoto," rustle me awake at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. I try to go back to sleep but the bus caller has a job to do. I have been in miserable, humid Palenque since Friday and my sweet spell of traveler's luck has been interrupted.
I'm high on the heels of a wonderful visit to San Cristobal de las Casas when I arrive in Palenque on a Thursday afternoon, but by the early hours of Friday morning my bliss would turn to complete shock.

I check into the Jungle Palace at El Panchan, a collection of roadside cabanas which sit on the road to the Palenque ruins. Mosquitos, toads and howler monkeys also share this lush, green space with weary human travelers. My cabana is very rustic but I appreciate the alone time. I organize my bags and make plans for an early morning tour of the famous waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. But by early Friday morning it becomes clear that I am the victim of a theft. My cell phone, which lay next to my head, has been stolen! My wallet which contained my atm card and no more than 50 pesos,and digital camera (with pictures of the Palanque ruins) are also gone. I am amazed that I can get past the material loss and I am left wondering how and where I will sleep that night. It is not suggested that I involve the police.

I am upset and feel quite vulnerable. I have no money on hand and the only lodging option available to me that night is the same unsecured cabana where the theft occurred. Steve, an older, and talkative American appears on the scene and takes me under his wing. We have to go into town because there are no land lines at El Panchan, in fact land lines are a luxury available to very few Mexicanos. Meanwhile, workers at the Jungle Palace "find" my wallet sans cash but complete with my now cancelled atm/credit cards.
Initially, I am happy to meet Steve and accept his invitation to stay at his makeshift jungle lodge. It feels okay to accept the "kindness" of this expat gringo, the quintessential 60's era pothead who has simply dropped out of American society for good. Much later it becomes clear that there is a very good reason for his living alone in the jungle and I realize that I have not made a good choice. The price of free lodging is much too high. It occurs to me that I must find a way to borrow money instead of staying one more night with a quirky old man with poor social skills who is so achingly lonely that he exhibits lagorrea, or diarrea of the mouth!!

In the end it is technology that will save me. I petition Federico,a dear friend, who sends an influx of money via an online transfer through Western Union. I also send a text message to my American friends Kelly and Hannah via Yahoo messenger. They just so happen to be in Palenque that day. They come to the roadside cabana and take me away from this awful, twisted situation. I am grateful and set free.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is the welfare state a better solution?

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I am without a doubt a spoiled american brat as compared to Mexico's poor. It's interesting but many times Americans think in terms of what they lack and this is especially true in California's current economic downturn.

At present I am traveling in Mexico and I simply don't want to be bothered with the presence of street vendors in Oaxaca, many of whom are children, who hawk everything from friendship bracelets to mint-flavored "chicle". You are approached at least 20 times by roving street vendors during the course of your meal or afternoon cafe. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, it seems.
I want to continue to be the tourist who observes the local people and their customs from a distance while sipping a cappucino at an outdoor cafe. There I said it, I don't want to be bothered. Simply put,I am used to hearing about the haves and have nots in this world; I AM NOT accustomed to having to think about what it means for those involved. I truly feel bad for the children who become street vendors at such a tender age. They invariably resort to pestering, sympathy seeking, and less often a direct request for a gift of pesos. On a recent visit to the Indian village of San Juan Chamula, a very enterprising young lady named Alicia offered us a gift with purchase. She offerd up a friendship bracelet and waited for my traveling troupe to walk by so that we could complete the transaction. It was a very effective sales ploy.

While this dynamic is annoying for me it makes me think about living in the US and how very easy it is to extricate oneself from witnessing the problems of the less forunate.

Americans who don't have enough money for basic necessities rely on California's welfare system. The welfare state is a more comfortable option for most Americans because it certainly is an inconvenience to be bothered while you are sipping your morning latte, isn't it?
Street vendors are a common fact of life in any third world country and as I understand it are eligible to receive government aid. It is most likely very difficult for people to live off their sales. What is amazing to me is not that you are sold to but the fact that you receive a sales pitch everywhere you go. It is amazing that you should have to listen to unwanted sales pitches as you dine, while walking in the street, while sitting on the local bus line, and while waiting for direct bus service to your next tourist destination. So, while I am annoyed at being sold to I do understand that people must make a living and this is what they must do.

Laundry -it´s better than what i do at home

A full-service laundry is undoubtedly one of the things I will miss most about Mexico. When I first arrived in Cuernavaca, Morelos I remember being told by my language teacher that there was a lovely senora who did your wash for only 12 pesos a kilo!! My response was one of self-righteous indignation at those Americanos who could subscrie to a laundry service that exploited poor little senoras. I imagined these angel servants to be slaved over igneous rock and diligently hand-washing each piece down by the river.
Much to my surprise I learned that doing your own laundry in most parts of Mexico means paying someone else to do it for you. Laundry service, by the way, includes washing, drying, and folding! There are no many do it yourself laundromats in Mexico. If you are one of the lucky (or in my opinion, unlucky)you can afford to have your own washing and drying machine at home. With that logic, I couldn´t argue and I stopped being self-righteous long enough to have the cute, little senora do my laundry for me. She even matched up my socks for me!