Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Yet I know that the main job of a guidebook writer is picking and choosing what gets included or what gets left out. Which restaurant or hotel gets cut because of space and which national park or resort gets included. After all, the reason I am carrying it around in my bag is not to get more exercise but to use it as a reference (and apparently to pass the time). Good places get cut everywhere, and I am sure the process of getting included is not always on the up-and-up. However, having that guide to read can be a lot of fun, and despite it labeling you as nothing but a tourist, it can be very helpful at times too.
The Lonely Planet guidebook for Colombia is surprisingly small for a country the size of California and Texas coombined. And then with a quick but careful look inside, you realize why. There are major swaths of the country, including some of its biggest cities, that are simply absent from any mention. They only appear at the map in the front of the book and are never to be heard from since.
I used the 2009 5th Edition this year. Which is not the best guidebook I’ve ever read, but is at least an improvement on the 4th Edition. This one was written by Thomas Kohnstamm, who later admitted that he didn’t even visit Colombia to do research for the book. Ouch.
Holding this travel guide in your hand does tell a lot of the current story of Colombia after all. There are places still under the rule of drug lords, where militias hold control, where the FARC still holds hostages, where the police and military still raid towns and jungle hideouts and civilians are caught in the crossfire. There are still miles of jungle barely unexplored, still millions of city dwellers who never see tourists, still open plains and border towns whose crises do not even get reported on in the news, nevertheless get listed as ‘destinations’ in a guidebook or travel website.
I am a little like the guidebook myself (the 5th edition, not the 4th, since, yes I wrote this blog from the comfort of my mosquito-infested, fan-cooled, sweltering home on the Caribbean. In actual Colombia). But, despite living a year thee, the part of the country I got to know well is just a tiny part of the nation as a whole. I did the stretch between Cartagena and Santa Marta quite a few times, and of course got to know Cartagena itself quite well. (Got to know Santa Ana more than well, but as stated in my previous post, it is not exactly a tourist hotspot.) This is how I like traveling now though, getting to know a couple places well, staying for a long enough time to get to know people, to find a favorite restaurant, or in Cartagena’s case, juice shop. I never envied the stream of backpackers passing through Cartagena on their way to Peru or coming from Panama. I was still getting to know Colombia.
The guidebook to Colombia is itself showing the history, and progress, of this country over the past couple of years and will continue to record these changes in the years to come. Which parts of the country will open up to tourism? Which “hidden treasures” will become mainstream destinations, which reserves will be overrun, which pockets of nature will become national parks?
After all, Lonely Planet advertises right on the cover “Our best-selling guide makes planning a safe trip easy” right on top of that lovely picture of a palm tree and azure water. Maybe soon the tag line of Colombian tourism will change from its current slogan of “el unico riesgo es que te quieras quedar,” or, in English, “The only risk is wanting to stay.” (A video enticing you to Cartagena here).
For the residents that will stay no matter what, I hope that conditions continue to improve throughout the country. So that when I come back in however many years (I promised my eighth graders it would be before 2014, when they graduate from high school), that guidebook will be a lot thicker, will include a lot more of the country. It’ll give me something to do as I sip coffee in a yet unknown Colombian town, waiting for my meal to come. A lot of this country is still waiting.
I am moved back in the United States for now, but will be writing a couple more blogs to wrap up the year, so keep reading! I’ll make it clear what my last post will be, but I won’t take down the blog for a while.
Sunday, December 18, 2011
The backpacker bible does mention, however, something vital to my town which I have barely brushed upon in this years’ blog: Playa Blanca, or as my co-teacher likes to call it, ¨White Beach¨ (to prove he does know some English).
Playa Blanca is about 15-20 minutes outside town as you continue south on the island and is THE tourist beach to go to if you are visiting Cartagena and want to get in your Caribbean beach time and work on your tan.
Playa Blanca, which is correctly named for its pale sand stretching along the Caribbean Sea, is almost exactly what I envision a Caribbean beach to be (though yes, the name could also refer to how many very white tourists there are there also….). The beach certainly has that fine, bright sand or course, and tall palm trees blowing in the soft Caribbean breezes. Dozens of small wooden shacks and houses are set up, offering all sorts of restaurants and places to string a hammock or sleep on the soft sand on a mattress.
During the quiet mornings, pelicans feed on fish in the surf as the sun rises at your back. Mid-morning the pale waters turn that brilliant blue-green, and turquoise azure that draws thousands of shivering New Yorkers, Londoners, and Berliners to tropical waters during the northern hemisphere winter.
At around nine o’clock people start coming. Vendors with Styrofoam coolers slung over their shoulders wander the sands, selling water, beer, ice cream, and fruit. Others stack a dozen hats on their heads or carry large boards full of hand-made necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Tourists swim in the calm surf or lay with too little sunscreen on newly-purchased sarongs or beach chairs, sometimes under small lean-tos rented out to provide shade during the day. Some tourists, already with painful-looking burns, walk along the sand, adding to a bustle of dogs (and the occasional cow or donkey), boats, vendors, and birds.
The vendors and most boats with tourists leave around 4:00 and the beach transforms again to a quiet place to relax. The sun sets as boys play soccer and the orange globe sinks beneath the water. After a while music invariably starts, champeta, reggaeton and vallenato blasting from speakers all along the beach as the residents and tourists alike stay up to drink, dance, and relax in the cool night air.
It is not just this postcard you can drop into however. On the backside of the beach is where real life takes place. Dozens of people actually live at the beach as well, as evident by the garbage and sludge of a lagoon behind the restaurants. Kitchens with charcoal stoves and skinny children running around remind you of what it takes to get you that plate of coconut rice, which young men sweating over heavy crates of beer and soda reminds you that everything that comes in has come a long way. We see our students, both in primary school and older, working selling fried corn balls or necklaces, or otherwise left to their own devices as their parents work.
People get there in one of five ways. The most common is to take one of the four or so daily boats that leave from downtown Cartagena for the 40-minute or so bumpy ride through the choppy Caribbean waters. Tourists also frequently come via boat as part of a tour of the Islas de Rosarios, the picture-perfect group on islands off the southern end of Isla Baru and a protected park. They swing by Playa Blanca for a few hours for some serious sun tanning and then return, usually an uncomfortable red color, to Cartagena.
Coming from the mainland or Santa Ana is of course the way we come. Many Colombian families, especially on weekends, come in their shiny cars, driving on the ferry and parking at the beach for a day before heading back to Cartagena in their now very dusty and muddy cars. The workers can cram onto an old bus that heads from Santa Ana around 9:00 (after honking its horn for at least a half hour to give everyone fair warning) and returns around 4:30. Back to Lonely Planet, the guidebook actually does lay out the bus/ferry/motorcycle taxi route for their backpacker crowd, though of course fails to mention the two towns they pass through along the way or anything else about the island besides the true point that “this route takes about three hours and is a mess after recent rainfall.”
The thing is, the island, and Santa Ana relies on these tourism dollars coming in even if tourists never give a second thought to the fact that people live in the place the pass through and visit. The food and trinket vendors (some actually with good artisan handicrafts) are an important source of outside income for many families and I can’t fault them too much for overcharging. A night on the beach can cost you as little as 7000 pesos for a hammock (about $4) but your fish and coconut rice meal or your piña colada can be more than 15,000 or 20,000.
Of course, Playa Blanca has a lot going for it. It is still open to the public, allowing both tourists and the vendors and residents to take advantage of all the opportunities the beautiful strip of land can offer.
Others take advantage of it in more permanent ways.
New as of a few years ago is the Isla Barú branch of the Decameron Resorts and Hotels chain. Visible and a far but doable walk down to one end of the beach is the all-inclusive resort which will set you back about $400 a night (though this does include all your food and drink and such while you’re there). The Decameron actually has been more positive than negative for Santa Ana though. It employees 300 people with steady wages and maintains the road through town so their giant charter buses bringing in tourists don’t get stuck (mostly though not always successfully, again see my post on The Puddle). It ruins the view a little but is certainly not an eyesore and you don’t really have to deal with it if you don’t want to.
The problem is the rest of Playa Blanca has this sort of giant hotel potential as well, and sooner than I’d like, there are plans to tear down the shacks, restaurants, and homes on the beach to make way for more hotels. No one really seems to own the beach itself and the government already owns most of the land around the beach. Selling off the beach property is an easy way to make a bundle of money as well as attract more tourist dollars to the Cartagena area.
The problem is that while we are trying to raise the level of education in town -- including English so Santaneros and not Cartageneros can be competitive for these types of tourist jobs in their community -- not everyone who currently makes small carvings or offers coconut drinks can suddenly shift to working at a hotel. Tourists like me who are traveling on a budget might not be able to go to the beach at all depending how much is taken up by now private and exclusive hotels.
And then there would just be the shame of building on this piece of land blessed with natural beauty. The surf crashing, the crabs scuttling around, the driftwood, the pelicans and the fish flitting around the patches of coral wouldn’t know what hit them if a multi-story building grew out of the sand instead of trees.
But still, not everyone likes Playa Blanca. Lonely Planet describes the beach like this:
“Playa Blanca lives up to its name – it is indeed a lovely stretch of sugary sand and on of the finest beaches around Cartagena… Peddlers of every ilk descend upon tourists, turning an otherwise idyllic beach into a two-hour nightmare (the only thing worth buying is cocada, a sweet coconut treat that comes in a variety of flavors.) To be fair though, this is how folks here earn their living as invasive as their hawking of their wares may sometime seem…”
Thanks for the addendum at the end, Lonely Planet, but I do take a little issue to how you describe the beach. And while I do love cocada, there are tons of great artisan carvings, necklaces made from shells from the shoreline you’re staring at, delicious mangos and fruit salads, bright sarongs, and more to be bought.
(And really, who is going to come for just two hours, Lonely Planet?)
Part of the vendor thing is certainly true though. I don’t personally like getting interrupted from a nap, good book or simply viewing the blue vista stretching out in front of me much either. I will rarely buy a bracelet or a drink, have yet to feel the desire for a massage and only occasionally have bought fruit or ice cream. But after a friendly smile and a polite “no hoy, gracias,” the ‘peddlers’ move on.
So, some like Lonely Planet think it is too touristy, with too many vendors hawking their wares or that the few rocks or non-palm trees somehow ruin its otherwise postcard view.
But for us, it is our beach. People now know we’re the teachers, that we live in Santa Ana and are just as likely to try and start up a conversation to practice their English as trying to convince us we need a massage (not that that doesn’t still happen a lot too). We hang out and stay at the places of people we know and buy snacks from our students. We’ve seen the beach in its clearest days, during storms, when it is empty, when it is buzzing with tourists, and when we’ve been pasty white, brilliant red, and dark tanned.
We’ll see what the future brings for Playa Blanca. Right now, with the freedom of everyone coming and going and making a life for themselves, there is always something new to see or experience at the beach no matter how many times we go.
Perhaps the road at the turn off provides an adventure in itself as my moto sloshes through deep puddles. We’ve been entertained for hours by a family of puppies, and seen the realities of seeing some of those puppies not make it, dying of hunger. Tourist-watching is always a favorite past-time of mine and never gets old (though some of the tourists are, and can’t say I approve of many of the choices of bathing suits…). There is always a canoe or two out fishing in the morning and late afternoon as the fisherman paddle through the surf. And once we randomly had a pair of horses appear out of nowhere and gallop down the beach, scaring a couple of tourists so badly they jumped into the water. You just never know.
For most tourists, I am sure Playa Blanca is connected to Cartagena and their Colombian coastal experience.
For me though, it is an extension of Santa Ana, a place on the island where we can feel both far away from the daily lives we lead, and a place that feels like home.
So if anyone from Lonely Planet is scouting blogs, looking to add more content, I’d like them to add this to the Playa Blanca entry.
“As you get off the ferry, asked to be dropped off in Santa Ana, a small town of 5000 along the way. This should cost you 3000 pesos. After entering town, stop where you see a group of motos waiting in front of the ‘Z-Bar’ to pick up passengers. Right down that street is a great panderia to grab a beer or ice cream and watch the town go by. If you have time, walk around town a little, then get back on a moto for 3000-4000 to continue to the beach. (Going to the beach directly will cost 10,000 in total.) Then find yourself some shade (going to the right of the entrance is less crowded, and enjoy the gorgeous shoreline and friendly people of the Playa Blanca. Munching on fresh fruit and lots of sunscreen recommended.”
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Back on February 8th, I wrote about my first day of school.Here on December 6th, it is time to write about my last day of school.
And to recap why flexibility in a Colombian classroom is so important.
My last day of teaching actual new material was a while ago, on the 18th of November, before our exam schedule got started and we only did reviews in class.The 28th could be considered my last day as well – this Monday was my actual last day in the classroom doing activities with all my students. While everyone kept assuring us that we would have classes through descanso and then exams the last three periods, it came as little surprise unfortunately that classes were cut for the billionth time this year and because of rain, meetings and grading, we only had exams the rest of the week.
So while the schedule appeared to work out great and give each one of my six classes one hour of review the week before the exam, suddenly I did not see them any more. Especially for my class of 8th graders who had just under nine hours this unit compared to the other class which had over twelve, the lack of review was unfortunate timing.The English exam came and went on Wednesday, which a big gap between the eighth grade classes, and an entire class of 7th graders who cheated while being supervised by my co-teacher (for the first problem, I ended up giving two extra points to each student in 8-1, and for the second problem, every seventh grader in that class got a 6 – passing but lower than their using-notes-and-their-neighbor score).
So Wednesday was sort of the last day of class. But the next day holds a good argument for the last day too as it was the last day with all the students. Everyone came in the morning (the teachers an hour and a half late) and assembled for the last time, singing the school song and then listening to end-of-the-year announcements. This was followed by reading off the names of students who had passed all their subjects for the year. One by one, they fell out of their lines, sometimes with shy self-congratulatory smiles, sometimes ducking away and hurrying to the gate, and sometimes with a whoop, a yell, and a little dance before sprinting out the door and to their vacation.
After calling all the grades, there was still a fairly substantial student body there. The next day they came back and went through a similar process looking up their name on lists posted on our bulletin board.
They fell into one of three categories:
2) Your name was on the failing list with two to three courses you needed to stay and do extra work in
3) Your name was on the failing list with an “X” which meant you had failed more than three classes, got to go home, but failed the year and would have to repeat.
There was a good mix of cheers and tears as students crowded to find out their fate.Monday was recuperation activities for those students failing a course. Teachers gave reviews, extra assignments and new exams to see who would pass and who wouldn’t.
Tuesday was more of the same, and another good argument for the last day of school. I gave a new exam to an eighth grader and wrote out a four-page worksheet for her to complete over vacations in order to pass English (luckily, the head of our English department, Arelis, is for sure coming back next year unlike many other teachers who try to move out as quickly as they can – plus my co-teacher who has a good chance of being fired – and she can provide some needed continuity for English at the school). And so the students are coming no more.Tomorrow is graduation for our 11th graders, so that might count as a last day too, who knows, but I feel like I’ve finished now. Grades are in, students aren’t coming back, and we are on vacation.
So like the start of the year where we slowly eased ourselves into the school year through meetings and the growing trickle of students as the weeks progressed, we haven’t exactly finished with a bang but petered slowly out.
As part of the readings we did to earn TEFL certifications this year, one article stated that “Ultimately, you want your students to see misbehavior as a disruption to their learning.”
Whether that is other students poking their heads in the door or hands through my windows, whether that is a repairman working on the broken lights or installing internet while I am teaching, whether another professor comes in to make in announcement, whether students are pulled from my class to help a professor or practice something for a special event, bells ringing early – the list goes on and on. Just as soon as we get on a grove of teaching, the week is interrupted by a special event canceling Friday classes, or another Monday festivo, or another week of vacation.
Still, it has been a good year as we maneuvered and got some teaching in despite the school schedule. Do I wish I had done more? Of course. Could I have tackled each class with more planning and enthusiasm? For sure. Are there activities and projects I planned to do and regret never getting to? You bet.
But I look at what we did accomplish this year, look at what these students’ classes would have looked like had there not been a volunteer like me helping out, remember the few but powerful moments of those light bulbs clicking over students’ heads. I hope my positive influence has reached beyond teaching vocabulary, reciting grammar, or practicing a new game as I remember discussions about the United States, smiles when I encourage students instead of yelling at them, and the serious but understanding looks on some students after a quiet lecture on discipline.
But luckily, just like the fluid nature of those start and end dates, this is not the end for students, but another WorldTeach volunteer will take my place next year, bringing with them new ideas, energy, and vision. My work isn’t done, but I pass along the torch as I prepare for my last week and a half in Colombia.