Friday, November 30, 2007

A new game

In reality, I don't think that deciphering the bus system ever will become a fun game for me. It demands too much reading of maps, too much planning, and too much guessing whether the bus driver actually does know where he/she is going. But I've got to admit that there is a challenge I like on the bus, and that is the challenge of staying on my feet. It reminds me of a virtual reality ride. You know, those rides they have in the California section of Six Flags, where the seats move around violently to simulate a dangerous ride, and you view the world zooming by, and all your near-collisions, on a huge, concaved screen. Riding the bus is just like that, only In this case, it's real life. And I don't usually get to sit down.

Todnight, everyone was trying to get to the city center at the same time I was--the roads were flooded with hurried drivers, vying for the one lane in the roundabouts and nuzzling their way into new lanes at every turn. Somehow, even though the bus was filled to capacity in both sitting and standing space, the driver stopped when I through up my arm to flag him down. I ran on, paid, and the bus lurched forward, sending me towards the front window. Thus began the journey of lurches and near accidents that so entertained me tonight. At one point, we came within about a foot of hitting another bus. It feels like riding an animal. It makes all the noises--squealing as it slows, roaring as it speeds up, grunting in between. I remember once when I was riding a horse through some trails, the horse tried to scrape me off by cantering towards a tree with a low branch across the trail. I had to cling to its back in order to keep from hitting the branch. Today, it seemed the bus driver had the same sort of mentality, trying to send me through the front window with sudden stop after sudden stop. But I was not alone. About thirty of us stood in the aisle, holding onto the overhead railing. The Guadalajarans seemed a bit more steady on their feet than I was. I couldn't help but laugh at myself---every little move seemed to send me swinging from the railing, feet sliding all over the ground, remaining stable only by my tight grip above...oh the sport of bus riding.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Big city life

Guadalajara...."What are the people like?" I have been asked. To this I say how the heck can I sum up an entire city of people with one generalization? It seems pretty unfair. Yet, generalizations can be useful to provide a sense of things, so I suppose I'll attempt an analysis anyway. The people are quite Catholic, but there also exists a stark aversion to the conservatism that the religion demands. You are just as likely to see someone making the sign on the cross across their face as the bus huffs and puffs past a church as you are to see a couple making out against a storefront window.

The people are also very fun-loving. My taxi drivers, teachers, and other random people have been quick to compliment and eager to converse. I went to a little bar near my house called Purgatorio tonight to play pool. The smiles were instant with everyone--the bartender, the two women I played pool with. And everyone was open to conversation, quick to laugh, and quick to tell me about their favorite music, soccer teams, food, and sites.

The city is supposedly very conservative, according to my teacher. It is known in the state of Jalisco for its conservatism. Yet my host mom would not stop raving about how many homosexuals there are in Guadalajara. Eight in ten are gay in these parts, she says. I laughed hysterically at the idea, told her that statistically one in ten people are gay. called her a liar. That just made her rave more. She said that in Mexico, if you are gay, you move to Guadalajara. I said that must be because they are more accepted here. There must be some climate of acceptance that attracts them here. She said no, most definitely not. That is not why they come. They just come because Guadalajara is the city of gay people. Como intersante, I said.

As far as I know, Guadalajara is a city of begging pedesrians. Getting a bus to stop takes a certain amount of seduction. I'm not quite sure what the trick is, but I don't think many people have figured out how to ensure that their bus stops where it's supposed to. What you're supposed to do, as a bus-goer, is stand at the stop and pay close attention to the numbers on the approaching buses. When your bus approaches, you step close to the street and point one finger in the air in a Micheal Jackson-esque pose, minus the grabbing your croch part. At this point, the bus driver will stop if he (yes, they're all male) feels like it. Sometimes when it gets late, however, and you are particularly desperate for a ride home, the bus drivers don't really feel like stopping. Maybe its all the loud American pop music. It can really make you feel like a bad-ass, listening to it as the bus grumbles and grunts its way through the traffic, and I think maybe that goes to their heads. I've also heard, and this is most likely the real reason, that the bus drivers get paid according to how many people they pick up per day. This means that if there aren't enough people who stick their hands in the air, the time it takes to stop is just not worth it to the driver.

I think that if I don't start seeing the bus system as a fun little game I get to play, I'm going to get pretty frustrated whenever I want to go anywhere. Sunday night I had big plans to go see this literature exhibition. My host mom told me that I could take any bus--they all passed the stop I needed--except one, number 249. Well, I did avoid bus 249, but I also managed to avoid my stop. I wound up taking something like four buses, as I went too far in each and every direction possible, before finaly zeroing in on the Expo. The streets were interestingly deserted, the bus drivers srangely unhelpful in estimating where exactly the Expo was. In the end, I did make it, and I took to my old habit of reading as many titles and book covers as I can soak in. There, amidst the wealth of complex language, I came to grips with my limitations as a Spanish speaker. I felt like a diabetic in a bakery, getting whifs of the sweet treats, but unable to taste them.

In between these outings, I've got some more serious things to consider, such as whether I'll take a job in the city or in a smaller town...fate will tell.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bursting streets

Happy Thanksgiving! I didn't exactly have any turkey this year--instead I had some creamy sort of pasta and fried fish.

They aren't kidding when they say Guadalajra is an internaional city. The wealth of different types of restaurants and different businesses. As I ride the city bus to and from school every morning, I try to pick out landmarks in order to make sure that I did, in fact, get on the right one and that the driver is not, in fact, kidnapping us. But every street is so abolutely crammed with stuff--different types of stores, restaurants, residential sections--that it's impossible. While the sights are pretty distinct--one street is likely to have a flashing video billboard, a posh little internet cafe, a run-down hole-in-the-wall restaurant all in a row--they are also extremely easy to forget when you see the next sight--some painted advertisement on a brick wall. LIke any city, every inch of street space is fully utilized and functioning. And unlike other cities I've been to, the strong character of one sight rarely matches its street, or even its neighbor. It's like looking at a painting of a million smaller paintings, each one its own jewel. If you can get your eye to zero in on one part, it's very pretty, but without a focal point, the eye usually just falls amidst the rubbles.

The world is one big ball of newness--new language, new words, new opportunities. There are guitar lessons, yoga classes, kickboxing lessons, bars to go speak Spanish in, new books, litereature festivals, museums. The list goes on. Gotta love the city. I suppose, to end this on a cliche note, I do have a lot to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


So imagine you wake up one day and you are a cockroach. And all the sudden you can't go to your job, and you can't leave your house, and your family is repulsed by you. (Hey, by the way, if you're planning on readin Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and don't want me to spoil it for you, skip to paragraph three) You never leave the house because you don't have purpose anymore, and the family comes to neglect you more and more. You are expected to stay in your little room and wait for the food to come shoved under the door, and when you come out, you are interpreted as a threat to the guests. And you stop eating, and then one day, after hearing your sister say that she doesn't think the monster living in that room is her brother, you become so sad that you die. That's what happens in this sad little story. It's so so sad! I kept thinking there was going to be a twist upwards. This guy is such a sweet guy! He was going to send his sister to music school with the money he made at work, and then she winds up being the last straw that kills him.

Okay, so anyway, this has nothing to do with my life except that I read it today...and well, I suppose because I feel a little bit like the forgotten beetle. I mean, I can't talk to anyone (save a few words here and there), can't really connect with anyone, am quite alone. It'll be okay, don't shed any tears for me, and don't worry, I have not stopped eating, and I'm pretty sure that family back home doesn't plan to disown me. But, with my Spanish a barely conversational level, communication is tough. And I've typed this sentence about ten times now, trying to figure out a way to convey the experience of this communication gap. Let's just say it's debilatating.

But not speaking has its upsides. First, it motivates me to learn Spanish (which I should be doing right now...hmm...) Secondly, when one sensory ability goes down, others go up. I can't speak, so I listen and look.

The first day I arrived, the conglomoration of sights overhelmed. First, I couldn't get over all the billboards. Big, small, beautiful, ugly, they read jeans, Cklass shoes, Coca Cola in a mirage of shapes and colors. Nescafe, Estrella, Jack Daniels, Sealy Mattress, TelCel, Visa. As the taxi emerged from the rocky slopes above the city I viewed of the city below: a giant conglomeration of varying buildings. If Colorado Springs is the cookie cutter version of sprawl, then Guadalajara is the variety pack version. There were so many shapes and sizes, with a few that might constitute as sky scrapers in the center. The road sloped down quickly and then we were in it, part of it, bumping along the cracked pavement. The stores, sidewalks, roads, every building highly disheveled yet highly functioning. And full of life--pink, blue, green, orange storefronts. Much of the paint had crumbled away, leaving a splotchy quality. It seemed that storeowners were too busy constructing their crisp new advertisements to bother with old-fashioned repair work. It's a place begging to be new yet undeniably old. What the businesses lack in modernization, they try to make up for in words. Words words words are everywhere. They call out to you on bilboards and in storefront paint jobs. "DUERMEMUNDO" (sleepworld) reads one. We happen upon newer, more modern buildings too, their exteriors tilting in and out. There are certainly no neighborhood covenants here.

There are no limits in the city center either, which harkens back to hundreds of years ago. My host mom and I visited a few old churches--the kind you see in Europe, with columns ten feet wide and moldings that look like they were made by squeezing a tube of pure gold around the edges. I thought my awe at the building was only a tourist's sense of novelty, but I was wrong. When I walked outside, the expression on a local carriage driver's face suggested otherwise. As he clip-clopped past, he peeled his focused gaze off the road, took off his elegant straw hat, and looked up at the entrance. Then, with a deep air of peace, he made the sign of the cross across his chest.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tapas anyone?

Tapas--bites of incredibly gourmet food that waiters bring out on wooden platters--are a wonderful way to eat, but don't worry. I'm not about to reduce my travels down to a collection of fine dining experiences. These tapas are more like bites of life than bites of food. Here's a sampling of my past week...

Manuel Antonio
At the end of the week, the need to leave work behind took hold. I took a bus to the beach with four students from school. It poured rain when we arrived, and I left to run the beach. I wonder what the link is between the eyes and the philosophical part of the mind, because it seems strong. As if trying to fill those blank views, my mind took me on a virtual tour of the other lives I might have decidd to live. It insisted upon imagining, right there in the beauty and tropics of Costa Rica, all the other places I could be. California. Seattle. Colorado. New York. All these places that I know, all these places that I already understand. There are so many possibilities, but in each one of them, I hoped there would be the possibility of a beach escape, where the water is grey blue, the sky is white with clouds, and the sand beige. That's when my alternate lives began to fade from consciousness, and the rushing waves washed the excess dreams out to sea.

That night the five of us ran out into the black water as the waves rushed towards us in unkown sizes. Sometimes, when the had not broken yet, a wall of water would hit and swallow you before you knew it was coming. The water was luke warm, definitely tolerable. We swam for half an hour, riding the foamy waves in when we could. We kept becoming entranced by the bright phosphorence that formed as beads of light in the water when we moved our hands and feet.

Jazz Cafe again and again
We keep winding up there. I didn't like it the first time, but like the funny flavored sauce we use like ketchup on our food at dinner, it's grown on me. We walk in, and the blue Derby sign in the back of the room greets us. Derby. Roller derby? Horse derby? I don't know. It's one quirk among many I have no explanation for. In any case, the place is real. The people aren't putting on any acts. Sitting at those black tables, drinking Imperial and cocktails, there is always frank, honest conversation.

There's that old saying "If you can't do teach," and I think that whoever made it up was just mad at their teacher. Teachers do not merely attach a feeding tube to their students and then start pouring in the knowledge. If teaching isn't doing something then neither is miming or acting or communicating or reading people. Keeping the energy high is imperative. When I didn't get my students smiling by getting them out of their seats or laughing, or snapping "Only English!" when they slipped into Spanish, the boring atmosphere squelched their learning energy.

Good teachers are good performers. My teacher Ken copes with the demands to be scintillating by opening up stories about himself and asking students about themselves. He tells stories. He tells jokes about people, such as me. (I'm "the hybrid," having done half the class online, and am therefore the one he'd feed to the lions if necessary) He demonstrates how to act out the words this, that, these, and those by getting up and acting out each word with pens. He says "this," holding the pen close to his chest, then runs to the other side of the room, puts the pen down, runs back, and says "that." Acting and miming are key teaching tools.. One of the other teachers that I've been observing always responds to student answers with clear expressions. Raised eyebrows and smiles for good answers; frowns and a cocked head for wrong ones. He waits for the right answer, writes the first few letters on the board for clues. Lights start turning on in the student's head. The correct answer surfaces in their mind. Then it comes out their mouth and onto the board. Task completed. Purposeful expression clues successful.

When in front of my own class, my level of attentiveness to what is happening in that moment rises to record levels. There's no time to imagine alternate lives. No time to contemplate, only to convey a point. One hour. Four kids. Go. So I throw my questions out. First we've got to get them engaged.

Me: Give me fruit
Students: Apple, banana, pineapple

Me: Good Good Good. I have five apples. Who has five apples? How do you say that in a complete sentence? I or you? Do you have them or do I? What color are apples?

And the questions keep going, each one built upon a student response. Each one a reaction to what I think is going on in their minds.

Once class is over and they all leave the room, and after I've received my critique from the instructors at the school, I wonder why the students come each day. What is it that drew them here? Why are they learning English? Will they actually use it? Yes, English is the language of international business, but my students are not businesspeople. They are a couple, one of them owns a restaurant. One of them works in food delivery. One works at a library. What is in their futures? How will English change that? Now that the week of teaching them is over, I realize that in all my efforts to teach them English, I did not take the time to understand what exactly that meant for their lives. It's easy to forget these questions of purpose in the day to day grind. But next time I have a class in front of me and am trying to think of how to engage them in conversation before beginning the lesson, I think I'll ask.

With my plane leaving at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow for Guadalajara, I decided I needed to take this opportunity, my last day, to see Mercado Central. It was modern, had many American chain stores and many Costa Rican stores that seemed American. They seem to have quite the obsession with shoes because practically every other store was a shoe shop. Maybe there's something really profound about shoes in the Costa Rican consciousness. Some shopes had American brands, some Costa Rican. Some played hip hop music, others a slower sort of pop. Each one offered a chance to fully define yourself with a piece of footwear. Inside the center of the market, there were spices and all those cultural things you buy when you're desperate for some tangible piece of evidence that you did visit the country. I didn't buy anything except spices for my host mom, so hopefully this blog is proof enough. I promise, I'm not making any of this up.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Oh tired, oh life

"Fresh mozzerella"
"Goat cheese"
"Oh goat cheese, my current fave."
"I love goat cheese."

We rattled off the missing pieces of our lives on the half-hour walk home today. Cheese. This is what we talked about in the rain, amidst the whizzing motercycles, buses, cars, and taxis. We past the small smushed-together shops, the gas station, the spinning class that gets your pedals spinning so fast you'd think your feet would fall off. We zipped through intersections, trapsed over large puddles. San Jose is nearing the end of the rainy season here, but it's not always dreary. In the mornings, the sun greets us warmly, but come afternoon, the clouds settle in, and we tend to prolong our walks home in avoidance of the drear. We wait until dark. Smart, I know. Sorry, Dad. (Don't worry, I'm with friends. With our powers combined, no pickpocketer/mugger/murderer stands a chance.)

When we got home, our host mom had prepared an incredible meal, thoroughly luring us back into an awe and love of Costa Rican food. She'd made an eggplant dish with rice and black beans and served it with a chai-tea-like rice water drink. And then there's her high, enthusiastic voice, always encouraging, always generous.

Pretty consoling after my first day of teaching. My four adult students seeemed to already have somewhat learned the concepts of possessive adjectives and pronouns, which was very helpful. As English teachers, we're not actually allowed to teach during class. We are only allowed to speak English, a language that they do not yet know. So we have to "ellicit" everything from the students. This means asking them a bunch of questions until one of the students somehow presents the right answer from the clues we give, which are supposed to start vague and become increasingly obvious. My technique? I write the answer on the board, ask the question, and then point to the answer. They do pretty well that way. Who knows if they have understood the question, but there's always the hope that listening osmosis exists, and maybe throwing English words out into the air and onto the board is enough.

You do what you can.

Okay, I think I need to go study some more teaching techniques.

One more thing...

So I am realizing that in all this description of my Monday, I have skipped over Halloween night, which I was holding you in suspense about in my last post. Well, it wasn't exactly as memorable as trick or treating or dressing up as Bob Marley's wife for dance parties in college, but it was nice to explore the inside of a local "hot spot." We went to a little jazz bar near our house where this woman with short dark hair sang passionately about lost loves and future hopes. Every emotion, so raw. So real, but so unsettling. Maybe it was my thirst for the consoling that made me want to put on my own ipod. There was so much nose-crinkling, eye squinting and closing, and knee-bending. More of a heart spattering onto the stage than a performance. Oops, that's mean. But hey, it's my blog. I do what I want.

DISCLAIMER: All words written here are simply the musings of a traveller trying to gain a better grasp of the world. I've tried in the past to understand it all in one gulp, but that doesn't work too well, so just look at these words as reflections on one sip at a time.