Sunday, February 10, 2013

Its been awhile....

Almost an entire year has gone by without any words uttered by either Jesse or I on this blog. Over the past year, so many life decisions have been made and our life together is taking a new direction. We decided back in November that our time overseas needed to come to an end. Mixed feelings definitely abound while we try to rationalize with ourselves this incredible change of lifestyle.

Anyway... We have not traveled around Colombia as much as our other "homes away from home", so the Classroom Without Walls trips actually allow us to see a bit more of Colombia. I went to the Zona Cafetera or Coffee Zone again this year with a bit change. I spent three nights camping in the Valle de Cocora, with 40 kids each night. The Valle is absolutely gorgeous and I was reminded of how much I enjoy waking up in the fresh air, snuggled into my sleeping bag, only to emerge surrounded by beautiful landscape. Despite the lack of sleep endured because of excited students shouting into the wee hours of the night, spending time in this immensely gorgeous area of Colombia certainly rejuvenated me and lifted spirits. Enjoy my favorite photos of the Valle de Cocora.

 This last one may be my favorite of all...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Golfo de Morrosquillo

More than a month ago (I know, it's taken me forever to post about it) I also went on a Classroom Without Walls trip with my 8th graders but to a very different place than Jenna went with her students. We went to the Golfo de Morrosquillo which is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Early on Super Bowl Sunday (yes it was that long ago and this was the first time in my life that I didn't get to watch the Super Bowl) we flew to Cartagena, took a 3 hour bus ride to a tiny town on the coast called Puerto de Verruga, and then jumped onto boats to head to our first destination: the 4 star Decameron resort on Isla Palma.

A quick background on the island since it has an interesting history. Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha aka "El Mexicano" was one of the leaders of the Medellin Cartel run by Pablo Escobar and consequently had more money than he knew what to do with so he bought a Caribbean island, built a huge house on it and stocked it with animals like flamingos, a water buffalo, monkeys, and a huge aquarium with a dolphin and several other types of ocean life so his friends could all come play. After he was killed by police, the government took over the island and eventually sold it to the Decameron resort chain who turned it into what it is today.

The decorations are kind of weird inside the hotel with lots of carved African-looking statues and other out of place things on the walls but the overall architecture is cool because it's designed like an enormous beach hut that's open to the ocean breezes on both sides so it stays fairly cool inside as long as there is even a small breeze. Here is a look through one of the sitting areas outside... notice how there is no outer wall at all.

The hotel kept Gacha's bedroom fairly in tact and turned it into the Presidential Suite. Since we had so many students and there were no empty rooms at the hotel, 8 of our boys got to use the room so I was able to sneak in and take a look around. Watch the video below and imagine the crazy things that must have happened there in the 80's...

We did lot's of team-building activities, games, and nature-related activities on the island and below are a few pictures of my students and some of the things that we saw in our time on the island.

Some pretty cool looking vacation homes built on coral reefs.

This island, Santa Cruz del Islote, is the most densly populated island in the world (click on the link for more details on the population). The boat drivers told us that the houses are so close together that people actually have to walk through their neighbors houses to get to their own since there isn't even space for paths or roads! They also told us that the reason that everyone lives on the island is to escape the mosquitoes from the mainland (since there is no green space there are no mosquitoes) and to protect the environment. Both of those reasons are probably untrue as the people simply can't afford land on the coast (which is only a mile or so away).

A view of the hotel on Isla Palma from down the beach. That big grass hut-looking thing is the hotel.

My students playing on the beach.

Team building game where students had to balance on a set of logs and every time the got a question wrong they had a log removed until they fell down.

Hike through the mangrove forest.

Some flamingos in a lagoon along the hike.

Discussing our hike back at the hotel.

After Isla Palma took a 30 minute boat ride to the Reserva Natural Sanguare. Here everything was the opposite of Isla Palma. There was no AC, all the food was local, organic, and sugar-free and the hotel was decidedly not 4-star. With that said I liked it more than I liked Isla Palma. The natural wonders that we saw there and the lack of pretension were awesome. For example, take a look at this baby Hammerhead shark that one of the staff members was able to grab just off the beach!

Here my students were learning to make grasshoppers (literally).

Instructions for a kayak trip where we got to see the most amazing thing that I have ever seen in nature happened. We kayaked out to a point to watch the sunset and then in the dark rowed into a lagoon through a mangrove canal. When we were approaching the lagoon, I began to notice that when I put the paddle into the water and moved it the water around the paddle started to glow and there was a small glowing trail after my paddle and the boat itself. As we continued into the lagoon, the glowing intensified. Once inside, we tied all the kayaks in a large circle and jumped into the water inside the circle and spent the next 20-30 minutes giggling like 2 year olds as we played with the water and it glowed all around us like magic. Magic is really the only way that I can describe what it is like to have every movement you make in the water result in the water glowing a bright yellow light. Even as we got back into the kayaks we could see yellow streaks of light going under the kayaks as fish swam by. It turns out that the lagoon is filled with bio-luminescent plankton that respond to movement in the water. I had seen some of these SCUBA diving before in Belize but there were at least 20 times as many here and they were yellow instead of the blue that I had seen before. If any of you come to visit Colombia , I would highly recommend doing this! Sadly I don't have any pictures or video of the even as my camera is neither waterproof nor particularly good in the dark so you'll have to settle for the picture of the group before we set out.

Some of my students making a coconut desert in a traditional fashion.

The beginning of the Eco-Challenge race where we had to undo a human knot, dig a hole and pass under a log on the beach (pictured below), pass the entire team through different holes of a giant rope spiderweb, traverse a 50 foot rope suspended between 2 trees, crawl through 30 feet of mud under some ropes military boot-camp style, and finally work as a group to swim a log across a lake as we were all touching it. Needless to say this was difficult but awesome as well!

Human knot.

Students posing in the dining hall.

The large grass hut dining hall.

Hanging out by the pool with the friendly neighborhood parrot.
Overall, I had a great trip and got to know my students better. I look forward to doing it again next year!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Zona Cafetera

Our school year includes a week-long (for Middle School), classroom without walls, trip for the students. For the past few years, the sixth grade trip has been to the Zona Cafetera, or the Coffee Zone of Colombia. The Zona Cafetera is about a 30 minute flight from Bogota, to the north-west. Most of our students do not travel within Colombia, so a strong focus of the Classroom Without Walls trips is that they learn about their own country and the differences in culture throughout the country.
It was incredibly interesting for me to see the area where the biggest, legal export of Colombia comes from and to learn about the coffee culture. It is completely agriculture, with small towns dotting the countryside. In addition to coffee, this area also grows plantains, bananas, and other tropical fruit. Coffee plants/bushes grow on the mountainsides, at about 5,000 feet in elevation.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.
One of my students picking coffee. One key feature of the trip was that the students had the opportunity to pick coffee and realize how difficult a job it actually is. The mosquitoes were biting, it was hot, and they could only pick the red beans. Coffee workers make very little per kilo, so for the students to actually be able to conceptualize the difficulty of the work and the amount earned, was incredibly powerful.

Above, is the mythical Cocora Valley. Those tall trees are wax palm trees, where palm oil comes from. The Valley is often shrouded in fog, and has an incredibly feeling of peace and tranquility. We spent a morning here with a hike for the students to experience hiking and see this famous landscape of Colombia.
The most important part of our trip was the social project. We went to a local school where we planted trees and painted their outside wall for them. Often, our students are used to donating money, clothes, or school supplies for the less fortunate, but they don't often spend their time to help others. For the majority of the students, it was an eye-opening experience. They talked with the students from the school, got to know a bit about them and their culture, and then realized how poverty affects children. Most of our students assumed they were working with second or third graders, due to their low height, but they were actually fifth and sixth graders. Some of the local students told my students stories about their home life which included drugs and violence. My students realized how fortunate they are because of their education and the quality of the school structure in which they go to school. Many of the local students thought we were from Argentina because of the paler skin of the students. Before we left the school, we gave each student school supplies (pencils, pens, notebooks, and folders) since the majority of the local students do not have enough money to purchase them on their own.

Overall, the trip was a success. My students got to learn about a different area of Colombia, learn what poverty really is like, and they had some fun as well.

Monday, December 12, 2011


For Thanksgiving break Jenna and I got a great deal through Exito Travel on a combo package of a flight and all-inclusive beachfront hotel in Cartagena so we decided to take our first trip to the coast here in Colombia. We were accompanied by Heather and David who we have known since our Honduras days for the weekend. Our hotel was located in Bocagrande and provided us the great views of the beach below.

Closeup of the old city from out our hotel window.

Heather leaning out her window from the room next door to check out the sunset.

The draw for most visitors to Cartagena is the old walled city built by the Spanish when they colonized Colombia. We spent part of a couple days there checking out all the old architecture, narrow streets, and beauty of the place.

Photo Op on the walk from the hotel over to the old city.

View toward a beautiful cathedral in the old city from the waterfront.

This was a low part of the wall... just for a little bit of scale.

I love this style of building which lined the narrow streets. The wooden overhanging balconies and large wooden doors were mostly well-maintained or restored in the old city.

Mom and Dad this picture is for you! Check out the name of this jewelry store!

Headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in Colombia. Apparently there is a tour you can take through this place where they show you all the devices used to torture people, but unfortunately I didn't read about this tour until I got back to Bogota... next time I guess.

More narrow streets with beautiful buildings.

Jenna and Heather walking on the wall.

The gathering of people up ahead there is the Cafe del Mar which is a very pricey bar/restaurant built on top of the wall to the city. It was however a perfect place to grab a bottle of wine and watch the sunset over the Caribbean!

Jenna, Heather, and David waiting for the vino.

Wine + Sunset + Old Cannon = Beautiful

Some nifty looking lights on the walls of the old city after dark.

There was also an old fort built on a hill overlooking the old city which was of course used to guard against any invaders. After declining the tour guides and the audio devices to tell us about the fort, we decided to make up our own stories of the history of the place and had quite a good time at it. I won't share our silly stories, but it certainly made the visit interesting.

There were lots of tunnels in the fort to explore... almost all of which I could stand up in. Shocking!

At the top of the fort enjoying the views.

Apparently the fort was built onto a very large rocky hill so that it was naturally very easy to defend.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Downtown Bogota

A few weekends ago Jenna and I went to check out downtown Bogota for the first time (which is kind of sad given that we have been here since the end of July) with our own personal tour guide Guillo. He is from Bogota and was eager to tell us about all of the history that happened there and I quite honestly can't remember all of it so I'll throw out a few facts here but let the pictures do most of the talking.

The Plaza Bolivar is full of action pretty much all the time. There are protests, celebrations, and just lots of people coming to mull around in general almost any day of the week so even though it was rainy there were plenty of people around. The building on the left here is the Congress and I can't remember what the one on the right is. I'm sure by now that giant metal thing in the middle has been turned into a Christmas tree!

The little house on the street corner here off one corner of the Plaza Bolivar is apparently where part of the independence movement here in Colombia started in 1810.

This is the Palace of Justice on the north end of the plaza. The palace is famous for the siege which took place here in 1985 where the M19 guerillas took over the palace and ended up killing 11 of the 25 supreme court justices. Let's not dwell on the violent path any more so if you want to know more about this click here.

The Plaza Bolivar is of course named for Simon Bolivar and there are plenty of connections to him here in Bogota including a house where he lived and a window he escaped from when word got to him that a group of people were coming to assassinate him. The house was on one of the many streets just like this one, however by the time we got there it was raining too hard to take any more pictures.

The first observatory in South America (or maybe all of the Americas... can't really remember).

The presidential palace is located just a little bit south of the Plaza Bolivar and just to the left of the observatory in the above picture.

There seem to be about a million old churches in the old downtown area and this is just one of the prettier ones.

A view towards the eastern mountains, a statue of some other famous guy I can't remember the name of, and yet another old church.

Don't take my lack of memory as a sign that I was not impressed with the downtown and its history. I was thoroughly impressed and am looking forward to going back, it's just that there was so much information and so much history that it was overwhelming. Even after 4.5 years in Latin America the history and interactions of places with the Spanish conquistadors and then their subsequent fight for independence from Spain are still fascinating topics.