Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween




The days are getting more colorful

Parent teacher conferences

We had "Open Day" today at school. This is a time where teachers set up tables in the gym and visit personally with parents about their child's progress. We got our first Colombian grade reports, which were good enough for us. The teachers had very nice things to say about all the kids. Lydia is working hard in the 6th grade, Andy is maintaining good grades, and Abby is improving every day. This school has definitely stuck with us, trying to make things better for all three of the children and we are grateful.

They say that Colombia is a very affectionate country. We witnessed this today, with warm abrazos and besitos from all of our teachers, and some parents as well. After we were finished, some parents of Lydia's classmate drove us all the way home because they did not want us to take the bus in the rain. (this was very generous considering how far we live from the school). Oh, the kindness. I think I feel it more now than I ever did.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Futbol en la sangre

I have been Andy's soccer coach for the last 5 years. If you have ever been or happen to be a teacher or coach then you know the challenges and rewards of the work. Add your own child or children to the mix and the game changes. Coaching Andy (and all my children) has been a very good experience overall and not without challenges.

Recently, however, the kids have chosen to be involved in other activities. Lydia played soccer when she was in fifth grade here. She was the only girl that played during the all boys recreation time each week. She really enjoyed it and she was well received. Her approach to the sport is so different than Andy's and we were impressed by her confidence. We aren't really sure if she will continue or how that might look now that she is in sixth grade (first year of "high school" here). She continues to ask us to sign her up for swimming at a local rec center we belong to.

Abby is doing her thing: Karate and Equitacion, which is sort of like gymnastics on a horse! Well, if you know Abby this probably isn't surprising. As her friend Micah says, "Abby is so brave!" Sometimes we really can't believe it. On her first day, she reported that she rode the horse and stood on one foot on it's back.

Currently, Andy is the only one of the three who is playing soccer formally. Two days ago one of his friends asked the soccer coach at school if Andy could play with the school team in the games they had scheduled for yesterday. The coach's response was positive and Andy came home mostly delighted for the opportunity. This was a great turn of events because, up to this point, Andy had expressed some anxiety about playing on a formal team due to his perception of the abilities of the players at school. He had limited himself to soccer during recess and P.E. with a few of his friends, in a relatively free structure without any pressure. I don't think he realized he was playing with most of the best players in his grade.

As a coach I have tried to mainly facilitate two things simultaneously: love of the game and technical abilities. So, it was interesting to see how those methods translated to Andy's abilities to play here in Colombia where, "Futbol es en la sangre" or "soccer is in the blood" (This is even something Colombians say). The coach had him playing center mid-field or "Volante" for the vast majority of both games. I was surprised because, traditionally, this is one of the most valuable and important positions. The team is comprised of a variety of ages, most being older than Andy by a year. In addition, I should say, this being a school team is not at all the cream of the crop. Private club teams attract and train a higher competitive level of player overall. Andy fit very well.

I thought Andy played great. He knew where and how to pass with accuracy. He played at 100% until his tank was empty, which is how he middle ground really, and he was generally in a good position. At the same time, I was struck by the difference between Andy and the two best players on his team. Although there were plenty of things they have yet to learn, they seemed to have an instinctual sense of how the game is played; they were more fluid and they seemed to have a better grasp of strategy. In the end, however, I really only noticed one difference between the majority of players I have seen and coached in the U.S. and those I watched yesterday: Passion!

Players in the U.S. have passion for the game in a sense, but it is more like a passion to succeed, win, or beat someone else. Here, you can see the pure joy and love that the kids have when they are on the field. You play soccer just because. It doesn't have to be planned. It seems to be reflective of what people say, "soccer is in the blood".

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.

Under the orange
sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches---
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging---

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted---

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you ever dared to pray.

by Mary Oliver

More-or-less living “more with less.”

I highly suggest you read the book Living More with Less. I re-read parts of it on summer vacation, and so much of it still lingers in my brain. I am reminded of many people that do this well…that conserve resources and simplify their lives so that the world can be a better place for future generations.

Incidentally, Aaron and I don’t do it well. We ate at fast food restaurants in Newton. We sometimes bought groceries on the credit card. It was common to have 5-6 different kinds of cereal in the house. We indulged in large meals, special desserts, and turning up the heat. Sometimes I threw something away that could have been recycled. Sometimes I fell asleep with the TV on.

There were many reasons we wanted to volunteer with MCC. We believed strongly in the mission of the organization. We know that MCC is careful and intentional in their work with the global community, and is well respected for that work. We wanted our family to have the adventure and challenge of learning to live in another culture. We wanted to do work that contributed to the values we believe in as Mennonites and members of the human race. We wanted to re-focus our attention outward in hopes that we would see things differently. We wanted to be molded by the relationships we would make, and contribute with stories of challenge and change.

And, we wanted to simplify.

So, now we are living on a budget that is provided to us. We are grateful for the “freedom” of knowing that all of our basic needs will be met. Still, this budget challenges us to re-evaluate the way we have made household decisions in the past. We have “plenty” of money to buy food (don’t worry, Mom). However, some of the luxuries from the past are simply no longer accessible to us in this setting, and we have been forced to make some changes.

The first few months have been hard. When you are hungry and tired and stressed in a new environment, it is easy to turn to “convenience” for sustenance….grab an imported can of something…eat at the restaurant across the street because the kids are hungry and we don’t know of any other places in the neighborhood…buy junk afterschool because you are just so grateful they made it through the day and you just don’t care…

We now have the energy to try harder, knowing that this is part of it. Part of our mission is to make changes that will give us the intentionality we need to live simply.

These are some of the things we will try instead…

Don’t buy water

Make big batches of beans/salsa and freeze in small amounts

Smaller portions. When we eat out, this often means sharing. At home, it means one serving, and the creative and responsible use of our leftovers.

Make our own juice (easy in a country that produces so much fruit)

Buy herbs at the market to steep tea, instead of bags at the grocery store.

Use the market whenever possible for fruits and vegetables.

Visit the bulk food store once a month for large containers of flour, oil, sugar, rice, beans, cleaning supplies.

Visit the local grocery store on Tuesdays for 20% off produce and on Saturdays for 20% off meat.

Use less meat. Use ½ package for soups and sauces and save the rest.

In Colombia, desserts are not common, and when they are, they are small fruit desserts or little candies. We can make desserts smaller at home. We still like to make cookies, but we can surely cut them small.

Use cereal sparingly. Make granola instead.

Don’t buy salad dressing. Making your own is too tasty and too easy.

Popcorn is a lovely, cheap snack. Make it often.

Be grateful for whatever there is to eat, knowing that so many in this world go to bed hungry.

I am still learning from this process. There is always room for improvement, and more ideas. We are inspired by so many that do this well, even in a culture that pushes us to spend big and use lots. We will continue to explore other ways we can reduce our consumption so that others can have more.

Do you have ideas about simple living? We welcome your thoughts…

Apache Blessing

May the sun bring you new energy by day,

may the moon softly restore you by night,

may the rain wash away your worries,

may the breeze blow new strength into your being.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What we miss, part 3

Celestial Seasonings (Sleepytime, Blueberry, Red Zinger, Lemon Zinger, Honey Chamomile, Candy Cane Lane), unscented deoderant, dry-weave, supper night, Sara's pesto pizza, feta cheese, Jerry's spring rolls, warm clothes from the dryer, Olive Garden, independence, neighbors who are friends and friends who are neighbors, Luna bars, performances, Brad's cinnamon rolls, Kiss My Face Shave lotion, real cinnamon, baby sweet peas, Fall colors, apple cider, spontaneous gatherings (thanks for trying, Neil), our van, before school pick-up drinks with friends.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One of our family favorites these days (just for you, Toby)

Because I sometimes feel emotional

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Third Month In Colombia

Our third month. My brother congratulated us by letting us know that we are 1/12 of the way through this assignment. So, we celebrate today with our first "term month" completed in Colombia. It feels like eternity.

This month, we wanted a home-made cake, and since we have an MCC friend who is also an accomplished baker, we asked them to come celebrate this "term month" with us.

Here are some things that we have learned this month about Colombia.

When scripture is read here, there is a strong sense of reverence. People use scripture AS prayer.

We have already stated that greetings and salutations are so important here in Colombia. In the morning you say "Buenos dias," the afternoon "Buenas tardes" and the evening "Buenas noches." There is not a clear steadfast rule about when you change from one to another. What is interesting is that often the second word is simply dropped, so whenever you see anyone (whether you know them or not) you just say "buenas." I find joy when my day is filled with people saying "Good" to us.

It is pretty common in little bakeries here for people to purchase an extra roll or side dish to give to a homeless person on the street. We have seen this happen several times, and started to do it ourselves.

Music in Colombia is always loud.

It is pretty common for offices to have a "mesanjero" who is hired to run errands, deliver messages, and do the mail. It is also pretty common to have a person in charge of delivering coffee, tea, water, or other drinks. This person is sometimes call the "senorita de la tinta." I was surprised to be sitting at my desk at Justapaz and have a nice woman come by to ask me what I wanted to drink that afternoon.

When writing numbers, Colombians reverse the , and . signs. For example, four thousand is written 4.000, and four and a half is written 4,5.

Marshmallows have a slight lemon flavor.

People talk into cell phones as if they were walkie-talkies. You put the phone up to only your ear, then shift to your mouth when it is your turn to talk. Aaron and I both do that now.

Colombians find great value in stretching. They stretch before doing anything strenuous, including bowling and swimming. They even do group stretching.

A person from Bogota is often called a "Cachaco" because it is common to wear a coat here. We are told "Cachaco" is some form of a local word for coat or jacket.

You call a very familiar friend a "chin@." I don't know why.

When people say something will be ready in a week, they say "de hoy en ocho dias." (which really means 8 days...if you are lucky).

Eggs are sold individually or by the pound.

Many here in Colombia revere Mary, the Mother of God, as is consistent with the Catholic tradition here. Mary is represented all over the place. Abby was so taken by this fact, she thought she might like to be Mary for Halloween.

When you answer the telephone, you say a version of hello which sounds like "Ah-low?" Andy and Abby both do this now.

There is a type of juice box called HIT, which we all find very refreshing.

Hot chocolate is made here by melting a bar of chocolate (sometimes with and sometimes without sugar) into warm milk. It is delicious!

We found coconut and passionfruit popcicles, which we love, especially when it is hot.

Pretty much any kind of body type can work with any kind of swimsuit. Modesty is not common here in Colombia.

When you get the hiccups, you need to eat a teaspoon full of sugar.

It is pretty common when taking a hike to hire a guide who shows you around and tells you stories about plants and the area where you are hiking.

Pedicures, manicures, and haircuts are extremely cheap.

When a girl does not get asked to dance, or does not dance well, the other women may say that she must have eaten turkey.

The use of the word "Man" has been adopted into the local Spanish here. For example, they might say, "Este mancito" (litterally: this or that little man)when referring to a person in conversation.

We have heard at least three different songs for selling avacados on the street. Andy and Aaron can sing them all.

When I attended a recent meeting there were THREE ROUNDS of introductions made with the same group of people.

It is pretty common to have more than one cell phone.

Colombians serve a really good type of tea with fresh lemongrass, mint, and sometimes chamomile leaves steaping directly in hot water.

Security is very big here. In most large stores, people examine our bags upon entrance and exit, and must approve the receipt. We are often walking through metal detectors. At a recent Embassy visit, there was three sets of security stations to go through before getting to our meeting.

There is a long history here of connections to Communism and the Soviet Union. We see remnants of that in many places.

Yucca is not "yuck-a."

Bogota uses hydroelectricity, so the more it rains, the more power we have. If it doesn't continue to rain here, which people are worried about, we may have electricity rationing. Lots of rain is also dangerous, with more frequent traffic accidents.

When you have coffee here, it usually means you sit down with someone and drink coffee. It is very rare to see someone taking coffee "to go." In fact, we have never seen a person with a to go mug from home. Only occasionally from the main Juan Valdez coffee shop (the Starbucks equivalent).

We have seen people playing an interesting game where you kick a small soccer ball over a volleyball net. It is kind of a combination between volleyball and hackey sack.

With food, the presentation of it is more important than how hot it is.

In food courts you do not clean up your own trash. People come by to take care of it. Also, it is pretty common for people to come up and "recruit" you to come to their food booth, or give you free samples of their offerings.

There is a phrase here which says "no hay que dar papaya" and "una papaya partida es una papaya comida." They literally mean, "you do not have to give papaya" or "a papaya divided is a papaya eaten." This basically means that you should not make yourself vulnerable. Why take risks when you know you could be hurt? Don't make it easier to be a target. We have no idea why "papaya." The second phrase means "don't let a good thing go to waste."

Nutella is cheaper than peanut butter (uh-oh...)

Monday, October 19, 2009

I need to hear more of this, so here it is...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A School Update

Our children have attended school here in Colombia for almost 10 weeks now. It has been a very long and somewhat difficult transition for all of them, and we continue to make adjustments as we go.

I have always had concerns about school. First of all, I have high expectations for how learning should happen. I want my children to be in a nurturing environment that encourages cooperation, independent and collaborative problem solving, and encourages self-efficacy, creativity, and hope for a brighter future. I want them to be excited about school, enthused about being lifelong learners, and involved in healthy relationships with classmates and teachers. Unfortunately, after 8 years as a public school employee I have come to understand that it doesn’t always work that way.

I realize that it is common for some children to have difficulties with school adjustment. Lydia cried every day for nine weeks in a row during first grade. Andy had to have twelve kisses from his Dad in specific places all over the Kindergarten room before saying goodbye every day. My Mother tells me that when I was a second grader I told her I could not go to school because my hair hurt too badly.

It is difficult to know as a parent when these woes are a normal part of adjustment/separation and when these woes are calling for a dramatic change. Any of them call for some kind of intervention, and I must admit I have spend a lot of time in my life, either as a school social worker or as a parent finding the ones that work best.

Here in Colombia there are some things that we struggle with that are simply cultural. It is common for families from middle or upper classes to send their children to some kind of formal schooling from the time they are 2 years old. This does not mean a part time play group or preschool but often an all-day program with transportation, Little ones as young as 2 leave our building alone on a bus every day.

Teachers are much more direct and “strict” here. We have always had very glowing reviews at parent teacher conferences in the states, but here we were somewhat surprised to hear comments like “their handwriting is terrible.” When Lydia said she lost her water bottle and wanted help to find it, her teacher said “Why did you lose it? Go find it yourself.” While we can interpret those examples as harsh or unsympathetic, we know that their motivation here is to encourage them to be responsible, thorough, tidy, and accountable.

It is not uncommon for one of our children to “get in trouble” because they don’t have the right book, or wore the wrong article of clothing for their uniform, or they missed a homework assignment, which was given in Spanish with no translation, or they did not bring the correct money or supplies or whatever because they did not understand. We definitely understand why children from other countries can be considered “irresponsible” in the US. We are missing all kinds of things ourselves!

Thankfully, soon our children will have their SSL (Spanish as a Second Language) classes daily and will hopefully improve.

We are moving Lydia up a grade to see if the curriculum is a better fit for her. She initially started in 5th grade, which is a bit below the level in the US, and she is now shifting to 6th grade, which is a big above. We shall see. The main issue with this is that she has to leave the house at 5:15 to get there for her first class at 6:15.

Andy is doing well socially. He has made a lot of connections, and chats in Spanish with his friends. The workload is hard for him, especially homework, which is heavy and tedious, but he is doing it, and learning quickly. He is grateful for long breaks during the day for soccer, and for a math teacher that allows them to run to the board and play capture the flag.

Abby struggles the most with school. I don’t think she understands how to navigate it as well as her older siblings. She hates Spanish class, and do not know all the reasons why. However, tonight we found out that because of Spanish she is late to Art (her favorite) and when she gets there the door is locked and she can’t get in, so she sits outside the door and cries until someone notices her. (Well, I would not like that either.) However, Andy informed her that the door is not locked, just hard to open, and I told her she should think about knocking on the door (which had not occurred to her). However, since she is still adjusting to the whole concept of school, and even of being away from us at all, she is a bit traumatized. Here she is in a school that is far away from her parents and she does not understand most of what is said to her during the day. She also has long recesses, but is by herself for most of the time. I worry about her, but am grateful for a teacher that adores her and gushes over her. We met with her last week to discuss ways to encourage Abby to integrate, and I am hopeful things will improve.

I know there are things that happen to them during the school day that are unpleasant, and sometimes unkind. I also know that they are learning so much, more than just the basic content of their courses.

They are learning about human relationships, how to interact with people they love, people that annoy them, people they don’t understand.

They are learning how to rely on their instincts, how to “check” on each other, how to order their lunch and snack foods in Spanish.

They are learning how to live separately from us, and while in so many ways this is still painful, it is part of what needs to happen, right? It is part of “the plan” that leads them to be capable, brilliant, and loving adults.

So we move forward, one day at a time, searching for ways to make it go smoothly, and hoping that joy can find them soon.

Fall Vacation, Day 5

For our last day of Fall Vacation, we went to the Jardin Botanica in Bogota. It is incredibly cheap and full of interesting things to see. And because the kids had already been there, they could show us around to all of their favorite spots.

Agava (the source for tequila)

The kids all enjoyed taking picture.

There were signs warning us about falling palm tree branches.

This is called a "Grandma cactus."

Fall Vacation, Day 4

First Saturday Solo

I have done my share of single parenting. With Aaron’s job at the college, and the fact that he has coached more than 10 soccer teams, there has been lots of time where we play “tag team.” Wherever you are, this is difficult. I admire friends who do it on a daily basis, either by choice, or by circumstance. Recently a family friend who lost her husband more than 20 years ago told me she is still getting used to it. This is humbling.

When you are living in a strange place, it is more difficult to get around. There are no neighbors to spontaneously watch your kids while you take the others to their various activities. Just navigating your way to go anywhere is exhausting, much less doing it along with three children in toe.

And our children are exhausted from school, have major “let-down” and three different ideas about what THEY WANT over the weekend. And most of the time, the reminders of friends from home and the loss of the familiar is so much stronger on the weekends. All I want to do is embrace them, make them smile as much as possible, and try to help them make connections in this new place.

So, when Aaron was going to be gone all day, he contacted our friends Neil and Elizabeth to ask for help. Initially it was just to spend time with Abby and Andy during Lydia’s violin lesson. However, that quickly turned into an afternoon of fun at Compensar, letting them try out rollar blading, mini-golf, snacks on the lawn, then pizza, and good conversation at our house. They even tolerated my attempt at apple dessert, which flopped considerably.

So I have heard that “it takes a village.” And once again, I experience the blessing of friends who give generously when I am empty, who patiently and lovingly tolerate the mental health issues of my myself and my children, whose help kept me sane for this first full day of being without my spouse. And I am grateful.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thank you, Eric

I want to beg you, as much as I can . . . to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

- Ranier Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fall Vacation, Day 3

Our friend Becky Thatcher Murcia suggested that we visit this place about three hours outside of Bogota. We left early in the morning, and caught a bus that took us straight there and back. It was well worth the long ride!

Piscilago is a combination zoo/water park/lake/recreation place.

There were more waterslides than we have ever seen. One was exactly like the burlap bag slide at the MCC sale, except with running water.

One was like the log ride at Cedar Point.

One we called "the toilet" because it rushed you down a long shute, then spun you around and "flushed" you down.

And one that reminded us of home.

The swimming pools were lined with fruit trees. We saw ripe mangoes, bananas, oranges, coconuts, and papaya.

We also saw monkeys jumping freely around the trees (no cages).

We enjoyed our time immensely, but unfortunately did not get to see the whole park, which means we need to go back sometime....too bad.