Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Money, money, money, MONEY

The nameless girl who drove me to the metro yesterday, did so again today – another, 20 cents saved! For those who thought I would get rich on this exchange, I suppose you were right. While I am saving on rent and not paying for my priceless attached covered parking, there are a lot of expenses here that I don’t encounter at home: Daily public transportation (hey, 20 cents at a time does add up), then taxis after dark, and more expensive secure taxis late at night, bicycle taxis occasionally from the metro to work, phone cards to call the U.S., a cell phone, phone cards to make calls from the cell phone (about $60 a month), bathrooms in many public places, purified water, tips for water to be brought up to my apartment, tips for the garbage men, school supplies, candy with which to bribe the students . . .

During “descanso” today, there was a meeting for teachers with representatives from the “sindicado” – the teachers’ union. While sitting through the never-ending monologue, my ears did perk up when the rep remarked, “It’s a lot worse in the U.S.” Wondering what he was trying to say, I found out later while chatting with the newest teacher to arrive, a 20-something year old fresh out of school. Apparently the guy was saying that in the U.S., salaries for teachers and working conditions are a lot worse. Yes, in the U.S. it’s not too common to become rich by teaching and too many schools are understaffed and do not have enough resources; yet, there are many success stories.

Last week at my school here in Mexico City, Sec. 293, the staff met to discuss goals for the year and I found that the school receives $3000 from the government; this is also the last year that the government will give the school even that amount. At WJHS, this school year’s budget for the Foreign Language Department was $2700. At Sec. 293 Manuel is the “Controlario” – I haven’t exactly figured out what his roll is yet but I know that if I need supplies I should go to his office – when he’s there. I’ve gone there when I needed some real big sheets of paper, white poster board, a roll of packing tape and a scissor. On my first day at the school, the English teacher gave me my whiteboard eraser and a marker. In the main office at WJHS the whole staff has access to any of the supplies in the cabinets below the counter, and if something isn’t there it’s probably in the walk-in supply closet. Admittedly, I get a rush looking around the closet and having at my fingertips tape, pens, envelopes, overhead markers, whiteboard markers, whiteboard erasers, binder clips, paperclips, and so much more. In the copy room there is an unlimited supply of paper in three different sizes, don’t even get me started on the variety of colors. I could go on, but I’m getting nauseous thinking about this superfluity.

While thinking about the poor school here in Iztapalapa, remember that the discrepancy is just as distressing within our own state limits, even within our own county limits! While materials can be a great luxury, they are only part of the recipe for success (it’s a lot more challenging to cook without an oven, a tray, a pot); those who shape and mold the product have a great influence on its outcome (there’s a big difference between Wolfgang Puck and Mr. Domino). Even with the finest chefs wielding the highest quality materials, the recipe is still doomed if the ingredients are rotten. It’s very unpleasant to try and work with rotten ingredients, and it doesn’t help that most people automatically consider it an impossible mission. I am trying to figure out how to work with students that most people consider “rotten ingredients”. Suggestions anyone?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What's in a Name? and Does Age Really Matter?

I entered school precisely at my assigned time of 10:00 a.m. and was immediately handed a form to go substitute. I had a 2nd year Spanish class, and not surprisingly struggled for their attention. Since almost none had their Spanish textbook with them, I wrote sentences in English on the board for them to translate: My name is Maestra Raquel; I am from Chicago; Maestra Elisa is now in Chicago; In Chicago there is a lake and two baseball teams, one football team, one soccer team and one basketball team; My favorite food is pizza and I also really like Mexican food. Those who could give the answer or something in the vicinity of the right answer by raising their hand and (this is the key) WAITING to be called on, won a Starburst. This seemed to help a bit so I need to stock up on candy!

During “descanso” yesterday I battled with so many students to pick up their trash after tossing it to the ground. When I asked them to pick it up, they either ran away or said it wasn’t theirs. I had to search out another teacher to help me, the students apologized after she spoke with them. Since I had already substituted for a class and didn’t feel like further wasting my energy, I didn’t ask the students to do anything at “descanso” today, but instead stood with two other teachers and watched a bunch of boys play soccer. When we saw a student toss his trash on the ground and didn’t pick it up when one of the others teachers asked him to, she said to me, “They do whatever they want.” Before class I picked up my belongings in the office where I saw a bunch of boys fighting and holding another in a bear hug - not one secretary or teacher so much as flinched in response. Bearing in mind that this is only my seventh day at the school, what the teacher said and what I saw in the office sums up much of what I have thus far observed.

I was walking towards the metro stop when one of the teachers, the youngest one there – about 25 – stopped and gave me a ride to the Puebla stop. It was great to avoid the first of the three metro rides I take. All rides are 1 ticket, 2 pesos (less than 20 cents) – except if you pass through Pantitlan, which costs another ticket. So I saved 18 cents – score! More importantly, of course, I was able to learn about her: She returns home each day to Tlapan (an hour and a half from school) for lunch with her family; she studied psychology and teaches “Orientación” that is a values class. I was inspired when she said that her practice teaching in Coyoacan was completely different than the situation of the school we are at. Because, as she explained, the students at our school have great problems at home that, in addition to parents not being around, include drugs and prostitution. The other day this teacher gave me a guide to Mexico City, so, once I learn her name I’ll be all set! On the other hand, most teachers call each other “maestro” or “maestra” so I figure I can get by on that for a while.

Now I’m sitting in one of my favorite spots, I’ve written about it before, “El ocho – café recreativo” – a café with good food (today I’m having pita with chicken, cheese, guacamole and tomatoes) and great looking pastries (that I’ve been able to resist so far) and, most importantly, FREE WIRELESS Internet. I just asked for another glass of ice for my Coke, the waitress brought a half filled one before, but I like ice. I figure I already stick out, they know I’m not Mexican, so I’m giving in and enjoying the ice – most Mexicans don’t drink beverages with much ice, or any at all. Anyway, when I arrived here, I was feeling good, grabbed a table and the waitress said, “Alone or waiting for someone?” I say “alone” and she tells the busboy two times, “Just set one place, one place only.” So, anyone want to visit? And if Mexico City isn’t your thing we could easily meet up in Acapulco (a 5 hour bus ride from here) . . . At the moment “I Was Born in the USA” is playing on the sound system and I feel like jumping onto the counter to sing along. Probably not the best idea so instead I’ll listen to the guy who just wandered into the restaurant, playing his guitar and singing. Technically speaking I think it’s singing, but it sounds more like he’s crying out in pain. Now he’s walking through the café asking for money; I’ll pay him, if he promises never to come back.

A dark, well-dressed young man just smoothly came over here, mesmerized by my computer and asked what I was doing. He was certain I was from Brazil and seemed fascinated by me, asking many questions. I wrote down some words in English that he asked how to say and then he retreated to his table and excitedly told his mom that I’m from the U.S. and that I’m here as a teacher. Disappointingly, he’s only EIGHT years old and doesn’t have any older siblings.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Don't Run With Scissors in Your Hand or . . . A Sucker in Your Mouth

I began the day with “ceremonía” at 8:20 this morning, after 1st hour and during the beginning of 2nd. The students were all lined up in their groups, almost all wearing a uniform. Those who don’t wear a uniform say that it is because they cannot afford one; a teacher told me, however, that the government now issues the uniform in addition to other basic supplies for no charge. Some of the students wear uniform warm-up suits with an emblem on the chest. The rest wear a traditional uniform – plaid on the bottom, solid on top. The girls’ skirts and the boys’ pants have the same grey background checkered with thin green, brown and white stripes. The girls’ skirts sit just above their knees and their white socks are pulled tightly to just below their knees. The girls wear black shoes with a strap that reaches across the foot, the opening revealing their white socks. The boys wear black dress shoes. Both boys and girls wear white collared dress shirts and a green sweater – either a sleeveless V-neck, long sleeve V-neck or button down with a white striped band around the left upper arm. The uniforms differ for each school, and all schools require students to wear one.

For physical education class, many students change into different clothes like shorts and gym shoes. As I sit in the teachers’ room, I am watching a P.E. class run around in a small oval, around the “courtyard” – the opening between the two buildings that face each other. I am on the edge of my seat, studying a boy running with a sucker in his mouth. In the U.S. we are so driven by rules, guidelines and the fear of lawsuits that we have to be aware of and take care of anything that may harm a child, physically or emotionally. It seems a bit more laid back here.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Oh, that Montezuma!

Earlier today Elba, my cleaning lady, visited to do a practice run, making sure she could find the apartment before she begins on Wednesday, coming every other week. She called me from the street Montes de Oca to say that she couldn’t find my house, #71 – alas, I live on PAZ Montes de Oca. Even with the amazingly detailed map that I made for her that included numerous landmarks, she walked the wrong way after getting off of the bus. About a half hour after her phone call, Elba arrived tired and thirsty, as today was one of the hottest days here, but she was still smiling and cheerful. I’m most excited that she is going to cook for me each time. Home cooked food sounds perfect, especially, and not surprisingly, because I don’t have to prepare it or clean it up. Knowing that Elba will also iron on Wednesday, I finally did my laundry tonight. Still searching my neighborhood of Coyoacán for a “lavandería” – laundrymat, I’ve avoided doing my laundry, dreading the after-effect of cardboard-like clothing. I so detest domestic chores that I further delayed process by buying socks at the market last Wednesday and additional necessities at a mall.

Besides doing 3 loads of laundry, today was uneventful as I was struck with Montezuma’s revenge - a common ailment affecting many Americans when they cross the border into Mexico. I woke with chills, felt weak and tired all day, and was confined to my apartment fearing that if I left, the nearest bathroom may not be near enough. It’s now almost 7:00 and I’ve made it out of my apartment and onto the patio. I’m listening to my laundry swish back and forth and enjoying the slight breeze in the air. This idyllic Sunday afternoon just came screeching to a halt as the air has become polluted with the incessant barking and yelping of the two dogs that inopportunely live next door and the yelping and high-pitched screaming of the neighborhood children playing and kicking the soccer ball back and forth in the street below.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

It's A Small World Afterall . . .

Last night I went to Jane’s for Shabbat dinner (the Sabbath dinner on Friday nights) and stayed over to go to the JCC with Ada in the morning. At both the dinner and the community center I was rather surprised that the Jewish traditions are just as they are in the States. Also, the Jews I have seen in Mexico look just like the Jews I know in the U.S. For some reason it’s strange to me to observe others living so similarly in another part of the world, with language being the major difference. At dinner language affect the traditions as the blessings were recited in Hebrew. The language difference was the dividing factor between our two communities. I was in my own world scrutinizing the parents and children and was snapped back to reality once I overheard them speaking in Spanish.

Even though I have already spent time with the Jewish communities in Cuba and Puerto Rico, I am so intrigued that the Jewish communities around the world are so similar. The biggest difference between the Shabbat dinner with Jane and Ada’s families and my own is the start time. In Chicago if we start after 6:15 that seems late and we usually call it a night by 8:30. In Mexico, we probably started around 8:30 or 9:00 and disbanded between 11 and 12. The pre-dinner entertainment was top-notch with Ariela and Dani, Ada’s 4 1/2 year old twins, putting on shows featuring yoga moves and others using imaginary marionettes, all the while demanding silence from the audience members. The family was very considerate at dinner, making sure I understood the conversations. Moishe, Jane’s husband, entertained us with jokes, repeating one for me hoping the language barrier was why I hadn’t. I met another cousin, Ofelia, and her husband Abraham. Abraham is an actor and is now on a children’s show weekday afternoons at 4:00. Ofelia and Abraham reminded me a bit of my parents – Abraham talked of the “diet” he is on, Ofelia insisted he needs more exercise, and they “fought” over the keys, both thinking they should be the one to drive home. I thoroughly enjoyed their company and hospitality and so appreciated the delicious home-cooked meal. The food was succulent, beginning with an extremely tasty chicken noodle soup then the juicy chicken and finally a rich carrot cake for dessert.

Friday, August 26, 2005

School Day #5 – I Will Survive

In the U.S. we live by the bell – as soon as we hear it ring, we jump and get to where we are supposed to be. We even have the expression “Saved by the Bell,”and there was a TV show by that name. At WJHS we have precisely 4 minutes to get from the ending bell of one period to the beginning bell of the next. It’s not quite like that here, in Mexico. I had read that some Mexicans may arrive late for an appointment, or in this case a class, rather than cut short a conversation, a meeting, etc. The bell at my school here rings at the end of “Descanso” (the break) at 11:10 for students to go to their next class. Today most students continue to linger as a department sits in the teacher’s room discussing their Four Year Plan that is due on Monday. After fifteen minutes, a teacher retreats from the discussion and heads for the classroom.

I returned home Friday afternoon, feeling a bit exhausted after performing a 3-ring circus for my classes that day – I played movie clips from “Lucas” and “Benny & June” demonstrating characters saying, “Hi, I’m . . .” “My name is . . .” Next, I played the Beatles song, “From Me to You” using a PowerPoint I made on Thursday night. Each line is on a separate slide, each word a different color – with each word’s translation in the same color. The look on their faces when the bell rang before the song finished, the fact that they didn’t spring towards the door, made it all worthwhile and rejuvenated me for the next round. Little by little they’ll become accustomed to my expectations – as they’re already showing progress to not jump up when the bell rings – and become “my Pavlov dogs.”

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Day Four – I wish it had been a bore!

After feeling absolutely drained after school yesterday, last night I called Kelly, who has experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools (since the students/curriculum/staff here seems similar) and she gave me a bit of a pep talk. On paper, it appears that I don’t have much work here – teaching only 2 classes a day, which is only 1 prep. In reality, however, it is as exhausting, if not more so, than my position in Wilmette. Also, my hours here are much less than what Mexican teachers have. Somehow the Fulbright program has worked out that American teachers in Mexico are limited to 18 hours. Many Mexican teachers have a full-load of classes from 7:30-1:40, return home for “la comida” and then teach in a school that has afternoon classes from 4ish until 9 or 10:00. So, after Kelly’s pep talk I woke up today feeling positive, energized and motivated; I was all set for my one class today . . . or, so I thought.

I am not used to an entire class reacting anytime one of them causes the slightest distraction. Students react by laughing, whistling, hooting, hollering – something. For all of the students’ traditional formalities and given respect, it’s hard to understand their lapses during class. They ask permission to enter the classroom, before I have begun teaching class and when returning from the bathroom, they rush to pick something up if I drop it, they offer to open a window or shut a door for me, to greet a teacher they shake hands and the girls also kiss the teacher on the cheek. Students are accustomed to forming two lines, separating the boys and the girls – and this is how we TRIED to walk to the library for them to receive their textbooks. They weren’t too quiet or too adept at keeping their hands to themselves. When we returned to the classroom, Richi and Luis wouldn’t stop harassing each other and disturbing the rest of the class. It did not matter what I said or what I did so I sent them into the hallway where they continued to bicker and push each other. I walked out of the class again to call out across the courtyard to the “prefectos” to say that I could use a little help. Fabulous system, a “prefecto” came right over and talked to the boys for the rest of class. Later, the principal said that I should just send a troublesome student to him as well. Here I don’t feel that anyone thinks any less of me because I need others’ help with disciplining the students. I know I have to remember that it’s only the fourth day and as it seems apparent that intrinsic motivation is limited here, I’ll be resorting to extrinsic motivation – bribery.

Before class began today I was on Cloud 9 since I learned of the technology that is available at the school – LCD projector, DVD player, speakers that connect to my iPod to begin class with music, and more, including an opaque projector. As presenting with PowerPoint captures the interest of my students in Wilmette, I’m hoping it will at least have that effect here. I can’t wait to try. I feel like I’m in a boxing match: I’ve been through a couple rounds, I keep getting knocked down, retreat to my corner to rethink my game plan and come up with some different moves to through off my opponent. Already, I am regaining my strength and am confident I can come up with better moves that will “knock them out”. I applied for the Fulbright grant for many reasons, including looking for a different experience from my teaching position in Wilmette and a new challenge. As they say, “Be careful what you ask for.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Livin' La Vida

Last night Pilates class was tough, and there was a record number of students there – a husband, wife and 2 kids, two young girls, a middle-aged woman, a young grandma and her 3ish year old granddaughter and my new friend (although she may not yet know it), Enny – I had to ask her name on the way home. We walk home together, which is nice since it’s at 9:00 p.m. Well, the instructor showed up about 20 minutes late and approached me and apologized to me for arriving late. I assume she knows about the cultural assumptions about those from the U.S. how we’re basically very anal when it comes to time and live by the clock, always thinking about what we have to do next. After class, I came home and received a phone call from Kelly – I was so excited to have contact with “the outside world.” Before I fell asleep, I watched Desperate Housewives – and the dubbing is almost as entertaining as the show. Actually, it’s pretty distracting since the voices don’t seem to match the characters too well. Next, I watched Sex in the City, also dubbed and the voices definitely don’t match the characters – too old and too serious.

As frustrating as so many situations are, I love this program. Even though I’ve been in Mexico for less than 3 weeks – I already feel more immersed in the culture and community than ever before in all of my experiences. Every time before this that I have traveled to or studied abroad I have done so as part of a program. During those programs I hung out with others from the program. While we spoke Spanish, we were all still from the U.S. and that is the stark difference this time – besides Andi, there is no one from the program to hang out with on a regular basis, nor am I interacting with anyone from the U.S. This has immeasurable benefits and one small drawback, I hang out with me, myself and I most of the time and am just hoping I don’t get sick of myself because then I don’t know where I’d go. I’m trying to keep busy and meet people – exercise class, eating and working outside of the home. Who am I kidding? I eat out because I can’t stand to cook.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Day Two is Done

Last night’s spinning class was fun – we’re up to 5 students now, only one being the instructor’s mother. Last week the instructor had complimented my Spanish and this week she said she could tell that I was speaking more fluidly. I think she’s being pretty genuine; I did pay for the month of classes upfront. When I returned home, I turned on the TV to American Network and watched David Letterman with guest Ellen DeGeneres. American Network has the worst fuzziness of all of the channels, but I cleared most of snow and noise by turning the VHF dial on the television, which shouldn’t affect the cable, but did help for whatever reason. Anything you can think of is on TV here. On American Network alone you can watch Oprah, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, American Dreams, 60 Minutes, The Early Show and much, much more. This network is in English without Spanish subtitles. Most other channels are either dubbed in Spanish or have Spanish subtitles.

School today wasn’t quite as fulfilling as yesterday, but I realize each day will have its up and downs. Those shy, scared, respectful students from yesterday couldn’t be quiet for a minute today - they’ll have assigned seats tomorrow. I had to ask one kid to go to the hallway. When he wasn’t there at the end of class, all I had to do was tell a “prefecto” (a person in charge of discipline, roams the hallway and knows all of the groups’ schedules) and she hunted the kid down and sent him back to me. We could use some “prefectos” in Wilmette!

During class today, we spent a good amount of time reviewing rules, and did so in Spanish and English. They learned how to say, “Be respectful,” “Be patient” and “Raise your hand” among others. I encouraged the students to teach each day’s lesson to their families and to speak to their dogs in English; when the dog begs for food they can say, “Be patient.” Pronunciation proved to be the most taxing part for the students, especially the word “raise,” so I had them say the word with their mouths looking like Popeye’s when he speaks.

When referring to Popeye, that in itself took some time for them to understand who I was talking about. When I said the guy who eats a lot of spinach, they knew who I was talking about, however, they pronounce Popeye as “poh – pay – yeah.” While repeating after me they laughed, as I would have them use different tactics for pronunciation – tucking their chin into their neck to say the “pay” sound in “patient.” I feel badly for them that it’s so hard to pronounce words in English, as Spanish is fairly easy as it’s phonetic. On the other hand, there are many occasions that they only have to memorize one phrase or word in English, whereas there are multiple ways to express the idea in Spanish. For example, “What is your name?” is equivalent to “¿Cómo te llamas? and “Cuál es tu nombre?”

The students are interested in helping me learn more Spanish and are amused that I started keeping a list of vocabulary words for myself. I told them that when they have a quiz they could prepare a quiz for me based on those words. I knew all of the words beforehand (of course), only in Mexico City each is expressed using a different word. For example, I knew that the “calf muscle” is “pantorilla” but today I learned that it is also called “chamorro.” I knew that a “student’s desk” is “pupitre” but now I’ve learned that it is also called “butaca,” “banca” and the part on which one writes is the “paleta.” It’s exciting and exhausting to think how much I will learn each day.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The First Day is Finished

I made it through the first day and really enjoyed it. Today confirmed my feeling that kids are kids, no matter where they are in the world. Just as in the U.S., the Mexican students want the teacher’s approval, don’t want to make mistakes or sound funny in front of their peers, need to be asked to throw out their trash, push each other (the boys) and hold hands and whisper to each other (the girls). My two classes went very smoothly. Since I teach 1st year students, who are equivalent to 7th graders, we were in the same boat with being new to the school. Just like at the beginning of the year in the U.S., the 1st year students look adorable, are quiet and eager to please the teacher.

When I arrived at school, at 7:40 a.m. I had about 40 minutes before my first class began at 8:20. When I went to the second floor for my class, the other English teacher, Elvira, told me that we had “ceremonia” on Mondays at that time, 2nd hour class then follows. The students gather in the “courtyard” in a “U” formation: 3rd year students facing 1st year students with 2nd year in the middle. Then within each year, students stand in lines with their groups. Since I have group 1A (first year, group A) during 2nd period, I stood with them. Elvira organized them in lines – two lines of girls and two of boys. As she “commanded,” they would raise and then lower their right arm, towards the student’s shoulder in front of them, until they were spread out arms length apart.

The ceremony began with 6 girls marching around the “U” with the Mexican flag. While everyone sang the national anthem, they saluted the flag by raising their right hand and pressing it straight to their hearts, holding it like a military salute – palm down, thumb against heart, fingers outstretched. Next, to say the “Pledge of Allegiance” the right arm was raised, outstretched at the height between the head and shoulder.

So 2nd hour, with group 1A started about halfway through the period, followed by group 1C. After I introduced myself and explained the exchange that Elisa and are doing, we began to brainstorm ways to introduce ourselves, start a conversation and tell one’s name. The students call me “teacher,” “maestra” or “miss”. If they are addressing me by name, they call me “Maestra Raquel” – no last names are used. For all of the formalities and given respect – as the students stand-up when a teacher/principal enters the room – it’s interesting that last names are not used for teachers, while only a teacher’s last name is used in the U.S.

Before I left for the day, I went to put my books in my locker in the English classroom. The classroom was full with 3rd year students and the teacher was downstairs in the office. I stayed and chatted with them – although they were extremely reluctant to try out any English or respond to any questions, beyond, “What is your name?” Some girls were however bold enough to ask how old I am – and I told one student that I really like her; she guessed that that I was 21.

When I left school I took the metro and exited at the stop in Condesa. Now I’m sitting at a café – where for less than $4 I had two glasses of Agua de Jamaica (Hibiscus juice), a bowl of soup made with pumpkin, a side of rice, a chicken sandwich and a little cup of arroz con leche (rice pudding).

And now I’m absolutely in 7th Heaven as I’m sitting in a fabulous, modern café about to indulge in a Chocolate Chai and using the WIRELESS INTERNET (I haven’t seen anywhere else here) – and, it’s FREE!

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Preparing for the First Day!

I’ve spent the morning cleaning, preparing my photos to put online and avoiding preparing for tomorrow – my first day of school. I’m going to go take a walk to the center of Coyoacan and find a nice café to sit and read materials and plan for the week ahead. I just remembered I have 3 lessons to prepare for the week, rather than 1 for each day, as each group only takes Spanish 3 times a week. As this week is the beginning of the school year, we’ll review the class’ rules and regulations, learn each other’s names, check out the material that we will cover, assess what the students already know – which will be interesting as my students will not have yet had any formal English instruction, so we’ll see what they’ve picked up from music, TV, movies and elsewhere.

I am very excited to begin and of course a little jittery since I really don’t know what to expect – just don’t let the students know! At the same time, the school will not only be new to me, but also for my students who are in their first year at the school - so at least we have that in common.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Condesa Cuisine

Tonight I went to dinner with Andi, the other American teacher who is here in Mexico City. We met near the Condesa metro station of Insurgentes and began our search for the restaurant, Fondo Garufa, on Avenida Michoacán.

The food was exceptional, the service – unexceptional. We started with an “empanada” filled with “elote” (corn) and cheese. For the next course we had a mango salad with jicama – very refreshing. For dinner we each had a fillet – she had the mignon, and I had the special “Filete Jaime” – such a sweet taste. The dinner was accompanied by a glass of wine and topped off with “pay de queso con zarzamora” (cheesecake with blackberries). The restaurant called us each a taxi and the quick ride back to Coyoacan took 20 minutes and cost 120 pesos (less than $12).

Adding to the restaurant’s ambiance was the streaming solicitations from various vendors. First there was a woman with wooden carvings, one of Pinocchio; she stood at one table and waited for the couple to finish making out before making her pitch. A young girl with jewelry approached each table and others with cigarettes and other trinkets strolled by. A man turned a handle on a giant box-like instrument, emitting horrible high pitch sounds similar to a circus-theme, while his assistant strolled through the tables collecting tips; both dressed in tan uniforms with caps. When the assistant stood by our table, I asked how much I could pay to have her and the “musician” move on to a different restaurant. She actually seemed to be amused, and said anything was fine. After I gave her 5 pesos (less than 50 cents), the “musician” loaded the “music box” on his back and they moved on. Lastly a man played a violin, with a carton of milk in his blazer pocket, singing with his voice cracking along with the high notes.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Day Trip to Pachuca, Hidalgo

To see photos of Pachuca’s main plaza and its people, visit:
To see photos of the foods throughout Pachuca and its market, visit:

Karina, the woman who is in charge of the Fulbright program here in Mexico, invited Andi, the other American teacher working here in Mexico City, and me to go with her to Pachuca, Hidalgo. While Karina spent her day at a conference, Andi and I ate our way through Pachuca.

Pachuca, the state capital of Hidalgo, is in Mexico’s important silver belt of the Sierra Madre Oriental. Mining has been the most important industry there since 1534, before the Spanish came. Pachuca has also been highly influenced by the British, since many were miners living there in the late 1800s. The British brought soccer and “pastes” (pasties) – little pies traditionally stuffed with minced meat and vegetables. In Pachuca one can find “pastes” stuffed with a number of different ingredients like meat, chicken, potatoes, cheese, beans and even dessert ones with pineapple, pudding or rice pudding. I started with a bean and cheese filled “paste” and took home another and one filled with rice pudding.

Andi and I began the day walking around the Plaza de la Independencia, taking photos of all of the people and of the 40-meter-high Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), decorated with four carved statues and a bell imported from Austria. As we walked around the market, I snacked on a cup of barbequed “elote” (corn), which I prefer to the boiled kind. It is sold on the cob or with the kernels cut and mixed in a cup with the “toppings” of lime, mayonnaise, chili powder and cheese. When I began to tear up and my nose started to run and I was downing my water, I finally tossed my small cup – the chili powder was too powerful for me. Later on we had very rich chocolate ice cream from Helados Santa Clara.

We met up with Karina after her conference for our adventure home, as we had a flat tire along the way. Bus after bus zoomed by, paused just beyond our car, deposited a passenger and continued on its way. We could have changed the tire (fine, Andi and Karina could have), but the flat tire was in a less than ideal position, right next to the highway with the cars whizzing by. One woman, carrying her baby in a thick fleece blanket, walked over to us to say that she knew someone who could help us change the tire. Karina bravely went with her and brought back two young men who quickly went about the business of changing the tire. When they were done, and I tried to give them the tip they absolutely refused – even after I tried to shove it in their hands. I just saw the movie “Pay It Forward,” on cable here with Spanish subtitles, and while I’m not sure if they did too, I know they have great karma coming their way.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

My Schedule

Orientation continued today and I have my class schedule. The name of my school is “Enrique Beltran” Secundaria Diurna 293. It is in the area of Ermita Zaragoza in the delegation of Iztapalapa in the outskirts of Mexico City – the far east side. As the school is a “secundaria,” it’s equivalent to a U.S. junior high school, grades 7-9; although, rather than having grades 7-9, in Mexico they are called 1st, 2nd and 3rd year. There are 3 groups for each year (similar to the 3-4 teams each grade has at Wilmette Junior High). I am teaching English for first year students (equivalent to 7th grade) and therefore teach groups 1A (first year, group A), 1B and 1C. Each group has 25-30 students and each has English class 3 days a week. Each day I teach 1-2 classes and also have “service” time when I am available to substitute. With 9 hours of class and 10 hours of service, I have19 hours per week, leaving me plenty of time for the hour commute each way and time to complete my school work at school – what a concept!
8:20-9:10 1A (I teach first year, group A)
9:10-10:00 1C (I teach first year, group C)
10:00-10:50 SE (“Servicio” - Service - a time when I’m available to substitute for other classes when necessary)
10:50-11:10 DESCANSO (A break when students can have a snack.)
11:10-12:00 SE
10:00-10:50 SE
10:50-11:10 DESCANSO
11:10-12:00 1B
12:00-12:50 SE
12:50-1:40 1C
10:00-10:50 SE
10:50-11:10 DESCANSO
11:10-12:00 SE
12:00-12:50 1B
12:50-1:40 1A
10:50-11:10 DESCANSO
11:10-12:00 SE
12:00-12:50 1A
12:50-1:40 SE
10:00-10:50 SE
10:50-11:10 DESCANSO
11:10-12:00 SE
12:00-12:50 1C
12:50-1:40 1B

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

La Comida

Today’s orientation focused on teaching styles and evaluations. After school, I went to Elisa’s house since her daughter Mariana is leaving for the U.S. tomorrow. Mariana has helped me so much to get settled and find my way, that I wanted to see her one more time before she goes off on her own adventure. Mariana, her grandparents and I had “la comida” together.

“La comida” is like lunch in the U.S. - however, it’s the biggest meal of the day, and is later in the day, between 2-5. It usually consists of several different dishes, including soup, rice, a “plato fuerte” (main dish) and dessert. I’m not used to having soup so frequently, especially in the summer; however, if I want to do my best to “do what the Romans do,” I have to have the soup.

The “comida” is offered in many restaurants as a “comida corrida” or “comida del día” – a special fixed-price, multicourse menu costing anywhere from US$2.50 to US$5. Yesterday I had “la comida” at a small restaurant near my apartment; I chose the place since it was crowded – always a good sign. For 30 pesos (less than $3) I had a bowl of pasta soup, a side of rice, chicken in some excellent sauce with beans, tortillas and for dessert, “arroz con leche” (rice pudding). It also includes a drink – in this case I was given a PITCHER of “agua fresca” – it tastes like fruit that is blended and diluted in water – this one was tasted like watermelon/strawberry. “Agua fresca” is actually made by boiling the pulp of various fruits, grains, or seeds with water, then straining it and adding large chunks of ice.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

To Everything, Spin, Spin, Spin . . .

Spinning is a very popular exercise class all over Mexico City right now, as I see signs for it in the windows of all of the health clubs. Well, the class I attended last night isn’t exactly in a health club; it’s actually in a beauty parlor! There are ten bikes and one for the instructor in a tiny room that barely fits the equipment. The class was great and extremely individualized – there was only one other student there. It was a bit strange however when I would breathe in deeply and smell hair spray and nail polish. Every other day there is Spinning class or Pilates. When it’s Pilates, they move the beauty equipment to the side and bring in the Pilates equipment. I’ll get to see what that’s like when I go later tonight.

I did look at a couple of other places before choosing to workout at this place. By metro and then bus, it’s about an hour (that Faye and I did on Friday) to get to the Centro Deportivo Israelita (basically a JCC – Jewish Community Center). While the facilities seem amazing, I wouldn’t know since after the commute I was told that only members were allowed to enter at that time as the center was closed for maintenance. I pictured myself punching the guard in the face as I recalled Clark Grizwold arriving to Wally World and Marty Moose saying, “Sorry folks, the park is closed for renovation.”

I also checked out the YMCA since it’s only a ten minute walk from my place. Besides the downpayment of almost $100, then each month costs more than $100. The instructors and facilities look like they are straight out of 1970, there were kids all over the place and I would have to pay $15 for a medical exam.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Getting Oriented

Last night I felt like a kid before the first day of school - I reviewed my train route, packed my snack, picked out an outfit and had butterflies in my stomach, all because today began orientation.

The trip to school takes about an hour. From my apartment to the metro it is a 5-10 minute walk. Then, I board the metro towards Cuatro Caminos, Blue Line #2, exit at Chabacano, transfer to Brown Line #9 towards Pantitlan and finally transfer to the Purple Line #A to La Paz and exit at Acatitla. The walk from there to my school is about 10 minutes and there are also plenty of “bicitaxis” if I don’t feel like walking. I could take a bus as well, or peceros (fish tanks) as they are called, but the trip is not as “comfortable” and I don’t like the unpredictable amount of time it takes to get through the traffic each day. So, I pass the time by listening to audiobooks on my Ipod - I started with Bob Costas' book on baseball - it's not going anywhere, so I've started to skip chapters. I'm looking forward to seeing if he has a conclusion.

About 36 staff members were present this morning - including teachers, “prefectos” (those in charge of discipline), the social worker and principal and assistant principal. All of the teachers seem very nice and ready to help make my experience a nice, smooth one. They also seem to be a very close group – as in Mexico it is uncommon for teachers to change schools and usually spend their careers in one school.

At about 9:00 a.m. orientation began and in 6 groups we reviewed the “Liniamientos” (regulations for the schools in Iztapalapa) and highlighted those that pertained mostly to our school, Enrique Beltran #293, and then shared these all together. It became a lengthy process; and we left at 12:30 p.m.

I was interested, however, to learn all of the standards and issues that are common for both the schools in Iztapalapa and for Wilmette Junior High School: Students may not use cellular phones; students say The Pledge of Allegiance and participate as a sign of respect; smoking is prohibited on campus; it’s forbidden for teachers to tutor students who are in their classes. Disparities between the schools are that in Iztapalapa, students wear uniforms to help lessen the inequality of social classes; students and their parents wear credentials when at school; teachers have to give an evaluation at the beginning of the year; at any moment teachers may need to show grades to those in charge, including inspectors; and during the first week of September, teachers need to turn in their plan for the year; at the end of the semester, teachers need to turn in their first two units; and finally, teachers must keep daily plans to turn in at the end of each semester.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Settling In

My feet are up, the ceiling fan is on over the kitchen table, the windows are open and the curtains are blowing. It’s so nice to sit and relax after arriving to Mexico only 10 days ago, while the past 4 were fun-filled and on-the-go. Orientation begins at school tomorrow and I should get ready.

It shouldn’t be too hard to get to sleep early since I was woken around 5:00 a.m. when fireworks began. The booming gunfire-like sounds continued until 8:00, when Faye and I had to get up anyway. Once the fireworks began, the explosions set off car alarms, which then set off the neighborhood’s dogs’ cacophony of barking. As Faye and I left this morning, Señora apologized for the noises, saying that she and Señor do not like it either, and explained that the excitement is for Saint Mary’s Day. The church community next door has been celebrating with a fair and fireworks that have continued throughout the day. Señora added that the church that is a couple of blocks from the house has its saint’s day on September 21 – with celebrations beginning a couple of days before. Oh, how I’m looking forward to the celebration, unfortunately I may have to be out of town that weekend.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Clamoring about in Coyoacan

Faye and I decided to spend the day in my neighborhood of Coyoacan. We walked about 20 minutes west towards the main plaza and had quesadillas at a stand. Under the same roof, there were about 10 different stands featuring quesadillas. We sat on a bench and watched a woman prepare the quesadillas with the fresh ingredients in front of her – the dough for tortillas, and the fillings including cheese, refried beans, potatoes, chicken, sausage, brains and other cow parts. The quesadillas were delicious and it was fun watching her prepare them while simultaneously watching Lucas (dubbed in Spanish) on her 13” TV that sat on the counter.

We strolled around the plaza looking at all of the vendors’ stalls and stopping for some elote (corn). We opted for the corn in a cup rather than on the cob and had it topped with lime, chile powder and cheese, skipping the mayonnaise.

We continued on about 10 minutes west, to the Frida Kahlo museum. This was the bright blue house where, with cats roaming about, Frida and Diego lived from the mid 20s to the mid 40s. First, we saw artwork by Frida, Diego and some of their friends. It was interesting seeing some of their works that look quite different from their well-known pieces. Next, we saw the kitchen area and then the library and workspace. Among the books were some about Rivera and others about other famous artists. Lastly, we saw Frida’s bed with the mirror above and her body cast on the bed.

With our feet screaming to sit down, we hopped a cab to Zona Rosa and each had a bowl of Sopa de Tortilla Azteca. Zona Rosa is one of the city’s main shopping and entertainment districts, although there are many chain stores, fast-food restaurants and beggars.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Posh Polanco

After visiting one of the upscale Mexico City neighborhoods on Thursday night, Faye and I decided to go to one of the most exclusive neighborhoods, Polanco. It is the highest-end shopping district, mostly along the Paseo de la Reforma, designed to look like Paris’ Champs Elysées, and similar to Rodeo Drive/Michigan Ave. Along Reforma are Coach, Diesel, Cartier, Ferrari and many more.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

On the Go

Thursday, August 11, 2005
Faye arrived on Thursday morning – at 5:55 a.m.! We had lunch at Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles –colonial mansion built in the 16th century and covered with blue Talavera tile from the State of Puebla in the mid-18th Century) in the Centro Histórico – Historical Center. Casa de los Azulejos was the original Sanborns, which is now a chain that is almost as common throughout Mexico as Starbucks is throughout the U.S. Besides a restaurant, Sanborns have a retail store with departments offering books, magazines, games, sweets and baked goods, jewelry, audio and video equipment, and much more. I always feel as if I’m in the 1950s when I’m in a Sanborns. Also, their customer service is so superb, I feel as if I have a personal shopper with me.

Afterwards, we took in the panoramic views from the 42nd floor of the Torre Latinoamericana, the tallest building in the downtown area. We then walked all around the city and made our way to the Zócalo, the second-largest public plaza in the world after Red Square in Moscow. In the center there is a massive Mexican flag that is raised (in the morning) and lowered (at sunset) each day by guards in full battle gear. It takes 12 soldiers 15 minutes to fold the gigantic flag. Since the end of the 18th Century the plaza has surrounded by the Catedral Metropolitana (the cathedral that is as impressive for its size as for the gold that serves as its interior), Palacio Nacional (official residence of the Mexican president, where several of Diego Rivera’s murals are on the walls and ceilings here), the Palacio del Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and merchants’ arcades.

Rather than all of these attractions capturing Faye’s attention and enthusiasm, it was when I showed her how she needs to cross the street as fast as possible that she couldn’t stop talking and laughing about. I play a serious game of Red Rover when it comes to crossing the streets before a car hits me – and I looked as if I was doing the Truffle Shuffle (from the movie Goonies).

As the afternoon rain began we hopped on a tour bus that took us out of the Historic Center and all the way across the city to Chapultepec Park. Because of the infamous Mexico City traffic, Faye and I started singing “This is the ‘tour’ that never ends . . .” as it took 3 hours just to make it halfway around the tour’s loop. Once we reached Condesa, we hopped off to have dinner. Condesa, an “art deco neighborhood” has a restaurant and café zone, and a Starbucks!

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Finding My Way

At 10:30 a.m. Mariana came over to show me how to get to school. We walked south on Heroes del 47 to División del Norte and hopped on a bus at the corner – 2.5 pesos each. ($1 = 10 pesos) It was a short ride west to the huge intersection of División del Norte and Río de Churobusco. We ducked into the old-fashioned lime green VW mini-van – right out of the parking lot scene in Back to the Future (the original one) when Marty and Doc are being shot at by the Libyans. This bus cost 4 pesos each since the trip was a lengthy one (about 20 minutes to the airport). I couldn’t believe a couple times that people could actually fit in – no one feels awkward about knees touching or half of your butt cheek being on someone’s leg. I was relieved when that ride was over after about 20 minutes, as I was afraid I might throw up if we had to go any longer – we rode facing backwards the first half, until I could change seats.

When we arrived at the “airport” – it’s just the stop closest to the airport – we walked over to a parking lot full of buses and made our way to the bigger sized lime green bus. This bus must have been featured at some point on MTV’s pimp my ride – for the 25 minute ride, with our young, dark bus-driver/DJ at the helm, grandmas, kids and the rest of us were rockin’ and bumpin’ to Spanish rap and rock music. Finally, we made it to the small colony of Ermita Zaragoza where I will teach in the delegation of Iztapalapa.

If you can picture Wilmette with its perfectly manicured lawns and sturdy, nicely painted houses towering next to each other, each trying to look more impressive than the next – all you need to do is picture the complete opposite and you’ll be familiar with the area in which I’ll be teaching. There are some make-shift rooms, public housing (that actually looks better than the current state of Cabrini Green) and some small houses doing their best to stand their ground. The roads are dusty and life seems slower and quieter there than closer to central Mexico City. Bicitaxis (bicycle/taxis) dart all over the roads, and every once in a while a car zooms by.

If you can picture Wilmette Junior High School with its flag flying high above the building, the auditorium freshly renovated with plush seats, the FOUR computer labs, the library full of books and resources, the classrooms with more than enough desks for all students, a long marker board and the teacher’s lounge with two nice long tables, a refrigerator and vending machines – again, all you need to do is picture the complete opposite and you’ll be familiar with the school in which I’ll be teaching. To enter the school there is a tall metal fence that we pushed open and greeted the man on security duty. There is a wide-open space between the two sides of the school building and a “recreation area” just beyond with a couple of basketball hoops. All of the classroom doors open to the hallways that are outside. Some of the stairs of the three-floor building seem to have somehow receded.

Mariana and I walked into the office to see if there was anyone there I could meet. There were a couple of students with parents present to register for classes. I felt them staring and the secretaries too. I am so aware that before I even speak people know I’m different / not from here. I have to remind myself that of course that happens in Chicago and all over the world. Just by the way that someone dresses and their body language it’s easy to tell that they’re not from “here”.

We took a different route back and I’m feeling more and more comfortable that I know my way around – foreshadowing happening here!

When I reached my apartment the Señor was at the door and told me that someone from the phone company was here putting in my line. I couldn’t believe how excited I was – no more isolation, I can call people and not have to stand on a street corner to do so. The Señora asked me for 20 pesos to “tip” the guy. These “tips” are seen in every part of life here: When I leave my trash in the owner’s bin I have to leave 5 pesos, if not the trash collectors won’t pick it up in the future; when parking almost anywhere you “tip” someone to watch the car.

Later I tried to go to Mariana’s house and have lunch with her and her grandparents. I thought it was an easy ride – I got off too late, walked in the sun for about ten minutes, took a taxi to where I thought was close to the house and continued to walk in what probably amounted to circles. Mariana called and met me and together we walked the whole block to her grandparents’ house. After lunch her grandfather drove us to Gigante, the supermarket.

I bought a toaster-oven so that I don’t have to make everything in oil on the stovetop. It’s pretty tough to eat well here – white bread abounds and everything is drenched in oil.

Finally, I’m busy cleaning as I’m going to meet Faye at the airport tomorrow – I can’t wait to show her the downtown area, Chapultepec area, Coyoacan – where I live – and the upscale Roma/Condesa area, and so much more.

And now I’m at the Internet “Café” that is right next door to my place – about 5 steps – and I like that I’m becoming a regular and Memo soon won’t have to ask my name. As much as I like pretending I’m in a 21st century version of Cheers, it smells like a pet store in here tonight!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

New Friendships

What a day! After breakfast – strawberry yogurt and natural yogurt mixed with cereal – the Señores (owners of my apartment) took me to the phone company. The Señora set up the line in her name and took care of everything. (I costs over a hundred dollars to set up a phone line. It used to be a two year wait. They say that mine will be installed within the next 10 days. Next, they took me to an ATM so I could pay my rent ($4,800 – about $480 dollars) and security deposit.

The Señora, who is 66 (they asked her year of birth at the phone company) reminds me so much of my Grandma Ruth at that age. Like my grandma, Señora always takes the time to look her best, she wears quite fashionable clothes and always has makeup on and her hair done. She also took my arm to walk across the street and up steps. It’s like I’m living with a Mexican version of my grandma – very weird.

This living situation is perfect – after taking care of the phone for me, then, this afternoon when I was going to take the metro, I realized it would help a lot if I knew the name of the metro station near where I live. Well, Señor not only showed me on the map, but then Señora walked with me to the station. They are quite amazing!

The metro was easy, same as anywhere, knowing the last stop directs you to which line you need. However, I did have to transfer two times. I was going to San Angel that is just west of my apartment, but no metro line connects the two. So I took the line north, transferred to another to go west and finally to another to head south.

I went to visit my mom’s friend’s relatives. Ada picked me up from the metro station and we went to her house. There is a huge, blue, steel door to enter her land that has two houses – one is for Ada’s family and the other is for her Aunt Jane and Uncle Moishe. It was Jane’s father who bought the land upon arriving in Mexico City from Eastern Europe in the 1920s. Jane’s father had many siblings, one of whom left Eastern Europe and settled in Chicago – his son is Marvin, husband of Phyllis, who is my mom’s friend. Got it?!

I had lunch at Ada’s house with her twin 4 year old daughters Ariela and Dani (Daniela). After sitting for a bit I walked the 30 steps over to Jane’s house and talked with her for a while. She has three sons living in the states. I felt as if Jane could be my great-aunt, she showed great interest in learning about me and my family. She took the time to help me look through maps and get my bearings. She also drove me back home and had me mark the map as we went along – I can’t believe she’s not related to my mom!

While I loved talking with Jane and learning about her family’s history, as I am fascinated by immigration stories and how Jews live in every part of the world, the greatest part of this visit was that I actually felt like I was related to them - I had to keep reminding myself that I’m not. That’s how welcome they made me feel – right away correcting me when I addressed them in the polite form of “you” (usted) and asking me to instead use the informal “you” (tú).

Monday, August 08, 2005

Settling In

Monday, August 8, 2005
Last night I bought a cellphone and am so excited to be able to communicate! Unfortunately, calling the U.S. costs about $1.50 – but receiving a call is about .25 cents and sending/receiving text messages are about .20 cents. So, when I move I will have a landline and can then use calling cards to make calls to the U.S.

This afternoon I moved into my apartment – it’s really awesome! I love having my independence and yet the owners down on the first two floors ready to help me at a moment’s notice. The husband (señor to me) is taking me to the phone company tomorrow to get my line set up. I am blown away by everyone’s kindness and going out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. I just hope this continues, as I’m apparently going to teach in the “ghetto”.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Apartment

Saturday & Sunday, August 6 & 7, 2005
On Saturday, Mariana, her grandfather and I spent three hours looking at apartments; afterwards I was completely dejected. The places we saw were just horrible. The first one was so tiny I wasn’t sure if more than my left butt cheek could live there. The next one was on the third floor and had many broken stairs and the apartment still needed work and the kitchen wasn’t finished. Of course there are many amazing, modern buildings – however, the majority are being built now and won’t be ready for another year or so.

Luckily today we were able to see the one that Elisa visited with her mother before leaving for the U.S. A couple lives on the main level and first floor and rent out the apartment on the top floor/roof. It is a very quaint one bedroom with a small kitchen and miniscule living room with a nice size bedroom. The selling point for me is the awesome patio area, next to the apartment, on the roof. Honestly, another selling point is the Internet “café” next door.

The lady will wait to hear from me on Tuesday, so that I can have a chance to check out a couple of other apartments. Oh, in Mexico they are called “departamentos” and the bedrooms are “recamaras”. This nice one is in the neighborhood of Coyoacan – very close to where Frida Kahlo lived, and is now a museum.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Welcome to Mexico

Now that I’m in Mexico City, and have been since Friday evening, you should know that when talking about the city it is referred to in many ways: I can simply say I live in México, or I can say D.F. (pronounced of course en español Deh Eh-fey), or I can call it La capital (the capital).

I left D.C. before 9:00 a.m. (8:00 a.m. Mexico City time) and had a connection through Dallas (where we sat on the airplane for an hour and a half to wait out the bad weather – I didn’t mind too much since they played a movie I had really wanted to see, Fever Pitch). I arrived in Mexico City around 6:00 and then moved very slowly through the Immigration line, it took almost an HOUR! Next, I picked up my luggage and scrambled to the Customs area. There you have to press a button, if the light turns green you simply pass through and you’re done, if the light turns red then your luggage is inspected. So, I crossed my fingers and saw the light turn GREEN! Finally, I saw a mob of people awaiting their friends and family and saw Mariana (my exchange partner Elisa’s daughter) and her Uncle Toño with a sign that said “Raquel”.

As we made our way to Mariana’s house, where she lives with her mother and grandparents, I already felt at home as I noticed all of the familiar restaurants and stores – Vips, Tocs, Gigante – and some new ones – Walmart, Office Depot, Home Depot. I felt even more at home once I arrived at the house and settled into my room.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Orientation is Over!

PHOTOS from the closing dinner can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser:

To see photos from the presentations, view this site:

The closing dinner on Thursday evening was a perfect contrast to the excursion to the Holocaust Museum earlier in the day. First, on the way out of the museum, I ran into my FIFTH GRADE TEACHER, Mrs. Berman. What a small world! Then, after dinner, teachers presented a song, dance, poetry, etc. that is typical of their country. Some alumni joined in as well. It was awesome seeing people from Africa, India, Latvia, France, the U.S. and so many more, appreciating, applauding and enjoying each other’s customs and even joining in at times.

Museum Visit

Thursday was our last day of orientation, which I was very excited about since I’m suffering from Information Overload. So in the afternoon, Andi (a Spanish teacher from Phoenix, who will also be in Mexico City) and I ducked out to visit the Holocaust Museum.

It is an impressive museum – it covers hardships and lies that Jews had to endure since the beginning of time. Short films and displays explained the Jews situation around the world, leading up to the Holocaust, while it occurred and during the aftermath. I was moved by the exhibit that is specifically for children, but just as touching for adults. It is called “Daniel’s Story” and visitors walk along “touring” the house he grew up in and read excerpts from his diary along the way. It shows how life drastically changed for him as his community became more anti-semitic and how he no longer played with his non-Jewish friends and had to wear the yellow star that said “Jew”. Visitors learn that while his mother and sister were killed, he and his father survived and reunited after the camps were liberated. This was an especially moving exhibit as Daniel’s childhood seemed as pleasant and fun as any and it seemed completely unbelievable the events that took place over time.

I was also impressed that there was an exhibit on Darfur, Africa. So few people know about the ethnic cleansing that is taking place there and while some media has covered those events, no one is seriously helping. There are camps set up across the border in Sudan and the group Doctors without Borders is helping there. It is tragic that virtually nothing has changed since the Holocaust in that people are aware of what’s happening but no government is willing to step forward and take a stand.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Washington Nationals Game

PHOTOS from the game can be seen by clicking on the title of today’s entry or by pasting the following site into you’re your browser:

Wednesday evening I went to the Washington Nationals game with three of the Mexican teachers, Patty, José and Adrián. As we approached the ticket booths I overheard a woman say to her husband that he should look for some kids and give them his extra tickets. I suggested he could give them to my Mexican friends, who had recently arrived here – and HE DID! Three FREE tickets – and row 1 no less (section 501). I bought a ticket in the same section and the stadium was surprisingly pretty empty (as they are the best team in baseball right now) so I was able to sit with them. It was a great game – the Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, there were fireworks after two different homeruns and we all enjoyed some Cracker Jacks together after singing about them in the 7th inning stretch.

Debriefing in D.C.

We are constantly debriefing - receiving information up the wazoo. Yesterday, Tuesday, August 2, was a bit more relaxed. I went on a tour of D.C., via buses - there were 4 to accommodate as many of the 400 grantees that wanted to go. At first I didn't want to go, as I have been to D.C. but then I realized IT'S BEEN 16 YEARS SINCE I WAS HERE!!! Where did those years go?@! The tour was fun and informative. We went up and down the main streets seeing important buildings and monuments. We went up to the Lincoln Memorial and also to the White House.

Later we had an opening dinner and it's so interesting all of the places that Americans will be traveling to and where the counterparts are from - Latvia, Estonia, Finland, France, Hungary, Germany, India, Turkey, Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and more, and of course, Mexico. The National Teacher of the Year spoke - a really young guy from D.C. The keynote address given by Dina Habib Powell, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. She knows first hand what an impact cultural exchanges can make as she was born in Egypt and raised in the United States.

Today, Wednesday, August 3, has been a long day. We began with breakfast around 7:15 - which reminds me to mention the food here, at the Holiday Inn - it's pretty good, actually, really good, especially the desserts.

We have had two sessions of "Homeroom" where an alumni who went to Mexico on a Fulbright grant two years ago spoke with us Americans who are going to Mexico. He addressed topics from telephones to grading to classroom discipline to not throwing toilet paper in - of all places - the toilet.

There was a fantastic session given by Craig Storti, a former Peace Corps trainer, on The Art of Crossing Cultures - he has written a book by the same title. He was funny and enlightening. Each region of the world consulted among themselves on various behaviors and beliefs that the country as a whole demonstrates. This U.S. - Mexico exchange will prove to be at least a bit challenging as the U.S. and Latin America were often on opposite ends of the spectrum. While the U.S. more strongly believes that "what you accomplish in life is up to you" Latin Americans believe that fate also plays a role in how much you achieve. Those from the U.S. "Think first in terms of self and then in terms of the group or team" while those from Latin America think more "about the good of the group or team, and then their own good." It was surprising to me that while the U.S. views students as active participants in class and are encouraged to become involved, almost the same is true of Latin America. The Mexican sitting next to me explained that much has changed more recently. While in the U.S. the management style is more democratic, in Latin America it leans more towards an authoritarian style. Finally, and I think possibly more importantly, in the U.S. people are often fairly direct with one another saying "what they're thinking and meaning what they say." In Latin America it is more common to be indirect as "people don't always say what they're thinking or mean what they say."

Interestingly in this cross-cultural experience, it is the Mexicans who will accompany me this evening to watch our nation's pastime - we're going to see the Washington Nationals take on the Los Angeles Dodges at RFK Stadium - none of the Americans were interested!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Tour of D.C. & Opening Dinner

Photos from the excursion to D.C. and Tuesday evening’s opening dinner can be seen by clicking on the title for today's entry or by copying and pasting the following address into your browser:

- We had more sessions on Wednesday and Thursday pertaining to classroom management and administrative matters.
- During the day on Tuesday, there was a tour of famous D.C. landmarks and monuments.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Adventure Begins

Today, on my 29th birthday, my adventure of the Fulbright began promptly at 8:00 a.m. It's 5:30 now and I've had a half hour to relax after a VERY full day. I learned about the Mexican education system and by 10:00 a.m. couldn't believe how much we had covered. I also couldn't believe I could have 50 students in a class!!! There are 9 teachers from the U.S. (including myself) traveling to Mexico and there are 13 Mexicans coming to the U.S. Four of the Mexicans are on one-way programs and not an exchange one.

The other teachers, from Mexico and the U.S., are fantastic and fascinating. The U.S. teachers come from all over - from Virginia to Sleepy Eye, MN to L.A. and in between and the populations of our cities range from about 5 million to 3,500. The Mexican teachers also are almost each from a different state, with two from Mexico City - which means I may be able to see one of the other U.S. teachers.

The language situation is an interesting one since each of us is both fluent in English and Spanish. The program director began in English making introductions before dinner and we followed in English. Since then we are flip-flopping between the two, it just depends. Sometimes the Mexicans speak in English while the Americans speak in Spanish.

Just before breaking this afternoon, we reviewed our schedules for the next couple of days and they are jam packed with sessions. There is a lot of one-on-one time with our counterparts (and we had time today), there are sessions on administrative issues and ones on classroom management and even one on taxes for U.S. citizens. Of course, I am making time to go to the Washington Nationals game tomorrow night!

Today all of the teachers who are participating in the Fulbright program arrive here to Alexandria Virginia. There will be about 300 teachers total.

I'll be in touch once I arrive in Mexico City on Friday.
Hasta pronto - talk soon.