Friday, March 28, 2008

Volcanoes, guitars and…macramé?

Oh, dear friends, it has been too long since my last update. I appreciate the subtle hints, such as emailing to ask if I’m still alive. So you want another installment of my great Bolivian adventure? Hold on to your hats…

…or don’t. Life is progressing in the same slow, steady pace as always. In fact, in order to recount what I’ve been up to the past month or so, I find myself consulting my planner and personal journal. Things are going well: I’m healthy, I’m happy, and best of all I’m working. On a scale of 1-10 (Joy, if you’re reading this, you’ll recall 1 and 10 as being near unreachable. It’s important to be realistic, no?) I would rate the past month about an 8. Here’s a recap:

In late February/early March, I had a site visit from our volunteer leader (a 3rd year volunteer) Claire. Site visits are important because they give a volunteer a second (Peace Corps, that is) opinion on the way things are going in-site, be it work or otherwise. I’ve found it to be a (albeit wonderful) challenge to more or less be placed in a community and have to find some way to use your knowledge and skills to help the town develop or improve. Granted, we do have project guidelines, but it’s far from your everyday 9-5 desk job. (Which is a large part of PC’s appeal.) Anyway, so I got some important feedback on which job possibilities I should leave for later and which I should pursue more aggressively. One of the most important things about my work here is turning out to be not what I do, but with whom I work.

After the site visit, I took a trip to Sajama National Park. I’m hoping to get photos any day now so that I can show you all. It’s absolutely beautiful. I am thinking quite seriously about climbing the extinct, glacier-topped volcano during the 2009 season. It would be a challenge and a thrill, for sure. Besides the volcano, the park has the world’s highest forest, of a funny little endangered tree species; a large area of various geysers (none of which shot up while we were there); hot springs; and lots of llamas and vicuñas. While the park is in the same department I live in, I was surprised at how cold it was there! I can only imagine what it would be like during climbing season, which is in the dead of winter.

Mid-March I took a trip to Cochabamba for several reasons. First and foremost, to visit my friend Joy in her site. It’s good to get to loosen up around friends once in a while, to not have to take such care in what you say both in actual language and cultural context. To just be able to be once in a while. Plus, her site is in the Cochabamba department and, my, how green it is there! Even the city is lined with trees with huge blossoms and grass and shrubs…It’s so amazing that so many very different natural worlds exist within one country. While in Cochabamba, I was also able to help a fellow volunteer out at her orphanage, giving some internet lessons to the kids. Besides that, I caught up on some paperwork in the office and (somewhat foolishly) spent my vacation savings on a guitar.

At this point, you may be asking yourselves what I am thinking buying a guitar. It’s true that I have little to no musical talent and that, when I bought the guitar I’d never even held one in my life. Well, I say unto you nay-sayers that is precisely the reason that I bought a guitar. If my quest is unsuccessful musically, at least I will have filled my free time for the next couple of years. Like I said before, my book supply is constantly running low. To continue the guitar saga, I found a teacher in my site. He is my host brother’s music teacher at school and plays in a local Bolivian folk band. Upon meeting him, the first thing he did was give me a lovely poster advertising his band. The second thing he did was sell me the band’s cd, insisting I could listen now, pay later, surely some kind of Bolivian-pueblo line of credit. I was pleased to find that, although the actual songs, the melodies, are the usual set of Bolivian songs, the lyrics and themes of the songs have to do with my site. The third thing he did was tune my guitar, something that I hadn’t yet learned to do. Then we started with the lesson. I learned two chords and was told to practice them over and over again. You wouldn’t believe how entertaining it was to practice two simple chords over and over and over for nearly a week. I went back for another lesson. I learned a whopping seven new chords and slowly deciphered my teacher’s system of naming the notes “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do” and “the other do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do”. For the brief time I learned piano and sang in choir, all I had ever heard of was a-b-c-d-e-f-g, with sharps and flats and then there was a song I learned with “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti­-do”. I asked my teacher one day if “la” wasn’t “a” and he said that no such thing as “a” existed. I’ve since stopped trying to be so rigid in my learning and just soak up all he’s got to teach and the way he learned it. But one thing perpetually bugged me: my guitar was constantly out-of-tune and I kept having to hunt him down to fix it or try to ignore the awful sounds coming from what I was practicing. I had borrowed the book “Guitars for Dummies” (no, seriously) from the PC library, to supplement what I was learning from my teacher. This book arrived missing the accompanying cd, which I think is probably the only way that a book on beginning guitar could actually work without a teacher. But there was a section about how to tune your guitar to itself. Naturally, this is not the route you would take professionally but it was good enough for my purposes. That beautiful guitar, which cost exactly half of a month’s allowance. That poor, beautiful guitar. The first couple strings went well. But something happened with the third string. No matter how much I “tuned” the string, it still sounded flat to me. This is why your first lesson with a teacher should be how to tune the guitar. Stupid girl. The string broke with a loud SNAP right against my hand. Of course I can replace the string, but I think I was a bit stunned by the physical result of my carelessness. I haven’t hardly practiced those new chords and I haven’t yet had the courage to tell my teacher what I’ve done.

In other non-related work news, I joined a macramé club. Well, more specifically a women’s group, led my a local NGO, that is currently learning macramé. But let’s leave macramé, and consequently my feelings about the craft, out of this. The club is a good social outlet with nice, good people. I think some of the women sell their crafts. I explained that it is not befitting of a volunteer to make money during service. So you can all look forward to lovely macramé gifts in the near future. Send your thanks to the lovely folks at Kolping. J

I can’t remember if I mentioned it before, but I also recently visited the gold mine of a half-American in my town. They let me watch them process some ore and patiently explained everything to me. The mine doesn’t function much anymore, mostly because of limits in the technologies there. But perhaps once they get electricity up at the machines, the mine will start working again daily. Who knows. My friend even let me keep a piece of the rock with a small piece of gold in it. I should copy his pictures soon and be able to post some of those on here, too.

In work news, I started my business simulation class with the afternoon groups of high school seniors. Class meets once a week and will go until mid-May. I’m scared we won’t be able to fit everything in, but the class has been going smoothly thusfar. I was going to teach the same class to juniors, but we missed a few classes already due to miscommunications, so I think we might stick with life skills or something of the sort. Various lessons and activities that focus on teamwork, self-esteem, communication and the like. Mostly I just want to be in the classroom with the kids, doing something. You see, school started nearly two months ago. Each group of kids only goes to school for half a day, four hours. Within each group there are two junior and two senior classes. And within those four hours are three, 80-minute classes. I was allowed to schedule my classes about a month after the trimester had begun. I only asked to teach the afternoon groups, with the idea that next trimester I could teach the morning groups. There was space at least for me to teach one class a week for each of the junior and senior classes. The space that I took was these students’ “free period.” That means that, before I occupied that time, students would have days where one hour and twenty minutes of the four hour day, they were allowed to roam about the school and do as they pleased. Not that I think we need to confine students, but that meant 80 minutes of precious school time in which they weren’t learning anything. It makes my heart ache for these students, honestly. Teachers complain that when they are in classes, they are disruptive and misbehaved and don’t want to learn. I will admit that when I began classes my students came to class 20 minutes late, drifted about the room during class, talked out of turn, and made jokes. It’s not about controlling the kids so much as it is managing the classroom and creating an environment that fosters learning. I wish I knew more about teaching. I’ve been reading some books on the subject and the things I’ve implemented in the classroom are going well so far. Mostly I think the kids are in a bit of a shock, not knowing how to deal with this super-weird gringa teacher. But they’ve been very welcoming, with even the freshmen and sophomores bombarding me when I enter the school and asking can’t I please come teach their classes? The seniors assure me that they do want to learn how to run a business and I can’t wait to see their excitement in actually running one.

(Sidenote: I read recently in a friend’s blog that she can’t stand when kids in her classes call her “teacher.” In spanish, they call their teachers “profe” which is a shortened form for the literal translation of “teacher.” But something gets lost in translation and I agree that it’s rather displeasing to be called “teacher” (r rolled or with the quechua-influenced zjuh sound) or “Miss” (mees, if you will) in English. So, lots of the kids have been trying to impress me with their English by calling me “teacher” and greeting me with a “good morning” at 4 in the afternoon. With my Santa Cruz buddy in mind, I gently encourage the students to call me profe, sarah, señorita nelson…anything but gringa, choca (kinda like blondie), miss or teacher! We’ll leave good afternoon for another day.)

My work with the mayor’s office computer lab has taken on a more Bolivian-pace. I’m too busy (Allah be praised) to spend an exorbinant amount of time waiting to be blown-off. In the meantime, I’m not giving up but rather looking for different ways of proceeding.

I have a few other small projects that I’ve been meaning to get around to and, slowly but surely am. I’ve gotten some books on teaching English as a foreign language and I think once my confidence for teaching the subject is increased, so too will my enthusiasm. More exciting is the recent opportunity to help a university teacher in the city and here in my site. She would like to improve her speaking, particularly her pronunciation, in order to better help her classes. And what better way to promote sustainable development than to teach a teacher?

I suppose that’s about it for now. My apologies on the length. Will try to less, more often. All my besos and abrazos,