Dispatch from the Dead

WARNING: NO PICTURES

If you see spelling or grammatical errors please leave me be.

I “finished” a.k.a. crawled mostly dead out of a hole that was the first month of ESL teaching in Arequipa, Peru on May 29, 2014. The June session started today.

I wish I could tell you it was fun and exciting and inspiring and cupcakes and baby seals and Stand and Deliver but I can’t because it wasn’t. It was challenging and traumatizing and I had no free time and I was apoplectic nearly everyday but most importantly, it was eye-opening. A reality check.

Before the long part starts:

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

  • I planned for and taught three 2-hour regular classes everyday and a 1.5-hour private tutoring class three days a week. The levels varied from elementary, pre-intermediate, and intermediate.
  • There are two types of students at the institute: those who want to learn English and those who don’t. The second group was born from the butthole of some demon with Crohn’s disease. They are forced to take the class because of their parents. I don’t blame them for not wanting to be there but holy damn. I got to experience an almost inhuman emotion when I spent hours racking my brain to find ways to make the class interesting and engaging but saw the students piddling away on their phones or not paying attention.

BEFORE YOU START THE TREK INTO THE VALLEY OF NEGATIVITY AKA FACTS, HERE ARE THE GOOD POINTS:

  • Teaching is a dynamic job. No matter how much you like or dislike your students, everyday and every session is different. I can use many adjectives to describe teaching but “boring” would not be one of them.
  • Teaching forces you to be a planner. I don’t mind planning in the first place so this was not much of a chore (the amount of planning was insane but I like planning things in general). Planning takes into account the following:
    • Pacing of the class: Ensure all materials are covered adequately within the assigned timeframe. The usual pace is 3-4 days a unit but that is “eh” because not all units are the same – students may breeze through some (aka find it boring) but find others difficult. You have to think about the types and quantity of supporting materials (discussion topics, photos, videos, presentations, etc.) to supplement the book and pacing.
    • Outline of what to cover for each class: This is obvious but I have met teachers here who don’t plan lessons and end up bullshitting. The lesson plans serve as checklist and physical reminder of things to cover. Mine were very detailed for fear of forgetting something.
    • Hypothetical/emergency situations: This is Peru where students always show up late, only show up sporadically, or stop showing up altogether. Pity if only two of your students show up when you planned a fun game or a debate topic targeted for your supposed class size of six. You always need to have some sort of backup plan.
  • You are in complete control of the classroom. This is literally a dream come true if you are a control freak like me. You can pretty much present the materials however you want as long as you follow the basic school and program rules. Some teachers don’t allow cell phones in their class at all, some believe it’s acceptable to speak more Spanish in classes, others think it’s okay for teachers to sit while others don’t. As long as it’s within the Boundaries of Common Sense (yeah, I know), go ahead and talk about controversial topics, alcohol, cryptozoology, whatever.
  • Bond you form with your students. If you are reading this blog you most likely know how I am, it takes me a fair amount of time to get to know a person and have that person reciprocate the same reaction. So it means that much to me when a student I had in previous session notices me at school and says hello or a student says “thank you” at the end of the class. It’s also awesome when they finally start feeling comfortable enough to joke around or be weird in English. …Or how some students from my demon class last session just came up to me, gave me the Peruvian cheek-to-cheek greeting, and talked to me briefly. What is life.

***NOW STARTS THE TREK DON’T TELL ME YOU WEREN’T WARNED***

Here is the root cause of why the first month was spiritually crushing: my expectation was too high.

I like to think I’m a realistic and objective person. I went into this job knowing it will be tough. I didn’t expect gratitude, appreciation, or similar feelings so when indeed I didn’t receive them, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t even that offended when students blatantly didn’t care. It was expected as a teacher.

What killed me was how they repeated the same mistakes and/or they didn’t take the time to address their mistakes. We would go over a certain point 600 times but they still made the same mistakes.

The worst was when I had them write a practice essay to prepare for the exam, took them home, corrected the mistakes by pen, typed and printed a clean version for each of them, stapled the clean paragraph to their original papers, then passed them back. I went out of my way to do this because I hoped it would help them identify their mistakes and not make the same ones on the exam.

They made the same mistakes on the exam and it was obvious that they didn’t bother re-reading their corrected paragraphs, which means my effort was all in vain.

I was nearly in tears from exasperation (no exaggeration) while grading the exams because a fair number of students made errors they should not have made. We had gone over them together in class a million times. Notice the “we”: it was not just me providing feedback and information, I solicited answers and reasons why something was wrong. It was a collaborative effort in which the students were fully (well, I guess not, looking at it retrospectively) involved.

It was painful because I didn’t understand why – was it because I didn’t explain things properly or they just didn’t care enough? What was going on in their brain when they looked straight at me and gave me the correct answer in class one day but went on to provide a wrong answer the next day, or even the next minute?

I spoke to some of my friends and family about this and received good analysis and advice. At the end of the day I had subconsciously expected too much from my students. I had set myself up for disappointment. On some level I expected my students to acknowledge my effort and really take their time to analyze their grammatical or vocabulary-related errors. I believed I could transfer my energy and enthusiasm to them. I was too critical and annoyed about about how much the students didn’t know when they should have theoretically have known them.

Here are some things my friends and family pointed out:

  • My bilingual background and innate interest in languages, some things that not all students have. I don’t know how but I didn’t even realize those obvious facts, it was incredible. I have to be more conscious of these facts and remember that not everybody shares them.
  • I will somehow find ways to cope with difficult or unmotivated students. It might take time but seasoned teachers have gained various techniques to deal with different kinds of students. I’m still a n00b so I am still in the learning process.
  • It’s okay for me to be reasonably selfish. These few months are experimental months for me and I should remember to learn new skills that would benefit me in the future – the “what’s in it for me?” It goes against the altruistic nature of teaching but I understand the concept of this advice.
  • These students are typical Peruvian students. Mostly rich, privileged students but Peruvian students nontheless. Sometimes things are just the way they are and I have to accept that cultural fact. This is more applicable to classes with teenagers as young adults generally have more respect towards their teachers.

I shudder to think what I put my high school teachers and college professors through.

Okay! Almost out of the valley, BUT NOT YET. If I have written this far I might as well write everything else.

OTHER CHALLENGES

  • The schedule – this was my typical schedule for May (it was a numbered list but messed up during formatting so you get this instead, enjoy):
    1. Arrive at the school between 6:45-7:30AM depending on the workload (aka unfinished/unstarted lesson plans for classes that day)
    2. Plan lessons, print things that need to be printed, catch up on social media/emails
    3. Teach from 9-11AM
    4. Eat lunch, plan lessons, and prepare for afternoon classes from 11AM-2PM. Depending on the workload I would stay at school and work or go home and work
    5. Head back to school around 2PM to claim a functioning computer with Chrome/Firefox and printing capability. Continue preparing for afternoon classes
    6. Teach from 3-5PM, 5-7PM, and 7:30-9PM (M, T, Th – as you can imagine days without this class was a holy day because I finished at 7PM)
    7. Go home, eat something, try to at least finish lesson planning for the 9AM class, and if I’m not dead work on lesson plans for my afternoon classes (failure rate: 99.9%)
    8. Die/sleep

I would usually only finish/mostly finish the lesson plan for my 9AM class and end up planning for my afternoon classes during the 11AM-2PM break.

  • I had one special needs student in my class. Although he had a fair grasp of English, it was clear that he did not have as strong of grammatical foundation as other students. He also took longer to do the exercises. All of these would have been fine if I had a class only with special needs students but it was almost impossible to both give him ample time to finish the exercises/correct mistakes and keep up with the pace of other students – it seemed unfair. I didn’t feel comfortable letting him pass the course but… [see next bullet]
  • Our school is a private language institute where students or their parents pay money for classes. Because they are paying customers, we provide many avenues to allow students to pass which is a blessing and a curse. We have a generous absence policy, free tutoring, and makeup exams. I wanted to fail a good number of students but knew I couldn’t. It’s very difficult to explain. I’m very critical by nature so if I had my way I wouldn’t hesitate to fail a student unless I was sure they were ready to advance to the next level but alas, it is not my school.

And that was my first month of teaching.

All that being said, the school has a solid reputation, clear expectations and rules for teachers, reliable management, and good rapport between teachers. The facility is clean and comfortable with free wifi, tea, coffee, and large bathrooms. Since I’ve been here I’ve heard horror stories about other language institutes so I’m glad I ended up with mine. The experience described above was purely a personal one.

This took me a long time to write because I wanted to be as objective as possible about a subjective matter. If you read everything, thanks. If you didn’t, I don’t blame you. I’ll just kill you in your sleep.

Hopefully a more uplifting post next time!

HAHA I LIVE

You can’t get rid of me that easily.

Or, I can’t get rid of me that easily.

 

I am back in Arequipa…

IMG_2364

…after I spent some time in and around Cusco…

IMG_1583IMG_1854IMG_1874IMG_2001IMG_1534…met new people, however awkwardly…

IMG_2335…trekking to some site that is apparently famous or somethin I dunno…

IMG_2295 …and finding an AMAZING place to live the same day I arrived back from Cusco…

IMG_2401…now working as an ESL Teacher.

My own pack of brand new markers and eraser - I was more excited to receive this than seeing Machu Picchu. That is not a joke.
My own pack of brand new markers and eraser – I was more excited to receive this than seeing Machu Picchu. That is not a joke.

No big deal guys. Just behind on 800000000000000000000000000000000000000000 posts.

Hope to catch up soon – hasta luego.

The 4-Weeks Series: #3 – Arequipa

I believe the initial glamor of the blog has worn off but to those of you who are still reading this, thank you. Down the road I hope this becomes more relevant to the readers and not just a “me me me me me me” blog like it is now.

—–

All roads lead to Arequipa, maybe, because I will start teaching in May at the same school I received my certification! And one of my coworkers back home said he may visit Peru in August, including Arequipa! AREQUIPA IS THE NEW NYC.

Anyway. The job is part time (6 hours/day) but it is comforting to know I will not be a traveling hobo and also will be going back to a place with people I know.

My last night in Arequipa at a rooftop cafe in Plaza de Armas – new friend Milly on your left and my British host Melissa on the right. The cafe provides traditional ponchos because it gets pretty cold. We looked GOOD. LIKE SEXY BATS.

At the same time it feels like the biggest cop-out of the century. I left Arequipa with the intention of continuing to travel north and I did not intend to go back to Arequipa. I have not talked about my feelings on Arequipa much until now. I wanted to explore new cities, see which one would be a good fit, and settle there. I left Arequipa because after a month, I felt like it was not a place where I wanted to stay. But at the end of the day I accepted the job because hey, job security and the comfort of being somewhere you already know, right?

I’m a bit disappointed in myself that I took the easy way out when the whole purpose of this trip has been to face new challenges and fears. The consolation is that the minimum contract is for 6 months but many teachers flake out early without repercussion. I don’t know if I will do that but at least I will have the option of not renewing the contract and maybe try on to a new city.

But you know how things like that go – once you start living somewhere, you just kind of keep the status quo….

Anyhow. I am very excited to finally start teaching.

Graduation lunch
Graduation lunch where we took pictures smack in the middle of a super busy restaurant

It’s funny, Arequipa feels like my “de facto home” because it was the first place I went to in Peru.

Here are 5 Best and Not Best things about Arequipa based on my first month there. I feel a little “deserving” to say this now that I have Cusco as comparison.

5 Best Things

1. Weather: Basically sunny and beautiful every. single. day. Daytime can get hot – the sun is strong, sunscreen is definitely a good idea – but it’s all dry heat, zero humidity. In the mornings and evenings you can just pop on a light cardigan or sweatshirt and you’re fine. I love the weather.

Overlooking El Misti and Rio Chili from Puente Bolognesi. You can go whitewater rafting on this river.

2. Food: Hello, empanada shops on every corner. In addition to traditional/popular Peruvian dishes (ceviche, adobo, anticuchos, lomo saltado, queso helado, cuy chactado, salchipapas) there are Arequipeño cuisine as well. These include rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed peppers), caldo blanco (soup with chicken broth and potatoes), soltero de queso (salad with beans, tomatoes, queso fresco, onions, potatoes), etc. I ate at both local and touristy places but I didn’t see any real differences (I try to eat at cheap places). The food was good 90% of the time. It’s not special to Arequipa but since we’re talking about food, the vegetables and fruits here are awesome and cheaper compared to US prices. You can also buy fresh bread, oatmeal, tea, juice, and (yes) empanadas from street vendors. I pity the gluten-allergic soul that walks by a panadería. 

Rocoto relleno at the local market
Buñuelos (donuts)
Anticucho, cow’s heart. I had a bite and only one bite. It’s good, but it’s very in-your-face.
Papa rellena with chicha

3. Walkability: Kind of a cheat bullet because Peruvian cities (right, because I’m an expert on that) are very walkable. Most of the time there are clearly-defined sidewalks and the distance to pretty much anywhere is walkable. Taxis are cheap by US standards but with a Peruvian salary it can add up; most people opt for the economic colectivo, the sometimes scary local buses.

4. Colors/Architecture: I posted pictures of those things here before. Arequipa residential areas can be a photographer’s heaven. I’m not an architecture person so I will probably butcher whatever I will say, but it’s a mix of European and native styles. These things are hard to explain. Anyhow, thanks to all the colors and gorgeous architecture, there is less likelihood you will get depressed in Arequipa.

P.S. The colors also include the vintage VW Beetles that come in a rainbow of colors. They are apparently not expensive at all. HMMM.

5. Non-Tourist Destination: It’s all relative but I didn’t see a lot of tourists in Arequipa. The Colca Canyon is one of the major attractions but that is a few hours away. Most of the tourists are concentrated in the main square area where you can see monasteries (like Monasterio de Santa Catalina I posted about before), museums, visit shops, restaurants, and just generally enjoy walking around.

It’s nice to blend in with the locals. Or at least try to.

Plaza de Armas
One of my favorite places to visit, the square at Mirador de Yanahuara
Weekly Sunday Parade at Plaza de Armas

5 Not Best Things

1 through 5: THINGS. Noise. People. Traffic. Malls. Traffic. Traffic. Noise. Noise. Noise. Noise. People.

Arequipa has about one million people and it’s a big city, so of course there is the super busy city center and more peaceful rural areas. I was in the city center. I never got a good picture of the traffic or the more non-picturesque parts of Arequipa life because whenever I walked along a major road I just wanted to get to the destination. The fumes from the car exhaust make your eyes hurt. There is constant honking – oh my god, the honking. Honking in Arequipa is equivalent to trying to resist freshly baked bread with butter: it’s useless. Divers honk even if they are in gridlock and it is obvious that the traffic is not moving. They honk if they are (insert any emotions here). They honk if they see an attractive girl. They honk to let people know they are available. They honk because…they…can.

At Tiabaya visiting a new friend. About 25 minutes by local bus from the city center. Nice to get away from the noise for some fresh air.

So I have mixed feelings about Arequipa. That being said, I was only there for a month, the majority of which was spent at school, so what the hell do I know. Hopefully I will get to know the city better.

If someone asked me if they should visit Arequipa, I would probably say “sure?” with that exact intonation. Cusco has more of a “wow” factor as far as the stereotypical prettiness and wow-ness are concerned. Arequipa has its own charm but I think it takes longer to find it.

Readers, I would not disappoint you. Of COURSE I made a face in one of the pictures.
And try to not be this guy if you do visit

Now to await responses for my Couchsurfing requests. Ay caramba.

Cusco

Now that I am deathly and irrevocably behind The 4 Weeks Series – hola from Cusco, home of Machu Picchu, Inca history, and the city flag that is mistaken for the gay pride flag 200% of the time.

Peruvian and Cusco flag at Plaza de Armas

I am my own traitor to the blog name. MWHAHAHAH

I actually have a crap-ton of things to write as far as my current traveling, work, and “mental/psychological” (not in a dramatic way but things related to emotions and thoughts) situations go but I don’t want to make the posts too long so this will be focused on Cusco. The super short version is that after I completed my certification in Arequipa, I wanted to see more of Peru so I chose Cusco as my next destination.

Cusco is stunning – no wonder why 800 trillion tourists come here everyday. It is decidedly different from Arequipa due to the geography, history, and population.

I think most people fall in love with Cusco, at least at first sight. I did, mostly due to significant reduction in traffic noise and the number of people. Sure, there are troves of tourists everywhere, but the atmosphere and charm of the place make up for it.

I think being in Arequipa for a month helped a bit with altitude acclimatization but Cusco is something else. I’m fine when walking on flat terrain but any semi-significant to significant incline or stairs and I’m basically dead. That is one of the reasons why I have been holding off on the adventurous excursions like Machu Picchu.

To be frugal, I used Couchsurfing to find a place to stay for free for 3 days. Although the host was nice, the apartment was extremely dark and depressing so I left as soon as humanly possible on the third day. I will give Couchsurfing a try again though – my host was helpful and showed me around the town the first day. I can’t believe people are generous enough to let people live in their homes for free and some even take the Couchsurfers to sites, virtually acting as a free local guide. Couchsurfing also lists local events to help meet people.

Deceivingly “shallow” stairs that will kill you

I am currently at an awesome hostel called Dragonfly Hostel in a 6-bed female room. This was the first time I chose such an arrangement but so far it has been good. A bit cramped but people come and go and there are spacious common areas where you can hang out.

Looking at downstairs at the hostel – it has its own bar
Upstairs

I have not wandered too much around Cusco, just in the central area. One of the things I love about Cusco is that there are small squares (parks) almost every block so you can almost always find a good spot to relax, people watch, people judge, read, zone out, etc.

There are so many tour agencies and tour options that they make you want to punch everyone and everything.

Sorry this post has not been too informative of Cusco. I’ve only been here a few days and for some reason it has been a difficult adjustment, mostly because I am still getting used to traveling alone. Below is the picture dump – I explain the pictures in the caption.

Quoricancha/Qorichancha/Coricancha/Quricancha or Temple of the Sun – the most important temple during the Inca Empire. I did not hire a guide but I should have as there were almost no plates describing what anything was. Beautiful place though.
The stonework inside
You can walk around the garden outside as well – those stone steps were scary to go down
The courtyard
Proof I was there – behold the picture quality

Neat details everywhere –

Many blue things here, no? I have not seen a lot of reds.

Just like in Arequipa, Cusco has a ceremonial parade every Sunday morning at the main square. I have videos of this as well but I couldn’t upload them.

Fountain at Plaza de Armas

This is probably one of my favorite photos. I was sitting on the bench and these girls came by. For a split second I thought they were selling something and my instinct of saying “no gracias” kicked in – although I didn’t say it – until I realized they were just normal girls with their new puppy, Machu. Yeah, I felt guilty, but stuff like that happens often enough that you develop a involuntary defense mechanism.

Anyway, they talked to me in Spanish and I responded as well as I can. They asked me to take their pictures. I also got to hold the puppy. They were great.

All this to say – as I stated on Facebook – kids remind you to not constantly have something stuck up your ass.

Some awkward pictures that could have turned out well in a parallel universe…but something is off in these…the framing, the quality, etc. Maybe some of you can see where I was going with these pictures. The common theme among these is that I had to capture these moments as fast as I could because in the next picosecond it wouldn’t be the same moment anymore.

This dude was imitating the military people marching

I visited Mercado Central de San Pedro, the go-to place for locals to buy mostly fresh produce but this place has everything. It is quite overwhelming. It was too awkward to take pictures but you can do a Google image search. I had a cheap lunch at one of the food stalls. I enjoy those kinds of things because I get to see how the locals live and practice my awful Spanish. The napkin was a toilet paper.

Some food stalls – mine was less flashy

I also got one of my favorite Peruvian drinks, chicha, a sweet drink made from maize. I got this from a street vendor. If you drink it on the spot they put it in a glass; if you want it to go, you get a plastic baggie.

Chicha lady and customer

Of course, because this is Peru, a lady selling a cartload of chicharron sat next to me.

Okay, now for real the pictures that don’t really belong anywhere.

This was about $2.85, which was not that cheap by Peruvian standards. I couldn’t finish it all though.
Scary

I know I know I know, I’m tired of pictures of the vintage Beetles too, but I couldn’t help it.

Phew. Okay. Hopefully a more meaningful and informative post next time.