Thursday, February 20, 2014

What school is like

When you walk into the Otilio Ulate Blanco school, you can tell that it’s old, but well-maintained, though many of the classrooms could stand with a coat of paint.  It sits on the southern edge of the central plaza in Zarcero, Costa Rica with two-way traffic on both streets.  The floors are large ceramic floor tiles from the 1950’s and the gym is a covered concrete area in the middle of a Spanish villa-style building, with classrooms around the central courtyard. 

The classrooms are spare.  The desks and chairs look to be vintage 1950’s materials, no plastic anywhere.  The walls are largely bare; each room as one electrical outlet, a chalkboard, a whiteboard, and a desk and chair for the teacher. 
It’s not bad though, it just seems to harken back to a different time in the progression of American public education, which may not be a bad thing seeing as how our standards and demand for “the best” have continued to deliver ever more dismal results despite the accrediting bodies swearing that assessment is the panacea for all pedagogical ills, billions thrown at the problem, and politicians and administrators getting in the way with required and common-core and a myriad other kind of faddish curricula.  I’ve seen bad schools before in the USA; I’ve seen them in other countries (e.g., Honduras), but I can’t imagine a school in the US doing so much with so little. 

The teachers are happy, energetic, well-dressed, and all business.  They dedicate their days educating cheerful, jovial, and respectful kids; the contrast between Costa Rican elementary students and the kids at the elementary schools in Darlington County, South Carolina is striking.  Here you’ll see none of the posturing and sassing that often abounds in the United States of 2014.  The students line up and give their teachers a kiss on the cheek before leaving each day.  Jack’s teacher worried that she’d done something wrong because the first time Jack didn’t kiss her, and she kissed him on the cheek, he tensed up badly.  When I explained to her that a teacher touching students, especially kisses, was completely forbidden in the States, she frowned and said, “Debe ser porque los gringos son así,” and she’s right.  We are that way.  We can’t be this way, but it’s nice to be somewhere where it can be this way, even if for a season, so that my kids can see that there are multiple ways of being and doing.  Marley told me yesterday that she would live her in Zarcero forever if she could.  The kids don’t mock, or make fun, or laugh at each other, except in amicable jest like friends do.  Everyone in her grade knows each other and gets along pretty well.  The petty ambitions and labels and name calling don’t happen here.  Wherever the British got their hands on any part of the educational system, we see the bullying and abusive behavior that we recognize as our own.  Here in Ticolandia, at least in this corner of it, it’s absent.   

I think the uniforms, required of every school in the country, help make them feel more equal and part of a community.  The rhetoric of their large meetings is definitely Christian Socialist rhetoric.  The Catholic Church and the Patria are the reasons why they are told to do what they do.  The nationalism is unlike other countries because it lacks the bellicose nature of ‘Murica and ¡VIVA MÉXICO, CABRONES!  It takes me back to a time and a place I never inhabitied but have read much of, and I like it and I’m also glad that our Constitution forbids governmental establishment of religion.  Not that I mind them teaching Marley to persignarse or morals to Jack and ethics to Calliope.  I dig it.  But, unlike the USA, Costa Rica is fairly homogenous and hasn’t had to deal with the upheavals and shocks and waves of immigration from all over the world like we have.   The America of yesteryear looks nothing like ours of today, but we are still America.  Costa Rica, demographically, other than marginalized Nicaraguan Otherness, looks the same as it always has.   

Since we aren’t citizens, and we don’t pay taxes, we felt like we should give back in return for our kids being allowed to attend there for free.  We’ve done what we’ve been able to, but there is still more that could be done.  If you’re willing to help, recognizing that it won’t be tax-deductible, let me know.  It’s easier to buy things here than to deal with the charlatans in the customs department here. 

There is a need for copy paper (locally $6 a ream), printer ink, and other supplies that the teachers pay for from their own pockets (as almost every teacher I’ve ever known does).   If you want to Paypal some help, I’ll put it to good use and send you some photographs of what we got.  I’m thinking some classrooms could use some paint, some walls could use some pencil sharpeners and some posters to liven up the place, especially maps.

Maps tell us where things are in the world.  I’m in a tiny insignificant corner of the world right now, not seen on most maps.  No matter the size of the place, I like to roost where I lay my head and make it better.  If anyone else wants to help folks you’ll probably never meet or see, I can make that happen without showing you photos of abject poverty and doe-eyed kids sitting in the dirt.             

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Settling in

Zarcero, nestled in the Tilarán chain of mountains that runs from SE to NW along the center of Costa Rica, sits around 5,700 feet above sea level.  The town (municipio) of about 4,000 people (counting the surrounding area) is dedicated to agriculture.  They grow onions, carrots, green beans, chayote, ñames, avocados, and countless other crops, and the pueblo is decidedly middle class.  The streets are paved and steep, and there are lots of fine houses--and a paucity of the verjas, or iron bars, one usually finds covering all entrances and exits of most houses in Costa Rica.  That was one of the reasons why we chose Zarcero for our adventure, it is safe and secure and you don't have to live in a cage to feel secure.

The people are industrious, charitable, and kind, instantly becoming your friends from the first conversation.  The kids have been accepted willingly at the school, and their teachers are caring and hard-working.  Their classmates are grateful for help in English class.  Marley knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  She is the laziest language learner, but she is adjusting well socially, which is an important part of 2nd-language acquisition, but I cringe when I see boys checking her out; she's still my little baby girl and I know what they're thinking and I want to.....breathe, Mac.

Jack is Jack.  He is our odd duck, and we love him.  He's not doing anything abnormal for him, but he's still our highly-active, emotional, recalcitrant-in-the-face-of-new-food little boy.  He has decided to be terrified of dogs, so going for a walk her is an adventure with him in tow.

Calliope is worshipped as a tiny muñeca (doll) by all who see her.  She cannot go anywhere without people fawning all over her blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin. She is quickly learning words, and will be the first of the three to speak Spanish.  
The hotel we've rented out sits on the main town square, in front of the famous cypress (cipreses) topiaries where all the tourists stop to take photos.  We can walk to everything we need, so we don't have a car.  But, if we want to leave Zarcero, we're finding that it's very expensive to take a taxi these days, and with five of us, the bus isn't as affordable an option as I thought it would be.

The cost of living here is absolutely insane.  Food costs 2-3x what it does in the States.  A kilo of rice back home is about a dollar.  Here, it's two to two-and-a-half dollars.  A 2-liter of Coke Zero is over $3 here.  An avocado, which grows on trees I can see from our windows here costs about $1.50.  Our planned budget of $700 per month for food is laughable.  We're spending a lot more, and we're not eating out.  In fact, it might be cheaper to eat out if we only ate casados (a typical meal of rice, beans, plantains, picadillo, and a meat).  Ticos (ticos is what Costa Ricans call themselves) earn 1/4th of what we make in the States.  The cost of labor is ridiculously cheap, but goods are more than they are at home.  We paid someone $20 to make us a pleated skirt, two pairs of shorts, and two dress shirts.  $4 per garment, from cloth without a pattern.

The weather is dry, windy, and cool.  It's gotten above 80F once since we've been here, but one night it got down to 44.7F with 15 mph winds.  That was a chilly night.  The houses don't have air conditioning or heat (though old ones do have chimneys and fireplaces), and the weather is perfect.  This is verano (Summer), the dry season.  It will most likely not rain at all until April.  When it does start to rain, it will come down with a volume (both of sound and quantity of water) only seen in tornado-generating storms back home, but without the violent winds we experience.

The aduana (customs) people have held a package shipped via Fedex since January 30th.  They keep needing me to fix some line on some form.  It's different every day.  It used to be easier 20 years ago when you knew that they were going to steal about 20% of what was in the package.  At least then it would clear customs quickly.  Now, they kill you with papeleo (endless paperwork), even if they don't steal anything.  If I were down in Alajuela close to the aduana, I'd try and bribe them; that's probably what they're waiting for, but, olvídalo.

Semi tractor-trailers use their engine brakes (Jake brakes) freely here, so our days are punctuated with "BRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" every time the lone redlight changes to red.  At least 10 trucks filled with freshly-cut sugarcane from San Carlos pass by each hour, day and night.  People no longer cut it by hand--too many snakebites and machete injuries--they have gigantic mechanical harvesters.

Unlike my youth, the roads are now in decent shape, rare is the pothole.  However, they are still covered in animals, pedestrians, and other cars, lots and lots of cars everywhere, with no new roads or infrastructure improvements.  Imagine tripling the number of cars on the road in the States in 1994, but building maybe one new road per state.  That's what it's like here now, and the gridlock has led to lots of motorcycles.  Unmuffled, 600cc, motorcycles with drivers who think that 1st gear is all the need.  Last night, I went outside and asked a young man to please move his bike away from the hotel, because it was literally, and I mean literally, rattling every window in the building.  He scoffed, but then I mentioned that I didn't think he knew how to ride the motorcycle and wondered if it might be his or not.  He quickly said, "No, es prestada, pero no me está halando come debería"  (No, it's borrowed, but it's not hauling me like it should), and departed in haste.  I bought a box of foam earplugs so I could try and sleep through the night with all of the automotive bulla (racket) outside.  It worked.

It's 12 miles to church, and it costs us $24 each way.  The bishop's wife was a missionary here with me, and they've given us a standing invitation to lunch at their house when we come to church.  The house is amazing and has a view like few houses I've ever been in.  Check it out:

I'll write more next week or this weekend.  I've got a lot to write this week on the article on Jorge Luis Borges and Judas Iscariot I'm working on.