Monday, December 8, 2008

Christmas Party

Two examples of Trini-style dancing: wining. We may still have some work to do before complete mastery.

The best staff party ever.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Nariva Aftermath AKA National Boards

I was itchy when I got home, but assumed that that’s what being in the tropical bush for 72 hours would do to you. Then Aaron noticed some different things—one circle on my thigh that looked alarmingly like ringworm and some blistery looking things on my ankles—scabies? Chiggers? Something we’d never heard of??
Friday, November 21st, we could log on at 6 AM Seattle time to see what our National Boards scores were. For the past 15 months, I had pictured myself at home and checking in private, so I could huddle in a corner at bad news or celebrate and bask at good news, but since 6=10AM for me, no chance-- it's in the middle of my day. At 9:55, I told my kids I needed 5 minutes of I’m-a-real-person-time as opposed to I'm-a-teacher-time and I went in my office and checked. At 9:59, I clicked submit and a few seconds later: Congratulations! I got all Miss America, jumping up and down. I looked up to see my kids’ faces plastered on the window of my office trying to see what I was doing. I told them that I had passed a teacher test. Always the optimists, they said, “No way, it has to be cooler than that!” Nope. So we all walked over to Aaron's room and did a simultaneous thumbs up. On the way, I ran into the director’s wife, and told her the news.
As soon as class ended, I called Amy, my friend who had gone through it all with me, to see how she had fared. (She passed!) As we were talking, on my cell phone, the director of the school comes into my office. I assume he’d talked to his wife and he’s there to congratulate me. Odd for him, I think I’ve had one conversation with him since being here, but you know, it’s a big deal. I tell Amy I have to get off the phone and explain to him why I’m on my cell phone. “Great,” he says. “But you’re not getting a raise. So, do you have 200$ I can borrow? Your husband says you have some cash.” I must have looked confused. “I have to pay a mechanic.” Isn’t there a petty cash fund?? I did have it, that’s about 40$ US, so I gave it to him and he said, as he left, “Thanks! I’ll pay you back. Congrats.”
About an hour later, my bites got worse. I found a doctor and the receptionist told me there was no way—the doctor was supposed to leave in 20 minutes and there were two people in front of me. The lady stared at me until I asked her if she could suggest someone else, she called, got a no, called someone else, got a yes, and then started to tell me directions. I started to get a little teary at that point. Being told directions to a new place doesn’t usually work out well for me. A man sitting, watching my ankles oozing, said, “Take my appointment. I was just dropping off paperwork. I come by here every day on my way home.” Really? “Sure.” Okay. I wasn’t going to ask again. The doctor took one look at them and said, “Sandflies. You’re having an allergic reaction to them. Take this. They’ll get really bad, but after four weeks you should be fine. If not, come back. And yes, that’s ringworm. Take this.” I do know where the pharmacy is and I went straight there. So, to celebrate the honor of becoming a National Board certified teacher, Aaron helped me slather on some crème, both on my pizza legs and on my ringworm thigh, and I laid on top of our bed, trying not to juice more than necessary.
But I passed!

Nariva Swamp

Last week, I went to the southeastern corner of the island to go to Nariva Swamp with five other teachers, all of the 6th graders at ISPS, 3 ISPS security guards, and 4 private security guards (hired by kids’ families). I’ve never spent 24 hours straight with a kid, let alone 72 hours with 36 kids. (Keeping track of the firsts on this trip might be a fun game.) It has taken me about a week to recover. Well, actually, I am still recovering—see pizza legs below. ISPS has gone to Nariva Swamp for an interdisciplinary outdoor education field trip for the past few years. Students study soil and plant samples and look at things like erosion and photosynthesis in action. On the humanities side, we interview residents of the tiny fishing village, and take notes for a case study of how humans interact with the land in such a rural environment. Wednesday morning, everybody’s pockets were secretly stuffed with contraband like Ipods and cell phones and suitcases were stuffed with spanking new L.L. Bean gear and snacks. All the parents were there, many in tears. It was a heart-breaker. Two buses pulled up, and eventually a third bus came for us too. We hopped on and the kids sang, talked smack, and shared snacks—snacks for which they knew the origin since they had been created by their relatives—for the two hour trip. The day before, we’d been told that Alicia, my principal, needed to take our car (Aaron was staying in Port of Spain) on the trip. Since the cars were handed to us, we didn’t really have a say, but that was a bit of a surprise. She drove along behind the bus.

We got to Kernaham Village, the fishing village, and my kids took out their packets and got ready to interview people whose lives were drastically different from theirs. We’d been training for this for weeks, so as to avoid any negatives surrounding these cultural differences. It seemed to go well—I always love situations where kids have to step up and act like professionals. They learned that the residents grew 90% of their own food, which was mostly cucumber, squash, and rice. One lady even let my kids pick a few cucumbers, I think because she was shocked they were so shocked to see cucumber didn’t grow in plastic. They asked about the stilts all of the houses were on and what the rain bins attached to the gutters were. They took pictures of the one religious center in the village where Muslims, Christians, and Hindus all worship. We looked for caiman (like alligator—the school mascot—We caiman we conquered), but saw only buffalypso (a breed of buffalo engineered by a proud Trini—calypso originated in Trinidad). We searched for scarlet ibis, the pink national bird, but found only the white cattle egret.
When the day quieted down, we headed to our hotel. I had been assigned a room with four boys—all the teachers are female, so while this wasn’t a huge surprise, it was new territory. The windows of our room had all its shades down and as I opened the door, there was quick shuffling and eyes staring, waiting to get reprimanded. I watched them all look at each other and make some kind of silent agreement. They raised their arms and uncovered a poker game on the kitchen table. Against the rules? Judging from their faces, probably. But after 5 minutes of playing with them, I realized they had no idea how to play. So I figured since it wasn’t actually poker, no harm done. And I quickly realized I had to figure out which battles I was going to pick. For instance, a few times they took off their shirts to compare ab muscles. You know how boys are--trying to compete in as many ways as possible. I kept having to tell them to put their clothes back on. Another first, although, more harmless than you’d think as they all showed off their prepubescent baby bellies. Plus, they had snacks in bowls (in bowls?!) and were treating each other well, so as far as I was concerned: Game On. (Although I quickly got bored of non-poker and taught them a few other, less cool, but more fun games.)
The room consisted of a living area/kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms with two beds each, so I figured I’d sleep on the couch and not make a big deal of it…especially after one of the boys offered me his blanket. We made dinner together, fun and a little crazy, and then they declared they were going to stay up all night playing Cheat (Bullshit). About 9 PM, after a full round, ace to king, with no one calling Cheat, I realized I was the only one awake enough to recognize the collapse of the game. I told them to go to bed, and they went. I had expected that to be trickier.
That morning, at 5 AM, one of the boys woke me up by tapping me on the arm, “Miss?! Can I make pancakes yet?” Nother first. “Not yet.” Fifty minutes later, same deal, so I said yes and he got out his canister of Bisquick and turned on the stove and whipped us up some pancakes before we even brushed our teeth. It’s fun seeing what kids can do outside of the classroom. This kid had said he was saving up for a KitchenAid, but I’d had no idea how serious he was.
That day, we headed out to the river sites to conduct the science side of our research. Hot and sticky. Came home, played in the pool, made dinner, taught them the card game Spoons, practiced our skit that everyone was assigned to present that night. (My boys got roaring applause thanks to the song they wrote and their MJ dance moves at the end!) After the show, one of them walked in our room, opened his mouth, and threw up. Then he crashed on my couch. I asked the maids to clean it up, which they quickly did, but when he repeated the same thing an hour later, they had already gone home. So I did my best, gagging the whole time, and even still, we couldn’t escape the puke smell for the rest of the trip. Since he was on my couch, I could only go to his bed. So I slept next to a student of mine: obviously, different bed, but, interestingly, same room. As I turned off the lights, I started to shut the door, but realized it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep it open. Early that morning, Justin woke me up saying that he had a nightmare. Bleary eyed and nervous of US laws, I patted him on the back until he fell asleep again. He forgot about it soon enough, and was up ready for more flapjacks that morning too. Are you keeping track of these?
The third day, we were scheduled for a four hour hike through Bush-Bush, a forest in the swamp, known to be an anaconda and howler monkey habitat. The guides showed us every plant and animal on the trail. They carried machetes, called cutlasses here. One of the private security guards followed us as long as he could in his SUV—for a fast getaway in case kidnappers lurked. It was beautiful, but no anaconda.
One of the other groups found a baby monkey and the guide said that the mother had been killed by poachers, so he let the teacher hold him. We heard blue and gold macaw, too, but didn’t see them. Afterward, we started home, but it took twice as long because of traffic. It’s not like there are gas stations or Starbucks along the way to stop, so four hours in a van with no bathroom breaks was killer. Remind me not to have 12 kids. When we got back to school, there were more tears, and the mother of the boy who I had slept next to brought me chocolates to thank me for taking such good care of her son. English is not her first language, so she must not have realized that the chocolates said “Naughty” in bold letters all over the wrapping. Another first.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Apparently I am allergic to some of the bugs here. That's why my legs now look like pepperoni pizza. Sean, am I going to die?

Monday, November 10, 2008

International Week

64 Countries
International Week started with a ceremony during the last period of the day on Monday. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I didn’t have a class of students, so I wandered down to the gym. The only seats left were by the kindergarten class. I’ve never really observed a group of 5 year olds together; they were a little wiggly. Two students emceed the ceremony and introduced the Flag Ceremony. A student from Argentina walked into the gym, carrying the blue and white flag with a sun that I remember and love. Everyone clapped. ISPS has students from 64 different countries, and each country was represented by a student flag carrier. I know I’m a social studies teacher, so obviously I like world stuff, but I tear up at seeing so much of the world represented in one room and imagining the pride the students felt at representing their country. It was like a mini-opening ceremony at the Olympics except that all of the students were wearing traditional dress instead of dorky hats and shorts. The Italian girl, my student, Martina, wore a beautiful embroidered dress, the Kenyan girl, a high schooler, wore a colorful dress and head wrap, the American boy, Matthew who plays volleyball with us, wore his Eagle Scouts shirt, and the Venezuelan girl wore a very risqué white cropped peasant shirt and low-waisted patterned skirt with supermodel hair. She looked great, and, I guess, traditional.

My favorite, though, was the tiny Spanish representative. She wore a hot pink flamenco dress. As soon as she got near my seat, the kindergartners went wild. Nobody was still sitting on the chairs, they were tipping back in them, standing on them, crawling over the teacher, shouting at the girl, and jumping up and down hysterically. I think she was in their class. It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

International Week ended with an International Food Festival on Saturday. We’d gone out Friday, so we made our way there about 11 AM. The entire gym was filled with decorations and food. It looked just like the Milwaukee Food Festival we used to go to for Spanish class. Every country, again, was represented with multiple dishes and multiple moms behind every stall explaining what everything was. We made our way around the gym, eating and socializing. We ran into a teacher, Jason from Australia, with food on his chin and his shirt. He mumbled, “I’ve been here for two hours. Don’t eat any of the rice, dumplings, or starch—it’s all a waste. The best is the Syrian-Lebanese booth. I’ve been there three times.” The food here in T&T is okay, but has none of the variety that we are used to. We crave Mexican food and Asian foods of all kinds. Fortunately, these two cuisines were well-represented with sushi, slow-roasted meats, and lots of sweet milky Latin desserts. I tried to memorize which kids I saw talking to which moms so I could bug them later for recipes for Sopa de Amor from Panama, alfajores from Argentina, and tortillas from Spain.
Afterwards, when I was exclaiming to Alicia how impressed I was with the food, she said, “Well, that’s what happens when you have a bunch of rich mothers who don’t have jobs. They cook and decorate.” Our kids are rich. About half of them are from international families, from the UK, Australia, Korea, Venezuela, whose families are in oil and the other half are wealthy Trinis with local businesses. These international kids are 11 and 12 years old and a lot of them have lived in 3-4 different countries already. They are much more easy-going, confident, and tolerant than the kids I am used to. One British kid, one of my favorites, Max, told me he just moved here from Cairo. I couldn’t even think of a good question, I mean, how do you explain Cairo even when you have a 7th grade vocabulary? So I said, “How was the weather?” “Hot.” “How was the food?” “Terrible.”“Did you like it?” “It was brilliant.” For geography, I gave my kids a blank piece of paper and asked them to draw the world. In Seattle, my 7th graders would work on this for 10 min. and some could draw the US, some could draw Africa. That’s about it. Here, the kids were still working after 30 minutes and they drew and labeled about 60 countries. Most of the wealthy Trinis are from this giant conglomerate family that supposedly owns most of Trinidad. There are nine cousins in Grade 6 and there are 36 students in Grade 6. The nine are often referred to as “The Cousins.” The matriarch is originally from Syria, so the kids don’t look Trini, but because they’ve lived here their whole lives, and most of their parents have, too, they are Trini. These families don’t own stores in the mall. They own the mall. It’s like teaching Kelly Kellog or Pam Post—most of the food in the grocery stores carries the same names our kids do. Aaron told his kids he wanted to go somewhere for a Poetry Café and a few kid asked him which restaurants or shops he wanted because they could get them. (He chose the Haggen-Daas.) The vice-president of FIFA is one of my kid’s grandfathers, so he gets box-seat tickets to all the soccer games. I’m working on that one.


This is the kind of thing I love. 3:00 PM on a Saturday, a group of people meet up by a large jungle area. Someone, a hare, has come earlier to create a trail in the jungle. A leader distinguishes himself by telling some jokes and shouting GO! and then the group takes off running to try to find the trail. I think I giggled the whole time because it’s a little ridiculous. I love the whole: “Wait just a second, how did I get here?” thought. A hash is when you walk/run through a jungle, up and down mountains without having any idea where you’re going but you’re following the person in front of you who you just met. You’re usually dripping in sweaty sun-block, covered in scratches from long-armed plants and shouting back and forth to see if anyone found a trail. There are a few things about Trini hashes that you won’t find in the States—littering (the hare leaves a paper trail every quarter mile or so), creating your own trails in national parks (there are no “Stay on the Trail” signs here—it’s all up for grabs), and, debatably, walking through murky, waist-high rivers for longer than 20 minutes at a time. But it’s good fun.
Apparently hashing is something that started in Malaysia with a group of ex-pats, but like all good things, it has since become an international phenomenon. We heard about it through the people we play pick-up Frisbee with on Thursdays. A few weeks ago, Aaron, Tom, three folks we met from the Clinton Foundation, and I drove three hours to the northeast corner of the country, about 45 miles. We found the beach and ran into the water. We then realized we should grab something to eat before the hash, so we tried to find a store or something. Nothing was open, and honestly, nothing really looked like it had ever been open. We started asking around and found out that there was a roti place that was open in the next town. It sounded like that was our only option, and as we are getting used to curry at all times of the day, even before running events, it worked. The roti was tasty, but the chicken only came with bones, so most of us went vegetarian. It’s tricky eating a burrito with bony chicken. Then we went back to the beach until the group of people started gathering. Changing rooms, bathrooms, big trees—there weren’t a whole lot of any of those either. So I wrapped up in a towel and went from bathing suit to running gear, full of sand and salt.
I got to the group just as people started running, dividing, and running in all directions. After a minute, somebody shouted that they had found the trail, “On on!” and we all followed up a huge and muddy hill. Soon, the people in front of me stopped climbing. “Not the trail” someone said and we made our way down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, the hare told us, “No, that’s the right way.” So we ran back up it. There’s a lot of “On on?” and “On on!” back and forth to signal that we’re all together and we’re all going the right way. Groups form, but it’s tricky to stay with your group because the fast runners are at the front, but then when we go the wrong direction, they are at the back and have to run back to the front, so there’s lots of pushing. It’s interesting trying to run through a jungle with your thoughts a combination of: I’d better keep up with the lady in front of me since there’s no one in back of me, where’s the nearest place I can get a terry cloth sweat band and where’s Aaron?, and man, I wish I could look up for a longer than a second but I know as soon as I do, some root is going to jump up and trip me. There were some open parts on larger trails that looked like they had been roads, but mostly we stayed in the jungle, holding onto plants whose leaves were green on the top and purple on the bottom for support and avoiding spikes so long from an aloe-vera-looking plant that they bent after a few feet and laid on the ground for a few more feet. At one point, when I started to get tired, a truck appeared with water and beer. That made me realize this was much more organized than it seemed. It was a little like the TV show Survivor or something—sure, there was danger, but not as much as a first glance told you. A bit later, we came out onto a large field and saw the sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea where we had started, exhausted, sunburnt, and pumped at the chance to run like a little kid for a few hours.
Hashers say that they are a drinking club with a running problem. As everyone reassembled, speeches were made, awards were given, and then virgin hashers were asked to come forward to guzzle beer. On my best day, guzzling beer in front of a large group of people I don’t know isn’t really my thing, especially after running when my face is inevitably tomato red. So I stayed back with Tom, who agreed with me. Aaron went forward and they told him to say his name and who he had come with. He said his name and then he pointed at me and said, “I came with Katie and Tom, who are virgins too but won’t come forward.” Then we got heckled until we came forward. I wanted to say, “I am Katie and Aaron is sleeping on the couch tonight” but of course I didn’t think of that until later. They gave us fizzy apple juice and sang while we drank it. Lines appeared for the blue crab and curry that materialized. We tried to eat some, but we just wanted Gatorade so we said good-bye to the people whose backs we memorized and said we’d see them at the next hash.
Chagaramas, the national park by our house, hosted our second Hash. One of my favorite students, a kid whose accent is half Trini and half German (a wicked combination) was there. This hash was a little less organized and much harder—it had rained all day so the ground was super slick, which made a difference because the trail was never level. My student beat me and when we finished, Aaron sat on an ant hill, so we didn’t stay too long for the party afterward. But the next hash is in two weeks…

Sunday, November 9, 2008


October 28th was the major Hindu holiday of Diwali. We went to Maracas Beach for the day since we didn’t have school. We met up with the Canadian family here (Nick, Gina, Sienna, and Savannah) and then Tom from Indiana about 9 AM. It’s a beautiful drive there; you go through some of the nicer neighborhoods for a bit and then you start climbing up a green mountain, full of huge trees with huge leaves. To the left of the road it is straight down as you drive—a little scary. When you get your first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea with multiple tropical islands, you take a deep breath—it’s too pretty to be scared.
Driving up to the beach, you pass about twenty brightly colored stalls that sell the best version of the local delicacy: shark and bake. We’d heard about it before we got there, and I’d been told by my dietician friend, Annie, that ladies who might have babies should stay away from mercury-filled large sea animals, so I was ready to say no.
It wasn’t hard because it’s fried fish (shark) in a fried pocket of dough (bake). The thing that makes it a little hard to say no is the table of available condiments: cilantro sauce (it’s not cilantro though, it’s shadon beni, cilantro’s stronger and thicker older brother), chutneys, coriander sauce, creamy garlic sauce, pineapple, lettuce, tomatoes, tamarind sauce, cucumber slices, and lots of different kinds of pepper sauce (when you don’t want a lot of pepper sauce, you say: “slight pepper”). When we first got here, some people said “bake and shark” and I thought they were saying “bacon shark.”
It was a little early for fry, so we got in the waves. As soon as we did, it started raining. This is the rainy season now; it lasts from about August until January. Thunderstorms slide through Port of Spain everyday right about noon. They’re immense; I watch them building from my office window (I have an office! With a window!). One time, we watched some of the hill that we live on start to slide a little from the strong rain. Aaron made us come up with an escape plan, or at least discuss one since we didn’t agree about the best plan: he said we should we should get to the top floor of the house and I said we should try to run up the hill opposite us. At Maracas, we hid our towels under a palm tree, not quite as protective as a pine tree, and got back in the water. Gina stayed out and built sand castles with the girls. The waves were the biggest I’ve ever seen, at least since I’ve become five and a half feet tall. One after another, they knocked us around. It was awesome. Nick had a body surfing board, which was fantastic, but we soon put it back on the beach as one after another of us had difficulty with it on the waves we didn’t catch. The hazardous possibility of getting knocked out by the board unfortunately outweighed the fun of surfing on it. Six hours later, through rain, sun, harder rain, and harder sun, we got some shark and bake from the best stall: Richard’s. I got cheese and bake. It’s still a good carrier for the sauces and vegetables. We left Maracas then because we had been invited to Aaron’s student’s Diwali party.

My Trini friends had told me not to wear anything too revealing. I had been wearing a crewneck short sleeve shirt during this conversation, and they said that was too revealing. So I found some churchy clothes and got ready to go. We follow the directions we’d been given on this fancy calligraphed invitation—it’s right by a golf course. When we find it, the house looks like a mall. There’s a giant gate out front and maybe the house is five stories…it’s tall. Karin, Aaron’s student, sneaks out of the wall holding gingerly a gym duffle bag. We greet him, he shakes our hands, and then shows us his puppy he’s hiding from his parents in the bag. I guess it’d be easy to hide a puppy in a five story house. We go in, and the house now resembles a hotel more than anything. The front of it is an area that opens out onto the lawn like a lobby. There are giant bamboo structures with diyas glued on every part of the bamboo to hold all of the candles.
Diwali is the festival of lights. They look like giant spiders—very cool. Karin’s parents come up and thank us for coming. They lead us to the large back yard, which is covered with those tents that were too expensive for us to rent for our wedding in case it rained. There are a few other people there—they can tell we’re Americans and they ask us who we are voting for. These people don’t look like democrats, and knowing the students at our school and how their families own everything in the country, it’s pretty clear they’re not democrats. We both pause, about 10 seconds, and realize that the other one isn’t going to say it, so at the same time, we both say: Obama. Everyone laughs, just a little condescendingly. And the conversation doesn’t really pick up after that. Fortunately, more people start to come and we end up talking to some other parents, many of whom brought their older girls who are wearing those handkerchief shirts that don’t have backs. (I mention this to the girls who told me to dress appropriately and they said: Well, those aren’t the classy girls, are they?) The party has been catered with roti. There are a few kinds of roti—paratha (or buss up shut, because it looks like a “busted up shirt”) is torn and buttery and you use it to scoop up the food in small pieces. This is mainly for special occasions, but it’s becoming more common, I hear—used to be the best place to get some were Indian weddings. It’s really spicy and all vegetarian. The non-Indian Trinis tease by saying how nice some meat and wine would be, but everything’s delicious. Dessert is a buffet of lots of colorful Indian sweets.
Then, the fireworks start. Turns out our students are in charge of the fireworks. They start setting them off in the tiny spaces in the yard left between the wall and the bamboo structures. The fireworks are pretty intense (my kids had told me about the illegal Venezuelan ones they had had imported) so it’s good fun for the 6th-8th grade boys. Parents do some combination of shielding the younger kids, running back in the house, and telling the kids to stop shooting fireworks. The fireworks continue. I’ve never been present to watch the big city fireworks that go 100 feet up in the air start—it’s pretty amazing since they don’t look that different from normal neighborhood fireworks. And it’s a little precarious to watch my somewhat motor-skills limited 6th grade students in charge of them. It’s tempting, as their disciplinarians during the day, to try to carry out the parents’ wishes to stop the fireworks, but no way am I going to try that. As I watch this strange power struggle with the parents definitely losing, I see a gun sticking out of one of the dad’s pants. (I ask the other teachers about him the next day and they said some of the families are in good money and some are in bad money and I shouldn’t ask any other questions.) Shortly after, the kids run out of fireworks and we head home. Everyone is full of curry, but unburned.

Chagaramas National Park

This is the national park near where we live. All the other teachers live within sight of the school, but we are about a 10 minute drive. It is worth it to live near Chagaramas. We go on hikes here and I hear there are mountain biking trails so we'll have to look into that!

This trail is called Bamboo Cathedral. (Tom took a bunch of these pics--he always remembers his camera.)

Monday, October 27, 2008


Ten Ten
Last year for Aaron’s birthday, he said he wanted a fancy bike. I researched it and asked his mom and grandma if they wanted to all go in together and get him a really nice one. They did and we bought him a Volpe Bianchi 2007. He rode it once and returned it, saying he wanted to do more research. Ten months later, after going in bike shops on a regular basis, as they are quite common in Seattle, he told me he knew what he wanted: A Volpe Bianchi 2008. Soon after, we got our T&T jobs and he decided to wait since we didn’t know what the biking situation here was. So for a year, he’s been teasing me about stealing all of his birthday money. I asked him how he wanted to celebrate this year, and he said: quietly. So I decided to plan a trip to Tobago, quietly. I got 25US$ flights and reserved a room at my kids’ favorite hotel, the Coco Reef. It was more than we would normally spend, but I figured I had to make up for last year. I talked to Jackie FungKeeFung, an administrative lady at the school, about my plans and she asked if I had asked for the Trini rate. No! So, she called back for me and told them I “sounded American” but “was Trini” (and have the license to prove it!). That knocked a third off the price and suddenly breakfast was included.
There were some things to manage before this would work. First, Aaron loves soccer and T&T was playing the US in a World Cup qualifying game the following week. He had reserved tickets already—you have to do that online and then drive an hour out of town to pick them up on the Saturday we would be in Tobago. I called the ticket holders and, like a lot of things in T&T, there were some required steps: show a copy of Aaron’s ID, ticket number from the reservation, a letter authorizing someone else to pick them up, and then that person’s ID and then you’re golden. I asked another teacher, Tom, to pick them up and borrowed Aaron’s passport and practiced forging his signature. Second, the airport is about 50 km away and we’d been told that we shouldn’t drive there, that we should instead have one of the security guards drive us because they didn’t trust the security there. I got Anthony in on the plan and set up our ride. He said it would take 4 hours because of the Friday traffic. But Jackie FKF suggested a more appealing plan—to leave right after school, when traffic would be lighter, have dinner at a Beni-Hanna in by the airport, and then just hop over to catch our flight. So I emailed Anthony to cancel our ride. Jackie also told me that she had meant to warn me before Aaron’s birthday not to do anything too extreme the first year because then there’d be high standards forevermore…
Aaron usually gets up at 5 to read his book and drink coffee downstairs, I usually get up at 6, and we usually leave at 6:15. I woke up earlier Friday morning so I could grab both of our weekend necessities: swimming suits, flip-flops, contact cases, toothbrushes, deodorant. I ran out to the car to put the bag in the trunk. Our house is large enough that I can actually do this without tripping over Aaron, unlike in our old house. Aaron walked in the kitchen as I was getting breakfast and asked if I could smell him. I said no, but he went upstairs and two minutes later, he yelled down, “Did you do something with my deodorant?” “What would I do with your deodorant?” I lied and my face got red. I sprinted out to the car, grabbed it, and put it by the grapefruits just as he walked down the steps. “I left it here?” he said. I turned to the sink. “Guess so—weird. Ready to go?” We got in the car (without deodorant) and drove to school.
I’m getting more excited by the hour. Halfway through the day, Aaron sends an email to about ten of our friends at school: “BBQ Saturday Night at our house! Bring stuff to grill and drink. (This okay with you, Katie?).” I reply all, take him off the list, and write: “Oh, no, he didn’t. We’d love to host, but I’m surprising Aaron with a Tobago weekend, guess he’s still in the dark!, so we won’t be in town. Next week! If you feel like messing with him, now is the time.” By the end of the day, there was a full-on party planned with lots of LOLs. In class, one of my favorite students, a 40 lb. (if dripping wet) British-Indian, a true madman on the soccer field, Dillon, raises his hand and announces that he is going to Coco Reef in Tobago this weekend. I measure up my 6th graders while simultaneously realizing I was too excited to keep quiet after that set-up. “Me too!” I told them, “Friday is Mr. Kaio’s birthday and (some kid interrupted me and said: You’re going away with someone else?!”) I’m surprising Mr. Kaio but you can’t tell!” They wiggled like crazy. Later in the day, Dillon came up to me and whispered, “If I just say Happy Birthday to him, will that give too much away?”
Neither of us have afternoon classes on Fridays, so I head over to Aaron’s room. He’s surrounded by three humongous cakes, candles, and numerous gifts. One cake is a chocolate cheesecake from Alex Bovell, sister of the only Trini to medal in the 2008 Olympics, and when Aaron had asked her where she had gotten it (they don’t have those kinds of things here), she said her dad was an importer. It’s taking us some time to get used to these kids. While I’m there, nibbling, Mr. Ryan, a security guard, comes into the room and says, “You guys ready to go to Tobago today?” Aaron and I look at each other. “Don’t think that’s us. Must be someone else.” I stutter. “You’re the Kaios, right?” “Yes, but we’re not going to Tobago this weekend.” I’m sitting behind Aaron and shaking my head like crazy…but Mr. Ryan obviously has no idea what I am doing. “I’m sure Anthony said to drive you. Here, let me call him.” I can’t think. I’d expected any potential secret-tellers to be 12 years old and therefore easily declared crazy and swiftly forgotten; I hadn’t planned anything for somebody totally legit to ruin the surprise. I start pointing at the door, mouthing, and then whispering, “Get out.” Mr. Ryan is very polite. He repeats: “You want me to get out?” Aaron looks at me, sees me pointing and lets out a big bear laugh. “Looks like we are going to Tobago this weekend!” Mr. Ryan says, “Oh, it was a surprise?”
We drive to dinner in two hours, get a little lost on the way to the airport (turns out the Caribbean Airlines sign pointed in exactly the wrong direction), but make it fine otherwise. Our flight leaves Trinidad at 8PM and we are in our hotel room at 8:37 (definitely got scammed on the cab ride—40$ TT or 6.50 $ US for the 1 minute ride). The hotel is beautiful—peach walls, 6 foot brightly colored paintings everywhere, wicker—and very open with sea breezes, jungle vines, and frogs hiccupping. The food in Trinidad is fine, but it has none of the variety that we are used to. So, it was fantastic to have a British-style buffet breakfast both mornings (including baked beans and toast just like I remember) and to find an Italian restaurant with amazing Tutta Bella-type pizza.
Tobago is very different from Trinidad. The water is turquoise and not polluted. (The last time we’d gone to the Maracas Bay Beach in Trinidad, the guy next to us in the water had finished his beer and tossed it in the water next to him while we cringed.) It’s not humid—there is always a breeze. It’s tiny—we see a few locals twice on Saturday as we walk around the island. It’s got none of the business of Trinidad—so no oil ships off the coast or factories on the coast. Instead, all we can see is white sand and palm trees or small fields with goats and cows. The roads are more like what we’re used to, but still not great for biking. Walking for a few hours on sidewalks around the residential areas is really, really nice. Most of the houses are built so that the ground floor is open—no walls—and the second floor looks like a regular house. People say hi or honk as they pass; the locals seem very pro-tourism. One guy says, “Hi!” and we smile and he says, “Don’t be rude, say hi” and reaches out to pound Aaron. Jeff approaches us and carves our names and his name on a piece of calabash. Imo, who says he’s Peruvian but looks East Indian, sculpts some palm tree leaves into a grasshopper and says all he wants as payment is a smile, which is surely a lie, but he catches us as we come out of the water and literally have nothing. The taxi driver we hire because the sand in my flip-flops has given me blisters talks about how we’re his livelihood and thanks us for coming. It isn’t Disney-like like Puerto Vallarta, full of that twisted balance of machismo & sexism like Argentina, or really industrial like Trinidad. It’s like any island I’ve ever been to—quieter, slower, and quirkier. It’s hard to leave. But I’ve got to say, I’ve never played Frisbee with one of my students in a pink bikini before—I figure I’ve got to start preparing for Carnival at some point.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Asa Wright

This is a nature conservancy we went to our first week here called Asa Wright. It's famous for bird-watching, but check out the flowers!

That's how cocoa grows. Its super slimy white inside covers the beans. This one wasn't quite ripe: tart chocolate!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I adore my day job, but it is tiring. I forget every year how wiped out I am the first few weeks school starts, until I get used to all of my energy going into making reading and writing the most fascinating thing a 6th grader could ever do. We chose our first weekend to travel to the other side (only 30 miles away!) to go to one of the nicer beaches on the island. We woke up early Saturday morning, skipped the market (but made it to the soccer stadium to pick up tickets for the World Cup Qualifying Game, Trinidad and Tobago vs. Guatemala) and then drove east. You’re probably sick of hearing me say how crazy the driving is, but we’re glad every day we get to our house safely. And these one-lane roads were even thinner and windier and had more pot holes than the ones in the city. So that’s why it took two hours.
We were hot and as I’m not yet used to a curried food right when I wake up, I was hungry, too. I was the crabbiest I’ve been in awhile, I remember. We were so excited to lie down and relax on a beach. Just as we saw the sign for Toco, 2 km, our cell phone rang. Our friends, who were meeting us at the beach, called: “Hey, can you come get us? We just got in a wreck.” Everyone was okay, but there had been one of those one-lane bridges on a two-lane road (really, why?), and the truck on the opposite side had been on a hill and hadn’t been able to stop and had not only hit them, but had crunched on top of the car, just inches from the windshield. We flipped and drove back an hour and picked them up. They were pretty shaken up, understandably. No one really felt like driving much after that so we headed to the guest house for the night. It was nice, lots of fans and open areas where we could see parrots!, but I was glad that I saw the mice in our room the morning after and not the night before because my pillow had definitely been made of small, lumpy things not entirely unlike mice. (I know there are other things that are small and lumpy, but after I saw the mouse, I couldn’t think of any.) Suzanne, the owner, was so kind and fed us dumplings and delicious curried crab. Aaron loved the dumplings and asked me to get the recipe. She had a strong accent that I couldn’t fully understand, which is okay because I think I can figure dumplings out. The crabs were good, but I was super hungry, so I hated them a little bit because after all the work of crunching shell-on-teeth I was ready for something larger than my baby fingernail.

The next day, Suzanne hooked us up with some guides to take us on a turtle-viewing tour. To get to the beach, we got to ride on a truck like what convicts ride, kinda like a metal-covered picnic table. Luckily, this one had an open back with a platform and iron bars, so I rode outside and felt like I was wind-surfing. There were lots of potholes that quickly taught me to bend my knees at the right time to absorb them because otherwise, my feet didn’t always land back on the edge where I was standing. There were also vines hanging down from the trees to dodge, so wind-surfing isn’t the most accurate analogy. We walked along the beach looking for turtles for a few hours. It’s fun being with other ex-pats who attended similar teacher conferences because it’s such a crapshoot where you end up: we all almost went somewhere else. But there are times like that beach sunset walk where we look at each other and say, “We could be in Kuwait right now! We could be in China! Qatar! Hah!” It’s pretty resounding that we all feel like we’re in paradise.

The turtles at this beach get to be 8 ft. by 10 ft. Trinidad is famous for them. The guide said the biggest one he had seen was 6 by 4 ft. We found some babies caught in a super polluted tributary. One of the expats is this Canadian, Nick, who has two adorable daughters. He jumped in this water that looked like Guinness, that much foamy white and thick, dark liquid, to save the baby turtles. When he had a handful, he yelled out, “Sienna, Savannah, come help me save the turtles!” And all three of them became my favorite heroes as the girls held out their little 4 and 6 year old hands, all focus and concentration, to their gooey Dad and rescued the tiny black turtles. To save them, you line them up a few feet from the water so that they can smell the beach and know where to return. This is funny because it looks like how you used to try and make ants race—nobody knows where they’re going. But they all eventually made it into the water and the idea is that they’ll come back and hatch after a trip or two around the world.