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.)