Saturday, March 28, 2009

More of my comments on volunteering abroad

I got an email a while back from the University of Cincinnati about alternative spring break trips they have going on this year.  I went on one of these when I was doing my Master's, to Reynosa, Mexcio.  We were helping build dorms and church roofs with a church right across the boarder from McAllen.  It was undoubtedly one of the worst travel experiences I've ever had.  I'd lived in Mexico before I went on this trip, and knew what to expect.  Most of us had little to no experience working at a construction site, and I was the only one who spoke Spanish fluently.  We ate peanut butter and jelly (note: most people I've met in Latin America have a strange aversion to peanut butter).  We brought all the food, or ate at malls.  We didn't really go out in Reynosa.  We went to Monterrey and Saltillo, but didn't spend much time there.  We went to a cave.  It was Mexico, minus Mexican culture, language, food, everything there is to love about the country and its people.  The only thing worse I've seen is Cancun, which might as well be Florida at this point. 

So, this year they're also going to El Salvador, to La Libertad.  They're paying $1,200 and staying a week.  I'm familiar with the projects they working on.  I don't disagree that there's a need, and that it's good for people to get to know El Sal.  But how far could that $1,200 go if it were just donated?  And how much of this do we do just to feel good about ourselves and to get to go to the beach? I hope they don't have matching t-shirts. I hope they learn some Spanish.  I hope some of them go back and stay, not for vacation, but to live, to work, to really get to know the place.  And please, I hope someone tells them that undercurrents and jellyfish are a real thing, and that the beach isn't necessarily safe. 

Here's a portion of the mail.  Like I said, I understand why people go on these trips, but in the long-run...

The UC student organization Serve Beyond Cincinnati is organizing three trips. Serve Beyond Cincinnati (SBC) strives to build an emerging, civic-minded generation by providing national and international service experiences for UC students. All trips depart Cincinnati on March 20 and return on March 28.

La Libertad, El Salvador – Thirteen UC students will represent SBC as they join the Fuller Center for Housing’s 100 House Village Project. The project provides secure homes for families in need. Each of the students has raised $1,200 to cover their cost of the trip.

Reynosa, Mexico – Ten student members of SBC will travel to northern Mexico to assist in construction projects ranging from building homes and school buildings to building bathrooms and cultivating gardens. The cost of the trip per student is $1,100.

Minden, La. – Nine students will assist families in Louisiana as they help build and refurbish homes and assist with other projects. The cost of the trip per student is $300.

The Shocking Shower

This my disclaimer on my shocking shower, just in case it ever does full-on electrocute me.  To begin with I had a finicky gas-heated shower, that sometimses worked and sometimes didn't.  It died, I heated water on the stove for two weeks, and then finally I got this.  The red wire runs up and under the light bulb.  Needless to say, I think the guys who installed it were still drunk from the night before, and they forgot to ground it.  So, every 30 seconds or so it shocked me.  They came back, added a ground, and it was okay for a week or so.  Now it's back to shocking me, worse than before!  They fixed the gas two days ago, but didn't take off the electric part...gotta love Manizales!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Salento Visit

I'd been to Salento and Valle de Cocora before, but this time it was much more enjoyable! It remains one of my favorite places in Colombia.
Palmas de cera, the main attraction at Valle de Cocora

One of many hummingbirds we saw at the Acaime Reserve

I'd been to Salento and Valle de Cocora before, but this time it was much more enjoyable!

Maria Elena's where we stayed. She also makes her own jams, which taste like jams are supposed to. It's nice to be reminded of how hospitable people are in the eje cafetero. We also met an older lady, Lia I think, who sold me a beautiful scarf, and who told us the story of how she had recently been reunited with the love of her life who she hadn't seen for forty some years.

Yum, river trout, even if it's farmed and not really native.

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Views of the Nevado

The Nevado at dusk, from the Colombo. Also a sign that I need to get a new camera that can take pictures this time of day.

The Nevado the next morning. It was like this for several days, which I fully enjoyed since I hadn't seen it since I'd arrived in Manizales
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Things I'm Thankful For

I ran across this article, Too Many Innocents Abroad, when I was reading the Times this morning.  It reminded me of why I chose to do AmeriCorps instead of Peace Corps. 

In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad’s backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma’s cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course. I’m pretty sure the American farmer would see it as a publicity stunt and a bunch of hooey, but I never heard back from headquarters.

When Peace Corps finally offered me a position as a volunteer in 2003, it was working with agriculture in South America.  Not only did I have no interest in this (or much knowledge), I knew that as a female in Bolivia or whever it was that they wanted to send me, I would have little to no impact.  I'd already lived in Mexico by then, and remember thinking what a waste it would be for me to do that job.

This lack of organizational introspection allows the agency to continue sending, for example, unqualified volunteers to teach English when nearly every developing country could easily find high-caliber English teachers among its own population. Even after Cameroonian teachers and education officials ranked English instruction as their lowest priority (after help with computer literacy, math and science, for example), headquarters in Washington continued to send trainees with little or no classroom experience to teach English in Cameroonian schools. One volunteer told me that the only possible reason he could think of for having been selected was that he was a native English speaker.

This is one of my arguments now.  I gave several trainings for incoming and in-service PCVs in El Salvador, many of which would end up teaching English. Because of the 2021 bilingual plan in the public schools, there was a huge need for teachers to learn more of the language, but there was no country-wide plan that I ever saw.  I did meet volunteers who did excellent jobs of working with this, but they were usually a little bit older, or in a Master's international program.  Here in Manizales, they want to bring native speakers to be in the schools, but their teachers should come first.  It may take several years to bring them all to the level of language and methodology that they need, but I've met some excellent, excellent public school teachers here.  Sometimes I feel like it's degrading to my own career...if all you have to be is a native speaker to teach English, then why did I get my Master's and why do have to be certified in the U.S. to teach (it's not like this everywhere here, I'm more reacting to what I've seen going on in Central America with Peace Corps and English language teaching).  

Recinto del Pensamiento

I finally got around to seeing the Recinto de Pensamiento outside of Manizales, after months of rain and me being lazy.