Cheeky chicas and chicos

Get ready for the onslaught: 30 kids vying for your time!

Get ready for the onslaught: 30 kids vying for your time!

Niños, I teach a few, nine classes a week and 30 students per class. If they all show up that averages 270 kids a week! Add another 270 as I assist the co-teacher’s nine classes.

Imagine never teaching before and then facing 540 expectant faces week after week.

As a volunteer for a great organisation in San Jose, English Volunteers for Change [EVOLC], I front years 10-12 in grades 4 to 6. Some are interested in learning English as a second language, which is mandatory at Escuela Nueva Laboratorio, most are not!

Grade 6 to debate why English is required in Costa Rican schools!

Grade 6 to debate why English is required in Costa Rican schools!

To find out why we’ve challenged Grade 6 students to debate whether English should be taught in Costa Rican schools. The whole class virtually shouted “No!”, so you can see what we’re up against. It will indeed be interesting to hear what they deliver for the affirmative, and the negative for that matter.

Grades 4 and 5 are just as challenging. They love to colour in and listen to music so any audio or visual aid is going to get their attention and hopefully keep them interested for more than five minutes.

In San Jose, the capital, kids here rule the roost. They pay little attention to their profé [teacher] and think nothing of playing inside the classroom as if they were still outside enjoying recess.

The daily mantra is 1, 2, 3, silence please!

Cheeky Tico chicos!

Cheeky Tico chicos!

And it works, but you have to say it a lot. Never turn your back on these kids as it is a signal they can get out of their seats and dong their nearest classmate on the head. Then all hell breaks loose. You spend the next 10 minutes calming them down.

So best that both teachers maintain eye contact all times with these little cheeky chicos and chicas, which is difficult: two against 30!

That said, if you want to take some time out to help schools in need and do something rewarding, teaching is a great way to give back.

I have to follow the school curriculum, so coursebooks are provided. It helps if you have more than just a little Spanish, in my case, under your belt, but brush up on words such as sit down [sientese], be quiet [callarse], listen [escuchar], listen and read [exuchar y leer], write [escribir], draw [dibujar] and to be polite, always say please [por favor] following the request.

School is over, for another day, at least!

School is over, for another day, at least!

The best part of the day is going home, not because you’ve had enough, but simply knowing you may have imparted one word of wisdom,  in English of course!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer who hopes to secure paid teaching jobs in Central and South America. As an introduction to teaching, she volunteered for her first post in San Pedro, a 15-minute bus ride from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose.

Lock down: the US President is coming!

Casa Amorilla [Foreign Ministry] rolls out the red carpet for Barack Obama.

Casa Amorilla [Foreign Ministry] rolls out the red carpet for Barack Obama.

Last night Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla Miranda gave her yearly state of the nation speech after Ticos enjoyed the day off. Tomorrow US President Barack Obama arrives in San Jose, and again Ticos get a day of rest. More so for security reasons but it is being flagged as a long weekend gift to Ticos to enjoy themselves and spend up big. The economy could do with a cash injection of the retail kind.

So what about the US President’s visit? It seemed to be a case of who really knew Obama was on his way! No one seemed to know in the school where I teach. The news hadn’t made it to grass roots Tico teaching society though they were aware parts of the capital would be shut down. That was the talk during recess when teachers gathered around the coffee machine.

And yet only two days ago, the Tico Times ran with a story saying the security operation for President Obama’s visit was the “biggest in Costa Rica’s history!” So why wasn’t everyone talking about it. Why weren’t classes swept up in a visit of such grand proportions. After all, Obama is only the seventh US President to visit Costa Rica after president-elect Herbert Hoover in 1928, John F. Kennedy, a favourite of Ticos, in 1963, Lyndon Johnson’s brief stop during a flight to El Salvador in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and George W. Bush in 1989. The most recent trip was by Bill Clinton in 1997.

Truth be known Obama’s visit is big news and the whole city is on high alert, well for some secret service types, so the Tico Times reported:  “Following deadly attacks in Boston and an attempted poisoning of the president with ricin, Costa Rica will employ 1000 police officers, 180 intelligence agents, 150 Traffic Police officers and an unreported number of US Secret Service agents to guard the US and Central American presidents.”

From midday tomorrow, Costa Rica will experience “22 unusual hours of massive security deployments” across the capital. Not only will there be street closures but neighbourhoods, commercial buildings and public services will be locked down during Obama’s visit.

Practising rolling out the red carpet a week prior to Obama's arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Practising rolling out the red carpet a week prior to Obama’s arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Obama and other presidents from Central America and the Dominican Republic will be escorted to Casa Amarilla, as the historic Foreign Ministry building is known. The presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica along with Obama will be discussing trade, security, immigration and energy matters, officials were reported to have said.

So now I know after arriving in San Jose last week and visiting the famous Casa Amarilla [yellow house], why staff were practising rolling out the red carpet!  I thought there was some “unusual movement” by municipal and other police!  The Tico Times shed some light on that reporting that secret service agents and Costa Rican police officers had swept through downtown neighbourhoods interviewing residential and commercial building owners demanding personal details!

Back to the coffee machine at school. It seemed no one was that impressed. The visit by such high-ranking government officials was just another inconvenience. And I must admit how quickly I fell in step thinking their arrival was indeed problematic given I’d made plans to vacate the capital. Chances are, I’m told, I won’t get through downtown to join the tour bus to Tortuga Island

Chilling out on Tortuga Island.

Chilling out on Tortuga Island.

So what is one to do during an enforced lockdown? The only thing is to visit some of the “amazing” museums, via the internet! When in downtown San Jose at the  weekend, a Faulty Towers’ Manuel lookalike, and soundalike, helped me choose a card to send home. I was looking for something quintessentially Costa Rican.

Carlos José Juan Jesús Alonso Martín Sanz Rodríguez has many talents. He likes to travel the world, he is a local tour guide, he teaches English and he works in a card and bookstore similar to Hallmark in the US/Dymocks in Australia, and he isn’t shy in promoting his other sources of income on company time.

But what struck me about Carlos was his enthusiasm for life. He shunned other Spanish-speaking customers to take time to show me the “hamazing” website on Magical Trees, which of course is also available as a book at his store. Concerned about the other customers, he replied. “Don’t worry, Ticos take their time looking at things, we love to talk!”

So as he pulls up the website, and writes down directions to the exhibit, he excaims: “Hit es hamazing! Hi love eet. Ju must visit the display!” I promised I would but Carlos wasn’t about to let me get off so lightly. “Ju must visit it, won’t ju, eets hamazing, Hi love hit?” he urged. “Of course I will, it looks beautiful,” I replied. “Promise ju will visit. Ju must experience the trees of my country, eets hamazing, hi love hit!. And hi love your country. Hi want to go there. Hi’m a world traveller, ju know. Hi travel everywhere … via the internet!”

So this afternoon on the eve of Costa Rica’s biggest lockdown in history as the local horns blare with a political message I can’t understand, I plan to honour my promise to Carlos… and take a peak at that “hamazing” website of beautiful Costa Rican trees.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer, potentially stuck in San Jose during President Obama’s inaugural visit to Costa Rica.

The great Central American divide


Another two new countries and more lessons to learn, or should I say master because communication is key, even at the local Costa Rican Chinese restaurant where everyone speaks fluent SpanChese.

So to my surprise Chow Mein Hong Kong-style was a real find after being pizza’d out for the past week in Panama.

It took about an hour to fly from Panama City to San Jose and the two cities couldn’t be more different. Panama is a hot and sweaty thriving metropolis under continual construction. Yellow taxis whirl by beeping potential customers. There’s one price for you and then add $1. It is their way of finding out whether you’ve just got off the boat.

It is cooler in Costa Rica and the red taxis in San Jose appear on first take to have fewer banged up bumpers. Only a million or so people live in the capital compared with Panama’s thriving three million.

Both cities have a lot to offer. There’s no denying Panama is beautiful, if you know where to look. It has its dangerous [peligroso] communities gringoes need to avoid at all cost, or is it just to benefit the taxi drivers who say they have to circumnavigate the area [at an extra cost to you]!

DSC05064But in a cute B&B [] at the base of Ancon Hill, inside a gated community that once housed American officers working on the Panama Canal, that’s all forgotten. You’re surrounded by rainforest where sloths hang out high up in the trees, monkeys race up and down vines to pinch fruit as native birds push them off their perch and tiny near-transparent gekkos fly through the air. If they land on you accidentally they let you know via a sting in the tail.

It is exotic. And that is just in the built-up areas. Go up to Gamboa Rainforest Resort (pictured), even higher above islands where mountains once stood before the flood gates opened in the form of the famous canal and the view, as well as the diversity of plant and animal life, are breathtaking.

Locals say Panama will be thriving for another 10 years. It’s population of three million are split into three groups. Those that speak English [the city’s entrepreneurs] and have excellent paying jobs, those who speak Spanish and have good paying jobs, and the rest who don’t … have jobs.

DSC04920But it is the jobless who squat in some of the best real estate in town. If you want to buy in, you need to relocate them. Prices have tripled in 10 years but to foreigners it seems reasonable, especially for renovated flats. Less than a few hundred thousand for a decent apartment with water views, less than three hundred thousand for only water glimpses or no glimpse at all. Buying into homes away from the historical sector seems better priced at a couple of hundred thousand.

And working in Panama is easy I’m told if you have a job in mind. Panamanians prefer you apply for a visa for a chosen profession. Otherwise line up and wait, wait, wait for that general working visa. If you can prove you’ve got ongoing income and a lazy $100,000 to invest, you’ll go to the top of the immigration queue.

Do you know the way to San Jose?

I’ve only arrived in San Jose. The area where I’m staying is industrial [de la Iglesia Sagrado Corazon de Jesus] yet surrounded by shrines to Catholics. It is Sunday and the bells haven’t stopped ringing in tandem with the blare of car and train horns.

Guesthouse Hotel

Guesthouse Hotel

The guesthouse [] I’m in couldn’t be more different to La Estancia B&B. The room is stark in comparison. You get the sense it may have been a nun’s quarter in its recent past, until you turn the corner into communal areas to discover tiny enclaves of open green courtyards and lounging areas where facing couches with colourful cushions back onto plain walls painted with murals and carvings that pop!

I’m only here for two days before joining a host family for the next five weeks while I volunteer teaching ESL at Escuela Nueva Laboratoria. Orientation starts tomorrow and I can’t wait to begin helping co-teacher Silvia with grades 1-6. Apparently the kids are excited I’m coming all the way from Australia to help out. Of course, they hope I brought a Kangaroo or two with me. I can’t promise a live one, but I don’t think all 30 of them will be disappointed when we meet because I brought a Koala along too!

And of course if I get any spare time, I plan to check this city out. I’ve been here before but only for a few days in 2008. I never got to the Peace Museum, or the National Museum, nor the Interactive Museum, or the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design and did I mention the famous Museo de Jade? I’ll try to fit in the butterfly garden if the Children’s Museum is closed. If I’m here to help educate, I get a feeling I’m the one who’ll walk away with the education!

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer-turned web and app producer who is currently writing a children’s ebook while teaching and blogging her way through Central and South America.