Turn the Colombian beat around

‘The sky was all purple; There were people runnin’ everywhere;
Tryin’ to run from the destruction; You know I didn’t even care’
— Prince, 1999

A Colombian soldier  on security duty in 2012 in La Macarena. Photo: US Special Operations Command South

A Colombian soldier on security duty in 2012 in La Macarena. Photo: US Special Operations Command South

Colombia in the 1980s was the place Canadians liked to visit. So it seemed only natural in 1989 when working abroad in Toronto that my flatmate and I decided we wanted to party like it was 1999 for one week in the Caribbean resort of Cartagena.

Our plane took off on November 27, 1989. Almost three hours in the captain made an announcement. The plane would be diverted to the United States. The air space over Colombia wasn’t safe. He was waiting for further instructions.

Twenty minutes later the captain announced our plane would land in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Those on board who wanted to stay could, or return to Toronto via New York that day.

The speed at which the flight attendants found out what all passengers on board wanted was amazing. We were told our holiday in Cartagena could be transferred to a resort in Puerto Plato, north of the capital. We would stay at a 4-star resort for the week and guaranteed a flight back on our nominated return date. Wow!

Colombia it seemed was under terrorist siege! All foreign aircraft heading to the region had been cancelled after a domestic Colombian flight was destroyed by a bomb. Five minutes into Avianca Airlines Flight 203 took off from Bogotá an explosive detonated killing all 101 passengers and six crew on board. Another three on the ground lost their lives. No one in Colombia was partying in 1989.

On landing in San Domingo and transported to our 4-star resort sanctuary in Puerto Plato we discovered the bombing of Flight 203 was the deadliest single criminal attack in the many decades of Colombian  violence. The Medellin drug cartel planned the bomb in hope it would kill presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo. He wasn’t on board and went on to become the 28th President of Colombia, from 1990 to 1994. Gaviria was also successful in leading the fight against the cartels.

Life's a beach at Puerto Plata.

Life’s a beach at Puerto Plata.

That night, Prince’s chart-topping apocalyptic song 1999, released in 1983 and again in 1985, was on repeat play on the turntable. Guests on the Puerto Plato resort were urged to party like they didn’t care. The Dominican Republic was a Caribbean cartel-free safe haven.

From then on I always wanted to return to Colombia but it never felt safe. It has only been in the past few years that the Bacrim [Bandas Criminales]— aka Colombia’s narco-paramilitary gangs — have been in decline and touted as the reason behind Mexican cartel activity ramping up instead.

Though this doesn’t mean organised crime or violence on the streets of Colombia will go away, there is a renewed sense of purpose among locals that life in their country has much to offer, and there are plenty of people hoping to share in that sentiment by teaching Colombians English as a second language as a way of raising the bar on communication.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance journalist and blogger who is also ESL accredited and hopes to visit Colombia some day soon to bring business English skills to locals. 

Make a difference as an ESL volunteer

Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.
~ Elizabeth Andrew

As a volunteer for not-for-profit group English Volunteers for Change [EVOLC], which places aspiring ESL teachers in Costan Rican schools, I have nothing but praise.

EVOLC’s Alexandra Johnson, showing me the ropes during a two-day in-office orientation!

EVOLC’s Alexandra Johnson, showing me the ropes during a two-day in-office orientation!

They placed me at Escuela Nueva Laboratorio in San Jose for five weeks. For one’s first assignment teaching you’d have to say I lucked out! I received an outstanding introduction to teaching ESL, and EVOLC organiser Alexandra Johnson put me with a great host family living less than five minutes from the school in the cute and handy enclave of San Pedro.

EVOLC organised my pick-up from the airport, my first night’s accommodation and then two-day orientation, including a city tour. I was taken to my host family, who the next day walked me to my school to meet and greet my co-teacher. It was that well organised, and really put me at ease given it was first overseas ESL teaching assignment.

My co-teacher Silvia Córdoba Gonzalez, who is the English maestra at Escuela Nueva Laboratorio, couldn’t have been more welcoming.

Escuela Nueva Laboratorio’s English maestra Silvia Córdoba Gonzalez, with grade 6 students and EVOLC’s Alexandra Johnson.

She’s a hard worker teaching up to 30 classes each week! And she had enough trust in my new ESL skills to allow me to share the teaching load. I was responsible for grades 4-6, an older group, with “good” English skills, and I assisted Silvia with grades 1-3.

The hours I volunteered were just over five a day and I spent another five hours a week creating lesson plans. I could spend so little time on this because Escuela Nueva Laboratorio supplies coursebooks, including student books and the accompanying workbooks.

So you can see why I lucked out on my first assignment abroad teaching English! And I’d recommend volunteering as a great introduction to ESL if you’ve never done it before. Should you choose to come to Costa Rica, get in touch with EVOLC. You can’t go wrong.

Volunteers are paid in six figures… S-M-I-L-E-S.  ~ Gayla LeMaire

Carmen (right), Raul senior (centre) with Jimena and Raul jnr celebrating Carmen’s 61st!

Carmen (right), Raul senior (centre) with Jimena and Raul jnr celebrating Carmen’s 61st!

As to my hosts – Carmen, Raúl senior and jnr, Jimena and visiting daughter Silvana – who allowed me into their beautiful home, how can one person be so lucky as to meet such a wonderful family. Carmen, an ever-so-young 60something who looks 40something thanks to her health retreat-style of cooking inspires you with her energy and approach to life. I keep insisting her fruit and vegetable juices, concocted on a daily basis, need to the subject of their own daily blog. I can only hope and pray she does one day.

We often joke about Carmen’s tours, where she takes you on a walk around the area, or via the local bus, and trust me put your joggers on because you’ll need them to keep up!

DSC05193

On the go with Carmen, rain or shine!

The family has travelled extensively and through their hospitality hosting volunteers they get to meet people from around the world, including me, their first Australian visitor, although an intreprid neighbouring Kiwi got here first!

I am so sad to be leaving not only the school, my hosts but also the capital. It took a little getting used to but now I understand the Tico way of life, I’m liking it, a lot. My Spanish has improved and had I have stayed longer I would have mastered more of those super verbs – hay, tengo, eso, esto and esta – in all their past, present and future forms.

Costa Rica costs a little more then other countries to volunteer but it is really well set up with resources such as the internet which helps in the classroom given you need to distract those cheeky chicas and chicos often with a uTUBE clip or two. [Students couldn’t get enough of NASA Johnson style which inspired great conversations about Life on Mars and whether Johnson would ever do a similar parody on the Moon, let’s hope so!]

So if you too are in a country where utilising the net is easier, resource up on these sites:  http://learnenglishkids.britishcouncil.org/en and http://Englishwsheets.com/index.html which I can’t recommend enough. And… if you aren’t, i-to-i’s English Teacher’s Toolkit for $100 also helped with those ever-so-important warm-ups, stirrers and calmers!

Now, I just need to get a paid teaching ESL job so I can stay in Central America. It’s been that much fun and that rewarding! My next stop: http://www.teacherkick.com and www.OpenEnglish.com.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer who wants 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.

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.