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I don’t plan on going home to Canada when I run out of money to travel. My plan has been to get a job somewhere in Latin America and stay here for a few years. When asked what kind of job, teaching English seems like the most obvious choice: I have a Master’s of Education, I’ve worked six years in the field, I’ve written textbooks on the subject, I enjoy working with learners, and English teaching jobs abound in every major city in the world. The problem is that I don’t actually want to teach in a school. Since giving up on getting my British Columbian teaching certificate a few years ago, I’ve been disillusioned with mainstream schooling. I always loved school myself, but I don’t think it’s the right way to educate people. Much more can be learned by participating in life, without curriculum guides and mandatory testing. How can I get a job teaching in a school, here or elsewhere, when my most valuable learning experiences have been far removed from the classroom?

When I think about the skills and values that are most important to me, I didn’t learn them in school. My passions and inspiration have come from other sources. I adore learning languages, for example. However, I recall being bored in my French classes at school, drawing my amusement from distracting the teacher. We used to play a game, counting how few words in French the teacher could use in a 60-minute period if we diverted his attention elsewhere. Our record was twelve. When I’m teaching English, I don’t look back on my language classes in school as inspiration. Instead, I think of my experiences in Korea, the Philippines, Latin America, and Thailand, trying to interact with people despite language barriers. I remember what strategies helped me express my needs. Memorizing grammar rules by rote, as school language teachers are wont to assign, were never among those successful tactics.

Reading is also a passion of mine. I can devour a book in less than a day, and reread the same novels time and again without getting bored. The books I read in school, though, almost killed that passion. In silent reading in elementary school, we were given twenty minutes to read ten pages of our assigned book. We weren’t allowed to read further than those ten pages, and I was always forty pages into the book before the teacher had seen that I’d gone ahead and told me off for it. I hadn’t noticed the chapter ending – I was too deep into the story. Soon I was reading library books under my desk in class while the teacher was going over material we’d covered the year before. If I was caught, the books were confiscated and the teacher threatened to take away my library card. At home, though, we had thousands of books lining the walls, and I could read any of them well into the night if I wanted, and I often did. I read encyclopedias and dictionaries, poetry and fairy tales, novels and books of cartoons, and when I’d read through all the fiction I started on the books on gardening and cooking. I still read voraciously, but never the kind I was assigned in school. I faked doing my college readings – dry papers in jargon-filled prose written by pompous experts – and bluffed my way through the discussions for them, and yet I read tonnes of books on the same theories, written by down-to-earth real people dealing with the issues. Why does the education system not use these more accessible resources?

My passion for reading combined with my love of languages: Spanish books to read on the farm

My passion for reading combined with my love of languages: Spanish books to read on the farm

When I look back on my life, most of my important lessons were taught outside of school. I learned the value of hard work from my parents, and from working on the farm. The animals needed feeding before we did, because they couldn’t feed themselves. I learned about other cultures from the many volunteers on our farm, as well as from our travels in Europe when I was a child, and my parents’ and grandparents’ stories of living in other countries. The world was a much more exciting place than school ever led me to believe. I remember considering running away, when I was about thirteen, to pursue my dreams without finishing my education. I did my research first, though – I looked through the classified ads in the newspaper to see what kind of jobs I could get without a high school diploma and how much they paid, then compared that to the prices of apartments and airplane tickets. My calculations showed that I’d never be able to make ends meet, let alone save up for trips to other countries, if I didn’t finish high school, so I stuck it out. I don’t ever remember that kind of budgeting taught in school.

Now, as I consider whether to get a job teaching when my travel budget is exhausted, my heart and soul are crying at the thought of spending my days in a school. I’m thinking of the boredom, of the endless assignments and marking, of the curriculum planning of the entire year’s lessons into fifteen minute chunks. I want to teach by being a guide for my students. I want to point them in directions that interest them, and let the students run off their own way, pursuing their passions. I want to be a resource to help people learn. In short, I don’t want to teach in a mainstream school. I wonder, though, where that decision will lead me in my educational career, if I choose to continue it. Only time will tell, I suppose.

The kind of life lesson that we really learn from, summed up in graffiti on the streets of Popayan, Colombia

The kind of life lesson that we really learn from, summed up in graffiti on the streets of Popayan, Colombia. “Live, simply, immediately.”

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Last night we had a multilingual conversation around a campfire – English, French, and Spanish. Ellen and I were both able to participate actively, but one American guest was struggling to the point that whenever the conversation drifted away from English, he left the fire and sat on the other side of the garden for awhile. This was yet another moment that made me grateful that Ellen and I are pretty good at picking up languages. That’s not to say we’re in any way fluent in Spanish – we still fumble and stutter and mumble trying to express our ideas – but we seem to recognize the patterns and catch the sounds better than a lot of travellers we’ve met. We might not know as many words as other travellers, including the American guest who had lived in Latin America for years, but we seem to be able to go beyond the words to get our point across. We’re not sure why it is easier for us than others, but since I did my Master’s thesis on foreign language learning in adults, Ellen and I have a lot of theories on what might be helping.

One likely possibility is that we have an ear for the sounds of the languages because we were exposed to foreign languages as children. Ellen was only in French Immersion for preschool, but I spoke French at school until I was eight. Our parents used to throw the occasional French word or phrase into conversation as well, so it was normalized for us. We also had foreign nannies living with us while we were growing up – Ulla, the only nanny we remember, spoke German, but before Ellen was born we had French nannies too, and I believe one Spanish-speaking one. When Ellen was a teenager, our farm hosted international volunteers through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers on Organic Farms, at the time, now Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Although we usually spoke English to the volunteers, we heard all sorts of languages spoken. That exposure to foreign languages might help us recognize foreign sounds that don’t occur in English.

Another idea is that we are naturally pretty good at pattern recognition, and language is made up of patterns. I took linguistics courses in college, and I loved parsing out sentences and deconstructing them to see how they fit together. Our favourite subjects throughout our educations have been pattern-based – mathematics and physics come to mind for me – and I remember joyfully trying to find patterns in the multiplication tables to help me remember them. I haven’t figured out the patterns of verb conjugation in Spanish yet (Ellen is much further along in this than I am) but individual words usually fit pretty neatly into what I already know. Spanish is Latin-based, as is French, so it’s not too hard to see how the Spanish word relates to a French word I’m familiar with, and usually to an English word or two, although English doesn’t translate as directly. Take the Spanish word for sun: sol. Sol sounds an awful lot like its French equivalent, soleil, and although it doesn’t translate directly to the English sun, it comes close to more academic words like solar system. Another example is the word rosa, which means pink. The word for pink in French is rose, and roses are often pink.

A traveller we met also suggested that we learn languages well because Ellen and I have been in practice more than most. Ellen speaks German quite fluently, which she learned as a young adult when she lived in Germany for about two years. I learned Korean while working as an English teacher near Seoul for six years, so switching into foreign language mode isn’t as hard for me as for someone who has never spoken anything but English. The theory has merit, I think, but Ellen and I see the downsides to being multilingual, too – sometimes you just don’t realize you’re speaking the wrong language. Sometimes a whole phrase of German escapes Ellen’s lips without her having the faintest clue that she wasn’t speaking Spanish. I’m usually pretty good at not speaking Korean when I mean to speak Spanish, but French sneaks in when the Spanish word doesn’t come fast enough. I also seem to have a mental block about two-syllable Spanish words – if the Korean word is also two syllables, it comes up in my mental dictionary before the Spanish one. I’ve often found myself asking for 우유 (oo you) instead of leche when I want milk, or throwing 어제 (aw-je) into a sentence when I meant ayer, yesterday. Since nobody I’ve met here speaks Korean, they just think I’m completely off-track when I accidentally throw a Korean word into a Spanish sentence.

Most of the time, though, when Ellen and I want to speak Spanish, we are able to do so. At this point in time, it doesn’t really matter why we’re pretty good at it. The only important thing is that we are able to communicate, and we are. I look forward to many more evenings spent with diverse groups of people, sitting around campfires, skipping between languages depending on who is participating.

I have been feeling a bit negative of late, and it’s hard to put my finger on why. I can assume part of the issue is culture shock. I don’t speak the language as well as I’d like, and things that I feel should be simple are not. These are the sort of frustrations that lead to culture shock, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed the symptoms in myself, and I find the process alarming.

Culture shock is a funny word for the feeling, though. I’m not stunned at the differences between Colombia and Canada. I’m more inexplicably irritable at things that normally wouldn’t bother me. An older guest at the hostel wanders around telling lame out-of-context jokes to people who barely understand English and asks me to translate, and then follows me around the hostel complaining endlessly about the work ethic in Latin America. Normally I could ignore him, but at the moment I can’t get away from him fast enough, and it’s a challenge to be civil. This isn’t like me.

I love learning languages, and Spanish should be a simple one to learn because it’s not too unlike French. Although I feel satisfaction at what I’ve achieved so far, I get unreasonably annoyed at things like irregular verbs. Rather than patiently asking someone who is regaling me with rapid-fire instructions in Spanish to slow down, I have a short fuse and snap at them. I can tell this isn’t the way to go about things, and yet it’s the head space I’m in right now.

As expected in a foreign country, things don’t work the way I would organize them if I were in charge. The beer fridge in the hostel isn’t plugged in during daylight hours in order to conserve power, which means that whenever I want to buy a nice cold beer, the only ones available are warm. The hostel prohibits consumption of outside alcohol, so we have to go out to a bar if we want a simple beer for refreshment. I think reading books in Spanish would be a good way to improve my language skills, and yet this town doesn’t seem to have a bookstore. We found a second-hand bookstore in Cartago, but at $10 for a dog-eared paperback and most of the selection being classic literature (my least favourite kind), I didn’t buy anything. These are minor frustrations that shouldn’t irritate me as much as they do.

I’m sure it’s not all culture shock, either. I have a cold which is draining my energy, without which I might be able to fight off the mood swings. I wonder, though, whether part of the problem is that I’m just older and grumpier than when I last travelled. Surely thirty-two isn’t old, but I may have lost some of the enthusiasm of youth. Loud music hurts my eardrums and I’d rather be sitting in a small group chatting than going out at all hours of the night. Is that a factor of my age, or just a preference? I’ve never enjoyed having a television on when I’m in a communal space, and when I’m trying to learn a language it drives me to infuriated distraction.

Rather than complaining about culture shock, I’m going to try to do something about it. I’m going to see if I can order a book I’d like to read in Spanish online and have it delivered to the hostel. Today I bought a few nice ingredients and I’m going to play around with making something delicious in the kitchen. I might go sit down at the park with a notebook or sketchbook and see what inspiration hits me. On Tuesday, Ellen and I are taking a day off volunteering and spending the day at a hotsprings near here. And I’m buckling down and studying more Spanish grammar so I don’t feel tempted to drop the f-bomb every time I can’t remember how to say something in past tense.

I think the biggest help, though, will be acknowledging that I’m feeling this way and that it’s normal and allowed. Culture shock is expected. Most people who travel for extended periods experience it. When I went through this in Korea, I took many more naps and did a few more touristy things to rediscover the joy of being abroad. Most of the time, I’m having the time of my life. And the time when I don’t? This too shall pass, and I’ll probably miss it when I’m gone.

Ellen and I both have so much more to say about our amazing sailing trip from Panama to Colombia, but first, it seems unfair to Cartagena to have been here 24 hours and have said nothing about its charms. Cartagena is a beautiful, welcoming, delightful city. We arrived yesterday morning after a long six days on the boat without a shower or cold drink, so we were smelly, dirty, hot, and tired. Our captain, Antonio, recommended Mama Waldy hostel in the old city, so without hesitation we got into a taxi and paid about $3 for the five-minute ride from the port.

The old city's fortifications were originally designed to protect it from storms and pirates - we crossed this bridge into the walled city to reach our hostel.

The old city’s fortifications were originally designed to protect it from storms and pirates – we crossed this bridge into the walled city to reach our hostel.

We were welcomed into this family hostel in the friendliest way. It’s a cool stone building on the corner of a quiet street near a bustling square. The hostel has large open windows and doors, with cheerful salsa music playing from speakers on the back of very well-worn couches. The proprietress (who I assume is named Mama Waldy) gave us water, followed by iced tea, shortly after we arrived. After drinking nothing but boiled rainwater, served lukewarm, on the boat for three of the last six days, ice cold drinks were a welcome refreshment! We were the only guests, although lots of locals drop by to hang out and chat.
We ventured out briefly the first day, to get some money and a phone card, and were impressed by the gorgeous seventeenth-century architecture all over the old city. Tiny alleys with brightly-painted buildings spread out from the plaza like tendrils of weeds, each inviting you to explore their winding walkways. Balconies hang over the sidewalks, offering patches of relief from the hot sun, and tropical vines climb buildings and walls, dropping flower petals onto the cobblestones and bricks below.

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Many buildings are painted cheerful summer colours, and it seems the locals take pride in repainting regularly.

In the evening, after we’d had a brief siesta, we had planned to wander the city taking pictures, but our intentions were pleasantly hijacked instead. When we got up, our hostess handed us each an ice cold beer, and invited us to sit on the front steps and chat. Our Spanish stood up to the test, and we discussed interesting sights in the area with a friendly local who works at another hostel but prefers to hang out at Mama Waldy’s when he’s not working. He invited us to head down to the Plaza de Trinidad for a beer, where we found the church had put on a hopping fiesta complete with dance competitions (kids, enter your parents!) and bingo. He had to leave to go to work, but a few cheerful groups of Cartagenans made us feel welcome. One woman took Ellen under her wing and gave us a couple of bingo cards – excellent practice at keeping up with rapid-fire numbers and letters in Spanish!

Ellen and her bingo mentor listen for the winning numbers

Ellen and her bingo mentor listen for the winning numbers

I had a flock of teenaged girls and boys next to me, asking me about my travels in an awkward mix of shy mumbled English and heavily accented Spanish. Even though we were exhausted and left the fiesta by nine o’clock, it was an excellent first day in Cartagena. On our way back to the hostel, we couldn’t resist tasting some street food – meat on a stick!

Ellen and I enjoyed a well-earned dinner of beef and chicken kebabs with potatoes, onions, and peppers - all for about $1 each!

Ellen and I enjoyed a well-earned dinner of beef and chicken kebabs with potatoes, onions, and peppers – all for about $1 each!

This morning we made up for yesterday’s lack of wandering by walking back to the port first thing in the morning to drop off our passports at immigration. We gave ourselves an hour to walk about a kilometer, so even with stopping every ten meters to take pictures, we had plenty of time to sit in the shade and write or sketch, watch cranes hopping along the waterfront, admire boats in the harbour, and chat with the captains at the Nautical Club where we were to meet Antonio.

This crane was waiting by the side of the waterfront - it seemed nervous but let me take its picture.

This crane was waiting by the side of the waterfront – it seemed nervous but let me take its picture.

Here you can see the fortifications from the old city, with the new city behind them, and an old-fashioned ship sailing through the harbour

Here you can see the fortifications from the old city, with the new city behind them, and an old-fashioned ship sailing through the harbour

After dealing with our passports, we wandered around the old town until lunchtime, hoping to find sundresses, which everyone seems to wear but nobody appears to sell, and a post office for Ellen to mail some letters.

Christmas shopping Cartagena style! We didn't actually buy anything, of course.

Christmas shopping Cartagena style! We didn’t actually buy anything, of course.

When we were ready for an early lunch, we decided to stop at a small restaurant and get a meal. The restaurant didn’t have menus and we didn’t know what we ought to eat anyway, so Ellen asked for “something tasty because we’re hungry” and we eagerly awaited our meal. We were served a pleasant soup with fish, parsley, and yucca, the root we’d planted so much of on the farm in Costa Rica. The soup was delicious and we agreed that yucca may be our new favourite vegetable.

Amazing fish soup was exactly what we wanted for lunch!

Amazing fish soup was exactly what we wanted for lunch!

A few minutes later we were surprised to find that the soup had only been the first course, and each of us had a whole fried fish, served with coconut rice, tomato and onion slices, and lentil sauce. It was absolutely delicious, and we consumed the entire meal. I have to pause here to describe coconut rice, because its name doesn’t do it justice. It’s rice cooked in coconut milk, and it’s nutty and slightly sweet, but served as a savoury side dish for meat and fish dishes. It is slightly stickier than the rice usually served in Central America, but not as sticky as Korean and Japanese rice. I’ve only had it twice, and each time, I smiled every time I took a bite.

Whole fish with coconut rice, tomatoes, onions, and lentils! Yes, we each had one!

Whole fish with coconut rice, tomatoes, onions, and lentils! Yes, we each had one!

Ellen's fish looked so angry as she was eating it, I couldn't resist another picture.

Ellen’s fish looked so angry as she was eating it, I couldn’t resist another picture.

We are definitely staying in Cartagena for Christmas (tomorrow) and possibly for a day or two afterward, before we head out to visit our cousin Daisy. We’re tempted to do a tour of something locally, but we may just wander the city and see what there is to see. There certainly seems to be a lot worth seeing!

This waterfront-facing home looks grand.

This waterfront-facing home looks grand.

This beautiful red brick building is near the entrance to the walled old city.

This beautiful red brick building is near the entrance to the walled old city.

This tree growing up the wall beside a staircase is typical of how the locals keep their houses.

This tree growing up the wall beside a staircase is typical of how the locals keep their houses.

Beautiful multicoloured flowers hanging over the streets below

Beautiful multicoloured flowers hanging over the streets below

Vines growing up the wall, and very attractive bars over the open windows down a small alley

Vines growing up the wall, and very attractive bars over the open windows down a small alley

I haven’t really been studying Spanish since I got here, although it is a goal of mine to learn to speak it while I’m here. While Ellen’s been cracking open the grammar books, I’ve been hoping to learn more naturally. I suspect I’ll need to figure out the verb tenses fairly soon, but in the meantime, I’m surprised at how quickly Ellen and I have become able to carry on a conversation in Spanish. When we first came to Costa Rica, neither of us could speak much Spanish at all. Ellen did a first-year college course in it and spent three weeks in Costa Rica when she was about 18, so when we got here she had some basic words lurking in the back of her memory. I had listened to a couple of Spanish tapes here and there in Canada, and was relying on my proficiency in French (last practiced fifteen years ago) to help me catch the gist of Spanish conversations. Yesterday, Ellen and I spoke to Mario, the grandfather on the farm here, for an hour and a half, on a variety of topics. He’s an old-school mountain man, a farmer who doesn’t speak a word of English and doesn’t have much use for textbook Spanish either. We talked about farming, education, alcoholism, road safety, getting over fears, and our family back home. It wasn’t just him talking and us agreeing, but a genuine exchange of ideas. I’ve got a lot more Spanish to learn, but this was a big confidence booster for both me and Ellen. I can’t wait to see how well we learn to communicate as we progress on this trip.