I haven't posted in over a month! This hasn't happened to me since I first started my blog seriously in 2005. My humble apologies to my devoted readers, where ever you are! My postings have become fewer and father between because my workload at school has increased. The effort it seems to take to post a visually appealing blog entry with pictures uploaded and an interesting story has seemed daunting with all of my other responsibilities at school.

Ok, enough excuses. Here's what I've been up to since I last posted. My brother and sister-in-law came up to Salinas to celebrate Thanksgiving with me. We had a very active four days while they were here. We returned to Pinnacles National Monument for a day-long 8 mile loop hike. We learned that it doesn't matter which side of the park you enter, it is still the same loop. We didn't see any Condors this time, although we had a nice chat with a Condor-tracking Park Ranger who knew our cousin Jessica from the Ventana Wilderness Society.

We played 9 holes of golf in Pacific Grove. It was painfully frustrating for me because I couldn't drive the ball in the air for more than 30 yards. I had a nice walk out on the greens however. This was my opportunity to try out the golf clubs that my brother was giving to me. With all the other sports that I'm good at, why should I bother picking up one that many people spend their entire lives being frustrated with?

As for our Thanksgiving meal, we spent it with some family friends in Santa Cruz. They cooked the bird and stuffing, we made the mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts. Pumpkin pie for dessert was followed by a walk on the sea cliffs as the sunset. It was a nice way to wrap up the day.

From Thanksgiving to December 14th, we had three weeks of school. I was behind in the curriculum, so I decided to use that time to finish it up. I could tell that my students and I were a bit tired and looking forward to our break. Yet, I had a job to finish. At times it wasn't pretty, but we came to a point of closure where we could enjoy three weeks of holiday without loose strings dangling over our heads that we would have to tie up when we return on January 7th.

Gilda and I went to San Francisco for the day so she could take the CBEST test. She's thinking of other options for work, and substitute teaching is one of them. While she took her test, I went for a run in Golden Gate Park and went shopping at an art supply store for my Christmas presents' material. After the test, we went to the Presidio for a nice view of the Golden Gate bridge. The drive home on 280 was congestion-free and scenic.

I'm starting to think of New Year's resolutions. The end of 2007 has snuck up on me. I couldn't wait for 2006 to be over. 2007 has been filled with plenty of transitions, it has seemed like a long year. Perhaps 2008 will afford some routine and stability to accomplish my goals. Stay tuned. I'll be back before a month has passed this time!


Close Encounters of the Condor Kind

Gilda and I decided to get out of Salinas for the day and head towards Pinnacles National Monument. It's about 30 miles south of us, in the Gabilan Mountains. The drive through the Salinas Valley is always a liberating one, with wide open views of the sloping Gabilan Mountains on one side and the Santa Lucia Range on the other. Route 146 carried us past vineyards and wineries and into the bubbly foothills. The road narrowed to one lane at places, evidence that it was a road less traveled.

We pulled into the Chapparal Ranger Station, ruffling the feathers of the park rangers because we parked in the lot before paying our use fees. The nerve of us! wanting to park once instead of twice! I got the routine spiel from the head ranger there about places to go. The drone and precision of his pronunciation gave me the impression that he's done this for a long time! Gilda and I looked at the display detailing the hikes we could take. We passed on the all-day hikes because it was already 3pm. We either would go on the 100 ft-elevation-change hike to the Cliffs and Cave or the 1200 ft-elevation-change to the High Peaks. We both agreed on the peaks. Once underway, we discovered what kind of a hike we were in for.

Our approach took us through Juniper Canyon with an impressive view of the Pinnacles and a gradual slope. We met maybe 10 hikers on their way down. We were the only ones going up at the time, as the shadows across the mountain tops were getting longer and the light struck the rocks with brilliant orange and red hues. Then we started up the switchback climb to the peak. This was pretty strenuous, with plenty of water breaks and photo ops taken. Halfway up, we spotted what we thought were juvenile California Condors, an endangered but slowly recovering species. We could tell by their underwing pattern that they weren't golden eagles or turkey vultures. Gilda remarked that they were probably checking us out, too. I doubted that, I mean, we're alive and walking right? They're only interested in us if we're staggering to our deaths, right?

Thirty minutes later we've huffed and puffed our way to the top of the Pinnacles. We sit on a little bench, near the top of Scout Peak. From here one can look down both sides of the mountain. The sunlight was amazing, so we decided to take some self-portraits with the scenery in the background. We had to do a couple of takes because I was getting cropped out of the picture. Little did we know that a creature as large as us was approaching from behind. In the first picture, you can see a bird flapping its wings in the center, just above Gilda's head. Just as we took our last picture, I see this colossal bird fly past us at eye-level. The "Viiwhoozh" of its gliding wings startled both of us before we knew what it was. The second picture was captured just after it passed us. The bird's wingtips were like long fingers grabbing every spare gust of wind. Its head was fuzzy and small, with deep black eyes. I remember a blur of white and black feathers, probably its under wing and back feathers. Of course, something that big and flying could only be a California Condor. And one of 127 surviving in the wild. How rare an encounter is that? After it passed us, it circled higher overhead and turned its head to pan the area where we were standing. Gilda was sure that it was checking us out and now I conceded a "yes". (Later on I would confirm this with my cousin Jessica, who runs the bird lab in Andrew Molera State Park. Condors can see color and are quite curious as juveniles.) After circling, it withdrew behind the ridge to the east side of the park.

I scrambled up to the highest point to see if the condor would circle around one more time. But s/he was gone. With my point-and-shoot camera I could barely zoom in for details, so you'll have to click on these pictures for closer looks. Gilda and I tried to recreate the situation a little later, for posterity of course. We wondered if these condors didn't quite have the "street smarts" to avoid humans because the collective memory of their small population and captive breeding doesn't pass on the message "if you see a big thing in an orange jacket, its a human, so stay away!" We didn't mind because we had an exhilarating experience getting close to something most people have never seen. Two other blogs have recently posted some condor news. Laura's Birding Blog reports that a new California law bans the use of lead bullets in condor territory. Simon Bisson in Big Sur captured a great photo of an adult condor near Nepenthe.

Our descent down the Pinnacles was faster than our climb, the setting sun left us little time to dawdle. Gilda and I recounted our reactions to the event, speculated the chances of it happening again, and wished we had a zoom lens or the video footage of its approach. The red and orange Pinnacles were now an ashy grey, shutting off their splendor to rest for the night. We made it to the parking lot by dusk, eager to come back to the Pinnacles while our 7-day use pass was still valid.

Maybe we'll come next Saturday to see the caves. Who knows, maybe we'll have a close encounter with another magnificient flying creature: a bat!


Oh Where Oh Where Have I Gone?

I have almost been gone from the blog for a month. That's indicative of my work schedule and weekend obligations which have kept me from the blog. To justice to an entry, I feel like I need to upload pictures, set up hyperlinks, and have someplace interesting to write about.

Since my trip to Seattle, I've gone to LA for my brother's birthday. That's about it. The soccer season ended at the middle school, so now I have 90 minutes back to my planning time after school. I still end up leaving school around 7 pm each night. I am slowly getting out of the habit of just preparing enough for the next day and onto week-at-a-time planning.

And it seems like I can't write anything without talking about school. I've made an effort to keep up a weekly posting at my teaching blog. That was mostly for the sake of my proposal to present at the TESOL conference in NYC. But, alas, our proposal wasn't accepted. A little bit of a let down, but there still is hope. An identical proposal was submitted to the UK's TEFL organization and accepted.

Life's duties and chores haven't been put into little boxes lately, either. My living arrangements still feel temporary. The apartment's furnishings bare. Somehow, my lack of roots has translated into a scant blog for the past month. Given some grounding, I'll be back to blogging on a regular basis. Until then, brief notes will have to do.


Wedding and Birthday Bash in Seattle

At first I was apprehensive about it. My cousin's wedding in Seattle coinciding with my birthday. I don't like to make a big deal out of my birthdays, so I thought my celebratory-loving cousin would try to make a big deal of it. In actuality, it turned out that David and Shelly mentioned it along with a few other birthdays of wedding guests. I wasn't the only one.

Seattle was a welcome respite from the routine of school. I took Friday off so I could make the rehearsal dinner. The area has so many trees and green foliage, it makes the Monterey area look quite dry in comparison. We were lucky to get some sunshine on the day we arrived. It was forecast for rain on the other two days of the weekend. That never panned out though.

We did the major tourist things in our free time away from the festivities: Pike Place Market, Space Needle, and Westlake Center. It was Gilda's first time, so we did those things as her introduction. I just happened to take this quick snapshot as we were passing by the skyline on our way home. JK! I'm too lazy to upload my pictures that I borrowed one from another site. Visit the School of Law at Seattle University as a courtesy for them letting me link to the photo!


Greek EFL Teacher beaten by police

Another blogger that I link to, Teacher Dude BBQ in Greece, just published some pictures of the election campaigns there. He moonlights as a photographer, too. Got quite a talent, so its hard to pin him down as one or the other. Allegedly, he was bruised and scraped by riot police while taking some of his pictures. Please visit him to show your ESL/free press/photography solidarity.

His post about the blog response to his published evidence of the beatings have brought a lot of people to his site and an interview with local media. I think it goes to show that our published entries can go anywhere once we hit the "publish" button!


Meet some of my friends

I haven't posted for a while because I've taken a few trips (Bay Area, Monterey, Santa Cruz) that have pictures waiting to post, but they all require stories that I have to sit down for a while to tell. With my new teaching job, those moments are preciously few. So I'm spending my Friday evening to sit down and tell you about some of my blog friends. This is a "shout out" and "big up" to all those people's blogs that I like to read and an attempt to share them with you, too.

This first one is Geoffrey Philp. We met in cyberspace while I was blogging in Japan. I'd subscribed to a feed of caribbean blogs to keep up with news on the ground over there. Geoffrey had recently written about a soccer match he'd played with Bob Marley. I wrote a post about it, he found it, and we began a dialogue which has continued on and off to this day. Geoffrey is an author who lives, writes, and teaches in Miami, Florida.

Pickeled Eel is another interesting story. I don't know how I found his blog, but he writes about his travels, like me, but on a bigger scale of audiences. I was surprised to find out that he's currently on location in Iraq now. Check out his blog for some interesting footage and narration.

Red Squirrel is a linguistics student at Moscow State University. I think we met through the mybloglog feature that puts the pictures of registered users in a panel when they've visited my blog. Its a great way to make blogging correspondences a little more personal. Maria writes about her studies, interactions with Russian language, culture, and people. All of these things I miss since I studied at St. Petersburg State University ten years ago.

A recent blog friend I've made is Ulla. We actually met face to face via my friends Travis and Joy Long, who also happen to run their own blog about home improvement after 9-5 jobs in Pacific Grove. It was actually the first live conversation I'd had in a room where everyone else kept a blog. We got to talk shop for a few minutes, and its from Ulla that I got the idea to link to more blogs and make more comments on others blogs. An interesint thing about Ulla is that she's an Icelandic-American who runs a design company with her sister and blogs about cooking.

Hippie Gypsy runs an interesting blog musing about whatever comes to mind. She always has something kind to say.

And one last blog that I enjoy peeking in on from time to time is "Back to Living in Paradise". Lee is an expat American living in Belize. She's just dodged her second hurricane in as many week. She's got a great sense of humor and writes about the Caribbean life that I miss from my years in Jamaica.


It's on the way to Santa Fe

In the middle of my move to Monterey, I had to take a trip to Albuquerque. Its an annual retreat that I take, and I haven't missed it for nine years despite living in Africa, the Caribbean, and Japan during that time.

This year's trip was another short one, just 36 hours to see a little bit more of the city, attend the meeting, and then fly back to LA. I mostly hung out around the University of New Mexico, pretending to be a college student by sitting around reading my book, listening to the water trickle from the fountain, and peruse the people passing by. Passing for a local is a fun way to really get to know a city that you're visiting for a short time. Just ask Rick Steves, he's the expert!

As for Albuquerque's local flavors, I got my fill of sopapillas (lightly fried flour tortillas with a pocket to squeeze honey in) and other New Mexican culinary delights. Over dinners at Garduno's and breakfasts at Waffle House, I caught up with the other attendees of the retreat that I usually only see once a year, but keep in touch with during the rest of it.

The sky seems so much bigger here, with space for the cumulonimbus clouds that threaten but do not thrill with rain. The earthy adobe architecture recalls a simpler way to live (albeit Albuquerque is one of USA's fastest growing metropolises) that helps me relax from bumping elbows with the upward ladder climbers of LA.

Well, once I came home from this trip, it was just two short days before I loaded the last of my belongings into a U-Haul trailer and made the 350 mile trek North to Salinas. That's another story for another blog. One to be updated soon, I hope!


Destination: Monterey

After a year of searching for a good fitting ESL-teaching job in Long Beach, I've had to face facts that the local school district isn't offering me just that. So I set my sights further afield in California. And I got a nice offer from a school district in Salinas, home of John Steinbeck and the nation's summer vegetables. So it made a good excuse for a road trip. Just as soon as I finished an interview in West Covina, I drove straight up I-5 through the San Joaquin Valley and arrived in Monterey about 6 hours later.

I spent 3 lovely nights on cousin Jessica's couch cushions on the floor in her apartment, which happens to be the apartment we lived in together when I was studying at MIIS. Wednesday and Thursday were spent catching up with friends, talking to the career/alumni director at MIIS for job leads, and talking to some of those leads. My challenging experience at Constellation made me think twice about teaching middle school again, so I've been considering to teach at community college, adult school, or university levels. It was a good feeling to get some offers to teach at the MIIS ESL programs just by showing up. Woody Allen was right, 80% of success is just showing up.

Thursday afternoon was Jessica's birthday. We celebrated with her ornithology labmates at Lover's Cove in Pacific Grove. Jess was surprised and we all enjoyed the hot dogs and cake!

Friday I went over to Salinas to meet face-to-face with the assistant Principal at La Paz Middle School. They've been very enthusiastic about hiring me, so it was a good feeling to met her and get a tour of the school. There was a bit of a snafu with the district office with what position they could offer me, so I ened up going to another middle school in town that also had a position available. Both schools extended offers of great support and desire for me to work with them. This is 180º from what Long Beach USD as given me with a year of subbing and cold shoulders in HR (with the exception of Constellation teachers who always had my back), so I left there in the afternoon with a smile of strong consideration towards how my life could change if I took the position.

Fast forward a week. I accepted La Paz's offer to teach ELD on Wednesday. Now I'm frantically trying to get packed and moved to Salinas/Monterey by next Tuesday. I have certainly accumulated a lot of stuff here in the past year (no fault of my own as my sister sent a lot of things out for me to keep the family legacy alive). Craig and I will sort it out on Sunday.

Sadly, though, I had to cancel my Jamaican vacation because school starts in Salinas on August 22. Well, hopefully I can go in December with 3 weeks of vacation. Nice! Next stop: Albuquerque, New Mexico!


3 more days

Three more days until school is out. I can't wait and neither can the students. August portends many days of relaxation, travel, and reflection on my next steps. Stay tuned for what they can be.


Boots or Wings

Give me cement boots
so I can grow roots
to this place. And stay.

Help me, I want to fly
the whirling winds so high
above this ground. And never come down.

Boots or wings. Stay or sing.
Where can I just do my thing?


Armadillo Alley

There's something about an alley that makes good neighbors. It's off the street where buildings brace against passing pedestrians, constant cars, and blaring buses. It doesn't have landscaping to pretend to be something it isn't. The alley is where you peek into cluttered garages with layers of trash and trinkets exposed by every coming and going of car and truck. The alley is where laundry is aired, trash is left, and pretense is forgotten. Alleys are the soft underbelly of an Armadillo: vulnerable yet well-protected.

My apartment is set in the backyard of a house on a busy street. Yet my domain is peaceful with a window onto the alley below. Across the street, two homes are on the back property of another home on an intersecting street. The resulting configuration makes a tiny hamlet in an otherwise noisy neighborhood. Filled with large and extended Mexican families, my across-the-alley neighbors' homes always have some activity going on. It begins each day with an idling car at 5:30 am, which I imagine is a carpool ride for one of the men to get to the factory. Around 7 am its the rehearsed sound of Maria announcing "Tameles! Chorizu!" (or something like that) as she sells homemade foods out of a stroller to supplement the income of her children. When I come home from work, there's always a gaggle of children playing in the alley or behind the fence. Their conversation flows from Spanish to English to Spanglish as the play escalates in excitement. The playful cries give way to hearty laughter as parents, tios and tias come back from work to enjoy dinner and each other's company once again. When I come home from teaching a late night ESL class, I'll be surprised to notice the newlyweds sitting on the stoop to cuddle and talk in the dark as I stop my car to open the gate and call it a night. Just from the alley, I've gotten to know this family and exchange a few kind words each day as we pass through. On the street, it's different.

"Get that piece of shit outta my way!!!" Ann screams, sitting high in her white Ford truck, ready to back out of her front driveway if it weren't for the Mexican about to leave in the black Nissan Sentra that's blocking it. I know a tough shell when I see it. Ann and Matt live in a 102-year-old home across the street from me. They're patiently restoring it to its original luster. Subdivided rental homes are on both sides of them. One waves an overbearing, faded flag of Mexico. The other, unpretentious. I hear Ann rage as I go on my evening run. On my return, Matt's waving me over to me from across the street. I oblige him. "It's good to see another white face around here." I smirk in politeness to his off-color joke. He wants to show me the inside of his home that he's restoring. I'm leery of what I might see as he takes me from room to room, as if there'll be a stash of pot or something that now I'm party to knowing about. Matt and Ann don't plan to stay very long after their vintage home is restored. "Too many Spanish taking over the neighborhood. Our daughter is 7 and can't ride her bike yet. This neighborhood is too noisy," they say as the neighbor kids zoom up and down the sidewalk on scooters, skateboards, and BMXs. I thank them for showing me their home, but I can't get over the rage I saw before.

On my way back, I realize that I just left the tough outer shell of the Armadillo on the street side. Sometimes I want to roll up and only show my shell; other times it's a pat on my soft belly that helps me through the day. How thick is my shell? How soft is my belly? As thick or as soft as I choose to dwell on it.


A ray of hope

I heard a talk by a former educator, now healer, yesterday with my brother. I've been having a hard time managing my classroom in my urban school. The speaker said that looking for one good thing in each student, and holding to it, could help them to let go of the other labels that have been stuck to them for so long. It's given me hope for the week.


Thanks Dad

Quiet, calm, pensive, strong, loving, supportive. These are all qualities I think of when I think of my dad. Life hasn't been a easy road for both of us recently. We get through it with each other's support. This picture was taken shortly after my sister passed on and we came home to be together. Behind us is dad's pride and joy: the fish pond and aquatic garden. He loves "projects" especially those outside like training the dogs, gardening, and landscaping. That's the engineer!

I've always been so grateful for dad's calm, strong embrace. From a pick-me-up after a sledding crash to a celebration of swimming victory, dad has been there to comfort and rejoice with me. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. You have shown me that strength comes from God, not aggression. Thanks Dad.


Looks and Maps

Enjoy the new look on my blog. All of the previous elements are still here, but with better formatting and looks.

Also, the world map project that I completed as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica has been featured on a website. Please check it out when you get a chance. A permanent link to it is in the "links" section on the sidebar. --->


Give us this day

I had a nice encounter on the way back from my 3 mile run up and down the LA River bikepath. I noticed a group of 20-somethings and "local" residents milling around the entrance to the bikepath. "Hmm" I wonder what that's about. On my way back, a woman with big, poofy, frizzy hair hollered me down. "Want something to eat? Come on we've got plenty to share!" Lima was her name. She lived under the 6th street Freeway ramp. I tried a few polite ways to turn her down, knowing that such food wasn't intended for those with a steady income. She insisted.

The 20-something men and women are from some Christian youth group, they really didn't get into all the details and I only overhead someone in the background mention their affiliation. Lima was the talkative one, with a few others in the back enjoying the Shepherd's pie and cornmeal. They served me some too (running makes you hungry!). I sat down, trying to think of what I could say that wouldn't draw attention to, or make light of, the situation that these residents live with. So I decided on, "have you lived in Long Beach your whole life?"

That's a good question to ask because one thing I've learned from my students is that there's a lot of pride in where you're from. Lima said, "yes" as she took Scott's guitar to sing some songs. She had a soul-driven voice and played the guitar with equal emotion. As she sang her own version of "Soul Rebel" by Bob Marley, I knew I would never discount homeless camps as void of beauty. What was Lima doing here with she could take her voice to share with others in cafés and bars? She may have her reasons or hurdles to climb.

Perhaps I can return Tuesdays at 7 to get to know her and the others a little more. It certainly made my day to make the connection.

Still Here

I'm still actively posting to my blog. School is so intense and draining at the moment, that blogging is far from my mind. Only 6 more weeks. I've got a trip to Baja to post here. An adventure to Two Harbors on Catalina Island, too. Stay tuned and the pictures and stories won't disappoint!


Mother's Day without Mom

I don't have any digital photos of my mom. She passed away before the digital age took off. So I've got film prints to scan into my computer. This is one that I keep on my dresser. It's me, mom, and my brother walking to dinner on Mackinac Island in Northern Michigan. I think it was taken in the summer of 1993. I was 15. Craig was 12.

For years my mother had been peace broker between the two of us as our sibling rivalry was in all-out warfare. I think it was this summer that I was just coming around to rising above the jealousy and competitiveness and working towards friendship. I can remember my mother repeating this like a mantra whenever we'd have a spar, "Jeff, you love your brother so much you just don't know how to show it." And she was right.

That Fall, Jenny went off to college, so it was just Craig and I at home. With 2 other siblings, there's always a two against one split when it comes to alliances around the house. With Jenn on her own adventure, Craig and I had each other. Come to think of it, I grew closer to Jenn too after she left for college. Just like this whole bunch of sibling pressure washed away.

I'm sure mom was praying a lot about how to bring out the peacemaker in each of us. She worked a mindless job processing paper surveys so that each of us could go to camp for seven weeks in the summer. She got up at 5 am to drive me to swim practice and stayed up late washing loads of laundry so we'd have that "favorite" shirt to wear at school the next day. Mom was so tender and loving, yet there were times when her temper was short. I knew I was in trouble when I'd go off on my own instead of waiting for her to pick me up after school.

Mom would take extra time to talk to me about the Bible, how to pray, how to keep thought aligned with Christ. I can remember many childhood healings when mom would pray: earaches, strained foot ligaments, colds, measles, headaches, and more. Her love for us knew no bounds because she walked so closely with God to reflect Her unbounded love. Thanks mom. Happy Mother's Day.


The Chimney Swift

I was unlocking my bike after church today when I heard a soft “thump” on the sidewalk followed by a rapid sweeping sound. I turned around to find a bird with long wings and the shortest legs trying to get off the ground. I walked up to it, knelt down, and scooped it up gently with my biking gloves. He didn’t panic or try to fly away. Perhaps he was stunned from having flown into the building. His feathers were entirely grey, with some lighter shades approaching white on his tail and coverts. Pardon my lack of scientific words for these parts, ornithology was my lowest grade in college. I held him for about two minutes, looking him over carefully. He had a few white clumps on him (aerial poo?) and he kept winking his right eye while the left remained opened (did he have a secret for me?).

After I prayed a few good thoughts for him, seeing that he wasn’t fading on me but rather gaining strength, I gradually let go of him and released him to the sky. He fluttered his wings rapidly, not losing any air to fall but climbing in altitude next to the World Trade Center where he may live. He circled once over my head, then headed off to windier breezes.

Seeking my own purpose for being in Long Beach, I found a metaphor in that Chimney Swift. We’re all designed with a purpose to fulfill a niche in life. When we find ourselves suddenly out of our element, we struggle to take off again. Sometimes it requires a helping hand to calm and reassure us that we can get back to soaring. My international teaching career has felt like I’m always traveling, clinging to high cliffs for shelter, and never feeling the salt of the earth. But some creatures aren’t designed to feel the salt of the earth, to hunt for worms and peck at grounded birdseed. Now humans are more adaptable than birds, but when relocating from a windy cliff to an urban lawn, it can feel like its hard to take off. I need to take stock of all those who have come to help me get soaring again. Thanks.


TESOL in Seattle

I left the dry brown confines of Los Angeles for the lush green shores of Seattle on April 18. In exchange for being able to see green, I wasn't allowed to see the sun for a week. All in all, a pretty good trade. I was in town for the annual TESOL convention, staying with my aunt and uncle in Newcastle. I rode the bus into town every day. I didn't like waiting in the rain at 6:30 am, but the mass transit wasn't too bad. I certainly got a feel for the city that way.

Sunday I arrived in partly sunny skies. My cousin Jessica happened to be visiting for the weekend, too, so we headed out to a place called Northwest Trek. It was a rehabilitation center for injured birds and a reserve for large game animals of the Northwest USA. We took a tram ride to see Bison, Elk, Moose, Sheep, and three kinds of Deer. Other animals, like black and grizzly bears, cougars, wolves, lynx, and bobcats were contained in large areas with inconspicuous fencing. It was good to spend a day outdoors, smelling the detritus and pine trees instead of soot and smog in LA.

Monday I had a training at the convention for implementing K-12 English Language Learners' standards in school. Yes, it doesn't sound very exciting but necessary for educators and administrators.

Tuesday I had off, so I took a tour of the Seattle Public Library. Completed in 2004, it is a wonderful example of green design. The mayor built it to draw more residents to downtown. The windows are triple plated with aluminum shades between one gap to dissipate the sunlight from heating the interior as it comes in and has Kryptonite between the other gap to prevent heat loss from the building. The book return system is entirely automated. When you drop it off in the bin, it goes up a conveyor belt, gets scanned in, and then robotic pushers move it onto the correct cart according to its Dewey decimal system. This saves time and money from paying humans to do it, saving the city money. And they've got plenty of automatic check out kiosks. Long Beach still insists on making patrons wait as only one librarian checks everyone out of the main branch. Architecturally, the building is inspiring. So see it yourself!

Tuesday afternoon I spent with a friend of mine from college. She taught English in Miyazaki, on Kyushu island, and married a man from there. Now they live in Seattle with their daughter. It is good to be able to stay in touch, even as our lives move in different directions we still try to keep something in common. And they gave me a great tip on a Japanese 100 Yen ($1) store in town. Great! I can get the Japanese stationery that I envy!

Wednesday through Saturday were spent at the convention center. Conventions are sort of like Disneyland: you're immersed in a new world for a few days where everyone is friendly and you can let go of other cares. Seeing all my old friends and professors from MIIS was a great treat. It certainly recharged my batteries for the year and motivated me to start some classroom research to share in the future. After a full day of sessions and strolling the exhibit hall, I would come home and visit with my Aunt and Uncle. Two different worlds that I tried to communicate best with. They were so hospitable to put up with my shifting schedule of figuring out how to get home in inclimate weather.

Saturday night I hung out with my cousin and his fiancee. We toured Fremont, saw the troll and Lenin statues, and went out for breakfast the next day. I definitely got to see some interesting neighborhoods and people by hanging out with them. Thanks David and Shelly!

Sunday came so soon, and with it my return home. Of course, the sun decided to come back out to say good-bye to me. I had such a good time that I forgot to pick up and send postcards on my trip. Sorry to all the folks that felt left out. Consider this blog with included pictures as a consolation!

Thanks for patiently waiting for me to get my act together with another legitimate blog entry. Maybe its saying something that my readjustment to the USA is complete when I no longer blog like an outsider. Hmm...


Staying Alive

Yes, I'm still alive. It's just been an incredibly busy month of travel, late nights, and distance from the computer. Lots to talk about when I get a chuck of time.


June 28, 1997: Minsk, Belarus

Here's another travel story from my diaries. This one's from my trip to Russia and Belarus on a Sophomore Year Study Abroad. Enjoy!

As someone once told me, "the afternoon already knows what the morning has no idea of," today I learned that God's plan is already established and we just need to trust and walk forward in it. I felt that feeling this morning when I arrived in Minsk, it was very similar to hanging out in populated place just coming back from an extended camping trip: no money, yet you're surviving and enjoying newness for free. I sat down on a park bench with all of my things and read a Bible for inspiration. I questioned my sincerity of loving my neighbor and leaving my nets for Christ. In terms of nuggets for the day, I had a whole mine full!

I next proceeded to change money and learned the lesson of reading fine print, I was charged 15% commision of travelers' checks. My first impression of the city outside the hectic train station: clean, quiet, and the buildings are grand, all-be-them Stalinist in architectural style [after being obliterated in WWII]. Minsk is 930 years old, but all history here says 1946.

My contact at the youth exchange camp didn't work on Saturdays as I found out arriving at Karl Marx 40 Street, but the receptionist was nice enough to let me drop my bags off and search for a hotel. I walked around town, saw the victory obelisk, and checked out the Hotel Sviclach, which was said by Lonely Planet to be nice and cheap. Price have gone up to $15/night and that would wear hard on my wallet at this point in my trip. I had read about the International Tourist Center of Youth and gave them a call. Through a bad connection, I thought I heard one room costs $2/night. Excellent! Little did I know of the trial that lay ahead of me in trying to find that cheap night's stay.

The guidebook was vague on directions. I struggled with my neck-high camping backpack and over-the-chest bookbag to negotiate the summer sweating streets towards the bus station. When I finally got there, I was first in line for the bus out of town in the direction of the Hostel. Unfortunately, I wasn't too seasoned in Belorussian bus jockeying tactics. When the bus arrive, I was trampled from behind by the veterans. As I tried to avoid bumping anyone with my two bags, they threw caution to the wind and marched aboard to get a window seat. When I finally got aboard, it was standing room only for me and my 50 pounds of gear. As we pulled away, two girls tried to make eyes with me and laughed either at me or their own silliness. I tried to ignore them but after a while it got annoying just trying to ignore them. The bus was crowded Russian-style [aka no personal space for Americans], the ticket lady was impatient with my lack of knowledge for my destination, and my bags were like buckets under a waterfall. Did I mention that it was about 90º today?

I asked a lady where the Minsk Sea stop was, and she said the next. Seeing no 14-story youth center in sight, I was confused and didn't prepare for my exit. I ended up missing it. Giggles in the background from the girls didn't soothe my boiling anxiety that my plans were on the wrong route. Sizzle. Pop! I signaled to get off at the next stop and threw down my stuff. Something had to be done.

I questioned the contents of my backpack and realized some things wouldn't thoroughly used. The trash can got a nice meal. Extra clothes, tapes, a Chicago Bulls shirt and other trinkets became a nice donation to the next passerby. I had no "ties to the flesh" and I found one net to leave today. I walked on without looking back and was relieved by my new freedom.

The country was pretty out there and I walked for a good hour before asking a couple where this mammoth hostel was. "On an entirely different road" the man said. I took a bus back, and would you believe it? the same annoying girls got on it later! Arrgh! I got off at my prior missed stop and asked around. "Way far off, you need a different bus". I decided to walk, they thought I was crazy. I thought I could truck it. I traversed some pretty lakes and got concrete directions from a nice man. Found the road and yup, started walking in the hot sun again. Just when I was fed up, I found the next bus stop and waited. The shadows were getting long. The bus came. Salvation at last!

I got off and the hotel really is some complex on a very beautiful lake. I entered, noticing the rows of washtubs and sinks lining the foyer. I asked for a room. They said, "we're closed." No place to stay, no hot water, and anyway the cost was like 500,000 Belorussian rubles for foreigners. I guess she didn't want me to stay there. Oh, one last perk for my visit, the last bus back to Minsk was the one that just dropped me off at the hotel.

So there I was without a place to stay, no ride back, and dusk coming in an hour or two. It was all I could do to fight back the tears for my lack of experience. I set off walking back on the road and "onward Christian soldiers" came to me. Some relief. I knew I had three options: take the electric train back, hitch, or sleep in the woods. I saw another couple's car off by the side of the road. They were at the forest's edge, hunting mushrooms. I told them my sob story.

There were receptive and didn't give a flat out answer. They just put my stuff in the trunk and we were off. Tamara and Ivan were mushroom hunters and nice to give me a ride. I had once read a book called, "Europe on 84¢ a day". It sang praises of traveling around Europe by hitch-hiking and staying in drivers' homes to reduce costs and build international relations. I tried to keep this conversation going in spite of my exhaustion. We arrived back in Minsk, and Ivan starting driving to hotels that he knew. We tried one on the outskirts, but it was hauntingly empty. Then we went back to Hotel Sviclach, they dropped me off and we shook hands farewell. They didn't leave. They wanted gas money. I guess in a town without taxis, the people are taxis and expect money. I gave them 100,000 BR and they were a little disappointed with my payment. Well, at least I was in a place.

I asked the hotel administrator of he had an available room, and the man he was talking to broke in to our conversation. He asked if I was a student, then said in English that he knew a place where I could stay for $2 a night. Like an answer to my prayers! We loaded his cargo and mine and set off talking.

Yevgeny worked at a music school, went to Paris, and has written several books. Now he's a pensioner adn works part-time at the hotel. He asked about me and my frown was turning upside down. he had some preconceived notions about Blacks in America as theives and I was glad to dispell some myths for him.

Finally, we arrived at a massive apartment complex and Yevgeny asked me to wait in the courtyard while he made arrangements with the babushka on the third floor. Zhenya steps out of her doorway to the staircase and looks me over with a concerned look that evaporates to a smile. She has an extra room and keeps a clean house. She fed me tea and even prepared a warm-water bath for me to clean away the sweat and frustration from my day. I feel blessed to have such accommodations close to Belarussian people. Thank you, thank you. Lord. Peace at last.


The snake and the field mouse

As promised, here's a story from my previous travels. It takes place in November, 1999.

There's something about realizing one's own mortality in a place, or furthermore on this Earth, that liberates him to try something exotic that he otherwise wouldn't. I realized this as a neophyte Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, West Africa.

I was training in Parakou, the gateway to the Sahel region in the North of the country. For two months, I had been negotiating for my future in the country; to have the right to pray for myself first before taking the mind-boggling anti-malarial drug should I contract the disease. Ironic, I never got sick a day while I was there. Still, I would go into town every two weeks for a phone call with the country director.

On this day, I had made a final decision: to transfer from Benin to another country's program yet to be determined. After two months of wrangling, I felt at peace. Although my time in Benin would be coming to an end, I finally felt free to enjoy my time there at it's fullest. I hung up the phone at the work station and walked outside to catch a Zemidjan. "Zeh" as they are affectionately called by locals, are scooter taxis that whisk Beninois around towns. I put on my casque, helmet, but left the visor up to catch the cool breeze as my zeh picked up speed on the western road out of Parakou.

With my mind free to reflect on the back of that scooter as I rode to the compound of my host family, I thought about my time there in Benin. How it was fraught with mental struggle to understand a new culture, included brief highlights of insight, laughter with host brothers, and fear of wild creatures and voodoo religion. The closer I got to home, the more I felt free of those limitations to my experience there.

By the time I arrived at the compound, I was like a released prisoner, given a second chance on my experience in Benin. So when there was an unusual amount of activity in the common area of the compound, I wasn't surprised that it was an extension of my new attitude. François, the teenage cousin of my host brothers, Muhammed and Fatau, was turning circles around them with what looked like a thick rope. When I got closer, we exchanged bonjou's and sa va's and I got a look at what François really had: a four-foot-long snake! It was dead, thank goodness. Muhammed and Fatau had catches of their own: two field mice.

The boys had been out working in the fields when they'd come upon this snake in the middle of ingesting a field mouse. Temporarily disabled in its gorging, the snake was vulnerable. François took his cutlass and chopped off that snake's head. What would they find not too deep in that snake's belly but another mouse. A double whammy!

Now don't think that these mice were finger length. In Africa, everything wild is so much bigger than what we imagine them to be from the comforts of our TV room in USA. These field mice were a full six inches long, not including the tail. Any catch of meat in this part of Africa was a special treat. My meals consisted mostly of pounded yams and potent soup base to dip it in. Certainly filling, but lacking in protein for sure. So when we had two kinds of fresh meat to eat, you can bet that was a treat!

Muhammed and another cousin prepared the fire, while François cleaned and gutted each creature. Fatau, about six years old with a belly rounded by vitamin deficiency, carried himself with a jollyful gait as he walked around the compound with the expectation to eat well that evening. I watched carefully has each boy set about to enjoy their feast.

How do you know when snake is boiled through? You don't. You just know how to cook something safely and then you apply to whatever mystery meat you find that day. As for field mice, Muhammed gutted them, skewered them, and then singed the hairs off them with the brightest of the flames on the fire. Then they set about cooking them shish-ke-bob style.

All the while I was savoring this moment of raw excitement and embracing of the surprises that the African earth could give up. This was the boys' feast, but I would certainly take a taste. What does snake taste like? How do you eat a mouse? Like itself, one bite at a time.

The meats were cooked and we boys sat around the dwindling light of the fire sinking our teeth into our dinner. The snake didn't break down without a dogfight in my molars. The mouse was moist, oily, and rich, almost like he came from the Nigerian soil to the East. I ate them without care for tomorrow. I ate them just savoring the experience of immersing myself in something so foreign and exotic to everything I'd grown up in, that nothing could hurt me. And nothing did. My subsequent visits to the latrine were regular and routine.

It's eight years later now. I look back on that experience with great treasure. My moment of eating in what Benin had to offer. In a month, I would board a jet plane for the States. In two, I would be in Jamaica. And another eating experience would begin.


LA Times Travel & Adventure Show

Gilda and I went to the Long Beach Convention Center to hear Rick Steves give a talk on travel tips for a "backdoor experience". I've been a fan of Rick and his PBS show "Europe through the Back door" since 1998 when my college roommate and I would watch episodes and wonder who this guy with two first names was.

After watching so many episodes, listening to his podcast every week, and travelling to Berlin in 2003 using a few of his tips, we pretty much knew everything that he talked about. Still, there's something about seeing someone live and the interaction between audience and speaker that made it just as thrilling.

Rick emphasized that you should "psychologically immerse yourself in the culture and information of your host country" and "travel engaged in what you have an opportunity to learn". That means do your homework before you go and use local news sources while you're there.

After his 90 minute talk carried over into 120 minutes, we stayed after to get a book signed by him. His off camera persona is just as kind as his on camera one. Despite the 1000+ crowd thronging him, Rick still manages to keep things in perspective.

While my current financial situation makes our hoped trip to Turkey this year a murkier dream, I have come up with another idea to keep the travel theme to my blog more vibrant. Every week, I'd like to recount some travel story from my experience. It will help me to hone my travel writing skills and interest my readers. See you then!


The Critic is "IN"

Gilda and I saw Freedom Writers tonight. I got in free with my school district paystub. With me paying for Gilda, it was like two for half price. Anywho, I was touched by the movie but felt it ended with more story to tell. Probably what anyone who's read the book before seeing the movie would say. I knew it would be hard to put a very prose-based book (a compendium of 150 students' diary entries that chronicle their 4 years together) onto the silver screen. Yet, producers Danny DeVito and company did a good job. The movie shows a lot more of the background drama of Erin Gruwell, teacher, with her husband and father not entirely appreciating the sacrifices that she's making for her students.

I give props to the movie for filming on location in Long Beach. Wilson High School looked like Jordan HS in North Long Beach, but the credits thanked LA Unified District. Some of the class procedures seemed to casual: like Gruwell inspecting her classroom just minutes before the first day bell was to ring, a supervisor waiting in the hallway to break up fights, and the entire campus going berserk instead of into lockdown when gangsters come to rough some guy up. But aside from the Hollywood drama designed to keep viewers' attention, I thought some of the scenes were very touching. Hearing the own stories of Holocaust stories always brings a tear to my eyes. Hillary Swank did a good job of sounding and looking like a white teacher not entirely down with street culture. Instead of being a teacher-as-hero movie, I think FW balanced the voices and scenes of students with teacher.

If you're a teacher, you've got one more day to see it free. But, in the end, I would pay money to see this movie just to see the views of Long Beach, stories of students' lives, and a positive message. This critic gives it *** 1/2 stars!


Free Movie for Teachers

As I was subbing at my favorite school in Long Beach, Birney Elementary, I saw a notice from Erin Gruwell, teacher and editor of "The Freedom Writers Diaries", saying that AMC and Paramount Pictures are making the movie Freedom Writers available free to teacher for a week from Janauary 26-Feb 2. All you need is your k-12 school id or pay stub and ID. Go see the movie. I'll see it this weekend and maybe again at this rate!

Already seen it? Lemme know what you think. I have a feeling it'll be shaped by the typical Hollywood "hero teacher helps underpriviledged students" genre but I hope there's something in there that breaks the mold. The book was very honest about students' own lives in around the Long Beach of mid-90s.


Oh no! A Backhoe!

A babbling brook snapped me out of my test prep study this morning. No, I haven't retreated to the San Bernadino mountains to study for my English teacher credential test. A water pipe burst underneath the alley behind my house. Dirty water was coming up out of every crevice with a connection down under.

I could hear Mel the Manager and Rob the guitarist (my neighbors) talking about the causes and implications. I figured they were on top of things and all the DWW (Department of Water Works) would have to do is shut something off. 5 hours later, I'm heading out to scope out the test site so I don't get lost and late tomorrow. They've got a few DWW trucks and utilities workers out there assessing the damage. Mel says I'll have to park on the street for a few days. Dwight, the utilities workers, corroborates Mel's story. Oh well, at least I got my car out before it was trapped.

I came back from my reconnaissance this evening to find a "road closed to thru traffic" sign at the front of the alley. "Oh good" I thought, "for the first time a sign like that doesn't apply to me because I'm not trying to weasel through, I live here." But a backhoe, dump truck, and yellow utilities truck blocked my passage to my parking spot. I had to park two blocks away.

As I ascended to my second floor apartment, the noise grew from the backhoe. 9, 10, 11 pm. They're still digging? Don't they know that I have a huge test tomorrow? Water Works waits for no one. At least I'm getting good alliteration practice out of their excavation escapade.

I stay resilient. I'll sleep with soothing music playing in my headphones to keep the exhaust and idle of the backhoe out of my ears.


New Year, No Post

With New Year's resolutions, I've tried to be more disciplined in my time use. Unfortuantely for my dwindling blog reading audience, that means that I haven't updated my blog in almost 3 weeks.

I'm trying to simplify my life, have less distractions, and finish things that I start instead of starting too many things that I can't finish.

I continue to substitute teach in the local schools. Travelling to new sites each day gives me an inside perspective on the school system so that eventually I can get hired for a full-time position.

My neighborhood continues to be uneventful. That's a good thing compared to my first night living here. But I've noticed some nice features of culture around: the ice cream truck that plays "little drummer boy" instead of "do your ears hang low" and the produce truck that brings the grocery store to the street side instead of residents walking a few blocks to go to the bodega.

We've had quite a cold snap here in LA. "Yea, right," I'm sure you're saying. But they showed Malibu with snow today. The mornings are cold here with air worthy of a jacket, but the midday sun warms me up so that I'll just wear a long-sleeve shirt.

Saturday is my big test day. I'm taking the day off to study for the CSET English test. My expertise is in linguistics, not composition and rhetoric, so I'm a little unsure whether I'll pass the test or not. I'll do my best.

I've started to teach an ESL class to a Cambodian community group. We're learning basic handwriting and phonics. Teaching immigrant beginning-English adults requires quite an array of things to be conscious of: respect for age yet simplifying material to be understood, keeping topics interesting enough for adult tastes yet needing to learn how to write and read before any other information can be transferred.

It is quite different from where I was last year: teaching very literate Japanese middle schoolers. I guess this experiences is giving me a broader skill set in ESL.

Countries I have visited

Where I've been in the USA