Monthly Archives: January 2014

The gene lives on

There is a pernicious rumor that red hair is genetically doomed and dying out. I like to celebrate proof that this is not the case. Here is a Colombian girl we met on the bus. She was coming home from school. She has red hair. Really red hair. This is remarkable because no one else around her had red hair. Indeed we’ve seen no one else in this country with red hair. The gene lives on!


No soy marinero, soy capitan


We’ve taught the kids La Bamba. They love it. It sounds basically just like this, but with a ukulele solo. I am not a mariner, I am the captain, the captain.

But the surprise hit, staying at the top of the Mariposas charts is Eres Mi Sol (a translation of You Are My Sunshine) which you can hear sung here. Having them sing without the assistance of los profes is something of an achievement.


We have a hedgehog in our class. We call her hedgehog so we can talk about her in English without her knowing. And because, at the first sign of danger, she balls up and puts out her spikes.

We have recently come to understand hedgehog’s belligerence and refusal to participate in class as a defence mechanism. She’s ten years old and only in second grade. But, after some cajoling, it has become clear that she  doesn’t know the alphabet well enough to sound out words. She can copy from the board, but doesn’t know what she’s writing. To cover this up, when she comes across something in class she can’t do – which is often – she just refuses to participate.

It’s not hard to imagine that lots of people have given up on hedgehog. It’s very easy to get frustrated with her. At home, we understand that her dad has died, and her mum’s boyfriend hits her and kicks her out on the street (which obviously goes well beyond ‘giving up’). At school, successive teachers have probably tried, but failed, to make progress, and so leave her to her own devices. Relying on short term volunteers  exacerbates this ].

The truth is that we give up a little on hedgehog too. We have other students that need attention. There’s only so long you can wait for her to respond, or sit down, or pay attention, before the rest of the class moves on. We could even put her back to first grade, but that would be another blow to her already fragile self confidence. And ultimately , when we leave Mariposas in a couple of months, it will no longer be our problem, and we too will move on.

In the meantime, we’re doing our best to be sympathetic to hedgehog’s behavior in class – to give her the attention we gather she misses at home, and specific support with the areas she finds tough. That means alphabet sessions before school, and enjoying the things she likes at school with her: art class, and piggy backs at sports day.

Maybe the most sobering part of this is that hedgehog, all of ten, is just a few years away from turning up in one of the lactation classes at Mariposas’ community centre. The transition from girlhood to motherhood can be quick here. Our best hope is to create as much of a community around her possible. A community of services, and people, that are hard wired not to give up.

Breaking News

Our neighbours have a daughter called Laydi Dianna (spelling approximate).

This, apparently, is a tribute to the British Royal Family.

Background noise

Stuff we heard while teaching today:

  • Snippets of the songs we sang with the kids in our morning pseudo assembly especially “Para bailar La Bamba…*indistinguishable* La Bamba”.
  • What sounded suspiciously like the vowels in Maori (ah, ay, ee, or, oo) which are actually the vowels in Spanish, which are just like those in Maori.
  • A difficult to decipher voice over a loud speaker. Sounds like everyone is being rounded up in some terrible way. Quite scary the first time. But is actually just announcing the sale of bananas to the neighborhood.

Misadventures in traveler


Wanting to be like the other hipster / cool kid travelers Fiona took great pleasure in getting a long strand of her hair braided. This involved tying tiny knots of different colours of string into the braid and attaching several shells. Tres chic. It looked cool and was an entertaining experience. Joe was luke warm given his belief that hair should primarily be soft but, to be fair, was not actively discouraging.

Fiona’s hatred of the braid grew to have the heat of a nova. The braid itched. It batted around in the night. It put pressure on the hair it was hanging from causing redness and soreness. It hurt.

It was late at night when Fiona decided she couldn’t take it any longer. “It’s coming out” she said, jumping to switch on the light and grab the scissors. She could have quoted MacBeth. She could cut off the part that was braided without hair, but you don’t want to cut the bit with hair for fear of leaving a small bald patch, or unbecoming stubble. So, it had to be un-knotted bit by bit. This was time consuming and sleep eventually took over.

Luckily we have access to a small troupe of children. They have small hands (h/t Lockwood Smith). Very useful. And one, shown below, displayed an uncommon amount of concentration unpicking the braid before school this morning. Fiona felt liberated.



This is a phenomenon frequently experienced when traveling, and all the more so when learning a language too:

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon,[1] also known as frequency illusion, is the illusion in which something which has recently come to one’s attention, such as a word or a name, suddenly seems to appear with high frequency shortly afterwards.

Where the wild things are

Fiona has graduated from teaching preschoolers to teaching the second grade, the highest class the school offers. I am her willing assistant. The kids range in age from seven to twelve. Some of them are diligent. Some of them are wild things. Hopefully our reading of Donde Viven Los Monstrous (Where the Wild Things Are – or literally where the monsters live) today will not have inspired the latter.

20140128_110704The second graders bring new challenges.

First, the concepts that we teach are harder. Rather than identifying where a nose goes on a face today we learned about:

  • How three digit numbers are made up of hundreds, tens and ones
  • Syllables in words (esp important in Spanish because there are rules about emphasis)
  • Parts of the plant
  • Drawing maps from a birds eye view

Second, some of them feel the responsibility they have for younger siblings at home extends to school. This can be disruptive of their learning. For example today:

  • One of our students brought her two year old sister to school, because there was no one to leave her with at home (she spent some time with the preschoolers, but most on her sister’s lap)
  • Another is constantly wanting to check and see if her little brother is doing what he ought in Preschool (he almost certainly isn’t but that’s not her responsibility in school hours)

And finally the kids tend to be more independent. They did like being read to today, but also also capable of reading the books themselves, see below. Sometimes they read so slowly it’s hard to know whether they get the meaning as well as the sounds, but this seems to be the case.

20140128_111516Thankfully reading is one area where I can be of some assistance. The kids sound out the word and, because Spanish is spelt phonetically, even without know what the word is I can know whether they’re getting it right.

Coffee farm economics

As part of our trip to the pretty, nearby, mountain town of Minca this weekend we took a tour around an organic coffee farm. The farm was founded 122 years ago and still uses the same machinery. This seems a novel approach to capex that may not pass the rigors of a Treasury Better Business Case.

For those of you unaware (as I was) this is what a coffee plant looks like.


What I found most remarkable was how little coffee beans growing on coffee trees resemble in any way the finished coffee product. They have no alluring smell. No real smell at all. So it’s remarkable that thousands of years ago some pre-colonial Americans were like: “sweet, you know what we need to do… pick these beans, shuck them, dry them, shuck them again, roast them, grind them and then turn them into a brew. That’ll be tasty”. Remarkable. Here the lower grade coffee is being sun dried.

DSC04527Some of the economics of the operation were also interesting. The beans are hand picked and the folk doing the picking represent more than 99% of the 130 people that the farm employs during harvest. They’re paid by product: about $14NZD for filling the largest box down to $3.50NZD for the smallest (see below). Given the heat, farm terrain (also shown below) and fiddlyness of picking one bean at a time, I’d struggle to fill half the smallest box in a day. You start to understand why coffee is produced almost exclusively in the developing world.

DSC04550 DSC04501The finished product gets exported in these massive sacks. The exported product isn’t ready to drink. It’s neither ground, roasted nor finally shucked. Exporting it in a more raw form means it keeps for longer. It’s also exported without farm-specific branding – it’s just Colombian coffee. It wasn’t even clear the farm was extracting a premium from organic production.

There seemed to be clear opportunities to inch up the value chain. You can totally see what Flight Coffee are doing at home, importing single origin coffee. You can imagine getting significant value by being able to talk about the specific origin of the coffee, especially as it impacts taste.

Fast food development: Introduction and Colombia

fast-food-logosThis post begins our project to report the overall development of the countries we visit by  assessing the prevalence and cost of Western fast food.

We’re not necessarily suggesting our categorisation should form part of the human development index. But neither is this completely tongue in cheek: the proliferation of Western fast food says something about a country’s political and global integration as well as wealth. Our project is in a similar spirit to the Economist’s Big Mac Index and the theory that no two countries with a McDonald’s franchise will ever go to war with each other.

We could have chosen something else – like how common it is for kids to have braces, or whether people run for exercise (rather than because something is chasing them). But fast food places are easy to observe and occasionally delicious.

The five stages of development

Our plan is to categorise each of the countries we visit into one of the Five Stages of Fast Food Development.

  1. There is no Western fast food available.
  2. Western fast food is available in major cities (or tourist traps) but is prohibitively expensive for all but the richest.
  3. Western fast food is available in most towns or cities and is an aspirational brand for the middle classes (with a price tag to match).
  4. Western fast food is ubiquitous and amongst the cheapest meal you can buy.
  5. Western fast food eating is available and cheap, but people don’t want it, and it eventually disappears…

We’ve developed this framework based on our travels to date. We’ve observed all but the fifth stage (which we hypothesise may be mythical). And  we’ve seen the progression between stages when revisiting countries (Vietnam 2003 was Stage 1, 2007 was Stage 2).

A note on definition – the Jolibee factor

Some countries take Western fast food ideas and adapt them for their own purposes. The Philippine’s Jolibee is a burger chain with distinctive sweet sauces and buns. This is not okay from a culinary perspective nor, more importantly, as a data point for our assessment. What we’re looking for is Western chains themselves (McDonalds, Domino’s, Starbucks, Subway etc.) or local copies that work hard to be the same as Western counterparts. That’s our definition of Western fast food.

Questions and comments about our framework are very welcome, as are your suggestions for how countries you’ve visited fit on our scale.

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