Monthly Archives: January 2014

Six reasons to teach Spanish, not French

I learned French at school. Lots of New Zealanders learned French at school. For lots, Spanish isn’t a choice. Just French.

Here’s why we should stop teaching French and start teaching Spanish instead.

  1. Spanish is spoken by more people than French. Lots more. About three times as many.
  2. You’ll find more English in France than in Spanish speaking countries. This is especially true of France as against Latin America.
  3. Latin America is an important emerging market for New Zealand.
  4. Spanish is easier than French. The sounds are more familiar to an English speaker than those of French. And, critically, it is spelt consistently and phonetically.
  5. Spanish regular verbs are more regular.
  6. People here are happy to talk to you if you only speak a little Spanish. They´re tolerant of your errors. In France it seems binary: one error or muffled sentence and they switch to English.

Home sweet homestay

At least for the first while that we’re in Santa Marta we’re staying in a homestay. It’s about the same price as staying in a cheap hotel but we get:

  • More Spanish interaction
  • Lunch cooked for us everyday
  • A chance to observe real costeno (coastal) life

Our family

The family we’re staying with are lovely. We have the most direct contact with Dorthys (Like Door-tees) who is La Senora. This seems a reasonably defined role of household organisation and oversight. That matches our reading that Colombian women take charge within the home, and men outside it (eg in professions and politics). Though Dorthys is also a hairdresser, and we both expect to avail ourselves of her services soon. Dorthys is constantly a la orden.

Dorthy’s husband Esteban is a primary school teacher. He’s just started back at school and is often making lesson plans about the same time we are. They have three children. The youngest still lives at home. She’s finishing her studies and about to head to Argentina on exchange. The middle one lives with his fiancee and works in banana exporting. I’m yet to see if he knows about Australia’s outrageous banana protectionism.

The oldest is a psychologist who works with some of Colombia’s massive population of internally displaced people. Her son and daughter, four and two, are frequent visitors and have been hanging with their grandma.

Much of the extended family aren’t far away. Estaban’s mum lives next door. She’s ninety and still making her own arepas. His sister and family live directly behind us (and are currently hosting another volunteer).

Some observations

The family nearby almost melds into the extended neighborhood community. When the grand kids are about it’s common for other kids to wander along with them through the halls (at least partly in hope of playing our ukuleles). A lot of life is lived on the street. Or, more accurately, on the porches that front directly on to the street. It’s the place to while away the evenings and enjoy the breeze.

There isn’t a lot of stuff in our house. For example, there are no books, and there probably isn’t enough crockery to feed everyone who lives here at the same time. We guess that’s at least as much a cultural decision as a wealth one. After all, the kids have all been supported through university by their parents (which would cost more than a dish or two). Education is clearly a higher priority in our household than it is in the barrio where we teach.

It’s also interesting to see what other spending gets prioritised. There’s broadband, for example, but a bucket shower. There’s aircon, but no hot water in the house (including the hairdressing part). Our bucket shower strategies continue to evolve.

Don’t mind if I lulo

This is a delicious fruit.


It’s what the Colombians call a Lulo. And apparently the Peruvians and Ecuadorians call it a Naranjilla. You can only find it in the temperate climates of North Western South America.

It tastes a little similar to feijoa, but also has overtones of green apple. Most Colombians seem to consume their fruit via juice, and that’s the way we have experienced lulo. But we ask for our juice sin azucar (without sugar) so we get more of a fruity taste.

I had a lulo juice on the way home from my first Spanish class today. Also enjoyed one of the great features of fresh juice drinking here. They always make too much juice for the cup they give you. If you hang about to drink some they invariably top you back up.

A sad day for flightfox

Many of you will know that I have been an enthusiastic advocate for, and participant in, a site called The idea behind flightfox was to crowd source flight options given  requirements of a traveler who launches a contest. So, people like me – ‘experts’ – would pitch ideas to them, and the winning expert would be paid for their service.

Sadly, though flightfox consistently delivered significant savings to travelers (I think about 17% at last count), the business model isn’t working. They can’t sustain their overheads and aren’t getting enough traffic. So, flightfox has removed the crowd sourcing element and is now basically an online travel agent (albeit with flight experts suggesting flights).

I’m still inclined to endorse this service. In my experience high street travel agents lack the creativity and industry specific knowledge to get you the best fare. They’re also incentivised to sell you the more expensive fare, because they are paid on commission. And online aggregation sites like kayak and expedia are good, but lack nuance. Hell, even google’s proprietary software can’t do the job: it’s probably the best travel search engine around, but you can’t book fares through it.

But for me it’s sad. I wasn’t one of the chosen few exerts who flightfox has retained under its new business model. And moreover, I think crowd sourcing flights to undermine the complexity in flight bookings and get people better deals is a great idea, and one I had really hoped would succeed.

Agreeable eagles

This is the system used for discipline for the little ones at Mariposas.

They start life pegged as an Aguila Agradable – an agreeable eagle. Not altogether a bad thing to be.

20140121_084830If they are very good (unlikely) their peg is moved so they become an Elefante Estupendo – a stupendous elephant.20140121_084835

If (more likely) we need to draw attention to their poor behaviour, their peg moves to Oso Ordinario – an ordinary bear. This is not necessarily to imply that they are a bear of very little brain.20140121_084842Finally if being labelled ordinary isn’t a sufficient disincentive to their behavior they can be classed a Mono Malo – A Bad Monkey. In what is hopefully a coincidence, mono is also the word that is used here to describe a Westerner, or at least someone with European features.20140121_084848

Taganga – a kind of Colombian riviera


There’s a beach about fifteen minutes from where we’re staying in Santa Marta. It’s called Taganga. At this time of year it attracts masses of Colombian tourists and a fair dose of travelers who are into diving. We like it, but will like it more when the crowds die down.

The only downside then will be the laxidasical approach to rubbish. Colombians basically practice this 1950s era approach to rubbish disposal.

But, shouldn’t they be in school?

If you’re like us you might have wondered why the students we teach aren’t attending Colombian public schools. After all, there are public schools in Colombia and lots of students go.

Part of the answer is that some of the students we teach do also go to Colombian schools. Maybe one in three students. For them Mariposas is kind of like an after school care programme at home. It’s an extra activity that keeps them out of trouble.

For the others, it’s more complicated. The communities Mariposas serves are poor. You can  track the decline of socio-economic status as our bus heads north in the morning. Sealed roads become gravel and then dirt. Houses change from bricks and mortar to concrete blocks and tarpaulins.

There’s a lot of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled their (mostly rural) communities during Colombia’s recent conflict to eek out a living on the city fringes. Amongst these groups literacy is lower, domestic violence is higher, and money is scarce.

So, when public schools require parents to purchase uniforms as  a de facto barrier to their kids’ participation, some parents don’t or can’t pay. Uniforms are expensive. At 50,000 Colombian pesos they are probably equivalent to a family’s weekly income.

Some families might be able to save up for this but it is also evident that education isn’t really prioritised in the community. It’s not unusual for parents to tell their kids they don’t need to go to school on Mondays. And when kids are asked for an explanation of why they didn’t make class on a particular Thursday it’s common for them to say their parents didn’t wake them so they stayed asleep.

Continue reading But, shouldn’t they be in school?

Music day

In keeping with the relaxed vibe of the first week at school we dedicated most of Friday to music. It was a good thing to do with all the different aged kids together.

We played a bunch of rhythm games (call and answer clapping, statues and such). We also taught the kids two songs using the ukeleles we brought with us:

  • Hey ya! (H/t to the Kat Irving / Halia Haddad duo Hat for this). Well at least the chorus of Hey Ya. The kids just clapped along to the verses. Hilariously, they thought the chorus sounded like the name of one of the local staff Helga, and that became the de facto lyric.
  • Eres mi sol – our own translation of You Are My Sunshine. We actually had to sunny up some of the lyrics in translation. That song is kinda depressing in its original form.

After the kids had learned the song we asked them what it meant. None of them really had any idea. Fi has to explain with reference to Joe as her sol so the kids learned that we are married. This lead to an impromptu question time:

Q: Did Joe propose to Fiona while playing the guitar? And if not, why not?

This time around we were too absorbed to really take any photos or video. But we will when the kids’ singing is more up to scratch.


One thing we hadn’t really counted on was how little the littlest little ones we would teach would be. The school has a handful 3, 4 and 5 year olds. Some of them really are a hadnful individually. They need to learn, well, basically everything. Here’s Fiona helping them identify where eyes, noses and mouths go on faces.


Fiona has taken on a role coordinating volunteers which means working with the two local staff to make sure things are well structured. She’s been working on the syllabus for the preschoolers which includes all sorts of things we had forgotten we ever had to learn like:

  • Holding a pen correctly, drawing a straight line and then an angled line on a page (as a precursor to handwriting)
  • Identifying groups that have lots of things, and groups that have few (as a precursor to counting)
  • Colouring within a box (part an ongoing crusade to have directions followed)

Picture books, including the ones we brought specially with us, are a big hit. We’re drip feeding the new ones in over the few months we are here. See Fiona making the most of a story about mothers in the video below.

La Puerta

Last night we went out to a trendy bar in Santa Marta called La Puerta. It felt a lot like one of those trendy bars at home that have a Latin American theme. But:

  • It was in Latin America
  • The patrons were much more eager to dance, and much better dancers when they did
  • The DJ was not too hipster to splash Western pop music in with the latin beats
  • Many parts of the bar had no roof which was excellent with a full moon
  • The drinks were still about a third of the price of what you’d pay at home.