Monthly Archives: March 2014

An existential travel question

We’re privileged to have done a lot of travel. Increasingly when we visit new places we see old ones in them. And these comparisons come up a lot in conversation. For example in the past twenty four hours we’ve said that Cartagena reminds us of:

  • A fort we visited in Manila, the Philippines
  • A colonial town in southern Spain called Cardiz
  • Venice, Italy

You can see why we might do this. Lots of the places above, for example, were Spanish colonial sites too. There are patterns in the world and it isn’t surprising that we recognise them. But we might be overrecognising similarity.

When you’re experiencing something new seeing similarity to old things that are more familiar gives you a sense of comfort and understanding. It’s a useful heuristic or mental short cut. Some economists talk about an availability heuristic where we place an over reliance on examples that are easier to remember (because they’re vivid or recent) when evaluating information and making decisions.

So here’s the existential bit: by seeing and speaking in analogies when we travel do we actually end up seeing and experiencing more or less?
There might be a risk that our eagerness to see things that make sense with our memories means we under-experience new things we encounter. That we read sameness into all the indigenous hill tribe’s we meet, or the jungles. Or the colonial towns. And in doing so we miss the subtle differences. We might even become jaded and feel there’s nothing left to see.Or that might be nonsense. Seeing what’s similar might also illuminate what’s different. It might allow you to focus your observation on specific things. The colonial towns all look pretty samey, but the people in them seldom are. After all, if there were really such significantly diminishing marginal returns from travel, we wouldn’t still be doing it.

Zumba or rumba?

I’m not normally much of a cheerleader for organised exercise, but this is pretty cool.

We stumbled across this open air and ostensibly free gym class – Zumba? – in a plaza in Cartagena’s old town. Good setting. Old church. Palm tress.

There was also a pretty big crowd watching which would surely be intolerable if you were doing the exercising. There were of delicious fried foods so that those who were watching rather than partaking could enjoy their superior life choices. And of course the folk exercising can dance, so they were probably doing it much better than at Les Mils.

Cause for celebration


Tonight, on the ramparts of Cartagena we celebrated:

  • The end of our first three months of travel (one down, three to go!)
  • Moving from our volunteering phase to purer travel further south into South America
  • 10,000 visits to our blog

Probably the most significant part of our travel we don’t really blog about is the blogging. But we enjoy it greatly. It’s a great way to hone and process the observations we make. Thank you all for reading along with us.

(Host) Family Portrait


We were sad to farewell our host family who we’ve been staying with for two and a half months. We were pleasantly surprised by how well we fit into their family life. We had a great family gathering on our last night.

Especially delightful was the reception to our parting gifts. We gave a new phone because theirs doesn’t really work. You have to bang the receiver on the table several times after you pick it up before anyone can hear you. Sofia also liked her soft toy kitten, though Llama would have been better. Jose also liked his angry birds ball. Angry birds – or as he says ‘engri bud’ is the most complex English he can get his tongue around.

Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena de Indias – or Cartagena of the Indians – is a beautiful Colombian city that should certainly join the cannon of places that were poorly named by their colonists. There has not been an Indian in sight.

However, we did stumble upon the first Indian eatery we’ve seen in three months in Colombia and were pleased to sample its wares. Pretty good but, like everything here, light on the spice.


As well as having infinitely more Indian restaurants than anywhere else we’ve been Cartagena also has a lot more:

  • Historical defences against pirates
  • Flowers in the streets
  • Sail boats
  • Tourists, especially of the cruise ship pay-for-bottled-water-with-US-dollars variety
  • Ethnically African Colombians
  • People who offer you cocaine

Some of these features may be connected.

Revisiting our decision to volunteer

DSC06621Our decision to volunteer and to do so at Mariposas was not taken lightly. Two and a half months ago we wrote about how and why we chose to do so. Now that we’re done we wanted to revisit what we said with the benefit of hindsight. We made a great decision; most surprises we encountered were good ones.

Bigger benefits than we thought

Our starting point was to acknowledge that our volunteering would mix benefits to us and to others. We weren’t doing the most virtuous thing, but we were doing something that would benefit others. We stand by this as a way to think about things. Any short term volunteer who doesn’t acknowledge this balance is naive. But our experience was that the benefits to us, and to others, exceeded our expectations.

Benefits to us

  • We got the benefits we’d expected – learning Spanish, living in the real deal Colombia and feeling useful along the way – but also a lot more.
  • The kids weren’t an amorphous blob watching the whiteboard and raising hands. We got to know them well, and learned lots about the lives they lead. Actually just spending time around younger kids was refreshing and different for us.
  • We became more emotionally invested with the project than we expected, and we got a bigger kick out of the kids’ victories.
  • We underestimated what we’d learn from working in primary education: what you had to learn when you were six and how to teach it is not simple.

Benefits to others

  • Revision proved the kids were learning things. Some of them had significant breakthroughs with us.
  • Kids seemed to be lacking in attention and affection at home. Giving them that was easy. It made their day.
  • Little extra things we could contribute mattered: ukulele songs, stories, art projects
  • We were also able to make contributions to Mariposas as an organisation. We talk about that below.

Continue reading Revisiting our decision to volunteer

Leaving Mariposas

Final goodbyes: student tries to convince Fiona he can come with us in our backpack.
Final goodbyes: student tries to convince Fiona he can come with us in our backpack.

What we take away

  • Crystal clear memories of all the good times, of all the victories: Hedgehog smiling full of pride and delight and confidence when she learned something new or surprised herself by sounding out a new word; the prescolar who normally never talks to adults but suddenly burst out with “Good Morning” in English class; the sudden and unexpected increase in volume when kids go from not knowing to knowing a song; the hugs hello; and, the hugs goodbye…
  • An abiding respect for teachers of all stripes, and especially those who teach in difficult communities.
  • Improved Spanish, especially in the imperative forms.
  • A reaffirmed belief that it’s not fair how drastically difference our experience of life is depending on where we’re born.


What we leave behind

  • Stuff: two ukuleles, six picture books and a red sports bag that is surplus to requirements.
  • A functioning timetable and system to plan classes from week to week.
  • Three songs the kids can sing, and hum to themselves between maths problems.
  • A second grade class that can: add and subtract three digit numbers (borrowing, carrying and all); look up a word in a dictionary; write a story; measure in centimetres; read aloud to preschoolers; and; quietly to themselves.
  • Knowing we have – with the help of many of you – the resources to arrange for a qualified Spanish speaking teacher for six months.
  • The kids. With other volunteers, or even other travelers it’s easy enough to exchange facebook details and the belief that you’ll see each other in someone’s home country some time. As much as we care, that’s not true for the kids. We’ll never know how their lives work out, though we know the possibilities go from terrific to disastrous. We’re grateful to the volunteers we know will follow us, and the chances they will give to the kids to improve their chances in life.

The Secret Life of Volunteers


One of the great things about working with Mariposas is the pre-prepared community of friends that is the international volunteers. The constant comings and goings means there is always a good reason to get together and go out for dinner. And then ice cream. And then some drinks. After siesta time there’s rarely a day when you couldn’t find another volunteer on the beach at Taganga. On the day the below photo was taken all but one of the us found ourselves at the same spot. We also travel further afield in the weekends to other beaches, or the mountains.


Often our conversations resemble what a school staff room might sound like. We talk about our favourites and our frustrations with particular kids. We talk about funny things that happened in class and things that worry us. We talk about things we wish were different, and we acknowledge the many reasons they can’t easily be. We gripe about organisational bits and pieces.  There’s no union, and no striking, though our wages are a scandal…

We also talk about our homes, the foods we miss and the weather we don’t. Our conversations float between English and Spanish depending on who’s more comfortable with what. Surprisingly given Colombia’s location, there are more European’s than North Americans. That’s good when it comes to another of our favourite conversations: the difference between American and other English. I have recorded an objective catalogue of these discussions for posterity:

  • We say entres and mains. Amercians say appetisers and entres. This is plainly ridiculous. Entre is clearly associated with something you do before something else. Think entrance, or the French word for before: entre!.Oh, and entrada in Spanish. One point to us.
  • Americans swim in the ocean. We swim in the sea. To be fair to Americans, if they swim off the vast majority of their coast they will be swimming in an Ocean, whereas plenty of other swimming is in the sea. So, absent overwhelming logic we go to a tie breaker: what does Spanish say? In Spanish you swim in el mar – the sea. Sea it is. Another point to non-American English.
  • We call 7Up and Sprite lemonade. Americans call it 7Up and Sprite and reserve lemonade for non-fizzy lemon tasting stuff which you might make yourself at home. They’re on to something. 7Up and Sprite have very little to do with lemons. And, by calling them lemonade, we’re left without a specific term for the lemon tasting stuff. Point to America.
  • Americans say apple cider when we’d say spiced apple juice. They say ‘hard cider’ when it’s alcoholic and we’d just say cider. This hass some merit because it also allows them to say, for example ‘hard lemonade’. However wine is not ‘hard grape juice’. Glaringly inconsistent. Still, us non-Americans be call that a draw and be ahead on points.

Sports day

Once a week on a Thursday the full school heads down to the local open dirt area field, for sports day. Often the local giant rodent and other neighbourhood kids join the fun.

The kids are always bursting with energy, eager to get their feet as dirty as possible, and  occasionally interested in following instructions. We play games, like:

  • Candlesticks (also known as stuck in the mud)
  • Variations of bull rush called toros or sharks and fishes
  • Running races and relays

Vamos en circulo! Getting them in a circle is just the beginning of our challenges.
Vamos en circulo! Getting them in a circle is just the beginning of our challenges.

And often we relent to the growing cries and let the kids play football. Football is massive here especially in this world cup year where Colombia has a genuine shot at victory.

Our kids take themselves most seriously when they’re playing football. Although actually there are a couple of key differences between what they play, and football. Scoring goals is still the nominal aim, but touching the ball is the real goal. So they all swarm around the ball and charge up and down the field like killer bees chasing the ball. And when your team begins losing the appropriate response is to either a) go and sulk on the side of the field or b) push over the competition, both of which are counterproductive.

Time out. Your Spanish doesn't have to be perfect, so long as your tone of voice is clear.
Time out. Your Spanish doesn’t have to be perfect, so long as your tone of voice is clear.

So while the kids love it, we’re not especially enamored with football. The last few weeks we haven’t played, and we’ve just about managed to hold the kids attention with other games. Some new volunteers with sports backgrounds have taught games that focus on team work, jumping through a skipping rope together.

It’s still a struggle to hold the kids’ attention when you’re asking them to run around one minute then sit still and listen the next. Fighting isn’t rare, and Time Out is common. But every time we trudge back up the hill for water and bananas without the kids having chanted for football, we chalk it up as a victory.

Game twenty four

When Fiona was ten she was the Waikato Regional Game Twenty Four Champion. Such was her prowess and dedication to her sport that she would probably have gone all the way to a national title had their been the forum for her to progress beyond the contest at the Hamilton McDonald’s. At the time small Fiona recorded in her diary: “Can you believe it, diary? Is it really true?… I am the happiest person in the world.”


So, as you can imagine, Fiona was pleased to share this game at Mariposas. We’d brought it from home thinking we could use it in maths class. But the modest multiplication and division skills it requires puts it out of reach of most at the school. Still for the older ones, and those who are more competitively inclined, it’ll be great. Fiona even let them win a couple of rounds.