Monthly Archives: March 2014

Llama substitute

You’ll probably remember our adorable kitten Llama. He’s now living a happy life in his new home. Our resident host nephew Jose is a bit confused by this. He often comes to our room asking where Llama is, hoping he’s just been on holiday and could be back any minute.

Recently he asked whether the box under our dresser was Llama’s house. We confirmed this was the case. Fiona asked whether he might like to be Llama, and fit inside. He did. Very much so. For the next hour or so he fit in the box in every conceivable fashion.

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Eventually all that was left to do war tear the box apart. But Jose still wanted to be all over it. There was some concern that, in the end, he was playing homeless street dweller, rather than playing Llama.


Spicy sauce


I just want to take this and put it in my purse.

Fiona with a possibly ill-thought out approach to savouring a delicious spicy sauce on the rare occasion that we come across one.

Colombian food tends to be bland. The sauce is just another excellent find at one of our favourite Santa Marta eateries. It sells foccacia sanduches. This helps with our cravings for bread which isn’t sweet, cheese that tastes like cheese and, now, spicy sauce.

So we think they can dance

If you go out at night here you’ll find everyone dancing. Both men and women are excellent, but the men are especially noteworthy because, unlike at home, they move their feet. And their hips. If you make your dancing self-deprecating or ironic to cover your ineptitude people probably just think you’re dancing badly. And if you shuffle about moving mostly your shoulders, people won’t think you’re dancing at all.

Dancing in the street: girls from our neighbourhood celebrate on their patio.
Dancing in the street: girls from our neighborhood celebrate on their patio. They’re dancing to Serrucho.

We think we can at least partly explain how this comes about. Kids dance with their families from a very young age and at all sorts of family gatherings, in the same sort of way that we might pay backyard cricket. The parents join in with the kids and the kids learn from the parents. They all dance to the same music: whatever the top latin pop hits are at the time. By the time they’re all grown up they’re both casual and accomplished dancers. They dance for fun, and they don’t generally do a lot of drinking at the same time.

The rules about what dancing means are different here too. There’s no implication if you ask someone to dance. Advancing a style that would be strongly suggestive of post dance activities at home means nothing here.

If, when in Colombia, you try and dance as the Colombians do, but fail spectacularly, you’re likely to be offered some help. Colombians are very generous like that. Guys might sidle up to you and show you how they move their feet, expecting you to catch on. It’s roughly the equivalent of being asked to bowl a doosra when you’ve never touched a cricket ball.

Worse still, they’ll send over one of their female friends to dance with you. This is an experience that begins hopefully but becomes harrowing when the music is peppered with their imperative: baila, baila! (dance, dance!). And you thought you were dancing…

Worse still, they'll send over one of their female friends to dance with you. This is an experience that begins hopefully but becomes harrowing when the music is peppered with their imperative: baila, baila! (dance, dance!). And you thought you were dancing...

Thinking fast and slow with second grade

Daniel Kahneman is a nobel prize winning economist and author of an excellent book called Thinking Fast and Slow. He’s a behavioral economist and, to massively simplify, he argues that sometimes we think quickly, and instinctively, and sometimes we think slowly and analytically.

We used his introductory example as an extra for our maths class today. We’re still doing measurement. Gratifyingly, the students all said the bottom line was shorter. Actually, they’re exactly the same length, but the shape of the arrows frames the way we look at them. We measured them to prove this.


More on absenteeism

We’ve written before that absenteeism is a big problem. Two of our students spent most of the week away from school last week. They returned today and we asked them why.

Their answers varied somewhat in reasonableness:

  • One said her stepfather (the family breadwinner) had been sick. He couldn’t work and so wasn’t earning. The family didn’t have enough money to feed the kids so sent them to their grandparents, which is too far away to commute to school.
  • One – we found out via the brother who dropped her off – had simply told her family there was no class that week. And they believed her!

Violence around school

Here’s a thought experiment:

You teach a first grade class. There are two brothers in your class who are very quick at maths, so you’ve taken to offering them extra problems to solve. They usually lap this up, but one day you hear one brother cautioning the other that if they have more homework their mum will hit them both. You think you might have misheard so you don’t think much of it. But just in case you emphasise that the extra work is for class time only, not for homework.

Fast forward a week or so. One of the brothers comes to school with a not insignificant cut above his eye. One of the local staff asks him what its from. He says his mum kicked him because he didn’t know one of the letters. You’ve no reason to disbelieve him. But practically you’ve no ability to access government services that might intervene in this family, as there aren’t any.

Should you keep setting the brothers homework?

The issues we deal with

You may have guessed that, sadly, this is not just a thought experiment, but a real situation that some of the other volunteers have been dealing with. After consulting with local staff the conclusion was, yes, you keep setting homework like normal. There’s a strong cultural expectation of homework – called tareas here – and parents use it to measure whether their kids are learning anything at school. The brothers might just as easily be abused if they come home without tareas.

But we’ll redouble the questioning about how things are going at home, especially the process by which homework is done. Apparently the only next step available to us would be talking directing to the family.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling to know that your actions as a teacher could have violent consequences for your students. One preescolar was especially misbehaving one day and  was sent home with a note to his parents. He was conspicuously absent at school the next day and his step-father is known to be abusive. His big sister reported that he had been suspended . That wasn’t the outcome we were looking for. And we worried that ‘suspension’ was a euphemism.

We’ve limited sight into the homes of the kids we teach and next to no influence over them. It seems like the best we can do is model an environment where violence isn’t a component of discipline. Hopefully it occurs to the kids that they’re sitting in time out, waiting for glitter to fall to the bottom of an upturned soda bottle full of water, rather than being struck.

If the kids report this back to their parents though, they’ll probably think we’re balmy. The anti-corporal punishment norms we grew up with are the polar opposite of those here. One parent came to pick their son up on a day when he’d made all sorts of mischief. A volunteer told her so. “Well” said the mother to her son “you need to be careful because if you misbehave at school again they’ll hit you. Very hard.”

Um, no we won’t.

*Alternative title considered and discarded: It’s not okay. But it is okay to blog about it.

Post post office

We’ve recently had cause to send a package home. We asked everyone where we could do this: homestay family, neighbours, colleagues, Spanish teachers. Nobody knew. A couple of folks suggested FedEx but no one could tell us where the post office was.

Some serious googling later we found this place. It’s the single outlet for 472 or what used to be known as Colombia’s post office. So, effectively, for a city with nearly half a million people there is just a single post office. And it doesn’t really seem like a post office at all.


The service they offer is basically the same as a FedEx or DHL. They send packages like a courier company. The only distinction is that they offer a slightly slower and cheaper service, which is what got our attention. But there are no wracks of prepaid envelopes and stamps to browse an certainly no banking services.

We know that mail still gets delivered here. We’ve received a smattering of excellent children’s books, for example. But it just doesn’t seem like the post office is a thing here anymore. Of course post is a sunset industry, and we can expect its decline all over the world. The sun just seems to have set here a lot earlier.

My day

Today is a public holiday and so we’re headed to the beach.

It’s been a struggle to find anyone who could tell us why it is a public holiday, suggesting the reason is even more nominal than Queen’s Birthday weekend.

Turns out it is San Jose’s day. Jose is my adopted Spanish name because Joe is too hard to say. So, I’m choosing to consider this day a celebration of me. Might have a celebratory empanada, for example.

Apparently it’s also taken to be men’s day. More celebration of me. Women’s day was a few weeks back.


We’ve got a new student in our class joining fantail and hedgehog and the others. We’ll call him Tigger because he’s got a certain amount of bounce in him.

Tigger’s mum is the school caretaker and teaches preschool. They live in a one room house with a single bed next to school. They use the school bathrooms as they’ve no running water of their own. Tigger’s dad isn’t around. His older brother has just been called up for military service.

He’s of the age and the disposition where going to shake your hand and pulling away at the last second is still hilarious. He’s chirpy and smart. Genuinely one of the loveliest kids you could ever hope to meet. Which is remarkable and heartbreaking all at once.

Tigger has a range of serious health problems. He’s diabetic, has a problem with his heart that we don’t understand, and an inoperable brain tumor. We say inoperable because his mum says inoperable. We can’t bare to try and figure out whether the same prognosis would be given if Tigger was being treated in the west.

The tumor will kill him eventually, but no one is sure when.

Tigger has been getting worse in the ten weeks we have been here. Mostly he’s fine, but sometimes he’s gotten crippling headaches. He becomes disoriented and faints. In the past week he’s been hospitalised for further investigation, but it doesn’t sound like they’ve found out anything new.

For some time now doctors have been saying that Tigger shouldn’t be attending school anymore. But he’s been going to a local Colombian school in the afternoons because he’s a bright and engaged twelve year old and he wants to be a Normal Boy. Seems like the recent stint in hospital is the final straw though. At least he can attend Mariposas, just steps from his home, and come and go as his pain allows.

Having him in second grade – when he should be in sixth – will bring some special challenges. But we, and the volunteers that follow, will do everything we can to make it a good experience for him. We’re hoping he’ll learn the ukulele.

The situation is a tragedy of the most beastly kind. Of course no one deserves to get what Tigger has gotten. But it seems extra capricious given he’s a bright, charming and good hearted kid.

Sharing a book


When we arrived nine weeks ago this girl couldn’t and wouldn’t read aloud. Now, here she is, sitting in front of the preschool class and reading to them. We were stunned. We’d been planning for this all week, and she’d basically memorised the book, but we still thought she’d chicken out.

She did a great job – the preschoolers were attentive and engaged. And she was delighted with herself at the end. She hugged the preschoolers. She hugged all the volunteers. And you couldn’t wipe the smile of her face until maths class…