Monthly Archives: February 2012

Anyone Up for A Trip?

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What happens when the Black Gringa (me) takes off from writing for a few days?  Well, I wake up, planning to have a completely normal day, and then buy a ticket to Cuba!  It is a trip  I have been contemplating for about 20 years and today for some unknown reason, I decided to write it off my “bucket list”.

So, in six days, I’m off again to another Spanish-speaking country with my travel buddy.  Now to present something ironic, I actually thought about having my little one spend the week with grandma in Los Angeles or her aunt and uncle in Washington DC, but the roundtrip tickets there (including unaccompanied minor fees $460 at the cheapest) were more than the roundtrip ticket to Varadero, Cuba ($335). So for one week, Cuba will be our classroom as we learn about Columbus (not discovering the “New” world, Spanish colonization, the slave trade and the Cuban Revolution. We will also be working on Spanish language, map skills and self-sufficiency. Homeschool for the 3rd grader, gotta love it!

Like the random, spontaneous traveler I am:

  • I have no idea what we are going to do (besides roam randomly, hang out, and do some of our usual school work)
  • Accommodations are yet to be determined
  • Transportation is yet to be determined (besides the flight)
  • And, I have 5 days to figure it out

Fun times.   The first thing I have discovered is that outside of a lower airfare, it is significantly more expensive to be a tourist in Cuba than in Ecuador.  There is no comparison.  In Cuenca, excluding our apartment, I spent less than $100 over the course of a week.  That is pretty hard to beat, especially looking at some of the posts on getting around Cuba.

While I look forward to our upcoming adventure, I am already missing the  budget friendliness of Cuenca.  That said, I plan to salsa my way to Cuban bliss, then return to start packing up for our Ecuadorian move. Yeah!

There’s never a dull moment in the Black Gringa household.  That’s how we roll!

Our Cuenca Visit – Another Perspective

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While in Cuenca we met so many wonderful people, but the highlight of our trip was meeting Frank and Angie and their family.  They have posted another view of our visit with them, which is below. (click here to go directly to their post)

Watching the video really just made my day and reminded me about why I loved Cuenca so much.  I really can not wait to get back to see my friends! And, Angie’s lasagna really set a new bar for what all lasagna should be.

Step 1 – On Moving to Cuenca

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Where do I begin?  I mean literally, where do I begin to unravel the litany of things that I need to accomplish to make this move?  If I over analyze, over think, over strategize, it begins to get complex, quickly.  Schools, homes, cars (or not), things in my apartment here, things for my apartment there, visas, adjustment period, culture shock, and other “stuff”.

Just listing these things down makes me anxious….then I realize, who am I kidding!  The only things that really matter are the plane tickets.  The beauty of a ticket is it automatically streamlines and simplifies everything.  You get a specific date when your place “here” needs to be empty, you get 2 suitcases to back your stuff in, and really…what more do you need?

  1. I am renting, not buying, so if my friends are not able to help me find an apartment before I get there, I will surely and quickly find an apartment once I arrive. Check
  2. We are getting there in the summer, so school will be on vacation.  And I made the decision to homeschool for the of this school year.  So for now we have got school down to a science (literally, plus Latin, Spanish, math, grammar, history and geography). Check.
  3. With bus rides for a quarter and taxis between $1.50 and $2.00, who needs a car!  Definitely not me. Check.
  4. I am selling, giving away, donating, or putting in storage, everything in my apartment here and I am getting everything new for the apartment there (I’m really zen about home furnishings anyway). Check.
  5. We will extend the term of our tourist visa for 6 months before we leave the US and I will figure out the rest while I am chillin’ in a relaxed pose in Ecuador. Check.
  6. Adjustment period?  Culture shock?  Seriously, it is Cuenca, Ecuador not Timbuktu, Mali.  Visit the Latino neighborhoods and businesses in your town, imagine it significantly cleaner (because Cuenca is cleaner than the vast majority of American cities) and in a valley surrounded by mountains.  Adjustment finished.  Check.
  7. There is no other “stuff”.  And if there is, it will be taken care of at some point, while in my relaxed Ecuadorian pose. (There is the issue of closing down my business, that but requires a whole post of its own.)

So the biggest step is to purchase our tickets and I already told my oldest daughter we are making two stops immediately after her high school graduation in June,

  • Grandma’s house – to drop off all of her boarding school stuff; and
  • JFK airport, to catch our flight to Quito.

And like the awesome daughter she is, she is right on board (pun intended).

Step 1 – Decide the specific date we are leaving and buy airline tickets.

Ecuador – Permanent or Temporary Move

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I took a hiatus from writing specifically about Cuenca, Ecuador because I have been mulling over whether our family trip this summer will be a permanent versus a temporary move.  I have always been a “just do it” kind of gal, and I find the leap before you think approach to life very invigorating.  So why am I becoming more hesitant as the weeks roll past?

Because being on vacation is like being drunk at a party – your normal walls and insecurities come down, your hair is loose (be it yours or store-bought) and your soul is free and open.  Then you return home and after a few weeks of the normal routine, that vacation feel starts to wear-off.   That said, the best quick-fix solution I have come up with for reminding me why I am considering making this trip a more permanent move, is a visit to any McDonald’s between the hours of 8:30-10:00 am.

Is it the incredibly gross “beef” products they sell?  No. Is it the $1  any size coffee? No.  It’s all of the older, retired Americans who have made McDonald’s the new hotspot.  Yes people, if you are in your 70s and 80s and looking for a vibrant social scene of your peers….McDonald’s is the spot!!

This is both an interesting and distressing fact, depending on where the McDonald’s is located.  If in the wealthier suburbs, then you see groups playing cards, bingo, and being rather jolly. However, if in an urban or lower social economic center,  well then the scene is just depressing.

Depressing, because it is so clear that so many there simply crave human connection. Another person to hear their voice and know that they exist.  They sit and complain about the family members who no longer care about them, the friends who are awaiting open heart surgery, the medications they take, their aches and pain, their past glories, and the latest in local politics. It is depressing because their communion with the world happens for the few hours they are within the overly fried, mass-produced confines of Micky D’s.  Then it is back to home.

Now…granted, I am under forty, so bingo at Micky D’s is a way off…but it reminds me of how wonderful it is to live in a place where age is considered a privilege and not a purgatory, where friends and neighbors are family and your life is filled with the sight and sounds of young people (if you so choose). It reminds me that there are so many beautiful places and people to experience in this world and I am very blessed to have the opportunity to explore it.

So, we are looking forward to making Ecuador our home for a while and really learning about the country, its history, and its people.  We are looking forward to getting really good with our Spanish, growing our base of wonderful friends, and continuing to live a life rich in adventure, communion, love and laughter.

Yup, this a permanent move for us…well, about at permanent as we get.

Combine High School and Travel

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All my talk on school and travel has really revolved around elementary school children; however, what about high school students?  This is especially important if you aspire that they be competitive college applicants for the best schools in the country.

I am sure that there are a ton of homeschool families that could give all sorts of really great advice.  In our case, my daughter has been in boarding school for the last four years, so the homeschool scenario no longer applied.  Instead she was subject to traveling with us during her school breaks, which were pretty long ( 3 weeks in December and March) and summer holidays.

Family holidays, however, are not the only option for high school students.  If you, as a parent, have an open mind and trust in the relative maturity and character of your child, you may consider the multitude of school year abroad programs that are out there.  Through the School Year Abroad (SYA) program, my daughter spent 10 months living and going to school in Beijing, China and immersing herself in Chinese culture.  She learned how to write, read and speak Mandarin and she learned how to make dumplings from her host family. She also had multiple opportunities to tour other regions of the country.

She grew immeasurably in ways that are still manifesting themselves, she has determined that Asia will be her future home base, and she picked her college prospects based on the strength of their Chinese and East Asian studies programs.

Whether you are a homeschool, public,or private school family, SYA and other similar programs, offer a unique opportunity for young adults to spread their wings, within the constraints of a structured program.  Gap year (year between high school and college) programs, such as Global Citizen Year, can have the same effect as well.

Combining School and Travel (Part 2)

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“The world is our classroom” – That sounds really beautiful, but it provides no guidance when it comes to the practical aspects of ensuring your children become strong readers with the foundational math skills.  Strong English and math skills will ensure that their future advanced literature, social science and math classes do not quash their ambitions to conquer the world.

There are many approaches to educating children, as so much is dependent on a family’s specific situation and context.  That said, having spent the better part of the last 13 years moving about with at least one child in tow, I have figured out what does and does not work for us.

The corner stones of our family educational plan are (1) my fundamental belief that parents are the first and most important teachers and (2) consistency. While both of my children have been enrolled in both public and private schools, I have always maintained an at-home curriculum for both reading and math.  Given how important these subjects are, I did not want to just hope that a teacher would cover specific material in a given year – I ensured it by teaching it myself.  So in 2002 when we made our first big international move, we had a “process” to fall back on.

Senegal

In 2002 I moved to Dakar, Senegal with my then  7-year old daughter.  Senegal is a francophone (French-speaking) country and at the time my French was not fluent and my daughter’s was non-existent.  We arrived in Dakar with a full year of homeschool curriculum in our bags and we started our work, as we settled into our new city.  However, it wasn’t long before I realized that my daughter needed to have other children around to help her adapt to her new home.

We enrolled her in a local, private school in our neighborhood and basically dropped her into a sea of French and Wolof….. and she hated it.  She hated not being able to communicate with anybody, including the teachers and she felt alienated…even after many weeks.   My experiment with full immersion was looking like a complete failure….then we made a change.

I had begun to teach at the American School and around the corner from there was what ended up being the perfect solution, L’Ecole Bilingue, the bilingual school.  May daughter started classes in which half the day was spent in English, the other was in French and she received intensive French instruction while the other kids were in gym class.  The school also included a diverse population of locals and expats so she felt comfortable being able to communicate with the other kids, while at the same time quickly picking up French.  After 8-months in Dakar, we returned back to the US and ten-years later, as a senior in high school, my daughter is still speaking French (and has now added Mandarin). For us, the bilingual school setting made settling in a new country, that much easier.

India

In 2010, we moved to southern India for two months, during which time I fell in love with our city, Pondicherry, and I seriously considered a longer term stay.  My oldest child was now attending boarding school, so I was back to looking at 2nd grade (equivalent) classrooms again, for my youngest.  Prior to getting to Pondicherry, I had contacted the French school (Lycee Francais) and did all the preliminary enrollment paperwork.  I had picked this school because it was the only one that had an extensive website (that I could understand) and I knew that the teaching standards would be high.

We arrived during the summer season, so while the Lycee school year had not started yet, the local schools had…and of course, like any curious expat mommy, I set about checking them out.  Some of the Catholic schools in town had strong reputations, but (1) the classes were very large (by US standards) and (2) they were not accepting new students.

We also checked out one of the Auroville community schools.  The open design of the school grounds and the easy going staff that we met, made this the immediate favorite of my daughter.  The buildings and the whole atmosphere was really “at one” with the beautiful natural environment that surrounded it.  So I thought we were set…then we went to lunch in the main Auroville center and I met some of the other children and parents and one thing immediately came to mind – I had thought myself pretty liberal, but the hippie, do whatever you feel like (including not take a bath), unschooling way of raising children…definitely not my thing.

The final school we settled on was a really beautiful, private school that was in the midst of a school book fair when we walked onto campus.  All the female teachers were dressed in same patterned saris and kids were running around the playground, laughing and smiling.  The academic standards were high, each new applicant was required to take an entrance exam, and with a registration fee of about $1,000, the PTO was made up of the business and  professional elite of Pondicherry.

That said, life as always intervenes and we came back to the US at the last-minute (literally bought the tickets 4 days before we left) so that I could begin to manage new business contracts I had just been awarded.

All of these experiences had a homeschool curriculum and lots of book reading happening simultaneously in the background, while we traveled, and I worked and raised my girls as a single parent.  As in Robert Frost’s poem, I choose “the road less travelled”. It is sometimes not easy, and a lot of work, but the rewards for my children and myself are invaluable.

Again, there are many ways to go about educating children and I do not claim to judge for others, having a dual track academic process (regular school and homeschool) is just the process I have used and had success with.

Now as we look toward Ecuador, I am again considering the possibilities.

How to Combine School and Travel (Part 1)

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When you have school age children, people often wonder (aloud) how you balance traveling with the education of your children.  They are all smiles and wondrous eyes when you describe your international adventures, but when you mention  traveling during the school year, the smile lines quickly become frown lines. These frown lines are linked to the immediate streams of thought flowing through their minds:

  • Your poor children are being cheated out of their education birthright;
  • You are not a good parent;
  • Why haven’t you gotten in trouble with the school district…because you just can’t take your kids out of school for a non-district sanctioned holiday;
  • Etc., etc., etc.

This would have been very disheartening…. if I were someone else; however, I will freely admit two things about myself; (1) I am a proud non-conformist and (2) I am an education/school snob.

I am non-conformist in that I do not believe that:

  1. the “state” is the best educator of my children;
  2. I relinquished my rights over my children when they started kindergarten;
  3. Our lives should revolve around a relatively arbitrary school calendar (especially when I live for low fare season);
  4. Public school are set-up to create critical, thoughtful and independent thinkers, whose vision of the world stretches far beyond our national borders.

I am an education snob because I have had the benefit so some of the best education in the world.  I attended outstanding, foundational elementary schools, I spent the beginning of my high school years in a West African, Catholic Girls school and I went on to get degrees from Yale University and the University of Notre Dame, with additional graduate course work at Columbia University.

I say this to say that I am no stranger to exceptional educational institutions.  However, those experiences were balanced out and influenced by the fact that I traveled as a child.  To Germany for two months to visit an uncle, to Sierra Leone for a year to attend school, to Hawaii, Amsterdam, and Solvang and Palm Springs (both in California), because I had a parent who valued travel, no matter how near or far.

Traveling outside of areas that are familiar, seeing people, hearing speech, touring cities, that are different from what we are accustomed to, breeds an appreciation for “the other”, no matter what that “other” is.  Traveling brings forth observation, inquiry, conversation, things that are sometimes in short supply in classrooms.  Traveling opens the doors to arts and architecture, food and music, landscapes and languages, that will permanently imprint themselves on young minds.

So when we travel the world becomes our classroom, but we definitely do not leave school behind. We always have to travel with one suitcase filled with books (usually fiction)….because my kids absolutely insist upon having the pleasure of reading, no matter where they are..or for how long.