Sunday, December 13, 2009

Europe Here I Come!!!

It seemed like it would never come, but in 4 days I leave for Europe! I've been to Spain once but that was when I was 14 and traveling with my entire extended family. Basically, because I was a teenager and in my "too cool for school" mindset I pretty much hid out the entire time trying to pretend that I didn't know any of them.

And also eating an inordinate number of eggs in the form of tortillas. This was many moons ago, before people had really heard of vegetarianism. Did I mention I don't like eggs? But faced with the very real threat of starvation, tortillas it was.

I have a super-packed but just barely manageable itinerary.

First, I fly into Brussels and meet up with friends. Spend the weekend in Brussels with side trips to Bruges and Ghent on
Monday and Tuesday. This is what I have to look forward to:

Then, I take a train through France down to Basel, Switzerland where I will stay with a friend for a few days. Day-tripping to Zurich definitely and Geneva hopefully.

Then on to Bologna, Italy where we'll hook up with another friend.

And, if time permits, on to Ravenna, Italy where I will hopefully see this:

At one time, Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire and it's emperor Justinian was an early Christian (and believed in good PR, hence all the images of him).

The only bad part of my trip is that I'm going during the winter, which is going to be a culture shock to my system, but my university is closed over Christmas so we get a nice little paid extra holiday.

I can't look a gift horse in the mouth now can I?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Brazil visit last May!

So this is a "guest" post from my buddy Danielle (although I really am pirating it, not having gotten her permission) but she posted a link to it today and it was such a good entry (and I wanted to have my own record of my wonderful trip) that I decided to shank it.

Where have I been? Being social, that's where! My life in Brazil is significantly different when I have someone else to hang out with!So, here's all about Kristin's visit:First, she flew into São Paulo, and we picked her up from the airport.We spent the weekend there aaaannndd I LOVED IT.

We went to a huge beautiful park called Parque Ibirapuera.We took the metro.We had lunch in a yummy Italian restaurant.We walked to the Museum of Modern Art, but by the time we got there, we were so exhausted that we just sat outside for a while and then went back to Alex's sister's apartment. :)Nobody asked me where I was from, and I could buy water and ask for the restroom without explaining my life story.We had dinner and drinks at an adorable pizza cafe across the street from Alex's sister's 13th-floor apartment.I LOVE LOVE LOVE São Paulo. It really reminded me of San Francisco.The few pictures we took in São Paulo pictures are here.

On Sunday morning, Alexandre headed home, and Kristin and I flew to Foz do Iguaçu.Foz do Iguaçu is the name of the city where the waterfalls are. It's the city that's the farthest west in Brazil, and it borders Paraguay and Argentina.Although there had been a bit of drama with the travel agency when we had booked all the tickets and guides and stuff, it ended up working out really well. (It was also a very good deal, in my opinion!) We had someone to pick us up from the airport and take us to the hotel. That night, they took us into Argentina to go shopping. (We weren't super excited about "Duuchii free shawpeen!" but it was pouring down rain and everything in the city was closed on account of the rain and the Sabbath. Besides, we wanted to say that we'd been to Argentina, even if it was just the border area.)

The Argentinian mall thing didn't amount to much and wasn't exactly my favorite part of the trip. People could smoke in the mall and in the little bar/restaurant place there, too. It took us about 8 minutes to walk around the entire thing. It's really not much cheaper than buying stuff in Brazil. Also, my brain hurt by the end of it after switching between 3 languages for so long.We did get ONE picture of Argentina. Proof! Kind of...

The next morning, we woke up bright and early and were happy to see that the rain had more or less moved on. We were scheduled to be picked up to go to the waterfalls at 8:30, so we scarfed down our complementary breakfast in the hotel (stealing some pão de queijo for later) and met our tour guide at the door. Our tour group included us, a retired Brazilian couple from the center of the country (the guy was so hick that he rolled his Rs), and a 60-year-old Taiwanese lady who was traveling alone and didn't speak Portuguese. We were certainly the youngest of the bunch!

On our way up to the falls, the tour guide explained some of the history and interesting facts about the area. Because we were part of the group, we got to bypass the super long line to buy tickets, and we even got a 50% discount on the entrance fee! (Unfortunately, we had to pay extra because we didn't have Brazilian IDs, and I kicked myself for not having figured out about my damn RG before going on the trip.)Then, the guide took us on the hiking trail that led to us around the falls. Sooooooo beautiful!Here's my favorite picture:

(I took that!)

I mean, you can look at pictures of it, and I can use words like "beautiful!" and "amazing!" but it's hard to grasp without really being there.

We had sandwiches for lunch in the park, and had to keep shoo-ing away the coatí:

so cute! They squeak when they realize you have food.
Then the tour bus people took us to the Parque de Aves: The Bird Park (which was also included in the tour package, I might add).If you remember from my last entry, there was a slight mishap there with a galinha d'angola who mistook me for a branch. But aside from that, I think that the bird park was one of my favorite parts of the trip, because I do like birds very much. And I mean, I can only get so mad at a polka-dot turkey.That night, we relaxed in the hotel, and enjoyed our complementary hotel dinner (greatest tour package ever). We had another early morning ahead of us!Tuesday morning was our trip to the Itaipu Dam, which is also on the border of Brazil and Paraguay.

It's the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world! I tried to channel Elena as much as a good. I wish I knew more about engineering. The tour guide (a different guy this time) spouted off all of the details about just how much energy the park can produce (25% of Brazil's energy and something like 92% of Paraguay's) and how much water it releases, etc.It was hard to get decent pictures because it was really cloudy and we didn't get out of the bus much (the place was so massive that it was really more efficient to just drive around and stop off at looking points). Everything was just GIANT GIANT and also perfectly semetrical. Plus, it had a big man-made lake, which I think functions as the reserve for the water.After the dam, our tour bus went into Paraguay's Ciudad del Este, the border town between Brazil and Paraguay.

We had to take a bridge over the Rio Paraná, which is the biggest river in Brazil after the Amazon (if I understood the guide correctly). This city is relevant for Brazilians because Brazilians love to go to Paraguay to buy cheap crap imported in from China that gets marked up by import taxes in Brazil. It was basically Tijuana, but like 8 times more intense. We had 4 hours to kill there, so, in an attempt to avoid the malls and insane shopping district, Kristin and I just started walking to see where we'd end up. We saw a sign that said "Catedral," so we headed toward it. The church itself wasn't that interesting (very obviously built by religious Americans that had recently invested in the area), but we did get a nice tour of the city. We also got some good pictures, if I do say so myself. (Click here for the Paraguay pictures.) I bought Alexandre a wireless video game controller and some black socks (those were more of a present for me, since I'm trying to wean him off of white ones in the Land of No Good Bleach), but we avoided the sprialing malls on the whole.

Oh yes, and this was another afternoon of maddening PortuSpanglish.We went back to the hotel (again, a ride courtesy of the tour package) and enjoyed another yummy complementary dinner there (+ not-so-complementary but entirely delicious drinks).Wednesday was our long, LONG trip home. It included 2 flights, a very unnecessary 2-hour layover, 2 different buses, and lots of waiting. We left our hotel at noon and got home at 4am. ;oPThe rest of Kristin's trip was a lot more laid-back, since we were just hanging out at home and I had to work and stuff. I took her downtown, we went out with a couple of my friends / my couple of friends, basically just showed her my day-to-day life. The highlight of the second half of her visit was definitely...

The Monkey Park!

That's right, a monkey park. Right here. In our city. I've been here for over a year and NO ONE told me about it until my student-friend Melissa a couple of weeks ago. When I asked Alexandre, he said he'd vaguely heard about it but had heard it was closed.So fun! Cute little monkeys that are eager for your fruits and attention!
The rest of the monkey park pictures are here. It was hard to get good shots, because the little buggers are so quick! But you'll get the idea. :)We had a great time, and I hope that after reading this entry, you'll see what a good host I am and how beautiful and interesting Brazil is, and you'll decide to come visit me, too! :D :D
at 2:46 PM

Year-End Charity Giving

I just decided what my year-end charities will be. I was going to give to Smile Train, which fixes cleft palates of children in developing countries (and I'm still thinking about it) but they were very negatively reviewed on charity rating sites so I'm not sure.

Last year, I gave to PBS and I decided again to this year. Although this is quite self-serving since I love PBS (esp Britcoms and yes, I know I'm a nerd). I also decide to give to Wikipedia since I use that site so much.

But finally, my last charity is going to be The Humane Society. I have worked on their campaigns before but I automatically give each month to the ASPCA. I figured that was enough.

Then I got this email today from the Humane Society about a dog. Fay, that had been brutally mauled by its dogfighting owner. I'll spare you the video but here's a synopsis.

"Our team met her in Missouri, when The Humane Society of the United States helped rescue hundreds of animals from the horrors of dogfighting. She’d been wounded badly in a fight, and a dogfighter had mercilessly cut off her lips. She was in tough shape, but we found her in the nick of time."

Here's a link to the video if you want to see it.

Why people do these kinds of things is beyond me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Language School Rip-Offs

How I wish I had paid more attention in high school and college Spanish! But back then, I thought learning another language was a waste of time. And I think, for most Americans it's not necessarily a waste of time, but most of us don't have a language partner to practice with (and this is key to success in learning a foreign language).

America is so huge that unless you happen to live in a border town or Miami, pretty much everyone will speak English. We're not Europe where they have whole countries the size of Rhode Island (and if you've ever been in RI, you know it's pretty dang small).

Who knew then that I would grow up and marry a Puerto Rican and Cuban man whose first language is Spanish?

In my quest to learn his language, I've probably spent close to $10,000 on private lessons (hey, language lessons ain't cheap) and countless hours of frustration.

And I have to admit, my language skills aren't that great. Mostly I think it's a confidence issue and also the awareness that my teachers and Leo all know English. It's very easy to slip back into English when the going gets rough in Spanish.

So I decided that the next time the military moves us (which could be as early as this October--we find out our choices of cities/hellholes in January) instead of sitting around on the couch for the first couple of months looking for a good job, I would send out resumes in advance (something I didn't have the luxury of doing when we moved to San Diego) and then spend a month or so studying Spanish in another country.

I wanted to go somewhere where I couldn't fall into the easy trap of expressing myself in English when I couldn't in Spanish. I first looked at Puerto Rico but that's hella expensive.

Spain? No way, they talk funny and use weird verb forms over there :D
I tossed out Mexico since I spent last Christmas there in Guanajuato and Guadalajara and it's too close to where I live now.
Costa Rica, meh. Been to San Jose and trust me, it's nothing special. My mom lives in a little town called Boquete in Panama but I've already been there a few times.

I considered Chile and Peru but finally settled on Buenos Aires, Argentina since I also want this to be a vacation. A learning vacation, but a vacation.

A sabbatical if you will.

Next I started looking at prices. They're pretty comparable so I wasn't sure how to choose. But one school, which made me give them my contact info before they would send me anything which should have been my first clue, offered a free online "language testing ability" quiz.

I took it one time and got an Inicial level (this is the lowest level). Ok, I thought, maybe it's because I had had a glass or two of wine. I tried again the next day and got an Inicial level again.

Completely enraged at this point, I asked Leo to take it (again, hubs is a native Spanish speaker) and he got Elemental. (the next level up). They did have one question using the vosotros form and Leo did move from PR to Miami when he was 9, so I thought maybe his Spanish isn't all that either.

Then I had one of my Spanish teachers take it. This woman has taught Spanish for years and is very thorough and precise. She grew up in Venezuala and Spanish is her first language.
She scored an Intermediate 2. (not the highest level).

At this point, I'm like this test is absolutely ridiculous and designed to fail you and crush your spirit. After all, even though I got Inicial, to me an Inicial level is like "uno, dos, tres..." I could read everything the test was asking and that, to me, is certainly not Inicial.

Here's the link if you would like to try the test for yourself and see how you fare.

Having worked in a language school for awhile, I know that many are complete rip-offs and aren't in the best interests of the students.

At the school I worked at, our "training" consisted of us coming in to observe another teacher's class for 1 hour before we began our own classes. Did I mention, this training was unpaid and completely voluntary? So, many people didn't bother.

There was no grammar test given, nor were you asked to give a teaching demonstration or anything. Some of the people they hired there were so sad. But I digress.

I do know that for dollar ratio, language schools can be very expensive. For example, private lessons at our school were $60 per hour. That's $1 per minute! Needless to say, not many students availed themselves of this "privilege". (BTW they paid the teachers $16 per hour)

However, I want to visit Buenos Aires and I sure don't want to sit on my couch for 2 or 3 months driving myself and Leo crazy while I job hunt and try to get acclimated to another city.

Has anyone out there had good experiences with language schools? If so, any recommendations?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Facebook for Dogs!

Ok, now I've seen everything. My Lil' M (aka Maude Bijou Wiggle Worm) now has her own Facebook page. Dogbook.

Here's her link if you want to check her out or be friends or whatever.

I'm not lying about this.

So far, she's joined one group (Mutts Unite) but is thinking about joining Dog and Cat Chat and for those politically minded pooches out there, there's Dogs For Obama.

I haven't spotted anything for the right-leaning pups, but I'm sure Sarah Palin and her jimcrack crew is working on it.

Her Dogbook page is also linked to her Twitter page (ok, I'm kidding here, not about being linked to Twitter but Maude doesn't just jump on any bandwagon and she tried Twitter once and thinks it's for fools).

Maude also has one toy, but is open to accepting more if anyone is so kind. Hint hint.....

Maybe next they'll invent for pets?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Geezer Bandit terrorizes San Diego

So this is the infamous "Geezer Bandit" who has knocked over as many as 5 banks in the Southern California area.

Since he has used a gun, authorities say he is armed and dangerous. The latest heist happened late last month in La Jolla, where witnesses said the bank robber "fled" on foot after sticking up the teller.

I'm not sure whether to laugh, be amazed, wish this guy was my grandpa, or somehow be appalled that an O.A.P. (Old Age Pensioner as they call them in Britain) is gang-busting his way through the San Diego area. Maybe a combination of all of them.

The main question, I think, is this a last-minute bucket list terror spree kind of thing or a sign of our seriously dire economic times? Only time and the Geezer Bandit himself will tell I suppose.