21 November 2011

ode to el valle

Following my mini road-trip, I flew from Lubbock to McAllen, a city in the Rio Grande Valley. I lived and worked in the Rio Grande Valley for five years, and it's where I had left all of my things in storage. I stayed with my friend J.C. while there, and although a lot of my time was spent getting my things in order and from my storage unit and A.L.'s and J.C.'s house into my PODS container, I had some free time to drive out to west Valley, which is the rural area where I spent four of my five "Valley Years." Here are some pics from my drive out west:

Only $8.50 a gallon?! What a deal! There's an Exxon across the highway that was charging $3.15 a gallon on the same day, but this station charges so much because it's actually a drug front and they don't want lots of people showing up there. I wish I were kidding.

The Rio Grande. The left bank is Mexico; the right bank is Texas. This picture was taken from the Roma Bluffs, one of my favorite places in west Valley.

Miguel Aleman, Mexico. This city is directly across the border from Roma, Texas. This bridge used to be filled with cars all hours that the international bridge was open, but because of the drug wars, very few people cross back and forth now.

Cool mural in downtown Roma

I've always loved this sign

Very short bus on the road to my friend's old house on "The Lane."

Huge cactus on the same road

The shack by the river where my friend A.L. used to live. Look closely at the door...do you see how the bottom had to be chopped off so it would fit in the door frame? Hahaha. My other friend S.R. moved in here after A.L. moved to McAllen. We were all surprised, because S.R. usually prefers swankier dwellings. The arrangement lasted only a month or so before the frogs, javelinas, insects, and rats got to be too much for S.R. and she had to move out.

Big Daddy's. Sigh. I have so many fond memories of this place. I know it looks like kind of a dump in this picture, but believe it or not, Big Daddy's used to be kind of classy. When I moved to this small town, there was one bar. One. But people got kidnapped from there on a regular basis, so we avoided it, natch. And then it closed anyway. Another bar opened up my third year living there, and it was a little less sketchy at first, but that soon changed, and that place followed suit. So then there were none. When Big Daddy's opened up during my fourth year living there, it really seemed...different. Not swanky, but not sketchy, either. The furniture and counters had been freshly carpentered and the smell of sawdust lingered in the air. It was nice. It was the one "hangout spot" in town that was open on Friday and Saturday nights, and there were a lot of great pool tables. I don't mean to make it sound like I'm a bar rat, but it's nice to have someplace to go now and then, you know? One of my favorite memories is requesting songs for them to play. Beyonce's "Halo" was big at the time, and I always requested that song. And even though they always reminded me that it was just satellite radio, I still made requests. Good times.

Sadly, as you might be able to tell from this photo, Big Daddy's fell upon hard times and went the way of Los Tepos and On the Rocks. Now it is just another empty storefront in that small town.

I stumbled upon this fancy neighborhood while driving around one weekend. If you look closely at the street sign and you know me personally, you'll understand why I like this neighborhood so much. There's another street in the neighborhood called "Deer Run," which is the name of the neighborhood where my parents live. Weird!

Ah, the Big Red Barn. "Now Open," except not really. This used to be a drive-thru beverage center. It was open for about a week, I think. (Side note: there used to be another drive-thru beverage center in the shape of a ginormous six pack about 20 miles from my town. I never actually went there, but it looked pretty awesome from the highway.)

This painting on the side of an herbal medicine shop cracks me up. It's actually in McAllen, not in the small town where I lived, but I love it anyway.

These are just some of the quirky sights I love in the town where I lived for four years. It may not seem like much, but they are things I saw on a regular basis, and bring back so many good memories of the time I spent there, and more importantly, the people I came to know and love while living there. Sometimes people ask why I love Texas and west Valley so much, and I guess it's partly because it's the first place I lived on my own. It's also the place where:

...I worked harder than I've ever worked
...I became a teacher
...I met the friendliest, most humble, and hardest-working students and people in the world
...I saw proof that with hard work, people can overcome all the odds stacked against them
...I learned that I can make your own fun and have an amazing time in a place where "there's nothing to do"
...I made some of the best friends I'll ever have

I didn't know anyone or anything about the area when I moved there. Originally, I planned to stay for only two years, but I ended up staying for five years. During those years, I really built a life there, and I guess that leaves its mark.

19 November 2011

texas hold 'em

After welcoming the new Teach For America corps members to Delaware, I had to go to Texas to get all of my things, which were in storage there. I had left my belongings in Texas while living in Costa Rica, because it was cheaper than New York, and I wasn't sure where I would be living when I returned to the U.S. Since I had to go out there anyway, I decided to take a mini road-trip and see some of the sights I had missed over Summer 2010 due to my visa issues. While I thought Summer 2011 would be my last summer break as a teacher, I ended up not having much of a summer break because I had to start my new job just one day after arriving in the U.S.! So this road trip was a nice way to squeeze in one last summer break while I still had the chance. Here's a photo summary of my trip:

After flying into Lubbock, TX, I rented a car and drove to Palo Duro Canyon State Park."Home" sweet home

Happy to be back in Texas!

I just love these open roads with nothing around! Welcome to the panhandle.

A few hours later, I arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. My dad had sent me an article from the New York Times about this park a few years ago, and I've been wanting to go every since. At 120 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep, it is the second largest canyon in the country and is called the "Grand Canyon of Texas." It is amazing! And super hot in the summer.

When I arrived at the park, a friendly woman welcomed me and asked me if I was there to see the musical, Texas! I told her I was there to camp, but that I would be happy to learn more about the musical. She convinced me to attend, so I went that night, which happened to be the Fourth of July. The way the greeter described the show, it sounded kind of cheesy. And don't get me wrong--it was cheesy--but it was also pretty moving, too! When the announcer guy came out onto the stage to get the show started, the audience (many of whom had seen the show before) started hooting and hollering, and at that point, I knew. I knew it was going to be great. (Ha ha, dramatic much?) The opening scene was a lone cowboy sitting on his horse at the top of the canyon, waving a huge flag behind him, and of course, the cheering got even louder then.

The acting was so-so, but the singing and dancing were really quite good. The play was about how the panhandle came to be settled, and told the story of the six flags over Texas. At several points throughout the play, actors on their horses galloped across the natural amphitheater, streaming giant flags behind them, and it really was quite lovely.

The show ended with a special lighted fountain feature. (Usually, they have fireworks, but it had been too dry in the area, and the fireworks would have been a fire hazard.) In honor of the holiday, they added a patriotic light show to the end of their normally spectacular show. This may sound silly, but I seriously felt really glad to be an American and grateful for the chance to live in Texas during that show (I mean, I always do, but the show just reminded me).

The next morning, I hiked a little, but it was honestly too hot to move much.
Hiking along some "shaded" trails. This was the coolest part of the park, and it was over 100 degrees!

I skipped hiking out to Chimney Rock, one of the main attractions in the park, but I got to see it through the long-distance viewer scope, so I felt like I got my money's worth. I also got to see some awesome longhorn cattle up close and personal!

After leaving the park, I drove towards White Sands National Park, and managed to see some funny sights along the way.

Welcome to Roswell! It's on the way to White Sands, driving from Palo Duro Canyon, so I had to check it out. Look below the "Arby's" part of this sign!

Alien Invasion!

There were tons of these cheesy murals painted all over town.

A few hours later, I made it to White Sands National Monument, near Alamogordo, NM. I had seen photos of this place before, and I had always wanted to visit it because it seemed so enchanting. It did not disappoint! I got there too late to go on the ranger-led hike, because campers are required to set up their tents before sunset. I thought that was weird at first, but I totally understand now, because it was very difficult to see the trail markers among all the sand dunes, even in the daylight! After setting up my tent, however, I had plenty of time to walk around and admire the sunset.

This is not the campsite I was supposed to be at, but I couldn't find mine, as the trail marker had been covered by drifting sand! But it worked out just fine :).

Some views just didn't seem real!

I loved the way the sand looked, blowing in the wind. The squiggles on the left of this picture are sand angels some other visitors made in the sand.

The next morning, I drove around the entire monument, and talked to a friendly family, who let me use their track to go sand surfing on. Sand surfing wasn't that great, but I'm glad I gave it a shot. I sold the sled I had rented to them, and we both ended up saving money on that deal.

From White Sands, I headed back to Texas. I had heard great things about Marfa, and artsy little town in west Texas, so that was my next destination.

These signs on the eastern and western sides of Texas crack me up. How can a city in the same state be almost 900 miles away?! Texas is so freaking huge. Marfa ended up being kind of a bust. I guess you have to know where to look, but I didn't see much of interest there, and the motels were crazy overpriced, so I drove to a town about 40 miles away, where the motels were $40 cheaper! The extra driving probably cost as much, but it still felt better to me. And at that motel, I found out about the Marfa Mystery Lights, so I went to check them out that night, even though they only come out about 20% of the time. I guess the force was with me, because they came out that night!

The next morning, I drove back to Lubbock. On the way, I saw a sign on the highway that Stone Henge was in the next town, so I stopped in Odessa. While looking for Stone Henge, I found the Bush family's first home when they moved to Texas. (Just to set the record straight: the Bush family is not from Texas.)

It took a lot of driving around, and a call to my mom to figure out the address, but I finally found "Stone Henge." It was underwhelming, but you'd better believe I was going to see it after driving around looking for it for an hour or so.

By that point, I had to hightail it up to Lubbock to make it to the airport in time for my flight! I'll tell you about my time in the Valley next time.

17 November 2011

back in the saddle

For me, one of the best ways to make transitions smooth is to have very little time between things. If I have too much time to mull things over, I tend to dwell and get sad about the changes that are happening, so it's really best for me to just move from quickly from one thing to the next. I definitely got my wish with my transition back to the United States, as I began my new job the day after I got home! I arrived home on Sunday, 6/19, and began work in a new state on Monday, 6/10. Kind of a crazy fast transition, but that's the way I like it. I am working for Teach For America full time now, so I am not in my own classroom anymore. It's hard to think about sometimes. I was a teacher for six years, and while I know that's not a super-long time, it is the longest I've done anything, except be a person. But I really like my corps members (the teachers I'm working with), and their students are really cute--almost as cute as my former students--so that helps a lot. Out of respect for the teachers I'm working with and their students, I won't talk much about them here, but I wanted to update you all as to what I'm doing now. It's interesting to see a different side to the same mission I dedicated so much time to in the past, and I'm enjoying it so far!

16 October 2011

fly away home

It ain't over till the fat lady sings, right? Well, here I am, on my last weekend living in Costa Rica, and although the fat lady might not be singing, it's definitely over. My last few days in San Jose were a whirlwind of packing, saying goodbyes, and doing my favorite things one last time (although I'm hoping it won't really be the last time I do those things). Warning: this post is pretty lengthy!

I left on a Saturday, and although I had spent a lot of time packing already, I was nowhere near ready to leave when I woke up Saturday morning. As I had a flight to catch, I really did have a hard stop at 10:00 a.m. My friend and colleague V.D. was taking me to the airport, and when he arrived, I was still running around like crazy trying to consolidate everything into four suitcases. I'm still not exactly sure why it was so hard; when I moved to Costa Rica, one of my suitcases was filled completely with bedding, which I left behind when I was moving back, and I really didn't buy much stuff over the course of the year, so you'd think I would have had less trouble. Nevertheless, it was a total cramfest for an hour or two there. My friend/neighbor/colleague P.S. came over earlier in the day to help me, which was so nice and much appreciated!

The first grade teacher from my school, P.M., has has a niece who works at a local school in the rural community she lives in outside of San Jose, and she had asked the other teachers at a staff meeting in late April to save any old school supplies that we didn't want at the end of the year for her so she could take them to that school. She really wanted anything--I'm talking scraps of paper, little pencil nubs--anything! I asked her if they would want some housewares, as I had quite a few things I planned to get rid of. She said they would be glad to take anything like that, as well. So all of the things I bought over the course of the year but didn't want to/couldn't bring back with me--things like plates, glasses, candles, etc., all went into a big pile for P.M. to collect for her niece's school. I didn't think I had bought a lot during the year, but seeing that pile of stuff grow amazed me, and that was after I had taken bags and bags of things into school for P.M. throughout the last two months of school! It's incredible how much stuff you can accumulate in such a short time. P.S. helped out by taking all of the things over to her apartment for P.M. to collect later in the day, after I'd left. P.M. and the school gave me some beautiful wooden magnets to thank me for giving them those things, which I thought was so sweet, because it was really a big help to me to have someplace to give those things, as I couldn't bring them back with me anyway!

In the midst of all of that, I was scrambling to back up all of my computer files, as I was giving my laptop to V.D.'s daughter, whose own computer (along with almost everything else) was stolen from her house earlier in the spring. I had been thinking about getting a new computer anyway, and I would much rather my old computer go to a friend than the computer donation center in the town where my parents live. Unfortunately, my computer was not being cooperative, and I could not get everything backed up before I had to leave, so we will have to work out some system where I can get the rest of my photo and music files!

After much crazy stuffing, squishing, and squeezing, everything was pretty much in. At the last minute, I couldn't fit my computer speakers into any of my bags, so I just left those with V.D. to go along with my computer. Honestly, the whole thing was so rushed that I didn't feel that sad to be leaving as I hugged P.S. goodbye and V.D. and I got into his car and drove away. I still had to rearrange some things when I got to the airport, and I definitely had to use that saran-wrap station thing to stick two bags together so I wouldn't have to pay a huge fee for the extra bag (great idea, P.S.!), but it all worked out pretty well, I'd say!

Everything at the airport went pretty smoothly, except I did get my scissors and tweezers confiscated by security. Oh, well. The flight, however, was a different story. When I checked in at the San Jose airport, the counter agent told me that there were some delays in San Jose, so I had been assigned to a different flight, and wouldn't be arriving in Syracuse until the following day, but they had booked a hotel for me in New York City. Ok, that's fine, and somewhat expected with airplane travel. The first leg of my trip was supposed to be to Orlando, but they were experiencing bad weather, so we had to fly around and around for a while. We began to run out of fuel, so we had to do an emergency landing in Tampa. After we re-fueled, we flew over to Orlando, and thankfully, the bad weather had cleared up, so we were able to land right away this time. Because of all of the delays due to the weather, I actually made my flight to New York after the customs people called us to the front of line (I love it when that happens!)

When we landed at JFK at 1:00 a.m., I was told that there were no hotel reservations left in the city, and I would just have to sleep in the airport. ??? Hadn't accommodations already been made for me earlier in the day, when my flight was originally changed? According to the hotel representative I spoke to, no, they had not. Boo. I asked to speak to a manager, but was told that no managers would be on duty until 4:00 a.m., so I went off to find a couch to crash on until then. All of the restaurants were closed at that point, but the gate agent did bring me a bunch of snacks and beverages from the plane.

I found a nice couch and managed to doze off after getting somewhat cozy under my sarong (note to self: always travel with a sarong or blanket.) A little after 4:00 a.m., I woke up and went over to where the manager was on duty. I must say, the manager I spoke with was quite rude and it took over an hour and a half for her to tell me that I actually had a hotel reservation all along. ??? Determined to get to the bottom of this situation, I called the hotel again, and they discovered that the airline had inverted my name when they made the reservation, which is why the hotel couldn't find my reservation when I had called earlier. So. I was pretty upset by that, not so much about not having a room to sleep in, because that kind of thing is bound to happen now and again, but about how rude the manager was to me. I'll admit, I was not the most rational person by that point, because I had a horrible cold and had lost my voice after being stuck on the airplane for so long and sleeping on the couch under an air conditioning vent. However, my flight left in just a few hours, so I wandered around the airport, got some real food, and then caught my last flight to Syracuse, where my mom picked me up to drive me to Ithaca.

Although parts of the return trip were aggravating, I'm kind of glad it worked out the way it did, because it was very in line with most of my Costa Rica travel experiences, which always have been filled with unexpected detours here and there. Honestly, it would have felt a little unnatural if it had gone smoothly. Oh yeah, that $150 travel voucher the airline gave me when I e-mailed them about the poor customer service I received at JFK didn't hurt, either. Heck yeah!

14 October 2011


The day after my mom returned to the U.S., my friend and colleague C.S. invited all of the elementary teachers over for a delicious brunch at her house. It was so fun to have a last meal with these wonderful ladies who were so friendly and supportive during my time in Costa Rica! The meal was amazing: scones, quiches, fruit salad, mimosas...it was quite a spread. And as usual, the company was even better than the food! I had made mixed cds for everyone, and they had bought me a box of tasty Cafe Britt chocolates as a good-bye gift. Getting out to C.S.'s house was quite a feat; her directions included steps like, "Turn left when you come to the tree in the middle of the road." I never quite got accustomed to streets without names and directions like those, but it's pretty typical there.

Here is my amazing school team!

I miss you all!! Thank you for everything.

11 October 2011

san jose sights

On my mom's last day in Costa Rica, I took her to see some sights around San Jose. We started in some downtown parks. The first one we went to had a lot of interesting art installations made from old computer parts, milk crates, and other re-purposed objects.

After strolling through the parks, we picked up some pretty amazing bean and cheese empanadas at the Mercado Central, and then walked by the post office and museum. Isn't it gorgeous?

From there, we went to the Teatro Nacional, which I had walked past and admired dozens of times, but had never gone inside. It is absolutely beautiful!

After checking out an impromptu modern dance rehearsal at the Teatro Nacional, we visited the Jade Museum. It was o.k., but not my favorite museum of all time. After the museum, I showed my mom my favorite used book shop, and while there, we made a funny discovery. As you may remember, my sister visited me in March. When she went back to the U.S., she left some books for me to read. After I finished them, I traded them at the book store to get some new books to read. While skyping a few weeks later, my sister asked me to mail one of them to her when I got back to the U.S., so she could put it back in her collection. Ummmmm...you mean she wasn't giving me the books? Whoops! I totally thought she was giving them to me! I felt terrible and told her I would order her a replacement copy. However, when we walked into the book store, I found my sister's very copy sitting on top of a big stack in the romance section! Obviously, I snatched that right up, and have since mailed it to her. I can't believe it turned out that way, but it's a much better story than if she had just loaned it to me and I had returned it, right?!

After exploring the San Jose's downtown offerings, my mom and I went out to Escazu, to meet up with some of my parents' closest friends from graduate school and to see the house where her mother's family lived. We had a little trouble connecting due to some miscommunications, but after finally meeting up at the mall, B.K. (the wife) drove us over to the house. Strangely enough, B.K. and her husband F.T. just so happen to own a house right around the corner from my grandmother's old house. Crazy! (They are living in Canada for the time being, but are keeping their house in Costa Rica, as they are planning to return when they retire.)

My cute mom with the Calle Maynard sign (Maynard was her mother's maiden name).

The house is named "La Roca," due to the giant rock inside!

We were in luck--the same man who let my sister and me in before was there again! He gave us a tour and let us walk around taking pictures. He's trying to sell the house and sent my mom the professional real estate photos of the house. How nice!

Here's the backyard, where my grandparents got married, way back when.

Gorgeous! I'm so glad my mom got to see this house. I think it's really important to see as much of your family history as possible. After we were done touring the house, we all met up with F.T. for some drinks, and then they dropped us off at the bus stop so we could head back into San Jose proper. Somehow, we ended up on the wrong bus and ended in a sketchy part of town that I had never seen before. Eventually, we caught a cab back to my apartment, because I couldn't figure out where we were or how to catch a bus that would get us there.

From there, I went up to a little gathering at my friend J.F.'s house. My good friends E.A. and R.B. were taking off the next day for Malpais and Santa Teresa (where they ended up getting engaged...so exciting!), and others were flying out the next morning, so we had one last dinner together. It was so nice to have some low-key time to hang out.

What a great way to spend one of my last days in Costa Rica!

08 October 2011

the end of an era

The last day of school came so quickly. We had a party to "celebrate." I say "celebrate," because even though I am so proud of what my students have done this year and the people they are becoming, I have very mixed feelings about this particular last day of school.

Of course, it's always nice to take time to have a little party, complete with Papa John's and some homemade Mad-Hatter-esque cake. And who doesn't enjoy summer vacation?!

But, this particular last day of school marked the end of my time in Costa Rica, as well as the end of my time as a teacher (at least for now).

So, seeing the walls and shelves empty and the chairs put up for the last time the next day was quite sad for me, as well.

I left a little surprise for the teacher who has this room next year...I just hope a mouse doesn't find it first! I remember arriving at school on the first day, and seeing one of my students arriving with his mother, who also works at the school. He was pulling a rolling backpack behind him, and running down the hill to get to class. He looked so cute and eager that I knew it was going to be a great year...and it really was. I hope that the next teacher will have as wonderful a year as I had in this room.

After getting everything cleaned up and put away, I took one last walk around the neighborhood to enjoy the views I love so much.

When I returned to school, I found a message from one of my parents waiting for me. She said that she would be coming to school in a few hours, so I waited for her in my classroom. When she arrived, my student was with her as well. He looked so adorable in his Lego t-shirt! And they had a gift for me...a beautiful book called Wild Costa Rica, filled with lovely photos of the gorgeous scenery and flora and fauna of this country. We all teared up a bit as I opened the gift and we thanked each other.

Driving away from school for the last time (at least for now), I turned at the top of the hill and took a photo of my favorite view of all:

This photo is not great, but believe me, on a sunny day...this view is just breathtaking! I guess that just means I'll have to go back soon to take a better one :).

Later that day, my mom and I went to dinner at Madero's with C.S., a friend from school. Then, we went to the high school graduation and down to Chi Chi's for one last celebration with everyone from school.

It's hard for me to explain what this year has meant to me. I guess part of what made this sixth year of teaching so special was that I finally got to be the teacher I always wanted to be. When I started teaching, I had so many grand ideas of what I wanted to do with my students. I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference in my students' lives. Then, I got into the classroom, and it was so.very.hard. By far the absolute hardest thing I have ever done in my life. By the end of the year, what my students ended up being able to do that year far surpassed any expectations I had had before I entered the classroom. They rocked it out and proved that they could perform as well as students living in much more affluent areas. But, at the same time, I wasn't that sweet, patient teacher I had always pictured myself being. Instead, I just spent my time being so frustrated--so frustrated by how unprepared they were, so frustrated by the circumstances that they were living in, and so frustrated by my lack of skill in teaching. Little by little, as I grew my "sea legs," and figured out how to be a better teacher, I took more time to find the joy in teaching my students. Finally, in this last year, I really hit my stride with that. And of course I wasn't perfect--not even close!--but I know I was much calmer with my students and took the chance to do projects and other learning experiences with them that I never did before, and it was a great year. I think everyone deserves the opportunity to find the best version of themselves, and I'm so grateful for my chance to do that here.