Author Archives: Medellin Colombia

What do you live for?

I like to start my English classes with a warm-up exercise that will get my students thinking and speaking in English. Once they are warmed up, I transition into the lesson(s) of the day. Most of the time I warm up the language center in their mind with simple exercises such as, “Give me the name of a country that begins with the letter S … that begins with the letter L” … etc. Or, I might ask each student to spell a different word. Or, we might practice verb tenses that we have learned, for example we might practice the past tenses by telling everyone what we did yesterday.

But one day I decided to get philosophical on my students with the question,“What do you live for?” Several people said similar things such as “family,” “travel,” “God,“ “music,” and even “to learn English.” (I have some devoted students, eh?). As for myself, I had not thought about what I might say until the last person had spoken and everyone was staring at me waiting for my response. I thought for a moment, and then told them that I live for learning about human potential and for discovering how to live life to the fullest.

I’ve heard it said that we use only a small percentage of our potential … I am not sure how you measure that, but it sure seems to me that extraordinary things can manifest through each of us.

I love the entire genre that is variously known as self-development, personal growth, self-help, etc. Here in the Spanish- speaking world this genre is called auto-desarollo, auto-ayuda, etc. I cannot get enough of it, and since I don’t read books that often, I am usually taking this content in by listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and other audio resources on the iPods that I have with me. I even consider my Spanish educational resources to be part of this genre since they are helping me to develop personally, and helping me to live life more fully by enabling me to experience more profoundly the Spanish-speaking world. I don’t believe everything that I hear and read, because this genre is like any other genre in that some of the authors may not have the highest motives or could simply be mistaken, such as a financial advisor and author with a fancy title who is selling a lot of books with questionable if not dangerous financial advice. Each of us has to pick and choose what resonates with us.

I am listening to an audiobook right now that is one of the most extraordinary audiobooks that I have ever heard, it is by Anita Moorjani and is entitled, “Dying to Be Me.” Anita had what is known as a Near Death Experience (NDE), and in her book she shares how it has impacted her perspective and life. If you believe that NDEs are a bunch of bunk and that the thousands of people who claim to have had an NDE are all liars, you obviously would not be interested in this book. As for myself, I open to learning what I can from Anita’s story for a few reasons, one of them being that I too have had spiritual experiences that defy explanation but that have similar elements to what Anita and others have experienced. I’ve already told some people about one such experience, but this is the first time that I will write a little about it. By the way, any number of people throughout human history have experienced the miraculous, the infinite, the eternal, something that is beyond our ability to explain with human language, so while I will share a little about my experience, I will also admit that I cannot explain it like I experienced it.

One day many years ago I was with a friend and saw a vision in front of me. Since it was over 30 years ago, I will do my best to recall and explain what I saw. I was looking into a pathway of light, pure light, bright white light, as if I was looking into a pathway that led to heaven itself. As I gazed into the light I was explaining to my friend what I was seeing, and I was describing both the pathway and the destination. Since it was so surprising and shocking and exciting, unlike anything that I had ever experienced up to that time and even to this present moment, I just kept saying excitedly the same things over and over, such as:

I’m seeing a vision! I’m looking down a path of white light, pure white light … it is love and beauty and truth. I’m telling you! It is a pathway that is white and light and loving and beautiful and true. It leads right to the light!

I don’t recall how long this vision lasted nor how it ended … and who knows, it could have lasted a few minutes or a few hours – they say that at the speed of light, time stands still. In any case, while I was excitedly describing to my friend the vision I was seeing, all he could say to me was, “I don’t understand what you are saying, Keith – you are speaking in a tongue!”

To me a “tongue” is a heavenly language, something that does not apply to any particular religion or spiritual practice. Also, it seems to me that many devotees of various stripes have misused, misunderstood and overused that word “tongue,” so I mention it with some trepidation. For example, one time someone wanted to show me how to pray in a tongue, and they immediately knelt down and on command starting verbalizing a bunch of sounds … perhaps they were in fact practicing a heavenly language because who am I to judge, but my gut tells me that this is not something you can do on command but instead it is something that is given by God at a specific time for a specific purpose. As far as I know, I have not spoken in a heavenly language at any other time in my life.

So after I came out of the vision, I explained to my friend in human language what I had been seeing, similar to how I am explaining it to you now in this blog post. Words will never completely capture it, just like the word “water” can never fully capture the essence that is water, but nonetheless I have done my best to describe my experience. I don’t know why it happened to me at that point in my life, but what I do know is that it gives me a sense of hope and comfort and peace and joy. Moreover, it is similar to the many stories told by those who have had NDEs and by those who have had profound spiritual experiences.

As I understand it, God is Light and Love and Truth and Beauty. It follows that the names we use to refer to God are only glimpses of God, regardless of where those names originated. Names like Infinite Self and Source of All do their best to evoke awe, but again are only glimpses. The Spanish word that is most commonly used for God is Dios, which comes from the Latin word Deus, which they think came from the word Deiwos in a language that linguists call the Proto-Indo-European language, which is probably related to the Sanskrit Deva or Devi, which could have been a sound that someone uttered way back when at the moment they experienced what they believed was … God. Obviously, the word or words that we use to describe the One are inadequate, but we all know Who we are talking about. These words all point to the same Light and Love.

So, what do you live for? I could have said that I live for God, which may have sounded holy and impressive, or it could have sounded self-righteous and repulsive. But to me, to say that we live for God is obvious and does not necessarily need to be said. We all live and move and have our being in God … God is the Source from whom we came, the Source that enlivens us now, and the Source to whom we return.

What I’m asking is … What is it that makes you feel most alive? What is it that is uniquely you? What is your divine purpose for being? Or, in the words of Anita who has attempted to express what she saw on the other side — How do you express your magnificence?

We are all beloved in the eyes of You-Know-Who … so go ahead and be that which God has empowered you to be!

Posted in #God, #religion, #teachenglish, #teachESL

El Clásico Soccer Rivalry – Medellín versus Nacional

Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, and it is good to see that the popularity of soccer has grown substantially in the U.S. over the last 20 years. Major League Soccer (MLS) now has 20 teams, and 4 more teams will be added by 2020 … and incredibly, most of these teams play in their own soccer-specific stadiums.

People in Spanish-speaking countries are mad about soccer, or fútbol as it is known here. I often see groups of kids playing spontaneous games of soccer in the street or anywhere they can find space, and weekly adult leagues are very popular.

There are more than a few classic rivalry games in professional soccer, such as Barcelona versus Real Madrid in Spain, and Boca Juniors versus River Plate in Argentina. In Colombia the most prominent rivalry game is known as “El Clásico” and it is a fierce battle between Atlético Nacional and Deportivo Independiente Medellín (DIM), two teams that share the same stadium here in Medellín. Even the team colors are part of this rivalry, for this game is also known as the Reds (Medellín) versus the Greens (Nacional).

Tomorrow March 20th at 3:15 PM is the next installment of El Clásico, and I am fortunate to have a ticket because the game (as usual) is sold-out. It should be a raucous affair.

But who should I root for?

I am just a visitor here for a few months, and if the game was Medellín versus the capital Bogotá, it would be easy to choose because I would root for the local team. But with both teams based in Medellín and sharing the same stadium, how do I choose? Or should I choose?

Neutrality is not an easy option … just ask the people of New York where both the New York Jets and the New York Giants share MetLife Stadium, which strangely enough is not in New York but in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Do the fine people of New Jersey even want New Yorkers rooting for their teams on Jersey soil?

One of my adult English students told me that virtually everyone in Marinilla supports the Green Team Atlético Nacional, so in order to bond with my students I went ahead and bought a white and Green Nacional t-shirt for me and a Green ball cap for my lovely wife. The next day I told my class about my purchases thinking that everyone would be excited, and to my disappointment I discovered that more than a few students as well as my best friend here are fans of the Red Team Medellín. I felt a bit snookered by my student who convinced me to go Green, however I don’t fault him because I am sure that he only sees Green.

Should I let the Universe decide who I root for? I actually bought my ticket from a scalper because when I arrived at the stadium I discovered that the game was sold-out, and the scalper had strategically placed himself within sight of the ticket office. As I walked away I noticed that the scalper was gesturing for me to come to him … I knew immediately what he was selling, and since I was disappointed not to have a ticket, I thought that I would at least listen to his prices.

I knew enough about the stadium to know that the “orient” (or East) section was in semi-neutral ground between the fanatical opposite ends of the stadium, however the scalper’s starting price for a ticket in this section was probably 3 times the already high face value so I did not even bother to negotiate for this ticket. At the time I did not know which fans sat in the North part of the stadium and which fans sat in the South, and I don’t think there is a West section because I think the fan sections wrap around toward the middle where during this game the Colombian National Police have dozens of officers stationed to form a barrier between the respective fan sections. So, I began my negotiation with the scalper for a ticket in Norte General, the North section of the stadium where there are no assigned seats and probably bedlam regardless of which set of fans sits there.

The scalper kept looking warily at the ticket office as he pulled the “stash” of tickets from his pocket, and I can’t deny that I felt a little surge of excitement as we began to do a little deal. Another gentleman even moved in close to watch the deal unfold. We went back and forth on the negotiations, and at least 4 times I tried to end the discussion and walk away. Each time he would re-start the conversation with a new lower price … on hindsight, I probably could have kept walking away until I got the ticket for near face-value. But I knew the game we were playing, and my attempts to walk away were just my ploy to drive down the price a little. We started at 50,000 pesos and finally settled on 36,000 pesos (about $12 USD), which was a little less than double the face value of 22,000 pesos. (FYI, I’ve been told that the average taxi driver in Medellín makes about 80,000 pesos a day, which is about double the minimum wage here in Colombia).

With ticket in hand I still did not know with which fans I would be sitting … and later I discovered that the Green Nacional fans are known as Los Del Sur, or “Those of the South” part of the stadium, and thus I would be sitting with the Red “Rexixtenxia Norte” Medellín fans. I have no idea what “rexixtenxia” means because it is not a Spanish word, but my hunch is that it comes from “resistencia” which means resistance.

Thus, tomorrow I will be sitting with the Red North Resistance … and I probably should not wear my Green Nacional t-shirt. That’s a bummer too because I really like this shirt – on the front the Spanish is translated as, “I am Green, I am Happy.” So, it looks like I’ll have to buy a Red Medellín shirt as well. What do you get when you mix Green and Red?

Posted in #Spanish

English School Director

I came to Colombia intending to establish an English program here, however I was not planning to become an English School Director. My idea was to teach some classes and hopefully find a few volunteers to co-teach with me. However, when about 80 people of various English levels expressed interest in taking English classes, I quickly realized that I had to divide up the students into various groups. I also learned that most of the people around here do shift work in the surrounding factories, and for many people that shift changes every month; as a result, I had to create both morning and late afternoon classes. And though I enjoy teaching English, I did not really want to be teaching 4-5 hours every day, so I was forced to recruit teachers to help.

The staffing part of this project has been the biggest challenge. I have been posting almost every week on various online sites, such as meetup.com, expat.com, facebook expat groups, etc., seeking volunteer teachers. I have also sent messages to the universities and private English schools nearby and in Medellin seeking teachers. There are very few native English speakers here in Marinilla or nearby Rionegro, so Medellin is where I have been able to find help … however, Medellin is 1.5 hours away by bus, so to entice people to come here I have offered to pay their round-trip bus transportation. I have had teachers come for a few weeks only to leave on vacation or go back to their home country for a spell. Some people have told me that they are coming to teach on a specific night, but when they don’t show up it forces me to scramble to cover the classes. I have resorted to recruiting Spanish speakers who have something of an intermediate level of English, and then I try to persuade them to give teaching English a try since it is a good way to strengthen their own understanding of English. (Which is actually true, so don’t you go thinking that I am feeding people a bunch of BS down here). And when I do convince someone to give teaching a shot, they generally have no clue how to teach nor do they have any materials, so I have to both coach them and provide materials for them to use. There are no adult English resources in the library facility where we are teaching English (only children’s books), so I have been going to the local public high school and using their library to copy chapters out of books and workbooks. Most of these materials are very youth-oriented, so I have to hunt for sections that don’t talk about teen dating, video games, and the best flavored popsicles. The papelería across the street (stationery store/copy center/gift shop) knows me so well that they drop what they are doing when they see me coming because they know I’ll have a mound of documents to copy, and they often give me a piece of chocolate with my copies. Everyone who is taking classes knows who I am, and when they get concerned about their teacher, or about whether they will have a teacher for a given class, they come to me and ask me what am I going to do about it. Many times someone has been outside my class waiting for the class to end, and sometimes before I have time to erase the board they approach me to ask whether they can join the class … and even though there was an official registration process at the beginning of the term that was organized by the office of Tourism and Culture and that is supposedly closed to new registrants, I take a few minutes to discern the English level of everyone who approaches me before I assign them to an English class (which also requires making more copies so that the new student can participate).

On top of that, I have my own intermediate level classes to teach. I should probably put “intermediate” in quotes, because the reality is that my students range from a few who are true intermediate to those who are not absolute beginners. Those with very little or no English are put into our morning or afternoon beginner English class, and occasionally some will find that class too basic and ask to join my class. Also, several of my students decided that they were overwhelmed in my class, and with a pitiful and defeated look on their face have told me that they need or want to drop back to the beginner class. I have worked very hard to motivate and encourage my students, and to set high expectations for them. I have told them on several occasions about the time and effort required to get to the next level in their English, but the reality is that only about 20% of them are putting in the effort required to learn as quickly as I think they can learn. (Pareto’s famous 80/20 rule at work again). But even if the majority of my students are in class just to have something fun or different to do while hoping to learn a little English, almost without exception I have had no behavioral problems with any of my students, which is why I made clear at the very beginning that I only teach adults and that no teenagers or children are permitted in the classes. (If some “youngins” do sneak in, they either come with their parents or behave themselves knowing that they’ll get the boot if they don’t behave). I had one student about 3 weeks ago that was a bit obnoxious and thought that the class was designed solely for him, but fortunately he got offended when I started to ignore him and he did not return. One other challenging student is a 30-something woman that I let join the class in the last few weeks, but almost immediately she started looking for fault in my handouts or in what I said to the class; evidently, she is a fanatical guardian of the Latino culture, and I think that she assumes that I am a self-righteous American who has come to impose American culture and language on Latinos … but fortunately, my students have come to my defense, and she has not been back in the last few days. (I think I warmed her heart and assuaged her concerns when I told her that the demand for illegal drugs in America is the real problem, not the supply). All in all, our students are learning English, they are very appreciative of these free English classes, and they are a joy to teach.

Posted in #EFL, #ESL, #teachESL, #TEFL, #TESOL

4 Requirements for Learning English as an Adult

On Monday, February 8th, we started the English program here in Marinilla, Colombia. About 70 people gathered in the local theater to hear my presentation of the program.

I started by telling the audience that after 4 years of high school French and 1 year of college French, I could speak very little French. Moreover, within a year I forgot everything that I had learned because I never used the language. As a result, I spent the next 30 years believing that I couldn’t learn a second language, although I always wished that I could … meanwhile, I continued to envy and admire people who could speak more than one language.

Then I told my audience of adults that everything changed when I started learning Spanish at the age of 48, and this caught their attention because almost everyone appeared to be younger than 48. I explained that since I learned a second language later in life, that they could too. Moreover, I told them that I have been teaching English for several years, and that I specialize in teaching English to adult native speakers of Spanish. Everyone seemed excited.

Then I explained the following 4 requirements for learning English as an adult:

  • MAKE MISTAKES – You have to be willing to make mistakes. This is very important to the process, and you cannot learn how to speak English without making many mistakes.
  • BELIEVE – You have to believe that you can speak English. But even more than believing that you “can” speak English, you have to believe that you already speak English. Tell everyone, “I speak English.” Visualize yourself speaking English … at some point you’ll stop translating everything in your head and start thinking in English.
  • INVEST TIME – For the next 3 months, you have to spend 2-3 hours every day studying and practicing English. If you don’t have that much time, you have to make time … and to do that, you may have to sacrifice something else in your life (e.g. television, sleep, etc.).
  • WORK – During your 2-3 hours of daily English studies, you have to work. If your mind is not tired after three hours of studies, you are not working.

The first two requirements were well received … the second two requirements, not so much. So I explained to them that I am not a magician that can magically teach them English, and I also told them that there is no magic pill for learning any language. If there were a magic pill, I would take it. As a result, if you want to learn a second language you must be willing to put in the time and effort it takes … coupled of course with belief in yourself and the willingness to make a lot of mistakes.

Fellow volunteer teachers who I have recruited to help me include sixty-something Bob from the U.S. who has been travelling the world for 10 years … Cameron from Holland, and fresh out of high school … Colombian native Emilson, a young guy who is eager to show his fellow Colombians that they can do it … and new recruit, Santiago, another young Colombian who can show the way. Currently we have 4 classes every day Monday through Friday, consisting of both a beginner and intermediate class from 8:00 to 9:00 AM and from 6:00 to 7:00 PM. I am teaching all the “intermediate” students, and the other teachers are teaming up to teach the beginners. Currently we are averaging about 80 students a day, evenly spit between the morning and evening classes. Often several students will linger long after class talking with each other and wanting to learn more, which means that we have to ask them to leave because other groups want to use the rooms and/or the facility is closing.

By the way, since I assumed that most of the people who were at the municipal theater on opening night knew little or no English, I decided to speak in Spanish and without using notes for virtually the entire 40-minute presentation. You, too, can learn to speak another language.

Posted in #EFL, #ESL, #learnenglish, #teachenglish, #teachESL, #TEFL

Marinilla

One month in Medellin convinced me that I needed to pick one neighborhood in the big city to live and spend most of my time. Medellin felt much bigger than I anticipated, and all the people and traffic and noise made it difficult at times to enjoy the city. Also, my efforts to establish a community English program did not materialize. Meanwhile, I had the good fortune of being offered the opportunity to visit Marinilla, a town that is about 1.5 hours from Medellin by bus.

I liked Marinilla instantly. It is a town that is filled with generations of hard-working and friendly campesinos, or country folk, who take pride in their community. People move away, but inevitably come back. Most of the people in Marinilla are Catholic, and the town is fairly conservative … however, there is a thriving artistic community that also gives the town a progressive feel. It is about the same size as our town of Prescott, so it is big enough to have some conveniences that I enjoy without being too big.

So it was that as I walked in Marinilla that first day, I kept saying to myself that I could live here. I returned about 3 days later to explore more fully that idea, and on that second day I meandered into the courtyard that houses the local library, the Office of Tourism and Culture, and what is called the Casa de Cultura (i.e. House of Culture). As I stood in the courtyard, I said out loud “I think I’m going to be teaching English here.” Call it a mystical experience or whatever you want, but I just had this sense that this was the place where I would establish the English program that I had planned for Colombia. In the first office I walked into I met Francisco, who is the resident artist and whose paintings are beautiful, and I explained to him that I would like to offer free English classes to the community. His eyes got big when I said that, and the next thing I know he is introducing me to the Director of Tourism and Culture, and the next thing I know is that we have about 60 adult students who have expressed interest in starting English classes next week. I’ve also met the city’s Educational Director as well as the newly elected Mayor of Marinilla, and I have people stopping me in the streets to ask me if I am that English teacher that they’ve heard about, or to tell me about when they tried to learn English, or to tell me about someone they know who is learning English, etc.

I don’t want to speak too soon, but it looks like this little English project that God put on my heart might be a success. And when Francisco expressed concern about the program growing bigger than he or I imagined or could possibly handle, I contacted a few online expat groups to seek volunteer English teachers, and it looks like there are 4 people who are going to commute here from Medellin to help out. I sure hope they show up. You’ll hear more about this English project in future blog posts, but before I end for today I would like to tell you the amazing story of how I found my apartment here in Marinilla.

In contrast to Medellin where there are for-rent signs everywhere, I have never seen one for-rent sign in all of Marinilla. Everywhere I went for a week or more, people would tell me how difficult it is to find an apartment for rent in Marinilla. As a result, I contemplated looking for an apartment in the nearby town of Rionegro which is a much bigger town … however, I did not feel at peace inside about that. So, the night before I would make the 1.5 hour trek from Medellin to the Marinilla/Rionegro region yet again, it became clear to me that since I would be teaching English in Marinilla, I wanted to live in Marinilla … even if it meant living in a hotel. So I abandoned my plan to go to Rionegro that day, and went to Marinilla instead.

When I landed in Marinilla I decided to try a different approach, and this time I went to the other side of town away from where most of the apartments are located. I had not walked very far from the bus stop, and I was standing in front of one large apartment building looking up at it when some guy walked by, but when I asked him if he knew about available apartments, he said that he did not live in Marinilla … but nonetheless, he pointed to a little tienda a block away and said that they seem to know a lot about the town. So I went to the tienda, and when I asked the owner if she knew of available apartments, she flat out said “no.” However, at that very moment she was giving change to a customer who looked at me and said, “Are you looking for an apartment?”

This is where it gets amazing. So Jose walked me to his apartment which is 2 blocks from the central park, took me inside and showed me his studio apartment … he just happened to be moving out that day, and all his stuff was packed and in the middle of the kitchen. So then he asked me if I needed anything to furnish the place, and I said of course because I have nothing. So he told me he would sell me his stove and gas canister as well as his bed, and he told me the price and I of course said “Okay!”. However, at that point we had not even spoken to the landlord … so he asked me if I knew someone local who could vouch for me, because if not I would be out of luck since all business in town is done by connections. So I told him no, but that the AirBnB lady in Medellin where I am staying would vouch for me. So Jose told me not to worry because he would vouch for me, and he cautioned me not to tell the landlord that we just met on the street 20 minutes ago. So then he had to run some errands, and he told me to meet him in the park at a specific time. When he returned he said that the landlord was now home and that I needed to be prepared to pay both him 420,000 pesos for the bed and stove, and to pay the landlord the first month’s rent in CASH. He also said that we needed to hurry because the landlord was waiting for us. At that point the thought flashed across my mental screen that me, the naive gringo, was about to give away about $230 USD in cash to perfect strangers. So Jose walked with me to the ATM, and I had to make two 600,000 peso credit card cash advances (since there is a per transaction limit), and then we stopped at a tienda to ask for blank receipts that both Jose and the landlord could use to give me a receipt for my payment, and then we walked back to the apartment with my wallet bulging with pesos. We met the landlord, and Jose explained that I was a friend … Carlos the landlord looked like a very successful and wealthy 40 something old guy, and seemed like a real nice person. Carlos handwrote a receipt for me and I gave him 350,000 pesos in cash, then Jose handed me the keys in front of the landlord. I told Carlos how much I appreciate the opportunity to live there, and that I hoped he would study English with me (to which he smiled and replied, “We’ll see), and then Jose and I walked up to the apartment. I paid Jose 420,000 pesos in cash, and then he left to go get his friend who has a car. Twenty minutes later Jose returned with his friend in a little beat-up Toyota or something, and I helped him load his stuff in the car and he was gone. I had left Medellin at 7:30 in the morning, and by 2:00 PM I was alone in my empty apartment two blocks from central park AND ON THE SAME STREET AS THE LIBRARY WHERE I WILL BE TEACHING ENGLISH!!!!! And get this — the monthly rent is 350,000 pesos … about $105 USD. Simply amazing … and I feel truly blessed by all of it.

Posted in #teachenglish