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Category: 2015

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls: Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls is more than a waterfall. It’s the hub of a host of adventure tourism activities that sprawl across three countries. We spent two weeks there partaking in a canopy tour, the best one-day white water rafting in the world, two safaris, a swim in Devil’s pool, a sunset cruise, and of course, a day at the falls, which are amazing. And what we did doesn’t even count some of the most popular activities; bungee jumping, a gorge swing, or a helicopter tour. While we did a lot, we still took a slow pace and ended up spending much of our time like hippos, submerged in the pool or lazily drying next to it.

But any visit to the falls is ultimately framed by two questions: Where to stay (Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)? and When to go (high water or low water)?

Where to stay? Zambia v. Zimbabwe

Let’s be clear, no matter where you stay you’ll be able to see the falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. It’s fairly easy to cross the border and return in a single day. Doing so requires 3 taxis.  From Zimbabwe you take one taxi to the border ($5), one across the border ($5), and one to Livingstone ($10). Then repeat on the way back. There are plenty of taxis lined up at each point. Just make sure you get a Kaza Visa when you fly in. It’s $50 but allows for unlimited border crossings between the two countries. Otherwise, you’ll get hit with serious visa fees each time you want to cross.

Still, the question remains, which side to choose?

Seeing the Falls

For views of the falls Zimbabwe is definitely a stronger choice. The falls drop from Zambia and fall in the river that divides the two countries. From the Zimbabwe side you can walk the entire length of the falls and there over a dozen viewing points which face the falls head on. Also, we enjoyed finding monkeys who make their home in the rainforest on the Zimbabwe side.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe Travel

The Zambian side however offers a view from the side of the falls that is dry during low-water. During high-water your limited in your perspective and during low water you can’t see much at all. This photo is from the Zimbabwe side, but you can see what you might view from the Zambian side.  This whole area is covered by a wall of water during high season.

Victoria Falls Low Water Travel

Price

Some older research online says that Zimbabwe is cheaper so we were not so pleasantly surprised to find some of the highest prices we’ve seen anywhere in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The reason being that after a bout of hyper-inflation (you can buy 10 billion dollar notes in the street) Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar as its currency. The dollar is strong now so prices are expensive. A driver confided to us he was afraid the strong dollar would keep away the local tourists who normally come around Christmas. On the bright side, you can get $50 bills from ATMs which comes in handy when traveling across Africa.

Zambia was much cheaper for expenses like food and accommodation. However, the cost for activities, which are priced in US dollars on both sides of the falls, are pretty much identical.

Infrastructure

We encountered both scheduled and unscheduled power outages on both sides of the falls but they were definitely more frequent of the Zambian side. Apparently Zambia is dependent on hydro-electric power and when the river is low electricity becomes harder to produce.

Our first night there was a mess. Power went out in our hostel, taking the water pump with it. We ventured into the street to find comfort in a nice dinner and found the whole city was in darkness. Fortunately the super market had a generator. It was packed, and people were sweeping the floors to prep for closing, but we got some sausages, bread, and cheese and made due.

The Towns

Victoria Falls is a small tourist town, built completely around the falls. The main street is mostly tour companies and places to buy souvenirs. Baboons hang out in the streets. You see the occasional warthog. The OK supermarket is pretty well stocked. You can also walk to the falls from the town, which is quite charming.

Livingstone on the other hand is a proper city with more options for restaurants and night life and two substantially nicer supermarkets.

Black Rhinos

The only activity that can’t be easily done from both sides is a game drive in the private Stanley and Livingstone game reserve. They are a certified participant in the black rhino breeding program and are probably the single best place to get a chance to see this very endangered species amongst other animals.

Black Rhino Victoria Falls Travel

Overall

We had a better time in Zimbabwe. But this may be largely due to the number of unexpected outages in Zambia, a lack of air circulation at our hostel (Fawlty towers) which led to very unpleasant nights and the fact we met a lot of great people at our backpackers (Victoria Falls Backpackers). We did find the souvenir markets to be better and more affordable in Zambia and transportation in and out of the area is easier and cheaper to arrange.

When to go? High Water v. Low Water

Victoria Falls gets its fame from being the longest waterfall in the world. However, this is only really true in high water. During high water you can see the fall in all its 1.8km glory and there’s enough mist to drench anyone who gets near. As one guide told us, “you may as well bring shampoo.”

But we were there during low water. At first we were disappointed that there was no water for over half of the falls, but we ended up being glad we visited during this time since low water season has many distinct advantages.

1.Devil’s Pool & Livingstone Island – On the edge of the main falls there’s a spot called Devil’s Pool where you can safely swim right up to the edge of the falls and look into the gorge while water drops from the cliff just a few feet away. It’s a phenomenal experience and not an option during high-water when it would be impossible to not be taken over the edge.  The featured photo also shows us on Livingstone Island, which is the entrance point to Devil’s Pool and only accessible during low water.

Devil's Pool Victoria Falls Travel

2. Rafting – Obviously we didn’t raft in both seasons but apparently some of the best rapids are closed during high water for safety reasons. Low water has the reputation of being the best season for rafting. Will says it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.

3. Animals – If you also want to go on a safari low water is a better time for two reasons. 1) There’s less water so animals are more concentrated around the areas where water exists. 2) The bush is dry and it’s easier to spot animals. During high water, leaves and green bushes end up obscuring your view.

Still if seeing ‘the smoke that thunders’ in its full Discovery Channel scope is your sole focus you want to make sure you’re there during high-water. (High water is Feb-Aug, with a peak in April, Low water is Sept-Jan)

All the best!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Penguins in Simon’s Town, or Learning the Hard Way

Penguins in Simon’s Town, or Learning the Hard Way

We started our day foiled. The Robben Island ferry had been canceled for a second time, even though the sun was shining. We didn’t have any other open days to reschedule, so we had to move something around. The weather seemed nice, so we decided to go to see the penguins in Simon’s Town.

Cape Town seemed warm on that Wednesday morning, so we changed into our Chacos and left our rain jackets at the hostel. We didn’t want to lug them around on a beautiful day. This, of course, is a surefire way to jinx your trip. Thinking about taking your rain jacket and then deciding not to almost always guarantees rain.

Getting to Simon’s Town, a small beach town near the city, is usually quite easy. Light rail trains leave regularly, and as long as you are on the correct line, you just take it to the end. We bought our tickets and then ran across the train station with one minute to spare, jumping on the noon train just as the doors closed. “We’re on the right train, right?” Will asked me. “Yes, the ticker said platform 1.”

Simon's Town 01

Will had read that the train takes about 1 hour. Our train seemed to stop for long periods of time, so we were only mildly concerned as we approached 90 minutes in our seats. Finally, we stopped at Fish Hoek and everyone got off except us. We knew there were at least two more stops, so we sat tight.

Fifteen minutes later, an older woman got on the train and asked us where it was going. “Simon’s Town” we said. “Oh, no. You are very far from Simon’s Town” She said. Panic started to brew. Did we get on the wrong train? Or was this lady just crazy? She was talking to herself…

Finally, we got a tip from another traveler who explained that they were doing work on the tracks and there were buses to take us on to Simon’s Town. Relieved, we hopped off the train and found the bus.

At this point we were quite hungry (we had planned to have lunch in Simon’s Town) and quite cold. Unfortunately, the rain had not stopped and the temperature had dropped.

Simon's Town Cape Town Travel

After a bus ride and a long walk, we came upon the center of Simon’s Town and its small, but excellent selection of waterfront seafood restaurants. I had the best shrimp of my life – butterflied and covered in something lemon and garlicy. Worth the unpredictable (and long) train ride.

We waited out some heavier rain in a tea shop, at which point I started cursing my Chacos and cold feet. We ducked into a shoe store, treated ourselves to some new socks, and continued on toward the penguins.

At first, I believed myself to be a genius for buying socks…until the rain got even harder and my feet got even wetter and colder. By the time we got to the Boulders Beach Penguin Colony, I was freaking out. I was so cold and so wet. Will tried to convince me that the penguins would be worth it, but I wouldn’t listen. He left me at a coffee shop down the street from the penguin reserve to wait out the rain.

About to order a hot drink, I realized that Will had all of our money. I ran after him and ended up walking to the penguin reserve as well.

Cape Town Penguins travel

We got into the reserve about 30 minutes before it closed. The penguins were out and about in full force – waddling around, making funny noises, and doing other hilarious penguin activities.

Cape Town Penguins 15

Cape Town Penguins 19

I ran around the boardwalk, trying to see everything quickly and enjoy as much as possible before running back to the covered area. All around us were people in raincoats, properly dressed for the weather, and enjoying themselves.

Cape Town Penguins 33

By the time we started the 3km walk back to the train station to get the bus, the rain had slowed down. We found a shared taxi to take us to the bus and the rest of the journey back to Cape Town was uneventful. Until we almost got robbed. For more on that, look here.

So what is the final word on Simon’s Town? The penguins are awesome, definitely worth the trip, as was the seafood.   Cape Town weather, however, is varied and unpredictable. This is not the trip to risk it. I learned a lesson in preparation the hard way – hopefully you won’t have to!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

How We Were Almost Robbed: The Cape Town ATM Scam

How We Were Almost Robbed: The Cape Town ATM Scam

I had read about ATM scams being a problem in Cape Town, but as we disembarked the train from Simon’s Town, exhausted and cold, I didn’t remember any of the precautions I was supposed to. The ABSA ATM looked legit enough – it was your usual bank-attached, two kiosk, ATM.

I imaged an ATM scam happening at dingier, sketchier, not as centrally located ATM. Looking back, I guess the bus/train station is a usual place for theft, so we shouldn’t be too surprised it happened there.

As we entered the ATM, another man entered after us. I stood to the back, since Will was the one taking out cash. I saw the other man was holding 40 Rand like he was going to make a deposit – which was weird because 40 Rand is about $3.50. Two other men also entered the ATM – I thought to myself “we got here just before the rush.”

Will finished his transaction, and I walked past the men to leave. As we got to the door, the first man called out “wait! You have to cancel your transaction. You left it open. You have to put your card back in, or someone can take your money.”

Will turned to look at the ATM. It was flashing two options. He tapped the screen and then went to put his card back in. “You have to hold it up, sir. You have to hold the end up and put it in. Just tap it.” The man said. Will tried to insert the card as instructed but it would not go into the machine. “Let me show you,” said the man, and he put his hand on Will’s card. Will yanked the card away.

Will went back and forth with this man for a moment, the man offering help and Will keeping his card away from him. The next man in line chimed in, “He’s right. You have to cancel your transaction. Just put your card in, but you have to hold it up.” Will tried again. “No, you will break your card. Let me show you.” The second man reached for Will’s card and Will yanked it away.

“I think it’s canceled, let’s just go.” Will said. He motioned to the next man in line to do his business. “They’re right,” the third man said. “I wanted to make a deposit, but now I can’t because you haven’t canceled your transaction.” Will tried it one more time, again unable to insert the card. The THIRD man offered to help and put his hand on the card to take it. Again, Will yanked it away, stating firmly “I don’t need help.”

Suddenly, all three men disappeared. All I heard was a flip phone hitting the glass and breaking on the sidewalk.

Cape Town ATM Scam travel

“You’ve been robbed!” called a short man in a trenchcoat, holding a briefcase and a walkie-talkie. He said he was police (a CCID officer), observed we were being hassled, and had just called security from around the corner. I was initially a little suspicious, because the logo on his jacket was neon green, but indeed, the CCID is an arm of law enforcement in Cape Town.

It turns out we were not robbed. If you are still in physical possession of your debit card, the thieves can’t access your money. The police assured us that the men had our PIN – apparently there are ways for cell phones to read your PIN just by being in close proximity. But without the actual debit card, the PIN is worthless.

Cape Town ATM Scam travel

We were lucky. Many people aren’t. We ended up at the police station later that night to fill out a report, file attempted theft charges, and ID two men who were caught. Unfortunately, there were several other tourist couples at the station filing actual theft reports – they were not as lucky as we were.  Hopefully our story will help others avoid similar situations.  Be careful out there, and never let anyone touch your card!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

The featured photo was taken from this Southern Courier article.

Hiking Table Mountain – Skeleton’s Gorge

Hiking Table Mountain – Skeleton’s Gorge

Table Mountain offers a sense of majesty to Cape Town, South Africa. It’s steep granite cliffs rise over 3,500 feet (1,055 m) above the city and bring a kind of unity to the disparate neighborhoods that encircle it. No matter where you are, a view of the mountain isn’t more than a few feet away.

Hiking Table Mountain was always on the top of our to do list for Cape Town. There are many routes to the top (including a cable car for those less inclined to trekking). We opted to hike Smut’s Track via Skeleton Gorge and were not disappointed.

Skeleton’s Gorge actually starts at the back of the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. If we had realized how beautiful the gardens are, we would have arrived earlier to spend more time there.

Table Mountain kirstenbosch

kirstenbosch botanical gardens

 

But unfortunately, we were already arriving late and had to walk straight through.

Kirstenbosch

Table Mountain Skeleton's gorge

 

The trail started out easy enough.

Table mountain skeleton's gorge

 

After a short while, there were a series of wooden ladders  to climb.

Table Mountain skeleton's gorge

 

It rained the day before so, we couldn’t climb up through the riverbed like you’re ‘supposed’ to. Instead, we followed some patches of barbed wire and emerged from the canopy. This route was less marked and involved some unexpectedly tricky rock scrambling. (Another American couple was so put off by this that they decided to turn back). But we thought it added a sense of adventure and were rewarded with our first glimpse of the city below.

Table mountain skeleton's gorge

 

Along the way, there were multiple patches of wild flowers.

Table Mountain wild flowers

 

It took us about 90min to reach the to reach the top of the gorge. But we still had a good bit of hiking to do…

Table Mountain skeletons gorge

 

We began our trek across the top of the mountain.

smut's track

Table Mountain skeleton gorge

 

Table Mountain has a higher density of plant life than most rainforests.

Tabe Mountain flowers

 

There are also random collections of cool looking bolders.

Table mountain smut's track

 

Once we reached the summit, we stopped for our lunch of prepackaged Woolworth’s sandwiches.

Table Mountain beacon

 

The trail is mostly well marked, but there are a few parts where you need to figure things out. Like this part, where we had to climb down into this tunnel like passageway.

Hiking table mountain

 

Eventually, we arrived at the beach side of the mountain.

Hiking table mountain beach

 

and opted to take the cable car down.

Table mountain cable car

 

We’ve been on a number of hikes this trip, but Table Mountain has easily been our favorite. The views, variety of terrain, flowers, and relaxed pace left us smiling nearly the entire time.

Highly Recommended,

Will & Elizabeth

Why San Telmo is the Best Neighborhood in Buenos Aires

Why San Telmo is the Best Neighborhood in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires feels a little bit like New York City when you first arrive. An energetic buzz pulses through the streets – streets that go on for as far as the eye can see. The neighborhoods are many, and varied.

San Telmo seems a little far from the hot neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta, but it’s worth the subway ride. The European style cafes, antique markets, and cobblestone streets give San Telmo an old world, not-at-all-touristy feel. Not to mention that the hostels are, in general, more affordable than other neighborhoods (we stayed at Puerto Limon).

The Charms of San Telmo:

The Sunday Market

On Sundays, Calle Defensa turns into an antiques/crafts/flea market. Every time you think the market must end on the next block, it goes on for another! Food vendors sell empanadas and fresh squeezed orange juice. We were on the hunt for an antique cameo – Will’s present to me for my birthday – and found many to choose from. At one end of the market we were treated to tango musicians and a New Orleans style jazz band. It was tempting to buy more souvenirs with all of the beautiful leather, wood, and textile crafts, but we already hit our souvenir limit for South America. If you are planning to buy souvenirs in Buenos Aires, the San Telmo Sunday Market is where you should do it!

Antiquing

Buenos Aires is a hub of international antique dealership, and San Telmo is where it all happens. The antique shops are many, with beautiful window displays. There are also several permanent markets where antique dealers have stalls. We saw stalls filled with vintage clothing, beautiful jewelry, old knives, and creepy mid-20th century dolls and doll furniture. We even saw a dealer selling out of print money – like francs and a bill with Saddam Hussein on it. Crazy. Even if you aren’t in the market for antiques (we certainly aren’t) they are fun to look at.

Buenos Aires San Telmo Market

Parrillas (steakhouses)

Okay. You can find a good steakhouse almost anywhere in Buenos Aires but some of the best are in San Telmo. Twice, we had an incredible lunch next door to our hostel at a small counter place with the grill and meat in full view. But, as Americans, we felt we should go big or go home in the red meat department – so we also went out to a fancy, do-it-up, parrilla (pronounced par-EESH-a) meal. Within walking distance of our hostel, we enjoyed La Brigada, a famous spot where they cut the meat with a spoon. Please, go to their website. It’s amazing. Parrilla is a style of steakhouse where you order off an a la carte meat menu. We had the small sausage, kid tripes, and the special beef – which was a huge cut of meat prepared medium rare. Will exclaimed in awe, “Babe, this is the biggest steak I’ve ever seen.” For more on parrillas, check out Gringo In Buenos Aires.

Buenos Aires Parrilla

Final Note

San Telmo is also close to the famous Plaza de Mayo, the location of the May Pyramid (the obelisk) and the home cathedral of Pope Francis. This is also close to where you exchange your money on the blue rate. The blue rate is the black market rate for dollars and euros that extends those currencies by a third. For a guide to getting the blue rate, check out this website. Our tip: ask around about what rate people have been able to get and be prepared to walk away if the cambio doesn’t give you a good rate. Chances are they will continue to negotiate.

Ciao,

Elizabeth

The Best Tango Lesson in Buenos Aires

The Best Tango Lesson in Buenos Aires

If you’re looking for a tango lesson in Buenos Aires, La Catedral is definitely the place to be. It’s a little out of the way, and you won’t get the added frills of a professional tango performance, but the spirit and ambiance can’t be beat.

We took the metro to Medrano on a Saturday night and then walked a couple of blocks. From the outside La Catedral looks like an abandoned warehouse. The sign that reads ‘Tango’ is worn and hard to notice. But from the moment we stepped inside the main room, we couldn’t help but smile. There’s a long, old, wooden dance floor that leads to a bar and tables in the back. The ceiling is so high it almost disappears above you. Everything is cast in shadow, and the wine is cheap. We arrived ‘just on time’ but ended up being able to drink an entire bottle of wine while we waited for things to officially get going. This place isn’t catering to tourist expectations.

Tango Buenos Aires Bar

The lesson itself was different than the other dance classes we’ve experienced. There’s a lot of closing your eyes and trusting your partner to move you around the room. Tango is known for its passion, but its spirit is smooth and calm. Most of the lesson we just walked and shifted from side to side. When the traditional tango ‘box’ was finally introduced, it was done as something that can be worked in organically. Staying fluid, and wordlessly responding to the pressure of a leading hand, that’s where the passion comes from. Learning tango, apparently, isn’t about ‘drilling the steps.’ It’s more like tuning into a particular style of movement.

But after the lesson is when things really started to get going. The volume went up and dancers who really knew what they were doing started to take the floor. Locals arrived in a steady stream and we felt grateful that we had arrived in time to stake out a table. We ordered some food, and another bottle of wine. We befriended the only other English speakers around (they also got this recommendation from someone who lived here), and every few songs we ventured onto the dance floor to try out our limited repertoire of moves. We left at a bit past 1AM and the place was still filling with new arrivals.

Bottom line: if you’re in Buenos Aires you need to tango. The shows are impressive but if you’re not content to be a spectator, then La Catedral is the place to be.

Ciao,

Will

 

Biking to Wineries in Mendoza

Biking to Wineries in Mendoza

The hum of rubber on the flat pavement. The gentle movement of a sun-warmed breeze past your face. The buzz of how many glasses of wine? Wasn’t counting. This is why we came to Mendoza.

Mendoza is known for producing that famous Argentine Malbec wine everyone has heard of. We spent four days soaking up its laid back vineyard vibe- but we hadn’t taken a wine tour yet. On our final day there we decided to scrap the formal wine tour, rent bikes, and have a leisurely pedal from winery to winery.

We took the city bus to Maipu, where all the wineries are located, and headed straight for Mr. Hugo’s bike rental. Mr. Hugo himself fitted our bikes and sent us on our way. We were lucky – we arrived just as a bike ban had been lifted due to strong winds in the morning. By 1pm, all that was left was a pleasant breeze.

Mendoza Wine Tour 02

The streets of Maipu have dedicated bike lanes with curbs, and the roads are completely flat. We started our afternoon with empanadas at the local beer garden before heading to Trapiche, one of Mendoza’s most famous wineries, for a tour and tasting.

We saw antique wine making machinery, original to the winery. Will even got to taste some unaged wine straight from the tap.

Mendoza Wine Tour 13

As we made our way to the sleek tasting room, we were lucky once again– our tasting of 3 wines somehow turned into 5. I tried Grappa for the first time, though I will likely decline it in the future.

Mendoza Wine Tour 29

Thank goodness we were on bikes, because the Olive Oil Factory – surprise of the day – got us a little drunk. What we found was not a factory tour, but a tasting room. I don’t know if the olive spread we tried was the best thing I’ve ever tasted, or if I was just a little intoxicated – either way, it was amazing.

Mendoza Wine Tour 42

After introducing us to 10 different liquors, the Olive man asked “Would you like to try some absinthe?” “Sure!” we replied. “Where is it from?” Will asked after we had taken our shots. “I made it!” he exclaimed. Needless to say, it was very strong.

Mendoza Wine Tour 46

We rounded out our day with a stop at a winery museum and a 5 tasting special at another wine bar. In the end, we bought one bottle of olive oil and received two free bottles of wine. The only thing that could have made the day better was more time.

Mendoza Wine Tour 56

If you go to Mendoza, skip the formal wine tour and skip the organized bike/wine trip. Head to Maipu (or better yet, stay there!) and go see Mr. Hugo. The freedom to pedal where you wish in this flat, safe town is well worth the city bus ticket!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

 

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

Poverty is Not the Problem with Education (Part 1)

When we’re young, we tend to think that all schools are like the ones we attend. Even as adults, people who went to well-functioning schools tend to think that all schools offer a quality education. If students who attend some schools lack basic math skills, act out in class, or have trouble decoding a text written for their grade-level, then the problem must be the student or their environment. The problem must be poverty.

But the way students are treated and what’s expected of them, varies dramatically from one school to another. Even a school’s attitude towards itself, how seriously it takes its obligation to educate, can vary drastically.

I recently visited a school in Santiago in a relatively low-income area. We arrived during a break and students mulled about in the large courtyard. When the bell rang, I assumed that we would head to a classroom but nothing happened. Students continued to loiter. Ten, then fifteen, minutes went by. My host explained that the teachers were in a meeting that was running late.

Poverty and Education Students Loitering

Students loitering after the bell has rung

Class eventually started. The teacher had all the students stand and greet him and then spent about 10 minutes hooking up a projector. The lesson’s objective was on sorting information with charts. Students ‘accomplished’ this objective by watching two commercials and sorting the problems and solutions described by the commercials into columns in a table. The teacher then spoke over a chattering room to instruct them to apply this skill to interviews they had conducted. I circulated to three groups during this part of the lesson, but none of the students could show me the interviews. The class was essentially free to socialize. When I asked if all their classes were like this they laughed and said ‘yes.’

In the late 1970s Jean Anyon conducted intensive research to see how schools that served different economic groups in the U.S. treated students. What she found was troubling but, sadly, not surprising.

Anyon observed that working-class schools mostly prioritized order and discipline. Instruction was organized around copying and memorization, while larger concepts were ignored altogether. ‘Good teachers’ were those with quiet classrooms and discipline was often enforced with sarcastic or derisive language. Students resisted this treatment by rejecting the legitimacy of the school and the relevance of the work in front of them. When students were asked if they could ‘create knowledge’ the answer was almost uniformly ‘no.’

In Affluent-Professional schools (think accountants, lawyers, engineers, small-business owners) things looked different. Students wrote essays and engaged in projects. Creativity was valued and it was emphasized that each students’ work should be unique. Consequently, students showed immense pride in the products of their work. Discipline was maintained more by influence than outright control. The teacher would regularly initiate conversations with the class about the type of behavior she should see and why. When students were asked if they could create knowledge nearly all of them said ‘yes.’*

Poverty and Education talking with students

Talking with students at the working-class school

People often say that students in low-income communities have trouble focusing or act out in class because they are mimicking the unstable environments they live in. They come from ‘broken homes’ where they can’t be expected to have learned values like respect and responsibility. But in my ten years of working with low-income communities, I’ve seen that values of responsibility and especially respect, are emphasized more, not less, in low-income communities.

I have experience teaching in both working-class and affluent-professional contexts, and I know that if I treated my affluent students the way working-class students are treated, they would rebel. They would reject my legitimacy as a teacher and, at best, put forth some minimal effort to complete the work I gave them. Later, they would then talk with their parents, who would quickly express their concerns to the principal. The principal would listen to these concerns with a great deal of respect, and I would very quickly find myself in a serious talk about my teaching strategies.

“Teachers with other ideas, systems they bring from somewhere else, they generally don’t last,” said Shannon Watt. We were talking about how the affluent Southern Cross school was able to maintain such a strong culture. I asked what she meant. “For instance, we’ve had teachers who want their class to stand up and formally greet them at the beginning of class. No. Here the teacher comes in and they may say ‘Hi,’ but there’s no formal greeting. That’s not going to work here. If a teacher tries to be overly strict it’s not going to work for the students.”

When Shannon showed me around some classrooms, I saw 4th graders solving problems with multiple different strategies. I asked a student how he completed a math problem and he jumped right into an explanation, including the reason he used a certain the method.** Later the class was asked if there’s a relationship between multiplication and division. There was a thoughtful silence. The first student response was that, ‘they both involve numbers.’ This caused a laugh, but the teacher let them think about it some more. A few other students offered answers, and soon they were explaining how knowing your times tables makes division easier. When I asked this class why they like school, almost all of them said, “Because I like learning.”

Poverty and Education southern cross

Ms. Javier, the 4th grade teacher at Southern Cross

It’s true that many students from working-class communities put forth less effort in class and act out more often than their more privileged peers. But when they do this, they are not normally ‘bringing their home life into the school.’ They are simply having normal human reactions to the way they are being treated. If anything, students with unstable home lives are those who yearn the most for school to be a sanctuary of caring and support. When schools fail in this responsibility, these young people often feel it as a kind of betrayal.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that poverty is a non-factor. The effects of poverty on young people are real and can be very deep. Nor do I want to suggest that teachers in working-class schools should go into work tomorrow and pretend that they can reverse their students’ relationship to school with a new management plan. Questions about where to go from here are tricky, and I’ll explore them later in this series. For now, I’ll just say that poverty, in itself, is not the primary problem holding schools back. The way schools react to poverty, how they choose to treat students from low-income backgrounds and the stunted expectations they communicate; those are the principal problems facing education.

  • Will

*Anyon also profiled middle-class and executive elite schools. For a full description you should check out her paper. But a general overview is that middle-class teachers give students some more choice but the focus of most work is finding the ‘right answer.’ Students are more engaged but don’t feel that the content is relevant. Executive elite schools actually offer less opportunities for creativity than the affluent schools but the workload is generally much higher. There is an emphasis on ‘excellence’ and students behavior is corrected by reminding them of the ‘responsibility to succeed.’

** I also visited a 1st grade classroom where the teacher talked about how challenging it was to get students to explain their work. But she also talked about why it was incredibly important. This was interesting. The 4th graders were obviously used to explaining their work and they were quite good at it. Some people may attribute this skill to their more affluent home lives, but doesn’t it make more sense to credit this skill to the perseverance of their earlier teachers?

 

 

Sorry, I Just Didn’t Like Valparaiso

Sorry, I Just Didn’t Like Valparaiso

Listen, I know everyone loves Valparaiso.  It’s trendy, romantic, filled with street art and hilltop views and fully endorsed by Pablo Neruda himself. When we told people we were going to Santiago, the response again and again from fellow travelers was, “oh, make sure you get to Valparaiso.” But here’s the thing.  I just didn’t like Valparaiso.

There were some specific activities in Valparaiso that I absolutely loved. Among them were visiting La Sebastiana (Pablo Neruda’s house), tasting several Carmeneres at Antonia’s Wine Boutique, and enjoying churros and chocolate at one of the many adorable sweet shops. Unfortunately, these things could not overtake the things I hated: the dirtiness of the streets, the graffiti on every building (not the street art, that’s different), and a bad run in with another guest at the hostel.

We arrived on Saturday around noon to find the city rainy and 10 degrees colder than Santiago.  Determined to love Valparaiso, I remained upbeat as we checked into our hostel and set out to find some lunch.

Valparaiso Street Art 1

En route, we gingerly danced between the puddles and ridiculous amount of dog poop that filled the sidewalks.  The rain made the slimy streets worse, and it was hard to enjoy the stroll. We finally found a place called Mastadon that specializes in Chorillana, a dish invented in Valparaiso. A little heavy, but fully embraceable by a couple of Americans.

Valparaiso Chorrillana

As night fell, the rain stopped, and we found a route with less dog poop – up a cobblestone street to this adorable corner:

Valparaiso Streets 06

We located Antonia’s Wine Boutique, recommended to us by an Australian couple we met in San Pedro.  We opened the place up at 9pm, tasting an incredible Carmenere.  The owner/host chatted with us about what type of wines we like and brought us a complimentary meat and cheese platter.  We had a great view of street art and the rolling blocks of colorful houses.  Things were looking up.

Valparaiso Street 20

Back at the hostel, Will and I passed out on our hostel bunk beds at midnight.

Around 5am, I awoke to someone shaking me. I opened my eyes to the lights on and a 20-somthing girl yelling at me in Spanish.  The bunk bed was very low, so I couldn’t sit up, just lay there being yelled at.  When she took a breath, I said “I don’t speak Spanish,” to which she responded “English then, speak! Speak!” Will and I finally gathered that she thought the bed I was sleeping in was her bed.  After she continued to yell at a staff member for another 10 minutes, and took several photos of me in the bed, she was finally ushered out of the room.

Here’s what happened: When you stay in a hostel dorm, most hostels record which bed you claim. For example: Bed 3 – Elizabeth, Bed 4 -Will. This hostel does not record which beds are claimed, so they can’t tell you which ones are available when you check in. It’s just guessing.

This girl thought she claimed the same bed I had claimed. I checked in first (and went to bed 5 hours earlier) so I don’t feel bad about keeping the bed. Additionally, there were two more free beds in the room, available for claiming when she arrived back from the bar. This is how a hostel works. You take a free bed. You certainly don’t shake a stranger awake. If you have a problem you go talk to the staff person at the desk.

The girl was with an older gentleman who generally looked mortified. Later, the hostel staff tried to act like the girl was sorry, but didn’t know how to say it in English.   It was evident from her demeanor that she was not sorry in the least. Was I hurt? No. Was I pissed? Yes. Will wanted to confront her in Spanish, but I suggested we just get an early start and vamos.

So we headed to Plaseo 21 de Mayo – another enthusiastic recommendation from our Australian friends in San Pedro. We took a tram to the top of the hill and looked out. The harbor full of shipping containers just wasn’t enough to lift my morning funk.

Plaseo 21 de Mayo 03

Although this view was nicer.

Plaseo 21 de Mayo 10

The sky looked like it would hold out against the rain, so we decided to walk across downtown to La Sebastiana. On the way, we took note of the street art (while trying not to step in dog poop- seriously, it’s everywhere).

Valparaiso Street Art 02

Valparaiso Street Art 04

Valparaiso Street Art 03

Finally we reached Pablo Neruda’s house. Here you can see Neruda’s morning view as he awoke.

Valpariaso La Sebastiana 12

We ended our afternoon with churros and chocolate on our favorite cobblestoned corner before catching the bus back to Santiago.

Valparaiso Churros and Chocolate

I know, I know. The incident at the hostel and the weather were not Valparaiso’s fault. Perhaps I went in with expectations that were too high. Perhaps the dirty streets (I saw a roadkill rat blocking a street drain) prevented me from feeling the romance of the city. Perhaps I simply prefer the urban style of Santiago.  In any case – there are wonderful things to do in Valparaiso… it just wasn’t the city for me.

Ciao,

Elizabeth

One Day Walking Tour in Santiago

One Day Walking Tour in Santiago

Santiago greeted us with a beautiful, sunny, 72 degree day – perfect for our self-styled walking tour.  We were staying in Barrio Brasil at La Casa Roja – an old mansion turned hostel.  Barrio Brasil is just off of downtown, which made it the perfect location to start our walk.  We passed through the central business district, with its pedestrian streets and kiosks selling snacks and philosophy books, on our way to the other famous barrios of Santiago.

Santiago Downtown Travel

We ran into Plaza Moneda, the location of the presidential palace, or La Moneda.  We looked on as a protest took place.  We didn’t yet know that this was a major site of the 1973 military coup.

Santiago La Moneda Travel

From the downtown we headed toward Bella Vista, one of Santiago’s most popular neighborhoods.  Just before reaching this barrio is the National Museum of Fine Art, where the collection of sculpture particularly moved and intrigued us.

Santiago Art Museum Travel

From the Art Museum we headed to San Cristobal Hill, which took up an enormous green area on our tourist map.  The hill is extremely steep, so we took the San Cristobal “Funicular” up instead.  The Funicular begins and ends in matching castles at the top and bottom of the hill – with one intermediate stop at the Santiago Zoo.

Santiago San Cristobal Hill Travel

When we got off the tram, we could see the true expanse of Santiago.  Seventy-five percent of Chile’s population lives in cities – and Santiago is by far the largest.  The view was amazing.

Santiago San Cristobal Hill Travel

Looking up, we could see the Chilean flag with the statue of the Virgin Mary behind it.  We weren’t at the top yet!

Santiago San Cristobal Hill Travel

The path to the top wound through gardens and various sections of an enormous outdoor church, including an outdoor altar and amphitheater.  Finally, we reached the Virgin Mary.

Santiago San Cristobal Hill Travel

The Funicular was less crowded on the way down.  This old-timey tram made me a little nervous in all its Industrial Revolution glory.  Can you spot my anxious grip on the rail post?  Will loved it.

Santiago San Cristobal Hill Travel

On the way back to La Casa Roja, we took particular notice of the street art in Barrio Bella Vista.  Here are some of our favorites.

Santiago Street Art 03

Santiago Street Art Travel

Santiago Street Art Travel

Our one day walking tour in Santiago was blessed with beautiful weather for exploring.  A quick recap of the the highlights: the National Museum of Fine Arts, San Cristobal Hill, and street art in Bella Vista.

Other highlights from other days in Santiago include: the lovely park Santa Lucia Hill, dining in Barrio Lastarria, visiting the Museo de la Memoria, and drinking lots of Carmenere wine.

Santiago is a complex, intellectual, passionate, and reserved city.  It leaves you wanting to know more about it, and feeling completely at home at the same time.  I would go back any day.

Ciao,

Elizabeth