First Week at SENA: Week 226

Happy 58th birthday SENA: Manizales, Colombia

Now that I have been at teaching at my center for a few weeks, I can look back on the first week with wisdom. A few observations on teaching at SENA, a technical college in Colombia:

The cafeteria is awesome. I might almost be 30, but picking a seat in a cafeteria still dredges up old anxieties. When I was younger it was all about having the cool friends to sit with. Now that I am older, it is finding the perfect empty table.

There is only one cafeteria at school and for this reason it can be quite busy during the middle of the day. During my first week I happened to see a long queue snaking outside the cafeteria and decided I was better off finding an alternative location. Outside the school gate was a food cart that I had never tried, so I decided it was as good a time as any to give it a go.

They were selling arepas (kind of like a corn pancake), which I love, so I ordered one and rounded off my meal with a cup of salpicón (fruit cocktail). The salpicón was refreshing, but the arepa was a bit of a shock. It ended up being served with a paper-thin meat patty, covered with an inch of sauce, and sprinkled with potato chips. It was the worst thing I had ever tasted. I was not disappointed when a bug happened to land on my food and then promptly drowned in the sauce.

Since then I have gone to the cafeteria for all my meals and it never disappoints. For roughly USD $1.80 a meal comes with juice, a bowl of soup, meat, rice, salad, potato/plantain, arepa, and a small desert. And you know what? If all the tables are taken, it just means it’s a good time to practice some Spanish.

The students clean the room. The school does have janitors, but students are expected to clean the room just before class ends. They sweep the floor, tidy up, wipe down the desks, and empty the trashcans. On Wednesdays and Fridays they are also supposed to mop. All this responsibility makes me feel like I had it easy when I was a student.

Happy 58th Birthday function at SENA: Manizales, Colombia

Classroom supplies. I had been warned that there could be very few supplies available, so I was quite happy to realize that 5/6 of my classes had computers and internet in the classroom. Another thing I was warned about was the lack of classroom space. While this has been a problem for other SENA teachers, I have been lucky enough to have no classroom-availability drama. The biggest downfall- there are absolutely no books for any of my English classes.

My specific department within SENA, Automatización, also has an equipment office. This is where I go to checkout laptops and cables, pick up print jobs, and find someone to unlock my classrooms. Most importantly, this is where I learn all my palabras groseras. Those are the words you don’t say in front of your colleagues. I learned this the hard way.

Adults are just as demanding as children. A full day of teaching kindergarten was exhausting and I kind of had this idea that technical college would be easier. I quickly realized though that while the type of work is different, the quantity is identical. Kindergarteners are so easily distracted by a song, dance, a crayon, or a funny voice that if the lesson is a bit half-baked, it’s not the end of the world.

Young adults, on the other hand, don’t think twice before telling you they would like to, “go to the home.” They have so many more opinions, “emergencies”, and cell phone distractions.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my lesson plans at home and coming up with creative ways to keep their attention. The upside to the extra effort though is that my students are a ton of fun. I hope to be the kind of teacher that they enjoy working with and if, at the end of the day, they think learning English is enjoyable, then I’ve done my job.

Apartment Hunting in Colombia: Week 225

View of the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

After six weeks of living out of my backpack, I wanted to find an apartment in Manizales as soon as possible. Initially I began the search online, however I quickly realized that what worked in Sydney doesn’t work the whole world over. Should you find yourself looking for an apartment in Colombia, these are my observations:

Online options suck: The most success I had was from walking through an area I liked and taking photos of all the ‘For rent’ signs in the windows. There were many more options on the streets than there were online, and unlike Sydney, there was no shortage of affordable and available places.

Contact: Whatsapp is the most popular method of contact in Colombia. This is especially good news if your Spanish is a bit rough and the thought of talking to someone on the phone makes you anxious. If I could have arranged my internet service through Whatsapp, I wouldn’t have needed speaker phone and the assistance of two Une employees.

View from the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

Empty properties: All of the properties I saw from the street were empty. While I thought it was strange that landlords would prefer to have gaps between rentals, I figured this worked to my advantage. First of all, people with empty properties want them filled ASAP. And second of all, I wouldn’t have to worry about people viewing my apartment while I was still in it- awesome! The last time I had a property viewing, a group of people walked in just as I got out of the shower.

Also, when I say empty, I mean empty. You have to bring your own light bulbs when you move in. This was especially ironic to me because my previous landlord had wanted to charge me $110 dollars to replace three burnt out light bulbs.

Paperwork: Oddly enough, I was not asked for a deposit. Come to think of it, none of the online listings had ever mentioned a deposit either.

Once I had found an apartment, the landlord and I went to a papelería (office supply shop), bought a rental agreement, filled it out, and then went to the notary around the corner for the official purple stamps and fingerprints.

Inside the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

Furniture: Because the apartment was completely empty, Barret and I had a hard time deciding how well to furnish it. Eventually we settled on a minimalistic approach, which is just a nicer way of saying empty and cheap. I ordered a mattress over the phone and when I asked the salesman if he thought it would be suitable for two, he advised that I upgrade to the wooden leg posts. They were more ‘secure’.

We also decided that we could live without a fridge. That might sound a little crazy, but when we eat out, the meals come with so much meat that it’s nice to be vegetarian at home. There is a grocery store across the street, so it’s easy to buy fresh vegetables and fruit every few days.

The hardest decision we made was to do the washing by hand. The closest laundromat would have been pricey and we definitely didn’t want to buy a machine. I had heard about a rental service, but it wouldn’t have been convenient- the machine is delivered and installed one day and then picked up the next! Even if we did wash everything at once, there is nowhere to dry it all.

Six weeks in and so far so good. With views like this, it’s totally worth doing small daily batches of laundry.

View from the apartment in Manizales, Colombia

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation Trivia Night: Week 191


Round three began with quotes.

They danced by the light of the moon.

Hmmm…. Nope. Doesn’t ring a bell.

I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Yet another blank answer on our trivia sheet.

“A horse’s back is good enough and hence the vulgar bull.”

We were probably the only table using a smart phone and it still wasn’t helping. That quote does not exist on Google.

Our team didn’t care if we won. The main goal of the trivia night was to raise money for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, an Australian organization that supports literacy within remote Indigenous communities.

On the other hand, we didn’t necessarily want to lose by such a large margin. We had come in thinking the questions would be typical pub quiz stuff and we were quite surprised to realize the focus was literature and the majority of the teams were in the publishing industry.

“Who was the 2014 prize winner for the Miles Franklin Literary Award?”

Judging by the reaction in the room, that must have been an easy question.

“Which author was the first to win four Miles Franklin Literary Awards?”

“What the hell, Emma.” One of our teammates finally exclaimed. “What have you signed us up for?”

“Who was the first indigenous author to win the Miles Franklin Literary Award?”

Come on! You can’t ask three questions about the same award!

Put the following books in order of publication:

George Clooney’s Haircut, The Mud House, Why Men and Necessary, and Desperate Husbands.

You could buy an answer to one question each round and we had our hands up every time. The host, ABC’s Richard Glover (also the author of the aforementioned books), saw us raise our hands and declared, “Not this table again. Very wealthy but a bit dumb.”

During the intermission the audience was encouraged to bid on the silent auction items and purchase more raffle tickets. My friends and I had been outbid on all our items, so we took the time to confer with the second half of our group that was seated at another table. They were having an existential crisis. While Emma assured them they were smart enough and did actually belong there, one of the staff members came by. “Did your table write I have no fucking idea on their sheet?”


“Ok, I just need your team name at the top.”

We were assured that the next round would be easier.

Name a Nobel Prize winner in literature from each of the following countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, and South Africa

“OH MAN!” I exclaimed. “Who’s that Irish guy? You know, what’s his face?!” Everyone else at the table looked at me blankly. “I know this! AHHHHHHHH. What’s his name?”

Emma drew a stick figure with an inquisitive look and above it she wrote ‘High-brow eyebrow’.

How many countries are larger than Australia?

Earlier that night my friends and I were reading ‘most popular’ pub quiz questions in the taxi. Our Canadian driver gave us this answer; that ride was money well-spent.

What house does Harry Potter belong to?

Yes! It felt good to finally get one question right without the assistance of Canadians or cell phones. Our team was probably in the bottom three, but like Richard Glover said, it was our deep pockets that counted most.

About: Indigenous Literacy Foundation

Macau: Week 138, Part 2

Two women walking outside the entrance of the Grand Lisboa, Macau

“There is no night life here,” Mikayla said with a frown.

I was having a hard time believing her; the tour guide in my hand was open to the entertainment section. “But it says that Macau’s nightlife is famous for its variety, frantic pace, and constant change,” I quickly pointed out. “What about Avenida Sun Yat-Sen? Have you been there?”

Mikayla shot me a deadpan look. “They’re lying.”

For the last eight years she’d been alternating between visiting and living in Macau. If anyone was familiar with the city, it would be her. So whether or not I was ready to accept it, Mikayla was right- Las Vegas’ biggest competition doesn’t let its hair down.

Grand Lisboa, Macau

If Hong Kong is the life of the party, then Macau would be the parents who are out of town. Of course there are the luxurious hotels, restaurants, cocktail bars, and couture shops; but the focus remains undeniably and explicitly on gambling. And you know what? You can’t gamble if you’re dancing.

At the Venetian Macau, the casino floor is inside a large hall that’s enclosed behind a partition. It has the visual appeal of a heavily guarded convention and only the most determined of gamblers would want to be there (unlike the packs of roving ‘bros’ in Vegas that wear untucked dress shirts and keep one eye on their cards and the other on the women).

Obviously the casinos know their market though; according to Bloomberg, as of October 2013, gambling revenue in Macau jumped to $4.57 billion USD.

A small altar outside a shop in Senado Square, Macau

However, unlike Las Vegas, Macau is a former Portuguese colony rich in heritage and UNESCO listed. Senado Square, the historic heart of city, is just one of many places where the curious mixture of Chinese and Portuguese culture is apparent. The beautiful black and white stone tiles (that also famously pattern the beaches of Rio) are fringed with knee-high altars for good luck and prosperity.

A man performs a choreographed piece of Chinese opera inside Mount Fortress, Macau

Overlooking Senado Square, Mount Fortress combines the rugged charm of a European fortress with the other-worldly twang of Chinese opera.

A building inside Old Taipa Village, Macau

Across the harbor, pastel green colonial buildings are pasted with red and gold charms.


For outwardly being less sinful than Las Vegas (based only on the fact that Macau doesn’t have a night club which encourages women to compete for breast implants), there are a lot more religious shrines. Perhaps Vegas doesn’t feel the need to atone for much, but take a stroll in any direction in Macau and you will run into one shrine after another.

Visitors lighting incense inside the frint gate of A-Ma Temple, Macau

The moment you step inside the famous A-Ma temple, a dense cloud of incense will smack you in the face. Move too slowly and the burning hot ash from a 6ft joss stick will blow onto your shoulder. Move too quickly and you will miss the details: the quiet rituals, the bored gaze of the bald man behind the incense stall, the men in suits finalizing their business deals under a spray of pale gray ash.

Master planned community of the north shore of Taipa Island, Macau

About ten years ago, while working at McDonald’s, I was in the kitchen washing the breakfast cooking equipment. There were several steps, all of which I did too thoroughly, but the last one in particular was a pale pink disinfectant bath. The moment I caught a whiff of it, I knew it smelled like something familiar. I just couldn’t place it right away.

Then it hit me- it was the same scent as the well water of my childhood home in Florida. Not that I claim to be a water connoisseur, but it had a very specific scent because it was so hard and had so many minerals. All the white laundry slowly turned cream and my hair strawberry blond.

Inside Pak Tai Temple: Old Taipa Village, Macau

That’s kind of how I feel about Chinese incense now. As soon as I smell it, it reminds me of a small dark temple with incense coils hanging from the ceiling. The air is heavy, but cleansed, and behind the screen of smoke there glitters gold toned urns and paper charms.

Sculpture from the Sacred Art Museum at St Dominic's Church, Macau

St Dominic’s Church, in Senado Square, is one of the most famous examples of 17th century Baroque architecture in Macau. While it lacks the excitement of dodging hot ash and it feels much more touristy than the A-Ma Temple, it makes up for it with religious sculpture. In the Sacred Art Museum above the church is a box of oddly severed and disjointed body parts.

Booth at the Festival da Lusofonia, Macau

Macau was a Portuguese colony from the mid-16th century right up until 1999, which made it the last remaining European colony in Asia. Considering the longevity of the occupation, it’s interesting to note that only about 2% of the population is Portuguese. Despite that small percentage, Mikayla and I stumbled across the Lusofonia Festival on my first night.

It was a celebration of Portuguese-speaking culture from across the globe- from Brazil to East Timor to Sao Tome & Principe. Each country had its own booth and very different ways of introducing its culture. Brazil had creepy black mannequins and cachaça; another country had a sandy pond filled with drowning turtles (Mikayla advised the owner to put some rocks in the pool so the turtles could rest).

Strolling down the Avenida da Praia, on my left were the candy-colored Taipa Houses Museum and on my right, in the distance, was the Venetian Hotel. A high-stake future, a colonial past, one endearingly eclectic mix; I was really enjoying Macau.

­About: Macau

How to get to Senado Square: Macau Island, Buses: 2, 3, 3A, 3X, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 17, 18, 18A, 19, 21A, 26A, 33

How to get to A-Ma Temple: Macau Island, Buses: 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 10A, 11, 18, 21A, 26, 28B, MT4

How to get to the Taipa Houses Museum: Avenida da Praia, Old Taipa Village -Taipa Island. Buses: 11, 15, 22, 28A, 30, 33, 34

GRE: Week 124


You know that x is a positive integer. Which of the following statements individually provide(s) sufficient additional information to determine whether the square root of x is also an integer? Select all such statements.

1)      X is the square of an integer.

2)      The square root of x is the square of an integer.

3)      0<x<10


It’s been three years since I left the US and although I am living abroad, I’m still thinking about what I want to do when I go home someday. Not that I’ve figured it out, but I have narrowed down my list of goals and I find myself continually attracted to the idea of grad school.

This might be a bit optimistic, but I am really looking for a program that combines photography, international relations, graphic design, kitten fostering, writing, yarn bombs, gimchi, communication and philately into a concise yearlong program. If the school happens to offer Conversational Spanish for Zookeepers, well of course that would seal the deal.

Thankfully GRE scores are valid for five years which means I have a lot of time to find the right program. And because Sydney has online testing facilities, I can easily book a test any day of the week (I am aiming for early October).

So for those reasons my newest weekend excitement involves the upstairs alcove at Le Petit Tarte and a GRE diagnostic test. It’s been ten years since my calculus class and I don’t exactly remember what an integer is, but I am still feeling confident.

And in case you were wondering, the answer is: 1 & 2. I checked the answer key.

About the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

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