Sunday, February 21, 2016

Vietnam for Tet

We just returned from a wonderful sunny 2-week vacation in Vietnam.  A friend who'd lived there helped us plan an itinerary that started in the north in Hanoi, where we met old friends from India and traveled with them for a week. We went to Halong Bay, spent the night on a ship (uneventful, thankfully!), went to Hue to see some ancient buildings, then on to Hoi An for 5 days.  We flew to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) last and spent 3 days there.  By far our most enjoyable stop was Hoi An, where I attended not one but 2 cooking classes.  S even got in the act for one, which was rightfully billed as a tasting/cooking adventure.  He excelled in the first part.
Hoi An has a very relaxed vibe with fantastic street food, very clean, very healthy, and very yummy.  This is the place of the silk lantern fame, and I may or may not have needed a duffel bag to bring back some lanterns for myself and others.
It was very hot in HCM City and we reverted to our Trivandrum ways of getting out early, staying out of the mid-day sun, and emerging when the sun abates somewhat.  The colonial architecture and art scene in Saigon was hopping, and we attended a Cirque-du-Soleil type performance with a Vietnamese spin called "AO".  It was innovative and mesmerizing; check out a Youtube clip of their performance here.  Actually, the 2nd one that comes up after the initial one is perhaps as interesting if not more so. Also the venue was the Opera House, so it was doubly enjoyable.
We are now back for the last stretch of work, with no foreseeable vacations in the near future, unless we change our minds about taking off for spring break at the end of April.  We are finding it's hard to save money and take these vacations, but we keep trying.
Follow this link for some photos of the 2 cooking schools and Vietnam during Tet, their lunar new year celebration:

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Contract time at an IB school: An Emotional Rollercoaster

And they’re off….. It’s Vienna International on the inside with American School of Paris moving up from behind, while Lincoln, Buenos Aires is making a play for the lead….
Since about September at the school where I currently work people whose contracts are up (there are revolving end-dates, much like the U.S. Senate, but not at all like it in any other way) have been asking each other about their plans for the next academic year, whether they are registered with a certain agency that aides international teachers and international schools in matching needs and wants, and what job fairs they are going to attend.  It’s all a bit of a drama, actually.

Teachers are required to notify their schools of their intents on very early dates between the beginning of December (our school) to about the end of January.   This requirement doesn’t line up too well on the calendar with the dates for the job fairs, which are mostly in end of Jan-end of March.  The result is most people have to resign before they have another job if they want to leave, and the result of that is a stressful environment for many of the staff.  There is a range of risk-takers, with my resignation being a very low-level risk, since we don’t have a family to support, and the high end being a friend of ours who have five kids to feed and clothe. However, he’s quite calm about the whole thing, so he doesn’t count. [When you think about it, if you had 5 kids to shake up things every night, perhaps your next job doesn’t get on the plate too often.] It’s part of being an international teacher, and many are used to the uncertainty, but it makes for some odd situations. One friend of mine is trying to move from PE into counseling, and she has her eye on another mutual friend’s counseling job, but they didn’t talk about it, since they were both applying for the same jobs outside the school.  Now that he’s resigned things are a little more normal.

At first I thought I’d just register with TIE Online, which is relatively cheap (70 USD) but then I got into the whirl of what everyone else was doing and registered with SEARCH Associates, just to see what jobs were available that people probably wouldn’t want me for since I am over 60.  One principal from Kiev was interested in me, but I quickly explained the cold climate aversion and told her farewell, as well as the principal from a new school opening “…about 25 minutes by train from Shanghai.”  I live exactly 25 minutes from Shanghai now so didn’t see any advantage there. 
I’ve been deleting most of the ESL openings that SEARCH sends from places like Kazakhstan (not even sure that’s how you spell that country) but I did apply to one in Vienna who wanted an ESL coordinator (I told myself no more management, but alas it’s probably what would make people want to hire me) and a part-time teacher, but they haven’t exactly given me the hard sell yet, like they haven’t written me anything back in response to my filling out yet another online form that took about 3 hours to complete.
S and I vacillate between thinking perhaps he should get a job for a couple of years and we would move back to the states somewhere, to thinking we aren’t ready to stop traveling yet, and working in Europe or Latin America would allow us to see more of the world in those areas.  In the latter frame of mind I have applied to attend the SEARCH London job fair at the end of January, but now someone has to evaluate whether or not to give me an invitation.  Not sure what they base that on, since I paid them lots of money to belong to SEARCH, but let’s see.  I’m still not certain I’ll go, because it would be a long ways to travel in a very short time and also expensive, but I know most employers want to meet their candidates in person and schools fill a lot of openings at job fairs.  Also it would probably be to my advantage to be at a job fair because if employers saw me and talked to me they could see I’m not carrying portable oxygen tanks or looking to retire/teach at the same time.

In all reality, if I were to score a job I wanted, it would probably be in June or July, like I landed this job, when someone broke contract or fell ill or something extraordinary, and the candidate pool was smaller and my skills and experience might make them swallow the bitter pill of “aging teacher”.  We’re enjoying changing our minds right now, and after we return from vacation, we’re going to race to see who gets a job first.  I give it even odds.

(4 weeks later) So…my how we do change our minds.  I’m in a car to the Shanghai airport on my way to the London Job Fair.  So far I only have 2 schools who have asked me to set up an interview, but I tell myself that like a good husband and place to live, one is all anyone needs. International School of Amsterdam is my current favorite (as of 5 minutes ago) and there are 2 other EAL openings in Europe that hold promise, Vienna and Munich.  Then this morning an American school in Lugano, Switzerland wrote me to ask to set up an interview because they are “hoping” to have an elementary EAL opening. Is that how vacancies are created on the international school scene, hope???  I had just enough time to visit their web page and see a gorgeous campus designed by an award-winning architect.  Said campus overlooks a beautiful lake with the Swiss alps in the background.  They also offer free furnished apartments to “dorm parents”.  If that means living in the same place as a bunch of adolescents, count me out, I’ve done that gig and I’m too old for a repeat performance.  Still, the location of Switzerland for travel is sweet.  Amsterdam has the best possibility of S snagging a job as well, as there are many American businesses’ European office there, like Staples, and a few others that have slipped my mind. 
Let’s see what develops in the next few days.  The format of this fair sounds a lot like pledging a sorority and I’m drawing the line at standing in a circle singing songs about Greek letters. From what I can gather, every candidate gets a “mail box”, a real one, because apparently the people who set up the conference weren’t told about computers or the internet or smart phones.  Anyway, if someone wants to interview, they can put a note in your box, which you retrieve and get to advance to the head of the extensive school ques on the day call “Interview Sign-up Time”.  It’s a bit like Valentine’s Day in an elementary school also!
We were asked to bring a 2-page only condensed resume with a picture and wait our turn in line to deliver a 2-3 minute elevator pitch about why we’re such wonderful teachers and why they should grant us an interview. It’s either thumbs up or thumbs down from there, and then candidates move to the next school they are interested in that there is an opening in their area for and repeat the performance. I was working on a rap, but then I thought I should get hired before showing any tendencies toward mocking.  I also considered dressing in orange soccer garb (painted face) for the Amsterdam school, but daughter #1 told me I stand out plenty without any signage. True. So I bought a new black jacket, and will wear black slacks and possibly a black shell under the jacket.  That way I have the makings for either a poet or a priest in case there is a job fair for that in the future.
It’s rare that people are offered a job at the end of the interview, but are usually called back.  I need to remember to put my shoe-shopping needs out there for them so we can expedite this little dance.  There is also a cheese shop I need to get to, and, undoubtedly best part of the job fair experience, I will be visiting at least one and very possibly 2 of Ottolenghi’s restuarants.  This guy is an incredible Israeli chef whose cookbooks rock my world. His reinvention of the salad is genius, and I intend to partake at the table of salad goodness.  I also read that the one nearest my hotel delivers if the total is over 50 British Pounds.  No problem. 

Stay turned for more job fair fun.  The packages are interesting to look at, because they vary from an excellent package with great perks - Amsterdam gives teachers a laptop, gym membership, and a FREE MUSEUM PASS to the furnished apartments of Lugano’s American School, to most of the schools in Italy and Paris, which frankly pay terribly but you are supposed to just be happy you are in such a beautiful place, I guess.  I wish bidding wars were part of this procedure but in fact it is not.  Perhaps I could stir something up, but I believe I’m a bit delusional to think 2 schools are going to be that enamored of hiring a teacher in her 60s… A gal can dream, right?

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rotorua and Auckland Winter Garden

Rotorua is a city on the Northern Island of NZ that is the epicenter for the Maori culture.  We were lucky to be given a personal tour of the town by a former colleagues of mine who returned to their home there.  They were very welcoming and we saw a beautiful redwood forest (really wanted to break out in song with the "This Land is Your Land" but I restrained myself, it was so very peaceful), the thermal waters/springs/mud holes that Rotorua is so famous for, a great museum explaining both the geological phenomena that is Rotorua and also many things about the Maori culture, including a very interesting exhibit of portraits of the women's facial tattoos.  Some PICS HERE

Before leaving beautiful New Zealand we spent a day in Auckland, and one stop that provided a visual feast was the Winter Garden, although it was the beginning of summer and everything seemed to be pretty much in bloom.  I can only imagine that because there are several hot houses these plants are on display in the winter as well.  Lucky them.  It was so uplifting to see so much green and growth and color.  Pictures HERE.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Abel Tasman National Park: Views, Ferns, and Birds

Abel Tasman National Park is a New Zealand national park located between Golden Bay and Tasman Bay at the north end of the South Island. It was founded by an ornithologist for the purpose of preserving the habitat of several birds particular to the area.  This is the smallest of the national parks, but is designated as one of the 8 “great walks” of New Zealand and by many accounts the most stunning for view, flora and fauna.  We hiked for about 4 hours and enjoyed beautiful vistas, striking birds we’d never seen before that were not at all impressed by our presence, and ferns and moss of incredible variety.  This is a gorgeous, very varied country.

Enjoy some photos here, and would someone please identify the bird with the tuft on his head that hangs forward? 

I thought it was a whippoorwill, but I wasn’t even close.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Biking and Driving

We took an arduous but rewarding bike ride through Central Otago, riding on the former Central Otago Railway Line which has been repurposed as a bike trail, and then back to our car via a trail with a little more adventure and shade next to the river.  While the biking was challenging in the direct sun of the Southern Hemisphere in December, it was easy compared to my return to driving a car.
  After biking over 20km (see map) and getting the subsequent rubber legs, it was my turn to drive.  I was happy to take my turn, but I soon realized there were several factors that would make this more like a video game where you try not to die while things jump out of the bushes and from behind rocks, very big mountainous-size rocks.
First problem:  the mountains. Where does an Iowa gal get practice driving that crazy winding switchback pattern?  She doesn’t, unless she’s transported to a perfectly lovely scenic place and is enjoying herself until someone asks her to drive. It was the day after Christmas (Boxing Day to this part of the world) so I suppose the traffic could have been far worse, but that wasn’t the problem.  I hadn’t driven in the last 3.5 years so it all felt rather strange to begin with, what with no back-seat-driving to do. The combination of driving on the wrong side of the road, on strange, challenging terrain with signs that posted numbers requiring a mathematical formula to understand all resulted in a rather tense beginning.  Rather like I was hoping not to kill myself and the 2 family members on board, while dealing with a gash on the palm of my left hand (biking mishap/fall) and trying to remember that every time I tried to use the blinkers I was greeted by a wave from the wipers, which are where the blinkers belong. 

It was approaching sunset, well, kind of, because the sun doesn’t completely set here until about 10:15, but nonetheless the sun was in that dangerous place in the sky that creates glare wherever you look.  Plus my sunglasses don’t fit so well, so as I sweated out my anxiety, my sunglasses in turn slid down my nose until I was left defenseless and rather blind. Oh, and did I mention the gearshift is also on my left instead of my right?  I did a lot of shifting in nothing but air for the first few tense minutes, then would do it again with the real gearshift.  After a while it seemed less odd, but never normal. Whatever made the British so contrary so as to decide they should drive the opposite of everyone else, and then spread it around the world when they were busy grabbling land and settlements? Could there be a logical answer?  I think not.

Tui Birds, Lake Wakatipu and Christchurch Art Gallery

Merry Christmas from outside of Queenstown!  After a long bus ride from Christchurch 2 days ago we arrived at a beautiful place to stay about 8 miles outside of Queenstown that I found on airbnb.  We felt like we hit the jackpot with the gorgeous grounds full of garden paths and exotic birds, along with lovely welcoming hosts.  When I first walked up to the porch I heard a very long melodic bird call I’d certainly never heard before, and our host identified it as the tui bird, one of the famous birds of New Zealand.  She added that there is more to the song we can’t hear because it’s too high for human ears.  I made a 4-second video to share, but it's too much for this slow internet.  Maybe when I get back to China....that was a joke for those of you not living in China.

We’ve been very busy enjoying the absolutely stunning weather and scenery of the area, doing a long hike yesterday (  in the mountains around Lake Wakatipu, enjoying a charming small town general store in Glenorchy, then a great meal at Vudu CafĂ© and Larder in Queenstown. Today (Christmas Day) we had a lovely meal at Eichardt Hotel with soft-as-butter New Zealand lamb as the centerpiece.  After a rest we walked off our meal on another arduous hike (only 4 hours this time!) through some beautiful forested areas with lots of waterfalls and running water.

Tomorrow we are off to Clyde in Central Otago area to hopefully bike the Otago Central Rail Trail, which is a former rail way with the rails ripped up and the trail resurfaced for a great biking trail.  It’s been postcard picturesque here every day and the fresh air and blue skies and waters couldn’t be more lovely.  I can hardly remember where I used to live…

BTW, the day before we left Christchurch we visited an old department store to hear the wonderful boys choir sing again, then headed over to the container mall they have fashioned after the earthquake and finally to the fantastic modern art museum they reopened just the weekend before we arrived.  There was some fabulous art I couldn’t resist photographing to share with all, but especially my Iowa City sister, who loves all things artistic.  The wood engravings were some of my favorites.  Enjoy here:
NOTE:  This blog appears several days after its writing because of poor internet connection.