Depressed, much?

Here’s the school. Beautiful, no? You can’t see it from the photo, but there are fountains in front, too. The school is very concerned about appearances. I fear half my job will be monitoring student uniforms. This is the first time I’ll be teaching all subjects, not just English. I thought I was applying to be a specialty teacher, just Math and Science, but I’m a homeroom teacher. There’s been a lot of “miscommunication,” so I’m confused. VERY confused.


It’s been a rough start here in Bolivia. That’s always the case with a new school, but there’s so much more involved with this job. Soooooo many more things can go wrong. And they have. There’s also been several things that weren’t told to me ahead of time (cameras in the classroom) and some “miscommunication” (given the wrong start date, 36 students in class, not the 24 I was told in my interview). Why do these feel like lies?

But mostly I feel ignored. There’s been no orientation or plan to help me learn my job or the area, get communications services (phone/internet) or even get cash. All promised before I came. I didn’t even get a tour of the school. If my roommate Jade hadn’t helped me out, I would have just bought a ticket back to the states the first week.

At this point, I’m not sure that wouldn’t have been the best move.

FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL! Jade, Miguel and me. Fifteen minutes later, after we’d walked to school, we were already a sweaty mess.

When I arrived late at night on the 9th of January, 2 women were there to pick me up. So far, so good. I couldn’t exchange money at the airport (all kiosks were closed) and the ATM didn’t work. I was very clear to them about my need for local currency immediately, and for phone service for basic communication. No problem, they said! We could do both the next day. I talked by phone with the director that night. She promised to meet with me the very next day and make sure I had money, phone service and that we’d start working on my legal stuff right away (which is quite extensive here. I’ve already had 4 meetings with police/medical/immigration and will need at least 3 more).

But none of that happened. Jade, my new roommate got a text a few minutes after I was dropped off at the apartment saying I could “rest” for a day and they’d get back with me “later.” But “later” never came. I didn’t need to rest. I NEEDED MONEY FOR FOOD AND TRANSPORTATION. Jade contacted them. Nothing. She let me use her email to contact the school. No requests for assistance were answered. Jade had to walk me to the school, since I didn’t know where it was. Still, nothing. The director wasn’t there the rest of the week. I got the impression that if she didn’t care, no one else had to. I met my Coordinator. She was polite and friendly, but she wasn’t interested in me.

The school’s inner courtyard.

After a week–and my announcement that I clearly needed to give up and leave Bolivia–Jade took me to the bank to exchange cash and to a phone service provider to get a SIM card, data and phone service. Even if I’d known where to go, I couldn’t have done these appointments alone since I don’t speak much Spanish and I needed a Bolivian ID, which may take 45 days to get. We went back to the school, where I waited for an hour to meet the director, who wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to nicely I voice my complaints. I met my Coordinator again, gave her my new phone number, but she said she’d deal with me next week. (Even though she’d just said she had nothing to do). Late Friday night the director finally took notice of me—and that contact was particularly unpleasant.

The result was that Jade got in trouble for “taking responsibility for me” since it wasn’t her job. Go Figure.

This past week (week 3 in Bolivia) was my first at school. Teachers only. Students arrive February 5th (I assume. There’s no school calendar, yet) I hoped it might get better. , barely noticed me all week. After an initial teachers’ meeting my direct supervisor, my Coordinator, told me to go to my classroom and decorate it. No orientation. I didn’t know where my classroom was. I didn’t know what the criteria for “decorate” was. I had no idea what I was to use to decorate with!

To add insult to injury, the school shifted all the classes since last year, so all are mis-marked. Labels on doors don’t help you find the correct rooms now. After trying to figure out where to go and what to do, it became apparent that nothing inside the classrooms had been moved either. I had to move “my things” (not that I knew what that meant) from the “old” room to the “new” room.

My initial teacher meeting, which of course started late. Much was in Spanish, too.

The week’s highlights: Two major meetings were held in Spanish, something I was promised “never happens” because everyone is required to speak English at school. Though I had an interpreter for these meetings (never any other time), I’m sure I missed a LOT. The IT guy doesn’t speak English, but I needed my computer and phone set up for the school’s wifi and email. The supplies people and the copy department speak no English. Neither wanted to assist me, even though I qA using all the Spanish I know–and I know the names for the things I needed. So far, I’ve gotten nothing done through either, despite going through the correct channels to do so (and figuring those out wasn’t easy since I have little instruction). For example, I don’t have whiteboard markers, scissors, erasers—basic things I need for my classroom! The new HR manager speaks very little English. She has yet to reply to a single email. I met my assistant, who clearly didn’t want to work with a new teacher and has already described herself as “lazy.” Yes, I’m worried. When I ask anyone how something is done, the response is, “Same as last year” or “That’s in the rules manual.” I don’t know what was done last year. The rules manual for this year hasn’t been printed. We get 200 Bs (about $28.50US) to buy materials to decorate our classrooms. (It’s not enough, obviously.) That money can only be spent in one store. It was Wednesday before I had an address for the store, which is nowhere near the school. However, I couldn’t go without a school ID, which I won’t get until next week. Finally, the coordinator said I could use my passport as my ID. I went and was successful, but if there hadn’t happened to be two school teachers there to vouch for me, they wouldn’t have given me my things. (Bless them!!) I still don’t have all of the textbooks. The “annual” teaching plan doesn’t match the “bimester” teaching plan, and I’ve not been told which to follow.

And that’s just the highlights.

It was a rough week.

None of this was necessary. I was here for 2 weeks before teachers needed to report (mostly because they lied to me about the day I needed to report). That could have been a productive time. Now, when I need to be learning my new job, I’m spending 2-6 hours, every day, with the lawyer doing legal paperwork or getting measured for a school uniform or taking photos for IDs or tracking down the IT guy to give me the most horrible internet access since the days of dial up or setting up my new school email account. All of this could have been done in those first two weeks. They knew when I was coming. It wasn’t a surprise. And even though I don’t know what’s needed, I’m responsible for getting it all myself since there’s no plan, not even a list of what a new teacher needs to get done. Even when meetings are arranged for you, they are often canceled with little notice. For example, I had three appointments to be measured for a uniform before I actually met the tailor.

One of the hallways. There’s still a lot of maintenance in progress. Doesn’t look like it will all be done before the kids arrive. There’s also a pool and gym under construction, but no work has been done on it in “awhile.” Funding issues? I hope not.

Oh, and the overall political situation in Bolivia is far rockier than I’d been led to believe by internet sources. The current president looks like he’s developing a dictatorship and there have been two country-wide blockades of roads and services in protest during my short time here.

I had a candid talk with my Coordinator on Thursday about my situation and concerns. I hoped she understood that she had contributed to the situation and that she could make it better. She assured me the conversation would stay between us. The next day, HER boss came up to me and said that she had discussed my concerns with him. And people wonder where I get my trust issues?

My apartment and roommates are by far the best in 4 years of traveling. SO NATURALLY I HAVE TO MOVE. The school has “suddenly” decided that they need housing for new teachers! What a shock that the new teachers they recruited to come here and promised housing to, would actually need housing! (Sarcastic, much?) The condo I live in will be turned into a “boys” apartment and the new one will be the “girls.” Mid-week, was the first time I even knew of this possibility, but I was told then that I didn’t have to move. Yesterday, I was told I do. Why believe anything they tell me? And since the school doesn’t pay for my housing, this seems particularly insulting.

This is the school I actually applied to. They just teach English. The pay is worse and it’s a split shift, but likely it would have gone easier. Much easier. I have met Irma, a Lithuanian who’s been teaching in Spain for 12 years. She just moved here with her Bolivian husband. She is, of course, very beautiful and her Spanish and English are flawless. I would hate her if she wasn’t also so sweet, kind and funny. She and I have been paired with the poor lawyer who has had to take us to our police visits, Interpol and Immigration visits.
The director called me after I applied to this English school (back in August? September?) and talked me into the primary school job. That was my first mistake. While I’ve been asked to teach here part-time, in addition to teaching 4th grade (called year 5, here), I simply can’t. I’m barely keeping my head above water now. And it’s not an option to switch to this school instead.

We saw the new condo yesterday but there’s lots of work left to do—the kitchen appliances aren’t installed and walls weren’t done. The place is nice, but it’s not an improvement for me. In fact, I lose the pool here at the current condo. Obviously, there’s no move date, since the place isn’t ready. The school says 1wk (which would be the first day of classes). The owner says 2wks or more (no one thinks I know enough Spanish to understand her, I guess, so it’s OK to lie to me). There’s no furniture, kitchen items or accessories yet. NOTHING goes as promised here, so I have no expectation that this move will, either. It will be messy, disorganized and maddening. Promises will be made and most of them broken, which will only add to my anxiety and trust issues. The timing could not be worse, right at the beginning of school. I’m trying to learn a new job, new country, new city, new co-workers, and the names of my students (36 of them!!!!). I will get to keep Jade as a roommate (good), but I’ll lose Miguel (bad). A new, female teacher from Egypt will share a bathroom with me (who knows how that will go). Jade gets the master suite with private bath (and tub!), extra closets and a private balcony. She’s been very nice to me, and I’m glad this is an improvement for her. I just get a bedroom, closet and a shared bath. Same as now. It’s not better, it’s just another problem I wouldn’t have to deal with if there’d been advanced planning.

Trying to focus on the few positive things in my life: My parallel teachers (other year 5 teachers), Olga and Fabiola, and Fabiola’s assistant, Ingrid, are amazing. They have already helped me more than I can express—lending me decorating materials, giving information, helping me find things. KEEPING ME FROM LOSING MY MIND. My roommates, Jade and Miguel, despite their young ages, have been funny, welcoming and helpful. They even met me at the door with a tall, cold, adult beverage and pizza on Friday after I finished school, immigration and a supply trip. I really needed that.

Fernet is the local, popular alcohol. It’s an acquired taste. It’s like cough syrup from the 1960’s. They drink it with soda, often call Branca (the brand name) and cola. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to acquire this particular taste. And that’s coming from someone who likes Jagermeister.

I’m doing everything I know, but frankly, this has been the worst start yet—and it’s my 7th school, so not my first rodeo. Experience has taught me that as things start, they tend to continue.

I made a mistake in coming here. I’ve accepted that. Now what? I honestly don’t see any way that I can excel.

Depressed? Oh, yeah.

It begins! And it’s a rough start

The marker at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain.
The marker at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain.

For those just joining us, I’m about to hike the Appalachian Trail–Georgia to Maine, almost 2,200 miles.

Standing on top of Springer Mountain is awe inspiring…. and a bit humbling. Facing north is an unbroken footpath stretching all the way to Maine. It’s like being 8 years old, standing on top of a long slope after the first snowfall, a blanket of white stretching beyond, unsullied by a single footprint. Like a calendar without a single day crossed off.

For the next six months, time will be measured, not in minutes and hours, but in steps. The day’s difficulties will be rated by the mountain peaks I need to ascend, not the mountains of paperwork I have to turn in. While I have backpacked before, I know this will be new. This will be different. This is adventure. It will be difficult. It will be a privilege.

A fire the first night at Stover Creek Shelter was a pleasant surprise.
A fire the first night at Hawk Mountain Shelter was a pleasant surprise.

March 1: I had imagined what this day would be like. But it wasn’t like that. It was just another day. No hoopla, no feeling of grandness. It was good, but it doesn’t quite feel real. Yet. It was after 2p before my dear friend Michael and I we were at the top of Springer and I signed in at the resister. Michael drove me to the trail and hiked the first mile with me. Thank goddess for friends!

I started the day with one less toenail. An injury over a month ago didn’t seem so bad at the time. But putting on my socks this morning, Pop! Off it came.

I passed several day hikers going in the opposite direction, they looked at me oddly. I imagined that they were a bit in awe, as if it were obvious that this lone woman was starting a momentous thru hike. Only later did I realize that the right side of my face was smeared with the glaze from the donut holes I’d cramed into my mouth as I left Michael at the Springer parking lot. I only walked as far as Stover Creek shelter, mile marker 2.7. There are a dozen thru hikers here. My favorite is Rambo (who did 1,400 miles in 2012) and his partner Tim (who I’ve tried to call The One They Call Tim, after a Monty Python movie). They must be around 20, very laid back young men. There’s also Pack Rat who seems odd. He says this is his 3rd thru hike attempt and that he’s done all but the last 500 miles. But his gear is all new–he’s never even set up the hammock before and he claims his pack is 70+pounds. I am skeptical, but he’s told stories of running all the downhills, night hiking, falling snakes and taking 2 months of zero days. It’s hard to believe, but I’m in no position to call him a liar.

Cold, probably only 40 degrees F today and cloudy. Will drop well below freezing tonight. Adding layers to sleep in.

March 2: From Stover Creek shelter (2.8) to Hawk Mountain shelter (8.1).

Stover Creek shelter
Stover Creek shelter

The start of things is often messy. This hike is truly showing me my limitations. Today did not go well. I was up early enough, but had trouble with my stove and drank my tea lukewarm. Then when I went to pack up the tent I barely had time to take a step to the side when I threw up. Five times! I felt fine after, but knew I didn’t have enough liquid for the day in my system. Yet I was afraid to do more than sip water. I did fine hiking until I hit an uphill patch, when I moved pitifully slow. I got to Hawk Mountain shelter and decided to cook my big meal and take a rest. After an hour and a half, I felt better and decided to put in 2 more miles. But I wasn’t paying attention coming out of the shelter. The AT turns, but I followed an unmarked trail straight up a huge hill. I went a mile before I realized it, walked around trying to find the trail. Finally gave up and retraced my steps. Energy and self esteem depleted, I decided to stay put for the night. This is a rough start. I was sick last week, but hoped it was only nerves. Today it seems like more than that. No energy. Can’t eat or drink much at one time. Must go slow. Good thing I have an extra month to hike.

Decided to take a nap. Sipping water, but can’t eat. Must be 3 dozen hikers here. Dinosaur is from Germany. A NC couple are Columbus and Queen. I have mild diarrhea overnight, fortunately before the rain started.

March 3: Hawk Mountain Shelter (8.1) to Horse Gap.

Hawk Mountain Shelter.
Hawk Mountain Shelter.

This has not been my best day ever. Heavy rain last night and by mistake I left 2 shirts outside in my vestibule So it was wet clothes and a wet tent to pack up this morning. Rained until noon and then the temps dropped. It was heavy fog, so nothing was getting dry. Still not able to eat or drink much at one time. Moving very slowly. But I threw in the towel at Horse gap when my pack broke. I was able to call for a shuttle to the outfitters and hostel at Mountain Crossing. Time to re-assess my gear and replace the pack. It’s been painful and ill-fitting.

A young man named Will helped me pick out a new, better fitting pack and went through all my gear. I’m sending home about 3 pounds of stuff! Did not need to resupply because I’ve barely eaten anything, but did order a pizza, take a shower and did laundry. It’s the little things that bring joy!

If I were a purist I would take a shuttle back to Horse Gap tomorrow. But I’m not going to. I’ve done this section lots of times, the last time in November. Gonna skip it. As slowly as I’m moving I could use the extra time.

I’ve been sick. I’ve had to replace gear. It’s colder and wetter than I’d expected (mostly because I planned to star a month later). I know this sounds like a very bad beginning, but I’m not daunted. I’ll make the adjustments I need and keep moving forward! I believe I can go all the way to Maine. The only way to know is to try.