The last Colombia episode

I’m back where this Colombia chapter of my life began, sweltering in Santa Marta wishing the neighbours would keep their music to themselves.

20180102_175457.jpgAfter 4 years and 7 months in Bogota, and a total of 5 years and 3 months in Colombia, I’m heading back to Australia, back to where I came from, downsizing from a city of nearly 10 million inhabitants to a tiny speck on the map with maybe 200 people living there. I’m going back to a country where I know how things work, where I can communicate in my native tongue and to a place where there is peace and quiet.

I’m not going alone; Edwin and D are migrating with me as they have permanent residency visas as a result of the incredibly detailed partner visa application we submitted in December 2016. However this time, the shoe will be placed on the other foot. They will be the ones seeking my help to interpret and navigate interactions with institutions. They will be the ones grasping for the correct words and tone to use for the situation. They will be the ones missing things they love the most, apple flavoured soft drink, street food like empanadas and salchipapa, being a short walk from a corner store, not having to remember anyone’s name as you can call them amigo/a, vecino/a or Señor/a and being a long, expensive series of flights away from family.

It’s going to be a new experience for all of us, as certainly these past five years immersed in another culture, another language and with a family have changed me. I’m reading Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race to try and learn what life in Australia is like for people with brown skin, so I can be prepared for what D might find at school and in the street. At the same time I’m desperately hoping that my part of rural Australia is more welcoming than I fear them to be and that D’s Colombian nationality and chocolate coloured skin won’t elicit bullying taunts from others.

I’m still excited, even if it is a hard road ahead.

Now that I’ve finished work and the stress of moving out of our apartment, deciding what will go with us in the nine suitcases we are taking to Australia, selling off furniture and giving away things and finally selling the car, has passed, in addition to my curiosity about the move for my boys, I’m free to think about the things I’m most looking forward to. Family outings on the Murray River, teaching Edwin and D to waterski, renewing old friendships and getting involved in my community, camping trips and being more involved in D’s school and extra curricular activities.

When I think about these things, I feel like my life has sort of been on hold – despite living half a decade in Colombia, having a great, career-oriented job, making wonderful friends and travelling to amazing places. I never came here indefinitely. I always knew I would return to Australia, or go somewhere else. So perhaps with that always in the back of my mind, I never truly put down the type of roots you do when you’re planning on staying. I barely have any female Colombian friends, I’ve never once looked at apartments or houses to buy. I always said no to D’s pleas for a dog because getting a pet to Australia from Colombia is an exhausting process that takes a long time and a lot of money. When my last visa expired, I was eligible for permanent residency, but instead renewed for a temporary visa only.

Ever since my first day in Colombia, surrounded by suitcases full of belongings with which to start a new chapter, the suitcases have been kept at the ready for this day, the end of the chapter and my return to Australia.

Edwin delights in telling people, usually after they’ve made some comment about me speaking Spanish well, that I even break out in typical costeño speak “no joda, que vaina” being one of them. But a few local idioms parroted out don’t mean that you belong there or are comfortable. I’m sure Edwin will feel the same in Australia, however the move is more indefinite and there’s a greater purpose to the move for him. It’s an opportunity to receive a fair wage for the work he does, but importantly, it’s for D to have more opportunities in his life. One thing all parents do is make sacrifices for the sake of their children.

Coming back to the coast from my little third floor ivory tower in the north of Bogota I’m once again surrounded by sad things. People without work struggling to feed their families and get proper health care, people with jobs who are woefully underpaid and exploited, young women without children who stay at home just to cook lunch and wash their men’s clothes, pregnant underage girls, cheating partners, grisly close up photos of murdered people on the front page of the newspaper, hearing that people I know have met with violent deaths, people who have to flee their homes because their own neighbours threaten them and so on. In Bogota I was shielded from most of this, or was at least at a very long arm’s length away. In Santa Marta, the whiff of danger and stench of depravity manifests in fearfulness.

My Bogota experience is such a polar opposite, that if I only had that to go on, everything would be amazing and incredible (except perhaps the traffic). But a fancy suburb of Bogota is not representative of the whole country, it’s just the cosmetic enhancement on the surface, whereas here in Santa Marta, I’ve punctured the skin.

Edwin is happy to be here, although he’s feeling sentimental and nostalgic because our departure date is just around the corner. But I’m happy to be going because I’m too delicate for this perpetual onslaught of a human condition that I don’t want to accept.

 

Ashes and crosses

Today is one of the strangest days of the year in Colombia and every year it catches me off guard. 

On my way into the shop at lunch time today, I noticed a woman with a dirty face walking towards the shop from the other direction. She caught my attention because the only Colombians who go around in public with dirty faces are homeless people who also mutter to themselves. 

It wasn’t until I saw her up close that I realised the dirty black smudge on her forehead was an ashen cross. 

Today is Ash Wednesday, miércoles de las cenizas, and so the Catholics go to church to be blessed by the priest who dips his fingers in charcoaly ashes and paints crosses on the foreheads presented to him. Or at least I think that’s what happens (note that no actual research took place in the writing of this post). 

The first year I had no idea what was going on until I asked Edwin later on, and still every year. Now every year, the first ashen cross on a forehead I see I remember, and then forget until the days rolls around the next. It’s something that strikes me as so unusual and yet so mundane in the Colombian reality that it just gets bundled up with all the other normal eccentricities of this country. 

You have to wear the ashen cross for the whole day, so as I walked back to my building that is amongst a bunch of office towers, every second or third person I saw dressed was dressed in their impeccable business suit with a smudged cross on their face.  

Two people who stepped into the lift with me had clearly received their blessings and didn’t appear to think that this might help or hinder any chance of a promotion at work. 

Last year I remember taking a photo of the news reader whose forehead was emblazoned with an ashen cross. Even on national news! 

Even more unbelievable is seeing the President of Colombia with his blessed forehead out and about performing his regular activities. Edwin was at the ANATO tourism event today and managed to get a selfie-style photo with the President in it. (If you’re not familiar with the Colombian President and the latest Nobel Peace prize winner, you may need to zoom in on the grey haired man below to see what I mean) 

I guess I can add this to my list of the little things about Colombia that I’ll miss when we move, the surprise, confusion and curiosity of miércoles de las cenizas

Selso

Tonight in the urban jungle of Bogotá I was walked home by Selso, a Kogi from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Selso caused a few heads to turn in his traditional all white clothing carrying his poporo and wiping the saliva and coca leaf covered stick over it to make it grow. It’s not often you see indigenous people from the Caribbean Coast in Bogotá, and even rarer walking the streets of residential suburbs with a costeño and a foreigner.  

It’s Selso’s first time in Bogotá. He’s a guide at Turcol and is here to talk to people about Ciudad Perdida at the ANATO travel show this week.

Seeing the insult, not the silver lining

I had to apply for a new visa last week. It was three years since receiving my last visa and so I had forgotten about this particular niche of Colombian bureaucracy which is a jab-cross punch combination to anyone’s sanity.

As per usual, the process at the visa office was fairly straight-forward and civilised. You have your turn and a fairly comfortable seat to sit in while you wait for your number to come up and so begin the toing-and-froing with the officer who calls your number. However, once you get your visa you then get hit by the more powerful cross punch at Migracion Colombia, and this is where your day can go seriously downhill as you face unruly herds of foreigners, impatient and hungry children and battle to find a seat while you complete your visa registration and apply for a new cedula (identity card).

This is also where I made a beginner’s misstep that I really should have perfected by now.

On arrival at Migracion Colombia’s offices, a 10 minute walk from the visa office, I elbowed my way to the front door to gain entrance. After arbitrarily checking my bag, and more diligently checking my passport, the security guard asked me if I was pregnant and cast his eyes towards my stomach, whose size was enhanced by the knotted tie of my wrap dress. Stunned by this comment, that is only crude and an insult when it is on the wrong side of correct, I responded “No” and he let me through the door with a wave towards the darkened interior where the end of the line was lost somewhere in the crowd.

Only after squishing past him and seeing exactly how long the line was did I realise my error.

In Colombia in banks and public offices there are preferential lines for the disabled, the elderly and for pregnant women. When there are massive queues, having one of these priority client tickets is like having a winning raffle ticket, you wave it about madly to get up front and collect your prize before they draw another number out. I had been offered one of these and in all my naïve honesty I refused it, taking the guard’s comments as an insult rather than as a golden opportunity.

I spent the next 20 minutes in the queue to get my turn number kicking myself.

I spent the following 30 minutes waiting in the scrabble for the document check shaking my head at my stupidity.

And I spent the 2 hours and 45 minutes after that stewing over every tiny detail of that interaction with the guard as I saw other previously non-priority numbers had been upgraded to priority and catapulted ahead of me and as the officials took their lunch breaks leaving only a couple of desks open over two hours to process all these foreigner’s visa registrations, cedula applications and other varied processes.

I was tempted to get up and leave, but then once I’d gotten to a certain point of waiting, there was no return. So I sucked it up and instead of taking just the morning as I had planned for, it took almost my whole day and I arrived at work well beyond late, beaten, exhausted and hangry.

If I was a little smarter what would I have done better?

  1. Feigned pregnancy and taken the free priority pass
  2. Done the whole visa + cedula thing on a day other than Monday (at the beginning of the school year when there were dozens of the Ministry of Education’s volunteer English teachers’ visa applications being lodged)
  3. Separated the two processes, visa one day, registration and cedula the next. It also would have helped getting to Migracion Colombia for the visa registration and cedula process at the beginning of the day before the wave of new visa recipients come in from the visa office.

So this morning, as I planned to go pick up my new cedula, I thought about things a bit harder. I rode my bike to Migracion Colombia, grinning as I whizzed past all the cars in banked up, peak hour traffic and delighting in the beautiful morning sunshine. I arrived at 8:10am and the office was virtually empty of any clients, it even looked spacious in comparison to Monday week ago. I went straight to the window to pick up my shiny new cedula and within a minute I was skipping out the doors and getting on my bike again. Already the memory of the previous stressful experience at the same office fading away so that if I come back in another three years time, I’ll probably be in another charmed state and repeat all of my above mistakes again.

 

Making Long Term Plans

As 2016 drew to a close, Edwin and I were frantically organising the documents and their respective translations to English to start our journey to Australia.

Although I’m not sure you could really call it the start of our journey to Australia. I think it actually started somewhere on the Panamericana highway between Ipiales and Pasto on the first of January in 2016 where I, hit with the full force of nostalgia of New Years Day in my home town, suggested that it might be time to make plans to move our family to Australia. Edwin agreed and we decided to save up the hefty application fee during 2016 and apply by the end of October.

Although our timelines blew out a bit, we were able to submit the application before Christmas in a frenzy of stitching together pdfs of the original documents and their translations so they wouldn’t take up so much space in the allotted 60 documents per person in the application, naming all the files in an orderly fashion, creating spreadsheets to keep track of the documents uploaded and to be uploaded for each of us and a whole lot of printing and scanning so that everything could be attached to the electronic application – since we are now well and truly in the 21st century and you are no longer required to stuff a tree in an envelope and send it to the immigration office.

Even though we had most of our documents ready, it still required four full days to attach them correctly to Edwin’s partner application with dependent child included and it was a juggling act with our Christmas holiday plans and my studies also on the go.

Now that we’ve submitted the application, and Edwin and D have had their biometric data collected, we sit tight and wait for any messages of additional information required, the details to schedule the medical exam and hopefully, hopefully, within 9 to 12 months, that we receive a joyous email advising of a visa being granted so we can move to Australia.

Nine to twelve months seems like a long time, and it is. A baby can be conceived and born in the time it takes to receive notification of me being able to live in my home country with my family who happen to be of another nationality. For many people  in a similar situation looking at the same visa type, this timeframe is probably torturously long. For others of other nationalities trying to apply for partner visas in countries with different restrictive requirements (I’m looking at you, UK) it might seem but a tiny hurdle in comparison to restrictive eligibility criteria.

For us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy our (hopefully) final year in Colombia (for now, at least). We can really make the most of our time and lifestyle here. D can drink Postobon manzana as much as he wants (I’m too afraid to tell him that soft drink flavour doesn’t exist in Australia), we can eat delicious pan de bonos, enjoy the freedom that walking to work allows, be grateful to have a cleaning lady come to our apartment once per week, look at the cerros every day and feel the inspiration of living in the mountains, spend time with friends and Colombian family and visit places on our Colombia bucket list.

Now that we’ve made our large, non-refundable investment in moving to Australia and I talk to more people about it, many are asking me why are we moving if we enjoy a greater disposable income here than we will likely have in Australia, if we do truly enjoy our lives here and I’m not debilitated by homesickness. In other words, we’re on a good wicket, why change that?

True, they are all valid points. But so is the fact that I will have spent over 5 years living here – which I consider a decent chunk of time, Edwin genuinely wants to move to Australia and be closer to my family and also to have a fairer earning capacity in his chosen career, it is a good time for D to move and learn English and have better education opportunities than he might have here and really I am keen for a little bit of that Australian lifestyle, freedom and space that I love.

We will always have the opportunity to come back to Colombia at some point in the future if we decide to (if my Colombian visa officer is reading this, please do give me a new TP-10 partner visa tomorrow) and perhaps we may even live somewhere else in the world. Who knows?

All I know is that we are half way through our two-year plan to move to Australia and Australia is where we are keen to be for the foreseeable future. The journey ahead won’t be without heartaches, tough times and likely tears, but there will also be adventure, opportunities and new family memories for us to make together.

 

 

 

Spot the difference

20161008_142411.jpg
Spot the difference, real vs fake (hint: bottom 2 are fake)

Learning to spot the difference between real and fake bank notes in Colombia is an easy but important skill to have.

Regardless of how easy it is to spot the difference (and it is very easy by feeling the thicker paper and the pixelated print job), there’s a degree of difficulty added in. You can be awesome at knowing the difference and seeing the difference, but then environmental factors come in to play, which actually means you can get it wrong and end up losing money. Which is what happened to me today.

You see, when you are distracted or are just trusting, or naive, you are much more susceptible to falling victim to the bank note switcharoo.

Here’s how it happens.

You get to your destination and pay the taxi driver the fare. In my case, the fare was $6,900 and I handed over a $5000 and $2000 peso note, said thanks and then glanced down at my bag to pick it up and depart the taxi. I’d performed the transaction in a manner of ‘keep the change’.

Then the driver says, “This note is not good, please give me another one.”

I looked at the $5000 peso note he was giving me back, and sure enough, a single glance tells me it is fake.

I am surprised. I received it as change from Juan Valdez, and cashiers in stores are very vigilant about receiving fake notes. I don’t have another five thousand peso note to give him.

I then give the taxi driver a $20,000 peso note. He takes it and then says “Ufff, can you give me something smaller.” This is not an unreasonable request, although most taxi drivers can change a $20,000 note. I start looking in my purse and take the note back and shove it in.

I say I only have $4000 pesos. Taxi driver says “That’s okay, just give me that.”

I’m a little dubious about him accepting well below the fare, but give him the two $2000 peso notes and leave the taxi.

I was meeting friends for coffee so I showed them the fake $5000 peso note “Look what I got today!”

Later, as we were paying, I took out a $20,000 peso note out of my purse and as soon as I unfolded it, I knew it was fake too.

Scammed! I felt so silly and couldn’t believe that I’d gotten two fake notes totalling AUD$11.30 (a day’s minimum wage in Colombia).

In essence, the taxi driver had switched both the $5000 and $20,000 notes I’d given him for fake ones. He fooled me twice over, first by pretending I’d given him the fake fiver, and secondly by pretending he didn’t have change for a $20,000 note and switching my real note for a fake one.

I’ve only received a fake note once before, a couple of years ago when I got a $2000 peso note, also from a taxi driver.

Mistake #1 – taking a taxi in the street. Immediately upon doing this, you should pay a lot more attention to what’s going on. If you use a taxi app the risk of being fleeced is minimised and you can make a complaint because you have a record of the driver’s details. I should have taken note of the licence plate of the taxi I got in the street.

Mistake #2 – believing that I’d given him a fake $5000. No sir, that was not the case. You know when you have a fake note in your wallet. While you might not notice it when you receive it, you always spot the difference later when you go to use it for a payment.

Mistake #3 – not being on alert when the taxi driver handed me back money a second time after the first “this is fake” pass and paying closer attention to what was going on. Each time he only handed back one note so there wasn’t anything to compare between a fake and a real one.

Mistake #4 – thinking I’d been given the fake notes by a chain store (that had also given me a pamphlet about the security features of the new $50,000 notes about to be introduced, how ironic). If this kind of thing happens in a taxi, it’s far more likely that’s the origin of the fake notes.

So the take home lesson is be alert, be vigilant, and doubly so if you are a foreigner. It’s 78 days until Christmas, so robberies are going to go up and there are probably going to be more fake note scams going around. Keep your cash safe people!

 

Would you like a side of crazy with your order?

I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in San Francisco last week for work to visit my colleagues based there.

It was the first time I’ve spent anything longer than an airport connection in the US since the six months I spent in LA and cross-country road tripping in 2011, and my first time in San Fran since it was part of a two-day stop on my year long travels in 2004.

As is often the case when I’m in an English-speaking country again, I found myself speaking to people in Spanish, especially at the airport when they would ask me something and I would respond “Sí”. I also started speaking to my colleagues in Spanish at some point and had to go back to the beginning and start again in English.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at how many people I heard speaking Spanish in the streets in San Francisco. I’m guessing there were lots of tourists visiting as I saw lots of families shopping heavily (because I spent all my spare time in the shops too!), but then the cleaning ladies at my hotel were speaking Spanish and the doorman at the office building greeted me in Spanish after he learned I live in Colombia. My first night was the night of the Copa America match where Colombia unfortunately lost to Chile and I saw people in yellow Colombian fútbol shirts pass by in the street.

I was surprised to find that in summer the weather was going to be around 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, the same as Bogota’s year-round temperature, but unlike Bogota where the four seasons in one day stays on repeat, it was bright and sunny (unusually lovely weather according to my friends in San Fran).

Anytime I go home to Australia or visit other Westernised countries now, I always feel guilty about putting toilet paper in the toilet instead of the bin. I’m not really sure how come in Latin America the plumbing system fails when a small wad of paper enters it, but it takes awhile to break that mentality and I always end up thinking about it for a few seconds every time I go to the bathroom.

I also suffer from nervous tipping syndrome. I’m not sure how to calculate the tip and how to avoid offending. Again, I had forgotten that in the US the published prices exclude tax, and that also needed to be taken into consideration. I couldn’t just pull out a $1 note to pay for the magnet which cost 99 cents because the final register price was $1.08. Americans must be excellent at maths with all these calculations to do to figure out the real price of something.

But I would have to say that the most confronting part of being in San Francisco, was seeing the sheer number of homeless and mentally ill people in the city streets. I was overwhelmed by the number of people talking to themselves or with someone not visible to everyone else because it would have been every second block or so.

In Bogota there are a lot of beggars, a lot of homeless people and a lot of mentally ill people in the streets. While I don’t see it often in the area where I live and work, I see it frequently in other parts of Bogota. On my last two visits back to Melbourne, I also noticed a larger number of people begging and living in the city streets than I ever recall seeing when I lived there.

But I have never seen a person shooting up in the middle of the day in the middle of the city. I have never seen a person taking a dump beside a small plaza of people eating their lunches. They were things I saw during the two lunch breaks I had in San Francisco.

On my final evening, I had dinner with some friends of mine who I hadn’t seen since I was living in Los Angeles, a friend from my hometown and his fiancee. She is an emergency room doctor at a hospital in downtown San Francisco, and when I mentioned the number of crazy people I’d seen and how shocked I’d been, she explained that San Francisco is a sanctuary city. It is where many people from across the states who are living with mental and drug abuse issues come due in some part to a more liberal and tolerant society.

My friend said that she will often see patients come into emergency who had literally just gotten off a Greyhound bus and arrived in San Francisco. And there are others that she sees on a fairly regular basis coming in and out of the emergency ward. It’s really sad.

Returning to Colombia I told Edwin about what I had seen on the streets of San Francisco. He couldn’t believe what I was describing. He hasn’t been to the US yet, so his perceptions are those that are typical for Colombians based on what is shown in the media. He has this perception of the US being clean, organised, full of opportunity, without corruption and without the poverty issues that Colombia has, with a far more advanced society and with access to programs and support for vulnerable communities.

I’m not sure if destroying Edwin’s image of the US is a good thing or not, but one thing is for sure, there is the good, the bad and the sad in all places.

Chinatown in San Francisco
Chinatown in San Francisco

Just put a little stone under your tongue

“A what?!” I exclaimed, stopping in my tracks and turning to Edwin at my side.

“A little stone,” he repeated calmly.

We were walking in the centre of Bogota from the Flea Market in the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogota carpark along the Carrera 7 in search of pan de bono to snack on when I started complaining of having a stitch in my side. I’m not really sure how it got there, because I wasn’t exerting myself any more than a slow stroll through a shopping centre, but it was grabbing at me below my ribs.

It was then that I learned the word for a stitch is vaso and along with that new tidbit came a ridiculous-sounding home remedy. Edwin had just told me that to cure myself of the stitch I needed to put a pebble under my tongue.

I looked at him disbelievingly. How could putting a pebble under your tongue fade the pain of a stitch? I also wondered how I hadn’t heard this before, but Colombia is such a hotbed of superstitions and home remedies you could never claim to learn them all.

Edwin asked D to corroborate his story, and after a bit more feeding of parts of the story, D acknowledged that yes, if he had a stitch he knew that putting a little stone under his tongue would cure him.

I’ve gotten much better at just accepting some things since moving to Colombia, so my challenge back to Edwin was where was I supposed to find a pebble that I would be able to put in my mouth. We were walking along dirty streets that no one in their right mind would dare to stoop down, pick something up and put in their mouth after only a cursory wipe down with their own saliva. It’s the kind of street where a mum would just throw the baby’s dummy out if it fell on the ground, there would be no picking up, sucking on it and stuffing it back into baby’s mouth.

He shrugged, and I said meanly “So I’m just supposed to carry a pebble with me in case I get a stitch?”

The stitch eventually passed and so did my memory of the remedy until I was talking to colleagues over lunch and I remembered to ask them if they’d ever heard of a home remedy involving a pebble under the tongue. They hadn’t, nor had they ever heard anything about a cure for stitches. I figured that it was a costeño home remedy, not one shared by the rolos of Bogota.

I got the chance to test out the pebble under the tongue theory yesterday as we hiked to some waterfalls outside of Bogota. On our way back to the car we had to climb a punishingly steep hill, and at the top I felt the sharp pang of a stitch. Being on a gravel road there were lots of pebbles available, so I bent over to pick up a small stone.

As I was trying to give it a little spit wash, Edwin opened the water bottle and poured it over my hand, providing a much better wash for the stone that while I could feel the dirt crunch in my teeth was a more palatable type of dirty than the streets of Bogota.

I expected it to work instantly, of course. Perhaps more strange was that I actually believed that it would work. Edwin is quite a persuasive orator and I had come to believe that in the face of a stitch, all I needed was a pebble.

“It’s not working, I can still feel the stitch,” I stated, disappointed.

“Just give it some time,” Edwin responded, keen to keep moving and not have all the other passing walkers stare and wonder what his weirdo foreigner was on about. I forced him to take a photo of the stone under my tongue so I could post it here, but lucky for all of us, it didn’t show the stone, so there is no gaping dentist’s-view of my mouth for you to be grossed out by, because really, that would have been stretching the relationship.

I started walking again, this time downhill and over time the stitch faded. I think it faded mostly because that’s the normal course of these things, not because I was sucking on a rock under my tongue.

So the pebble under the tongue cure for stitches has been debunked, but if you want to give it a try, I’m not about to stop you from looking like an even stranger foreigner.

Have you heard of any other Colombian home remedies for common ailments? I’d love to hear about them.

The pebble I tested the stitch theory on
This pebble has been proven to not work at stopping a stitch, no matter what they might tell you.

Remembering High School Maths

Maths problem solving and equationsD’s maths teacher sent through ten maths problems for him to solve over the weekend, and helping him with this has taken me back to my maths education at high school.

I never liked maths. I was always a word kind of person, enjoying English the most out of all of my subjects (although I never really liked the required reading texts much). I always struggled with maths and the different concepts presented, possibly helped along in no small part by the belief that I wasn’t a maths person. In Year 7 the problem sheets we were given for homework were always difficult and challenging but being the kind of student I was, I hated getting red crosses for anything so diligently put in the effort to solve them correctly.

Despite not liking maths and not considering myself good at it, I got excellent grades until Year 11 when we were able to choose our subjects. At Year 11 level there were two levels of maths, Further Maths, which was dubbed veggie maths, and Maths Methods, which was far more technical and demanding. My friends were all science-maths types and they convinced me in joining them in Maths Methods. From the very beginning that was a bad idea. I was in a class with all the kids who went on to become engineers and scientists, people for whom complex mathematical equations would be part of their university degrees. I had no such ambitions and really should have taken veggie maths along with the other students who were aiming for business degrees.

My Year 11 Maths Methods class became hell and I the demon who terrorised it. I mostly copied the work from my friends, still not understanding anything or how it was applicable in the real world. I spent great chunks of time distracting other students, which for my goody-two-shoes student persona was a huge departure from my reputation at school and I developed a bad attitude. In one particular class, a fellow student complained to the teacher that my wandering around the classroom and loud voice was distracting so the teacher gave me an ultimatum, to sit down and focus or leave the classroom. So I defiantly packed up my books and chose to leave the class, surprising everyone including the teacher who still considered me a responsible student.

I do not know how I managed to pass the year, but as it came to selecting subjects for the final year of school, I was not swayed by my friends’ encouragement to continue with Maths Methods, that I would make it through. So I dropped down to Further Maths at Year 12 level and discovered an interest in maths I never knew I had. Maybe it was the wonderful teacher, maybe it was being back in an environment where I understood the mathematical concepts or maybe it was because I could apply percentages and probability and the like to real life needs for problem solving. I aced the class and ended up with the best Further Maths score from my school, 49 out of 50, which equated to getting a couple of questions wrong on the end of year exam and was way higher than any of my other preferred subjects. Only years later when I organised an event of the Premier’s VCE Awards for my state celebrating excellence by giving awards to the students who received study scores of 50 out of 50 did I realise just how well I had done.

Nowadays I rely on Excel formulas for most of my maths problems, but that interest in percentages, probability and statistics remains. So helping D with his homework on fractions is interesting and something that I get. Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t get it.

I had printed out the sheet of problems from the teacher and left it for him to work on yesterday morning while attending an Escuela de Padres (Parents’ School) on values at his school. I was in a bit of a bad mood about this, as I usually am regarding Escuelas de Padres, and especially since they set it for a long weekend and with mandatory attendance, although there weren’t many parents there.

I came home to find that D hadn’t done the maths homework because he didn’t understand what to do. So this morning we sat down to the first three problems.

“If Juan, Antonio and Carlos each received 12, 36 and 48 respectively on the test out of a maximum 96, what fraction did they each receive.”

Cool! I thought. We had discussed fractions expressed as percentages yesterday while cooking lunch when I asked him to fill the saucepan 3/4 full and I checked to see that he had understood.

Unfortunately he still couldn’t work it out as I explained the problem and what he needed to do. I wrote the equations he needed to do with long division (something I never ever understood and cannot help him with, but D seems to be good at long division). He eventually solved the problem and I said how he could learn little shortcuts to help, things like how 96 is close to 100 and 48 close to 50, so 48 should be about half of 96 and that you can figure this out at a glance if you use these kinds of logic tricks.

We moved onto the second question about needing 1/8 of a gallon of paint diluted in 1/16 of thinner to paint 1 door, and therefore how much is needed to paint 3 doors. This also escaped him and we spent a good 15 minutes on it with diagrams of bottles broken into eighths and sixteenths to colour in the levels.

The third question was much more difficult, but structured in a way of being able to check your answer doing a few additional equations, yet my patience evaporated as no amount of explanation seemed to help him. I guess the additional check equations confused him rather than helped and he then couldn’t go back and put his finger on which one was the answer to the question.

So while he copies out the answers to the first three questions on a fresh sheet, trying to remember exactly which scratchings on the scrap paper are the relevant ones, I sit here typing in my blog about the time I hated maths, hoping to soothe my impatience because we still have another seven questions to go.