education 200: avoiding scammers at the Pyramids

In the Fall of 2011 Jessie and I were fortunate enough to add on a week’s trip in Egypt to the end of our Italy/Spain vacation. By the end of the week we really grew to like Egypt, and we hope that we might go there again some day. Cairo has a strange feeling to it. On the one hand we were extremely conspicuous, so all eyes were on us wherever we went. But on the other hand so many people were so welcoming and friendly that we didn’t mind the attention too much.

Of course, when you hear the word “Egypt” the first thing you probably think is ‘The Pyramids.” That’s exactly what we thought too, so we decided to spend a whole day discovering these ancient structures. Luckily, our friend was able to set us up with a taxi driver who’d drive us around all day for about $25, so we didn’t have to worry about transportation. He didn’t speak or understand a word of English, but through a translator we expressed to him that we wanted to go to the Step Pyramid and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The custom in Egypt is that the man rides in the passenger seat while women ride in the back, so I helped Jessie into the back and then took shotgun.

Our driver was a 50-something man with an agreeable personality. He was constantly trying to communicate with me and when it became clear to him that I had no idea what he was talking about he’d laugh and pat my hand and say “Good.” He maneuvered the traffic like a pro. We passed donkey-drawn carts full to the brim with vegetables. Children with dirty faces sat atop the pile and beamed at us with half-toothed smiles. An endless sea of palm trees lining the road whipped by us for half an hour until a break in the trees revealed the unmistakeable outline of the Step Pyramid.

If you ever visit Egypt I recommend that you read about the common scams that tourists face. I was so glad that Jessie and I had meticulously studied our Lonely Planet guide on this topic. At the Step Pyramid we paid the entrance fee and walked through the museum at the visitor’s center. Then our driver took us up to the base of the pyramid structure. It was very empty and we hesitantly made our way up a path. We hadn’t been walking more than a minute when a man popped out of nowhere, looked at my camera, and offered to take a picture of us in front of the pyramid. I was caught off guard and I accepted. As he took several snapshots Jessie poked me in the ribs and reminded me that tour guides here don’t ask if you want their services. They follow you around and offer information for everything you look at. When you are ready to leave they remind you of all the things they did for you and ask for baksheesh – a “tip” – and if it’s not enough money they’ll try to guilt you into giving more. So after giving my camera back he hovered around us and starting talking about anything my eyes landed on. He was very good. But I told him several times that I didn’t want a tour and eventually he left when I pressed a few Egyptian Pounds into his hand. The Step Pyramid was pretty impressive and we basically had it all to ourselves, so I definitely recommend going to check it out.

Soon we were both hot and getting anxious to see the main pyramids. We jumped back in the taxi and made our way to Giza. As we drove back through Cairo the iconic three pyramid tips poked above the skyline. We were so excited! But when our driver dropped us off in the middle of a street and pointed us to the ticket booth our hearts sank. Our driver had apparently brought us to the back entrance, which was a dark unmarked trailer. There was no writing on or near it to identify it as the entrance. It looked so completely sketchy that we had to ask our driver several times to make sure it was the right place. When we stepped up to the barred window an unsmiling face just stared back at us. “Is this the entrance to the pyramids?” I asked timidly. The woman showed me the official seal on the pass to let me know it was legitimate. I paid the money and they opened the door to let us in the trailer. Inside two security officers inspected our bags and patted us down before pointing us toward the rear door.

I took one step out the door and was stopped by a man who demanded to see our passes. Once again, I was so glad I’d read up about scams. The most common scam at the Great Pyramids is that a tour guide will pretend he is a park ranger and ask to see your ticket. When you give it to him he pockets it and proceeds to lead you around the complex. He won’t return your ticket until you pay him for the tour. So when this guy blocked my path and said, “Ticket please,” I stepped right around him and replied, “No.” He didn’t try to stop us. I felt so cool!

We walked around the complex for the next two hours, taking photos of the Sphinx and the three pyramids. During these hours we never went more than ten minutes without someone trying to sell us a headdress or a camel ride or give us a tour. We wondered about taking an official tour that went up inside the Great Pyramid, but after walking around the entire site we realized that we’d have to finagle with a bunch of tour guides in order to do it. We decided it was’t worth it.

As we walked along a kid no older than 10 approached us with his wares. He’d probably just been allowed to go off on his own to hawk, but he talked just as smoothly as all the others. We thought he was pretty cute. At one point he even said to me, “Is this your wife? You’re a very lucky man!” I laughed at this totally not ten-year-old thing to say. Jessie looked at him and said, “You’re pretty good at this!” For a second his guard was down and we could see he was flattered by the compliment before he snapped right back into his shpeel.

We finally got rid of him and made our way around the back side of the pyramid. At one point there weren’t many people around and a police officer who was sitting on the pyramid called us over. “Go ahead! Climb on it! It’s ok!” he told us. But we knew that it was illegal to do this and that the cops here weren’t always truthful. If we climbed on the pyramid he’d probably have demanded a large bribe from us in order to not be arrested. Despite his many attempts to get us to climb, we politely declined his offer and moved on.

We walked over to the second pyramid to get a clear picture of the Great Pyramid. As I set up my camera and tripod another police officer came over to me and told me that he knew of a better angle. He walked up a bit and said, “Take your picture here!” He was right. It would’ve been an excellent shot. There was a camel lying on the sand directly in the field of vision. But I knew that if I snapped a shot the camel’s owner would demand payment. And since the police officer was in on it also the cost would probably be steep. So once again I declined the offer, set up my camera far away from the camel and took my shots.

Despite all the scams that were attempted on us at the pyramids that day, we only spent the 50 cent tip I’d given to the first guy at the Step Pyramid. It definitely wasn’t ideal having to be on guard and fending off schemers all the time, but even with these negative experiences we found it was still worth it. Being able to touch and see the pyramids up close with our own hands and eyes was an unforgettable experience.

It’s definitely possible to do all the activities you want without having tricksters take advantage of you. You just have to be prepared. So if you’re planning on traveling in a country that has a reputation for trickery, make sure you take the time to educate yourself on all the latest scams and practice saying a friendly but firm “No.”

Pyramids compilation


education 102: dealing with exhausting children

April was a very trying month for me. There has been some really crappy stuff going on at work these days (well, actually for the past 6 months), but I’m not going to get into all of that. What I will say is that I logged 34 hours of overtime in the last five weeks and only had 6 days off. And next week we have to work six days again. My legs are tired from standing 9 hours a day while teaching so I sit down every chance I get. My body is tired, and that makes my mind groggy. On Monday I had a meltdown in my apartment and started kicking over full water bottles. It was very therapeutic!

The hardest thing to do when I’m exhausted like this is have patience with the kids who come to my work. Many of you know that I’m currently working at an English Village in Seoul, South Korea. A while ago I described what that’s like. You can read about it here if you’d like to know more. This week in particular has been weird. We had very high level kids on Monday and Tuesday. One of them was so good at English that he successfully used air quotes in describing to me how “Konglish” is a term we use to describe words used in Korea that sound like they are “English” but actually are not truly English. However, kids are kids. Despite them having excellent comprehension, it still took great amounts effort and time to get them to be quiet for long enough that they’d listen to the rules of games and group activities. Then on Wednesday afternoon a caravan of buses arrived with 19 teams of 4th graders who are constantly trying to speak to me in Korean, despite the fact that I shrug my shoulders and tell them that I don’t speak Korean every time. Getting them to be quiet is like trying to push water back into a yard hose.

The teachers use several techniques in class and group activities to get the students’ attention. Sometimes we say “Clap one time. Clap two times. Clap three times.” The students usually comply, and upon the third clap they are supposed to put their hands on their head and be quiet. We also have one where we say, “When I say ‘Be’ you say ‘quiet.’ BE! (Quiet!) BE! (Quiet!).” Other times we just tap a rhythm out on the microphone using our fingers and the children have to mimic it with claps. Since the students usually know me as “Lion teacher” I often make growling noises into the mic that grab their attention. These are just a few examples of things we commonly do, but I’ve tried hundreds of other things as well.

It’s very easy to grab the children’s attention. It’s getting them to shut their mouths that’s hard.

I have a lot of patience. I understand that it’s difficult to listen to someone try to explain something to you in a language you only partially comprehend. I also understand that they are very excited to be at our camp where they can be with their friends 24 hours a day. I also also understand, but very much do not condone, that the kids go to the on-campus 7-11 after EVERY meal and buy ridiculous amounts of sugary snacks and drinks that they ingest about 30 minutes before they are required to sit still in classes for hours.

Sometimes my patience runs out and I shout at a class. On Monday, with the smart kids, I was at that point but instead of shouting I got very quiet. When the students finally realized that I was angry with them they started hushing each other. I explained to them that in my culture it is VERY rude to talk when someone is speaking directly to you. To make sure they were getting it I made an analogy they would understand. “When you ignore me and talk to your friend when I’m speaking to you, it is like you are giving me the middle finger.” They were dumbfounded. “Teacher, really?” Their reaction, in turn, dumbfounded me. Obviously, they were very bright and talented students; you don’t get a whole school’s worth of that kind without discipline. Yet somehow they’d never been taught that ignoring someone was rude.

It reminded me of a time when Jessie and I went to a wedding in Korea. Seoul has these giant wedding halls which are preset with round tables for the guests, a super-long aisle for the bride and groom to walk up and down, and a rocking speaker system. We sat fairly far back so we watched the wedding on the wall monitor near our table. The crazy thing was that if I never looked at the monitor or the stage I probably wouldn’t have known that it was going on! All around the room, as the ceremony was happening, people were continually talking, getting up, going to talk with people at other tables and talking loudly on their cell phones. Only about 1 in 6 people looked remotely interested in what was happening on the stage. However, as soon as the two were pronounced married things changed. People were focused and determined like you’ve never seen before. Their objective: to get the best spot they could in the buffet line in the dining room next door.

That’s one experience I will never forget. I often use it to remind myself that things are different here. One time when our head teacher Robbie was on the microphone trying to get a large group of children to sit down in their team lines they all just kept walking out of the room and talking with each other, oblivious to his stern tone. Natalie, my friend and co-teacher from England, looked at me with a bewildered expression. Throwing my hands up in defeat I replied, “Korean wedding!”

I’m not writing this to say that Koreans are rude. In general, they aren’t. I know many nice people here. But I’ve noticed that in group settings this behavior seems to be way more acceptable than it would be back home. I guess what I’m learning from all this is that I need to be very cognizant of the things that anger me. I know that the kids aren’t deliberately trying to snub me. I know that there are cultural differences at play. This goes a long way in helping me control my anger when the children aren’t being compliant.

So the next time things get out of control and you start to feel your skin boil, throw your hands up to the sky like Frank Costanza and say “Korean wedding!”

K Clinic

education 101: a day at an English Village

My wife and I are celebrating something very special this month. April 23 is the five year anniversary of when we first started teaching in South Korea! We haven’t worked here the whole time, but we’ve put in enough months over those years to be substantial. At our current job we just passed the 8 month mark, so we’re 2/3 done. So I thought it might be fun to do a profile of a day in my life as a teacher at an English Village.

If you’re not familiar with the English Village system, it is quite different than most of the other teaching jobs in Korea. We live on a campus where schools bring their whole student body to spend anywhere from two to ten days at an “English camp.” During this time the students sleep in dormitories, eat their meals in the cafeteria, spend their money at the on-campus 7-11 and participate in classes and activities from 9am until 8:30pm. We currently have about 18 full-time teachers, half Korean and half foreigners from native English-speaking countries. Most teachers work the day shift from 9-5:15. A few work the evening shift from 1:30-8:30.

We’ve been pretty lucky in getting to be on night shift for most of our time. The alarm wakes us up at 10am. We wake up slowly, the way waking up was intended to be. Half an hour later one of us gets up enough initiative (or needs the bathroom bad enough) to leave the bed and stumble to the coffee pot to start a brew. We spend the morning on the Internet or catching up on some shows. Then at one o’clock I head out to the cafeteria for an MSG- and sugar-doused lunch of fried, bleached white flour food products, white rice, spicy soup and kimchi (a spicy fermented cabbage dish). I try to salvage as many vegetables and fruit as possible, picking around the rest of it for stray bits of meat. After 5 years I no longer question why the fruit salad includes tomatoes and is covered in mayonnaise, or why rice cakes in red sauce (ddok-boki) constitute a main dish that should be eaten along with a heaping pile of white rice.

At 1:20 I head down to the auditorium where anywhere between 60 to 500 students are waiting to be escorted to their afternoon classes. The good kids sit at the front of their team lines, call out my name as I pass by and wave. The bad kids are (hopefully) sitting at the back of the line playing some kind of hand game where the penalty for losing is a swift, hard smack across the knuckles. Or if they’re not being closely monitored they’re running around in the back, trying to tackle or drop kick anyone who comes within five meters of them. A voice booms from the speakers “Anja! Anja!” which means “sit down!” and the kids quickly obey for about 30 seconds. Our head teacher Robbie grabs the microphone, makes announcements for the day, and then says “Teachers! Team rows, team rows.” I amble over to the team which has my first class of the day, hoping that I’ll be dismissed last. If you’re dismissed first you often find yourself in the classroom with 15 expectant kids eight minutes before the bell rings, so you have to fill up more time. Robbie says my team number and tells them to “Follow your teacher.” I head up the steps with my little ducklings in line behind me.

Our campus has three buildings where we teach any of 40 different situation classes we all have down pat. Here are some examples of classes we teach: chess, telephone, grocery, hair salon, economy, transportation, police station, restaurant, airplane, bank, post office, darts, comic strips, pop song, science, library, fire station, music, dance, golf, ultimate frisbee. These are all classes where one teacher has one individual team in the classroom. We also have group activities with multiple teachers and multiple teams, like: dominoes, scrabble, dodgeball, jungle survival (quiz game), pop culture quiz. At nighttime the students have a 90 minute group activity. Usually two teachers are in charge of 5 to 9 teams. The students either have Fashion Show (making clothes designs out of newspaper and having their models walk a runway), One Last Winner (a team quiz game), Creative Origami (making a team poster from little colored papers), Human Letters (using their bodies to spell words), or Tug-of-War.

Once I’ve gotten all the kids in and have settled them in their chairs I introduce myself. That always gets laughs because when I say “Ryan” their ears hear “lion.” So my kids are always making jokes about me, and I reciprocate by telling them that if they are good students I won’t eat them! Then I take attendance, trying to get them laughing by making fun of their names. They all pick or are given English names when they come to our campus, so when I see someone’s name is Michael I call out “Michael Jackson.” Any Hannahs become “Hannah Banana.” All Harrys become “Harry Potter.”

Next I remind the kids of the classroom rules at our school. They help me list them: 1) No speaking Korean; 2) No fighting; 3) No running or shouting; 4) No eating or drinking in the classroom; 5) Listen to the teacher. Without fail, the first rule is broken by at least three children by the time we’ve reached rule #5. Rules one, two, three and five will get a serious workout for the remainder of the 45 minute class. Besides these five classroom rules, we also have three more campus rules, the funniest (and in my opinion best) being rule #6: Take a shower every day.

We move on to the first part of the class: vocabulary. There are 10 to 15 flash cards the students need to memorize with words and pictures they might need to use in the lesson. In airplane class I say “flight attendant” and they repeat “ply attenda.” I write some kids names on the board to let them know they are speaking too much Korean. Then we get into the lesson, which can involve making two kids read a dialogue about some life situation, or learning the proper way to use some sporting equipment, or playing some game tailored toward using the classroom content. Thirty minutes later, after breaking up a verbal fight or two, I tell them to clean up the classroom and line up for stamps.

They all carry “passports” which have pages where we stamp the classes they’ve taken. They can also get three “excellent stamps” if they keep all the rules and participate, two stamps if they did the bare minimum, one stamp if they were a little naughty, zero stamps if they were very naughty, or minus one stamp (I cross a previous one out) if they were fighting or swearing. Sometimes I give out a bonus stamp if a student was particularly a cut above. It never ceases to amaze me how the children who ignore me the whole class and speak Korean constantly hand me their passport and whine “Bonus, teacher. Bonus!!!” While the stamp process is happening I’m constantly yelling across the way for the kids to stay inside the classroom until we’ve all finished. If the team was overall good, I give them a team stamp. At the end of camp, the student from each team with the most excellent stamps wins a fabulous prize: a certificate with their name printed on it. Woohoo. However, the team with the most team stamps wins some kind of snack for each student.

We line up at the door and wait for the passing time bell to ring. “Teacher go! Teacher go!” They scowl as I show them the time on my phone and tell them “We still have one minute left. We can’t leave until the bell rings.” I lead them out of the class and on to their next class. They’ll wait outside that classroom, or run around the halls screaming and writing graffiti over the walls, or get into fights for the next 15 minutes until the next class begins. It will never dawn on them to use the bathroom or drink some water until they sit down in their next class.

I lead my last afternoon class to the cafeteria and make sure they are in line. I eat and then have about an hour to burn at my apartment, just a one minute walk away. Then I make my way down to the nighttime activity. Some nights I’m on the microphone trying to control upwards of 120 students. Other nights I’m a backup so I just assist the main teacher. Most nights are more relaxed in that we get more time to talk one-on-one with the students. But because there are so many bodies in a small space we also usually spend a significant amount of time trying to quiet the students so they will listen to and understand the basic instructions. I finish up by saying good night and handing the microphone over to one of the Korean camp counselors, who will lead the kids back to their dorms and sleep in the dormitory that night.

I get home and am into my “fat pants” (pajamas) in under 20 seconds. I hit the electric kettle’s button and wait for the water to boil. Peppermint tea, rooibos or masala? Hmmm. Choices, choices. As Jessie ventures off to her yoga class, I sit down to participate in one of my newest hobbies: taking online coding classes, working on my business website (hopefully it’ll be up later this year), watching The Universe episodes, or writing another blog post. Once Jessie gets home we do something together until we get tired and drag ourselves to bed.

So there you have it, a normal day in my life……but only for the next four months! Then we’re outta here and on to warmer places!

SEV picstitch