Educate Me

Note to self: delete this post before kids reach university age.

I walk about 5 blocks every morning to get our car out of a garage (the parking lot by our house is still not finished). My walk takes me along the back of the main public university in Cusco, the UNSAAC.

The sidewalks behind the university are full of students rushing into their early morning classes. They say looks are deceiving but you can sort of tell the serious academic students from the cool kids and the fashionistas, the privileged kids from the ones who work their way through school. There are 15-year olds who are in university 2 years early because their parents obsessed about studies and there are 20-something career students. Some are happy, some look sad, at 7:00am young kids don’t have their guards up so much, they’re like open books rushing into the university.

One girl was walking while reading a book, getting a quick last minute of study time on her way to class.

“Poor girl” I thought to myself. “So worried to study some useless cr*p at 7:00am on a Monday.”

It was just a subconscious thought, not to be mean to her. However, I do wonder, as university education has become more and more popular have the academics been watered down and traditional liberal arts been replaced by cramming useless stuff?

You can describe pretty much any university course nowadays as “How to survive in your parents’ world, part XX of 250” (or however many credit hours there are nowadays.)

Think about it. Go all the way back in the vaults of your alma mater to, say, the year 2005 and see how many thesis you’ll find in the computer science department on “application programming for Smartphones“. Or how many papers you’d find in the Economics section on “The orderly exit of a Eurozone member because you know some day it will happen.” Or look in the political science department for papers about the normalization of US Cuba relations, or the risk of civil war due to foreign geopolitical influence in the Ukraine.

These are all significant events in our time but 10 years ago barely a university would have touched on them. However, I bet you’ll find loads of papers in the 2005 computer science class on “Transitioning your corporate IT system to Windows Vista”.

We’re bad about predicting the future, so I think universities should teach less stuff that will be obsolete by the time the kids get their second or third job. Don’t cram useless stuff, rather teach these kids to ask questions, especially in a so called developing economy like Peru. Where are we going? What is really valuable in life? Why is traffic so dangerous here? What can we do about public transportation? Why don’t kids in small towns have decent schools? If 2 million tourists come to Machu Picchu every year and each spends a $1,000 where does that 2 billion US$ go? Why does a patient have to fly from Cusco to Lima for a fairly routine medical operation?

I don’t know the answers but somebody bigger than me should be asking.

Peru – country of almost

Happy birthday Milagros! Twenty-something years ago today, my Peruvian sister-in-law was born in the back seat of a taxi here in Cusco. True story. Mother and baby are fine – in case you were worried. Anytime my mother-in-law tells the story of how her youngest daughter was born in a taxi, the most entertaining part to me is that she always insists that “we were ALMOST to the hospital”.

As the saying goes, “Almost” only counts in horse shoes.

Here in Peru one thing that I find frustrating is that people tend to accept things that are “almost” right, “almost” finished, “almost” useable, etc. People put a lot of effort into something but stop short of finishing or doing it right. And they’re happy with it.

We live a privileged life and I don’t want to sound fussy, but sometimes a small discrepancy makes a big difference.

Would you eat a piece of chicken if it was almost cooked?
Would you get on a flight to Hawaii if the plane had almost enough fuel to get there?

Of course you wouldn’t.

In Peru people do accept things that are “almost good enough”. For example, we are supposed to be in the middle of a construction boom. Real estate prices have skyrocketed and there are new buildings going up everywhere. Most new buildings leave the sides unfinished, sloppy looking bricks between concrete columns. Looks very redneck. A (comparatively) small effort to finish and paint the sides would make a big difference.

That holds true in more important things as well, such as education. The public schools in Peru have classes of 50 kids or more. If you think about the combined effort of kids, parents, teachers and administrators that goes into someone’s education, hiring some more teachers and building some more classrooms isn’t a huge additional effort. In fact, for society as a whole it would be a trivial burden but the difference in the quality of education would be huge, if the kids sat in a class of 25 or 30 instead of a class of 50.

The same could be said for other important aspects of life in Peru, such public transportation, occupational safety, environmental protection, etc. The quality or results don’t reflect the effort or investment, in part because the society accepts “almost” as good enough.

sunset in Huanchaco Peru

Beautiful sunset in Huanchaco. We just returned from a short vacation at the beach.



Papi Papi.

Papi Papi.


Papi! Wake up. We have THE THING at 9:30!!!!

Erggh? The thing?

No, not that thing. THE THING!!!

Now I’m half awake and it dawns on me. THE THING is today at 9:30!!! But wait a minute, I try to explain to mamacita linda that it takes 10 minutes to get ready for the thing and another 15 minutes to actually get over there, so I don’t see the big deal with sleeping in another half hour.

But papi, it’s THE THING! We’ve got to be sure we’re ready!

“The thing” was our interview with the director of the new school where we are planning to send Brianna next year. Getting your child into a good school in Peru is a big deal, it’s hard to convey just how serious parents stress out over getting accepted into a good school. We had our interview with the director this past Wednesday and next Monday we find out if our goose was accepted. Before the interview we also had our psychological evaluation on Tuesday.

Both parents and the child. Think about that for a second. A 4-year old must pass a psychological test to get into pre-school. And then me. I quit a job at a Fortune 500 company to go live on top of a mountain in Peru but some girl with a degree in psychology thinks she can figure me out in a 23-question multiple-guess test and a drawing of a person in the rain? I smiled and went through the motions but the Peruvian faith in these psychological personality tests is just mind boggling to me.

I don’t stress out over getting accepted to a school but most of the other parents do. The psychological test was administered to a group of parents and kids, in the group was one of our friends. Like many parents, our friends were applying to various schools, hoping that their kid would get into first grade at this or that good school. While we were waiting to take the exam, Patricia asked her friend “How did the other interviews go at your-first-choice-school and your-second-choice-school?”

Our friend went SSSSSSSSSSSSSH!!!! “Don’t say that so loud in here!!!”

I laughed out loud and said “I’m telling the director this is our first and only choice but you people are just hedging your bets!!”

Our friend nervously giggled back and responded “I’m telling him at least we actually live in Larapa” (the name of the neighborhood where the school is – we live a bit on the other side of town).

All through the group of waiting parents, parents who overheard us horsing around nervously looked up, in their minds undoubtedly going over the perceived weaknesses in their own case for enrolling their child.

Is my child smart enough?
Will my baby do good on her entrance exam? Will she remember how to spell her daddy’s name?
Is my child cute enough?
Do I make enough money?
Are we Catholic enough?
Will they find out about my brother who drinks too much?
Did I buy a nice enough gift for the administrator?

The director at this school didn’t go anywhere near questions of this nature and insisted the school doesn’t discriminate against anyone. I talked to him about their other schools in both the ritzy part of Lima and another in a poor area of Lima, and I believe they are sincere in that respect or otherwise I wouldn’t send my goose to this school. But I know in other private schools these kinds of questions were/are routinely asked.

Silly me, I thought every child should have the right to a good education.

Getting into a good school is a big deal here in Peru because the public schools are said to be very bad. Class sizes in the public schools are at least 50 kids to a class. Even some of the private schools have large class sizes. The private schools can be expensive and typically fill up fast, there is only a short timeframe during the year where they accept applications. Most of the private schools are Catholic schools. In days past some Catholic schools wouldn’t accept children of single mothers or parents who were not married by the Catholic church but now I believe most accept anyone as long as the person respects the school’s religious vocation.

We’ll find out on Monday but I have faith. Wish us luck!

desfile plaza de armas cusco

Did you know I was a magician?

Peru is nuts about education

Friday afternoon I picked up Brianna’s 9 page report card at her jardin (kindergarden). She’s 3 now. During the meeting at her jardin there were a number of congratulations from the school to the parents of those children who have recently been accepted to start next year at some of the highly regarded schools in the city. We are coming up on the end of the school year here and the idea is that most of the highly regarded schools offer 2 years of kindergarden (5 and 6 years old) which will help your child get into those schools at the start of their primary education.

There are many small, private jardins for kids ages 2 and up, like the one where Brianna currently is. It’s considered important for those jardins to place children into the highly regarded schools at the 4-5 year levels. The director of Brianna’s jardins called out a number of proud parents including one “whose baby has been accepted IN FIRST PLACE to La Salle!!!!”

Big round of applause.

I personally don’t like the La Salle school. To me it’s very pituco.

Then the director continued about how many more kids are still in the process of “taking exams” for other schools.

I started to write this post on Saturday but couldn’t finish because the power went out several times in our neighborhood. This is considered normal, the water and electricity go out about once a month (and we live in a well established residential area) but 4 YEAR OLDS TAKE ENTRANCE EXAMS???

I first realized that Peru is totally nuts about education back when I was teaching ESL. I understand that everybody wants to give their kids a better life than they had. For Peruvians who remember the bad old days of terrorism, the collapse of the rural economies and hyper-inflation it’s easy to understand that they see a good university education as the ticket to a better life for their children. A good pre-school is just one of the many steps to that ultimate goal of a good university education.

The problem in my opinion is this: Peru has blind faith in education.

I think this blind faith in education has created a generation with quite a few “professional students”, young Peruvians who should have every opportunity in life but fail to take advantage of them out of fear or reluctance to make that next step, get out on their own. The strong Peruvian mothers shelter their kids so much that they often lack incentive, self confidence, at least in a professional sense.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with that knowledge that matters.

Studying is a great way to get out of having to look for a job. 25-years old, living at home and never worked a day in your life? Just sign up for another “institute” and mom will be proud. Want a new laptop or internet at home? Just tell mom you need it for “homework”.

Also, savvy business people make a ton of money in Peru with education. Sadly, in my opinion many of the for profit private institutes aren’t very good. It’s just business.

* * *

My father didn’t go to college. He worked on the farm until he was 16, then he went to work in the coal mines. My grandfather didn’t go to college, he got sent to war, to go kill young men he didn’t even know – because people with degrees from the finest universities in the world told him to.


Brianna Nayaraq 🙂


Think you know Cuzco: where was this picture taken?


Papi Inka or my new casa de campo?

Last day of class

The school where I teach English (ESL) is on a monthly schedule, like many of the private institutes here in Cusco. Last day of class is typically quite an experience and yesterday was no exception. This month my schedule was in the afternoon, when most students are teenagers, and here’s how it all went down:

  • I arrive about five minutes before class starts, when the students are feverishly copying each other’s workbooks. In true Peruvian fashion, they generally ignore my daily reminders not to wait until the last minute.
  • We get in the class and all the 15 year old girls pretend to really like me, tell me I’m the best teacher ever.
  • I go over everything that’s on the final exam. Most students ignore me entirely and instead make a feeble last-minute attempt at studying for the exam.
  • I hand out the exams and someone promptly asks me to explain the very same question that I was giving them the answers to about 30 seconds earlier… At that point I can’t help them because I’m busy tracking down the one student who tried to steal an extra copy of the test so he can sell it at Molino later.
C.C. Molino, a place full of pirated CDs, movies and ESL tests...

C.C. Molino, a place full of pirated CDs, movies and ESL tests...

I wish I hadn’t said that…

After I snatched the exam back from the kid who tried to make a profit of extra exam copies, one girl gave me a mean look because I wouldn’t explain to her the very same thing I was talking about a few minutes earlier… and that’s when I told her exactly how I felt. In no uncertain terms I explained to her this is my “fun job”, that I get paid as much to teach the class for an entire month as I used to make in 3 hours and that she better not give me any grief because it’s not worth it to me.

Shame on me 😦

Then I went home, graded the exams and saved the grades on a diskette. You read that right, a diskette. Some fool in IT conned the “Directors” into believing diskettes are somehow safer than email.

Teacher… I have to have a really good grade or else my family will…

When some kid fails class, it’s often a huge problem in their families. I wish someone would explain to parents here that it makes no sense to send their kid to the next class – where they won’t learn a thing – if they haven’t mastered the fundamentals in the class before. The point isn’t to get some arbitrary grade, but to be able to express your ideas in a new language.

“It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with your knowledge that matters.”

My best friend, Bert, used to tell me that, and he did more to bring an end to the Cold War than Pope John Paul II. It took me years before I actually started to believe him.

Here in Cusco kids study a lot of things, but they often don’t apply what they know. Many families want their kids to bring home good grades and fancy certificates from institutes all over Cusco, but none of that matters unless you actually apply what you’ve learned.

Overall I really enjoy teaching English. Most students like me because I’m a gringo, and for that same reason I can get away with flaunting all the petty rules our “Directors” make. Instead of teaching my kids good old fashioned values like the Directors want, I play loud rock ‘n roll music in class and tell them all to be rebels, not to accept the status quo in Peru but to fight against poverty, prejudice and the injustice of “haves vs. have nots” in society.

Then I walk out, smile at the old ladies who run the place and say “hola chicas”. Bert would be proud.

IPCNA Cusco ESL teachers blog

I finally got around to putting some content on the new ICPNA teachers’ blog. Since I’ve had good luck using this blog in my classes our academic director and I decided to start a blog for use by the ICPNA teachers as a group. Here are the links:

ESL teaching is my “fun job” here in Peru, I’m by no means an expert in the field. So please, visit the blog and contribute your ideas!


My ESL students at ICPNA in front of the Qoricancha in Cusco, Peru

My ESL students at ICPNA in front of the Qoricancha in Cusco, Peru

Stories and traditions in Cusco – ICPNA AV2 writing exercise.

This is the writing exercise for AV2 9:05 at Icpna Cusco.

The Cusco area has a rich history with many great traditions, myths and legends. In the comments to this post, write a story about any of the legends or traditions in our area or Peru in general. This can be a well known story (e.g. origin of Cusco, Señor de Huanca, etc) or a story only you know (e.g. someone in your family who believes they saw a ghost). I especially like the less well known stories, the kind that a typical tourist would not hear about.

Make it interesting and entertaining. Above all, use your own words!!! Everyone in the class writes one story, but you get extra points for commenting on your classmates entries (or any other entries on this blog).


Starting a business in Cusco, Peru (ICPNA I-12)

Since I’m teaching about business in my current class at ICPNA, I decided to start a class project to open a coffee shop on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. We already have a McDonalds in Cusco and will soon have a Starbucks, so let’s give them some competition.

Our fictional business will be a fancy coffee shop with yummie breakfast, snacks, etc. We will have wireless internet, friendly service and a hip atmosphere.

Here’s what I need from my team, that is, the class:

  • Ideas for names.
  • Ideas on how to set the place up (decorations, themes, uniforms, ….)
  • What kind of things we will sell.
  • Legal stuff: how to set up a legal entity (EIRL, SA).
  • Financial plan and accounting policies. Let’s not get in trouble with SUNAT or my uncle Alan Garcia.
  • Marketing plan.
  • A good location in anywhere in beautiful downtown Cusco Peru.
  • Employees, employee manuals, policies, procedures, …
  • Ideas on how to reward our employees.
  • Policies / ideas to prevent theft from customers and employees.
  • Suppliers: where to get good food, coffee, drinks, ice cream,…. Also furnishings and furniture to open our place.
  • Lobbyist to have lunch with the mayor and governor of Cusco once a month.
  • Business plan.
  • Exit strategy, meaning, what to do if our business doesn’t work out.
  • Any other advice or items I’ve overlooked.

Write at least 2 or 3 comments before the end of our class next Friday 9/26!!!! Any thoughts and ideas are welcome, explain/justify your ideas.


My I-12 class at ICPNA

My I-12 class at ICPNA