Asa Wright Nature Center

hummingbird

Hummingbird.

As a long time/on and off again Trinidad and Tobago resident, it’s sometimes hard for me to like the place.

Yes, the landscape is littered with bars, strip malls, Indian expos, Chuck E Cheese’s, Starbucks (a recent incursion), KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s. Yes, there’s traffic, accidents, pollution, and a serious crime problem. But there’s hope. While many locals spend their hard earned cash in the rum shops, shopping centers, cinemas, and restaurants, some head to the hills.

Although Trinidad calls itself the land of the hummingbird, these tiny creatures are hard to spot unless you head into the green regions of the country, what locals call de bush. It’s there that you realize that Trinidad and Tobago are not sandy islands but rainforest and wildlife-rich bits broken off from the South American continent.

A bit of background

Located along Arima Blanchisseuse Road is Asa Wright Nature Center. Formerly known as Springhill Estate, the area used to be a cocoa, citrus, and coffee plantation but has now become a bird watcher’s haven.

It was originally purchased by Joseph and Helen Bruce-Holmes in 1936 from the British colonial government then sold to Newcombe and Asa Wright. Because of the estate’s proximity to an oilbird cave, Asa began hosting scientists and conservationists who studied the species. Established as a non-profit in 1967, it’s one of the first wildlife centers in the Caribbean and covers an impressive 1500 acres across the Arima and Aripo valleys of the Northern Range.

 

greathouse
Corridor in the main house of the Asa Wright Nature Center.

 

The veranda

From the veranda of the Center’s main building (a restored plantation house), there is green bush and mountain as far as the eye can reach. Quivering bundles of turquoise, emerald, sapphire. A flash of gold. A trill and a flap. Hummingbirds, green and purple honeycreepers, and bananaquits sip sugar water from hanging bird feeders. Others dig into slices of watermelon and bananas laid out on bench feeders.

 

honeycreepers
Purple honeycreepers.

 

The tour

If you go to the Center, take one of the guided tours of the grounds. There are two tours for day visitors: one at mid-morning and one in the afternoon. Our guide, Randall Duberry, shared a lot of interesting information about the plants and animals along the Discovery trail.

 

torchginger
Hawaiian torch or torch ginger.

 

The flora

Here are some plants Randall pointed out.

  •  Vervain is popular with hummingbirds and recommended for mothers who want to produce more breast milk.
  • Katahar aka jackfruit aka durian can be used as a laxative and to treat sterility and skin diseases.
  • St. John’s bush (very different to St. John’s wort) aka blood bush can be used as a blood thinner and to treat rashes. It’s called blood bush because the juice runs red.
  • A sandbox tree covered in spikes that produces seeds that explode in the forest. These seeds are used to make what locals call dolphin jewelry. He also explained that the sandbox is the only tree monkey don’t climb (Trinidad sayings).
  • Hawaiian torch or torch ginger that looks like pineapple but tastes sweeter than cilantro.
  • Hot lips plant. Apparently, if you kiss it for seven nights then kiss your love, both of you will stay together forever.

 

TRINI
Golden shrimp or lollipop plant- popular with hummingbirds.

 

The fauna

At the start of the tour, Randall also told the group that we would probably see three birds: the white-bearded manakin, the golden-headed manakin, and the bearded bellbird.

He explained that the golden-headed manakin is the Michael Jackson of birds, moonwalking and hopping from branch to branch to woo females. Although we went to the bird’s lek or courtship area where Randall called and called, we saw no bird.

Then we headed to the white-bearded manakin’s lek. Here, we saw one male, a tiny white and black bird making a popping sound. Randall explained that in this avian ballroom, up to 80 males each clear a spot on the forest floor and dance, fighting for the attention of a single female. He added that these playboy birds are notorious for sabotaging other males to win the female’s favor. In Trini parlance, they like to dirty their partner water.

The bearded bellbird is also native to Trinidad and Tobago. It was easier to hear than spot this gray and white feathered bird that perched high in the trees and emitted loud staccato screeches. And yes, it does have a beard of black wattles down its throat!

Along the trail, we also heard the mot mot’s hoop hoop! Randall pointed out that this bird’s call is often mistaken for the sound of douens: supernatural, childlike creatures with backward-turning feet that lure people into the forest.

We didn’t get a chance to see the oilbird because you have to arrange a separate tour to get to their habitat. Dunston Cave at the Center is one of the most accessible oilbird colonies on the island. Also known as guacharo, this bird lives in dark places like caves and flies at night. Randall also told us that way, way, way back, people killed these birds and used them as torches because of their high oil content.

During lunch, we spotted a golden tegu lizard, known locally as matte, calmly crawling up the driveway that led to the main building and a shy agouti feeding on old fruit.

 

powderpuff
Powder puff or mimosa.

 

How to get there

You can’t just show up at the Center. Visits must be booked at least one day in advance. Included in the day ticket is an introductory tour of the surrounding bush where you can learn about the local flora and fauna. You can also stay overnight and dine in the restaurant but again, you have to book in advance. Bonus: if you stay three nights or more, you get a guided tour to Dunston Cave. Also, check out the Clearwater pool and the gift shop that sells robusta coffee grown on the estate and other souvenirs.

It’s very easy to get to Asa Wright Nature Center. From the Churchill-Roosevelt highway, turn into Arima Blanchisseuse road, drive past the houses, past the vast christophene patches on the hillsides, and soon you’ll reach the grounds.

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8 things I learned on my first RTW trip

8 things I learned on my first rtw trip1 (1)

2004 was a ground-breaking year for me.

It was the year the world really opened up like the oyster they say it is. What was supposed to be a brief visit to a friend studying abroad turned into a RTW ticket that included stops in Hong Kong, Macau, China, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and LA. Three months’ nonstop backpacking around the world. Although many bloggers make backpacking sound very romantic and glamorous, it isn’t always rosy. Here are some lessons I learned from my first round the world (RTW) trip.

1. Always carry books.

Traveling around the world involves a lot of waiting around: in stations, on trains, on buses, on planes, on boats, and in airports. Back in 2004, my traveling buddies and I didn’t have smart phones and left our laptops at home. How did we entertain ourselves? By reading ourselves silly. Also, reading time helped each of us decompress when group travel became too much. Carry a Kindle or one book you can swap with other travelers when you’re done.

2. Journal it!

2004 was the first time I started a travel journal. Sure, I have lots of pictures from the trip but pictures don’t tell the whole story. For example, I still remember the tangy beer fish and Tabasco-laced tequila shots we had with Mickey, the coolest Chinese guy ever at MC Blues café in Yangshou. Also, 2004 was a simpler time (before Instagram and Facebook) when travelers didn’t take a million pictures of everything they put in their mouths. The journal also documented how naive I was on my first real independent trip and it’s great to see how much I’ve learned since then. When you travel, write down your first impressions. Use all your senses to document your travels. What does it look/smell/look/sound/feel like? Also, write down the cool stuff people say.

3. Charge your devices.

In 2004, we didn’t have smartphones which meant we had to navigate old school style: with maps, signs, and asking for directions. Smartphones have simplified world travel immensely so always charge your devices and carry a portable charger. Be sure to keep that camera fully charged too.

4. Book your accommodation in advance.

One of the worst experiences we had was arriving in Yangshuo, China without a bed. We had just completed an overnight train ride from Guangzhou and we were hungry, grumpy, tired, and badly needed a shower. When we disembarked the train at Guilin station, we were quickly overwhelmed by the touts and ended up following a guy who took us to a substandard room. After staying one night, we quickly moved to a cleaner and more centrally located hostel.

5. Set your alarm.

Because we got up late, we missed our 10 am bus and had to fork out an extra AUS$149 to get a taxi from Gympie to our hostel in Rainbow Beach. That hurt.

6. Try everything once.

The trip involved a lot of firsts for me including my first scuba dive. When traveling abroad, don’t be too cautious or you’ll miss out some really unique experiences. Of course, I’m not saying to act like a prize idiot and do a lot of illegal/unethical crap but you get the picture. Balance your discretion and your adventurousness.

7. Meet the locals.

Even if you’re traveling in a group or going solo, don’t just hang out in traveler cliques. Get to know the locals. After all, isn’t that the best part about traveling to a new place? Learn basic phrases so you can start a conversation. Once you get going, you’ll learn things about the country, language, and culture you’ll never find in any guidebook. And remember to share your culture too. I wished I had brought a flag or some souvenirs to introduce Trinidad and Tobago when I was in China and Fiji. Also, appreciate that some of your travel friendships will be ephemeral (not everyone’s on Facebook) so enjoy them by being in the moment.

8. Pack only the essentials.

Because you’re backpacking, keep it light. You only need one week’s worth of clothes even if you’re going to be traveling for weeks or months on end. What you don’t pack, you can always buy at your destination. That includes heavier gear and shoes, toiletries, and over the counter drugs. Important tip: never travel hungry. Always pack water and a snack, no matter how short you think the journey is going to be. You never know when you’ll face delays on the road. Snacks that pack well include granola, crackers, and fruit that don’t bruise easily like apples.

Did you ever travel around the world? What did you learn?

RTW trip

 

 

 

 

An introvert’s approach to travel

 an introvert

A lot of people think they know me but don’t really know me at all.

People think that because I’m Trinidadian that I must be an extrovert. Firstly, they assume I’m loud.

Not loud or even Loud.

L O U D.

Bubbling with scandalous kya kya kya laughter.

Secondly, they think I must be easy-going, like a coconut tree on a breezy beach.

Thirdly, they think I must be a big time limer (party animal) because Trinidad and Tobago is the home of Kya-nee-val (Carnival, to the more refined folks out there) and that I’m comfortable with friends, acquaintances, and strangers wining on meh bumsee (gyrating on my butt) in public.

Sorry folks, I am none of the above.

I’m one of a rare breed: the introverted Trini who grew up in an extroverted Trini culture. I hate sweaty crowds so you’ll never find me in a fete or chipping dong de road on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Even though I may seem talkative at a party, the day after, all I really want to do is go to the most deserted beach possible with my husband. No cooldown lime at Maracas Beach for me, thank you very much.

According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a pretty well-known personality test, I’m an INTJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging). INTJs are bookworms by nature. They think strategically and move through life as though they’re playing chess. Sore points: they don’t like small talk and hate the spotlight. Also, they can also come across as insensitive because they don’t allow their feelings to sway how they relate to people.

If you read a lot of travel blogs, there is a prevailing paradigm that travelers have to be super-extroverted and open to anything in order to maximize the travel experience. Travel bloggers, Two Drifters, have challenged this notion and applied MBTI to travelers. They write (tongue in cheek) about sixteen travel personality types.  That’s right: sixteen. And guess what? Not every traveler’s an extrovert.

Under their system, I  could be classified as an INTJ traveler. Here’s what Two Drifters have to say about the INTJ traveler:

The INTJ loves to create ideas and possibilities and then capitalize them. Not content with daydreaming, INTJs know how to turn their goals into reality, and they proceed with ambition and strategy. The INTJ is highly intelligent and insightful. This type works hard to understand everything they encounter, with keen observation and an interest in understanding inner workings and patterns. The INTJ travel personality is likely to be found exploring foreign cultures with depth and passion, moving past “touristy” distractions and seeking authentic immersion.

Spot on.

As an INTJ traveler, I like to quietly observe a place and its people. To do this takes time. I have had my most rewarding travel experiences when I have spent a long time in a country. Long enough to immerse myself and peer under the glittery, touristy surface.

As a student in London, nothing made me happier than walking along the Thames or exploring the city’s dusty churches and cobbled alleys. I would spend hours on my feet, sometimes missing meals because I loved to explore the city alone. I saw a side of London few tourists ever see: a money-grubbing city, a city swollen with cultural diversity, a historical city sometimes struggling to stay relevant in the 21st century.

Introverted travelers also tend to see a country from a different perspective. Unlike many other millenial travelers, my Instagram feed shows what the place actually looks like. You will never find a picture of me in a bikini on a boat over crystal-clear water looking dreamily in the distance while clutching my partner’s hands.

I like to travel (or specifically, live in a foreign place for an extended period of time) because it challenges my natural INTJ qualities. It forces me to stretch beyond my comfort zone. For example, when I’m abroad, I rarely pass up chances to have a genuine conversation with locals. Not questions about what I would like to buy or why I love their country but stuff that transcends the usual tourist/local spiel.

When I spent some time in Japan teaching English, I had a few opportunities to make real connections with strangers. Once, I was buying lunch in a busy bakery and there was only one seat left. A distinguished-looking older woman removed her jacket and motioned that the seat was available.

I was crunching down on a pastry when she just started talking to me. In English. I thought, “Oh well, here’s another Japanese person trying to practice her English with a foreigner.” Imagine my surprise when the conversation took many turns and corners and we ended up talking about waka poetry written about her hometown in Wakayama! If I had just sat there quietly, I would not have discovered a fellow poetry lover in a perfect stranger.

If you’re an introverted traveler, you’re not weird. Celebrate your difference and share how you see the world.

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What it’s really like to live in Japan

kyoto

In 2004, I traveled “around the world.”

Literally.

At the time, zipping through six countries in three months seemed incredible. I (obnoxiously) emailed everyone I knew to let them know how amazing it was. I could think of nothing better than tramping across oceans and continents to experience alien foods, languages, and cultural practices. After that trip, I was hooked. What followed was an insatiable desire to see more, do more, experience more.

In retrospect, I realize that my perspective on travel abroad was severely myopic. I only saw the glittering surfaces of the countries I visited. I experienced the best tourist attractions each country could offer, something even the locals could not afford to do.

Working in Japan, however, shifted my perspective entirely.  After a few months’ living there, I got over the initial awe I felt when I had seen my first orange torii gate. Eating Japanese food with disposable chopsticks became routine. After all, you could even get it in the konbini! I began to see Japan for what it was really like. A regular country with regular people doing regular things like going to school, going to work, going to the supermarket, getting sick, relaxing on weekends. I started to bow like everyone else and say strange things like “douzo” “onegai shimasu” “hai” and “daijobou.” I covered my mouth when I laughed and chewed my lunch. I never, ever ate while walking (something I do frequently in Trinidad and Tobago). Slipping in and out of inside shoes was no longer a hassle. I didn’t bat an eyelid when I saw folks eating cake with chopsticks. Seeing people on public transport and classrooms with their faces half-shrouded in white gauze masks didn’t send me into a panic attack.

Trinidadian writer, Sam Selvon, writes in his novel, An Island is a World:

 “People are the same all over the world…It does not matter where you are, you encounter sadness, happiness, love, hate. An island is a world, and everywhere that people live, they create their own worlds.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Travel writer Pico Iyer talks about the art of traveling within instead of traveling without. He says:

“…One of the first things you learn when you travel is that nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it. You take an angry man to the Himalayas; he just starts complaining about the food. And I found that the best way that I could develop more attentive and more appreciative eyes was oddly, by going nowhere, just by sitting still. And of course sitting still is how many of us get what we crave and need in our accelerated lives, a break. But it was also the only way that I could find to sift through the slideshow of my experience and make sense of the future and the past.”

So I learned to appreciate the pinpricks of incongruity in my days. Those moments when I felt transient, rootless, ephemeral. Like when students, parents, and teachers called me sensei. Sitting still allowed me to really observe and imbibe Japan, the Japan that doesn’t exist on glossy tourist websites and swish Instagram pics. The Japan with real problems: workaholism, alcoholism, kids with severe behavioral problems, frustrated folks, neglected old people. It is only when we settle down in a corner and think about our experiences that we can truly appreciate them. It is only in the stillness that we achieve those rare moments of clarity. It is only when we slow down that we know where we have been and where we are going next.

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Bucket list Japan: see the peonies at Yuushien Garden

Daikonshima in Japan’s Shimane prefecture is famous for peonies.

Daikonshima, Japanwww.hotfoottrini.com (1)

Head to the island’s Yuushien garden to see them in all their glory. This garden is kaiyu shiki teien or circuit style: you start at one end and wind your way around many different gardens.

“The most famous place for this spectacle is the little island of Daikonshima (Radish island), in the grand Nakaumi lagoon, about an hour’s sail from Matsue. In May, the whole island flames crimson with peonies; and even the boys and girls of the public schools are given a holiday, in order that they may enjoy the sight.”

Lafcadio Hearn

 

Daikonshima, Japanwww.hotfoottrini.com

In Yuushien, Shimane’s prefectural flower, the peony or botan flowers year round, even in winter, when the blossoms shelter under little thatched roofs.  Spring, however, is the best time to see the garden’s display of floating peonies.Daikonshima, Japanwww.hotfoottrini.com (3)

Even if you don’t come for the peonies, there are lots of koi-filled ponds, moon bridges, waterfalls, moss gardens, and karesansui or dry landscape gardens to keep you interested. The gardens are arranged in such a way so that you can enjoy different perspectives of the environment. This garden aesthetic is what the Japanese call miegakure or “hide and reveal.”Daikonshima, Japanwww.hotfoottrini.com (4)

In a country often battered by natural disasters like tsunamis, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes, the Japanese garden symbolizes how the Japanese try to control nature. It’s a place where they can contain their chaotic world and present it in a stylized form. Most importantly, the Japanese garden remains a therapeutic place that stills the Japanese mind racked by daily anxieties.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

Would you like to visit Yuushien? Read more in my Savvy Tokyo story here!

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Deep travel: 5 books to help you understand the Caribbean

Think the Caribbean is just a sun, sea, and sand playground where rum flows like water and sunsets make you cry?

pelican

 

Think again.

As a traveler, if you really want to understand the region more deeply, read Caribbean literature by Caribbean authors. Dig below the Instagrammable surface of street parties and deserted beaches and you’ll find a very strange place. It’s a place where many were forced to come, whether as slaves or indentured laborers.  Here are my picks to understand the people, the landscape, and culture of the Caribbean.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the backstory of Bertha Mason, a minor character from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is portrayed as Rochester’s mad first wife from the tropics but Rhys goes deeper. She tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (her real name) and Rochester’s inability to understand his Creole wife and the tropical landscape of the Caribbean. Here’s one of my favorite quotes.

 “I hated the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the rain…I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

Mimic Men and A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul is an award-winning writer who often effaces his Trinidadian roots. Some may say that Naipaul has a nihilistic vision of the West Indies. Others say he’s spot on. Take it or leave it, here are my favorite quotes from two of his best books.

Mimic Men

“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder.”

“We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of  it, with all its reminders of the corruption that same so quickly to the new.”

“I have also hinted at the easiness with which on the morning of arrival I saw through each porthole the blue, green and gold of the tropical island. So pure and fresh! And I knew it to be horribly manmade; to be exhausted, fraudulent, cruel and above all, not mine.”

A Way in the World

“We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank…We were just there, floating.” 

“But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…But that would only be a fragment of his inheritance, a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”

The Sea is History by Derek Walcott

St Lucian-born Derek Walcott was a literary genius who wrote several poems and plays. His work reflects razor-sharp insight into the region’s divisive colonial and postcolonial past. Although it’s technically not a book, here are a few lines from one of Walcott’s most famous poems about Caribbean history.

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.”

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

Roffey is a Trinidadian-born writer based in the UK. Her descriptions of Trinidad and Port of Spain, its capital city, are faultless.

“How he loved this city. Port of Spain. Poor blind-deaf city. It spanned back, in a grid, from a busy port and dock; worn out now, ruined and ruinous and suffering, always suffering…parts of the city still renewed themselves, rising up against the odds.”

“George liked it so, that this island was uncompromising and hard for tourists to negotiate. Not all welcome smiles and black men in Hawaiian shirts, playing pan by the poolside. No flat, crystal beaches, no boutique hotels. Trinidad was oil-rich, didn’t need tourism. Trinidadians openly sniggered at the sunburnt American women who wandered down the pavement in shorts and bikini top. Trinidad was itself; take it or leave it.”

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Akashi desu!

Maybe you’ve already visited Japan and done the tourist favorites: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Mount Fuji and you want more.Akashi Castle Ruinswww.hotfoottrini.com

Or maybe you’ve never been to Japan yet you’re craving something different. If you do plan to visit Japan soon, skip the major cities and seek out more offbeat cities that have their own local character.

Akashi is a city like this. It’s a short train ride away from metropolitan Kobe in one direction and castle-town Himeji in the other. If you’re coming from other parts of Japan, no worries! The bullet train or shinkansen stops at Nishi-Akashi station.  Here are three places you must visit if you’re ever in this part of Japan.Akashiwww.hotfoottrini.com (2)

Akashi Castle, Japanwww.hotfoottrini.com

Akashi Park and Akashi Castle

One of the city’s highlights is Akashi Park. The park is quite large and great for picnicking, especially during sakura season. There are several cherry blossom trees, especially around the large paddling lake. Within the park, you will find Akashi Castle, built in 1620. Although very little of the original castle remains (two watchtowers and some castle walls), the views from the top are worth it. From here, you can see the Seto Inland Sea,  Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge (the world’s longest suspension bridge), and a sweeping panorama of the city. Akashiwww.hotfoottrini.com

Uonotana

Akashi is pretty famous in Japan for its seafood. Even if you’ve already been to Japan’s seafood mecca, Tsukiji Market, you’ll certainly appreciate the local charm of Akashi’s fish market, located within walking distance of Akashi train station. On Uonotana Shotengai, a 400-year old shopping street, there’s no shortage of squiggly, dead, dried, or otherwise preserved sea monsters. The local specialities sold here are sea bream, octopus, and eel. With over 100 shops including restaurants, there’s a ton of seafood to sample. Don’t leave without trying akashiyaki, Akashi’s version of takoyaki. Unlike Osaka’s version, Akashi’s yummy octopus-filled fritters are dipped into a light dashi broth. If octopus isn’t your thing, here is also the perfect place to get fresh sushi. The street is also very pretty, with hundreds of colorful fisherman’s flags or tairyobata so go camera-crazy. Akashiwww.hotfoottrini.com (1)

Akashi Municipal Planetarium

Akashi’s other claim to fame is that it’s located exactly 135 degrees east longitude, the meridian line used to measure Japanese Standard Time (JST). Built in 1960, the Akashi Municipal Planetarium honors Akashi’s status as “the city of time.” The planetarium is the perfect place to learn more about the stars, planets, time, and space. Bonus points: from here, you can also get crisp views of Akashi-Kaikyo bridge on clear, sunny days.

Photos: © Hot Foot Trini

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20 tips on how to be a great ALT in Japan

One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching in Japan is that all you need is a winning attitude. The Japanese call it being genki or energetic in the classroom.

As an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), your Japanese team-teacher (JTE) will expect you to feel like unicorns and rainbows every day. Nothing is wrong with genkiness per se but just playing the foreign clown in the classroom is not going to help your students learn English. After spending one year as an ALT, I’ve developed 20 tips on how to be a good assistant teacher.20 tips to be a great ALT in Japanwww.hotfoottrini.com (3)

1. Learn some Japanese before you go.

Learn more than survival phrases so that you can actually have conversations with your JTEs and other colleagues. This will help you to build more lasting relationships in the work environment. Initiate small talk. Share your culture and experiences. Also if you learn Japanese, you will understand the differences between Japanese and English and understand why students and teachers make certain errors.

2. Take your job seriously.

You are here to teach English. You are not on an extended vacation. Even if you’ve never taught before, don’t make this an excuse for poor lesson planning and execution. Just because you’re a native speaker does not automatically make you a great English teacher. Linguistics professor Robert Phillipson calls this the “native speaker fallacy.” If you’re stuck, go online. Here are 3 ESL lesson plans to help you.

3. Recognize the difference.

There is a vast difference between teaching English to native speakers and teaching English to ESL students. Don’t assume that your Japanese students will automatically understand complex grammatical rules. Break it down in the simplest way possible.

4. Be realistic.

Not all Japanese students are well behaved. Many will sleep in class, talk loudly, and not utter a word in English. In fact, not all Japanese students want to learn English. Many of them don’t care about English because they don’t see how it relates to their daily lives. Tweak your lessons so that they’re relevant and interesting to your students.

5. Remember that you were hired as an assistant (language teacher).

Respect the other JTEs as your superiors. You are here to help them, not run your own show. Once you humble yourself and stick to your role, you won’t feel frustrated. In my case, being an ALT meant team teaching, making lesson plans and activities, marking assignments and exam scripts, making and assessing speaking tests, coaching students for speech contests, and managing the ESS (English Speaking Society).

6. Get familiar with each teacher’s teaching style and expectations.

Some may want you to take a backseat. Some may want you to be the head teacher. Adjust yourself accordingly.

7. Listen to what they have to say.

Remember that they are constrained in their roles by the curriculum, examinations, club activities, and other pressures. Use the textbook to guide your activities. Make sure that your team teaching classes supplement the classes the JTE teaches by himself or herself.

8. Share your ideas about teaching.

Many of my JTEs were receptive to my ideas because I presented them in a firm yet polite way. I also clearly justified my position so that they were more likely to be persuaded to adopt my suggestions.

9. Be ready to answer complex language questions.

If you don’t know, don’t lie and say something stupid. Do some research first and then get back to them.

10. Always be on top of your schedule.

In my high school, my timetable would change so frequently that it became something nice to look at. Listen to the announcements during the daily morning meeting to know whether the teaching day will follow a normal or special schedule. Ask the teachers what they want you to do and plan your lessons in advance.

11. Get to the classroom five minutes early.

Get in early, especially if you have to set up your resources like put up charts or use the computer and projector. Many mishaps can occur like computer updates, power outages, and speakers that don’t work. Always have a plan B or a low-tech version of your activities.

12. Be aware of the different classroom atmosphere.

Japanese students are a lot more reticent than learners in other countries. For your self-introduction, help them get out of their shells by rearranging the classroom into small groups. This drastically changes the work atmosphere to a more collaborative one so that students are more likely to speak out. Also, don’t give a speech. Instead, make the students guess key things about yourself like your favorite food etc.

13. If you ask a question to the whole class, don’t expect anyone to  put up their hand.

Speak slowly and give students time to answer. Encourage students to discuss it with a partner. Japanese students have a tendency to consult with their peers before they answer in front of a class of 41 students.

14. Use simple English.

Don’t use too much slang and don’t ramble as you’ll just confuse the students. Speak clearly and slowly so they can catch every word.

15. Teach real English.

There are so many examples of authentic English out there in viral videos, posters, signs, brochures, social media posts, movies, music, emails etc. Show your students that it’s not always possible to literally translate Japanese to English. Instead, teach them to develop an English mindset by exposing themselves to real English outside of their textbooks.

16. Explain that there’s no such thing as Standard English.

Tell them that the textbook does not provide all the answers about the English language. Explain that there is a variety of World Englishes. Show them that the language is always constantly evolving. Demonstrate that there’s not always a right or wrong way of speaking or writing English. Explain that just because someone speaks English with a different accent does not mean that he or she is speaking incorrectly.

17. Give your students a space to speak and write freely in English.

Allow them to speak freely during warm-up activities or introduce them to free writing. This gives them an opportunity to practice their English free of judgment and correction. Explain that’s it’s okay to make mistakes when producing language, that even native speakers do so on a regular basis! Free teachers and students from the misconception that English is muzukashii or difficult to learn.

18. Constantly reflect on your teaching.

Are you relating well to your JTEs? Does your relationship with the JTE in the classroom help the students understand English better? Are your lesson plans mirroring or extending the English taught by your JTEs in their other English classes? What activities need more explaining? Do you need to provide more examples? Constantly assess whether you’ve pitched your lesson at the appropriate level so that it’s not too hard and too easy for your students. Record your observations in a teaching journal after every class.

19. Get involved in life outside of the classroom.

School life in Japan is so much more than lessons and examinations. There are many school activities and events to participate in: sports day, school festivals, cleaning time, club activities. Be genuinely interested and get in there!

20. Remember that being an ALT doesn’t have to be a career.

If you’re good at being an ALT and would like to make a career out of it, go for it. However, if teaching English in Japan isn’t really cutting it, just treat it like any other job: a valuable learning experience.

Wanna read more about my experiences? Here are 13 things I realized when teaching abroad and 5 tips for teaching English as a person of color.

Photos: © Hot Foot Trini

Are you an ALT? What tips would you like to share?

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Exploring Batu Caves

We take the train to Batu Caves, the last stop on the line running from the center of Kuala Lumpur.

garlandThe streets near the caves are lined with vendors selling technicolor Indian sweets and plump flower garlands. Above, pigeons roost on electrical lines. The ground beneath is stained with a history of their droppings. Someone throws some birdseed on the ground and they rush to the spot. The air is ripe with the smell of dirt and pigeon mess. One man shoots large, iridescent bubbles from a machine gun.

Further ahead is the entrance to Temple or Cathedral Cave. A giant, gleaming statue of a Murugan, the Hindu god of war, guards the base of a flight of 272 stairs that rises sharply and disappears into the cave. At the base, a woman stops a group of girls dressed in shorts. “No short pants in the temple!” she shouts and shows them some gauzy sarongs to cover their naked legs. Macaque monkeys run up and down the ledges, jumping to and from nearby branches, nibbling food they’ve found or stolen from unsuspecting tourists.

At Temple cave entrance, little kiosks sell miniature brass gods, incense sticks, toys, smartphone covers, and flash drives. A girl stands against the wall. Her eyes are downcast. She holds her shawl open like a hammock for charitable donations. The scent of stale food and wet gravel lingers within. Water dribbles from the roof. In the cave’s many nooks and crannies, there are statues of gods and goddesses illuminated by lurid light.

flowerNext, Cave Villa: an art and reptile gallery. Dusty peacocks roam freely. The air smells of damp earth and peacock droppings. Sculpted paintings with pithy sayings hang on the irregular cave walls:

“There are two looks in the dyed eyes of this (fair) one; one causes pain and the other is the cure thereof.”

“The pipe is sweet, the lute is sweet,” say those who have not heard the prattle of their own children.”

In the depths of the earth, creatures sleep in glass cases, drowsy from the cave’s humidity. Slow moving albino snakes, a bumpy-skinned alligator, turtles, fish, rabbits. “Would you like to take a picture with a snake?” someone asks. “No thank you,” I reply. It starts to feel creepy and claustrophobic so we exit for the sunshine.

peacockNext, we head to another part of the temple complex where a stage has been carved out of the rock. A dancer sits backstage, waiting for her next performance. She looks tired. We sit on red plastic stools. Two glossy peacocks strut around, oblivious to the cameras and smartphones recording their every move.

Three dancers begin. The music sounds like a mashup of Indian and American Western music. Then the diva arrives: red mohawk, sculpted eyebrows, dramatic eye makeup. A fake-gold choker drips from his slim neck. A russet bodysuit clings to his lithe form, the armpits already stained with sweat. Around his waist, a fabulous tail of glossy peacock feathers. His eyes dance; his smile is electric; his movements are fluid. The tourists seem more interested in documenting the peacocks’ languid movements.

When we return to the train station, I ask the ticket seller which platform heads back to the city center. He points to a piece of paper desultorily. We descend the stairs to the correct platform and get into the train. As we wait for it to depart, two women quickly sweep the carriage’s already spotless floor. The air conditioning dries the sweat from our backs and faces. The sweepers leave and we glide back to the modern city.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

Have you ever been to Batu Caves? Tell me about it below!

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Hiroshima: the memory remains

In Hiroshima city, it’s spring. The sun is warm and the air is fresh. Smells somewhat green. Birds are singing. In the city center, a tram pulls off and the street vibrates. Men in pressed pinstriped suits and polished brogues walk briskly and women cycle to their offices in chunky heels (how do they do it?).

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The Motoyasu river glitters past the A-bomb dome. The dome looks benign, protected by an exoskeleton of scaffolding. Further along the river, Hiroshima Castle soars into the sky like an iced wedding cake. The cherry trees on the castle grounds sprout pink buds. Some are already blossoming. A man gently sleeps under the trees. Fountains bloom. Flowers smile.

In the Peace Memorial Park, an old woman doubles over in prayer, clasping two withered hands in front of a cenotaph for the A-bomb victims. Colorful bouquets rest in front of it.

The Peace Memorial Museum stands nearby, a gray rectangle with rows of long windows cut into its sides. Inside the museum tells another story of the city. On August 6, 1945, at 8:15am, the Allies dropped Little Boy on Hiroshima, then Japan’s military stronghold. At first, the residents saw a flash in the sky ten times brighter than the sun. Then, they heard a heavy boom and felt an intense heat. At ground level, the nuclear bomb created firestorms that swept through the city, melting everything. Thirty minutes after the blast, black rain fell on the survivors and the wreckage. Little Boy instantly killed 80,000 people and injured 100,000 more.

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Inside the museum, the war becomes a story of remains. Things left behind. A khaki cloth satchel discolored by death and the passing of time. A stained Shirley Temple doll and a black and white photo of a little girl clutching the doll to her chest. A scene: wax figures running away from the blast, mouths open in horror, skin melting off their limbs. A lock of singed hair. Disembodied, shriveled fingernails. Close-ups of hibakusha, those exposed to the radiation: scorched faces, blistered backs, buttocks, legs, and arms. Stories of human deterioration: hair loss, internal bleeding, diarrhea, birth defects, cancer.

Soon, it becomes too much to bear. How could Japan hold on to such a dreadful past? As a Caribbean person, I couldn’t understand because I suffer from historical amnesia, evident in Derek Walcott’s poem, “The Sea is History.” He writes:

“Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?

Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,

in that gray vault. The sea. The sea

has locked them up. The sea is History.”

In the Caribbean, we love to forget. We raze old buildings and build new ones. We clear the landscapes and start afresh. Our relics are buried deep in the ocean bed. The sea becomes the sole repository of our history: our dirty past of conquest, colonialism, slavery, and indentureship. In Japan, it’s different. The good, the bad, and the ugly are preserved in well-curated museums and restored castles, shrines, and temples.

Perhaps the Japanese don’t want to forget. American poet Susan Stewart explains that humans look for objects that embody an “authentic experience”:

“…the memory of the body is replaced by the memory of the object, a memory standing outside the self and thus presenting both a surplus and lack of significance- it is saturated with meanings that can never be fully revealed to us.”

In the same way, the objects carefully curated by Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum have become imbued with a special significance. Without understanding their context, they look mundane. But when we understand the backstory, they become more poignant. They remind the Japanese people of a horror that happened in real life. They do not forget because over time, they can develop the perspective needed to deal with the dreadful past.

When I exit, the city of Hiroshima still seems lovely. The sun still shines. The cherry trees still blossom. The river still glitters. The center still bustles. However, under the surface, there is always the memory of pain and the city still cries for the bodies that remain, burned into the fabric of the streets.

Photos: © Live Lyfe Photography

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