Thursday, October 16, 2008

Omar, Where Art Thou?

For the past two days, people have been extremely nervous about Hurricane Omar. It certainly doesn't help when the local papers play on people's fears and blow things out of porportion. The headlines make things look a lot scarier than they actually turn out to be, and that's typical of the local media. For the past few days, the headlines just made it seem like Omar was destined for Puerto Rico. Everyone began to stock up on food and all sorts of necessities. Fear sells, I suppose.

As with most people who live here, I was waiting for Omar. I just wanted this to come and be over with! Unfortunately, my line of work does benefit from emergencies such as hurricanes. However, when people become desperate and can't get what they want in the manner in which they want it, things can get ugly. I was actually quite afraid of the consequences of Omar. Thankfully, all turned out well but the past two days were quite tiring, to say the least. I am also glad that Omar decided to change its trajectory towards the East. Phew! What a relief!

Last night, in San Juan, we just got a tiny bit of rain and practically zero wind. Ironically, people received little warning over last month's storm, which caused major flooding and landslides. Whereas with Omar, the press couldn't talk enough about it. Like many other things in Puerto Rico, everything works backwards here.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tips on Learning Foreign Languages

As with many things in life, children seem to learn things much quicker, especially when learning how to speak a different language. However, all hope is not lost for those of us who are determined to be multilingual. The most important ingredients are perserverence, determination and discipline! Oh, and do not ever be afraid of making mistakes. After all, who has ever learned to walk without ever falling?

I'd say what helped me most with my Spanish is just reading the papers, books, watching TV, and actually speaking with others! My case is a bit different, because I spoke fluent Spanish when I was a young child, but almost lost it completely when I moved to New York as an adolescent. These days, I speak a lot of Spanish at home and at work. I force myself and those around me to speak to me in Spanish most of time, and this has certainly helped me a lot.

If you're interested in learning how to speak Español, just go for it! Pick up a language book, if you don't have time to attend a class, and surround yourself with all things Spanish! If possible, I highly recommend you to consider the option of studying abroad as well. Spanish Language Source is a good place to start your research. I studied abroad when I was a college student and it was one of the best experiences I ever had.

I must admit I didn't discover my passion for languages until I moved back to Puerto Rico. It's funny how certain things in life just make you realize how we're capable of doing so much more. For the past seven months or so, I've also been learning how to speak Dutch and I'm absolutely loving it!

So, if you'd like to learn a foreign language, here are some of my tips for you:

1) Dedication & Discipline: try to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour everyday studying. Pick up a good language book and just do the exercises!

2) Read, Listen & Talk: personally, I like watching the news in foreign languages. Here are some of my favorites: CNN en Español, El Nuevo Día (Puerto Rican Newspaper), RTL Nieuws (Dutch), Hart Van Nederland (Dutch).

Podcasts are also a wonderful learning tool. Laura Speaks Dutch is simply fantastic!

3) Help from Native Speakers: soliciting the help of a native speaker does wonders! I am fortunate enough to have both native Spanish and Dutch-speaking people help me with both languages respectively. I have never tried this, but I've noticed that language exchange communities, such as Live Mocha, are quite popular these days. So, why not give it a try?

4) Last but not least, practice, repeat, practice, repeat!

Oh, and don't forget to just have fun!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Tough Economic Times

Puerto Rico's economy has officially been in recession for the past two years. According to the government figures in 2007, unemployment was estimated to be around 10.7% (note: this number should be a lot higher today) and inflation is also in the double digits. In addition, the government is continuously running a budget deficit. Everywhere you go, people are shaking their heads with a worried look on their face, and say "la economía está bien mala." Translation: the economy is really bad. None of the local banks have gone bankrupt, or in desperate need of federal assistance just yet, as they weren't neck-deep in the subprime mortgage mess, but they are certainly not susceptible to what goes on in the mainland U.S.

The global credit crisis means it will also be tougher for Puerto Ricans to borrow money. It's safe to say that most consumers here rely heavily on their credit cards. For the longest time, there was zero sales tax here in Puerto Rico. This changed two years ago, when the government slapped on a 7% sales tax. Certain essential items are exempt, like bread, milk and other staples. The cost of living in the island is certainly not cheap. Here are some examples:

1) Low-fat milk (1 gallon): $5.60
2) Gala apples (1 pound): $1.89
3) Brocoli (1 bunch): $3.50
4) Holsum white bread (1 loaf): $2.67
5) Farm-raised salmon (1 pound): $7.99

Please keep in mind the average income in Puerto Rico is only $18,400. Also, the agricultural sector here makes up a very small percentage of the economy. As a result, practically everything here is imported. Generally speaking, wages are also much higher in the mainland. I suppose this explains why so many Puerto Ricans have migrated to the States in search for better economic opportunities. With such a high cost of living, which just seems to be going nowhere but up, everybody's wallet is definitely feeling the pinch. This also helps to explain why the economy is of utmost concern for the majority of Puerto Ricans in the upcoming elections.

(Cartoon by KAL, The Economist)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Know Your Emergency Numbers

I learned a really hard lesson last weekend, and I urge you to consider the advice I am about to give you. Please, please and please program the phone number of your local police station or keep it somewhere that's easy for you to reach. Unfortunately, I became a victim of a crime and I wrongly assumed that calling 911 would help.

After calling several times, where the phone would just keep ringing and ringing, I gave up. I even dialed the area code 787 prior to 911 just to see if I can get through to someone. By the way, for those who do not live in PR, you do have to dial 787 (if you're trying to reach someone in the San Juan area) and then the phone number. It was definitely frustrating when you're desperately trying to get help and you just can't seem to reach anyone. I felt so helpless.

To put it lightly, I was also in panic when 911 wasn't answering my call. Luckily, someone helped me flag down a police officer who was on patrol, something which is a common sight throughout the streets of San Juan these days. Nevertheless, I do have the phone number of the local police station programmed into my cell phone now. This was something which the police officer himself suggested I do. If you live in Puerto Rico, I urge you to look up the number to your local police station as well. For those traveling abroad, it'll probably be a good idea to find out what the local emergency numbers are as well, and hope that someone picks up.