MONTEVIDEO — English instructor Claudio Javier Cajes Terra gave up his summer vacation and time at the beach with his family in Montevideo, Uruguay, for the chance to board a plane and land 16 hours later in Minneapolis.
He was greeted Jan. 18 by howling winds, subzero temperatures and a no travel advisory to his intended destination, Montevideo, Minnesota.
Now that he’s in Montevideo, he can’t say enough about how it’s so much like home. He cited the friendly people he’s met, a rural landscape not unlike that of the Uruguayan countryside, and the shared interests and topics in conversations with the people he’s met as examples of how much we share in common.
“Feels like home, without snow of course,” he laughed over coffee at Java River in downtown Montevideo earlier this week.
Cajes, 34, is a business English mentor and teacher in Uruguay with the Alianza Cultural Uruguay-Estados Unidos. He lives in Colonia del Sacramento, a small community near Montevideo, Uruguay.
This is the 11th year Montevideo has hosted an English instructor with the Alianza. It is sponsored by the Partners of the Americas, which uses U.S. Department of State funds to foster exchanges, according to Patrick Moore of Montevideo, a state member of the Partners. Moore and his wife, Mary, also serve as host for Cajes’ visit.
The two Montevideos share a relationship that dates to a 1905 exchange of flags. A statue of Jose Artigas has been a central feature of Montevideo’s downtown since its arrival in 1949. Uruguayan schoolchildren collected pennies to make the gift possible. Montevideo will celebrate its 75th annual Fiesta Days this year.
Cajes knew all about what to expect in Minnesota’s version of Montevideo long before he stepped off the plane in Minneapolis. His 10 predecessors had also made trips during their summer vacations and, as a result, stepped smack dab into the heart of winter here. They came back not with warnings about the weather, but with stories about how nice the people in Minnesota are, said Cajes.
“It’s not overstated,” said Cajes of his experience. “Super nice. Everyone is very kind.”
He started learning English as a 9-year-old. He has been a teacher for 12 years. His visit to the United States will span four weeks and focus on education. After a week in Montevideo, he will spend time in Duluth and the Twin Cities, visiting schools and meeting with instructors.
Cajes said he sought out this opportunity to experience American culture as well as improve his language skills. “Culture and language are strongly linked. It’s difficult to teach one without the other. You need to experience it,” he said.
He said the music playing at the very first restaurant he visited was familiar to him. American music and pop culture is widely dispersed throughout South America.
He’s already had a few opportunities to explore what Minnesota offers. He’s been cross-country skiing and had plans for an ice fishing outing on Thursday evening.
He started his visit by attending the Minnesota River Valley Education District’s annual conference Monday. More than 600 instructors from area school districts examined educational strategies, opportunities and challenges.
The conference only reinforced his appreciation for how much the two countries have in common. Teachers in both countries are dealing with exactly the same issues. “Exactly the same,” he said.
Cajes said issues ranging from social media use by young people to the growing anxiety many young people are bringing to classrooms today are topics being addressed by teachers in Uruguay as well as Minnesota.
His visit is also an opportunity for him to do some teaching. He’s been visiting Montevideo classrooms. During his visit to a Spanish class, he came to realize how immersed he has become in English. He had to confess that he found it a little difficult to switch from English to Spanish.
He will also be meeting with teachers in the U.S. to describe the teaching methodology he uses in Uruguay. It’s a very communicative methodology, and strives to offer learning situations that are as realistic as possible, he said.
Cajes said that one should never lose sight of the fact that it is fun to learn, and that learning is a lifelong process.
While he is a long way from home, Cajes said he remains in contact via technology with his wife, who is expecting their second child in April, and their young daughter, not yet 2 years old.
In the meantime, he is very busy with a schedule lined up by his hosts. “I came with a very open mind to see everything,” he said. He has three weeks of a Minnesota winter still ahead of him, and just might.