An Amazing Week In Oaxaca

Earlier this month, from June 8-15th, I had the pleasure of going to Oaxaca Mexico, with my brother and a few other volunteers, to help set up computers for the kids in the underprivileged areas with the non-profit, Kids on Computers.

One of the many performances done, in our honor, when we first arrived at the school.

One of the many performances done, in our honor, when we first arrived at the school.

Arriving from the airport was a bit of a hassle, as my Spanish had not yet come back to me, but I was able to at least ask how to get to the hotel. On the way in, I was able to admire the homely and very busy feeling of the city, similar to LA, but the people were more intimate and genuine when speaking with each other.

All the Kids are waiting around to see their newly unveiled computer lab

All the Kids are waiting around to see their newly unveiled computer lab

Being in Oaxaca, and especially at the new school lab we set up in Oaxaca City, was such a great feeling. We were immediately welcomed, and on the first day there they had the whole school have a festival, in our honor, as well as presenting us with a plaque for Kids on Computers. The whole time there, they treated us like family, fed us every morning, and some nights even fed us at their house.

During the first 4 days we set up the laptops and a local network.  We later taught the teachers and students how to use them. Some of the teachers weren’t familiar with the programs (Tux Math, Tux Type, Khan Academy, Wikipedia, GCompris, and other games), or English, but with my fair amount of Spanish and their fragmented English we were able to work together and really get them moving quickly.

Myself, brother, and the rest of the crew enjoyed our time as honored guests, and even got up and danced with them.

Myself, brother, and the rest of the crew enjoyed our time as honored guests, and even got up and danced with them.

The latter 3 days we went to restaurants in our area, visited the local stores and practiced our Spanish with the local people. We also had the pleasure of visiting the school on Saturday, to finish up some inventory, and were able to player soccer in the streets with the kids that lived around there.

I had such a great time with the people there, and loved the people I was working with too. I hope I’m able to come back next year and see all the kids again, and hope that they all remember me.

All food was paid for by our hosts whenever they dined with us.

All food was paid for by our hosts whenever they dined with us.

Challenges of Technology in Education

With each new computer lab established by Kids on Computers, there are a variety of challenges to overcome. For example, this week as our volunteers prepare to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, teachers are on strike to protest upcoming elections they believe to be a farce and to draw attention to unmet demands. Protests have disrupted the airport in Oaxaca City, and also some ground transportation (gas stations). We are closely watching the situation and hope for a positive outcome.

Besides logistical challenges, we are constantly looking for ways to improve the technology adoption in schools we serve. An article in this week’s Washington Post focuses on one of the biggest challenges we try to overcome at Kids on Computers. Technology won’t fix America’s neediest schools. It makes bad education worse. accurately describes many of the things we experience in our computer labs. We are pretty good at the one-time task of getting computers and educational software physically delivered and setup in a lab for underprivileged kids. But we continue to seek creative solutions to the long-term tasks of maintenance and teacher training.

The article’s author, Kentaro Toyama, describes a scenario that he observed in Bangalore, India, that is not dissimilar to our experiences:

One visit I made to a government primary school just outside of Bangalore illustrates why. The headmaster unlocked a large metal cabinet to show me where he kept the school’s personal computers. Inside, desktop PCs, monitors, and keyboards were piled shoulder high, somehow caked in dust even though they weren’t out in the open. He explained that the PCs had been received with excitement two years before. The school had cleared a room in the spartan cement-block building for a computer lab. Classes visited the lab one after the other, and students, crowding five or six to a PC, found games to play. The teachers, however, complained that the games didn’t follow the curriculum, and in any case, they didn’t know how to incorporate digital tools for teaching. Then, within weeks, the equipment began to fail. Power surges were probably to blame. The school had no IT staff, and there was no budget for technical support. Soon after, the machines were locked away, and the computer lab was repurposed.

Simply delivering hardware, software, and educational media content is not enough. We also must find and encourage local volunteers with technical skills who can support the school administrators and teachers as they work to incorporate technology into their curriculum.

Computer setup is easy. Long term training and support is more complicated.

Computer setup is easy. Long term training and support is more complicated.

How to smuggle laptops out of Cabo

During my last family vacation, I decided that all 7 of us could carry a laptop into Mexico (Brilliant Idea #1) and that’s where the adventure started because nothing dealing with getting computers to Mexico is ever as easy as it sounds.

One of Kids on Computers’ main problems is getting used equipment to the schools. Most countries like Mexico charge expensive import taxes on equipment and often much of the equipment goes missing in the mail. However, each traveler to Mexico can carry one laptop in. So the best solution we’ve found is to send a laptop per person. So when my family planned a vacation to Cabo, Mexico, I had the great idea that all 7 of us on the trip should carry a laptop with us. I even checked ahead and found a FedEx store about a 30 minute drive from where we were staying and using the online calculator, figured out that it would be about $45 to ship all 7 laptops to Oaxaca where our new school is going in. What an awesome way to get 7 donated laptops to the our new school!

So we packed for our vacation and added 7 laptops wrapped in bubble wrap to our bags. We had no problem getting into Mexico with them.

Suitcases with laptops

Suitcases with laptops

Take #1: The guys

The second day in Mexico, the guys decided to run to town to get fishing poles. (We discovered we could fish from the beach near our house.) At my insistence, they reluctantly took the laptops with them.

Problem #1: Where is FedEx?

When the guys came home 4-5 hours later, they insisted there was no FedEx where Google Maps showed it. I asked if they’d asked anyone and they said yes, they’d asked at the hotel at the site where Google Maps claimed it was and nobody knew anything about it.

I called the FedEx in San Jose de Cabo and nobody answered. I called the FedEx 1-800 number and they confirmed the office and address.

Take #2: Kim & Stormy

So the next day Kim and I set out. Here’s a picture of the road between our house and town. This is not the worst stretch, just one where I was comfortable stopping to take a picture.

The road from our house to San Jose

The road from our house to San Jose

We arrived at the FedEx address, and sure enough, no FedEx. I tried calling again and no answer. The next closest FedEx was 30 minutes down the road in Cabo San Lucas. We were debating driving there when Kim suggested calling it. Brilliant idea #2! They gave us much more useful directions to the San Jose office. Across the street from the Walmart and Nissan dealership in the Las Palmas shopping center. Turns out Walmart is also not in the right place on Google maps but Walmart is a big enough building with good enough branding that we found it.

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FedEx office in San Jose del Cabo

Problem #2: No customs approval

The FedEx guy informed us that Cabo is a border state and that to ship anything anywhere in Mexico, we would need to go to customs at the airport first and get our package taped. Another 30 minutes up the road. He told us we’d also need a receipt. He was pretty insistent that we’d need a receipt. He said we’d pay import taxes of 5% of the value. Several customers walking in with boxes covered in customs tape verified this.

The FedEx guy also suggested we talk to the Mailbox store next store. The Mailbox guys confirmed we must have a receipt. Once we had a receipt, they said they’d be willing to take the laptops to customs for us and that import tax was 16%.

Mistake #1: Not getting a box

At this point, we were hauling the laptops around in a cooler (each wrapped in bubble wrap) and I asked if the FedEx guy if he’d sell me a box. There were some with price tags in the front. He brought out a non-FedEx box but said I should buy one at customs. He was rather reluctant to sell me the one he had. I should have insisted. In retrospect, I don’t think he had any boxes. Everything he ships comes packed up and taped up with customs tape, so I doubt he sells any boxes.

Brilliant Idea #3: Getting help from someone with a computer and internet

So at this point, Kim and I take all the laptops outside to the shady sidewalk, unpack each one and write down the serial numbers. I hadn’t brought my computer with me, thinking I was just sending a FedEx package, so I sent the list to Avni and asked if she could write a letter for us. Avni wrote us a great letter explaining who Kids on Computers is and the estimated value of the laptops.

Mistake #2: You need a receipt

In retrospect, we should have made up a receipt, not a valuation letter. More on that later.

Kim and I went to lunch (it was 4pm at this point) while Avni wrote the letter. We had some back and forth via phone from Mexico to the States to get the numbers right.

We went back to the FedEx store to print the letter and realized the numbers weren’t right. (Not all laptops have clear serial numbers and we’d done some wrong.) At that point, I wasn’t going to drag Kim to customs and I wasn’t sure how late they’d be open, so I said I’d try again Monday.

Over the weekend, Avni and I tweaked the letter. It was additionally complicated by the fact that I had 2 factor Dropbox authentication set up and I had no place where I could get both wifi and cell service.

Take #3: Stormy & Frank with kids in tow

On Monday, my family and I went to FedEx. My kids very reluctantly.

Kids along for the adventure

Kids along for the adventure

At FedEx, I tried to email the letter to the FedEx guy so that he could print it but my cell service wasn’t good enough. (Learning #5,129,398: Verizon international data roaming works better than Tmobile’s.) I tried to get him to go to the Dropbox page but when he very reluctantly tried to open the page, when it didn’t open immediately, he quit. I tried getting the hotel next door to give me wifi access but they wouldn’t. When I asked them to print the letter, they said they were out of toner. At this point, Avni emailed the letter to the FedEx guy. (Learning #5,129,399: Have an awesome partner with good internet access available via text.)

The FedEx guy printed the letter and I triumphantly returned to the car.

Waypoint #2: Customs

We drove out to the airport and arrived at customs to discover they had no boxes and the closest store was many miles down the road. In the meantime, they looked at my letter and the laptops. They unwrapped each laptop to write down the make and model. They didn’t care about the serial numbers at all. They then valued them (using some process inside that I couldn’t observe) and told me that they were 15,000 pesos, around $1,000 USD and that I would need to pay 16% tax. I tried bartering with them but it did not seem to be negotiable. I also asked where I could sell them for that price and they just shrugged.

Customs is a counter outside, so during this whole process we stood outside in the sun.


Waiting outside for customs

Oh, and by the way, anything you mail out of Cabo, has to go through customs at the airport. We saw people with letters, with boxes of gifts for kids, with bags of dirty clothes to mail, … all of it got checked and taped.

Dumpster Diving

So mistake #1 came back to bite us. Customs did not sell nor even have boxes. Several other customers tried to help us and we ended up with a variety of heavy duty bags but a trash bag wasn’t going to protect the laptops.

All the gas stations around the airport said they sold only candy and beer, so no sizable boxes. The hotel was very helpful but said the trash got picked up at 6am. They sent us to City Club which is like a Costco. We decided to go dumpster diving instead. There were several big warehouse looking buildings with brands like Bimbo and Corona painted on the sides.

Dumpster diving for a box

Dumpster diving for a box

Frank found us a great box. And then somehow as I was packing the laptops into it, I made mistake #2.

Mistake #2, the colossal mistake

Mistake #2 was a colossal mistake. (Although not as time consuming as Mistake #1.) After loading the box into the trunk, I could not find the keys anywhere and the only place where they could have gone was inside the locked trunk. I had locked the keys in the trunk.

At this point, Avni suggested it might be easier and perhaps cheaper to have one of our Oaxaca volunteers fly to Cabo to get the laptops. The customs officials had told me I could carry them on any domestic flight without trouble. They started researching flights.

While Frank walked to the nearest gas station to get refreshments, I called National and once I explained to them that I was at the Bimbo factory, they sent a car immediately. The driver seemed to find nothing strange about an American family dumpster diving. He even helped me search the trunk and suggested we unpack the box of laptops. Sure enough, the keys were nestled between 2 bubble wrapped laptops!

We made a pit stop for cash at the airport terminal and returned to customs. They took my money and passport and 10 minutes later returned with a receipt and taped up our box. Yeah! Frank pointed out anyone with a roll of that tape would be very popular.

Box with official customs tape

Box with official customs tape

Back to where it all started

I was really afraid to get my hopes up, but I really thought we had it at this point.

We returned to FedEx (another half an hour drive) with the custom taped box. Then we started the process of mailing it. It took half an hour to do all the paperwork (at some point I stopped talking to the FedEx guy thinking maybe I was slowing the process down) but turns out everything was really in order this time and he gave me a receipt, tracking number and took the box.

Actually mailing the package!

Actually mailing the package!

I didn’t know if I was relieved that the laptops were shipped or a bit worried that I was leaving them to do the next part of the journey on their own.

Celebrating with a margarita

Celebrating with a margarita

Waiting to hear about their (legal :)) arrival in Oaxaca …

Foum Jamaa – Morocco

This is a guest post from Jake Tonkel, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Foum Jamaa, Morocco.

Let’s start with a big thank you to Kids on Computers, especially Avni, Fareeda, Randy and Chase, from me, my directors, and all my kids. What you guys do is so cool and gives these kids so many more opportunities for learning.

Jake teaching Scratch -

Jake teaching Scratch –

A quick recap of the trip from my perspective.


Side Walk Grills in Marrakech – Djemaa el FNA

Side Walk Grills in Marrakech – Djemaa el FNA

The carnevalesque market right at the center of the medina is Marrakech’s heartbeat. This used to be once a meeting place for regional farmers and tradesmen; today it is surrounded by bazaars, mosques, and terraced cafes.


Moroccan Cusine and Hospitality

Morrocon Tagine Experience at Dar Chebab in Ouled M’Barek Women’s center and Ouaouizeght Boarding School host families.

What is a Tagine?

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A tagine is a unique type of ceramic or clay cookware that’s popular in North Africa. The bottom is a wide, circular shallow dish used for both cooking and serving, while the top of the tagine is distinctively shaped into a rounded dome or cone.


My Experience in Morocco

This is a guest post from Chase Johnson.

Ouaouizeght, Morocco

This fall, I had the opportunity to go to Morocco with my uncle and help set up two computer labs along with changing the software of one other existing lab. I, being the youngest volunteer in the group at only 15 yrs old, did not get to help quite as much with creating or installing the software but still felt like I was a good factor of the project because I was able to connect with some of the kids closer to my age. We ended up staying nine days in Morocco, we had four days of setting up computer labs, we had three days for tourism, and we had one day of preparation. When we put in the software, some of the kids knew exactly what to do with no questions asked, while others didn’t even know how to use the mouse. Being able to give the kids the extra help that they needed was incredible and life changing for me and for them.


Kids on Computers Lab Set up in Ouled Moussa

This is a guest post from Jake Stern, current Peace Corps volunteer serving in Ouled Moussa, Beni Mellal, Morocco where we set up one lab during our Morocco October 2014 trip. His post describes our time at Ouled Moussa including our final day at the lab where we setup networking and taught a class. His original post is here

These past couple of days have been the most busy days of my Peace Corps service thus far. Beginning last Sunday, I have consistently gotten up at 8am and been finished with work at 8pm with only a lunch break in between. Now this may sound trivial to the average American schedule but in PCV and Moroccan terms this is intense.


(Here we are working on the set up of the Lab)


Meet Randy Tate

We’re in Morocco! Check out our progress on day 1 and day 2.

In addition to the details of the trip, we’re exited to share our volunteers’s stories. Randy Tate is a long time volunteer, member of the board (stay tuned for an upcoming series that introduces each of our board members), and our current Vice President. We’ve asked him about his favorite trips and why he’s motivated to volunteer with this organization.


Morocco Day 2 – Dar Chabab

Monday morning we started out with Sasa taking us to Mubrak’s (one of the community leaders) house for breakfast at 8am. He and his wife brought out regular bread, cheese, and another bread which reminded me of a bigger version of the Indian paratha. We also had almonds and milk-coffee. Incredibly delicious.

We then when to a stall looking for a 3G USB sticks to connect to the internet. The first stall didn’t have any but had wifi that we could use so of course we stood around the street for 30 minutes checking email on our phones and trying to figure out why Randy’s unlocked phone was not accepting the SIM card he bought yesterday. The second stall had a 3G USB stick for 200 DH (~$25USD) which included a SIM card with unlimited data good for 30 days. We opted to get one and share for use in the hotel at night. Tears of joy. 

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