Sunday, September 28, 2008

Strange Vibes in a New City

What is it to truly be immersed in a culture? You're not something special, just another person. After a few days in Cuenca, I'm starting to feel that just being a gringo isn't really that big of a deal. You're just another person. Take for instance, the way no one seems to care about including me in conversation or asking me about my culture.

Yesterday my host sister was working with a group for a project for the university, and since I had nothing else to do, I offered to help. I also wanted to start creating a bond with my new family, and helping out is definitely a good way. I was introduced to all of her friends, but after the short intros, I became nonexistent. No one cared to know about me, where I was from, or what I was doing. The group continued to go on as if I wasn't even there.

I thought they might not care at all about me, but then when pizza and soda arrived, they made sure I had two slices and a full cup. After the meal everyone talked as I watched on and struggled to understand, but no one ever tried to bring me in to the conversation. Being on the outside is frustrating and a bit depressing.

My host brother is nice, but I've tried several times to hang out with him and he just kind of shrugs me off. We watched a movie together, but when I asked him to show me around the city a little bit, he just said that there isn't much to do. If I want to talk, I have to initiate all of the conversations.

It's a bit hard, coming from 3 weeks of a very involved family in Quito and tons of other volunteers around to also hang out with and talk to. Once you totally immerse yourself, you realize just how bad you are at a language. In Quito I had two other American roommates that I could count on to jump in on conversations and fill me in when I didn't understand. But now I'm all alone here, and I have to catch everything myself.

Yesterday when talking to my host brother I thought he was inviting me to watch a Formula 1 race with him tonight, so I was excited that he was including me. But tonight when I asked what time the race was on, he said it already happened, leaving me to wonder what the hell we actually talked about.

Maybe I just expected to be a novel thing people would be interested in. Maybe I just expected people to care about showing me a good time. Or maybe I just had different expectations that will have to be altered. The first time I met my new host mother, she talked to me using the formal "Usted." I was taken aback. It must be because I'm an American English professor, because she has over 30 years on me and I've never seen an older person talk to a younger person with Usted.

The streets are cold in a new city, and though I walked around the block a few times to try to create some sense of familiarity, I'm still just a lonely newbie to this city. I'm blond and people stare. Some laugh. Without a large group of people to call up and hang out with, it's hard to feel at place, especially with some free time after weeks of constantly being busy and surrounded by others.

Staring at a semi-empty room with dim lighting, it's enough to make you feel hopeless. I start teaching on Tuesday, and until then, I have to find ways to keep myself occupied throughout the day. Today was the long awaited election to see if the country would rewrite the constitution. My host mother took me with her to the polls to see what it was like.

The streets were packed with people and cars as people headed in. Voting is mandatory here, except for the police and military, who don't have to. As we walked into the school, I could see soldiers everywhere with automatic weapons, just in case. I was surprised to see that men and women voted in separate areas. The whole process took about 2 minutes, and we left.

Later on we went to a family party for a niece who was leaving for Spain for the next two years to study. It was a strange reception for me. The family members seemed happy to meet me, but no one spoke to me. It was like being a friend or family member that no one likes, but everyone else feels obligated to invite.

Being the American, they told me to sit in front of the TV, and that's where I sat in near silence for hours watching different soccer games and golf. The family had DirecTV with maybe 10 different sports channels, 9 of which were soccer.

At the meal I was barely noticed, and though I wanted to speak and practice my Spanish, it's no easy task just jumping in. By 5 p.m. the election was over and the results were immediately in. The country voted overwhelmingly to rewrite the constitution, and the family was excited and happy as we watched the results come in. President Rafael Correa spoke jubilantly, and seemed to me like a Latin JFK.

Later, the mayor of Guayaquil spoke and the family hissed and made fun of him. He was a big proponent to vote No. Throwing yourself into a totally different situation is not easy, especially after having a totally different experience up in Quito. It will take some time, but I already like this city, and will just need more experience here to get my bearings. Until then...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Arrival in Cuenca

I am now writing from the city of Cuenca, which is sort of in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Andes. Last night was a fun last hoorah in Quito with the group of volunteers. We had dinner at a Cuban restaurant and then danced Salsa and slowly filed out as the night went on in groups of 2 or 3. As usual, my sleep at the host families house in Quito was lousy and I woke up several times before my alarm finally kicked me out of bed at 5:30.

The ride to Cuenca from Quito takes about 9 or 10 hours, and we caught the 7:30 a.m. bus with Sucre Express. The ride was anything but express. Starting off with just a few passengers, we made stops in Ambato, Riobamba, and a number of other along-the-road-towns here and there. Hardly anything is dull down in Ecuador, and the bus rides are no exception. Well, that should be obvious from earlier posts.

Today, however, the excitement was more of an innocent type. First, at every stop 2 or 3 vendors will jump on board and yell their product over and over. Some sell nuts and fruit, others sell drinks or fried foods. Though the empanadas look and sound good, it's usually a better idea to just wonder what it tastes like, especially when you have 8 hours to go on a bumpy road.

Unlike bus companies in the U.S., some companies in Ecuador will pick up hitchhikers on the side of the road. They aren't getting a free ride though, they're simply passengers who catch the bus wherever they can flag it down along the route. So at any given time the bus might stop and pick up several new friends. Then later on, someone else could ask to get off anywhere along the emptiness of the Andes just by yelling, "Gracias!"

At one stop, a man jumped on and began to lecture for over a half hour about the powers of naturalistic medicince. Every story has a point, however, and after enough talking he began peddling his pills made of papaya extract. I wouldn't trust any medication that a guy who just jumped on the bus was pushing, but almost everyone on the bus bought some.

Next, a man was lecturing to the bus for 15 minutes about his creams, which many women bought. If there wasn't a guest lecturer, the bus driver played songs from his favorite selections. Being without an iPod, it was nice to drive through the countryside with some local flavor. Once a vendor was done with the sales, the bus would slow just enough for him or her to jump off with all of their belongings and head out for the next bus.

It was a beautifully sunny day and visibility stretched for miles. The Andes are something special--complexly simple. They spring up out of no where and present enormous peaks, yet they are still just simple mountain ranges with farms, animals, and people walking around. These guys make the mountains back in the northeast look like mounds of dirt. I've never seen anything like this before, not even in the Alps, and I spent the better part of 10 hours in awe, looking from side to side.

At one point we were so high up that we weren't just above the clouds, but we were in the second layer of clouds. If I'd been stupid enough to stick my arm out the window I would have been able to grab some cloud. The topography kept changing without much order; at one point it would be lush and fertile, and suddenly it'd be a dry, dessert-like apex for a half hour, then back to the lush greens.

For most of the trip the bus akingly chugged up and down the passes, but every once in a while the bus driver would see an opportunity to get the lead out and would speed around the turns with reckless disregard for human life. Taking sharp turns at 30 or 40 miles an hour, we'd hold on for dear life and pray we didn't go off the edge of the cliff that was just inches from the road. It wasn't that bad though, just a 100 meter plunge, followed by a plateau, and another 1000 drop. A tough break, but doable.

I was exhausted and really could have used some shut eye, but there was too much to see for me to close my eyes. I've been forever spoiled. I don't know how I'll ever be able to drive on I-95 again, with those hideous trees lining each side of the highway, nothing special or interesting to see for hundreds of miles, the only break being the occasional rest area with a McDonald's to break up the monotony.

We passed by plenty of little shacks and huts and I thought that I could honestly live there in peace without want of much else except the good view. Some of the best real estate in the world had shacks with rusty tin roofs in the view. Someone should send a memo to Donald Trump, or better yet, don't. Leave this pristine land the way it is.

A 10 hour travel day is never easy, but it sure does go by easier when you're staring at mountains and volcanoes that dwarf anything you've ever seen and you're practically in the stratosphere. By 5:45 p.m. we were finally rolling into Cuenca. The sun was setting behind a big mountain range. The only part of the city I've seen so far is the 4 minute ride from the bus station to my new host families house, but I can already tell that I'm going to like this place. It's got a very Spanish feel to it and seems very tranquilo. Tomorrow I'll get to explore more, and with any luck, by the end of the weekend will start to have a feel for the place.

A national prohibition goes into effect tomorrow at midnight as the country gets ready for the election on whether or not they should rewrite the constitution for the 20th time( yes, actually the 20th time), and won't be lifted until Monday. Depending on the outcome of the election, there might be some interesting developments, but until then, by experiences will be that of a fresh faced gringo to a new city, gettin' by on excitement rather than drinks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Almost Time to Move On

It's hard to believe that it's almost time to leave Quito. Tomorrow is my last day in the capital city, and without exaggeration, the three weeks or so here have flown by. I've survived a bus hijacking and learned to live (at least very minimally) in a developing country. I'll be leaving very early Thursday morning for Cuenca and will be starting my classes on Monday, even though they've already started with a substitute teacher.

I've grown to really enjoy Quito, so Cuenca will have some big shoes to fill. It's obviously not the safest city, but I feel like I've come to know how to live here, at least as a novice anyway. I've nearly gotten used to having rice with every single meal, and having aji on top of everything at every meal. Aji is a spicy sauce, kind of like hot salsa, that is put on almost everything here.

When I first arrived it was entirely weird to not put toilet paper in the bowl, but rather in a basket next to the toilet bowl. But just yesterday I was mad at the jerk who went in the bathroom before me and put some toilet paper in the bowl. Probably some green gringo. I had to flush 3 times before the bowl was right.

I don't go anywhere without looking around and sizing up the people I see. Not to start a fight, but to see if they are sizing me up. To see if they are the people that will try to rob me on this occasion. It's just a part of life. It's not worth making a big deal about, but just something you do as a natural reaction, no different than blinking.

Quito, with it's beautiful mountains in the distance and it's disgusting pollution clogging the streets, where I'll always remember walking the same streets of gringolandia and riding the bus with the locals. Where we ate our almuerzos for $2 and laid out in the park to play cards before heading back for more lectures. Where we took over Hotel 6 de diciembre.

Where we haggled for a $4 taxi, letting 4 other taxis pass by before getting in, insistant on the price and finally getting it. Where we found 2 for 1 drink specials and made friends with the staff at Coffee Toffee, our favorite little gringo hangout spot near the Spanish school. The place where we could count on the same faces to walk by and greet us, and the new ones to look at us with intrigue and loathe, the foreigners that we are.

The very same city where you could experience all four seasons in just one day, and you better come prepared with sunglasses, an umbrella, a jacket, and some comfortable shoes. Every street corner with its tantalizing street meat, but of course the debate on whether or not it would give you the runs. Dodging cars and playing the advanced level of human Frogger as you crossed the street in a country with right of way going to the drivers who sped up as you tried not to get hit.

Everything negotiable. Nothing readily available without a little Ecua-whine. Somewhere in the thick of it all, we found a home. To each his own and to everyone a place of peace and mind. It's hard to leave a place you've gotten to know and like, but at the end of every road lies the next path, even if it's a dirty old patch of a trail that's barely been traversed.

So now I'm looking forward to Cuenca, and though I'll still enjoy coming back to Quito and remembering what went on here, it's time to start over again in a new city, with a new family, and make new friends. That's the way it is. But at the end of the day, end of the month, and maybe end of the year, I'll still have the fond memories of living in Quito, and that alone is worth the sour that comes with the sweet.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Busy Week

Enough has happened in the last week to write several blogs, but since there isn't enough time and probably not enough interest to read through it all, this is just going to be a recap of what's been keeping me occupied in Quito these last few days. Continuing with the practice teaching, lectures, and Spanish classes, every day was long and tiring. On Thursday we did receive a break from the monotony of orientation with a trip to the Guayasamin Museum located in a northeastern neighborhood of Quito.

Guayasamin is one of, if not the most popular and well known Ecuadorian artists. A man who expressed his desperation in his work, he was close friends with Pablo Picasso and Fidel Castro. A walk around the museum showed the different struggles in and around South and Central America, as well as within Ecuador. With cubist paintings, the characters often showed turmoil and pain in various stages.

Friday marked the end of practice teaching and Spanish classes, which meant a celebration was in order. Everyone was so happy that practice teaching was over that it was overlooked that we'll still have to be making lesson plans and teaching for a year. 3 days was nothing. After our last class our students took us out for some coffee, which wound up becoming a feast. The students ordered us a huge plate of appetizers, and we wound up late to our next meeting which seems to happen a lot.

For our last Spanish class we bought our professor beers and cookies and shared them throughout class before heading back to SECAP for a 2 hour party with a talent show and dancing. By far the best part of the night was watching my fellow volunteer Cordaro do magic tricks. Somehow he managed to fill up an empty beer can and reseal it, then open it up again and serve cold beer. Oh, and he levetaded. After the long week I was too tired to party too hard, so called it a night after 12:30 a.m.

On Saturday the whole group of volunteers went to Papallacta, a small area in the east close to the Amazon. Some of us went on a nature hike for an hour and then grabbed some amazing trout. The town is known for its trout, and we werne't disappointed. For $3.50 we got a big plate of fried trout with rice, fries, and veggies. After dinner we headed back to the grounds to dip in the natural hot springs. From hot spas we jumped into the freezing cold river, then into boiling hot spas, and back into the hot spa. It was incredibly relaxing and perfect after two long weeks.

Today was a very long day. We woke up early to play basketball, and after a couple of hours of playing at high altitude, we were all ready to head home. We played last weekend too, and for the first couple of games it was a true struggle. Doing anything at high altitude requires more energy, and after 1 minute of running around we were huffing and puffing. This week we were more adjusted, but still sucking wind. After lunch we headed to the TeleferiQo, the tourist attraction at the top of Pichincha, the mountain in Quito.

At the bottom of the TeleferiQo is a small amusement park, but we skipped it and went straight for the gondolas to the top. At about 13,000 feet, walking 3 steps uphill makes you tired. I was worse off than anyone else, but we were all struggling for air. You walk uphill and just can't breath; there simply isn't any air available. When you're at sea level you can take deep breaths and get something, but up this high when you take a deep breath, there's just nothing getting in. Your heart beats rapidly and you start to sweat even though it's cold, all while the chest feels like it's caving in. But the view is amazing, so you press on.

High above the clouds and the city of Quito, the TeleferiQo is not a very safe place. There are constant attacks and robberies, and we've heard plenty of horror stories that aren't worth getting into now, but needless to say, when you go off the trail or beyond the boundaries, you take your own risks. We went slightly further than the barbed wire boundary where some horses were available for a half hour. I chose not to, but three others did and rode them for a half hour while the rest of us climbed further.

I was really struggling with the altitude, and even one step made me feel like I'd just run a mile. Eventually I made it to the top of the plateau, and though there was still a long way to go to the top, we'd reached the point of far enough. Heading back down into Quito just before it got dark, we worked our way over to a free outdoor concert where we heard a band from Mexico play. They were good, and one of their songs had the lyrics, "Me so horny, me love you long time" had us all laughing.

Finally the week is over, and a new one is about to start. Orientation will officially be over on Wednesday, and unless something changes, I'll head to Cuenca on Friday and have to start teaching next Monday, even though the classes have already started with a substitute. It is then that the real work will begin.

Top: Top of TeleferiQo
Second: Papallacta
Third: From Museo Guayasamin, "I cried because I didn't have shoes until I saw a child who didn't have feet"
Bottom: Painting by Guayasamin

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Election Conversations, Black Outs, and Sketchy Tacos

One thing I didn't know about before I came to Ecuador is that it's an election year. President Rafael Correa has proposed changing the Constitution, which has caused the country to be split on either a yes or no vote. All over the city you can see signs for an against the change, and it's an issue that everyone from professors to taxi drivers will be happy to discuss with you.

The main issue to be changed is the distribution of land. If the Constitution were to be changed, many rich landowners could have some of their land taken by the government and given to poorer families. For this reason, there seems to be a split now between the upper and middle classes and the lower classes. One person put it this way: if the vote passes, there could be a civil war between the different classes. I don't know if it would be that serious, but it's definitely going to be an important thing to keep an eye on.

The person who told me this argued that many Ecuadorians have worked hard all of their lives to become rich and gain land, and for the government to suddenly say that they were going to take it away and redistribute it would not sit well at all. I'm not going to get into which side I think is right, and it wouldn't matter because I'm not educated enough on the issues to know what I'm really talking about. Only a true Ecuadorian could have the insight to know what they're arguing about in this case. But it's interesting to see how things will play out.

The election will take place on September 28th, and all citizens are required by law to vote. I'm supposed to have a meeting and start teaching on the 29th, but was told that depending on the outcome of the election, it could be delayed. I take this to mean that there could be strikes or protests if the losing side isn't happy. Hopefully things won't get too dangerous down here.

Today in my Spanish class we were having a conversation about the election when our teacher asked us to explain to him, in Spanish, the electoral college system and how we elect a president in the United States. This could be something very difficult to explain in our own language, let alone our second, but we gave it a shot. And just as we were about to talk about it, there was a rolling black out throughout the city.

At first all we could do was sit in the dark and use the moonlight and our own natural night vision to see. But after a few minutes we were given a candle and started to discuss American politics. The four of us sat there exchanging ideas and talking about the beginnings of the electoral college. I thought how ironic it was that we should be sitting in the dark discussing politics by candlelight, possibly the way it was done when the electoral system began.

At the end of the lesson, our teacher still didn't fully understand, but he at least had a better idea of how the system was meant to work. We told him that a lot of is was supposed to work in theory, but often didn't work out that way, just like the politics in most nations. We left class and just as we closed the door the lights came back on.

Walking down the street, I decided to roll the dice and buy a $1 taco from a Mexican restaurant. Right now I'm feeling a little loopy, and I'm hoping it doesn't get any worse. The meat they stacked up on the tortilla didn't look entirely welcoming, and it could be a rough night. I just hope I can make it out of this mess.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Slice of Life in Quito

A walk through of a typical day in Quito:

You hear the roosters crowing or roostering, whatever it is that roosters do. It's still dark out, and you look over at your clock and see that it's 1 a.m. That doesn't even make sense. What in the hell is the rooster doing up so early? Quito is probably the only city I've seen with an airport actually in the center of the city, and you can always hear planes soaring overhead no matter where you are. Somehow, a plane is always worked into your dreams. Once more you are woken up by the rooster outside your window at 4 a.m. and you think that you'd never imagine being woken up by a rooster in a city. 5 a.m. comes with dogs barking at each other in a turf war of sorts, and a horn beeps by. 5:20 a.m. and it's finally your own alarm that kicks you out of bed for good.

If you're feeling ambitious enough, you jump in the shower and wait for it to warm up a bit, otherwise you head straight for the essentials like clothes, glasses or contacts, and some coffee or hot cocoa. It's cold in the mornings here, and the old saying is that Quito's weather is like a woman, always changing and crazy. If you love the seasons, you'll love Quito, because you get to see all of them every day. No joke. In the morning you get your taste of winter, with chills in the 40s (Farenheit) and winds. On a good day you might be able to see Cotopaxi, the highest volcanic peak in Ecuador. Otherwise it's overcast and grey, but the sun is already strong and warming things up.

Once you head out the door you walk down the hill 5 minutes to catch the bus on Avenida Occidental, a highway on the west side of Quito. The bus has certain stops, but will basically stop wherever you wave it down. In the morning, we take the Mitad del Mundo bus which takes us far enough into the city to then walk 25 minutes or so to our teaching site. The bus is always packed to the brim, and this kind of overflow would only be allowed in a college town on weekend nights. If you're lucky enough to get on the bus before it takes off with the doors still open, you now move into Jack Bauer mode. Everyone on the bus is a potential thief, especially the little kids. The only people you can trust are the two other gringos you came on with, so you watch out for each other.

The bus says there's a maximum capacity of 48 or so, but my better judgment and experience tells me there's usually something like 70 people on board. It costs a quarter to ride and a man pushes his way up and down the bus, jumping off at stops to get on the other end to take your money. Not only are you a secret agent, scoping everyone out, but you become a ninja. You have to sling your bag around your stomach to keep an eye on it, and somehow you manage to hang on for dear life to a pole while holding your bag tight against your stomach, also while keeping your hand in your pocket to protect your money, phone, and legal papers. Somehow, you grow a third arm on the bus. This is the ride for 40 minutes, if there's no traffic. But in a city of 2 million people with 1.5 million cars, traffic tends to pick up quickly and last for a long time. Sometimes the ride can be over an hour.

Once you get to the final stop and walk your 25 minutes or so, you get closer to the teaching site. But it's not all a piece of cake. Every time you cross the street, you run the risk of getting hit by a car. There's no such thing as right of way for pedestrians here, and cars probably speed up as you get closer. That's just the way it is.

The pollution is bad in Quito: on some days you can actually taste it. Huge plumes of black smoke billow out from the buses, trucks, and cars that swarm throughout the streets. Certain days of clarity are broken up as you look down the street and see the smog and carbon emissions, thick like fog. Maybe it's the altitude that causes it to just linger, and the fact that Quito is in a valley can't help.

Along the route, little boys will hassle you to get your shoes shined and girls will be selling Chicklets. Every person stares at your because you're blond and have blue eyes. You're exotic, you're different, and you're just simply a gringo. Again, that's just the way it is.

After practice teaching for two hours it's time to make the walk back into la Mariscal, also known as gringolandia, and continue with orientation. Hours of meetings and information sessions prepare you for the upcoming year, but they also wear you out and make you oh so sleepy. Lunch break is the savior, either for 1 or 2 hours, depending on the day. By this point you've entered summer, and it's upwards of 75 degrees. The sun is hot and because you're so high up, you're burning quickly. It's also hard to dress in this weather, so you wear layers, this way you can take it off when it's hot and put it back on later on.

With a group of volunteers you head out and grab an almuerzo for $1.50-2. If you pay more than that you're getting screwed. An almuerzo will include a big plate of food, typically a pound of rice with grilled fish or meat, and a banana or small salad, as well as freshly squeezed juice. The food in Ecuador is, with exception, awesome. There is the chance of getting sick once in a while, and you just have to weigh your options. North Americans are known down here to have weak stomachs, and it takes some time to build up a tolerance to the cooking. Do you really need that tantalizing street meat?

Back to orientation for a few more hours, and finally you get to break around 4 p.m. for about an hour or two. This is when you grab some coffee and work on your lesson plan or just goof off. From 6-8 you sit in Spanish class and struggle to understand and stay awake. By 8 p.m., you're a zombie and just want to get home. The other problem is that because of the altitude, your contacts dry up in about 2 hours, so for most of the day your eyes burn and you feel more tired than you are. Now it's closer to fall and heading into winter, and it's actually very chilly as you leave the warm Spanish school.

Heading home in either a taxi for $4 or another bus for .25 cents, you make it home finally around 9 p.m. After a long dinner with a great family, it's finally time for bed around 10:30. An exhausting day to say the least. The dogs are barking as usual, and the rooster is being a wise ass, but you pass out in bed within minutes, ready to start it all over again in just a few hours.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Learning to Teach

The past week has been filled with enough stuff to make the average person's brain burst. Every day I had to wake up at 5:20 am and would get back home until about 9 pm. Our days were filled with practice teaching at SECAP South in Quito, sessions for orientation, and Spanish lessons later on in the day. By the end of each day I was exhausted and only wanted to go to bed, so I didn't get a chance to do many updates on the blog.

Learning how to teach can be a daunting task: it's one thing to know how to speak your own language and be confident in instructing someone what to say, but it's another to just get up in front of a class and be the expert, when you've never actually had any training in teaching or majored in English. Yesterday I taught my first 2 hour class, and though the hour I taught on Thursday was pretty rough, it went a lot better on Friday. One thing that really helps is playing games. Not only does it take the pressure off of you the teacher from talking all class, but it keeps the students interested and participating.

Students that otherwise would be text messaging their friends or talking in Spanish are forced to do their work because they know that I'll be calling up their groups to talk in front of the class. Making a lesson plan is more than half the battle, and it's a part of teaching that I never really considered. It's very hard to think up new material every day, and I hope that I'll get the hang of it after a while, otherwise it will be a very long and frustrating year.

Once you've got the lesson plan, you really have to just use it like a note card and work off of how the class is going. You wouldn't read an entire speech that was written out, but rather notes and key points that you want to hit on, and a lesson plan is the same way. I found myself realizing things as I was teaching and having to interject new points into the plan. Simple sayings like "all set?" take more time as the students don't understand these phrases, and it takes time to explain them.

I don't know if there's a cultural misunderstanding, but at the end of class I asked everyone what their plans were for the weekend. It's a pretty common thing to ask in our culture, and it's just a polite thing to do. I wanted the students to think in the future and name activities they would do. In retrospect, I think asking specifically what a person's plans are might actually be a question of if they want to do something with you.

After leaving class I was approached by two of my students and four of their friends that I hadn't met. They immediately asked me what my number was, and not thinking, I gave it to them. Then they asked me what I was doing on Saturday or Sunday, and I told them that I wasn't sure but thought I was having a barbecue at my family's house. I chose to speak to them in Spanish since we were out of the classroom, which might have been a mistake because I didn't fully understand them, but I think they wanted to meet up with me. The tricky part about this is that we're not supposed to have relationships with our students, obviously, and I'm not sure what the rules are yet about just hanging out. Also, these students were upwards of 40-50 year old women.

After the long day was over, our group met up in La Mariscal, the cool downtown area where all of the bars and clubs are. This area is also known as gringolandia, or foreign town, because all of the tourists hang out there, and after the sun goes down it sort of becomes a red light district. After going to a couple of bars where we got cheap shots and "jirafe" pitchers of beer, which were pitchers that went 4 feet or so up filled with beer for $10, we headed over to No Bar, a popular club. Everyone was dancing and having a good time, and later on in the night a 37 year old Quitena started to dance with me. She told me that she wanted to teach me how to dance and show me around Quito. I gave her my number and after a while, finally left to crash after one of the longest weeks I can remember.

Today we finally made the chocolate chip cookies we promised to make a week ago. Every day this week we were jokingly yelled at by our host sister Vivi for not making them. Proyecto Galletas went off without a hitch, and everyone enjoyed several. Tomorrow's plan is to have a big barbecue at the house. It should be a nice, relaxing weekend.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Still Here

Since the bus incident on Friday night, a lot has been going on. We actually made it back in time to get to the soccer game on Saturday afternoon, and it was a great way to forget about what had happened the night before. On Sunday I finally got through to my parents, which was probably the hardest part of the whole ordeal. They had already heard from my sister, who I´d gotten through to earlier on, but of course she didn´t have the whole story.

They were needless to say freaked out but happy that I was still alive. They, after all, didn´t want me to come to Ecuador in the first place, and had warned me that I would be robbed and kidnapped. And now that it had happened, all of their fears were confirmed and they could rub it in my face completely. Worse was that it happened only after one week. I told them that if it happened 8 months later it would make no difference.

In Machala, I´d seen a girl get mugged right outside of my house. Then at my meeting at SECAP, I was told that I´d have to take a taxi every time to get to and from work, and that I´d be teaching night classes. SECAP was located in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city everyone told me. All this on top of what happened on the way back to Quito, and my parents flipped out. They wanted me out of Machala. I honestly couldn´t blame, them, though the bus thing didn´t really have to do with Machala.

So after talking it over with the Field Directors, I had the option to stay in Quito or head to Cuenca, a slightly larger city in the south in the Andes. After much vacillation, I´ve decided to switch sites to Cuenca. It´s not a decision I wanted to have to make, and I hate having to leave the city before I even got a chance to know it. I just don´t want to put my parents through that situation again and put myself in harms way if it´s avoidable.

So now I´ll be teaching at the University of Cuenca and staying with another great family. Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is build in a traditional Spanish style. This week has been extremely busy with 15 hour days, and it will keep up for the next week and a half.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Great Bus Heist

The first blog post I put up when I got to Ecuador was titled, "Alive and Well," and let me reiterate, I'm still alive and for the most part well. Though what you're about to read might seem like fiction or some elaborate farce, it is absolutely the truth. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Bryce, Katherine, and myself were coming back from Machala to Quito on the 8:30 p.m. bus Friday night so we could make the Ecuador vs. Bolivia soccer game Saturday afternoon. The ride is supposed to take about 10-11 hours, given that there are no problems. Shortly after the bus started, we were stopped by a military police checkpoint, where the bus and everyone on it was checked, including their bags. About an hour after that, the bus stopped for a bathroom break, and it's here where the story really begins.

Somewhere, somehow at that rest stop, someone must have smuggled on some weapons, because in the neighborhood of 11:30-midnight, the bus was hijacked by about 6 or 7 robbers. This is the darkest part of foreign travel.

It started innocently enough; a man walked up to the front of the bus and disappeared behind the glass door separating the driver and assistant from the rest of the passengers. I noticed this because I found it difficult to sleep on the long, hot ride. Suddenly a terrible stink blew across the bus, as if the septic tank had just blown, and a man started yelling some inaudible Spanish. I heard him yelling and hitting someone, and thought that he'd awoken and discovered that something was missing, and was blaming someone. But he continued to attack other people and yell, and in a moment, the first man came out of the front wielding a gun, pointing it at everyone.

Suddenly, the lights came on and the bus took a sharp turn to the right off the road, deep into a field in the middle of no where. Now everyone was awake, and the screaming man took turns beating and pistol whipping different men. I was a bit confused; at first I thought that we were pulling over to the find the thief, but when I noticed that everyone was closing the curtains and putting their hands behind their backs, I followed suit. My friends Bryce and Katherine were in front of me, and I tried to look up a little to see what they were doing.

With a man waving a gun in the air, you tend to forget any premonition of heroism and simply follow what they tell you to do. With my bag on my lap, I waited as each person was searched for money and then taken off the bus. It was clear now that there were about 6 or 7 armed men with pistols and knives. It was odd, because only an hour or so into our trip there was a military police checkpoint where everyone was searched, including the bus. Soon after that we made a stop at a rest area, where the robbers must have gotten on. I don't know if it was an inside job, but they definitely had it planned out.

Now, as my friends were being interrogated, my heart rate was at the breaking point. Some men had to be made examples of, and as the cold metal pistols made the thuds into the flesh, one man screamed out for his mother. Some women started to cry, then a baby. I was almost numb, but keeping an eye on the situation. I was sure that this was where I was going to die. If they didn't kidnap the three of us, they'd probably shoot us for being gringos.

Bryce was pistol whipped and then taken off the bus. Then Katherine was brought up and though she was shaky and on the verge of tears, she held it together with strength and courage that I can't begin to understand. I couldn't see much because I didn't want to risk being beaten for looking up. A slap on the head told me it was my turn. I opened my bag and showed them the contents. They stood me up and took my off the bus where two men were waiting to frisk me more intensely than if I was trying to get into the White House.

"Platos, platos!" cried one of the men. But I didn't understand. This was some regional term for money that I wasn't familiar with. Most of my Spanish went out the window as panic came in.

"No entiendo, Que es platos?" I said.

"Dinero! Money!" said the man.

I told him that my wallet was in my bag on the bus with his friend, so he pushed me back in where I showed the man to my wallet, then was quickly taken off the bus again. Now, with my hands behind my head, I was lead to the pile of other men laying face down in the dirt in front of the bus, in a road in the middle of some field in the middle of no where. They placed me next to Bryce, and I quickly asked if he was okay. We didn't know where Katherine was. Next thing I knew, someone was gently taking off my shoes, like a father taking the shoes off a child who was too tired to stay awake the whole ride home.

The next half hour included people stepping on me and screams of pain and terror. I tried to go to my backyard porch in the spring and summer, when the wind blows in the trees and the sky is pale blue, but the mosquito's were biting everywhere, probably giving me the gift of Malaria. I tried to get to some beach with a hammock, but the crickets were loud and the dust was in my nose and mouth from breathing deeply.

At this point, I gave up hope. I didn't think we'd be kidnapped anymore, but I no longer expected much. This is the pain and suffering my grandparents had to go through, the torture of so many other generations, lying in a field waiting to die. And now I was throwing it all away because I wanted to spend a year in Ecuador, instead of starting a career in the United States. I was ashamed. My heart rate slowed as I accepted my fate, but I didn't make any promises to a higher power or pretend that I was suddenly religious. I simply accepted that there were men with guns who held my life in their hands, and all I could do was lay there with my slowly numbing arms and breath my last breaths.

In the middle of a foreign country, I fully expected my life to end, and I couldn't help but think of the revolutions of the past. All of the towns people would be rounded up. Those with manicured, neatly kept hands and finger nails were killed. Those with callouses and dirty hands were spared, because they were the workers who didn't exploit anyone. All of those hours spent in the gym, all of the callouses on my hands, all for nothing now. A little gentle music to fade out my life, Nude by Radiohead. Something to ease my mind.

For a long time we sat there in silence, occasionally hearing someone come back to yell at us or tell us it was going to be okay. Suddenly, the man two over from me started to groan in pain. He'd be stabbed too many times in the chest and groin, and was bleeding to death. He got up on his knees in pain, and a few of us around him tried to help. The robbers soon realized that they'd gone too far and needed to leave, and after a long period of silence, we knew we were alone. Slowly, we got up and looked around.

The man who was bleeding to death was an employee for the bus company who must have put up a struggle. He was taken into the bus where he soon passed out. I called out for Katherine, and though I got no response, we soon found her unharmed on the other side of the bus. Now came the pandemonium. Everyone crowded back on the bus looking for their belongings, and people were passing objects around as they found them. It was a mad house. Bryce and Katherine stayed outside while I tried to find a phone to call the U.S. Embassy representative.

Finally I got through to my program director, and 5 minutes later was contacted by the Embassy representative who took down all of the information. Because of his skill and professionalism, he was able to help us through the situation. We were stranded in the middle of no where and the bus was stuck over a ditch. The men tried to push it out, but to no avail. After about a half hour, the police showed up and took the passed out victim away. Katherine told us that the women were left in the bus after the men were taken out and a woman next to her was raped by three men.

The police asked some questions, but didn't seem to be in too much of a rush to find the robbers. A tow truck eventually got us out of the ditch and we got back on the road. Few people know what their lives are worth. My life was worth about $45, a credit and bank card, a new phone, an old watch, and a new iPod. The robbers left my pants, shirt, tie, glasses case, toothpaste, and notebook with a years worth of notes and entries. The iPod was gone, but the charger remained.

As we finally got moving again, the whole thing was just a shock. The bus stank and was filled with dirt, garbage strewn everywhere. The robbers were looking for specific goods. Luckily, I didn't bring my cameras with me on this particular trip. We had to stop in some middle of the road town for an hour and a half while we waited for a new assistant, and it wasn't until about 10:45 a.m. that we finally rolled into Quito. Tired and numb, we were greeted by our Field Directors who listened to our story.

I can't say with any certainty what this whole experience has taught me, and at this time, I might still be a bit numb to it all. This is exactly the kind of thing my family warned me about. Only the night before I saw a girl get attacked by 4 guys who stole her bike, right in front of me and another man in front of my house in Machala. I thought that was the worst thing. Any ideas of Post Traumatic Stress aside, I don't know what you'd call it. But for a few minutes there, I did expect to die, and I didn't. There have been moments in my life when I've wanted to die, or to disappear, just as most people have in their growing pains. But the beat of my heart and the fear in me told me that I wasn't ready for it, and that life is a precious thing. Any gun-wielding idiot can gamble with someone's life, and it's too important to let it be that easy.

So now we have to move on. I'm not going to leave Ecuador. I'm not going to give up and hate everyone I see. But I have serious doubts as to whether I can trust the majority of people I see and don't already know, and for that, I truly hate the robbers. At the bare minimum, I won't be taking any night buses any time soon. And now it's just a matter of getting back on the horse and moving on with my life, no matter how uncomfortable it may seem.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Keeping Busy

These days in Quito aren't easy. Long days of orientation have kept us all occupied, and it's been hard to get to a computer, much less to write down some thoughts. The last few days have seen health meetings from a Peace Corps nurse, a tour of Quito in which I stupidly didn't recharge the battery to my camera, thus having nothing to show for it, and learning how to be a teacher, which is no small feat.

Tonight, in just a couple of hours, I'll be leaving for a 10 hour night bus to Machala for a site visit. Unfortunately, my host family is going away for the weekend, as well as my site director, so I won't get to achieve much, but it's important to see the city and say hello to the family. I'll be coming back to Quito on the Friday night bus, rolling in early Saturday morning.

The weather in Quito truly is strange. In the morning it's like winter, by afternoon the spring has let up into a hot summer day, and after some rain it could be back to fall or winter again as the sun sets. On cue every day, the sun rises around 6-6:30 and sets at 6:30. The only way to prepare for the day is to dress in layers that you can shed and quickly put back on again. Unfortunately, I'm constantly fooled by the cool air and overcast conditions, winding up red as I get out of the sun in just a few minutes time.

Ecuador is playing Bolivia in a WorldCup qualifying match on Saturday, and we're hoping to get some tickets for what will surely be an awesome experience. For now, I'll have to keep my head focused on getting to Machala safe and with all of my belongings.