Friday, October 31, 2008

Ecuadorian Halloween Parties and Costume Judging

Last night I went to the costume party that my student Mario had invited me to. The party was a kind of fundraiser for the Bio-Chemistry department, but I was given an entrance card that waived the $3 cover. I hailed down a taxi on the street and as we drove further away from the areas I know, we were suddenly heading into a field. It was dark, about 9:30 p.m., and I didn't know where I was. I was bracing myself for the possibility that I would be robbed in this field, but then the small dirt road opened up and there was a parking lot where I could see a bunch of people in costumes standing around near an entrance.

Relieved that I was actually in the right place, I went in and found Mario who was happy to see that I'd come. Between 9 and 10 p.m. there were free shots of a sugarcane liquor called Zhumir, so the bar was packed with guys trying to get as much as they could, but Mario helped me out and got me a drink when I wanted it. Since I came alone and only knew Mario, I hung back by the bar and watched everyone else.

It was a very funny scene. Not everyone was dressed up in costumes, but those that were put some effort in. Most of the costumes were store bought and pretty unoriginal, but there were a few good ones. One kid was dressed in a Gorilla suit, a couple was dressed as hippies and really pulled it off, and another was dressed like devils. It made me think of my days at UMass and how Halloween is one of the biggest weekends of the year. The one night of Halloween, when kids go around asking strangers for candy, has turned into a 4 day MegaEvent, where students spend more time planning what costume to wear than actually doing school work.

These costumes didn't hold anything on what I've seen in Amherst, but it was still funny to watch as they adopted our holiday. As soon as the free drink hour was over, everyone rushed onto the dance floor, something that I've never seen happen in the United States. People paired up and started Salsa dancing or just moving back and forth to the rythm. It was fine just watching them dance, but Mario kept coming back to make sure I was OK, and then asked me if I wanted to look at the costumes. I said OK, but I obviously didn't get the translation right.

Mario led me to a table with his other professors who were chaperoning. The other professors were stuffy and in their 40s or 50s, so we didn't talk after the introductions, but I soon learned that we were judges for the best costume contest. The lights came on and all of the attention was focused on our table, where it was clearly visible that I was out of place, but my excuse was that my costume was dressing like a gringo.

The students were getting wild as they showed support for who they liked, and the Gorilla kids' supporters were near madness. One of the prizes given out was a bottle of Zhumir for the loudest group, so suddenly the entire place started shouting, "BO-TE-LLA! BO-TE-LLA!" meaning Bottle! Bottle! For a minute I thought a riot would break out, but it was under control soon enough.

I planned to stay for a couple of hours and leave around midnight, but soon more students from my class showed up, and they wanted to talk and dance. They insisted on feeding me small shots of Zhumir and orange juice, so I accepted out of courtesy. Finally at 2:30 a.m. I got a ride back with one of my students and her friends. Most of those students had to wake up for 7 a.m. classes today, but I'm lucky that I don't have to teach until 1 p.m. Today's word of the day to teach will be hangover. H-A-N-G-O-V-E-R. I think they'll like that. And today starts the 5 day weekend full of celebrations, with many of my friends from all over the country coming in to Cuenca. It's going to be a good weekend.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On the Other Side of the Desk


I feel like a bastard. That good feeling that I had earlier today, it's gone. I had to fail a student on the test I gave tonight, and I'm not feeling good about it at all. The student, a usually shy girl who sits in the middle and just kind of cruises through class, had already finished her test and wouldn't stop talking.

I walk around during the test to make sure no one is cheating, and once she was done I could see she was itching to talk. So I stood in front of her to show my presence, and she retreated, but every time I left to answer someone's question, she was back at it, talking to someone else.

I have a main rule that you don't talk while other people are talking, and I extend that to the tests. You don't talk while the test is out, even if you're done. It's just common courtesy. It's distracting to hear people murmuring while you're still working, and if they're talking, they could easily be talking about the test which people around them are still taking.

So I make the point before every test to clearly state, any talking is considered cheating and will automatically result in a zero. I'm strict, but fair. I have an attendance policy, but if someone tells me they have to leave, I don't give them a hard time. And I'm usually lenient on the talking because I really don't want to have to fail anyone. I remember being a student and failing a test or two, and it's an awful feeling. Especially if you've studied hard.

I gave the girl four or five warnings, and it just wasn't getting through. I could see that my dominance, the respect of the classroom, if you will, was being tested, and if I didn't act it would ruin my credibility with the other students. I went to answer another students' question and could suddenly hear the 4 other girls near her talking louder and louder, not even trying to conceal the whispers now. I left the student, picked up her test and ripped it in half, simply saying, "Fail."

Part of me was trying to stop myself from doing it, but I felt that it had to be done. Immediately everyone else stopped talking and the room became a graveyard. And I instantly felt bad. The girls in the back blushed and looked a little worried, but soon after seemed OK. They couldn't really expect to be failed for talking.

I'm trying to be a respectable teacher here. Yes, I'm a volunteer, but I still want to take my job seriously, and just because I'm around the same age as these students doesn't mean that I can let them get away with whatever they want. We joke around and have fun, but I'm still the teacher, and they need to respect that difference.

Another girl thought she was the one who failed and started to beg, but I brushed her off and said we'd talk after class. When I talked to the group I explained that only one failed and it was because it was clearly breaking a rule I set forth and explained. It's a basic rule back home anyway, you talk during a test and you're likely to fail.

I held the girl back and told her why she'd failed, and as the tears welled up in her eyes, she struggled to get it. She's normally quiet, but smart, and most of her work is exceptional, especially her listening comprehension. She asked if she could take a make up test, something that happens down here, and I told her no, that those points were lost and not coming back. She told me she didn't understand, but based off of her work, I think it wasn't the words she didn't understand, but how she could be failing for talking.

The cultures are just different, and that kind of behavior isn't the thing that will fail you or get you expelled. But I laid out that talking was cheating, and cheating was failing. After I left she was being consoled by some students while others tried to argue on her behalf. They told me that it's not normal to be failed for something like that, and I should give her another test or take off 50%.

I told them honestly that I'm not from Ecuador and don't know the customs or how the educational system works. I'm not here to revolutionize the system to the American way, just teach English for a year. So I'm going to talk to a couple other professors from here and see what they think. But it doesn't feel right to renege either. I have to be firm with the students. It doesn't matter that she's normally respectful. I'd have to give the same punishment for any other student only to be fair. And I would have.

But that doesn't change how I feel, which is awful. I don't want any of my students to fail, that's not the point of me being here. I'm not going to just give away grades, but I'm not here to pretend that I have a PhD either. I'm just giving them some experience with a native English speaker. Yet there has to be some sort of regulation in the classroom, and I wonder if I went too far.

No matter what it is, it just doesn't feel right. I want the students to like me, but more importantly to learn the material. Does it matter if they've talked after a test? And the worst part of it is she would have passed. More than that, she would have gotten near 100, after just a rough look over the ripped up and folded test. And that's just wasted talent.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Funny Classes

This week has been going by well so far, and I think it has something to do with the fact that we have a 5 day weekend coming up for Cuenca's Independence Day. I'm feeling good and excited that some of the other volunteers from the program are going to be coming in to Cuenca and some will be staying at my house, as it doubles as a hostel for Peace Corps or other volunteers. It's unlisted and only known of by word of mouth.

Last week there was a Peace Corps conference here, and next weekend it's our turn. With the good things on the way, the mood in class has been more laid back and relaxed, even though one of the classes has a test this week (this afternoon actually). The book we use is an English (British) book, so many times we come across words that I don't use or don't even understand. It takes more effort for me to explain that technically they can use those words, but I don't and wouldn't want to hear them.

The English books are your standard language books, with their lamer sections. Every now and then I read something so ridiculous and start laughing out loud, leaving the students to wonder what I found so funny. One time I read, "I want to _____(blank) some children when I'm older," and I absolutely lost it. I could never explain to them what was funny about that, and really, there shouldn't be anything too funny about it in the first place.

Or other times when I play the audio tracks from the CD in the book and hear the horribly exaggerated accents and the terribly boring conversations they have. I just can't help from laughing. The students see me laugh, and they laugh.

Watching The Simpsons is a universal pleasure, and even though I've shown it in English, they still laugh on cue with me, anytime Homer screams out in pain or does something stupid. It's just good humor.

This week a student invited me to a costume party for tomorrow night and I think the other students are genuinly excited to see me there. They've asked what costume I have and I had to be honest, that I have nothing special. Just gringo clothes. Back home, it's usually awkward when you see a teacher outside of school. It seems absurd that they should have lives outside of the school, but yes, they have to go food shopping, eat dinner, and occasionally go to a bar.

And today, just after playing a little game to help better understand directions, the students mutinied on me. I wanted them to get back to doing work, but no one wanted to. I literally had to argue while cracking up for 5 minutes to get them to do more work. All of the Ecua-whines came out and the students begged, and I was nearly powerless to get them to move until finally they gave up. Somehow all at once the students just decided they had had enough of doing work.

Tomorrow we're watching some Family Guy and there's a rumor that Friday classes will be canceled, so motivation is at an all time low. I can't blame them, and there's little else to do besides ride it out and hope they pay attention for a few minutes a class. That's as much as I could have done as a student in the same position.

A Quick Note on Teacher's Pets

Didn't like 'em as a student. Don't like 'em as a teacher.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Where I Live in Pictures


A different angle

Coke bottles and a rose on the window sill

The kitchen

My dimly lit room

Plants to enjoy in the sunlight

The hallway/courtyard/office outside my bedroom


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dangerous Hikes and Mineral Baths


Today I went to the neighborhood of Baños, not to be confused with the other Baños that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. This one is not a seperate town, but rather a part of Cuenca with its own mineral baths, though not as visited or popular as Baños de Ambato or Papallacta. A new friend of mine took me to go for some hiking and to check out the pools. Jumping on the public bus we took the ride across the city and into the barrio.

When we got to the small neighborhood we headed for her aunts house so we could leave our bags there. Her cousins warned us to be careful on the hike because some people had been robbed recently, so I decided to not take my camera with me. The hike started right across the house, and I mistakenly thought it would be easy, since it wasn't that high up from the road. But as I should have already known, nothing in Ecuador is easy, and we're already at altitude, so the hike was no piece of cake.

As we started going up the slipping rocks and dirt, we had to use our hands to get up the steep slope and occasionally would slip. My friend had failed to tell me that it wasn't a paved path, but we were rather climbing up a rugged mountainside without any kind of official trail. I thought that Global Underwriters Insurance would not be very happy about this.

The hike was extremely difficult, not only because of the heat, the incline and slippery path we made, but because we were walking through thick vegetation. Everything in there was trying to kill us, if not for food, than for sport. Every other bush had some thorns or grabby branches slowing us up, and as the cuts and scratches started to mount, the air also started to get fresher and thinner. I was starting to get soaked.

Finally we made our way to a little clearing that I thought was the top, and though it had a nice little view, we still had a long way to go. Based off of how steep the climb up was, I decided that it wasn't worth the last leg of the hike, though it did kind of feel like a cop out to not complete the climb. We started to descend and tried to remember which way we'd come, getting lost a few times along the way. My friend had told me she climbed up the mountain all the time, so I hadn't paid attention to the way we went.

We had to shimmy down and slip and slide along the way, clutching onto branches for dear life. A few times we almost fell all the way down, but somehow grabbed onto something at the last second. I was wondering how I wound up climbing this random mountain, essentially rock climbing, with no real gear and no idea what I was doing. I was wearing jeans after all, not the ideal hiking pants.

Eventually we made it to the bottom and celebrated with a glass of water at the aunts' house. Now sweating badly, we headed to one of the many mineral pools throughout the town. We went to a public bath for $3.50 and took a dip in the water. It was warm and murky, but a welcome relief after the hike. After swimming for a bit we went into the Turkish steam rooms, which was suffocatingly hot and thick with unhealthy air, so after only a few minutes I had to get out.

While waiting for my friend to finish changing I sat and watched some other people in the pool while looking at the mountains in the distance. I saw a sister holding her young brother above the water and suddenly was reminded of a memory I'd long ago forgotten. On some family vacation when I was a very small child, we were at some hotel pool that was packed with guests. My dad and sister were trying to teach me how to swim, but I was scared and didn't want to let go. My dad was laughing while my sister tried to help, but I think I wound up crying and going back to the shallow end.

I don't think I've though about that since it happened, probably over 15 years ago. I have to imagine that it was in Florida, probably while visiting my grandparents. It's been a long time since then, and it's also been a while since I've gone on a family vacation, at least one when we weren't all yelling at each other or going off to do something else. But I've gone on many trips since then, and more and more lately without the family. Since then I've learned to swim, but it never caught on that well, and I've never been an incredibly confident swimmer.

Now I'm out here in uncharted waters on my own and at times, it would be nice to have some family there to be out in the middle of the pool to swim to, but there isn't, and it's on me to get from one side to the other.

We left Baños as the sun was starting to set and went back into the city to patch up the wounds and rest up before another week of classes and work.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Opening a Bank Account in Ecuador: Day 5

It only took five days, but I am now the proud owner of a bank account in Ecuador. Woohoo! And it's Friday. Double good news. We went back to the bank early this morning and went right to the desk with the same woman behind it. She looked over the new letter from the university and was happy with it. She handed over the bank card and that was that. So now I have $5 in a bank in Ecuador. Very cool stuff.

And speaking of banks and money, what is going on in the world market? I get breaking news update emails from the New York Times, and lately the only headlines have been about the economies throughout the world. This morning I had three different emails breaking the news about the Dow Jones dropping, OPEC lowering oil production, and the European and Asian markets sliding drastically. It's hard to keep up with everything that happens back home. So does this mean the economies of every country are basically crashing all at the same time?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Message From Your Friendly Neighborhood Embassy

Today I got an email from the Department of State with an important message from the U.S. Embassy in Quito. It's a good idea for anyone residing outside of their home country, or even just traveling, to register with the Embassy for updates on important news relating to the country they're in.

Every once in a while I get an email about the goings on in the country and warnings about traveling to certain areas like Bolivia or avoiding political demonstrations. Today's email is warning that violent crime has been on the rise lately in Ecuador and that all Americans should be alert for it to happen to them. The warning mentions that American citizens have been the targets of violent crimes such as armed robberies, home invasions, homicides, and sexual assaults. I wonder if my bus incident was a part of the armed robbery on the list.

The email goes on to say that Ecuadorians have also been targeted and are starting to fight back, demanding that the government take action. The email states, "On October 21, 2008, the Ecuadorian National Police (ENP) put an emergency operations plan into effect due to the rise of criminal activity and will increase its police presence and activity in Ecuador's 24 provinces. American citizens should anticipate police checkpoints throughout the country, and be sure to carry all required documents while driving."

If I may say so, it's about time there was some action taken for the crime that is committed, yet at the same time, I can't be too certain how effective this will really be. Things tend to move slowly down here. When you get an email like this, your initial reaction is to be a little bit unsettled, because after all, if the government is sending you a letter to warn you, it must be serious. Heading out of the house, I was almost expecting a guy to come running after me in the newly described crime spree.

But it's the same country it was yesterday. I stand the same chance as I did before, and there's no sense in thinking that it's going to just blow up overnight. When faced with these kinds of issues, you need to remember that your presence in the place is not long term, and what is it really like for the people who will remain here their whole lives?

I was checking Boston.com for some news about back home and read that gang violence is continuing to rise. A few days ago a 17 year old shot at some children in a drive-by because they were from an apartment complex that was a rival to his. You choose your dangerous place to live or you're born in it. Either way it doesn't matter. One spot is as good as another if some idiot decides he wants to take advantage of you. Ecuador might have its problems, but so does everywhere else in the world. We're far from perfect.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jon Goes to the Ballet

Yes, that's right. Last night I went to the ballet, willingly. I don't normally go to the ballet, and the only experience with it that I can really think of is The Nutcracker in Boston. They took us when we were in elementary school and I remember enjoying it, but then again, watching people prance around in tutu's isn't exactly my cup of tea, so I've never been back.

But last night at Teatro Sucre, the local hospital was having a fundraiser/benefit sort of ballet performance for children with Cancer, and I'm all about supporting that cause, so I ponied up the money and went for the ride. The performers were dance students at the University of Cuenca, and two shows were put on at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.

Along with me were my host sister and a few of her friends, and we wound up sitting in the third row, which kind of worried me at first. It was a long day of work, and I was afraid of nodding off and angering the ballerinas. As I usually do when I'm bored, I think of Simpsons episodes in my head and silently laugh to myself to kill the time. As I sat in the third row I kept thinking of an episode when Homer takes Lisa to the ballet and is eating a sandwich in the first row. He passes out and wakes up to find Lisa yelling at him for snoring and bothering the performers. He then wonders what happened to his sandwich.

Every couple of minutes this made me laugh and I had to keep myself from losing control. Then I thought of another episode when Bart becomes a ballet dancer. When the school finds out, the kids mock him and run him out of town. I thought how funny it would be if there was an Ecuadorian Nelson Muntz, maybe one of my students, who saw me there and laughed at me.

The first act was pretty weird. It was some kind of interpretive dance, and it really just confused all of us. The second act was a little better, but only because the music was nice to listen to. Four or five girls kept running around and then playing dead on the floor. This was the same theater that I saw the SodaStereo tribute concert in on Saturday, and I wondered about the accoustics in the place, as it's one of Cuenca's oldest theaters.

The third act was probably the best because people were hanging from ropes and twirling around. There were some oddly dressed jesters and pirates, followed by a shower of confetti and bubbles. The performance lasted about an hour and a half, and though I wouldn't say it was great, it wasn't terrible either. And since it was for charity, I'm not gonna bang down doors asking for money back. So there it is, I've gone to the ballet on my own accord. I had to go to the 3rd World to get some culture.

Read All About It

Here is some more shameless self-promotion. An article that I wrote on the mountain biking trip in Baños has been published with gonomad.com. You can find the article here. The article expands on the mountain biking portion of the 4 part series on A Weekend in Baños, found here on the blog. Check it out.

Opening a Bank Account in Ecuador: Day 3

We went back this morning with all of our papers, ready to open a bank account. For the third day. We even got there a little earlier than than past two days and beat out the line, so we went straight to a bank representative. My host mother proudly showed all of the documents that they had requested, signed and filled out correctly. Just as the bank had asked. But of course, it wasn't going to end there.

As the woman behind the desk went through all the papers, I could see she was just looking for a reason to not give me a bank account. It would be too easy. First she yelled over to an associate about something, apparently she wanted more than my Ecuadorian ID, she wanted some other ID that foreigners don't even get.

She then called up her boss, and after a minute on the phone, accepted that the card I had was good enough. She had me sign about 20 different papers, some with blue ink, some with black ink, some at the bottom, some in the middle. Everything was in order, and we were on our way. I even went over to the teller to deposit my $5 and get the account started, but then Issue #225 presented itself.

As she was asking me what design I wanted on my bank card (there were four choices, and I all but told her I didn't care what it looked like, I just wanted it), she suddenly realized that I needed another piece of paper from the university. Apparently the contract wasn't enough for them, even though the university never told me I'd need another piece of paper. This other letter from the university would have to be handed to the bank before I could officially have my account and get my bank card.

So now I have my bank account, technically, but I can't access it. I can check it online, but I can't do anything other than wave to it. I went with my host sister to the office at the university later on after class to get the letter, and that was just another roadblock. I had to show my photocopy of my passport, which I luckily had. The secretary made a photocopy, but then gave it back to me, leaving me to wonder why she needed it in the first place.

Now I will have to go back tomorrow to pick up the letter from the university, so hopefully by Friday, Day 5, I will have my bank account so that I can start getting a little money flowing in. But I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Opening a Bank Account in Ecuador

You might be able to guess from the title that this is going to be a bit complicated. In order to get paid my stipend by the university, I need to open up a bank account at one of the banks here in Ecuador. For some reason they don't want to just pay me straight up in cash, which would obviously be preferable, maybe in a nice sack with a big $ on it.

But nope, I need to open a bank account here. There are a few different banks down here: Banco Pichinca, Banco del Austro, Banco del Pacifico, etc. Some people are still wary of the banks here since the 2000 economic crises, in which banks froze accounts and no one could take out their money. Then the country switched over to the dollar and families lost nearly all of their money in the conversion. So try to imagine how people felt in the United States about opening a bank account in 1934. It's sort of similar, sort of.

The university has some sort of deal worked out with Banco del Pacifico, so I was told to go there to open up an account. I was also told beforehand by other volunteers that it's an extreme headache to open an account here, as they make the foreigners go through all kinds of obstacles.

At the department office I was told that all I would need is my passport and a copy of my contract with the university. A little too easy, I thought, but gave it a shot. Yesterday morning I went with my host mother to the bank and waited in a line that was growing steadily and not moving. We sat waiting for about 45 minutes and then somehow cut to the front of the line and sat down at a desk.

My host mother did all of the talking and I sat back like a child waiting for my turn to speak. The woman behind the desk looked at my passport, my Ecuadorian ID card, and then my contract, but she was looking for other ways to prevent me from getting an account. So she came back with a sheet of paper listing all of the other things I'd need. The list includes:

  • Color photocopies of my passport, Ecuadorian ID card, and a credit card
  • Three references from Ecuadorian citizens
  • A photocopy of my university contract
  • Photocopies of the Ecuadorian IDs of all of my references
  • All original copies of my passport, Ecuadorian ID card, and credit card, and
  • $5 to open the account
And I think that was all of it. Ecuadorians love beauracracy and paperwork. This is apparently normal for foreigners trying to open an account. We came back this morning, earlier than yesterday to beat the rush, and there was already a line. We waited for about 20 minutes before we realized the "system" was down and wouldn't be back up until the afternoon. Yesterday there was a powerful thunderstorm, and the guess was that it somehow knocked the bank offline. I personally don't know how that could be the case, since a bank usually has backup systems and other failsafe procedures, but then again I'm not a banker.

So day two on trying to open a bank account went down, and tomorrow I'll have to try again, for the third time, to open an account. With any luck, I'll get my first paycheck by December.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Following Baseball is Not Easy in South America

UPDATED: 9:45 p.m. Local Time...

I forgot! I have AOL Instant Messenger. I logged on and have been getting updates in real time from a couple of friends back home. And, we are discussing the game and other fun topics at the same time. This is not nearly as good as being next to them, but at least I don't have to keep watching the tiny diamond (which is slow) the entire time. The only problem is that it's now 3-1 Tampa Bay. Hopefully this game gets wrapped up before the router is turned off.


Apparently the popularity of baseball only extends to Venezuela, because there is no place in Ecuador to watch, hear, or even talk about it. It's hard enough to think about it, being so removed from the whole process. But it's playoff season, and as a Red Sox fan, it's so hard to not be watching every game, especially now that they are in Game 7 of the ALCS, or American League Championship Series.

I can remember throughout my college days sitting in small, cramped rooms with dozens of other people, all silent while watching the playoffs, except for during the commercials when we would make fun of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver as much as possible. And of course, I'll never forget when the Sox actually won the World Series my freshman year, and those riots that followed.

But now I'm here in South America, and the best I can do is watch ESPN Gamecast, which is hardly a substitute. I've got no one to talk to about the game and it's extremely boring watching an animated ball slowly go to the fake plate on the tiny diamond. But it's the best I can get, and while the connection comes and goes and my laptop battery pushes the limit, I have to hope that I can make it through the game. Because of some strange blockage in signal, I can't pick up the Internet in my room, where I have access to an outlet, but rather have to sit in the hall where there are no electrical outlets, wasting my battery.

But this is the sacrifice a fan makes. I'll sit by and probably get a lot of radiation in the process, but as long as I can keep an eye on my Sox, it's worth it. And now, in the Top of the 3rd inning, it's 1-0 Boston. I'm not even sure how it got this far. The Rays were poised to beat them two games ago, and all of my information comes in slower than a turtle stampede through peanut butter, so all I know is that a game is on.

But enough of writing about this, I'm getting back to the game...sort of.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

An Antique Car Show in Cuenca

Good news! Video is back on the blog. Hooray! Yesterday morning an antique car show wound its way through the center of Cuenca, and I was there to take some video of it. It was pretty interesting, because it though I didn't grow up in the 50s and have no idea what it was like, it sort of reminded me of it. The cars were basically parading around the girls who were competing for the "Queen of Cuenca" title. Some of the supporters of the girls would march by following the car with banners with the pictures of the candidates and chant their names loudly.

Some of the cars in the parade were actually just old, and not necessarily antiques, and didn't really belong in the show. I was told that this is all part of the festivals for the celebration of Cuenca's Independence Day on November 4th. There will be about five days of celebration and the town will pick a queen.

Maybe the most interesting part of the parade was a man in white, shown in the video, who really seemed to love the whole process, and cheered as much as he could. There was also a KFC car which drove by boasting the good name of the colonel. KFC is huge down in Ecuador, and there's one on just about every corner here. McDonald's and Burger King don't stand a chance against the fried chicken. It was actually my dinner last night. Sometimes you just get a plate of fried chicken and it turns out it's from the colonel. KFC should just set up their base of operations in Quito.

Later that night I went to a tribute concert for a band called Soda Stereo in the center of town. There were three tribute bands that played the music of Soda Stereo, and the place was going nuts. The music wasn't bad, but I was just tired and kind of out of it, so I just sat there and daydreamed for about 3 hours, with background music of course.

Here's the short video of some of the cars driving by, and the man in white, of course.



Thursday, October 16, 2008

And The Tomebamba is Angry Today


Every day as I walk to the university I pass by the Rio Tomebamba on Avenida 12 de abril. It's a nice walk and really pretty, except for the fact that it's been raining hard on and off every day this month. When I first got to Cuenca at the end of September, the river was placid and rock strewn. The water quickly rushed by, but was not overbearing, and you could see the big boulders and rocks that cover the riverbed.

As October is one of the rainiest months here in Cuenca, the river has continually been rising and growing more powerful. Every day as I walk by I can see little changes, and slowly over the last week I've noticed that the boulders and rocks have disappeared as the water level has risen higher and higher. It's not that I'm worrying about there being a flood, but I wonder how long it will continue to climb.

You can't see the rocks anymore, but just the white water-like rapids that bounce around as the water jumps over the humps, and the river banks, already low and unprotected, have been losing ground. I was told by a local that further down the city some of the poorer people live too close to the river and when it rises they are in danger. I'm wondering now how they're doing in this rainy month.

The Tomebamba is an angry river now, flowing down from the mountains and through the city. Some people still wash their clothes in it, and occasionally I'll walk by and see a family on the grass, all of their laundry strewn out, waiting for a dip. Others choose to pee in it.

This morning I went to class and noticed the river was rushing by like always, but it didn't seem unusual. But two hours later as I left class I could see that it had dramatically risen, and was now a dirty, murky brown color. Nothing could be seen in the water, except for the occasional boulder that has some water cleared over it. I could see that the bank was starting to overflow, and then it started to pour again. How much longer before it reaches the street?

Above: Rio Tomebamba, before the rains

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sometimes Teaching Takes a Backseat to Soccer

Tonight there is a big game between Ecuador and Venezuela, and as a result, my night class was all but canceled. It's kind of funny. Normally I teach from 6-8 p.m. and was already planning on letting the class out at 7, since it's pointless to expect anyone to stick around. The game is part of the qualifying matches to play in the World Cup.

It wouldn't be fair to expect students to stick around for a night class for a game that's as big as the Superbowl or World Series. It wouldn't be fair, but every game is like that. When I walked into the office today the secretary informed me that I was to let class out at 6:30 and then proceed to the nearest TV and watch the soccer game. I had no problem obeying.

It's just kind of tough to teach a class in 30 minutes. You don't really get through much at all, and as soon as you get rolling, it's time to go. So all told, it was kind of a wasted class altogether. And tomorrow we're watching a movie. So I hope that by the end of the week the students have actually learned something.

After giving the first tests of the semester, I had to offer some extra points so that the students that failed won't fail miserably. Just kind of scrape the top of failing. It's tough to expect much when you don't really know what the educational system is like, but I'd hope that the students would have done better. It's just going to take some more dedication and attention to the needs of the students to see what they really need time on.

So right now I'm at home watching the game with the family. Ecuador was up 1-0, but Venezuela just scored while I was typing this, so now it's getting exciting. The whole country is watching. This is the most important thing going on tonight. Back to the game.

Tootin' My Own Horn

In another case of shameless self promotion, you can find an article I just wrote on Matador Travel.
The article runs as a brief explanation of the bus hijacking incident last month, and follows up with some tips that I think could help if you found yourself in a similar situation. It's got some good information in there, so take a look.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Weekend in Baños, Part 4: Swinging with Monkeys




As we headed into Puyo, you could see that the topography was changing. It was much more lush and green as the vegetation became thick and lively. We passed by small towns and little tiendas all along the road, giving off the good smell of the tantalizing street meat. At Fundación Los Monos Selva y Vida, it felt a bit like entering Jurassic Park.

The 6 of us were a bit apprehensive at first. No one wanted to touch the monkeys and get Ebola. But as we saw the workers playing with them and they assured us they were tranquilo, we moved in closer. First we saw spider monkeys playing with a dog and fighting over a palm tree branch. Then some of the monkeys were wrestling with each other. We were warned that they would steal anything you had, so all we brought with us was our cameras.

Some of the monkeys didn´t want to play much, but others were swinging from ropes and jumping onto people. Some monkeys napped in the fetal position while a few others made a small girl cry hysterically as they jumped on her. We were shown different types of monkeys, then a couple of turtles and an ant eater, before we were lead over to the monkey swing.

A huge rope had been fastened to some trees, and you could swing, through the jungle, with a monkey on the swing with you. At first no one wanted to, but eventually we all took the opportunity to swing with them. The monkeys liked the women better though, and didn´t really want to ride with me. But as I swung back and forth I reached out for one, and he tried to grab on but didn´t make it.

After the swing, a couple of monkeys started to jump onto my head and shoulders, as they played games around us. It was an incredible way to end the trip, and as we left, it was clear that it was a great experience.

Back at the hostel, we rested up and showered and headed out for a final dinner. The town was active again, but we just wanted to have a little wine and hang out in the hostel before another big travel day.

I´d run out of money by the next day and had to start borrowing for everything, even just to get home. All told I spent over $80, but it was a great weekend that was definitely worth the experience. For the hostel, we only spent about $24 on two nights, two breakfasts, and some beers. The mountain bike excursion was $22 and we got to play with monkeys in the end. And getting to and from Ambato was about $8 each way. So all told, it was a pretty reasonable trip with some great results.

Coming back into Cuenca with thick fog and rain falling consistently, it was gray and tiring, but a definite relief to be back. It's feeling more and more like a home, and it was nice to get out of the "tourist" role and back into the "living here for a while" role. Back home, it's time to get back to the teaching.

Above: A monkey on my back, monkey's fighting a dog for a palm tree branch, a monkey with a stick

A Weekend in Baños, Part 3: Mountain Biking




Heading out on the small road, we took up positions as some people went out in front and others hung back by the truck following us. It had been a while since I rode a bike, so it took me a few minutes to get my bearings, but once the awkwardness was out of the way, it was smooth sailing. The old saying is true, once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. It felt great to be cruising down the hill with the wind blowing in my face and the sun on my skin as I weaved recklessly from left to right avoiding pot holes, cars, and occasionally people.

The scenery was absolutely spectacular, and the most difficult part of the trip was finding the balance between looking from side to side at the mountains and keeping an eye on the road. The bikes were nothing special, and in fact, they wound up breaking down as the day went on. First one of the tires blew out on Charlotte, and later her chain came loose. Shortly after that, my chain came loose, and later Charlotte´s chain broke again, so we had to ditch the bikes just as the biking portion of the tour was ending. But that wasn´t until later on in the day.

We went out with 6 of us, along with two other men and a son. The men worked on construction projects for U.S. Embassies all over the world, and the 11 year old son had already lived in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Japan, and now Ecuador. He said that he usually learned the language and translated for his dad, but when he left the country he would forget most of the language. The kid was really cool and mature for his age. I want to be him when I grow up.

We passed by waterfalls and tall peaks that you needed to stretch your neck up to see the tops of. We would take a few stops along the way, but just for a couple of pictures and to adjust the bikes. Most of the trip was downhill, and it was very easy and pleasant. As the day went on, the sun was getting hotter, and I could feel my skin burning without any sunblock. There was little I could do except borrow some from my friends and hope it held up.

After Charlotte´s bike had a flat, we stopped in a little rest area with a view of a valley and 3 or 4 tiendas for about a half hour while it was fixed. I sat down under a tent to avoid the sun and talked for a little bit with a professor from the University of Ambato, who was touring the area with his family. It was nice and relaxing, and just enough time to get out of the sun and rest up in the middle of the day.

Once the bike came back we pushed on, but trouble soon developed as the bike broke down again, and Charlotte was fed up with the problems. A short exchange with the guide left a dent in the bed of the truck, which he was not happy about, and soon after that, we had reached the end of the biking part of the excursion. Ending at a waterfall called Machay, we took about an hour to hike down the steep path and check it out.

It was probably one of the biggest waterfalls I´ve ever seen, and it was worth the 50 cents to get in. Once you got down there you could head down the path to the pools of water where the falls hit or just stand back and still get hit by all of the mist coming out. We stayed down there for a while until we were refreshed, but of course after hiking back up to the road we were hot and sweaty once again.

After wards, we piled into the truck, somehow comfortably fitting 7, and started driving the rest of the way towards Puyo, at the edge of the Amazon Rain Forest, also called the Oriente in Ecuador. Once we got into town we had lunch which was included in the cost of the trip. We all got a soup with every bit of the chicken, including the liver, feet, and head. We could then choose from grilled chicken, pork, or steak. It was delicious and extremely necessary, as we were all starting to crash after the long day.

After lunch we headed out to the animal reserve, where we would play with monkeys.
Continued in Part 4...

Above: Images from the bike ride, Machay waterfall

A Weekend in Baños, Part 2: Getting Aquainted with the Town




After the lunch we walked around a bit and met up with more of the volunteers that were in town for the weekend. It was getting late and we were in no rush, so we didn't bother to find anything in particular to do. We walked over to the waterfall and had a good view of the town, which is very small, and then walked back towards the center. The town is known for its natural baths, hence the name Baños, but we never wound up going in them. They didn't look that appealing after going to Papallacta, which had much nicer baths.

Window shopping and getting a feel of the city, we decided on mountain biking the following day. Going with Exodotours, we worked out a deal for $22 to rent bikes and trek half of the 61 km to a town at the edge of the Amazon Rain Forest called Puyo. From the last waterfall on the route we would be taken in a truck to Puyo, where lunch was included, and check out an animal reserve with monkeys. It was a good deal, and we would have a guy following us to make sure nothing went wrong. If we'd just wanted to rent the bikes it would be $5 for the day, but we went for the higher end deal. Leaving at 9:30 a.m. from Baños, we would return from Puyo at 5 p.m.

For the rest of the afternoon we strolled and had a few beers, and after a good dinner, we were too tired from the long day to do anything else. Because it was a holiday weekend, the town was electric and ready for a party, but we couldn't take part.

The town of Baños felt very safe, even though there were tons of tourists around. The economy of the town depends on tourism, so safety is important there. Though I wouldn't want to spend an extended period of time in a touristy town, it was a nice break from what we've been doing over the last month. I felt like I could actually take out my camera and leave it around my neck, and though I had reservations at first, I realized that I'm blond and no matter what, people will know I'm a tourist from a mile away.

It´s a funny town because it almost feels like Disney Land. Everywhere you go are tourists off to do extreme sports or some kind of excursion. The town is sort of like the equivalent to Interlaken, Switzerland, where tons of backpackers head each year to do extreme sports like skydiving, canyoning, and paragliding. Literally all day long people drive by in ATVs, motorcycles, or go carts that they use to tour the surrounding areas, and since the roads are so narrow, it feels like you´re actually walking across a track meant for them. The motors roar all day, but it doesn´t ruin the tranquility of the town. At night in Baños, the church is lit up with purple lights, and actually looks like the magical palace in Orlando.

In the morning we woke up early and had a great breakfast on the rooftop of the hostel. I got two pancakes with sugar cane syrup, but it kept reminding me of a rum I tried in Grenada that was made of sugar cane, and after one pancake I was too full to continue. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was heating up quickly, and I realized that I hadn't brought any sunblock. A big mistake.

A friend had told me it was cold there and it totally slipped my mind. I had to mooch some sunblock off of the others, but it didn't do, and by the end of the day my arms and knees were pinkish-red. You'd think I'd know better by now, living on the equator, but I'm still an idiot about it.

The tour agency was right across the street from the hostel, so we moasied over around 9:30 to pick up our bikes and get started. After very quick test runs down the street to make sure they actually worked, we put on our stupid-looking helmets, which probably wouldn´t actually help in an accident, and headed out.

Read more in Part 3...

Above: The start of the bike ride, The view from the rooftop restaurant at the hostel, A man eying some tantalizing street meat,

A Weekend in Baños, Part 1: Getting There




With a three day weekend to celebrate the independence of Guayaquil, a few of us decided to take a longer trip and head up to Baños, a small down about 8 hours from Cuenca and 3 hours from Quito. To get there and maximize our time, we left early on Friday morning, catching the 5:15 bus out of Cuenca. It was a tough wake up call.

I caught a taxi to the terminal and after I got out I realized that my cell phone fell out of my pocket in the car. I ran after it but the driver was already gone. I stood on the corner furious with myself and totally upset that I'd lost another phone. I was hoping my friends Lauren and Annie would should up soon so I could call the phone and beg the driver to come back. But before they even got to the station the driver pulled up holding my phone, saying I forgot it. I was shocked. Somehow, I managed to find one of the honest taxi drivers, and he actually came back to give it to me. I don't even know how he saw it since I was in the backseat. Now I knew the trip would be off to a good start.

The bus ride up was lousy and long, as we stopped for everyone on the side of the road. That's what you get when you pay $7 for an 8 hour ride. The stink in the bus kept getting worse as we wound our way through the Andes, and after trying to grade some papers for a while, I started to get a little nauseated. After long enough, we finally made it to Ambato where we switched buses for the 45 minute ride to Baños. The change was dramatic. The new bus was like a party bus, comfortable and with cool salsa music playing. The atmosphere was also good, as everyone knew they were on their way to a fun destination.

The trip in through the winding roads was beautiful, but it only got better as we entered the town. Hot but not oppressing, the temperature was perfect to walk around. After finding our hostel that our friends had already gotten rooms in, we dropped our stuff off and got some lunch. We stayed at Hostal Plantas y Blanco located on Martinez y 12 de noviembre. This was a great location because it was right on a main drag where all of the tour booking agencies were located. We paid $7.50 a night because it was a holiday weekend, but normally it could be a little cheaper.

The rooms were comfortable and clean, and we were given towels for free. A great plus about this place was the breakfast restaurant on the roof with a great view of the town and mountains. The food was delicious, and the pancakes were a specialty, though I couldn't eat more than one. If you'd had the appetite, you could eat fruit salad covered pancakes with sugar cane syrup for about $3.

At night, people hung out on the rooftop and grabbed beers from the fridge, that you would later pay for on the honor system. This hostel also had free internet and steam baths, so all told, it was a hell of a deal. This was my first hostel in South America, and I was not disappointed.

More to come...


Above: Three photos of the town of Baños from Hostal Plantas y Blanco

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Getting Into a Groove


It's been kind of difficult getting adjusted to being a teacher. Deep down, I still want to be sitting in the mess of chairs looking at the board, daydreaming while looking thoroughly interested. I have my routine now, and that's fine, but I still feel like I'm a student. It was a tough week for classes, knowing that we have Friday off. Even though my classes don't start until 1 p.m. I was walking in feeling tired and not wanting to deal with it.

There are those days when I just don't feel like talking much, but I am the teacher, and I have to be on for 2 hours.

I was afraid that my students could tell my enthusiasm had dipped a little in the second week, but no one seemed affected. I teach at a university, and a prestigious one at that, but sometimes I feel like I'm dealing with children. They complain and whine as you would expect from Ecuadorians, but it's frustrating. I know that I'm not here to change their educational system, but there are just some parts of their society that drain me.

An example of this is the way students talk while others are presenting to the class. I hated this as a student and I still hate it, maybe even more, as a teacher. It's hard to speak a different language in a big class, and it's even harder when someone else is talking or laughing. I've instituted a policy whereby I take away 10 cents every time someone speaks Spanish, uses their phone, or speaks while someone else is speaking. But no one really seems to care.

They almost find it funny. When I take away the money everyone giggles and talks even more. I don't want to take their money, but was told that it's a part of the education system to use fines. Today, students started ratting out others and were constantly telling me I should take away ten cents. They think it's a joke.

There's also the problem of keeping people interested. I feel like I'm a monkey up there sometimes, asking over and over for volunteers or if anyone would like to share with the class. The same thing always happens. No one wants to speak, finally out of pity someone shares, and slowly more and more people want to. But it takes so much to get them to speak. It's tiring just to be up there in front of the class.

I usually give a 5 or 10 minute break because they are 2 hour classes. Even though I remind them to be on time, some are always late. I understand that the concept of time is different, but it's so frustrating to feel like I'm talking to a wall. I told everyone to be on time for the test, and most of the students strolled in late. This is to be expected, I suppose.

Over the last two weeks my respect for all of the teachers I've ever had, even the awful ones, has increased in triplet. Maybe the hardest part of teaching is just thinking of what to teach, and gauging how long things will take, whether or not students will enjoy it, and if you're grading too hard or being too lenient.

Today I gave my first test, and though I thought it'd be nice to finally be the one giving it, it was still some work. I remember my teachers used to sit behind their desks and read or do other work, but after sitting for 2 minutes I realized I would have to walk around to make sure no one was cheating. It was interesting though, to finally not be the one stressing over the test. Test day was actually relaxing, because I didn't have to talk much.

I thought the test was too short and easy, and when everyone was done in 40 minutes, I thought that was confirmed. But after grading a few, I can see that most of the people are probably going to fail this test, which at the level they are in, they should pass with ease. I wonder if it was my bad teaching (very possible) or the education system as a whole. I just don't know yet.

But enough about the teaching troubles, because now it's Thursday night and there's a long weekend ahead, wahoo! President Correa has declared Guayaquil's Independence Day to be a national holiday, so everyone gets an extra day off. From time to time, apparently, he'll just announce that it's a holiday. Cool with me.

A few of us are heading up to Banos, up north by Ambato for a couple of nights. It's 8 hours away by bus, and we're taking a 5:15 a.m. bus. Ouch. That means I have to wake up around 4 a.m. and get there a little early to buy my ticket. There's supposed to be an active volcano and some good hiking in the area, so I'm looking forward to it. When I come back, there will be more pictures and hopefully good stories too.

Above: Yes! It's the second picture of Cuenca. Next to the Rio Tomebamba.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Weather

Finally, a picture of Cuenca. Rio Tomebamba
It's amazing how much of my life is still determined by the weather. Being from the northeast, I've grown up with some crazy storms and a climate that would make even the happiest person start feeling helpless. There's something about the climate in Boston that just makes people much more sensitive to weather changes and appreciative of good days. At the same time, it has created a sort of "state-wide pass time" for those of us from the area. Every day we love to discuss the weather and how it's either great or terrible.

Now down in Cuenca, far away from Beantown, I'm still finding weather to be a huge part of my life. The saying in Quito is that you experience four seasons in one day, and the same could be said for Cuenca. In the mornings it's a bit colder and by the afternoon has warmed up to somewhere in the 70s, Fahrenheit. Later on as the sun starts to set, it gets chillier, and by nighttime you're back to where you started in the morning. On top of all of that, it pretty much rains every day at different times.

Sometimes it will rain hard in the morning or afternoon, but only for a half hour. Other days, it will rain gently towards the end of the day and throughout most of the night. Basically, if the day starts out perfect with no clouds, you can be assured that by 4 p.m. it will be overcast and rain will be on the way.

The mentality of a person from New England is that you have to appreciate the weather as it comes, because it can change without much warning. I'll never forget when I was in elementary school the blizzard in April. In the winter we comment on how cold it is and the miserable conditions. February will always have an image in my mind as the worse, most disgusting month of the year, no matter where I live. If I move to the South Pacific I'll still imagine February as slushy snow and grey overcast sky for 28 days.

In the summer it's too hot and humid, and every day brings the surprise of, "I can't believe how humid it is today," from one or two people. But these extremes truly make us appreciate our short-lived spring and beautiful falls. I'm missing the foliage right now, though I never cared much for it until a couple of years ago. To me it always represented the oncoming of school and colder weather.

The spring and fall at UMass were some truly beautiful months. Everyone was outdoors and doing something, anything, to shake off the cobwebbs of winter and to enjoy the weather one last time. There was a kind of energy and happiness that I've never seen anywhere else as there was on that campus in those warming up and cooling down months. Here, however, I see the students just hang out outside the classrooms all day, seemingly unaware of how "pleasant" this weather is.

Everyone complains that it's cold here, but to me it's just fine. I almost feel bad for the people here, and the people in any location where there isn't a definite change in season. It's terrible having to wait months to be able to do things outside again, but once it comes you are all the more grateful for it.

It's funny that I'm down in South America and I'm still thinking of the weather up in Boston. And I thought I was going to be living in permanent summer, but high up in the Andes, it's actually quite different. I have all of these pairs of shorts that I'll never wear. Oh well, I can still get a sun burn just by standing outside for a few minutes.

UPDATED: 5:08 Local Time...It is pouring again, for the third time today.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Weekend Activities

Teaching a night class is hard enough. Teaching a night class on Friday night is even harder. Of the few students that actually showed up, they were all pretty rowdy and anxious to get out. Starting Friday I had to initiate a system of punishment in the form of fines. I got the idea from my host mother who told me that it's pretty common in Ecuadorian schools.

Anytime someone is on their phone, talking while someone else is speaking, or speaking in Spanish, I fine them 10 cents. It doesn't seem like a lot, but the students are not happy about it. They moan and whine, and I'm hoping they get their acts together soon. Mainly because the money is going towards extra photocopies for homework, which means I'll have more to grade.

Of course, just as I'd taken money from someone, my phone started to vibrate and all of the students yelled that I had to pay 1o cents. I told them that I didn't answer the phone and only had it on for a clock. The person who was calling was actually my field director who was in town for the weekend.

After class and dinner, a few of us met up at Cafecito, a cool little hostel/cafe/bar where not only tourists hang out, but actual, real-live Ecuadorians. We grabbed a couple of drinks and then headed over to a salsa bar. We must not have gotten there until midnight, because before I knew it, it was 2:30 a.m. The club had this weird policy where you were handed a sheet and every drink you ordered was tallied off, and you would pay, along with the cover, before you left. It seems to me that it's in a bars best interest to collect the money as soon as possible.

I must have had more to drink than I realized because on Saturday I was feeling pretty tired and hungover. I took it easy for the most part, the only activity before lunch being a trip to a local store to finally buy a new watch. I knew I didn't want to pay more than $10, and was working on my best haggling techniques. The man in the shop could only offer me two used pieces of junk for $10, the next cheapest thing being $15. And that was another piece of junk.

I pulled out all of the tricks. "No sea malito," which is essential for haggling in the Sierra. I told him that my watch was stolen in a bus robbery, that I was a volunteer that made very little money, and that I was in Cuenca to help. After about ten minutes he finally caved and told me anything from a particular row was $10. So after all I got the price I wanted, and now have a newish, kind of shiny silver piece of junk watch. I'm pretty sure it's made from scrap parts because one side of the watch says "Citizen" and the front says "70 China Army."

I tried to grade some homework assignments too, but it was agonizing. Going over the same worksheets in remedial English is draining, and after 3 I had to take a nap. After that I only got through 3 more.

On Saturday night my host sister Chio was organizing a city tour and a trip to Turi, a spot on a hill that gives a view of the entire city. I thought we were just jumping on a city bus and heading up and back, but it turns out we were going in a privately rented city bus turned party bus. The guests were from different parts of the country, and they'd been in town for the Microsoft function at the university that Chio was hosting.

As I got on the bus I tried to hand someone 25 cents, until I realized that it was all for a party. The guys in the back were going crazy and having a great time, and we got a brief explanation of what we were seeing as we headed up to Turi. The view was nice, and I'll definitely have to head back during the day. After the tour we wound up going to a couple of different bars. The first one was the size of someone's basement with a couple of people dancing. It was cowboy themed, and I was the only gringo in the place. Everyone stared at me, but it was OK. Someone handed me some very strong, hot tea with alcohol, and I only took a few sips because it was so strong.

After that we headed to another bar where we were lead upstairs and a live singer gave a shout out to a Colombian guest of honor, Willy, for his birthday. The nice thing about being the only gringo in the group is that when you walk into a bar or club, everyone looks at you, but differently. There's a look of question, as to why this gringo would be with so many locals. Obviously, you aren't a common tourist, and there's more to you that they'd like to know about.

Some of the people you're with even open up and talk to you. Willy was very interested in talking, and we had some good conversation. He invited me to stay at his place in Bogota whenever I want. After a long enough day I called it quits and was going to get ready to head to Cajas National Park on Sunday.

When I woke up, however, I found out that the trip was canceled because the bus driver was sick. A compromise was to go to Banos, a local thermal spa with some hiking. I was told we'd be back by 4, which was good because I had to get to work on my lesson plans for the next day. First we headed to a mall where we had lunch. I finally got to try some Ceviche, a popular dish in Ecuador. It was good, with shrimp, mussels, and a bunch of other stuff I couldn't identify. It also came with banana chips, yucca, and popcorn.

By the time we left the mall an hour and a half later, it was getting late. We got on a bus and I was surprised to see that we got off at another, bigger mall. Apparently we were going to bowl, but the lanes were full, so we went to an arcade where I watched some people play Dance Dance Revolution. I was tired and just wanted to get back to work, but we stayed for a long time before heading back over to the bowling alley.

I'm not good at bowling, but I was in the lead for most of the game until finally at the end I was beaten by one of the people we were with. I was pretty disappointed, and I never care how I end up in bowling. I think I just wanted to win one for America.

By the time we left the mall it was already 7, and there was obviously no way we were going to Banos. The other guys wanted to go see a movie, but I had to leave to get to work. So all in all, it was a pretty interesting weekend, though I never made it to Cajas or Banos. But with a year to get things done, there's no rush, and it's better to just take it slow and let things develop.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Finding Time for Election Coverage

My first month in Ecuador has been filled with news and talk about the important election that took place last Sunday for a revised constitution. Because I've been thinking and dealing with all things Ecuadorian, I haven't had much time to focus on the upcoming election back home in the United States. I don't even have much time to scan through articles and see what's going on half the time, but tonight a few of us were able to watch the Vice Presidential debate.

It was a beautiful day; a welcome relief after a couple of days of rain and dreary weather. My classes have been going well all week, even though I'm starting to feel like I'm repeating myself too much, but it's been a good first week overall. I got a text from Lauren asking if I wanted to go to a bar with them near the university because they'd be showing the debate. I don't even know how she found a place that would show it, or why the bar would show it in the first place, but I was glad there would be a place to keep up on American politics. Naturally, when I think of a bar in South America, televised American politics is one of the first things that pops into my head.

After my class got out at 8 p.m. I headed over and met up with the 3 other Americans sitting at the table in the corner, focused on the already in progress debate. It was kind of a weird place to watch. The lighting was extremely dim and occasionally would flicker as power was drained away. Though I've been told bars have been getting busier on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the social scene down here is usually restricted to Friday and Saturday.

The bar was pretty empty except for some rowdy people in the next room playing billiards. In the background Semisonic, Beck, and Red Hot Chili Peppers were among others that set the soundtrack for the debate. But that was all put mostly in the back of my mind as I tried to eat a chicken sandwich, drink a beer, and figure out where the politicians stood.

Politics aside, it was just nice to hear some people talking about the issues that are relevant to my family, my friends, and of course myself. I could imagine thousands of other expats throughout the world crowding around the neighborhood TV and hissing or cheering with every other comment. There were a fair amount of cheers and jeers at our own table, and I found it funny that no matter how far away you get from home or try to learn about a different culture, you still have your own invested in you deep down, so that you never truly leave home without it.

It's so ironic that we should be out of the country, missing this historic election that could determine the fate of the country. Yet we found ourselves in another country with its own historic election. We're Americans, but we live in Ecuador now. Which election is ours?

As it turns out, I might not even get my absentee ballot in time. It's probably headed to Machala right now, where I no longer hold residence. By the time it gets sent back to Quito, if it does, it would take another stretch of time to get down to Cuenca, and then I'd have to ship it back to the States via Pony Express. The notion of an absentee ballot counting is pretty far flung, but it's the idea of it that counts, and I want to be able to look back in the years that come and say that I took part in an historic election.

In the meantime, I'll just have to keep getting my information second hand and simply scan headlines for information on what's going on. But next week, we gringos will meet up again and watch the next debate at the same darkly-lit, mostly empty bar, save for a few Americans, hungry for news of the old country.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

And Now I'm a University Professor...What?

That's right. Today was the first day of my new job as a teacher, as a professor at the University of Cuenca. Classes actually started last week and I figured when in Ecuador, so I showed up a week late. Actually, I was still at orientation and the university started pretty early, so it's not my fault. That's another thing I'll have to get used to--avoided guilt and blame. It's such a part of culture that it's actually built into the Spanish language. You didn't drop the dish, it made you drop it.

So after recovering my textbooks from a friendly fellow professor from England, Dave, I worked on my lesson plans yesterday and waited around to get to work. My classes are from 1-3 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Monday through Friday. I'm going to see if I can somehow get the Friday night classes moved up, but I'm not holding my breath. That means weekend trips for the next seven weeks will have to be very local.

I woke up early and tried to kill the time by reluctantly starting to study for the GRE, the miserable test to get into Grad school. Standardized tests are the work of the devil. The hardest part of the day was making my necktie, which took about a half hour. It's not a skill I've developed over the years, and only making them occasionally, I really do suck at it. I'm not a tie-wearin' kinda guy, but I thought it'd make a nice impression on the first day.

Later on over dinner with Lauren and Claire we discussed whether or not you "make" a tie, as I suggested, or "tie" a tie. I think the latter is redundant, but they disagreed. What are your thoughts? After a quick lunch I headed over to the university, an easy 10 or so minute walk from my house. At this university the professors have to sign in as proof that they actually showed up. The secretary set me up with a couple of markers, a locker, and key to the faculty bathroom, and I was feeling pretty good about the situation. Then I realized that I'd left the eraser at home, and had to erase the board with a sheet of paper as it smeared across the white background. A great way to start teaching.

It's hard to be a funny, informative, stern, but altogether understanding and easy going teacher right off the bat. So I took a harder role and made it clear that the rules were unbreakable. After a week of a substitute teacher filling in, I think the students might have been a little shocked at finding a native speaker who has rules. My plan isn't to be the hard nosed teacher who takes away all the fun, but as we were instructed at orientation, you can always start out hard and get easier, but you can never start out easy and get harder. Especially here in Ecuador, where a student will take an inch and run for miles.

Class went along well enough, and though it was hard to gain much enthusiasm from the students, no one through tomatoes at me at the end either. With a few hours to kill, I hung out in the computer lab and graded some homework from last week, then worked on tomorrow's lesson plan. It's hard to judge how long an activity will take, and it's always better to overbook. In the first class I thought an activity in the workbook would be good practice and take about 10 minutes, but it turned out no one had the book. I'm supposed to photocopy it when I want to use it, and then students work on it. I had to scramble fast and, while trying to act like it was all part of my plan, adapt the activity on the spot.

The nice thing about teaching English is the understanding factor. Some people find public speaking hard because every word you say is scrutinized. But for me, I can take solace in the fact that if I say something stupid, they probably won't even understand me, at least at this level anyway. What I'm saying is probably too fast for them anyway, since the majority of native speaker experience they have is from TV and movies.

The second class at 6 p.m. went about the same. It's a lower level, but I found that they kept up just as well as the first class. They had more of a sense of humor too. We had some fun as I told them why you don't call a woman handsome or a man gorgeous too often. Throughout the class fireworks were going off, and at times seemed right outside the room like gun shots. I don't know why, but every night in Cuenca someone sets off a ton of fireworks.

Once class ended and I got lost on the way out of the university, I was relieved to have some dinner with friends and unwind. It was a long first day, and I'm glad it went well and is over. But at the same time, that's just day one of the rest of a year. At some point it will become more of a routine, but for now, just coming up with a lesson plan is a hassle enough before teaching, and if I could just learn how to make a necktie, it might make my day go a bit smoother.