Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving in Ecuador

Thanksgiving in Cuenca
On Friday night my friend Becky came up from Loja, about 5 or 6 hours south of Cuenca, so that we could celebrate Thanksgiving together. I'd tried to get some other volunteers into Cuenca to have a little feast at my house/hostel, but Becky was the only one who wanted or was able to come in. It worked out fine however, because Lauren, who also teaches at the University of Cuenca, was hosting a little dinner at her house.

After a quick dinner at Monday Blue we met up with some friends at a bar on Calle Larga called Red Candle. I'd never been there, but the atmosphere was friendly. Lauren was there with her friend Carol, a German woman who teaches at the University as well. Claire, who teaches at SECAP was hosting a little "class" with some students and her boyfriend, Stalin. Only about 7 of her 30-something students showed up, but it was cozy and perfect for the situation.

Though we were all supposed to be speaking in English for the benefit of the students, we were mostly using Spanish. We did find a fun game to play with both languages, however. "Limon, Medio Limon, Limon," is a game that is like a variation of many games back home. Everyone is assigned a number that you have to remember. Someone starts by saying, "Uno limon, medio limon, cinco limon," and the person with number 5 has to continue and say another number. If they mess up they have to drink.

We played this game in Spanish at first, and the foreigners kept screwing up by saying, "limon, medio limon, milon." We then switched to English and laughed as the students struggled. Sharing the fun for a few hours, Becky and I headed home around 2 am, as we were both tired from long traveling days.

On Saturday morning we walked around and Becky bought a panama hat, while I bought season 4 of The Simpsons for $5 and then another movie for $1.50. It's very easy to spend all of your money on movies here. Our plan was to make green bean caserole for the dinner, but we couldn't find the right ingredients at Supermaxi. Also, neither of us are good or creative cooks. So we settled on a can of corn and later on heated it up before heading over to Laurens' house. To be fair, we also brought some soda.

Lauren was nervous about cooking the turkey because she'd never done it before, and swore she'd never do it again after that night. For all of the worrying she did, the turkey came out great, as well as her stuffing. It wasn't a huge crowd, but rather 9 guests, most of whom were Ecuadorians. The Americans were Becky, Lauren, Claire, a new friend named Jamie, and myself. The Ecuadorians were Laurens' host mom, Sonia, her two friends both named Fabia, Stalin, and Israel, Carol's boyfriend.

As it turns out, Jamie just arrived in Cuenca last week to teach English for a year. Her mother is Ecuadorian and so she wanted to spend time with her family in Cuenca. She's from Massachusetts, and it turns out she knew someone from my hometown of Sharon. She couldn't remember the name for a few minutes, but eventually she said the name, "Silverberg," and I realized that she was talking about my friend Adam. They were friends together when they both studied in Madrid. Again, the incredible coincidences continue in Ecuador.

The dinner lacked gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and maybe other regular fixings at a Thanksgiving meal, but it was made up for in good friends to share the holiday with and a familiar feeling of doing something "American." Israel led a heated debate about sexism that seemed to go on forever, with the women getting angrier. Eventually it was decided that the three men should do the dishes to make up for it.

One thing we did that I've never done at a Thanksgiving meal before was go around the table and say what we were thankful for. It was nice and though we did it in Spanish, I think I got the message across. I was thankful to have friends in Ecuador to share the holiday with and for the food that we were sharing. After dinner some of us headed out to go dancing for a while, and as we danced in a circle to some crazy Ecuadorian songs, it was clear that we'd made some new friends. And I'm truly thankful for that.

It wasn't Thanksgiving in my grandma's boiling hot Brooklyn apartment, and I didn't get to spend it with my family, but it was a good day nonetheless. I'm not sure where I'll be spending Thanksgiving next year, but I'll remember this one for a long time to come.

The Last Iceman

The night before the big trip to Chimborazo, I could barely sleep. My room was right on the street and it was loud until 3 am. The bed was uncomfortable and the pillow was a rock. For some reason I woke up in the middle of the night unable to breath, and every time I went back under I would come to again, unable to breath. And of course, I was excited and nervous for the trek. But when the alarm went off at 5:30 am, I was ready to go and enthusiastic.

I'm not going to get into the complexity of the story or the trip because I'm going to write an article for Matador Travel about the whole experience. I took a lot of great photos and video, and I think the entire piece will come together nicely. But I will say this:

We were lucky with a great day for the hike. Chimborazo, which stands at about 20,500 feet, is the highest peak in Ecuador. It's an extinct volcano and is permanently snow capped. We went up on horses to make sure we could finish the hike with Baltazar Uscha, an indigenous man who speaks little Spanish and mostly Quichua. Uscha is the last iceman of Chimborazo. For centuries, people have been climbing up Chimborazo to chop out blocks of ice from the glacier and sell at the market, but because of the invention of the refrigerator, it is now an obsolete job.

Uscha climbs up to about 16,000 feet twice a week to chop out 6 blocks of ice to sell at the market, and since his children don't want to continue the tradition, when he dies there will be no one left to continue it, and that part of the culture will be lost forever. The majority of the information will appear in the article, so that's all you'll see for now.

The hike was a success, and though we came back later and Sarah missed her class, it was a good day. Later that night I met up with another Riobamba volunteer, Annie, for dinner. The next morning I took the long 6 hour bus ride back to Cuenca. I rested up for a bit and waited for my friend Becky to arrive from Loja for a Thanksgiving feast on Saturday night.

Above: Baltazar Uscha working on the ice, in the field, and with his donkey

Into Riobamba


I woke up early Wednesday morning to catch a bus to Riobamba from Guaranda. Instead of going to the terminal, Dan told me I could just stand on the side of the road and flag down a bus, essentially like hitchhiking, but it's a very common practice here. It was my first time trying this on my own. Waiting for the 7:50, I found that no bus was coming or stopping for me, and the long wait began. An indigenous woman walked by and I asked her when the bus was coming. "Ya mismo," she told me, meaning right now. But in Ecuador, that generally means not for a long time.

We talked for a while and she was nice enough to sit with me on the side of the road and wait until the bus came. As we sat there big plumes of black exhaust were blown in our faces by other buses and cars, polluting our lungs. In the ditch on the side of the road the sun slowly rose and became stronger, and about an hour later I could feel by neck burning. Every time a bus came by I asked the woman if that was it, but she kept saying maybe, but probably not. Dan eventually came down, surprised to see me still there. He got on his bus to town, and about 15 minutes later the bus finally came. I picked up by backpack, said thank you, and ran after the bus which was waiting up the road.

Two hours later and I was back in Riobamba. My plan was to show up at the hotel I'd been told about, ask for the man I was told about, and hope I could do the climb up Chimborazo. Normally I would love to have a plan and know what was going on. I think part of living here has eased me up a bit on that. When I lived in Europe, I would have all of my hostels, planes, and trains planed out perfectly. Now, however, I'm going with the flow of life in Ecuador.

Showing up at the hotel I asked for the cheapest room, $6 a night, shared and with a bathroom down the hall. The guy at the desk insisted that I get my own room with a bathroom for $10, but I wasn't interested. I soon found out the reason he was so concerned was because the hotel was practically empty, and I had my own room anyway for the cheaper price. After I settled the room, I told the man that I was looking for a man named Joel who worked for Alta Montana. He knew who I was talking about, called Joel, and 10 minutes later he showed up to talk business.

Though I'd emailed him twice a week earlier, he hadn't gotten back to me until that morning, when I had no Internet access. A short man with a lot of energy, he was enthusiastic to tell me that I would be able to go on the climb Thursday morning with Baltazar Uscha, the last iceman of Chimborazo. My friend Sarah, who teaches in Riobamba, also wanted to go, but she had to be sure that she would make it back by 4:30 pm to teach. Joel assured her that she would be back in time, and we would rent horses to make sure we could finish the difficult hike and make it back in time.

We settled on $65 for the transportation, hike, and horses. We probably over payed, but since I'd already arranged to write an article about the experience, I was mostly concerned with getting it done. After we finished the business, Joel took us to buy hats, gloves, and rubber boots, necessary for the hike. A man who seemed to know everyone in the city, he helped us get fair prices on all of the goods. A pair of boots ran me $6.50 and a warm wool hat was $3.50. Though I didn't need the hat, I liked it enough to splurge.

After wards Sarah invited me to have lunch with her host family. The host dad, who's going a little blind, loved to talk about Frank Sinatra and imitate John Wayne, using his fingers as pistols as he walked into a fake saloon. He also loved to talk about Boston, since he's hosted so many volunteers from there, he feels like he knows the city even though he's never actually gone.

Sarah showed me about Riobamba before she had to go to class, but she later called me to tell me that classes were canceled because of a student strike over elections. I've passed through Riobamba a few times and had only seen the outskirts, so the town looked like a dump. But going into the center, I could see that it was pretty nice. The center was pretty and though there isn't much to do there, it was cool to check out a different city for a couple of days. The best part of the city is the stunning views of three different volcanoes on the edges of the city. On one side there is Chimborazo, leading to the coast, and on the other side is Tungurahua, leading to the Oriente, or Amazon.

After a great burrito for dinner, I went back to the hotel to try to get some rest before waking up at 5:30 am to get ready for the day on Chimborazo.

To be continued...

Above: A sign showing the way for the hike of the hieleros, Baltazar Uscha's grandchildren at home, Chimborazo in early morning

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Challenging, Eye Opening Hike

We awoke early on Tuesday morning and I was a bit let down to find that it was overcast so that I couldn't see Chimborazo. I remember back in orientation Dan coming back to Quito and saying he could see Chimborazo from his window and it was so big that it scared him. I read that the drive from Riobamba to Guaranda was also a beautiful drive for the views of the mountain, but so far hadn't had a good view of it.

We went downstairs for breakfast and were entertained by the two young brothers in the family. Aged 9 and 10, I think we may have amused them just as much by being there. By the time they left for school it was starting to clear up, and though Chimborazo was still covered in clouds, Guaranda was becoming sunny and hot. By 7:30 Matt made his way to Dan's house and we started the hike, which almost literally begins in his backyard.

Walking up a slight hill, we reached a clearing which then opened up into an enormous valley with giant hills great for hiking. What must have been 1000 feet below was a gentle river with fields along the way. We started down the hill, passing by some of the indigenous farmers along the way, stopping to say good morning. That's one thing that is great about the countryside. Everyone stops to say hello, no matter who they are or if they know each other.

It was tough on the quadriceps getting down to the river, but Dan told me I'd be wishing I was going down once we start going up. He was right. After only a short time hiking up I was getting winded and sweating. I've been living at altitude for three months, but just like it would back on the coast, once you start doing exercise, it's tough on the lungs. The only problem is that here, higher up, when you breath heavily and suck wind, there's just not enough oxygen to get into your lungs. So you huff and huff but there's not much there to puff.

Dan and Matt moved ahead as I slowed up on the walk, the altitude getting me down. I was a bit worried. In just two days I was going to try to climb part of Chimborazo, the tallest peak in Ecuador. It's technically the farthest point from the center of the Earth because of the Equatorial bulge. I was only going to try to get to about 16,000 feet, but if we were at about 10 or 11,000 and I was having trouble, it didn't bode well for the future. I thought that it might be a good idea to ask for a horse or donkey to make sure that I make it to the top and get my story about Chimborazo.

We finally made it to the peak of the hill on the other side of the valley, so we caught our breath and took in the views. It was amazing to be able to see for miles in each direction, seeing entire towns along the way. The guys pointed out some things in the distance and showed different hikes they take. Dan goes on a hike each morning, though on this day we were trying a longer, different route. The sun was strong, but losing its power as thick, gray clouds started to move in. We continued on with the hike along the ridge line.

We stopped in a tiny town called Rodeobamba, where we saw a closed down church with broken windows and a bilingual school for Quichua and Spanish. We talked with one of the teachers for a couple of minutes before moving on. The hike was a big loop around the valley and peaks, though I'm unsure of how many miles it was. I was a little afraid that my slow pace would make the guys late for work at 2 pm, but we came back around faster than I thought. Along the way we talked about things from the difficulties of teaching English as a second language to the theories of quantum physics.

Heading back down another valley and crossing through several farms, we rested on a log bridge over a river before starting to head back to Guaranda. As the hike was ending we caught a bus back towards Dan's neighborhood, and it started to pour. He told me that it never rains before noon, but the rain season was starting, it the storm was as powerful as he'd seen it. We had to run back to his house and by the time we got there were completely soaked through and through. I was mad that my only pair of shoes were drenched, but there was nothing I could do.

After lunch Dan had to head in to work, so I took a nap and was going to come into town to see his 5 o'clock class. While I was at the house, his 9 year old brother Santiago took a liking to me. First we played Macala, then he showed me how he can play the piano. He also was very excited about his new pogs he was playing with, and I thought about how I hadn't seen those in years. For some reason the kids weren't going back to school after lunch, so Santiago was going to show me the way into the center because he had piano lessons.

On the way he asked me a lot of questions and insisted we play a game where you had to jump over only red tiles on the sidewalk. I let him win and he laughed as if he'd never played such a fun game before. At Dan's class I sat quietly in the back and zoned out until the end when he surprised me by having the students ask me questions. One 15 year old asked me if I had a boyfriend, which is funny, but it isn't.

After talking for a while and saying goodbye to Melea and Matt, we went home for dinner, which was waiting for us in the microwave. I gave Dan's host mother a handmade thank you card for letting me stay, and she was very happy. A few minutes later I was packing in my room and Santiago knocked on the door. He gave me his pogs as a gift and started to cry. He hugged me and said it was so I could come back and play with him, and that I'd have to visit again. I told him not to cry and said I couldn't take his favorite toy, but he wouldn' t hear of it. I tried to console him, but it was the most touching and shocking thing I've seen in a long time. I don't know how I made such a big impact on him, but he was genuinely upset that I was leaving.

I didn't want to take his toys, but Dan told me it would hurt him more if I didn't take it. I'm going to hold onto them as a reminder of the good in the world. Shortly after that I headed to bed, another early morning ahead as I would leave for Riobamba.

To be continued...

Above: Images from the hike in Guaranda

Headin' On Down to Guaranda

Today is Friday, but on Monday I left Cuenca for a little vacation to Guaranda and Riobamba. Since I'm back in Cuenca today, I'm going to go through what I did this week in several pieces.

Guaranda is about 8 hours north of Cuenca, and to get there you first have to get a new bus in Riobamba, which is 6 hours away. It's a long travel day, and anything but fun, but necessary to get to where you want to go in this country. Guaranda is the capital of the Bolivar province, about 5 hours south of Quito. With only 20,000 people, it has a very small town feel that makes you welcome and safe.

When I got to Riobamba I was dropped off on a random street in the outskirts of town, so I had to take a taxi to the terminal and was lucky to catch the last bus that day. Because it left at 5:15 it was dark not long after we left, and as we climbed the high mountain roads near Chimborazo, a thick fog soon took over, covering the road, making it nearly impossible to see in front of us. That caused us to go about 5 mph, and at one point fallen rocks in the road caused the bus to skid on the ice and almost go off the trail. I was relieved when we finally made it to Guaranda by 7:20 pm.

I met up with my friends Dan, Melea, and Matt, who teach in Guaranda. I could see that the city was small, and the center, though slightly reminiscent of Ceunca, was clearly not built up at all. We got a late dinner and talked for a while, then stood on the street not knowing what to do. Since the town is small and there are rarely any tourists, we stood out, especially because I still had my huge backpack. Every few minutes someone would come up and say hello to one of the three, as it's very easy to know a lot of people in the town.

Eventually we left, and Dan and I hopped into a truck which was converted into a mini bus. Dan's host family was nice enough to let me stay with them and feed me, which was an incredible gesture. Their house was big and modern, and very nice and clean. A great placement no doubt. Dan's backyard also opens up into a huge valley with hills great for hiking, which is what we planned on doing the next morning. Since there's nothing to do in Guaranda, people just eat dinner and go to bed. That's what we did, to get ready to awake at 6:30 am for a hike before they other guys had classes at 2 pm.

More to come...

Above: Two views from Dan's backyard valley, the street outside Dan's house

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cajas National Park

Swamp-like features on a rainy day in Cajas

Trees jutting out into a lake

A rock island in the fog

Flowers growing on a shrub

Up there in the clouds

Located only about 30 minutes from Cuenca is Cajas National Park, a huge reserve of land containing over 30 lakes, various forests, and tons of peaks to climb. I finally got the chance to go today with one of my students, Gaby, who is a tourism student and knows a lot about the park. Cajas is higher than Cuenca and can get very cold, and is known to only be worthwhile when it's sunny. Unfortunately for us, it was raining and windy today, making the trip a bit of a downer.

We got to Cajas early and I was happy to pay the $1.50 park fee for Ecuadorian citizens with my ID card, instead of the $10 other foreigners have to pay. The rain had stopped coming in hard, but every now and then gusts of light rain would fall down on us or wind would push us back. It was the coldest I've been in Ecuador, and a long time at all for that matter. High up in these Andes mountains, you would have no idea you were in South America.

The grounds were soaked and muddy, making walks on the weakly outlined trails dangerous and difficult. Cajas is so big and open that people sometimes get lost in there, and some tourists have been known to have to spend the night in the park because they got lost too close to sundown. I was glad to be with someone who'd been there dozens of times. Trying to take careful steps so that I didn't slip and damage my camera, it was useless fighting against the mud. It was having its way with us.

Trying to grab onto grass for support I lost my footing and fell on my side, slipping to another part of the trail. I was muddy and my camera was a little dirty, but it was still working, much to my delight. We carried on past a large lake and up an incline. At one point we had to spend 5 minutes figuring out how to get up a steep rock covered in mud, and only after we scaled a narrow section of grass could we continue.

Heading up another incline, my sneakers lost their grip and I slid all the way down the mud hill. A streak could be seen for at least 20 feet. By this point my white/blue sneakers were covered in black mud and my jeans were getting soaked by the feet as we walked over wet shrubs.

Along the way Gaby pointed out different plants and wildlife, telling me to listen for specific bird calls. She knew a lot about the animals in the park and would get very quiet every time we saw a rabbit or bird. Normally you can take some beautiful pictures in the park, but because we were right in the clouds and the fog was just over our heads, I didn't have the opportunity to take many. Gaby lamented that I wasn't even able to see some of the mountains just in front of us because the clouds totally covered them.

We marched on for about an hour or so, complaining about the rain and cold, until we made it to a forest with red trees that shed bark like we shed skin cells. Gaby picked up a piece that had already fallen and peeled away the layers to reveal redder and redder bark. Every couple of steps one of us would slip, until we finally decided the trail was getting too dangerous and started back. One thing I wish I'd invested in beforehand was a cheap pair of boots, now that my shoes were soaked through.

We saw barely anyone else in the park, but crossed paths with 4 other people our age, walking along to music from a cell phone. Stopping for some hot chocolate in a thermos and Ritz crackers, we caught our breath and were happy that the sun was just barely making a dent in the clouds. Along the way back we took a slightly different route and rubbed our hands in the wet grass to clean off the mud from when we'd fallen.

Finally back at the refuge by 1 o'clock, we checked out the little museum and took off. We had to flag down a bus on the side of the road to get back into Cuenca, like so many other people have while I took a bus somewhere in this country. It was a cold and rainy day, my shoes and pants nearly destroyed, but a fun hike. The next free day I have when there's sun, I'll have to go back and do it again.

Culture vs. Comfort

Thinking back on my time studying abroad in Spain, I know that it was one of the best times of my life, and I cherish most, if not all of the memories that I have from that period. Everything always looks better in retrospect, so I'm not foolish enough to believe that it was all gravy, but it's something I often attempt to compare with my current situation. Even though I was "immersed" in Spain, it was more of a plastic immersion, whereby I was living in another country, dealing with another language, but I had American friends and did American things.

And honestly, there was nothing wrong with it at the time, but after I left Spain I was wishing I'd spent more time meeting Spaniards. Unfortunately, I can't say that I have one Spanish friend. For a first time immersion, I suppose I did the best I could have. Living with two other Americans, however, meant that we always hung out together, traveled together, and went out to bars together. In addition, I took classes with Americans, therefore I didn't meet any of the Spanish students. They had their section in the university, and we had ours, with little mingling.

Now, however, I am totally immersed, and have actually made Ecuadorian friends, though it took some time for that to happen. By this point in Spain, 3 months in, I was already on the downward slope towards leaving, but now I feel like I'm just getting started in Ecuador. There are some challenges along the way, however.

Take for instance, yesterday I went over to my friend James' house. James is another gringo who's been in Ecuador about the same time as me, but only recently found work as an English teacher. Before that he was working at a bar and grill along the route I take to work. James would work 6 days a week for about 75 cents an hour, and because our schedules were so different, we didn't see each other except for when I walked by.

I went to his house yesterday, however, to discuss plans for a trip this week. I was extremely impressed by his living situation. Close to the center, he lives in a huge house with a number of other expats and an Ecuadorian family who rents out the rooms. With a huge indoor courtyard letting in sunlight, beautiful artwork and flowers all over the place, and hammocks to rest in, it was extremely welcoming. The roommates are from all over, some from Germany, Austria, France, or the United States.

The roommates all get along, eat, and go out together. Thinking about my living situation, where there isn't much to look at in the house and a dimly lit room with no window of the outside world, it made me a bit jealous. Sometimes it feels like I live alone, and it's suffocating not having anyone to talk to, especially in my own language. James told me that some people were moving out soon and that I could probably move in if I wanted to. The rent situation would even work out to be about the same as I currently pay.

It was extremely enticing, and I have to admit, I could really see myself living happily there. But I also thought about other things. If I moved in there, I would lose touch with a part of the culture. I'd wind up hanging out with other expats, which wasn't my goal here. I've had the plastic experience once before, and though it was great and I wouldn't trade it in, I came here to experience the harder, more authentic one.

Later that night I was invited by my friend Jenifer to go to a birthday party of a friend. Already a friend of the family since the birthday party last week, I was invited once again to another function. With her cousins Diana, Rene, and Monica, we headed over to the house, and once again I was surprised that there were only 9 people there at a close friends and family dinner. Again, I was treated like another friend or family member by everyone.

After dinner we gathered in the living room for some drinks and to come up with options on names for the wife, who was pregnant. All of a sudden Monica brought out a needle and thread and did some old superstitious practice where she dropped the pin through your left hand three times, then depending on how it swung, would tell you if you would have kids, how many, and whether they would be boys or girls. Apparently I'll have a boy and then a girl. Mark the date, so that some years in the future we can say they told me so.

Suddenly a keyboard was busted out and karaoke started. Though Rene did most of the singing, I was forced to do one song by Aerosmith. Everyone was laughing and having a great time, totally accepting me as one of the gang. It's an experience I wouldn't want to trade for another night of speaking English, which I can do whenever I go back home.

So how do I feel about it? As tempting as a change of scenery would be, I think I'm going to stay in place and make the most of it. When I look back on it, I'm sure I won't be too sorry, regardless of how it turns out. I do miss Spain and the friends I made while I was there, but I'm in Ecuador now, and this is just a whole different experience altogether. I'm OK with that.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Cuy Has Landed

After nearly three months in Ecuador I've finally tried one of the staples of the "comida typica." Cuy (coo-ee), or guinea pig, is a traditional dish in Ecuador, but isn't served that often because it is more like an expensive delicacy. Since coming here I've tried a number of the traditional dishes, including ceviche, mota, and other odds and ends, but hadn't gotten around to the big dog.

It seemed as though every time I was going to try it something came up. Plans in Ecuador are usually not definite until a few minutes before they're going to happen, so if you agree to do something in two days, it could likely not happen. That was the case with my attempts at eating cuy on many occasions.

Last Friday some of my students were going to bring in cuy for the pizza party, but never did. Because of this, two of my students felt bad and wanted to take me out for some cuy. Because they didn't tell me beforehand where we were going, I didn't have a camera ready, unfortunately. I was excited to try the food, even though many foreigners are known not to enjoy the food.

A lot of Americans have trouble accepting cuy as a meal, mainly because to many people, a guinea pig is a pet, and not a dish. One time in a Spanish class a group did a presentation on Ecuador. They talked about cuy being a popular dish, and most of the class groaned in disgust. My teacher Mikee, who is Ecuadorian, made a great point. It's just a difference in culture, and most people in the United States have no problem downing hot dogs, which is known to be just the rejected meat of the rest of a pig. Each culture has its own standard on what's edible and what is not.

So what was the cuy like? It wasn't that bad, and it wasn't that great. A bit gamy, it was kind of like a cross between turkey and duck. While eating it I thought it might be the Ecuadorian equivalent of lobster up north. They're both expensive and usually eaten on special occasions, and they're both a lot of work for not that much gain. It was tough cutting through the skin to get to only a little bit of meat.

With the head left on, the torso was cut into four sections, each person taking a quarter. Accompanying the meat were potatoes in a special sauce and mota, a type of corn. Sprinkling some aji on it, the pepper gave it a nice flavor that played off well, considering there wasn't much of a spice on it. Before the meal was served we were given some canelaso, an aguardiente (sugarcane) liquor, to apparently ready the stomach for the food. During the meal, however, we had Coke, and after wards had the canelaso again, to settle the stomach.

I'm a reasonable person, so I understand that not all food tastes the same. The cuy was OK, but not great. But that could also have been the one that I had. It would be absurd to go to a restaurant, order chicken and assume every piece of chicken tastes the same (though essentially, it does). Sometimes you just get a bad chef. So I'd definitely try cuy again, but it's not the kind of meat that I'm going to run out and beg my host mom to buy once a week.

When I got home my host mom made me some oregano tea because she told me that some people get sick after eating cuy for the first time. I'm not sure if the tea helped, but I felt fine after wards and went out with my host brother to a party for the engineering school. It was funny watching all of the students interact. So many people wanted to take photos holding bottles of alcohol, and it just reminded me of high school or my own college days.

Suddenly a fashion show broke out, and 5 girls from the different engineering schools were competing to be Queen of Engineering. It was like the Miss America pageant if they allowed drunken frat boys in to yell and whistle. A couple of the girls looked like they really wanted to win, but the others looked like they were basically forced up there because they were good looking and wanted nothing to do with it. I just felt badly for them.

There were two rounds and even a wardrobe change before three girls were finally chosen as the Queens, given flowers and sashes, and paraded around the stage. So much of Ecuadorian parades just remind me of what I've seen in movies about the 1950s in the United States. The party went on until 2 am, and though I was tired and wanted to go home by 11, we stayed the whole time.

One thing I've noticed over and over again is the disregard for the safety of the people who have had too much to drink. Back home, if a friend is clearly too drunk, someone in the group (usually the most sober) will unofficially become the caretaker. They will make sure that the drunk doesn't drink anymore, has water, and gets home safely. Here, however, the friends just go with it, if not in an immature way, than in a loving way.

At the party, two or three guys were sitting in their chairs, heads in their laps, ready to pass out. Instead of getting them water, their friends would slap them on the back and hand them another drink. Two times a guy fell out of his chair and hit his head on the ground, but his friends just laughed and had him jump around. A common response is, "You're just drunk, don't worry about it." It's not my place to question how they handle these situations, but I feel like there are better ways to deal with it.

This weekend will be spent preparing for my trip next week to Guaranda and Riobamba. I might not be able to write while I'm gone, but there will be plenty to talk about when I get back.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More Photos of Cuenca

The courthouse in the center

Stone architecture for the Mayor's Office

The cathedral, slightly blocked by the palm trees in the park

A woman carrying ice cream and a basket during the fiestas

It's Always Something with the Water

There is usually one problem or another with the water down here. If it's not potential illness from drinking it, there's another reason it gives you a hassle. Normally for me, I have to battle with the water pressure in my house, which jumps around in a bipolar madness, one minute being scalding hot, the next freezing cold. It makes it harder to take a shower under these types of conditions.

But that being said, I've gotten used to dealing with that issue. Every now and then the water pressure just drops out, however, and there's no water available for a while. This happened a lot during October, when it rained every day, and I never quite understood why people didn't collect the rain.

The pressure usually came back after a while though, but today it has been out all morning. If I were out and about, it wouldn't matter that much, but I'm here at home for now. I need a shower and a shave, but without the water, I'm at a loss. And of course, I'd love to use the bathroom, but there's no way that's going to happen without a little water in the bowl. So I'm stuck waiting for the water to come back, whenever that may be. With every passing minute I'm growing more and more uncomfortable, and I am getting more and more aggravated.

My face is scraggly and scratchy, begging to be shaved. My teeth want to be brushed. And my stomach is losing its patience. When is that damn water pressure coming back?

A Week of Finals and Firsts

This week has seen my time occupied with proctoring final exams, and though there have been some days when I've had almost no work to do, there have been others, like yesterday, when I had to grade 52 tests at once. It feels a bit like leaving a stifling hot house and going out into the cold winter night. It's just screwing up my system and confusing my body.

In between nearly falling asleep listening to the same oral exams over and again and grading the written exams, I've been trying to figure out what to do with my week off next week. I had originally planned to head south to Loja and Vilcabamba for a couple days each. But then I was suddenly presented with a great opportunity.

My friend Casey had gone up with his wife Lara to Riobamba last week and did some climbing on Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador. Also, because of the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo is technically the highest peak in the world. While there, Casey and Lara met a man who is the last of a dying breed. For centuries, indigenous people would climb up the mountain to chop out blocks of ice and sell them at the market, but because of the invention of the refrigerator, they have been dwindling away. Now there is one man left, a 65 year old, who is the last ice man.

Though he hates tourists, you can arrange to follow him up on the 8 hour hike to about 16,000 ft and watch him chop out the ice and bring it back down the mountain. The man also speaks Quichua, and not much Spanish, making it a bit more complicated. But I plan to go to Riobamba now and do this climb, and hopefully be able to write a nice story about it. Along the way, I'll probably also stop in Guaranda, about 2 hours away, to see a couple friends for a day or two.

I'm by no means an expert climber, so hopefully the altitude won't do me in too badly. I have been living at about 8,800 feet for a couple months, but when I was still in Quito, I was sucking air at about 13,000 feet on Pichincha.

Next week is also Thanksgiving, and some people were planning on coming into Cuenca for a little feast Saturday night. I'm hoping to be back by Friday afternoon, but the only problem is I have no idea how to cook a turkey. Or anything else for Thanksgiving. We might have to just wind up going with some street meat in the end. The main point, however, is to meet up with some friends and other Americans to celebrate the holiday in one way or another.

I've also learned something important. For a while I would say that some people in Ecuador speak Quechua, but that is a mistake. The indigenous in Ecuador speak Quichua (kee-chew-ah), and the indigenous in Peru speak Quechua (keh-chew-ah). The pronunciation is slightly different, but apparently it's nearly an entirely different language. So to review: Ecuador=Quichua, Peru=Quechua.

So there's the chance that I won't be writing much next week, but you can be sure that when I get back there will plenty of good stories to tell, and no doubt with some nice pictures as well. Who knows, there might even be some video. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Birthday Party

Waking up around 10 a.m. after being out until 3 is a tough thing to do, but it's just too difficult to sleep in when you live in Ecuador. For some reason Ecuadorians don't need much sleep, and so by 7 or 8 a.m. they are around and bustling about. So for the majority of Saturday morning and afternoon I was just sitting around lazily and recovering with cat naps and The Simpsons.

My new friend Jenifer had invited me to her cousins' birthday party, and though she was going to be working until about 9:30, I was going to arrive with her other cousin, Diana, who I'd met the week before. Arriving by 7:30, we were the first guests there. I'd met her cousins at a club during the fiestas a couple of weeks before and they were extremely friendly and welcoming.

The cousin, Rene, was turning 39, and I was a little surprised to find that it wasn't a big birthday party, but rather the cousins and closer family. So only about 15 people were coming, and I was one of three foreigners invited. I was touched, considering I barely knew them, but they were inviting me into their home for a close family party.

The family has three children, and the 8 year old son loves playing baseball, which I found amazing. I always thought that the popularity of baseball ended around Venezuela, and though it's an obscure sport in South America, there are a few leagues in Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. The son plays on a team called the Rockies, and because of that he loves the Colorado Rockies. Though I have very little talent I can offer for advice, I told him how he could improve his batting stance. He'd shown me how he swings, and his was almost jumping as he swung, so I told him to keep his legs planted. Funny enough, the family was very interested in what I had to say about baseball since I'm the closest thing to an expert on it that they've ever met.

Soon enough more of the family arrived and the party started. The music was turned up and the dining room/living room was turned into a dance floor. Oddly, the aunt of Diana is a friend of my other friend Monica, and I'd met her a few weeks before. In a city of 500,000 I somehow worked into this coincidence.

The family is mostly from Zaruma, in the El Oro province. This province is on the coast, but Zaruma is high enough to be somewhere in the mid-range between Sierra and Coast. According to them, people from the coast party differently, and they were all dancing together and joking around, which I found to be normal. A huge part of Ecuadorian culture is drinking, but up until this point I haven't really seen much of it. The family I lived with in Quito didn't drink for religious reasons, and my family in Cuenca doesn't seem to drink much either. At the party however, I finally saw the drinking part of the culture.

The main things to drink were whiskey and water or rum and Coke. I like whiskey and Coke, and I had to argue for 5 minutes to let them allow me to make a whiskey and Coke drink, and another 5 for them to try it. Apparently it's not very popular down here, but they agreed that it tasted good. At orientation we were told how to deal with situations when you didn't want to drink but were being pressured into it. The main way is to just hold on to your drink, this way you don't get a new one. But I never got that option.

Instead, the girls were hand feeding me the drinks and forcing me to chug cups of whiskey and rum. Every time I said no the entire house would chant "Toma! Toma! Toma!" and wouldn't stop until I'd finished the cup. I was feeling good, but somehow didn't get wasted, which was all the better, unlike one of the cousins who'd had too much. He probably broke about 5 glasses, and instead of getting him a glass of water and a bucket they gave him another whiskey drink. Not exactly the best cure. No one cared about the glasses though, they just kept laughing it off. Being drunk is a solid excuse here, and no one holds it against you.

The two other foreigners were a 7 foot, 16 year old German who was living with some of the cousins in a year long foreign exchange program, and a Chinese girl who's been living in Ecuador for at least a decade and teaches Mandarin. I spoke to the German boy, who was nearly perfect in English, with a slight British twang, and the Chinese girl who the family affectionately calls, "La China." She speaks 4 languages fluently, and the 16 year old speaks 3. I felt weaker with just my 2 languages.

In between the drinking and dancing, I could see how much love there was in the family. No one brought any gifts or cake, and there was no birthday song, but everyone was laughing and having a great time. Essentially, they were busting each others' balls all night long, and it was hilarious to watch and take part in some of it.

Around 11:30 p.m. dinner was unexpectedly served. A nice big plate of steak, rice, and eggs helped to further the party and give everyone a little extra life. The power suddenly went out and for a few minutes we sat in pitch black, listening to music coming from someone's cell phone.

Some of the family left as it got a little later, but we stayed dancing until 3 a.m. Once again it was a late night. I thanked Rene and he told me that I'm a friend of the family and his house is my house. It was really touching that near strangers would take me into their house and treat me like family. Piling into a car with 8 or 9 people and a dog, it was a tight fit on the ride home, but just like the family, we were close and comfortable with it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Yesterday was the last day of classes for my first semester at the University of Cuenca, and it was a relief to finally get through the week. It was tough because there was hardly any material to cover and the students were already taking midterms for their other classes. As a result, they had no energy or concern for English class.

For the first class in the afternoon, we watched Forrest Gump, or two hours worth anyway. We only made it to the part where Jenny returns to Greenbow, Alabama for the first time and then we ran out of time. The students who actually showed up seemed to enjoy the movie. Moreso than my other class enjoyed Sin City, which I showed on Thursday night. I'd forgotten how much violence and gore was in it, and since there's only about 5 guys in the class, most of the students hated it.

My night section was always a little more laid back, and when we got to the room at 6 p.m. the students were speaking in Spanish, but I didn't even bother yelling at them about it. We waited for the Pizza Hut to arrive (the highest quality pizza here) and ate in a circle so we could talk and joke around. We didn't have any wine or cuy, but the students surprised me with a gift. Everyone pitched in to buy a t-shirt that says "Cuenca" and they spray painted "Level 4th, C/E 2008". I love the fact that they reversed "Level 4th". I'll wear it proudly.

After the present, it became a photoshoot and everyone wanted to get a picture with me. I tried to get them to do a review for the final, but most of the class didn't care, so I just passed around the sheet of things to review for them to look at if they wanted.

Some of the students were going out dancing and they invited me, so I went out with 5 of my students. First we jumped in the truck of one of my students, who apparently is a national champion at ATV racing. There wasn't enough room in the cab so we jumped in the bed of the truck, and I felt oh so Ecuadorian. We grabbed a drink at Cafecito, where I taught them some bad words in English, and then went out dancing at a club until about 3 in the morning.

One of the nice things is that a lot of my students are tourism majors, so they want to take me to Cajas National Park and be my personal tour guide. Also, on Sunday there is a cuy festival in a barrio of Cuenca, so one of them is going to take me so I can finally try it. And tonight I'm going to a birthday party of a friends cousin. So it's shaping up to be a nice little weekend.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Post Office is a Black Hole of Beaurocracy

In my last post I mentioned that I had to go back to the post office Friday morning to pick up my package which had been sent from my parents in the United States. I returned to the post office this morning between the random hours they assign for package pickups. Luckily I made it to the office just before 10 other people showed up, so I only had to wait a few minutes before getting in, even though they had 4 people working on one person at a time.

Once I was let into the box room, a man checked my notice from the office and checked my ID card. They found my box and then gave it to the customs official who cut through the layers and layers of tape to see what was inside. The condition of the box led me to believe that it was handled with anything but care.

Inside were just some things that my parents had sent me from back home: a pair of khakis, Q-tips (you can't find a decent Q-tip down here), scissors, shaving cream, deodorant, and a number of other odds and ends that I probably could have gotten down here for more than it would cost back home.

After checking that there was nothing illegal, the officer taped it back up and gave me a piece of paper, telling me I'd have to pay for it before I could have it. I went to the little Banco de Guayaquil kiosk but was told I needed the form to be photocopied. An old woman selling lottery tickets told me I needed to go across the street, so I went across the street, got the copy, and came back to the bank kiosk.

Now, however, the man was telling me that I needed another form photocopied in triplicate. I was starting to get annoyed, and nothing was making much sense to me. The guard who kept playing with his pistol holster was telling me to walk over to the corner and wait, but for what? Luckily another woman named Claudia was also having trouble. She had no idea what all of the trouble was for and why it was so hard to just get the package, and she's from Cuenca. She said she would help me out, which I was grateful for.

Now the guard handed us another form which we had to get photocopied in triplicate across the street again. Along the way Claudia badmouthed the post office and the beaurocracy. Back at the post office again, we had to pay. Claudia had recieved a package from a friend in Maine. It was just a few fashion magazines, but it cost her $22 and change. I tried reading my form, but it made no sense.

Even though the listed value on the box was $0, it had cost about $42 to ship it. The customs officer itemized the pants as costing $5 and all of the candy (which was not in the box) at $10. The final total was up to about $50, but all I had to pay was $7.21, or closer to $8 after the tax the bank kiosk added on. I was finally able to go back into the customs room to pick up my package, nearly an hour after I'd gotten there.

It could have been so simple to just sign off on the package and let me be on my way, but instead I had to make 4 photocopies of useless paperwork and pay for what was already paid for. And that is the mess of beaurocracy in Ecuador.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gotta Love the Inefficiency

I finally got paid this morning, after two weeks of delay and being told for the last few days that the money would show up in my account. I wasn't sure how long it would take, but when I checked my bank account this morning, there was the money. Too much money, actually. It seems that I was paid double, instead of the standard monthly stipend. So first I wasn't paid at all, and now I've been paid too much. It's hard to complain about extra money in the bank, but I still went to my director to make sure everything was normal.

My director told me to check with the human resources office, and they told me that I was paid for September and October, even though I only worked a week in September. They told me it was normal, however, so I'll gladly take the money. Now I can pay my rent and hopefully expect the rest of my stipends to arrive on time.

I'd received a package from my parents yesterday, which was waiting for me at the post office. I went down to the post office in the afternoon to pick it up, and was baffled when they told me that I could only pick it up between 11-12 on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday because customs had to look through it. Even though there is $0 value on the box (for things like floss, scissors, and a pair of pants) I'll probably still have to pay some money to get it out of the post office. Any way to make a little money is exploited.

So I'll go back to the post office tomorrow and hopefully be able to recover my package. But I wouldn't be surprised if I don't get it.

This is the last week of my first semester, and I'm amazed that it's already ending. Granted, they're only 7 week courses, and I missed the first week, it still went by extremely fast. In one of my classes today we had a pizza party, and though I'd planned to review for the final, they whined and begged not to. Normally back home students would love a review session so that they know exactly what to study, but the students here never want to review. It's their choice, and if they'd rather study everything from the semester, it's their own choice.

I still went over the important things to study, but let them out an hour early because they were clearly not going to work today. A bunch of the girls wanted to take a picture with me and then the class clapped. It was nice, but I do wish I could continue teaching this group. After weeks of getting to know them and having them follow my rules, they're finally a pretty respectable class. Now I'll have to start all over with two new sections, and I'll have to start from scratch again.

My other class will have a pizza party tomorrow night, and I think they're planning on bringing in cuy (guinea pig) for me to try, as well as wine and canelaso, which is a strong drink made from aguardiente, a liquor. For some reason the night class is always more relaxed and fun. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the afternoon class, but sometimes I have no energy and am not fully into that section, but the night group is usually an uplift. The students are a bit older and come after work, just wanting to learn a little bit of English and joke around.

I don't know if I'll have any of these students next semester, but hopefully the new ones will be as fun and enthusiastic about learning.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How's My Spanish?

One question that people back home often ask me is "How's your Spanish?" After a couple months of immersion in Ecuador, people seem to think you should automatically be fluent in the predominant language. The truth is, it's extremely hard for me to tell how my Spanish is coming along, probably because it's hard to look at yourself from the outside. But also, because as something that I deal with everyday, I always find mistakes in what I say, and it's easier to notice when you screw up than when you say something correct.

My Spanish was a little rusty when I got here because I hadn't spoken much of it in about three months. And before that I'd only been learning it for about two years, with 4 months in Spain. So I was never close to the expert level, though I did know quite a bit. I think about that when I consider some of my students who have studied English for 5 years and can't say 5 words.

For the first three weeks in Ecuador, most of my time was spent in Orientation with other Americans, so I wasn't getting the full experience until I came to Cuenca and was essentially on my own. The only people that try to speak English to me here are the few that have lived in the United States and want to practice their English again. So every day I use my Spanish, some days more than others, and some days are better than others.

I can say definitely that my grammar isn't improving very much because I'm not studying the language in a classroom setting. But my vocabulary has been growing, if not overwhelmingly, then steadily. Every day another word is absorbed and used more frequently, causing me to remember it. There could be the conscious decision to memorize a word, or the subconscious memorization out of necessity. If you didn't know the word for toilet paper before, you definitely need to use it from time to time when you get here.

Every now and then I catch myself making a mistake (every few times during a conversation) and if I can, I correct it. But it's no different than in English, when you make a mistake, the listener generally understands what you are saying and doesn't bother to correct you, unless they are a word snob. And because of this, it's harder for me to know when I'm screwing up, thus fix the problem.

As an educated person, I want to say more advanced things in Spanish, but not knowing how, I have to settle and know that I sound stupid, but the most important thing is being understood. I definitely feel comfortable speaking the language, and I know for a fact that I can survive with it. But like so many immigrants to the United States, or any other country, once you've passed a certain age, there's only so much of a language you can learn. You can live in a country most of your life and still have a bad accent, or not understand terms because they are cultural, pop phrases that you didn't grow up with.

The ironic thing of it is the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. When you know barely anything you think it's amazing that you can communicate with someone, yet once you start having longer conversations, it frustrates you that you can't fully get across what you want to say. And of course, there's a universe of vocabulary that you don't have at your disposal.

But there is sometimes a double standard. The native Spanish speakers are happy and excited that you can speak in Spanish, maybe much better than the usual gringo they see, a passer-by tourist. But when you meet with other foreigners and they ask you to translate or how to say something and you can't, they all but mock the fact that you don't know. It's hard to be a scholar in something that you had a late start in.

Basically, it's never easy to exactly define how fluent you are in a language. You can speak the language "perfectly" for years, and then someone could say a word that you never heard of and feel lost. It's the same way in English. We have so many words that it's impossible to know them all. But the most important thing is to be able to converse and survive. And by those standards, I'm doing just fine.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rain in Jima Doesn't Mean No Joy

Today I went for a short day trip to the town of Jima, a little less than 2 hours southwest of Cuenca. My friends Casey and Lara are living in Jima, and though it's an extremely small town in the sticks with not much to do, I wanted to check out the town and do a little hiking.

We took off on the 11 a.m. bus out of a hole in the wall "terminal", leaving on an old bus with huge windows, which when you opened them up, half your body was out of the bus. The weather was great as the sun beat down and the temperature permitted just a t-shirt and jeans. It was looking like good weather for hiking, but it's always hard to tell how long the weather will hold here.

Casey had told me that half the fun of Jima was the bus ride, and as we cruised along through the mountains, I could see why. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, looking out the window at all of the scenery. Passing by farms and huge mountain peaks, the bus took one sharp turn after another, steadily rising in altitude.

It was extremely exciting, and as we got off the bigger road, we wound down onto dirt roads that had never even heard of concrete. One wrong move and the bus would tumble down hundreds, maybe thousands of feet, but the driver was careful to avoid the ditches with slowly moving, brown water, and we continued straight on the path.

As we were getting closer to the destination, darker clouds started to roll in, and it was getting colder. It was clear that the perfect weather was not going to hold. The moment we pulled into Jima a thunderstorm broke out. As we ran up the dirt road, slowly becoming a mud road, to their house, it became evident that the climb was not going to happen.

It was a disappointment, but there was still another, easier walk we could do. The rain stopped and we grabbed lunch, and I could see what a friendly town it was. Jima only has about 1,500 people, and since Casey and Lara are the only gringos, they stick out quite a bit. But everyone is extremely friendly, and as we passed, everyone said hello and good afternoon.

The newly married couple eat all of their meals at the same restaurant, and they are only served whatever is being cooked that day. A dirty-white dog named "Paci" follows them around wherever they go and protects them from the other wild packs of dogs that rule the streets of the town. The last volunteer in the town had brought the dog, and now it has an affinity for gringos.

After the lunch we went back to the house to wait out a few more storms that had rolled in. There is literally nothing to do in Jima. The town center has a couple of stores and maybe one bar/restaurant. A church is the tallest building. This small pueblo has dirt road, which in the rain became muddy sink holes, increasingly difficult to walk through. The buildings and houses are run down and dirty, many in disrepair. But there's something awfully charming about the place. There's no Internet. Probably not that many TVs. And few cars running through causing traffic.

But that's what's perfect about it. It's almost what my image of Ecuador was before I got here. The mountains in the background are magnanimous and inspiring, begging you to climb them. It's an incredibly safe town because everyone knows each other, and there's no point in robbing your friend when you know they don't have anything to steal. The tranquility of the town was perfect.

Once the rain had stopped for a third, or maybe fourth time, we decided to go on a little walk through the town. Going down the dirty roads, Paci followed us and ran ahead at times. Going down the steep roads which the couple runs on, it was clear that the rain had worn away, forcing more rocks up to the surface.

Passing by an indigenous woman carrying a heavy load up the hill, we greeted each other and she warned us it was about to rain. No sooner than a minute later the rain started to fall, and we turned back. The walk up the hill was tough, and since we were higher than in Cuenca, about 9000 feet or more, I was breathing deeply by the time we got to the top.

Once more we returned to the house, played some poker, and then I caught the 5 p.m. bus back to Cuenca. The rain continued to fall off and on, but the ride out was as nice as the ride in, even though towards the end it was dark. Tired and somehow sunburned, I returned home to relax and rest for the remainder of the night. All told, it was a solid day.

Above: along the walk through Jima, one of the main roads through town, the view of the mountain we didn't climb from the house

Friday, November 7, 2008

Gringo Huntin' and the Dog Ate My Boxers Excuse

Last Saturday night we met some people at the club we were at, and I went on a quasi-date with one of the girls, Jennifer, on Tuesday. While we were having a beer I was explaining to her that I know everyone just looks at me and sees a gringo, but I wish there was a way for them to know that I'm not just a tourist, and that I'm here for a while. No later than 5 minutes later, 4 girls came up to me explaining that they're students at the University of Azuay and that they wanted to interview me about being a foreigner in Ecuador.

I obliged and let them ask away, since after all I majored in journalism and know that it can be hard to find people to talk. They actually filmed the interview and did it in English, which was pretty impressive.

Then today, after my class had got out, a girl came up to me and asked if I was Jon Brandt. I said yes, and she explained that she was a reporter for El Mercurio, one of the newspapers for Cuenca. The girl was looking to interview an American and she wanted to ask me about what I thought of the election in the United States. Once again, I obliged, though I was in a rush to get home. She even took a photo of me at my desk to show what a hard working teacher I am. I thought this was some student newspaper, but when I got home my host mother told me that it's a big newspaper, so tomorrow I can expect half of the city to read about my thoughts on the election.

I wasn't really looking for the attention, but it's kind of funny I guess. I just want to get by and live a normal life, but now, at least for the day, I might be known as "that gringo" around town.

I thought that would be the weirdest part of the day, but when I got home my host mom told me that the family dog, Lili, had torn through a pair of my boxers. Lili is a wiener dog, or a salchicha, as they call them in Spanish. She's actually got an "Ecua-whine" of her own and is always crying outside the door, begging to be let in. She's awfully cute, and when she's not jumping up to try to lick my hand she's clawing at my feet, trying to steal my sandals.

I like playing with her, but I gotta say, I'm pretty upset by this latest development. Those were a new pair of boxers, Joe Boxer brand to be exact, so they were nice too. My mom had gotten them for me before I left home, if that should add any sentiment to it at all. I have a bunch of older pairs that Lili could have destroyed if she'd liked, but instead she went after the new pair. Dammit.

My host mom has offered to buy me a new pair, but I haven't even paid my rent yet since I've been here because I have yet to be paid, and she hasn't once asked me for the money, so I don't think I'll be asking her for any money. Lili was already in the doghouse tonight, literally, for her actions.

But there is one good bit of news from all of this. If I can be getting upset from something as stupid as a wasted pair of boxers, than that means things can't be too bad. Things have to be looking up if little things like that get on your nerves. So at the end of it all, it's kind of a nice wake up call.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Cuenca's Independence Day: Part 4

The whole weekend felt a bit like orientation all over again. We would roll down the street surrounded by other gringos, looking for a place to eat or a place to drink. We joked about random things and about the difficulties of living in Ecuador, as well as the good parts. But it was definitely not the traditional experience of being immersed, which was nice for a little change of pace.

Waking up barely alive on Monday morning, we went without breakfast to get to the military parade on time. Most of the people staying at my house settled their bills and grabbed their things to make an exit after the show. It was already hot and sunny as we headed across the river towards the heavy crowds gathering by the three bridges. As we were getting ready to cross the street police sirens rang out, and a motorcade rushed by. We could just make out President Rafael Correa, sitting in the back seat of a pick up truck with an arm out the window, easily recognizable, like a Latino JFK.

We made our way towards the stands where men in uniform stood in the road waiting. Soldiers were everywhere, as well as policemen and women, secret service, and snipers on the roofs of buildings. We stood across the street from the stands waiting, tired and not saying much. Finally after a long wait the music started and movement started. The crowd started to push out into the street, and the cops reacted by driving a truck into the crowd to push it back. But shortly after, the crowd grew restless and pushed back onto the street, and the police had no control over it. We didn't want to bother, so we just stayed on the sidewalk.

It was hard to see over the people, even though I'm average height in Ecuador, and many people had umbrellas to shade against the sun, making picture taking nearly impossible. The crowd got excited as President Correa came by, standing up in the back of a pick up truck, waving to the crowd and smiling enthusiastically. He was just across the street from us, but the crowd made it hard to get a good look. He shook many hands and then made his way up to a seat in the stands.

The parade commenced, and what I thought were Russian MIGs were flying overhead over and over. It seemed a bit like those military parades you see in history class reels, sans the tanks. We wanted to hear the president speak, but since the parade had just started and everyone had to catch a bus, we decided to leave.

Clouds were rolling in and soon enough it was lightly raining for the rest of the day and night. We said our goodbyes on Calle Larga, and that ended the weekend in Cuenca. It was a lot of fun and extremely tiring, but a great refresher for all of us.

Later on I went with my host family to check out a market with natives from Cusco, Peru, who had made the long trip up to sell their goods. Afterwards, we went to a concert in Parque de la Madre, but it was cold and raining, so we didn't stay the whole time.

To close up the long weekend, I hunkered down with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, ready to enjoy my last day off before getting back to work on Wednesday.

Above: a short indigenous woman looks on at the parade, the military band performing for the crowd, a woman selling food on the street

Cuenca's Independence Day: Part 3

On Sunday morning we woke up, exhausted and hungover, but headed out for some breakfast. I'd promised to take everyone to the best coffee shop in Cuenca, Cafe Lojana, but the shop was closed because it was Sunday and Day of the Dead, a double whammey. The cafe is one of the only places in the city, maybe country, that doesn't use Nescafe, but rather actual coffee beans from Loja. There's no option besides black coffee, but it's only 70 cents.

After grabbing some food at a hostel we walked around the center, snapping photos and looking at the architecture. Coming around the grid streets towards the central park, we stumbled upon a parade of the barrios that was just passing through. Every barrio, or neighborhood in the city had selected a queen and was driving her by on floats in a very 1950s-esque parade.

Once the parade had gone through the center we passed by an outdoor concert in the park and walked down towards a practically empty square. It was starting to rain the kind of rain that would last all day long, and we were in no rush to do anything. Becky had a cough so we eventually found a pharmacy outside the center. Two armed guards were outside with M-16s as they were doing a money drop, and the girls felt a bit uneasy.

That's something that you just get used to seeing here. It's normal for guards to flaunt their weapons, because they want potential theives to know that they're ready. In the United States, a cop never draws his weapon unless absolutely necessary, and you're assured that they're well certified to have the weapon. Here, however, seemingly anyone with a "Guard" shirt can walk around with a loaded weapon. There's little confidence on my part on how well trained they are with it.

Walking around later, we went down to Parque de la Madre where we shared some traditional food for Day of the Dead and festivals. Colada and guaguas (pronounced wah-wahs) are sweet bread and fruit juice that you eat together. Guagua is a Quechua word for baby, and the bread is in the shape of a baby. We crowded around the colada in the middle of the park and dipped our guaguas into the colada as the rain fell down on us, but we were perfectly content.

We decided to find the Panama Hat museum on Calle Larga shortly afterwards because Russell wanted to buy himself one. If you were to buy a Panama Hat made in Cuenca in the United States or in Europe it could cost in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, but at the museum it ranged from $15-18. For this reason, tons of tourists buy the official hats here in Cuenca. But that was still too rich for us poor volunteers.

We tried on several hats, and we realized that I actually look pretty good in a Panama Hat when I tip it to the side. If I could find one for $5 I might consider buying one, but otherwise it's just not worth it. The name Panama Hat is actually a misnomer. The majority of workers on the Panama Canal came from Ecuador and brought their hats with them. The Americans working on the canal saw the hats and liked them, so they took them back with them and dubbed them the Panama Hat.

For years the local economy was doing fine selling these handmade hats, but in recent years cheaper production in Asia has caused the market to crash a bit. For this reason, it's getting harder and harder to find a good hat in the city.

After the museum we got some lunch at an incredibly inefficient chicken restaurant, where it took 25 minutes to get a bottle of water, but a quarter of a chicken came out in 2. It was nearing 3 o'clock and a big soccer game between Barcelona (Guayaquil) and Liga (Quito) was coming on, so we headed over to a bar to watch the game and have a drink.

I was crashing badly at this point and was in desperate need of a nap, but didn't want to waste the time we were spending together. At the bar I was dozing in between the game, and though it was a standard, quasi-boring soccer game for a while, it got interesting as Barcelona scored the winning goal in the 83rd minute.

Our plan after the game was to cook dinner at the house, but we made a mistake in ordering a couple of coffees, which for some reason took over 40 minutes to get to us. With all of the stores closed, we headed back to my house and ordered some pizza, and we prepared to just take it easy and play some cards, drink a few beers, and talk throughout the night. It was a good way to relax and take it easy after the three nights of hard partying, and it was fun to be with the friends we hadn't seen in a month.

By the end of the night we were all exhausted, but wanted to wake up early to get in one last event together for the weekend. The military parade with President Correa at 10 a.m.

Continued in Part 4...

Above: Many hats at the Panama Hat museum, one of the churches in the center of Cuenca, cholas (indigenous women) walking into a pharmacy, one of the barrio queens on a float

An Historic Election

The importance of yesterday's election went beyond the borders of the United States, and for that reason I'm taking a short break in the story telling of the Independence weekend in Cuenca.

For as long as I've been in Ecuador, people have asked me about the election and if I liked McCain or Obama. I have yet to meet an Ecuadorian who would prefer McCain as president, and though we consider this country by our standards to be 3rd world, they are up to date on the latest political news.

Yesterday I was hanging out with some new friends that I'd made Saturday night, and the first thing they wanted to talk about was the election and the fact that Obama's grandmother had died the day before. One of their issues was that most of the soldiers dying in Iraq were Latinos. I have no knowledge of the backgrounds of the soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world, but I would have to agree that some of the people who join the military are those who have little economic option.

A lot of people in Cuenca are against the war for various reasons, but one is that a local woman from Cuenca had married a U.S. soldier and moved with him to the United States. Shortly after they were married, he was sent to Iraq and subsequently killed in action. The woman is now left alone in the United States with no family.

So in other words, this election was a big deal, not just for the citizens of the United States, but for all over the world. Casey was staying up in Cuenca another night, so we crowded around my laptop as the polls started to close and eagerly scanned and, trying to see which was going faster.

It was a little annoying hitting refresh every few minutes, but it was worth it to keep up with what was going on. After finding a few other sites with projection information and exit polls, we could see the election was moving along steadily. As the east coast started to close, we'd heard that the same gringo bar where we'd watched the elections a few weeks earlier was showing CNN International.

We headed over and found a bunch of other ex-pats and travelers cheering loudly as Ohio was just being called for Obama. For the next hour or so only a few states slowly pulled in, and at times it was painful listening to the pundits saying the same things over and over again, but exciting to be waiting for the results. Everyone in the bar knew that this was important.

Will.I.Am. came on to talk to Wolf Blitzer via Hologram, maybe the wierdest thing I've ever seen on TV, and as we joked and made fun of the new technology, we wondered if it was actually for security, so that if Obama was elected president he would appear via Hologram to avoid any trouble.

Finally, CNN announced that Virginia had gone to Obama, and just a few minutes later they announced that Obama had won the election. At first we were a bit unsure, because after all, it's just a news station guessing that he'll win, and not official. But as the bar started to cheer, the scenes from Chicago were broadcast and it seemed unofficially official.

And just a few minutes after that, John McCain came on to speak to his supporters in Arizona, conceding the election to Barack Obama. It was a bit unreal, that now one of the most historic, if not the most historic elections in our nations' history was over. We were all exhausted but wanted to hear Obama speak, so we had to wait around until 12 a.m. our time.

The reception in Chicago seemed loud and on the verge of delerium, but contained as the president elect spoke. He looked tired and it must have been bittersweet, considering the recent loss of his grandmother, but at the same time must have been an overload of emtions that I can't imagine.

So the election is over and Barack Obama is now president of the United States of America. For now, the majority of ex-pats I know seem happy, as well as the Ecuadorians. Only time will tell how it plays out, but the buzz right now is that things are looking up. And that's always a good thing.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cuenca's Independence Day: Part 2

We spent most of the time venting about the struggles and difficulties of teaching English and living in Ecuador, and how there were things we just hadn't been able to adjust to or accept yet. But we also joked about the good times and the funnier things. For the majority of the first afternoon, we spent the time drinking in my host mom's basement. It was a good break and necessary rest time, even though we were only piling on the fatigue that would later drain on me.

For some reason, it's sometimes incredibly difficult to just buy a beer from a store here. There's no deposit on bottles, and little tiendas won't sell you a bottle unless you bring them one in return so they can get the money for it. We had to go to two different stores before they would sell to us, of course on the pretense that we would return the bottles before getting more.

We could have used a little nap before going out to dinner, but we were having such a good time that we didn't want to break it up, so finally later on around 8:30 we met up by the university for dinner with all of the volunteers from our group in Cuenca. Annie had picked the restaurant, and it was one of the most expensive meals I've had in Ecuador. In Quito we had sushi on our last day, but that was worth the cost. Here at this meal, I only got a tapa, a small appetizer, of shrimp and some sangria, and it cost me $12. On average, between Monday and Friday I spend about $0-1, so I wasn't too upset about spending a little money this weekend, but my wallet was nearly cleared out as prices rose dramatically in the most expensive city in Ecuador.

I've asked some locals why it's so expensive, more so than Guayaquil or Quito, and I've been told that it's because a lot of Europeans visit the city, and their euros that they bring in have caused all of the prices to rise. It's not a dramatic increase, but it's noticeably more expensive than other parts of the country.

After the long, two hour dinner, we headed back towards the center on Calle Larga, a busy street with tons of bars, clubs, and people. We wandered around for a while trying to find a cheap salsa club to go to, but could only find $10 cover charges. Walking around, I was reminded of the image Hemingway portrayed of Pamplona during San Fermin, the running of the bulls festival in Spain. The streets were packed with drunken people, some slumped over laughing, others puking. Fireworks were being set off, occasionally shocking the nervous system. Groups were walking by holding bottles of liquor and passing it around, and as you'd pass by a wet spot on the ground, the smell of unrine was strong. In other words, it was a town in festival mode.

We settled on the salsa club we had gone to the night before for $5 to get into, but when we got in saw there wasn't much room to sit, so the girls went to the bar and the guys grabbed a small table to play some speed quarters. What we discovered, however, was that it was a dead table and that Ecuadorian quarters don't bounce as well as American quarters. The locals around us were watching as we played, slightly amused.

We played for a while, and the drinks started to kick in quickly. A table next to us was filled with 4 women and a man, and Russell was soon dancing with one of them. What we later found out was that the girl was 15, though we all would have guessed in her 20s. The man was the father and the women were his daughters and wife. They thought it was funny, but Russell was not happy, espeically since he'd given her his number. Casey and Lara left a little earlier than everyone else, and the rest of us were there until about 2:30 a.m. trying to settle the tab, which had risen to about $115 including the tax, which we hadn't seen coming. So as usual, one or two people had to spend much more than everyone else just to leave in one piece.

We went back home to pass out and wake up early to go sight seeing the next day. Finally, I would be ready to take my camera out with me and take some pictures of the city.

Continued in Part 3...

Above: The cathedral, slightly blocked by decorations, an indigenous woman (chola in Quechua), a large amount of people in the bed of a pick up truck (a normal thing here)