Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Little Things

So now I'm updated on what I've been doing in Chile and I can take a minute to think about the country and the differences I see between it and Ecuador. The differences are large, I have to say. Though both countries are considered 3rd World or Developing, there is a vast difference, at least from what I've seen in Santiago. 

Santiago is a built up, modern city with everything you would expect to see in a capitol city. There is a metro system that extends to the outskirts, a bus system that runs within the center and surrounding areas, and tons of modern stores and amenities. There might not be a ton to do in this city, but it is clearly a city on the rise. It even has the second tallest skyscraper in South America and is working on building the tallest.

Some things are simple yet surprising to me. It was hard the first couple of days, and still is in a way, to put toilet paper in the toilet bowl. After months of training myself to put toilet paper in the basket, it's now somewhat foreign to put it back in the bowl, even though I've been doing it my whole life.

Drinking tap water, which I will avoid at all costs in Ecuador, is OK here, and it was almost like tasting the forbidden fruit the first time I did it here. Walking around in the street I feel perfectly safe, even though it's a big city with pickpockets. However, pick pocketing is the least of your worries in Ecuador sometimes, so it doesn't seem to phase me that much. I find myself looking at people in the street sometime and wondering if they would try to rob me, but here I don't have that issue. 

It could be because I'm with friends and I'm told that it's pretty safe. But I can also just feel more at ease. I guess it's hard to explain. But it is definitely a vacation in the sense that I'm not on edge in the way that I have been in Ecuador for a time. The bus system in Ecuador isn't my favorite way to get around for obvious reasons, but I do it and though at times it's uncomfortable, it's just something you have to do. Here, however, I feel fine on the metro and buses. 

The people are most definitely friendly here, and even though it takes some time to cut through their tough dialect and country-specific words, they're great to talk to. For some reason, however, they have a pessimistic view of their country and city. They are convinced that Santiago is the most dangerous city in the continent, which it isn't. They are convinced that they are poor, which they aren't.

If living in Ecuador has taught me one thing, it's that there is probably always another place that is worse off. Chile might seem 3rd World to some, but to me it's top notch. And at times Ecuador seems 3rd World, but if I were to travel to some other parts of the world I know that I would think of it as much better off. There's no doubt in my mind about that. 

Chile is a huge country and I'm only going to be barely scratching the surface while I'm here, but these are just some of the impressions that I've gotten in the few days that I've been here. I'd love to be able to head down to Patagonia and up to the Atacames Desert, but the country is 30 hours from top to bottom by car, and there's no way I have the time or money for that. But for now, I've seen a part of the country and have an idea of what it is like. And the differences between these two South American countries, in my mind, are vast. 

Cajon de Maipo

On Saturday afternoon, after borrowing money left and right, I finally went looking for a money exchange but was disappointed to find that they were all closed. I had to settle on an ATM and took out way too much money because we were confused by the exchange rate. I took out 200,000 pesos which wound up being around $300. 

Our plan was to go to a community called Cajon de Maipo, which is about an hour and a half away from Santiago, yet is still considered a part of the city. We had heard that there are vineyards there and wanted to go on a tour. After the long trip via the subway and small "collectivo" bus along a beautiful drive towards the mountains, we got off in the small town. By the time we got in it was 5 p.m. and we were all hungry, yet we weren't sure what to do. 

The bus driver had recommended a restaurant, so we walked around trying to find it until we saw a sign that said "Donde Bruno". The restaurant would go unnoticed by most people, as it's actually in a house with the tables in the backyard. With a view of the surrounding hills, we were given a few options and settled on the lomito a la pobre. The enormous portion of steak was topped off with two fried eggs, delicious fries, and amazing onions. I don't even like onions, but I actually ate these because they were so good. We had bread with a great, spicy sauce that cleared out the sinuses and drank some delicious wine that went down so smoothly.

I'm loving the food in Chile. The empanadas are all good, the meat is juicy and served with nice sides, and I've still got so much to try. The drinks are tasty (except for the beer, Escudo, which is just like any other beer in South America) and the wine is terrific. Sitting there in the beautiful town with the great meal, we truly were enjoying ourselves. We thought of how our friends could be sitting in their houses in New England, unable to go outside, and we were happy with our decisions. 

After our late lunch we walked around the town and then headed home. Our plan was to have a barbecue on the 18th floor roof of the apartment building at night but we were so full from the late lunch that we just had some bread and dip around 12:30 a.m. after our late naps. The rooftop view was great, giving a vista of nearly the entire city and the surrounding hills. Somehow I was even able to see some stars, despite being in such a big city with pollution. I'm not even sure how it's possible, but I think I saw Orion's Belt. I'm pretty sure that should only be in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Sitting on the roof with a couple of drinks, listening to music, I even saw a shooting star go by around 3 a.m. An end to a great day. And today we're going to watch football from 3-12. For the first time all season I'll be able to see the Patriots play. Hopefully they'll have some good luck. In a couple of days we'll be heading to Valparaiso, a city two hours away on the coast. The New Years Eve celebration is supposed to be one of the biggest in the world, so it should be a crazy time.

Chilean Experience

On Christmas day there was nothing to do. Though it's not a big deal down here, everything was still closed, save for a Chinese restaurant or two. So around 3 p.m. we left the apartment and got a huge lunch at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks down. The streets were eerily empty, and when I yelled an echo could be heard all along the avenue of high rises. 

The rest of the day was spent just sitting on the couch and waiting for the Celtics/Lakers game to start at 7 p.m. A few people came over to watch via the Sling Box in the computers. Sling Box is a program that you can buy and install in your computer. I don't know the technical terms, but it connects to your cable box in the United States and you can watch the same shows going into your cable box from anywhere in the world as long as the box is still on. Of course with my luck, the Celtics lost their first game in a month as I watched my first game of the season.

The next day Adam and Zach had to work in the morning but were back just around the time I was waking up, so it wasn't too big of a problem. I only changed $40 at the airport and was running out, but every time I tried to find a money exchange we somehow got side tracked. One of the things that the guys do here is just sit around and relax. They have a very nice apartment with a TV, Internet, and comfortable furniture, all in the center of the city. Sleeping on the couch and watching so much TV, I think I'm averaging 14-15 hours a day on the couch. I have literally become "the guy on the couch" from "Half Baked."

Normally when I go on trips I try to get as much done as I possibly can, yet on this trip, we've been sitting in the apartment late into the afternoon. There just isn't that much to do in Santiago, I'm sad to say. With a population a little under 6 million, or roughly 1/3 of the population of Chile, there isn't much in the sense of tourism here. The main attractions are the natural beauties like Patagonia or the Atacames Desert, which are way too far away from Santiago to visit on my trip. I am glad to be here though, visiting my friends and seeing a new place. It could definitely be a nice city to live in, but not great for touring.

So late in the afternoon on Friday we finally left the apartment to walk around a bit. It was hot but dry, and because there's no humidity, unlike in Boston when you go into a shadow it's actually cooler. First we visited a couple of markets where everyone was soliciting us to eat at their restaurant, yet they were polite about it and let us be as we walked by. Next we continued on to a hill nearby with the statue of the Virgin. It's called the Funicular S.A. and costs about 1,400 pesos or $2 roughly to take the elevator to the top of the hill. 

The top will give you a nice view of the city which expands far beyond the horizon, yet with so much smog and haze, it's hard to see the mountains in the distance. On the top we got some Rico Mote con Huesillos, a traditional drink with peaches and grains that is delicious. 

After getting down we stopped at a bar for a beer on the side of the road, trying to hide under the umbrella to avoid the sun, and later went home for a nap. Picking up a bottle of pisco, which is kind of like whiskey, we started off the night and didn't actually leave until 12:30 a.m., a standard practice, going to a bar until about 4 a.m. 

Before heading home I was told I had to try the "completo" hot dog, which was a hot dog covered in avocado, tomatoes, ketchup, aji sauce, and mayo. It was OK, not great, but it got the job done. Heading up we crashed and got ready for another day of taking it easy.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Turkey Feast in Santiago

After dropping off my things and showering, Adam and I grabbed an empanada and walked around. Zach has been feeling sick, so he stayed in the apartment. I could already tell that this was a different city than the kind I'd been used to for the last few months. It's much more built up and modern, though there honestly doesn't seem to be that much that is photogenic.

Adam told me it was one of the hottest days it has been, and though I would agree on the heat, it didn't seem that bad to me, mostly because it was dry. As soon as you got into the shade it dropped 5 degrees. Even though it was Christmas Eve the streets were packed with people and street performers. Apparently Christmas isn't such a big deal down here. We got a drink that was kind of like iced tea with peaches and rice, and it was delicious. 

I saw some street vendors and got myself a new watch for 5000 pesos because the one I'd bought in Cuenca had broken on my last trip to Guaranda. It's a fake Swiss Watch and looks strangely similar to the real one I have back in the United States. We sat down for a while and talked about teaching and how life was in Chile. The language here is very different, and Adam has an entire book that just lists the words and phrases which are specific to Chile.

For dinner, we were invited by their Canadian friend for a Christmas feast of turkey and other fixings. The Canadian has no family here and wanted to do something, so with us three there was also a German friend and his mom who was visiting, and two Chileans. We had some appetizers while the food cooked and drank a little while talking about the differences between Ecuador and Chile. For some reasons, Chileans think Santiago is very dangerous. 

I told them that it feels pretty safe to me and that Ecuador is probably more dangerous. The majority of Chileans live in or close to Santiago, and the main thing to watch out for is pick pocketing. In Ecuador, you're more likely to be held up with a knife or gun, however. 

The main course was finally served around midnight, but it was worth the wait. Big helpings of turkey with gravy complemented mashed potatoes, stuffing with ham and meat with maple syrup, as well as vegetables laid out perfectly on the plate. I would have liked seconds but I was too full. For dessert we had apple pie that tasted a bit like pound cake. 

By 1:30 am we were exhausted and called it a night. It took a while to get to Chile, but it was a good first day, and things are looking up. Today we're going to use the Internet connection to watch the Celtics vs. Lakers in a huge game. It will be the first American sport I've seen since I left, and I'm extremely excited, not only to be watching the game, but with my friends from back home.

And the Nominee for Worst Travel Day Ever Is... Part 2

Part 2

As I waited and waited my patience was growing thin. I could see on the reader board that my plan was still listed as delayed, and now instead of leaving at 12:40 pm, would be leaving at 12:50 pm. Not a big deal, except that you always have to add more time to when you actually leave from what the board says. I walked around to the different stores and read, wrote again, and just stared into blank space. It was mind numbing and miserable, thinking of everything and nothing. 

I examined my hands closely, noting every single line and dimple in the design. I would have killed for an iPod at this point. 10 pm rolled around and of course nothing was called. I sank into the chair and tried to keep my mind busy. All I wanted to do was sleep. I still had the grimy, acidic taste on my teeth from when I vomited earlier in the day, never getting a chance to brush. 

The plane hadn't even arrived yet and it was midnight. As other passengers and planes left the terminal, I was wondering if I would ever make it. Finally the announcement was made and we started to board. We took off a little after 1 am, after 12 hours of just sitting around in the airport. Originally, I was supposed to get to Lima and immediately board the next plane. There are no planes at 3 am, however, so I had to wait until 7:30 am for the next flight out. 

The flight to Lima took an hour and a half, and I couldn't sleep. Once there a LAN representative gave us food vouchers for a soda and meal of chicken, rice, and vegetables. So at 3:30 am I had my third dinner. For the next few hours I cat napped on the benches, but sleeping in the airport is so miserable that it was nearly impossible. At one point I dreamed that my called my name on the PA and actually went up to see what happened. As I walked my body was numb and it felt like my head was just floating. I was totally out of it. 

The sun was starting to come out and it was now impossible to sleep, so I waited by the gate until we boarded for the 3 hour flight to Santiago. Leaving around 8 pm and adding the two hour time change, we got into Santiago around 12:30 pm. I slept for a while on the plane but as we were descending into Chile I could see the Andes mountains, some peaks still snow capped. 

In the airport I immediately had to pay a $131 "Reciprocity" fee that all Americans have to pay as a result on our visa restrictions on Chileans. Canadians, Mexicans, Australians, and Albanians also have to pay but at different costs. The line was huge and I was last, but when I got up I tried to argue that I live in Ecuador, which didn't work. Then I said I'm getting citizenship with Argentina, which made me a citizen technically. But without the passport, I couldn't do anything about it.

Already this was an expensive trip, and now the fee took away a few days budget. I easily found my bag and followed my friends directions to the van company, paid 5000 pesos (about 10 dollars) for the ride into town which is far from the airport. A taxi could cost 10,000 pesos. With other passengers to make the price lower, we drove away and I was surprised at how arid the climate seemed. Traffic was bad and it was hot, but dry. 

I made it to my friends street, located in the center, finally around 2:45 pm local time. And after traveling for around 28 hours, tired, sweaty, and stinky, instead of passing out we grabbed some Chilean empanadas and walked around. After a shower of course. Still in disbelief that I'd finally arrived, it was time to relax.

And the Nominee for Worst Travel Day Ever Is...

The trip down to Santiago was not an easy one. The original plan was to have a small layover in Lima, Peru and arrive in Santiago, Chile around 2:30 am (Chile is two hours ahead of Ecuador somehow, which I don't entirely understand). As it would turn out, it became one of the worst travel days I've ever experienced, and I've done a lot of traveling. It even ranks up there with the bus hijacking day and a 26 hour train ride from Amsterdam to Rome via Paris. So here is what happened:

On Tuesday morning I woke up at 8:15 am, very tired from the night before and the lack of sufficient sleep. I ate my breakfast, showered, and headed out the door to get my bus to Guayaquil. The bus was actually nice for once, with comfortable seats with a lot of leg room, and even a board you could pull out to lay out your feet. I had no one sitting next to me, and I thought this could start out to be a really nice trip.

There are two ways to get to Guayaquil from Cuenca. You can go through Canar or through Cajas National Park, which takes an hour and a half less. I took the company that went through Cajas, thinking I'd save time and get to see some nice things along the way. The bus driver, however, was driving 30-40 miles an hour around hairpin turns, left and right, left and right, over and over again. After a while I started to get nauseated. Every two seconds everyone on the bus was flying from one side to the other. 

I curled into a fetal position which helped a little bit, and though I fought as hard as I could for an hour and a half, I finally puked three times into a little plastic bag. It was just straight up liquid from the hot chocolate I had for breakfast. No one even looked or cared because it happens from time to time on these crazy mountain roads. But I felt like garbage and still had so long to go. The worst movie ever was being shown and I just wanted some sleep. 

Finally we made it to the coast and the bus stopped making crazy turns, so I was able to lean back again and close my eyes for a while. But soon my dad called and told me that LAN Airlines had called him to say that my flight from Guayaquil was delayed 6 hours. There was nothing I could do about it while on the bus, so I had to just wait until I got there to figure it out.

Arriving in Guayaquil's enormous bus terminal, I knew I could either pay $2 for a taxi or walk in the humidity and high temperature 10 minutes to the airport. I chose to walk, asking several people for directions along the way. At one point I had to pass down a narrow corridor with 30 or so people just sitting on the ground all staring at me. It was like running the gauntlet, and I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. Guayaquil isn't the city you want to screw around in. 

At the airport I went to the LAN desk and was told there was a 6 hour delay and I couldn't check in until 8 pm. The flight was originally supposed to leave at 6:30 pm. It was near 1 pm, and I had no plans of heading into the city, so with nothing else to do I stored my backpack at the airport, which cost $4, and grabbed some lunch. The prices of everything were embarassing. The cheapest thing I could find was a chicken sandwich for $3.80 which came with a small soda and fries (though they didn't give me the fries). I would wind up getting that again for dinner.

I walked around trying to find something to do and eventually sat down in a comfortable couch near a cafe with a TV and made some phone calls. I had a whole bunch of extra cell phone cash that would expire before I got back to Ecuador, so I went through the phone book calling as many people as I could get a hold of, wishing a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and just talking with people I hadn't spoken to in a long time. But that total could only have killed an hour and a half. 

I read and wrote a little bit, but my attention waned and I finally settled on watching the first half of a soccer game which barely kept my attention. By this point I was laying out on the couch like I was at home. Throughout it all my patience was surprisingly level, as I'd gotten used to dealing with delays already. Even if there was no delay I still would have had to wait a while, but now there were 6 more long hours to waste. 

At 7 pm I picked up my bag and went to the desk, waited a half hour and finally checked in. The women behind the desk tried to help but had no idea what was going on. The first boarding pass they gave me was for the wrong time, and luckily I checked them carefully. The next one had me in two different seats, even though she said I wouldn't change planes. The delay, she told me, was because of some problem in New York, which set off a chain reaction of delays around the world there that plane was heading, and Guayaquil was one of its last stops. 

I had to go pay $27.50 just to leave Ecuador, and the woman found me to tell me she had to give me another boarding pass with new information now. I told her I hoped my bag would arrive and she said not to worry. By 8 pm I was through security and thought I'd just waste a couple of hours before boarding at 10 pm, which is what the ticket said. 


Christmas Parties, Burning Effigies

The scene:

Monday night at the Language Department Christmas party. The day was mostly a drag trying to get through it before my trip to Chile the next day. In my first class 5 students showed up so I let them go, not ready to start a new chapter for only 5 students the day before vacation. Going home and napping for a while, I finished packing and read a little. The night class had more people, but we only stayed for an hour because of the permission to leave for the party.

One of the other professors offered to pick me up from the university and drive me over because last Thursday Lauren and I got lost while on the way to the same place for another Christmas party and we never made it. So I rushed back home to drop off my things and then rushed back to the university. 

The party was fun with music, drinks, and dinner. There were raffles for prizes and I actually won a scented candle, which I'm not exactly sure what to do with. I'll probably just regift it. There was a life-size doll by the stage that I thought was a pinata of some kind, but eventually after a speech everyone, including the doll headed out into the street around midnight. 

As it turns out, it was an effigy of my boss Eulalia, the director of the Language Department. Everyone was given sparklers and the effigy was thrown in the middle of the street and lit on fire while everyone cheered. In Ecuador, it's not an insult, but rather a nice complement, and Eulalia was laughing along with everyone else. Her term as director, which only lasts 2 years, ends in February, and everyone was shouting, "Re-eleccion, Re-eleccion!"

Suddenly there was an enormous boom and the effigy blew up into two parts, the legs being blown into shreds and the upper torso burning away. Someone had planted a firework right in the belly. Those of us who were unaware and standing closer towards the effigy clutched our ears as car alarms went off. One professor who'd had a few too many drinks probably continued to dance around the corpse and threw as much trash into the fire as possible. 

Someone shouted, "Otro boom," and threw another firework into the effigy. Everyone stood back waiting, but this time it did not ignite. Eventually we went back inside to dance some more, and suddenly we heard the explosion like a bomb going off.

Some people left, and though I wanted to go home to wake up early to leave for Guayaquil, the professor who drove me said he could take me home. Of course, an hour or so later when I asked again, he said just another hour. So I finally said no thanks and called for a taxi, not getting home until around 2 am. Lacking the necessary sleep, I was about to begin one of the worst travel days I've ever had.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Another Notch in the Belt

I've been losing a lot of weight since I've been in Ecuador. It could be for several reasons. First, we're at higher altitude, so I'm getting more exercise just walking around. Second, the diet here is different. I eat plenty of food, usually three squares a day. But the food is different. It isn't all processed and is actually pretty fresh and natural, for the most part. I'm not exactly sure what is in it, but I can tell that it's different in some way.

That has also had some different effects on my stomach, as a result, so on that end, things have also been different. I've definitely lost weight since being here, though I'm not exactly sure how much because I don't have a scale. But I know that tight shirts when I got here are now pretty comfortable and my pants are drooping. I've been on the last notch in my belt, and finally last night enough was enough and I've had to actually manually put another notch in the belt.

This is the first time I've ever had to do this, and it's kind of a weird thing to do. The hole is tiny and probably will be more of a hassle just to get the metal clasp into and out of, but it was about time I did something. I can't help but think that at some point I might need to get some new pants or a new belt altogether, but for now this old fashioned attempt at correcting the problem will have to do. The problem could be that I have a worm, which is pretty common down here. Or it could be that I'm just dropping a few pounds and it's not the end of the world. Either way, it's a pretty funny thing to have to do.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday in Gualaceo

Yesterday I finally headed to the town of Gualaceo, (pronounced gWahl-ah-say-oh) about 50 minutes southeast of Cuenca. The small town is at lower elevation and in a valley, so it can get hotter than Cuenca. We were lucky on this day, as we got a sunny day to spend the Sunday afternoon. The bus to Gualaceo only cost 60 cents (70 on the way back) and we were soon on our way to town.

The town is known for the market on Sunday, where you can buy every type of fruit and vegetable you've ever heard of, and then some. I went with my student Gaby, who was amazed that I didn't know so many of the fruits she was asking me about. She was also surprised that I was surprised that there are red bananas. In Ecuador there are 8 different kinds of bananas, but back in the United States we can only get the same old type.

Getting off the bus around 11 am, we walked down to the Rio Gualaceo, where families have barbecues on Sunday afternoons. It was a peaceful and relaxing walk, with the river providing a cool relief from the already strong sun. I'd brought sunblock and a hat, but not wanting to deal with them, I ignored the warnings and by the time I got home I was red and burned.

We crossed the shaky bridge to the other side of the river where thatch huts were set up for larger parties, and then we walked around a playground for a few minutes. Gaby is a tourism student, so she was pointing out the different flowers and birds that we saw or heard. We crossed the larger bridge on the other side of the fields and headed back towards the fruit and vegetable market in town.

There we walked around and shopped around for a good price on a fruit called Reina Claudia, which is like a small plum, but yet is somehow different. Buying 10 for $1, we also picked up another green fruit shaped like a pear, but also not exactly a pear. Checking out the center of town and the cathedral, it was now close to 12:30 pm, and we decided to get some lunch. Gualaceo is also known for it's chancho, or pig meat. We went to a different market where it seemed like the entire town was eating lunch at the same time.

There were different sections for chicken, cuy, beef, pig, vegetables, juices, and a number of other different meat groups. We walked around to the hornado chancho section where a number of different women were begging us to take samples of their meat. We finally settled on a woman who was near an empty table, sampled the meat and agreed. For $2 she piled on meat, mote (corn), 2 potato cakes, onions and tomatoes. We also got freshly squeezed coconut juice.

The meat was delicious and juicy, though I did have in the back of my head the question of whether or not I'd get sick, and as of yet I am feeling fine. After the meal we were pretty tired, so we headed back to the river and found a spot in the shade under a tree. There we crashed in a chancho coma, napping and waking up every few minutes when a dog ran by. Gaby wanted to try the fruit but we needed water to wash it off. No one was walking by selling water, strangely enough, so we eventually had to head back into town to buy some water. Along the way we could smell the different barbecues from all of the families on the river banks.

Once water was bought, the fruit was washed off and sampled. The Reina Claudia was good and dripped red juice all over my fingers, down onto the pavement. Next we went further into town to a bakery to buy some traditional Gualaceo ice cream. The ice cream is in a cone shape on a wooden stick, and is actually just frozen milk from the town. You can get ice cream like this all over Ecuador, but this type was special to the town, and can't be purchased anywhere else. It was sweet and good, but to me tasted like the other types.

We headed back to the bus station and got the last two tickets for seats on the bus just as it was taking off for Cuenca. Looking at it from a different perspective, we didn't do a whole lot, but I had a great day nonetheless. And tomorrow, I'll be leaving for Santiago, Chile via Lima, Peru via Guayaquil, Ecuador. I'll try to do some blogging from Chile, so keep checking in.

Above: Red bananas, chancho (pig meat), a boy eating a banana while his puppy sniffs the fruit, more fruit at the market

Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Incredibly Deep Translation Error

Every week I have my students write a small journal of 3-5 sentences so they can get more practice writing. Some choose to write more and actually get into it, while others write the bare minimum and show no concern of improving. I got an interesting journal this week.

One student wrote something that I'm not exactly sure is a mistake, or rather something incredibly deep and insightful that he meant to say. It's something that one of the great writers would come up with. The sentence was, "My friend and I were fighting this week because we don't understand ourselves."

I'd have to assume that what he meant to say as someone learning the language is, "My friend and I were fighting this week because we don't understand each other." However, to look at it literally, it's actually a pretty beautiful thing to say. How many times have people gotten into fights because they simply had a bad day and didn't know how to deal with it? Or in another example, a person will project their own faults on to other people and blame them for other things which they themselves cannot fix or do well.

Now, it's very well possible that he meant to say "understand each other," but even if he didn't, it's still a powerful sentence. How often will someone willingly take half of the blame and admit, without prodding, that they are partly at fault? I think it shows extreme insight and intuitive behavior to question not only the fighting itself, but why you should be drawn into it. There are generally two sides to an argument, and as such there are generally two reasons for fault.

Perhaps the student accidentally said something so intelligent, but it's nonetheless a great statement. If we all understood ourselves more clearly, there would probably be less friction in so many parts of our lives. That's the nice thing about travel. It helps you understand yourself, and your world around you, a bit more truthfully. And I can see that happening around me all the time here. It's a gift not everyone gets the chance to receive, but it's certainly worth the struggle. Sometimes it's a hassle being in a different country, and you just want to go home. But in the back of my mind, I always know it will pay off in the end. As the saying down here goes, "Vale la pena." It's worth the pain.

The Cat's Eyes Are the Bee's Knees

As I've been told several times down here, I have what are considered, "Cat's Eyes," meaning because of the color and dilation of my pupils, my eyes resemble those of a cat. Well, in the eyes of the Ecuadorians, anyway. Behind my back I've been called "El Gato," by my students, but it's not an insult. It's more of a term of endearment. And many people, as it would turn out, are either jealous of this or curious.

Sometimes I find that people stare deeply into my eyes as if they've never seen anything like it. Obviously many people in Cuenca have had experience with foreigners, but few get the chance to actually talk to one for an extended amount of time and get to know them. So for the people I've gotten to know, it's like a treat that they get to look into my eyes. It can be a bit weird of course. I've never liked that much attention anyway, and now I am supposedly the ideal of beauty with blond hair and blue eyes. It's more strange because that would never be the case back home.

Sometimes it can really get annoying. On the days when I don't want to be noticed it seems as though everyone is staring and turning around to look at me. It's like being a freak. Other times I just roll with it and let it be. In the United States I'm just another blond guy. There is literally no big deal about it. I've always been aware that many people would like to have blond hair, and I'm also obviously aware of the stereotypes that come along with being blond. But it's just not a big deal. Here, however, it's exotic and different.

One friend in Riobamba, who is blond, found out that the maid in the house was using her hairbrush. Someone told her it could be because she was hoping to get some of the blond hairs in her own. There's something odd about being so different, but at the same time it gives you a chance to look back and reflect.

For me, I've had to think about what it's like for people in the United States who are seen as different. There is no way I could ever know what it's like to walk a day in their shoes, just as they could never know from mine, but I think I might have an idea. And if that's all I have, at least it's a leg up on someone else who has never been the oddball. And hopefully that will give me enough perspective to never regress to the kind of behavior of making someone else feel insecure or inferior.

I don't enjoy all of the attention that I get as a result of my hair or eyes, and in some cases I feel that it puts me at more risk. But it's something that I have to get deal with here, and in fact, as I've spent more time here now, some of the people seem to be getting used to it. Luckily, I've learned to just take things as they are, and I am more accepting of what is going on around me. I've still prone to bad days, but for the most part I walk by without noticing all of the stares. And the more Ecuadorian friends I make, the less of a problem it seems to be. With time it could be nothing at all.

Chimborazo Article Publication

I'm happy to announce that my article about "The Last Iceman of Chimborazo" is now up on The Travelers Notebook, a section of Matador Travel. I put a lot of effort into this piece and I'm proud of it, so give it a read. If you like it tell your friends. The story follows Baltazar Ushca, the last man to go up on Chimborazo, an extinct volcano in Ecuador, and collect ice to sell at the market every Saturday.

I had the chance to go up with Baltazar on Thanksgiving day last month, and it was truly an amazing experience. You can also find some of my notes from the trip on my blog back in November, as well as more photos. Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Runner Up

National Geographic Glimpse offers a program for 8 different people living around the world to be correspondents and write different articles for them for a few months. The competition is tough, but it's the kind of program that can really improve your writing and boost you to the next level. The program is offered for the fall and spring every year. I'd applied in the summer for the fall program and wasn't accepted. So I applied again for the spring, changing my application a bit. This time around, I was selected as a finalist. Only 25 people out of over 600 were chosen as finalists, and of that only 8 would be chosen as the correspondents.

After a long time of waiting to hear, I finally found out that I wasn't selected, but am an alternate, so if one of the other correspondents doesn't work out, I could be asked to step in. While it's obviously a huge honor to even be considered a finalist for National Geographic, it's still a let down to not be chosen. Nothing can actually replace being selected in the top 8.

But I'm also thinking about how missed opportunities and second chances kind of got me started in the first place. I added journalism as a major towards the end of my freshman year, kind of on a whim. A friend had been accepted to the program and I thought that I liked to write and wanted to give it a shot. My sophomore year I applied for a travel writing and photojournalism class that would go to Sicily for spring break to document the trip. I wasn't accepted and was pretty upset, but went home for winter break and forgot about it. A few days before heading back to school for the spring semester I got a call from the teacher saying a spot opened up and I was welcome to join the class.

From there I just continued to grow interest in travel writing. In Sicily I realized that I wanted to study abroad in Spain (kind of random) and in Spain I realized that I wanted to live abroad again for a longer period of time. After returning from Spain I found an internship with a Web site I'd never heard of which now is actually out of business. I went to my internship coordinator and told her about it, she immediately said, "No, you're going to do this one instead." So she put in a call to GoNOMAD and I basically had the internship without a question.

I remember being a little miffed, because I did the work to find the internship, and she suddenly told me it wasn't good enough and had me change over. But it ended up working out great. I was able to get first hand experience writing articles and editing, and I even got to go on a press trip in Grenada which helped me network, as well as see more of the inside of travel writing. As it turned out, I realized because of that trip that I'm not really interested in travel writing as a whole, but rather traveling and writing about it. The glitzy magazines are fine if you want to find a new resort to go to, but I'd rather do something and then be able to write freely.

Now I've got to try to look at the bright side and hope that there can be a positive from not actually being selected. I never expected to even get that far, so being named a finalist and alternate is still an honor. But I'll keep writing and hoping that someone out there is reading and actually enjoying it. And maybe someday it will come back to me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why So Sleepy?

I don't exactly know why, but lately I've been extremely tired. I don't think it's because of the weather--that never changes. And the work schedule has been about the same, except for the fact that I now spend more time on campus and take a Spanish class. But even that shouldn't account for waking up feeling exhausted. Throughout the entire day I just feel like I'm dragging.

The worst part is that I eat my lunch and then head to work for my 1 o'clock class. But after a big meal I just want to lay down and listen to music on my bed. So by the time my class starts I'm in no mood to be there and have no energy to teach. It's a struggle to get through the two hour class. The rest of the day can pass by easy enough because it's not too strenuous, and for some reason no matter how tired I am throughout the day, my night class always goes pretty well.

It might have to do with my students. They're fun to teach and be with, so I enjoy being there, even though I initially wasn't too crazy about teaching at night. I remember being told that night classes are always more fun, and it's true. There just seems to be a more laid back attitude. They even go by quicker. Maybe the prospect of the rest of the day ahead at 1 p.m. is a hassle, but by 6 p.m. there's only a couple of hours left until I can go home.

But I'm not sure how to get out of the funk. I drink coffee, and even though it's mostly Nescafe, which I'd rather not drink, it doesn't do it for me. I'm not sure how much energy drinks cost here, but I've never been a fan of them in the first place and don't feel like drinking 5 a day just to get by. But I do need to find some energy so that I can put more into my first class and get the students interested. If I'm feeling dead and the class can see that, they're not going to want to participate much either.

Next week I'll be heading to Santiago, Chile to visit my friends Adam and Zach, who are there teaching for a year. I'm going to be there for the Christmas and New Years holidays, heading back to Ecuador on January 2. It will be the first time I'm leaving Ecuador since I got here in August, and I'm excited to see another country in South America. Chile should be hot because it's summer, and more expensive on the whole. Currently, Santiago is one of, if not the most expensive cities in South America.

While I'm down there I'll do my best to update the blog with what I'm up to down there. My hope is to see Santiago but also get out to Valparaiso and some other spots. I just hope I'll have the energy to get by.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ecuadoreans in New York

In an article in the New York Times today, writers Kareem Fahim and Karen Zraick write about the vicious killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant in New York and how it is rocking the community there. New York is host to the largest population of Ecuadorians in the United States, and the man was beaten to death in a largely Ecuadorean neighborhood.

I find this interesting for a few reasons. First, many of my students have family members who live in the United States, and most of those relatives live in New York. Second, I'm always thinking of my own safety as a foreigner here in Ecuador, but meanwhile back home it can be just as dangerous for foreigners. There are good people and bad people just about everywhere you go.

The article is well written and talks about the immigration from Ecuador to New York over the last 50 years or so. There have been three big waves of immigration from this country to the United States, and most of the immigrants have settled in New York City. Give it a read.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Empty Saturdays, Filling Shawarmas

Sometimes Saturdays are more of a hassle than a relief. During the week I have enough to keep me busy and therefore, I don't have time to be bored and restless. On the weekend, however, I need to find ways to kill the time. Even if I go for a walk into the center and try to find something to buy, I'm still back by 1 pm for lunch, and then I have the rest of the afternoon to waste. Yesterday I went out to buy an umbrella, because the one I brought from home was lost a few of weeks ago at a dinner party.

I'd been waiting it out because I thought my friend would bring it back to me, but walking around in Cuenca without an umbrella is dangerous business, and I never felt comfortable. Finally on Friday I got soaked on the way to work and decided enough was enough. I had to go to three different stores just to find a cheap, small umbrella for $2. As irony would have it, on the way back to my house I ran into my friend who I hadn't seen since the dinner party, and she told me that her cousin had my umbrella and was waiting to give it to me. So now I'll have two umbrellas. We agreed to meet up later in the night, (which later fell through) and I headed home for lunch.

For some reason this week I got it in my head that I really wanted to see the movies "Cloverfield" and "Lord of War," even though I'd already seen both. I also wanted to buy "Home Alone" to show to my classes for the holiday, and the movie store I always go to told me they'd be getting "The Office" that day. I went to the store three times on Saturday afternoon ready to spend a boat load of cash, but they were closed the whole day. I was disappointed, but went to a different movie store and still found the first two movies.

I brought a Frisbee to Ecuador thinking I'd use it all the time, but to this point I haven't used it once. There's just no one to play with. I sent out a few messages to people I know to see if they wanted to go to the park and play, but no dice. I really just wanted to get some exercise and get out, but it's hard to get a group together to play a sport. So around 3 pm, itching to get out, I went to Cafecito to grade some papers and be near people.

It worked out well, because I actually got some work done, which I never do on Saturdays. I was wearing my Texas Football shirt, which always draws unwanted attention. As I was paying my tab a guy came up very excited and asked me if I went to UT. I told him that I went to UMass and that I'd only bought the shirt a few years back because I had a gift card and it was the exact price of the card. He seemed disappointed, wanting to reminisce about Austin and the Longhorns, but two of the girls at his table went to Mt. Holyoke and Boston University.

I thought they were just some other tourists, but it turned out that they taught in Quito and actually knew some of my friends up there at the same school. We talked for a minute and I headed back home to watch "Cloverfield." When the movie ended both Jamie and Lauren called to see about doing something for the night, so we agreed to meet up in the center and get some dinner. I got there early and sat by the big Christmas tree, surrounded by people taking pictures of it as if they'd never seen one before. Little kids were sliding on the tiles and falling but laughing.

Jamie brought a friend she'd made who had taught in Cuzco, Peru for 11 months and was making his way up to Quito to go home. We decided to go back to Cafecito, but since I'd never eaten there before, I didn't know how expensive it was. Since I've been here I've been judging all of my prices on the cost of a lunch. An almuerzo which includes soup a huge plate of food and juice should cost no more than $2.50, even in the most expensive city of Cuenca. Normally you can get one between $1.50-$2. At Cafecito, even just a small plate of nachos was $2. A sandwich was pushing $4.

We decided to finish our drinks and go somewhere else. Vacillating a while between possible options, we finally headed towards the new shawarma place on Calle Larga. We were amazed to find an incredible deal when we got to the packed restaurant. $15 would get us 6 giant beers, 6 shawarmas, and a hookah pipe. The shawarma was great and filling as we piled on the tahini and aji sauces. As if this place wasn't good enough, a belly dancer suddenly came out of no where and did two different shows.

We realized that in the entire restaurant there were only 4 women, and just about all of the men were drooling over the belly dancer. It's not every day you see a belly dancer in these parts. Though the shawarma restaurant was great, we headed to a club, which unfortunately cost $5 to get into and wasn't very fun. A live salsa band was playing, and though they were good, they stopped soon after we got there. Then a drum corps band came in and played for about 15 minutes until the reggaeton started up. A small beer cost the strange price os $2.32, so Lauren and I split the one beer and then decided we'd had enough, so we left by about 1:30 am.

That's just how a Saturday goes down sometimes. You need to find a way to get through the daylight, and once the sun goes down there's always something going on. Now the trick is to find a way to kill Sunday.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Give Me Dual Citizenship or Give Me Death

Before I came to Ecuador I was trying to find a job in Argentina. It's kind of been a dream of mine to live there for a year or so for a few years now. I couldn't find a job and wound up getting accepted teach in Ecuador, so here I am. But being down in South America and the lack of a stable economy back home has gotten me thinking about working in Argentina again once I leave Ecuador. Since I'm already an experienced English teacher it would be feasible to think I could find a job teaching in Buenos Aires, but I'd settle for working in a hostel or bar, whatever to be down there for a while and experiencing the country.

The reason is because my mom is from Buenos Aires. Though she never taught me much Spanish, just random words here and there, I still give her credit when people tell me I speak Spanish well. People always seem surprised that a gringo can speak the language. "Well," I tell them, "I lived in Spain for a little and my mom is from Argentina."

"Ahh," they always say, as if the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. So because I've always been interested in the country, I want to live and work there for a little bit. It's also a sure bet to be able to get a job, at the very least teaching English, if you are from the U.S. and speak Spanish as well.

A week or two ago the light bulb finally went off in my head. It should have gone off a year ago, but there must have been a power outage. A professor at the university overheard me talking about wanting to work there, and she told me that she is married to an Argentinian and has dual citizenship. Her children, who were born in Ecuador, also have dual citizenship. She told me I should have no problem getting citizenship as well because my mother was born there, and Argentinians never lose their citizenship.

I got busy right then and there. First I sent an email to my mom to see what she could wrangle up with the consulate in New York. I sent another email to someone at the embassy to see what they could do, but they haven't responded. And it hasn't been any easier for my mom. Luckily she speaks Spanish well enough to deal with bureaucrats, so she's been playing phone tag for the last few days on my behalf. Rerouted from one person to another, she's been told that I can't be a citizen, that I can have residency, and that I'll need a dozen different forms and papers in order to get it. It's free, however, which is a nice change of pace.

She got in touch with a woman at the consulate in New York who told her I'd never be a citizen, but I could have residency. However, on the Web site that she told me to check, it says very clearly that I can be a citizen. So I'm a bit confused. I might even have to take an expensive trip down to Argentina in February just to go to the national registration building in Buenos Aires to see what the deal is. I just want that citizenship so I can easily get a job there. Another perk would be getting into Brazil. It's currently very difficult and expensive for Americans to enter Brazil, but with an Argentinian passport I could enter easily and cheaply. Not that I plan on going to Brazil next week, but it's nice to have the option. If all goes well I will have to go through extreme obstacles and hassle, but if it gets me the citizenship, I'm Okay with it.

Friday, December 12, 2008


I may have actually made a difference today, I'm not sure. But I think I taught someone something. In class we were going over some exercises, and the word vegetable came up. Anytime there's a tricky word, I make the class repeat after me so they can hear the correct pronunciation and improve themselves. It's probably the most useful thing I can do for them.

One student, Cristian, read the sentence and said "begetables." The "V" and "B" pose a lot of problems for Spanish speakers. In Spanish, the difference between the two letters is more subtle, and many words with "V" actually have a "B" sound. I had Cristian say it again, and again he said begetables, nodding as if he obviously got it. "No, no, keep practicing," I said. But I wanted to get this down. So I showed him that he has to put his teeth on his lower lip and make a vibration sound. I dragged out the sound "Vvvvvv" and watched as he tried, but continued to purse both lips together and make the "Bbbbbb" sound.

Again I showed him and made it as simple as possible. After saying the word 5 times or so, he finally got it right and said vegetables. The whole class applauded and laughed as Cristian took a bow. I told him not to feel bad about it, and that many English speakers can't roll their R's in an "Rrrrrr" fashion.

Hopefully he keeps practicing it and gets better. But even if he doesn't, at least he's got one more word he can add to his vocabulary correctly. So I think I earned my pay today.

The Inauguration and Chuchaqui

In honor of a new building that the university has been restoring for the last few years, there was a giant festival outside of the campus gates last night. There was debate and rumor as to whether or not the 6 o'clock class would go on, but we finally learned that class would be dismissed at 7 pm to go watch the show. The building, which will be a post-graduate hall, is designed in a classic Cuenca architecture, and you might say it's now the pride of the city.

A day before the show everything was being set up. Giant speakers were put in place across the river, next to the new building. While trying to focus on my Spanish class, Pink Floyd was suddenly booming in clearly and drowning out the teacher. It wouldn't be that bad if the sound quality was lousy, because then I'd try to block it out. But it came in so well and loud that I just wanted to hear more music.

Some of my students were going to celebrate one of their birthdays and I was invited to go, so after class got out at 7 pm I rushed home to drop off my briefcase and change. I quickly grabbed a shwarma on Calle Larga and got to the university just as the live music was ending. I found my students and we crowded together on the steep slope of the river bank. Wires were set up and two performers were doing some kind of dance suspended in air, much like in Cirque de Solee. The new building was completely lit up with different kinds of designs, and on each floor balcony were different dancers. On the top of the building was the Cuenca choir, singing different songs in between applause and fireworks.

It seemed like half the city was crunched into the tight space to see the show. Apparently this is the first time the city has seen something like this. More and more fireworks went off, dangerously flying into the trees and buildings across the low river, and a pump was continually blowing water out across the scene and then back into the river. It had rained hard earlier in the day, so I kept slipping down the slope and into a girls' back.

Next, indigenous dancers moved out onto the bridge and lit a "vaca loca" or crazy cow. It was just a bit float that was set up like a domino effect for fireworks. The entire thing lit up and made deafening noise, but it was a brilliant display. Once one part was burned out another part would ignite. Sitting there looking at the spectacle made me truly happy to be living in Cuenca. Everyone says it's the most beautiful city in Ecuador, and last night, it definitely was.

After the last song was sung, we headed back to Calle Larga, and oddly enough wound up at another shwarma bar, this one on the corner of Calle Larga y Hermano Miguel. This restaurant just opened, therefore having lower, competitive prices. the service, however, left much to be desired. The food took way too long to come out, and once it was there we had to pay immediatlely before we could eat. It was a good shwarma though.

We wandered around trying to find the right club to go to, but nothing was busy, so we eventually went to a hole in the wall bar called Cafe con ron. The girls are friends with the bartender, so even though they weren't open, we were allowed in. Pitchers of canelazo began to flow as we played different games in honor of the birthday girl. I don't like canelazo. It tastes like acid reflux and is only taken in shot form, meaning you go through it quickly and it catches up with you slowly, but surely.

Soon we were on to 3 and 4 pitchers, mocking the posters of various heavy metal 80s bands like Cinderella. More people showed up and the bar was soon packed. Good classic rock was playing and it was funny to listen to the Ecuadorians trying to sing what they thought the lyrics were. Even though I can't sing at all, they wanted to hear me sing so they could hear what the lyrics were.

I found out that my students have been calling me "El Gato" behind my back because they think I have eyes like a cat. This is the second time a group of women have told me this. It's not an insult, they assured me, but rather a term of endearment. I still don't like the idea of being referred to as the cat.

At some point in the night, maybe 3 am, two men walked in and changed the mood. The music was turned down and everyone except our table and a couple other guys who were there before us left. I have an irking feeling those guys "own" the street. They were immediately brought 2 beers and drank in silence. The door was locked and we were only in there because of the connection to the bartender. Somehow we managed to stay there until 4 am, leaving me exhausted today and with my bad "chuchaqui," Quichua for hangover. My only hope is that tonight I can finally get some sleep.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Memories of Being a Student and Forced Concerts

Now that I'm taking Spanish classes, I remember more of what it's like to be a student. And to be fair, it wasn't that long ago that I was one. But I now remember how much I don't want to do homework. I remember how bored I get in the class, even though I'm the only student and it's one on one tutoring, essentially. I remember that even though I'm paying for these classes, I'd rather be far away. And, as this is a language class, I remember how most of what goes on is probably lost in translation.

I didn't even know that I was assigned homework last night. But a better example of this is when I read a story in Spanish in class. I'm able to read it and kind of understand it, but at the same time I'm not getting the point with perfection. We move on and then the idea is lost. This has made me realize that what I do in my own English classes is probably very similar, if not worse. Granted, I'm doing some advanced Spanish, and they're in intermediate English, but I can see now that they probably don't understand half of the things I say, even if they nod their heads in agreement. To quote a song by Spoon, "Everybody's at disadvantage speaking in their second language."

If it will teach me anything, however, it's just that a student is likely to get bored, not want to be in class, and not understand the material. Yet they still want to learn it. And there comes in the great challenge of being a teacher. Somehow, I have to overcome the gap in their understanding, make them follow along and enjoy it too. It's not easy. I think it's this reason that school systems can wind up with so many burned out teachers who just don't care anymore. It's a tough profession.

In the next few weeks there will be many parties and dinners at the university for the pre-Christmas and New Year's celebrations. Tonight there was a concert put on by the Language Department. All of the language professors had to go even though some of us had class at the time. Though we were working on oral presentations, I had to stop class an hour early so we could go to the concert. Only some of the students stayed because there was no room to sit down, but those who did stay were some of the loyal students from my class last semester.

I found it funny that the department should put on a concert to enjoy the arts, yet make it mandatory, as if we were elementary school kids who had to go to an assembly. The songs were in a number of different languages, including English, Spanish, French, and German. Some were traditional Christmas songs like "Silent Night" (though it was in German as "Still Nacht"). "Fools Rush In," by Elvis Presley was also sung.

The concert was good and though it didn't last longer than an hour, I was itching to get out of there after a long day on campus. Because I'm taking Spanish in between my classes, I don't have enough time to go home anymore, so I spend 8 hours at the university. They're tiring days and I'm glad to finally get home and relax for the night. Tomorrow, however, I'll be going out with my students again, as it's one of their birthdays. I'll most likely be exhausted all day Friday, just in time to start the weekend.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chimborazo Video Sneak Peak

Here is a sneak peak of the video that will appear in an article for Matador Travel on my trip up to Chimborazo with Baltazar Ushca, the last hielero. Baltazar goes up the mountain twice a week to collect ice to sell at the market on Saturday and is the last person to continue the tradition. Enjoy.

More Photos of Chimborazo

A donkey scratching his head

Weaving grass into rope

Stopping on the way up

One of Baltazar's grandchildren

*More photos and video will appear in an article for Matador Travel

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I'm happy to write that I finally got paid today. I asked Lauren to come with me to Banco Pichincha as back up because, after all, she's a Spanish teacher back in the States, and is better than I am. We had to wait in a pretty long line while watching scenes from the pre-party for the American Music Awards, but finally got to a teller.

The teller at this bank was much more helpful than at my own bank, and though she was a little confused at first, it was all eventually worked out. Dishing out the money in cash, I was a bit uneasy about walking around with so much, but had no choice. Later on as I told my students about the problem that happened on Saturday, they just kind of laughed in a "what do you expect?" sort of way. Now if I could just get the rest of my paychecks on time and without so much of a hassle, I'd be a happy camper all year.

The Christmas decorations have been put up all over town, and I find it a bit funny to see that they use the exact same decorations that we have in the United States. The trees with ornaments and lights are in many windows and decorative lights are all along the street. Every weekend the lights by the river are changed to purple and green, but they are now on every night until new years. It always reminds me of the Lakers for some reason or the Joker.

It's funny that their image of Christmas should be the same as it is in the United States, right down to the fat old white guy as Santa Claus. Some decorations have the felt snow, and since this is a climate without snow, save for the highest peaks in the country, I wonder why they haven't adapted the decorations to their own culture. But that's something for another day, I suppose.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

One and Done

Yesterday I wrote a post about being furious with the banking system and the inefficiency here. It pretty much ruined my day, and with good reason. The bank screwed up and put my money in the wrong account, taking no responsibility for it. So for now I have to hope that I can get my money back somehow. For the majority of the day I was moping around and upset. I was invited by my host mother to a family party and I said I'd go, but I really wasn't in the mood to sit around all night.

My friends were in town and I was told I'd be back by 9 or 10, but as I'd guessed, that was a misrepresentation of the truth, and we didn't actually leave until about 12:30 am. Like the last family party I attended the first weekend I was in Cuenca, I was greeted warmly but then mostly ignored. I sat down in a comfortable chair and watched as more and more family members arrived. I felt a bit like Lorraine Bracco's character in "Goodfellas" in the wedding scene, when she felt dizzy from meeting so many people. I kissed more cheeks and shook more hands than I could keep track of, and for the first 10 people or so I actually tried to remember the names, but gave up after a while and simply greeted them.

I wasn't too surprised that no one was talking to me this time around, however. If I was at a family party I probably wouldn't spend all my time talking to a person I'd never met, but rather my own family. The difference this time around, however, was that unlike the first party there was no longer a ban on alcohol. As the drinks were passed around, the family members seemed to open up a bit. A few asked me some questions and continued to provide appetizers for me, making sure I was doing fine.

For a while I was just sitting there, still upset about my lack of a paycheck, and finally someone told me to come sit on the other side of the room with the "fun" people. Once people realized that I actually speak Spanish, the conversations flowed like the rum and coke. For the first time since I'd met the family, they were actually talking to me and involving me. In the United States, it's not uncommon for people to play drinking games or just sit around and talk. In Ecuador, however, it is normal for everyone to gather around a guitar, sing and dance.

Two guitars suddenly came out and the singing began. If you're a man and you can't play guitar, you'd better be able to sing, or vice versa. There's a myth that all Latin men can dance well. I'm not so sure about that one, but on the other hand, I think they were all made to sing deep ballads. Dancing started and I was pulled in with the tio's and tia's as everyone else laughed. Even my host mother, who is normally reserved and doesn't drink, was doing air maracas until someone actually gave her real maracas to use.

I realized I didn't even care about the bank problem anymore and was happy to be involved with the family. It was my turn to pass around the drinks, going from person to person with a shot of rum and coke. Every other person made me take a drink before them and I was told that we were all now friends because of it. Every time I turned around another guy wanted me to take a drink with him. Down here, part of the way you show strength is through how much you drink. I've been told I have three stomachs for alcohol.

So at the end of a lousy day it was all right. Everyone is entitled to a bad day now and then, and I've definitely had mine for this period of time, and I'm ready to move on. One bad day and done. I'm still not happy with the banks and will have to figure out how to fix the problem, but at least I was able to go from the depth in the afternoon to the high at night. It's a good country with good people, but it's just the beaurocracy that holds it back. But no one's perfect.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

I Really Hate the Banks Here

I am a hot ball of fury right now. Once again, the banking system in Ecuador has proven to be run by simple-minded goons. I feel as though I've been more than patient with the banks and system of getting paid up to this point, so excuse me if I've finally lost it and need to vent about it all. In orientation they went over the "roller coaster of emotions" that you go through when you're abroad. There are ups and downs. This is definitely a down.

As usual, I wasn't paid on time for last month, so I went down to the treasurer's office to find out why. I was also paying for my Spanish lessons, which took 20 minutes just to get a receipt. Instead of just clearing the payment and giving me direct deposit like they should, I was given a check for the amount owed. So today I went down to the bank to deposit the check. Not very familiar with how deposit slips work here, I filled it out as best I could and waited in line.

When I finally got to the teller, she told me I had to fill out some more information and kicked me out of line. I wrote down the account number again as well as writing it was from the university to me. I got back in line and the teller took the check, looked over the slip, and stamped the check. Right before she was going to hand me the receipt, however, she looked over the slip one more time and was confused.

She was talking about something I couldn't understand, then brought over another woman. This woman disappeared for a few minutes and came back telling me that they put the money in the wrong account. I didn't understand so she asked someone if they spoke English. That got me a little annoyed and I said I speak Spanish, but I don't understand what she's talking about. Talking loudly enough so the whole bank could hear, she said that I'd filled out the wrong line and made myself a third party to give the university my money.

So instead of having the university pay me, I'd signed over my check, from the university, to the university. The teller had put my money into the university's bank account. Now I had no money. Instead of trying to be helpful and find a solution, they essentially kicked me out of line and told me to go to a different bank to get my money. What I want to know is what was the teller thinking when she looked at my slip and check? She obviously saw that the check was made out to me from the university, so why would she only question the slip after she stamped it and signed it over to the university? Shouldn't she be doing her job and making sure the money goes in the right place before she finalizes a transaction?

I walked across town to the other bank, sweating in the heat and furious. I was just looking for an excuse to punch someone or scream. Entering the other bank, I was shocked to see a line nearly out the door. There must have been two hundred people in there not moving at all. It was like the check in counter at an airport during a holiday week. I waited for 5 minutes and then realized it was pointless.

Walking back, hot and angry, I dug my nails into my palms, white-knuckled and ready to destroy something. It just isn't my day. I've tried to brush off the inefficiency and lack of concern as just a cultural difference. I realize that it's not my place to revolutionize their system. But today it has finally driven me nuts. It's so hard to get anything accomplished here, that I feel bad saying I can understand why people label this country as 3rd world.

Now I have to hope that I can get the university to give me back the money, but I'm certain that whole process will be another headache. It could take the university weeks to pay me for the last month of work, yet they expected me to pay the first day I had Spanish lessons. One professor told me that when he started he was literally starving because they hadn't paid him for 2 months and he couldn't afford food. It's been an extremely aggravating process. Today I am not happy with this place.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What's in a Word?

Though I get enough Spanish in my daily life, I started taking Spanish classes today to improve my grammar and, above all, vocabulary. I only formally studied the language for two years, after all. I wasn't planning on taking classes down here, but after thinking it over, I realized that if I want to work with Spanish, I'll need to improve as much as I can, and it just makes sense to do it now while I work at a university and get a discount in a Spanish speaking country.

So now the plan is to take an hour of Spanish 4 days a week until I've reached 20 hours, and I'll probably stop there because I don't make enough money to be able to continue all year. Just long enough to steer me in the right direction. I'll go straight from Spanish class to teaching English, which could either confuse me terribly or make me a much stronger linguist. Time will have to tell on that one.

But I've been dealing with analysis of language so much recently that I've started to think about the meanings of the words we use every day. Take, for instance, a very common word in Ecuador, "Chuta." "Chuta" is used all the time by everyone, and can be roughly translated as something like, "Dang, Darn, or Shoot!" It's a non-offensive word that helps explain frustration or anger. However, there is a worse companion for this word. "Chucha" is more like "Dammit, Shit, or Fuck!" You rarely hear people say "Chucha," and when you say it people look at you like you're crazy.

We have the same standards in English with our versions of acceptable bad words and unacceptable bad words. But what does it all really matter anyway? As long as you get the connotation, that something has angered you, you're just saying the same thing. We've trained ourselves, and we've been trained by others, to understand that some words are okay to say and others are not. Why should "Dang" be less offensive than "Dammit" if it says the same thing? You're angry and you need a word to say, and that's as simple as it is. If we'd been told since we were children that "Dang" is the bad word and "Dammit" is acceptable, who would argue about it?

So much of language is non-transferable. I've come to the realization that words are just a code for a message that you're trying to get across. It's all just understanding and inference. That's why sometimes a person from England will say something that an American doesn't understand. We're all speaking English, but there are different translations and cultural interpretations. "Pissed" in England means drunk, but in the United States it means angry. These translation differences continue in just about every language.

For this reason I sometimes say things I learned in Spain and people scratch their heads or laugh because it sounds weird. All we can really hope for is that the message gets across and everyone understands each other. Fluency is a very difficult thing to define, and by extreme standards, you could say that you're only truly fluent with yourself and maybe your family. Misunderstandings will always occur, even within tight circles. But who knows? All of this in depth analysis of language seems to have made me cross-eyed, and I can't even figure out what I'm saying anymore.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Month, New Semester

It's hard to believe that today is December 1st. Not only because of the fact that three months have gone by since I've been here, but also because of the weather. I look at the calendar and my eyes don't believe the date. The weather has remained the same, and my body is just used to the New England winter kicking in right about now. The climate here might be a little crazy, but at least we won't be going through any Nor'easters.

Another strange thing is that today started the second semester for me at the university. I teach 7 week intensive courses, so after a week of finals and another week of vacation, I'm now back to the grindstone. I'm excited though. Vacation was nice, but it's also a welcome relief to get back into a bit of a routine. I found myself a bit nervous last night as I thought of what to prepare for my class and what the students might be like. Also, I was never told with any confidence my schedule or levels, so I had to assume it was the same.

As it turns out, the schedule is the same, but the 4th and 5th levels have switched time slots. I'm even in the same class rooms, which is nice because there's a familiar feel to them. The afternoon (4th level) class gave me a bit of a surprise, however. I had planned on starting the class at Module 4, where the same level started last semester. After going through a spiel about the rules I told the students to open up to the first page of Module 4. The students told me that they had already gone through Module 9, however, and I had no knowledge of this.

With nothing to teach, I let class out an hour early and went to the office to talk to my director to find out exactly what I had to teach. When she showed up an hour later we discovered that the course had been changed, but no one told me about it. I was now supposed to start everyone at Module 9. Because I'm also doing Level 5, it's the same lesson planning. So in the end, I'll only need to make one lesson plan a day, which will save me a lot of time.

I was a little bummed that I would have to start over with new students because I'd spent so much time investing in the last classes, but I was happy to find that my night class still has a few of the old students. They were very happy to see me because they'd requested that I be their teacher again. As I explained the rules and the fines to the new students, the old ones laughed and nodded their heads. They're old timers now.

So it feels good to be getting back to work and to still have some of my students from last semester. With any luck, I'll be a better teacher this semester and do a better job with the material I have.