Saturday, January 31, 2009

End of the Month

This week went by pretty quickly, and the fact that it was the last week of classes also added to the speed. My friend Ricardo visited for less than a day on Wednesday, but we all went out for dinner at the Colombian restaurant around the corner and then went out dancing at La Mesa until closing time. It was my first time going there even though I'd heard about it so many times. I'd been told that it was full of gringos, which it was, but it was pretty cool. It was a little dive bar with room for dancing salsa.

Ricardo left early Thursday morning and I had the rest of the week to be tired as a result. On the last day of classes yesterday my afternoon class went out with me to Pizza Hut, which was a very big deal. The Pizza Hut was a fancy restaurant with high prices, but the students loved it. The night class was supposed to come out eating and dancing also, but only 6 of the students showed up. We went out to eat and then everyone went their separate ways.

I was a little disappointed because I was expecting to go out with them, just like we did last semester. That was a really fun night, and I was hoping lightening would strike twice, but it didn't go as planned. Instead I went to a bar where my student works and had a drink with one of my students while watching the Celtics play the Pistons on ESPN International. I was totally surprised to see it on and it really made my night.

Once my student left I called up a friend and went to a house full of expats and played poker for a while. We only played for $2 each, and I came in second place, losing a dollar. We were all floored when I had a royal flush, something that rarely happens. Later on we went up to the roof, even though it was extremely cold, to wait for people to walk by and throw water balloons at. People are getting ready for Carnaval, and as a result water balloons are being thrown everywhere. These gringos decided they wanted to strike back.

The street was pretty empty, so we mostly hit a few cars as they drove by and waited for some people. As we were about to ambush 3 guys, water balloons started to rain down on us. We had no idea where they were coming from because we were on the high point. We looked all over and couldn't see anyone near by. Later when one of the guys left he got hit by about 10 water balloons and saw where they were coming from. Somehow, with terrific aim, they'd managed to hide a few roofs over and pegged us as we were sitting ducks. It was perfectly aimed and executed. True professionals. Playing with the water balloons made me feel like a kid again, and it was a lot of fun, even though it definitely annoyed the people we targeted.

As a result of being outside in the cold for too long, I have a cold again today. This is the third weekend in a row in Cuenca that I have gotten a cold. The weather has been pretty lousy, going from hot to cold in a matter of seconds and totally messing with my immune system. Sneezing is the name of the game today, and I just need to wait it out. Tomorrow is the Superbowl, and I'm looking forward to watching the game with some friends, if we can all figure out where we're going to go.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Costa vs. Sierra

Now that I've had a chance to see some more of the coast, I feel like I can make better comparisons on the regions of Ecuador. I still haven't seen the Oriente, and I'm going to the Galapagos next month, so until then I can only speak on the differences between the coast and the mountains. In some parts they are only separated by a short, 2-3 hour drive, but they might as well be thousands of miles apart. To me, it seems as if the cultures, people, and traditions of each region are like their own countries in themselves.

Take for instance on the coast the heat factor. It's so hot that no one wants to be in the house baking even more. So everyone is just outside in the streets. As a result, it seems like people mingle with their neighbors more and are more social in general. The whole culture on the coast is about being friendly and open to neighbors, so even if you've never met someone before, you're going to talk to them as if they were your long time friends. In the sierra, the people are just as friendly, but because it's colder, no one hangs out in the streets. You do what you have to and then you get back inside your house. This results in less interaction with the neighbors, in my opinion.

Also in the sierra you will find more of an indigenous influence, and as a result, it comes across in the culture. Everything from the mixing of Quichua in the language to haggling at the market it somehow related to the indigenous influences. I've been told that in relation to the indigenous culture in Peru, the part of the culture here is treated worse, but I won't be able to speak about that until I go to Peru next month. Down on the coast, however, there is a considerable drop in indigenous presence, and it seems as though the majority of the culture gets its influence from Spanish traditions. That isn't to say that in the sierra there isn't Spanish influence either. It's quite prevalent. Yet on the coast it seems much more evident.

And of course there are the little things. You can get away with wearing shorts and sandals on the coast because it's so hot, but if you wear them in the sierra, people will look at you like you have 3 heads, even if it's hot out. On the coast, men will fold their shirts up over their stomach and up to their chest, revealing their often bloated beer bellies. If for nothing else, it's to get a little air on the skin, but it's just odd that they wouldn't take the whole shirt off. In the sierra, it would never be hot enough to pull that off.

Furthermore, there are the differences in how people look at each other. Those who are from the sierra call the costenos, "monos" or monkeys. It's all in good humor, but I think they deep down consider themselves a little better. On the contrary, those from the coast think of people from the sierra as a bit snootier, and they use their accents as a way to mock them. Understanding costenos is another headache in itself. People also look at the coast as more dangerous, which might be true based off of reported incidents alone. However, you will still find some of the friendliest people you could imagine, ready to open their arms and welcome you in to their world. It's somewhat ironic that Guayaquil, one of the richest cities in the country, is also one of the most dangerous. Because of the success of some, violence has become a problem there for almost all.

There are many other things to consider when talking about the cultural differences, but these are just some ideas to scratch the surface and think about how difficult it is to define a country with one idea. Each region is its own entity, just as each city is different from another, and each person is different. Ecuador is extremely diverse, and that's as easy as it is to put it.

Above: Montanita, Quito

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Small Classes

This week is not only the last week of classes for the intensive language classes, but also the week of finals for the rest of the general courses. As a result, I've had pretty slim classes. In my night class, nearly half of the students have been away on a trip to Peru. On Monday night only 8 showed up, and last night only 5. But it's actually not that bad.

It's hard to teach to a large class, and I'm finding with the smaller classes that it actually changes the way you teach altogether. Instead of standing up, walking around, and projecting loudly, we can sit in a circle and talk, making it a more personal learning experience. The few students who are coming are also asking more questions, as if they are less embarrassed to ask questions with fewer students. It makes the whole atmosphere better.

We've also been getting through the material faster. Last night we waited until 6:15 to get started in case more students came late. We made it through all of the material I had planned by 7:35. Granted, we cut out the usual 10 minute break at 7 pm, but it's just easier to move along with fewer students. It even seems that they're really getting it. I just wish I was able to teach smaller classes all the time.

I also wanted to pass this along. This is an article from the New York Times writer Matt Gross, known as the Frugal Traveler. In this article, he writes about how to use credit cards and bank cards while traveling overseas. This is something that I've had to deal with quite often, and I actually use a Capital One card as well for the same reason that he mentions. Read the article for some good advice.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Future Plans for February

This is the last week of classes for me, and I'm already looking ahead to what I will do with my almost month of vacation in February. Exams will take place Monday through Thursday, and then on Friday, February 6th, I will be heading to the Galapagos Islands for 5 days and 4 nights. I'll be there from the 6th to the 10th, and you can be sure that I'll be taking plenty of photos and maybe even some videos of the wildlife and scenery that I come across.

I'll be traveling there with some friends from my organization, as we were able to get a pretty good deal. I only found out about this a week ago. For about $630, we will get round trip airfare, pick up at the airport, hotel, meals, guided tours, and equipment for the excursions we do. We'll be staying on an island but taking day trips to surround islands. The price is right, especially since we only have to pay $6 to enter the park, rather than the normal $100 that foreigners have to pay. This is because we have Ecuadorian residence.

After the Galapagos, I'll come back to Guayaquil and might need to spend the night, then come back to Cuenca for a few days to rest and relax. I'll be taking off again on February 16th, this time bound for Peru. Going with two other friends, we'll be leaving from Guayaquil and flying to Lima, where we'll spend a day. We then fly to Cuzco, where we will see the city and spend a day at Machu Picchu. After a couple of days in Cuzco we will take an 8 hour bus ride to Puno and spend some time at Lake Titicaca. We'll be on the border of Bolivia, and we'd love to go in and get as far down as La Paz if possible, but there is a $135 entrance fee for Americans, so we probably won't be able to do it. It's a let down.

We'll head back up to Cuzco, fly into Lima for another night, and then head back to Guayaquil. From there we will still have a week before classes start again on March 2, so we could visit some other cities in Ecuador like Zaruma, Loja, and Vilcabamba. I'm excited to see all of these places, and to write about them and photograph whatever I can. So if I don't have many posts in February, it's not because I've abandoned the blog, but rather because I'm out there getting more material for it. And once I get back I'll definitely update on what we've been up to.

Photos From the Coast

On the beach at Alandaluz

Grey morning in Montanita

A bonfire on the beach

Sitting around the fire

Sunset at Alandaluz, Manabi Province

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mid-service Conference on the Coast

I've been gone for a few days, the reason being that I was at a Mid-service conference on the coast with the rest of my organization. I'm not going to explain the entire weekend, but rather go over some of the more interesting points. The volunteers from the Cuenca-Loja-Vilcabamba area left on Wednesday morning to make the long drive to the coast and get in nice and refreshed on Thursday afternoon.

Instead of taking the public transportation, we hired a private van from the University of Loja, as one of the volunteers who works there was friendly with the driver. A private van should make the trip quicker, but since the van had a lawnmower sized engine, it took much longer. It was also more expensive, but we were getting reimbursed for most of the expenses of the travel, including the hostel and meal stipend. It was still fun to ride with our old friends and catch up.

Leaving from Cuenca around 1 p.m., we headed through Cajas National Park towards Guayaquil. We were unsure if the indigenous strike would cause problems, but we were happy to find there were no issues, as the government had promised to crack down hard on anyone arrested. Around Guayaquil we got a little lost and as a result, the drive took a few hours longer than it needed to. We agreed to spend the night in Montanita, a well known beach town that was big with surfers and gringos. We wouldn't even get there until 9 p.m.

We were glad we got a chance to see the town, but I think for the most part it was a bit of a let down. It was extremely touristy and expensive, and I felt embarrassed just walking through the one dirt road in the main part of town. Music blasted all night, so even after a long day of traveling, we couldn't get any sleep. Once the music finally ended around 3 a.m., loud Chileans congregated outside our room and were being loud, obnoxious drunks. I finally got up to tell them to shut up, but that didn't seem to help. Once they left around 5 a.m., drummers walked through the streets banging to a dull beat for about an hour and a half, until finally there was silence, but by that point it was still so humid in the room that sleep was nearly out of the question. After all of that, it actually felt like we'd gone out and partied.

We went up the "Ruta del Sol," a well known road that runs along the coast and goes through several towns. Montanita is only a 40 minute drive from Alandaluz, the hotel where we were staying, just south of Puerto Lopez, so we were the first ones there around 2:30 p.m. The hotel was an eco-friendly resort in the middle of National Park Machalilla. With our own private beach we were able to relax with our friends and reunite, talking about the last 5 months in Ecuador. None of us could really believe that 5 months had already gone by.

Though we were there for a conference, it was pretty laid back, and no one was being run too hard. We still had time to relax on the beach or do whatever, and beach football and Frisbee was also included in the schedule. The sunsets on the beach were awesome, watching the sun quickly fall beyond the horizon, directly westbound, just slightly below the equator.

On the last night we had a bonfire and sat around as the bamboo burned and wheezed, some people making smores as it went on. This was only my second time really visiting the coast, and I still find it amazing how different the cultures between the coast and sierra are. They are like two different countries in a way. For example, on the coast everyone hangs out outside of the house because it's just too hot inside, but in the sierra everyone is bundled up and cold inside the house. As a result, the cultures of how to interact with people is different.

On Saturday we ended the conference and went our separate ways. Our van group stayed at the hotel for a couple of hours to eat and go to the beach one last time, then started the long trip back. We left Alandaluz at 2 p.m. and didn't get to Guayaquil until 7 p.m., where we stopped for dinner and to drop off another volunteer. The rest of the way back it rained and the van went slowly up the mountains through Cajas. We had to stop at one point because an enormous tree had fallen into the road, blocking all traffic. The whole area was prone to mudslides. As more cars came to stops, more men came out with machetes and cleared the tree. Finally, we got into Cuenca at 1 a.m. The Loja people still had at least 5 hours ahead of them. It was a long trip, and we all felt sore like we'd been hit by a bus, but it was a good trip. And now it's time to get back to teaching.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Inauguration

With a jolt of excitement, I rushed downstairs this morning to see if we were getting coverage of the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. I was happy to see that on channel 30, we were in fact seeing CNN International, in Spanish, yet showing the same coverage of Washington D.C.

I went downstairs after quickly downing my soup lunch at 11:30 to see the beginning of the festivities. A new guest in the hostel, a Scottish girl, joined me on the couch. The scenes were incredible, with apparently 2 million people at The Mall to see the historic event. Within a few minutes, however, the TV started cutting out, and though we had audio, the video went black. I was pretty disappointed, because your country only inaugurates its first black president once.

Within a couple of minutes my host mom, Cecilia, told us to come upstairs and watch on the small TV in the family room. We watched quietly as the festivities went on. I was a little nervous because I had to leave for work by 12:30, and I wanted to see everything. My fears were relieved soon though as the swearing in took place. It sent chills just to see it all and I couldn't help but let a smile rip out across my face. It was historic.

The only drawback was that the speech was being dubbed over in Spanish, so it was basically taking away from the impact of it all for me, and though I was piecing it together by bits and pieces, it eventually got me in a zone out mode and I didn't hear much of anything. So at some point in the future I'll have to get a transcript of the speech or see a video of it. Yet it was still a thrill to be able to see it and see how the Ecuadorians were excited about it as well. Even the Scottish girl was excited.

And for the rest of the day I was able to carry that same feeling around with me. It was a beautiful feeling. Tomorrow we leave for the coast, headed toward Puerto Lopez. Hopefully the strike that began this morning won't make too much of a problem for us. And then it's a couple of days of conferences and hanging out with friends from Quito. It should be a nice little weekend. There will definitely be photos and stories to come.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More Football and Strike Action

I was pretty sick all weekend, so all I had to look forward to was watching the NFL Championship games on Sunday. I was pretty disappointed to find that ESPN International wasn't showing the NFC Championship game. Instead, a soccer game was being shown. Luckily, however, the AFC Championship game was shown later that night. It was nice to watch the game, and since I'd known who had won the NFC game, it made it interesting to know that this last game would determine the Superbowl. I still find it funny that the Spanish commentators say "touchdown" like they would yell "goooooooool." I had nothing invested in either team, but it was fun to watch.

And now back to the strike news. The heavily anticipated indigenous strike against the new mining law that is set to start at midnight will undoubtedly affect how we are able to get to our conference on the coast. Getting to the coast from the mountains is a hassle as it is, without added problems from road blocks and picket lines. Under no circumstances are we to cross a road block. It could be a really bad situation, because apparently we have to go to the conference no matter what, even if the roads are completely sealed off. Since there are only a few roads in and out of Cuenca, our options are pretty limited.

It's an interesting situation, because we are told that we must find a way to the conference. However, we are also forbidden from crossing any road blocks, and if we feel unsafe we are instructed to return home. So we find ourselves in a catch 22. There's even talk of classes being canceled tomorrow because some of the students won't be able to make it into the city from the surrounding areas. That would in turn create more problems for me because I'm already missing classes from Wednesday to Friday. And this is all towards the end of the semester. Things are about to get pretty interesting here.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Saturday Rain Review

I did absolutely nothing today. It simply rained and was cold the entire day, so I didn't even leave the house. This is a journal of how I killed the time. It is a testimonial of laziness to the extreme. Enjoy.


1:30 a.m. : Came home from bar hopping and hanging out on Calle Larga. Went to bed by 2.

10:30 a.m. : Finally accepted the fact that I wasn't going to get anymore sleep so I reluctantly got out of bed. Ate breakfast and returned to the bedroom to figure out how to work the new iPod shuffle that I bought last night from my student. It was brought back from the U.S. by her husband, and though it costs $50 there, she charged me $70 after some haggling. It only has 1 Gb, but at least I'll have something to listen to now on the long bus rides. The only problem is that it can only be charged through a computer.

12:25 p.m. : After three tries at loading songs onto the iPod, I finally got the songs I wanted. Took a shower, brushed my teeth, and put on deodorant. Then immediately got back into pajamas and started watching "The Office" on my laptop in bed.

12:45 : Started to feel a cold coming on. Sneezed about 40 times and my nose became a faucet. Put on a sweater and tucked my arms into the sleeves. Sneezing out of control. Only stopping occasionally to rub my eyes.

1:15 : Had lunch with the host family. To avoid sneezing throughout the meal I had to sniffle for 30 minutes and pinch at my nose with a napkin, roughing up the skin. Discussed the possibility of going to the park to play frisbee if the rain would hold off, but no sooner than my host mother said the rain would stay away, depending on the wind, than the rain began to fall on the house.

2:00 : Called my friend to confirm that we would not be going to the park because of the rain. Watched three more episodes of "The Office."

2:45 : Took a 25 minute nap until my host mom came by to tell me a package was waiting for me at the post office. I'll have to deal with that mess on Monday. If all goes well.

3:30 : Read 10 pages in "Moby Dick," the Spanish version for children. Rain continued to come in hard on the glass roof. No chance of leaving the house today confirmed as I sneezed for the 178th time.

4:15 : Attempted to get on the Internet for the 4th time today, as the signal was extremely weak all afternoon. Finally found success in a corner of the house near the router. Checked email, headlines, and Facebook.

4:20 : Looked up some new vocabulary words in Spanish on Wordreference.

4:30 : Skyped with my friend Paul who is back in Florida. First time we'd talked and heard each others voices since the summer. Talked for almost a half hour until the signal was so bad that we completely broke off. It continued to rain and be cold. My feet have been freezing all day. My nose is hemorrhaging.

5:15 : Watched three more consecutive episodes of "The Office." Was disappointed to find that one of the discs was messed up and one episode didn't work. That now makes one full disc that didn't work and another episode on a different disc that didn't work. So far this purchase was a let down. Still cold. Still sneezing. Still raining.

7:28 : Had dinner of Kraft Macaroni n Cheese. Good, but not quite filling. Also had tea with knockoff Ritz crackers. Contemplating leaving the house to get a kabab, but that would involve putting on a pair of pants and a jacket, as well as leaving the house. Decision made to delay until absolutely necessary.

7:50 : Watched the 8th and 9th episodes of "The Office" for the day. Considering watching more, but wary of killing it. Sneezed for the 349th time. Nose is in full rebellion. Can only breath out of mouth.

8:50 : Airway to nose has reopened, but sneezing continues. It sounds like the raining has stopped. Wondering if it's worth getting a kabab at this point. I really don't want to have to get dressed. Eyelids are heavy. Wish I had some chicken noodle soup and a TNT movie marathon. Most likely movie selections for marathon: "Forrest Gump," "Gladiator," and "Saving Private Ryan." The sagging hole in my bed is so deep from sitting on it all day that it's a struggle to get out. Counting down hours until sleep.

Friday, January 16, 2009

So Many Strikes, So Little Time

There have been a lot of strikes and protests lately. I get email updates from the U.S. Department of State to warn about any potential danger, and in the last week I've received at least 5 different emails warning about potential trouble. The majority of the protests and rallies have been aimed against the Israeli Embassy in Quito, and the planned rallies usually are scheduled to move towards the American Embassy after they harass the Israeli's for a while.

There is another reason for protests as of late as well, however. Recently a new mining law was approved, and it has caused outrage in the indigenous community, who feels that the mining will destroy the land on which they live. President Correa has 10 days to ratify the new law, and the protesters are hoping to get his attention in time to nullify the law. As a result, many roads, specifically on the way from Guayaquil to Cuenca, have been blocked by protesters. Some bus companies have suspended service, and already 1 police officer and two journalists have been kidnapped.

Today was a big day in Quito, as President Correa gave his State of the Union address, a protest against Israel and subsequently the United States was to be held, students protested lack of funding for education, and the indigenous once again protested the new mining law. The alert from the State Department today essentially gave a schedule of places and times not to be near the action, leaving you to wonder if you would have to actually stay in your house the whole day to avoid trouble. Now, I live in Cuenca, far from Quito, so I can't say with confidence what happened up there. But I know how it is affecting me down here, 10 hours away.

I, as well as the other volunteers in my group, are supposed to go to a Mid-service conference on the coast next week. Staying at a hotel a little south of Puerto Lopez, some of us who live farther away were planning on leaving on Wednesday to get there nice and ready on Thursday for the conference. Getting to the coast is kind of a hassle, and as a result some of us were looking into taking a private bus, which would be safer and more convenient, yet more expensive. After vacillation over whether nor not to take the bus, we now seem left with little options because of a new, scheduled strike.

On Tuesday no buses will operate and all major roads will be closed. I don't know if it is true for the entire country, but it is for the surrounding areas near Cuenca and Guayaquil. This poses trouble, mainly because it is an indefinite strike, meaning it starts Tuesday, but could last for a while. Ultimately, getting to the coast could be harder than originally thought. The expensive bus might be our only choice, that is if we can still take it. You don't want to cross a picket line here, especially if you're a group of gringos. It just shouts out trouble.

So for now we have to figure out what we will do. If the strikes are an indication of anything, it's that things are far from over. And whether or not you could call it instability, at least they're giving us a heads up. This is just part of the process of living in a developing country.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Rainy Week

For the last week or so it's been raining pretty consistently in Cuenca. The month of December was pretty dry, and now January has been, on the contrary, pretty wet. There are usually three different types of rain here. It can rain hard in the morning and then clear up mostly by the afternoon. It can also be beautiful in the morning, followed by a powerful rain in the early afternoon that will be short lived. Or, it will be cloudy for most of the day and in the late afternoon it will start raining gently late into the night. After it rains it will always get much colder.

It's very hard to dress appropriately and to stay dry in these conditions. While walking to work I can pass through two different spurts of rain. Another problem is finding a good umbrella. I cam down with an umbrella that was fine, but one night in November I left it at someone's house after a dinner and though my friend told me she had it, I have yet to get it back. I bought a replacement for $2, but the first time I opened it up I found that it was already broken. Though it rains so often here, no one sells a good umbrella, and even though a lot of people have good umbrellas, no one knows where to find them.

A professor at the university told me that a lot of people bring their umbrellas back from the United States, Canada, or England. I just don't understand why decent umbrellas can't be made or sold here in Ecuador. Especially if the only real seasons are Wet and Dry. In the meantime, I have to just keep dodging the rain as best I can, and hopefully I'll one day find my old umbrella (unlikely) or come across a better substitute than I've found so far.

This week has gone by pretty well. My boss Peter visited on Monday for a site visit and reviewed my class. Later that night he took us out to dinner at an Italian restaurant called La Vina, just up the road from where I live. It was a great meal and was the first good Italian food I've had since I was back home in the States. Otherwise classes have been going by normally and I have next week to look forward to, when the September volunteers will head to the coast for a Mid-service conference. We'll be heading to a place a little south of Puerto Lopez, a resort called Alandaluz.

We should be leaving either Wednesday or Thursday, because we are excused from classes for the conference and those of us who live far away from the coast get an extra day for travel. It will be a good chance to see more of the coast, since I only know Machala and the airport and bus terminal of Guayaquil.

Monday, January 12, 2009

It's Football, Not Futbol

I had a stunning discovery this weekend. We get the NFL Playoffs in my house here in Cuenca. About a month or so ago my host mom told me that they'd installed cable in the TV downstairs, but I didn't pay much attention to it. I rarely go down there because it's the hostel part of the house and I don't watch much TV anyway. But on Saturday afternoon I went downstairs to watch a DVD and thought I'd scan through the channels quickly to see what was on.

First I found "A Beautiful Mind" with Russell Crowe, but once that was over I moved on. On the next channel I was amazed to see the Tennessee Titans playing the Baltimore Ravens on ESPN+. The game was clearly being presented by CBS, but was shown internationally on ESPN. The commentators were speaking Spanish, occasionally breaking to perfectly pronounce the players names in English. For some reason the quality of the coverage didn't seem as good as it would be back home, but it had to be the same broadcast from the United States.

I'd only missed a few minutes in the first quarter, but that also included two touchdowns. I was so excited I didn't even care. This was only the second time for the entire season that I was able to watch a game. The first time was in Chile a couple of weeks ago. It was so nice just to sit there and watch the game, though I was a little bored because I couldn't talk to anyone about it. Watching a game with friends is part of the fun, and I found myself yelling at plays and having no one to respond.

Unfortunately, the game was taking so long that by the 4th quarter I had to go upstairs to eat dinner, so I didn't find out the final score until the next day. However, I was also able to watch most of the game on Sunday between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Diego Chargers. Again, I had nothing invested in either team, but it was just nice to be able to watch. Just like on Saturday, I missed the first few minutes of the first quarter, I screamed at the TV with no one else to talk to, and I had to leave in the 4th quarter to go up for dinner. And again I had to wait to find out who won the game.

The good news is that I now know that football is going to be on TV, both for the AFC Championship and NFC Championship games. And in the event that the Superbowl isn't shown at a gringo bar, I can always watch it at home on February 1st. So at least I have that to look forward to. The games were essentially the highlight of the weekend, and it will keep my mind busy this week.

Today is Monday and my boss, Peter, is coming in from Quito to observe my class and let me know how I'm doing as well as give me pointers on how to be a better teacher. I feel that after almost 5 months of teaching that it's a little overdue, but with so many teachers, it's unavoidable to have someone at the end of the line. Hopefully I'm not a terrible teacher afterall and can get some positive feedback too. But either way, it will be nice to hang out with Peter again. Now I need to get to work.

Above: A young Dan

Friday, January 9, 2009

Then and Now

I'm nearing the 5 month and a half-ish point of being in Ecuador now, which means that I'm starting to eclipse the time I spent as a student studying in Spain. It's weird to think about that, because not only does it feel like a lifetime ago, but it was also an experience that I could bring up so many memories from that it feels like it lasted for years, even though it flew by. And now I'm around the same time in Ecuador and I'm wondering how they both compare thus far.

By the 4th month of living in Spain I had already traveled to a number of other countries. It seemed as though every long weekend or vacation was used to visit a different country, and with two spring breaks, I was able to hit up a lot of countries. My travels through Europe got me all the more into international travel and writing about my experiences, fueling the desire within me to get out there.

Over the Christmas and New Years break just a couple of weeks ago I left for Chile to visit some friends, and it was the first time I'd left Ecuador since arriving in August. It felt weird in a way to leave the country, but I was still excited to visit a new place. I've spent the time I've had thus far really getting to know Cuenca and other parts of the Sierra in Ecuador. I'm glad I've gotten to know the country better, rather than running of every time I get the chance. That doesn't mean that I wish I hadn't traveled outside of Spain as much, but rather that I could have known Spain better.

In Spain I made some great friends, given that they were all essentially Americans or other foreign students. I'm sad to say I don't have one Spanish friend. In Ecuador, however, I've made many local friends. I still have American friends from my program or other expats I've met, but for the most part I try to socialize with the Ecuadorians, in a hope so that I may better my Spanish and understanding of the culture.

As my first living abroad experience was a plastic immersion, I lived with two other Americans from my program, among other Europeans who came and went. We had a "host family" which was really just a woman who cooked and cleaned for us, driving us nuts at times. It was a good time, but not very authentic. Now I'm living with a host family again, but without other Americans around as roommates. So I have no one to vent to on an hourly basis if need be. It doesn't get any more immersed than this.

And as for the language aspect. I went to Spain with only a rudimentary level of Spanish after one course. The first two months were extremely difficult, but by the time I left I was able to have fluid conversations and felt like I was well on my way, part of the reason I wanted to live abroad again. Before arriving in Ecuador I'd already had two years of Spanish, plus the semester abroad under my belt. I was rusty for a month or so, but since then I've been on a roll. If I felt comfortable after 4 months in Spain, I'm excited to see how I'll do when my contract ends in Ecuador, or whenever it is that I go home.

But there are other things to consider too. I remember getting homesick once or twice in Spain and feeling lonely without the support of family or friends from back home. There were some tough times that I got through, but not without a day or two of doldrums. I honestly can't say that I've felt homesick in Ecuador thus far, mainly because I try not to think about it. If I did, it would only make me miss it, and I don't want that to be in my mind as I try to embrace my current situation.

There are the extremely frustrating times and when they come I wish I was back home or somewhere else, but I'm still putting all I have into this experience. Once in a while, however, something will suddenly make me think of a scene from home and the longing can start. I can picture perfectly every room in my house down to the little details of pictures on the wall or a crack in the tile in the kitchen. So when I start to walk through the house in my head it makes me want to actually be there.

Or sometimes during my night class when I get a minute to just look out the window, the lights play a trick on me and make me think I'm back at UMass. With the orange glow weaving through the branches it appears to be the New England campus in late November, and when the light catches the rain just right, it's actually snowing on my old college campus. And then I feel it. It's so eerily similar that I need to do a quick check to make sure I'm not day dreaming that I've been in Ecuador the whole time while actually sitting, bored, through a class at school.

But otherwise, there is the routine that I have fallen into and continue, probably out of necessity to have some regularity in my life here. And for the most part I just don't think about it. I know I'm from Boston and lived there most of my life, and though I carry around the humor and insight of a Bostonian, I just don't bring it up unless I'm talking to another gringo about back home.

So we're still looking upwards. We could do half empty or half full, depending on how I'm feeling that day. I'm 5 months in or 5 months out. It really doesn't matter much to me. I'm still here and will continue the way I've been until I'm back home. And what will become of me when that happens, I can't say for sure. But a change has definitely occurred. Much in the same way that I wasn't the same person before I left for Spain, I'm not the same as before I left for Ecuador. But that's to be expected, and desired for the most part. Into the unknown we go.

Above: My host and roommates in Spain, my host family in Quito for the first 3 weeks in country

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Parade of the Innocents

We started up classes again, and even though we just had almost two weeks off, yesterday was another excuse for a festival and missing class. The festival was called "Day of the Innocents," which is supposed to celebrate babies being killed when Jesus was a baby. Or something along those lines. It's now an excuse to dress up in costumes and drink, on the other hand.

My students had warned me in advance that we probably wouldn't have night class because the parade starts around 7 pm, but up until 5 pm I was still uncertain as to whether or not there was class. I'd already been told by about half of the students that they wouldn't be going because they had to participate in the parade for the university. I found out that classes were still supposed to go on, so I sadly walked to class knowing that no one would show up.

Only one student showed up. As we talked outside the classroom for 5 minutes while I waited for the paper to sign saying I was in class, we discussed books to read and listened to the music that was getting louder in the distance. Once I signed the attendance I told him we could go. I was not going to give a class to one student out of 23 and I wanted to see the parade. Another student walked by as we were leaving but she had already expected class to be canceled.

I went home to change, eat dinner quickly, and then went back out to Avenida Solano, where some of my students were waiting for me with a good spot to watch the show. It rained the whole night and was cold, but it was fun to watch everything go by. All of the universities and high schools in the area participated in floats and marched by dancing and drinking. This was the first time I'd ever seen a parade stop so that the participants could take shots.

A couple of my students were dressed up like mimes and a couple others participated in the parade as geishas. Some of the costumes were standard--gorilla suits, togas, and soldiers. But the majority were incredibly creative and funny. Some people dressed up as trees on stilts, while others dressed up as ex-Presidents of Ecuador or national heroes. A lot of men cross-dressed and blew kisses to the crowd. An enormous dragon that you'd expect to see at Chinese New Year weaved its way through the street until mis-communication forced the mid-section to fall over.

The rain kept pouring down but everyone stayed watching, pushing closer and closer to the street. Military trucks drove by with trampolines attached, and people dressed in animal suits jumped and flipped as it moved by. When it finally ended by 9:30, the rain had stopped and I headed up to Cafecito to say goodbye to Carol, a teacher at the university who was returning home to Germany.

While there I was talking to her boyfriend, Israel, and another friend named Stalin. I entered both of their numbers into my cell phone, and thought how funny it was to add in Stalin and Israel into my phone and not have it be a joke. We went out for some drinks and I finally got in around 1 a.m., exhausted and ready for bed.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More Photos of Chile

Santiago at Night

A rusted out bus in Cajon de Maipo

A Fish Market in Santiago

Near the Presidential Palace in Santiago

The Last Day in Chile

In the aftermath of the madness of New Years Eve, we all woke up simultaneously around 11 a.m. in the hostel. That is, everyone except one person who never made it back but later turned up OK. Joking around about what went down and just laying in bed, Adam and I didn't make a move until 1 p.m. when we were invited to get lunch with one of his friends and his student. The student was from Valparaiso and wanted to show him around and take him out to lunch, so we were told we'd be covered.

We expected to just get some lunch and come back to the hostel to kill the day. Our bus back to Santiago wasn't until 6 p.m. and we felt pretty lousy, so we were just going to sit around all day. Instead, we went on a great day trip. The student, who was a 45 year old who worked in a government education institution called DUOC picked us up in his immaculately clean car. Driving around Valparaiso towards Vina del Mar, we saw many of the things we'd already come across.

Adam and I weren't paying much attention to the conversation up front and we soon started to wonder where we were going. We'd passed through Vina and were now heading up a hill on the outskirts of town. We pulled off the road and saw a view of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. It's a view most tourists probably don't know about. Luckily we were with a local. He also knew so much history and information about the area and Chile, and it was great to listen to him speak.

The man was well traveled, having been to every country in South America, many countries in Europe, and the U.S. ten times. We talked about the differences between many of the Latin American countries. Still in his car we continued to drive around the area to the surrounding towns that we'd otherwise have never seen. There were a lot of Argentinians on vacation in these beach towns, but no gringos.

We eventually came to a town called Concon and we stopped for lunch. Adam and I agreed that it reminded us of a Cape Cod town, in the sense that it was summer and many of the people who live in Santiago would come here for a weekend to spend time at the beach. It also felt like it, with that relaxed attitude and laid back atmosphere.

When we entered the restaurant the man shook hands with all of the waiters and we were taken upstairs to a room on an outdoor patio with a reserved table. He was a regular apparently and was taken care of very well. He told us that in many restuarants in Chile, tables will always be reserved for the regular customers even if they haven't made a reservation. We felt like we were VIPs.

Ordering pisco sours, we asked his advice for the best local dish, and he recommended a fried fish which we later found out was eel. A big plate of Parmesan clams was brought out, and though he wanted to get wine as well, we were still hungover and the pisco was enough. I taught him the phrase, "Hair of the dog."

With a beautiful view of the ocean right in front of us and the wind blowing in gently, it was extremely relaxing and impressive that we should wind up in this place. We were glad with our decision to come out for lunch. The fish came out with big plates of fries and we dug in. This was my first time having the sea food in Chile, and I was very glad I was able to try it. It wouldn't make much sense to come to a port city and not try the sea food. After the meal we got coffee and though we offered to pay, the man wouldn't hear of it. He dropped over 48,000 pesos on the meal, and we'd just met him.

I told him that whenever I made it back to Boston and he was in town I'd take him out for a meal and show him our sea food. We drove around a bit more and though we were close to 6 o'clock, he showed us another view of Valparaiso from a different hill. He then took us back to the hostel to pick up our stuff and drove Adam and I to the bus terminal. It was a great day.

We took the hour and a half bus ride back to Santiago, and headed back home to relax and watch the Bruins. Among our friends we joke around with the line from "There's Something About Mary," which is, "Who goes to Santiago, Chile twice in a year? I've never even been to Jersey, man." Once Adam told us he was going to Santiago this became a popular joke. Since I technically left Santiago and went back, I can now say I've been to Santiago, Chile twice in one year. Of course, Adam pointed out that I got there in 2008 and returned in 2009, but I think it's the 12 month cycle that counts.

I had to leave at 4:40 a.m. to catch my flight at 7:55, and of course my alarm clock decided to reset to 0:00:00 in the middle of the night. A phone call from the front desk at 4:50 told me the shuttle was outside waiting, so I immediately threw on my clothes and ran out the door. A rude way to wake up to a long travel day.

After connecting to Lima, Peru on to Guayaquil, I was finally back in Ecuador by 1 p.m. Then another 4 and a half hour bus ride to Cuenca, and by 6:30 p.m. I was back home. A long and tiring day, but worth the trouble to have the fun that we did in Chile.

Above: a view of Valparaiso, lunch at the restaurant, a view of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Years Eve Mayhem in Valparaiso

Fireworks after midnight

Someone is excited

Groups of friends sitting, drinking, talking, waiting

Setting up shop hours before midnight

After waking up and getting our act together on December 31st, we had to check out of the hostel and kill some time. The reason was that we still didn't know where the next hostel was, and we had to wait for a message from Adam's friend to find out where to go. They wouldn't be in Valparaiso until 3 pm, so we walked around trying to find Pablo Neruda's house. Though he rarely visited it, there's a museum up there.

Adam had already tried and failed to find it on his last trip, so we used the map carefully and though we passed it at first (it was horribly marked) we found it. Only going to the point where we didn't have to pay money, we sat around and eventually made our way back down the hill to get some lunch and sit in the park waiting to hear the news.

Finally at 3:45 p.m. Adam sent a text and his friend gave him the address. Oddly enough it wound up being the same hostel we'd gone to the day before but were told was booked. It turns out our own reservation was the reason we couldn't stay there the night before. The coincidence stunned us as we marched back up the hill to the hostel.

Meeting up with Adam's friends, we dropped off our things and walked around a bit, scoping out good places to hang out later on. Though it was only 4:30, people were already claiming their spots on the lookouts by the hills. We all got heavily stocked up on alcohol, walked around a little more, and eventually went back to the hostel to rest up. Just like in Kindergarten, all ten of us laid down at the exact same time in the room crammed with beds and took a 30 minute nap. Waking up at the same time we were ready to go.

We took in a drink on the balcony and watched the hordes of gringos and Chileans going by. Unfortunately it was overcast the entire day, because the sunset would have been incredible from the view by the hill. I'm writing a story about the New Years celebration for GoNOMAD, so I'm not going to spill the beans just yet on what the party was like. But it's listed as one of the top 5 parties in the world, and it definitely lived up to its reputation.

After the crazy night in Valpo, I had one day left in Chile before heading back to Ecuador. To be continued...

Out of Santiago, On to Valpo

Just to get the record straight so that the dates match up here. I am now back in Cuenca after a long travel day, but I'm going back in time to talk about what happened since I last updated. Here we go...

Several days of just hanging out in Santiago were good and relaxing. The guys had a great apartment and we were able to have a couple of barbecues on the roof, giving us a wide view of the city. The plan was to go to Valparaiso for New Years. We'd done some research and found out that the city is listed as one of the top 5 cities in the world for New Years Eve parties along with New York, Hong Kong, London, and Rio de Janero. Some of Adams friends were renting an apartment with a bunch of beds in a hostel, so we hopped on board even though it was a ton of money for the one night.

I wanted to see the city before all of the craziness, so Adam and I went to the city a day early. Zach couldn't go because he had work the morning of New Years Eve. There weren't many hostels left so we took the first one we could find online. When we got in to Valpo we could see that the weather was considerably different. Every day in Santiago is roughly the same--hot and no clouds at all. In Valpo, however, it was colder and overcast. Walking from the bus terminal to find the hostel, the city seemed ugly and cold.

Winding our way up the hills we got the hostel but were told that they made a mistake and they would have to walk us over to their sister hostel in the center. There was no room because everything was already booked. So we went to the new hostel and found a very friendly staff who even gave us a discount on the room. Dropping off our things we went to walk around the city. Adam had already been there twice so he was able to navigate more easily through the streets. Soon the sun broke through the clouds and it was hot. Without my hat or sunblock, I was an easy target and was starting to burn.

Walking down by the port we saw the Pacific Ocean, then headed up into the hills via one of the ancient "Funicular" elevators, which scale the incredibly steep hills to take you to the neighborhoods that surround the crest of the slopes that the city was founded on. We'd heard that the hills can be a bit dangerous, so we watched our backs as we explored the area, taking in all of the murals and artwork that the city is known for.

Once we'd seen enough we went back to the hostel to grab hats and sunblock, and then caught a bus to the neighboring town of Vina del Mar, where everyone goes to the beach. We walked past some fancy looking hotels and casinos and eventually sat on the wall by the beach for an hour or so taking in the sights. Earlier in the day the weather was lousy, but now everyone was out enjoying the sun in the sand. The sun doesn't set at this time of year in the area until 9:30 p.m. It threw me off the entire week and changed how I ate, usually making me eat later as a result. We headed back as the sun was starting to dip down and took a nap, tired after a long day of walking.

For dinner we went to a famous restaurant in an alley called J. Cruz, which is known for a dish made of fries, scrambled eggs, onions, and steak. We shared it and though we wanted it, knew it was terrible for our health. Just looking at it would give someone a heart attack. The place was completely packed, and they shoved people in at communal tables. We got there just in time though, because when we left we could see the line extended far down the alley.

Grabbing a few beers at a bar, we eventually called it a night in order to prepare ourselves for the mayhem that would take place for the New Years Eve party. It would rock our world in terms of crazy, city-wide parties. More to come on that tomorrow.

Above: Street murals which cover the city walls, the port of Valparaiso, a shot of the streets, sky blue house against sky blue