Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Shawarma Has Blown Up in Cuenca

Not literally, of course. But definitely figuratively. I'm not sure what brought on this sudden surge of love in the Middle Eastern food, but there seems to be a shawarma restaurant on every corner now. When I first got to Cuenca in September there was only one Middle Eastern restaurant with shawarma that I knew of. It was on Calle Larga, and the small shawarma cost $1.90. I thought that was a pretty good price.

But a couple of months later another restaurant opened up a block down the road. This restaurant had black lights, hookah pipes, and great deals. A single shawarma, which was bigger than the small at the other restaurant, was $1.75. You could also get deals like 3 or 6 shawarmas plus 3 or 6 beers plus a hookah pipe for a $9 or $15. And their first weekend open they had a belly dancer. It was a great time.

And since then I've been going to that restaurant to get my shawarma fix. It's a great meal that's quick and cheap. But since that restaurant has opened two or three more shawarma restaurants have opened up close by. They all look exactly the same, and the prices are all exactly the same. This is basically a typical move in the business world in Ecuador.

Once something has established itself and become successful, competitors will lazily stick their own version right next to the same place. Rather than trying something different or going to a different location, they flood the market with the same product, driving down prices and shooting up competition.

Another example of this is with one of my favorite restaurants in Cuenca. It's a Colombian restaurant that has been around for years and is known all throughout the city as a great place. But just in the last couple of weeks another family has set up a Colombian restaurant right next to the previous restaurant. Not really the smartest business move. The first restaurant is already established and a known favorite. Every time I walk by the street I can see the first restaurant is packed while the new one is empty. Why change when you know the first place is great?

And this extends beyond food. There will be streets where all the vendors sell are sun glasses, pants, or the cheesy artisan work that you find everywhere. It's amazing to see how the business works down here. But I guess as long as the competition keeps the prices down it's good for the consumers, and since I'm a consumer, I'll stay happy, if not amazed.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Ecuador vs. Brazil

Yesterday afternoon was pretty entertaining. Ecuador played Brazil in Quito in a qualifying match for the World Cup at 4 o'clock, and I think it's safe to say that the entire country was watching. My host family set up a TV in the hallway outside my room under the sun roof, and we all sat together watching, along with Casey and Lara, who were in Cuenca for the night.

You could see on the TV how crazy the crowd was, and everyone in the stadium was decked out in yellow, just like us at home. We didn't really expect too much because Brazil is such a good team that they didn't really need to try. As long as they didn't lose, it wouldn't be a loss for them. For Ecuador, however, it was a must-win or must-tie game.

Ecuador came out strong and owned the first half, but missed many opportunities to score. We talked about how well they were playing, but at the same time realized that Brazil was just going with the flow. They weren't attacking the ball and were basically just playing defense. Even with the little effort, you could see just how talented they were. Their bench players are the stars on their respective club teams.

After half time we expected the tempo of the game to change, and for a while it did. Brazil came out looking to score in the second half, and they played well, but Ecuador was still in control of the ball for most of the game. But as long as they didn't let up a goal, Brazil was fine with it. They had nothing to prove. Eventually Brazil took out their star player, Ronaldinho, since there was no sense in risking injury. But almost as soon as his replacement came in, the new player scored a goal on Ecuador.

The score was 1-0 and you could sense the deflation in the stadium, maybe over the whole country. There were only 15 minutes or so left but Ecuador continued to attack the ball as Brazil started to hang back and just play defense. With more and more opportunities wasted, it looked as though the game was over, as well as any serious chances for the World Cup for Ecuador. But with 2 minutes or so left Ecuador suddenly scored a goal, tying the game at 1-1. The house, the stadium, and I assume the rest of the country erupted.

With the game almost over, the team had a couple more chances at scoring the go-ahead goal, but couldn't close the deal. Yet the fact that they tied wasn't a total loss, because tying to one of the worlds best teams isn't all that bad. And they still gained some points for it. They're far down the chart, but there is another qualifying game on Wednesday against Paraguay, and I'm nearly certain that classes will be canceled. Or at the very least, no one will show up and I will cancel class after 5 minutes and rush home to watch the game.

It's exciting to watch these games even though I've never rooted for Ecuador. But it's funny to notice how I unintentionally start talking about the national team in the first person, which might be something unique to where I come from. But instead of saying, "Ecuador is playing Paraguay on Wednesday," I hear myself saying, "We're playing Paraguay on Wednesday." I guess I'm a part of the team now too.

It would be nice for the team to make the World Cup, but I guess if that falls through I've always got Argentina or the U.S. to root for.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Feeling My Age

I'm not that old. But I'm starting to feel like I'm not a spring chicken anymore. Lately I'm noticing that after just one night of going out I'm wiped, and don't want to go out for the rest of the week. Back in college I could go out hard for three solid nights and still get through the week fine. Now, however, I'm finding that if I go out on Friday night, I just want to take it easy on Saturday.

It could have to do with my work schedule, or the fact that I get woken up very early, even on the weekends. It's always necessary to sleep off the night before, but here I get woken up too early and can't get back to sleep, which defeats the purpose of a weekend morning. But my whole body just feels tired, and I feel perfectly happy just watching a movie and relaxing.

I've always thought it was kind of lame to see older people (40s and 50s) out at a disco because they just don't fit in with the rest of the demographic there. Aside from maybe once in a blue moon, when I get older I think I'd be fine with dinner parties and movies. I had my time partying it up, and it was great, but if you did it right the first time, you don't need to do it again. And I think I'm ready to move on.

Some friends from my program were visiting Cuenca this week and on Friday night we went over to Lauren's house for dinner and some wine before heading out. Her host sister just left for Mexico for a month, so now she's all alone. We had a good time and met up with some other friends at a bar on Calle Larga. Even though I only got one extremely strong Black Russian and a beer, I was doing good for the night. After a shawarma we called it a night and went home by 1:30 a.m.

And for the rest of Saturday I was exhausted and just wanted to lay in bed watching movies. But I'd told Lauren I would go with her class to do karaoke around 4 p.m. Just as I'd left the house a great thunderstorm passed through Cuenca, and I got soaked on the way, even though I had an umbrella. The wind was so strong that the rain was just blowing under the cover of the umbrella. We went to a karaoke bar by the river and were led into a private room to sing. It was a bit odd being taken to a private room to sing with just 5 other girls, but I was just going with it.

We sang for a little bit, even though I was too tired to get into it and my awful tone deaf voice was as bad as it could have been. We left the students to grab dinner and met up with a couple other friends later on, but we were so tired that we'd all filtered out by 10:30. I went home, finished watching a movie, and went to bed.

And I feel fine today, which is a nice thing. I went for a run this morning and have been able to enjoy the beautiful weather. Later this afternoon Ecuador plays Brazil in a qualifying match for the World Cup, and everyone is out wearing their yellow national team shirts. Even I have mine on, and everyone was looking at me strangely, wondering why a gringo would have the shirt.

So it will be another typical Sunday of lesson planning, relaxing, and hanging out in the house. All before starting another week of just counting down the days until Friday.

Friday, March 27, 2009


We did it! We finally got paid this morning. I got a call from my secretary at 9:30 a.m. telling me that my check was at the financial office and ready to be picked up. I'm still in a bit of shock, really. I had kind of forgotten was it was like to get a paycheck and have some money. Instead of getting a check for two months worth of work, I got one for $1,400, so I have to assume that it includes March also, even though the other professors haven't been paid for March yet. And the $20 that has been short on every other check, will be included in April's paycheck.

So the first thing I'm going to do now is figure out how to deposit or cash this check so there is as little delay as possible. I need to pay for three months worth of rent. After that, I need to pick up some things I've been going without. I'd like to get some floss and Listerine. But I might have to go without the Listerine if it's too expensive, since it's kind of a luxury anyway. I've needed a pair of black shoes for work for a long time. I have brown loafers that I wear with my khaki's, but when I wear black pants I need to wear my black sneakers, and I always feel like an idiot in them.

I also only have one pair of pajama-like pants that I can wear around the house, so I'd like to get some cheapo depot pants to wear around the house. I'm a pretty simple person, and outside of those things, there isn't much else that I want. The only other expense would be a movie or two a week and a drink or meal outside of the house. It just feels so good to finally have the paycheck in my hands, even though it's a bit nerve racking to have it all at once. But now it feels like I can actually do stuff and not feel badly about it.

Luckily it didn't come down to a strike in the end. I'm sure my students will be ever-so happy to have class on Monday (yeah right). But just avoiding that whole issue will make things a lot better for everyone else. And hopefully in the future this kind of thing won't happen again.

*And to clarify, $600 are going towards paying for rent and food.

And the best part of it all? Today is Friday.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Possible Payday

Ever since we gave the ultimatum to not show up for work on Monday if we weren't paid by Friday, the university has gotten to work on finally getting our money. It seems that all they needed was a little threat. Since Tuesday we've been running around making copies of our passports, bank account numbers, and running after financial officials to sign new copies of our contracts with the correct amount of money in them.

And today we might have finally gotten there. We signed the new contracts again, and though that should have wrapped it up, one of the top financial directors is in Belgium, while another is in Quito. But we've been told that he'll be back late this afternoon, so by tomorrow he will sign our checks. They checks are already there, they've told us, and all he has to do is sign them. So hopefully we can get the money tomorrow without any problem and still show up for class as scheduled on Monday.

It's annoying that for months no one really seemed to care or want to take responsibility, and only after we told them that we would stop working did they start to do anything about it. My director in the university told me that she was sorry, but it was no one's fault. Well, actually, it is someone's fault. It's not like it just started raining on a picnic in the park. You can't account for that. Not being paid for over two months--yeah, that's someone's fault. But I'm not too upset, and as long as the check arrives as promised tomorrow, I'm ready to move on. So here's to hoping that the financial guy actually shows up tomorrow and signs the check.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Storm's A-Brewin'

Some things have started in motion that could potentially change the way I live and teach down here in Ecuador. I've been teaching at the University of Cuenca since I got down here in September and have been on a volunteer stipend the entire time. This has been fine, except for the fact that I, and the other volunteers at the university, haven't been paid in the last two months. And we're coming up on the third.

Every time we ask what's going on we're told there's something else we need to do. There's some other paper that needs to be photocopied and sent to a different director. Or, they're simply working on it. But that's not good enough. By our own American standards, working for two months without any pay is an outrage. If it happened in the United States, people would have striked or quit long ago. But we're in a foreign country and we have to realize that things work differently down here. When trying to understand why teachers here didn't strike when they weren't paid, I had to imagine that they could come from a place where strikes bring fear. It could get you fired, beaten, or imprisoned. After all, that used to happen in the United States too with the Pinkertons.

But we've been trying to get our money and have been demonstrating patience, but it has finally run out. After talking with my director from my program, we were told that if we aren't paid by Friday to not show up for work on Monday, essentially striking. It turns out the university is in breach of our contract, because it has been written that if we don't get paid after 2 months we don't have to show up for work. And never mind the fact that they were paying us $20 short every month.

I have no problem with not showing up for work if I'm not going to be getting paid for it. I've been extremely patient. I even continue to go to meetings every Monday even though they are pointless. We have to sign in, and if you don't they take away $10 from your pay, but from what pay? They don't pay me to begin with. But still I go.

And what makes the situation even stickier is how it is playing out with the department. My director in Quito was talking to my director at the university, and instead of trying to be accommodating and understanding, the director at the university was saying that we would be in breach of the contract if we didn't show up. Even though they are the ones breaking it to begin with. As I've said time and again, this is just part of living in a different country and culture. It's not something that you can control. Yet it's extremely frustrating. How are people supposed to live if they can't even be sure of getting their fare pay?

I'll continue to check the bank account and hopefully we'll be paid before Friday, because I'm not really sure what the next step would be after Monday if we need to stop going to work. I'd feel badly for the students too, because they are caught in the middle unfairly. The countdown is on, the ultimatum has been given, and now we need to sit and wait it out.

Maybe I'll Get Paid Soon

Yesterday morning I got a call from on of the secretaries at the university. She wanted to know my bank account number to arrange something with my paycheck. So I'm hopeful that the ball is at least in motion to get my three months of pay that are owed. But she also wanted me to bring in a copy of my contract with the incorrect amount to pay me per month and make a photocopy. When I asked her if I was going to be paid soon she kind of laughed and said maybe a month. So I have no idea what to expect really.

The other volunteers at the university haven't been paid either. Just about every day at least one of us will go down to the financial department and check in or hassle the secretaries, yet still we are without our pay. If anything can be gained from this experience, it's that hopefully I will develop a zen-like patience when waiting for money to arrive. If you think it's hard waiting around for a bi-weekly check, imagine how difficult it is for a tri-monthly check. Yeah, it's kind of like that.

I'm still riding out a little bit of cash I have and avoided spending money unless I need to so that I don't have to dig into my savings. But the other day I went to the pharmacy and decided that I couldn't afford to buy floss. It's expensive here as it is, but I didn't want to spring for it as it's not a necessity. But that's kind of the way things have progressed here lately. My friends in Machala weren't paid for a few months either and were randomly handed $1000 in cash. As cool as that would sound, I'd rather avoid any issues and just have direct deposit like we're supposed to, which is why we have dealt with the lousy banks here from the start. Even a check would be welcome at this point.

I just want to get paid.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Running Man

I've found a new way to kill some time. For the third day in a row now I've gone running down to the park (which isn't too far away) and then run two laps in the park, followed by a short walk, and running back up the stairs and back home. The whole thing probably doesn't take more than a half hour, but it's a good workout, especially since it's at high altitude.

I'm not really sure where the motivation suddenly came from, but I just decided that I should go for a run. I'm perfectly acclimated to the altitude, and it's not extremely difficult. But after that second lap I'm still huffing and puffing and feeling like my lungs are going to cave in. That's a result of the fact that we're so high up here and there just isn't any air. You breath in deeply and there's not enough air coming in.

I've been lucky too by missing the rain each time. It's either stopped raining just before I went running, or like today, the rain started right after I got home. We're supposedly in the dry season now, but so far it's been raining pretty steadily for the last week or so. I don't think anyone really knows when anything starts. It kind of reminds me of New England in the sense that the spring doesn't really start until it's already officially summer.

I'm by no means a runner. When I had the time at the gym I would run on an elliptical machine or occasionally a treadmill. And when I came back from school for the summer I would run a few days a week until it was too hot by July to continue. But I think this is something I could get into for the remainder of my time here. Since I wake up around 9:30 a.m. during the week and don't eat until 11:30 I could get a quick run in with enough time to get showered and dressed.

Hopefully I continue to do it and don't just give up by Tuesday.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I've been reading books in Spanish to improve my literacy, and I just finished the 5th book last night. As it turns out, I picked out a bad book. It was written in English and then translated into Spanish, and when one of the professors took a look at it, they told me how badly it was translated. There were mistakes everywhere. So I lost some confidence in the book.

However, it still helped me pick up on some new vocabulary. For example, there's a town in Ecuador called Bahia de Caraquez, but I never really thought about what it meant. But the word "bahia" kept coming up in the book, so I looked it up and realized that it means "bay." So even though it was a bad book, it still helped me learn something.

And another word came up that caught my eye. "Cuenca," was in a sentence and I couldn't figure out why. I always thought it was just a random name. I knew that there's a city in Spain called Cuenca, so I just assumed it was named after that. But I brought out my Spanish-English dictionary and discovered that Cuenca actually means "eye socket." So after all this time, it turns out I've been living in the eye socket of Ecuador. It's also kind of funny, because I've heard people refer to Ecuador as the armpit of South America. So that means I'm living in the eye socket of the armpit of South America.

My plan is to pick up a new book either today or tomorrow, and hopefully this time get a book that's actually written by a Spanish speaker so I can maximize the potential of what I'm reading, rather than screwing myself up with translation errors.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Dreaded Class

I know that this semester is only a week and a half underway, but I kind of hate my night class. It's a strong word, but I can't think of another way to put it. I literally dread going to that class every night. When I started teaching I didn't enjoy going to the night class because it was late and at that time all I could think of was going home and relaxing. But over time the students grew on me and I realized that it was a fun bunch, so even though we went until 8 p.m., it wasn't that big of a deal.

And I truly enjoyed teaching to those students. But now a different teacher has robbed me of that class and I'm left with new students. And even worse, they're beginners, so I can barely speak to them. No matter how slowly I speak, they just look at me like I have 3 eyes. The book inspires no interest and is truly boring, and the students just sit there in silence. It's a struggle to get through the 2 hours.

It took me a while to figure out how to teach to large, mid-level classes, and now I feel lost again as I start over with a small class of beginners. Going over things like greetings is just so slow and boring. Now I actually look forward to my afternoon class, which used to be the drag of the day.

The class now goes from 7-9 p.m., but I have yet to keep them until 9 p.m. It's partly because there just isn't enough material in the book to cover 2 hours for 4 days a week, and also partly because I don't want to be walking home after 9 through my neighborhood. I don't think it's too dangerous, but I'd rather already be at home by that point.

So now I need to find out how to teach to this new group of students and totally change the way I got used to. It's annoying because it takes away from the regularity that makes teaching easier. However, I can see the benefits it could have, making me more versatile in the long run. But for now, I'm not very happy with it. I still believe that in the beginner classes teachers from the area should work with the students, and the native English speakers should be used for higher levels. This way a student can pick up on the accent and pronunciation on words they already know, rather than being totally lost from the get-go.

It's not up to me, however, and I'm just going to have to put up with it for now. But it's 6 o'clock and I need to leave for the university in a half hour, and if I could be anywhere else I would. I just need to think like Dorothy and keep saying, "It's almost Friday, It's almost Friday, It's almost Friday."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Wierdest Lunch in 6 Months

Today's lunch was something of a surprise. I've eaten some very weird things here in Ecuador. Some wound up tasting fine, and others have been sketchy and nothing special. I've been lucky in that I haven't yet been floored by anything I've eaten, and I've been especially careful with the tantalizing street meat I always see on the corner. I've had guinea pig, nearly raw pig meat, and chicken liver soup, but today's lunch might take the cake as the weirdest thing I've eaten so far. And I'm not even sure what it was.

First, the soup was a bit off. It seems like too much bullion was put in there, giving it a sharp taste that made me burn through it. Generally, my response to food that I don't enjoy yet need to eat is to get through it as quickly as possible. It can be tough sometimes.

I could smell the main plate before it was brought to me, and it reminded me of when a friend in college from Ghana made a traditional dish called peanut butter soup. The peanut butter soup was delicious, but what I found in front of me today was anything but. It looked and smelled like it was also made in a peanut buttery sauce-blend, but did not have the same appeal. On the right was the "it" in its murky sauce. On the right was the white rice, a mountain for me to throw over the "it" to make it a little more doable.

Still unaware of the taste, I threw some rice over it and went to work. The first bite was a confused, lost venture into the dish. It didn't quite taste like meat, but also didn't seem like tofu or any kind of vegetable I've ever had. The "it" looked like it had tentacles or some kind of weird, ocean-like appendix sticking out. But there were also tiny little spiky things coming off what appeared to be noodles. I was totally confused.

I gave it another chance and took in another mouthful, but this time my mind came to the conclusion that I hated this dish. This dish which I couldn't even put a name to. I quickly took a drink of the lemonade to wash out the taste, but there was still a huge plate in front of me. To avoid it as long as possible, I went for the rice and ate a few bites, but knew I'd have to get back to work on the real thing.

Poking at it with the fork, it had a rubbery texture and I was sure that at any moment an eye would open up and the thing would attack me. I tried again to eat it, this time only taking one of the things in, but I knew that I couldn't take anymore. I wasn't even that hungry, and there was no way I would be able to eat more without puking. More of the rice was eaten in an attempt to even out the plate, but even then there was way too much food left. Normally I eat just about everything, and there was no way I could hide this.

I started in on the ice cream desert hoping to finish before my host mother came back in the kitchen and run away. But as soon as I opened the ice cream she came into the room to clear the table. Looking down at the plate she said in an almost mad, somewhat offended way, "You didn't like it?"

"No, no," I lied. "I'm just not hungry because I ate breakfast late." It wasn't a total lie though, as I only eat my breakfasts about an hour and a half before I eat my lunch, thanks to my lousy work schedule.

"Oh, OK. Right because you just ate breakfast late," she said and took the plate away, justifying why I wouldn't have eaten much of this dish that she never made until today. I really want to ask what it was, but I feel like it would tip her off to the fact that I didn't like it, and I'd just rather avoid that whole issue. As it is, I don't think I'll be getting it again. That is, unless of course, she gives me the left overs for dinner. God help me.

I'm Now on Twitter

If you look to the left side of the screen, you'll see that I'm now on Twitter, after my friend Scott recommended I join up for some more exposure as a writer. On the side, the last three Twitter updates I put up will be posted on the blog. It's kind of an interesting Web site that I never really understood, but essentially it's a never ending update on what someone is doing. If you really wanted to, you could narrate your entire life on there, and chances are you'd get a pretty good audience eventually.

I, however, am just using it to post updates for when I don't feel like writing an entire blog. I'll also be on the look out for interesting stories that other people are posting up there. So keep your eyes open, because it will probably be changing frequently.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Back to the Movies

With a newly delivered stack of movies from Casey and Lara, I seem to have my work cut out for me for a few weeks to come. On Friday night I was out until 4:30 a.m., so yesterday I just wanted to hang out. My plan was to either play Frisbee in the park or basketball near the stadium, but it started to rain for most of the afternoon, and I knew I wasn't going anywhere.

Instead, I watched "Live Free or Die Hard," with Bruce Willis. I'd seen it when it came out in theaters, and it was definitely a good choice for a rainy day. After that movie and a walk around the neighborhood, I settled in with "Bella," a movie about a Mexican-American soccer player who winds up as a chef in a New York City restaurant. It was a good movie with a poignant story, and helped me kill a couple of hours.

To top it all off, I texted my friend Jamie to see if she wanted to go see "Slumdog Millionaire" at Millennium Plaza at night, and she was more than willing to go. She also invited on of her friends/students to come along. The movie was playing at 8:55, and Jamie and I got there early enough to sit with a coffee and talk before buying the tickets. Her student, however, showed up late in typical Ecuadorian fashion. They almost didn't let us in because we went in late, but we got through. We did miss the first few minutes of the movie however, which is something I hate doing. I also love watching the previews, which is half of the fun.

I thought the movie was great and worth all the hype, even though I hadn't heard about it until a couple of weeks ago. And now for the third time in a week I've gone to the movies here in Cuenca. It's a nice option to have for when I don't want to be stuck in the house but I don't feel like going out to a bar or club.

For some reason last night I had very vivid dreams in English and Spanish, and one of my dreams included an extremely vivid 20 minute haggle with a hotel promoter in Trinidad, Cuba. I was trying to get a good deal, and eventually got him to $44 for two nights including all meals and drinks and a private boat. I have no idea where this dream came from, and I'd only heard of Trinidad, Cuba because a couple of friends went there a few weeks ago. But I don't even know where it is.

Since I did no work this weekend, I need to spend today going over class journals and lesson planning--not something I'm looking forward to. I see that today is St. Patrick's Day and there will obviously be celebrations in Boston, and other parts of the world equally. Yet there is no sign at all of the holiday here. There might be two or three Irish pubs in Quito, but not down here in Cuenca. At least I don't need to worry about paying three times the price for a Guinness today, even though it would be a nice change of pace. I'll probably just watch two more movies today.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Now It's Summer

Summer has suddenly arrived out of left field, and it's been pleasantly hot with a lack of rain. I don't know exactly when the change happened, and after talking to some people from the area, I don't think they ever really know when it is. There will just be a period of a few days without rain and then it's official--it's summer.

It's quite the change in my acclimation to summer. Normally after suffering through months of New England winter, you get a glimpse of spring which is then crushed by a freak April snow storm or floods throughout the month of May. Then one day you wake up and it's 75 degrees in March. A few weeks go by, and again it becomes the fall in June with rain and cold temperatures in the 50's. And then it turns to late June and suddenly it is summer. And that's all there is to it.

It's been nice here though because for once I can kind of anticipate what the weather will be like. I haven't even been bothering to take my jacket to my afternoon classes this week, though I still have the umbrella in my bag as a backup. But suddenly everyone is complaining about the heat, as if we don't live on the equator. It's like how my friend Rob will always comment on the humidity in the summer in Boston. "Rob, this is Massachusetts," we always reply. "It's always humid here. This shouldn't surprise you."

On the plus side, we can now do things like play in the park and not fear sudden down pours. On the other hand, however, there is more exposure to the powerful sun, and for fair skinned people like me, it's a dangerous game. Usually during the week I only walk around from the house to the university and back. But on the weekend I like to stroll a little further out. It's kind of funny though how people who haven't seen me in a while comment on how blond my hair is. Apparently it looks like I'm bleaching it.

At the end of the day, I'm happy that the rainy season has ended. It truly sucked. Hopefully the dry season can prove to be a bit nicer, or at the very least more predictable. But then again, the rainy season was predictable in its unpredictability. There's just no winning here with the weather.

Lake Titicaca in Photos

The agriculture on one of the islands

A stone arch on Taquile

A little girl in the Uros Islands

Greeting our boat in the Uros Islands

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The First Day, For the Third Time

Yesterday was the first day of classes in the new semester, and this is now the third time that I've been through this process. Things are different now, however, as my classes have changed and except for 3 students, I have entirely new people in my classes. It's a weird feeling, because I'd gotten used to teaching the same students in my night class, and it was like I was teaching to friends by the end. It was a class that was very quick and willing to pay attention and learn, and they made the rest of the day worthwhile.

Each semester the amount of students I teach has gone down. First I had almost 50 students in both classes. Last semester I had around 40 for both. And now I have around 14 students total, with about 7 in each class. This is a good thing, because teaching to a large class is not an easy thing, especially for languages. Yet there are still large classes out there, and it leaves me to wonder if students just don't want to take a class with me. I won't have any idea really, but it's strange how the class sizes dwindled. I know that my night class students wanted to continue with me, but I wasn't placed with them again, unfortunately. Instead, another volunteer swiped them out from under me, which I'm not too happy about.

Last night we had our usual meeting at 5 o'clock, which is a waste of time for me, and afterward I had to kill an hour before class at 7. It used to be that I could just go straight to class at 6, which was much more convenient. On the way back to the department I ran into my old night class being led to their new classroom. They all said hi and expressed regret that I wasn't their teacher anymore. A few commented on the fact that I was wearing a tie, something I only do on the first day of classes.

After a short greeting they had to continue on to their class and we said goodbye, but I could see a few of the students didn't want to go on. It made me feel pretty sad actually, and I missed that class. It's funny, because I never missed them until that point, and I didn't think I would. Now I'm wishing I'd done a little more to make sure I could have gotten that class again. I don't really have a say in what I teach--I just get my assignment and do what I'm told. But in retrospect, I should have at least asked.

Now I need to start over with a new group of students. My night class now is not a 7 week course, but a full semester of 16 weeks with professionals who come to learn English after work. Hopefully that means they will be more dedicated than some of my other students in the past. Otherwise it will be a long 16 weeks.

The walk back home from the university was a lonely one, because some of my students from my old night class would wait for me and walk with me to the corner before I turned up to Calle Larga. We would joke around and it always made getting through the class a little easier, knowing that afterward we could all be friendly. It was a nice feeling especially because I don't have a ton of friends here. But now I'm going to have to walk home alone again, and quickly because it will be later at night. Not only for safety but because I'll want to get home to maximize relaxation time.

Hopefully I'll still be able to see my old students from time to time and stay in touch. I guess it's a feeling that teachers have every semester or year. You get close with students and create a relationship. Some you can't stand, and others you really appreciate. And then suddenly you aren't their teacher anymore, and the relationship ends. As a student I remember how awkward it could be seeing a teacher outside of school, as if there was no way they could exist beyond the school walls. But now as a teacher, I think it will be nice to see a student walking around in the center. It's a chance to catch up and see if they're still taking English or if they've graduated yet.

It's just going to take a few weeks to find some regularity and rhythm in the schedule, and once that happens I can hopefully form some new relationships with my new students. But I'll still remember the students who were my pilot class and how they helped me figure who I was as a teacher. That's something the university can't take away every 7 weeks.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Let's All Go to the Movies

I kept busy this weekend, and since it was my last weekend before the vacation ended, I tried to enjoy myself, especially after being sick all week. On Saturday afternoon I was walking around the center and when I was walking out of a movie store I ran into my friend Claire who was on her way to meet our other friend Annie. We sat in a park for a while talking and then eventually Annie and I agreed to see a movie that night.

We went down to Millennium Plaza, a mall not too far away from my house that I've only been to once, and saw "Valkyrie," with Tom Cruise. I thought it was a pretty good movie, but was also just excited to be in a movie theater. It was the first time I'd seen a movie at a theater since leaving the United States, and I was surprised by the quality of the place. Granted, it wasn't as nice as the theater back home, but it had stadium seating and popcorn at the food stand.

Along the walls I saw posters of all the movies I hadn't heard of, and took in all the previews of movies to come. It was exciting, like being a child at the movies. Unlike in the States where you can go into a movie an hour before, we weren't allowed into the theater until about 5 minutes before the movie was supposed to start. I guess they don't want freeloaders.

Once the movie was over my student called and invited me to come to a dance club, and though I didn't want to go dancing, I went to say hi to her. We talked outside for a while until she finally guilted me into going inside and paid the cover charge. We wound up staying until closing time at 2 a.m.

The next day my host sister invited me to go see a movie with them at Millennium Plaza, so for the second time in two days I went to the movies. This time we saw "Watchmen," only we were not happy with the movie. It was very long, over two and a half hours, and it didn't seem to have much of a plot. We were all pretty confused by it and agreed that the best part of the movie was when a child in the row in front of us yelled out, "He's naked!" when a character wasn't wearing pants.

After the awful movie we were so frazzled that we needed a beer, so we went to an open place on Calle Larga and got a couple of rounds before heading home. It was a good weekend, and unfortunately I now have to get back to reality and become a teacher again.

Things are already shaping up to be a bit of a mess for this semester, and it's been so long since the last class, I just hope I haven't forgotten what to do. I've been given a new class with adults, yet I haven't been given the book yet. It's also an hour later at night now, which means I'll have to kill more time during the day and walk home later at night. I don't even know what the class is about yet. As for the other class, I was given the wrong book, so I wasn't able to plan anything. This means that I'm walking in on the first day with nothing to teach. So basically, it's going to be a typical disaster. It will definitely be a long day.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Translation Screw Ups

In this article from the New York Times today, a translation mistake made recently in Geneva is discussed. Apparently Hillary Clinton was giving a red button to a Russian diplomat as a gesture of good will while also referencing something that Joe Biden said a few weeks ago. On the button was written "reset" and what the State Department thought was the Russian equivalent. Unfortunately, as soon as the diplomat was handed the button, he pointed out that it meant a different word.

Really? Would it have been that hard to just go up to someone in Brighton Beach and get the right word? This is the U.S. Department of State we're talking about. And they couldn't get someone to look up the right word in the English-Russian Dictionary? That's pretty bad. After all, we're only talking about international relations and trying to make a good impression on a former enemy, former buddy, then kind of recently sort of not so buddy buddy as we thought country. This is exactly the kind of thing that gets me interested in international relations and development.

In other news, I've just found out today that my paperwork has been approved by the Argentinian Consulate in New York, so I'm now one step closer to getting the dual citizenship with Argentina. Now, the paperwork must be sent back to me so that I can take the papers to the consulate in Guayaquil and sign them in front of a diplomat. Then I will have the citizenship, finally. Now I just have to hope that nothing screws it up in between.

Machu Picchu in Photos

A look through a window

A view of Wayna Picchu

The postcard picture

Stone houses that still stand

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Video of Lake Titicaca

The Sacred Valley in Photos

Following train tracks on a hike in Machu Picchu Pueblo

Machu Picchu Pueblo

Ruins in Ullantaytambo


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Video of Machu Picchu

Video of Lima, Cuzco, and the Sacred Valley

Here is a short video I've made giving an overview of Lima, Cuzco, and the Sacred Valley. I'll also be making videos for Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca in the next few days.

Cuzco in Photos

Graffiti artwork in downtown Cuzco

Cuzco center

Cuzco's main cathedral

A street in downtown Cuzco

*Cuzco is also sometimes spelled Cusco

Lima in Photos

Beautiful architecture in Lima center

An armored truck outside of the Presidential palace

Colorful buildings in Lima center

Near Larcomar, in Miraflores

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sick Day

I'm pretty sick today. Usually when you change the climates here, either from sierra to coast or coast to sierra, you wind up with a little cold. It's happened to me just about every time I've come from Guayaquil to Cuenca, but this time it's worse than it's been since I've been in the country. I was feeling fine, just tired from traveling, up until yesterday morning when I woke up with a sore throat.

It continued throughout the day with congestion and sniffles, and last night developed into a fever of 102* that lasted all night long. And today I feel weaker. Though the throat isn't as sore as it was yesterday, I just don't feel well. The word flu gets thrown around very loosely down here, and usually even if you have a cold people say it's the flu. But I might actually have that. I'm not sure. In any case, I'm lucky that I'm still on vacation, even though I had to go to a meeting yesterday and go back to the university this morning to pick up a book.

What I really want is a nice couch to lay out on and just watch TV all day, but I'll have to settle with my saggy bed and DVDs all day. A nice fireplace would also be good, but there's nothing like that around here. I just hope I can get better soon so I don't have to waste the entire week in bed.

Updated: 9 p.m.

I've been in bed all day since coming back from the university around 11:30. With just a small lunch and a dinner of ramen soup and an apple, I'm fighting a persistent fever. It's hovered around 101-102, which is usually a flu-like symptom. I am bored after sitting around all day, but know that I need to rest in order to get better. My host mom Cecilia gave me some boiled lemonade and a couple of pills to help, and if the fever doesn't get any better by tomorrow we'll see a doctor. I'm tired and hot, and I just want to feel better. Hopefully the fever will break tonight.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Peru: In Summary

I'm looking at my notes that I took throughout the week of traveling in Peru and remembering the things my friends and I did and saw there. I had originally planned to do post-travel blogs on the daily activities like I had with the Galapagos, but I don't really want to do that anymore. I'm tired, sick, and since I already did a few blogs on the road, I feel like it would just be redundant.

Instead, I'm just going to write a little about the country itself, and what it was like. Above are a few pictures from Lima, Cuzco, Ullantaytambo, and Machu Picchu. The images should speak for themselves, but in case you can't see it clearly enough, Peru is a beautiful country. I feel like you could spend weeks there and still have more to see. We were there a little under two weeks, nearly traveling every day or seeing the city for a day, and we barely scratched the surface. We still didn't get to see places like Mancora, Trujillo, Huaraz, Ica, Nazca, or the amazing sand dunes in the south.

It seems as though everywhere we went we found friendly people, and in many ways, friendlier than many I've met in Ecuador. Maybe it's because they get so many more tourists in Peru and they are just used to dealing with it, but they genuinely seemed happy to show you around and introduce you to their culture. On our first day in Lima we were down by the Presidential palace and about to cross a bridge into a dangerous part of the city. I had my camera around my neck and an old man warned me to take it off or they'd cut my throat, as he motioned with the thumb across the head. Maybe it'd be alarming to hear that, but I was more relieved that someone would warn me about it than the fact that it was dangerous.

While trying to book a trip to Lake Titicaca from Cuzco, we were told to avoid local buses because they were more dangerous. I told the tour agent that we lived in Ecuador and took local buses all the time, and were we in any more danger than that, and he leveled with us and said no. Still, out of convenience we went with a tourist bus, which isn't available in Ecuador. We wound up having to take a night bus back from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco to catch a flight, and you might be thinking that I'm crazy for taking a night bus again, but our options were limited. We just didn't have enough time. But the only bad part about it was the lack of sleep and heat in the bus. That and getting in at 4:30 a.m.

In Peru the culture is very proud of the indigenous history and Incan roots. I think it's safe to say that it's not the same in Ecuador. If anything, people marginalize the indigenous and take more pride in the colonial roots to Spain. It's sad because there are so many interesting rituals and parts of the culture that don't get exposed as much as they should. Everyone is proud of it in Peru, on the other hand. I think I heard that in Cuzco 80% of the population has traces to the Incans.

I was a bit disheartened at how touristy the Machu Picchu area was, even though it couldn't ruin the thrill of being there. It was expensive and we had to eat bread and fruit for a few days as a result, but it was worth it to be there. There's a reason so many tourists go there. It's a place everyone should be so lucky to go to.

In Ecuador, you rarely have people hassling you to go to their restaurant or hostel, but in Peru you get bombarded by people every three steps, which gets very annoying very fast. Again, that probably just has to do with how many tourists go there each day and the competition for the businesses. Peru is a huge country and a large portion of the income derives from tourism. That's partly why you also see tourism police, who deal strictly with things related to tourists.

The food in Peru was good, but not great in our experience, mostly because we couldn't afford to eat very well anyway. We did try the ceviche, however, which is different from the ceviche in Ecuador. It was delicious, and extremely spicy with their aji. The prices were a bit annoying at times because of the conversions. $1 is equivalent to about 3 soles, but for some reason prices were usually listed in U.S. dollars. If you tried to pay in soles, the staff would have to figure out how much that was and just add on time. And once they did that, it was expected that you had exact change.

This created a lot of problems for us because we usually wanted to pay separately, especially in the hostels. I found it amazing that a hostel had no more than 5 soles in change. Even the ticket distributors for Machu Picchu, who deal with hundreds of tourists each day, had no change to give out. It also bothered me that we were expected to pay in dollars, considering we were in Peru and you usually pay with the countries currency. Even the ATMs gave you the choice of soles or dollars. The exchange rate caused me to run to the ATM several times throughout the trip.

Even with the minor annoyances, it was a great trip and a great country. I would definitely go back there some day when I have more money and time. There's so much to see, and after meeting other travelers and hearing about places they'd found, I know there's more out there worth doing. Also, being so close to Bolivia and not getting in just irks me, and I want to get down there when I can also. Our reason for not getting to Bolivia was partly a lack of time, and partly because U.S. citizens now need to pay $135 to enter the country. Since we were traveling on the cheap, it wouldn't make sense to dish out that kind of cash for one day.

Even though I'd been there for just under two weeks, I would now consider Peru to be one of my favorite places. I've seen that everyone down here thinks their country, city, or neighborhood is better off than someone else's. Ecuadorians always say Colombia and Peru is more dangerous than Ecuador. Peruvians say the same about Ecuador and Colombia. I don't know what Colombians say, but I've heard from people who have been there that it's safer than both countries. So it's just a matter of person experience and finding a good place to travel in. It's a big world and there's a lot to see.

Above: Machu Picchu, Ullantaytambo, Cuzco, Lima

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Dude, It's March

Looking at the date, it's hard to believe that it's now March. Where has the time gone? I've been down here for 6 months now, and some times it feels like it's been forever, while other times it feels like it has totally flown by. At least I have the luxury of still being around for another 5 or 6 to get more done, unlike a semester abroad student who only realizes what they're doing by the time they leave.

The weather has been great the last two days, and though I was sore and tired this morning from playing Frisbee yesterday, I wanted to get out again. I was looking to play basketball but couldn't find anyone, so I went for a run in the park. I did pretty well considering we're at altitude and I usually don't run at sea level either. Once I'd completed a couple of laps, all I was really trying to get, I was walking around the perimeter and an old man asked me if I wanted to play soccer with a group that was about to start.

I said yes, but told him that I wasn't very good, but he didn't mind. We soon had enough people for teams of 6 and began to play. For some reason, the old man insisted that I be a captain, so I had to choose 6 players. I'd probably make a better coach than player, but oh well. We played and I sucked, but then again most of the people out there on the dirt field were pretty lousy.

After two halves, my team lost. Suddenly the men were telling me I needed to pay a dollar. Apparently the game was for money, but no one had told me. I had literally nothing with me because I was only planning on going for a run and didn't need anything. I sat around for a couple of minutes telling them that I had nothing while they looked upset, until the old man who asked me to play said he would pay for me.

I shook his hand and then walked home, thinking about how funny it was that even a friendly game of soccer had to have a little money on it. Soon I will add photos and talk more about what I did in Peru, starting tomorrow I imagine. It all depends on how motivated I am, and right now I'm more motivated to enjoy the time off that I have. But don't worry, the material will come.

Finally, Some Exercise

Today was a pretty good day. Aside from some slight annoyance at the bank this morning. I spent an hour in line because so many people were there and there were only three tellers. Once I got up to the counter to see if I'd finally been paid, I was told that I wasn't. Yet another professor who was at the bank had been paid. So now I'll have to go back on Monday and hope my money has come.

But after that I found a new DVD store that looks like a legit store from back home. I was looking for DVDs of "Flight of the Concords," and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," but they didn't have it so they ordered it and said they would be in next week. Instead, I bought season 7 of "South Park," which should keep me busy for the week. It was a bit more expensive than usual, but the quality seems much better.

After lunch, however, I went to play ultimate Frisbee in the park with my friend Jamie and some of her work colleagues. I've wanted to play Frisbee for a while but have never had anyone to play with, and I've actually had no one to play anyone with. As a result, I was very happy to get out and do something. It was a beautiful day for once with no rain, just a lot of sun and heat. So we met up in the park and I donned a t-shirt and shorts in Cuenca for one of the first times. I was wondering if being on the coast for a few days would affect my ability to run around, but it wound up fine.

We split up into teams and played to 11 and then had a half time. We ran around a lot, but I was feeling fine. It was nice to be getting some exercise besides just walking around and hiking. I used to go to the gym for 5 years back home, but all I've been doing in Cuenca is push ups and crunches in the morning, and not that many of them.

After a short break with some ice pops, we made new teams and played another game to 11. This time we were a bit more tired but still went out hard. It was nice meeting some new people, even though they were all gringos. But at least I know there's a group of people I can play some sports with now.

So it was a good day. I've edited down some pictures from the trip and will begin to add those to the blog tomorrow most likely. I might even change the front page picture to something more recent. I have a week to do some writing and editing, so check back in for more information.