Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Quick Note on Place

It's hard being away from home for so long. But it also has its good points. It really helps you appreciate that which you have back home, and that was a big factor in my reasoning for wanting to go away for a year. I don't want to take anything for granted that I have back home, especially if it's a luxury that not everyone else is so lucky to have.

And with all of the experiences that I've come across in the 8 months that I've been down in Ecuador, there are still surprises that come out of no where from time to time. Even with everything that I've seen and dealt with, I still get frustrated and down sometimes. It's hard not to from time to time. Without the bitter there would be no sweet. But it makes it all the more interesting when something sweet happens.

Take for example this weekend in Zaruma. It's the kind of small town that everyone literally knows everyone else, and even if they don't know someone's name they'll know their face and can talk to them as if they were friends. After lunch on Saturday the neighbors were going into the center of town and left their baby with the family of my friend. As the parents of my friend, now grandparents themselves, brought the baby into the front yard, the whole family suddenly came out and showered love on the baby.

This child, just a few months old by my estimation, wasn't their child. But everyone treated him as if he was. Blowing kisses, talking in that high pitched, nearly inaudible jumble of words that could only be used on babies and by babies, and gentle games to stimulate the activity of his young brain. It was a touching scene, and I could see how this community would really treat everyone as if they were all a part of a larger, extended family.

While this was all going on, my own semi-childish brain thought about how similar this scene was to so many others going on in the United States, France, Morocco, all over the world. It might seem sappy or a bit over the top, maybe even cliche, but it really made me feel happy to be alive right then and there. We're all human, and even though there are differences in politics, religion, and a million other small and mostly unimportant details, everyone can agree that there's no wrong in a baby. They're just innocent and deserving of love.

Right now there's a plane landing in Boston, and it's sad that I'm not on it. But what's even sadder is that in a few months I will be on that plane landing in Boston, and that will be the end of my adventures and experiences in Ecuador. At least for the time being anyway. I know that I won't soon forget the things I've done nor the people that have brought me into their lives. Yet at some point I need to take that all home with me and move on, to put it all to use. And I just hope I don't forget about little lessons like seeing affection for a baby.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Off to Zaruma for the Weekend, Pt 3/ Election Sunday

Sunday morning came on uncomfortably quickly, and though Gaby told me to be at her house for breakfast at 8, she was still in bed when I called. So I went back to sleep until she called me an hour later to come down. Since I'd made friends from Zaruma I kept hearing about tigrillo, the traditional dish that the town is known for. It consists of plantain, egg, and cheese, and everyone had told me how delicious it was. So Gaby's family had heard that I wanted to try it and told me that I could have it with them on Sunday morning. I was excited to try it and after all of the hype, was surprised to see a bit of a mess on the plate.

It was still good, but incredibly filling because of the plantain, and I had a huge plate with probably 2 pounds of food. I knew I wouldn't be able to eat it all, but I tried as best I could. Normally in the mornings I don't eat much, and this was larger than most lunches. I barely made a dent before I was too full, and I could see how the family was disappointed, thinking that I didn't like it. The food was good, but just way too filling for me, and I felt like an ass for not eating much.

After the breakfast we went in to town to vote. This was a big day for Ecuador. They were voting for their mayors, assembly members, local governments, and most importantly for president of the republic. The entire town seemed to be out, everyone dressed in their Sunday best. Everyone here gets dressed up to vote, even though it's obligatory. We walked into one of the high schools that were protected with soldiers holding automatic rifles and I waited as the men and women went to different sections to vote.

Everyone was looking at me, probably wondering why a foreigner was there for the voting. It didn't take very long, and soon we were back outside in the busy street, the traffic probably the worst it would ever get in Zaruma. Voting could be done at any point in the day, but most people chose to get it over with sooner than later. After a walk through the town, Gaby and I went down to Portovelo, another mining town at the base of the valley, and as a result of its lower altitude, it was much hotter.

We went to a geology and mining museum, spending just a half hour talking with the guide, who was the son of the geologist who ran the place. Our taxi never came back so we waited for an hour or so just talking and relaxing in the heat before getting another taxi back to town, followed by a bus back up to Zaruma. By this time we had our lunch and I went back to the hotel to sleep for a bit. I was really out of it after missing out on so much sleep.

Later on in the night I went back to Gaby's house for dinner and to watch some of the election results. President Rafael Correa was re-elected with 51% of the vote. The candidate who came in second was a former president who was chased out of government for corruption and had to flee to the airport, where his helicopter was taken over by angry citizens. And somehow he was able to run again and had considerable support.

And after hanging out for a while I decided to head back to the hotel and get some rest before leaving Zaruma at 7:30 the next morning. Unfortunately, the hotel was right next to Correa's party headquarters in Zaruma, so all night long I heard cars honking, music, and cheering. And once that stopped, the roosters started in.

Zaruma was a fun town with a great atmosphere and people. It was very safe and the views were great, along with the food and coffee. There is a big festival there in July, and the family invited me to come back if I want to. And if I can, I'd definitely like to.

Above: Flowers in Zaruma

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Off to Zaruma for the Weekend, Pt 2

After the tour of the mine stopped in at a bar/restaurant and grabbed a couple of beers. I was a bit wary because, after all, it was a dry weekend. I figured that it was a fine time to get out of Cuenca and see a new city, but as it turns out Zaruma is a town that likes to drink. In broad daylight, even though it was illegal, people were drinking in an open door bar facing the street. They thought it was funny that I mentioned it was a dry weekend, and we soon had our beers without a problem.

Apparently, in smaller towns like Zaruma, no one really cares about following the dry law. As I was told by Gaby's dad, the cops aren't going to come and bust in the door in a peaceful town like this because you're having a drink. So to the best of my ability, we couldn't stay dry on the dry weekend.

After the beers, we went back to Gaby's house for another delicious lunch. It's amazing how just a little change of scenery can also change the type of food that you get. Though the meals were still typical of the sierra, there was just something different about them, and I really enjoyed all of the meals that I ate with the family. Feeling sleepy after eating and having the beers, we hung out for a while and decided to go to a pool at an hosteria. Hopping in the back of a pick up truck with Pablo and a neighborhood kid nicknamed "Chino," we headed to the place with a nice sized pool and fantastic views of the valley. It's a new spot that was still in the process of being built, so we were some of the only people there.

The clouds had rolled in and the wind was causing me to freeze in the pool, so after swimming for about 20 minutes I jumped out and tried to warm up a bit. Once the rain started to come in we decided to head home, once again getting in the back of a pick up truck. What is illegal in the U.S. is one of the main ways to get around in this country. And since I never really get a chance to ride in the back in Cuenca, I kept choosing the back, even if it was cold and drizzling.

I headed back to the hotel to rest up for a bit and let the family have some time alone before dinner. And of course, after another delicious meal, Gaby and I went into town to meet up with some of her friends from high school. In a way, the whole night reminded me of the night before Thanksgiving in the U.S. All of the college kids come home and meet up at a bar or someones house to catch up. That's exactly what was happening. Except they were forced to come home to vote, rather than coming home for Thanksgiving.

A group of friends gathered, and though there seemed to be a little confusion at first as to why I was there, they were all very friendly and interested to talk to me. I found out quickly that the Zarumenos are very friendly people. The center park was filled with groups of young people secretly drinking or people driving around in cars, probably also drinking. We walked around until we arrived at the bar from earlier and bought two bottles of rum and some coke and limes. Then we went back to the house of a friend and drank and talked until 3 am. Some dry weekend, I thought.

Though most of the conversations were based around stories from high school, I didn't mind just sitting back and listening. And once in a while they would feel bad and try to include me in the conversation, or ask me about American culture or music. It was interesting for them to hear what I had to say. It was kind of what I'd expected when I first got to Cuenca, but never really encountered.

By the end of the night we were all tired and they had to wake up in the morning to vote for the president, so we said our goodbyes and I went to the hotel to try to get some rest, which would have been easy if it wasn't for those damned roosters.

To be continued...

Above: Inside the mine, outside of "El Sexmo" mine, a view of downtown Zaruma

Off to Zaruma for the Weekend

With another four day weekend, I decided to get out of Cuenca again as my friend invited me to go with her to Zaruma. Gaby is from Zaruma, and since I know a bunch of people from the small town in the El Oro province, I had always wanted to check it out. Zaruma is about 6 hours away from Cuenca, closer towards Peru. It's considered the coast, but nestled in the hills before the sierra opens up, so while it's a hotter, temperate climate, it's also cooler than the coast.

It's an old mining town that is known for producing large amounts of gold, and it actually has a feel of an old western town that you might find in the United States. Everything is made out of wood and the shops and restaurants even seem like saloons. Only instead of finding a ghost town, you'll find a thriving community.

The ride in wasn't very enjoyable simply because the driver was going way too fast around hair pin turns, causing my stomach to give me the heads up that I might let go of breakfast. The views were still nice even though the heat was nearly unbearable as we descended to the coast and then back up again into the hills. This was the first bus I've ever seen with an armed guard on board, which had me wondering why other buses don't have guards as well.

We arrived in Zaruma as darkness descended, and after getting me settled into a hotel in the center of town, I went with Gaby to her house just outside the center. Zaruma is made up of steep hills, but after months of living at higher altitude in Cuenca, it was no problem for me. Gaby's family was very welcoming and served us dinner ( and they would actually feed me for the entire weekend ). The food was delicious and after dinner we sat and talked as we waited out the pounding rain that had caused a leak in the roof. They laughed that we brought Cuenca's bad weather with us. Once it died down Gaby and her brother Pablo walked me back to the hotel and I went to sleep, ready to rest after a long day.

But rest I wasn't able to, as roosters started in right outside the hotel around 2:30 am. I have no idea what they could have been doing up that early, but it seemed like every few minutes from then until sunrise the roosters woke me up, and by the time Gaby called me around 8:30 am to come down for breakfast, I felt like a zombie. Luckily, the coffee in Zaruma is some of the best coffee in the country.

Most of the coffee in the country is exported, and only Loja and Zaruma are known for keeping their own. There's actually an aroma of coffee throughout the town. I like my coffee with milk and sugar, but the coffee from the town was so rich and tasteful that I didn't even need it. After a breakfast of tamales, Gaby, Pablo and I set off for the mines. Since Zaruma is known for it's mining, naturally there is also tourist mine that you can visit for free. Walking up through the small town, the brother and sister seemed to be greeting everyone they met, a typical thing in small towns here but something I don't see much in Cuenca. The views from the town to the surrounding valley are excellent, and even though I feel jaded by the mountains sometimes, I had to admire them.

Up at the mine we saw a video, put on some boots and hard hats, and walked in for a 10 minute tour. The deeper we went the heavier the air became, and you could see just how tough the conditions were. There were a couple people who mentioned to me that in Chile and Argentina "minas" refers to cute girls, but in the rest of the Spanish speaking world it means "mines." So in other words, once I go to Argentina, I should be careful to say that I've been inside a "mina."

To Be continued...

Above: Classic architecture of Zaruma, inside the church, houses on the hills

Boca Juniors vs. Deportivo Cuenca

This is a few days behind, but I was gone over the weekend and had no access to the Internet. So, even though we've now had a few more interesting things happen, I'm going to start back in time and work up to present day. With that being said, here's the scoop on what happened with the highly anticipated Boca Juniors game.

On Thursday afternoon the city was abuzz with people heading down to the stadium to see the Argentinian club team play in Cuenca. It was expected that it would be a pretty tough game and that Boca would win easily, since they're one of the best teams in South America. I met up with a couple of people before going to the stadium but had to wait around outside before going in to give a ticket to my friend. Once inside, they texted me that it was going to be very hard to find seats in the Cuenca general section because it was already packed.

When my friend Lauren got in I told her that I was a little nervous going into the Cuenca section because I had a Boca Juniors jersey on. I was told I'd get beat up for wearing it in the general section. Even though I saw a good amount of people wearing the Cuenca shirts, I kept my jacket zippered up to avoid showing it. I stick out enough as it is. We went in and saw that there was plenty of room in the section cordoned off for the Boca fans. The section was protected by a line of police in riot gear, and when they saw my jersey under the jersey underneath my jacket, they let us right in.

With an hour and a half before game time it was already packed and getting rowdy. Surprisingly enough, there were a lot of Boca fans there, and soon the section was totally packed. A lot of people are simply Boca fans because they are a good team, the same way people jump on the bandwagon with the Yankees, or in recent years, the Red Sox. But there were also a lot of Argentinians there too.

Before the game started our friend Jamie somehow found us, and we all got on our feet for the kick off. We quickly learned the Boca chant, which was very easy but continued steadily for the entire game. The girls had no plans of sitting in the Boca section, but they warmed up to it soon enough. The first half was uneventful, but exciting nonetheless because of the crowd. I've come to realize that soccer is made so much better by being there with the crowd and drinking beer. It's really enjoyable with those two things.

At half time I tried to get more beer but the cops wouldn't let me leave the section, saying they'd kill me with my jersey on. Instead we'd have to wait for a vendor to come around, even though they were quite infrequent. Eventually the girls were able to find some beers because they had no jerseys.

The game went on calmly enough until with about 15 minutes left Cuenca scored. The place erupted and fireworks and road flares were lit in the crowd. The Boca section remained quiet, even though some Cuenca fans in the middle cheered. Surprisingly, the fans didn't boo or get down, but rather immediately started in with a cheer to motivate the team. I don't know if I've ever seen that in another sporting event.

And as it turned out, Cuenca won the game 1-0, leaving the Cuenca fans ecstatic and screaming with joy. We had to wait while the entire stadium emptied out before we were let out of our section, and I was told that people would harass us when we left, but had no trouble with my jacket on again. Beating one of the best teams in the continent is a big deal no matter what, but especially for a team that's not very good and facing elimination from the tournament. So the entire city was out at night celebrating the victory, and urine could be smelled all over the streets.

So for the first Boca game I attended, the team lost, but it was still a fun night that I'd like to have repeated again. Soccer's not that bad, after all.

Above: Road flares lit in the crowd, Boca fans cheer, fans climb the fence for a better view, video of the crowd

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Super Sunday

This is a big week. Bigger than I originally anticipated, actually. Sunday, April 26th is the big election. Initially, I thought it was just the election for mayor of Cuenca. Then I found out it's for the mayors of every city in the country, as well as the assembly members. And recently I've also been informed that it's also the election for president of the country. So basically, a lot is on the line for Sunday.

As happens with the elections down here, a ban on alcohol and consumption will go into effect this weekend and last until after the vote, probably to deter any alcohol-election-related violence and protests. Anyone seen with alcohol or drunk will be arrested. I'm thinking about leaving Cuenca for the weekend and going to a small town called Zaruma, about 6 hours away. It seems as though half of the friends I have here are actually from Zaruma, and I've heard good things. Especially about their traditional dish called "tigrillo," which is a plantain, egg, and cheese.

With so much on the line, it could be a really interesting weekend, if for nothing else than to see how the politics of another country play out. The last time there was an election here it was for the amendment of the constitution, which was passed with sweeping numbers. I'm not sure what people are really for on this election. But I know that everyone seems to have a side.

It's possible that there could be strikes or protests, but I'm really not too concerned about that. We're getting Friday and Monday off from the university because students need to travel back home so they can vote. Voting is compulsory for everyone over 18, except for the military. But a lot of students here are registered in other parts of the country and need to return home. So we get another 4 day weekend.

In the meantime, today is also a big day because the Boca Juniors from Argentina are playing Deportivo Cuenca here in Cuenca. I've already written about the process it was to get the tickets, and hopefully it will be a good game to remember. I'm not sure if the sale of alcohol will be banned before or after the game, but either way the ban will definitely make things interesting. It seems as though most people aren't going to the game in the hopes of seeing Cuenca win, but rather in seeing such a great team as Boca. Boca is, after all, one of the best soccer clubs in South America, and maybe the world.

The game is for a tournament that Cuenca somehow made its way into, and some people have told me that to lose by even 1 goal would be almost like a victory for Cuenca. An interesting state of mind. It's time to get ready for a big game.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Efficiency is Our Number 1 Goal

That's a saying most Ecuadorians have probably never heard. It seems as though in most scenarios the opposite effect is desired. Getting tickets to the Boca Juniors game for tomorrow night proved to be almost as difficult as going to the bank here. Yeah, it's that bad.

Because the game is highly anticipated and a big draw, it was necessary to buy our tickets in advance, so about a week and a half ago I went down to the stadium when they went on sale to buy them. I got general admission tickets, which were hiked up to $15 but also included a second game later on. However, I wasn't given any tickets, but rather a receipt, and told to return yesterday to pick up the tickets. You might be wondering right now why they couldn't just give me the tickets, and I'd agree in questioning it. But oh well, I thought.

I was told that the ticket office would open at 9 am, so I arrived to the stadium around 10 am, diverting my morning run route in that direction. I was told that the tickets wouldn't be given out until 3 pm. Again, things run so smoothly that I couldn't really get mad, just had to go with the flow.

So after my class got out I returned to the stadium, about 10 minutes after 3, only to find a line that would suggest tickets for Metallica, circa '92, were on sale. I got to the back of the line as quickly as I could and just in time too. Soon the line stretched around the entire stadium. As we waited in a line that moved no where, there were also two ticket booths open on the side. Yet these booths were not accepting receipts for tickets. Instead, they were just selling tickets straight up.

This meant that everyone who had the foresight to buy their tickets in advance were in effect being punished for purchasing tickets earlier. We had to wait in a long line that went no where while people without tickets just showed up, got their tickets, and left without a minute's delay. It was a bit of a slap in the face, but again, not surprising considering how well things run down here.

Little by little the line inched forward toward the main ticket office, and after a glance at my watch I saw that I'd been standing there for 45 minutes, even after I'd already purchased the tickets. But at least it wasn't raining, I thought. Somehow, I dodged a real bullet on that one. Just when the door seemed so close, morons started showing up and cutting the line, and unfortunately no one was saying anything. But without their words, the people in line sort of formed a solid line against anyone trying to get in, causing the tight entrance and exit of the door to be a dangerous hole to poke through.

At last, I was finally inside the door and I could see just how efficient the staff was. 7 people were frantically working on the only window to get one person's tickets at a time. The person would hand off their receipt, someone would scream their name, someone else would look it up in a binder with thousands of names, a few other people just sat around looking up things in binders, and someone else would pull out tickets to hand off. The best part is that these were unassigned tickets, just general admission. So really, any ticket would do just fine.

Even as I handed off my proof of purchase, three or four people went past me as I waited for them to find my name. For all of the high tech security to get our right tickets, they didn't even ask for ID to prove that it was me. Genius. Getting out of the door was another adventure, seemingly having to shove people out of the way when they wouldn't go. In one word: ass-backwards.

You take a simple enough thing like buying tickets to a soccer game and make it as complicated as possible. Honestly, I wasn't even mad. It was too funny and sad to get angered. It seemed to me like someone put a bunch of children in charge of the operation. Because there's no way a grown adult could think that's an efficient way of running things. Sadly, they aren't children, and this is the norm.

Walking home as the rain was starting to pick up again, I was glad I wasn't in the line anymore. I chuckled to myself thinking of what a ridiculous process it was, and then had another thought. As bad as it was, it probably still beats Ticketmaster's 100% surcharge.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday Stadium Fun

Yesterday Cuenca had a 15k race throughout the city. Once I heard the route it sounded like a track from Mario Cart, but I guess that just shows that it's a pretty small city after all. The race started at 10 a.m., and it was quickly raining after the participants got under way. Of course I missed the start by a few minutes, but headed out around 11 anyway to see some of the finish.

Down at the stadium the race was ending, and when everyone was finished, a concert was said to be happening. In typical Ecuadorian fashion, things didn't make quite as much sense as they could have. Only one section of the stadium was open, and as people continued to pile in, space was extremely limited. By the time I got there some runners were already finished and all of the seats were occupied. People were standing in the aisles and crunched in together. It took a few minutes before I could work up to the top of the steps and see some of what was going on. Luckily, I'm as tall or taller than most people in this country.

But it continued to get more crowded until we were packed like sardines and I couldn't move. I just kept my hands in my pockets to avoid pickpockets and went with the current. At one point it was getting harder to breath and it stank of cologne. I was wondering why I was even there, because it wasn't as exciting as I'd thought it'd be. Granted, I never actually went to see the Boston Marathon either, but I imagined it would be more exciting.

The race was put on by Jefferson Perez, the national hero who hails from Cuenca. Perez is the only Ecuadorian to win an Olympic Gold Medal for, that's right, speed walking. The entrance fee for the race was $1, and I believe the money was going towards some sort of children fund. But back in the stadium, I wasn't too comfortable. I also noticed that a lot of parents had brought their small children who were suddenly being crushed like me. But I realized that if parents were afraid for their children, it could cause a riot. Then I realized that I would be right in the middle of it with no exit, and I decided it was time to leave.

Of course, the only exit was also the only entrance, so for 5 minutes I became a salmon going upstream, and it was a heck of a battle getting out, but I finally managed it. Though I've been here 7 months, I've only recently started going down to the stadium, which isn't even far away from my house. On Saturday night we went to a soccer game between Deportivo Cuenca and Deportivo Quito. Quito wound up winning with about 10 minutes left, but it was a good way to spend the afternoon-night. And it only cost $4. We're also going back this week for the big game between Cuenca and the Boca Juniors from Buenos Aires. That game also game with another game attached to it, so in the end I'll have tickets to three different games in a short span of time. I still wouldn't say I'm a soccer fan. Maybe an enthusiast.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Learnin' Some Slang

Last night I was out with some friends and we were discussing some slang that exists only in Cuenca. A former student of mine told me he could compile a list of probably 15 words that are only used in Cuenca, and if you were to say them to someone from Guayaquil or Quito they would have no idea what it meant. I was thinking about that and wondering how much slang of our own in English is esoteric.

Probably due to TV and movies, I'm familiar with slang and terms that are used in places like California, even though I've never been there. I don't necessarily use those words, but I understand them when I hear them. But I also think about how with my own group of friends, half the time it seems as though we're speaking in Boston-specific slang. I could easily just create a slang word and used in the right context, my friends would understand it. Even if they didn't, I could quickly tell them what I meant and from then on it would be understood, and if we wanted to, we could continue to use it in the hopes that it caught on.

This is how English is constantly changing. Every year there are more buzz words and phrases that come and go at the whim of whoever is there inventing it. It probably starts with someone who is bored of saying the same old words and says something that makes no sense, yet it evolves into the standard.

But I still found it odd how only Cuencanos will understand their own slang. I know there are natural barriers here in Ecuador--the mountains, rivers, etc. But it's modern times, and there's no reason why people from 3 hours away would never have heard a word before. Unless I'm underestimating how many slang words there are that I'm just not familiar with, I feel like we would generally know the difference from Boston to New York, and vice versa. And I can't believe I'm actually thinking about this in depth. I'm kind of turning into a nerd.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rainy Week

Thinking about it now, I can definitely see a distinct difference between March and April. In Cuenca, anyway. In March it was more often than not hot and sunny. I had to even practice a little caution to avoid bad sunburn. April, on the other hand, is completely different. It seems like just about every day is gray and cold with rain at one point or another. Sometimes it just rains the entire day. It's getting old fast.

This week has been exceptionally miserable in terms of the weather. I haven't seen the sun since I was out of town at lower altitude last weekend. I couldn't even go on a run for a week until this morning when the rain stopped long enough for me to get outside. It hasn't really rained hard today, but I'm betting that mean it will pour tonight.

They have a saying here, "abril, augas mil." It's along the same lines as "April showers bring May flowers." I'm just hoping the weather changes soon, because I'm getting pretty sick of walking around under an umbrella 90% of the time. And I think the weather also plays an effect on other things. I find myself less patient walking around, dealing with people on the street who take up all the room on the sidewalk. Or the food that I'm so sick of eating. I'm at the point now where I can barely stand it. So many things that I'd gotten used to already are now starting to drive me nuts again. Could the weather be playing a role? Or maybe time is just catching up with me. I'm not sure. A change could do some good, though.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

No Surprises

As is usually the case, you can't see differences that take place until you step back or have someone else to point them out to you. I know I've lost a lot of weight since being down here, but I still feel the same, so I don't really notice it until someone who hasn't seen me in a while tells me so. And the same goes for other little things as well.

Take, for example, my weekend trip I just took to Vilcabamba. Along the way we had a few of those "typical Ecuador" moments, but were no more surprised by them than if we saw the sun setting in the west. What I mean is, we've become so accustomed to the way of life and how things work down here, that it's almost become weird to think of them differently. Maybe that's the beginnings of reverse culture shock, which I suppose I'll experience when I return home, though I've never had it before.

To add to it, a friend of a friend was visiting Ecuador this week and joined us on the trip. Since she was new to the country, her impressions and observations were funny and almost annoying at some level. On the bus ride down we were over stuffed and uncomfortable. For more than 6 hours we had people on top of us and the bus stank. And though we agreed it was one of the worst rides we've had, we weren't alarmed or even angry. It's just something that you have to deal with if you want to travel here.

Down in Vilcabamba, we asked to sit down outside of a restaurant for lunch at 2 p.m. They told us we could, but we'd get no attention. We waited 10 minutes and finally the waitress came outside to tell us there was no food and we had to leave. Of course we wondered why she couldn't have just told us that to begin with, but we again were not surprised by the lousy service and moved on.

But that was a Mexican restaurant, and we really wanted Mexican, so we went back that night for dinner. Again we sat outside and waited over an hour and a half for our food, but no one seemed to notice or care. It's expected to wait a long time for things here. We just talked and enjoyed our company. But my friend Craig got there later and ordered after we'd gotten our food. They took his order, but Craig knew better and went inside to get his drink.

At one point an hour later they brought him silverware and said his food would be out soon, but the eventually brought us the bill. Craig's food was on the bill, but the food never came. He went into figure out what the deal was, and they had no idea what happened to the food. Twice in one day at the same restaurant Craig couldn't get served. They took his meal off but offered nothing to him. If that was the United States, we would have left long ago, had the meal comped, or both. Craig on the other hand took it well and just went to another restaurant to get some food.

Part of what it is has to do with just rolling with the punches. Someone tells you something, someone else says another, and you eventually see that nothing was correct in the end. Buses are irregular and schedules run at their own will, so if you can't adapt to it, you'll go insane. I still get frustrated with the way things work sometimes, but it's like a passive aggravation. I would never bother to complain to a bus driver. That would be pointless.

The friend of the friend was annoyed by someone playing their music off a cell phone over the loud Cumbia on the bus, so she actually went up and asked them to turn it down. I was pretty surprised. That in-your face American attitude isn't something I've seen much of lately. I was pretty sure that they would just scoff at her, but they actually turned it down. So good for her.

In the end, I can only hope that this will have taught me more patience for when I return to the United States and to take things as they come without much complaint. If anything, it has taught me to respect and appreciate how smoothly things can run back home. And hopefully I'll never take that for granted again.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Weekend Trip to Vilcabamba

Taking advantage of the 5 day weekend, a few of us set off on Thursday morning for Vilcabamba, a small village in the south of Ecuador. It's pretty much the farthest south most people will visit, even though it's still another 4-5 hours from the border of Peru. Before we could get down to Vilcabamba though, we would need to spend a night in Loja.

Loja is another small city that's about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Vilcabamba. Our program has a few volunteers there, and though we wanted to check out the city and see our friends, we were told a very brief few hours to Loja would be sufficient. The bus ride normally takes about 5 hours, but with the condition of the roads and the consistency of buses in this country to stop every few minutes, it took us almost 6 1/2 hours. Luckily, for the first time I made a friend on the bus and was able to keep myself entertained for most of the trip. It was necessary, as it was one of the most uncomfortable bus trips I've taken thus far. The bus was entirely over packed with people standing up in the aisles the entire time, their asses in my face. A snot-nosed little girl was sleeping on my foot and brushing her dirty face against my arm. It was lousy.

Once we got to Loja we found a $5 hostel with terrible beds and got dinner, meeting up with a few friends. We had a short night after being tired from the trip and went to the hostel to rest up and head to Vilcabamba in the morning. Sleeping poorly because of the beds and fear of bed bugs, I woke up tired and we went to the station to get a bus.

The only problem was that because it was Good Friday, buses weren't running normally. First we were told there were no buses, then that there were buses on the side of the road, and then that there were no buses. Taxi drivers wanted $20, an outrageous price, so we waited and sure enough 5 minutes later, a bus arrived. As usual, no one knew what they were talking about. We paid $1 in the end for the bus.

With another lousy bus trip to the village, a small boy was leaning into me and staring at me for the entire trip. But we'd finally arrived in the town to relax and rest. Vilcabamba is hotter than Loja or Cuenca, and it's actually one of the only places in the world with a perfectly temperate climate. It's about the same temperature every day. Possibly for this reason it's known as the "Valley of Longevity," a place where locals are said to live into their hundredth years. It could be the water as well, which is said to have a higher pH than most water in the world. Either way, it has become a haven for foreigners to get stuck in and resettle or retire to for several months a year.

Along the hills you can see the mansions owned by expats which would be multi-million dollar homes in the United States. It brings more money to this region, but at the same time increases the prices for the locals. There has also been talk that a new complex of 300 of these mansions are being built for expats, and that a mega super market will be put in for them. This new development would totally change the town, which is listed as having a population of 4,200. If the town would be ruined from that, then most likely the new comers would find some other great town to ruin in a few years time.

Regardless, the town still has the laid back and peaceful title it is billed as. Many hippies now call this place their home and sell crafts or jewelery. Hiking, biking, and horse back riding are some of the activities you can do in addition to getting massages and spas at a fraction of the price that it would cost back home. The girls in our group took advantage of that, while I just relaxed in my own way. All I wanted was a hammock and to see my friends.

We have two volunteers in Vilcabamba, and though we didn't spend the entire weekend with them, the time we spent was valuable. Also, I was happy to find out that my friend from Guayaquil just happened to be visiting this weekend as well. We caught up on stories and shared some drinks, including snake liquor. It's literally some moonshine tequila in a jar that has snakes marinating in it. We could smell it as the mustached waiter brought over the shots, and we knew it was going to be painful, but we had to do it.

It ranks up there as one of the worst things I've ever tasted, in addition to Absinthe. The effect took hold immediately, and the taste lingered long after we'd spit out our share. Just one shot was enough to make me back away. For the rest of the weekend we took it easy and just enjoyed ourselves until the inevitability of heading home. With another long travel day ahead on Sunday, we left Vilcabamba at 11:30 am, sweating in the heat after marching to the terminal, and were out of Loja by 1:30. After another long and uncomfortable trip, we finally made it back up to Cuenca by 7:30 pm.

The ironic thing in the end was that in order to get to this relaxing weekend, we first needed to take means of transportation and stay in hostels that made us anything but. The beds and pillows wound up making my back and neck stiff, and the bus ride back would have wiped away any relaxation that I'd felt. Yet it was still a fun weekend, and if I had the means to go back again, I think I would.

Above: Three images of the hills of Vilcabamba

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Shout out from Matador

I just realized that I've been given a shout out from the Matador Network. In a new series from Matador Goods, I've been included as the first in the series for favorite books. Simply put, I've listed "anything by Hemingway." Take a look.

I've written a few articles for the Matador Network that you can find by searching through the Web site. Feel free to browse if you're interested.

The Only Jew in Cuenca

Passover is starting soon, or has already started, depending on when you read this. But you would have no idea down here in Cuenca. I'm not even aware half the time of the various holidays just because the only religion that really seems to matter down here is Catholicism. So as far as I know, I'm the only Jew in Cuenca. I know there are maybe 500 Jews in Quito, but I think that's as far as it goes.

The big deal, on the other hand, is that Good Friday and Easter are coming up. So we have tomorrow, Friday, and Monday off. Monday is off because of "Teacher Day." So we are taking the opportunity to travel south to Loja and Vilcabamba. There isn't much to do in Loja, but we'll spend the night and then head to Vilcabamba the next morning. Vilcabamba is said to be an extremely relaxing town that attracts a lot of older expats and hippies. It's also known as the valley of longevitiy because people apparently live to be upwards of 100 years old there. They attribute it to their diet and lifestyle. Some say it has to do with the pH in the water.

But anyway, this isn't the first time I've been out of the country during Passover. Two years ago I was living in Spain, another predominantly Catholic country. I didn't go to a sedar there either, but I might have had a more interesting experience. My roommate was also Jewish, and we had another friend that was also a Jew. It must have fallen on a Friday night because we were at our friends apartment and drinking.

We all went out on to the balcony to get some air. The apartment had a great view of the city and April in Sevilla is hotter than you would think. Out on the balcony we came to the realization that we were missing out on a sedar, and we simultaneously broke out into traditional songs in Hebrew. None of us can even say that we speak or understand Hebrew, but we have these prayers and songs ingrained in us, so that we can pull back on them at times like those. The drinks obviously helped our karaoke version of the sedar, and we didn't care what the neighbors thought.

Once or twice someone came out from the apartment to see what the noise was and we'd yell that we were singing Passover songs. We hugged and yelled the songs loudly and laughed. Normally we didn't advertise that we were Jewish, but on that night we didn't care at all. And though we were missing out on matzoh ball soup and other dishes, it was a good way to spend the holiday.

But now, in Ecuador, I have no one to celebrate the holiday with. Sometimes the simple act of following the tradition is more important than whether or not you understand the meaning or truly believe in the spiritual side. That's for another day, though. So I'll probably just celebrate by picking up a shawarma on the way home from work. I mean, at least they sell that in Israel. Close enough.

Happy Pesach.

I Really Miss the Spring

It's raining and it's cold, and though it's true that this kind of weather could absolutely be representative of a typical spring day in Massachusetts, I still miss the spring. Or maybe it's the idea of it. But definitely, there's a clear distinction in the weather patterns in April than in February and March. On the other hand, with only minor changes, every day here in Ecuador is pretty much the same.

Sometimes it rains a bit more than the day before, but otherwise you go through the four seasons in one day, and May can become November in a matter of minutes. This makes it hard to get by without constantly having a sort of cold, and you are invariably always inappropriately dressed. On the hottest days I'd like to be wearing shorts, but I know that by the time I get the shorts on it will be cold again.

As much as the winter in New England sucks, it really does help you to appreciate the change in the seasons. One of the best times of year, in my opinion, is the first weekend or two of good weather in the spring. It's not incredibly hot yet, but the change is so dramatic that 65-70 degrees feels like a heat wave. Everyone is outside running, playing sports, or having barbecues. And it's not just the activity. People are actually nicer. Days when windows are rolled down and music is played loudly. The winter in New England is harsh and brutal, and as a result the people sort of curl away like that too. But once the weather is better, they open up again.

But there's nothing like that here. Every day the sun rises and sets around the same time, save for a few minutes of difference. The weather is predictable in its unpredictability. We're supposedly in the dry season, but there have been thunderstorms and consistent rainfall, inconsistently of course. It makes it hard to live, and furthermore, it just makes it hard to get into a groove. As someone from Boston, a large portion of my life revolves around the weather. Hell, I've probably written over 10 blogs about the weather alone since being here. There's a certain way to act and feel based on the season you're in, and my body is all out of whack without a clear season.

Back home, I would love watching the leaves slowly budding on the trees, the brown twigs and branches turning into thick green vegetation. Every day the weather would be a bit warmer, save of course for the occasional freak snow storm in April or the March-like conditions in June. But that's to be expected. And I'm missing that all now that I'm here, just south of the equator. It was nice to miss out on a miserable winter, but as a result I'm also missing out on the turnaround. Without the bitter there's no sweet.

I also have to accept that I'll be missing out on half of the summer as I'm used to it. Shorts and t-shirts won't be in the cards for me until August. My birthday, in July, will for the first time be celebrated with pants and a jacket. A typical day here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Slowing Down?

I'm now into the 7th month here in Ecuador and already on the downward slope. It'd be cliche to say the time has flown by, but it would be the truth nonetheless. Just the other day I came to the realization that I'm probably set in the friends that I now have, and it'd be unlikely for me to have too many more crazy adventures. It's a weird feeling to know that there's still so much time until I leave, but to simultaneously know that it's not long at all, and the amount of time I've already spent here outshines the remainder.

So I'm trying to figure out now if I'm slowing down in what I do here. Lately I've been hanging out with some of my American friends. I'm not sure if it's more frequently than with my Ecuadorian friends, but it's definitely increased, partly as a result of having visitors to Cuenca. But I can definitely feel a little bit burnt out at the moment on some of the cultural activities that I've delved into thus far. I'm not completely done with it, but it's more like I need a breather. And I'm sure that once the time gets closer to leave, I'll be wishing there was more time for it.

But it's human nature to get a little sick and tired of what you're doing when it's so consistent. In terms of the program I'm in, my group is now part of the old timers, which is another scary thought. A new March group has arrived and has taken the role of newbies experiencing things for the first time. Though my friends and I have been here long enough to know what's going on, there's still so much more to see and learn.

In regards to travel in the country, I've seen almost every region and major area. Though I still haven't been deep into the jungle, I've been to the Galapagos, the coast, and the sierra. I've ridden on buses and eaten the local food and danced with the best of them. And I guess what it all comes down to is that the novelty of it has worn off, and now it just feels like I'm living somewhere, rather than living somewhere new for the first time.

Sometimes it feels like I'm just coasting through my time here and living it out, but I know that I've done more than just breeze through it all. Yet I still can't help but think that in just a few months it will be my turn to leave and I'll be left wondering what it was all about. It's also a struggle now telling the friends I've made here when I'm leaving, because it almost limits our friendship and creates a barrier. It's harder to form stronger bonds when it's clear that I won't be around forever.

There's still more to see and experience, but for the most part I think I get it. I still want to get out there and make new friends, even if it will be harder with a clear departure date. But whether or not friends can be made isn't entirely up to me. But I suppose this is what it's really like in the real world. All my life has been dealt with in stages. You go to school for a few months until vacation, then more until summer. 4 years of high school. 4 years of college. And now a year in Ecuador.

These are clear cut paths that have a definite end in sight. And though I plan to move on to Argentina for another year, and maybe after that to grad school for another 2 or 3 years, it's clear now that not much else in life is as simple. You get a job and hope it lasts for as long as you want it. So you deal with your situation and look on towards something else. I'm just hoping I can continue to look forward while enjoying and appreciating my time here in Ecuador.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mayor McCheese

There's a mayoral election in Cuenca this month, and the supporters of the candidates have been getting more and more enthusiastic. It's also getting more and more annoying. Sometimes the politics down here just remind me of 19th century politics in the U.S. From what I've seen in movies, of course. I can't help but think of Boss Tweed in "Gangs of New York," handing out bread to the immigrants and putting out fires, all while saying, "Vote for me."

There are posters and flags all over the city. Some people have even repainted their cars entirely in the campaign poster of their favorite choice. A truck is usually driving around with a loud speaker rigged up. The audio plays something inaudible to me, but I imagine that it's the candidate saying why they are so much better than everyone else, and maybe even insulting the mothers of the other candidates.

Maybe the funniest part is the horrible photoshopping of candidates with President Correa. It's clear that the men have never posed for a picture together, and they just don't even look close in the campaign ads.

Somehow all of this just seems cheesy to me. I haven't really seen any debates or campaigns on TV. Instead it's just the advertisements around town and the occasional random concert on a street corner, like the one that kept us awake on Friday night. With no warning, a street was blocked off so a stage could be set up and music was played loudly. I have no idea what the issues are nor why each candidate thinks they will be the best choice, and I haven't heard anyone tell me what they think.

It seems like there are more candidates than people to vote, and as is usually the case, the runners are some of the most rich people in town. The election is coming up in just a couple of weeks, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. For the meantime, however, I'm going to have to continue dealing with the trucks driving by slowly with the loud speakers and people handing out fliers at every other corner. Ugh, politics.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Goings On in Cuenca

What have I been up to lately? Hmm, well I don't really know. I've just been keeping busy. The last three weekends have been nice because people have been visiting Cuenca. It gives me something to look forward to during the week and gives us an excuse to go out and do something. This weekend Jacqui from Loja was visiting. Her sister and friend were visiting from the States and their last stop was here.

On Friday afternoon after my class I met up with the girls and we walked around town, getting some ice cream and stopping by the Panama Hat museum. By this point I know some people around town, and I hung out one night with one of the guys who was working there. He gave us a tour of the facilities and then I ran into my old student who used to work there, so she continued to give us a tour. It was a nice building with a great view of the river and lower part of the city.

After that we rested up and went out for dinner at a great Italian restaurant. Lauren and I agreed to help a professor teaching a Masters course on Saturday morning, so we called it an early night. On Saturday I woke up and hour and a half earlier than I normally wake up during the week to get down to the university. The school is offering a Masters course for English professors, and they were taking an oral exam. We were there as second and third opinions on their accents sounding American.

The topics covered were reading a speech, a 20 second segment from either a John McCain or Barack Obama speech, a skit from "Crank Yankers," and singing part of "Hit the Road Jack." It took about two and a half hours and was slightly entertaining, but mostly tiring. For the rest of the day I was pretty out of it, but we were invited to a gringo party later at night and Jacqui was still in town, so we decided to go out.

The party was a going away for old/welcome party for new teachers at a language institute here. We were pretty surprised when we walked in to find that it was like a frat party, except for the small children and older people there. The age range was something like 6-60, but the mid-range age group was acting like it was college spring break. We weren't really prepared for it, but dealt as best we could.

We had a couple of drinks but eventually ran out, so around midnight I went out to find a flask of some liqour, but everything was closed. The only thing open was this sketchy karaoke bar with 5 guys in there. I asked the bartender where I could buy something and he told me he could sell me some canelazo for $3. He let me in and locked the door, which was a bit odd, and then disappeared behind a door.

While I waited the guys at the table eyed me curiously but didn't say anything. When the bartender came back he had very strong and hot canelazo in a used water bottle and asked me to try it to make sure it was good. He asked where I was from and not wanting to look like a gringo I just told him Argentina, a lie obviously. But he was interested and told the guys at the table, and suddenly they wanted me to sit with them and talk. They were asked me what happened in the game against Bolivia, because Bolivia recently beat Argentina 6-1. Luckily I knew about that and said I had no idea what happened, but that I had to go.

In my best Argentinian accent I said I had to go and shook my hands for emphasis, and they all laughed, "Ahh Argentino!!!" I made it back to the party and we stayed for an hour or so longer before deciding we'd had enough. Today Jacqui is heading back to Loja, but a couple of us will head down to the stadium to buy tickets for the game against the Boca Juniors, a soccer team from Buenos Aires. It's a two game package for $15, and we probably can't go to the first game, but it's worth it to see Boca.

As for the classes, they're continuing along steadily, even though I'm still not a fan of my night class. The afternoon class is really fun, and this week was a students birthday. I secretly told another student to collect some money from everyone to buy some snacks or candy. They were very sneaky about it and 4 of them disappeared for over a half hour, even though there's a store right on campus. When they came back I was surprised to see that they'd bought the girl a teddy bear and birthday card, which was all in a nice bag. I have no idea how they got that confused with snacks, but I knew I should have told them in Spanish.

And this week will be a short one because of Semana Santa. With Friday and Monday off ( and possibly Thursday ) we plan to go to Loja, Zamora, and Vilcabamba to relax and visit some friends.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ecuador vs. Paraguay

In another qualifying match for the World Cup yesterday, Ecuador played Paraguay in Quito at 4:20 p.m. This was a do or die game in many ways, because a loss would definitely ruin Ecuador's chances of making the World Cup, and a tie most likely wouldn't be good enough. But Paraguay was going to be a tough opponent, and they were already high up in the rankings.

Earlier in the afternoon I was told that all classes after 3 o'clock would be canceled, and I was ecstatic to have the rest of the day off. But I was then told that classes were only canceled between 3-6 p.m. and I would have to teach at 7. I was not happy with this, to say the least. First, my mindset was already that of not having to teach later on. And the game would only be ending after 6, leaving me to then inhale my dinner and rush to the university. Also, if Ecuador won, no one would go to class anyway because they would be out celebrating in the streets, so I would have to rush down there to sign in and then wait a few minutes and leave.

It was totally pointless. But again like on Sunday a TV was set up in my hallway and I watched with my host sister. Towards the end of the first half Lauren showed up with a couple of beers. Like on Saturday, Ecuador was outplaying the other team, but just not able to score. There's one player on the team, #11, who always finds himself in the right place at the right time but just can't score. His headers always go too high or to the side. It's frustrating watching him play.

Halfway through the second half a substitute for Ecuador came in. It was the same guy who scored the goal on Sunday just after he came in. Apparently lightning strikes twice in Quito. Just a minute or two after he came into the came he scored again on a corner kick. The stadium went wild and we could hear people screaming down the street as well. It seemed as though the team was going to win and I might not have to teach.

Paraguay was a dangerous team and every time they got near the goal it was a close call, but finally the game entered the stoppage time, and with 3 minutes left, everyone was on the edge of their seats. And then it happened. With probably less than 3o seconds left in the game Paraguay scored and tied it up at 1-1. You could feel the air deflated out of the country. They didn't even get a chance to put the ball in play again because time ran out. It was the definition of last minute heroics.

And with that, the chances of making the World Cup probably blew away., along with my chances of not having class. I had to eat my dinner as quickly as I possibly could and then rush down to the university. Only 5 of the 10 students showed up and I told them that I wasn't going to keep class very long because I wasn't really planning on teaching, and no one seemed to care. We still had a normal enough class and finished out what I'd planned to do, but no one was into it.

People often live and die with soccer down here. The next big thing to look forward to will be the Cuenca vs. Boca Juniors game. The only problem is that no one seems to know when it actually is. I've heard 4 different dates now, and I just want to know so I can plan accordingly to get tickets and cancel my class.