Friday, May 29, 2009

Solitaire, Anyone?

I haven't played video games in a while, as it was something I kind of grew out of in college. In my freshman year I was still playing Playstation, but with less fervor and interest than I used to have when I was younger. It seemed as though with all of the work piling up and real life things to deal with, I just didn't have the time or patience to sit through playing a level for an hour, only to be killed right before reaching the end and having to start over. "Nuts to this, I'm outta here."

College went on, and though I'd still play team games like "Madden," it was just to entertain my friends. The lowest point came when my friend Travis murdered me in a game, something like 107-35. I mean he was just toying with me. I was never very good at the games, but this was a bloodbath. It was embarrassing, and something I never really lived down. The last two years of college were made interesting with the acquisition of a Sega Genesis, a classic game system that with 16 bits of graphic technology, was easily eclipsed by anything else on the market. Yet there was that classic value to it, and as my friends and I would sit around drinking beer, we'd play in tournaments such classic games as "Mortal Kombat," "Sonic the Hedgehog," and "NBA Jam." These are gems that will never get old.

It's been months and months now since I've played a video game, and lately I find myself craving one badly. Just something to kill the boredom. Though parents often complain that there's something better you could be doing, you can't deny that they have a certain power to keep you busy and off the streets. I suppose it's better to be pretending to be a gang member shooting people in the safety of your own living room or basement, rather than actually doing it. And let's not forget the improved hand-eye coordination. That's just magical.

But I have no access to that kind of life here in Ecuador. Probably for the better, but with all of my free time, especially this week on a half-vacation, it would be a nice change of pace. Just one game of football, or one car chase through a busy city. Something to kill the typical, extravagant-less day. I have no computer games to speak of, save for those standard ones that come with every computer since 1995. You know, Hearts, Pinball, and my personal favorite, Solitaire.

Solitaire is the only game I play anymore, and I think I'm up to averaging around 50 games a day. Take that in for just a second. 50. Do you have any idea how monotonous the game of Solitaire is? It is without surprise, without deviation, and without cheat codes. I play so much Solitaire that I've actually started to see patterns evolving. I can predict within the first 10 seconds of the game whether or not I'll win, and usually I'm right. Clicking rapidly and dragging the cards around the small green box, I'm barely paying attention now as I complete games absentmindedly. This is what it's come to. I'll play 10 games, get sick of it and close the box, and 10 minutes later I've opened it back up.

What I wouldn't do for some 16 bit entertainment. Forget about Xbox or Playstation 3, just give me something that has a controller and some sort of screen movement. If I could just locate one of those old clunky arcade games with a name like "Death Star" or "Alien Blast" it would bring so much joy. The ironic thing about playing a game like Solitaire is that even if you win, you're still a loser. I can't imagine anyone going up to their friend eager and excited, out of breath and panting, "Dude, guess what?! I won Solitaire 10 out of 12 times!" If that did ever happen, hopefully the friend would punch them in the nose, the object being the loser could make a game out of how many better games they could think of while stopping the bleeding. It's probably more interesting and makes better use of the remaining brain cells.

When you play 50 games of Solitaire a day, you don't even stop to watch the cards roll over the screen after you win. That's sooo beginner. At the end of the day, the name of the game says it all. You are alone in your room, in solitary confinement, playing a game that can be shared with no one else. It's the ultimate time killer. Just something to keep you busy for a moment or two. But I suppose things could be worse. I could be playing Minesweeper.

So when the rain clears up long enough for me to stretch my legs and get outside, I can take a deep breath of black smoke coming from the bus down the street, look at the man peeing in the corner, and see another puff of grey coming in from the west. Options are looking limited, and I didn't bring an umbrella. Ah, to hell with it, one more game.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

When is Too Much "The Simpsons" Too Much? A Stupid Question, I Know...Answer: Never

In my last semester of college I took a course on music in film. It was what we students referred to as a "joke course." This meant that you could sit in a large lecture hall as an anonymous shadow under a baseball hat and for two days a week zone out for 50 minutes. Then before the test you could study for 30 minutes and still pull off an A. The course was actually designed so you couldn't get less than an A-. That's no joke. The professor was teaching in his last year before retirement and he had already checked out.

Towards the end of the semester we started analyzing the scores from classic cartoons such as "Bugs Bunny" and "Road Runner." I remember thinking of a "Simpsons" episode when Lisa sneaked into the local university and was studying the symbolism of their own cartoon, "Itchy and Scratchy." The humor was supposed to be showing what a joke college courses have become. As I sat in my own class, I couldn't help but think the same thing. But still, as I took notes about the 1930s goons getting toyed with by Bugs Bunny, I had to enjoy the fact that I was there, rather than in a math class, potentially learning something. God forbid. And now the ironic thing is that I'm going to be giving my own lecture on a cartoon.

So as I've written before, I get a ton of down time. As a result I've acquired a large stack of DVDs, including most of the first ten seasons of one of my favorite shows, "The Simpsons." The other seasons went along smoothly, but this week I've been busy working on season 2. I don't know why it is, but I've been noticing patterns that I felt the need to share with the general public. After all, it's been a long time since this season came out in its entirety, and it's worth refreshing common knowledge.

Here are just some of the things that I have noticed thus far:

1. Smithers is a jerk...That's right. Though he loosened up in later years, in the second season Wayland Smithers was just a big jerk. And for some reason he always had it out for Homer. Something would happen at the Nuclear Power Plant, Mr. Burns would ask Smithers who "that man was," and he would reply with something like, "Homer Simpson, one of your drones from Sector 7G." Then Mr. Burns would comment about remembering his name (which he obviously never did) and Smithers would groan angrily. But he would also take pleasure in Homer's failures. I have noticed, however, that as the season progresses, he eases up on the hatred of our bald hero.

2. Mr. Burns is a star character...Keeping with the theme of the power plant, let's discuss Mr. Burns' role. Though he was later eased out into more of a supporting role, in the second season we find that Mr. Burns was a pivotal character, involved in plots like hitting Bart with his car, needing a blood transfusion from Bart, and running for governor of the state that Springfield is in (forever unknown.) His evil ways are built up, yet we usually see a softer side that shows humility and regret, something less seen in later seasons.

3. Homer is mean to Flanders...Maybe this is an obvious statement, but Homer's attitude towards his neighbor, Ned Flanders, is just unforgivable. Homer goes out of his way to actually hurt poor old Flanders, and he takes pleasure in serious problems that his neighbor faces. In later years his hatred was toned down to just be non-committal, "Get lost, Flanders" comments. I guess the neighborly disdain was just too much for primetime TV.

4. Lisa takes a stand...Lisa has always been the Simpson who sticks out as intellectually superior and morally conscious. But in the second season she really hits her stride and starts on a path separating her from the rest of her family. A classic example comes from the episode when Homer gets pirated cable, and feeling uncomfortable about breaking the 8th Commandment, Lisa guilts the family into missing out on the big fight on cable. In terms of what Lisa has now evolved into, this is pretty tame.

5. Homer was still a regular dude...Well, not quite regular. But let's just say he was more in touch with the common man in this season. Back before he was beating up former President Bush (the first) and flying in Outer Space, back before he could withstand vicious beatings and get into impossible situations yet come out squeaky clean, Homer was just a regular dude who liked beer and food. Always eating pork chops, he represented an average, middle class American. He had his spot on the couch and TV. By no means was he a model citizen, but he was kept at bay by human limitations. Though he had faults and was a bad person from time to time, he still showed love for his family and tried to do right in the end. Of course, that's not to say that he doesn't continue to do that in current seasons, but it's clear that his intelligence has gone down as the seasons have added up.

These are just some of the more noticeable points from the second season. Like I said, there's so much time that I would have to get into something like this, otherwise I'd go crazy or potentially do something creative and write something more interesting than this. But the next time you're watching "The Simpsons," think about the themes and how they all relate to a common trend.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Museum Monday

Since I'm only teaching a night class at 7 o'clock this week and I had friends in town, I decided to finally visit some museums in the city. It's odd, but I've never actually been to any in Cuenca, and when asked for advice on the matter, I really have nothing to offer. In the morning I went with Amelia, Brittney, and Ryan, another volunteer from Quito, to the Museum of Modern Art.

The museum was small, but free, which made it all the more alluring. We walked around the grounds and saw the exhibits for maybe 45 minutes before finishing up. We agreed that it was alright, but nothing special. I then led the rest of the group in the direction of La Casa de la Mujer, a market that is run by women with all of the proceeds going to women. I walked through it when I first got to Cuenca but never went back until this weekend. Again, there are things there that are nice, but nothing special, in my opinion. You can find the same things in many other markets.

I left the group to go home for lunch, and as it turns out we had cuy. It was only my second time having cuy, but it confirmed to me that it's not my favorite dish. It's gamy and takes a lot of work for not a lot of meat. I wound up burping it up for most of the afternoon and decided that I really didn't need to be eating this delicacy again. After lunch and doing a minimal amount of work, I met up with my friends again, this time a little outside the center at Banco Central. Here we find the Museo Pumapungo, which houses artifacts and various other artwork from around Ecuador.

To get in we paid $3, and we quickly made it through the two floors. The admission ticket also gave us access to some Inca ruins in the backyard, which were nothing compared to Ingapirca, which were nothing compared to Machu Picchu. But it was still interesting to finally see it from inside the gate, rather than outside. Walking around to the perimeter we also noticed that the grounds included a garden with a pond and a bird sanctuary with parrots and parakeets. We walked down and looked at the birds for a few minutes, but it was getting later and colder. I had to be back at home for dinner by 5:30 and we really wanted to get some chocolate cake, so we high tailed it to Cacao y Canela, a restaurant back in the center.

Cacao y Canela has, in my opinion and many others, the best chocolate cake around. It's rich and soft with thick and delicious chocolate syrup, and at a buck fifty, it's well worth the splurge. I've only been there a few times, saving it for special occasions. To add to the delight, I also got a glass of milk, which I've been craving lately. I realized that in addition to yesterdays milk, it's only the second glass of milk I've had in 9 months. The first glass was last month in Zaruma. I don't know how I've gone this long, but I never get milk at home here.

The cake and milk went together hand in hand, but soon we had to rush out as I got ready for dinner and class and Brittney and Ryan headed off for Guayaquil, as they were still on vacation. As it turns out, only 2 students showed up to my class, so it was more like a personal tutor session, just clearing up confusion from the previous units. After the class I met up with a few other friends at a bar to watch "Amelie" with Spanish subtitles. Walking in late and having subtitles in a foreign language made it so that I couldn't understand everything, but it still seemed like an interesting movie.

Once back home I watched another movie with Amelia, who left early this morning for Quito. So now that the busy weekend is over, I need to find ways to keep busy this week. So far it's going along smoothly. It's always good to be a tourist in your own city once in a while, even if only for a day or two. Hopefully it can keep going well.

The Difference of 5 Minutes: A Trip to Ingapirca

We woke up early on Sunday morning knowing that we would have only one chance to catch the bus to Ingapirca, the biggest and most important Inca ruins in Ecuador. Though they're only about 2-2.5 hours away from Cuenca, I've never really had any desire to go, mostly because I heard they were nothing special. Also, if you've already been to Peru and seen Machu Picchu, the ruins were supposed to be just spit wads. But with friends visiting and bugging me to go, I figured I might as well take the opportunity and do something. Especially since I wasn't going to be able to go anywhere this week.

The only bus leaving from Cuenca to Ingapirca on Sundays leaves the bus station at 9 am. Conversely, the only bus leaving Ingapirca back to Cuenca on Sundays leaves the small town at 1 pm. So though it gives a short window of time to see the ruins, there really isn't much time needed, and unfortunately you spend much more time in transit than you spend at the site.

We arrived at the bus station at 9 o'clock and found the ticket office, but the woman behind the counter shook her head and said that it had already left. Somehow, for the first time ever in Ecuador, a bus took off on time, or in this case, early. We had missed it by only 5 minutes, but she told us to take a taxi to a bridge and wait while she called the bus driver and told him to pick us up. Nothing really shocks us anymore, so we got into a taxi, gave the address she wrote down for us, and headed to the outskirts of the city.

After being dropped off under a sketchy overpass, we waited for about 1o minutes before realizing the bus was not coming. We got another taxi back to the bus station to yell at the woman for lying to us and costing us $4 extra dollars. Our new plan now was to wing it. We could take a regular bus to Canar, in the Canar province. This city is a stop about a half hour from Ingapirca, and from there we would be able to take another local bus to the town.

So by the time the 10 o'clock bus left at 9:55, we realized that their clock was 5 minutes fast, and as such, had essentially thrown off our entire day. The bus ride, which took over 2 hours with 3 long stops, got us into Canar, where we walked around, grabbed some ice cream, and waited for the packed local bus. As we finally headed towards the town 45 minutes later, we could see the 1 pm bus heading back to Cuenca. What a difference 5 minutes makes.

The town of Ingapirca is small but colorful, and without any mestizos, the ruins are essentially run by the descendants of the original inhabitants. We walked the kilometer from the center to the ruins and paid the Ecuadorian price of $2 to get in. But even from afar we could see this was nothing special. With a couple of "intact" ruins, the rest of the grounds were merely the stumps of what used to be the rocks of the houses. As I'd thought, it was sort of a waste of time, but my friends were glad to say they'd seen some ruins.

We walked around for about 45 minutes before seeing it all, with the highlight being a tiny little puppy that kept sniffing our feet. After a lunch outside the park we jumped on a bus back to Canar and then back to Cuenca. We didn't get back into town until about 6 pm, three hours after we should have been back. The difference of 5 minutes in Ecuador.

Above: Scenes from Ingapirca

A Full Weekend of Visitors

I haven't written in a few days because I've been pretty busy entertaining some friends from my program. 5 different volunteers came down from Quito this weekend to see Cuenca, as well as a couple others from Machala and Guayaquil. It meant having to be a bit of a tour guide for the city, but it was fine because it allowed me to do some things that I haven't yet accomplished in Cuenca.

I was looking forward to a long vacation from the university this week, but unfortunately my plans were changed. Since February I had heard that in May there is a week off for "Student Week," and though no one knew exactly when it was, they knew it was in May. Every week I would go to the university and ask, but still no one was sure. And finally we found out, only through word of mouth, that the vacation would be the last week of May.

Excited for a much needed break, I planned on either going up to Quilotoa to see the crater lake or heading to Canoa on the beach to meet up with some friends. On Thursday night my friend Chelsea and her friend Mary arrived in Cuenca right before I went to my night class, and I was happy as I headed to the university. When I got there I commented to another teacher about the upcoming vacation, and then my night was ruined.

"Oh, but you teach the professionals course, right?" the professor said.

"Right, why?"

"You don't get a vacation."

You have got to be kidding me, I thought. Even though the entire university gets the week off so that students could play sports, listen to concerts, and drink on campus, I would have to teach my Monday-Thursday night class. Students bussed in from all over the country, it would be nearly impossible to teach with the noise anyway. At first I was furious, and then just destroyed and upset. I really needed the break, and even my friends visiting couldn't make me feel better, though I tried. The worst part about it was that no one from the university had even bothered to tell me, as usual. So if I hadn't talked to the other teacher and just assumed I had a break like everyone else, I would have been in trouble. There's always a double standard.

Friday went by casually enough, walking around town and showing my friends the sights while plotting of ways to get out of teaching the next week. Later at night two more friends from Quito arrived. Amelia and Brittney showed up a bit later after the 10 hour bus ride got them in around 9:30, so we just grabbed a late dinner and called it a night. On Saturday morning we dodged parades in the center and then headed up to Turi, a church on a hill with a view of the whole city. I'd only been up there once before, a week or so after I got to Cuenca, and at night. I'd always wanted to go back during the day. There are steps you can take up to the top, and from the center it's about a 40-50 minute walk, depending how slowly you go.

For me the hike was easy because I've been walking around a lot and training for the race in Quito, but for others it was clearly a bit more difficult. Even though the Quitenos live at higher altitude, they walk much less because of the set up of their city. We spent some time at the top, just taking in the view, eating some salchipapas, and talking while getting sunburned.

After Turi, we went back home to rest up before going out that night. It seemed like everyone from Quito was suffering from the plague, and keeping health up was a concern. The hostel was also filled this weekend with Peace Corps volunteers, and just to be jerks, Chelsea and Mary talked about the "trip they'd just taken" to Mexico in between deep coughs to a volunteer in their room.

Once rested, we all went out to dinner at La Vina, a great Italian restaurant not too far from my house, and then went out dancing for a little bit before most of us called it quits around midnight. The plan was to wake up early and head to Ingapirca, the biggest Inca ruins in Ecuador.

Above: Views from Turi

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Galapagos Article Published on Gonomad

I'm happy to announce that my article "Finding Sea Legs in the Galapagos" has just been published on I've waited a while for this article to get published, so I'm glad that it's now up on the Web site. This article is about my experience snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands back in February. So take a look at it. There are also some pictures of the scenery and links to other articles I've written for Gonomad.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Room

Not that I want to spoil the image you might have had of what my room looks like, but I feel like it's time to write about the place that I spend 80% of my time in: my bedroom. Apologies in advance if this is dripping with description, much like the burger that I had for 2nd dinner just before coming home was dripping over the sides with mayo and ketchup onto the wax paper. You get the idea of where this is going..

You walk up the wooden steps, creaking as always, and then make your way down the narrow hall, under the glass roof and over the glass floor. Looking up, its always either sunny and hot or rainy and cold, yet the glass roof always has a film of dirt on it. When it rains really hard water actually falls through, forcing me to retreat into my room where I can wait for the eventual leak to form by the door. Walking over the glass floor for the first time freaks you out a bit, especially noticing the cracks, but I haven't fallen through yet and the leaning tower of Pisa is still kicking it.

Down the hall, just before the dining room on the right you find your way into my room. The heavy wooden door that you push open slowly falls back, and unless you grab it and gently ease it into the dresser it will make a loud thud, sending shock waves across the apartment. And there she is in all her glory. My dimly lit, windowless room. A quick glance on the right shows the desk with the green felt cover, secured tightly by push pins on the edges which always dig marks into my arms as I sit there typing or lesson planning. The felt makes it nearly impossible to write without putting holes in the paper, lest I have something sturdy underneath.

The table, which sits against a door that would connect to the next room, bears a big weight. Loaded on the right side with my camera bag and wood basket that I got as a gift, it balances out with the left side which hosts my books, binders, and ever growing stack of DVDs. Everything from season 2 of the "Simpsons" to "The Bourne Ultimatum" is loaded up in the top left corner. And moving in on the back of the table are sunglasses, a flash drive, some change, an empty indigenous-designed tequila flask and shot glass, also gifts hug the wall. A small note pad for notes or bookmarks, cash and my ID cards sit to the right, moving around the most of all. On their flank you'd find headphones for Skype and a couple of zip lock bags of small change for my class photocopies, and that's all she wrote.

In the middle of the room you now find the queen size bed, the blankets and sheets falling off. The wooden boards under the bed buckle and bend, giving a crater effect which can't be good for my back. The pillows are probably propped up against the headboard since I was last reading or watching movies in bed. The left and right of the bed are flanked by two small tables which house glasses, books, DVDs in the queue, a watch, keys, water bottle, a Swiss Army knife, a table lamp which is never used, a travel alarm clock, "The First 49 Short Stories", by Ernest Hemingway, and Tums.

But back in the lower left corner of the room where the heavy wooden door now rests is the dresser, where two pairs of pants rest on the doors. Loaded up with clothes and small plastic bags, an assortment of emergency supplies and other toiletries, it gets the job done. On the other side of the room is a pink rack which hosts more books and two hats. Underneath is the dirty laundry sack, and next to that are the shoes. In the upper right corner rests my backpack, the other suitcase forgotten under the bed.

Along the white walls are pictures of Spain that I cut out of a National Geographic calendar. There are also smaller pictures of Quito from a tourist map. After two days with the white walls, I couldn't take it and had to put something up. At least it's something to look at when my eyes start hurting. At first I couldn't read in the room, but in January the light bulb was changed, and now I can get by. Yet without windows, I can't see life going by or get fresh air, which cuts me off in many ways. Creatively and healthily.

Upper left corner leads into the bathroom, and since a toilet against the wall, a sink and a shower are nothing uncommon, it's not really worth the extra words. I will say, however, that the door to the bathroom, which doesn't actually close and has a window in the middle of it, makes it so that there's no separation of the two rooms. You can imagine what this means for the wonderful scents from time to time.

The ceiling in this room, far too high for its own good, is checkered in an odd pattern with water stains and cracks. The floor, wooden and always creaking, with its nails jutting out, can easily ruin a sock or two.

That's all there is to it really, but this is my home, and unfortunately I spend too much time in this room. As depressing as it gets sometimes and as suffocating as it can feel on certain lonely nights, it's always nice to come back after a few days away. It is, after all, my room. I'm sure someday I'll look on it with at least a speck of romanticism, and be proud of myself that I could make it through here for so long. But seriously, I can't wait to get the hell out of this room. I mean, come on, no windows?

Reason for Concern

I have few things down here to keep me entertained while I'm not teaching or running around trying to find something more interesting to do. Since I only work about 20 hours a week, I find a lot of down time, and as a result, wind up spending a lot of time watching DVDs or going on the Internet. Basically, it's like having a lot of down time at home, only instead of sitting on the couch and channel surfing, I'm laying on my bed and watching "Simpsons" DVDs on my lap top. But in the last couple of days, my lap top has been giving me quite a scare.

It's over 2 years old now, my Dell Inspiron E1505, and even though I've heard people complain about Dell computers, I've never had a problem with mine. In fact, it's worked much better than many other computers my friends have had. But lately it's been showing its age. That, and the fact that it only has about 55 gigabytes on it means that I was never able to do anything spectacular with it. I originally bought it because I was going to study in Spain and wanted to be able to play movies on something, as well as have a way to keep in touch with family and friends back home without having to always use an Internet cafe computer.

Originally against lap tops years ago, I soon found myself a fan, and now wouldn't want to go back to a desktop. But that's irrelevant, really. The point is, this computer of mine is dying, and there's really nothing I can do about it. The battery is supposed to last 6 hours, when in reality it lasts for about an hour and a half, leaving me with little time to get everything accomplished on busier days. The memory is nearly full, so it's slower and I can't load up all of my pictures or any new music. And several times in the last couple of days it has simply frozen or been so slow that I couldn't do anything, and I've had to shut it down and try booting it up again.

All of the files of importance are backed up on a hard drive, so I'm not as concerned about losing the writing, pictures, and music I've acquired over the years, but I'm mainly concerned about what I'll do when this lap top dies. As my dad says, the lap top is my life line down here. It's the only way I can really keep in touch with anyone frequently and entertain myself. It's how I'm able to write so many of these blogs without the hassle of having to go to a cafe and spend extra money. I don't have a ton of friends to hang out with down here, and can't always bother the same people to do something, especially during the week. And in my house it's usually just me in my room with no windows and dim lighting. It's how I can relax with some music, or just watch some movie or show after a day of work before bed. Sure, I have some books I can read, but reading for 7 hours a day was something I did in college.

I know that for my next computer I'd want to get a Macbook, and though I was originally not a fan of Macs, I've slowly warmed up to them. The only problem is there's no way I can afford even the base model. Not with a move to Argentina coming up and a low bank account figure. And there are other things I want or need. I want a new iPod to replace the one that was stolen back in September. I want a better lens for my camera. I want some new clothes. It seems like everything is starting to fall apart at once, and there's no way I can replace it all. I was hoping this lap top would last longer, but it might not be the case.

The funny thing about all of this is it's exactly what I wanted in the first place. I came to Ecuador hoping to get away from the constant use of computers and Internet and to just focus on some writing and get to know my surroundings better. I knew how releasing it felt to be away from all of the bothers of technology when I was in Spain. Yet when you do check back after a week or two and see an Inbox of 40 emails, it's both daunting and a thrill. I was almost disappointed to find that my host family had wireless, yet I've realized since that there's really no way to avoid the Internet, and it's better to have the convenience than to have to struggle to find a connection across town. After all, it's helped me continue to blog, so I can't complain about that.

I wonder if this lap top does bite the dust while I'm still here, how will I find ways to kill the monotony and boredom throughout the day? I guess I could write in a journal more often, or just take longer walks around the town. As brutal as it may be for the first week or so, unplugging might not be a bad thing. Still, with little else around to keep me busy, I'm hoping the life support continues to work until I get home. Otherwise you might as well pull the plug on me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Featured on National Geographic Glimpse

I just received an email from National Geographic Glimpse informing me that my blog is being featured on the Homepage of their Web site this week. This is pretty exciting because it means a bit more exposure, but also, it means that people are actually reading these blogs after all. In addition to blogging on Travel Guy, I blog on the Matador Network and with Glimpse. The other entries that I write on Matador and Glimpse are the same entries that you can find on Travel Guy. But for the most part, the majority of what I write comes from this blog. Not everything I write gets posted on the other sites.

So even though you may have already read these blog posts, check out my featured blog on Glimpse and help spread the word. Call it shameless promotion if you will, but someone's gotta do it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Looking Ahead

Because I don't want to arrive in Argentina without a job, an apartment, or anything else to help me, I've started to look ahead into my options for when I arrive in August. After asking around, I was told to join up on CouchSurfing to look for roommates in Buenos Aires, or at the very least someone who would be willing to rent an apartment. I'd been looking on Craigslist for apartments, and the rates were sky high.

After creating an account and joining the Buenos Aires forum, I've already recieved a couple of offers. My Inbox was exploding with emails from the site, which I had to filter to make sure weren't just junk, but at least it's already working. Now I just need to hopefully make the right decision and pick something feasible. I'm still waiting to hear about jobs, but if I can at least have a place to stay when I get there, it would make things easier.

In addition to apartments and jobs, I'm also looking forward to meeting people in Buenos Aires. With the help of the Matador Network, I'm already in touch with a few people who are currently in Buenos Aires or will be by the time I get there. Though I haven't met these people yet, it will be helpful to meet up and get some advice on my new home. Also, it will just be nice to know someone while I'm still getting my feet off the ground.

So while I'm still here in Cuenca, Ecuador, I'm trying to figure things out for the next few months. Though I'm going home to the United States for a few weeks before Argentina, I'm really just thinking of it as a long vacation before I start up work again. I've been approved for Argentinian citizenship, and though I have the papers that I was supposed to sign in the consulate in Guayaquil, I'm just going to have to wait until I get home and go to New York. For some reason the diplomats in Guayaquil can't figure out what to do. This could delay getting the DNI citizenship card, but with some luck it won't destroy my plans. Either way, I'm Argentina bound in August.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cuenca vs. Barcelona (Guayaquil)

This weekend has flown by, as they usually do. But it seems like I've been squeezing a lot more into the weekends lately, which has helped them pass faster. This is good, because I'd rather be out with friends doing things, but it also means that Monday comes that much quicker. Yesterday was a beautiful day so a few of us went down to Parque Paraiso and played Frisbee. I ran down to the park to get the blood flowing after a night out, and the sun helped me sweat out some of the remaining hangover.

We played for a few hours and finished up just as the weather changed and it got colder. A thunderstorm in the distance played out a show for us as Jamie, Jake, a visiting friend on his way up to Colombia, and I walked around the park. A party at a bar in the city was put on later last night by a teacher from one of the language schools here. The theme was 90s Hip Hop and Funk music. On the invitation it said to dress funky, and though a few of us tried our best, most people were just dressed up normally. We danced up a storm last night, and it was a really nice change of pace to hear different music besides the standard Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Cumbia, and Reggaeton.

We'd also heard that Barcelona, a soccer team from Guayaquil was playing in Cuenca at 11:30 am, and since they're one of the best and most popular teams in the country, we wanted to go. That meant waking up after another long night and getting busy, but it was worth it. With another powerfully sunny day, we headed down to the stadium and got tickets off of a scalper for $5. Trying hard to keep up with sunscreen so that I didn't burn too badly, we had to walk nearly the distance of the general seating to find three seats. It was packed, with almost half of the stadium wearing Barcelona's yellow jerseys, and the other half wearing Cuenca's red jerseys. It was only 11:30 am, but people were already plastered and throwing trash at the few people who walked through the Cuenca section wearing yellow.

Cuenca played well and came close to scoring a few times in the first half, but at halftime it was still 0-0. Barcelona has traditionally been a good team, and people all over the country like them, even though they are one of the teams from Guayaquil. In my experience I've also seen that many people in Cuenca either root for Barcelona or Liga, a team from Quito. The second half passed along and slowly the clouds started to roll in, but the heat was still oppressing. Of course, Cuenca now going on the opposite end of the field, and while I was looking somewhere else, they scored the only goal of the game. With much excitement the stadium went wild, or half of it did anyway. So once again, I saw Cuenca beat a superior team on their homefield. The final score of the game was Cuenca 1- Barcelona 0. And now I just need to fill the time between now and when I have to get back to work tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

1960s Cuban Documentary Night

Last night on the way home from work I ran into my friend Andres, who told me that he was on his way to a free documentary. It had something to do with social something or other, and since I had nothing better to do, and it was free, I told him I'd go. But I needed to go home and change first. I was still in my work clothes. White shirt, black pants, black shoes, and a black jacket with my briefcase. As I put it, I looked like a Bible salesman. So I caught up with Andres and a couple other guys outside the theater.

When we got there we found out that it was actually $2.50 to get in, and though no one really wanted to pay, we were already there and there was nothing else to do. Taking time to debate, we eventually went in just as the first documentary was starting. The theater was hosting a film festival starting this week and lasting into next week, and we'd be able to vote on the documentary we saw. The 9:30 showing consisted of a series of Cuban documentaries from the early 1960s.

Obviously, the theme of most of these documentaries was Communism and Fidel Castro, and how things were so great in Cuba. It was borderline propaganda, and for a while seemed to me what would be the news reels that used to be seen before movies in the 1940s. "Buy War Bonds," types of footage. "Fight Back the Hun. Enlist Today."

One documentary showed clips of a speech Fidel gave to thousands of Cubans in Havana, with Che Guevara sitting at his side. The crowd went wild and at the end waved together, arm in arm. It was pretty impressive, and if it weren't for the next documentary, you'd think everything was honky dory in Cuba. The following film showed a poor village where people lived off of the land, evidently poor but happy. From my perspective, anyway, you could see how there were still people struggling to survive in the country. Whether or not that was the goal, I'm not sure.

The next couple of documentaries were a bit stranger, taking an artistic, post-modern look into American influence. With images of JFK and LBJ being crossed with images of death and other odd things, it was all anti-U.S. propaganda. You could even see the beginnings of photoshop, as the director had LBJ's face imposed over a knight in shinning armor. This film also included speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Stoakley Carmichael.

The best film was a short one that stared off with a jazz rendition of "Hava Negila" while simultaneously showing footage of race riots in the South. Unfortunately the last film wasn't shown and the lights unexpectedly came on, forcing us out of the theater. Left to discuss what we'd just seen, one of the guys thought they were great, while a couple others didn't think they were anything special. Not a bad way to kill a couple of hours, but when I went home I still had to watch an episode of "South Park" just to kind of wash the taste out of my mouth.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Beginning of the End

Today began another cycle of intensive English courses as the university. The last cycle that I'll be teaching this year. The last that I'll be teaching at the University of Cuenca in Ecuador. My other class at night has been continuing and will end in June. This new course will end in July, and then I'll be finished as a volunteer English teacher in Ecuador. It's hard to come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, the year in Ecuador is dwindling down, and every day that passes, well spent or wasted, is just like sand slipping through the hour glass.

It's a strange thing to find yourself looking at a calendar with a date of departure set. Almost like looking down the glass and seeing that only the backwash is left. You could stay positive and say there's still some left, or go all sour and accept that there's not much left. No matter how much difficulty I've dealt with or crap I've been angry about, I know I'll still be upset to leave. What's worse is it seems that I've finally now started to connect with a new group of friends, and though there's still two months or so left, having friends that you know you'll have for a while as opposed to friends that know you'll be gone soon are two very different things. Everything seems to be on rush mode now.

By now I feel like a seasoned teacher. I've already gone through three different cycles with probably over 140 students, and whereas I was nervous and had no idea what I was doing on my first day in September, today it was smooth and all business. Experience, it seems, would have its perks. Who-da thunk it? But again, there's that hint of sadness in saying goodbye to another class that you'd enjoyed and having to start all over again.

Yet I'm still here, still going along, and only from time to time am I reminded that my time is winding down. Otherwise, for the majority of the time I feel like I'm still just coming up on month 5 and have so much left to do. I still want to get deep into the jungle. I still want to do the famed Quilatoa Loop, a stunning expanse of land in the center of the country with lakes and craters. I still want to see a cockfight.

Some other foreigners I've known for a while now are starting to leave, as their contracts are expiring. Back home or to the next country they go, and here I stay. It's almost like getting old and just waiting to die. You hear the friends saying that we need to go out one last time and do this one last time, and soon they get on a bus and leave. But you remain behind. And knowing that your own time will come soon, when you're the one who's having going away parties and saying goodbye to friends made, you wonder if it will be the same reception. If people will think about you for maybe a day and then move on. Hopefully there's more of a lasting impression than that. But basically, even the locals I've become friends with, even if I was the first gringo they ever met, they will eventually have to move on and maybe even make more gringo friends. Who knows?

What I do know is that a couple of months ago I didn't feel as strongly about my setting as I do right now. And anytime a change of scenery is coming up, you're bound to feel more sentimental and want to stick around just a little longer. My only consolation is that I know I'm going to Argentina in August, and maybe with a little luck and money, I'll be able to work my way back to Ecuador before going back to the United States. Whenever that may be.

Another day down in the books. One less to do what I haven't yet done. It's time to get busy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Shoutout from Matador Trips

It's not exactly self promotion, since I didn't write the article, but a little article has been published on Matador Trips about yours truly. Since I've been living in Ecuador for 8 months or so now, I'm an expert on the country for the Matador Network, and I've been featured this week as an expert. So take a look at the article and see what writer Hal Amen has said.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ceviche Saturday

I met up with Jamie yesterday at the 10 de agosto market to pick up supplies for making ceviche. One of the traditional dishes from the coast of Ecuador, it's become a meal that I really enjoy eating, but don't get much of because I live in the mountains. Yet for a friends birthday, a few of us were gathering at Jamie's house to cook the food and hang out.

Outside the market it was hot and Jamie and I went upstairs for some delicious juice concoction with pineapple and strawberry for 50 cents. Her friend, Fernanda, whose birthday we were celebrating, was the one who knew how to cook the ceviche, and she was going to show us how. We strolled through the market, but let Fernanda do the buying so she would get the best prices. Walking through the fish section, the older, female vendors were playing with Jamie and I. First they danced for us and got us to dance, and then they asked if we were married. I said no and they asked if we were dating. Again I said no, and they asked me if I liked boys. When I said no they laughed and asked Jamie why she didn't want me, since I was beautiful with cat eyes.

They quoted us a price on shrimp, and when we asked Fernanda how much it cost her, she paid two dollars less than we would have. The supplies we needed were shrimp, peppers, onions, cilantro, and plantain for the patacones that we would dip into the ceviche. Ceviche is a cold soup dish, as served in Ecuador. In Peru it's a different story altogether. I'm just going to focus on what I'm familiar with, the Ecuadorian version. Even though it's a coastal dish, Fernanda's father is from Guayaquil, so she knew the recipe.

Back at Jamie's house, we started to prepare the food. The girls started preparing the shrimp while I cut up the onions, and though Fernanda wanted them cut in a certain way, it took me a couple of onions to get it right. Eventually the onions were too much for my eyes and Fernanda finished it up, but by then the shrimps were ready and the shells were being mixed in a pot of hot water that would become the broth. This is used to add flavor, and it smelled so good I could have eaten just the shells.

After the onion fiasco I moved on to cutting up the peppers. We used green peppers, and after cutting them open and removing the seeds, I cut them into long strips and then into tiny parts. We only needed about 1 and a half peppers before we were almost done with preparation. By this time a bunch of other people had shown up and the kitchen was packed. The ceviche was almost finished, so some people moved on to cook the patacones. For this fried food, you cut up pieces of plantain and fry both sides. Once they are semi fried, you remove them from the pan and mash them flat. After, you put them back in the pan and fry them some more until they are finished.

At the same time other people were preparing homemade canelazo, a traditional drink here that I've said tastes like acid reflux. For this drink, naranjilla was boiled in with aguardiente, or sugar cane alcohol. I've looked for a translation of naranjilla and can't find one, and I have to imagine that this fruit doesn't exist back home.

Once the patacones were ready to go we put a table in the yard and had a little picnic as the sun started to go down. With the ceviche in a large bowl, we all put an equal amount into smaller bowls and dipped the patacones into the broth as we ate up the rest of the ingredients. With a lime juice that adds to the flavor, the ceviche had all of the fixings to make a hungry man feel satiated. The shrimp was just right and the peppers and onions, which I normally don't go after, created a blend in the broth that caused a tart sensation once they reached the mouth, but ultimately left you wanting more. In other words, it was a great meal.

Just as we finished it got dark and drizzles came down, so we went back inside for some chocolate flavored Zhumir, a sugar cane alcohol, and some of the canelazo before heading out. A relatively big process for a meal, ceviche is nonetheless a dish that I can add to my favorites, and with any luck we'll be cooking it again some time soon.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Visitors and Ceviche, YEAH!

I don't even know what I've been up to lately. I think for the last 5 weeks in a row I've had either three or four day weekends, in addition to the "half vacation" I had this week, teaching only one course at night. So I've been sort of bumming around, watching movies and reading. But this weekend got exciting when my friend Ricardo told me that he was going to be visiting from Portoviejo. His ex-girlfriend is visiting him and he was taking her to Cuenca to show her around.

He was supposed to get in on Friday but surprised me on Thursday by showing up early, and though he was only going to stay the night, he wound up staying two. We had a good time catching up, and his ex-girlfriend Angela was really friendly and fun to hang out with too. On Friday we walked around for a few hours enjoying the sun, later on going home to get a good nap in. Our plan was to go out salsa dancing that night and we needed some rest.

Lauren came over later on too, and while hanging out in the basement of my house, we played checkers, had a few drinks, and played, "Would you rather..." The salsa club was fun but we stayed out until closing time, around 3 am, so today I'm feeling pretty tired. Ricardo and Angela have already left, but there's still something to look forward to. Lauren, Jamie, and a few other friends are getting together shortly to make ceviche, one of the traditional dishes of Ecuador. The only problem is that it's traditional to the coast, so I don't get to eat it very often, but I really like it.

We're actually about to meet up to get the supplies and cook it, so I've gotta be leaving. But I'll follow up with how it turns out.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Back to the Grind

Today I went for a run for the first time since the race on Sunday. My muscles have finally recovered, and my sore throat is beginning to clear up. I didn't go for a long run, but still ran down to the park and ran three laps. I then ran back up the steps and back to my house. It was a pretty good run, all things told, and lasted longer than the majority of the runs I did before the race.

I'm still debating whether or not I want to try the 15k up in Quito, but I'm going to assume I am for the time being and try to train regardless. And even if I don't do it, at least I've been getting more exercise and running more. This week has been pretty laid back because I've only had one class each night at 7 p.m. Since the other class has ended, on Monday I just had a meeting at 5 o'clock and on Tuesday gave a final exam at 1 o'clock.

Yesterday I had to find a way to kill the entire day, so in the morning I went down to the bank and discovered that I was actually paid on time for April. Woo hoo! And, just to keep the good times rolling, they also paid the extra $100 dollars that they owed from all of the previous paychecks. With extra money and nothing to do, I picked up a few new DVDs. I've been burning through movies and television series lately because there's just been so little to do. I've been going through some money on this, but then again there isn't all that much that I buy here.

I also went down to the American-owned English bookstore and exchanged three books. Each book brought in knocks off $2 on a book you choose, and I quickly noticed a mid-sized book called "Survivor," by Chuck Palahniuk, the author of "Fight Club." "Fight Club" is one of my favorite book, and movies as well, and so it was a no brainer. The cost was $10, but with the three books, it was knocked down to $4.

I've already burned through 70 pages or so, and as usual, it's a dark and twisted story. But it's a good read, and I'm already pleased with the purchase. So for the next few days that will be my source of entertainment. Reading the new book, walking around town, and watching DVDs. It's a tough life sometimes.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


In the aftermath of the 10k on Sunday, I've been feeling like a 90 year old man. My entire body feels sore and it's hard to get moving, though once I do start to walk I can make an effort of it. But my legs are done for, and I'm thinking I should have stretched for a bit longer after the race. I feel devoid of energy, and if I had the chance, I'd really rather just stay in bed for a couple of days and sleep.

As a result of the exhaustion, I'm also a bit sick. It started out with my throat being a little sore, and eventually got to feel very sore. Also, my head has been throbbing. This morning was the worst of it, and it felt like I hadn't slept at all last night. So I've been napping as much as I could throughout the day, and I think I actually broke a fever while giving a final exam today. So hopefully I'm getting better.

Now it's just a matter of time until my muscles heal and I can start running again. I'm considering running a 15k in Quito in June, and I'll need to train a bit more for that race. I'm going to be in Quito anyway for a conference, and a few of my friends are planning on running in it. My official time for the 10k was 1 hour and 6 minutes, and I feel that I could improve a lot in the next race. However, judging by how badly my body feels right now, I need to think about whether or not I want to go ahead with it. I'll give updates on what I'm doing with that.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nothin' But a 10k Road Race at High Altitude on a Sunday Mornin'

I've never had any wild ambition to run in a road race, and in fact, up until recently I tried to do everything I could to avoid running. Not for me, I thought. I'll just take a nice leisurely pace. But in the last month or two in Cuenca I decided to start running, and realizing that the altitude wasn't a problem and I was actually able to run, I continued to keep it up when the weather permitted. And just last week I heard about a 10k road race in Cuenca that was taking place on Sunday. It was the "45 Edicion Circuito Internacional de Las Cruces de Cuenca," a race to all of the crosses of the city. Some friends from Quito wanted to come down and race, and it got me thinking about trying it. Then my host mom kept egging me on, and suddenly I was motivated like never before.

It's almost weird to suddenly be motivated to run when it was never a factor in my life before, but even when my friends from Quito said they couldn't come, I still wanted to do it. I dragged my friend Jamie into signing up with me, and after paying the $10 fee to enter, there wasn't much else to do but dread and fear, second guess, and wonder at which kilometer I'd keel over and die. Cuenca is, after all, at high altitude. We sit at 2,500 meters, or 8,200 feet. So it's pretty high up, but I guess after months of walking all over the place and recently walking around, I'm well acclimated.

On Tuesday I prepared by running about 4 kilometers, and after my legs were hurting for a couple of days, I was dubious about how well I'd come out. But Jamie and I agreed to go slowly, pacing ourselves and not over doing it. We also came up with signals in case we needed to speed up, slow down, or drop out. But after last night, waking up every couple of hours anxiously, I woke up this morning tired but ready to go. I didn't really train for it, but I was ready to take on 10 kilometers, or about 6.2 miles. Not much in the long run, but much more than I'd ever run.

It was cold this morning as I jogged down to the starting line, and after meeting up with Jamie, we attached our numbers, mine being 0920, and I felt like a real runner. Though of course that was just a facade. We ran into another, older teacher who had run in the New York Marathon once, and started out the race with him. Just before the gun shot went off the sun came out and it got hotter, and I realized that I would be burning by the end. For once the weather was actually nice. I wanted to start asap.

As we started people pushed and scooted past, but we took our time and joked around, making our way around the bend and easily passing the first couple of kilometers. By the third kilometer we said goodbye to the other teacher as he ran ahead to go at his chosen speed, and Jamie and I ran with music in our ears to keep us going. The sun was shining on us and when we could we hid under the cover of shade. As we ran by, supporters on the side of the road cheered us on and passed out little pouches of water that, when we bit into to open, would explode half of the contents on us. But it felt good.

And still I didn't feel tired or out of breath. We were trotting, and honestly some speed walkers probably could have passed us, but we were doing well. And as we progressed we passed other people who obviously wore themselves out too early. We were doing it well. It wasn't the Boston Marathon by any means, but it felt good to be accomplishing something and seeing the people waving. Most of the people were surprised to see me in there and would instantly cheer louder, not expecting me to be able to handle the altitude.

Finally we arrived at the street that was one long hill. It wasn't "heartbreak hill" but it was enough to cause runners to stop and walk. We tackled it steadily and went up slower than before, but we soon reached the crest and had passed many other runners. We were nearing the halfway point and I felt great, knowing I could keep going for a while. Jamie was a little behind and we didn't want to get split up, so I slowed down occasionally for us to stick together. Back through the center of the city with more onlookers, my host mom and sister were waiting on a corner to cheer me on.

We passed a couple of police and army bands and more supporters, unsure of how many kilometers we'd passed, but knowing that we were close to the end. I wasn't breathing heavily or even sweating all that much, a fact that shocked me as I ran and realized that I was running further than I ever had. Music will definitely help with it. Finally we started nearing the end, and I could recognize the area where we'd started, and since I wasn't tired, I told Jamie I was just going to run all out, so I turned on the jets for probably the last half kilometer and arrived to a huge crowd about an hour and 5 minutes or so after we left. The official time will be posted later.

By the time I decided to run all out my legs were feeling numb, rocks were in my shoes, and blisters were forming. But it felt good to get it done, and once I was finished and I was deep into the crowd, I didn't really know what else to do besides wait for Jamie. We met up and had to get into a long line to return the chips that tracked our time, pick up shirts and a medal that everyone got.

So that about completed the 180* for me. As someone who never used to enjoy running, I actually really enjoyed the race. I took it easy and was able to accomplish it, and now I'm even thinking of trying a 15k in Quito in June. And I owe it all to one game of Frisbee. Back in February we played Frisbee in the park, and after running around for a couple of hours I realized that I wasn't really tired. I decided after that to start running and take advantage of my situation, and to get in better shape. It feels good to have done it, and with that being said, it's now time to rest up my legs and take it easy for the rest of the day.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dar Vueltas

For as long as I've been in Ecuador, this has been a phrase that has been just out of reach for me. It's been mysterious and something to be envied, and I always wondered why I wasn't invited to "Dar Vueltas" with everyone else. What it basically boils down to is a group of friends pile into a car and drive around all night looking for a place to drink. It sounds pretty juvenile and it is, but I wanted to experience it firsthand, and finally last night I got a taste.

Of course, as I've experienced with other things, the long awaited taste isn't always as good as you might expect. We started the night when I got picked up outside of my house by a group of friends. I thought we'd go to a bar, but they wanted to save money and just drink in a park. After debating for 10 minutes which park to go to, it was decided that it would be too hard because the cops were going to just kick us out, even though everyone drinks in parks.

So after more stalling and driving around in circles, we bought some Zhumir, the local drink, and a 6 pack. I didn't want us to drink at my place, and no one else could help.

"My parents are home, they'll kill me."

"We can't go to my house, my mom is sleeping."

This all seemed extremely reminiscent of high school, right down to the driving aimlessly while trying to figure it out. But people don't mind driving around, as it's a sense of freedom that they can't have in the home. And since gas is so cheap, it's never really an issue. Since no one else I know has a car, I've never been able to take advantage of this, and as a result haven't seen much of the outskirts of the city. Driving is a big part of suburbia life, and it's something that I miss. So as we drove around and I could see neighborhoods I've never been to, it was entertaining and worthwhile, even though we were wasting time.

All of us were over the legal age to drink, but there was fear of something. They didn't want to deal with cops. As we pulled into a park a cop on a motorcycle was just breaking up the people there. Plan busted. Next thing I knew we were driving into the sticks over muddy, broken pot hole roads, further and further away from the city. We pulled off into a dirt road by a river and while the music played, the drinks were mixed.

Something I've never seen was done. They took the liquor and put it all into a plastic bag, following that with the tonic to mix it with. One of the guys then bit a hole into the bag and poured it slowly back into the bottle, now that it was "mixed." After a drink we moved on back into the city and met up with some more people. At the Coliseum, "The Doors" were playing. I put the name in quotations because from the looks of the poster, it's two original members and three other guys they just threw together. Hardly The Doors. The streets were packed with tough rocker wanna-be's and packs of friends drinking on the corner. One spot seemed as good as another.

We found another park, pulled over to play music, got out and started drinking. Always pouring just a tiny amount in the cup to take a quick drink and pass it on. But soon the cops showed up and kicked us out. So again we piled back into the car and drove around. I was beginning to see how this wasn't a very efficient way to drink. Stopping to get another bottle, we arrived in a new part of town. But again, we were soon kicked out by a night watchmen. It was looking hopeless.

But eventually, when all seemed lost, we wound up in a neighborhood outside of town called Banos. There we were able to drink in peace, and even though it was cold and late, it was fun just hanging out and talking with everyone. And after all that work, we only stayed there for about a half hour before heading home. To dar vueltas, it seemed, was more about driving around than drinking. The long awaited cultural experience was one that really didn't amount to much, but as long as I've done it, I'm glad it's been done.