Monday, June 29, 2009

Stay Off the Road at Night

I've warned as many people as I can about the dangers of taking a night bus in Ecuador. Still, some people continue to choose to take them, and it's their choice. As I've said before, you can ride a night bus 100 times and never have any trouble, but if one time something goes wrong, you'll be wishing you hadn't. Not only can you be robbed or temporarily hijacked at night, but the drivers can fall asleep and the buses can roll off a cliff (which happened to another volunteer in my program.) And though I'd warned one of my closest friends here, Jamie about what happened on my bus back in September, last Friday night she was on a bus from Cuenca to Quito that got hijacked.

The coast is definitely considered more dangerous, but these things can still happen in the sierra. I still haven't even heard from her because her cell phones were stolen, but I've heard about what happened through other friends who saw her in Quito after it happened. The circumstances are similar to what happened to my friends and I in September, which I wrote about in a blog. I also wrote about what to do in a situation like this in an article with the Matador Network.

Basically, she was taking the bus up to Quito and three men with guns got on the bus, robbed everyone, and left them in a field. This time around, however, they actually fired the guns in the bus. But Jamie was fortunate too because she was able to hide money in her shirt and it wasn't discovered. She was traveling by herself, and I can't imagine what that must have been like all alone. I'd seen her just before she left that night, and though she left later in the afternoon, her plan was to spend the night in a town a couple of hours away, and I still don't know what happened to the original plan. If she'd told me she was going straight to Quito I'd have told her not to.

Being on both sides of this kind of incident now, I have a better appreciation for it. As a victim in something like a bus hijacking, you are the sole focus. You are there when it happens and when it's over, you are alone with your thoughts until other people start to hear about it. But the worst of it is behind you, and even though you might have some emotional things to deal with after, the guns can't touch you later on. As a friend though, I find myself just feeling awful about it, and it's a feeling that is lingering. Knowing exactly what it's like, I hate that she had to go through that. And I hate that there's nothing I can do, at least right now, while I'm still out of contact with her. It's the kind of feeling that tells you you really care for someone, and not being able to see them immediately only makes it worse. This is the kind of pain my family and friends must have been going through back home when it happened to me.

Jamie actually has a family here, and she was on her way to Quito to pick up her little sister who will be visiting for a month. So she'll have support that I didn't have. Also, she's been here almost 7 months and knows a lot of people in the community, as well as more about the culture and society. In my case, I'd just arrived in the country and other than the volunteers in my program at orientation, didn't really know anyone. So I'm hopeful that she'll be able to move on from this pretty quickly. And as bad as it sounds, she knew from my experience what it was like and what to expect, so she probably didn't have the same thoughts I'd had. Thoughts of whether or not we were being kidnapped by rebels or would we be killed, etc. The kind of thoughts that enter your head when your world's just been rocked.

So again, I can't stress this enough. Do not take the night buses in the country. It's just not worth it. You might have to kill a day traveling once in a while, or spend a little extra and fly, but at the end of the day you arrive in one piece with all of your things, and you don't have to have a story to scare people. And I just hope that my friend can feel the same way too.

The Countdown

With almost a month left until I leave Ecuador, a sort of countdown has begun. I've already finished one of my classes and will finish my other on Friday. I'll still have to give final exams and placement tests up until July 21st, however. There are still a number of things I want to do, and as such, I have to really take a look at just what I can get done. There's a town about an hour from Cuenca that is in a valley, so it's hotter and more relaxing. I want to go there if I have the chance. And I'm thinking of flying up to Quito a few days before my flight home to visit Quilotoa, a small village with a crater lake.

I don't think I'll be able to take a long trip into the jungle, unfortunately. But even with the time left, I'll be getting periods of time in the next few weeks where I have nothing to do for a few days at a time. So I've been talking with a couple of people about possibly going to the coast again, or even down to Mancora, Peru. It's about 8 hours away, and is supposed to be a cool beach town.

I also need to take care of my bank account and make sure I get an advance on my last paycheck so that I can pay my host family for July. The last thing I want to buy is a Panama hat, and maybe a couple of knick knacks for the family back home. If I can get all of that in my bag, that is. But the pinch is definitely on now that we come close to July. It's hard to believe that it's come to this, but it's reality and you just have to deal with it. I remember after being here for a month how it felt like so much time had gone by, and now with a month left I feel like there still so much left. But at the same time, I feel like I've seen and experienced almost all there is to do in this country. And that's obviously a lot of stuff. It's almost time to move on.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Military Coup in Honduras

This afternoon I went down to Millennium Plaza to watch the U.S.A vs. Brazil soccer game in the championship of the Confederations Cup. It was a good game, even though Brazil came from behind in the second half and won 3-2. But I was surprised to see a scrolling message on the bottom of the TV throughout the game. It seems that this morning there was a military coup in Honduras, and the president, Manuel Zelaya had to flee to Costa Rica. This is the first military coup in Central America since the Cold War.

On the TV, the message was encouraging people to protest outside the embassy and consulate of Honduras in Quito and Guayaquil, to support the democracy and the president. From what I read in an article on The New York Times Web site, President Zelaya had recently started the process for a referendum to allow himself to be elected again, even though the constitution only allows one term per president. The congress and supreme court ruled it unconstitutional, and this led to a series of events which led to the army taking over and kicking out the president this morning.

The coup d'etat has brought a lot of attention to leaders in the surround countries, and President Rafael Correa, of Ecuador, will be flying to Nicaragua as well for some kind of conference. I haven't heard any opinions from Ecuadorians yet, but based off of the messages shown during the game, it seems like the government wants people to think in favor of the ousted Honduran president. This is an interesting situation that will develop more over the coming days.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A New Volunteer in Cuenca

In about a half hour I'm going to meet a new volunteer from my program who will be in Cuenca for the summer. I don't know anything about her, but have been told that she'll be teaching at SECAP for two months. She's actually staying with one of my former students, who I interviewed a few months ago to be a host family. Lauren, who got back to Cuenca a couple of days ago from a vacation in the United States, will meet up with the new volunteer and my former student. It's kind of exciting to have a new face around, and hopefully we can drop some knowledge on her.

Last night was a despedida, or goodbye party for a teacher who's been in Cuenca for almost as long as I have. James, from New Jersey, was teaching at a language school here and will be leaving next week. Back when I first got to this city, I was sitting in a hostel bar doing my first lesson plan when he asked me if I was teaching. He'd just arrived to try to find work, and as it turns out he was friends with another volunteer here, who encouraged him to come down. He wound up working at a bar for a few months until he found steady work, but it all worked out in the end.

The party was at a bar that isn't opened yet, but will open in September. It's right on the river and is owned by two Americans. One of the owners just moved here after living in Costa Rica for 6 years. It was mostly guys at the party, but after paying $2 for all you can drink, it got pretty rowdy. I made my way through rum, sugarcane alcohol, and a shot of pure mescal. There was a piece of wood in the bottle, and later on I wound up chewing on it for a minute as it was passed around. I don't recommend this. Needless to say, we were all pretty "hechofunda," a word only used in Cuenca to mean something along the lines of "shitfaced."

So today I've been tired all day, but I'm ready to head out, if not to drink then to at least talk with the new volunteer. And it will be nice to see my former student again. But knowing this city, which is listed as the drunkest city in South America (based off of alcoholics per population), I'm sure I'll wind up having a cocktail or two. What a life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

This is the End

Tonight I will give the last lesson for my night class. I couldn't be more excited, as this night class was extremely challenging for me and I honestly did not enjoy it one bit. But even with the misery of going to that class every night, they were still students who wanted to learn. I didn't hate the students, I just didn't like the class, and the fact that I was teaching it. But last night the few students that showed up wanted to celebrate the end of the semester, so one of the students went to buy a pizza and some drinks. They wanted to go out, but I really wanted to finish the material before we did anything.

But this is the beginning of the end, in many respects. I still have my afternoon class for another week, and though we have final exams and second chance exams throughout July, the teaching part of the deal is nearly completed. I feel like with all of the good and bad times, it was a good experience that at the very least has taught me that my future doesn't lie in teaching English as a second language. I might be able to push through it for a year or two, but it is not my calling. And that's OK. It's a valuable lesson to have learned.

As much as I like being down here, I am ready for a change, and after hearing so many good things about Buenos Aires, I'm really excited to be going there. And now a friend from my program might be heading down around the same time as me for a little vacation before coming back to Ecuador. I need to do some more convincing, but I think she's sold. It'll be a nice transition to have someone with me the first week or so in Argentina.

A couple of nights ago my toilet randomly started leaking water around 2 in the morning, and it was so loud it sounded like it was raining in my room. So that kept me up for a good portion of the night, as well as soaking my bathroom floor, and in addition to the paranoia of bed bugs, I haven't been sleeping too well lately. Basically, I'm ready for a little comfort of the United States. Even if it's only for a few weeks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Run On

Back in February I played Frisbee in the park with some other expats for the first time. While playing, I realized that I wasn't winded or affected in any way by the altitude. After that day, I decided to give running a try, since I had nothing better to do anyway and was no longer going to a gym. And I've never looked back. It was a bit slow to start, of course. But most things are like that when you train physically.

At first doing two laps around the park was draining, and once I stopped running I would be huffing and puffing for a minute or two. But eventually I worked up to be able to do two laps without a problem, and eventually three laps. Finally, my host mom suggested I run in a 10k in Cuenca, and with the encouragement of running with my friend Jamie, we completed it with ease. After that I started running longer routes in the mornings and pushing it further. A month after the 10k I did a 15k in Quito at even higher altitude. And again, though it was challenging, I completed it in good time and felt great about it. It's kind of like a Forrest Gump situation. Once I did a 10k, I figured I'd just keep running and do a 15k.

I'm still running, and I'd like to continue it when I get home and move to Argentina. For anyone who's known me long enough, this would be a complete change. I never used to like running, and in fact, I hated it. I'd run on elliptical machines at the gym, but that's about as far as it would go. To me, running was boring and difficult. So why is it that now I'm suddenly into running? I've thought about it, and if you ask me, it has something to do with the physical education system in the United States.

For one thing, unless you participate in Track and Field in middle or high school, the only time you're running outside of a particular sport is when you run "The Mile." It used to be one of the most dreaded events for me. Twice a year you're suddenly told to run as fast as you can in a loop four times, and this is supposed to determine how fit you are. Besides, a mile is a totally arbitrary measurement. If it was 5 yards less would we be in better shape, or in worse were it 5 yards more? Running for a longer distance might prove more than how far you can push it for 8 minutes. But without any training or preparation, the gym teachers judge whether or not you are in shape. Well, frankly, it doesn't work that way.

Running, as simple as it may seem, is actually more complex than that. Running in a couple of races, I've seen just how much preparation goes into these things. I'm obviously not an expert on the subject, but you pick things up quickly. For one thing, stretching is extremely important, and though they always had us stretch in gym, there was about as much oversight on what we did as there was on the executives of Enron. No one told us whether or not we were stretching well or progressing. Chalk it up to either lazy gym teachers or a general lack of concern with how kids are stretching.

Second, there are actual training regimens to follow. Sure, running on the fly might show what you're able to do at that moment, but aren't we told our whole lives to practice, study, train, get better? Isn't it much more enjoyable to set a goal and accomplish it? Running isn't the most thrilling sport, but I really enjoy setting a goal every morning and reaching it. I love playing sports like basketball, baseball, football, Frisbee, etc. But I suck at all of those, and never was able to make the teams. But you can't suck at running. You're just not as fast as the other guy. But you don't suck. This is not something that is taught to us as young children.

Third, you need to learn how to breath. Okay, obviously, we all breath independently of whether or not we think about it, but there's definitely a different way to breath when you run. Starting out running, you soon get the heart pumping faster than normal and need to take deeper breaths. But if you're like I used to be, I would almost freak out and breath too much, not regulating how much air I took in. I was focusing more on the fact that I had no breath than on how to deal with the air I had. I've learned since February to take slow, deep drags and take the air that I have, which isn't always easy considering I'm at high altitude. But it's necessary. As a person who used to have asthma, running was a terrible idea for me. But I grew out of it and was able to increase my lung capacity.

Basically, running is a nearly cost free activity that everyone could take part in if they had the proper education on it. It's obviously not for everyone, and can definitely get boring running around a track for 30 minutes, but that's why I switch it up every few days and run on the sidewalks. Why is it that only the fastest kids are encouraged to run Track? What about the other kids that aren't going to make the baseball team? Why should they just sit around on the couch? While the ultimate goal of running a race is to win or get the best time you can get, I think there's just as much pleasure in finishing. At least for someone like me, anyway, who doesn't even plan on winning.

Back home, I used to go to the gym all the time. While some people start lifting at the gym for a few weeks and then get bored, I went consistently for 5 years, except for a couple months in Spain when I had no membership. I stopping going to the gym when I got to Ecuador, and I guess to make up for it I've picked up running. And since I get into what I do, I've continued to do it about 5 times a week. I want to continue this for years to come, and I hope that I will be able to. But if a guy like me, who genuinely did everything he could to avoid straight out running, could pick up the sport, at high altitude no less, anyone could do it. And it's worth a shot.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ecuadorian Skinheads

There's a group of skinheads in Cuenca called A.N.R. Without knowing what their politics are or what they really do, I do know that they spray paint their tag "A.N.R." as well as a swastika around different buildings in the city. They've always been around, but lately more and more are popping up, especially in the center. I don't know what they think they stand for, but it's a topic of conversation that has been coming up more and more recently.

The ironic thing about being an Ecuadorian skinhead is that if they are in fact in favor of Nazi beliefs, then that would essentially put them in the group of people hated by Nazis. There is a definite lack of education on the matter in these parts, and many people simply name their children Hitler, Stalin, or Trotsky simply because they are well known historical figures. But they don't know why they are famous, and don't even care to hear about their stories. One friend told me that a student he had was named Hitler, and know one in the class cared, as if it was another name like Jon. When he tried to explain, they weren't even listening.

But basically, as a Jew and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I find it uncomfortable to live in a place where people can be so ignorant of such facts and continue to celebrate these world leaders as if they were heroic. Just last week I was witness to the consequences vicious attack from skinheads. This time, though, it was skinhead on skinhead violence. We don't know what brought on the fight, but 5 guys jumped another man on his motorcycle while he was at a red light and proceeded to beat the crap out of him. They were stomping is face in as he lay helpless by the curb, like something out of "American History X." They eventually ran away and left the man completely disoriented and bleeding badly, while traffic backed up and no one did anything.

These things can happen anywhere in the world, and gang violence is nothing new. But it is a little surprising when it takes place here in Cuenca, which is generally thought of as a peaceful city. It's an aggravation that you have to deal with because in reality, this happens everywhere, including the United States. I only hope that in the future the educational system will improve enough to teach what these things actually mean, and maybe defer some people from joining the ranks.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers' Day

Today is Fathers' Day, and since my dad lives back in Boston, thousands of miles away, I don't really have much to do today. I don't have any family here, except for my host family, but there is also a lack of a father in this house, so I don't foresee any special activities planned for the day. I'm not sure what people here generally do for this day, but I would imagine that it's pretty similar around the world. People spend time with their families and maybe even give some presents for the patriarch.

I actually thought Fathers' Day was last week for some reason. I don't know why, but I have this memory from my childhood when I lived in New York. It was Fathers' Day and I was out with my dad and brother on a canoe trip in a river or lake in Westchester. I'm fairly certain that it was June 14th, and I don't know why that date has stood out in my mind. But anyway, because of that I just assumed Fathers' Day was every June 14th, so when I called home last week I said "Happy Fathers' Day" for no reason. But hey, at least I jumped the gun instead of totally forgetting altogether. But I did tell some other people that it was the holiday, and I wonder if they screwed up too by calling home and saying it.

For the majority of this year I've only spoken to my dad once a week on our Sunday night Skype calls, or occasionally through an email if there's a pressing matter. But that's to be expected, because when you grow up and move away you can't always be updating everyone on every detail of every day. This is a fact that my mother has never been able to understand, and she insists on hearing everything.

And though it can often be aggravating hearing the voice of reason or a warning, it is good to at least have someone there to care. Though I've yearned for my independence for a while now, my dad will still step in and help out with figuring out finances, insurance, or taxes. And he's always interested in hearing what I'm up to. Being away from home for so long, you really get to appreciate the things that you used to have and what you miss.

I remember specific occasions on which it would just be my dad and I at home, watching a Red Sox game or some movie. I remember a great bonding experience when we both watched "Fight Club" together for the first time on some dull Friday night. Though it's not a comedy, there are really funny parts of the movie, and at times we were both cracking up. My dad laughed so hard at one point he almost blacked out and we had to rewind it to see what he missed. Those kinds of memories are free and always the most precious.

I hope I can have a few more of them when I come home for three weeks in August before moving on again. So I hope you enjoyed this blog post dad. Hopefully it's better than another tie. Happy Fathers' Day from Ecuador.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I Need a Hobby

I can sense my time winding down. Next week is the last week for my night class, and final exams are the week after that. My final day teaching will be July 3rd, after which I'll have a month of giving exams, grading, and waiting around to go home. I've started a new book and have been working on some DVDs, but there's gotta be more out there. You can only run so much before you get really sore.

For example, today I ran on two separate occasions and then played Frisbee in the park. I walked home and showered and still it was only 4:30. All of this exercise is great, but I need something better to do. You can only run so much. I'm not training to be Forrest Gump, after all. You can write as much as you want to, but at the end of the day, you still need something else to do. Once I'm officially done and have nothing to do, I just hope I can find a way to keep busy without going insane.

Last night I didn't go out because I really needed a break. I'd gone out every night of the week since Sunday. I wasn't necessarily going out and partying every night, but for at least an hour or two each night I was going to the center and watching the fireworks or meeting up with some friends after work. It was tiring after a while and I just wanted to relax at home. I tried to watch some TV downstairs, but since the TV is such a piece of junk, I couldn't even do that. Sometimes the TV just doesn't work and has a black screen but the sound will work. After a half hour it warms up enough and might stay on, but it can also occasionally black out again.

Sometimes that can be fixed by hitting the top of the TV, but it doesn't always. So I sat downstairs for 40 minutes listening to MTV, hoping it would come back, but it never did. If you think watching MTV is awful, imagine how bad it is just listening. Once I started hearing Paris Hilton's voice, I said enough was enough and went upstairs.

Tonight is looking to be a little better, as I was invited to a birthday party for a friend. It will most likely be a group of gringos, but that's OK because a lot of the other teachers that I've gotten to know are either leaving soon or have already left. As a result, I see the numbers of names in my phone book dropping. And this isn't only from the other volunteers in my program. Last night alone I scrolled through and deleted 5 numbers of people who had left. I've written about this before, but it's weird to countdown like that when people start leaving and you're up on deck soon. It must be even weirder if you're staying long term though.

Either way, I think I'll take tomorrow off from running, and though I'll probably finish the book I'm on and burn through another disk of The Simpsons, at least it will be keeping busy in some way.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sun With a Chance of Fun

Okay, that´s the lamest title for anything, ever. But I couldn´t resist. The last couple of days here in Cuenca we´ve had a lot of sun and it´s been heating up, causing us all to hope yet again that it´s now finally summer. Summer is different here, however. It just means it´s the dry season, or that it doesn´t rain nearly as much as it does in winter. Winter, of course, being the rainier season. But with more sunshine, more people are outdoors and seem to be in better moods, at least from my perspective.

I´ve been going along giving all of my classes as normal, and suddenly it dawned on me yesterday that I need to hand in my grades for my night class by tomorrow. Next week is the last week, and after that I´ll only have my afternoon class for a couple more weeks. I´ll be officially done teaching on Friday, July 3rd, just in time to celebrate July 4th, Ecuadorian style. I still have to stick around in July for exams and other administrative tasks, but the teaching portion will be done.

It´s surprising how quickly it has come up, because I really thought that I was teaching until mid July. Now knowing that I´m so close to being done, it´s like a weight off my shoulders. It´s not that I hate teaching, it´s just that I don´t necessarily like it. Or teaching English as a second language, anyway. Maybe teaching history or writing could be more interesting to me. So I´m now very close to wrapping up my first teaching year. I say first because I might be teaching again in Argentina next year.

To celebrate, in a way, I bought myself some new shoes today. A couple of months ago I´d bought some new black shoes from a cheap shop, but they´re made out of plastic and kill my feet. Another professor told me that the shops in the center sell shoes for about $30-40, but back in the States they would cost around $200. Apparently they´re very good quality leather. So I decided to splurge and spoil myself a bit, buying shoes that will hopefully last me for a while. I´m happy with the purchase, though they are a bit pointy tipped, as is the fashion in South America. We´ll see if the U.S. is ready for it.

Last week I bought myself a new leather belt for $10, and the last big thing that I want to buy before I leave is a Panama Hat from Cuenca, which should cost $15. I´ve been pretty conservative with my money this year, so I think it´s reasonable to buy a couple of things here and there now that I´m almost done and ready to leave. As my friend Ricardo told me after he bought himself a hat for $20, sometimes you need to spoil yourself down here to keep from going crazy. He might be right. Getting something new could just be the difference between down in the dumps and a morale boost.

This weekend I´m thinking of going to a tiny town in a valley about an hour away where a friend has a house. We´ll cook a feast and then hopefully find a cock fight on Sunday. It´s not that I really want to bet on fighting roosters, but I feel like I should see that part of the culture. I´ll keep you posted.

LAN Offers Cheaper Deals

In case any of you readers out there are currently traveling in Ecuador or planning on coming soon, this information might be helpful to you. Recently we've heard that LAN will now be offering flights between Cuenca and Quito, and at a cheaper price than their competition, Aerogal or TAME. Earlier this month when I flew from Cuenca to Quito I had to pay $66. On the way back, it cost $78. LAN is offering deals now for around $30. I always recommend taking the bus down the country at least once so that you can see the scenery, but if you're pressed for time or just don't want to deal with a 10+ hour bus ride, this is a great deal.

The bus, which takes around 10 hours, costs $10 normally. But the flight, which if it is direct, will take only 30 minutes, and while flying overhead you can see some of the volcanoes throughout the country, including Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. This is the first time LAN has been offering these flights, and that is why they are currently cheaper, at least for the time being. However, there is a possibility that you will have to connect to Guayaquil before heading on to Quito, which could add another hour or so to traveling. But it's still better than the length of the bus ride or paying double with another airline.

On the other side of things, I've heard that this is a plan by LAN to undercut the competition and run them out of business with cheaper fares that the other airlines can't compete with. Then once the competition is gone, the prices will sky rocket. I've even heard that the other airlines are filing a law suit against LAN because of this. But those are just rumors I've heard about town. But again, if you're looking for a cheap way to get up to Quito or down to Cuenca in less time, this could be for you. I'm trying to figure out when to head up to Quito at the end of July, and I'll most likely book with them.

Above: The view of Chimborazo from the flight from Cuenca to Quito

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Crazy Cows or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Almost Took a Firework to the Face

Continuing with the festivities for Corpus Cristi, I went back to the center last night to meet up with some friends and see the fireworks. As usual, they burned a castillo, but there was also something different. For months I've heard about the "Vaca loca," or crazy cow firework display that only comes out on special occasions. I obviously didn't get the full effect of what my friends were trying to tell me, because once I saw the vaca loca, I saw just why it's a crazy cow.

After the first castillo was burned out music was playing and people stood around eating their street meat. Though I'm usually conservative on street meat and avoid it at all costs, I felt like digging it, and bought my meat on a stick and salchipapas. We were on the edge of the park, and suddenly a hoard of people started running towards us in fear. It was like out of those disaster movies, when the large crowd in New York suddenly realizes that an asteroid is coming, so they start fleeing in vain. I had no idea what was going on so I stood my ground. That is of course, until I saw a man wearing a larger than life, paper mache person with fireworks attached.

I still didn't quite get it until the doll started shooting fireworks into the crowd. As people ran away scared, they also laughed it off. This was, apparently, all part of the game. We ran for cover in the park, trampling over flowers and ducking behind trees and other people. But the crazy bastards underneath kept running towards the crowds and firing at them. They would spin around and let the fireworks bounce off the ground and buildings into masses of children. Occasionally someone would get hit, and once another paper mache doll caught on fire. A firework blew by my face, and as I was still in shock from how close it came, I realized that it bounced off the chest of a friend who was right next to me.

Now, I've seen some stupid ideas in Ecuador. But this had to be the stupidest idea of them all. I could literally see the brochure, "Come to Ecuador, where we shoot fireworks at the people!" Last night I just thought it was funny how they set them off in crowds. Now they were purposely trying to take people out. Next came out the giant cow which shot fireworks out of its horns. Many of the fireworks rocketed towards the cathedral, which I found incredibly ironic, since this was, after all, a holiday to celebrate Jesus.

Still by the perimeter of the park, we watched as the cows and dolls ran around inside scaring people, and it looked like watching riot footage from "Most Insane Videos" or demonstrations around the world. The smoke filled the streets and sirens went off. There was even a vaca loca song. The thing about this activity is that it was like playing Russian Roulette. You never knew when the firework would go off, so running didn't necessarily help. If you stayed in your place right next to the guy, you could be safe. But running could get you in the exact direction of the artillery. Someone commented that it reminded them of being back in Vietnam.

After about 20 minutes of dodging fireworks they finally finished and continued burning the second castillo. And not a moment too soon. We got some more candy and were thankful that we were still standing. Another one of those nights that leaves you saying, "Oh, Ecuador!"

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Fireworks, Burning Castles, and Candy

This week is the celebration of Corpus Cristi, and though no one actually knows why they celebrate, they know how to celebrate. All week long you can walk by the cathedral in the center of the city for the big celebrations. It kind of reminds me of a county fair but without the games run by the sketchy carnies. Instead, however, are the castillos, or castles that are lit on fire and then explode.

A castillo is a large construction that kind of looks like scaffolding, loaded up with pyrotechnics that go off in a domino effect. Once the first part has exploded and the fireworks have burnt out on the bottom section, they ignite the next section. This continues until the entire piece is destroyed, though it usually burns away an outer layer to show some kind of design. This week they're all showing giant crosses at the end of the show.

They set off at least two of these big boys a night, and the ironic thing is how little security or safety is involved. The castillos are placed in the middle of narrow streets packed with people who get right up close to them. And because it's in the city center, the fireworks explode all over other buildings, which could in theory ignite, or they fall to the ground on top of the spectators. Once the fireworks are burnt out, the smoke blows down the street right in the faces of all of the viewers, choking them and forcing them to cover their faces. This is a repeated process that happens every night for a week, every year. And so far they haven't figured out yet that this is bad.

Aside from the fireworks, they also send off little candles powered by hot air, which float into the sky. It's interesting to watch the line of fire slowly drift away into the night sky, like stars that continue to go light years away from you. And on the street itself is all of the food. Of course there's the tantalizing street meat, with the raw meat always next to the cooked meat. Play the odds on that one. You might get a good meal, or you might get sick.

All along the streets by the cathedral are candy stands with every kind of sweet you could think of, and then some. The price is right--you can get a bag of sweets for something like 25 cents, but eat enough of them and you won't want anymore. There's also cookies and some of the worst donuts ever baked. They're essentially just dry bread with hard frosting on top. It seems like the whole city comes out for this, and every other minute you run into someone else you know.

Last night we tried our luck on a game shooting a dart. For 50 cents you'd get two shots from point blank range to try to win a bag of candy or a fake $10 bill. How hard could that be? Turns out it was the most crooked game in town. Aiming directly at you wanted and then pulling the trigger proved that the dart would fall feet below the projected target. On the second shot, aiming much higher and adjusting for the terrible rifle, the dart still fell way too far off. It was more crooked than any game I've ever seen at any carnival. But there's literally no one to complain about it, and since people start leaving after the fireworks end, we decided to call it a night. Most likely, we'll wind up doing the same thing tonight, though of course without the rifle game.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dry Weekend

Because of elections for something to do with the Andean Conference tomorrow, there is a dry law in effect in Ecuador this weekend. As a result, there isn't much to do this weekend. It's not as if life revolves around going out and drinking, but it somehow kills anything else going on. It's a shame too, because it wastes the three day weekend. I had a couple of friends visiting the last couple of days, and it was fun to walk around with them and show them the sights of the city, but they've moved on and now I'm just sitting around wondering what I can do.

Today I said goodbye to Annie, another volunteer from my program who had been living up the street from me for the last few months. Annie has already finished teaching at her institution and will go home in a couple weeks after traveling with some friends. That's one less volunteer in Cuenca now, but I've heard that a volunteer is coming down for the summer to take her place. It will be interesting to meet this new teacher and see how they do with the adjustment.

There's a possibility of going to a town called Giron tomorrow to hike to a waterfall. The only problem is that my friend Jamie lost her cell phone yesterday. Since she's the contact person on this, it could be hard to figure out where and when to meet up. So that will also have to be winged.

Since this week is the celebration of Corpus Cristi, every day and night fireworks are being set off and sweets are being sold by the cathedral. The funny thing is that no one seems to really know what it's celebrating, only that it's for a week or so and they always eat candy and cookies. It's something they've done their whole lives and never really questioned.

Meanwhile, my bed bugs continue to bite me each night, and as I lay awake thinking I'm being bitten, I wonder how many bumps I'll wake up to count. By some miracle, hopefully, they'll just decide to move on to a better host. That's all I've got right now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ecuador vs. Argentina

Yesterday was a big day for Ecuador. In a qualifying match for the World Cup, they faced up against a big powerhouse, Argentina. The game was do or die for Ecuador, and at 4 o'clock the whole country was watching. It was kind of a bittersweet game for me, because it would be cool if Argentina won, but I've also been living in Ecuador and rooting for them for 9 months. Since they're the underdog and needed to win, it would be better for morale if they stayed alive. And, if Ecuador won, I most likely wouldn't have my night class. It was a tough call.

I went to a bar with a couple other guys to watch the game, and from the start you could see that Ecuador was playing harder, as usual. It seems like Ecuador is always in a must-win situation. With a couple of close calls here and there, they were getting by, but not producing in the first half. You could see how easily Argentina was working, and just how talented their players are. The game was in Quito, so the altitude could have affected the Argentinians, because eventually, they lost control of the game.

Somewhere in the 2nd half, I don't remember where, Ecuador scored the first goal. The bar, the streets, probably the entire country went nuts. Getting a goal against Argentina is a victory in itself. People were ecstatic. There were only a few minutes left when Ecuador scored the second goal, securing the victory, and again the city went nuts. Cars were honking and people were running through the streets.

I was happy but a little upset too, but since I realized I probably wouldn't have class, I was dealing with it. I rushed home to inhale my dinner, then rushed back out to the university. Even though it's expected that no one shows up to classes after a victory, the teachers still need to sign in. Luckily I'm only a 15 minute walk from the university. I signed in, waited in an empty classroom for 15 minutes, and left to meet up with some friends.

So for the time being, Ecuador is still alive in the race to get to the World Cup. And this is a long weekend due to elections. 2-0 so far.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Such a Fuss

Lately I've been getting a lot of comments from friends and family back home about my weight. Whenever I upload some pictures, there's always a smart guy comment about how much weight I've lost and the question of am I OK? The bottom line is, yes, I've lost a lot of weight in Ecuador. Is that a problem? No.

There's nothing wrong with losing a little weight, and since I wasn't exactly thin to begin with when I got here, I don't see how it's a reason for concern. But if it's not one thing to be worried about, it's another. If you're not too heavy, you're too thin. I walk all over the city every day, and since February I've been running 4 or 5 days a week as well. In addition with the different diet here, which is definitely less fatty than the diet most people maintain in the United States, I'm bound to lose weight. I have no problem with this, and other people really shouldn't either.

It's actually pretty aggravating to think that you're looking better, and definitely feeling better after losing some weight, only to have everyone back home tell you that you look sick. I hear people telling me to eat a sandwich. The funny thing is, I eat plenty here. I have a breakfast every morning (which I didn't always have back home) a big lunch only an hour and a half or so later, usually a snack in the middle of the day, and a dinner. Sometimes I'll have another dinner later on if I get hungry again. So I find it a little odd when people tell me to eat more. If anything, I'm probably eating more than I did back home.

If anything should be a reason for worry, it's the fact that I keep getting attacked by bed bugs at night. For the last few weeks I've been waking up with bites and been scratching all day long. From my feet to my legs and finally up to my arms now, the bugs are unrelenting. For a while I thought it might just be in my head, but I've seen tiny little spots of blood on the sheets, which is a sign of bed bugs, and the tell tale 3 bites in a row are associated with bed bugs or fleas.

I told my host mom just before I went to Quito because I didn't want her to think that I got the bites when I was in the capital, and though she changed the sheets and "fumigated" while I was gone, I continue to get bites. Last night I woke up at 4:30 am scratching and saw that my middle finger was swollen to almost double its normal size from a bite. After that I sprayed my whole body in bug spray and tried to go back to sleep, though it wasn't easy.

And the worst part is telling someone that their house has bed bugs. Of course, like many Ecuadorians, they don't want to take responsibility and say that it's from something else. But my host mom sprayed the bed again, yet I get the feeling that tonight I'll have the same problem. One of the biggest side effects from bed bugs is insomnia because of the fear of being bitten and the false sensations of what you think are bites.

The best way to get rid of them might be to get a new mattress, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Just about everything in this house is from the year of the flood, and I can't see a new mattress arriving just for me. In the meantime, I need to find other things to keep myself occupied.

For example, today Ecuador is playing Argentina for a qualifying match in the World Cup. On Sunday Ecuador beat Peru 2-1, and they really need to beat Argentina to keep their hopes alive. Of course, Argentina is a much better team, and it's unlikely that they'll win. Still, it's going to be an exciting game, and if they somehow did win, there probably wouldn't be classes. It's going to be hard to pick a team to win, but since it's already assumed that Argentina will make the World Cup, it'd be cool for Ecuador to win and try to get in as well.

And this weekend might be long. There are elections on Sunday, and apparently there are no classes on Friday and possibly Monday. But like every time there's a rumor, I won't find out the truth until the day before. So for now, I'll just keep thinking about the places that I might be able to go to.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ecuador, By the Numbers

I've got a new article up on The Traveler's Notebook, which is a part of the Matador Network. This article is a lighter piece on some of the things I've done (and not done) in my 9 months in Ecuador. Broken down with the numbers of things I've done, it gives a little insight into life in this country. Take a look.

The 15k in Quito, Over 9,000 Feet

We wanted to take it easy on Saturday night, the night before the big race, so we decided to go bowling with a bunch of other friends. When we got there though, we discovered that draft beer was only $1.60 and they came with little sandwiches. This was too much to ignore, and all of the guys started buying rounds. By the end of the night we'd had 5 rounds, as well as a couple of extra sandwiches here and there. We said our goodbyes and went home to rest up.

I was staying with my friend Amy, a volunteer in Quito who lives about 8 blocks from the finish line, which was in the national soccer stadium. Our friend Ricardo was also staying there, and when we got home around 11:30 we started making pasta and tuna fish sauce to carbo load. I'm not a runner, so I can't say I really understand it, but since my friends are big time runners, I just followed their lead.

We woke up around 6:30 am and started preparing. I ate a banana, put Vasoline where I needed it, put sun block on my face, and donned the complimentary t-shirt we all got. I even had a $1 hat to help against the sun. It was cold outside, but we knew we'd soon be hot enough. We started taking a bus towards the starting line, but the bus stopped service after just a few blocks. We jumped in a taxi with another runner and went to the start. Along the ride, which took over 10 minutes, I could see just how far away we were going. To parts of Quito I'd never even seen, we were really getting out there.

The taxi dropped us off as close as he could and we ran the last kilometer to where everyone else was congregating. Runners from all over were stretching, jogging, and jumping around. There was excitement in the air and it gave me a rush just to be a part of it. Taking last minute pees in the bushes (Amy in a restaurant), we went to the starting line. We were afraid we wouldn't find our other friends, but since there were only a handful of blonds there, we were reunited. Five other friends found us and we joked around and got loose as 8:30 passed and the race got under way.

I was told that over 10,000 people ran in this race, and I believe it. We couldn't even start running until about 8:40 because of the delay from the starting line. With the first decline I could saw a sea of brightly colored, bobbing heads stretching beyond the horizon. Ricardo and Amy took off immediately, trying to get the best time possible, while the rest of us went at a slower pace. The first couple of kilometers were spent mostly dodging people and trying to find a rhythm. They seemed longer than they should have, but suddenly the 3rd kilometer came out of no where. With thousands of people lined up against the streets, it was encouraging and thrilling.

My friends Kristine and Debby caught up to me, and for the next few kilometers we ran side by side. I've never run in a race in the United States, or outside of Ecuador for that matter, but I have to wonder about the organization of this race. From time to time people who were on the sides would run through the route and dodge people to get to the other side. It was like playing human Frogger. This got extremely frustrating when it threw off my stride. There were also people standing in the middle of the road selling drinks and food as we tried to run by. When you need to pass someone on the side but then nearly run into a woman selling something, you can get aggravated. And finally, when we arrived at the first 3 water stations we found that the workers only had sorry looks, having already run out of water. It's as if they only brought 3 water bottles and expected us all to share. I was dehydrated for much of the race.

I got separated from Debby and Kristine after we finally got to a water station with water, because sadly enough the water wasn't already in cups. You had to get a cup, then get it filled, and since I didn't want to slow down, I just took off. Along the route people were handing out little baggies of water or orange soda, which was a surprise to me when I took a gulp as I ran. We passed by parts of the city I'd never seen and parts that I really wished I had gotten to know. These were areas that tourists would never go, but gave a different impression of the city.

Going up hill through the historic center of the city, we went by the presidential palace and tons of cheering supporters. By the 7th kilometer blisters were forming on my feet and I could feel tension in my legs, but I pushed on. At the 1oth kilometer we were finally on flat ground and in a straight away. I'd been consistently passing people (while being passed as well) and suddenly had a burst of energy. I ran harder for a couple of kilometers before feeling tired and slowed down. Those last 5 kilometers were pretty tough, and every time I passed a marker I had to say to myself, "Just 4 more kilometers, just 3 more, just 2 more, suck it up."

I got a third wind at the 13th kilometer but it fizzled out as I saw the stadium up ahead. I kept running but a woman almost took me out as we entered the gate inside. From there on I was just on auto pilot, not even paying attention. Running inside the stadium, there were thousands of people in the stands cheering and as I crossed the finish line, my legs finally stopping pumping and my body rested, seemingly saying to me, "Dude, what the hell was that for?"

I walked around the perimeter trying to figure out how I'd find my friends. We said we'd meet in the north end, but I had no idea which way north was and the mass crowd was moving in one direction. I grabbed a gift bag with a drink and apple, and headed towards the other end. Luckily I saw my friends and met up with them. The whole race I never felt that out of breath, but as I stopped I coughed a little and almost puked. But I kept it together.

One by one the rest of our group showed up, and as we marveled at how many other people we beat, we sat and took some pictures. Outside the stadium we said goodbye one last time. Back at Amy's, we had a celebratory beer, showered, and got some lunch before I had to catch my flight back to Cuenca. Just as we were about to take off there was a problem with the plane and we had to come back and switch planes. Normally, this might have concerned me, but I was so tired and out of it that I didn't even care. I just wanted to get home. Now I can rest up, after my legs and the rest of my body feel like I just got worked over by Tyson in his hay day. And I think 15k is as far as I'm willing to push it. Although, I did just hear that there's a 21k in Boston two days after I get back. Maybe I could show off my high altitude training...Nah.

Above: Photos after the race

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Old Stomping Grounds: Back to "The Big Toe"

On Thursday morning I left Cuenca to head up to Quito for the End of Service conference from my program. This was the first time I was heading back to the capital city since I left after orientation in September, and I was excited to see how things had changed, if they had. One of the reasons I'd never been back is because it's so far away--about 10 hours by bus. This time around, however, we were flying up.

It's now Sunday, and I still really can't get over how amazing that flight up is. In 30 minutes of flying you do what takes 10 hours on a bus. The trip winds up taking +9 hours and 30 minutes. Within 15 minutes of flying we'd reached the volcano Chimborazo, which takes at least 6 hours to get to from Cuenca. It almost felt like a slap in the face of how long transportation takes here, but it was a rush to go through so quickly. I was really excited to see the volcanoes on the way up after hearing you could see them over the clouds, and I wasn't disappointed. With a tiny sandwich and juice, every minute of the flight was savored.

I've created the little nickname of "The Big Toe" for Quito. The reason being that it's the big capital city, and it's Quito. With your help, I hope it catches on. It was good to be back, even though I quickly felt out of place and could see that living there would get to me very easily. Back in September I had to choose whether or not I wanted to stay in Quito or move to Cuenca, and I was quickly reassured that I made the right decision. Even though Quito has more options and friends near by, it's more dangerous and can be very stressful. After one night in the Mariscal, or Gringolandia, a spot popular for bars, clubs, and gringos, I was ready to get out.

But being back in the capital was also good because I was able to see old friends, some of whom are leaving Ecuador for good soon. One volunteer already left today. The volunteers from my departure group will start to leave this country this month and continue through July and into August. So this was the last chance for all of us to be together. We made the most of our time, going out to meals and grabbing drinks at night. The whole weekend was exciting and if I had to leave now, I know I'd be leaving on a high note.

Towards the end of the conference we went out for a great dinner and gave toasts for every volunteer. After, the male volunteers all joined in Cuban cigars. Since we had cigars at the end of orientation, it was now full circle. People started to leave on Saturday afternoon after the conference ended, but some also stayed in Quito for a 15k road race this morning.

I stayed to run, so on Saturday afternoon I went with my two old roommates to our old host family's house for lunch. Back in September the baby in the family had just turned 1. Every day we tried to teach her to give us a high 5. When we walked in we saw that she'd grown a lot and was walking and talking. She looked at us confused for a minute, and then said high 5. That's probably the best thing I've done all year. I helped to teach a baby speak in English.

The lunch was great and after my face started to hurt from smiling and laughing so much, I remembered what it was like living there for 3 weeks. After, I went back into the city to meet up with the volunteers who stayed, and about 13 of us go together to go bowling. It was another great time out, and though we played on teams, we were all cheering for each other.

Eventually of course, the night had to end, and we had to go home to rest up for the race. We said our goodbyes to those who weren't running, and moved on. Though Quito itself isn't my ideal destination, the weekend made the trip worth it. And there was still a 15k to be had on Sunday morning...

Above: Pictures of Chimborazo and Quito from the airplane

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why Travel Guy?

This is just a quick note on why I call my blog "Travel Guy." There are definitely more creative names out there, and I'm sure I could have come up with an original name of my own. After doing a quick Google search, I saw that there are dozens of Web sites called "Travel Guy." I never thought I was breaking down any barriers by calling it this, just for the record.

What it really comes down to is that the name is an homage to my favorite sports writer, Bill Simmons. I've been reading Simmons' work on for years now, and if you're familiar with his work, you'll know that he goes by the name of "Sports Guy." When I was a freshman at UMass I would read his articles and think, I could write something like this. Obviously, our topics are different, but it got me interested enough to add Journalism as a major and get me on the path of writing. Before that I never really wrote that much.

And obviously, since Bill Simmons is the "Sports Guy," his field being sports, it would only make sense that since I write about traveling, I would call this "Travel Guy." On a side note, in my group of friends, I'm one of the only ones that travels a lot. So that could also be seen as a partial influence. But basically, it comes down to the fact that Simmons is one of my favorite writers, and I just hope I can have success like him in the future. There it is, the deep explanation. It wasn't totally random after all.

Tomorrow I'm flying up to Quito to attend the End of Service conference from my volunteer organization. The conference will take place from Thursday to Saturday, and I'm going to stay until Sunday so that I can run in the 15k in Quito on Sunday morning. I've been "training" a bit more since the 10k in Cuenca last month and hopefully it will pay off. Quito is higher up, and I'm hoping that it won't be too much of an issue. There are 5 more kilometers to deal with, but I felt good at the end of the race last time, so I've got my fingers crossed.

I haven't been back to Quito since I left in September, and I'm curious to see how things have changed and whether or not I'll still enjoy being there. Cuenca may have spoiled me in the fact that I can walk everywhere. If I can, I'd like to see my old host family, but it's just a matter of time and if I can get that far away, considering how far away they live from where we'll be having our conference. Back where it all started, at Hotel 6 de diciembre, things will come full circle. Because all of our schedules are different, this will be the last time I see some of my friends from my program, so it will be a bittersweet weekend.

To avoid the 10 hour bus ride, I'm flying back on Sunday afternoon after the race. So I'm truly motivated to finish with a good time, because I need to catch my flight. I probably won't be able to blog while I'm in Quito, but once I'm back in Cuenca I'll update everyone with what took place and how the race went. Until then...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Poetry Night in Cuenca

On Saturday, after a relaxing afternoon of playing Frisbee in the park, I was invited by my friends to attend a poetry night at one of the other English teachers' house. This was going to be the 5th time they would have it, but it was the first I'd heard of it, and since I had nothing else planned and it sounded like it'd be fun, I readily agreed to attend. I was told that you had to have a poem, but not everyone read. And since I don't really write poetry, I had to come up with something else.

Pressed on time, I simply took the last blog I wrote about playing too much Solitaire. I was told to be there at 8:30, and of course I was the first person there. Even though it was a mix of Ecuadorians and foreigners, people still showed up as they pleased. Somehow I just can't turn off my American culture and can't arrive late for anything, even when I try.

People prepared food and brought lots of beer and wine. There were a bunch of people ready to read either poems they'd written or poems that they'd enjoyed reading from another poet. After a while we got underway with the poetry and listened quietly as people read. I was up on the list and realized that I was feeling pretty nervous. Though I speak in front of classes every week day, I never get nervous. Aside from the first week or so, I've been fine with public speaking. I thought it was something that was covered once you learned to teach to new classes so frequently.

But I was surprised to see my hands shaking a bit as I held the paper with my own words on it. Something about speaking to people who probably don't understand most of what you're saying makes you more confident. But reading to people who understand every word and the fact that it's your own work makes it more personal, obviously, and was a bit harder. But other than the hands shaking, I was fine. I still needed a little support from the wine box.

I read the blog about playing Solitaire way too much, and though it was obviously not poetry, but rather a short essay, it was well received. People even laughed at a few parts where I would have hoped for the reader or listener to. It was relieving to finally finish it up and sit down. Reading your own work aloud is no small feat. The night went on and I read another very short piece by Ernest Hemingway. Some people sang some songs and read more poetry, and before we knew it the night was winding down around 1 am.

The first poetry night I'd taken part in was successful and fun. Hopefully there will be more of them to come. After drinking so much wine, my Sunday was pretty hungover and tired. I was going to stay in bed most of the day, but my friend Andres called me to go make Ceviche and check out his art studio. We never actually made the Ceviche, but we hung out at his studio with another friend, Cristian, and later on a few other people came over to my house to watch "Forrest Gump," something that we'd been talking about doing for a while. A few of the people who had been at the poetry night asked me how many games of Solitaire I'd played that day. At least they were listening.

And now it's June, and another week has started, this time with all of my classes. But it will be a shorter week, as I'm headed up to Quito on Thursday for a conference from my program. I'll be there until Sunday, and after the conference ends I'm running in a 15k, then catching a flight home. So I have to finish with a decent time or I could miss my flight. That's my motivation.

I think it's funny to note now that I've been in Ecuador for 9 months. So in the time that I've been down here a whole batch of babies have been conceived and born. Needless to say, life goes on whether you're living in your country of birth or not. May was kind of a lousy month here, and I'm hoping that June can make up for it.