Friday, July 31, 2009

To The Banks of Crater Lake

I'm sitting on the shores of this emerald green crater lake, with the wind blowing the still water just enough for the swooshing sound of waves hitting the sand. Because of the incline of the sharp rocks, I'm lying on my back but still able to see the water and the surrounding crater crests, and with all of my clothes on to fight the cold, I'm very comfortable in the hot morning sun. I'm wondering if that SPF 50 I put on an hour ago is holding up its end of the bargain, and whether or not I'm burning badly. My friends have left me--gone to rock climb like crabs against a steep drop into the poisonous, sulfuric water to see what may or may not be lava bubbles. I didn't want to go and risk damage to my camera, so I'm all by my lonesome, with nothing but the sounds of the wind in the crater. In the middle of this extinct volcano, a place where most people will never go or even hear of, I have no phone, no Internet, and no one else around. New York could be under attack from some giant lizard-like alien that shoots other lizard-like aliens out of its butt, and I would have no idea. And I'm perfectly happy with this.

Having woken up with the sun, we got our breakfast at the hostel and asked what time the next bus back to Latacunga was. We were told noon, which would give us enough time to hike down to the lake at the bottom of Quilotoa crater lake. The old man at the hostel told us it was about a 45 minute hike down and an hour and 45 minutes back up. We were tired and knew the route back up would be tough, but the man told us we could rent horses. That sounded perfect to us.

No one was even stirring yet when started the hike down in the strong sun. At nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, the temperature means nothing in terms of a sunburn. Especially on the equator. Hiking down was easy enough, and a walk in the park compared to the hike around the rim of the crater the day before. The sand was soft and we would take 5 foot steps, sinking in with each movement. It felt like being on the moon in between the canyons that were carved out for a path, and I was glad we'd have horses to do the work on the way back up.

Once down at the lake we could see the green and the white sand contrasting on the shore. Right along the edge it was florescent and algae was visible. We sat for a while taking it in before we moved off to the western bank. Our German friend Elias said a friend had told him that if you climbed along the rocks you would be able to see bubbles from sulfur. The day before was rough on my camera and with just a couple days left in the country, I didn't want to fall into a sulfuric lake and risk injury, maybe even death. So Elias and Amy clung to the rocks and disappeared beyond my sight. For maybe a half hour I laid there peacefully until they came back. Amy stopped about halfway down, and Elias confirmed that there was nothing to see and it was really dangerous. I made a good decision.

We went over to an indigenous woman who rented boats and asked where we could get the horses, and she told us that you had to rent them from the top of the crater. Something that the old man in the hostel could have told us. The hike up was listed at about an hour and 45 minutes, exactly how much time we had until the bus arrived. We started hauling ass without question up the steep trail. Again, it was a race against the clock. It was tough from the get-go, with each step in the sand keeping us from our goal. We would take one step forward and go two steps back. Every few minutes we would have to stop to catch our breaths, but it was hardest on me.

Eventually the jackets came off, as well as the hats, and we stopped for a couple minutes about halfway. We were making good time, and the top kept getting closer, despite the fact that it felt like my chest was going to cave in. There's just no air up there. Sweating and exhausted, we reached the top, and looking at the clock on the cellphone we realized that we'd done it in 40 minutes. So high altitude training can actually pay off, even though the altitude still takes its toll.

A man in a van pulled up and told us that the bus got there at 12, but didn't leave until 1:30, so we finally decided to jump in and hitchhiked with him all the way to Latacunga. It was supposed to be $10 for all of us, but once in Latacunga he tried to rip us off for $15. We argued for a few minutes and finally gave him the money, not feeling like dealing with it. It could have been a scar on an otherwise great trip, but we let it go. The crater lake was just too beautiful to let something like that get in our hair. And that was the last trip I would be taking in Ecuador.

Above: Images from the shores of Quilotoa crater lake

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hiking Quilotoa: The Green Crater Lake

I've left Cuenca now, but there was still one last place I needed to see before leaving Ecuador. It's why I left my home earlier than I needed to. Quilotoa, a tiny little town in the middle of the "Quilotoa Loop" is really just a large crater lake high in the Andes, a little under 13,000 feet above sea level. It's about 2 hours from Latacunga, a smaller city about an hour and a half south of Quito. Since I've been in this country people have told me how beautiful this region is, and the pictures proved they weren't lying.

So yesterday morning I geared up with my friend Amy and we headed south for Latacunga. Along the way we linked up with a friendly German kid named Elias, who was traveling around the country. Getting in can be a bit of a hassle, because once you reach Latacunga you need to rely on infrequent buses, and often are left to hitchike, depending on when a car comes by. But we were fortunate in our timing and made it into Quilotoa by 1:30 pm. To get into the town and crater you need to pay $2, and once we did so we found a hostel. It wasn't too hard, as there are really only three hostels, all next to each other. Across from that is one small strip of artisans, and that's about the whole town. Our hostel cost $10 per person, including a private bathroom, dinner and breakfast.

Once we dropped off our stuff we headed to the lake. The wind was fierce and the cold was offset by the power of the sun, but every time a cloud came by it was only cold and windy. Reading the sign, it said to hike around the rim of the extinct volcano was 7.5 miles and would take about 4.5-7 hours. It was truly beautiful, with emerald green water that bounced off the sun, still and unchanging. As it was 2 pm, we knew we only had about 4.5 hours of sunlight left, so we decided to go for it and start the hike.

I foolishly scoffed, thinking it wasn't nearly 7.5 miles and since we were all used to living at high altitude, we would finish it in a couple of hours. As usual, nature proved me wrong. We started hiking clockwise, stopping every so often to take the same pictures but from a different angle. It just always seemed like it was worth another shot. In some parts the wind was so strong that I thought I'd be blown away. Yet at others we were hot and taking our jackets off. Up and down, up and down the trail wound, going from dense brush to sand traps and desert-like conditions. At other points we could see the outer laying valleys and mountains, and the hundreds of farms in the distance.

We only passed a few other hikers in the beginning, and from then on we were alone. The peaceful emptiness of the lake was more of a reward than anything else. Though known to tourists with guide books, many Ecuadorians don't even know about Quilotoa. Telling my friends in Cuenca where I was going, they just scratched their heads unless they were tourism students. And as amazing as this place was, I can't believe more people don't go there.

For a while we hiked in near silence, and all you could hear was the sound of the dirt shuffling as we skidded down the trails. Some parts were really dangerous, and with no guard rails and just a narrow path, a mistake meant death, or at the very least broken limbs and possible paralysis. There is hardly any liability in these parts. One step to the left was a roll down the mountain into a farm, and a half step to the left was an 80* drop into the lake. Moving along and up the trail proved harder than originally thought. I always wondered what it would be like to walk on the ridge of a mountain, and the truth is that it's not just straight up easy. You have to go down and up and down and down and then way up again. It makes you sweat.

Going down gingerly, you'd hear the thud of the feet, and every so often the sudden, loud tumble of rocks, sand, and shoes as the person to your front or rear just lost control. But the lack of the deep thud told you that they regained their balance in that less than a millisecond of reaction from thousands of years of evolution. All you could do was trust the person in front of you and try to hit where their feet already went, and if you were in front, God be with you.

Once we reached what we thought was the halfway point we took a 15 minute break to eat a lunch of crackers and take 2 sips of water per person. We had to conserve since we only took one bottle. Spitting out the dust in our mouths, we took in the views and realized we needed to move on. I held my hands in front of me and estimated that we had 2 hours of sunlight left, and we still had the largest ridge to cross. Even living and running at high altitude for 11 months can't help you when you hike at almost 13,000 feet. You take two steps up and are just spent, no air getting into your lungs, getting into your blood, getting into your muscles.

Going up the highest peak was tough and for the most part done in silence, but we did finally reach it. We caught our breaths and realized that we had about 15 minutes of sunlight left. We needed to haul ass or we'd be stuck there all night, and the wind was picking up with force as the sun dropped. Going down the peak was almost as difficult, and while filming part of it with my small point and shoot, talking about how dangerous it was, I slipped and fell a bit, covered my other camera in dirt and making for a pretty funny video.

The sunset was red and orange and red again but in a different shade. The kind of color that can only be explained through actual sight, and as the last remaining light bounced off the mountain, they painted the sky and clouds. We were now marching in the dark, using the moonlight to guide the white path. Noses running like faucets and fingers frozen, we chugged along like our lives depended on it, because they did. And we were so tired. By 7 pm we were back in the tiny town, stumbling into the hostel covered in dirt. But it had only taken us about 4.5 hours with a few breaks here and there.

We got our dinner, talked with a few other guests, sat by the furnace for a bit to heat up, and called it a night. By 9 pm it was lights out, but freezing in the room with no heat, I went to sleep with my dirty socks and winter hat still on, and all of my shirts and sweaters as well. The wind was so fierce that at one point I thought the roof would blow away like in the movie "Black Sheep" or in "Twister." Sleep came fairly easy to us after a long day, and we still had more plans ahead for the morning, when we would hike to the bottom of the lake and get a glimpse of the water.

Above: Images from Quilotoa crater lake, Ecuador

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Goodbye, Cuenca

I'm sitting in the airport in Guayaquil, using the free WiFi and listening to the terrible jazzy renditions of songs from the past 30 years. I left Cuenca just a short time ago, and I'm wondering how I've gotten here. How I've already left the place I living in, volunteering in, teaching in for almost 11 months. It's surreal, if that's the best way to put a word to it. I spent my last days in the city as well as I could, making the most of the time with my friends. And now it's over.

Last night I went out with some friends for one last beer, and at the bar that I was almost a regular in the owner gave us all shots of tequila on the house. A parting gift. And this morning I went to the bank, happily discovered that I'd finally been paid, and ate my last meal in the house with my host mom. My friend Jamie went with me to the airport and waited until she had to leave to go to a class. It was hard saying goodbye to her, mostly because she was one of my best friends down here, but also because it really meant that it was over.

I tried to get a look at the city one last time from the plane, but my view from the aisle seat was obscured, and the overcast morning didn't help. So I closed my eyes and just tried to think about what I've been through. And now I'm getting ready to board the plane to Quito, for one last trip with a friend and then on to home on Saturday. It's almost completely finished.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Fingers Crossed

One of the last things that I had to take care of before leaving Cuenca was getting my last paycheck, paying my host family for July, and closing my bank account. I started asking my director in my department a couple of months ago to help me get my last paycheck early. It was tough at first, but she was finally on board to help out. I had to continually check in with the secretary, but she always reassured me that I'd be paid early on the 15th of this month. The 15th came and went, and still I was unpaid.

I went down to the university and asked what happened, and she calmly explained that they couldn't pay me early, and that I'd be paid on the 20th. The 20th came and went, and still I was unpaid. Again, I went down and complained, and the secretary told me that the money would be in my account the next morning. But I was beginning to see that she had no idea what she was talking about and would say anything to get rid of me.

So on Friday the 25th, with still no money in my account, I decided to do something about it myself. It would be impossible for me to close my account, and I didn't want to forfeit my last paycheck and pay out of pocket. So instead, I offered to transfer over the bank account to my friend Jamie. Jamie is going to stay in Ecuador for another year or so, and she has citizenship here, so it wouldn't be too difficult to arrange it. We went into the bank on Friday morning and asked how to do it.

Surprisingly, the woman at the bank was extremely helpful--maybe the most helpful person I've met in this country so far. She helped us figure out the paperwork and told us everything we had to do, which was nothing more than make some photocopies of our identification and hand in a copy of some bills. Then we signed about 10 different papers and Jamie was added as a co-signer on my account. The idea of this is that in the event that the university didn't pay me until I'd already left the country, Jamie would be able to withdraw the money for me and then transfer it to me, either in my American bank account or through a money transfer. And once all of that money was withdrawn, the account would be left for her to use.

After we figured out the bank account situation, we went down to the university and I went to the financial office. They tried to tell me that I couldn't be paid early because the boss was at a conference. But all of the checks were there on the table, and they said they couldn't give me one because I'd already requested to have the money earlier. So when I complained long enough that I was leaving and needed to close the account, the clerk went upstairs for 10 minutes, then came back down saying that the money would definitely be in the account on Monday morning. I'm not completely sold, but at least I did what I could.

I'm glad that I was able to find a way around the bureaucracy and get a solution to the problem with the help of a friend. And now I just need to hope that they don't try to burn me on the last check because they know that I'm leaving. So tomorrow morning is do or die. And hopefully it works out alright.

The Final Days

My time here is nearly finished, and I have had a good last week in Cuenca. Thursday was my birthday and I went out with some friends to one of our favorite restaurants for Italian food. It's kind of expensive, so we only go there on special occasions. Unfortunately, I had to say goodbye to three good friends that same night also, as it was the last time I'd be seeing them.

On Friday night I went out again, meeting up with some friends and then going to a club later on. With the purchase of a Long Island Iced Tea and Cuba Libre, I was drunk until well into yesterday morning. I was tired and not looking forward to drinking again last night, but knew that I wouldn't have much say in it because it was my going away party.

I met up with some friends in the afternoon and we bought supplies to have an all day barbecue in my friend Andres' art studio, where we were also going to have the going away party later at night. As usual when we have all day barbecues, we started slow and didn't even start to eat until 3 or 4 pm. But we ate slowly and consistently for nearly the entire day after that. A bunch of my former students and other Ecuadorian friends had told me that they were definitely going to be there for the going away party, I was pretty disappointed to find that other than the people who were there for the barbecue, no one showed up.

For one reason or another, people couldn't make it. Some had texted me to let me know they wouldn't be arriving, and others just never said anything at all. It was a let down, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit offended, but there's nothing that can be done about that now. And the only thing that saved it was that the friends who were there made it a fun night. Though most of those people there were friends that I'd only made in the last few months, I guess we were closer than the people I'd known for most of the year.

We sat around after eating and drank some Zhumir while a few of the artists started painting on a huge canvas taking up the whole courtyard. I even contributed a little bit, though it was the worst part and was soon covered up with paint. Realizing that no one else was going to show up, we simply left for a bar to get some beers, went to Charlie's apartment to make more food, and then split off into different directions. I went with another friend, Akin, to a club, but only for a short while before heading home. The day was good enough and I was tired, so I didn't feel like pushing it.

In the end, the going away party is only as good as the people you have there. It would have been nice to be able to say goodbye to all of the friends that I'd made over the year, but it was good enough to be there with the people who actually wanted to be there. It's tough enough to move on after such a long time and say goodbye, and in dealing with that you sometimes lose contact with the people you'd known the longest. I leave Cuenca on Tuesday, bound for Quito first. Then I'll be traveling with a friend to a crater lake in a pueblo called Quilotoa for a couple of days. And early on the morning of August 1st I'll be leaving Ecuador for Miami, and eventually Boston.

People keep asking me if and when I'll be back. I always tell them I'm not sure when, and not for a while, but I'd like to. And it's true. I would like to come back at some point, but I have no idea when that will be. It's a big world, and I want to see as much as possible. Having already spent a year here, I know there are other places I could spend my time in. But I've also thought that maybe upon my return to the U.S. from Argentina, whenever that is, I could arrange to have a flight out of Ecuador, so that I could return again. We'll see.

Now I have to get my act together to pack and wait around for the final moments before departure. I have no doubts that it will be difficult. It's all a part of the process.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Hangover Cure

Every culture seems to have their own traditional remedy for indulging too much from the night before. Although, come to think of it, I can't exactly say what ours in the United States is. I guess just sitting on the couch and watching TV. Last night I drank a good amount. The thing is, today is my birthday, and I've now turned 23. Only problem is everyone who doesn't already know always guesses that I'm at the youngest 26. But now I'm moving closer towards the projected age.

So I went out with some friends of mine to La Mesa, the hole in the wall salsa club that people go to on Wednesday nights. My friend Katherine came in for the night with a friend who is visiting, and together with Lauren, we met up with other friends at the salsateca. At midnight the girls surprised me with a double shot of tequila, which I definitely didn't need, but accepted graciously. I left at closing time, then went to a friends house where I crashed until 7 am when I went home. So long story short, I have a hangover.

The cure for the common hangover in Ecuador is a dish called Encebollado. This is a warm soup, similar to Ceviche, but with a few differences. Instead of shrimp you find tuna, and where you find tomatoes in Ceviche, you find loads and loads of onions and cilantro. You can also add lime to taste. On top of the dish you add some banana chips which soon get soggy. I'd had this dish twice before when I was on the coast, as it's their specialty, but much less common in the sierra. However, I'd never taken it to cure a hangover, and this morning I was eager to test it out and see if it actually worked.

I headed over to the 9 de Octubre market with Katherine and her friend, and we all moseyed up to the lunch counter and ordered Encebollado. It's not the best tasting thing, and I think I prefer Ceviche, but it can hit the spot when needed. I couldn't finish the whole bowl because I was full pretty quickly, but I ate enough of it to look like I'd made a dent in the bowl. I wasn't sure at first--I knew I was no longer really hungover, but I wasn't exactly feeling great. But maybe that was never the point. It wasn't, after all, a magical elixir to make you feel like Superman. But I felt like a normal person, or normaler anyway.

I still could go for a nap or a coffee, but the worst of the hangover is over. I was really hoping it would work, and I'm not disappointed with the effects. It has my approval. Also, it only cost $1.50 and came with a juice, which is always nice. On the downside, today is still my birthday, and Friday is my friends birthday, and Saturday is my going away party. So long story short, the potential for hangover lingers in the air, and I most likely won't be able to run out for Encebollado every day. But at least it's a possibility now, and I know that if I truly need it, it can help out a bit. Take that, Advil!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Improvements to TG

If you look on the left side of the page, you'll notice that you can now see my personal photos from my travels. This is an addition that I've been interested in making for the blog for a while, and I've finally gone through with it. It's going to be a slow start--to begin with I only have the photos from my day trip to Yungilla on Sunday, but over the next few days and weeks I'm going to be adding all of my pictures onto Picasa Web Albums, which will then be displayed through the blog. So now you'll all be able to see the many places that I've visited, but haven't yet been able to show through picture or video on the blog. Hope you enjoy it.

What I've Learned

No travel or experience abroad would be complete without being able to walk away with a new perspective, or lacking that, at the very least having some new knowledge to help in every day life. Spending almost a year in a foreign country, there's a ton of new stuff that I can add to in my "Experiences" file. Aside from the obvious things that you're going to learn like language and customs, there are other things that are acquired.

Before I'd studied in Spain I was a beginner in Spanish, with only a semester under my belt. But that was part of the experience for me. I wanted to know what it would be like as a newcomer to a country where you don't speak the language well, and how long it could take you to improve. I wanted to see what it was like for immigrants in the United States. At that time there was a lot of talk about putting up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and I wanted to be on the side of the foreigner to see what it was like.

Though you can never fully understand someone else's life, it gave me a lot of insight on what it's like living in a foreign country, struggling to get by in a language that isn't your own. By the end of my 5 months studying abroad, I sat on a park bench alone writing and realized that I wasn't finished yet. I loved being abroad, traveling, and learning new languages. So here I kind of entered into the "Forrest Gump" stage of my life. Instead of running, however, it was living abroad. When I was 17 I backpacked through Europe with my sister. After the three weeks, I realized I wanted to study abroad. Once I'd studied abroad for 5 months, I knew I wanted to live in a Spanish speaking country for a year to improve in the language as much as possible. And once I got to Ecuador, I figured I might as well just keep going with it and spend at least another year in South America, this time in Argentina.

So arriving in Ecuador, I didn't have to go through the same process of learning the language from scratch, though it has been a learning experience all year long. But what have I learned? For one thing, I know that teaching English as a second language is not my calling. That might seem simple enough, but at least I know there's one other field I'd rather not be working in. Was that worth $5,000 to find out? Probably not.

Before arriving here everyone was worried for my safety, thinking I'd be kidnapped or killed. I brushed it off as unwarranted fear that was brought on by the media. But the first week in the country my night bus was hijacked, rocking my world and waking me up to the fact that yes, this can be a dangerous country. And even though I was pretty paranoid and wary of most people I'd met for a while after that, I eventually got over it and realized that, just like anywhere else in the world, you will find good people and bad people. Unfortunately, as much as you try to surround yourself with the good ones, bad ones sometimes come looking for you.

Only a few months into my time here I was reading about gang violence back home in Boston and saw articles about teenagers getting gunned down, kids accidentally shot in playgrounds from driveby fire. And people were still saying I was crazy for voluntarily coming to Ecuador. But what they didn't understand that maybe it was just as dangerous, or more dangerous, to be in Boston at that time. Couldn't they read the news?

And perhaps the saddest thing about all of this is that if I were walking in Boston 2 days after coming home and was accidentally shot, mugged, or killed by a drunk driver, it would be a tragedy, but people would think nothing more of it. Because it's their neighborhood, and it must have been random. But if the same thing had happened to me in Cuenca, it would be because it was a dangerous country with criminals everywhere and I had no place being here. Let me point out again, aside from the bus hijacking my first week here, which was just bad luck, nothing has happened to me since. No country in the world is entirely safe, except maybe Switzerland.

Not just talking about the safety issue, I've also had a lot of time to sit around thinking and to grow as a person. With a lot of down time each day, a dark, depressing room with no windows, and hardly any entertainment other than my lap top, I had to rise above the boredom and frustration. As a former teacher of mine once said, you learn the most about yourself in the hardest situations. And that's the truth. Stepping back and thinking of the relationship between foreigners and Ecuadorians, not only in modern terms but also from U.S. foreign policy dating back 30 years or more, I can see more clearly why we get some of the looks that we get.

And at the end of the day, I know about a country that I'd previously known nothing about. I don't even know if I'd ever given Ecuador much thought before deciding that I wanted to come here for a year. But now, 11 months later, I'm better informed and have been fortunate enough to live in a country that most people will probably never visit, but hopefully through my own writing, some out there will now understand more about this country. And one day, maybe, they can experience it for themselves.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rosetta Stone

Yesterday I purchased Rosetta Stone, a computer-based learning tool to help learn languages. Rosetta Stone is considered to be the best way to learn a language, other than physical immersion into a culture, of course. It's used by the State Department, the Peace Corps, and NASA. Normally when you buy this program in the United States, it could cost you about $500 for an entire language, but I was able to buy the French language for $8 here in Ecuador. Not a bad deal.

Also, my friend Lucho bought Italian, so we're going to share the discs. That's a net savings of about $992 if we'd bought them in the United States. Sometimes the exchange rate works in our favor here. There's no real rush on the language, but we'd heard over the weekend how cheap the program was at a store in the center, and since we knew how expensive it is back home and how effective it's supposed to be, we figured why not.

I studied French for four years in high school, but unfortunately have retained nothing but a few words and phrases, so I'm hoping this will reboot my memory and bring it all back. Just glancing over the first session yesterday, I already started to remember things. As for Italian, I'm hoping that the connection between Spanish will be enough to help me out, and though I'm not expecting to be fluent by any means, as long as I can become conversational in the slightest sense, I'd be happy.

And though I'm leaving Cuenca in a week, if I start studying with these programs and like them, I might even pick up a couple other languages just for the hell of it. After all, if the price is right, it'd almost be stupid not to buy it. Another nice thing about this program is that once you've loaded it up, you can add any languages you want. So now that the program is on my computer, I can just pick up a new language and install it. With a little luck, I'll soon be able to speak a couple other languages.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pictures of Yungilla

Sunset in Yungilla

Flowers in the valley

The valley

View from the house

Sunday in Yungilla

Yesterday I went with my friend Charlie and Andres to a small village called Yungilla, about an hour and a half by bus from Cuenca. Yungilla is in a valley, so the climate is hotter and more enjoyable. Some Cuencanos have summer or weekend houses in Yungilla. My friend Andres is from Cuenca, and his family has a weekend house there. Cuenca was cold, grey, and miserable yesterday, so we were more than happy to get out of town for a few hours.

We didn't have a set plan, just to arrive, eat lunch, and walk around. We got in and immediately noticed the heat, something that we don't get a whole lot of in Cuenca. We got to Andres' house where his aunt and uncle were staying. They made us lunch and then we headed out to see the town. It's not a town like you'd imagine back home, but rather like farmland with a house every few kilometers. This allowed us to walk down dirt roads without bothering or being bothered by anyone.

Walking around lazily, we thought we'd be able to get down to the river. Unfortunately, Andres hadn't been there in over a year, and in that time there'd been a lot of development. Suddenly new houses were in the way of the path he used to follow since he was a kid, and we were unable to go the way he knew. Instead, we followed the dirt road around the perimeter of the town, circling back up to where we started.

It was hot, but refreshing to get out of the cold of Cuenca, even if only for a few hours. The only downside is that with such a sudden change in the climate, twice in one day, I now think I have a little bit of a cold. When we got back to his house we had some water and bread, then rested up for a few minutes and headed back to the road to catch a bus into Cuenca.

The sun was setting and we could actually see the different contrasts of color in the sky. I hardly ever see the sunset in Cuenca, though when I do it's pretty dramatic. Getting out of this city even for a few hours, just changing weather, can really help change mentality and morale. I've been extremely bored just sitting around Cuenca for the last 2 weeks, and anything is a welcome change. But knowing that I'm going to be leaving soon, it was a nice day trip, especially since I was able to return to Cuenca at the end of the day.

This is my last full week in Cuenca, and there's a lot of stuff coming up. I want to go to La Mesa one last time. La Mesa is the hole in the wall salsa club that people go to on Wednesday nights. Then on Thursday I'll be celebrating my birthday with a few friends. And on Saturday we'll be having a despedida, or going away party. There's no official plans yet, but I imagine we'll just meet up at a bar somewhere and then head off for some club. And during the days I need to make sure I get paid for my last month of work, then immediatly go and close my bank account. Hopefully that won't be too much of a headache, but I'm not holding my breath. And today marks 1 month until I'll be leaving for Buenos Aires. Time flies.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Anti-Gringo Post

Sitting at a cafe this afternoon, sipping on two cups of coffee, I had a taste of bittersweet revelation. With not much else to do and all the time in the world to think, it became all too apparent what the state of the cultural immersion can bring. Not in all cases, but in many, we find ourselves separated from the very people that we came here to learn more about. In this cafe in the center of Cuenca, a bit pricey if I may say so, were two worlds. Up above on the second floor was a group of traveling tourists talking loudly over their meal. And on the outside of the cafe were the street vendors, artisans, and indigenous selling their various goods. One of the tourists was wearing an Ecuador soccer jersey, but she didn't really get it, just as so many other tourists never do. In the short of it, they were trying to immerse themselves in the culture, wearing the national jersey, but sitting in a cafe that the locals would most likely never enter.

When you get down to the root of the problem, it might come from a lack of understanding of the two cultures, or a misrepresentation in the media, or just a set of expectations that are never quite met, because after all, expectations are what you have before you have experience. Those who have never been to South America might imagine what they've seen in the movies or read in books. Perhaps there is a cartel fighting the government in the streets in Colombia, or a half-naked tribe roasting human flesh deep in the Amazon in Brazil. But of all these wild expectations, there is rarely the expectation to just find regular people carrying on their every day lives, and when a tourist comes across this realization, they can often find themselves upset or frustrated.

One example of this that stands out particularly strongly in my mind is from February of this year. I was in Peru, on Wayna Picchu at the sacred ruins of Machu Picchu, a holy ground for backpackers and Inca descendants alike. I wanted my friend to take a picture of me in front of the ruins when a woman from Illinois started barking orders to her. "Move more to the left, yeah! Oh, this looks awesome! Do it again but from this angle. Hey, honey, take a picture of me doing that!"

My friend and I looked at each other and without saying anything silently agreed that we had had enough of this lady, slowly backing away. But she wasn't through with us yet. Two days later we found ourselves in Lake Titicaca, touring the same islands in the same group with her. At one point we were in the Uros Islands. These are man made floating islands on reeds, and only a small number of families occupies each one. This woman was trying to force the small children to eat their reeds with her for a picture. "Yes, because that is truly authentic," I thought to myself.

The worst of it came when she became upset and pouted, "I want to see the naked children running around like National Geographic!" It's one of the most disgusting things I've ever heard a tourist say, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to forget it. I was about to tell her my mind, but I decided to just bite my tongue. This woman, who maybe was making her first trip to South America, was somehow expecting to find a wild pack of savages running around. Yet when she found that they were normal people who wore clothes, she was upset. In her mind, South America had gone and sold out while she was on the plane from Chicago.

And this is perhaps a greater problem for the connections between North and South Americans. At some level, we expect modernity when we visit a new place. We want to be able to check our email and sleep in a place with nice accommodations. But some of us also want to pretend that we are 18th Century explorers, running through the jungle with a machete to find the lost tribe of wherever. And when we can't consolidate the fact that, yes, this culture has advanced into the 21st Century and is developing, we feel cheated. At some level, we expect the backward culture that has come to be associated, incorrectly, with South America. Yet when a rustic lodge in the middle of the jungle that has wireless loses the connection for a couple of hours, we can get antsy and ticked off.

Even when you go to a village on a tour, in what seems to be authentic and legitimate, you're only running the gauntlet on something that a thousand tourists have done before. If they dress you up in traditional garment and dance with you, it's part of a process to show you a piece of the culture. But you're not really in there. You're just viewing from behind a glass at a respectable distance. They most likely need to take you to the crafts store so you can buy the goods which help sustain their lives, so that they can live in the modern world. That is, now that they're not living like savages anymore.

This is the reason for the looks from many of the locals given to those passing through the cities and villages for just a couple of days. It's more than just a language barrier. It's a cultural barrier, and though an artisan might smile and say you look lovely in those earrings, what they're really thinking is that you look silly trying to blend in with the pajama pants and alpaca sweater. In the cafe, I could see people looking at the jewelry, with the dealer smiling and politely offering consul. But once a transaction was completed and the buyer left, the smile immediately left the seller and they went back to sitting glumly by the merchandise. Because they remain outside the expensive cafe while the tourist goes in to buy a lunch that's twice the price of meals down the street.

A couple of weeks ago I read an article by Hunter S. Thompson called, "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border," from a collection of work by him called, "The Great Shark Hunt." This article, though written decades ago, talks of the frustration of foreigners in South America, and the mutual disdain held by the locals. It seems that a lot of the sentiments included in that article still hold true today. There are, in fact, many Ecuadorians and other South Americans who love foreigners and travelers. After all, there's a large market for tourism, which generates money. But there are also those who feel strongly against our influence and presence. The same ideas are felt in the United States for sure, but at least foreign tourists in the U.S. aren't hunting down the elusive McDonald's, running around town looking for the fattest people eating hamburgers. Or maybe they are.

So when the dust settles and the tourists sit around by the side of the road, backpacks in tow, sporting the new soccer jersey of the team they never heard of, donning the new jewelery to show that they were there, you can often see the locals looking at them with curiosity. They're definitely not from here, but they don't look like the Americans on TV either. Their own breed. They are gringos, no matter where they hail from. And they most certainly do not belong here.

What I'll Miss

As curvy as this year has been, as frustrating as the university, the banks, and the culture has been, I know there are many things that I will miss when I finally return home and continue on to Argentina. Because after all, that's what makes a country unique, and there are many things that will be different between Cuenca and Buenos Aires.

I'm not a particularly special person, but here in Ecuador I'm kind of an interesting guy. Aside from being a gringo, I'm blond and blue eyed. That alone usually makes me stand out above everyone else. But I don't sound like a gringo. I speak Spanish well, and my accent always has people saying, "You speak Spanish really well, where did you learn?" Then I go into my typical spiel about how I lived in Spain for a bit and my mom is from Argentina. And once I say that, their attitude usually changes into "You're less of a gringo and more kind of like us" one. Even though I'm really not. But it's always interesting.

At first I was pretty uncomfortable with everyone staring at me and the girls making whistles or cat calls. Over time I just got used to it and now barely notice. But that is not something that will happen ever again, unless I'm in another country like Ecuador where there are very few fair skinned people. Back home (and in Argentina as well) being blond is no big deal. I was never a big deal at home, and living here doesn't quite elevate me to celebrity status, but it's pretty close. I always found it funny when someone would tell me that their friend knew who I was, even though I had no idea who they were. Simply because they'd seen me around town.

The food here is nothing to be desired, but there are a few dishes that I really love, yet unfortunately don't get much of. Ceviche and encebollado are coastal dishes, so I've only had them a few times, but they are truly delicious. Ceviche, a cold, raw fish dish is a favorite of mine. Encebollado, a warm dish similar to ceviche, is said to be a hangover cure, though I've never tested it for that purpose. These are dishes that I might be able to reproduce at home, or even find different versions of in other Latin American countries, but it will definitely not be the same.

As an American, I can't help but be on time. Even when I leave my house late on purpose, I somehow get to where I'm going right on time. It's a mystery to me. But on those few occasions when I am late, or when something doesn't go as planned, we just go with the flow. In a way, Ecuadorians are kind of like Taoists. If you miss the bus, no big deal. There will be another one soon enough, or you'll hitch a ride on a truck, or you'll take a donkey. Whatever. That is a concept that I'll try to continue back home, but I imagine that eventually I'll lose sight of it.

Though I didn't particularly like teaching, I know I'm going to miss the volunteer life of working 20 hours a week. The pay is pretty low and you have just enough to survive, but the free time is not something that can be replicated in another life, unless you're lucky enough to have been born rich or choose to be a poor artist. A friend of mine who did the Peace Corps said that going back to normal work hours after volunteering is extremely difficult. My hope is to plug along as a writer so I don't have to experience that kind of work day.

One thing I will not miss is the weather here in Cuenca. 4 seasons in a day and all that jazz is just not for me. This is a city where on one side of the street is sunlight, and you sweat. But when you cross the street into the shade you start to shiver. I'm a New England boy, and I need my seasons to dictate how I live. As much as I hate winter, I need it to tell me how to act, feel, and most importantly, dress. Not a day goes by here that I haven't dressed appropriately, either because it's suddenly too hot or a freak rain storm has come in from the west. I need solid seasons, not imaginary ones.

There's a charm in walking through a small town where everyone says hello to you and after a few days, you feel like a local. Even if you're just passing through. Though not as common in the bigger cities, such as Cuenca, in my own neighborhood there are the people I know. The fruit lady and her daughter, pot bellied and always running around on the sidewalk. The old guy in the caddy hat who always waves to me when I'm running. And the guys hanging outside the bar as I walk by, who I always need to stop and shake hands with and talk with for a few minutes. Live in a place long enough and you become that place.

I'm going to miss prices, which seem expensive at times because I've been here so long, yet in the back of my mind I know are a steal by American standards. The friends that I've made, both local and foreigners, might be the hardest to leave. When you find yourself in a difficult situation far away from home, you tend to bond much quicker and more strongly with others in your similar situation. You could have a best friend in 1 week if things go well. Experiencing the same things, you can laugh and yell about the same things. And you'll always have that together.

I'm nearly done with my time here, and as I sit around waiting to leave, I find myself frustrated and bored. What to do, what to do? But at the end of the day, with all of the complaining aside, I will miss this place at some level. It's a part of me now.

Above: Images from Cuenca

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Stuck in Cuenca

UPDATED: 3:38 pm

After leaving the Internet cafe I went to check my balance at the bank. I was told repeatedly that I would be paid for my last month of work in July by the 15th. The reason being that I was leaving before the end of the month and not only needed to pay my host family for the last month, but I also need to close my bank account. Yesterday the account hadn't moved. I checked again today, and nothing. So I went down to the university and the secretary told me very casually, as if she'd known all along, that they weren't able to pay me early on the 15th. Instead, I might be paid on Monday, the 20th. I told her that I really can't afford to wait around, that I need to be paid so I can pay the host family and close the account, and she sleepily nodded, without much concern. So hopefully I get my last paycheck.

After the university, I went down to the Panama Hat museum to finally buy a hat. Since I have such a small head, they had to basically prepare the hat for me. I watched as they took a plain white sombrero and stitched the black belts on the inside and outside. When they were done I tried it on and it was still warm. I thought it would cost $15, like most of them, but was surprised to find on the inside was lightly written in pencil, "$18." Three dollars makes a big difference here, and I'm not sure what made this hat more expensive. But they'd already made it especially for me, so I had to buy it. But I'm glad that I've finally gotten one.

They asked me if I wanted a bag or to wear it out, and I said I definitely wanted a bag. One, the bags are pretty cool looking, in the shape of the hat. And two, I told them I didn't want to look like a tourist, walking around with my brand new hat on my head. They laughed and agreed. So I came back home and discovered that the Internet is now working in the house. Even though they had originally told me 9 days, somehow it's back. So I'm not going to complain about that.

Despite a lot of debate on where I should have traveled this week, I wound up staying in Cuenca. It´s not a choice I´m happy with, but in the end I just didn´t have it in me to take a long bus trip. The jungle is pretty far away from here, and the beach isn´t any closer. Going to Colombia was too expensive, and I didn´t want to cross the border into Peru on my own, never having done it before. And as a side reason, I´d also rather save some money for when I get to Argentina.

So I´ve been stuck in Cuenca, with almost every day being like ¨Groundhog Day.¨ Though I´ve been keeping busier this week than last week, thankfully. I don´t want to say that I´m sick of traveling, but maybe a little burnt out. I´m looking forward to just being able to relax when I go home for a few weeks, which will hopefully recharge my batteries for the return to South America. For the most part, I´m finished with Cuenca. I don´t want to say that I´m sick of it either, but I´ve seen all that it has to offer, and I´m ready to move on. This weather isn´t appealing to me and the boredom is just driving me bonkers by now.

The only light ahead is that this Saturday a couple friends and I might go to a small town in a valley called Yungilla. In Yungilla the weather is hotter and usually sunny, and we´re hoping to walk around and go to our friends country house to cook. We´ll probably come back that night, since it´s only a short bus ride away.

As of yesterday the Internet in my house has gone out, and apparently it could take 9 days to fix. I´m not sure how it could take 9 days, as that seems ridiculous, but I´m not surprised by anything anymore. This is really unfortunate, because with so much downtime, now I can´t even go online at home, and I´m going to have to spend a little money at these lousy Internet cafés. Also, it might mean less frequent blogging, but hopefully I´ll be able to get around that by just writing them at home and then using a flashdrive to load them up, already written, at an Internet café.

So I´m signing off for now, on my way to see if I´ve been paid for my last month as a volunteer and then to finally buy a Panama Hat. My intention was always to wait until the last minute to buy one, and now I´m going to finally get it done. Until next time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

By The Way, Just Sayin'

Sometimes people email me after reading my blog with questions about traveling to Ecuador or other relevant topics. It's always a little startling to see someone I don't know has been reading my blog and felt so inclined to email me, but it's always a good feeling and I take the time to respond as best I can. Sometimes people have simple questions about Cuenca or Ecuador as a whole, and sometimes they even ask if they can meet up.

I got an email a couple of days ago from a woman who is going to be traveling through South America, and after reading my blog about bus hijackings, was considering canceling any travel through this country. I just wanted to take a moment to point out that you can still travel to Ecuador and be perfectly safe.

While I don't recommend taking a night bus in this country, travel by day is usually OK. It might not be perfect, but you're not risking death either. I don't want people to think that any negative things I might have written have been aimed at deterring travel here. I've had some great experiences traveling throughout this country, and I'd feel really badly if I found out that people were avoiding coming here based off of my writing. That would be counterproductive. I want to give a better insight into Ecuador, not be afraid of it.

So, in conclusion, feel free to travel to this country. It's probably just as safe as any other country in the region, and if you're going to take the time and risk of hitting up Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia, you might as well take some time for Ecuador as well. There are great people here and great things to do. But, as always, practice caution when you're on the road and make smart decisions. And you'll have a great time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I Remember

This afternoon I gave the last final exam of the year. I'm not completely done, however, because next Tuesday I need to go to the university to help give a placement test for next year. But for all intents and purposes, I'm finished with my teaching experience at the University of Cuenca, and in Ecuador. I'm happy, but it's still a bit surreal to be walking from the university knowing that it's probably the second to last time I'll be doing so.

My mind has been busily trying to think of where I could travel to this week, and I've been going back and forth from the jungle, the coast, Colombia, and now Peru. I still can't make up my mind, but I think if I go anywhere I'll go to Mancora, Peru for a couple of days. It's 8 hours away from Cuenca, with a stop at the border to change buses and stamp the old passport. Otherwise, I've been thinking about what my return to the United States will be like.

Knowing that my days are numbered, I've been thinking about what I remember about home. Though I've been gone 10 1/2 months, my memory is still vivid. It's July now, so I'm sure it's plenty hot and the grass is probably hard and turning to hay under the baking sun. Though I know how I left my room, I'm sure my mom has added piles of junk all over the place that I'll inevitably throw out the door as soon as I get home. This happened to me every time I came home from college. She always expects that I'll want a bunch of free pens that she got from work.

I know that the family got a new TV, and has been putting in a new rug in the living room, so I will be walking into a place that wasn't what it was before. And I guess that's the definition of reverse culture shock. I'm almost scared in a way to be going home. I'm not sure how I'll be affected, though I'm hopeful that since it's only 3 weeks, I won't get too comfortable. After living in Spain for 5 months I didn't feel reverse culture shock, just boredom from returning to a suburb after living in a European city. I couldn't even drink legally for a couple of months after hanging out in bars all over the continent.

But I've been here almost a year now, and I know things will be different. I know that prices will just blow my mind. I look at a menu and if a meal is $2.50 I laugh at how expensive it is. A liter beer over $1.50 is a rip off. Attitudes towards certain conduct will also be difficult to adjust to. If we don't feel like drinking in bar, we can save money by just drinking in the street. But that will never happen back home. That thought actually came to me today when I realized I wouldn't be able to afford drinking in Boston. I thought, "Oh well I'll just drink in the street...ah crap, I can't do that in Boston. Damn Puritans." My friend told me one night he dropped almost $100 altogether on a night out in Boston. I'm not even going to explain how insane that sounds to me.

In order to get better adjusted here, I emptied my mind of all things American, or in theory as much as I could. I didn't think of home that much to avoid homesickness, and I continued as if this was my life. But now I need to switch back, for a short time anyway. And I'm just not sure if I can do that. I remember how uncomfortable I felt at parties when I'd just gotten back from Spain, not relating to what people were talking about and feeling like I knew something they didn't know. I can almost guarantee I'll feel that way again.

My only saving point is that I'm going to be home for such a short period of time that it will be just enough time to be refreshing, catching up with friends and family. And just around the time I'm getting bored and antsy, it will be time to move on again. And I can be sure of this, after 11 months of living in the mountains, going from the extremes of hot afternoons to freezing nights, always wearing pants and having a jacket on hand, it will be such a relief to just be hot and sweat. I don't even care about air conditioning, at least now. I want to wear shorts and a t-shirt, oh man what a rush that will be. 20 days out.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quick Decisions

After tomorrow I have a week off with nothing to do. And I need to decide what to do. I've already come close to madness with boredom from three days of having nothing to do last week. I think 7 straight days of that would be just too much. And what's worse is that after July 21st, I have absolutely nothing to do until I leave. So I want to take one more trip.

But I'm thinking of my options and I'm not really sure. I haven't really taken a big trip into the jungle yet, but it's so far away, and I'm not sure how badly I want to take a 10 or so hour bus ride. I could head down to Mancora, Peru for the beach. I've heard good things about Mancora, and it's about 8 hours away from Cuenca. Crossing the border could be a little sketchy, but I know a lot of people who've done it. If I were to travel down there, I'd probably be going by myself, and I'm not sure how much time I want to spend.

Money is an issue, and though I have enough, I'm also trying to save up for Argentina. With that being said, even getting out of Cuenca for a couple of days would be a welcome relief. I heard that the beaches in Ecuador are now too cold to go to, unless you head way up north, maybe 20 hours or more by bus. I'm going to continue to scour my guide book for ideas, but basically there isn't a ton of possibility. I do want to get out of here for a few days though, and so that's what I'll be working on for the next couple of days.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Cuenca

We're now well into the 13th hour of this miserable, sunny day in Cuenca. I'm still drunk, and I'm trying to piece together last night while slowly rubbing my left fingers over the scrapes and cuts on my right wrist and hand. I watched a lot of material with Hunter S. Thompson last night, so excuse me if this piece comes along as Gonzo. That's just the way it is.

The night started off innocently enough. Sitting in the apartment of my friend Charlie, we sipped on rum and cokes while watching "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," not sure of where our nights would go. But suddenly the lap top overheated and we had to stop watching halfway in. Now it was clear, we would have to leave the apartment. Charlie was already on edge because he heard that his neighbors below had complained about noise the last two nights, despite the fact that I was with him, out of the apartment. So we left, into the cold, misty night.

We met up with Lauren and another girl, Michelle, who's studying Spanish here for a month. We met her about 2 months ago in Vilcabamba, and she'd like Cuenca enough to return. Soon enough they'd decided to leave for home, so Charlie and I continued into a cheap shot bar, where I ran into an acquaintance, Gaby, who'd been missing for some time. We talked and caught up, in between dollar shots that we never paid for. Somewhere in the mix a friend of Gaby's, a guy, continued to buy us shots and attempt to swoon her. All we were talking about was a mutual friend, but he obviously didn't know this.

Leaving the bar, we were going to someone's car to head somewhere, but we stopped along the way for some reason. I don't know why, my memory is fuzzy and a lot of this new information was relayed to me by Charlie this morning. Something happened, the other guy was obviously jealous that I was talking to Gaby and she wasn't interested in him, so he grabbed my head and made dick sucking noises. Well, I'm not going to put up with that, I must have thought. Charlie says I went for the throat and was choking him and then tackled him, and once on the street, I proceeded to give him some good punches in the face.

The ironic thing is that I really don't like to fight. See, the thing is I'm a writer, and having messed up fingers does me no good. At the beginning of my senior year I got into a fight and broke two knuckles, right after getting an internship. This made it very difficult to type, and besides the shame and embarrassment of getting into a fight in front of so many people, whether or not it was just, which it was, I realized that I could ill afford to get into these situations again. Perhaps more ironic is that I was wearing the same shirt last night that I wore on the night of that other fight. The last time, the buttons were ripped out. This time, the shirt was ruined beyond repair, with blood and later on puke all over it.

So we faught for a moment until Charlie pulled me off and I sat myself on the curb while the other guy stood away getting scorned by the girls. And then, though I don't quite understand it, I started to cry. I never cry. Not to sound like a macho man, but I don't. What I was thinking of, though I don't know why, was my friend Ty that died this week. I had been pushing it down, but suddenly this fight brough it up. I wasn't crying hysterically, but tears were coming down, and I kept saying that he was only 20 years old. Charlie told me to forget it, and though I did try, it was tough. I was bleeding badly from the nose and my nice, white shirt that I'd bought in Spain years ago was covered.

We stood there until everyone else left, and then headed over to my safe spot, the bar/grill Chiplote, where no one would mess with me. They're all good people, and when I walked in they showed general concern, wanting to know who'd done this. Without any thought of payment, the owner, my friend Paul passed me two shots of Tequila, most definitely unnecessary. I cleaned up a bit, and from then on my memory is mostly gone.

Charlie tells me that him and his roommate Lucho had to carry me down the steps to their apartment, with the help of some German kid who saw the mess. I was also sitting on the ground outside Chiplote for a while. My legs just would not work, and Charlie think I might have been drugged by one of the shots that kid gave me. Because after all, as a seasoned drinker, why would I collapse like so, even though I don't really take shots anymore. But somewhere in this whole mess of a night, the evil got out, and rock bottom was very nearly hit, if not scraped.

And the rest is just a flash of being in their apartment, puking and dry heaving, hearing voices, waking up on the floor in a sunny, cold living room. My shirt in the bucket which sat next to my head. These things happen every weekend, maybe every night, all over the world. A street fight in Cuenca is no different than one in Boston, but maybe the fact that it happened now, so close to my departure, is intriguing. I wasn't being robbed, and I wasn't being a jerk, but this fight came to me. Who knows why fights ever happen at all? I guess sometimes we just get down to primal instincts and behavior.

And now I need to ride out this day, avoiding even the thought of alcohol and hoping for some kind of redeeming action. Something to make up for last nights' schoolyard scrap. If we could only be able to make up for everything like that. So easy, so calm, so good.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Future Planning

These last few weeks in Ecuador are going to be ruled by my need to find ways to keep busy. As of yesterday afternoon, I have nothing to do with the university until Monday. There was a possibility of going to the beach for the weekend, but I don't think that will happen. And worse still is that after Monday I have nothing to do for another week. When I learned this I started doing some research.

For the hell of it I looked up flights from Guayaquil and Quito to Medellin, Colombia. Using BargainTravel, which I'd previously used for flights to Chile and Peru, I found a deal of $242 before taxes, which is pretty good for international airfare. A friend of mine who's looking for a job in Medellin right now was going to be heading back there shortly, so suddenly it looked like I could be heading to Colombia for a few days.

Even though it still has the image of cartels, violence, and kidnappings, I've heard nothing but good things about Colombia. Everyone who goes loves the people, the food, and the women. In fact, it's probably now safer than Ecuador. Rumors say that Colombia has pushed out many of the major cartels, and they now operate out of the coast of Ecuador. But that's unconfirmed on my end, just a rumor. Anyway, I tried getting back to that Web site for the deal again, but suddenly as of yesterday afternoon I'm no longer able to access the page with the airfare. Something about being foreign and needing 7 days to check the credit card. Yet in the morning it worked.

So I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it to Colombia. I checked in at a couple of travel agencies yesterday as well, and their prices were too high for me. But someone told me if you go to the supermarket you can buy airfare for $250 to Medellin. So this afternoon I'm going to take a walk down there and see what the deal is.

If I don't wind up going to Colombia, I'm still probably going to go somewhere, just because I have so much time and nothing to do here. One possibility is going to the jungle, the last region of Ecuador that I haven't really explored. There are a few places I can head to, but they're not exactly close to Cuenca. Another option is going to Mancora, Peru, which is a popular beach town about 8 hours away. Mancora is supposed to be kind of like Montanita, here in Ecuador. That means it's a surfing town by day and party town by night. I don't think I'll try surfing, but it will be nice to get to the beach one more time and to go back to Peru.

I'll keep posted what my plans wind up being, and hopefully I'll be able to do something worthwhile.

A Quick Tribute to Ty Richardson

Last night I learned of some sad news from back home. A friend of mine that I used to work with for a couple of years, Ty Richardson, died in a car crash on Sunday, July 5th. He was only 20 years old. Apparently he wasn't wearing his seat belt and was thrown from his car.

Ty was a great kid, and since we both worked at Gillette Stadium, a place where we often had hours upon hours of down time, we did a lot of talking, sunflower seed eating, Dunkin Donuts coffee sipping, and joking around. The first day I met him he had started with a group of friends. I was going around giving them all nicknames and took one look at him and said, "Bobcat." It stuck immediately, and though some people often reject a new nickname, Ty took to it and really enjoyed it. A while later someone had asked me if I'd seen Ty and I had no idea who they were talking about until they clarified with "Bobcat."

Ty was always there to make you smile, talk about hockey, or whatever other nonsense was going on. I remember he once showed up to work about 40 minutes late. As he stepped out of his car the supervisor asked him what happened. With his Dunkin Donuts coffee in his hand he took a sip, looked up and said, "Traffic was brutal." And he got away with it. He was one of those kids that could do that. You couldn't get mad at him.

And though I haven't talked to him in over a year and haven't worked at the stadium in as long, I still feel badly for his family and friends back in Massachusetts who now have to go on without him. The world's a colder place without him.

Rest in Peace, Ty.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Typical Behavior

This week is kind of tough in the sense that I need to find ways to keep myself busy in between doing nothing. Yesterday I only had one final to attend to at 7 pm, so I had an entire day beforehand to work with. In the morning I went for a long run and then started watching a movie until lunch. Afterward, I met up with my friend Jamie and her sister who is visiting. We took her sister to Spanish lessons and then walked around Cuenca for a couple of hours until the class had ended. By that point, I had to go home for dinner and to get ready to go to the university.

So it wound up being OK. I was outside for a good part of the day and kept busy. But when I got to the university I was told that I didn't really need to be there for the final because none of my students were taking it. This was a make up final for students who'd failed the first one, and none of mine had failed. So, in typical fashion, a day was wasted and no one had bothered to tell me that I didn't need to come down. However, there were two changes that I needed to take note of.

For the next day, today, I was supposed to have two finals at 1 pm and 7 pm. But there were two notes in my locker saying otherwise. The first note said that my final at 1 pm was now switched to be with a different professor. Basically, we all have to sit in on another professors' final exam and help with the oral section. But now I was supposed to help a different teacher. The second note said that I didn't have to go to any of the finals at 1 pm, and instead of the final I had at 7 pm, I was supposed to help another teacher at 7 pm. I was a little confused.

To double check I went to the secretary and asked her about 5 times to make sure that I had nothing at 1 pm and only at 7 pm with the newly assigned professor. She confirmed this, and I went home happy, knowing that again I would only have one thing to do at the university the next day. I watched another movie at night and then went to bed.

Today I woke up a bit later than usual, went for a run, and then hung around my room until lunch. Right as we were sitting down to eat, around 1:15 pm, I started getting calls from numbers I didn't recognize, but I already had an idea what it was. I didn't answer the first three calls until a fellow professor called. He said that I was supposed to be at a final at 1 pm and that everyone was looking for me. I told him quite frankly that, no, I did not have a final because there was a change. Not only did I have a note with proof of this, but the secretary confirmed this last night. But he continued that I was supposed to be there. Too bad, I said, I'm eating lunch and not going down to the university.

After lunch I went back to my room and got another call from a different secretary asking me where I was, and I told her the same thing. All she could say was that no, I was supposed to be there, and asked if I could come down to the university. I told her that I couldn't, and that the other secretary had already told me I had no exam. It's not my fault that they messed up, and I wasn't about to rush down there and fix their mistake. Especially since by the time I got there most of the students would probably be done with their exams.

So, in more typical Ecuadorian behavior, nothing made sense and no one took responsibility for what happened. I need to go down to the university for the 7 o'clock final shortly, and I'm sure someone is going to try to blame me for this. But I will not take responsibility for childish behavior by adults. And since I'm at the end of my service here, I feel no need to bend over backwards for the university. For an institution that has so much prestige, not just in Cuenca but in Ecuador, it's amazing how inefficient and unorganized it is. Yet again, I'm hardly surprised by any of this 10 months into living here. To take a line from Bob Marley, "Don't worry, cuz every little thing is gonna be alright." There's always another thing you can do here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

el dia de independencia

On Saturday we celebrated America's Independence Day as best we could, despite the handicap of being residents in Ecuador. We'd tried to round up a few Americans for a barbecue, and our original plan was to have a cookout in the park. But then we'd heard that you're not even allowed to grill in the parks, so instead, we moved the party to the art studio of my friend Andres. Andres had grown up in New Jersey and was the one who had the grill, and we were grateful to be able to grill at his studio.

We met up early in the afternoon to go to the supermarket and buy supplies. We got as much as we thought we'd need, which turned out to be way too much. But we were still unsure of how many people were going to come. We all pitched in $5 and got chicken wings, chicken drum sticks, hamburgers, hot dogs, potatoes for homemade fries and mashed potatoes, salad, chips, sauces, and 24 large beers. All told for the food we only spent $43, plus a little extra for the beers, which were about a $1 a piece.

Since there's really no lighter fluid, we had to light the charcoals the old fashioned way. We put a candle at the base of the pyramid of carbon, then burnt paper and waited until they caught. We let the grill sit for about 40 minutes to get hotter because we couldn't put the lid on. There were no handles and we'd burn our hands using it. Andres and a couple other people went to work on the potatoes, the girls made the salad and freshened up the chips, while a few of us sat drinking beer, listening to music, and eventually working on the grill.

I stepped up as the grill master, though it was basic at best. We had no tongs nor spatula, so I had to use two forks for everything. Flipping the burgers wasn't too hard, and the skinny hot dogs cooked almost instantly. But turning the chicken and lathering it up with barbecue sauce was challenging, especially as the wind blew smoke in my face. By the end of the day my hands were well done. We ate in shifts, and after cooking the drum sticks, I took a break to enjoy a little food. The girls took over on the grill for a bit as I coached them, and we shared the few plates that we had.

It was a good mix of Americans and Ecuadorians, but all told we didn't have more than 10 people. But that was fine, because if there were too many it would have been hectic. Periodically Andres would come out with more fries out of the oven, and once all of the hot dogs and hamburgers were done, they were open game for whoever wanted them. We quickly realized that we had too much food, but we had to cook it all and do our best. We were already reaching the limit by the second beer run.

We got to the studio around 1:30, but didn't even start eating until around 4 because it was such a long process. So we were all famished, but by the time the chicken wings went on the grill and another friend took over the cooking responsibilities, we were struggling. By this time it was getting darker, and suddenly Andres came out with a big plate of mashed potatoes for everyone. We had to force ourselves to eat, and I could only eat a small portion of my huge plate. I later found out that when I wasn't looking the girls piled about half of theirs onto mine.

Once the food was all cooked we let the grill burn out and sat down, finishing our beers, listening to music, and talking. I undid my belt for comedic reasons, but it basically said how much we'd eaten. The only thing we'd forgotten were the fireworks. We thought about desserts we should have had, but agreed we ate more than enough. Later on I went to my friend Charlie's apartment for a housewarming party, since he'd just moved in recently. We sat around watching Michael Jackson videos on the national channel on a repeat for about 4 hours.

I was pretty tired and just wanted to go home, but one of the guys at the party insisted I go into a club with everyone else. I really didn't want to pay, but he said he'd pay for me. But when we went inside they wanted to search everyone. This man, Sergio, was not happy, and started a scene. So they told him to get out, and me by association. So for the first time I got kicked out of a club and I didn't even do anything. But I was pretty glad about it anyway because I just wanted go home. So though we weren't home for Independence Day, we still had a pretty good time. Expatriates, but still patriotic.

Friday, July 3, 2009

One Foot In

In order to prepare for coming down to Argentina in August, there are three big things that I need to take care of. These things that must be slayed are: 1. Getting my citizenship taken care of, and taking care of the process to get my DNI citizenship card, and eventually the passport. 2. Find an apartment. 3. Find a job. They aren't in order because I consider them all to be of the utmost importance, but I've been working on each of these over a period of time.

I started the process of getting citizenship months ago, and have already been approved by the consulate in New York. I have the papers, but I need to sign them in front of a government employee in either a consulate, embassy, or in Argentina. I was supposed to go to Guayaquil and do it at the consulate there, but since they had no idea what they were doing, I'm going to have to wait until I get to Argentina. The only problem is that I've heard that once you sign the papers you have to wait 11 months to get the DNI, which pretty much defeats the purpose. Especially since I want the passport so I can travel to other Latin American countries without paying the entrance visa fee that is applied to Americans.

As for the job, I've been searching for opportunities for as long as I've been working on the citizenship, and have even paid a service to help me find a teaching job in Buenos Aires. The only problem is that I'm arriving in August, which is the down season for hiring, as it's winter. But realistically I'd consider doing any job, and I've been pursuing a lot of contacts and friends that have friends there. I'm just hoping to find any job that can keep me sustainable down there. Most likely I won't be able to get a job until I get there, and I'm hoping I can get one quickly so I don't have to dig into my meager savings.

And the last obstacle, an apartment, I hope has finally been figured out. Over the last few days I've been speaking with several people in Buenos Aires who are looking for roommates or who have rooms to let. I was vacillating between a place in a neighborhood called Almagro, which is more residential, or an artsy neighborhood called San Telmo. I've heard good things about San Telmo, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to live there. The place would have utilities included, wifi, balconies and a rooftop terrace. I've heard the neighborhood can be a bit sketchier at night, but since I'm coming from Ecuador, I'm not too worried. I was able to find the apartment in part because of a member of the Matador Network, who first told me to join Couchsurfing and look for apartments that way. Then she was kind enough to offer a room in her apartment.

Hopefully if this works out I'll be able to focus on the other two things when I first get down there, and not have to worry about finding and paying for a hostel, while also dealing with that whole scene. I'm excited to get down there, and yesterday I was talking with my friend Andres, who lived in Buenos Aires for a year. He told me about the juxtapositions in the city and how there's a lot of tension between the wealthy and the poor. How it's very classicist and at times racist. But you also find some very friendly people and can live in a cool culture that is very European. And I love Europe. So either way, it will be a very interesting experience coming from Ecuador.

And of course, I still have another month here in Cuenca. Today is the last day of classes, and I'm taking my class out for pizza. After that there's just a couple week of final exams and placement tests, and then I'm done on July 21st. Yesterday I bought a plane ticket up to Quito for July 28th, and then I'll head down to Quilotoa for a couple of days before going home on August 1st. Things are moving quickly.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Welcome, July

We're now in July, my last month in this country. It's kind of upsetting when I think that back home people are in shorts and t-shirts and hot, enjoying longer days. Meanwhile in Cuenca I'm still wearing pants and jackets and the sun sets at the same time, every day, like always. I look at the date and it just doesn't seem right, because there's no way it feels like it's autumn in July. But soon enough I'll be sweating in the August humidity of Boston and cursing the heat. It will be great no doubt, because three weeks later I'll be heading to Buenos Aires, where it will be winter all over again.

This upcoming weekend is going to be pretty big. First, my last class is on Friday, and though I still have two days to go, I basically finished the teaching part today. Tomorrow we'll be watching a movie and on Friday we're going out for pizza. Then on Friday night is a birthday party for a friend. And on Saturday we'll be celebrating the 4th of July, aka el dia de independencia de los estados unidos. A few of us Americans are planning on getting a grill and going to the park, eating and drinking a bit, and maybe even playing some Frisbee. We may be expats, but we're still patriotic. We are going to try to find some fireworks as well.

We wanted to get some American beer, but it's probably not going to happen. However, we can still drink Pilsener, which is pretty watered down and lousy. So, in a way, it's like drinking Bud Light. I've been feeling kind of sick for the last couple of days and had lost some hearing in my left ear, but it's back today and I feel much better, so as long as I stay healthy for the next few days, it should be a pretty fun weekend.