Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ruta del Sol

We went on vacation!!!

Jose and I headed to the Ecuadorian coast for a week-long trip, we followed la Ruta del Sol, the Sun Route, although we essentially spent the week chasing the sun, as this tends to be the cloudy and cooler season. No matter.

We flew to Guayaquil, on separate airlines actually, which is the short version of a long and complicated story about my temporary residence rights and INGALA regulations. Not so interesting.

But we both arrived in the hot, muggy afternoon on Monday and were picked up by cousin Julio. We promptly headed over to the bus station to reserve our tickets on the first morning bus to the north, a small surfer town called Canoa.

After shopping at "real" stores (underwear and shampoo are cheaper on the mainland), we grabbed some exotic food (shwarma) and headed to the house where we visited with droopy eyes and finally crashed into a comfortable and clean guest bed. Instead of falling asleep to the familiar sounds of ocean waves and dogs, we heard lullabyes sung by neighborhood cats, loving and fighting all night long.

As the sun came up on Tuesday, we loaded up, hailed a cab, and caught our "executive" bus (it had a toilet on board), and slowly but surely made our way north. Approximately eight hours, a million stops, sadly no food vendors, but lots of interesting road-side amusement later, we arrived dusty and tired to the sleepy town of Canoa.

I say sleepy, since it's the off-season for tourists and vacationing students from the city. The town seemed so quiet and peaceful, sandy streets and fish shacks lining the beach, where we found our hotel: Hotel Bambu, right on the beach and in the corner of the pueblito. One of the best places that I have every stayed at in Ecuador, the food was great, the service excellent and friendly, and the entire setting was the very definition of tranquility.

Doing nothing much more than strolling the beach, taking photos, and exploring the town, we left two days later, with a little reluctancy. We caught the same bus that we had left earlier in the week, and boarded to head back south.

Let me take a moment to explain the phenomenon that is the bus system of Ecuador, and many South American countries. There are large, quasi-comfortable buses of all ages and states of cleanliness being herded across every corner and crevice of the country at nearly every hour. They are pretty darn efficient, and they are always run by characters. The drivers and "hustlers" wear button-down shirts and ties. The "hustlers" hang out the open door as the bus slows through town, yelling the name of the next destination, while potential passengers hurry to board. The price of a bus ticket varies and depends on the bus line and the distance. The minimum fare is around 50 cents, while the highest fare we paid was around $3.50 (for about four hours of bus service and entertainment). The people who take the buses are professionals, grandparents visiting relatives, people going to work, children riding to or from school, people coming or traveling to market, etc. The public takes the bus, and that's what makes it so darn amusing. Examples of cargo that I witnessed on our personal bus rides: laundry in a basket, briefcases, bags of fruit, a puppy, a large TV, baby carriages, and even building materials. The bus is perhaps one of the most real experiences I have had in Ecuador, while also feeling safe and adventuresome. RECOMMENDED.

During a brief interlude, we visited a small aquarium run by a small community Valdivia. Here young volunteers guided us through a display of animals and birds and marine life (some living, some preserved specimens) and told us what it ate, where it was found, etc. Our ten-year-old guide, David, told us he had been volunteering there for one year already. Hot stuff.

We boarded our bus again, after about a fifteen minute wait on the sidewalk, and continued on to Puerto Rico (town, not the country, obviously), just a few miles south of the famous Puerto Lopez. Here we stayed in a beautiful hotel called La Barquita. The best part was not the freezing pool, or the lovely garden, or even the friendly dogs keeping everyone in line, but the restaurant and "lobby" of the hotel itself, which was, in my opinion, a genuine pirate ship. Fun ensued.

The next day we had made arrangements to travel back to Pt. Lopez to take a daily tour to see the migrating whales. Like WHOA! This was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I kept telling myself, as I feverishly scanned the horizon, that whales are probably the most marvellous beings on the planet, and that they are rare and timid and that I shouldn't get my hopes up to see them, let alone see one jumping above the waves.

And then I saw them. At first, we just saw their slippery backs, fins cutting above the white caps of the choppy waves, everyone on board got excited, cameras ready, standing up (despite our captains specific instructions not to). On the return trip, we saw several jumping, breaching, breaking through the ocean's world and into ours. Unbelievably large, powerful, graceful, I couldn't stop myself from pointing, gasping, and then clutching my heart and sighing as it disappeared back to below. BIG DEAL.<3

We sadly returned to Guayaquil the next day, after having traveled the last leg on our final bus. The next morning we headed back to the islands. I had a more eventful trip back, as I had difficulties with my ticket (as in it was actually scheduled for the 30th of September as opposed to the 11th, minor detail). So in the end, Jose took the regular two-hour flight back home and was resting and unpacking and waiting for me. I, on the other hand, took a two-hour flight to Baltra, then a bus, then a ferry, then another bus to Porta Ayora in Santa Cruz, where I had lunch and waited around in the sun on the pier, waiting for the charter boat to carry me (in a very bumpy and rough manner, if I do say so myself) the nearly three hours back to San Cristobal.

I can't explain the joy I felt, walking back into our little apartment, after a long and crazy week away, there's no place like home.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


¡Viva Ecuador!

That's right, Ecuador's Independence day was August 10th, which was (barely) celebrated on the island by a small parade in somewhat inclement weather. Being a Wednesday, the holiday was moved to Friday, providing proud citizens with a three-day weekend to reflect upon the liberation of the small nation.

Since it's quite possible that Ecuador loves its holidays more than any other free nation in the world, last week's classes were poorly attended. But this could be due to several reasons. Either students were A) confused about the weeks holiday schedule that I plainly posted for them, B) too wrapped up in the marching parades and flag-hanging and powerful speeches given by their leaders, or C) totally didn't bat an eye about ditching out on class. Or any combination of the three.

No matter, it was nice to glide through a shorter and easier week, all the while looking forward to taking the boat out this weekend for a quick run to test the engines and do general cleaning.

That is, until Thursday morning, when word spread that we were under an Orange Alert.

Upon first hearing this, I was more than a little worried about the fruit that has only recently come into season, and of which I have been consuming like some sort of shameless Vitamin C junkie.

But, to my further dismay, the warning was not concerning the abundant fruit harvests, but to the strong waves that were due to arrive within the next four days.

The next four days which happened to fall over the three-day holiday weekend. Crap.

So, while some nervously monitored the shores and breaking tides, plenty of others were left trying to fill their days with other activities, since their business trips, food and gas cargo, and tourism ventures were delayed for half a week.

The weather hindered many options by refusing to put on a happy face and let the sun out long enough to dry up the rainy/misty landscape. (Not to mention the beaches were completely prohibited, don't even think about it, gringa.)

Movies were bought. Naps were taken. I read two books. We even attended a glow stick party. Same bar, same songs, same drinks, same people, but with glow sticks. It was a nice try.

We spent most of a whole day in the highlands farm, socks and shirts tucked in to keep out the biting ants and mosquitos (to no avail) while we collected oranges, tangerines, papayas, avocados, bananas, and one lonely egg that hadn't already begun incubating. Even the donkey looked disappointed with the foiled holiday plans.

So now here we are, Sunday afternoon and not even a dampening of the waterfront with hazardous or violent waves. The sun has decided to come out as an act of consolation, and the boats have once more fallen back into routine tours and charters and deliveries.

So the joke was on us, Ecuador. Maybe you really just wanted to insist that we all take the rest that you thought we surely needed this weekend, in honor of your free and laid-back spirit.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Cowgirl Shower

We ran out of water the other day.

As in, when I turned on the sink, after much spitting and sputtering, out coughed some brown sludge, not exactly what I wanted to brush my teeth with.

This meant, of course, that the cistern which provides agua dulceto the main house and the three apartments on the same property, was empty. To remedy this situation, mi suegro, Vicente, must power up the generator to transfer water from the main cistern, or else pump water from the huge diesel water supply truck that he drives. Either way, I'm not allowed to help in the process.

It was later afternoon, and my in-laws had just returned from their highlands farm, tired yet lugging crates of oranges, large bundle of fresh flowers, a few fresh eggs, a head of ripening bananas, and a few bags of rich, nearly black soil for the small garden and plants in the yard.

Even if the water transfer were to happen right away, that didn't mean I could wait a few minutes to turn on the tap again.

The set-up of hoses and generator takes about fifteen minutes. Then, when the noisy machine is turned on, the actual transfer takes at least a half an hour. Then, one must wait for the water to settle. The shortest time is at least another half hour, longer if you're smart.

Since this is fresh water, but not clean drinking water, there are a few friends floating in the mix. Since the cistern provides water through a pump that floats on the top, you shouldn't be impatient to get wet from that stream. Anything you've got to clean can wait and will be better off for doing it.

Since we recently had a new shower head installed (an electric one that provides alternating three minutes of pretty warm water and regular, icy water), I had lost my habit of always showering in the middle of the day, with the few minutes of luke-warm water that was heated by the mid-day sun as it sat in the black rubber hoses between the cistern and the apartment.

Here it was, sundown, and I had planned on going out, which I reluctantly agreed called for a shower and clean clothes that weren't cut offs.

Grabbing towel, bucket, and bar of soap, I slipped on my bathing suit and flip flops and headed outside to the side of the house where there is a small cistern and table-like basin for the hand washing.

With only the lights of the clear stars and the colored lamps from the Malecon about two hundred feet away, I lathered and shampooed and rinsed the old fashioned way, feeling like a cowgirl bathing in the silent witness of the stars, and the family dogs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.

I have a new class. Boy, do I ever. I am teaching Level 1 again, my favorite group. I love teaching beginners for many reasons.

First, they want to be there. They have taken a rather large first step. They are willing to try something new and that is a powerful attitude.

Second, most of them know absolutely nothing about the English language. This being said, they have a clean slate to work with. They haven't yet picked up bad habits (that everyone has in a foreign language) and can be taught something correctly.

Third, as a foreign language student myself, I start the class with full Spanish (which is another avenue of practice for me) and slowly wean them off of it and before they know it, I'm only speaking to them in English, but they UNDERSTAND!

Fourth, there is no shortage of topics to teach. They need to know the basics, which depending on them, can take many directions.

Oftentimes students approach me before/during/after class to help them translate phrases they need for work. (Please put your suitcase on the scale. I need to inspect your boat. Are you a vegetarian? Fill out this form, please. Where do you have pain?)

I have nearly 50 students combined. A much longer roster than usual, as attendance in prior classes has curbed at no more than 15 per class. That's the beauty of small language classes - so much personalized attention from the teacher.

When I say I am teaching in a university, most people imagine a roomful of boisterous youngsters in their late teens and early twenties, like in the US. Not exactly. While I have many typical university students (same age group, familiar with the process of being a student, i.e; doing homework, taking tests, studying, attending classes regularly, etc), more than half are older adults. They are working professionals with homes and families. They work for the National Park, the Navy, the Police, the hospital, the city government, and various other institutions. This changes the tone of the class.

On top of that, I also have a few teenage high schoolers peppered in the mix. These students are 15 or 16 years old, attend high school classes during the day (including the English classes they are required to take in high school) and also attend the English program at the university in the evenings. Sounds like quite a mature and eager student to be tackling all that, huh? You would think.

So now we've started in on the third week of the intensive 7-week course. And they are all still coming. I'm tickled, don't get me wrong. But usually what happens is the first week is kind of crazy with new students showing up and then disappearing, or else dropping in a few days late and trying to get caught up, etc.

I thought that surely after I assigned them their mid-term project last week that a few would drop. But to my surprise, I will have 47 mid-term projects to grade. And I can't wait!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

This Is Just a Test

Or that's what I keep murmuring to myself, trying to keep all cool and all stoic right now.

Today my level 6 students are taking their Final Exam, which will be followed in two weeks by the program's Exit Exam. I have never been more nervous for a module to end. I know that not everyone will make it through, but I am so apprehensive that the ones who really deserve the success of receiving the Proficiency Certificate will be justly awarded.

And I have to understand that it isn't up to me.

It's totally out of my hands. Yes, I've taught them some vocabulary and grammatical structure and forced them to put their feelings into a blog and stand up in front of their peers and express their opinions and played the Devil's Advocate in class debates and tried to be available to them for any questions at all they might have had and offered review sessions and a hundred other things.

But I can't make them learn English and I can't force them to study hard and I can't require them to care. Not if they don't want to by their own accord.

And so here I sit, answering redundant questions during their exam, hoping the test is an accurate assessment of not only the program's ability to teach English as a Foreign Language, but also for their own ability to apply what they've learnt.

Also, living on the island, more friends have left, and potential new friends are soon to be arriving. Now I'm on the other side of the airport scene, the one who stands outside the gate and waves goodbye without a bag in hand.

People, especially if they are happy to be leaving this place for some reason (not satisfied, fed up with Island Time, homesick, etc), leave me with stinging accusations about how I could possibly like it here, why would I want to make this place my home, what in God's name do I think I will do here in the future?

These questions are good for self-examination; unless you know me and understand how I can over-analyze anything for days (and do) and end up crawling out of the rabbit hole on the other side, questioning everything that I've come to know and believe in, down to the rabbit hole itself.

Inversely, when new arrivals show up and they are bright-eyed and trying to get a grasp on this place and it's workings, I get many of the same questions. I hate feeling defensive, but I seem to always feel like I'm being attacked during these interrogations.

Because I don't know.

I don't have many answers about why I've chose this place instead of others, I don't exactly know what the future will bring, mainly because I know how suddenly life can change, and sometimes it's best not to have your hopes woven too tightly around something.

And I've always been like this. Not just in this isolated island where time doesn't seem to exist like it does in the rest of the world. Where rules and reality morph and bend depending on the day and with whom you are speaking (or filing paperwork).

But I am so happy in this moment! I am loving everyone and everything around me, even starting to laugh off the rude official letters, the lacsidasical way in which progress is sought after in this culture.

I am keeping my peace amidst all of this. Even though I aknowledge my nervousness, my lack of direction, my absence of life plans. I start to feel the familiar tightness in my spine and my belly, and then I kind of chuckle and say, this is just a test. And then I open up again, and everything falls away.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sea Turtle Savin'

Tonight, as I walked out of the university after my evening class, I almost stepped on a baby sea turtle.

Let me explain. The university is literally across the street from a beach. And apparently there was a nest which had hatched, and a group of babies were crawling towards the lights of the university, rather than the moonlight (it's cloudy tonight).

So when I nearly tripped over my flip flop to not squash the little guy, and I stared down at him, flippers desperately swimming across brick, it took me a second to register. Then I called to the night watchman and the few local university students who were sitting on the front steps, lost in their own conversation:

"¡Hay tortuguitas del mar!"

They all stopped mid-sentence and rushed over and with the light of a flashlight and a few cell phones, we counted several more. Just then, a few motos came racing down the hill (per usual), to arrive at the U. We scooped up the babies and carried them to the safety of the sand across the road.

Another student went searching for a local teacher/researcher for the National Park, Juan Carlos. He quickly found a shallow bucket and filled it halfway with sand, where we then carefully deposited each of the lost but not yet discouraged baby sea turtles.

Suddenly we were a group of ten or more, scanning and scoring the beach slowly in the dim lights, minding the sleeping sea lions, as we searched for more turtles.

After a while, with no more new discoveries, some photos were taken, and the babies were escorted into the evening tide.

Such a random thing to happen, but I was so glad that it did (and that we were able to gather seemingly all of the turtles, obviously, duh). They were smaller than my palm. Their almost fleshy-feeling flippers were so strong and stubborn, like thumb war winners, scales so fine and smooth. I picked them up by their miniature yet sturdy shells. My memory was flashing to all the times I've snorkeled with these giant graceful beings, my favorite sea creature by far.

What a beautiful night!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Scuba as Meditation

Here's what I've learned both from my recent Open Water Scuba Dive course and my meditation practice:

1. Never stop breathing. As in, don't hold your breathe, for fear of bursting your lungs as you surface, sure, but also, to maintain a slow and steady core as you pass through the world. Or as the universe passes through you.

2. Keep your eyes open. Discovering life underwater, especially in one of the world's largest Marine Reserves, is exhilarating and inspiring, yet peaceful. Don't block out the negative aspects of this world, instead focus on the root, the source.

3. Know your emergency strategies. Being prepared for potential problems changes the situation from being out of control, to manageable. Knowing how to keep your cool, giving responses instead of reactions.

4. Always dive with a buddy. Share your experiences, share your life. Enjoy the company you keep, learn something from everyone, even if they are not 'on your side.' Know that you are not unique in your life, we are all connected by our human drama.

5. Keep searching. Don't settle, never allow stagnancy. Continue to grow and challenge yourself. Take up new hobbies, make new relationships, keep on discovering your self and the world.

"Constantly exhale a steady stream of bubbles, making a gentle "Ahhhh" sound."