Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Home


Due to a sudden change of events, I am spending the holidays in Kansas with my family. After the initial stress of changing flights, traveling, and overcoming the sudden temperature change (around 60 degrees difference), I feel very blessed to be home.

I am focusing on flexibility. I am trying to take a deep breath and accept (not try to force change or resist things I cannot control), but just exist so that each new challenge is lived through. Like I said, I'm working on it...

I left the islands with only three days of planning. I surprised all my relatives, only my parents knew I was coming home. Every time I visit, it is intense. This is simply due to the fact that I have a very close family, it's a challenge trying to spend meaningful time with each individual. But I try.

Tomorrow I am baby-sitting my two-year old nephew, which I am really excited about, but also nervous. All he likes to play with and talk about (and boy does he talk!) are trucks and tractors and tools and farm equipment. Not exactly my strong subjects.

Talking with my mom this evening, we told each other what Christmas traditions were most important to us. My mother, being one of the most jolly people in the world (a close second to my sister, the Christmas baby), loves the music, decorations, family under one roof, all of it.

I told her that my favorite traditions were just being together: I love cooking and since I come from a long line of great cooks, there are plenty of recipes that have been handed down through the generations.

Since I've been an "adult" (legally speaking, of course, still waiting to grow all the way up), I have enjoyed waking up early on Christmas morning. There my parents already sit, coffee mugs and bath robes, quilts on their laps. The only lights on in the house are the sparkling decorations and blinking tree. Miniature villages from Mom's collection are also settled around the room. There we sit, in the glow of the holiday, talking quietly and sharing memories. Slowly, yet all too soon, the sun comes up and the day begins.

We start making a brunch of rich tradition and comfort food. Later, the others come with their families and we celebrate again, much later, we celebrate my sister's birthday. We play games, we visit, we give gifts that have meaning, we eat the amazing treats that have been prepared.

It is this year that is so different, though every year brings something new: I am engaged, but I had to come alone, my parents and brother are living in new homes, my nephew is too big for his own britches, and there's another on the way! As I sit in the glow of the small tree this year, I am happy to be home, knowing that this is a different Christmas, and next year will be even more changed.

There is no point to holding onto your reservations about how things should be. They won't ever be. Change is natural and beautiful, sometimes drastic and chaotic and heartbreaking. So it goes...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Dia de Accion de Gracias


Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Ever.

I love summer changed to fall and the seasonal food it brings. I love cooking and making traditional foods. I love spending the time with family and friends and taking walks after sessions of comfort food. I love all the entrees and side dishes and trimmings and desserts and wine to toast and coffee to savor afterwards. I love the smells of the oven and of the fireplace and of the grass and trees dying and drying out.

While it may come to a surprise to some, Thanksgiving is a celebration of a historic American event, and therefore is not a world-renowned holiday (gasp). This being said, no one here really cares that there is no turkey to bake, no pumpkins to press into a pie, nor cranberries to make into a tart and lovely sauce, etc.

Instead, when I told my students about the holiday, what it means to me, and how my family celebrates, they asked why there wasn't dancing? I told them that because there is such an abundance of food, it is virtually impossible to dance. Plus, the men are all passed out in front of the tv, watching American football all day. One is also usually too full to enjoy an alcoholic beverage.

Since drinking and dancing are the backbone to any Ecuadorian holiday, they didn't seem to be very interested. Only amazing homemade food to be shared with friends and family? We do that everyday, it's called "almuerzo." They had me there.

But us three American English teachers weren't giving up that easily. Our patronage to a small restaurant for rotisserie chicken, cole slaw salad, menestra bean salad and rice served as our feast. We recalled our typical holiday plans, our favorite Thanksgiving dishes, and, of course, what we were thankful for on this calm and gently cool night on an equatorial island. There was a lot.

But, since you, dear readers, weren't there to witness, the least I can do is recount my humble words of gratitude. I am thankful for my opportunities. I am thankful for the freedom that I have in order to create the kind of life that I want to have, to follow my wishes and desires and not live with only whatever is handed to me. I am very fortunate to have so many loving people around me (even far away from where I am now), and to have the chance to meet so many new ones. I am fortunate to have such resilient health and and to be safe and secure. I am fortunate to have found a job doing something that I deeply enjoy, something that challenges me and calls on skills I both have and am continuing to develop. I am thankful that I am surrounded by still so many chances to learn new things. Last, but certainly not least, I am so grateful for meeting José, such an important person in my life, and to have the shared goal of spending our futures together.

All in all, I am grateful for all of it, good and bad, because as someone before me said, "Without the bitter, life wouldn't be so sweet."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Come, reza, ama


So I recently read the novel Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert and fell in love. I related to the outcast, black sheep syndrome and her yearning for travel. And food. And desire for understanding. I read through it like a marathon runner, unable to stop for anything. It felt like reuniting with a long lost friend after about a decade, once more getting to know each other and the details of life that we have missed out on. (I recently did exactly that, too; so glad you are back in my life!)

Yesterday I found the movie for sale at one of the small movie stores. SCORE! I usually don't appreciate movies that are based on books, but this one lives up to the feelings created by the book, for the most part.

Some of my favorite parts are when she is learning. She decided to learn Italian, just because it felt magical, it was good for her soul. There was no practical reason for her to pick up this particular language. I love the idea that it is important to seek out facets in life that are simply for the beauty of it. This is how I feel about dancing salsa: there is no reason for me to be a great salsa dancer. I only want the skill because of the way I feel: I feel graceful and sexy and like I'm sharing a secret of this culture, a secret that not everyone (especially gringitas) can appreciate.

She gives up guilt about eating and food and body image in order to truly embrace the joy of flavor, to reclaim a meal as an event, not a chore. Whether with friends, family, the love of your life, or all alone, to eat something should be like a ceremony. Savor with all your senses, don't just grub and then wash it down. Go ahead, chew your bite 33 times before swallowing. Swish your beverage around your teeth and gums and tongue. Gargle it if you want to, it won't offend me. Give up on the idea that you are supposed to look like anyone else but you.

She spends four months at an ashram, in search of peace, almost unawares that before there is peace, there is a whole lot of garbage. In this place, I have constantly been facing my demons, most of them, anyway, sheesh. It is a perfect spot to see things objectively, to notice the patterns, like rings in a tree. To gently glide away and let go of such heavy stones, to replace tightly gripped hands with open palms and nimble fingers. Not trying to grasp onto anything is such a quiet way to live.

She returned to Bali to study, to reflect, to learn what she could, to find a balance. This is something I keep telling myself: Life is the lesson and the test at the same time. Take every opportunity that you can to understand what you couldn't before. Try to see things differently than how you first look at them, shift the focus, change your position.

So I'm showing this movie to my English class. I hope they will see the humor and the beauty in the story, the way I did. If nothing else, they can appreciate the trials of learning a second language. And if even that is lost on them, at least there are beautiful people, eating beautiful things, in beautiful places. Surely, everyone can dig that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Guess That This Must Be the Place


So I think most of my devoted followers already have clued into this little bit of news: I'm engaged!

I believe that Love is different for everyone and while this may not be the traditional relationship or marriage, we are very committed to one another. We make each other happy, we compliment each other. We are both very independent people, so it's a lie to say something so pathetic as "He completes me."

We are complete. We are fully capable of living life without one another, it's just that we don't want to, we choose not to.

I am in love with this man that I am so blessed to have met. He's funny and patient and hardworking and honest and I have never felt this good before. I feel good in this place, I have work, I have projects, I have fun.

It's strange to be in this position, a soon-to-be-bride, when as a culture we are told what this is supposed to look like and feel like, and that’s not what I want. I am rejecting the traditional sense of the word, of the custom. We are doing what we are comfortable with, what fits our personalities.

I had never thought I would be married, and neither did he. Together we have realized something beautiful and we are willing to follow that fragile light into the future.

Thanks again for all the positive energy and love from family and friends. Those who have said less than joyful words, I also thank you, for your honesty, for your concern for the wellbeing of us both.

Life is too short for anything other than letting go and loving. So, in the words of my favorite writer, "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sailin' with Che

Yesterday José and I went sailing with an Argentinean journalist couple. The Che’s had been to the four main islands in the past eight days, had borrowed my camera for the San Cristobal stint of their project to experience and document tourism in Galapagos. The reason that an international photographer wanted to borrow my camera, is that his was badly damaged by the salt water a day before, and he was working with Vicente, Josés dad, for a publicity project for the islands.

The two-person racing sailboat, the Sunfish, was rented from someone here on the island. We loaded up wetsuits and hired a water taxi and a driver and set up on Playa Mann. José and César boarded first, while Lorena and the driver and I met the water taxi at the shipping dock, where they load the recycling to the cargo ships that return to Guayaquil. We followed the small white sail out into the open water.

César, an expert sailor, had been sailing and competing for nearly half his life, around 16 years. He truly came alive, this already hyper and excited hairy-chested man, like a kid allowed to play, even though his parents said he must finish his homework first.

They took a half-hour run, then returned to the water taxi, where we were watching and trying to take photos, standing and trying to balance on the small panga, the waves like an unsteady floor in a fun house, sliding us from one side to another. We grabbed hold of the edges of the boat, José jumped out and I in.

My Spanish is still struggling, especially in distracting situations like noisy markets, blaring discothèques, and in the smallest boat I have ever seen, in the middle of the Pacific, without a life vest. César directed me to take the rope, which, by way of a small pulley, tightened or loosened the sail above our heads. And as the wind’s direction changed, so did our sail, meaning we had to quickly duck our heads down, between our knees, to allow the heavy metal bar to swing above us and to the other side, while also jumping across said rope to sit on the other side.

I kept my eye on this bar, the sail, and the ropes, even when I wasn’t in charge of their tautness, as all that was flashing through my mind were all the cartoons and skits I’d ever seen which took place on a boat, when the good guy in the cartoon ducks or jumps out of the way, while the bad guy in pursuit gets his teeth knocked out by the swinging sail.

Or Charlie Chaplin, while using his derby hat to scoop water from his craft, gets bumped in the behind by the moving mast, and while swinging his arms and balancing on the toe of an oversized shoe, gains equilibrium again, only to turn and get hit again.

César was steering and rocking his weight back and forth, front and back, side to side. He somehow explained to me that if the wave was tipping us one way, we needed to tuck our toes under the lip of the inside of the craft, and lean back, making our body into a wooden pirate’s plank: parallel with the water and the horizon. Which is not only challenging and incredibly giggle inspiring, but also a sure-fire way to get soaked from the brisk splashing sea.

Another reason I was having a more difficult time than usual understanding my new friend, is that he (and his journalist companion) were the first Argentineans I’d ever spoken with, and they seemingly knew no English, or else just didn’t want to use it (or the situation wasn’t dangerous enough to make sure I understood the orders from the captain to me, first mate!). Argentinean’s Spanish is peppered with “zsa’s,” as in Zsa Zsa Gabor. They say “pla-zsa” instead of “playa” and “a-zsa” as opposed to “alla.” And of course, everyone is “Che,” just like the good doctor.

After skimming atop the waves until the water taxi and practically the port of Bacquerizo Moreno was out of sight, we whipped around and rode the same breeze back. Again, Jose and I jumped into each other’s spots and they rushed off once more. I had two turns, both lasting around half an hour each.

Such exhilaration! It has been something I have been lacking lately: a wild and daring new experience, something that is so foreign and dangerous, but you are riding so high that it doesn’t scare you, not even when you almost tip the small vessel when you can’t duck under and jump over the rope to the other ledge of the sailboat, no, not even then. All you can do is laugh and say, “No te preocupes, Che!” and he laughs back at you laughing and your strained Spanish and mimicking his own accent.

Friday, November 5, 2010

fresca/fresh


The weather is changing and the days are more and more often representing the equatorial paradise that most think about in regards to these islands. The sun is strong and the ocean competes against the sky's radiant blues. Temperatures are climbing, but still very tolerable, around 80 degrees F.

Yesterday I lathered myself in sunscreen and grabbed my latest book and settled near the black lava rock coast of Playa Mann. The air is so fresh from the waves and there are growing populations of the adorable sea lions, lobos, whom I adore. Yesterday I counted six nursing babies, squealing for their mothers or else noisily suckling. The bull restlessly swam the coast, honking at anyone who even thought about getting in the water, protecting his harem. Unbeknownst to him, none of the young are his, since the gestation period is longer than he's taken over as alpha male and body guard to this particular group.

I waited until the bull hefted his large self out of the water and onto the shore, rolled a few times to crust himself entirely in a layer of sand (to keep the flies away) and fell asleep, to enter the water my self. The clear sea swirls around your legs as the chill creeps like needles all across your body. Somehow, I keep walking, breathing deeply and focusing on the pain of the water. Finally, I dive and swim a few strokes towards the boats anchored in the bay.

Minutes later my skin is still stinging and sore, I tread water for as long as I can stand it. Three younger sea lions swim towards me and show off: swimming around and below me, floating on their backs, smacking their flippers against the water's surface to splash me. Always looking at me, giving me an expression, which says, "Yeah, did you see that? Triple summersault, no biggie."

I float on my back with them, watching the clouds that don't seem to be moving, it's us who are moving in the waves and the wind. I love the salt water, I love how buoyant everything is, how gravity is forgiven in the ocean. Now so cold I can no longer support it, I swim directly back to the shore, only looking back once to see the lobos finally noticed that I abandoned them in their mimic and play sessions.

On the beach alone, I do some yoga and ponder how I got here, how much I love it here, how I'm making it my home. I wrap my mind around November, and what that means in my native Kansas and resident Colorado. I smile when the thought of turning aspens and first snow falls gives me goose bumps (or piel de gallena, chicken skin) even though I am soaking up the sun's loving rays.

I think about what my loved ones are doing, scattered all over the place, like torn papers thrown into the wind. I do this in my times of quiet solitude: walking home from class under the bright, alert constellations, or under a white sun, so close to my head.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dia de los Muertos


Today is Day of the Dead, a hispanic Memorial Day celebration. We had guagua de pan (little bread rolls formed into people, like a gingerbread man made from sweet rolls with little frosting smiles and eyes) and colado morada (a juice made from pineapple, oranges, blood-red berries and other fruits and cinnamon) for breakfast, traditional food for today.

Then we dressed and gathered flowers into small bunches and hailed a taxi for the cemetary in the highlands. Along the road were many little stands selling candles, flower arrangements, candies and sweets, ice creams, and complete dining room sets put out to offer lunch and dinner plates. There was fritada (fried and seasoned pork), choclo (giant corn kernels boiled and salted), agua de gallena (chicken soup), seco (chicken and rice), hornado (baked and pulled pork), and more.

We walked around the crypts, visiting families and friends who were seated near the graves of their loved ones past. Lighting candles or laying a small bouquet of flowers is a sign of respect for the dead, and we visit many graves along the winding gravel paths. Most tombs are above ground, save for the very oldest, who usually only have a plaster white cross emerging from the soil, or from the middle of a paved path. The newer graves are like picture boxes, with glass doors to protect the pictures, ornaments, flowers, and candles inside.

There are priests and musicians in the cemetary, and a mass was held, with guitar and songs sang. Children play and run around the graves, some of them learning how to properly light the candles, lay a small spot of hot wax, and then press the base of the candle into the spot, holding it upright to burn the whole wick down.

We take a few pictures of family together, or the crypts of relatives all decorated and cleaned. Then we head up the hill and out of the cemetary to eat. This feels like the fair or a concert. Police are directing traffic, and families slowly meander along both sides of the road, admiring ornaments to buy and food to eat. We select our plates and also buy some humitas to bring home, to eat with coffee later tonight.

Most people think Dia de los Muertos is somehow related to Halloween, and therefore some kind of morbid tradition. However, Day of the Dead is essentially Memorial Day, a celebration of the life of the people, not really a somber holiday. Like all Ecuadorian holidays, food and family is the base of this tradition.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Holidaze


Ecuadorians don't celebrate Halloween. At least not officially, and certainly not like Americans, who reportedly spend enough on decorations and costumes and parties and candy corn for it to be the second most expensive holiday behind Christmas. Holy jack-o-lanterns.

There is a costume party at one of the bars tonight, with live music and a free drink with purchase of your ticket in. I don't have one, since I don't have a costume. Last year, as a student, I convinced myself I could pass as a flamingo and spent the entire afternoon cutting and stapling and arranging pepto-bismol pink fabric into wings and a tail of feathers. I won nothing but the compliments of my fellow students, who I think had also consumed more than their fair share of caña at that point.

José suggested that this year I go as Snow White (because I am so incredibly pale, due to the unseasonably cool and cloudy weather) and he could be a dwarf. That's right, he's a shortie.

Since the 31st falls on a Sunday this year, I also had to cancel classes for Monday and Tuesday. Let me explain: This being a Latino Catholic nation, all religious holidays are regarded as such: sacred. November first is All Saints Day. No work, no school, I'm just not sure what.

Tuesday is Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. This is similar to Memorial Day, with family spending the day at the cemetery, visiting loved ones and honoring their memory, eating picnics and talking to all the other people also spending the day at the cemetery.

November third is the Independence Day of Cuenca, a town in the mainland. I told my students that we would celebrate in classand to feel free to bring traditional food.

Ecuador has literally hundreds of holidays: days of remembrance for battles, saints and martyrs, flags, teachers and parents and grandparents and babies, along with birthdays and Christmas and Easter week and New Years Eve. And Day. This is why the nation is composed of such a laid-back, festive and fun-loving people. They always find a reason to celebrate.

What is also funny is that the fashion of these festivals seldom differ: there is food, there are drinks, there is music, there is dancing, there are decorations, there is more food, there are more drinks, there are babies and great-grandparents and little kids and dogs and middle aged people and teenagers and pregnant women and everyone's family and relatives and dates and best friends and neighbors and people whom you met in the street on the way to the party.

At first I was frustrated with this habit of cancelled classes, closed stores, buckets of money spent on parties, it all seemed so excessive, like it was just too much. If you know me, you know how I feel about shopping and overwhelming holidays and the lavishness of festivities. But now I see that it is the generous nature of Ecuadorians, the open hearts and doors, the ability to step back and celebrate life, that is what I love so much about these people.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tree House


Last weekend José and I spent a night in a tree house in the highlands. It's run like a hostel, and is built into a ceibo tree. These monsterous trees supply hiding places in their roots. There was even a hollowed out area below, a pirate's cave, in this tree! Mosses and lichens sprawl across the bark and branches in vibrant electric green, white and orange.

There were two tree swings and a wooden plank bridge from the entrance to the door of the tree house (plank in the floor). Inside, there was a small living area with small seats and a bar with tree stump stools. There was electricity, providing a stocked fridge of icy Inca Colas and Pilsener beers and water. There was a small balcony, overlooking the garden area below (about thirty feet). A small bathroom with shower and hot water and a wooden ladder leads up to the loft where two twin mattresses await (like sleeping on a cloud, high above the trees). There is even a fireman's pole to slide down.

All the walls are decorated with old photos of Galapagos and funny wooden art pieces (such as a condom behind a glass frame, "in case of emergency, break glass" har har har), and antiques like skeleton keys and an old rotary marble telephone. You know, in case you want to call for take out.

We arrived just before sunset, timed just right for our photographic endeavors, and once the night arrived, we walked down the cobblestone street in search of dinner. We only turned one corner and passed one goat tied to a stake before we found a woman tending a grill. Smoke and the scent of grilled chicken and cow intestines are her only advertisement. We eagerly picked our plates and sat at a table to wait. José ate the intestines (delicious and chewy) with potatoes and peanut sauce. I opted for a chicken cut on a kebob, with half a grilled plantain on the end for dessert.

The lean-to that was this establishment was built next to her house, and music drifted from inside, while her children ran in and out of the door. Dogs chased each other up and down the street, keeping a good distance to sniff the air, knowing they would be shooed away if they got too close.

We were delighted after we finished our snack to know that the same lady sold tamales and coffee in the mornings for $2.50. We paid in advance, knowing that tamales on Sundays run like water and we wanted to make sure we got some more of her cooking.

We returned to the tree house where we drank wine and listened to salsa on the radio, talking in the dim light. The windows had no screens, and yet we were not chilled by the fresh night air. We watched the stars from between silhouetted branches until we climbed the ladder to sleep.

Surprisingly we didn't awake to roosters, as we do every morning in town where they are illegal, ironic, isn't it? The day was bright and clear, a rarity for the usual misty cool fog of the highlands. We dressed and retraced our steps (the goat was gone) to the little table where we were served tamales wrapped in banana leaves and hot cups of steaming coffee. Again, we watched the dogs, and discussed the politics of street dog packs. How a short-legged little mutt chased a black lab three times his size down the street, tail between it's legs. A young female with shaggy blond fur played alone at the top of a small hill, where she had an advantage from all the males who chase her incessantly.

Having brought bikes with us in the taxi the night before, we loaded up our things and started to bike upwards, towards the small settlement of Soledad. There is an old church at the highest point, a clearing for a unique view of the port, the coast, and Leon Dormido. I sat in the sun and meditated on the sea while José chased birds with the camera, forever trying to get the perfect shot of the famous finches. While they are not skittish, they are impatient and have short attention spans.

We rode back down to El Progresso, where we ate at our usual Sunday lunch spot: agua de gallena and fritada and plates of rice and chicken. Now stuffed like olives, we again climbed on the bikes and began the steady descent back towards town.

I love unusual dwellings, and after spending a summer living in a small wooden dollhouse two years back, I have a goal of spending at least one night in as many odd homesteads as possible. The tree house reminded me of my favorite childhood book series: The Berenstain Bears. It was like Ma and Pa Berenstain partied with the Swiss Family Robinson for a night.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Evolution


So things are changing. And I'm changing, but this is nothing new, really. It has only happened in this place that I have focused so much on change and evolution, obviously, and really chewed on the fat of why and how these changes are occurring. Time is cyclical, and I think that certain things happen in order to notice things that were always present, but unawares to you until you suddenly trip over them, like a table leg in the dark.

Biologically, I am at an age where, I hate to admit, there is an instinct to nest. I'm not traveling currently, and living in another country is a very different experience. My daily routines have not only been altered, but so have my basic interests. I am taking salsa lessons, watching soccer matches at the stadium, I take naps on the beach, and I don't ride a bike much anymore. (Only this last item is sad)

The goals that I planned and anticipated for for years have also shifted. Part of this is simply due to new opportunities and experiences. However, I finally realized that all my dreams of what I would do after school didn't involve anyone else, they were based on the fact that I would be single and solo. Forever. I never thought that status would change. But it has, I'm in love and suddenly no longer making the trek alone.

The root of my dreams hasn't changed: I want to travel, I want to work in education and conservation, I want to live in a non-traditional manner, simple and grounded, yet free and flexible. I yearn for fresh experiences, chances to learn.

I read an article recently about how my generation is waiting until much later in life to "grow up" and become independent adults, which was basically defined as professionals and home owners and drivers of SUVs. You know, functional members of society with plenty of plastic in their wallets and security or dependence on such systems as mortgages and outrageous school loans, however you want to describe it.

I often have to remind myself of my own age, and then I spend a few baffled minutes trying to remember how I got here. I kind of like that. I like being lost in the moments which make up life, only to occasionally be given brief lapses of reprieve, to stop and look behind you at the trail you've created. It only proves that you are only as old as you feel, since some days I feel like a teen, while others like an abuelita.

The short of it is that I can feel my constructs shifting. My goals are changed. My outlook on marriage and family and even friendship is altered. In the meantime, I find myself doing things I never foresaw: helping in a tourism outfitter store in the Galapagos, translating for tourists, editing brochures for the National Park, growing endemic cacti in my bedroom window like any other houseplant, taking my handmade cloth grocery bag to the market on Saturdays, watching Latin American politics create headlines in my country of residence, the list goes on.

Bottom line: I am adapting. Like the plants and animals have done here for ages, I am meshing and evolving, I am changing and my future is as bright as the break of day. I won't forget, but will let go of the past as I walk towards the sun.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Politics and Tear Gas

Yesterday there was a small crisis in the capital city of Quito. President Rafael Correa proposed (not even passed) a new law to eliminate some of the benefits of the police forces. From what I gathered, this meant that they would receive such a smaller bonus with each promotion of rank.

Now what has historically happened in Ecuador when a group of people dislike something that happens, whether political, social, economic, whatever, they strike and they protest and they take to the streets. In this case, police officers and Naval officers all over the country went on strike, which meant that schools, banks, stores, and airports were closed due to lack of safety personnel. This meant that looters came out of the woodwork and sacked banks and department stores, with no one to stop them.

Out of nearly 40,000 total Ecuadorian police officers, some 800 in the city of Quito attempted a revolution yesterday. Supporters grew and the mob swelled. The president, currently recovering from knee surgery, attempted to give an address to the crowd, in response to their actions. This was met with shoving and throwing of water and even tear gas.

The police tear gassed the president.

Then the crowd guided him into the Police Hospital, where he remained for nearly 12 hours. That is, until the armed forces entered and returned the president to safety. It's difficult to say how many of these rebel officers died, the number I've heard most is five.

Late last night the president, looking very tired indeed, was dressed in a suit and tie and his official presidential sash of yellow, blue and red, and made a promise. He promised that he would not back down from his decision, and he promised that the protesters who took such actions would be punished.

Correa pointed out that while the bonus cuts sounded unfair, the regular salary for the Ecuadorian police force has nearly tripled in the last several years. The current salary of an Ecuadorian police officer is around $800 USD per month. And this is a life-risking, high-paying service job.

I asked my students to explain to me what was happening on all the channels, why the airport was locked down and the banks closed their steel doors. Some of them think the president is crazy, while others think the president isn't crazy. I asked them if they thought any of the police were crazy, and they laughed and said everyone is a little crazy, especially when it comes to money!

They all agreed that money is important to live, we all need food and water and shelter and necessities. There are plenty of people, mostly on the mainland, that go everyday without these essentials. I asked them how they valued education. I told them that I value education more than anything, since it is priceless, and no one can ever take it away from you. No dictator, no circumstance, no loss will ever remove what you have worked so hard to learn. They seemed to like this idea.

The retirement package for a police officer who has served the rank of General is around $15,000 USD. For a teacher, or most other workers so highly valued by the government, it's around $10,000 USD. Most people on the island are employed by tourism, a hit-and-miss economy that has swells and sinks. Many are employed by the government, the National Park, the ministries of education, tourism, health, etc. These are lucrative professions with high rewards.

But there are plenty of others, waitresses, laborers, bar tenders, laundry maids, workers who load and unload the water and gas tanks and supplies from the barges. When I asked approximately how much money a construction worker gets, I was told around $18 a day. Keep in mind that these days are closer to twenty hours than ten. And there are hardly any tools and virtually no machinery. This is literally back-breaking labor.

This concept of how money is doled out and spent is quite shocking to me. You are lucky to have a job. If you have a job that pays five dollars an hour, or slightly more, you are in hog heaven.

How grateful I am to have what I have, to work where I do, and to choose what I consume. How lucky we all are.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cooking With Music

I love music. I love listening to virtually anything, and I love dancing. I am learning to salsa and merengue, but have always been awed by any form of dance: ballet, tango, belly dancing. I grew up watching musicals and reenacting my favorite scenes dressed in a homemade costume with random props. Seriously.

I can't play music, I've tried an eclectic mix of instruments (piano, guitar, harmonica, ukulele, hand drums), and just never seem to pick it up. No heartbreak, though, I'd rather be groovin'.

I also love to cook. I insist on making a spectacle of weekend breakfasts. I always took study breaks to try a new recipe as a way to relax. I spent rainy, cold afternoons next to a hot oven, doling out dishes that were reminiscent of what my grandmothers or mom made. Good old-fashioned comfort food. From hearty breads and bagels and biscuits, to jam and apple butter, chili or soup, casseroles, pasta or dumplings, ribs to roasted chickens, you name it. I also love borrowing ethnic cookbooks from the public library, or getting a recipe as a gift from someone. Of course, I can never stick completely to a recipe, I must make alterations, corrections, impromtu substitutions.

These two facts stated, it should come as no surprise that while I am cooking/baking/inventing in the cocina, I must also be listening to music. It has a serious and direct effect on the flavor of the food.

While living in San Cristobal, this has not changed. When I am preparing almuerzo at home, I must be listening to salsa. Otherwise the soup and rice just don't taste right. They are bland and Jose asks for more salt and a fried egg to drape over the top of the plate.

Today, after visiting the market, I decided to make some apple butter. I bought a few red crisp apples (unfortunately imported to the island), and cinnamon and brown sugar. I made a quick playlist of folk music, some of my favorite songs from what seems like so long ago (?) and began peeling apples.

I immediately was transported to my youth, collecting Golden Delicious apples from the trees in the backyard of my childhood home. And of my Grandpa Fritz and Grandma Isa peeling apples at the picnic table. We would try and peel the whole apple in one, springy spiral.

Sometime around the time Bob Dylan handed the mic to Neil Young, I had boiled the apples and mashed them down as they oughta be. Pouring in the cinnamon and pinching in the sugar, I realized that the music that I demand during these savory sessions has always acted as a main ingredient, if not only secretly.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Patagonia

I have been volunteering at a tourism outfitter agency for the past two weeks. Patagonia Eco-MultiSport. The owner is one of my English students, and he asked me to help out with the tourists at the front desk for a few weeks while the regular gal goes on a vacation.

This is good experience, since I am renting bikes and snorkel gear and telling the details of boat trips in my improving Spanish. Or in English if the tourist prefers.

But the tourist season is slow right now. There are no big boats dumping hundreds onto the pier. Some visitors wander in and heartbreakingly ponder about a snorkel trip to Leon Dormido (San Cristobal´s natural wonder) around noon, unaware that the boats embark first thing in the morning. They try to negotiate, pleading that they leave San Cristobal tomorrow, etc.

I offer brochures and maps. I recommend agencys that offer the desired sport that we don´t: surfing, kayaking, horseback riding. I tell them where they should snorkel to see sea turtles and mantas, where restaurants and hostals and the Interpretation Center are located.

Some smile wearily and sigh, telling me it´s nice that I speak English, since they don´t speak Spanish. Others speak rapid Spanish and I must ask them to repeat more slowly.

And I have a co-worker. He is a finnicky orange and white tiger striped cat named Charlie. He wanders in and out of the office, even if we are closed and the gate is locked. He sprawls out of the sofa or lays on the books and schedules on the desk. When I arrange the magazines, brochures, and business cards, he watches me from a distance. When I have finished and have moved on to another task, or am distracted talking with someone, he takes the opportunity to scatter them about, or just push them on the floor. Then, after he´s made enough room, he lays down and stretches out one paw, lazily flexing his claws and slowly lolling his tail. He smiles and squints his eyes at me, looking quite pleased with himself and how much of a stinker he is.

But he lets me pet him. And if I am lucky, he will lick my fingertips a bit, without biting the fleshy tender part of my hand.

Another day at the office...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

domingo en el estadio

We went to the soccer stadium today to watch a few of the matches. We watched the team José used to play for, Gladiadoras, against the Navy team. Each team that plays, enters the field with professional jerseys and raises their team flag on either side of the Ecuadorian flag.

Families and friends watch from the bleacher seats, in typical sport spectator behavior. Some cheer for a certain player, some yell encouragement to the whole team. Others shout insults to the referees who seem to be deaf and blind, just like any other referee in the world.

Kids play around the bleachers and beg their parents for money to buy some of the delicious food being sold. Women manage grills in front of the entrance to the stadium. Occasionally, someone will walk the rounds, selling piping hot empanadas, grilled beef on a stick, and cups of morocho.

We bought a raffle ticket for one dollar, in hopes of winning a whole chicken. At first, I thought this would be a live chicken, but to my disappointment, we didn't win, and it was already prepared and cooked, ready for the winner to eat right away.

As at any sporting event, there is at least one hard-core fan. A middle-aged man wore a green and white hat with horns and the loving team's name printed on it. He brought a bugle to the game, and never hesitated to add sound effects to the action occurring on the field. Quite a character, and everyone knew him and laughed at his cheers and suggestions for the players and referees.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Cafétal

One of my English students is the manager of Cafétal, the organic coffee plantation in the highlands of San Cristobal. He has been offering me and the other teachers a tour for a while now, and Saturday we finally got to visit.

We met at the office in town, riding in the back of the work truck up to the parte alta, highlands. There is an endemic coffee pant found on this island, but you can't harvest it, so it's not really coffee. He explained that the coffee grown and harvested here is all Arabica.

The hacienda is around 400 hectares, making it the largest coffee farm in Ecuador. The climate of the highlands, the elevation (about 230 meters above sea level) and the lush fertility of the area make the coffee one of the highest rated blends in the world. He told me it was a similar quality of Kona coffee from Hawaii.

The harvesting is done in November and December, cycling the plots every three years. Cafétal has three organic and shade-grown certifications (United States, Germany, and the Netherlands). In order to adhere to the strict regulations of such certifications, they add only organic fertilizer from the same land to the plants.

Speckled throughout the coffee plants are miconia bushes, orange trees, and avocado trees. There is a small garden to feed the workers (nearly one hundred fifty during harvest season, but only a few this time of year), and a small greenhouse for starters. About ten workers live in a wooden house on the property, to maintain and care for the area. During cosecha, harvest time, nearly forty persons share the space and work long days: four-thirty in the morning until midnight.

The red berries are collected by hand, taken to the mesa para seleccionar, where the good are removed from the bad. Basic machinery is used in the next steps: to wash and sort the beans according to size. Finally, the best beans are brought back down to Puerto Bacquerizo, where they are spread out on burlap in the parking lot. Here, they are raked like sand in a zen garden and dried by the sol equitoriano.

At last, the dried beans are shipped to Guayaquil, where they are finally processed and roasted and packaged, to be exported. Ecuatorianos don't drink their own coffee. It's too expensive, and they don't drink much coffee to begin with. Every local I have seen who does like java, drinks dehydrated coffee crystals with a little hot water, a lot of milk and a few spoons of sugar.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I Haven't Written Lately

English grammar. No ones favorite subject. Unless you're weird, I guess. I am supposed to be teaching my Level 5 students the past participle. This is a daring feat.

First, I must create a basic approach to understand this tense of grammar. And in doing so, elicit how such grammar is utilized.

I typed up a spreadsheet of the most commonly used irregular verbs in the present tense, the simple past, and the past participle. They can use their faithfully-worn Spanish-English dictionaries and translate the verbs they don't already know.

The trouble is, explaining a form of grammar that most English speakers don't often use. It isn't generally conversational English. Saying that "I haven't written lately," could just as easily be altered to "I didn't write today," or "I wrote five days ago."

As a student of the Spanish language, I suffer along with my students, and anyone else learning a foreign language. It is extremely difficult. Grammar is an ugly beast. Most native speakers don't speak correctly, anyway. Everyone makes mistakes, no matter who they are. Or whom. I don't even know.

This is what I'm typing about: at what point do I pass along information that is confusing and barely useful to intermediate students of a foreign language, and at what point do I focus more on conversational English? On commonly used words and phrases, practicing pronunciation and correcting mistakes.

I am a non-traditional learner: I don't learn well from a book alone. I must practice the information, I must use my hands, I need to try it out for myself. This being said, you get the idea of what type of teacher I am. I make them play Charades, and 20 Questions and Mother May I and Guess Who? I bring in music and teach them lyrics of my favorite songs. I give them advertisements from magazines and have them write a commercial, then act it out. Every class, I pick a topic from a list and elicit a discussion, sometimes an argument. I try to get them to express their opinions and feel comfortable with spontaneous conversation and debate. I make them pay 25 cents each time they speak Spanish without my permission. I keep the coins in a plastic baggie on the desk. I told them at the end of class, we'll spend the money together: we'll go out to eat, we'll drink a beer and go dancing.

We'll celebrate the fact that, good grades or no, they have just spent just over two months of intensive English classes. We'll celebrate the effort, since it's about the journey, not the destination.

And this is what they should have learnt.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

New Firsts

Faithful readers to this blog will recall a post from last year, my list of firsts. It was inspired by a conversation between a friend and myself one night on the pier, about all the new things we had tried. All our first times. Some were funny, others adventurous and wild, others a little nostalgic.

It's been a while since I've updated you about my life, which brings us to my Second List of First Times:
For the first time in my life, I can French braid my own hair. I had my first lesson surfing.This has been my first experience teaching alone, I've always been a secondary or supporting teacher, never the sole professora. This is the first time I have lived with my boyfriend. I am living in my first apartment outside of the United States. The first time (in a long time) that I'm not starting school up this fall! This is the first time I've done all my own laundry by hand. I recently reconnected with an old friend, this is the first time we've spoken in nine years. The first time I have watched Charlie Chaplin movies in Spanish. The first time I've heard a baby pelican crying (like a white fluffy dinosaur, only cuter). First time at a children's birthday party in Galapagos (INTENSE). First time developing my very own environmental education program. First time watching the World Cup. First experience with reiki massage therapy. First international bank account I've opened. First time in the fish market. First time I've had a surprise birthday party. First time I've eaten agua de gallena, chicken soup, with the intestines (delicious. and chewy.). First time I've drank more tea than coffee. First time I've helped remodel a home. First time I've written a children's story. And then translated it to Spanish. First time I've been homesick.

This is but a condensed list of my firsts and newly created habits. In honor of all my dear ones, and also in celebration of the first anniversary when nearly one year ago, a group of students first arrived in San Cristobal, the Capital of Paradise.

Friday, August 27, 2010

postcards

I love postcards. I collect them. I like landscapes, flora and fauna, architecture, people, food, art, cartoons and jokes. I like corny and vintage postcards. I have kept every postcard I have received, from everyone who has ever sent one to me.

I have a dreamy image of a beach in Costa Rica. A giant beer stein suspended in the clouds from Germany. An early picture of Buddy Holly from his museum in Lubbock, Texas. A watercolor painting of a lone woman drinking coffee in a cafe, wearing one glove. Ancient stone carvings of horses and warriors from Iraq. A sunset in Kansas with pheasant hunters illuminated by the purple and orange sky. A naked skier in Colorado. Bicyclists in the 1920's, lighting each other's cigarettes. The enormous grain elevator from Hutchinson, Kansas. Mugshots of baby burros from New Mexico. A scorpion from Las Vegas. The fjords of Norway. A cat wearing a striped blouse, "Keep your fork, there's pie." Fabulous by Playboy. Many more.

I buy them whenever I see them, with intentions of sending off every one, but sometimes just stick a few of them into albums for my own enjoyment. I used to spend too much time sorting through antique wooden card catalog drawers in flea markets and antique malls, reading feathery cursive messages of yellowed postcards.

I like books that organize the history, different styles and artists, illustrations and works of art from different countries. Famous buildings and highways and statues and monuments. Fountains and rivers and parks and strange roadside attractions.

What is more precious to me than the actual pictures of these exotic or not-so-foreign places, are the people sending them, and of course, the fragments of news, vacation plans, new experiences, wishing-you-were-here laments, and well wishes. I like how I can re-read these messages and instantly remember those moments.

I recently received a new postcard, it's been quite a while. And maybe it was the feeling of getting mail, the friend who sent it, the message that was written, the memories it invoked, the feeling of closeness... It meant a lot to me.

So thanks. And yours is in the mail.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Oprah

Classes are back in session, so has ended the first week. I teach Level 5 once more, and also teach Level 2. I have some of the same students as before, but there are plenty of new faces and names to learn.

My level 2 was learning vocabulary phrases about life events and achievements. Grow up. Graduation. Find a job. Work hard. Get married. Have children. Retire.

These were a few of the phrases, and according to the teacher's textbook, this was the appropriate order they should occur. I asked the students if they agreed. They generally agree, especially if they don't understand the question.

I asked them if they knew anyone who had not graduated. Yes, they knew plenty of people not in school, not graduating with a degree. I asked if everyone finds a job and works hard. There were a few jabs back and forth, but they agreed that generally, if one is lucky enough to have a job, then of course, you must work hard. What about marriage and children? I pondered next. Do these life events always happen? Does marriage always come before children? Again, more jokes, but no, they declared; sometimes life happens differently than is neatly laid out in the textbook. I don't know a single soul who has retired here. Old men still tinker with trucks and boats. Wrinkled grannies still sell ice creams for coins and push mops and serve plates of the best food you'll ever eat.

We read an article about Oprah Winfrey's life history and all her achievements. To my bemusement, no one knew who the hell this lady was. No one recognized her photo, complete with big hair and microphone, seated with legs crossed on the stage of her famous talk-show, the one that is aired in 132 countries.

Globalization has not yet brought Oprah to the Galapagos Islands. I felt a little guilty about exposing them to her now. I tried to highlight how much money she has given to charity, how she has started schools in Africa to encourage girls to get an education, how she helps people from the projects realize their dreams of having a nice home.

They asked if Oprah would give money to Ecuador.

Well, she has her own private plane, I said, maybe she would fly here for a visit. But if she were to come to Galapagos on vacation, like more than 170,000 people do each year, she'd probably not know how to evaluate the living conditions, blind to the fact that the islands hold the highest quality of life in all of Ecuador.

The living is easy on the islands. With it's livable-wage jobs and government subsidies and recycling program. It's jumbled hospital with medical students and passive water treatment facility. It's lack of sewage system and dependence on everything being delivered from those weekly cargo ships. The lack of smog from the hundreds of buses that belch out the black exhaust. No homeless amputees and children begging at every stoplight and street corner.

They agreed that Oprah was probably better off staying in the US, giving out IPods and expensive imported chocolates and the latest kitchen gadgets that she doesn't think anyone can live without.

They figured that if Oprah did ever come to Galapagos, she'd act like Bill Gates did a few years back: bringing his own yacht so that he would never even set foot on the inhabited islands, to avoid all the people living here, like the only life that existed was no more than what Darwin wrote about. Never knowing that there is a society, with wireless internet and home office stores and computer programmers who install his very own programs. With schools teaching English to students, just trying to find a job so they have the opportunity to work hard.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Día de Independencia


Happy Independence Day, Ecuador! 201 years ago, folks in Quito began fighting to gain their independence. August 10th is often referred to as "the first cry of battle," since it was a prolonged and bloody process of small battles, like ocean waves across this coastal nation, that swept it clean of faraway kings in funny hats.

Spain had governed Ecuador, as well as many other surrounding South American countries and provinces, for many years. But in 1808 France got the best of Spain, thereby collecting the "loot" of these said nations and the people living within them. Like a watch won in a poker match, Ecuador was now owned by France, under Napoleon's sword. And funny hat.

The people of Ecuador started their own government, which seemed to suit them just fine, thereby choosing to politely ignore this small detail, but a different guy with a funny hat from the Royalist Army of Lima, Peru (friends of ol' Napoleon) came to change their minds. And he had friends who had rifles and swords and such. So the self-elected and self-governing idea didn't exactly pan out.

But then, about 100 citizens refused to accept this other takeover quietly. Well, ol' Napoleon didn't like that much, so he had the folks tossed in the dungeon. About a year later, on August 10th, 1899 there was an old fashioned (or maybe just fashioned, this was 200 years ago) midnight jailbreak. This was the first domino to drop. Across the nation, battles erupted like the volcanoes that dot the landscape and everyday citizens took to the streets to stop the marching boots coming into town. And funny hats, they'd had quite enough of all those funny hats, too.

Although Guayaquil, Otavalo, and other provinces have their own days of independence, August 10th is the date remembered across the nation as the day that started this ripple effect of freedom, of fighting for it, anyway.

Today I woke up to the sound of flags flapping in the wind. Like laundry violently shaking water from it's fibers, the banners of yellow, blue and red are hung on every house and store, smaller flags can be seen in every window. The school marching bands that have been readying themselves for this day for months now, formed a procession through the Malecon, uniforms of black, white and gold, horns polished and pom-poms unwrapped from their plastic covers. Along the street lamps, hung Morose Code flags from the Navy. Other flags hung right next to the Ecuadorian banner are either flags for San Cristóbal (yellow, blue, and green) or all of the islands of Galapágos (blue and green).

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fútbol es Religión


In the United States, baseball is the national pastime. Basketball, volleyball, and football are sports, with off-season training camps for kids, high school and college competitions, and idolized professional players. Until, that is, they retire or make some sort of public disgrace where their physical ability is no longer what stuns us, it is instead their extra-marital affairs, use of steroids, or possible gang activity.

Ecuador, just like any other Latin American country, believes in fútbol like a religion. A ball is a toy that any child has, no matter how much they have to eat. Boys and girls kick a ball back and forth in the house, until shooed outside, where they resume in the street, or on the beach. And it's a game they never tire of, there are, of course, passing fads (such as spinning tops), but soccer is the ultimate game. Dante, a chunky two-year old in my host family, learned to kick a ball the day he learned to walk, I am certain. One of his first words was, of course, "GOOOOOOOAL!"

Every small boy is ritually dressed up in uniform, socks and cleats, like his first holy communion. Hair gelled and ears scrubbed. Fathers play on leagues to represent their children's elementary schools. Men continue to play, divided into age groups, long into their grandfatherly years, as long as they are able. Training clinics are for the more wealthy households, while every child practices daily and carefully studies the older players.

The island doesn't have a water treatment system or a wastewater treatment plant, but it does have an Olympic-style field and stadium with the only grass on the island. From Emelec, to Barcelona, to Liga, and everyone in between, each local team has loyal fans, wearing colors and waving flags, chanting songs and feeling every play in their hearts.

Deportiva Cuenca, Liga de Quito, Emelec, Barcelona, Manta, Universidad Católica de Quito, Espoli, Deportivo Quito, El Nacional, Olmedo, Macará, Independiente del Valle, and then there are the national teams and smaller teams, organized just for fun. But the competitiveness never ceases, it is a passion.

Everyone watches "the game," although which game depends on the loyalty of the household. Divided families exist, and the jeering never settles down, like arguing over politics or which type of car is best. Fútbolistas are like gladiators in the colosseums from ancient ages: racing against the others for hours on end, no armor. There is always an injury, if not many, while yellow and red cards are whipped out like religious tracts for sinners. Announcers liven up the game with commentary, shrill and rolling "r's" fire up the spectators, like a sermon about fire and brimstone. Fanatics wave flags like palm fronds at their saviors.

José told me that fútbol is the one place where everyone on the field is equal. In a match, it doesn't matter your background, your name, your job. Social and economic problems get pounded between earth and foot and passion is the only ranking factor there is. It is a welcomed avenue to release tension and stress about corrupt government, free-falling economy, or lack of education and health services. It is something to get lost in. Give your problems to God, or leave them outside the stadium, the outcome is the same: tranquility and peace.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Water Wise

One in five people worldwide don't have access to clean drinking water. That's more than one billion people, according to the current estimate of folks on the planet (opr.princeton.edu).

Meanwhile, developed countries often use clean and treated water like there's no tomorrow. NEWSFLASH! There IS a tomorrow! And billions of people will still be thirsty then, too. I don't mean to stand on a soapbox and shout out accusations, but we are wasting the livelihood of potentially billions of people!

In Ecuador, people don't wash their cars and water their lawns like we do in the US. Many people don't have cars, and most don't have lawns. If they are growing anything in the dirt, it's something to eat, something that is supposed to thrive in that specific region.

I have yet to see a dishwasher that didn't have two hands instead of an electrical cord, and laundry machines here are for the very rich, most people do all the washing by hand and hang to dry.

Living on an island, all the resources are scarce. Conservation is vital to the future of all life. Forget the fact that I'm in the Galapagos Islands, where evolution was first studied and people from all over the world have ventured to carry out research on the flora and fauna; people live here, too. They have lived here for many, many years and they will continue to live here. Therefore, conservation and reduction of waste is a necessary way of life here. But it should be a necessary way of life everywhere else, as well.

The United Nations declared last month that safe, clean, accessible, and affordable drinking water was considered a fundamental human right, although many developed nations, such as the United States, abstained from the vote. This could, after all, hurt industries involved in extracting natural resources overseas.

Living in this enchanting place, I've tried to reduce my demand on the already strained resources by, for instance, being very stingy with my water consumption.

I ask that today, wherever you are living or visiting, you do the same. Cut your shower time in half. Don't wash your car. In fact, park your car and walk or bike or take a mode of public transportation. Don't water the grass on your lawn. If you have a garden, water your plants during the morning, when the water is less likely to evaporate immediately. Count how many times you flush the toilet. Don't use the washing machine, rinse out your clothes in the sink, feel the friction in your hands and the suds on your fingers. Don't play in the sprinkler, instead visit the public pool, lake or local pond to swim in.

It is only by habit that we have grown blind to how much we consume. I ask you to concentrate on water with me today. Water is the lifeblood of the planet, and everything on it. Let's not just flush it down the drain.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Life Lessons from the Lobos



I've started my two week vacation after finishing my first module of English classes! I spent the morning at Punta Carola, a nice crescent-shaped beach north of the university. After a brief walk along an empty trail, I arrived at the beach, totally empty, except for a dozen or so sea lions, or lobos, as they are called here.

The sun was partially hidden by clouds, intense rays and then cool breezes that seemed to switch on and off, like a pizza oven. I relaxed and read, enjoying the summer-y weather and admiring the sea lions, the fat little baby pups, the mothers honking to find their young, and a lone male bull, swimming laps in front of the shore, marking his territory and protecting his harem.

I gathered the following observations this morning:

1. Life is too short, be flexible and take advantage of what comes your way.

2. Be comfortable with who you are, be proud of your body, no matter the shape or size.

3. If someone oversteps their boundaries, bark. We teach those around us how to treat us, so it is important what we consider acceptable behavior from our friends and family.

4. There is always time for fun, rest, and relaxation. Appreciate your life. At some point during each day, please think or mutter aloud, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

5. Friendship is the most valuable treasure in the world. Keep your loved ones close, if not in your arms/flippers, close to your heart.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

mid-day

Around eleven the middle school marching band is practicing, snares clattering rhythm and little feet stepping in time. Horns joining in, and roosters sounding off like some sort of strange whistle from the band leader.

Children, dressed in uniforms of blue and white, spill out of the schools with their books, holding hands and chattering and some of them carrying large, silver xylophones, chimes muffling the breeze passing through palm fronds.

Storekeepers tidy up and slide the metal doors down, closed for a few hours, then hurry home to help prepare sopa, jugo, arroz, y pollo o pescado. Smells stream from open windows and doors, dogs on the front porches, patient.

Taxi trucks park and drivers slip into restaurants, order almuerzo plates for two-fifty and doze in the dark corners of the room. others divide attention between TV news and cell phone chats.

By twelve, the band has been carried off into the distance, dismantled, and fled. The streets are silent, except for a single moto, speeding by on the paved cement. A lone green towel flaps urgently on a clothesline, a faded brown stain in the center, perfectly oval, like the shell of an egg.

The sky is seamlessly grey, reflecting the cinderblock walls of unpainted houses, and the dry, twiggy branches of trees on the distant hills. The lively robin’s egg blue and terra cotta orange houses are like colored glass sticking out of the sand.

In the street below, a young man scrapes wet cement mix to patch the sidewalk with a shovel. Back to work, having only eaten a sandwich and yogurt brought in his bag, sitting next to his bike on the curb.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Surf


I had my first surf lesson on Sunday! We took a taxi to Porta Chino, on the other side of the island, almost an hour drive. We had bought food and drinks for a picnic lunch and I was very excited. For the three days since making the plan, up until we got into the water on Sunday, I had nothing but the Beach Boys in my head: Surfin' USA, Surfer Girl, Catch A Wave, Surfin' Safari...

The path from the road to the beach has been paved with smooth stones and cement, making the trek with our gear super easy. Before, the trail was just lava rock and some smaller gravel. The walk took much longer, especially if you were carrying a cooler, surf board or other gear, and, as is common anywhere on the planet, a screaming child who DOESN'T WANT to leave the beach and go home yet.

We had the entire stretch to ourselves when we arrived, which was great since the beach isn't very long to begin with. We set up at the lone picnic table available and pulled on wet suits, since the water is so COLD from the Humboldt Current during this season. The sky was grey, but not misting, and the waves were rhythmic, foamy curls approaching every few meters.

The lesson began on the sand. We traced the outline of my long board (for beginners) in the sand. We laid on our bellies and my teacher showed me where I should be on the board (not to close to the tip, not too far from it), and then practiced the stroke. Cup your hands, extend arms fully, pull from the front, not the side. Next we practiced jumping from our bellies to our knees, in one swift motion. This took me a few tries to get quick: I have quite a lot of leg, for starters, and second, the stretchy wet suits are a little restricting. Then we practiced jumping from our bellies to our feet. Same problem: quickness is not my forte, and making sure my feet land in the right position on the board was a little tricky.

After this crash course, we stretched. We stretched our arms, and necks, our backs, and legs, our knees and wrists. Finally, we strapped the leashes to our ankles (so the board always stays attached to us), and headed into the water. The current was very strong, but Porta Chino is prime surfing (especially for beginners), since there are no rocks on the sea bottom, only very fine sand and seaweed.

I had several runs, guiding the board out, then sliding on, finding a little balance, paddling a little further out, and then gliding on the crest of a small wave, successfully hopping onto my knees, unfortunately, I never got to my feet before I fell off. Small victory.

Things I learned: always have balance and have fun. Don't think about it too much, be tranquilo.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Player Piano


Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of my favorite books of all time. You should check it out. I believe it was his first novel, a "science fiction" read about people in a small town in New York being replaced by machines and technology. The human worker became obsolete. Vonnegut reveals how this trade affects the sociology of a community, never mind the ego of a person. I have been thinking a lot about this book lately, and wish I had a copy here with me to read again. This line is the heart of the book:

"In order to get what we've got, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them — the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect."

I've been helping José remodel two bedrooms at his family's house. We've sanded, patched, painted, and varnished. He's redone some of the electrical wiring, new lights, new fixtures, new ceiling fan. It's hard, messy, dusty, puts-an-ache-in-your-back-work and I love it. I love looking at something I "did" at the end of the day. Proof that I am capable of things I don't do often, or have never done. My dad would be proud of me.

Watching José splice and string new electrical wires in the ceiling, rig up a new light and fan, I think about a professor I had. He was presenting the argument of which is better: to have generalized knowledge, to be able to do a little bit of everything. Or, on the other hand, to be a specialist. To know everything there is to know about one, small topic. In the scientific world, perhaps it is better to be a specialist, to be able to put forth all this knowledge in your research, to develop a sound thesis. But in this life, I feel it is more important to be a generalist.

That is the attitude of many of the locals here: if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. You'd better learn how quick, learn from your own mistakes. Everyone here who has etched out a life for himself has had to become something of a handyman. Everyone knows how to cook, how to garden, how to build, how to fix everything they have, how to be self-sufficient. Those that don't are generally transplants like myself. People coming from a different place, a different time in sorts, where conveniences have drowned out the choice to do something in a simpler way.

This morning I was teaching one of my tutoring students about technology and different ways of communication. We started discussing how sad it is that certain knowledge, lessons that have been learned for ages, are getting lost in our advancement of humanity. He loves to boat and fish, he is a licensed captain. To do this, he spoke, you must know trigonometry, you must know how to use a compass, to find the latitude and longitude by simply calculating. These days, most captains only know how to use a GPS, if it isn't working for some reason, they are literally lost at sea.

Last night I was sitting outside, watching the swift clouds wisp across the inky sky, only a few stars peering through the darkness. I was thinking about how strange it is that this place, like any other, has grown and changed so much in the past one hundred years. It maybe seems more strange here, in Galapagos, the "Living Laboratory", that there is now wireless Internet access, air conditioning, washing machines, new cars, and phone lines. How quickly things change and we get used to a new format, new setting, new convenience.

I have only been back on San Cristobal for two months, and yet it seems like it's been so much longer. The time rushes past, yet drips by slowly, seemingly at the same time. I want to relish more moments of ancient wisdom of this place. To connect with the past, with a simpler life. That satisfying feeling of making do with what one has, of learning new skills, of sitting peacefully, not doing, only taking in the rawness of this place.

To revel in the feeling when the power goes out, and you must make do and remember how to...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Farmin' It




Ventured up to the farm in the highlands yesterday with José, Pamela, and Daniela. Vicente and Gladís had went the day before and are spending four days at the small cabin they have built there. The weather, as usual, was cloudy and misty as soon as we began the ascent in the taxi truck. It takes close to an hour to make the trip to the finca (farm). There is a paved black-top road until El Progreso, after that the road cuts off to hard-packed dirt, or just mud, and lava rock gravel. The truck must slowly creep and crawl over this trail, bouncing it's occupants like a baby on it's knee.

When we got there, we unloaded the truck, tip-toed our way around cow patties, and said our hellos to Vicente and Gladís. We put on our gear: tall rubber boots (I found a pair that was only one size too small, hot dog!), long sleeved shirts and hats, and mosquito repellant. They all laugh at me for using citronella essential oil instead of the high-powered DEET that they use, but I don't care, it works about as well as what they use, and it smells better. I learned how to tie a shirt over my head, using the neck-hole for my eyes to peek through. This make-shift ski mask also protects my face, ears, and neck from the multitude of chomps and nibbles from mosquitoes, ants, and flies.

First, we planted some rows of corn in a freshly cleared and burned pasture. The small space is surrounded by lemon trees, tangerine trees, and semoya patches (they look like dark green pumpkins, the inside orange and and firm like a squash). Three kernels in each hole, then sweep the dirt with your foot to tuck them into the rich soil.

After that, we needed a snack, so I climbed a ladder and plucked some tangerine-lemon hybrids from a tree, heavily laden with the fruits. Very good, a little more tart than a perfect tangerine, we sat on a log and tossed the deep orange peels into the brush, spitting seeds mid-sentence.

Paula, Daniela's six-year old daughter, introduced me to her new kitten, telling me that he only lives here at the cabin, while her puppy lives with her in town. The small kitten is docile, letting her carry it around just under the armpits, leaving the little furry belly exposed, limp legs and tail hanging. Paula then took me into the kitchen, where Gladís was cooking lunch on the open fire stove. It is a steel barrel, cut in half, a grill placed on top, campfire underneath. This is Gladis' favorite way to cook, she'll tell you. She hates to use a regular gas stove. The food tastes better, she says, and she's right.

Paula walked right up the the open fire stove and placed the cat above the fire. I reacted immediately, "¡Cuidado, Pauli!" (Careful!) but the kitten had already slipped between the grate on the open stove and cozied up in the corner of the pit, nestled in the light grey ashes from the fire. Paula looked at me matter-of-factly, "El tiene frio." (He is cold.)

I told her that I was worried that we were having kitten for lunch, and she laughed. But yes, the little pet stayed out of the way of the fire and pots, sometimes peeking it's dusty little head out to see if I was still watching him or not. I was.

We ate lunch next: soup with chicken necks and feet, semoya, and celery leaves. Then rice and spicy shrimp sauce. We drank papaya juice and talked. The rain sounded like drumming fingertips on the metal roof of the crude cabin, the door wide open, chickens hiding under bushes, pecking away.

After a little rest in the hammock, we got the wheel barrow, sacks, ladder, and machete and marched into the brush to collect tangerines and oranges. There is a method to this madness. The objective is to find the tree with the most fruit, pick a few, pass them out and everyone tries them. Then there is much debate over which tree has the better fruits, (not too dry, more sweet than tart, larger, more orange than green, etc). This can even be debated about which side of the tree you are harvesting from. After a consensus has been reached, we ready the ladder, and José climbs upward into the strong yet flexible branches, muddy boots and all. He is the picker. We are the catchers, craning our necks to watch for falling fruits, yet shielding our eyes and heads for falling insects and small twigs.

We tell him where to pick (always higher and just out of his reach), and he complains that we don't catch all the fruits that accidentally fall, busting open from the impact. Once he's picked all he can, we move the ladder and it starts all over again. Sometimes Paula gets elected to climb the ladder, two or three people holding it steady, to reach a far end of a branch, surely these tangerines are the best. She shows no fear and mimics us in the same jokes. "Just climb one more stair, there are some above your head." "Are you crazy? We have more than you can eat, already!" We do this for hours.

Finally, with the bags and wheelbarrow filled, our arms and faces swollen with stings, we walk like ants back to the cabin. The taxi has returned and we load up our loot. A quick change from muddy boots to flip flops, and we all pile into the cab. Waving goodbye from the windows, we bounce and lurch over the gravel path, until the little cabin is out of sight.

On the return trip to town, we see lots of other people harvesting their own tangerines. People climbing trees, holding sacks on the ground, pointing and hollering, giving instructions, laughing and wiping dirt on their foreheads, as they smack a mosquito. Soon after we hit the smoother road, everyone falls asleep, salsa playing low on the stereo, windshield wipers squeeking rhythmically.

Friday, July 16, 2010

School Daze


My classes at the university are wrapping up, we have exactly two weeks left. This is the gritty part of teaching, I'm discovering: the tests, oral speaking exams, final projects, final exam, GRADING ALL THIS JUNK, and deciding who gets to move onto the next level and who doesn't. And then (gulp) telling them that they will have to retake the module. This is not something I excel at: confronting people and passing open judgement. Especially because I know how meaningless grades actually are, and that when learning a second language, it's the process that counts.

I keep telling my students that I can relate to their position, part of the reason I am teaching in a Spanish-speaking country is the benefit of improving my own language skills. After taking two years of college-level Spanish, I came to the conclusion that immersion and hands-on experience is the best way for me to learn, and that this goal of speaking Spanish somewhat fluently, was an objective for my lifetime. Not to be accomplished by the time I graduated. Not to be checked off some list like buying milk from the store. And certainly not after completing six levels of nine-week courses.

I'm not sure what levels I'll be teaching for the next module. All I know is that one of the teacher's is leaving (she teaches during the year at her home in Hawaii. Hard life.) And there is not a replacement teacher coming as of yet. This leaves me and another teacher, as new to this as myself, to teach four levels of university classes. I will, however, be granted a one-week vacation between ending and beginning modules. This is such a relief, as I am needing a break! You may think that I am probably spending all my days basking in the sun with the sea lions, snorkeling with the sea turtles, dancing salsa all night, and in between, causally teaching some English grammar. May I correct you?

I teach four hours of classes everyday, but this doesn't tally in my office time, time spent planning and grading and meeting students to do make-up work. I also teach two people from the community privately, fours hours a week each. I also teach a small group of young kids (ages 5-7) two hours each week. These three side projects also demand their own planning and activity organizing. To top it off, I am completing my internship, using this position as a teacher of English as a second language. I have written background reports, turned in assignments by deadlines that seem to creep by faster and faster. I have a special project to design and complete for this internship, my last requirement of my career as a Bachelor student. In my free time (sic), I am designing an Environmental Education program for the local kids and teens, hopefully to begin by September. Plus, I brought my grandfather's ukulele with me to this little island and I'll be damned if I don't teach myself to learn to play it! If I can't learn to play a ukulele on a tropical island, than there is no hope for me, I fear.

So here I sit, alone in an empty classroom after giving and grading a test, trying to decide how to plan the final two weeks in my two classes. I want to put the books away, toss the workbooks, too. I want to play games and do projects that are useful in everyday situations of communicating in English. I want to have fun. I've brought in music, we've played charades and 20 Questions and written ad-libs.

I am writing study guides, the final exams, grading rubrics for quizzes and oral exams. I am planning a "tea party" to elicit good and bad manners that differ culturally. I am giving mock job interviews. They are "hosting" a cooking show, telling the process and order of following directions. They are researching a different country to which they would like to travel, reporting the weather, and giving advice about what items I should pack, depending on what activities there are. And I am planning a party. With food. And Shrek. In English, por supuesto.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

El Progreso



I ventured up to the highlands Sunday, to the small settlement of El Progresso. Not a town, only about one hundred people, mostly farmers, living in the first historic settlement of the island. In the past this area has served as a sugar cane farm and mill, penitentiary, commune, and Norwegian fish-packing factory. All that really exists now are the scattered homes and farms and the skeletons of buildings and homes.

Most everything that stands still long enough has lichen and moss spread across its surfaces. Lime green, delicate fur cushions the corners of houses of plaster and stone staircases, coarse deep-green beards of moss hang from trees, and white, flaky sheets of lichen peel from fence posts and tree trunks.

We were on a mission when we hunted for a taxi at noon, kickoff time for the final match of the World Cup between Holland and Spain. Bacquerizo Moreno seemed like a ghost town itself: no kids playing in the streets, no music carried out of open windows, no vehicles on the brick roads. Everyone had abandoned this for a TV, radio, and friends with whom to watch.

We were in search of “aguado de gallina,” a special kind of chicken soup, typical to Ecuador. Boiled chicken with white quinoa and thick slices of yucca (if potatoes were to become more dense and starchy, this would be the yucca root native to South America), and with some celery herb, of course. The chicken, they refer to as “crilloa,” which is pointed out to be natural, without chemicals, essentially free range, which also implies local, since they are also the entertainment as we sit and eat.

Finding a man who was on duty, we got our ride to the “parte alta.” He was older and not even listening to the match on the radio, instead listening to Andean folk music. He dropped us off at the restaurant, an open patio with several plastic tables and chairs, bowls of salsa on the tables. Down the street there was a local soccer tournament in progress: middle-aged men in red and yellow jersey uniforms. José pointed out which one was the mayor and immediately after I watched an opposing player knock him on his rear and steal the ball he had been managing. He jumped up and ran after the action, without even brushing the grass off his shorts.

After eating our Ecuadorian comfort food, we walked around the village. With the usual chickens and dogs pecking and nosing along the streets and sidewalks, we followed the road up a small hill, towards where the historic Cobos homestead once stood in all it’s glory. The man who was once in charge of the sugar mill and some dare to call “slave camp,” lived with his family in a grand house, overlooking the small settlement of El Progreso and a view to admire the port itself. A short set of stairs, along with two walls, aged and weathered, no windows, moss and blackberries growing up the cracks, this is all that remains.

We gathered a few oranges from a nearby tree, as José told me a little history of the place. How Cobos used to banish some prisoners/workers to a lagoon for punishment, and that he demanded the first night with a new bride, like a king or dictator. No surprise, that after years of this system, some people rose up attacked Cobos, shooting him twice and then finishing him off with a machete, returning the same heartless treatment he had shown them.

Soon, the mist began to fall, and we headed back to town as the air cooled and the plants perked up to receive the moisture. As we returned to town, everything was as it should be: children were outside playing with wooden tops, motos and taxis cruised up and down the streets, and people walked to the store. This is a peaceful place, people live in harmony, for the most part. In this laid-back island, there are no strangers.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lavendería


There are many homes with washing machines on the Islands. Large, white, shining plastic appliances that use too much water. Just like the States, you program them and dump in the clothes, the soap, and walk away. There are also small shops, lavenderías, where you can take your dirty clothes, towels, and sheets to be washed for you. They place the parcel on a dry scale and charge you by the weight, or else by clothing item. Every home, however, has a tile basin with water reserve, bar soap and brush, and empty milk jug. This is for hand washing, and this is what I prefer.

Every week, I take all my clothes to the garden area of the house where I live in a small apartment on the third floor. Piece by piece, I drench the material in non-potable water drawn from the reserve, an untreated wood plank used to cover like a lid to keep mosquitos and blowing leaves and petals out. I take a small hand brush and smear some of the gritty white soap on the stiff bristles. Then, with every ounce of Volga German work ethic I can muster, I brush and clean, I rinse and twist, I flop the sopping cloth onto the other side and repeat. Pour a little water with the milk jug, wring and repeat. Squeeze as much water out as I can, then toss in my laundry bucket and start over with a new piece.

When all is washed, rinsed, and wrung, I hang it all on clotheslines to be whipped dry by the wind and warmed by the sun. There are clotheslines in the garden, next to the laundry basin, but I also have two lines upstairs, on my own balcony. Here the sheets wave like flags from countries represented by pink and yellow flowers, stripes, and plaid patterns. My socks dance to the music heard throughout the neighborhood. My under garments guiltlessly wave hello to anyone passing by, what nerve!

Unless there is mist, garua, everything dries quite quickly, even if winds are low or the sun is sleeping behind the clouds. The laundry smells fresh, clean, and warm. The tile sink and brushes are quick to wipe down, rinse out. I have used approximately 5 gallons of water and only the energy which can be replaced by a tasty almuerzo (lunch). My hands, however, have never been more dry. This is from the strong soap, and no lotion seems to soothe. But I am proud of the rough hands I wear, these working hands, capable hands.