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


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


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.