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


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


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.