Friday, October 29, 2010


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


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.