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


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.