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


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


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


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.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Confiar, to trust, is a lesson I am learning, and it seems like I am always learning it. Trust is blind faith. It is taking a chance and risking something, whether material or spiritual. It is quite a feat, I believe, to trust fully in your self. At times I am so happy to be back on this lovely island, while at others I am wondering what I am missing out on somewhere else. Trusting my self in the decisions I am living out is a challenge that I'd like to overcome. To truly Be Here Now and stop weighing options that have seemingly past.

To be at peace with Trust. It is rare that I trust people. They must truly earn it, and then, if compromised, it is seldom that they regain totally the trust I once bestowed. I aim to lend small stones of my faith to others for safekeeping, knowing some will remain, while others will be lost. To trust in the world and it's happenings, that your effort is worth it and that the small things you do or don't do each day make a difference. That every good work is indeed a drop in the bucket, one that does not leak.

Trust in the notion that good things are delivered to good people. Belief in anything that declares good works will be returned. Trust in humankind and the future of our country, the behavior of our hand in other countries, and trust in mankind that pain and suffering are being reduced in ways that are capable and realistic. By recognizing poverty of mind, body, and spirit, you are able to share what you have so much of.

Anton Chekov said, "You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.”

It's not the fact of the matter, it's the process that's holding me up. How does one let go of the reluctance to trust in something or someone, only to later watch it, like so many other things, fizzle, falter, and fail?

I am learning to accept the universe and everything it contains for what it is, and trying not to let my heart break every time a star burns out from shining.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mi Cumpleaños

Tuesday was my 27th birthday (thanks to everyone who sent me such sweet birthday wishes!) and the day started off just like any other day. I taught my Level 5 class at the university, then had a private lesson with Marco. For lunch, I was invited to José's family's house where they prepared rice with creamy shrimp sauce! ¡Qué rico! Then I had the group of children (aged 5-7) lesson, where we played the Memory game I made (boat, fish, soccer ball, sun, moon, cloud, ice cream, etc), which went over quite well. They are pretty strong with the English alphabet and colors, excellent with numbers to 20, and learning objects in the room, like wall, window, door, table, and so on.

After that lesson, I had another private lesson with Franco. For the last few minutes, he begged to play the card game Uno, but he insisted it's educational since we could play in English (Gotta love him). So we did. And he won. And he has quite a victory dance, let me tell you. I told him it was my birthday and that I wanted to take him for an ice cream, and the dance broke out again. When we returned from our walk to the Malecon for the melty treats, he gave me a gift from his room. It was a silver plastic necklace, with beads as little dice. He knows me too well. What a generous little boy!

I watched a terrific sunset on my roof, overlooking my barrio (neighborhood), infused with purple and pink hues, smeared over light blue and white clouds.

When I went to my Level 1 class that night, the first hour was normal, reviewing homework, spelling test of new vocabulary, etc. But when they came back from break, one of the students turned off the light and another student entered the room balancing a large double-layer chocolate cake with shining candles, and everyone sang to me. In Spanish, but that's not the point ;)

They had all chipped in and made a pretty card (using a translator on-line, I get the general idea of the message), and a stuffed animal of a sea lion. The best part is that if you squeeze his right flipper, he makes the noise that is so ambient in this place, the barking sea lion's "Oooort, oooort, oooort!"

We finished our little party, they sent more cake home with me, and I guiltily assigned them homework. That's right, I'm a tough cookie when it comes to teaching!

I got home and told José about the kind gestures from my students and he told me to hurry up and change, he had made reservations at Miconia, a very nice restaurant with balcony, overlooking the Malecon (boardwalk) and pier. When we arrived, his parents and sister were waiting there to surprise me. We ordered rich food and beer and a whole cheesecake.

My first birthday out of the country, so far from friends and family. It felt quite different, but I am blessed to have so many kind and thoughtful people around me. ¡Muchisimas gracias a todos!