Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Culture

Cuenca is a city that prides itself on its many cultural offerings. Almost every day there are concerts, photo exhibits, art exhibits, or "folkloric" activities. Unfortunately, we don't get out as often as we'd like, but we do take advantage of the offerings when we can.


The 10th Bienal de Arte recently finished up its six week run, and we were able to see quite a few of the exhibits. The Bienal draws artists from all over South and Central America, even one from California, and there were over 25 different exhibition spaces, with many more artists represented. All of the exhibits were free, and some were in very public spaces, such as exterior walls and even buses.



We also recently saw a production of Carmen, directed by a Cuban friend of ours. The entry for this was $3.00, and it only played for one night. A couple of nights later, we went to see the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra perform, for free, and were surprised to walk into the middle of the the first performance of the International Guitar Festival. There is currently an International dramatic arts festival, an International film festival, a Cantinflas film festival, and I don't know what else going on. Tonight and tomorrow night there is a Messiah at the "Old Cathedral" - hopefully, at least one of us will get to go.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Our daily routine

Our friend, Bennett, asked us to write a bit about our daily routine so here goes. Everyone is up around 6 a.m. and of course it's already light out, which is nice. Don makes a hearty breakfast for the girls which always consists of fresh fruit (mangos, pineapple, papayas, bananas, etc) and eggs, oatmeal or cereal. Sometimes he even goes to the trouble of making hashbrowns for them. I do my yoga while he gets breakfast ready and then take out the garbage. The garbage gets picked up 3 times a week so we usually have just a little bag. There is recycling once a week but very few people do it. You have to buy the bags to recycle (which seems like a poor incentive to encourage participation...) and it's picked up once a week. it kills us to not be able to compost our food waste, like we do in Seattle. If we lived in the campo, we'd just give it the animals or dig a hole, but we can't do that in the city. I've heard there is composting at the market but we need to figure out a way to get our slop to the market....

Enough about garbage. After yoga and after the kids eat, I walk them to the corner at 7:05 and wait for their respective buses to pick them up. Since Nikki is in the school and Mia is in the high school, they go on separate buses. Then comes my favorite part of the day. I power walk over to Paradise Park and go to my exercise class. Mondays is dance, Tuesdays is "palo de escoba"- or broomstick (we do all kinds of exercises with the broom handle), Wednesday is Taibo or kick boxing, Thursday is weights and Friday is a combo class. The teacher, Miguel, is always animated, brings great music (salsa, reggaeton, hip hop., pop), and always varies the class. I found this class the first week I got here and after 2 classes, people started chatting with me and welcomed me with warm arms into their little exercise circle. These women have been working out together for 3 years and have become very close. They celebrate birthdays together, have a unform, call themselves "Flores de paraiso" and even have a little cheer for their group. These ladies were my first friends here and I'm indebted to them for making me feel so at home. Needless to say, I love starting the day working out with other people outside!

While I'm at my exercise class, Don goes for a run and then we meet back for breakfast and to read the paper. Every day I savor the fact that we get to read the entire paper, uninterrupted and unrushed. I've never had that luxury in my life!

I go to the University three days a week and Don volunteers at a day center for kids whose parents are working at the market all day long. On the other days, we usually go into the historical center to visit one of the many museums, churches or art exhibits that are part of the Bienal (a 6 week art festival that happens every two years). I never tire of seeing all the beautiful buildings, churches, and plazes of Cuenca. Other days we go to the market or the supermarket or run errands. Everything takes a bit longer since we walk or take the bus to everything.

Mia comes home from school about 2:30, does her homework and gets ready for gymnastics at 5. We found a gymnastics program for her at a sports complex that is about a 15 minute bus ride from our apartment. One of her friends from school is also in the class and her Mom brings her home at night which really helps us out.

After classes end for Nikki, she stays at school to participate in "bici cross" which is sort of like mountain biking on a concrete trail. Think of BMX racing on a circular track. She looks so cute in her motorcycle helmet and her leather gloves! The school has its own track, and the coach, Santiago, is great at motivating kids to do their best and have fun. About once a week, Nikki returns home with a bloody elbow, a bruised shin or a scraped hand, but she always has a smile on her face!

Don and I take turns cooking dinner and every now and then we eat out at the burger place down the street run by the Venezuelan who used to live in Chicago. Both girls often need help with their homework (mostly with language) and then it's bedtime.

In a typical day, I think we both walk about 4 or 5 miles since we have no car. We have learned the bus system pretty well and are totally used to not having a car. The only time we miss it is when we want to get out of town. We manage by taking a bus to the bus station and going in any direction from Cuenca, but we miss the mobility and ease of hopping in a car and taking off whenever you want. Cars are more expensive than in the U.S. here and in the city it makes no sense to have one. The drivers are crazy, there is a lot of traffic and, in the historical center, you move faster by foot anyway.

Because of the lack of machines in our daily lives (most notably a car, dishwasher, and a dryer) everything takes a bit longer to accomplish. We don't really notice, however, since we have more time on our hands and tend to enjoy the simple tasks of hanging laundry or washing dishes by hand (reminds us of our cabin and life in the Adirondacks...) or walking to the market for fruits and vegetables. And, at least for the time being, the power is cut every day for 3 hours which adds an element of surprise to our daily tasks.


So, there you have a glimpse into our daily activities. Every weekend is different so there is no routine there.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Random notes, 23, Nov.

Long time, no blog. Well, here is some of what's been going on with us lately.

A sad story. On our 2nd or 3rd weekend in Cuenca, we were invited by Rita and Jaime to visit their "quinta," or country home, in Susudel . Since that time I've been talking with them about the house, and Rita's desire to rent it out more, as sort of a retreat center, or a B&B. We had talked about a web page, and I had created a flyer for them to use to market it as well. A couple of weeks ago, while talking with Rita, I learned, through many tears, that they had decided to sell it.

I knew that Jaime had not been fully employed for a while, what I learned during our talk was that they had taken out a $35K loan, for which the property at Sususdel was used as collateral, and for which they hadn't been able to make a payment on since Jan. (Not all of this came out during our first conversation, but rather over the course of many conversations with Rita, Jaime, and their daughter Fernanda, over the course of the past couple of weeks.) The loan was with a private person, a friend of their son's, and he was calling it in. At the time of our first conversation, she thought she had a month or so to sell it, and I offered to help by creating a quick and dirty web site, and talking it up to the gringo community here. A few days after our first conversation, I learned that they had to give up their car, to resolve a work-related lawsuit that Jaime was involved in, so things were starting to spiral down. I also learned about this time that a maquilladora-style sewing project I was trying to set up with her, sewing pants for a friend's new business at home, wasn't going to come through, because in our global economy, she just couldn't produce them at a competitive price and still make any money. I couldn't bring myself to tell her this directly - too much piling on of bad news. Anyway, she was pretty wrapped up in the need to sell Susudel.

Last Thursday, while walking home from La Fundación El Arenal (see below), I got a call from Fernanda, asking if I knew anyone who could buy the property - today! Apparently, they had been talking with the owner of the debt, and he needed to collect his debt - which was now $45k (they hadn't factored in the interest they owed, which they hadn't realized was 5% per month, not per year) - immediately. Having already, finally, come to the realization they would have to sell it, now they were just trying to make a little money on the sale, enough to purchase another car, and to cover daily living expenses until Jaime can get a good job. They had put a price of $60k, although the property is easily worth 2 to 3 times that, but only if they had some time to find a buyer, which they didn't. So Debby and I did what we could. I created a little flyer with some pictures I had and some facts about the property, we emailed it to our gringo contacts. I also created this in Spanish, and gave Rita some copies to give to their friends. I also created it as a web site and sent out the link, and we went to "gringo night" at a couple of local bars to talk it up. We found a couple of potentially interested folks, but the time and the questionable title were issues. Luckily, they were also pushing it to friends, and as of yesterday, it looks like they have a buyer. Debby went up with them to serve as translator to the 3 gringos we had rounded up, and during this "open house," it turned out that one of their Cuencano friends had been looking for something just like this. The deal is not done yet, and they ended up forgoing a lot of money due to their failure to face reality soon enough, but it's better than just giving it up to the owner of the debt. No moral to this story, it's just quite sad.

Drought. Cuenca's, and all of Ecuador's rainy season usually starts around Oct., and runs through March or May. But this year, after a moderately rainy week in mid-October, the rain stopped, and the country, which relies on one major hydro-electric plant for about half of its energy needs, has been experiencing an energy crisis. Ecuador only produces about 48% of the energy they use. They typically import a lot of energy from neighboring Colombia, but Colombia is also experiencing a drought, so has cut back its energy exports. Starting around Nov 5, when we returned from Baños, there have been daily, rolling blackouts, or "apagones" and "cortes de luz" where the power is shut off to various sectos for 3 or 4 hours at a time. This has caused considerable inconvenience to people and businesses, with some stores buying small gas generators to get through it, while others just do what they can. The good thing is we know when the electricity will go out the next day so we can plan ahead. But it's killing the small businesses. Last we heard this will continue to March unless the rain really picks up. Surprisingly, no one seems to complain at all; they just put up with it and recognize it's just part of daily life here. In reality, there haven't been cuts like this for about 10 years. It reminds me of Cuba. I tell you Americans would never put up with this.

Hike with Club Sangay to Cajas. when we first got here, we learned about a hiking club called Club Sangay, which is like Cuenca's Mountaineers. since we got here in August, we've wanted to go on some trips with them and we finally were able last weekend. Not knowing how hard it would be, we decided to leave the kids with Fernanda's family for the day. One nice thing about the drought is the sunshine. This made our first hike with Club Sangay, up to Cajas (actually an area just outside of Cajas) quite pleasant. In fact, people on the hike commented that no one would believe they had been to Cajas, which is usually shrouded in mist, unless they splashed some water and mud on their clothes! Cajas is a national park about 45 minutes outside of Cuenca, quite high (we were hiking at about 12,000 ft), and starkly beautiful. We plan on returning to another part of the park with this group in December.


Paute. We have been a lot more social in the past month, both with Ecuadorians and gringos. We had our first party in our apartment and invited over Fernanda's family and an Ecuadorian/ Cuban couple we met through a Seattle contact. They stayed late and seemed to have a great time and we're ready to have more parties!

The weekend before we spent the weekend in a little village outside of Cuenca called Paute. We were invited to stay at our friend Ron's hacienda and it was gorgeous. Turns out Ron is from San Juan Island. He came to Cuenca about 10 years ago to live with his kids and teach English for a couple of years. 10 years later, with his kids in college and having recently split up with his wife, he decided to move back to Cuenca. For a long time, he was a DJ at a local radio station and how he volunteers at an orphanage, works on his fruit trees on his property and recently married an Ecuadorian. We LOVED his piece of paradise in Paute and will definitely be back. The next day we met up with an American/ British couple that also teaches at the University of Azuay and spent the day at the pool near their house. The best part of the weekend was the Sunday market and eating roasted pig for breakfast. I guess we are no longer vegetarians this year...

Fundación El Arenal. Part of my coming to grips with the fact that the Municipio is probably not going to take advantage of my offer to create a bus map for them, is that I needed to find something to do, (although doing nothing is becoming a lot easier with time!) Debby and I finally visited La Fundación El Arenal, a few weeks ago, and I have decided to start volunteering with them twice a week. This foundation works with the school age children of people who sell in the biggest open air market in the city, El Arenal. They help the kids with their homework, counsel them and their families, and make sure they get at least one good meal a day. I'll be working with the older kids, improving some basic computer skills such as Word and Excel, and even basic Keyboarding. I found a good, free, typing program through the internet, and the staff, mostly hunt and peckers themselves, are excited about it.

Bus Map. I haven't actually completely given up on the City, and in fact, in my last conversation with the Director of Mobility and Transportation, he told me that he had talked with the mayor about me, and although there wasn't any money in the budget to pay me for my efforts, if I was willing to do it completely voluntarily, they be willing to take me. I said I was, and he said he'd start to pull together the materials and resources I'd need, and have me sign something to make it official. In the meantime, I'm trying to see if I might be able to get some recompense for this work through Peace Corps Response, a program which places ex- Peace Corps volunteers in short term assignments in their areas of expertise. Stay tuned....

Thanksgiving. Although the 4th Thursday in November is just another day in Ecuador, we´ll have a Thanksgiving meal with some gringo friends on both Friday and Saturday. We hope those of you who read this will be enjoying a wonderful meal with your friends of family, and that you have plenty to be thankful for. We certainly do.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Long Weekend in Baños de Ambato

Nov. 3rd is Cuenca's independence day (all the major cities seem to have their own independence day), and since Nov 2nd was Día de los Difuntos, and Nov 1 Día de Todos los Santos, it was a long weekend. We were going to stay in town to see all the festivities; parades, fireworks, beauty contests, etc., but we decided instead to take advantage of two days off school to go on a road trip. We rented a car (!) and headed north to Baños (de Ambato). We were a bit apprehensive about renting a car, as many of the roads are in bad shape, and the drivers are crazy, but we decided that the extra mobility a car affords was worth it, and if we stayed off the roads at night, we'd probaby be ok.

We left Cuenca about 3:30 in our rental Chevy Corsa - a small, weak car, which meant that we wouldn't be racing other drivers around blind curves or up steep hills, and after a short, unplanned detour to find 1) a gas station and 2) the northbound lanes of the highway out of town, we were really on our way.

While many of the roads in the country are in bad shape, this is changing, and there is a lot of road work going on. On the Panamerican highway heading north, this means that they are replacing the pot-holed asphalt with reinforced concrete, definitely an improvement. But since the road is a 2 lane highway, this means that there are quite a few spots where one lane is closed at a time. Locals take advantage of this situation, and itinerant snack sellers work the waiting line of cars, offering nuts, chips, drinks and cut fruit. Due to the delays, and the patches where the road still needs considerable work (asphalt gives way unexpectedly, and unannounced, to dirt), we didn't get quite as far the first day as planned. Instead of spending the night in Alausí, we felt ourselves lucky to find a place to stay in Chunchi.

After checking into a clean but non-descript room in probably the only hotel in Chunchi, atop a 24 hour restaurant right on the Pan-am highway, we found a place to eat. Talking with the waitress, we learned that there was a festival that night, a "concurso de baile," a dance concert to raise funds for the old folks home. We headed down to the "Coliseo" to check it out (without our camera, unfortunately.) The coliseo was sort of like a high school gym, with concrete bleachers, about 1,500 people in attendance and two (2) doors (can anyone say "fire code?") We were the only outsiders there and we could feel all the eyes on us. Nobody goes to Chunchi, which made our time there all the more unique. The dance groups came from surrounding villages, and typically had about 25 - 30 participants, ranging in age from 8 to 30, men and women. The dances were all sort of the same, a line of men and a line of women converged, mingled, separated, etc., but the costumes were great. Men wore western style cowboy hats, serapes, and leggings made of some furry animal hide. Women typically wore large, colorful skirts, shawls and headscarves. In some of the dances, one person stood apart from the lines of men and women. This person was dressed almost other-worldly, with a facemask and headress. They weren´t leading the dance, as much as overseeing it, only occasionally whipping a dancer back into the line.

We got back on the road the next morning after breakfast, with Baños as our destination. The Andean countryside is stark and beautiful. The road winds throug very high hills, mostly cultivated, or waiting to be planted. Very little forest is seen here, and the hills are rolling, not rocky like the Cascades, even though the elevations are between 7,000 and 10,000 ft. As we were getting close to Riobamba (our intended lunch stop) we saw what looked like a small rest stop, with a large group of colorfully dressed people visible from the road. We pulled into "Laguna Colta" where the tourism agency was having a group of folkloric dancers perform for visitors. We checked it out, explored the lake and the playground, and headed on. After a nice lunch in Riobamba, we headed on, arriving in Baños about 4:30.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Baños, but it is definitely a touristy place, although 95% of the tourists are Ecuadorian. There are lots of hotels, restaurants, and "tipica" stores, all crowded into a fairly small valley, surrounded by beautiful hills, and just out of view, the active volcano, Tungurahua, whose last major eruption was about 10 years ago. Due to the long weekend, the place was packed, mostly with "Quiteños." Along with some great restaurants, and some good, cheap hotels, there are also a number of outfits offering various adventures: mountain biking, 4-wheeling, bridge jumping, and tours in open-sided buses offering tours down the valley to one of many "tarabitas" or cable cars crossing the Rio Pastaza.

The next morning, before breakfast, we went to to one of 3 municipal baths, which are set up to take advantage of the thermal mineral water coming from the volcano. We thought we would beat the crowd, but since they open at 4:30 am, the pool was already packed when we got there at 7:30 a.m.. (I think that one of the reason's they are so popular is that it is awfully hard to get anything like a hot bath in Ecuador. Most homes do not have bathtubs, and most showers are equipped with an on-demand water heater, located right at the shower head. The heat turns on with the water pressure, but it's capacity is easily overwhelmed by the flow of cold water.) After breakfast, we hopped in our car and drove down the valley to
video
"El Pailón del Diablo," (Devil's Cauldron),

an enormous and powerful waterfall. Beautiful, but nothing in the way of solitude - the 30 minute hike to the falls had more people than the path around Greenlake on a sunny day in February! On the way back to town, we decided to stop at a tarabita, and take the
video
cable car across the river.

Luckily, the tarabita we chose allowed us to get off on the other side which we did, and went for a very nice hike on a stone-lined path thru jungle-like terrain to a smaller waterfall. There was also a little restaurant, which had a small tank full of trout, which they would cook up for you if you'd like, and


video
some very cool rope swings out over a river.

Back in Baños at night, we checked out some local "delicacies" of sugar cane, cane juice, and a hand-pulled taffy called "milcocha."

Mia, Debby and I awoke early on Monday morning and took a steam bath like we've never had before(baño de cajón). You sit down on a bench and an attendant closes you in with a box so that only your head is exposed. There's a lever you can adjust to let in more or less steam and for 5 minutes your body heats up. The attendant then opens the box, and leads you thru rinsing your body parts off with cold water. We repeated this procedure 5 times and the attendant finshed us off with a cold water jet spray. We all felt relaxed and refreshed for breakfast after that!

After breakfast, we hiked up to a small viewpoint above the city, then to the town cementary. While people do clean up and decorate their relatives graves for Day of the Dead, the day is not celebrated like it is in Mexico. (Most of the cementeries we've seen in Ecuador have the graves above ground - I'm not sure why that is.) We left town around noon, hoping to get about half-way back to Cuenca, but the long line of cars returning to Quito, and the numerous detours for road construction meant that we only made it as far as Riobamba. We scored a really cool hotel in Riobamaba- a family's restored 100 year old home and we had the place entirely to ourselves which was fun for everyone. We ordered take out and spread out in this beautiful mansion (the owner slept upstairs in a separate area). In the morning, we awoke to clear skies and a view of the spectacular Chimborazo volcano, the highest in Ecuador (20,700 feet). A beautiful and uneventful drive on Tuesday brought us back home, where everyone was happy to be.

This past week in Cuenca has been a bit strange, in that the rainy season has not yet started in the southern part of the country, and the rivers are very low. This means that the hydro-electric plants are running at way below capacity, and Thursday and Friday the government started rolling blackouts in various sectors of the country. Making things worse, there have been a number of forest fires in the hills surrounding Cuenca, possibly started by campesinos who believe that the smoke from the fires will bring the rain. (This is actually what people are saying, although it sounds a bit like scapegoating to me.) Anyway, we are all hoping for rain. (Well, maybe not Debby - she does like the sun.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mia the Madrina

One day a couple of weeks ago, Mia came home from school and announced that the class chose her to be the "madrina", or godmother, or homecoming Queen representative for her 8th grade class. She seemed excited about it so we got on board and asked her what her responsibilities and duties where, to which she responded "ser guapa" (be pretty!). That's what the teacher told her.

For those of you who are not familiar with Latin culture, you need to know there is a major obsession with beauty queens. Literally every day in the paper, there is something about a beauty queen contest, be it for the country, city of Cuenca, a neighborhood, a school, or a parish. In fact, our landlady, a sort of short, squat, woman in her mid-50's, forked out $25 to attend the selection event for the "Reina de Cuenca" - this from the woman who won't spend $5 to fix our leaking toilet! People get totally into it and we just sit back and roll our eyes and marvel at the cultural differences.

Once our neighbors and friends got word of Mia's being selected, they started asking me about her dress, shoes, jewelry, and make up. Oh boy, I thought, this is serious and the pressure is on. Mia ended up wearing a dress she had brought down but we did buy her some white sandals and our neighbor lent her some make up. it's simply unheard of to have a madrina not wear make up, no matter the age....

The big day was last Saturday, the "Jornada Deportiva" of the school. The day is most similar to Field Day at John Stanford Int'l School or Homecoming at Lakeside - except they sell beer! It was a very fun day and we experienced firsthand the tight community of Alborada, the kids' school. The entire parent community was there, participating in the events, selling food, including a couple of roasted pigs, and cheering on their kids in their various athletic pursuits.

The day began with a huge parade, during which each class marched out on the blacktop in their "uniform", or costume they chose. First came the 2 kids holding flags, then the Madrina with her date and then the rest of the class. Alborada goes from pre school to high school so this parade took some time. The younger the kids more, the more extravagant the costumes, mostly because of the parental participation.

After the parade and cheering of the different costumes, they asked all the madrinas to come out who represented their grades. They said their names, they walked up to the stage and turned around. That was it. The crowd was going crazy. There was more enthusiasm for the beauty queen than for any other event... Don and I were watching from above and taking some photos, thoroughly amused by all the fuss over the girls. Then the grand moment arrived. They announced the 3rd place winner, Señorita Fraternidad, the 2nd place winner, Señorita Amistad, and then the 1st place winner, Señorita Deportiva, Miss Mia Loseff!!! I looked at Don and said "all that time and money spent on beauty school finally paid off! :)

We learned afterwards that Mia will be representing her school as the Madrina in the major athletic events all year long. She is definitely having an interesting cultural experience here!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Saturday at the Beach with the Drug Lords

Friday, Oct 9, is a national holiday, celebrating the independence of Guayaquil, so we took advantage of the 3-day weekend to travel. Our friend, Rita, has an Aunt who lives near the coast, near the towns of Salinas, just outside of Santa Elena, and she arranged that we could stay with her in some "cabins" she has.

To get to Santa Elena, you need to go thru Guayaquil, so we left Thursday afternoon, and took the bus that goes thru the Cajas Nat. Park. The 4 hour bus ride is beautiful, climbing first to well over 9,000 ft as it passes thru Cajas, then dropping down to sea level in the course of a couple of hours. As we hit the coastal plain, the terrain changes to large scale farming of bananas, rice and sugar cane, and the houses become substantially less substantial, often elevated above the ground with walls of bamboo, or some other type of cane.

Debby had been to Guayaquil some 20 years ago, and remembered it as an ugly, industrial town, with not much worth seeing. But since we had to pass thru it on the way to Santa Elena, and since it was the holiday celebrating their independence, we decided to spend the night, and look around the next morning before heading out. It has changed a great deal in 20 years, with one of the biggest changes being the re-development of their sea walk, into "Malecón 2000." While they always had something here, similar to Havana's Malecón, Malecón 2000 is a beautiful, well kept linear park about 1.5 miles in length, gated with numerous entrance points, with art, sculpture, playgrounds, commercial shopping areas and places to eat. It is incredibly well protected and maintained, with armies of staff picking up garbage, shining the brushed steel handrails, and skimming leaves off the radio-controlled boat pond.

Before we hit the Malecón, we walked thru Parque Bolivar, which is covered with iguanas. They are on the grass, the sidewalks, and when we walked thru, mostly up in the trees (look out for the dropping).

Around noon we took off for Santa Elena. Our directions were a little sketchy, we were to get off at the "gasolinera" (gas station) just outside of town, but the helper on the bus we took looked as if he had never heard of it, so we decided instead to get out in the town of Santa Elena, and call our hosts from there. We had lunch, got our directions, and took a cab a few blocks up the road. We knew we were to get off at the gas station, then walk a hundred meters or so to the ice factory, but we didn't realize that the cabins were directly behind the ice factory. Rita's cousin owns the ice factory, and he, as well as his mother and father, live right there. The "cabins" are really just for family, and in fact, Rita's grandmother, "Mama Hilda" (who is 104!) is living there right now.

After getting settled in, we took a bus up to Salinas. We were heading to the main beach and malecón there, but we got off a little early by mistake. I love these kinds of mistakes, as it gave us an opportunity to see the little fishing port, with all the boats in harbor, and kids, who were off from school for the national holiday, playing with tops in the street. We found the beach, and walked it to the main malecón, where we had a nice seafood dinner, then took a cab back to the ice factory.

On Saturday, with a little more knowledge under our belts, we took the bus to the right place, and headed to the beach. We found our "spot" then decided to rent a umbrella and chairs for the day. Next to us was a larger shelter, with just a couple of people in it. It wasn't all that sunny out, so the girls checked out the beach a bit, then started construction on the sand castle of the day. Lots of food vendors on the beach, and although it all looked good, I was also a little leary. But the guy in the shelter next door finally stopped a couple of guys with a large mesh bag of oysters, and a cooler of lemons, and they whipped up some ceviche - the freshest I've ever had. After that, we got a little more adventurous with the food: a coconut, first punctured to drink the water with a straw, and then chopped up to eat the fruit; "choclo con queso," a sweet corn on the cob covered with a local cheese; some "patacones" (thin sliced and fried banana chips); and finally some sort of bread-like thing made of cooked plantain, formed into a patty and fried.

Progress on the sandcastle continued sporadically, and meanwhile, things were getting interesting next door. The one guy who was there when we sat down was joined, intermittently, by various others, Ecuadorians or other Spanish-speakers, who often acknowledged us in English. One guy, who didn't greet us, was a bit strange: a large gringo who didn't speak much Spanish, had shaved his body hair, and wore only a speedo, some heavy shoes, and a bandanna on his head. He was horsing around with the others, and seemed preoccupied with some very nice blow-up water chairs. More people came and went throughout the day, 5 or 6 of them whose Spanish was punctuated with English, and who sported a fair number of tattoos (not unheard of in Ecuador, but nowhere near as prevalent as in Seattle). At one point, the gringo stopped a passing vendor of "panama hats" (which are actually made in Ecuador), and purchased one for all of the main inhabitants of the shelter, pulling the money out of a thin leather portfolio. There were also a few more typical Ecuadorians present, one older guy with binoculars, and a few younger ones who asked permission before they took a drink, and who here helping out with the water toys. Towards the end of the day, they hooked up the water chairs to a ski boat they had rented, and took off like a bunch of kids just let loose in a candy store. There wasn't any drug dealing going on that I was aware of, but I did have just a tiny nagging vision of getting caught in the middle of a blazing gun battle, as someone, a group of rival drug lords or the police, realized who they were! (Sorry, no pictures of this crew - we just didn't think it was prudent!)

Well, we were ready to pack it in, so we headed back to the same restaurant we ate at the day before, for dinner and to watch the futbol game! Ecuador vs. Uruguay- a sort of "must-win" game for the national team in order to advance in the World Cup qualifying tournament. (They lost, sort of robbed, as it was 1-1 going into the final minutes, when the ref missed a clear "hand" on the part of the Urugyanos, and a minute later the Ecuadorian goalie got a yellow card for a trip, and the resulting free shot from about 20 feet in front of the goal resulted in a 2-1 victory by Uruguay.)

Sunday was head home day. Debby and I started the day with a walk thru the little village behind the ice factory. I kick myself for not bringing my camera, because it was a remarkable area in that it was the most colorless area I've ever seen. The houses were simple, made of split bamboo, and elevated, like we had seen on the bus ride. A few houses were made of concrete block ("bloque"), and the dustyness of everything in the town, from the dirt road up, matched the color of the bloque (the same shade of grey as US concrete block). I'm not exaggerating when I say that the only color visible was the laundry hanging in a few back yards. Other than this, it was an uneventful day, except for getting one of our backpacks stolen at the Guayaquil bus station (which, by the way, is huge, a sort of combination of a US airport and a shopping mall), and Nikki barfing on the bus as we crossed thru Cajas in the fog, which might have been attributable to the totally cheesy movie about a firefighter and a wife whose marital problems were solved by some serious vitamin J. But since my own case of the runs arrived the next day, it was most likely something we ate - either that fried plantain thing, or the Chinese food we ate at the bus station. In any event, we are both healthy now!

Teaching at the University of Azuay (Debby)

Although I wasn't exactly looking for a job, within two weeks of being in Cuenca, I was offered 3 different jobs teaching English. No one asked for a resume or credentials; just being American was good enough for them. The first job offer came on the Wednesday before school started the following Monday. It was at an all girl's Catholic high school downtown and they were really desperate (their teacher had just found out she was pregnant and decided not to teach this year). I met one of the other English teachers in the afternoon and within 15 minutes I was in the Head nun's office with a firm offer. When I asked about books and the curriculum, they told me not to worry. I was flattered and tempted to take the job to 1) help them out in a desperate situation 2) to witness firsthand a typical Ecuadorian high school and to work with teachers from here and 3) because even though I'm on my sabbatical year I must admit I love teaching and here it was September and my natural instinct was to jump in the classroom. There were some minor details however. One -I would have 6 sections of 45 kids each! The other was that classes started at 7 a.m. every day... And finally there was the mandatory uniform (with heels!!) that I would have to wear. After reading some quick e-mails to my family and colleagues at Lakeside (thank you Vicki, Paloma, and my brother David!!) who blatantly told me I was crazy to consider working full time and after having dinner with Don that evening and realizing what a time commitment I would be making and how much I would be missing out on family life and exploring Cuenca and surroundings, I politely declined.

The second job offer came from my Ecuadorian "sister". She asked me to run the English program at her daughter's preschool. That was a no brainer. Nothing against preschoolers, but been there done that with my own kids.

The final offer I accepted and I'm very pleased that I did. I'm teaching English to tourism students at the University of Azuay 6 hours a week. The time commitment is minimal and it's exciting for me to be teaching college age students and be in a university setting. The hiring process, if you could call it that, was unbelievably informal. I talked with the Dean of the school on the Friday before classes were to start on Monday. He "interviewed" (once again if you could call it that) me and another woman, Anne, from Vancouver, BC and told us he had 2 positions and would call us over the weekend. Neither Anne nor I heard anything so we called our initial contact Sunday night. She said "of course you have the job - see you tomorrow!". No books, no curriculum, just some eager
students. Fortunately both Anne and I are experienced teachers and have quickly put together a course description, a curriculum, and I ordered books and had them by the second week.

About a month after classes started, Anne and I were invited to an orientation for new professors. We didn't know quite what to expect, but we were thinking it was an occasion to meet the President, mingle with the new people. The orientation turned out to be a formal presentation; the funniest part for us was when one of the Deans went to great lengths to explain the symbol of the school (the shield) and then he went on the play the University hymn at a very loud volumn. It was a Monty Python cultural moment. I knew if I looked at Anne, I would burst into laughter so I just focused on all the other tremendously serious faces in the room... Ecuador takes their symbols and hymns very very seriously.

My students have all studied English in high school but their pronunciation is horrific. Most English teachers here really don't speak that well and teach primarily in Spanish. The situation is improving slightly, however, and there are more and more English teacher training programs to help teachers. Don and I have been very impressed with Mia and Nikki's English teacher, however. Mia is in the highest level of HS English with kids much older and she is actually challenged. Nikki's class is really easy for her, but that's OK with us - it's the one place where she can really shine as her Spanish catches up to her native language. My sense is that since their school is private that the expectations and the quality of the teaching is a lot higher than in a typical public school.

I love my commute 3 times a week, even if it isn't on my bicycle :( The University of Azuay is a 20 minute walk from our apartment, along the river. I pass by a really cool, old neighborhood of iron workers who are always in the midst of some project. I also pass a modern park with a beautiful sculpture and an iron works museum, as well as the "Quinta Bolivar" where Simon Bolivar spent time when he was in Cuenca.

One of my projects for Lakeside is to conduct interviews with young people about life in Ecuador and I'm psyched to have a ready and available pool of 20 year olds who I can interview for this project. And I have to say it's really fun to run into my students downtown every now and then and hear "Hey teacher!" - it makes the city feel like a small town to me.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Get Outa Town - Sept 29

On Sunday we took our much delayed trip to Giron, about an hour south of Cuenca to see the famous "Chorros de Giron" (Waterfalls of Giron). Cuenca is a beautiful city, but it is a city, and we felt a need to get out into the country for our sanity.

The bus left us off right in town, and the waterfalls are about 5km away, uphill, so the easiest thing to do is to take a taxi truck up to the entrance. We got a truck right away, and we were soon at the entrance to the first waterfall, which is only about a 10 minute walk from the entrance. We hiked up, enjoyed the site, and decided to check out the 2nd falls, as we had plenty of time and energy left in our day. Both hikes were beautiful, with the second one passing thru some dry areas, some wet areas, at one point crossing over the river that leads from the 2nd falls to the 1st, before heading steeply uphill. The girls did a great job, and rewarded themselves with a coke and chips that they snuck up to the top! I'm no botanist, but there are lots of orchids in the trees here, none yet in bloom, but I guess that happens in a few months.

On the way back, we met a women who was picking up the bottles and trash that tourist had thrown out their car window into the pasture for her cars. As we had picked up a couple of bags of garbage at the falls ourselves, we had a nice chat with her. She has two sons who have lived for many years in the states, and she goes to visit them fairly frequently. When she visits, she doesn't dress special, she just goes in her "pollera," the heavily pleated skirt that the indigenous "Cholas" wear here. We had a nice chat, and were lucky to catch the first car down into down, where we made all the right bus connections and got home quickly.

This coming weekend is a long one, so we are heading to the beach!