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!