The night is like a megaphone. Vibrations are gathered and amplified while the daytime music of the rest of the world settles and dampens. When everything is dark, and I am left with my thoughts, the night is a chorus of sounds to frighten or comfort as I lay awake thinking or trying to not think about what is and what is no longer here.
The frogs live in the garden behind the house. It starts with one. He chirps out one note, and then pauses before calling the same note again. As he continues, another frog joins in and makes it a duet. Her note is different, but they coordinate their song as a call and response, her note hitting the air and on his down beat, back and forth, back and forth. A third joins in on his own unique tone, and then a fourth and a fifth, some on the same rhythm as a earlier singer, some finding their own moment to sing. As more join in, the sound swells and swells, until the randomness of the notes, and the consistency of the rhythm hit a sweet equilibrium and it become a ringing cacophony of sound. The volume of the song is intense and they seem to be singing in my head, their chirping notes bouncing around in my skull. I fight to distinguish one frog from another, to count how many there are, but it is too much. They have become one voice. One by one the singers drop out of the chorus, until the one lonely frog who started it all is left performing a mournful solo. Chirp… chirp… chirp… and then nothing.
Cats prowl over the rooftops, looking for garbage, or maybe a stray bird stupid enough to nest down in the eves. Unlike in the States, where their lives are forced into the rhythm of the humans who own them, these cats belong to no one, and their natural instincts as creatures of the night are unfettered. When the heat of the day blankets the dusty roads and heats the corrugated tin roofs, the cats disappear into thickets, under houses, and maybe to the corners of the homes of tolerant people. But at night, the village is their hunting ground. I hear the soft thump of padded feet landing over me, and the quiet rustle of leaves as they steal their way through the debris. Sometimes there is the flapping of wings as a group of prey make their escape and take to the skies, searching for a new safer place to pass the night. At times I can hear their screeching cries when they run into an foe on their nightly prowls. A dog, or another cat whose territorial boundaries has been ignored. The screams are jarring and otherworldly, as if it is not a familiar cat, but strange and violent creatures that are battling outside my door.
People think that roosters crow at dawn, but it isn’t true. They start between 2:30 and 3:00 am, long before the light begins to fade up, the opening act of a play, bathing the world in it’s soft pink glow, long before the sun itself peaks up over the lip of the mountains announcing that the day has officially begun. They sing to the dark black world as if calling for the sun to return, as oppose to celebrating her arrival. Or maybe they just want the world to hear them, to scream their existence into the sky. When the world is rushing by under the bright Ecuadorean sun, their crows seem so insignificant. Their voices are only a nuisance that is easy to ignore. The silence of the night gives their calls a reverence. Listen to me! I am here! I am!
The echos of the waves rumble across the village, like the thumping bass of a distant night club. When the tide is high, there is a long low pull as the energy of the ocean scraps against the sand, and then the break leaps through the air before pounding down against the shore. The watery hands of of a drum circle …shhhhhhhh….BOOM… and then a sigh. Sometimes, it sounds like they are crashing right outside the front door, licking at the walls, beaconing me to grab a board and run out to the water with only the full moon as my guide through the crests. The waves are dangerous and unpredictable. Even their music is a demonstration of their humbling power. But they are also the sound consistency and comfort. I’ll never wake up one morning and discover that the ocean that I’ve loved, feared and counted on has disappeared in the night for reasons I’ll never understand. They are a lullaby, the hum of meditation, and a warning.
The pig is enormous. It’s the size of a smart car. A wall of flesh. A freak of nature. Bigger than I imagined a pig could be. (Manbearpig?) It’s pen is a joke. Not only could it climb over the fencing easily, it could just walk through it, like a car smashing through a wall in a Bond movie, laying waste to the enclosure in an explosion of splinters and maul my face off. I stare at its huge slobbering mouth. Thick white drool is pouring from its mouth and I imagine it taking my skull in its jaws… Marlon throws a bunch of plantains into the pen causing the mountain to scurry around franticly searching for the food with enormous slimy nose. I involuntarily take two quick steps backwards. The students laugh. I laugh too and explain I have never seen a pig this big. While I’ve seen many pigs in Tonga, they don’t get this large there. I don’t know if it’s just because we eat them earlier, don’t feed them as much, or just haven’t exposed them to gamma rays to turn them into monster mutants. I look around at all the livestock, besides the rest of the pigs, the other livestock looks different as well. The cows don’t look like the dairy cows that I’ve always lived near in New York. They have humps and long horns, like how I imagine a water buffalo looks. In a large pen of chickens I notice that about half of then have naked necks. Literally naked, like they were wearing electric collars that burned all the feathers off their necks, giving them a bizarre appearance of a misplaced little head on a big fluffy body. I again think of some kind of genetic mutation, but they assure me that it’s just the breed. We continue on the tour.
The fields of produce that make up the agricultural section of the university stretch out behind the main campus farther than I had imagined. There are fields of coffee plants, still small, and not yet fruit bearing with shiny leaves the deep green color of forest moss. Unripe papayas are bundled under strange umbrella like leaves balanced one the end of tall stalks that jut up from the ground and don’t look like they should have the strength to hold their delicious load. The plantains trees don’t look like trees, but like house plants that forgot to stop growing. Long twisting stems extend from the bottom the massive bunches of fruit with a large deep red flower on the end, like huge Hershey’s Kiss. The earth under my feet is warm and a rich black color, and makes me think of my, so far, unsuccessful efforts to plant a vegetable garden in the gravelly sandy ground behind my home. Every once and a while Marlon or Santo will stop and pick something off a tree and give it to me to eat. A little green thing the shape and size of grape with a thick bitter skin that crunches, then a mealy yellowish center that is slightly sour, and a big pit like an olive. "Es mejor con sal," they tell me. An electric orange sphere covered in fur, like those fuzzy craft balls you used in kindergarten class. I pealed away the the furry skin as instructed, and inside was an orange paste of tiny seeds that was sweet and tasted not like a real orange, but like fake orange flavor, like Tang or Sunkist with less sugar. We pass a limón tree and I stop to pick a handful of leaves off. "Que estas haciendo?" they ask me. "Es para té," I explain, but they look at me funny.
That night I boil water in a pot with some of the lime leaves and then stir in some condensed milk. Chefla asks me what I doing with a puzzled look on his face. I explain that my family used to make this tea for me when I was younger and it brings back memories. "Gringos estan raros," he informs me. I grin, thinking about all the raro of the day. “Well, this isn’t a gringo tea, my Tongan family were the ones who made this. But yeah it’s true, we are all pretty strange.”
(A Warning: I descibe somethings in this blog post that a squeamish person, and/or vegetarian may be grossed out by. I find it interesting, and it illustrates my point about having a closer connection to the origins of food as opposed to clean packaged things you buy in a grocery store, but do not read on if it isn’t your cup of tea.)
After some time wandering around in the streets asking people where to find peas, I was finally directed to a small vegetable shop run by a Quechua Indian woman. In Spanish, peas are arverja NOT alverga, as I learned the hard way. The important difference being that verga is a crude word for a part of the male anatomy, making my requests for peas sound like I was saying “Excuse me, I’m looking for some ‘of the c*cks’. Please, do you have any ‘of the d*cks’?” I found the woman, dressed in the traditional ankle length black velvet skirt, flowy white blouse, with a colorful woven belt, her hair in two tight long braids down her back. I figured out how to ask her for peas, and she pulled out a burlap sack of hard green pods. While I had grown sugar snaps in my backyard before, and conceptually knew that peas grew in pods, this struck me as strange. Having never having actually seen a pea in it’s natural, unfrozen, podded state, the sight of the familiar little green spheres nestled in a foreign looking envelope gave me pause. “Wait and minute,” I thought. “Are those actually peas?” I ate one to make sure. As we spent several minutes together, pulling each individual pea out of the pods into a little plastic baggy, I reminisced about when getting a bag of peas required pulling a massive sack out of the freezer. After what seemed like a very long time we had only accumulated a small amount in the bag, and feeling lazy I decided that was all I would need.
When I asked the woman for a couple potatoes, she handed me what looked like softball-sized clots of dirt. I stared at the chuck of mud in my hands, wondering if it was some kind of joke, until I realized that there was a potato inside. Of course, I knew that potatoes came out of the ground, and I’ve had to clean a bit of dirt off them before cooking before, but the 1/2 inch think mud incrusted spud in my hand more than drove the point home of what and where a potato came from in a way that I had never really considered before. Later in my kitchen, scrubbing through the layers of muck like a scientist at an archeological site, I needed a toothbrush to get it clean. The vegetables were only the beginning.
A few days earlier, Jorge had picked up some shrimp in San Pablo, a village about 30 minute bus ride away. He had warned me not to forget to cut out la vena when I was cleaning them, and suggested that I wait until he was able to clean them for me. Being a chica necia (stubborn girl), as has become my new nickname, I decided that, of course, I could do it myself, how hard could it be? After pulling the heads off of 20-something shrimp, my hands and shirt were coated in bright orange goo (brains? guts?) that smelled worse than it looked and persistently refused to wash out. The skin on my hands, besides being stained shrimp-guts-orange, were covered in nicks and punctures from pealing off the surprisingly dangerous shells. De-veining (as I figured out after asking a neighbor how to do it) involves using a very sharp knife to slice down the back from its beheaded gory neck to the tip of its tail, and pulling out a little tube full of black muck (it’s last meal).
After what seemed like hours, including the breaks that I had to take to fight off brief waves of nausea, I had what seemed like an incredibly small amount of perfect pretty little pink shrimp. As with the peas, I remembered the last time I cooked with shrimp in the States. I had never prepped shrimp in my life before, and only had the vaguest idea of how much went into creating the convenient frozen bag that I would pull out of my freezer. After all this time and work, I smelt like shit, had crusty orange hands, a destroyed T-shirt, was slightly nauseated, and I hadn’t even started cooking yet.
None of the little tiendas where I buy eggs and milk had chicken. The directions I was given were: Walk to the road closest to the beach, take a right, ask at one the houses on your right a little ways down. Ok… I examined houses as I walked along the beachfront, eventually coming upon a house that had an open door and windows. I hesitated, imagining the shopkeeping playing a joke on me. He has taking opportunities to use my poor Spanish to mess with me before. I looked for any sign that the inhabitants of this house sold chicken. It was a small one-story home, modest, with unpainted cinderblock, the mortar between the blocks starting to crumble, and bamboo cane window shutters and door under a corrugated tin roof. Through the large open windows I saw a baby playing on the floor of the living room with a wooden spoon. What did I have to lose?
"Hola?" I hollered into the house. "Permiso, estoy buscando pollo. Es este la casa correcta?" A young woman came out from the kitchen, confirmed that I had found the right house, and asked me how much I wanted. ”Sólo necesito…” Crap, I thought to myself, I should have looked up how to say chicken breast before I left. I’m pretty sure it isn’t teta. ”Umm…, esta parte,” I said, pointing at my chest. When in doubt, acting is always the way to go. She chuckled, and then pulled a whole chicken out of the fridge behind her. She held it up by one leg over the sink and hacked it in half so that the top part plopped into the sink. She then threw it into a black plastic bag and handed it to me. "$3.50."
Back at home, I examined the carcass. This is a long throw from the nice packaged clean chicken breast I would buy in StopandShop. Despite the woman having pulled it from a fridge, and chicken is room temperature, even slightly warmer. It must have been killed very recently, and the warmth threw me. It wasn’t meat, it was a chicken. The skin was prickly, the pores still clinging to the remnants of feathers, and the skin didn’t feel like the mush chicken skin you pull off your drumsticks, it felt like…skin. I pulled out my sharpest knife and had at it. Butchering an animal is a quick way to get intimate with the fact that your food was once an animal. As I separated the wings from the body, I squeezed and pulled at the appendage while jabbing the knife into the body, trying to find the joint between the wing bone and the shoulder. The wing was not flexible, and it felt like the bird was trying to fight with me. Eventually I found it and carefully cut through tendons and there was a crunch sound as I pulled the wing away. I think of a shoulder dislocating. Being very fresh, there was more blood then I had expected, and I had to constantly stopped to wash it off. Cutting the breast meat off the ribcage was also an unexpected challenge. I wanted to get as much meat off as possible and rib bones kept slipping to the wrong side of my knife. At one moment I was holding the bird by the neck to steady it, and suddenly found myself with something mealy and yellow in my hand. I quickly realized that I had squeezed the partially digested corn that the chicken had last ate from end of it’s severed esophagus. Unlike with the shrimp, it did not smell bad, so as gross as it was, I held it together. I ran to the sink, to not only clean the whole bird again, but to find the rest of the gullet and squeeze out whatever else was left in it.
I have never been a vegetarian, and one of the beliefs I’ve always had is that there’s nothing wrong with eating meat as long as one truly understands that they are animals and not just some food product that you find in a store. Part of what makes American food so American is our tendency to package it, clean it up, sterilize it, and refrigerate it. I have met many many people who didn’t know that peanuts grow underground, or that a tuna is an enormous fish. I learned at 9 years old about pork, when my uncles in Tonga slaughtered all the piglets that I had named and played with for 3 months for a feast held for me before I left to go back to States. As shocked and tearful as I had been at the time, I still ate them, and they tasted delicious. The natural state of all the things I bought yesterday meant that dinner took me about 4 hours of preparation and cooking. And maybe because of localness, freshness, and lack of processing, or maybe just because of all the stains, cuts, time, and gross surprises I experienced, it tasted better than anything I’ve ever cooked before.
People are complaining about the weather. The sun spends the day tucked away behind a smoky gray sky. Somedays we are just spritzed with a cool spray of mist coming down throughout the day. The sky is too lazy to rain, and instead gives us one long continuous sneeze. The tourists are grumpy. I love it. They weren’t here a few months ago. The air used to be heavy with moisture; the sun bore down on the back of your neck like a damp towel that’s been thrown in the microwave before being draped over your shoulders. I eventually adjusted to the heat, allowing it to wash over me and sink into my skin. People pay to sit in little wooden rooms like this, so really it’s a pretty good deal. It was all-torrential rains that would cause floods in the house, punctuated the sunny days that would then soak all that water back into the air the following morning when the sun would return and morph the ether into a giant sponge. Now the days are in the 70ºs to 80ºs as oppose to the 80ºs to 90ºs, and I have greeted the change gleefully by dusting off my knitting needles.
My quest for yarn has become an obsession. While in the States I would splurge on beautiful hand spun alpaca from Ecuador and Peru (sometimes more than $20 for one skein), it turns out that like coffee and chocolate, just because this country exports the raw high quality material does not mean that I can find a decent cup, a decent chocolate bar, or a skein or two. All the llamas, goats, and sheep are hiding up in the Sierras, far from my tropical coastal paradise, and keeping their fur to themselves.
I am skulking through the streets of Libertad. All I find is cotton. Fine, it’s probably too hot for animal fibers anyways, but the colors are shocking. Pepto pink, electric neon oranges, greens that make me think of nuclear power plants or energy drinks. If my plan was to knit bicycle jerseys, or decorations for a warehouse rave I would be right at home. Every store has the same cotton acid rainbow, and I spend hours digging through bins, and annoying store clerks. After several hours of searching, I find a few acceptable shades, make my purchases and hop back on the bus to Manglaralto.
This bus trip has become a standard weekly/monthly expedition. Among the things that I either cannot find or that are ridiculously over priced in my village: razors, shampoo, make-up, clothes, shoes, bathing suits, towels, lotion, real butter, pasta, any cheese other than queso fresco, books, furniture, post offices, movie theaters, libraries, yarn, buttons, etc…
Though I do not live on an island, the coast is like a blanket, enveloping its inhabitants in a mental, physical, and economic insulating wall from the world. I cannot buy a ball of yarn without taking an hour long bus ride, I cannot learn about Amy Winehouse’s death or know what Michelle Bachmann is up to without a 30 min walk and then trying to infer on facebook. I haven’t seen any of the latest movies, or know what albums my favorite artists have released. I’m sure Apple has come out with some new amazing and magical tool of distraction for me to covet that I do not know about, but honestly, I’m okay with it. I’ll take the blanket. In fact, I’ll help knit it.
I arrive at the hotel and am greeted with a big fat stereotype. Actually a group of them standing around in a lux open air lobby, looking eager but slightly frightened with their cameras in hand. I don’t have to hear them talk to know they are American. The cloths are the give away. Germans also send a lot of older plump tourists, pockets swollen with cash, sunburnt noses, gawking about with both appreciation of their surroundings, and with the judgmental lenses of a people who see the world as being centered on them. But the Americans just look so American.
I duck past before they can see me and look for the manager. Hola Señora, muchos gracias por la propuesta, pero no estoy segura de mi español es suficiente para esto. ”Nonsense! I hear you right now,” she replys. “You’ll be fine. Please, don’t worry, you can do it, I need you to do it. Jefferson gave me your name and honestly I don’t have anyone else.” She hands me a bag of snacks and water, an envelope of money, gives me a 2 minute description of how to fill out very complicated invoice form, and walks away. The “winging it” begins.
The tourists smell like money. It’s strange, they aren’t wearing designer cloths or carrying fancy cameras, but somehow, living with poor people, and being poor in a poor pueblo in a poor country for over 6 months has given me new olfactory receptors. I ask them were they’re from. Westbury, NY on Long Island (check). I ask them what they do. 1 lawyer, 1 regional head of Cigna Medical Insurance Company, 1 long tenured LI high school teacher (check, check, and check). As I process this information I’m disgusted with my own mercurial thoughts. Why are you judging these people April, you grew up with these people. You had a pretty privileged childhood, you went to private school, you grew up in New York, you lived on Long Island for the last couple years godssake! My jump to an us-vrs-them view shames me. I overhear the women talking about how the factory she in her husband own in New Jersey hires tons of Ecuadoreans laborers and so they understand these people. “Ecuadoreans are such hard workers and we help them so much that I just love that we can see where all those people come from.” The rest of the group nods vigorously at this idiotic blanket statement about an entire culture. I think about my friends here and the way that the Ecuadoreans that I knew in Long Island lived. I don’t feel guilty anymore.
We all load into two taxis and set out towards Agua Blanca. I ask the driver questions about the the things we pass and translate for the tourists. I know very little tour-guidey information, so I just talk about what I know. I tell them about the recent tsunami and it’s impact, about the shrimp lab nurseries and how they salinize the land to the point of complete destruction so that guilty Americans can eat seafood that won’t lead to overfishing, about the tuna canneries that dump refuse back into the ocean and the blind eye that the government turns when the villagers beg them to take action, about the lack of social security system or Medicare that leaves old widows begging for change in the street of the big cities to survive. I talk about the warm generous culture, the way people look out for eachother, about the way that the Pacific looks at midnight when the sky is full of stars, the horizon dotted with the lights of a hundred fishing boats and the sand sparkling with phosphorescent plankton. I tell them how beautiful it is, and how ugly it can be. They talk about how president Obama being an idiot, liberals being the cause of all poverty, and how high income tax is. I bite my tongue. They ask over and over again, why I’m here, and I try to explain about the joys of teaching to people who really need and want it, even if it forces me to take a day job translating for tourists. I think maybe the teacher will get it. She doesn’t. They ask me about what TV shows I watch and I tell them I never had TV, even in the States. “I read the New York Times and listened to NPR,” I tell them. “Uh oh guys, she’s one of those,” they say knowingly. “I stopped reading the New York Times when I stopped being able to tell the difference between the news and the op-eds,” says the Health Insurance guy. I try to keep my face expressionless and ask what he prefers. “We watch Fox news.” I cannot hold in a snort and try to pass it off as a cough. It’s too much, I cannot say nothing. “Speaking of not being able to tell between news and opinions,” I say under my breath. He hears me and starts listing off all the wonderful “journalists” that work for Fox news. I realize this person is me, we are from the same country, same socio-economic class, same state, same area of the state even, we went to the same types of colleges. We are both children of immigrants who worked hard for the American dream. But more separates him and me than age, continents, life experiences, and politics. And can I say who is better? After all, isn’t this man successful and wealthy while I’m getting paid to make his vacation a bit more comfortable. But even so, I don’t think I was wrong in sensing a hint of envy on his part. There are worlds between us.
We go to Salangos for lunch and little children run up to the car and knock on the windows and make faces. I laugh and roll down the window. ¿Que quieres chiquito? He giggles shyly and runs away. The woman in the back seat sighs melodramaticly. “It’s so sad, it’s just so sad.” Her husband the insurance guy nods seriously and says “It’s just not a good system.” I’m confused for a moment until I realize that they think the kids were begging for money. They were not. They just thought the chubby white tourists in the cars looked funny and were goofing around. I think about explaining that in these smaller villages families take care of each other and even if their parents were poor the kids are definitely fine. They are probably getting more love and attention from more people then their own children in America did, and they are definitely not going hungry. The kids didn’t once put a hand out or ask for anything, and I wonder why the two of them would jump to the conclusion that they were beggers. One kid was waving and mashing his nose against the glass the way that kids like to do, clearly playing. How was that not obvious? Then I remember that to a wealthy couple from Westbury it’s possible that any kid in a third world country with bare feet and dusty clothes running around in the street probably looks like he’s from one of those “Save a Child” commercials on TV. I decide to let them think what they want to think. Apparently when I gained those extra olfactory receptors, I lost a certain set of lenses that warp the way people look at the world outside there own.
We get back to their hotel and they all give me big hugs and thank me for everything. The lawyer presses a ridiculously large tip into my hand. I gawk at the money and try to hand 2/3s of it back to him, saying it was too much for what I did. He insists. After they leave, I smile to myself, feeling the loot in my pocket, until I realize that while based on how much my rent costs, the tip was the equivalent of being handed about $700 in the New York, it was actually $60. I had been so overwhelmed that I tried to give $40 back to a big shot Long Island lawyer. I think about how quickly I used to earn and spend $60 back the States. The hotel manager hands me my pay for the day and it brings my haul up to $85. I feel rich. “How did things go?” she asks me. I smile and tell her the truth. “Really well,” I say. “I learned a lot. It was a really good day.”
There is a war waging. My enemies and I are ferocious, cruel and unremitting. As many battles as I win, as many battalions I slaughter, they never relent. They throw their bodies against my defenses. But I am bloodthirsty. I am pitiless. And this is war.
In the morning, when I stumble around the kitchen cooking my eggs, I rely solely on melee armaments. Though crude, my hands are the military hardware of the hour. As I strike out at my victims, I’m filled morbid excitement, killing one, sometimes two little harbingers of inflammation at a time. I search my palms for their crushed little bodies and cackle gleefully when I discover another corpse. I spot a smear of my own blood and am satisfied that I have exacted my revenge. But as time passes, the news of the exposed flesh filled with my bloody nectar passes through their ranks, and their dead brethren are replaced ten fold. I cannot keep up! What are my two clubs of death against the flood of hundreds of little stinging needles, searching for a patch of skin in which to sink? A back of a knee; A shoulder; A shirt that defies my orders by sliding up and exposing a strip of my lower back. The moment that my vigilant watch is focused on one front, they flank me and attack from other. I flail dumbly. I am the cow in a river infested with a school of razor little teeth.
I try to outmaneuver my enemy, shuffling a strange little dance while scooping maracuya for my morning juice. I know my enemies’ limitations. They are unable to land on a moving target. So we salsa together, the swarm and I, we saunter gracefully across the kitchen floor. I lead and they follow. But they know my limitations as well. Like guerillas, they bide their time until I stop to tend to my eggs, or fumble with my coffee, or clean my dishes, and then silently slip past my watchmen and pillage my flesh. Moments pass before I know I’ve been had, before the consequences of their raids are noticed. And though my counterattack is fierce, the damage has already been done. This time the smear of blood on my weaponry is a scarlet letter, announcing to all who see that I have been shamed once again.
I can no longer rely on melee. This war is on. I run to the closet and dig out the chemical weaponry. A brittle green coil is introduced to the clash. I smirk maniacally at the swarm. I light my newest weapon and the sickly sweet smoke curls mischievously from its tip. Hah! Breathe this in you heinous little monsters! Come near if you dare! I defy you to get to me now! But the enemy is a devious one. They play the long game. As I sit curled on the couch, preparing my lessons, knitting, reading a book, protected in the fog of toxic fumes, I am lost in other thoughts. The sweet period of relief dangerously tempers my mind. My vigilance slacks. I am soft. I begin to forget that I’m at war. But they do not forget. The fiends lay in wait on the periphery, watching the coil get smaller and smaller, watching for the moment when their siege will bear fruit, when my supplies will run dry, and I am once again naked to their barrage. The moment comes, and I am unprepared. I pay for my distraction with my blood.
I prepare myself for the continuing war before I leave the house. It is just one battlefield and this morning is just one battle. My enemy is everywhere. I fortify my defenses, drenching myself in chemicals, which make me gag and sneeze, and the polish melt off my toenails. My discomfort and destroyed adornments matter not. This is a war. Libraries, museums, priceless works of art have been destroyed in the waging of war. Do not, my enemy, think for a moment, that I am not willing to sacrifice my pedicure and my sinuses if it means triumph. The strength of this chemical blockade is woefully limited. In a matter of hours I have regressed to the prehistoric melee weapons of my ancestors, and am striking out with my hands. I snatch them from the air. I crush them between my palms. I let them think they have me, and smash them into the very flesh they are attempting to violate. I leave a trail of the bodies of fallen foes in my wake, across the village, along the beaches, in the classrooms where I teach. But it is not all victory. The ones I kill serve as a distraction as their compatriots feast upon me. They are martyrs for their cause. My body is on fire. They do not just steal my blood, they leave a bit a poison beneath my skin that inflames and burns and eats away my sanity. With every welt they spit in my eye, they rub my nose in my misstep. I accumulate more and more swollen lumps throughout the day, each a malevolent and infuriating testament to my failure.
It is night, and with it, the sweet relief from the violence of the day. My bed is a fortress; a bubble; it’s the “Star Wars” missile defense system in the dreams of American Republican presidents of old. The net is first positioned and the edges tucked beneath the mattress. The resulting safe zone created is then meticulously scrutinized, and any stray militant who dared to sneak his way in during the procedure, is deftly executed. I nestle into the security of my enclosed refuge. Calm. Peace. Bliss. The silence of the night settles in. But as the world gets quieter, another sound rises. A humm, a buzz, but not one commando stealing past the barrier, it’s a more distant chorus, a discordant orchestra of a thousand tiny violins. At first I thought it was a ringing in my ears, but no! The eeeeeeeeeee morphs into a malevolent warning. We’ll be here in the morning, it whispers. The slit of light from the bathroom reveals tiny little bodies carpeting the outside of the net around me. I can hear their hunger, their craving. They are waiting sleeplessly, biding their time. The menacing concert swells. You can’t stay in there forever, they sing to me. Tomorrow is another dayeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
It is true that my grasp of your language is still rudimentary. My fluency has far outstripped my grasp of grammar and the range of my vocabulary, lending my ability to communicate an extremely bizarre but enthusiastic style. I know this. But please, Sir or Madam, do not for a moment mistake my infantile sentence structures and awkward pronunciations as an indication of my general intelligence. I am not an idiot. I am not in fact, incapable of comprehending what is going on, and being said around me. I may not grasp every individual word, but I understand a high enough percentage that combined with a functioning grasp of body language and tone, I am quite aware of what you are attempting to communicate. I assure you, that my inability to express myself in the fashion that I am accustomed is far more frustrating to me and my effusive personality, then it is to you, who are unaware of this verbose, English-dependent side of me.
Woman from the tienda with the good bread: You seem like a very sweet old lady, but there is no need to speak at a higher volume when I ask you if you could repeat something. I understand that this is a natural tendency for people of all language backgrounds when talking to a non-fluent person, such as I, but it is irritating and unnecessary. I only missed whether you said sesenta or setenta centavos. If you stopped projecting your voice across the room like a soprano and thought about it, you would probably agree that the two words are very similar and that even if I was completely fluent, would probably have needed repeating due to your lack of a full set of teeth.
Man lurking around at my favorite bar last Wednesday: My rebuffing of your advances was an indication of my lack of interest in associating with you or continuing to feign any interest in what you were saying. It was not an indication of any lack of understanding of your entreaties. I am in fact completely aware of what the colloquial usage of muñeca is and was not in need of further synonyms. The look I shot you was of exasperation and irritation, not one of query. In the spirit of slang and the exchange of language, let me offer you an appropriate anecdote. I recently taught some friends of mine the modern colloquialisms “tool” and “douchbag” as acceptable modes of insult that an American target of our age bracket would understand, always useful when wishing to avoid the more usual, vulgar, four letter varieties and their derivations. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Friend whom I helped home: It is true, I did say no te entiendo, but that was in reference to not understanding why you would think trés botellas de tequila is a reasonable explanation, not a reference to my lack of understanding of those particular words. I’m aware of your delusions that being latina allows you to drink tequila without consequences, but there are some serious flaws in your logic. For starters, tequila is Mexican and you are Ecuadorian. Then there’s the fact that you are woman, a small one at that, and while you and two of your friends do indeed equal three people, that should not lead you to conclude that each needs their own bottle. These are the things that I did not understand. My Spanish may be basic, but I didn’t have any trouble with the words themselves. Lets break it down. There’s trés. So far so good, I think anyone who’s watched even 10 minutes of Sesame Street would get that one. Then botella, which is not only remarkable similar to the word bottle, but in context of the next two words, becomes incredibly clear in the case that one happened to be thrown by the “ll” pronunciation. Yes, and then the final and keyword in the statement. Tequila. Yeah, I won’t be needing I dictionary for that one.
My students: Luckily for y’all, I actually like you and have a sense of humor, so am not actually offended by your teasing. But do wish to point out a few little things. Previous to arriving in this country, I had half-assed my way through a couple semesters of Introductory Spanish, which I promptly forgot all of in the 2 years that followed. What that means is that really, the only Spanish that I can actually speak right now was learned haphazardly, through emersion, occasional access to someone else’s dictionary, and google searches on what the hell the difference between para and por is, since no one here can explain it to me. Now, y’all are at the college level, taking an “advanced” Conversation class after what was, I can safely assume, years of English classes all throughout school starting when you were very young. Yes, it was very amusing when I said jamón instead of jabón. I myself couldn’t help laughing at the image of me rubbing ham all over my hands and wondering why they weren’t getting clean. Yeah, it was funny. And I’m sure I will continue to amuse you as the class continues. Just remember dear students, that the only reason I was miming washing my hands while saying jamón in the first place is because y’all didn’t know the difference between “soap” and “soup.”
Love and Regards
Abril (no, no cometí un error, yo sé que estoy deciendo. Abril como el mes)
Whatcha you gonna to write about today? What do you think people will want to read?
I’m not sure. I guess I could tell people what I´ve done so far today. Umm, I made myself breakfast. I listened to some podcasts and knit a new hat. Umm, then I tried to make another dent in War and Peace, and made it through a few more chapters. Let’s see, then I prepped for my classes, made a new game to practice the order of adjectives and put together some worksheets. Then I packed up my laptop and walked about thirty minutes from the village to the town on the beach so I could get some Internet.
That would be a seriously lame post.
Yeah, well, I usually try to flesh things out a little more than that and drop the colloquialisms.
What’s the deal with blogging anyways? Isn’t it a kinda self-important, hipster, la-de-da-look-at-me sorta thing to do?
I guess so. But I’m trying to avoid the “Ooo I’m so different and changed in ways yall can’t even understand” thing some people do. I’m sure I’ve slipped and been a bit insufferable at times, (my last post, for example, was a little self-aggrandizing,) but I’m trying to just share experiences with people who can’t be here with me and are too expensive to call on the phone. With as little self-adulation about change and as few cheesy re-birth similes as possible. I mean isn’t that part of the beauty of reading and writing? The relationship created, the possibility of sharing a moment or eliciting a feeling?
Come on, it’s really no more than a public diary. What makes you think people actually wanna read your hippy-dippy anecdotes?
They might not. But I also love writing these. It keeps things fresh.
I don’t know. It’s just so easy to start taking a place for granted. I don’t want to start geting accustomed to all the things that used to be new and different. If I’m writing about what happens to me, and I want it to be somewhat interesting to other people, I try to think about my day from the perspective of its being new, if that makes any sense.
No. Not really.
Ok, here’s an example. Today I walked to town for wifi. I’ve done this every few days for a while now. An acclimated April would think about it as a routine walk to town. But since I’m thinking about moments to share, it doesn’t feel routine. On the way, I see little herd of horses, 4 actually, that like to wander the beach. There’s a younger one that is bigger now then when I first saw him. The group is a dark rich chocolate, almost black, and when they see me coming, they start to run together as a group, the smaller one in the center. Their hooves make a low thumping sound as they beat the packed sand, and it seems like I can feel the thumps run through the ground and up into my legs as well. The image of them running together on an empty beach is literally breathtaking, I actually hold my breath for a moment, and suddenly, I feel like a little girl who’s watched too many cartoons. I have the urge to chase them down right there and braid flowers in their manes, and then be crowded by a flock of twittering birds, and we’ll all splash together in the ocean with Sebastian the crab. Whatever. You know that feeling I’m talking about. I might have just thought, oh, that was nice, and forgotten about it, because, well, I’ve seen them before, and I know I’ll see them again. The thing is, even if I never actually it, writing in general helps me think about these moments through the eyes of people who are not here with me and who haven’t seen them before. It keeps me appreciating what’s around me.
Well, that’s all very nice, but couldn’t you just post some pictures on Facebook and be done with it?
I could. But I’ve gotten into the very bad habit of only taking a camera with me when there’s an event, like a party or a trip. It’s partially because I forget, and partially because I don’t want to look like a tourist. Unfortunately, it means I always have pics of people dancing or whatever, but I miss the little moments in the day that make it special and different. I’ve never had a camera on me when I see the horses for instance, because I’m always in transit to something trivial. Or, when I see this little girl, probably about 10, pedaling through the village on a bicycle made for a large adult male. She’s so small that not only can she not reach the seat, her legs are too short for her to stand on the pedals and allow her crotch to clear the frame. She shifts her entire body off to the side to push one pedal down, the other leg bent out, her inner thigh by her knee resting on the frame, her foot poised in the air, like a dancer stretching on a ballet bar. Then she slides herself over until she is in the same position on the other leg. She does this fluidly, without banging her public bone on the bike frame, or wobbling all over the road. Meanwhile, her little brother is sitting on the seat behind her holding her around the neck. It is amazing. I see her almost everyday, and I could start to be like, whatever, it’s just that crazy bike girl and her brother again. But in New York, my head would probably explode if I saw that. Writing about it, and even thinking about writing about it, keeps me in awe every time I see her.
So, you write this because you take things for granted so much that you can’t notice the beauty of life any other way, and because you’re too lazy or vain to carry a camera with you?
Umm, I guess, but also because it’s rewarding. Even if not a single person reads anything I write, I’d probably still do it. I need an outlet. Especially after reading something new. I get the urge to throw everything in my head onto the screen, letting myself be led by whatever new style of writing has just inspired me. When I don’t, my brain gets constipated. There’s pressure and discomfort and eventually it’s gotta come out. I don’t really care if it stinks or not.
That is really disgusting.
Sorry. It’s a gross metaphor, but hey. There’s this short story called Boys by Rick Moody, and every sentences start with “Boys enter the house…”, super simple, until the very end when the climax is punctuated by the change in that pattern. So, I experimented with limiting the verb tenses and sentence structures, only changing it to make a point. It was fun, and that post came out pretty good.
What, you think you’re some kinda hot s*** for that? You clearly didn’t think of it first.
Well no, but I’m trying to pay homage to a literary structure that I admire while expressing my own ideas and putting my own twist. For example, I little while ago, I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Geniusby Dave Eggers. There was this one chapter, honestly it lost my attention a bit, but it had a crafty execution that I wanted to try out. He takes an experience he had getting vetted for a season of Real World, and uses the interview format to present episodes important to development of the character but that couldn’t make a whole chapter, or that don’t fit neatly into the narrative. Nice, simple, clever. I thought, why not give it a shot.
So, not only is this not a real conversation, but you are also freely admitting, that the whole idea for this blog post is ripped off from a book you read?
No! Sort of. Like in the book, the other voice is an opportunity for amusing self-awareness and as a catalyst for little stories to unfold that would be awkward by themselves: The horses on the beach, the little girl on the bike, a brief run down of a typical morning. My twist is that the format also gives me an opportunity face my own demons. I created not an interviewer, but a sarcastic and derisive critic who embodies all the negativity that my insecure side imagines people are thinking when they read what I write, and thus providing my confident side with the opportunity to justify and defend herself against said critic. I get to be simultaneously self-deprecating and defiant. I get to air my anxieties about putting myself out there creatively, and then own it and tell that critic to bite me.
Whatever. The skinny is that you are “inspired by”(*cough*steal*) ideas from writers who are smarter then you and rehash them in a “blog.” Lame.
1. Bronx, New York (~4 years) - Cement, and a solitary swing outside our apartment complex. A boy named Aaron is mad at me because I can’t cut in straight lines. Curled up on a mat on the floor at daycare pretending to be asleep. The lady who ran the daycare will murder me if she finds me awake. Another woman (Lorraine?) with two older children take care of me while my parents are at school. I play in the gravel next to the Expressway while she works. The cars are swooshing by in blurs and the smell of roasting meat from her hotdog stand is intoxicating. Rainbow Bright is the rage.
2. Somewhere in Connecticut (~2 years) - Another swing set and this time a slide! A paddling pool, Toafa’s naked little body darting past us all and creating an explosion of water as he launches himself. There is a building with a washing machine and a dryer. Mom chats with another woman while I put my hands on the dryer and feel the buzz and the warmth. Disney is the rage.
3. Kittery, Maine (4 years) - The seasons are dazzling. Lush green summers, crystalline winters with snow drifts so deep, I climb a tree as high as I can and jump. Stoney beaches and barbecued chicken. No kindergarden. I tried, but I wasn’t allowed to draw. The teacher only let me connect the dots. I drop out of kindergarden and move to a new school. I draw all the pictures I want. I read The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Books are like air, like water, like food. I fall in love Roald Dahl and Norton Juster. We spend our lunches digging up and eating unknown roots and making daisy chains longer than our bodies. Origami is the rage.
4. Lowman, New York (2 years) - The smell of dairy farms, and deep valleys with clouds sliding their shadows across the hills. I don’t like playing house, and join the war in the woods behind the school with the boys, beating each other with sticks, making tunnels through the bushes to the enemy side. The girls and I make plans and lists, and decide who we are going to kiss, but never do. Pogs are the rage.
5. Hyde Park, New York (6 years) - Our own house! My brothers and I make a submarine in the barn. I build a treehouse in a ~30 foot tree over a cliff. Dad uses a rope to tie me to the tree in case I slip, and we nail the first main support beam into the trunk. I wonder if it will hurt to dangle from the tree by my waist, and decide against falling on purpose to find out. Montessori made everyone feel we were at the same level, and for the first time I find out I’m really good at some things. Days filled with school musicals, soccer games, piano lessons. High school is a waiting game. Learning to drive. Crushes. Late nights. Camping. Jobs. Movies. AP classes. Studying. Studying. Studying. It’s not enough. 4 more years, 3 more years, 2 more years, 1 more year, and then…
6. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania (1 year) - College! I get into the college because I’m smart, and quickly discover everyone else is there because they’re smart too. My self-importance bubble bursts. My egotism, and my motivation wanes. I start to think about the rest of my life. Why am I here? Do I want to live this rat race? College -> Grad School -> Work -> Work -> Work. But, I need to see more, do more, live more. It’s not enough. I fall in love, and decide to chase the dream and see where it’ll take me. If I don’t, I could spend the rest of my life thinking “what if.” No “what ifs.” I pack my life into the back of a car and start driving.
7. El Paso, Texas (2 years) - The dream takes me to the real world. We are alone, but we build a new life. Everything is fresh, everything is experimentation and excitement. I drive up to the top of the mountains and watch the desert stretch for miles until it melts into the sky. We are crazy in love, crazy in life, and we make it legal. It’s an adventure. Then the crazy part starts to take over. Long hours, longer nights. It’s still a rat race. It’s not enough. It’s time to finish school. No “what ifs.” I pack my life into the back of a car and start driving.
8-13. Long Island, New York (3 years) - Academia is beautiful. I feel parts of my brain come alive that had been sleeping for 2 years. But it turns out we don’t have the same dreams. We decide to keep chasing in different directions. We make it legal. University classes excite my mind and I fall in love again. The adventure continues. Days are full of learning, family, friends and love. I’m taken into the arms of two beautiful women, a beautiful boyfriend, and his beautiful family. Sunsets on the Sound. Festivals and midnight campfires. Music, parties, and microbrew beer. Commiseration and success. But I’m still dreaming. I move, and change, and evolve. I graduate and start working. I live in 6 different towns in 3 years. It’s not enough. It’s time to see the world and see where the dream will take me. No “what ifs.” I pack my life into a backpack and buy a plane ticket.
14-17. Guayas, Ecuador (7 months and counting) - Three jobs and four cities so far. I fall in love with as many things as I can. Villages, beaches, language, teaching, and people. I find a home. Teaching is the elixir of life. I can go into class feeling threadbare and worn, and emerge vibrating with energy. It is possible that tomorrow it will not be enough, but today, it is.
Ivonne and I are walking to the street to catch a bus north. My bag is ready. Towel, sarong, classwork, camera, War and Peace, wallet, copy of my passport. My favorite red and orange bikini is peeking out from under a slouchy white tank. Ivonne is in her usual cool surfer girl look. She is carrying a beautiful new surfboard which, while it is actully very small, is dwarfing her tiny 4’ something frame. Short shorts over muscular brown legs, a over-sized tee shirt tumbling over her shoulders revealing her green and blue Reef, and her long shiny black hair twisted around and around into a bun on the top of her head, like a tiny lean little sumo wrestler. We look bad-ass.
We wait in the shade for our bus. Ivonne teaches Spanish to extranjeros at a local school, but in spite of this fact, she makes no attempt to slow her rapid chatty speech, or grade the slang out of the conversation for me. I appreciate this faith in my abilities, but am sure that my face is scrunched into some strange, probably pained expression as I focus in and try to keep up. I have been told by people who watch me read, or knit, or play piano, that my “I’m focused” look is deeply concerned and slightly angry. I try to relax my face.
The bus arrives. "Tome! Tome!" The driver’s helper guy grabs Ivonne’s board and tosses it on the dashboard in front of the driver. She grimices and starts scolding him. ”¡Verga! ¿Quieres comprar una nueva para mi chico?” He shrugs. He looks to be in his mid to late twenties, tall for an Ecuadorean, with a disgruntled expression on his face. He then makes the mistake of trying to charge Ivonne more then the standard $1.50. "¡¿Crees que nos puedas cobrar más porque somos chicas?!" I watch her tiny little body get bigger and bigger until she seems to be towering over the man. His sour look changes as his eyes get wide, he mumbles something and hands Ivonne the rest of her change.
The bus is full, so we sit on a raised area next to driver, near the stick shift. The disgruntled bus employee glaces sulkily at us every time he passes. My feet are resting on a stack of crates that are emanating a strange musky smell and a chorus of little cheeping noises. I direct a puzzled look at Ivonne. "Pollitos." I move my feet. There is an old woman sitting next to a young woman, who is clearly her daughter. I try not to stare at them. I love looking at the faces and bodies of parents with their children. Looking for the nose and the way their bellies poke out in the same way. They have the same exact pinkie toe. I don’t feel bad though, because I catch the younger woman starting at me too, looking confused. I know the look and can hear her thought process. She’s latina, but where from? Not Ecuadorean, her hair’s too curly, the bone structure’s off. Argentinian maybe? Columbian? Wait, now she’s taking. There is no way. Where the hell is that accent from? Maybe she’s not latina.This thought process has been said out loud to me, in a kind of stream of consciousness form, by a very stoned Argentinian selling quartz crystals and handmade bracelets on the street. And it was not so different in the United States, though the guesses would range farther then South American countries. Are you Greek? Italian? Filipino? Mexican? Is there some Middle Eastern in there? Notice how Mexico usually covered all the Latin American guesses. (These guess are all incorrect by the way.)
The bus goes twisting and turning up into thickly forested (jungled?) mountains, the driver taking the turns like he’s doing one of those crazy car race rallies they do in England, and I feel my stomach drop and rise like I’m on a roller coaster. The little chicks in the crates are not happy. We come around a turn and the trees open up. I can see down through a valley to the beach which is our final destination. The tide low, very low, and sand looks like it stretches out for miles. The waves, from this distance, look like little white lines drawn around the shore in the blue, like a the ones a comicstrip artist might draw around a person to indicate shivering. There is an island with two large rock formations poised out in the water. They look alien, like someone plucked them out of the desert the set them down on this far away ocean. I wonder if they are confused by their sudden abduction. The birds, the rain, the flowers and trees, all so strange to the desert dwellers, but at least the heat is a reminder of home. As we move along, the opening in the trees snaps closed. No, they say, If we let you watch the way, it wouldn’t be foreshadowing, would it? It would just be the view.
7 hours later I am on the bus again. My hair is briny and my nose is getting redder and redder as the burn starts to settle in. The entire front of my body is bruised, from the tops of my feet, to my forehead. Muscles that I haven’t used in years are screaming to me for pity. The sensations in my body constrast beautifully with how I am feeling. Fresh fruit, watermelon seed fights, fighting against waves, flying with waves, standing on waves, laying in the sand, reading in the sand, reading War and Peace, using War and Peace as a pillow, the sun and therefore the shade moving while asleep, waking up a different color, cool salty water against unintentionally toasted skin, toasted plantanes, ceviche. Next to me, Ivonne is passed out against the window breathing heavily. I look past her through the window. I wait for the same opening that earlier, had promised me this day. There it was. The waves make the coastline shiver and the marooned desert stones gaze sadly out to sea. Except this time, with a red sun sliding down through an orange purple sky.
Hello Señora I’m so excited about working for the University, I’ve been looking for a job like this since I’ve been here. Thank you, I hope so too. You want me to meet you on Friday to pickup the materials? Of course, I can do that. At 11? Wonderful, see you then…
Hello, I have an appointment. Yes right now. What do you mean she’s not here? I have to teach a class on Monday, I don’t even know what level the students are! Conversational? Ok that’s a start, but I need the text book and I don’t know what building the class is in. Hmmm, that’s an interesting suggestion, but I’d rather not just wander around asking people, if that could be at all avoided. You want me to what?! Ask one of them for the book?! You want me to show up for my first day of work, having only the vaguest idea of their level, ask one of the students for the textbook, and make up a 2 hour lesson plan on the spot? Have you ever taught before? I didn’t think so. Look, just give me her phone number I’ll come back on Monday. No I will not wait until she come back, that’s five hours from now! Can you just give me her number? I’ll come back Monday…
Hello I’m back. La señora said she’d be here. You have got to be kidding me. Look this is a 1 hour bus ride for me each way, I live in Manglaralto. Yes right by the other campus, that’s where I’m going to be working. Why would she tell me to come here at this time if she had another meeting? Ok well, my class is tonight so I’ll wait…
Hola señora. Yes, I guess there was a mix up. Yes, you secretary told me Conversational, but that’s a pretty broad term. No more details huh. Okay, okay, well I can get an idea of where they should be at from the textbook. Oh, so you don’t have it. Jorge has it. Well, who’s Jorge? Okay, well where’s Jorge? He’ll be around a little later? What is a little later? Like a little later, or Ecuadorean a little later? You don’t know. Fine, fine, that’s cool. No I’m not worried at all, not at all. What’s there to worry about, I just have to teach a brand new class I know nothing about today with nothing to go on, but I guess I can figure it out. Oh that’s Jorge? I agree, this is lucky. I’d say I’m pretty lucky. It’s a good thing you have this great system in place. Yeah, the Hope the guy with the materials just happens to wander by the office when the new teacher needs them to teach a class in a few hours system seemed to have worked out really well. Yup, I’m good now, thanks. And the classroom? You don’t know. Fine I’ll figure it out, it’s the smaller local campus anyways, they’re can’t be too many buildings to wander through…
Hola, chico, sabes donde es la oficina? Gracias. Sí, soy una nueva profesora. Íngles. Gracias … Hello? Is this the main office? Yes, I’m the new English Professor here, they sent from the main campus in Santa Elena. Yes, it is a lot bigger then this one, but I like this one. No, the thatch roofs and bamboo walls don’t bother me at all, I actually like it. No they didn’t give me a curriculum, they just told me to get them ready for the big exam. Nope I have no idea where the building is. Thanks. Well, I need to make copies of my materials, I came up with this cool idea for a board game to help them with past participles… No copy machine? At all? at a State University?I had a vague fear that would be the case so I also have everything on this thumb drive. Is there a printer? Well I was told there are about 30 students so I’ll need a copy for each. You can’t? What do you mean, I see the printer right there. It breaks down if you prints more than five sheets in a row huh. Yeah, the humidity. Right, no I get it. Okay, well, what do other teachers do? I met one of the students yesterday and he told me no one was going to buy the book because they can’t afford it. I’m making all the materials myself based on the languge focus on the chapters, I’m going to need a copy machine. Really? Are you sure? Okay, if you say so…
Hello class, my name is April. Yes exactly like the month. Yeah, it is pretty weird, but in the United States it’s a little more common then here. Common. It means normal. That’s new word huh? And this is the Conversational English class right? Umm… Well, chapter one in this book is the Present Perfect Progressive, so, let’s do an experiment. Theoretically you all should be up through the Present Perfect already, at least. While Angelica runs to the cybernet cafe in town to make copies for everyone, - you all gave her five cents, right? - I’m going to write some infinitives on the board. Everyone take a piece paper and write the past simple and the past participle of the verb for me. Thank you. No this is not a test, I just need an idea of where you guys are actually at. Good, okay could you pass them up. Okay. Wow. Okay. Ummm. When was the last English class you all took? Over a year ago! Right… and the teacher’s English was really bad too? And the University knows this? And they put you all in a conversational class? Okay, okay, well guys we have 14 weeks to get you ready for that big exam in Santa Elena so, lets get cracking!
Speak some Spanish Six months ago (has it really been that long!) I came here with one pair of well worn jeans, and promptly ripped them across the back from the crotch, just shy of my left cheek. Being shameless I continued to wear them for about a month and over that month the tear made a slow migration across the back of my thigh until I was forced to either throw them away, or give up all decorum and join the nude hippies sunbathing on the beach. I chose the former. My previous attempts to replace these jeans in Guayaquil ended in failure, since my skills had not been up to par for the amount of haggling that my price range required. Recent complements on my Spanish gave me new courage and I arrived at the market in Libertad with money in my pocket and a mind set for battle.
White April pre-Spanish: “Cuanto cuestas estos?” “$25.” “No, no, por $15.” “No. $25.” “Goddamnit, I’m taking my business elsewhere.” “Que?”
April with Spanish and a tan: “Cuanto cuestas estos?” “$18.” "Locsimo! Mira, son viejos. Los botones no estan eguales! No estamos en San Marino (a high end shopping mall)." “De donde eres negra?” “No hay importa, no tengo mucho dinero chico, estoy una maestra.” “$15.” “Porque estas malo? Por favor.” “$14.” “Deal!” "Que?" Note the difference in initial price, which leads us to my next tip.
Don’t be white, and don’t be shopping with a white person. This was also learned the hard way through experience. Price of a sun dress shopping with the Mississippian: $18. With the Canadian: $15. With the Ecuadorian: $8. Price of standard black leggings with the Canadian: $8. Shopping solo: $3. For more details about the benefits of not being white in Ecuador, see Part One of Travel Tips for Extranjeros.
I’m listening to Sufan Stevens. The pacific is rolling in and out in front of me in it’s comforting way. …all things grow, all things grow… The wind has picked up and there’s a slight chill in the air. The cooler season is upon us. The hammocks are swaying and I smell Javier cooking lunch. Things change and things stay the same.
I returned to New York for a little over a week, and found the people that I loved, some different, some the same. A Tongan luau to celebrate family. Long drives downstate and back. Smiles, tears, and rekindled bonds. The sameness was comforting. The changes made me so proud.
I arrived back in Ecuador to find that my boss had freaked out when his other teachers quit, and replaced me, thinking that I wasn’t coming back. So now I don’t have a job. My two best friends here returned to Texas and Canada. So now I don’t have my extranjera amigas. Not to worry. I have people who care about me, and can stay as long as I need to in Manglaralto while I look for work. Things change…
The music has switched to Elliott Smith. …find some beautiful place to get lost… It’s a strange feeling listening to familiar music in a different context. You have the simultaneous memories of life when you used to listen to it, but with a new layer of meaning that comes from the new life.
I spent most of yesterday in despair over losing an amazing job for reasons I still don’t understand. But today is a new day. I am here to push myself past what’s comfortable. Embracing the unknown is something that I have discovered I am very good at. Now Bright Eyes is playing. …We’ll just have to wait and see…
I didn’t feel right when I woke up on a plane descending over Manhattan today. It was all wrong. The buildings, the trees, the colors. I suddenly had the strange sensation that I was waking up from some kind of dream. I know I didn’t literally dream up the last months in Ecuador, but I got this inexplicable panicked feeling that this was all wrong, and I had to get back before it was too late. Too late for what? I have no idea, but for just a moment I had a completely illogical urge to turn around run back to Ecuador before I was fully awake, and could never get it back. A panic like feeling trapped, only the opposite. Instead of shut in, I felt like I was locked out.
This moment of panic passed, but the strangeness didn’t. The guards in the airport were stern faced and spoke to me sharply, as though I had done something wrong. There was no trash bin for used tp next to the toilet. Oh yeah… I’m suppose to flush it. There were water fountains. The young children behind me on the plane were whining, talking loudly, and complaining. Bizarre and annoying. In one waiting area I noticed 4 different Apple laptops and 2 tablets or e-readers or whatever. I could understand all the little conversations going on around me, and American accents had never seemed so striking before. They almost sounded too American, like they were faking it. Do I sound like that? I’ve only been gone five months, but my brain had shifted what is “normal” to such a degree, that I felt disoriented like I was in a place I’ve never been before.
I snapped out of this once I saw my little brother. He found me, bought me an enormous Five Guys hamburger with cajan fries, a root beer, a slice of white pizza, AND a jumbo candy bar to immediately satisfy most the cravings that I had been having while away, and off we went.
The weird lost feeling came back on the long drive upstate. Why do I feel like here is somehow less then real? Or that there is the part that’s not real. I watched the tall bushy trees flash by me and felt the simultaneous abnormality and normality, which further deepened the odd feeling in my gut. I have never experienced culture shock before, but I imagine that it might be somewhat related too the existential haze I was in. Culture shock in one’s own culture… is that even possible?
When I stepped out of the car in front of my parents house, I was struck by the smell. I remembered arriving in Ecuador at the beginning of that other life and letting the smell wash over me. Let it soothe my anxieties with both its foreignity, and its familiarity, it’s like Tonga, it’s like home, everything will be fine. The Pacific ocean, tropical flowers, and outdoor cooking fires, diesel engines, the warm air, heavy with humidity, relaxing my skin and my muscles. I let New York do the same. A whiff of Lilac, the musk of an Northeastern forest, dew on trimmed lawns, a nearby dairy farm, the brisk spring nighttime air bursting in my lungs like menthol. Everything will be fine, it’s like home. Everything will be fine.
The little changes, the ones that creep up slowly on you are so fun when you finally notice that they’ve been taking place. A house slowly taking shape after watching 2 men working with the most basic tools and materials imaginable for 4 months. It has a roof now! The puppy Cory used to be able to sit on my shoulder and now he’s enormous and still growing. Mi español tambien! Last weekend, I was offered a free seat on the nice bus from Guayaquil to Manglaralto by the drivers who I had been chatting with while waiting for my much smellier, hotter, slower, but cheaper bus to arrive. They let me sit on the little fold out seat in the front when the “co-pilot” usually sits, and in return I was expected to entertain with my gripping conversation for the 3 hour trip. It turned out to be pretty fun. They were bored after driving back and forth all day and appreciated someone with funny accent to break up monotony of the day, and for a free ride in air-conditioning, I was happy to oblige. This is when I finally realized how much my Spanish had improved. About 2 hours in, while eating some ice-cream (a gift from the 3 bus employees) I realized that my spanish was finally good enough to let my personality show through. I wasn’t just communicated information, I was making jokes, and was being sarcastic, and was having a real conversation. This of course had been going on for a while now, but I had only just realized the gradual shift.
Some other changes are big. After living and working in Guayaquil for 2 months, I have let the currents pull me back to the coast once again, and now I’m living in Libertad. The ocean view from malecon sparkles at night with what seems like hundreds of fishing boats with twinkling lights on the horizon. The city is just big enough to have places to explore, and just grungy enough to be interesting. Melissa, Sarah, and I have managed to find a job teaching together at the same school, and we have *gasp* an interactive whiteboard! This is amazing coming from a school, where I was lucky if I could get photocopies and I didn’t even have a tape deck to use for listening exercises.
There have been some sad changes too. Sarah, a partner in crime for 4 months of this Ecuadorean adventure, is returning to Texas, and this has spurred a period of melancholy and self-reflection where I considered the reasons that I am here, and what I hope to gain from this experience. Was the itch that compelled me to leave everyone and everything I know and set out alone into the unknown a passing whim, or something that I committed to? And if I am committed to it, for what reasons and are they the right ones? After several days, I feel reaffirmed in my conviction to see this out. I’m not just here for the sake of a change of scenery, but because I have come to believe that the only way that I can be truly happy is for life to always feel like an adventure. And all the crazy and interesting people I’ve met along the way have only confirmed this for me. I don’t want to ever look back on my life and think that I didn’t try something that I wanted to out of fear of the unfamiliar, or insecurity in my ability to do what I set my mind to. Yes, there are things I could be doing in New York, but I have a home, food in my stomach, amazing friends, a job that makes me feel like I’m making a difference in peoples lives, and everyday is filled with anticipation and excitement.
By Gonzalo Solano, AP, Apr 5, 2011 GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (AP)—Ecuador announced Tuesday the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador, apparently over a 2009 diplomatic cable divulged by WikiLeaks in which the envoy accuses Ecuador’s newly retired police chief of corruption and recommends he be stripped of…
El Presente Perfecto, el Pasado Simple y Empanadas
The girl has taught English: She has taught the present perfect, she has taught the past simple, she has been patient, she has been proud, she has been impressed, she has been frustrated, she has felt like she has accomplished something good.
The girl has lived the city: She has worked hard, she has watched her back, she has admired beautiful things, she has been disgusted with ugly things, she has navigated the concrete jungle, she has mastered the concrete jungle.
The girl left the city: She washed the make-up off her face, she threw away her shoes, she had sand in her hair, she watched the sunset, she spoke in a foreign tongue, she swam, she was a dolphin that could survive inland, but for only a little while.
The girl cooked: She didn’t have much money, but she didn’t need it, she bought a little flour, one egg, a handful of bananas and a piece of cheese, she mixed, she minced, she kneaded, she listened. She didn’t have a rolling-pin, but she didn’t need it, she drank a bottle, she used the bottle. She didn’t have meat, she didn’t have chicken, she didn’t need them, she filled the dough with salty queso, she filled them sticky bananas, she filled them with delicate white onion sprouts.
The girl has returned to the city: She has taught classes, she has watched her back, she has worn make-up and shoes, she has been impressed, she has been disgusted.