Thursday, December 30, 2010

How'd you like to hang your stocking on a great big coconut tree?

Every so often while we’re roaming Quito, a double-long trole bus will rush by, blaring the first and last 14 notes of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s an old, homey song in a very new, foreign setting, and one can’t help but put words to the music: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer / had a very shiny nose / Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer / you’ll go down in history. I sometimes wonder where the rest of the song went, until I remember the music is mostly there to forewarn wayward jaywalking pedestrians, and then the last two lines promptly take on a dark double meaning.

La Navidad in Ecuador’s capital hurtled by as nolens volens as one of those buses; that sacred period from Thanksgiving to Christmas was consumed with our striving toward a vital triumvirate of goals: find teaching jobs, find an apartment, obtain 12-IX visas. As of today, we’ve accomplished two of the three, with our search for an apartment suspended until we get down to Cuenca, where our first jobs are.

Our Christmas Eve was spent at our quaint little hostel with the motherly little hostel owner and manager, Ornelia, who roasted a turkey for us and a dozen others. She brought in a traditional Ecuadorian folk band for the occasion, and they strummed and piped their tunes as we gorged ourselves on the bird and the fruit salad, broccoli, green beans, an Ecuadorian date and rice dish, chocolate cake, and red wine.

It was a feast fit for Baby Jesus himself.

Our friend Altaf, whom we met on our CELTA course, came and dined with us, then guided us to midnight mass at a gorgeous colonial cathedral. We are so not used to being up that late, but the spectacle of the thing was enough to keep us awake: the kids’ sparklers illuminating the pews, the intermittent recorded-synthesizer-and-guitar accompaniment, the bizarre informality of the congregating-decongregating-recongregating-etc. congregants.

Christmas was filled with the things that befit a great holiday: the people we love and the food that makes us fat and happy. After waking up late, we made our specialty breakfast as of late: strawberry pancakes with home-mixed strawberry yogurt topping, served with a steaming mug of semi-sweet organic Green and Black’s hot chocolate (simply the best - thanks, Bethanie and Bhadri!). We gorged again, really outdoing ourselves. ¡QuĂ© rico!

We sat down to let it settle for a few moments, then made our way to the new Harry Potter movie in a shopping mall south of our hostel. We blinked a few times before comprehending that Christmas was clearly a normal Saturday in Ecuador; the mall was packed, everyone was eating fast food, hanging out with their novios y novias, paying no apparent mind to the import of the day. The movie was dubbed, even though it clearly said “Subtitles” at the register. We enjoyed it nevertheless, as we gorged ourselves again, this time on saladisimo popcorn.

Of course, Christmas isn’t complete without Christmas dinner, so we spent the rest of the evening brewing a batch of Molly’s mom’s citrus tea and making an enormously rich dinner of garlic mashed potatoes with some delicious gravy (thanks again Beth and Bhadri!), green beans, and Annie’s macaroni and cheese (made with yogurt for a creamy, tangy zip - the dinner would have been nothing without you, B&B!), and proceeding to, of course, fill ourselves to the breaking point. And, on top of that, a no-bake, butter-based apple pie made on the stove with excessive amounts of sugar, cinnamon, and quinoa granola and served with vanilla ice cream. It was a fittingly succulent and exquisite end to the holiday.

We’ve somewhat reluctantly settled into an early-morning schedule of Spanish classes this week, our last in Quito. CELTA was an afternoon schedule and, being the sleep devotees we are, it’s hard to wake up when we have to. From here, it’s off to see some places up here in the north – a New Year's finale in southern Colombia, SA’s largest indigenous market in Otavalo, the kitschy monument at the equator, the highly recommended Quilotoa area – before we head into the Amazon and then down south to Cuenca. It’ll be fun.

But so much hustle can scarcely be as satisfying as a day of strawberry pancakes, salty popcorn, and sated palates.

A few more photos here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ecuadorian Hospitality: A Case Study in Two Parts, Part II

No one had change, which is not at all an uncommon occurrence.  “Disculpame, disculpame!” I apologized to Patricio. He seemed unfazed, even energized, by the situation and asked if we would be at the University for long and told us he could wait if we’d like. As we exited the car, he followed us, led us into the school – leaving his ID with the security guard since we hadn’t brought ours – and demanded that we speak with the person in charge of hiring teachers.
When he found out that we didn’t have any Ecuadorean references he took it upon himself to fix this. The Director of Languages sat at the small cafeteria-like table with Ryan, Patricio and I. We watched her review our CVs as Patricio raved about how well qualified we are, how perfect we would fit into the university, and how we are “excellent” candidates for any teaching positions. We scarcely spoke throughout the interaction, allowing Patricio to explain our thorough qualifications and vast experience, as if he knew what our CVs even said. He met us 30 minutes ago, and yet, during our impromptu interview, Patricio was our oldest friend and professional reference.  He secured us another interview on Tuesday and kept saying “it looks good!” when the Director walked away. After days of little to no success, it felt like a win, even though we felt as if we were observing it from somewhere outside the strange situation it was.
He did all of this after picking us up on the side of the road in the rain and attempting to hold a conversation with us in our very broken Spanish. 
The interview episode seemed to bump us up to an almost familial relationship in Patricio’s eyes, because he began referring to us as hijo and hija,  and took a vested interest in our safety and wellbeing. When he discovered that our hostel was in the Old Historic district of Quito, he flipped out. The district is very dangerous, we shouldn’t be staying there, the hostel is charging us too much, we could be getting a better deal anywhere else, and every other piece of advice he could think of. 
“Oh Molly, no. Oh no, Molly. Oh Molly, no.” This lasted on and off for the rest of the ride.
He pulled up to his friend’s hostel, told us to come in, demanded that we see one of the rooms and attempted to further convince us that we needed to move. 
About two hours after we had hailed his services, we were still sitting in the back of his car, swerving and lurching our way through Quito, trying to comprehend his endless advice and information. As a gift, he reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a notebook with pictures of “La Gasolita” and “El Gasito,” the cartoon climate change characters of South America, on the front and police propaganda pamphlets and a paper ruler inside.  Patricio said we should use it to keep track of all of our contacts – I guess he noticed our stack of random pieces of paper and envelopes with phone numbers and addresses on them.
My mind was fried by his relentless onslaught of Spanish by the time we reached our hostel, but Patricio wasn’t going to let us go without imparting a dozen more nuggets of wisdom and offering to help us with whatever we needed, whenever we needed it, day or night, just call him. He had a friend in the Ministry of External Somethings, and he could escort us on Monday and ensure we get our visas. Call him anytime. He’s happy to help. He borrowed a pen from a merchant next to our hostel, wrote down his phone number for us, insisted we call him several more times, and gave us our change for his services. He charged us eight dollars for two and a half hours of his time, probably just enough for his gas. We thanked him profusely and said goodbye.
Another day in Ecuador, and another friend made with next to no effort whatsoever. Hospitality, indeed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ecuadorian Hospitality: A Case Study in Two Parts, Part I

The rain was pouring down as we tiredly attempted to hail a taxi. Every taxi in Quito was full. Rain increases the demand exponentially. So we stood on the side of the road, watching every car full of dry, comfortable people pass us by. We could have braved the weather and walked to another destination, but our Quito navigation skills are elementary at best right now. 

We had been out all day. Early in the morning we got picked up by our favorite Dutchman and headed out to the Ministry of External Somethings and attempted to navigate our way through the bureaucracy of disinterested yet power hungry immigration officers. After a short recess in our quaint hostel room that overlooks the old, historic center of Quito, we continued our never-ending search for work. We left hopeful; we had four addresses of four schools that might need teachers. After three failed attempts to find three apparently non-existent schools, the skies opened and the sad, cold rain dampened the city and our hopes. We had been out for hours and nothing to prove for it except several wet and blotchy resumes. 

When a white, unmarked car with a homemade "TAXI" sign written in marker on the front window waved us toward his car, we hesitated. Hundreds of horror stories filled my mind. Taxis can be dangerous. Be very careful. You might get robbed. But then again . . . it was raining . . . and there we no other unoccupied taxis left in the entire country . . . and I can usually trust my intuition . . . and I am tired . . . and wet. Ok, let's do it. 

We scrambled into the "taxi" and were greeted by Patricio. I gave him the address to the university we needed to visit and no other words were exchanged. Then, three consecutive motorcades about 2 minutes apart passed us on our left consisting of several CHIPS, heavily tinted SUVs and even ambulances. I asked Patricio who those "special people" in those "special cars" were. My Spanish is limited. He said that it was the President. Also, every Vice President of every nation in Central and South America. They were having some meeting about climate change. 

Patricio introduced himself and started asking us questions about ourselves. We are English teachers and we are looking for work but we haven't found any yet. Oh really? Let me tell you everything I know about teaching, schools, languages and travel. The drive to la Universidad de Pacifico took us around 30 minutes, the entire drive filled with information about how we should find work, what part of the city we should live in and even where to get free newspapers on Saturday mornings. 

We arrived at the University after what seemed like hours of driving up and down hills and through neighborhoods and down highways. We had run out of small bills and could only give him a 10 for a $2 ride. He didn't have the change - very common. So we pulled away from the University and weaved through the neighborhood asking little tiendas if they had any change. Nothing. 

To be continued . . .

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I'm So Exciting!

We're now on the other side of the hump in our CELTA course: three weeks and five assessed lessons down, two weeks and three lessons to go. It's hard work, but by no means backbreaking; save for a few stressful afternoons where we've had to rearrange lesson plans in a couple frantic hours before giving them, we've been ok.

And the people are great. Our trainers are brilliant, capable, adventurous, inspiring people with an obvious, deeply felt passion for their work. Their enthusiasm is contagious. We have colleagues from all over the world, Hawaii and Philadelphia, Holland and New Zealand. One of our favorites is George, a Dutch former diplomat who moved to Quito, Ecuador with his wife, who is a diplomat from Spain and serves in the consulate here. English is his second (of five) languages, so teaching the language presents unique obstacles for him, with the occasional "L1 interference" leading to constructions like "How do you call this man?", as in "What is this man's job?" I suppose this experience provides him a unique empathy with his learners and makes jokes based on the difference between exciting and excited, for instance, especially hilarious to him.

And thus, he introduces himself into many a conversation with his favorite faux pas: "I'm so exciting!"

As for Molly and me, we're very exciting ourselves to be two weeks from done with this hard work and eager to settle into something a bit more permanent, not to mention something a little more mountainous, profitable, and dry. More updates soon!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

So Far, So (unbelievably) Good

We're sitting now in our beach cabana in Playa Kamala, Ecuador, listening to the Pacific waves crash onto the beach and waiting for our first fresh-from-the-sea meal of comida tipico (local food). We'll be here for the next five weeks, honing our teaching skills and memorizing the names of all the vowel sounds (there's like a billion) in an intensive training course. But for tonight, we're taking it very easy.

Since landing as scheduled on Monday evening (hallelujah!), we've been nothing if not impressed, heartened, and comforted by this country and its ever-so-kind people. The first person we talked to, on the plane right after we landed, was a young woman named Ximena, who, after asking us if it was our first time in Ecuador and learning our plans, offered her phone number if we needed anything while we were in Cuenca, and whose sister - in a bizarro-world coincidence - happened to have founded the school where we want to teach. If we thought her openness was unique, we were quickly proven wrong.

After a night in Guayaquil, the giant coastal metropolis, we took a bus up a winding road through the Andes to Cuenca, which we had heard was the most beautiful city in the country. It did not disappoint. The streets are paved in cobblestones, the colonial architecture is ancient and ornate, the red brick bell towers and shimmering blue domes of the massive New Cathedral (which took 90 years to complete and opened in 1975) dominate the skyline, and the city just barely creeps up the sides of the towering mountains that encircle it. The weather is absurdly perfect: upper sixties during the day, light sweater weather, and a little chillier at night, the 8400 foot elevation and equatorial latitude combining for a uniquely ideal and unchanging climate.

Though it's a city of about 500,000, it feels a fraction of the size due to the compactness of its city center and the warmth of its residents. Thursday, while crossing a street with my camera slung around my neck, a man of about 30 years approached me and asked if I speak Spanish. I said only a little, not knowing what he was getting at; we hadn't been hassled once since arriving, not by a street vendor, not by a pushy salesman, not even an ugly look from a passerby. (The closest we got to feeling unwelcome, really, was a man shouting out of his truck as he sped by, in a very Cheech-like voice: "How you dooooing?") Molly said she did, they talked for a moment, and he invited us up to his roof to take pictures of the city from there.

The view was absolutely breathtaking, the sky impossibly clear, the colors impossibly vivid. What motivated that man to approach us in the middle of the street (literally), knowing we were foreigners and suspecting we didn't even speak Spanish (correctly, in my case), and open his home to us, we have no idea. But we got a strong feeling that if it hadn't been him, it could have just as easily been someone else, anyone else, in the city.

We reluctantly left yesterday at noon, descending back to the generally icky Guayaquil to catch the shuttle to the beach. Perhaps the one saving grace of the city was the little corner place we found last night, Pica Rica, where we had amazing bowls of ceviche con camarones, made fresh in front of us, by the kind and motherly cook/restaurateur. We hope to return to Cuenca to teach after our time is done here, but it seems as though the city isn't exactly Ecuador's best kept secret; thousands of American expats like ourselves clearly find the city as charming as we do. But given the warmth of the people we've met so far, we have nary a worry about where we might land.

(The rest of our pictures are up here.)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

False Night on the Road, or, Travelurgatory

Several months ago, we booked our tickets to Ecuador through Priceline, one-way to Guayaquil, at a pretty good rate. Though we'd have to spend the night in the Miami airport, it was worth the price.

A couple days ago, we received a confirmation of our itinerary from Priceline. Leaving at 5:40pm from Tulsa International, stopping in Dallas, etc, etc, exactly what we had booked.

So, of course, international travel being what it is, we get to the airport shortly after 4pm on Thursday, tearful and exhausted from a far-too-drawn-out day of goodbyes with our families, only to hear these words:

"I'm sorry, your names don't appear on this flight."

It never goes as smoothly as you plan, so, keeping calm, we asked what had happened.

"Well, airlines change flight schedules slightly every quarter, so when that happens, travel agents like Expedia or Priceline usually just change itineraries and inform the traveler. It looks like they just didn't put you on a flight."

Well, that changes things. The flight was completely full, and no other flights could get us to Miami that evening. The very helpful and patient clerks at the American Airlines desk suggested we call Priceline, because they might be able to get us to Miami so we could fly out the next morning on schedule.

Molly called Priceline.


"Priceline Negotiator!" tauntingly blares in the cell phone as I nervously wait for a representative to take my call. At least I get the opportunity to be sweetly serenaded by the calming words of William Shatner.

A man speaking very broken and very polite English answers the phone. As I begin to explain that yes, I have my itinerary but no, American Airlines has no record of our flights, the man becomes more and more confused. How could this be? Finally after a few minutes he gives up and transfer me to a relentless customer service lady. What a lady.

I repeat our problem once again to the amazement of the Priceline employee. Over and over we go through our itinerary numbers, flight numbers and every other piece of useless information when you do not have an actual itinerary.

"Excuse me Miss Bryant but you were put on the 3:00 flight for the same day."

"The same day, meaning today? Meaning 2 and a half hours ago?"

"It appears so."

The next 30 minutes or so consists of a conversation that felt like it was taking place in an alternate universe. It seems fuzzy now in my mind. Partly because it was so absolutely ridiculous - partly because I took on another persona, the don't-you-dare-mess-with-me-I-am-moving-out-of-the-country Molly. I asked her why we weren't informed of this change. How were we to know that you had changed our flights? Should we just have assumed that we were on another flight? No, no Miss Bryant. Normally we email the customers when we change their flights but since it was on the same day . . . and there was a delay with the airlines . . . you see, I'm not blaming the airlines but they were late in rescheduling their flight.

Over and over she began her sentences with, "Once again, I am sorry Miss Bryant but you DID miss your flight." Until finally I replied, "Ma'am I understand that we did in fact miss a flight that we were never informed we were on, but you need to stop telling me that I missed my flight."

As I was attempting to solve the insolvable puzzle of Priceline politics, the American Airlines employees were giving me nodding heads of approval, thumbs up, comforting smiles and any other form of non-verbal communication to let me know that I was doing the right thing.

Finally, it was clear that Priceline was not budging, they were not even acknowledging that moving a flight from 5:40 to 3:00 without informing the passengers could be an obstacle for their travels. It was strange. Frustrating beyond belief. How in the world could they not understand why this was a big deal? So, after a few choice words, I bid the customer service lady adieu, walked up to the ticket counter where our cheerleaders welcome us with open arms and pulled one over on the airline industry.


The delicious irony of the whole episode is this: A couple of weeks before our scheduled departure, we had tried to move our flight back a week or so. In the fog of our preparations back in February, we had picked October 21st almost solely because the price was about $70 cheaper than all the days around it. As the day of reckoning drew nigh, we received a message from CELTA that suggested strongly that we avoid the temptation to do the "intrepid traveler thing" before the course (which was our plan in coming 10 days early), and we pined to stay stateside long enough to celebrate Molly's birthday on the 24th with chocolate cake instead of beans and rice. The airlines were willing to switch our flight only at $800 or so per ticket, so that was out.

Sometimes, however, the universe sends you a lifeline. Staying on the good side of the AA clerks was the right choice: when Molly explained that she'd really love to avoid traveling on her birthday, our friend Andrew smiled sympathetically and offered us a flight on Monday, no nudging, arguing, or stress needed. On top of that, no spending the night on the cold tile floor of Miami International, no connecting flight in Dallas, no stopover in Caracas on our way to Ecuador. What more could we ask for?

We celebrated our good fortune on Thursday night with pitchers of Boulevard Bob's '47 Oktoberfest and Hideaway pizza, laughing and conversing tiredly and contentedly with the loved ones we thought we'd be leaving. We made plans to finish the things that, in the rush of preparations, had been left undone or undoable: doing our precourse tasks for CELTA, cleaning our room, visiting some Tulsa landmarks, picking up a prescription, watching the Oktoberfest Wiener Dog Races, and cheering on our Huskers or Pokes in a last-ever-romantic-rivalry match. These few stolen days seem like a weird alternate reality. Like LOST. But we're ever-so-grateful for a few more hours here. And the adventure still awaits.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Molly and Ryan's Vagrant Life

Webster and the OED insist it's a derogatory term, but we're reclaiming it, because it just fits: our vagrant life. We certainly wouldn't want it, however, if it wasn't also contained in a line from the song He Doesn't Know Why by Fleet Foxes, one of our favorite bands:

(listen for it at 1:10)

We've been vagrants independently for a while now, drifting from our Midwestern homes to Ghana and Kenya to Amsterdam and Oxford to Central America and Middle America. But now, we're blissfully joined at the hip and ready to start our vagrant life.

We leave for Ecuador in exactly 62 days, where we'll be enrolling in the five-week CELTA Ecuador course, becoming certified teachers of the English language, and then embedding ourselves in the colorful culture for awhile. It's going to be some kind of adventure.