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.