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 . . .