31 Oct


WE JOINED A GYM!!! We’ve started working out there this week. They have elliptical machines, treadmills, recumbent bikes, and a stationary bike. It’s in a safe neighborhood in the Plaza de Las Americas so we can also plan and get on the internet on our working-out trips. It’s a little more than we wanted to pay, but it has what we need and won’t completely break the bank like the Swiss Hotel would have. Anyway, the first afternoon we worked out we had to go at different times to fit it into our schedule. When I arrived I saw Tim on a recumbent bike happily spinning away. I changed in the locker room and then the owner introduced me to the personal trainer on duty: Gonzalo. Gonzalo walked me over to the aerobic equipment near Tim and asked, in Spanish “so, have you ever worked out before?” Um. Yeah. I wanted not to be insulted, but I was sorely tempted to retort, “Yes, I have worked out before, in fact, my team won a national championship in the US.” I didn’t though because 1) I am out of shape and that statement would have come off as pretty conceited 2) it isn’t as common for women in Ecuador to workout so the question wasn’t as strange as it would have been in the US and 3) I’m sure he just wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to hurt myself on the equipment which, considering my history with injuries, isn’t a bad idea. So anyway, I took it pretty easy my first day: warming up, stretching, working out, cooling down, and stretching some more. These last few months here I have been doing some yoga and walking tons with a circuit or two thrown in, but I wanted to ease into steady-state workouts.
After working out I deciphered the towel system and showered. The shower was a wonderful surprise. It was phenomenal. The normal showers in Ecuador leave a few things to be desired. As we posted when we first got here, usually the water is heated with electricity. So you control the water temperature basically by adjusting the pressure (hot water = very little pressure, high pressure = cold water). In our apartment you can have a hot shower with a steady stream of water, which is more than adequate. At our gym though, the shower isn’t electric so you can have a piping hot shower with as much pressure as you want. It’s beautiful.

29 Oct

Tim must be going through a little philosophical stage

Ecuador is pretty Americanized. In fact, last week, I was talking with the father of our new quasi-host family about America’s 50 states and how Puerto Rico is not a state and how that fact causes some controversy, and he joked that Ecuador is going to be the 51st state because “somos bien Americanizados” (we’re pretty well Americanized). Which is true. They use US dollars here. And there are American movies and music all over the place. Plus there are signs in English everywhere. But they don’t really speak English. Thus, you get signs like “Quito Friend Chicken” or “Smocking Center.” Or the best is a shirt Eileen and I saw on a mannequin in a shop window: in big red lettering, the shirt said, “Trash up your ass.” We almost bought it.

When we were in Banos, we saw a guy wearing a Lawrence Crew jacket. We were so excited because we thought we had actually run into a rower in Ecuador. But no such luck. Apparently, a friend of his had sent him the jacket because it was Gore-Tex. He pointed to the “Gore-Tex” logo on his sleeve and gave us a thumbs-up sign.

Just the other day, I saw a guy wearing a Georgetown Crew T-Shirt. And I found myself faced with a true rower impulse. You see, in rowing, when you win a race, the losing crews give you their shirt. So shirts are pretty much trophies. You shouldn’t be wearing a rowing shirt unless you A) rowed for the school or club in question, or B) beat the crew or club in question. I should qualify this whole explanation by saying that this is the way men’s rowing works, not women’s. Thus, if you wear a Wisconsin Men’s Crew shirt in public, you damn well better have either beat Wisco or rowed there. So when I saw this guy wearing the Georgetown Crew shirt, I actually got annoyed. Assuming he didn’t row at or beat Georgetown, he had no right.

And the whole thing’s made worse by the fact that so much of the English here is displayed just because it’s pretty. Like the other shirt I saw in a window of a clothing store that said “Very Fashion.” Or I saw an ad with a picture of Eminem; it was for a tattoo parlor. And it got me thinking, “there’s no way they can appreciate Eminem on the same level as native English speakers.” When I saw a dude wearing a Green Bay Packers Superbowl T-Shirt (true story), I thought, “That’s Wisconsin! That’s my state!”

I own the Packers.

I own Eminem.

I own Georgetown Crew.

Trash up your ass, buddy!

But alas, I’m like a dog barking at random passers-by. Yes, I’m from Wisconsin, but I’m not really a Green Bay Packers fan. And yes, I know a couple Eminem songs. I even studied the poetic devices in one of them to use in a freshman English class, but I’m not at all an Eminem fan. And I know a coach at Georgetown, but I certainly never rowed there. I don’t think I ever even competed against them.

Still, isn’t it better not to be so divorced from meaning? I mean isn’t that what American adolescence is all about? Finding the real. Labeling those divorced from meaning as fakes or posers or phonies (a la Holden Caulfield). Shouldn’t you know what your shirt means?

Of course, I can see the argument on both sides. Eileen and I almost bought that “trash” shirt, which would have been a sort of postmodern, ironic statement about the ridiculousness of being so divorced from meaning. But look at that! Look at how individual and layered meaning can be. Thus, in keeping with postmodernity, how can we say that something is meaningless?

But again, language is social. Yes, we all have some slightly different associations with various words and whatnot, but we have agreed-upon meanings. This is why we can communicate with each other. Because meaning isn’t individual. “Trash up your ass” means nothing! Or rather, it means “garbage in your butt!”

What’s my point?

I’m not really sure.

26 Oct

Pretentious Ramblings I’m Almost Guaranteed to Regret Later

Let me preface this by saying that I considered whether or not to post this entry. But I figured that I’d just go ahead and do it, image-control be damned. If I were reading a journal of a friend in a foreign country, I’d want a pretty raw version of that person’s varying states of mind. So there’s my disclaimer.

Eileen and I are in this place called the Plaza de las Americas; we’re on our computer and we have a free internet connection. Here we are, in shiny, silver chairs; within view is a Cinnabon, a Baskin Robbins, and a McDonald’s. There’s a fancy-ass deli, an expensive shoe store, a schwank little book store (which even has a trendy, powerful-sounding, American name: Link), a very nice movie theater, and about five or six over-priced restaurants. Jazz music is playing on the speaker system. There’s lots of glass and polished metal; and there’s even this place called “Evolution” where you can play internet video games.

We feel somewhat drawn to this higher-class Quito. I still don’t eat at McDonald’s, but its presence is, regrettably, comforting. We frequent the Swiss Hotel, with its delicious chocolate croissants, excellent sushi, and schwankier-than-schwank ambience. We’re here now at the Plaza de las Americas, seriously considering joining a gym called Physique, which calls itself a “wellness center”; we definitely prefer the fancier establishments’ workout facilities. The Swiss Hotel wins. Physique takes second place. And Hotel Quito is probably third. These are all very gringo-influenced and gringo-frequented spots. We pretty much spend half our time in the barrio known as La Mariscal, nicknamed “GringoLandia.” And of course, we dream of American food, American grocery shopping, even the comfortable anonymity of walking into a Radio Shack or a Panera or a Target and not being seen as someone who is foreign, white, and probably rich.

Back home, I’m not so quick to crave a visit to Panera and Radio Shack. The endless strip malls, which sap local character and identity, repel me; I tend to seek out multicultural and independent pockets: Lao Lan-Xaing, La Brioche, the Regent Street Coop, that Russian dumpling placed on State Street, the Farmer’s market, etc. We shop at Whole Foods, but we do so knowing that despite their being a nationwide chain, 1) they do sell some local products (Bagels Forever, Madison Sourdough, lots of locally produced meats and produce); 2) the products they sell tend to come from more conscientious, environmentally responsible sources; and 3) their advertising and the advertising of most of the products they sell is not as invasive and obnoxious and dangerous. I feel less guilty about buying a Switch soda from Whole Foods than I do buying a Pepsi from Regent Street Coop. But I don’t mean to be writing an essay berating the shortcomings of capitalist society. The point is not that you should also shop at Whole Foods; the point is that, however erred our thinking may be, in the USA, we try to avoid establishments that have bad track records when it comes to human rights, animal rights, environmental sustainability, or mental pollution. We think about who we are supporting with our consumerism. We can afford to. Here, if we support the local tienda, we either get poor quality (there’s some really bad bread on LaGasca), or we get sick. I’d love to buy my lunch on the street and thus help support local, poor merchants, but I’m almost guaranteed to get parasites. So we go to the Americanized Swiss Hotel, or other Americanized restaurants in the most Americanized barrios – a practice which furthers our image as the cultural imperialist.

The longer we live here, the better it gets. We have started eating at cheaper, less gringo places; we found a killer cinnamon bun at a small place on 12 de Octubre – which means we’ll never have to spend two whopping bucks at Cinnabon again. But the fact remains that I miss home. I would kill just to sit at an Au Bon Pain or a Borders or a Panera on a cool fall day, sipping hot apple cider and watching the leaves blow.

I feel like a sellout. But it’s not that I now agree with McDonalds’ food production practices or Ford’s implicit earth-killing messages in their ads. It’s just that commercialism, chain stores, and consumerism are American – they are part of America’s identity. And thus they are part of mine.

I am a patriot. Though I can talk with Ecuadorians easily and with surprising fluency about how the presidents of both of our countries are bastards; though I can launch into a polemic about how truly damaging American consumerism is; though I fear the idiocy we’ve displayed in Iraq and in our countless other less publicized, money-driven military involvements; though I lament the complacency and ignorance of my countrymen; and though the current Republican administration has attempted to co-opt the flag and the word “patriotism,” and even God as their own. I am American. I claim it. Proudly and shamefully.

23 Oct

Poop and School


I have two classes at the CEC. My first class is in the morning from 7-9am. So everyday the alarm clock goes off at about 5:20 (just like my crew days). Except instead of working up a sweat, I feel my way up the stairs to our stinky bathroom. Our bathroom ALWAYS smells. At first we thought it was just our butts. But then Bill, another WorldTeach volunteer, told us that when he was in Costa Rica they had the same problem with bathrooms. He said that because the houses only have one drainage system for everything, the smell of the stinky stuff wafts up through any open drain. We put a sponge over the shower drain and the smell situation has drastically improved. Anyhow, I take a shower, eat a croissant or a bowl of cereal, and head to the bus stop.
The last three days I’ve seen the same dog on La Gasca while I’m waiting for my bus. He apparently is on a schedule. At exactly 6:05 I think to myself “Hey Mr. grey dog. Heading toward the median for your morning poop, aren’t ya. Yep, there you go. Well, here’s my bus. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I get to school right as they are unlocking the gate to the building (6:30). Often the woman who opens the door still has a stray hair curler or two in her hair. I head up to the teachers’ lounge to fill up my water bottle and grab a grabadora (tape/cd player). The 7-9 schedule is very busy so you have to get there early if you want a player.
My classroom is on the 8th floor, so I usually take the elevator up to my classroom. The classrooms were created from an empty floor with temporary, cubicle-like walls. The walls go all the way to the ceiling, but you can still hear a lot of what the adjoining classroom is doing. It usually isn’t a problem though: there is just as much noise from the traffic outside. The classrooms aren’t huge, but they’re clean and there is a nice big whiteboard to use at the front of the room. When I finish teaching my morning class I have a few hours before Spanish so I either plan or go chat in the teacher’s lounge. My coworkers are all very friendly and there is a computer with internet access in the lounge so it’s a nice place to kill some time. After Spanish class Tim and I get some lunch and then I teach my second class. After this first week, I’m partial to my morning class, but we’ll see. I have younger students in the afternoon and I think they may just need more time to settle in to the class. I have some very sweet students in both classes. Speaking of sweet, I’ve instituted a chocolate rule in my class. (One of the better teaching decisions I’ve made so far). The rule is if I catch them speaking in Spanish, then the next day they have to either bring me a chocolate or 25 cents. On Thursday I caught three students in my afternoon class and so Friday my students presented me with two chocolates and a quarter. It made Friday even sweeter.

22 Oct

Daily routines

Now that we’re both working, we’re trying to establish some routines. I teach from 7:30 to 9:30 and then I have a little over an hour to kill before I go to my terrible Spanish class at the CEC (Eileen’s school) at 11:00. I think I’ll usually lesson plan a little at SECAP before heading over to partake in one of the most impressive models of pedagogical inefficacy I’ve ever seen. My teacher’s pretty nice, but a) no two classes have had the same students yet; b) yesterday, we conjugated verbs for the entire hour (actually no: we started class at 11:10 and we ended at 11:50, so not quite an hour); and c) the two times I asked her to give me an example of how a particular verb form is used, she couldn’t. I’m bored out of my mind, and I’m not getting any real Spanish practice.

So then at 12:00, I meet up with Eileen, who has a wonderful Spanish teacher, and we go to lunch. We’re learning where to go. Today and yesterday, we paid $1.50 for a pretty good lunch (though not really enough food). We’ve figured out we can stay under $3.00 each, but we still need to up our restaurant vocabulary. We don’t go far from the CEC cuz Eileen has to teach again at 2:00, at which point, I haven’t really figured out what to do with myself. I’ve been meeting Eileen at 4:00 after she’s done; I spend the interim (is that the word I’m looking for here?) two hours either on the internet or making copies or eating pastries. We’ve now found about three places that have some pretty phenomenal baked goods. After I gather Eileen from the CEC, we usually either go get pastries or check the internet.

Or make copies.

Then I teach from six to eight and Eileen goes home and gets good and stressed for tomorrow’s classes.

We’re finding we need to rearrange our eating schedule a bit. Lunch is at noon. But then dinner is at about 8:30. Various pastries are consumed throughout the day (you know the guy on TV commercials who quietly and quickly reads the fineprint, such as “Offer only good while supplies last”? You should read “various pastries are consumed throughout the day” imitating that guy.). Anyhow, dinner hasn’t really been happening. It’s usually another breakfast. Last night we mustered the energy to make pancakes; the previous couple of nights we ate cereal. Only one night did we really eat dinner food, namely potatoes.

I’ve been starting to write a little bit more in my free time, but our odd split schedule doesn’t leave us feeling like we have a lot of down time. Though in comparison to working full time, of course, we do have a lot of down time. Nonetheless, I should warn all y’all that I’ll probably go through a stage soon where my writing is more esoteric and pretentious. Your seeing hints of it here already with my use of such words as pedagogical and inefficacy and esoteric and pretentious. Bear with me.