17 Nov


My English class this morning started with a brief discussion in Spanish about the demonstrations going on around town. The students at Central University, which is right down the hill from our house, have been protesting for a week or so now. A demonstration means they burn tires in the middle of the street and if a bus or a car tries to pass, they throw rocks at it, attempting to break windows. Most of the native Ecuadorians I’ve talked to are pretty cynical about the students’ demonstrations. They say they join in because it’s a game. They throw rocks at the police; the police throw things at them. They get out of class, and they get an adrenaline rush. Few of them really believe in the cause.

And what is the cause? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve heard they want reduced bus fares, and I’ve heard they want better salaries for the teachers. But since when do students smash windows and refuse to go to class because they selflessly want their teachers to receive better pay?

This morning, eight of my fourteen police were absent because they were called to work the demonstrations. “The student demonstrations?” I asked. No. Apparently there are also throngs of indigenous people marching downtown because they want the president ousted. Well, in order for that to happen, congress has to vote on sending him to a trial. They already voted, and they didn’t succeed in ousting him. So according to the paper, the protesters aren’t going to accomplish much. Even though there were 3000 of them yesterday.

Another one of my students this morning said she couldn’t get to school on her normal route because there were protesters on her side of town, too. I didn’t quite catch whether they were students or indigenous people. But I heard that the public employees are protesting because they want better wages also. So there are three different groups protesting right now.

Yesterday, I walked down the hill to the cheap copy place I always go to. If I want copies, I have to take my originals to a shop and pay anywhere from 1.5 cents to 4 cents a copy. Since 1.5 cents a copy is remarkably cheaper than the more common 3 cents a copy (especially after 200 copies), I always go to the 1.5 cent places, most of which are near Central University. So I went there yesterday and when I got to the base of the hill, I started seeing people holding scarves over their mouths. Soon, my own throat and eyes started to burn. The tear gas from the student/police battle had drifted down the block to the bottom of LaGasca. I figured it couldn’t be much worse than the West High copy room at 8:15, so I braved the discomfort.

Eileen was on a bus on Monday that drove through the nighttime aftermath of the battle and apparently everyone started sneezing. She said her throat burned.

The woman at the copy shop explained that the demonstrations really hurt her business because no one wanted to come into the quasi-war zone. She said that this Friday will be worse because students at the universities throughout town will march in the streets.

My police this morning said they would have to work all weekend and that Monday would be the worst day. They were explaining that they had to do training with tear gas and that there’s another gas that makes people vomit, but they don’t use that one as often. They also said that the universities have autonomy, which means that police can’t enter them. That’s crazy, I said. And even my more liberal-minded civilians agreed, saying, “This is why we’re a third world country.”

Just a quick note for all the worried mothers out there. Eileen and I aren’t in danger. America is not a target. Most Ecuadorians that I’ve talked to hate Bush, but they also understand that the citizens of the U.S. do not all stand behind him. And though Rumsfield was here yesterday and also got protested, the big demonstrations are directed toward the Ecuadorian government, not ours, not us.

It’s all pretty exciting, actually. I can see why the students like it. But my police will put in 20 extra hours this week. And everyone will be inconvenienced. And if the past decade of Ecuadorian political history is any indication, things may change, but they probably won’t improve. So I can see why people hate it, too.

15 Nov

The Stranger

Today in class, I passed by a student who had an Ecuadorian Spanish-English dictionary. There was an outline of Ecuador on the cover. I was circulating around the class while the students were working on a present progressive exercise, and this realization hit me that “I am in Ecuador!”

I thought back to one of my favorite Far Side cartoons in which there are several cows in a pasture and one of them says, “Wait a minute, this is grass! We’re eating grass!” When I was in middle school, this was my favorite Far Side. I still think it’s comic genius.

I also thought back to this past summer when Eileen and I were teaching at Centrohispano in Madison. On any given night, the crowd could be pretty similar to the group of students I’m currently teaching here in Ecuador: there were about 15 to 20 of them; they were very nice; they spoke Spanish, but wanted to learn English; they were Latinos.

It’s in the classroom that I’m most prone to forget that I’m in Ecuador. Because the class could be in Madison. In the classroom, I’m the English authority; I’m not seen as a foreigner (alien, inferior, ignorant, naïve, rich). I’m seen as an expert, a holder of knowledge. It’s more like home, where I teach, and where I know the culture.

My senior year of high school, we read The Stranger by Albert Camus in my English class. Apparently, there’s a better translation that’s now more in favor with the academics, but whatever translation we had then struck me as absurd and, well, boring. I can still vividly picture my friend Adam pointing to a line in the book and laughing; it read “as I was partial to café au lait, I had a café au lait.” Well, duh. “What ridiculous writing,” I thought at the time. And to tell the truth, I haven’t revisited The Stranger since those days.

But I have read a little bit about Camus, and I just recently read an essay of his called “An Absurd Reasoning.” And it now occurs to me that, whatever the original French may have said, Camus may very well have intended for the occasional statement about café au lait to be utterly absurd.

Absurdity is incongruity, out-of-placeness. A shirt that says “Trash up your ass” is absurd. The following joke is absurd: “What is black and white and has trouble fitting through a revolving door? A zebra with a spear through its head.” In fact, much comedy is absurd. It plays with our expectations; or really, it defies our expectations. Heck, even the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke is absurd because the first time we ever hear it in our lives, we expect something not so obvious. Thus, the answer, “to get to the other side,” is incongruous, out-of-place.

Camus was more concerned with existential absurdity. You know when you look in the mirror and you think, “whoa. That’s me. I’ve always been that person, no one else”? Or when you’re in Ecuador teaching an English class and you suddenly realize that you are in Ecuador and holy crap? That’s existential absurdity. It’s the feeling that your existence itself is out of place.

Camus and others like him were fond of the metaphor of the exile – the stranger who was living away from home and who thus had this constant awareness of his own absurdity. Eileen and I are certainly not exiles. But we are separate from this culture. We’re strangers. And so, more often than normally, we transcend the cultural norms here. That is, we step away from them and look at them from outside. So for us, there is a lot of absurdity.

TV is absurd. When it’s in a different language, you can tune out its meaning and see its power, how it sucks people in, how people use it as a source of hope.

Having public bathrooms you have to pay for in a city where men pee on sidewalks is absurd.

Soccer fans are absurd. They arrive at games five or six hours early. They feel like champions after a team they’ve only watched compete has won.

It’s absurd that the light switch in my classroom is two wires that you connect together and with which the risk of shock is very high. (I think they teach electronics in the building somewhere).

But when I’m teaching, I have complete purpose. I momentarily forget that I’m in Ecuador, that everyone outside of this classroom, including my students, speaks Spanish, that I will most likely have to jump onto a moving bus later in the day, that eating enough food to stay in the 170s is difficult, that my family and my beloved dog are not accessible. In short, I forget that I am a stranger.

And then I leave class, and I squeeze into the front seat of a Police truck dangerously carrying twelve full-grown men, and I think, “Wait a minute! This is grass!”


14 Nov

email our cell phone

A friend of ours just told us about this cool trick. You can email us a little message and we will receive it on our cell phone. Here’s our address: 9807971@bellsouthim.net.ec

14 Nov


Eileen and I are attempting to live on our volunteer salaries here. It’s difficult, but doable. We both make about $350 a month; our expenses include the rent, food, transportation, our gym membership, and entertainment. We could live in less expensive neighborhood and save some money there; we could forego the membership to the pretty nice gym we belong to; we could spend less on food, especially lunches (we’re still a little leary of really cheap places because hygiene is often more questionable); and I guess we could walk a lot more, thereby saving money on transportation; as it is, we don’t spend much on entertainment.

We’re pretty frugal people. We haven’t made extravagant purchases here. I don’t think we’re getting ripped off to badly at markets and whatnot.

Still, our wage is barely livable. Factor in clothes, and maybe a family to support, though, and we’d have problems. But what’s more amazing is that we actually make more money than most people who work here in Quito. Yes, we’re volunteers, but we get paid this “stipend,” which, to the schools employing us is pretty much a salary. Teachers usually make $200-300 a month. Doctors make about the same. A student of mine asked me how much I make; I carefully told him, “I don’t know, I haven’t been paid yet.” But then I asked him how much his mom (who I met. She’s a school psychologist.) makes. He said she gets about $300 a month, but after “descuentos,” she gets $118. I’m not sure what descuentos is. It may be benefits; it may be taxes. In any case, I think she takes home $118 a month.

You come here and you see poverty in the streets. There are all sorts of people peddling food, candy, incense – heck, even barrettes and blender parts — on the busses and on street corners. But you also see lots of cars. And you see people dressed pretty nicely – in suits, sweaters, nice dresses. So it’s easy to imagine that not everyone is poor. And of course, not everyone is. I guess government employees make a little more (like $600 a month). But the vast majority of people are struggling. Many of the police in my class work 10 or 12 hour days. The guards at my school work 12 hour days and occasionally take a 24 hour shift. I don’t think that’s even legal in the U.S.. And the police and the guards don’t make much either.

It’s not until you get to know some of these Quitenos that you realize how hard it is to live here. We’re really living in relative luxury in our $200 a month apartment and with plenty of money in our U.S. savings account to not be panicking. We’ve always heard that Latin cultures are a little more laid back, that people get a lot more vacation, take their siestas in the afternoon, etc. That’s not at all what we’ve seen here in Quito. It’s still almost unbelievable.

13 Nov

Mid-November Slump

Well, it’s been way too long since I’ve written here. Everyday I wake with the nagging sensation that I need to update the blog. I’m not too fond of that word “blog,” but that is what I’m doing, so. . . Eileen’s been sick with a cold that I gave her. She got an ear infection of some sort, though, so it put her out for a while. She was really dizzy every time she got out of bed. She missed two and a half days of teaching. I took over a couple of her afternoon classes, so I’ve been a little too busy to write this past week. I took good care of her.

Let’s see. We found a dead scorpion in our clean laundry. Or I should I found a dead scorpion. There’s a picture in the coppermine. One morning last week, there was a little baby scorpion in our bedroom. Kinda freaky. Anyhow, we captured it and killed it and we were sure to tell our landlords. They were great. They offered to fumigate, which we will probably take them up on, but things don’t get done in a timely manner here, so . . . then earlier this week, as I was hanging the laundry, I encountered the big guy.

This whole week has been kinda blah, to tell the truth. We didn’t have much contact with people via internet; it rained a lot; Eileen was bed-ridden; and we were both dealing with the depressing fact of Bush’s re-election.

On the plus side, my classes recovered their enthusiasm after a brief post-vacation slump. Eileen’s been planning our Thanksgiving feast. We plan on cooking a turkey, but that might be a challenge. In any case, it’s giving us hope.

I posted a few new pictures of my school in the work scenes album. That’s all for now. . .