12 Feb

not much news

So I know it’s been awhile since I’ve written here, but honestly I think I prefer helping Tim write his blogs (someone has to remind him that he freaked out when I didn’t add a full stick of butter to his brownies). So even though I haven’t authored anything for a few weeks I have been contributing. Anyway, this weekend Tim is climbing Pinchincha with some other people we met through our director. Pinchincha is one of the volcanoes that borders Quito. They left this morning around 8am and they’ll hike for about 5 hours. There apparently are some structures you can camp out in, which is their plan for tonight. I’m jealous cuz I wanted to go to, of course, but we were afraid my knees wouldn’t hold up for that long of a hike. So I stayed back here in Quito but I’m sure Tim will have stories to blog about the experience.

Right now I’m burning a cd of music so I can treat myself to listening to something other than the music at our gym (a person can only take so much bad 80s and techno music).

Mom and Dad, we just got your valentine in the mail yesterday, it was nice to still get mail from you.

09 Feb


Yesterday, we made chocolate chip cookies. It was one of the more labor-intensive chocolate chip cookie experiences I’ve ever taken part in because they don’t sell chocolate chips here. We had to buy a bar of good-tasting baking chocolate and chop it into pieces. Eileen took the first shift of 20 minutes, and I took the second shift of equal time. After our chocolate chopping, we ended up with approximately one 12 oz. bag of chocolate chips. We borrowed a wooden spoon from our landlords, who also brought us lunch, and after our brief lunch break, we labored on.

Though Eileen’s rare pies always turn out great, our baking experiences in the past have been largely unsuccessful. Last spring, I went through a brownie stage. We found this wonderful “Organic Valley” brownie mix, or some such thing, and I probably averaged a batch per week. They were phenomenal. Then one day, Eileen was making them. Luckily, I came into the kitchen for a brief assessment of the procedure: Eileen had only used half a stick of butter! I patiently explained that the recipe calls for a full stick of butter. (Eileen claims I “freaked out,” but I don’t recall that part). However, when we looked at the back of the brownie mix box, it turned out Eileen was right. Go figure. No wonder the brownies I had been making for the past five weeks were so good. I had used twice the amount of butter. Despite Eileen’s baking right-of-way, I took over and added another half a stick to brownie mix. They were wonderful as usual.

Such has not been the case with our attempts at chocolate chip cookies. We attributed our first several failures to the gas oven in our house. The thing threw off a lot of heat, and we jumped onboard when someone suggested that it was an old oven and it probably didn’t have the proper insulation anymore. But then we attempted a baking session at Eileen’s parents’ house. The oven there is accurate with its temperature reading; or at the very least, it has housed several successful cookie creations. With our crappy-oven excuse gone, we forged on, but the cookies were only slightly better than those we had made at home.

We sought advice. Eileen’s mom always succeeds; unfortunately, her “just do it” attitude isn’t always helpful for the less competent. Her advice was something along the lines of “just follow the directions.” Ted’s girlfriend Amber usually succeeded. We witnessed her process, but could find no significant differences. Heck, she had even accomplished the feat with our gas oven at home. We tried new baking soda. No luck.

So we went to my sister Jamie. I don’t actually know, but I’m guessing Jamie must have failed before because she was full of promising new ideas. Past failure is present failure’s best friend. She told us to be careful about the butter. It shouldn’t be microwaved liquid (of course, Eileen already knew this, she claims), nor should it be cold from the fridge; and at the very least, you should substitute margarine for half of the butter if not all. And don’t use a mixer. Use a wooden spoon and do it all by hand.

We took Jamie’s suggestions and attempted the baking at Eileen’s parents’ house again, just to minimize the potential failure-inducing factors. We used half margarine and half butter. We even had Eileen’s mom oversee. Actually, she may have done most of the work. Still, the darn things failed. They were crisp little flat discs. They looked like anorexic versions of real cookies. We mentally reviewed all of our past failures and Eileen came up with the difference: organic butter. We had always used organic butter, but neither Amber nor Eileen’s mom had. Sure enough, the last time we tried cookies this past summer, they turned out great.

When we were attempting the cookie project here yesterday, we were worried because our oven doesn’t give actual temperature readings. It only says “alto,” “medio,” and “bajo.” We estimated a little above “medio” and went about making our mixture while the oven preheated. We used room temp. margarine and a wooden spoon, put the cookies on an ungreased sheet, and nine to eleven minutes later, took one of our most successful batch of cookies out of the oven. I ate six of them immediately.

08 Feb

Homesickness Part ?

I wrote about my most recent bout of homesickness a week or so ago. It’s not as intense as our November epidemic, but there have been several factors converging together these past few days. One is that we’re slightly bored. Since our holiday plans fell through, we’ve been here in a quiet Quito, not socializing much, mostly getting our entertainment from American media. Two nights ago, we watched Cold Mountain, which has some beautiful North American landscape shots, and plenty of North American “traditional music.” We also listened to an episode of “This American Life” yesterday, and today we listened to Saturday’s edition of “All Things Considered.” In fact, we subscribed to both “All Things Considered” and “This American Life” for a month through audible.com.

Additionally, we’ve been talking about future travel plans. Eileen has a substantial break at the end of March, during which time we may go to the Galapagos or Peru or Chile. Eileen may even make two trips during that period. Her friend Joni may be coming to visit then, and my brother and sister are talking about coming down sometime soon. Since Eileen has whipped through most of the books we brought back from the states last month, we’ve also been investigating some recent books that we could have people bring us when they came in March.

We’ve also got to book our flights home pretty soon. So yesterday, we were talking about our possible departure dates. I’m done in mid-July, a full two weeks before Eileen, so one possibility is for me to come home a week or so earlier than she does and begin moving into the house. This option would make August less hectic, and it would probably be better for our marriage not to be moving into a house in the August heat with school’s increasingly larger shadow looming overhead like a meteor.

We still have five and a half months here, so we’ll have to live “in the now” (man). But in June and July, it will be tough to be here entirely, just as last summer, we were already in Ecuador a month before we left.

07 Feb

Third World: Things I’m Not Gonna Miss About This Place

I’ve tried multiple times to improve the registration process at my SECAP (the school where I teach – Servicio Ecuatoriano de la CApacitacion Profesional). At SECAP, they create classes based on demand. And from my experience, whenever you have a situation where classes are created by demand, you need some sort of pre-registration. Both Shabazz and West High School worked this way to a certain extent. The problem is that in Ecuadorian culture, people don’t really follow through on their promises. So if you had students “commit” to an English class in the mornings from, say, seven to nine, they wouldn’t necessarily show up for that class. Thus, a pre-registration doesn’t really work. Instead, on the first day of class, the director of SECAP posts a list on a bulletin board which says which classes they’ll offer and when. It’s a really clumsy system, which this past month led to them creating a Basic 1A class in the morning; but since neither Westra nor I could teach that class, they hired an Ecuadorian English teacher – not quite the same as a North American native English speaker.

On Friday morning, the director interrupted my class at about 8:40 to say that we would be combining the two morning classes and moving me to the Basic 1B class. I have 24 students in my current morning class and Westra has about the same if not more. So there would be 40-50 students in Westra’s class. Ridiculous. The first I heard of this new plan was when the director interrupted my class. The students in my class complained and tried to appeal to the director; after he left, the remaining 30 minutes of class was useless.

From the perspective of SECAP, they want to have as many students as possible cuz that’s how they earn money. But this means that as students proceed to subsequent levels, they will probably change teachers and may even have to change time slots. The bottom line is that the system itself makes it difficult for students to stay with English for more that a few months.

But it’s just now that I’m starting to see some promise in my students. Just this past week, I thought, “wow, by July, these people will be able to get by; they’ll be able to communicate with English speakers walking around the streets of Quito.” I see how SECAP wants numbers, but as “WorldTeach volunteers,” we’re not really helping anyone if we just teach a Basic 1A class for a month and then get a new batch of students and teach them a Basic 1A class all over again. The potential of WorldTeach to actually be effective lies in the students I have right now, the ones who will be able to get by in English if they stick with it for 5 more months.

And really, if we’re gonna “make a difference” here it will be on this simplest of levels – the student level. I feel absolutely powerless to effect change within the administrative element of SECAP even though they really need it. And at the national level, they’ve just fired or hired new people, so the staff is different once again. There is so much instability at the national administrative levels, that even if you convinced one person that there’s a better way to run things, chance are that person would be gone after a year. With this latest change, we will have a major delay in getting paid.

In talking with my students Lourdes and Natalia about government here, I learned second-hand about the fact that every facet of government is corrupt. And if there’s a capable, honest person moving up through the ranks, they eliminate that person cuz he or she will be a threat to the little circle of corruption at the top.

It’s a hopeless feeling. You feel like there’s too much to fight and that the battle itself is doomed to fail. But it’s not an unfamiliar feeling.

On Friday after class, I went to an ATM to get some money. The machine ate my card. On Saturday, we tried cashing Eileen’s check, but the bank wouldn’t honor it. We then went to the ATM, but when we tried with Eileen’s card, it refused to give us the amount we needed. As we walked away, we passed the stupid Tame office. I muttered something along the lines of “developing nation infrastructure is annoyingly inefficient.” Actually, I may have said, “Ecuador sucks.”

I’m glad I live in the US, where operations tend to run more smoothly on every level. Still, there’s plenty to be disgruntled about in the US. And there’s plenty of fights in the US that seem doomed to fail from the get-go.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Always fight for the good, knowing you will lose.”