24 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 7)

The ride back to Quito in the afternoon was a lot shorter than the morning ride — about 1.5 hours vs. 3 hours. And I thought the terrain we rode over was much prettier. But it may have been because the clouds had lifted entirely and everyone else was falling asleep, so I didn’t feel self-conscious about gazing past their heads toward the landscape. We were arranged in two benches, facing each other, kind of like a small army truck. And we made it back at about 4:00, with plenty of time to make the dinner we arranged with some of my former students.

We met them at a mall, unfortunately. And the food we ate was mediocre, but five students showed up — Natalia, Silvia, Maria Sol, Maria Eugenia, and Cesar — and it was a lot of fun to reconnect with them all. The conversation highlighted for me just how much weaker my Spanish currently is than it was during my final months in Quito back in 2005.

I knew when we lived here that there were all sorts of limits to my understanding of Ecuadorian language and culture, but I was learning so much every day, and as a result, I was focused more on what I understood about Ecuador than what I didn’t comprehend.

This trip didn’t hold the same amount of promise in terms of daily revelations. So maybe that’s why I focused on my own deficiencies in understanding.

I tried to over-romanticize it. In fact, on one of our first nights in Mindo, I wrote in my journal about all the ways in which Ecuador is superior to the US. You can catch a bus anywhere and get off anywhere. Travel is cheap. Food is cheap. Adventure tourism is cheap. People are very willing to help you. You ask for directions or tell your hostel owner that you have a slight stomachache and pretty soon you’ve got hand-drawn maps and chamomile tea being brewed for you morning and night. A woman with a small child gets on a bus, and some punk teenager who’s been blasting reggaeton from his cell phone says, “Senora, sientese no mas,” and gives up his seat for her. Perfect strangers will ask you to be their daughter’s god-parents.

Even as I was writing that list, however, I was aware that our being American may have motivated the god parent offer and that the buses pollute horribly and that their lack of formal stops leads to increased congestion and that food/travel/tourism being cheap has more to do with poverty than it has to do with kindness and that for every positive, there’s probably some equal and opposite negative lurking around the corner.

There’s no doubt that the people in Ecuador are/were wonderful to us. But our lack of Spanish mastery and our cultural naivety blinds us to a lot of the social machinations that we see so clearly here in our home culture.

Back home, if I’m standing in line at a grocery store, and the guy ahead of me throws a temper tantrum, calling the cashier a bitch, and adding, “you people are always trying to screw me over,” I would be shocked. I’d feel the tension in the air. I’d feel horrible for the cashier.

In Ecuador, a heated altercation is actually one of the more difficult things to understand. People tend to talk faster, and they throw in a lot of colloquial language or palabrotas (bad words). But even if you do understand the words, you’re comprehending the denotations (dictionary definitions) without necessarily knowing years’ worth of contexts and reactions. You haven’t witnessed the relative rarity of the palabrotas; you haven’t seen the shock on your parents’ or friends’ faces when you first heard them uttered years ago. So witnessing such an altercation is almost more like reading about it in a book than experiencing it first hand. There’s a sort of distance that being alien gives you.

This distance is a double-edged sword. It’s often frustrating, but it’s also often comforting. Words are watery. They don’t soak in. There’s very little social stress. But there’s also little sense of social injustice. You miss out on instances of racism and classism. And I’m sure it makes you look stupid occasionally.

I remember my first trip abroad to a country where English wasn’t spoken. I was 17, and I stayed with a family in Seville, Spain for a week. At one point, we were walking downtown, and my host mother pointed to the narrow streets and said, “Calles muy anchas, no?” And I nodded and said si. A little later – I’m not sure how much later – I realized that anchas meant wide and that host mom had duped me into agreeing with a ridiculous assertion. I corrected myself when we got back home; I felt dumb and, overachiever that I was, I needed to tell her that I was aware of my mistake. But now I wonder what motivated her little trick. Was it playful? Was it just a test? Or was it slightly mean-hearted? Did she set out to prove my lack of understanding? Did she want to laugh at me?

I prefer to think the best, and in fact, my Spanish host mom was a very kind and somewhat timid woman herself, so I can’t imagine she had cruel intentions. Still, the point is that I don’t know. The point is that I was the blind alien.

It doesn’t take much to recognize kind-heartedness and sincerity and selflessness in others. It requires more sophisticated understanding to see duplicity and selfishness and cruelty. And I theorize that reverse culture shock is really about re-entering a society you fully understand from a society you thought you understood but really didn’t. Does that make any sense?

You return to the states in 2005 in the middle of the Bush years at the height of American xenophobia with a media system as broken as it’s ever been, disseminating misinformation by the truckload, and you understand all of it. It’s all too clear. And since you can’t retreat to a world where you’re more ignorant, where you are reading the story rather than experiencing it, you start telling your own stories; you start making shit up.

23 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 6)

Parquedero @ Cotopaxi

Our second last day we spent on the Biking Dutchman trip to Cotopaxi. Here’s how the trip works: you meet in Gringolandia at about 7:00 am, where they pile you into a Land Rover with a bunch of other tourists and a roof rack full of bikes. Our group was comprised of two Aussies, a Brit, two blond, Scandinavian brothers, and a German couple (I think). They drive you to Cotopaxi National Park and up the mountainside to the Parquedero, which is at 4500 meters (14763).

There’s a refugio up a little higher at 4800 meters, which, in the winter months, is right at the snow line. But I can’t tell you where the snow line is these days since it was cloudy, windy, and rainy when we got up to the Parquedero, so we couldn’t see shit. We were supposed to unload the bikes there, but it was too cold, so we drove back down the mountain a half-mile to what looked like an abandoned shelter, perhaps the old refugio. They gave us some quick instructions on how to descend, and away we went. It rapidly got warmer as we continued downhill, and when we stopped at the bottom of the slope to regather, it was warm enough to take off one or two of the five layers I was wearing.

The Descent of Cotopaxi

The downhill road was a dirt switchback with some pretty rocky terrain. And at the bottom of the mountainside, there was a huge, flat, treeless plateau. The road remained rocky, with some tricky patches of fine sand, but it didn’t require hard peddling. It was slightly downhill, but a very gradual downhill. Really the only indication that we were descending came from the change in vegetation. We eventually saw trees, and the final 45 minutes or so was on a road that occasionally ran through some forested patches.

Rocky Terrain of Cotopaxi Plateau

Unfortunately, less than a mile from our finish, I got a flat tire. I had to wait for the guide and the shag van to catch up, and when they did, they asked if I wouldn’t mind just calling it a day. I said sure, but when I saw them hoist the guide’s bike up to the roof of the Land Rover along with mine, I felt a little cheated. Why couldn’t I have ridden his bike for the last four minutes? I know. It’s not a big deal. But I have a thing for finishing.

Trees!  Cotopaxi National Park

22 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 5)

View from the top.

The Teleferico park was surrounded by a fence, and at one point, we came upon a sign warning us not to leave the park and that if we did so, we were on our own and there was nothing they could do to help us. In the relatively short distance, the cloud-covered peak of Ruco Pichincha was visible, and there was a trail that ran along the ridge tops toward Ruco Pichinicha. But as anyone who’s hiked in the mountains knows, what looks to be really close is actually about three hours away. Eileen and I walked toward Ruco Pichincha, but we were never planning on going all the way there, especially since it looked like it was going to rain at any moment.

Misspelled Warnings

Later that afternoon, we tracked down one of the policemen from my first English class, Cesar. He had worked up at the Teleferico park for four months and told us a couple of horror stories. Ruco Pichincha, he explained, has some pretty weird microclimate stuff going on, and when it’s surrounded by dark clouds, there’s often an electrical buildup. You’ve got to take anything metal out of your pockets and get out of there, he explained. Once, a family was hiking up on Ruco and they all got struck by lightning. The man’s legs were severed, and the woman was thrown off the peak. They had a boy with them who was also killed.

Cesar went on to explain that a couple of years ago, there was something even worse than lightning lurking in the heights of Pichincha: a rapist. He had a set of binoculars, apparently, and he’d watch for gringo tourists who were vulnerable. We heard some mixed reports from various people, but I think he killed at least one German woman. Cesar was part of an expedition that hiked toward Ruco Pichincha, trying to track the guy down. They didn’t get him that time, but eventually, they captured him, and since he had no teeth, he became known as “El Desdentado de Pichincha,” the Toothless Man of Pichincha. Que horror!

Cesar also told us about another former student of mine — a policeman — whom I’ll call Javi. Javi witnessed a robbery in progress and yelled at the thief, who took off running. Javi gave chase, and caught the guy, but he resisted. The two fell to the ground, and the thief pulled out a huge knife. Javi responded by pulling out his gun. He meant to shoot into the air but instead, he accidentally shot the guy and killed him. It was a clear case of self-defense, but that didn’t make it any easier for Javi to deal with. He got pretty depressed afterwards, and Cesar relayed how horrible Javi felt about it.

The police were in my first English class when I taught in Quito, and though police in general have a reputation of being womanizers and all-around jerks, many of my students were quiet, timid, gentle people. Cesar, “Javi,” and another one they called “El Gordo” (which means fat, but he wasn’t), were among my favorites. Really great guys.

For Cesar, and several others, joining the police force was not exactly a dream come true. Before going to the academy, Cesar was a tennis coach. He began with six students his first year, and by the end of the season, he had 50. He loved it, and he was good at it. But his mom pressured him into joining the police so he could make more money. And now here he is ten years later, still dreaming of returning to coaching.

We spoke to Cesar for a couple of hours that afternoon. I’d gone to the Turism Police headquarters three times, hoping to find some old students, but each time they told me to come back tomorrow or later that afternoon. For whatever reason, I kept missing them. But on my last visit to the headquarters, I asked specifically about Cesar, who, they told me, would be at the Ministry of Tourism all day.

We found the Ministry, and thus Cesar, without too much trouble, and then we hung out with him there until it got dark. That’s the night we went to Zazu, which left us with two more days in Quito.

21 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 4)

By the way, Zazu was the only five-star restaurant we’ve ever been to, and it was stupendous. The sushi, on the other hand, was not as good as it was four years ago. But it gave us enough sustenance to get up relatively early on Saturday morning and take off for Otovalo.

Everyone we talked to said Otovalo was cercita – only an hour and a half away. Eileen thought she remembered it being longer than that; I had no idea. But the bus driver sided with Eileen in asserting that the trip was closer to 2 ½ hours. Throw in a little confusion over where to catch the bus and it really ended up being a 3 ½ or 4-hour saga.

I take solace in the fact that we bargain better than most other gringos, though. Hammocks that were selling for $18 at most places we got for $25 for 2! And Eileen got lots of earrings and scarves for some great prices. But the most memorable part of the trip came before we purchased the hammocks, when a familiar-looking gray-haired gringo walked by and I said to Eileen, “I think I know that guy.” He disappeared quickly, but 15 minutes later I figured out how I knew him. We rounded a corner and there before us, finishing up a purchase with a vendor, stood a former student of mine! That gray-haired gringo was his father, whom I remembered from our one and only meeting at parent-teacher conferences last fall.

On this visit to Ecuador, we allowed ourselves to spend money more like tourists. When we lived here, making a combined salary of $700 a month, we were hesitant to ever drop more than ten dollars in one sitting. (We only went to the Swiss Hotel on Friday nights, when the rolls were two for the price of one.) In fact, I vaguely remember debating whether or not to go to the butterfly museum in Mindo because we thought it was expensive ($6 per person!). But now we were okay with spending $10 for the Canopy Adventure and $8 for the ride up the Teleferico’s cable cars in Quito.

The Teleferico was built while we lived here; it was completed in June of 2005, I think. And while Eileen braved the huge crowds in the opening weeks, waiting in line for something like 3 hours, I never got the chance to go. So on Monday morning, we walked up La Gasca, toward the barrio known as Las Casas, where we could catch a free bus to the Teleferico park. There, we paid the $8 admission fee (for foreigners), and got into a cable car without wait. No line whatsoever. We had gone relatively early (8:30) on the advice of a former student of mine, and it was a pretty good move.

From the cable car looking down

At the top of the lift, there’s a small park with some dirt trails you can hike on. There’s also a church for some reason. The elevation was somewhere around 13500, and it took some effort to walk up steep hills. So I began joking that the church was called Our Lady of I Can’t Breathe. I came up with some good names (Nuestra Senora de la Falta del Oxigeno, Nuestra Dama de la Achachay, La Iglesia de Ayudame), but they were sacrilegious, Ecuadorian Spanish jokes, so I’ll spare you the full list. Trust me, though: they were funny. Really funny.
Nuestra Senora de la Gran Altura

19 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 3)

Back in Quito, we caught the good ol’ 15 de Agosto bus across town and I entertained fantasies of being a bus driver’s ayudante for a day. Those guys are crazy. They spend half their time dangling their bodies outside of the moving bus, shouting out their routes to people on the streets (“Toda La Colon, Plaza Artigas, La Doce, Catolica!”), and the other half of their time, they spend collecting the 25-cent pasaje from the passengers, jumping on and off the bus, weaving through the sometimes-standing-room-only aisles, somehow keeping track of who they’ve already collected from and who just got on two stops ago.

We were headed for the SwissHotel, another famous gringo haunt, and one we had to return to because it was a quasi-tradition of ours four years ago to go to the Japanese restaurant in the basement for sushi. Later in our stay, we went out to an even posher restaurant called Zazu. (It’s been written up in the New York Times!) And in both locales, we felt just a little out of our element. Sophistication is sophistication. And even though in Ecuador we can get away with going to the nicest restaurants in town dressed like the travelers we are (an REI outfit rather than an Armani suit), we still feel completely out-classed.

Luckily, our Spanish isn’t always good enough to know if/when we’re being disapproved of. We slipped into the Hilton Colon to get directions to Zazu and the guy at the desk asked what room we were staying in. We guiltily revealed we weren’t staying there and he said, “no hay problema,” and proceeded to give us the address. When we thanked him, he said, “por nada,” which, translated directly into English, means thanks for nothing. It doesn’t translate directly. And we knew that. Still, it was enough to give us pause: was he being insincere? We know American English’s various euphemisms and hidden messages very well, but when it comes to Ecuadorian Spanish, we’re pretty deaf/blind in the realm of subtle insincerities and hidden meanings even after living there for a year.

In the past, it’s been tempting to say that Ecuador is the land without irony or verbal abuse. I remember how much trouble Eileen had in teaching her class the expression “Do you mean that?” They simply couldn’t understand why you would ask such a question.

And if the email forwards we get from our Ecuadorian friends are any indication, they are sentimental suckers who whole-heartedly believe in inspirational quotes.

But email forwards can never be an indication of anything. And Eileen eventually got through to them by using an example of a woman wearing an unflattering dress.

“You look great.”

“Do you mean that?”

The trick in really posh establishments is to dress well and act like you own the place. When the waitress brings you your five sushi rolls, you shouldn’t take a picture of them with your iPhone. Or when the hostess catches you marveling at the really cool, circular wine closet with glass doors and a ceiling at least 25 feet high and offers to let you look inside, you should turn her down. And when the waiter brings you and your wife a delicious swordfish in a pisco-soy consommé and grilled sea bass medallions in coconut foam, you really shouldn’t go halfsies.

But if there’s no disapproval from anyone, why not?