18 Jan


Alvaro stood near the pedestrian bridge on the Avenida 10 de Agosto. Barely anyone noticed him. Cars whizzed by on the big, busy road. Drops of milky water fell from the bridge beams. Exactly three cats had crossed the bridge, and Alvaro was waiting for the fourth. Four cats never cross the bridge in one day, the older boys had told him.

Grabbing a stick from the sidewalk, Alvaro tapped out a reggaeton beat on the hollow metal pillar; no one paid him any attention. He’d been counting the cats for days now. In this neighborhood, he’d seen at least 15. Junior had told him not to believe the big boys; they were just messing with him because he was motherless. Kids can be cruel like that.

Let them laugh, Alvaro thought. Murderers. No one was going to talk him out of counting cats. One of these days, he’d see the fourth one. Perhaps he’d have to stay here all day, waiting by the dirty pillars of the bridge, inhaling the clouds of black smoke that spewed from the red and white buses that labored up the road; perhaps he’d have to keep begging food from strangers, to sleep in the shadows of the bridge and befriend its spray-painted pillars while he waited for whichever came first — the fourth cat, or his father, who left and said he was going to the sky to find Mami and bring her back from the place where she lived now, higher than the top of Cotopaxi.

Quechua graffiti on the bridge beams — mostly misspelled and mixed with Spanish — proclaimed the injustice of the city and its crooked politicians. Rats, it called them: ratas, ukucha. She appeared from behind him, the fourth cat. Taking a tentative step onto the stairs, she peered back at Alvaro and meowed at him three times. Under the bridge, Alvaro stood speechless and breathless at what he thought he’d heard: “mijo,” she’d said — my son. Venturing forth, Alvaro extended a tender hand toward the cat, noticing the patch of white on her chest that looked like the snow-capped top of Cotopaxi. Whether or not she’d cross the bridge to the other side mattered no longer; he only wanted to touch her. But the moment was over too soon when some passer-by with a job to go to climbed the stairs and scared the little cat off the steps.

Years have passed since then, and though he has sometimes seen that same cat lurking in the shadows, following him around the city, he has never touched her, never heard her speak his name. Zig-zagging across the busy streets, digging through the trash, and crying for remembered milk, Alvaro has become a cat himself.

The above was another exercise from my MFA residency. The objective: write a 26 sentence story. It has to be in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order. One sentence has to be one word long; one sentence has to be 100 words long. You can substitute some other letter for x or z but not both.

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?

18 Jul

Ecuador Travelogue (part 2)

Mindo’s a funny place. It’s pure Ecuatoriano – full of little tiendas on every block with free-roaming dogs that expertly dodge trucks that carry fruta or pescado or dangerously-packed construction equipment. And though not untouched by the corporate world, it’s still free of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and peanut butter. But as with all pueblos turisticos in Ecuador, there’s a rise in Internet cafes and adventure tourism. And it’s in those places that you see the most gringo influence. The most fluent English speakers and the most Americanized young men – emulating the X-Games and Jackass ethos we export abroad – run these establishments. And they look to be doing well. It’s ironic that gringo tourists flock to the gringo-ized Ecuador. But alas. It’s true.

Even we were drawn to the canopy zip lines advertised all over town. On Thursday, we rode/walked our piece of crap rented bicicletas up the mountainside to the original canopy adventure, called simply Canopy Adventure. We were the only customers. Two guias went with us.

What you do is you get onto a raised platform, where they strap you onto a steel cable and give you some quick safety instructions. Then they tell you to sit on your harness, cross your legs at the ankles, and hold on to the straps that are attached to the cable. And away you go, zipping above the cloud forest valley. My guide was kind of a grumpy jerk; Eileen’s was much more gregarious and nice. But it was fun either way.

The course consists of 13 cables, some freaky high up and others mas tranquilo. On some of them, you can opt to do the superman or the mariposa, both of which require a tandem trip with el guia. For the superman, you hook the backside of your harness onto the cable with a safety running to your guide. Then you basically fly horizontally through the air, face first toward the next platform. For the mariposa, you sit on your harness facing your guide and once you take off, he flips you upside down and holds onto your legs. I liked the mariposa a lot, but it was definitely freaky to see the sky below you and the canopy above.

Our return to Quito was in the standard bus, which travels through so many switchbacks that I had to put my head between my legs – or at least get close to doing so. There wasn’t actually enough leg room to bend over all the way. But I survived anyway.