Friday, June 1, 2007

Trip of a Lifetime

Sylvie and I just returned from a trip up the coast to Esmeraldas, the beautifully green, African influenced part of northwestern Ecuador. On our way, we stopped in Crucita, a small fishing town in the Manabi province, where monied people from Cuenca keep the coastal homes. In Crucita, we stayed at a great little hotel with the best service you can imagine. Traveling on weekdays typically gives you the “run of the land” here in Ecuador. Being the only guests at all the places we stayed during our week-long trip allowed us the best in service and room selection. In Crucita, at Hotel Rey David (David was the owner and apparently a king in his own mind) we had a large room with a humungous shower and balcony facing the sea. We ate ridiculously portioned food at the restaurant. You really don’t need five fillets of fish for one dinner platter. Not only were the amounts copious, but the food was very good and the prices were reasonable. We borrowed the DVD player and a couple of movies for viewing in our own room. We talked for an hour with he hostess about Sylvie’s pregnancy and other topics. They even let us use the room for half a day after we were supposed to check out because our bus didn’t leave until 10:30 pm. We just really liked our hosts there. Only thing that was a little disturbing was Rey David’s apparent fascination with Nazism and paramilitary doctrine. You’re allowed to have one video in your collection about Hitler and his regime, not two. He had Fallen, which is supposed to be excellent, award nominated and all that. Ok, a movie about Hitler’s last days I can deal with. I’d been wanting to see it myself. However, when you compliment that with a documentary on the Nazi regime you’re crossing a line. When you then combo that up with a poster over your consierge desk of a goggled, helmeted, gloved guy pointing a high powered, scoped automatic rifle at some unseen victim you’ve got my wife making nervous eyes at me during dinner. The poster had a hand signed note made personally to David. It said something to the effect of “When they come we will be ready and they will know terror. Much love, Jorge”. I don’t know. Don’t ask. They were wonderful people to deal with. David even gave me a free shot of aguardiente (Ecuadorian moonshine) for my cold out of a gigantic Johnnie Walker Red bottle. Where did he get the two-foot, 10-gallon bottle on Johnnie? I don’t know. Anyway, we loved Crucita.

From there, we hopped on an overnight bus to Esmeraldas. After a bus ride and waiting at an exhaust–filled intersection for 45 minutes we broke down and caught a cab to the Cumulinche Club, an absolutely beautiful property with a private beach on the Pacific Ocean. Here, we found tranquility and envy. The room where we stayed was exactly what we wanted to build for Solidarity Travels. And we guessed that the owner managed to make the simple construction for a pretty good price. Either way, we enjoyed our time there. The only problems there: once I got bit in the eye by an ant that lived in the thatch room. I dried to rinse the poison with water, which only spread it all over the right side of my face. It stung for a good hour. Second, there was one spot in the bedroom that smelled like cowshit all the time. It was just one little area by the dresser. We still haven’t figured out how or why. But we loved the place and would recommend it highly.

On the way back from Esmeraldas we woke up at 5:30 in the morning because our bus had stopped. Due to the rain, the road, not concrete, was soft and muddy. There were a few buses and trucks stuck ahead of us. One bus had mud covering the entire metallic part of its wheels. The depressed faces of its passengers as we passed by, made me sad with empathy and glad our bus driver had avoided a similar fate. By 7:30 am we were moving again. So, the ride to Manta only took 11 hours or so. Then, after another 4 hour ride, we were back home. Sylvie was exhausted. I felt great. Plus, I had read about half of this really good book recommended by our friend Michael. Reading The Saddest Pleasure by Moritz Thomsen while traveling around Ecuador was a real treat. Thomsen is actually a fantastic, sad writer. Reading great writing is both humbling and inspiring. Periodically, on the bus I would laugh and wake up my neighbor across the aisle while reading about the sodomites of Istanbul or some other perverse, obscure reference.

The trip as a whole was cathartic. It marks the end of our time here on the coast. It marks effectively, the end of our business. It marks the beginning of our future back home in the States, and the eventual birth of our baby God willing. It was a trip about transition. I don’t remember having a trip before that was about something other than the trip itself. I suppose they all were on some level, but usually a trip is mostly about the places you’ll see, things you’ll do and the food you’ll eat. This trip was about finding something new that I want to do. It was about saying goodbye to a part of my life. It was about realizing the decisions that I had made without knowing. So, it was also about acceptance and gladness for what is to come. The trip was a preoccupation while we figured out the next part of our lives. Who knew? I thought it was just about finally going up the coast.

Friday, May 18, 2007

One Thing I Won't Miss

One thing I won’t miss about Ecuador is men pissing in the streets. When Sylvie returned from Quito after her first time here (junior year of college) she told of a shocking custom, the likes of which I’d never heard before. She told me that Ecuadorian men come on to women by showing them their members. You know, instead of whistling or making sucking noises like civilized men, these guys just pull it out. It was definitely the funniest, most forthright ritual I’d ever heard of in my life. I mean, it don’t get no more direct than that. When I told people this random little tidbit during dinner conversation I would always mimic the gesture. I imagined one hand holding the culprit, the other pointing in its direction, and this complimented with a shoulder shrug like “hey, why not. What do you think?” And the woman nods “no” and giggles hard as she walks past. After years of telling that story, Sylvie one day told me I’d been spreading vicious lies about Ecuadorian men. Honestly, she took my best foreign places factoid. That was the most interesting thing I knew about Latin America.

Turns out, the men here don’t show their privates as a way to attract women. What they do, in actuality, is pee indiscriminately in public. Of course, I’m not talking about all men whenever they feel the urge to go. Social class and levels of inebriation typically serve as determining factors in these situations. Now, I’m no prude when it comes to public urination. I’ve detoured through an alley or two in my day. But the level of shamelessness here in terms of this issue is just on another level. Our last time in Quito, we passed an old guy, drunk, just peeing straight onto the grass in the middle of a park. No bushes blocking him. No looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was coming. In fact, the path we were on was crowded with folk taking their Sunday afternoon stroll. Sylvie and I had just come from looking at some really nice Guaysamin posters in the artist stalls. And there is this guy with his mouth relaxed open, groaning, carrying on like he’s in his apartment by himself. I mean damn. We gotta see all that. It’s way too familiar to see someone’s expression during that particular moment. And this is just one example of many that I’ve witnessed over the past few months. I gotta wife! And she’s got to stand at bus stops and walk through parks just like anyone. So yeah, that’s one thing I won’t miss. At least now I can speak from personal experience and some grounding in the truth instead of unintentionally spreading ridiculous rumors. Though I have to admit, part of me still likes the original story better.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Babies Change Everything"

The way I found out that I would be a father is probably indicative of the unpredictable nature of the whole experience. During the month of February Sylvie and I decided to let fate work its magic in determining when we would have a child. We had come to Ecuador placing a two-year moratorium on child production. Since being here, we had modified the plan to “let’s wait til July to start trying”. I like winter babies. Now, we were at the point of saying if it wants to come now, let it come. Well, it came immediately. Sylvie had not received her regular visit from Aunt Martha, so we decided she needed a test. While we ambled around the shopping mall on our weekly visit to civilization, we happened upon a testing center. Ten minutes later Sylvie walks out and tells me that I’m going to be a father and that all that I understood about my life up to this point will now drastically change forever. She actually didn’t say that, but she should have. “I’m positive” doesn’t really capture the gravity of the situation. So, I never thought I’d find out I was a father in a shopping mall. That seems more like a teenager’s thing, but there I was dumbfounded tossing random items into the shopping cart at the supermarket even though we had a list. I was in this surreal haze of euphoria and knawing, perspiring fear. Not the terror of knowing the beast is hiding in the bush about to pounce, but before that just after the music changes and the protagonist only begins to sense something different.

So, since that fateful day we have confirmed the fact of Sylvie’s pregnancy with an actual doctor. We have also begun the process of evaluating our entire lives and the future. I have also seen my wife’s cervix, really, a fascinating experience. I don’t know if that opportunity is unique to life in the Ecuadorian countryside, but it’s definitely a lesson for all men out there. We’ve seen a sonogram of the littlest Howard. Everything seems tip top in there. The other day I carried an IV for Sylvie as we walked on the dusty road back from the clinic. I think that may have been a signature Ecuadorian moment. She’s fine; just needed to replenish some fluids from the nausea. In fact, she’s felt a lot better since. Sylvie’s given up her bicycle for the time being. Bumpy roads aren’t good for developing babies. We walk a lot now. Lots of things are changing. The most significant of which is our decision to go home. We have labored over this one and are saddened in many ways, but we also know it’s the right thing to do at this time. So, in July when we head back to Philly for what was intended to be a visit, we will be resettling into life in the North American wild. We had hoped and intended to give life here a try for at least 5 years. However, as the saying goes, “babies change everything”. As I get older my life becomes dictated by clichés. I resent that deeply. However, the power of this one, in particular, is undeniable. Those who have children understand what I mean. I, now, am only beginning to get it. Despite being sad about the change in our plans, my pending fatherhood is the most exciting, humbling thing that’s ever happened to me.

I’m not sure where this leaves Ecuador Stories – the blog. I still have a few things to recount, and I plan to keep writing even after I return to the States. And, before we return we will be visiting a couple other places in Latin America. So, for now, things will continue as they have been. And when they change, you all will, of course, be the first to know.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Fiestas de Dos Mangas

All the cities, towns and pueblos in Ecuador have festivals that mark their founding or independence. Actually, this is a common tradition in most of Latin America. The festivals typically include a combination of religious ceremony, special foods, dancing, drinking, games, sports and traditions unique to the place. They also usually last at least 2 or 3 days. This past weekend was the Fiestas de Dos Mangas, a 3-day party in the small pueblo close to where we live. Dos Mangas is the place where we have made the most friends, including the people who are helping us build our property. They are the people who we see when we ride our bikes or walk into town. A couple of things happened this past weekend that are noteworthy. One, Sylvie and I became God parents. Two, I played in the local soccer tournament. Here, I’ll deal with the latter.

On Friday, when Sylvie and I were paying the guys for the week, Eloy, our maestro, asked me if I played soccer. I said that I had dabbled a bit a few years ago, but that I was bad, especially when compared to guys who’ve been playing the game since they were able to walk. He then asked me if I wanted to play in one of the games on Saturday. I repeated again, that I was “malo”, and that there was really no place for me on soccer field during a competitive game. He said, “no, it’s no big deal. It’s just for fun.” Curious, I said “yeah, really?” And again he assured me that no one involved cared the least little bit about the result of the game. Now, mind you, my Spidey senses were tingling, but I was a little bit interested to see how I would stack up against these guys. I mean, I consider myself a decent athlete. And I had played pretty well back in Philly during those friendly, co-ed pick up games. I’d never played with regulation-sized goals before, but then again that might be advantage.

So, the next morning I’m practicing with our 6-year old neighbor Ariel, who was actually pretty decent. He could be counted on to kick the ball straight every time. He could return the ball to you off a bounce. He was also pretty good at chasing it down. “Hmmm, this kid’s pretty good. Lucky me, I actually get to practice a bit.” Of course, Ariel’s proficiency should have probably served as some sort of warning. Hey, all I knew was that I had to be at the field by 1:30pm.

As we hopped off the pick up truck in Dos Mangas I saw the crowd of people sitting watching the game currently in action. I noticed the covered tents filled with people in their lawn chairs. I saw a couple of coolers. I saw the vendors selling water ice, food, drinks. I saw a group of people sitting isolated behind one of the goals. These were the fans of the team from the neighboring town that had come to play vs. one of Dos Mangas four teams. They were heckling the officials. I noticed the nice, numbered and named uniforms both teams were wearing. There was a band. The only thing missing was a step show. At the end of the games trophies were handed out.

So, now I’m ready to soil myself. I pray and hope that Eloy and the guys were just talking mess; that they didn’t really expect me to play. They had even asked if our friend Chin-Yee wanted to play, and he wasn’t even there. So clearly, rock-solid commitments were not mandatory. As I nervously waited, our friend Manuel comes over to greets us and to introduce his father who was very slick with his gold chain, crisply pressed slacks and full head of gray hair. Manuel asked me if I was ready to play. Not only did I not want to play, I didn’t want to leave Sylvie alone with Manuel Sr. either. Within 15 minutes I’m in my uniform walking over to where the team is warming up. Not only am I clearly not from Dos Mangas, I’m the only guy wearing dark blue shorts instead of royal blue. Not only am I half a foot taller than the other players, but Manuel’s wife decides to give the PA announcer my name. So, while I’m whiffing balls far wide of a humongous goal during practice, I’ve got a guy sitting on a chair with a microphone shouting “Umi…..Umi, Umi, Umi, Umi, Umi !!!!!!!!!!!!” for the crowd of hundreds assembled at this sports complex. By the way, no one else in Dos Mangas is named Umi. Behind the PA announcer is a group of about 7 women cheerleader chanting my name. A couple of them have 3-liter Coke bottles filled with ice that they shake as they scream U-ME..U-ME..U-ME...

I’m not someone who likes a lot of attention. So playing a sport I barely know that happens to be the Ecuadorian national pastime in front of a crowd of three hundred commentators representing the pride of an entire community while my name is chanted incessantly for 90 minutes is not what I had in mind for my Saturday afternoon. Plus, on a deeper level, I have a thing about letting people down. It’s one of my worst fears. It’s up there with being buried alive. So, I’m feeling the pressure so to speak. And I’m missing the goal during practice, and praying to my God that I don’t have to actually play.

After our team gets announced, and we run out on to the field to the crowd’s applause, we get our picture taken. After that every one sort of stays in place and starts bending and shaking their legs the way players do before a game is about to start. So, I’m on the field wiggling my ankle a little bit scanning the sidelines for my salvation. It comes from our stern-looking goalie who nods in the direction of the bench. God is good and God is great. However, as I walk over to the “bench” (a log on the ground), I hear my name. I didn’t understand everything he was saying because he was using the Spanish soccer announcer pace for his ramblings, but I understood “Umi, come talk to the madrina…Don’t just stand there… She is waiting.” So, I look and see the madrina (basically she’s the beauty queen representative for our team) standing there looking at me, looking away, blushing. And, she’s got 5 or so girls around her looking at me, motioning for me to come stand next to her. She’s got a sash and everything. You see, not only does Dos Mangas have the bravest men, but also the most beautiful women. So, now I’m standing awkwardly by the bench wanting to sit down, but unable to ignore this horrific situation. As I said before, I hate being put on the spot. All types of thoughts flashed through my head. Will the people watching be offended if I reject talking to their madrina? Will I hurt her feelings by not even playing along? Will the PA announcer turn on me and start insulting me through his loudspeaker for the crowd’s enjoyment. In the end, I sat on the bench and hoped for minimal fall out. Sylvie was over on the other side of the field, doing everything she could to fight the nausea of morning sickness while sitting in 90 degree heat. I just couldn’t risk any misinterpretation or hurt feelings. Gotta take care of home first.

Fortunately, the people of Dos Mangas are forgiving and patient people. I blocked out the PA announcer and wasn’t hit with any ice. Eloy, the guy who invited me to play on his team, didn’t arrive until halftime. Fortunately, my number didn’t get called. Here, I thought I’d be playing in a friendly pick up game. Turns out, I had to practice with a complete bunch of strangers who all seemed to be wondering what the hell I was doing in one of their uniforms. I was a ringer, but instead of being the best player on the team, I was the worst. This made no sense to anyone, especially me. So, during the second half Eloy walks over to me and says it’s time to go in. I say “are you sure?!” He says “yes”. I say, “no wait, I can’t”. I’m begging at this point like a kid who doesn’t want his mommy to leave him on the first day of school. I tell him we can swap clothes so he can play. He’s damn-near dragging me by the arm over to the field and telling the ref I’m replacing number 12. I say “what, he’s one of our best players!!” Eloy says “no importa”. So I check in to the game. “U-ME, U-ME, U-ME!!” Honestly, I didn’t play that horribly. Once I got out there I just ran hard and tried not to mess up. I did at some point change positions from offense to defense. I probably should’ve asked or communicated to a teammate about that one, but hey, what’s done is done. I had the ball come my way a few times. I did decent things a couple of times with the ball. Unfortunately, my final touch of the ball led to a goal. The ball came to me on our side of the field. I turned upfield and looked to pass. An opposing player stole the ball, passed it to a teammate and his teammate made a goal. The bad part: it made the game 5-4 with 2 minutes left. I was quickly taken out of the game as my team tried to score the tying goal, but by the time I got to the bench the final whistle was being blown. I think I blew the only chance Dos Mangas had all day to at least tie a game. I haven’t yet fully processed that fact or its ramifications. Nor, have I forgiven myself. It could take years to deal with this trauma. I’m scared to go into Dos Mangas without protection. Here I was trying to have a good ole’ fashioned cross-cultural experience and I think I need a therapist to help me deal with everything that transpired.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cross Dressing Cookie Salesman

In Ecuador, the majority of people use buses to get from here to there. It’s the cheapest, most regular and accessible form of transportation within the country. Within any town or city, a bus will cost you no more than $0.25. For travel between major cities, it is possible to catch flights throughout the day for $100. A great deal granted, but it doesn’t beat the $12, 10-hour, overnight bus ride between Quito and Guayaquil.

It doesn’t take an anthropologist to realize that the bus in Ecuador is a cultural happening. Most buses have salsa music and ballads blaring through the speakers during your ride. On any trip longer than 30 minutes, the majority of people will be found open-mouth sleeping despite this fact. Babies and small children are immune to the noise and bumps in the road as well.

People lean on you. Unlike in the West where touching people you don’t know in crowded spaces is considered taboo, here you will not only get touched, but often leaned on while riding the bus. People will grab an arm or shoulder and use you as leverage when they are about to fall. You can even have your head touched while it lays on your seat’s headrest. I know, I know. This sounds unimaginable; but here it is acceptable. There are actually times when you’ll feel little fingers rubbing your hair while you lay there. Or, people resting their hands on the top of your chair will bounce their fingers off your forehead when you hit a pothole. I know my cousin Maisha and some other people are gasping out loud right now, but it’s true. When a person is standing on the bus, they will always lean on someone’s seat. I feel like an inordinate amount of the time it happens to be mine, but I could just be paranoid. In the process of leaning on the seat, they inevitably lean on the seat’s occupant. No matter. Here, it is not considered an inconsideration. You will be ruthlessly leaned on and/or bumped in the middle of your R.E.M. cycle without having the person apologize for waking you up or even look in your direction. The rules of engagement here are different, and commonly accepted. As long as I’m not the only one being mistakenly slapped or nudged out of my sleep, who am I to complain?

I learned about the varying conceptions of personal space during my first time in South Africa. The trains are so full that you have to literally push the people bursting out of the doors in, in order to create your space. Sometimes you need a running start, and it always takes more than one try. Inevitably, someone’s bag gets caught outside the door when it closes. It is not a question of whether or not you will be discomforted. The question is how bad and for how long. Usually it’s a combo of someone grabbing the hand bar directly over your head (you know what that means….armpit) and a fellow passenger’s elbow or book bag crammed into the small of your back, disrupting your balance. Sometimes, someone’s just stepping directly on your ankle. Every time the train stops at a station you have to use every muscle in your body to not fall over and have everyone leaning against you collapse. I’ve seen 15 people pileups. Of course, this is just an exaggerated version of what happens on the bus in Philly during rush hour. How uncomfortable your ride to and from school or work is may be the most accurate indicator, we have today, of personal income.

Here, overnight bus trips usually feature one group of young backpackers who got drunk before they got on. This process usually includes some kind of hard liquor. They couldn’t pick tonight to just drink beer, nooo. They need to have something strong since it’s going to be a long ride. They want to get twisted. Minutes after leaving the station they befoul the bathroom. In general, you don’t want to use the bathroom. Take care of your business before you get on the bus. Take your contacts out in your seat, eat a good dinner and bring your water, but don’t drink too much. Need nothing from the back of the bus. Once, and no I’m not lying, somebody broke out a guitar at 12:30 am. The other feature attraction of long bus rides is the movies. Let’s see. Last trip from Riobamba to Guayaquil I lucked out with not only Top Gun, but also some B movie with Jean Claude Van Damme and Mickey Rourke as the bad guy. Who knew Mickey Rourke knew karate? You didn’t. If you want to understand something about the insidious nature of the Americanization of cultures throughout the world, watch Top Gun or a bad Jean Claude Van Damme movie. Yes, I said bad Jean Claude Van Damme movie. We’re not even talking about BloodSport here. This is washed-up Van Damme, with washed Mickey Rourke as his foil.

Like many countries, Ecuador has a long, strong tradition of people selling things on the bus. Men jump on to the bus as it still moves with pans of fresh tortillas filled with chicken or cheese. Or maybe they’ll have coconut water in a bag, or baked corn patties, or roasted pork with corn or pinchos (shishkabobs with marinated, grilled chicken wings stretched to fit on the skewer horizontally). This is the not the worst part of the trip. These guys yell out something like “Corviche!, Corviche!, Corviche!” loud enough to be heard over the music. This is a loud, but short announcement. However, guys selling less appetizing things like packaged cookies or herbal remedies need a little something to help sell their product. So, they spruce up their product presentation with a little speech. A five minute soliloquy most often is the format. Then, they walk around and hand out samples of the product to each passenger. This allows you to touch and feel the six pack of cookies, read its content, and see how good it feels in your hands. It’s as if you were test driving a car or holding a pair leather gloves. Just the smell of the plastic packaging and the hard texture of the cookie inside will be enough to tempt you. When you’re lucky you will get a not-so-serious presenter who tosses in jokes about sexual impotence or children wanting their mother’s milk.

Yesterday, Sylvie and I got lucky. A guy hops on the bus with his hat on sideways to the back (good sign). He’s carrying a small, black gym bag. Don’t worry, this is typical. It’s only after 7 minutes into his routine that we even know he’s selling galletas (cookies). He’s working the crowd really well. Bus riders are used to these presentations, so you’ve got to be good to have the group openly laughing and watching in audience-like fashion. First, he tells us he used to be a criminal, but there was too much competition. Later in his act he tells us he’s actually Noboa’s son (the richest man in Ecuador who recently lost his third presidential bid) and he’s here to give us money. He says sometimes he wakes up, looks in the mirror and wonders if that is a butt or a face he’s looking at. Then, he brings on his “wife”, a man about his same age with a blonde wig on sideways. They do a five minute, R-rated, un-PC version of a Honeymooners skit. Everything but “bang, zoom” was included. At one point, the “husband” asks his wife a question, and his “wife” says one of the passengers knows the answer, but has to whisper it in “her” ear. Who would be the lucky man to have the “wife” leaning over him to share the secret while being watched by the entire bus?!? I don’t have to tell you do I?

The “wife” starts making eyes at me. You know how there are those moments in life when someone is about to be embarrassed, and you pray to God it’s not you, but you eagerly wait to see someone else get embarrassed so you can laugh, and then you get a direct unmistakable signal that verifies beyond a shadow of a doubt that yes, indeed, it will be you? Just as the “dammit, nope, it’s me” realization came, “she” is there leaning over me, saying “ummm hummm, uhhh huhhh, ooohhh”, and everyone is laughing. Thankfully, my wife is there for me to look at and pretend the event is not happening. After that, they finish their routine and the husband verifies for the passengers and driver that his partner is not a homosexual. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They then go passenger-by-passenger threatening them with attention as they refuse to take back their cookies instead of the money that’s supposed to replace them. At the first woman who refuses, they stop and the de-wigged “wife” starts making Jerry Lewis faces at her. She was gonna pay, it was just a question of how painful it was going to be (sidenote: Sylvie and I are watching seasons of 24 on dvd. I’m Jack. She’s Chloe. Or, I’m President Logan and she’s his crazy wife.). These guys were fantastic at extortion. They sold 5 times more cookies than any other salesmen I’ve seen thus far. Just the threat of them pausing too long by your seat had people, particularly men, whipping change out of their pockets. I guess that’s one of the small prices you pay for being homophobic. I paid, but it was more out of appreciation and admiration of the show. Anytime someone puts that much thought, time and effort into selling you a snack pack of cookies, you need to come up off your $0.25.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Going Home, Being Home

I’m beginning to believe that the greatest feeling a human being can have is to be surrounded by those who love and care for them. Not just being here, but time is beginning to work this idea into my head. For a while I thought maybe the greatest sensation a person could have comes from the realization of a dream. That’s certainly what I’ve been chasing for years now. But I wonder. Whenever we realize a dream, even a great one, the first thing we usually do after patting ourselves on the back for a while is figure out a new one. Dream fruition is an insatiable desire. But being home….. it’s complete. You want for nothing. In this sense, it’s a more perfect and lasting experience.

It may be for me (now I’ll use some “I” statements instead of sweeping generalizations) that I am in my “happy place”. And it’s a social place. It has to do with the people who surround me. It has to do with place. I still have goals, but I’m finding the butter of contentment to go with the bread of aspiration. For a relatively young, college-educated person this is a profound discovery. Place is the last place most of us are taught to look for happiness. We are mobile in the very definition of our existence. Our communication is mobile and high speed. Our careers are mobile and transient. Our relationships are mobile and replaceable. Families are like luggage. Better job in San Francisco or Nepal or Belize? Pack the kids into their multi-purpose transport units (a new father recently told me about these. They’re like pods. They turn from car seat into bassinette into the cradle of your stroller. Shout out to Preston and his new twins) and hit Expedia for our tickets. I was taught somehow, somewhere to seek out the best opportunities wherever they may be and go forth. Place is a matter of coincidence.

The best memories I have from my childhood almost all relate to summers down the shore. My father’s family is from Atlantic City (an hour from my home in Philly). On Friday nights after work we would load up the car and hit the AC Expressway. The sunroof was always open. We’d get into AC and head straight to the White House Sub Shop (my Pop is fanatical about this place). While I waited in line with our ticket he would call “the house” to get everybody’s order. “The house” was my grandmother’s place; the home where my Pop and his siblings were raised. And when we got there, we’d be greeted and promptly relieved of the heavy bags of White House subs. Of course, we did the same when others arrived with subs. From there, it was basically a free-for-all with 3 uncles, 2 aunts, my Pop and usually 6 or 7 of my 13 cousins sharing four bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen worth of space. My grandmother stood watch over all. For me, this time was strictly about having fun. My cousins and I played, fought and got yelled at and threatened. It’s the best time of my life. During all of it, the feeling was like being in a cocoon. There were all these people around me who showed me stuff, protected me. I never felt alone. I think in this way children experience a type of social nirvana. It really doesn’t get any better than the feeling of comfort provided by being home. Despite the petty squabbles and other issues that every family and community face, being in a place where you feel at home is irreplaceable. In a profound way, you are able to relax.

I watch TV, so I’ve seen this sentiment of “going home” talked about before. Usually it’s someone in the 40’s or 50’s grieving over a lost parent. Not making fun here, but this is the typical portrayal. For me though, I think being far away from home, missing my family and wondering to myself why I’ve come so far have propelled me down this path of thought. In many ways, I’m beginning to feel “at home” here in the boondocks of Ecuador. I’m a stranger and I’m still only learning the language, but there’s something about the people here. There’s something about the land. It just invites you in. Commitment comes a little easier here. No grand schemes are being thwarted by deciding to settle down in one form or another. My family is in Philly so that will always be home, but I’m also finding a home in this new place. That’s something that I think I was searching for, but didn’t realize. It’s this deep-seeded desire that hadn’t been understood, but I’m finding it anyway. It’s one thing to have moments of feeling at home when you see an old friend, or go home for the holidays. It’s another to feel at home when you walk outside your door in the morning. As an adult, that’s a new feeling that takes me back to “my small days”.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Baptism by Egg

I question if I am ready to have the life of a child in my hands. Sylvie and I took absolutely no precautions to prepare our cat Marguerite for the stresses of life in the subtropical countryside of Ecuador. The first week or so after arriving on the coast Marguerite seemed to be in heaven. A lazy, lethargic heaven, but heaven nonetheless. She laid on the deck of our rented house spread eagle on her back and lapped up the sun. One night she wandered out into the fields behind the house. She reappeared an hour or two later. No doubt she was chasing mice or butterflies. Personally, I’m convinced that she was having the time of her life. She is an animal inside all that domestication, with a taste for adventures that are wild. This place has bugs and spiders and all kinds of living stuff for her to track, pursue, and occasionally capture.

Then, one morning Marguerite didn’t come out for breakfast. I mean usually, when we get up, she’s right there ready to eat. We go searching and find her underneath the bed in the guestroom. We have to coax her out to come eat. Later in the day we (Sylvie) notices she’s particularly lazy. For me this is a hard thing to tell since she barely moves during the day. Did you know cats sleep 16 hours out of the day? I always say this to Sylvie and my friends, but I believe that cats are higher in the chain of reincarnation than humans. How many notches higher I don’t know, but all they do is sleep, eat, poop for people to clean it up, get brushed, petted and be given catnip. Only kings, back in the day when being a king really meant something, got this type of pampering. Anyway, Sylvie thinks she’s hot, maybe has a fever. “She’s fine”, I say ignoring Sylvie’s maternal instincts. Next day, we’re at the “vet”. I use the term loosely here because, for example, the next day, when asked, he didn’t remember the name of the medication in the shot he gave Marguerite. During our visit he sticks a thermometer up her butt, and we pin her down so he can give her an injection. Marguerite’s not one of those cats that willingly submits to inspection, and definitely not probing or needles. She’s got a fever, and she’s been violated. She’s not happy.

That night, Manuel, the guy who we’ve befriended who tends the chickens of our landlord put on the cap of spiritual guide in order to perform an ancient shamanic ritual. Before I know what’s happening I walk into the bathroom and find everyone standing around watching as Manuel rubs an egg (in the shell) on Marguerite's back and head as she walks around in circles. She’s wet. I ask why, and as I do I see the bottle of Zhumir (an Ecuadorian liquor made from sugar cane) sitting by his foot. In shamanic practice eggs are used to help absorb evil spirits and bad energy that can make us sick from time to time. As Fanny, Manuel’s wife, noted, cats are very sensitive to the negative and positive energies of a place. There is thought to be some bad vibes in our current abode due to the sketchiness and general crabbiness of its owner. Manuel and Fanny have a bit of grudge here. It’s deserved. Anyway, Marguerite is now licking herself. If nothing else the Zhumir may help lift her spirits. Afterwards, Manuel cracks the egg open into a glass. The yolk is floating in the middle of the white and the white appears cloudy. That’s the bad energy in there. He shows us a regular egg in a glass. Yolk at the bottom; less cloudy. Hmmm….. He then steps outside and flings the egg from the treatment away from the house. This is the last important step in discarding the bad spirits.

A couple days later Marguerite is better. The real vet we went to see the next day probably had something to do with that. But you know, I liked the egg treatment. Science would tell me it’s static electricity that made the egg float. However, not often enough do we acknowledge the spiritual realm of our world. Western medicine’s shot for the virus carried by the ticks that bit Marguerite was key, but the egg treatment galvanized the positive spiritual force of all those who wished her to be better. If prayer is said to have a positive impact on the healing process, then Marguerite’s spiritual cleansing is probably no different. The next time I feel weighed down, I'll probably get one myself.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A treatise on the lust for efficiency, bureacratic idiocy, psychological torture and questioning your last, greatest major life decision (Part 6)

Day 8 (Tuesday: God performs his Miracle in 8 days this time)

We show up around 9:00 am. We go to our guy, Officer Mendez, and show him our ticket from the other day. He looks in the system and finds us there. The brilliant rookie did not let us down. However, he says with a smile that he can’t help us because we didn’t get a ticket. We say the ticket in his hand is our ticket. It says we can come any time of day. He says that was true yesterday. Today, we need a new ticket. Violent thoughts I won’t share were now flashing through my mind. Sylvie’s on the verge of tears again. We see his supervisor. Supervisor’s supervisor. After 15 minutes of begging the beta supervisor she decides to give us two of the tickets she's holding in her pocket, like candy for good little boys and girls. It’s numbers 58 and 59. That’s 1:00 pm on a good day. But today is special. Remember, I told you about 6 de Diciembre. Well, Tuesday is the day before 6 de Diciembre. So, the workers are now actively lobbying their supervisors for a half day ending at 12pm. The supervisor who gave us the ticket is not sure if they’ll get it. Of course, we can wait and see. What else can we do? We wait. If we don’t get it today, we most likely won’t get it until the following week.

We talk to Denise from Pittsburgh who’s lived in Ecuadorfor 30 years. She assures us this is par for the course. In between regaling us with her stories, she talks to her husband about getting him to bribe someone so she can get her censo more quickly. She’s got number 93. Around noon (about 10 turns before ours), an officer announces that “the system is not working”. You think I’m making this up. How in the world could I make all this up? “The system’s not working”. We can wait if we want. Maybe it will start working again. Now, if this doesn’t sound like a reason for a half day of work, I’ve never heard one. Despite this, we wait. Some others leave. After a few minutes, numbers start getting called again (the numbers of people who have left because, unlike us, they have no faith in the system). Before we know it they’re at 46, 47. And then our number gets called. We go, this time to a different officer in the booth next to Officer Mendez. We hand over our stuff. He checks the system. We’re there. Sylvie says something about Officer Mendez having told us everything was in order. He says “why don’t you have him help you?” Sylvie answers, “because you seem nice and like you want to help us.” He answers, “and so you punish me for being nice.” This moment confirms for me that these guys are just looking for a reason not to help us. Not like a needed that, but I mean it really drives home the “$%@ you” point being made over the past week. I tell Sylvie “stop talking, he’s doing it”. We’re silent. He snaps our pictures. Some Japanese guy is all up on our necks trying to get in next, busting line. I tell him to back up. And then, Officer whatever-his-name-was does IT; something we didn’t believe could actually happen. He hands us our censos. I’m sorry there’s not a better, funnier ending to this long, long story. But the truth is that, that was it. The anticlimax here is the same that we felt at that moment. There was no jubilation; no sense of victory. Just disbelief and heavy pondering to fill the rest of the afternoon. How in the green earth did we just waste so much time for a poorly laminated photo id? I still don’t quite know. I hoped telling the story might help me figure it out. It’s not something I could even do for the first few weeks after it happened. But now, after a few month’s separation from the pain and frustration and rage I can at least talk about it. I don’t think there’s a moral to this story. I don’t know that we handled it the right way. In fact, any insight or advice is welcome. If anything, we learned something about ourselves and a little word called persistence. I think we tell kids something about character building when things like this happen. For us, we can only view it as some sort of national hazing or cosmic test. Could it be that, in the end, our toughest test in Ecuador will have come in the first two weeks? We won’t bank on it, but we can always hope.

Friday, March 23, 2007

A treatise on the lust for efficiency, bureacratic idiocy, psychological torture and questioning your last, greatest major life decision (Part 5)

Day 7 (The following following Monday: we’ve had another weekend to stew)

We return to the office with our ticket from last Friday in the late morning. We make eye contact with Officer Mendez from the waiting area. We watch like hawks for 10 minutes as he serves the current foreigner. We bolt for his booth when she steps to the side to organize her papers. He takes our papers and checks the system. Guess what?!?!? Nothing. We are still not entered into the system. We go talk to his supervisor. Amazingly, she’s more rude than she was the day before. I’m baffled. We go back to Officer Mendez. Sylvie is getting worked up again. I’m frustrated cus I can’t properly cuss anybody out. My Spanish is just not strong enough after 2 weeks. Mendez tells us we what we can do is go to another immigration office (Jefatura de Migración) and have them put us in the system. Friday, we were told by him that they would be doing this at this same office. That’s why we were supposed to come back, cus it was gonna be done. Now, this other office is doing it. Ok, whatever. “Where is it?” We find out. We catch a cab to the other office. We talk to the unfriendly officer there. She tells us we can’t be entered into their system without proof from our airline of our proper arrival. She says we need a letter from the office of the airline we flew. We get in a cab and head for the airport. By the way, it’s raining heavily at this point. We’re getting wet. We’re spending money. We’re like rats in a maze at this point and we don’t care. We’re ready to do whatever it takes to get out. We arrive at the airport, ask around and finally find the office for Continental in the bowels of Quito International. It’s 2:00 pm by this point, so what’s the situation? Come on. You’ve been reading for a while now. It’s closed. The Continental office closes at 1:00 pm at the airport. Who does business after 1:00 pm? I mean, come on. Sylvie’s freaking. I look at the posted sign for a number, anything, and find the address of another office. It’s like the Amazing Race at this point. We get in another cab and head to the other office. If we were thinking, we would have went to this other office, which is much more central, before the airport. It’s raining harder than it was, and the traffic is stiflingly slow. We’re behind a bus. Did I mention the pollution in Quito is off the charts. Buses emit huge plumes of smoke whenever they move from a standstill. Don’t worry though, the Coast has none of this type of pollution. It’s perfect. Quito, on the hand, is in a valley. And the buses are from 1965. I love Quito, just not the pollution. And not, when I’m in a cab, behind a bus, in the rain, bursting with frustration because no cars in front of us are moving.

We get to the Continental office and there’s only one guy in front of us. Beautiful. Of course, there’s only one attendant so we have to wait. It’s 3:30ish at this point. I can’t properly describe this next part, but suffice it to say for all that you’ve read, this was actually the most ridiculous part. This guy, who’s clearly been there for a while, is in the middle of this plodding, ridiculous conversation with the woman behind the counter who’s being way too patient. He’s asking her question after question in some thick German or Dutch accent. I mean literally this was the kind of conversation: “So, how much to go from Quito to Panama?” “Panama City?” “Yes, Panama City. I don’t want to go anywhere else in Panama.” “When do you want to go?” “Tomorrow.” She types on the computer for a while, then tells him the price, time of flight, airline. “No wait, which is cheaper: Tomorrow or Wednesday?” “Tomorrow is Wednesday.” “It is. Oh yes. I mean Thursday.” She types for a minute or so. “No I mean Wednesday. I want to leave Wednesday. What’s the best time to leave Wednesday.” She repeats the information she told him four minutes ago. “So what’s cheaper, if I leave Wednesday or Friday?” She looks up Friday. Mind you, each of these pauses for her takes about 2 or 3 minutes. By this point, I can’t even talk. I can’t focus on anything for too long. I’m bubbling over with emotion. I’m speechless.

Wednesday’s cheaper. “So, tell me how much would it be to go to Columbia first. I want to go through Bogota.” “Well sir, let me check”. Pause. “It’s blah blah blah to go Quito, Bogota, Panama City, Panama City, Quito.” “Oh no, I want a one way. I want to spend some time in Bogota. Is it nice this time of year?” “Well sir, it’s always more expensive to fly one way then round trip.” Ya, so the Wednesday flight is best?” “Yes sir, it’s the best flight.” “Ok ya, I’ll take the Wednesday flight from Quito to Panama City.” As she’s printing his ticket (another five minutes) he says “ya, I have a ticket around the world.” She hands him his ticket. And he starts asking about where he can catch the taxi for his hotel. And which direction is his hotel. And how much is his taxi. By this point, I’m standing behind him. When he turned around, mind you for the first time in this entire 30 minute episode, he jumped back when he saw my face. I don’t know what I looked like, but he stopped asking questions and walked backwards out of the office. I’m not that guy who scares people on the street, so I guess he saw something unusually dark in my twisted expression.

We go up to the counter and tell the woman our plight. She asks us for our boarding passes. Does anyone keep their boarding passes two weeks after they arrive somewhere? From now on you may want to consider it. “We don’t have our boarding passes.” “Well I’m sorry I’m not sure I can help you.” “What do you mean? Are you crazy? Is this a joke? Look in your flippin’ system. We flew on your plane.” Sylvie’s losing it at this point. The woman asks a question Sylvie didn’t hear. “Are you returning to the States?” I answer “yes, we have a return ticket”. She says “oh, well then you should be in the system”. After some trouble with the printer we get our letters from Continental confirming that yes we did actually arrive in this country. Cab back to the third immigration office, and we’re sitting in front of a very sweet officer (the first of her kind) who is an absolute green rookie. Of course, she is the one entering us into “the system”. She’s calling her supervisor every 15 seconds to ask him questions. Our getting into the system is riding on this woman and she’s joking and laughing and getting the spelling of our names wrong and clearing our entries to do it over again repeatedly. We couldn’t be mad at her cus at least she was trying to help, but damn, why the trainee entering us in the system at 4:45 pm on the 7th day. God is not only cruel, but he’s a comedian. At 5:00 pm we’re finally entered into the system. We hope…….

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A treatise on the lust for efficiency, bureacratic idiocy, psychological torture and questioning your last, greatest major life decision (Part 4)

Day 6 (Friday)

Before I begin here, let me point out that Sylvie and I are feeling pretty confident about our chances at this point. We’ve just jumped through the 3-day hoop of registering our visas. We also know we have all the paperwork required because were told so by the officer at the Registro Migratorio on Day 1.

More determined than ever, we wake up at 5:15am to ensure an even earlier arrival, and that we receive a younger ticket number. By 5:50am we’re on line. Numbers 19 and 20 are handed out. We go to a café for some strong coffee. We read magazines and joke a bit about the ridiculousness of this entire episode. We make tentative plans for opening our bank account and maybe even buying a cell phone with the extra time we have between receiving our Censos and me leaving for class.

Around 11:00 am we get called (We reminded the same man as before that he said he would help us if he remembered us, and he actually agreed – amazing really). He looks over our paperwork, which is beyond reproach, and starts to enter our info into the computer system. Then, he then tells us with a slight smile that “it’s funny but for some reason you’re not in the system”. Why does he like this so much? He’s sick, as my mother would say. Sylvie says “what do you mean?”. “I don’t know, you’re just not here.” “Well did you try the other passport?” He tries my passport. “He’s not in here either. According to this, you’re not in the country. How did you arrive?” “By plane…at the airport!” “Did the immigration officer slide your passport through the scanner?” “Yes!” “Well, I’m not sure what’s going on. Let me check with my boss”. Officer Carlos Mendez comes back after a few minutes and informs us that the company that had been contracted by the Ecuadorian government to enter data into the immigration database has messed up. We were never entered into the system when we entered the country. He/we have no proof that we entered legally. Furthermore, this problem went on for a while. So, everyone who entered the country between certain dates last month has the same problem. And….since it’s after 1:00 pm on a Friday, and the office of this company has already closed (perfectly logical, right?). He can’t call them to get them to help. We should come back Monday early when they’re in the office and can help.

Two sidenotes here: anyone who’s spent significant time outside the Western world is probably thinking to themselves, why didn’t these rank amateurs just bribe somebody. Well, that thought came to me back on Monday, but when we inquired about if I should or how to go about it, our Ecuadorian friends warned us that this is an “Ecuadorian thing”. Hence, we were advised not to make attempts at bribing an Immigration officer. It made sense, so we didn’t push it. No need in complicating our plight with an arrest and potential deportation. Besides, after waiting 5 days to get this thing done, we weren’t bribing any of these pig cops. Point two: 6 de Deciembre is approaching. Quito was founded on 6 de Deciembre in 1534. Every year in early December Quito essentially shuts down for a week of partying (Las Fiestas de Quito). In the week leading up to 6 de Deciembre it is nearly impossible to get anything done. At the office, staff play cuarenta (40) a popluar card game and drink shots of liquor. At this point in the saga, 6 de Diciembre is 3 work days away. For us, this could be the proverbial kiss of death.

By now, Sylvie is crying, pleading with Officer Mendez to help us. I’m so pissed off I’m considering pulling Officer Mendez by his ears over his desk. He says we can talk to the woman in Computacion. We go to this a very unhelpful woman who tells us she can’t help us. We go to her supervisor and are told to come back tomorrow. We go back to the woman in Computacion. She tells us Officer Mendez can authorize the Censo, but we need him to give the ok. We ask him to do so, but he refuses due to the suspicion that would be raised during an internal audit. The assumption would be that he was bribed if he didn’t have the necessary paperwork. He did not want to be the answer to the question “who authorized this censo”? As a parting victory Officer Mendez tells us we can come to him directly the following business day and that don’t need to wake up at the crack of dawn to wait for a ticket.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A treatise on the lust for efficiency, bureacratic idiocy, psychological torture and questioning your last, greatest major life decision (Part 3)

Day 2 (the Following Monday)

We arrive at the Dirección de Extranjería at 8:30 in the morning. This is where we’ve been told to go in order to register our visas. We wait in line outside for a few minutes, and then are let inside. It’s a small waiting room filled with maybe 25 people. Not bad in comparison to the hundred or so at the Registro Migratorio. We wait patiently for a couple hours until it’s our turn: We’re called, and go sit at the desk. Behind it, is an unfriendly civilian administrator. He takes our information and says it’s correct. He tells us to go to the Banco Internacional, several blocks away, to pay $20 for the process, and then come back to submit them to the man who collects the proof of payment. Unfortunately, the official who collects the deposit receipts is not in yet. He worked the presidential election on the day before and hadn’t yet shown up to work. According to policy, he was permitted to take the day off since he had worked Sunday, but they weren’t sure if he was coming or not. So far, they hadn’t heard from him. (Note: when a government worker in Ecuador is able to take the day off, don’t expect him to show up for work). So, even though we had our stuff in order, we were going to have to come back the next day. We paid for the pending service and received a receipt we were going to have to bring back and give to the guy who collects these things.

Day 3 (Tuesday)

We show up at 8:30 in the morning at the Direccion de Extranjería. We sit. We wait. At this point, I‘ve begun bringing my homework from my Spanish class. It helps pass the time. Sylvie’s got a book. Humans are highly evolved in their ability to adapt to harsh environments. We get called. We go up. We give our receipt and leave our passports so that the guy can give the Director our passports to sign later in the day. You may have thought it would be signed right there and then. You’d be wrong. Things don’t work like that here. If you’re not waiting, it ain’t right. We are given a slip telling us to come back in 2 days to pick up the passports. We leave.

Day 4 (Day of rest)

Day 5 (Thursday)

We return at the time indicated on our slip of paper. We are told when we enter the now familiar waiting room that the person who signs the passports never showed up yesterday and is not there now. And furthermore, they don’t know when she’s gonna show up. At some point, the person who signs the passports turned from a man into a woman. Maybe they were away from the office for several days getting their sex change. I have no idea since I never saw the person. Dealing with this latest frustration, Sylvie and I retreat to the mall. Over the past couple days we have made other failed attempts to complete other “tramites” (tramites are errands like the one chronicled here that involve waiting and bureaucracy). The biggest obstacle, of course, being our no having a censo. We go back to the office. People who are waiting there are sitting on steps, standing, buzzing with chit chat and indignation. The “woman” still has not shown her face. I have to leave for class since it’s damn near 1:00pm (my class starts at 1:30…). Sylvie is a soldier, and since she has no choice, she waits. A Cuban woman is talking ceaselessly about her son, her family, his life and other stories that have no impact on anyone there except to help pass the time. Sylvie waits until 3:30. At that time, the “woman” shows up and is met by the angry mob. She announces abruptly that she can not help everyone and that people are going to have to come back tomorrow. The crowd begins to howl and boo and pull out pieces of rope. Sylvie, according to herself, begins to demand service for everyone saying that they were all promised that they would be helped, and have waited the entire day based on this promise. The woman backs down saying “she’ll do what she can”. People get helped, including Sylvie.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A treatise on the lust for efficiency, bureacratic idiocy, psychological torture and questioning your last, greatest major life decision (Part 2)

Day 1 (Friday)

Sylvie and I arrive at 6:15 am at the Registro Migratorio. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m tired right about now. As we pull up in the cab we see a line running down the block. By the time we get our ticket they've reached numbers 89 and 90. Mind you, we arrived 15 minutes earlier than we were told by the woman behind the desk (15 minutes before the office even opens) because we just thought we’d be good and get their early so we could be sure to get a good ticket. So Sylvie asks the guard giving out tickets exactly what time we can expect to get served. He says that they serve roughly 20 people an hour. So, by 11ish we should be sure to be there so we don’t miss our turn. 11:00, and it’s 6:30 when we’re hearing this. Well, all I can think about is eating breakfast. So, we try to find a place that’s open and eventually head into a spot that has “American breakfast”. Smart idea on their part, being so close to the Registro Migratorio. I had buttermilk pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, juice and coffee. Fans of IHOP will feel me on this one. I was trying to eat myself into a coma for the next 3 hours to reduce the pain of the 5 hour wait. By the way, I’m not the type of guy who demands ketchup when traveling abroad, but sometimes you just need the comforts of home. After breakfast, we head over to the mall to find out about buying cell phones, and to the bank to see if we can open an account. Not surprisingly, we need our censo to make these things happen. So, around 11:00 we head back to the office for our Censo. We excitedly look to see what number they’re on. 39. We wait for another four and a half hours until we’re called at 3:45 in the afternoon. We excitedly head up to the awaiting officer behind the desk with all our papers. However, I notice as we’re waiting for him to finish with the preceding extranjera that he was being rude and kind of yelling. By the way, these officers are not doughnut cops. They’re more in the military mold: government’s taskmasters of the street, if you will. They wear pressed, olive-colored uniforms and the whole nine. The ones working in these types of administrative offices are pissed because they’re on desk duty; perfect for dealing with unwanted foreigners. So yeah, we head up there. Sylvie’s smiling. I hit him with an “hola señor” just to show respect. Cops like that. He responds with a slight head nod and puts his hand out for our papers. Clearly, this man is a hard time waiting to happen. We hand over our papers. He tersely reviews them. When he looks at our passports, he tells us that we haven’t registered our visas yet. Sylvie says in Spanish “yeah, that’s why we’re here”. He says with a sly smile that we have to register our visas at another office, then come back to this one for our Censo. Sylvie protests to no avail. Eventually, we are left asking questions such as “where is this office?” We find out. We ask if we can/should come back to him? He says he’ll help us if he remembers us. This should have been our first clue. Sylvie writes his name down. She’s quick. We leave feeling somewhat defeated. That’s an entire day shot.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A treatise on the lust for efficiency, bureacratic idiocy, psychological torture and questioning your last, greatest major life decision (Part I)

The Censo fiasco was so degrading and soul crushing that I almost had the thought that maybe we had made the wrong decision to come here to Ecuador. Part of the problem was that it was very early in our time here, within the first two weeks. All the vim and vigor we arrived with was slowly drained over the 8 day ordeal. All the idealism about how wonderful things would be was promptly balanced with a healthy dose of reality. Some things like say governmental bureaucracy, move excruciatingly slow. This is just one account. We know there are hundreds if not thousands like it because we saw a lot of the same tired, sad faces everyday. Sylvie, after living here for four years until 2001, knows something about how things work Ecuador. And even she was stunned and pushed to the point of tears by the events that I am about to recount.

Pre Game Warm Up:

A few days after arriving in Quito, Sylvie and I decide it's time to do our civic duty and register for the Censo. The Censo, in it’s physical form, is a glorified fake ID that could be made at any check cashing place in the time it takes you to buy a pack of bus tokens. However, it represents a very important process for the Ecuadorian government, the registration of foreigners on beloved Ecuadorian soil. It is, literally, the Census of “extranjeros” or foreigners. The relevance of this process has dramatically increased since Sylvie’s time in Ecuador due to the influx of Columbians coming to the country over the past few years. Columbians are considered dangerous by many Ecuadorians. They drain the resources of the country according to some. And, of course, they are seen as criminals by many citizens. For me, it’s comforting to know that I can apply the xenophobic arguments I learned at home here in Ecuador. Nationalistic attitudes regarding foreigners translate perfectly here, as in the most of the world. Well, poor foreigners anyway. Ecuador also has 110 voltage. It’s like hand in glove over here.

So, being the responsible people we are, Sylvie and I find out about the process for getting a Censo. First we talk to our friends Martha and Ramiro who advise us to go over to the office one afternoon to get the list of requirements. On this brilliant, time-saving suggestion, we act. The next afternoon, a Friday, we head over to the office and grab the list of requirements for the Censo provided to us at the Information Desk on cut up scraps of paper. Sylvie inquires, since I can’t, with one of the ladies behind the desk to make sure there is nothing else we need. She likes to double check things like this. She is assured that that is it. Apparently, all we have to do is bring copies of our passports, 2 pictures each, 2 envelopes for their record keeping, a letter from our hosts Martha and Ramiro verifying that we live with them and copies of their national ID cards (also known as the cedula). Follow these few simple steps and show up at 6:30 in the morning to get the ticket which will determine the order in which we are served on that day. Simple.

Monday, March 5, 2007

If You Want My Body

I hate Rod Stewart. There are people we just hate for some inexplicable reason. They never did anything to us. They never did anything generally offensive as far as we know. Yet and still, they rub us the wrong way. I think that we are genetically predisposed to not liking certain people, like the uni-brow baby and Maggie on the Simpsons. Maybe, when man first walked the earth it served as a biochemical form of population control. You cross paths with someone whose scent makes you want hit them on the head with your club, and that’s one less person eating food. In modern times, it serves no greater cause, just our petty preoccupations.

When I was a boy, I once asked my Aunt Stell if she liked Diana Ross. We were talking about music; she used to be a deejay back in New York City; I didn’t think it was a dumb question. She never told me “no Umi I don’t like Diana Ross”. Instead, her eyes glazed over like she was remembering the POW camp. My cousin quickly stepped between us, said “he didn’t know Mom”, pulled me out of striking distance and directly outside the house to go play. To this day, I still don’t know exactly what Diana Ross did that made my Aunt Stell black out like that. From the way she responded I’m guessing she must have stolen a boyfriend. All I know is, no one, even her mother when she was living, is allowed to mention even the initials DR around my Aunt Stell. Forget the joke gifts at Christmas. Nothing.

I’ve never liked Rod Stewart. To me, he’s like scraping chalk on a blackboard. You know the feeling. You would break the teacher’s hand to make it stop. On Fridays, I work with the guys who are digging/building the well on our property. Last Friday, while I was working inside the well with one of the guys, Eloy, I kept hearing him whistle the same tune over and over. At first I couldn’t place it. Then, I remembered the lyrics “if you want my body dah dah dah dah dah dah”. And I asked, are you whistling “if you want my body”. Excitedly, he said “yes, you know it” in Spanish. At first, I thought it was Olivia Newton John who sang it. I had a flashback of her in that aerobics outfit with the headband: funny stuff. Then I sang it a little bit and remembered. This is damn Rod Stewart!!!!, I thought. Mind you, I’m in the boondocks of rural Ecuador, 15 feet in the bottom of a well with one other guy. I don’t need to listen to Rod Stewart being whistled (whistling is even worse than singing, because it ensures that the song will stick in your head the rest of the day). Despite what I said earlier about population control, I never got the urge to drown Eloy in the cement we were using. In fact, quite honestly, hearing the little ditty whistled innocently by this really nice guy who’s helping us build our well, put that particular song in a new light. The guys above us heard the conversation and started singing the song badly, mumbling the words. I asked did they know the lyrics. They didn’t. I then sang the chorus and explained what it means in Spanish. Long story short, I now have to print and translate the lyrics, and teach them how to sing the song. They want do sexy serenades for their wives. There might even be a little dance involved. I can’t handle it all right now. I’ve been procrastinating on googling “Rod Stewart lyrics” for a week.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Good Parenting

The beach was packed on New Year’s Day. It was perfect weather; not a cloud in the sky. We ate fish tamales, drank beer, went on a banana boat and played shark with the kids in the water. Speaking of beer, there was an interesting moment while we stood by our chairs that got me to thinking. One of the babies, a 9-month old, who will remain nameless to protect the identity of her and her parents, dropped the small rubber duckie she was sucking on, in the sand, while leaning over her daddy’s shoulder. I picked it up and passed it to her mother who promptly asked her brother-in-law to wash it off with some of his beer. Cleaned, she then handed it back to her daughter who sucked the little piece of plastic like there was gold inside. Every adult watching broke into a good 30-second laugh. The lesson here: it’s ok to give your infant child small amounts of alcohol, even as they’re still learning to walk.

I’ve learned since being here that sex, adultery, being hung over, and other “adult” topics are open subject matter in many Ecuadorian homes. Spared the gory details, children often giggle and laugh along as adults tell tales of debauchery and inebriation. Maybe, the attitude is that this is a part of life just like birthday parties, what other kids are wearing and SAT scores. At least, that’s my best guess so far. Or, people may believe that knowledge is power. Knowing why uncle so-and-so is snoring on the couch and stinky takes the mystery out of the effects of alcohol. It also balances the glamorous light alcohol and drugs are often put in by the media. At the end of the day, the results may be nearly identical in terms of rates of alcohol consumption and abuse. However, there is surely a difference in approach to one of our legal taboos. Would you, do you, give your children sips of wine or beer? They usually seem to get their hands on it before they’re 21 anyway. And often, they do more than sip. Like sex, many people are never taught by their parents how to do it responsibly. They find out what they know in the street, experiment, make mistakes and then, if caught, are chastised for not having listened to their parents about not doing what they did. If they’re lucky and never get caught, they are finally able discuss it at home years after they’ve entered adulthood. Does this approach make more sense? What other alternatives exist?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tarantula and the Earthquake

The first Friday after arriving here on the coast, I was reminded that we are now in a different place. In the morning, while out in the fields looking at the vegetables being grown by our landlord I nearly stepped on a tarantula. I saw it out of the corner of my eye about 4 feet away. It was coming in the direction I was going. Quickly, I stepped back sideways around Manuel who was showing me the bell peppers and tomatoes (a slight act of cowardice on my part, but more reflex than premeditated chicken shit behavior). At least I didn’t him push towards the tarantula as a distraction while I ran in the other direction. Anyway, Manuel laughed and got a stick. Not to spear it mind you, but simply shoo it away. The tarantula was not the one from the horror movies that’s 10 feet high, but he wasn’t little by any stretch of the imagination. The thing about tarantulas is not so much their length. It’s more the roundness of their bodies. Most spiders are flat in shape. Tarantulas have this girth that’s just uncomfortable to look at.

While we escorted the tarantula away from our garden (me, a step behind Manuel) we paused a moment so Manuel could flip the little guy over and show me his red fangs (that’s where all the poison is). I was tempted to drop down on the ground and do a Crocodile Hunter impersonation, but respect for dead, and my own life made me pass on that comedic moment. Manuel wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, which would have only exacerbated the stupidity of my fatal mistake had I been bitten in the face by a tarantula. Actually, I never thought, at any point, about dropping down to the ground. It just sounded good while I was writing.

Later in that same evening while Sylvie and I were yukking it up with our guests, the architects who are designing our soon-to-be wonderful property, there was an earthquake in our living room. The earthquake was actually throughout the entire area, not just our living room. But that’s the strange thing about earthquakes. They cover a huge area of space, but they’re an extremely personal experience. I mean, even though I was sitting on the same couch as Sylvie I’m sure she had a very different experience than me. Point in fact, she calls it a tremor to this day. It shook the earth, foundation of the house, floor, and seat right underneath me. It personally touched me and disturbed my place in the Earth’s gravitational pull. As I discovered, that is a very special and important connection that I have been taking for granted for way too long. Earthquakes are like bad in-laws (I have a great ones by the way) who get in the middle of your relationship.

What have I learned from this experience? Everyday while Sylvie and I ride our bikes, we get chased by dogs. They run at our feet and bark. At first you think they might try to bite you, but they’re not really out for that. They’re just protecting their property. Tarantulas don’t bite unless you step on their homes or threaten them. Even earthquakes (and natural disasters) act as reminders of the fragile place we have on this planet. A cosmic interpretation could be that we need to be careful to protect our homes which include the planet and our environment. Another is that Ecuador is a dangerous, scary place, and we’re stupid for being here. I’ll go with the former. Personally, I was humbled and continue to be. Living closer to the earth is giving me a heightened sense of respect for the fine balance of our ecosystem - the one we are now rapidly losing.