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 clich├ęs. 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.