Frozen Tundra

In November my family and I went to see the Packers play the Vikings at Lambeau Field.

IMG_20131124_103717871_HDRIt was fun.  And cold (something like 6 below with the windchill).  I spent most of the third quarter in the bathroom trying to warm up my feet.  I finally convinced myself I could make it through one more quarter outside.  And then the game went into overtime.



Chillin with my cousin and Aaron. Literally chillin.

And then the game ended in a tie.  A tie.  What is this, SOCCER?!?!

But all complaining aside, it was a great experience to see a Packer game live in the frozen tundra.   And I didn’t even lose any toes to frostbite.


English Camp in Venezuela

So way back in August I moved to Saint Paul, MN.  And then promptly left the country for two weeks to work at an English Camp in Venezuela.  I had such a wonderful time a year ago when the State Department invited me to work there that I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity to go back.  I got to hang out with the AMAZING board members who run the professional organization for English teachers there (many of whom I knew were awesome from my prior visit), 60 fun university students who are planning to become English teachers, and about 30 high school kiddos studying English through a State Department scholarship program.  We played English games and did scavenger hunts and made s’mores and sang songs and had a blast.

The highlight for me was the night of the talent show.  Some of the English teachers really pushed for me to perform in the show by dancing salsa.  At first I resisted, saying that salsa isn’t anything new for Venezuelans, and who would want to sit and watch someone else dance salsa anyway?  The teachers insisted that the students would love to see me do it, and would be shocked to see a gringa dance as well as I do.

Well, if you put it THAT way…

So we figured out which teacher knew the most turns.  Fernando and I practiced a little bit and chose a song.

The night of the show, the MC announced that I was going to perform a very very VERY traditional American dance.  When the first few notes of a well-known salsa song started to play, the hundred or so Venezuelans ERUPTED in cheers.  It was fun.

I was glad I did it.  The next night at dinner, one of the high school students came up to me and said “You broke my stereotype of Americans when I saw you dancing salsa.”  And that, my friends, is what soft diplomacy is all about.  So grateful for this career.

1.  Go to all of Ecuador’s 24 provinces.
Check!  I went hiking in the jungle in Morona Santiago in January (pics here).  I spent Easter weekend in the rainforest in Sucumbios (pics here).  I visited Incan ruins in Cañar in April (pics here).  I gave a workshop in Carchi in April.  That meant I was just missing Los Rios province, which doesn’t really have any tourism.  So with just over a week left in the country, I hopped a Friday afternoon bus to that province, stayed overnight, and came back to Quito the next morning.  Quick, but it counts!  ALL 24 PROVINCES – WOO HOO!

At the Quito bus station about to head to my 24th and final Ecuadorian province: Los Rios!

At the Quito bus station about to head to my 24th and final Ecuadorian province: Los Rios!

2.  Further improve my Spanish.
Check, más o menos.  I took 50 more hours of Spanish lessons.  I’m controlling time frames much better than I used to, including using (and sometimes over-using) the dreaded subjunctive.  I still make a ton of mistakes and my fluency is lousy, but several people have told me that I speak with a Quito accent.  So yes, my Spanish has improved, although it’s far from perfect.

3.  Further improve my salsa dancing.
Check!  I continued to go salsa dancing on a weekly basis, plus I took a few hours of private lessons at my old dance school, ENB.  Here’s a sample from one of my lessons:

4.  Learn to make fanesca.
Check!  It was a lot of work (2 days of cooking!), but so hearty and delicious.  My favorite Ecuadorian dish.IMG_9709

5.  Go to a professional soccer match.
Fail.  The only games I ever heard about in advance were World Cup qualifying matches for the national team.  Apparently, that’s kind of a big deal, so tickets are nearly impossible to get.  Oh well, I’m not really into soccer anyway.

6.  Make a list of “things sold on the street.”
Check!  The most interesting items I saw hawked on the street:
– balsa wood toy models
– plastic animal banks
– TV remote controls
– coconut juice
– chocolate bars
– avocados
– oranges
– CDs
– incense sticks
– pears
– back scratchers
– corn on the cob (raw)
– brooms
– grilled plantains with cheese
– deep fried empanadas
– watches
– feather dusters
– soccer jerseys (mostly just on game days)
– lottery tickets
– hookers (yeah, prostitution is legal in Ecuador)
– sewing kits
– tea towels

7.  See a bomba performance.
Check!  I attended a conference in Imbabura province, where this Afro-Ecuadorian dance/music is from.  The university hired a bomba band to perform during the event. 

Bomba Band in Ibarra from Stephanie Hanson on Vimeo.

8.  Find a new job.
Check!  (Whew!)  I will be returning to Venezuela August 6-18 to work as an English Language Specialist.  Then I’ll start my new position as a Teaching Specialist in the University of Minnesota’s English Language Program in Minneapolis.

So, 7/8 is pretty good.  Now, what should I do for the rest of 2013?

The weather.  Quito is in the 50s-70s year-round, which I think is just about perfect.  Not too hot.  Not too cold (I don’t own anything warmer than a spring jacket).  And if I want more summery weather, the coast, with its 80- to 90-degree heat and humid ocean air, is only 5 hours away.

Locro de papas

Locro de papas

Soup.  Lunch always starts with a bowl of soup.  There are hundreds of different soups here.  I start to go through withdrawal if I don’t eat soup for a few days.  Guess I’ll be cooking lots of soup in the U.S.

Almuerzos.  As I said, lunch starts with soup.  Then comes a main entrée of protein, rice, and probably some sort of salad.  Then a small desert.  And fresh juice.  And probably coffee if you want it.  All of this costs $2 or $3.  These hearty home-style meals are such a great value.  If I find a $3 lunch in the U.S., it’s probably going to come in a greasy fast food bag.

Cheap taxis.  Most of my taxi rides in Quito cost a couple bucks.  Inconceivable in the U.S.

Seeing the Andes every day.  Sure it will be nice to live somewhere with a little more oxygen, but I won’t see views like this every time I leave my house.  I love the mountains.  They make my heart fill with awe at how grand this world of ours is.

Buen provecho.  It’s common in smaller restaurants to tell other patrons to enjoy their  meal, even if they don’t know one another.  I love that strangers wish each other “buen provecho.”

Tropical fruits.  I’ve discovered so many new fruits here.  Uvillas.  Pitahaya.  Granadilla.  Tomate de arbol.  Taxo.  Naranjilla.  And other slightly less exotic fruits, like mango and passion fruit and pineapple, are common, fresh, and affordable.  So delicious.

Latin music.  It’s everywhere: in stores, on buses, blasting out of cars and apartments.  My day is filled with a soundtrack of salsa, bachata, merengue, cumbia, vallenatos, pasillos, Latin pop, and reggaeton.  I know I can listen to this in the Twin Cities, but it won’t be so prevalent.

Greeting strangers.  One of my earliest impressions during my first week in Ecuador happened when I was staying at the Embassy’s temporary apartment while looking for my own housing.  I was leaving the complex and a little boy ran by me on the sidewalk.  He was maybe 6 or 7, and obviously in a hurry.  But he still said “Good afternoon” when he passed me.  I thought that was exceptionally polite, especially for a little kid.  But I have since learned that people greet each other more than I am used to, especially in more rural areas.  But even in the big city, if you enter an elevator with someone already in it, you’d better say hello (and “see you later” when exiting).  Getting in a taxi?  The first words out of your mouth better be “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or “Good evening,” even before asking the fare or stating an address.  Got a quick question for a sales clerk?  Same thing.  I really had to work hard to remember this, and STILL forget sometimes.  But as someone who tends to focus on tasks rather than on relationships, this custom has been really good for me.

IMG_3417No seasonal eating.  Seasonal eating seems to have really become a thing in the U.S.  And I think it’s a good idea – eating food that is in season means it tastes better, is fresher, and was probably grown locally or shipped shorter distances.  But I realized that this concept doesn’t exist in Ecuador, because everything is always in season here.  If I want strawberries in November, I can get them.  If I want a tomato in January, I can find a juicy ripe red one.  Do Minnesotans even eat produce in February???  Guh.

Easy travel.  It’s pretty cheap and easy to travel around this compact (and DIVERSE!) country.  I’ve gotten to visit a lot of great places here: Tena and Yasuni in the Amazon region; Quilotoa, Vilcabamba, Baños, Cuenca, and Bolivar province in the Andes, and the Galapagos islands.  There are so many beautiful, fun, and interesting places I will miss having in my backyard.

Physical contact.  Greetings in Ecuador are a small kiss on the right cheek (or a brief cheek-to-cheek touch), often accompanied by a small hug or touch on the back.  When I go back to the U.S. and shake hands to greet people, or, more likely, just smile and nod after an introduction, it feels incredibly cold to me.  Now I understand what my Latino students complained about when they came to the U.S. – it’s cold.  I’m really going to miss these warm greetings.  I don’t know what I’m going to do, since I have such an overwhelming urge to kiss everyone hello or goodbye now.

Terms of endearment.  Sure we have these in the U.S. (hon, sweetie), but they’re just soooooooo gosh darn prevalent in Ecuador, particularly on the coast.  I love that sales clerks and taxi drivers call me mi niña (my child), mi hija (my daughter), señorita (miss), mi princesa  (my princess), mi preciosa (my precious), mi reina (my queen) or mi vida (my life).  I once got this text message from an admirer: “Hola mi reina como q chevere q viene esta semana mi vida y q tiempo se queda ha mi princesa asi q podemos salir cuando llegue si y como esta q hace mi princesa soy alexander mi amor este es mi otro numero mi vida y disculpe xq recien le escribo si corazon bello un beso mi vida.”  That’s a lot of affection squeezed into a few lines of text.

The salsa scene.  In December 2010, when I was still in Turkey and preparing to move to Ecuador, I made a list of resolutions for myself.  One of the goals I wrote in my journal was “I definitely want to find a place in the salsa community!!  My goal is to have friends to go out dancing with, help me practice, and improve as a salsa dancer.”  And I can proudly and affectionately say that I accomplished this.  I really have.  I can go to any salsa club in Quito and be confident that I will know at least one person there.  I know a lot of salseros.  Most of my friends are salseros (whom I will miss dearly).  I’M a salsero.   And while I know that there are lots of opportunities for salsa dancing in the Twin Cities, and I look forward to getting involved in THAT community as well, I also doubt that it will be the same.  From what I’ve seen in the metro area salsa clubs, falta sabor.  I will fiercely miss salsa dancing in Quito.

DSC_0774 copia
Estephy.  Man, this one is hard.  This one…  it encapsulates just about everything on this list, and more.  When I first came here, I noticed that people often shortened my name to Stephy (pronounced Estephy with the Spanish accent).  It originally struck me as odd, since I hadn’t been called that since kindergarten.  But I learned that Ecuadorians are quick to diminutize names to show affection, and I now love this.  Almost everyone here calls me Estephy.  I no longer feel that it’s childish – I find it endearing.  In fact, I feel like Estephy represents the Ecuadorian me, as if I now have two versions of myself.  Estephy speaks fluent Spanglish.  Estephy rides the bus and negotiates with taxi drivers and shops in markets and likes hearing  Latin music everywhere.  Estephy takes time to greet people and says hello with a kiss on the cheek.  Estephy wears leggings and skinny jeans and large earrings.  Estephy is flexible with ambiguity and sometimes a little late.  Estephy speaks with Quiteño intonation.  Estephy loves to eat fanesca and encocado and ceviche and chulpi chochos and empanadas de viento and mote con chicharron.  Estephy has a lot of friends in Ecuador (voy a extrañarlos una bestia!).  Estephy whips her hand to show emotion.  Estephy dances like a Latina.  And I feel like when I move back to the U.S., I will go back to being Stephanie.  Estephy will always be a part of me, but I worry that she will fade away.  In Ecuador, Estephy has thrived.  In the United States…quien sabe?

“Familiarity does not breed contempt. On the contrary the more familiar it is the more rare and beautiful it is. Take the quarter in which one lives, it is lovely, it is a place rare and beautiful and to leave it is awful.”
— Gertrude Stein


Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is often listed as one of the 7 wonders of the world, and is a top travel destination for many globe-trotters.  Lucky for me, Ryan (the English Language Fellow working in Peru’s jungle region) wanted to visit this famous Incan ruin along with  me.  Also lucky for me, it’s not much more than a hop, skip, and a jump from Quito.

First, hop a plane from Quito, Ecuador to Cuzco, Peru.

While you’re there, you might as well enjoy the summer solstice celebration.


Next, skip on over to Machu Picchu Pueblo, aka Aguas Calientes.  Ryan and I opted to hire a driver to take us to Ollantaytambo, where we visited some ruins and enjoyed the adorable little town.  Then we took the famous train the rest of the way to MPP.

Finally, jump on a bus and ride 30 minutes up a windy mountain road to the entrance of the World Heritage site.  And then why not jump some more?  Out of pure joy, if nothing else.


I was a little worried that Machu Picchu might be over-hyped, but it’s not a let-down at all.  Walking around the extensive ruins and seeing that famous shot of Huayna Picchu in person does not disappoint.


I’ve been going to salsa Wednesdays at El Aguijón for two years now.  This is my favorite place to go dancing.  I know a ton of the regulars who dance there.  Actually I’m one of the regulars who dances there!  El Aguijón has become my second home in Quito, and is one of the things I will miss most when I leave Ecuador.

dj estephyThis year they’ve occasionally had guest DJs play for an hour or so on Wednesdays.  I thought that sounded kind of fun, and eventually worked up the nerve to ask Galo, the manager, how I might be able to be one of the invited DJs.  His response?  “Done! Give me your phone number!”  It was that easy.


My most favoritist salsa song in the whole world.

I agonized for WEEKS over my playlist.  I got advice from friends.  I got advice from DJs.  I organized and reorganized my songs.  Did I have a good mix of tempos?  Did I balance salsa Cubana with Colombian and Puerto Rican songs?  Did I have a nice selection of classic and new stuff?  Would people like my music and dance to it?

Can you tell how nervous I was before starting?  Egad.

Can you tell how nervous I was before starting? Egad.

When I arrived at the club early on the night of my DJ debut, I was so nervous.  My friends could even tell I was nervous when they were dancing with me.  Stick me in front of an auditorium of 500 English teachers and I can easily present for an hour, no sweat.  Stick me in a DJ booth at one of the best night clubs in Quito and I’m a giggly jittery mess.  No one could understand this.  But teaching English – and training teachers how to teach English?  That’s my THING.  I’ve studied that and practiced that for years.  I KNOW that field.  Salsa?  I’ve really just been in this “field” for a couple years.  I didn’t grow up listening to salsa music.  I still have to look up which groups are Cuban or Colombian or Puerto Rican, because I can’t just tell.  I don’t understand all the lyrics to all the songs.  And people generally think (rightfully so) that a gringa doesn’t know much, if anything, about salsa.  I was sticking my neck out by getting up in front of a crowd with my selection of songs.

But I did it.
And people danced.

I’m pretty sure this will be one of my best memories from Ecuador.  I’m pretty sure this will be one of my best memories, period.

With the professionals.

With the professionals.


According to indexmundi.com, Ecuador’s ethnic groups break down roughly as follows:
72% Mestizo (mixed Indigenous and White (Spanish colonizers))
7%  Indigenous
7%  Afro-Ecuadorian
7%  Montubio (a rural peasant class found on the coast, which recently became an ethnic classification as well.  I still don’t understand this very well, nor do I know much about this group other than what I just read here.)
6%  White

I would say it’s generally understood that there is a hierarchy to these categories: Whites and Mestizos have the most status/power, Indigenous and Montubios have less, and Afro-Ecuadorians have the least.  Let me recount a few anecdotes that I find revealing about race relations in Ecuador…

1.  As Prepared At Home
There is a popular Ecuadorian fast food chain called Menestras del Negro.  This roughly translates as “The black guy’s lentils.”  It’s important to note here that the Spanish word negro (pronounced NAY-grow), means black, as in the color black, or a black person.  It does NOT have the derogatory connotation of the English word negro.  So the name of the chain is not really problematic in and of itself.  However, you might have other thoughts when you see their logo:

EVERY North American that I have had a conversation with about this establishment is HORRIFIED by this image, and immediately comments on how racist it is.  Interestingly, every Ecuadorian I have had a conversation with about this establishment doesn’t see anything wrong at all.  In fact, one Ecuadorian friend, a lawyer, attempted to give me a language lesson to explain that the word negro in Spanish isn’t racist.  Which I already KNEW.  I asked him to describe the logo.  He said it’s a black guy.  I asked what’s in the black guy’s hair.  He thought about it, and then his eyes got HUGE, and he said I was right, it IS an insulting logo, and he had never noticed it before.  (He is also thinking about filing a class action lawsuit on this, but that’s another story for another time.)  My point?  This is a well-known image all over the country here, and no locals (that I know of) even notice it.

2.  Criminals
One of my Fulbright friends who taught in a town 2 hours south of Quito was mugged a couple years ago.  By two black guys.  When she told her local friends and colleagues about it, many of them asked if (or assumed that) the thieves were black.  My friend started lying and telling people that two mestizos robbed her, because she didn’t want to perpetuate racism.  (Relatedly, when I was recently robbed, no one asked if the criminals were black, but a few people insisted that “they must have been Colombian.”  I’m not sure why, but my reaction is they got my purse – does it really matter WHO got it?)

3.  It’s All Relative
Among a group of friends, it’s quite common that the darkest skinned person will have the nickname Negro or Negra, even if they are not ACTUALLY black.  And the person with the smallest eyes will often be called Chino or China, even though they are not ACTUALLY Chinese.  It’s a way to identify a friend, and is somehow a bonding term, a way to show inclusion in the group.  (I will admit I have referred to my old salsa teacher as El Chinito, but he actually IS half Chinese and half Ecuadorian, so I feel like that’s a little more accurate in his case.)  In a similar vein, two or three of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends have taken to calling me Negrita.  Obviously I am NOT the darkest skinned person among our group of friends – not by a long shot.  Although I do kind of love the ridiculousness of my new nickname.

I got to see the band perform their hit at a salsa club in Quito.  I'm such a groupie.

I got to see 3D Corazones perform their hit at a salsa club in Quito. I’m such a groupie.

4.  Blacks Are In Style
A suuuuuuuuper popular salsa song this year, sung by a Colombian group, is called “Los Negros Estan de Moda,” or “blacks are in style.”  Ironically, the first time I heard this song was during an English summer camp for teens on the coast, most of whom were Afro-Ecuadorian.  The theme of the camp was Black History Month.  During our campfire party the kiddos played this song, and went CRAZY.  In fact, every time I’ve heard this song in a dance club, the black patrons seem to LOVE it.  I do see how the lyrics promote black pride, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.  But I guess, as a white person, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about it.

5.  Who Can Get A Taxi At 4am
Once, after a night out dancing, a group of friends came back to my place to continue hanging out.  Around 4am, when most of us couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore, some of them were starting to settle in to sleep on my couch.  They were welcome to stay, but I asked why they didn’t just take a taxi home.  One of them said “We’re 4 black guys.  We can’t get a taxi at 4 in the morning.”  Oh.  That stopped me in my tracks, because I NEVER would have even considered that being a problem.  But it is.  Wow.  I just don’t usually have to think about things like that.  (I ended up calling one of my regular taxi companies to order two taxis to take everyone home.  But I still went outside with everyone to make sure the taxi drivers would accept the four guys.)  I have also chatted with taxi drivers who have told me they will not pick up certain would-be passengers (i.e., blacks and Cubans).

6.  Savage Rhythm
ritmoBy now it’s no surprise that I go salsa dancing a TON.  There are a handful of salsa clubs in Quito, and I regularly frequent many of them.  One of the clubs, Ritmo Salvaje, is what one of my Afro-Ecuadorian friends refers to as “la casa de los negros.”  It’s the black salsa club.  When I go there, I am usually one of only two white people in the entire place (the other being my friend Maggie).  I wanted to check it out when it opened last year because my friend Frank (an Afro-Ecuadorian) and his brother own the place.  So Maggie and I went.  Frank was so happy to see us, but I will say it felt like I was in a cliche sitcom scene:  two obviously-out-of-place white girls stumble into an all black club, the record screeches to a halt, and all of the black people stop dancing to turn around and stare at the terribly lost foreigners.  Okay, I’m exaggerating.  But it felt a liiiiiitle bit like that.  I also felt like I couldn’t ask anyone to dance, because it would play into the stereotype of white women “stealing” black guys.  Plus I just didn’t really know anyone to ask, besides the owners, who were too busy WORKING.  So the first few times I went, I didn’t dance a whole lot.  But they play great music, and Frank is always so happy to see us, so I have returned.  And the more I go, the more I’ve met people, so that now I know a few of the regulars and get asked to dance much more than before.  I’m still usually one of only two whites in the whole place, and I still feel like some people look at me like I don’t belong there, but I feel a lot less uncomfortable going there now.

Dancing here is unlike any other salsa club I know.  People don’t do a lot of showy moves and turns, but instead tend to dance very closely, emphasizing their hips.  And everyone knows how to MOVE.  They FEEL the music.  They ENJOY the music.  It’s not technical, it’s not robotic – this is salsa de la calle (street salsa).  They play a lot of salsa urbano and salsa choke and salsaton, which I love.  And when a particularly popular song comes on, the whole place just ERUPTS – everyone belting out the lyrics and dancing and radiating sabor.  And when they play an occasional bomba song (a musical/dance style from the Afro-Ecuadorian population in northern Ecuador), everyone goes crazy.  And when they play reggaeton – it is a sight to behold.  (An R-rated site to behold, but it’s incredible.)  I don’t think I will ever ever EVER find a place like this anywhere else that I live.  I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to frequent Ritmo Salvaje now, and try to soak up the experience.

Patrons at Ritmo Salvaje tend to get several large bottles of beer (or a whole crate of beer) to share.  But instead of each person drinking their own bottle from the stash, they will all share one bottle at a time, using one or two plastic cups.  One person pours some beer into a cup and drinks it, then dumps the remaining foam on the floor.  Then they pass the now-empty cup to a friend, who pours a little beer, drinks it, and tosses out the foam.  I used to think this was gross, but now I see it as just one more example of how communal Ecuadorian culture is (as opposed to U.S. culture, which is very individualistic).  I haven’t yet figured out if this sharing and dumping of cups is more of a racial phenomenon, or more of a coastal phenomenon, or more of a small-town culture phenomenon.  But this is the only club I’ve been to where everyone is dumping out their cups on the floor all night long.  Which means that the floor becomes quite wet, until everyone is eventually dancing in puddles of discarded beer foam.

And THAT is why my shoes were completely soaked after a night of salsa dancing.


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