I try to go to at least one new country each year. For 2014, that was Guatemala, mainly because they offer super cheap Spanish classes and it’s pretty inexpensive to travel around. So, I spent a couple weeks of my summer vacation down there – studying español and living with a host family for one week, and bopping around seeing the sites for another. Here are my favorite photos from my trip:
In November my family and I went to see the Packers play the Vikings at Lambeau Field.
It 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.
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.
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!
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:
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
– incense sticks
– back scratchers
– corn on the cob (raw)
– grilled plantains with cheese
– deep fried empanadas
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
No 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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?
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.