Sunday, February 01, 2009

October 8, 2008

I officially begin working tomorrow. I have a meeting from 9am to 3pm, during which I will receive my text book so that I can begin preparing my classes for next Tuesday. Of course, I won’t officially know what classes I will be teaching until next Monday afternoon, but my boss is pretty sure that my schedule will not change. If it does, I will still have at least part of the class prepped for the future.

I will be teaching the Academic 1 class, which is sort of a gateway class. Apparently, it is a tricky class for both teacher and students—lots of grammar, that sort of thing. The thing is, I looked at the text book already, and it is mostly metalanguage, the language used to talk about language. So the emphasis is not so much on usage, but on being able to speak about usage. I’m not sure about that. I think I need to see how it fits in with the larger picture—what the eventual outcome will be. Overall, I’m not a big fan of teaching students metalanguage that they don’t absolutely need (Noun, they need. Nous Clause, not necessary for communication). So we shall see.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to try to learn Spanish. While most of my brain power is taken up with that task, there remains a small part of mind, separate. This part is sitting back, observing the process that I go through as I try to make meaning of Spanish. As a language teacher, it is fascinating to me not just the language itself, but the process of learning it. I think perhaps my most valuable resource as a language teacher is myself as a language student.

There is a definite process, and it reflects the process I learned so much about in my Second Language Acquisition class. My Spanish began with basic phrases: How are you? I am fine/tired. Tengo hambre. These are all things I needed for my first few days, and I already knew them from my Spanish class back in the States.

Next, I began to separate out Ser and Estar—a process which will continue for years. It is not Soy cansada, it is Estoy cansada. I also began to use mini formulas to express wants and needs: Quiero, Pienso que, and so on. I also tried to interact more with my family here, to tell them what I was going to do during the day: Voy a Along with this came better listening comprehension, but only if words were spoken clearly and well-enunciated, and tenses were kept in the present. Context, context, context.

The next stage, the one I am on now, is an attempt to learn many, many more words and to start using the past tense (simple past). I am learning words and tenses as I need them. So I know how to say I was (fue) but not we were or they were. Most of my past tense experiments involve regular –ar verbs, though I did learn the regular –ir verb ending for Yo today.

All of this is driven by a deep desire to communicate. I am constantly so frustrated with my inability to say what I want to say and my inability to understand everything that everyone here says to me. But this is all motivation and affective filter. One of the girls here is not happy, and she has no desire to speak or study or learn Spanish. Another girl here adores Latin American culture, and she does everything that she can to speak in Spanish whenever possible.

There are certain corrections that my family here always makes: mal and malo, bien and bueno (adverbs versus adjectives). None of that registers with me because I’m simply not ready to learn it yet. (The same with Por and Para. Just can’t grasp it yet.)

Recently, I feel like my listening comprehension is getting worse. I think it is because my family here is speaking more quickly with me and using more tenses (they are definitely using the past tense with me). But it seems like, as soon as I start to feel that I am understanding everything better, I wind up trying to have a conversation with someone I can’t understand at all. Regardless, I do believe that my Spanish is improving (and rather quickly. The other girls here spend four hours a day in Spanish classes and I spend an hour a day in a lesson. And I feel like my overall progress is not that far behind theirs). The good news is that I am speaking much less Franspanol. (Although, oddly enough, I have been speaking a bit more Spanglish. Go figure).

October 11, 2008

Quiet Saturday morning. My host mom and her family are spending the weekend at the coast (it is the anniversary of her father’s death. Ah, and speaking of anniversaries, my birthday is the anniversary of my host mom’s husband’s death, 14 years ago. Needless to say, I’m not planning a big party.) I was supposed to be the only one in the house (my host mom made sure that the other two guests here—one American and one Dutch girl (different people from those I introduced earlier)—had weekend plans so she wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of them. And me? She asked me if I needed any food and told me to make sure I locked the gate before going to sleep.

Anyway, I was both looking forward to and slightly dreading two days of solitude. I haven’t been alone much in the past four weeks (other then an hour or two in my room, reading or writing on my laptop). Normally that would wear on me, but here I seem to have struck a nice balance. I was talking to my mom yesterday about my need for a familial support network (more than just having friends or acquaintances, I like to feel like I have family. Of course, I classify most of my friends as family, so…). Ah yes, anyway, as I said, I was supposed to be here by myself, but the other American girl, who had made plans to go to Mindo with some neighbors, wound up staying here. So now I am not alone, but I’m actually happy with the situation. We went out and had Vietnamese food last night (tofu and veggies on a shredded salad—not a starch in sight!).

And now I am sitting at the dining room table, eating yogurt with granola and bananas and drinking my tea. I am boiling water to put in the water cooler (can’t drink the tap water here, so we keep boiled water in a large cooler in the kitchen) and also preparing some ginger tea for later. Nothing too exciting (but even if there were anything exciting going on, I wouldn’t write about it on this very public ‘blog).

Today I plan on mailing my absentee ballot, if I can find either a post office or the American Embassy (from the information sheet I received with my ballot, it looks like I can mail my ballot from the Embassy for free). I also need to get on the internet for awhile and then start planning my first few days of classes. I don’t have my book yet, but one of the coordinators at the school offered to e-mail me the first unit in the book as a PDF file. So, while I won’t have any of the teacher’s materials, I will at least have enough to start to plan what I want to teach my first few days. I’ve already looked at the book, and the first unit is insane. I’m going to be teaching dependent and independent clauses on the FIRST DAY of class. I’ve been raking my brains, trying to come up a way to present it to my students. I’m going to do my best to come up with a way that is as inductive as possible (though I know that I will reach a point in the lesson where I need to explicitly explain the information to my class).

It is crazy—just looking at the book and starting to plan, I’m excited. I didn’t really realize how much I missed teaching until I looked at the book and thought, “Oh sh-t, how the h-ll and I going to do this?” It is like a puzzle that I get to solve. And not just some simple puzzle with only one or two dimensions—I have to think about teaching methodology, psychology, sociology and sociolinguists, grammar, reasoning processes, second language acquisition theory, organization, timing, classroom management… not the mention all that I have to keep in mind while I am physically in the classroom: error correction, timing and management, classroom control, language use (no Spanish in my classroom!)… Yeah, I’ve missed teaching.

December 12, 2008

Well, I survived my first cycle. Eight weeks of six hours a day contact time, plus hours of prep time and test grading at home. I only got sick once (well, twice, if you include stomach issues, which are so common down here I’m inclined to not include my particular stomach incident—though it does come with a story, which I suppose I will relate later), which is pretty amazing, when you consider that I was dead on my feet most of the time. Weekends were busy with more class prep and social activities (believe it or not, I did manage to maintain a rather healthy social life through all this). So now I have a month of vacation, and I plan on using some of that time to catch up on the blog. The question is where to start…

I was teaching three classes of Academic 1, known as the hardest class for both teachers and students. Students go from having two grammar points a week to two grammar points a day. Teachers need to help them adjust to the new pace and complete grammar focus. Rarely is there time for games—just grammar, grammar, and more grammar. I like grammar, and it was too much for me. I would rather have gone a bit slower, done less grammar, but really worked on it. But one must follow the book. So my students are I were off on a rapid tour of English grammar (as an example, we managed to cover all twelve verb tenses and aspects in, let’s see, six days. That is just beyond insane).

My first class began at 7am, which meant waking up at 5am to get ready, eat breakfast, and walk to class. It ended at 9, which is when my second class began. So, four hours of straight teaching, first thing in the morning. Then, off to an hour of Spanish class, followed by two free hours to run errands, prep classes, grade tests, request copies—random teacher stuff. Then, two more hours with my afternoon class (and I’ll be spending quite a bit of time talking about this class—I started to refer to them as my monsters, and I really dreaded going in to face them. In fact, I blame them for making me sick. I walked into the class fine, but came out feeling like I was going to die. Monsters.) After classes, more time to take care of random teacher errands or practice some Tai Chi with my friends or go to the Alliance Francais, then home to work on lessons until dinner, then more lesson planning, then a complete collapse into bed at about, uh, hate to say it, 9pm-ish.

My first week started fine. We had our teacher’s meeting on Monday, then our first day of class on Tuesday. On Wednesday, however, about an hour before my third class was supposed to start, I developed what I will euphemistically refer to as stomach issues (and what other teachers refer to as Ecuabelly). Now, I had purposely come down to Ecuador a month before I was supposed to start teaching for the sole purpose of contracting and then getting over any and all stomach issues before I had to face a class. My stomach, as usual, had other ideas. So, after pestering all the other teachers in the school (and the secretaries as well) for some type of medication that would have the same effect as a cork, I found myself in a pharmacy, ten minutes before class was set to start. Now, my 2-4 class was all teenagers, and the last thing I wanted to do on my second day of class was run to the bathroom every fifteen minutes (I tend to exaggerate in my stories, but this is no exaggeration. It was bad.) So I tried to explain to the pharmacist that I was having stomach issues and that I needed something quick. All this in Spanish, of course. He kept asking me if there was any way I was pregnant (embarazada, to which I of course said no, thinking that if he didn’t give me something soon, I was going to be very embarrassed in front of my class). Finally he game me something, which I gulped down as soon as I was out of the Pharmacy. I walked into class praying to the ancient volcano gods of Ecuador that there would not be an eruption (okay, so that was a little crass). Thankfully, the medicine did its job and the class went without incident.

Of course, the problem with having stomach issues is that it is impossible to eat anything, so I went a couple days without food. Not good when you are starting to teach and need all the energy you can get. But on Friday I managed to choke down a bit of food, and I may have actually eaten a meal over the weekend, so it all worked out.

December 21, 2008

Ha! So far, I have had less free time during my vacation than I had thought I would have. Of course, three hours a day of Spanish classes (and the resulting homework assignments) have made my life a little busy. So much for catching up on my ‘blog entries. I need to post something soon, however, or else people will wonder if I am still alive. Not having any internet access where I live (and being too lazy—and cheap—to walk down to the Mariscal to pay for internet access) means that I am so far behind on e-mails, Facebook, and my ‘blog that I could use the rest of my vacation time working only on getting caught up and still not be finished in time for school to start again.

Been feeling a little homesick this week. I doubt it is because it is so close to Christmas—I am used to spending holidays away from my family, in different countries. I think it is just a combination of factors. As busy as I am right now with my Spanish classes, I still have more time now to think about my family and friends than I did when I was teaching. Also, some of my friends in Ecuador are currently in the United States, spending Christmas with their families. Also, I’m in my third month here. That is usually when the second wave of culture shock hits. There is nothing specific I can put my finger on (unlike in Prague, where I could list just about anything as a cause of culture shock), but I do have certain symptoms of culture shock: not wanting to leave the house, feeling a bit down, a general sense of malaise… Granted, I could be mistaking culture shock for homesickness, or vice versa… or maybe it is a combination of the two. And, after a week and a half of vacation, I find myself eager to start teaching again, so I can throw myself into my work. Good coping mechanism or avoidance technique, I don’t know…

Homesickness or culture shock aside, I have to admit that a lot of things here are pretty good—and have fallen into place better than one might expect. After my first day of classes, I walked into the teacher’s room at my school and overhead one of the other teachers talking about Tai Chi. It turned out that he was interested in the same style of Tai Chi that I studied in Salisbury. So now we have a martial arts exchange: I’m teaching him Tai Chi and he is teaching me some Pilipino stick fighting. We were meeting for that three times a week (until he left with his family to visit Chicago for Christmas). He married an Ecuadorian and they have a kid (I’ll write more about them later because I do have a story), and they are all great: they’ve invited me to their house and they feed me good, non-rice food… and keep me supplied with books.

I’ve also become friends with the French teacher at my school, and we have been trying to get together about once a week to speak French. I have to say, there is nothing quite like spending six hours teaching English, then spending another couple of hours speaking French, then going home and speaking Spanish. It is exhausting, but the fact that I can do it still amazes and impresses me. None of these languages is perfect (yes, at this point, even my English is suffering a bit), but I feel like being able to function in three languages, even at a rudimentary level, is just pretty freakin’ cool. It is like that third language moves me to a new level…

It is interesting, too, how my brain stores and processes the three languages. Despite a few problems here and there (like fighting the urge to say, “I have hunger”), my English is more or less solid. Using English is still like breathing—completely natural and automatic. French and Spanish, on the other hand, are being storied in a different part of my brain. It is like I am keeping English in one room and French and Spanish together in a different room. This means that I really have to struggle to keep French and Spanish separate. If I use one language for long enough, I usually don’t have problems. But when I have to switch, then I start to mix words. And if, for example, I’m hanging out with a group of friends where one speaks French and Spanish and two speak Spanish and English, most of what I say is a mix of French, Spanish, and English. But code-switching in this way has always interested me, and I love doing it. It gives me so much more freedom to say exactly what I want to say than if I were confined to one language.

And I’m already thinking about what language I want to study next. I’m not going to start another language for another several years—I’m still learning Spanish and I really want to improve my French—but it is interesting to think about. For example, do I want to go the number route and learn Chinese or Hindu? Or maybe go political and learn Arabic. Or I could just learn Russian, which, let’s face it, would impress the shit out of people (and I’m not above wanting to impress). Or, I could go completely obscure and learn something like Welsh or Cherokee. So many languages, so little time. I almost wish I’d started with languages earlier in my life, but then I probably wouldn’t have focused on music. (In fact, the oboe would impress the shit out of people if they knew what it was. My problem is that I went just a little too obscure with that one…)

Ah, what else… oh, I just found out that any time I go to the doctor or dentist (yes, the dentist is included in this one) my co-pay is only two dollars. This doesn’t cover preventive care, but… wow. I do have some medical care when I’m in the States (as a result of having been in the Army, I can now use VA clinics for certain things), but the care is spotty (no one really knows what is covered and what isn’t and if there is a co-pay or not and, to me the most important, what happens if there is an emergency and I wake up in a civilian hospital) and there is not dental care. Not everything is perfect, though: if I go to the doctor, I need to go armed with enough Spanish that I can explain my problem to him or her and understand his or her response. On the other hand, most problems are going to involve the word stomach, and there really is a limited amount of vocabulary necessary to explain the symptoms of Ecuabelly…

But, back to my eight weeks of classes. Most of the time, things went well. My two morning classes were delightful, but my afternoon class was not great. Most of the students did not want to be there. Some would just sit in the back and speak Spanish. When I would try to get them involved with the class, they would turn to me with blank looks on their faces and blink a few times. A few students could barely string together a sentence in English. And when you contrast that with some other students I had in the class who were damn near fluent, well, you can see the challenge that presented. I know some of the students thought the class was boring, but what students don’t seem to understand is that an interesting class goes both way. The teacher can have interesting lesson plans and can make all the jokes in the world, but if the students don’t make any effort at all, the result is going to be as boring a class as it would be if the lesson plans themselves were boring. So much depends on the chemistry between the teacher and the students…

Then, on the third test, I caught two students cheating. They were the two worst students in the class, so why the cheated off each other, I will never know. Even without any penalty for cheating, their grades were in the 60s. Morons. Of course, when you catch students cheating, your stomach just drops--mainly from the hassle of having to deal with it. I would up giving the students zeros for the parts of the exam that were obviously copied. Yes, I let them off really lightly, but I knew they weren’t going to pass the class anyway, so I really didn’t care. Then, on the final exam, I made a point of moving the desks in the classroom as far apart from each other as I could. When the cheaters sat down, they tried to physically move their desks closer together, then got annoyed when I told them to move the desks back to where they were. Was I picking on them? Hell yeah, but I made sure to do the same to the entire class. Only pencils on the desk, everything else in backpacks, all backpacks on the floor, no one gets a test until everyone has followed the instructions…

And what I’ve discovered about myself as a teacher: I still need to work on classroom presence, but it is improving. I have almost endless patience when a student doesn’t understand the material, but I have almost no patience when I have to play disciplinarian. There have been times when I’ve wanted to scream at my students, but I always remember that screaming makes things worse (I remember that the teachers I had who were screamers were the ones that no one respected, but the teachers who managed to control their classes without screaming where the ones I respected the most. Hence…) I’ve actually found that the most effective way of focusing the class’s attention on my is to stop talking and just stare at them. They will continue to talk to each other for awhile, but then, one by one, they will notice me just standing in the front, doing absolutely nothing. This makes them uncomfortable, and they will start telling each other to be quiet. Thus, I’ve gotten the class to do the job of policing each other for me. And I really like having them be responsible for themselves and each other. I feel like so many students are just completely passive in the classroom. My best students are always the ones who are actively involved in their learning. They enter a classroom knowing what they want to learn and what they need to do to learn it. I am almost unnecessary—which is a good thing. But then there are the students who will not do anything unless explicitly told to do so. I want to figure out some way to help these students realize that they are more responsible for their learning than I am. I’d like to design my class so that, little by little, my students have to take more and more responsibility as the cycle continues. But something like that will take probably several cycles of experimentation and observation…

December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas! My host family is at the cost right now, so it is just another guest and me. This is a new guest, from the Netherlands. Her English is kind of so-so (she has a pretty thick accent), so I spend a lot of our conversations either pretending that I understand her or asking her for clarification. Ah, life in a foreign country…

Anyway, today I just sort of hung around the house. I watched a couple of movies, ate tons of leftovers from last night, and, uh, well, that’s it. Nothing too exciting there. But Sunday I leave for the jungle, so I figure I have to get my fill of boring before I take off.

Last night we had our big dinner, at about 10 in the evening. We had chicken and veggies AND a salad. I was just about in heaven. Two rounds of veggies in ONE DAY, let alone in ONE MEAL. Today I’ve been scarfing down leftover veggies as quickly as possible.

Anyway, enough about food. I still need to finish telling my stories from the past two months. After my first week, I fell into a routine: wake up, teach, prep, eat, prep, sleep. Saturdays I would go to the Valle and hang out with some friends (and practice some Tai Chi too). All in all, a pretty nice routine, but pretty exhausting.

Well, the weekend before our absolute last week of teaching, I went to the Valle. My friend, Chris, has a car, so Saturday morning Chris, his wife Sabrina, their four-year-old, Eric, and I piled into the car so Chris could drive us into Quito. We were four blocks from my house at a pretty crazy intersection. Most of the roads near my house are one way roads with no stoplights and awful visibility. Chris stopped at a stop sign, then decided to cross the intersection. There was a bus stopped in the first lane of traffic, so he couldn’t see what was in the other two lanes behind the bus. When he got around the bus, two motorcycles appeared on the other side of the bus. Now, as crazy as taxis drive through Quito, nothing beats motorcyclists for sheer insanity. Apparently, stop signs and stop lights don’t really apply to them. If you happen to be walking down a sidewalk, you still have to keep your eyes and ears open for motorcyclists. On the sidewalk with you. If you are crossing a street while the light is red, you need to check between the cars just in case a motorcyclist comes speeding through. Anyway, Chris and one of the motorcyclists saw each other, but it was too late. The motorcycle slammed into the driver’s side of Chris’s car, and the motorcyclist flew over the car, head over heels, and landed in the street on the other side of the car. He sat up almost immediately, so he was okay. But meanwhile, a large crowd of angry, screaming Ecuadorians surrounded the car and wouldn’t even let Chris move out of the intersection. (They did this because around here, if a car hits someone, that person is automatically responsible. Most people, after hitting a pedestrian or anything else, drive away as quickly as possible. That’s just accepted behavior here. When I told the story of the accident to people who had been living here for awhile, their first question was always, “Why didn’t he just drive away?”)

Anyway, Sabrina’s family owns a clinic so she called them to send an ambulance for the motorcyclist. Chris left the car in an attempt to calm the mob, leaving me in the car with the son. Now, I’ve learned quite a bit of Spanish since I’ve been here, but, quite frankly, mob Spanish usually isn’t covered in basic Spanish textbooks, so I was feeling a bit lost. I knew that Chris was going to have to go to jail, but I didn’t know if the police would send everyone in the car to jail as well. I went ahead and texted another teacher who lives a half a block from me, and she came down to try to help deal with the mob.

The mob finally let Chris move his car out of the intersection, and Sabrina went with the motorcyclist in the ambulance. The police still hadn’t arrived yet, but we figured that they wouldn’t need to talk to me. So Eric and I left the car and walked up to the other teacher’s apartment (and played Mortal Kombat with his toys. He was not happy to leave his dad, but once we got into the apartment, he was fine).

Well, the police eventually came, took Chris to jail, and impounded his car (and the motorcycle). Sabrina came back from the clinic, reported that the motorcyclist was fine, and took Eric to the police station to try to get Chris out of jail. But of course, it was not going to be simple. Here’s why: no one bribed the police at the scene of the accident. Again, back to my conversation about the accident with people who have lived here for awhile. After they asked why Chris didn’t just drive away, they asked why no one bribed the police when they arrived. Yup, that is what you are supposed to do. When I told my host mom about it, she said that I should have called her so that she could come down and arrange the bribe (apparently, whenever anyone in her family gets into trouble with the police, she is the one who is called to arrange the appropriate bribe).

So, flash forward to Sunday. Chris is still in jail, and Sabrina is still trying to get him out of there. The other teacher is calling her friend whose husband is a retired Colonial in the police so he can put pressure on his friends, who are all Generals, to put pressure on their subordinates to get Chris out of jail. But no dice. Even after the appropriate bribes are paid, there is a problem with the computers so the police can’t print the release paperwork. So Chris stays another night in jail.

Monday rolls around, all of Chris’s classes are being taught by substitutes, all the teachers in the teacher’s room are discussing the events of the weekend, and finally, around 2pm, Chris is released from jail. Of course, both his car and the motorcycle are still in the impound lot, so Chris and Sabrina have to pay the appropriate bribes to get the two vehicles released. They also have to pay to get the motorcycle fixed (and, of course, to get their car fixed, as it was damaged).

Tuesday morning, Chris strolls into the teacher’s room, and instantly starts making jokes about his Spanish immersion experience. Turns out he wasn’t in the main jail (which, apparently, is pretty easy to escape from anyway). The police have another, smaller jail that they use for traffic offenders. Chris “donated” money to the “upkeep” of the jail and, as a result, didn’t have an awful time there. He was even given a nickname and taught a rather impressive number of new words in Spanish (which made our Spanish teacher blush when Chris repeated them to her).

A few days later, when I was telling my mom about the accident, her response was, “Well, I bet you’ll never get into another car while you are in Ecuador.” To be honest, that had never even occurred to me. Which I find a little odd, because usually after accidents the last thing I want to do is get into another moving vehicle. So I don’t know what that says about me and how my attitude has changed (and, more interestingly, at least to me, is how quickly it has changed). But there you have it.

Anything else? Well, I think I related the story of my cheaters. For the final exam, I moved the desks apart in my classroom. When my cheaters came in, they sat down next to each other and moved their desks closer together. When I told them to move their desks back to where they were, they got all pissy. Oh well. I sat in the back of the classroom, perched on a desk, and watched everyone (but especially my cheaters) with eagle eyes. Boring as hell, but one of my cheaters had a 46% and the other had a 51%. So much for them. Now I just hope that they won’t be in my class next cycle. If either one of them is, I think I will suggest that they might learn more with another teacher…

Well, time to go cook dinner. More veggies (leftovers) and chicken, but I’m happy. I’m going to shred the chicken from the bone and use it to make some curry. Wish me luck…

January 18, 2009

Happy New Year! I have now been in Ecuador for (slightly) over four months. We just started a new teaching cycle last Tuesday. I have two Academic 1 classes, which is what I taught last cycle, and one Basic 2 class. It is a little bit tricky going from Academic 1 in the morning to Basic 2, which is right after my Spanish class. The good news is that I finish teaching at 2pm, so I can either go running in the park or go home and work on prepping classes for the next day.

I think I have a good group of students this cycle. The Basic 2 class is pretty easy, so I’m trying not to push my students too hard. My main goal for that class is to get them to speak (English) as much as possible. Oh, and improve their listening comprehension.

Other than that… no news, really. I survived my two weeks in the Jungle. It was a bit different than I was expecting. I figured I’d be able to take walks and hikes in the afternoon, but it wasn’t really like that. I was living with a family, which meant something a bit different. Basically, there was a plot of land right next to a river. There were huts scattered over the plot, and each individual part of an extended family lived there. In total, there were maybe 15 or more people, with each family unit sharing one hut. There was a communal kitchen hut with a table, and then there was another hut with bunk beds which is where my Spanish teacher and I slept. The huts were made of wood and had palm roofs. There were windows, but they were open to the outside. They had what was more or less chicken wire over them to keep the monkeys outside—though the monkeys knew how to work the doors and were constantly slipping into the kitchen to steal food. And before you all start romanticizing it, it was not cute or endearing. Monkeys are extremely annoying, mainly because they are so intelligent. One monkey in particular would hide himself and watch through one of the kitchen windows. When he saw that someone had left the door unlatched—even if just for a moment—he would tear into the kitchen and steal food—or open the jar of jam and start licking inside it. As soon as someone tried to chase him out, he would pee all over everything, then run out screaming. I probably consumed way too many monkey feces (and urine and saliva) while I was living there.

I was in the jungle for two weeks. I had four hours of Spanish classes every morning (one-on-one with my Spanish teacher, so they were pretty intense), then lunch, and then I was supposed to have an activity every afternoon. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. I did get to hike up to a waterfall and go tubing and spend a night in the jungle in a tent. Other than that, I just sat around and read. The compound was right next to a paved road, so sometimes I could walk along the road, but it didn’t really go anywhere. A few kilometers in one direction there was a botanical garden, which I visited (it was a mainly a few short paths through the jungle), and in the other direction was Chichicorumi, which was barely a wide place in the road. The highlight was a paved pavilion with basketball hoops. I did go there once and make a fool out of myself by attempting to play soccer with three guys. But it was something to do.

The town also had a little store, where I could buy a bar of soap to wash my clothes in the river. The river was downstream from a town, so it was not the cleanest. It was also very fast-moving, so it was pretty muddy. Nevertheless, that is where we did out bathing and laundry. Now I can say that I’ve sat by the edge of a river to wash my clothes. I have also developed a system for washing my hair in a fast-moving river with slippery rocks and clay at the bottom. Of course, I must have looked a fool to the family, who had grown up bathing in the river and knew how to do it without resorting to odd contortions, but my method got the job more or less done, and that was the main thing.

The jungle was not nearly as warm as I had imagined it would be, nor was it as humid. Salisbury or the Ozarks in August is way more miserable, as far as heat and humidity are concerned. The mosquitoes were nowhere near as bad as I thought they would be. Those in Maryland (and Jersey) are much, much worse. The fleas, on the other hand… Yes, living in close proximity to so many animals meant that I returned from the Jungle with flea bites covering my legs and lower arms. And when I say covering, I mean that there was not a single square centimeter in those areas that did not have at least three flea bites. Repellant does not seem to work against fleas, and I’ve always found flea bites to be much itchier than mosquito bites (which, at least on me, will go away after about an hour as long as I don’t scratch them). I got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night because I felt like I had fleas crawling (that is, jumping) all over me (which was probably true, but I preferred to think of it as a hallucination rather than a reality). The first thing I did when I got back to Quito was stip naked, take a scalding hot shower (it is possible to get a scalding hot shower here—you just have to do it with a trickle of water), and wash all of my clothes in hot water. It didn’t even occur to me to look in a mirror until after I’d been back for several hours (there were no mirrors in the jungle, so I had gone two weeks without seeing myself. It’s a very interesting experience, and I would recommend it).

January 24, 2009

Think I’ve managed to come down with a case of food poisoning. That makes two cases in as many years (with several years before that trouble-free). Anyway, right now I feel like my world would be a lot better if someone would just kill me. I’m just trying to wait it out—and trying to avoid the temptation to put anything else in my stomach. My host mom keeps trying to get me to take medicine, but I figure that, unless the medicine will resolve the case of food poisoning (which it won’t), there is no point in taking anything. Of course, she also keeps suggesting I go see a doctor. I figure the Dr would just say, “yup, you have food poisoning. Drink plenty of water and don’t eat anything. By the way, that will be X dollars.” Better to just stay in bed and keep a clear path to the bathroom…

Two weeks of classes down. Having to prep for the Basic 2 class is killing me, though. I still have a lot of refining that I want to do for my Academic 1 classes, so between that and the Basic 2, I’m putting in several hours a day. I don’t even want to think about what my hourly rate works out to be. You know those commercials that talk about how there are many people in the world that live on a dollar a day? I figure I can’t be making much more than a dollar and hour. That’s just too depressing to even think about… so I’ll bemoan my poor stomach instead…

What other news…? I was briefly considering moving out. I even went and looked at an apartment—well, a room in an apartment. It would have been $300 a month. The location was really good, but the apartment itself was tiny—not really an improvement over where I am now. And for $300 a month, I was expecting something a bit more… shall we say, palatial? I would have been sharing the apartment with a roommate, which would have made the overall cost—for the two of us--$600 a month. That is just inconceivable.

There is also the fact that I’ve become somewhat spoiled. Okay, incredibly spoiled. I have someone hand wash my clothes once a week (granted, it sometimes takes about a week to get them back, but I’ve learned how to plan my work wardrobe around that, more or less). I also don’t have to clean anything. (I figure I’m going to completely forget how to clean anything and I will have to relearn everything when I return to the States). I don’t have to buy dish soap or salt or pepper… I would say that I don’t have to cook dinners, but dinner here usually consists of rice, overcooked pasta, or potatoes, so I usually say that I’m not hungry and then I go into my room and sneak food.

Speaking of food… that banana I tried to eat for lunch is still not sitting right. God, I miss familiar food. Meatloaf, quiche, salmon… all food that I prepare in the oven (oh, and the apartment I looked at didn’t even have an oven! For $600 a month! Unbelievable!). This morning, when I told my host mom that I was sick, she suggested that maybe I was not getting enough of a certain food. I almost said “vegetables,” but I was so miserable I didn’t really want to begin a discussion about food at that point. Right now I would love to eat some type of ice. Not ice cream, but some flavored ice—maybe lemon flavored. Yummy. Instead, I’m carefully sipping water. I hope I feel better tomorrow. Maybe I will even be able to eat something Monday. I’m not going to hold my breath, though…

Oh, I do have one odd piece of news (in fact, the main reason I pulled out my computer to type a bit). Last Sunday I went to a park with some friends from school. We had decided to have a picnic, so we all meet in the supermarket and bought some food (bread and cheese, yum!). We walked up to the park, then looked for a place to sit down. We looked at a couple of different spots under trees before we settled on one mostly dry spot next to a basketball game. We spread out, had our picnic, ate way too much, then started to pack up. Suddenly, we heard a crash. When we looked over in the direction of the crash, we saw that the tree we had almost sat under had fallen—right where we would have been sitting. And yet another random act of Ecuador.

January 25, 2009

Still not convinced that I am going to live through this most recent bout of food poisoning… Today is Sunday. The good news is that tomorrow is a test day, so I don’t need to do much of anything (other than grade a stack of tests—ugh). But Tuesday and Wednesday I’m subbing—in addition to my regular classes. So I better feel at least a little better by then.

In my Basic 2 class, we did a unit on describing people. One of the activities I had my students do was write a description of someone in the class that they could read out loud for the rest of the class to guess the person. I was pretty proud of the activity, until my students actually began it and I realized that there was one major factor that I had failed to take into account. The problem? In my class of 14 students, every description was exactly the same: “This person has black hair and brown eyes. This person is medium height. This person is Latino/Latina.” Yeah. I really didn’t think that one through all the way.

One of the things I haven’t done with this blog is talk about culture. Even though I don’t really look French or Czech, I was able to blend in a bit, especially after a few months in the countries. Here, there is absolutely no chance of that happening. I could be fluent in Spanish, with an Ecuadorian accent, and I would still never fit in. Europe doesn’t have as much diversity as the States—I still remember walking through the airport in the States after getting back from France and feeling overwhelmed at the sheer variety of people—but compared to Ecuador, Europe is the paragon of multi-ethnic diversity.

Granted, there is a type of diversity in Ecuador. There are three groups here: indigenous, mestizo, and colonial Spanish. The largest group is the mestizo, which is an ethnic mix of indigenous and colonial Spanish, and which accounts for slightly over 50% of the population. The indigenous group is the next largest, and the colonial Spanish group is pretty small. When I first arrived, I really couldn’t see that much of a difference among the different groups. Now that I’ve been here awhile, I can see the differences right away. One of the other teachers in the school (who, coincidently, is from Scotland) lived deep in the jungle for ten years. She said that when she started working at the school, she went into culture shock being surrounded by so many white people. She said that, for the longest time, she couldn’t tell any white people apart—they all looked the same to her. (That also reminds me of when I went to Otavalo with a girl from Holland and another girl from Germany. The girl from Holland bought something, and while the vender went to get change, the girl from Holland and I changed places without thinking. When the vender returned, she had no idea who to give the change to. She tried to give it to me at first, but then my reaction confused her, and she kept glancing from one of us to the other, trying to tell us apart.)

When I was in the jungle, I did have a similar experience to that of the Scottish teacher’s, though, of course, on a much small scale. The family I was staying with operated as a sort of “indigenous jungle family” living museum, which means that they occasionally had tourists on the compound. I remember the first group of tourists I saw after living on the compound for a few days. I was amazed at how white they looked—I was convinced that they must be Americans or Europeans. Nope. They were Mestizos, from Quito. (I do feel the need to point out that there were no mirrors there, so I hadn’t seen my face in several days at this point).

Ah, and I forgot the last group-which in itself is quite telling. There are Afro-Ecuadorians, though most of them live in a certain province on the coast. Racism against people with black skin is alive and well here—and pretty openly accepted, from what I can tell. I remember a conversation I had with some Ecuadorian friends a while back that was so odd my mind convinced me that I had misinterpreted some Spanish at some point, but which in retrospect makes perfect sense. Basically, they asked me if I would ever consider dating a black person. Their response to my answer seemed, to me at least, so exaggerated that I had no idea how to interpret it—it was more or less out of my realm of cultural understanding. Now, of course, I understand.

Basically, in Quito, you never see a black person with anyone other than another black person. I mean, never. There are gradations in skins color from indigenous to Mestizo to Colonial, but there are never any gradations from coffee to toffee to milk chocolate to cream. There is one shade of black here. One of my Spanish teachers told me the story of the one black girl at her University (one of the main Universities in Ecuador). This poor girl was so harassed that she eventually had to drop out of school. Poof. There went the one black girl at that entire school. I’ve heard stories about African-American exchange students from the States—taxis not only would refuse to pick them up, but the taxi drivers would shake their fingers at the students. And of course, people would cross the street so that they wouldn’t have to walk past them.

That, of course, brings to mind the idea of safety in Quito. Staying safe in Quito… now there is a mentally, physically, and psychologically draining activity. Everything requires so much more thought and planning. Everything involves going against principles which, even though they are not universally followed in the United States, are held up as ideals to which we should all aspire. The main one? The idea that you cannot judge a person based on how they look. That person wearing sweats might be the next Einstein or Bill Gates. That person in a business suit might be an asshole or he might be a philanthropist. You just never know. Here, in Quito, you have to be able—and willing—to make snap judgments on ever single man, woman, and child in your field of vision (and those behind you). Your ability or inability to do so—well, it means your safety. You have to walk down the street aware of every single person around you. You have to keep an eye on which stores are open, just in case you need to go into one quickly. You have to watch traffic, just in case you need to cross the street quickly. You need to watch out for anything unusual, because anything out of the ordinary is usually not good. Ecuadorians have been raised in this environment, so it comes naturally to them. Me? I’m exhausted after a half-hour of this. I’ve spent almost 30 years dead set against the idea of carrying mace or weapons. Now I find myself having discussions with the other teachers about the pros and cons of different weapons, and where to find the best prices. Is it better to have a traditional container of mace, or is it better to have an innocuous-looking pen-shaped mace? And mace is only good against maybe two people are the most. Blackjacks are nice, but you have to get pretty close to use them, and again, they are not useful against a group of people. Knives and guns are pretty much out, especially for foreigners. And how smart is it to run away from a person with a knife? I’ve known several people who have done it, but still…

Getting into taxis with two men in the front—no way in hell. Walking by yourself before 6am or after 6pm—stupid, even if it is just a couple of blocks. The windows have bars, as do the doors. Most small corner stores have a gate that you have to pass money and goods through. Everyone knows that parks are dangerous. A deserted street? Bad idea, even if it is high noon. That person walking down the street with his hand in his pocket? What are his clothes like? What kind of shoes is he wearing? How is he walking? Are there other people around me? Would they help me? Probably not. Cross the street? No, but it is time to buy some bread in this little store. Ah, good, he has walked past and not even looked in my direction.

This all sounds to paranoid (though my friends here would probably just laugh at it all. We’ve all developed an odd sense of humor about it, our way of trying to balance those ideals of the United States with our need to remain safe in a world where we are all marked as blond, white, ATM machines. (This might not bother me so much if I were actually rich. But, damnit, I work my ass off for the little amount of money that I make. I don’t want to lose a penny of that money to some asshole with a knife.)

Meanwhile, I dream of finding a job in the States where I can afford nice things—a car, an apartment, some nice scented lotion. I’m becoming increasingly materialistic (especially about a car. I really would like to have a car.) Naturally, now is not the best time to be dreaming of a job in the States where I can afford these things. I would pick a slow-down in the economy to start developing a desire to nest. Well, my timing has never been all that great. But if worse comes to worse, at least I can afford food and shelter here in Quito.

Hungry. Do I take a chance and eat, or do I play it safe? I want cinnamon graham crackers. I want spaghetti. I want a large glass or milk. I want crepes with strawberries and yogurt. I would have to be a moron to eat any of these things (well, except for the graham crackers. But there are none of those here, so I can forget about that).

January 28, 2009: The saga of the stomach

So, you last heard from me Sunday. After not eating much Sunday and still having stomach issues, I decided that I probably needed to go see a doctor. I figured I could go after classes on Monday, see a doctor, get some drugs, and hopefully start feeling better by Tuesday (when I would have a substitution, for two straight four hour blacks of teaching with a one hour Spanish class in between. I needed to be able to eat a bit before that, I figured). So I didn’t eat anything Sunday night and Monday morning, hoping that if there was nothing in my stomach, there was a chance I wouldn’t have to excuse myself every fifteen minutes from class. Monday was a test day, so I didn’t need to have much energy to do my usual hyper-run-around-the-class routine.

I managed to get through my classes on Monday, and as soon as I could, I went up to the CruzBlanca clinic, where I have my insurance. The woman at the desk chattered at me in impatient, official Spanish, of which I understood not a word—only that I would not be able to see a doctor. With my eyes wide and starting to dampen, I turned to go. Fortunately, the man next to me ask me, in English, why I didn’t just go to the CruzBlanca Emergency Room. I asked him where it was, he gave me directions, and I was off.

Once I got to the ER, I gave my name, sat down, and pulled out my stack of tests to grade. After about 20 minutes, the Dr called me in to his office. Clutching my Spanish dictionary like it was a bible and I a missionary on a heathen island in the South Pacific, I entered to office and set about describing my symptoms. He listened to my stomach, asked me to appropriate questions, and told me to go to the lab to give a stool sample (this word, by the way, is not in my Spanish-English dictionary, a critical oversight on the part of the dictionary editors, if you ask me. It was only after several questions and, ahem, gestures and pointing, that I understood what the Dr was asking for [you would think it would be obvious, but the receptacle he gave me looked exactly like those used to collect urine samples, so while it did provide context clues, it left me with a 50-50 chance of giving the lab the wrong thing]). As I turned to leave, I mentioned to the Dr that I hadn’t had my period in four months, and was that something that I should see a Dr about in the future. He got a look in his eyes that said “pregnant,” and before he could even say anything, I informed him that I was not pregnant. The look in his eyes remained, and he said, rather too quickly, “of course, I believe you. But we still need to take blood to run some, um, other tests.” Right.

So, over in the lab. Providing the blood sample was not a problem, but the other sample was a bit more challenging. I kept telling the lab techs that I wasn’t able to provide a sample, and they kept insisting that I stay there—to which I replied that I hadn’t eaten anything in over 24 hours and that the chances of food magically appearing in my stomach in the next hour were slim to nil (ok, I didn’t say all that. But I thought it with a vengeance). Finally I convinced the lab techs to let me go and try to return that night with a sample. The lab was to close at 7 and they needed an hour to run the test, so I figured if I could get them a sample at 6, I might be able to get some drugs that night. It was now 4. I had two hours.

I started to think about what I could eat that would give me diarrhea in two hours. Of course. A hamburger and French fries. I must confess, I pulled my punch at the last minute, went to my favorite restaurant in Quito, and ordered a tofu burger with fries. But I did get cheese on the burger AND a milkshake made with soy milk. I figured I needed to gamble big. To top it off, I got a chocolate ice cream cone for desert, as ice cream can have an interesting effect on my stomach, even in the best of times. I went back to my school to wait.

And wait, and wait, and wait. Finally, at 6, it was apparent that nothing substantial was going to come out of my, er, gamble. So I informed the office that I might not be able to teach the next day—to cover my ass, so to speak—gave them copies of my lesson plans, and took a taxi home.

And yes, I was miserable all night.

I faced the morning with dark circles under my eyes but with a nice, steaming sample in my hands. At 6:30am, I started walking to school with my trophy. Once at the school, I placed my prize in my locker in the teacher’s room and headed to class. Four hours later, I returned to the teacher’s room to get my Spanish book from my locker. Now, the past several weeks had been very cold and rainy. Tuesday was the first day that the weather broke that cycle and the sun came out to warm the land. Tuesday also happened to be the day (if you were keeping track) when I had to keep a jar of shit in my locker for more than nine hours. After Spanish class, I taught my third class and my sub class. Then, I had some errands at the school that I had to take care of. By 5pm, I was holding my breath every time I had to open my locker for something. Finally, I set out for the CruzBlanca lab.

Usually, the Ecovia bus line is a haven for thieves and pickpockets, as it is generally so crowded that holding on to anything for support is not even necessary. Oddly enough, however, it seems quite spacious when you ride it with a twelve-hour old stool sample in your hands.

I handed my sample in to the lab, went to the waiting area, and pulled out my stack of tests. A little over an hour later, I had my results. I had to wait another fifteen or so minutes to see a new Dr. The first thing that she informed me was that I was not pregnant (uh, yeah, I kinda knew that one) and that I didn’t have any new pets living in my stomach. Apparently this was just some freakish occurrence and I was fine. I just needed to eat soup for a couple of days.

Honestly, I was more than a little disappointed. I had suffered so much—between the pain and the trips to the bathroom and the trips to the various clinics—that I wanted to have something to show for it. Of course, I suppose I should be thankful because there is no telling what a trip to the pharmacy would have entailed. I might have gotten about two or three pages from that adventure alone.

So my stomach is still hurting, but I feel like I will survive. And the final cost? Well, not including food, cab fares, and public transportation, $2 for the emergency room visit and lab tests. Including everything else? It works out to about $15, which is a heck of a lot of money to have spent in only two days. But at least I survived it all.

Now, to go eat some soup…


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