Land of the Free

October 19, 2011

Kurt Cobain, skid row, and Starbucks.  What do these three things have in common?  They all got started in Seattle.

Thus I prepared myself mentally for grunge music and counter culture, homeless people and mocha lattes on the overnight flight back to the Mother Country for some Fourth of July fun.

To preface…An unexpected email a month prior had persuaded me to splurge my pitiful Peace Corps savings on a trip to the Pacific Northwest to ….you guessed it…play in an ultimate frisbee tournament.  Besides the lure of processed food and fireworks, microbrews and patriotism (a.k.a. red, white and blue desserts and people randomly shouting, “America!” in questionable Texan accents), I rationalized the expensive American Airlines ticket with the mantra, ‘when else in my life will I get to see all of my college friends in one place at one time?’   (The answer: My Wedding.  Disclaimer, if my current 3 year singledom is any indication of my romantic future then my $1,000 was well spent on the Seattle adventure…dubious a ring will sneak its way onto my left fourth finger before my friends are mixing mai tais in a Tucson retirement center common room.)

 

Were my life-givers upset that after 6 months living in a foreign country I would fly all the way back to the United States of America but not to see them?  Hopefully not.  They thankfully understood my irrational sports obsession and were supporting side-liners during the tournament from afar, calling to get score updates everyday.

 

Day 1: Wednesday June 29th.  Arrive at Houston airport and am shocked at how big people are.  At 5’6” I tower over all 8 members of my Ecuadorian host family and am the 3rd tallest person in my community of 675 people. In Houston, however, I felt positively miniscule in stature and circumference; it seemed that Texans had eaten themselves into obesity in my absence.  But my god it felt grand to be able to eavesdrop on every conversation I passed and not be complimented on my stunning blue eyes every 10 minutes; in other words, it was pleasant to just be another face in the crowd, to be part of the majority again.

Landing in Seattle I realized with a certain degree of panic that my Ecuadorian cell phone did not function internationally and I would have to wrestle with a pay phone to contact my close friend from high school, Dimitri* (names changed to protect my stories from credibility sensors), who was also in town for the tournament.  Bags in hand I lumbered to a cluster of intimidating metal structures resembling a miniature Vegas slot machine with a phone hastily thrown on as an after thought. After three failed attempts I realized I had been inserting Ecuadorian quarters and after a frantic cavity search, I also realized I did not have any US quarters anywhere on my befuddled person.

  My now more distraught than stunning blue eyes cast about for a savior or just a kind face.  A bored but benevolent looking blonde high schooler with a NEED HELP? t-shirt on caught my attention. Aha! 

Breathless from the abundant atmospheric pressure and humidity I rushed to her like a leper to Jesus.  The gum chewing teen-ager took a precautionary step backwards. “This might be asking too much but I’m a Peace Corps volunteer home for a funeral and the pay phone isn’t working…” when in doubt, lie. She tried not to roll her eyes when I requested that she punch the numbers in for me (6 months with a Zach Morris worthy cell phone has rendered me technologically retarded).  “This is Dimitri, leave a message.”  Aughhhh.  Please powers that be, take pity on me.  I did not fly so far to be stranded in a strange airport with a girl that smells like the entire Clinique perfume counter sneezed on her.  “Thanks anyway,” I muttered to the do-gooder.  

Outside the airport I collected my thoughts and had nearly settled on a linear plan of action when someone rapped on the glass behind my left ear. Dimitri!!  The nervous energy coiled into my GI tract released and I farted involuntarily, the gas bringing a smile to my face because…alas, it smelled like my little corner of Ecuador. 

TIME WARP: The rest of the trip blurred together in a laughing continuum of good company, good food (so delicious it brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions), and great weather.  Though normally contrary to Colorado’s 300+ days of sunshine, the Seattlan goddesses granted me my one wish, a leg tan. 

 

Outstanding moments:

At a neighborhood park we joined the visiting baseball team’s parents to rally on their losing sons, complete with a few not so subtle heckles thrown passionately at the opposing team.  Later, as the 9th inning stretch became a distant memory, we commandeered a grassy corner of the outfield to play kickball. Short on numbers but not on enthusiasm we invited all munchkins present on the slides and swings to play with us.  Even the most rebellious looking of the bunch responded, “Lemme go ask my mom first.” Unfortunately, the mothers of Seattle are not a trusting bunch.  Not just one, but EVERY child we invited declined on account of his or her mother.  Keep in mind that, though we presented an eccentric band of 20 something year olds, not one friend had visible tattoos, extreme piercings, nor scandalous clothing.  After nearly three years of living in a world where children are raised by the entire village, where a ‘missing child’ can more often than not be accounted for by the more edible food of a neighbor’s house or the new television set in the local beauty parlor, I felt personally offended that complete strangers wouldn’t let their young children play with me.  The slight cut deep into my camp counselor psyche. “I’m a trained role model!” I wanted to shout, and plus, we really were short on numbers. Two boys and three girls (one of which had never before coordinated her feet and eyes) make for an unequal kickball game when the best player proposes gender based teams.

 

********************

 

On Thursday night the generous host and hostess threw a pre-Independence Day party and though I could have stayed in the hot tub and licked hummus off my greedy fingers til sunrise, I had bigger fish to fry.  Around 9pm I wedged my pruny hot tub feet into my Chaco sandals and biked downtown to catch the light rail back to the airport to pick up my best friend, Shamram*.  Some well-meaning but intoxicated party goers had advised me to get on the train at a certain well known location…well known for being the stomping grounds of the city’s riffraff and destitute.  My Vibram souls crunched a hypodermic needle or two as I awkwardly tried to lock the borrowed bike to a sturdy looking pole; the same pole that a man dressed in yesterday’s bad news was urinating on.  Golden shower narrowly avoided, I spotted a uniformed city employee to my relief.  “Excuse me, do you know where I can lock my bike up?”  I’ve seen that look before.  The look that makes me shake my mental fist at the naive words of my kindergarden teacher, “There are no stupid questions.”  Maybe there truly are no stupid questions because ‘common sense’ is derived from experience and experience is relative to geography and culture.  But there are definitely questions that, once aired, the engendered response makes the asker feel not only stupid but also unworthy of vocal cords.  This was one of those moments, one of those questions.  “Girrrlll you park your bike here and you can kiss those two wheels goodbye.  Pedal that butt up 2nd til you get to University.” 

 

When he said “up” he wasn’t kidding.  Seattle, though constructed next to the sea, is hilly enough to build a solid gastrocnemius out of the twiggiest of legs. 

Out of breath and out of time, I locked my bike next to a pair of suits dining at a plush sidewalk cafe and rushed to the light rail/subway entrance.  Or what I thought was the entrance but was really a locked commercial building. A middle-aged woman stood at the corner, eyeing the cars on the street as though she were waiting for someone. 

Though she didn’t have a NEED HELP? shirt on, I tried my luck.  “Excuse me do you know -”  “GET THE F$&K AWAY FROM ME OR I’LL KILL YOU!!!” she shouted as she lunged towards me.  I shrieked as I ran away from yet another homeless person. 

 

**********************

 

Playing Ultimate has never been a choice for me.  Jane and John used to wake me up at 4:30 AM on windy winter mornings to practice my ‘inside out’ forehand throw and in 7th grade I gave up first chair violin to perfect my defensive mark.  Or at least that’s how it goes in my dreams. 

Forgive my enthusiasm, but there is something so fun about Ultimate that many a time my subconscious has overridden my voluntary mental powers to ensure more playing time, even at the price of more rationally important things.  I’d like to think that my career in neonatal neurosurgery would have absolutely taken off if I’d only spent more time with my nose in a book (read: preposterously boring medical tome) than on an Ultimate field.  As it stands, I’ve chosen Ultimate as my sport of choice – nay my passion of choice, and never looked back. 

During the tournament I picked up with a local co-ed team who graciously over looked my sloppy throws and rusty field spacing because of my fanatical grin and positive encouragement (usually towards myself…”You got this Julie, no more meat hooks for hands, try that impossible hammer throw again – after all they’re short a few female players and can’t afford to kick you off the team”).  That same weekend, in fact at the same fields, I got to play with a slew of my old college teammates in a concurrent tournament.  Though we matched up against once heated rivals, the tone of the game was more casual (as dictated the recently emptied beer cans littering the sidelines). 

Each team congratulated or consoled the opposing team with a drinking game of sorts.  My team, “Plants vs. Zombies” manufactured vodka jello shots in the shape of brains lately lobotomy-ed.  Huge success!  Teams of four (2 men, 2 women) raced a short distance to a waiting plate of alcohol laced brains where they had to consume the delicacy lying prone on the grass, foregoing the use of their hands, while their competitors pelted them with tennis balls.  In situations like these my thought is usually, “If aliens landed right here right now, what would they assume the purpose of this exercise to be?” 

At night the dominant social activity was similar to my Peruvian hey days, namely walking in circles.  Whereas I had a town square or ‘plaza de armas’ in Peru, outside Seattle I had an enormous field complex with hundreds of tents pitched higgledy-piggledy around it.  Armed with mischief and a boombox, I roved with other sun-burnt like-minded bandits.  Like modern gypsies we traded goods and services when necessary or advantageous (“Say, is that a keg yonder?”) until we exhausted our stores.  One memorable tent contained a death circle of chair sitters whose initiation rite centered on slapping the gentle epidermal tissues of the rear into necrosis.  The slapper and the slappee seemed chosen at random…so we rock papered scissors on the way past to see who would become the proud new bearer of a hand print belonging to a complete stranger.  Poor Anastasia* took her lot with the heavy countenance of someone condemned to the guillotine.  Surely our verbal fortification made the journey to the center of the circle easier, “This is going to hurt sooo baddd!”  “You have insurance right??”  Victim selected, the knights of the round space elected their slapping henchman; a robust lumberjack looking fellow stepped forward, his gargantuan hand opening and clenching in preparation.  Anastasia’s eyes widened at the size of the henchman’s hands. She looked back at us.  Most of me wanted to create a diversion (“Look! Body shots!”) to facilitate my teammate’s escape, but reneging on a rock, paper, scissors agreement is comparable to lying under oath, or stealing from nuns.  So I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders, like the coward I was.  She took a deep breath and lowered her torso to a 45 degree angle. We held our breaths.

THWACK!!!!!!

Anastasia jolted forward from the force.  We rushed to her rescue (“Let me see the hand print!”) The knights nodded approvingly and we moved on to the next tent. 

 

****************************

 

My 4am flight back to Ecuador on July 5th meant many things, principally that I could bear witness to ostentatious firework displays across the greater Seattle region the night prior to my departure.  In a word, awesome.  From the steep rooftop vertex, Dimitri and I toasted high school memories and all things star spangled.  I counted 7 distinct displays before I settled on one to watch all the way through. Then, around 11pm I blew a kiss to the chilly night time sky and made my way to the airport via the light rail, where I realized not for the first time, that South America had taught me how to lie, about everything.

 

Thanks for reading!

Bull Fights and Stage Fright

August 9, 2011

Bull Fights and Stage Fright

In Ecuador, August 10th commemorates the first shout of independence from Spain.  Though the country has since developed it’s own cultural repertoire, many traces of Spanish society are firmly and interminably imbedded in the Ecuadorian psyche; language being the most prominent example and bull fights (in my opinion) the second.

To celebrate said Independence Day I joined the cavalcade of farmers and visiting ‘city folk’ streaming towards the grazing ground cum bull fighting ring in a neighboring community.  Though the Spanish bull fight juxtaposed with the very holiday denouncing Spain struck the author as ironic, a scarce soul could be found to champion jingoism to such extent.  In fact, not many spectators had free time to talk at all, so engrossed were they in the bloody affair before them.

Ecuadorians, however, are apparently more sensitive sentient beings than Peruvians.  A rural Peruvian bull fight, regardless of how isolated the community, always managed to import bull fighters from across international borders- my personal favorite a Venezuelan who trekked all the way to my 2,000 person village not once but TWICE.  He won my heart and prime real estate on bedroom wall for his poster by recognizing me, “Weren’t you here last year?”  Birds sang in my ribcage and my cheeks flushed crimson.  “Why yes, yes that was me.”

The bullfighter, strikingly normal looking in his street clothes before the spectacle, furrowed his brow.  “What are you still doing here?”  Oh. Right. While you’ve been globe trotting and slaying beasts I’ve been…telling people to wash their hands and warning teenagers about genital warts. You win.

Regardless of the Venezuelan’s disparaging question, I cheered my vocal chords into utter destruction when he succeeded to stab the bull on the first try, straight through the aorta, rendering the bull…dead.  Though some may shout animal cruelty at such vagrant displays of violence, to me it makes no difference how my food dies.  Perhaps being given the chance to fight for your life (traditionally a bull that has fought exceedingly well is granted immunity from the final gruesome stabs of the bull fighter’s sword and declared a stud.  The bull then finishes his life doing what animals do best, eating and procreating) is a better way to breathe your last breaths than a stun gun in a crowded meat packing factory.

In Ecuador, however, bull fights took a drastic turn in May of this year and no longer end as such.  According to a newly passed referendum, Ecuadorians agreed on banning the final killing of the bull that happens in a corrida.  Not even 3 centuries of bull fights could topple the animal protection groups and yuppie elitists who likely cast their votes clad in leather with bits of steak somewhere between their duodenums and sigmoids.  Thus bulls are afforded the torment and ridicule with no escape into eternal glory once inside the crudely constructed wooden rings. (A conversation had today while cooking lunch with a co-worker:

Maria: Were there a lot of people at the bullfight?

Me: Yes, many people.  It was interesting.

Maria: It gets really interesting when there are so many people that the fences fall down and the bulls trample people.

*****

Thus, though the bull fighter is the primary person in danger, the audience members may follow in a close second.

Said Thoreau:

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.”

 

At the bull fights yesterday there were many such artists, but little if any brilliance.  You see, since the bull is no longer killed, there is no need for a professional torero (or bull fighter).  Anyone, and I do mean ANYONE, can climb over the rickety wooden fence that separates life from death.  Including me. After 15 minutes of daring my host brother and cousin to pass over the railings and playing the classic child hood game of “No YOU go first,” …someone went first.  And the other two followed.  Suddenly the three of us were eye level with a raging bull.  Luckily there were approximately 30 other people in the same boat. Some waved capes or red t-shirts (useless, bulls are colorblind…the color red is supposedly to mask the incidental stain of the bull’s blood), others just yelled and sprinted across the ring pell-nell, daring the beast to give chase.  I deigned to walk to the center of the ring before realizing that I was the ONLY female inside the ring for a reason.  (Males are, for the most part, foolish and cavalier, willing to trade life for glory faster than I can squeak “oh my god” as another farmer is gored to his premature death).  Then the bull, impossibly large from this close up, suddenly changed direction.  “Ruuunnnnnn!!!!”  In the melee of limbs I managed to throw myself up and over the same rickety fence I had so bravely descended 2 minutes prior, landing like a cat…that has accidentally become drunk and disoriented from a nap spent inhaling the fumes of a recently painted family room.  I staggered a few steps farther away from the flimsy wooden barrier, willing myself to stop shaking.

Then, overcome with emotion and excitement, I turned about face, jumped back onto the fence, and held on as other intrepid souls launched their fearless bones into the ring, testing their fates and fortunes.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Date Night

July 18, 2011

A few weeks ago a fun question arose during a casual conversation with girlfriends, “What was your worst date?”  Digging deep into my memory cache I could only retrieve a few feeble anecdotes; either I haven’t been on many dates or good fortune has always been on my dating side.

Until now.

Though Miguel the weight lifter is not what I would call my “type,” I decide to go ahead with the date.  Of all his curious attributes, persistence is his strongest, so after the 5th call, with a mix of admiration, pity, and regret I agree to meet him at the movie theater in my capital city.  As I’ve already described the hike down to the bus stop in previous posts I will only comment that I should have taken the harbinger of pouring rain more seriously.  Two falls and 45 minutes later, I finally manage to flag down a passing truck.  A pleasant senior citizen named Guillermo talks my ear off in dencher-accentuated costal Spanish and doesn’t charge me for the 30 minute ride.  I wouldn’t have charged me either after hearing that I was going to the city to tutor orphaned Ecuadorian children in self-esteem and English…

Jog the 10 blocks to the movie theater more out of circumstance than choice – apparently on Sunday everything shuts down, public transportation included.

Everything that is, except THE MALL.

On my way in, a scantily clad woman with years of bad choices etched into her facial wrinkles, was on her way out – shrieking at the four police officers who held her by the arms and ankles.  “Let me go you dirty PIGS!!!!  Oh my.  Another presage?

Puke. The mall is so crowded I have to hold my breath in the elevator to squeeze between two shopping carts and three screaming children dressed more in ice cream than clothing.

Wind my way through thousands of milling families wielding more ice cream cones and plastic toys as weapons.  Scoot into the ticket line at 3:30 pm deciding to buy just one ticket in case of a weight lifter no-show. Make it to the second twist in the 300 meter line and see that the movie is SOLD OUT.  Until 10:10 pm. I weigh my options, then decide to not buy tickets.  I do not want to be stuck with Mr. Body Builder until midnight, plus the buses back to my site stop running at 7pm.  I wander around the mall for half an hour trying to people watch but feeling generally overwhelmed and on edge. Play bumper people and realize that I smell like camp fire. 4 minutes before I have set my alarm for surrender and retreat, Miguel finally shows up.  Because he’s not wearing his gray sweat pants I have trouble recognizing him.  Then again he is the only Ecuadorian in the entire commercial center with biceps the size of small sheep. And he’s wearing sunglasses, inside.  I stifle a groan and mold my facial features into a half smile.

I inform sweat pants of our movie misfortune and of my return bus schedule.  He mentions another movie theater down the street and I skeptically drag my feet behind him. An abandoned office building glares back at me as we climb the uneven concrete steps. “Are you sure this is a movie theater?”  And sure enough, for $2.00 per person or $3.00 for two people, you can oblige a tired looking, tuxedo vest wearing woman to put on any in-stock DVD.  At the time of writing, the theater had 6 DVDs on file; 4 of which I had already seen from the comfort of my own bed and laptop, through the magic of Ecuadorian piracy.  The other two had names like “Whore’s Retreat” and “Devil’s Plaything.”  Sweat pants chose the first.

Tuxedo vest graciously took the DVD to the Sony player with a wink, “Good choice,” she smiled conspiratorially.  I felt the recently consumed popcorn rising back through my alimentary canal.

***********************************

I hear the teenage couple making out before I see them; the grotesque slurping comparable to a flu-ridden elephant at a mucky water hole. Bless their hormonal hearts, the adolescents don’t break stride even after we fully entered the theater. Ecuador is just brimming with persistence.

My eyes adjust to the impenetrable darkness only after my shins are properly introduced to a couple of wooden sofas.  The great thing about darkness though, is that it forces even the shadiest of characters to remove his sunglasses.  Finally.

The theater’s screen is roughly the size of one bedroom wall in a modest suburban residence – more Englewood sized than Cherry Hills. And the movie’s title is a mis-translation (thank God).  “Restraint” is a British film about two criminals who invade the mansion of a wealthy and attractive man suffering from agoraphobia.  Though all this is guesswork as sweat pants will not SHUT UP during the movie.  He asks me questions like, “How much do you bench?” and “Do you eat egg yolks?” to which I angry whisper responses through gritted teeth, hoping and praying that the DVD is irreparably scratched somewhere.  When I ask him what his favorite movie is, he replies “Anything with The Rock in it.”

We share a bag of popcorn which my ex-personal trainer balances annoyingly on my left knee.  I fight the urge to kick out and scream “I have restless leg syndrome!” while kernels of popcorn shower the love birds in the corner who have still not come up for air.  At minute 33 he asks me if I have guinea pigs.  This is a question that I get all the time in my community, but it’s definitely the first time on a date.  But it turns out he is asking if I crack my knuckles (maybe the most bizarre translation I’ve come across) – which I do not.  Mr. Body Builder insists on cracking them for me and is reaching for my hands when it dawns on me this might just be his trademark ‘move’ for initiating a hand hold.  I shove mine as deeply as they will go into my pockets and tell him I’m morally against knuckle cracking.  His disappointment is tangible.

An hour into the film the professional kissers stand up to leave and I take this as my cue.  “I have to catch my bus.”

I’ve interrupted his speech (still talking) with my statement and he looks confused.

At my bus stop there are many indigenous families grouped together with their food purchases and a few choice delinquents with excess hair gel roaming among them. As a safety guard I usually await the bus from inside the bakery; the glass windows allow an ample view of approaching vehicles and I always treat myself to a cheese empanada.  But something cold and mechanical inside me will not allow me to share this tradition with Miguel.  If I buy food, I have to buy something for him, and that would be viewed as positive encouragement.  So we wait outside, me staring so diligently as to suggest visual control over the bus schedule and Miguel keeping vigil by my side, chatting with the chill night breeze.  One comment catches my attention, “I’m going to tell the police.”  Excuse me?

“About what?” I ask, feeling jittery. “About those three guys over there.  They’re going to try to rob us.”  Can you snitch pre-emptively?  Doesn’t that contradict innocent until proven guilty?  “They haven’t done anything yet.” I persuade him not to involve the police and to send me home in a taxi, as my bus is definitely not coming.  As he walks me to the four-wheeled yellow beacon of escape he says, “Next time we’ll go to an earlier showing.”

 

Thanks for reading!

The Gym

July 18, 2011

With a neck built for a ballerina or a giraffe, I’ve always tried to instill a bit of grace in every athletic endeavor I undertake. From dancing in crowded night clubs to toilet papering neighboring houses, you can be assured that I follow the rhythm and my hips hit every beat. Now, living in the Latin heartbeat of the world, my syncopation has served me well, but I’ve got a long way to go.

I was reminded of this fact last Friday when I finally found a gym in my capital city to assist me in the reduction of potato and rice associated love handles. Its name Keops and bizarre Egyptian mosaics on every wall transport me back to my slave days in Cairo. The machines were much simpler then but the mantras are the same; ‘follow instructions or risk death, work hard to produce beauty.’ In the modern case, however, the instructions are complicated Rumba dance steps and the beautiful reward is a Latin gluteus maximus.

This gym is unique to any other I’ve been to in one very important respect, namely that ALL aerobic class participants can nail the dance steps on the initial attempt.

While not exactly astrophysics, coordinating large muscle groups to match music is a difficult enough task for many in American jazzercise classes. In my decade of gym memberships I have born witness to many a curious exercise occurrence, as well as provided fodder for others onlooking folly. Once a 74 year old woman plunked down her Pilates mat mere inches from mine in a not so crowded studio with a mischievous grin… and then loosed her anal sphincter and gas filled jejunum for the entire 60 minute class. For half an hour I stifled my laughter and tried not to gag but then, in minute 32, she turned her head ever so slowly towards me and with an unnatural sparkle in here eyes let rip a fart loud enough to make the Pope blush. I clamped my hand over my mouth to contain my raucous outburst but as the need to stop laughing is inversely proportionate with the impulse to laugh, I had no choice but to escape.

A few agile leaps over the rest of the oblivious pulsating women landed me safely by the water fountain to finish my side splitting laughter in peace. At the end, in a passive aggressive move standard for group instruction facilitators, my behavior was mentioned and reprimanded for all to hear without ever outrightly mentioning me as the culprit. “For future classes let’s make sure we are in the right state of mind to do Pilates. To truly center yourself and be one with the movements, one must achieve a certain level of seriousness. Plenty of time for fun and games after class.” In my mind I amended her speech with, “And for those interested in speeding global warming with noxious methane release, please be so kind as to purchase my video and save us from inhaling the fumes of your dried apricot consumption.”

Then there was that time when I wandered into an experts only yoga class in Boulder and the instructor had to personally extricate me from myself after a failed attempt at Half Pretzel Warrior Seven. Life is always interesting when you refuse to leave, especially after the teacher gently repeats at the end of her introduction while burning holes into your soul with her eyes, “beginners should leave now.”

But at Keops, everyone is an expert in dancing, so the incredibly fit caramel brown Luigi doesn’t have to chastise beginners for trying. Instead he encourages the gyrating mass to “move those hips like you mean it” and “get down and dirty.” Maybe he coaches strippers too.

During the hour of Rumba I hold off on secret competitions because…I would lose. These Ecuadorian girls are good, like Brittany pre-head shave. Luigi’s running commentary, professionally sexy moves, and music lively enough to rouse the recently declared dead have all combined to make Fridays my favorite day of the week. Friday is the only day I don’t hit snooze 15 times. When that familiar beep BEEP BEEP wakes me at 5am, I jump from my bed into my aerobics clothes, pause in the bathroom only long enough to Colgate the friendly night bacteria from my bucal pearls and then jog my way down the mountain to catch a bus into the city.

To arrive on time to 8am Rumba, my Nike cross trainers must cross the domestic moat (our street gutter is really wide and deep) no later than 6am. To be fair, half that commute is spent hiking down the mountain and waiting for the first bus. Once in the city, it’s relatively quick and easy to get to the gym. (25 cents in bus or 2 dollars in taxi)

After sweating out all the potato toxins with tricky Ecuadorian dance moves, I like to hit the weight machines, if nothing else than to remind myself how very weak I’ve become. Although last week I won the secret weight lifting competition. Secret because the other competitors did not know they were competing. Regardless, every time I contorted myself into a weight machine and had to move the pin down to hold more weight I shouted, “I WIN!”

The friendly trainer, Miguel, an Ecuadorian version of Tony Hawk skateboarder meets Channing Tatum body builder, swung by the thigh abductor to make sure I was ok. After barely exchanging small talk, he asked me out on a date. I had been forewarned about the gym workers’ gringa fetish from another volunteer friend and should have been prepared with a smooth rejection but there is something disconcerting about maintaining a conversation while opening and closing your legs. Consequently caught off guard and in a compromising position, I said yes. And then prayed he would never call. So far so good, there is a still a nation wide cell phone credit shortage. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

Monkeys and Baby Dolls

May 27, 2011

The water tank sat like a slimy portent of a Friday poorly spent.  Big boss lady at the N.G.O. wanted the mold scoured from the walls of our drinking water reservoir, something about a health hazard…

As a community health volunteer, I had to agree, to disagree, with her.  While green scum had no business being close to our liquid for consumption, I did not plan on being a part of the clean up crew. Not because I didn’t care about the children drinking poison disguised as hydrogen and oxygen but rather, after 2.5 years in Peace Corps, I’ve been subjected to my fair share of job responsibility abuse. Only after many regretful days invested in unpleasant tasks that fall way outside of my job description, a.k.a. not getting paid to do others’ dirty work, I’ve taken a stand.  Instead of bonding over filth, I was going to take advantage of the newly declared free Friday, and so I invited myself to the coast to visit my other 3rd year volunteer friend.

“Be sure to bring back some monkeys!” My host mother giggled behind her hand at her own joke. In Ecuador the coastal people are called monkeys, and in Peru ALL Ecuadorians are called monkeys.  (I’ve done a good job of not mentioning that cultural nomenclature to my new friends; no reason to further kindle the fiery animosity between these two South American countries.)  “I’ll see what I can do…”  One souvenir I was definitely not going to bring back was malaria.

Chone is a coastal town rife with wetlands, cattle, pristine beaches, delinquency, and cat-callers.  All of the above were encountered during my short and muggy (not mugged!) foray.  The “La Segua” wetlands are home to more than 164 species of birds, nearly 100 of which are migratory, and there is a fish called el Chame that can survive out of water for up to 48 hours!  Wouldn’t that be a painful experiment to watch… Likewise, I only survived in that humid jungle for two days. The beach we spent a few hours on was magical; I splashed happily in the tepid miniature waves, knowing that the UV monster couldn’t touch me under my 70 spf, while my friend snored atop her latest book. Though it was a Saturday, there was hardly anyone underfoot; more coconut milk vendors than beach-goers.

Paradise, however, comes with a price. The tame whistles heard around my sierran capital city of Ambato from male citizens were no preparation for the onslaught of inappropriateness on the coast.  Yuck.  And our nights were spent cooped up watching movies in the house, huddled close to the air conditioning, turned subtly to high by yours truly.  The future gang members of Ecuador roam the streets of Chone; you can’t kick a beat up soccer ball in that town without hitting an unscrupulous riffraff. Or at least that’s what my friend’s host mom implied. I was nervous to buy ice cream from the corner store at 7:34 pm and it was only 15 feet from the house.

Olenka’s host father, concerned with my concern, kindly offered to drive me to the bus station on my final night.  After two nights of sleeping with my appendages wrapped around the single unit air conditioner and still sweating ungodly amounts, I can’t say I was sorry to leave.  The humidity…and the creepy baby doll in the corner of the room where I slept were enough to send me off without looking back.

More about the doll…I’ve been guilty at times of hoarding relics of the past.  There was a certain hand crafted doll house with ornate molding that seemed to stick around longer than pop culture calls for, but everyone should exercise limits.  Mine are drawn way before the life size, unblinking, blue eyed creature from the dark with blonde curls earns a permanent spot in the guest bedroom.  Were they trying to scare guests away??  At one point the doll looked at me and mouthed “Red Rum”.  Shivers.

Fumbling for my bus ticket many hours later, and jostling my way down the narrow aisle to seat 7 I found my baby doll adventure was far from over.  The woman who sat next to me, a short almost Asian looking 50 year old of petite build, dragged a small grandson by his left arm, nearly wrenching it out of the socket as she tumbled into a seated position.  Face down, arm twisted painfully back behind him, the boy didn’t utter a sound, not even a groan. When she recognized my furrowed brow and pursed lips she laughed explaining, “It’s just a doll.”  That ‘just a doll’ glared at me the entire 6 hour bus ride, his eyes catching the light glare of passing cars and menacing me with his paralyzed half smile. Eeeeee.

When I got home I placed a collect call to Matel to inform them that their products were a bit too life like for my liking.

Queen Bee and 53 Wannabes

April 29, 2011

The great reign of the TomBoy has ruled my life for the past 12 years.  One report on the correlation between underwire brassieres and increased risk of breast cancer was all it took to convince me of the beauty and simplicity of sports bras and I haven’t looked back since.

Excepting this past Sunday, that is.

While it doesn’t take much goading or arm twisting to get me into a dress, it is generally understood that I will do something socially unacceptable while imprisoned in the flowing freedom of dress fabric.  There was the fateful Peruvian high school graduation where, with a small child in my lap I performed a fashionable rendition of “Pony Girl Pony Girl” compliments of a childhood spent being thrown off of adult laps at family get togethers, the the shouts of “Miss Julie, I can see your UNDERWEAR!!” from across the convention center.  The crowning moment?  I couldn’t hear my student clearly over the din and excitement so I shouted for him to repeat himself louder. A few of his friends joined in the yelling fun, assuring my comprehension the second time around.

Then there was Easter Sunday 2011.

“Try these on,” my host sister said with a mischievious grin, unloading an armful of shiny dresses on my bed. I had agreed to be the representative of my host brother’s soccer team for the beauty pageant out of a persistent need to be liked by the people I presently live with.  I figured that prancing around in my public enemy #1 (dresses) would be my one way ticket to Ecuadorian family popularity.

No one told me that the dress would be so short.

“But you can see my uterus in this dress…”  “Don’t be ridiculous, it covers your butt completely-don’t bend over like that, or that.”

At 7am my host sister knocked on my bedroom door.  “Ready?”  I had just run a 3 mile loop around my town, winding up and over 9.865 feet.  My lungs were not so slowly exploding and my sweat glands were still stuck in an executive meeting about whether or not to sweat at 40 degrees fahrenheit.  “Ready for what?”  “Your hair appointment.” Oh, that.  “Should I shower first?”  “We’re already late.”  I grabbed an apple from the kitchen to satisfy my raging campo hunger and followed her out the door.

We took a left out of the back door, where I definitely would have taken a right to flag a bus to take us down to the city and the civilized world where normal girls shower before Beauty Pageants.  Slipping and sliding down the muddy path, we traversed potato and corn fields, finally arriving at…nothing. “Where exactly am I getting my hair done?”  She signaled to the left, in the epitomal Ecuadorian manner, with her bottom lip. I followed the vague line of direction to a pasture where two cows were lazily grazing the morning mist away. “The hair stylist is still moving her cows.”  Of course she is. I hope she washes her hands, I thought silently, then remembered that I was probably dirtier/smellier than my bovine friends.

I stamped my feet against the cold while my host sister jiggled the baby strapped to her back. Finally my one maid a milking approached us. “Buenos dias, follow me.” Suddenly I felt nervous.  Milk maids have really strong hands; hands so powerful that they could rip the very hair from my scalp and call it a hair do. I mean afterall, if a t-shirt was a dress these days, what criterion did I have for judging the validity of this ‘hairdo’ or the hair doer. My feet turned in the opposite direction.  “Where are you going Julie?”

She pulled a chair into the poorly lit dining room and bade me to sit. I sat.  And fidgeted like a 7 year old waiting for the principal after starting a food fight in the cafeteria. Only I threw a glass bottle of Izzy’s while everyone else lobbed fruit-by-the-foots and pb and j sandwiches. Regret shook me to the core as I thought of my soon to be bloody scalp.

The Last of the JFast.ohicans.  Trail of Tears.

Surprisingly gentle hands untangled the sweaty nest of hair that had taken residence on my head. “Let me know if I hurt you.”  You better believe I will Bertha. But…I never had to so much as chirp my pain.  Maybe so little showering had deadened my pain receptors. Perhaps all the extra dirt and grime had clogged my neural pathways. (God made dirt and dirt don’t hurt…)

Either way, an hour later I left with the dreamy sensation that always follows a loving head scratch or a grandmother’s strength hair playing sesh. Funny she didn’t offer me a mirror at the end.

Hiking back to the house my sister got down to business, checking her watch like a compulsive train conductor every 4 steps. “You have 13 minutes to change, shave, do your make-up, and get into the car (and try and wedge your huge American feet into small Ecuadorian stilettoes).”

Fast foward 24 hours. I examined the second degree sun burns covering my arms and chest with disgust.  Always a camp counselor, always prepared, I had really failed myself this time. In a land plagued by clouds, the beauty pageant had brought out the best in the Ecuatorial sun.  After such a rushed make up disaster (imagine that the innocent soprano from your favorite Methodist church choir decides overnight that she wants to be a transvestite heavy metal rocker…is basically how I looked), it completely slipped my mind that I would shed the black pea-coat covering my bare arms and chest at the outdoor stadium.

To my credit, there were 56 contestants in total competing for three spots on the podium. Not only was I 10 years older and 3 shades paler  (redder) than most, but my crotch was practically on display.  What kind of risque queen would I have been on that podium?

And who knew that stilettoes could give blisters even when the wearer is just standing still.

Thanks for reading!

Whiter and Bluer

April 26, 2011

In a world where everyone is known by his or her distinguishing physical characteristic, it is no surprise that mine is “white.”

One of the more rambunctious little people that I work with at the German/Ecuadorian NGO, Chino (called “Chinese” by everyone, including his grade school teachers and family) informed me that after a week’s absence my skin was much whiter and my eyes much bluer. I protested in vain that the previous day I had stood under the toasty Ecuadorian sun for 4 hours so there is no scientific basis for his claim.  If anything, redder and bluer might be more fitting.

My week away from site was spent in a remote mountain community helping to build a water system with a motley crew of high schoolers from Connecticut called Builders Beyond Borders.  After months of minimal sensory stimulation from the vast technological world I was bombarded with youtube, Rebecca Black, and Broadway references.  I tried to keep up for the first two days and then it dawned on me that I had become the washed up older person trying to remain hip.

The fact that I just used the word ‘hip’ underscores my uncoolness and solidifies my argument.

Though I was ashamedly behind the times, it was highly entertaining to hear the talk of the day.  It brought me great pride to hear the ‘talking muffin’ joke and know that  the comical classics are still in circulation.

After a week in Tingo-Pucara, I left with a new scarf (thank you indigenous women that chuckled at the sorry excuse of a scarf I spent all week knitting -and did not finish- and who then donated a longer better scarf to my pitiful hands-like-meat-claws cause), diarrhea (inevitable), runny nose (ambient temperatures did not inch past 48 degrees fahrenheit), and a sense that the world is indeed going to be ok because it is filled with wonderful young people.

They complained a bit about having to dig so many trenches, but then again who wouldn’t given blisters, rain, diarrhea, jet lag, and 10,000 feet above sea level…

6 days after first taking hoe to ground, a bent toothless woman turned a faucet and two parts hydrogen one part oxygen spurted out of a thin metal tube.  Behind her a straw hut sighed in the afternoon wind and a crowd of Americans cheered like the Mets had finally won a World Series.

Thanks for reading.

Video Expression

March 28, 2011

I really enjoy writing but have taken a brief hiatus to pursue the wide world of cinematography.  You’ll notice that the camera shakes more when I’m in the scene, a.k.a. when I’m not filming.  I blame all subsequent Blair Witch like motion sickness generated from viewing this video on my sub-par filming crew.

 

Thank you and enjoy.

 

Damned In Distress

February 25, 2011

The waning light from the ecuatorial sun officially disappears at 645 pm on any given day – seasons being obsolete here.

At 630 pm my host sister-in-law Nicoletta knocked on my door asking me to accompany her to the ravine.  When I squinted my eyes in suspicion she explained that Santiago had called, inebriated, needing her assistance on the long hike home from a neighboring community. 

I looked past Nicoletta to the fading wisps of orange glow, quickly sinking behind the volcano.  I looked at my watch and thought of my pending 3am bus ride down to the capital city for a workshop with my NGO´.  I shrugged.  ¨Why not?¨ and followed her down the path, carying nothing but the clothes on my back and my cell phone.

For kicks we took along my favorite 8 year old in the world, Lucky, and three dogs.  As we hit the steep path that zig zags down the cliff´s edge to the floor of the valley, it was clear who the weakest link was.  After 5 minutes of stumbling over my Merrell hiking boot clad feet behind the rest of the search party, I was obligated to slow my pace (in order to physically save my face.  After one particularly brutal face plant the thought crossed my mind ¨Now I´ll never be a teen model¨) 

With only the scarce light of my cell phone to guide me, I tried to sing all the Disney songs in my repertoire to fend off the dangers of the dark.    One dog had stayed by my side while the other two felt no resmorese in leaving me to the evils of the ever encroaching twilight.  I sowre my undying loyalty to this four legged friend of man…until we hit a flat stretch of the path and he too ditched me.

Now completely on my own I repeated the opening line to Circle of Light from The Lion King at the top of my scared lungs, searching desperately in the darkness for a trace of Nicoletta´s flashlight.  No luck. 

After an extended half hour and a comical run in with a drunk that was NOT my host brother, the path opened up into the valley and the cloack of darkness lifted – thanks to the hundreds of fireflies.  It felt like the midnight sky had fallen around me, stars replaced by miniscule and curious bugs who greeted me in silence with spectacular obs of brightness. 

I hightailed it to the ¨bridge¨ to see if my fellow rescuers had left me behind.  Rounding a tight bend in the path I ran into the small group. ¨Aughhhhh!!!!” 

Nicoletta had turned off her flashlight to conserve the battery and the dogs were eerily silent.  So when I say that I “ran into” my friends I mean it literally.  Disentangling myself from a dog and a small Ecuadorian child, I apologized and asked after the search results.  No luck yet.  Santiago was nowhere to be found.

No choice but to continue the search.  Nicoletta sprinted over the fallen baby eucaliptus tree with the cunning of a Cirque du´Soleil veteran.  Lucky, panting like a husky after the Iditarod, stayed closer to my side.  Seconds later, Nicoletta´s shadow was a nothing more than a brief memory.  They say there is no greater motivation than love, and in this case love mixed with fear makes olympiads of even the most provincial . 

I, fortunately, do not love Santiago, and was free to amble up the mountain at a more humane pace.

We reconvened miles later in front of a house.  Sister-in-law blackmailed me into asking the residents if they had seen “a drunk young man in a green sweater.”  Vague, but small town, big gossip.  We go tthe full descriptions and stories of all the wasted boys and men that had wandered down the path in the past 24 hours.  But none in a green sweater.

Arriving at the other community at 830 pm, we finally laid our hands on the guilty and drunken party in question.  My ridiculous 26 year old host brother had the nerve to tell me, in slurred Spanish mixed with Kichwa, to wait outside until he was done talking to his equally drunken friends.

I lost it.

Nicoletta wrung her hands nervously outside the cantina.

I charged back in and turned off the light of the speak-easy.  Shouts answered back.  “The bar is closed!! And Santiago you walk out the door now or I leave you here to sleep in the streets.”

Like a guilty kindergarderner admitting that he has killed the class goldfish during his weekend rotation, Santiago hung his head and slunked out behind me, his face alighting on Nicoletta´s in wonder and delight. 

“My wife!!” 

As our eclectic group set off down the mountain, Santiago´s emotions changed faster than a Colorado afternoon sky.  Everytime I looked back to check in he was in the throes of some passion.  Either trying to kiss his young wife or crying for the loss of his patria. 

For the love of god, I just wanted to go home.

After a few non fatal falls, it was obvious that Santiago would hvae been better off sleeping in the streets.  Instead we walked down the poorly maintained highway to cross the river in a different spot. 

This is when the situation went from bad to worse.

There was no log to cross the river so we essentially waded through the murky waters at 930pm.  Worse still, Santiago managed to nearly clear the river in one preposterous jump, making him the driest of the bunch. 

Jerk.

On the other side of the river?  Treacherous landslides and low visibility.  We bushwhacked our way up the cliff for the next two hours, arriving home with more cuts and bruises than I had accumulated in the past month combined.  At one point the way was so washed out that we had to drag Santiago across, one woman at his hands and the other at his feet, to keep him from sliding into the abyss.

Ugh.

But as the retelling proves, I survived, albeit dirty and embittered.

Thanks for reading.

Jerry Springer

February 18, 2011

Did you know that Jane Fast was once on the nationally acclaimed talk show, Jerry Springer?  Ask and she will tell…

Here in Ecuador I have just lived through a campo version of the show that made my mother famous.  Owing to the fact that my village is incredibly small, events are always blown out of proportion.  Neighborly disagreements snowball into family feuds, and lovers´spats transform into death threats and divorce.  My February episode of Jerry Springer contains all of the above.

As my Quichua is still nascent, the entire story of Nicoletta and Santiago is not clear to me · making my version of the events biased and bizarre.

At 9pm on February 8th, as I was helping my NGO´s engineers stuff seeds into baggies in the capital city, 19 year old Nicoletta stormed out of the humble house she shared with my host brother Santiago with her 1 year old child in tow.  The infant´s cries woke the rest of the family compound, whose scattered huts are in close proximity. But nothing, not Santiago´s pleading, nor Grandmother´s begging, could dissuade Nicoletta from running away.  She ran all the way to her own mother´s house, about ten minutes down the road, rendering the situation · in my mind at least · somewhat comical by the sheer proximity of the star crossed lovers. 

The next day at our women´s group meeting, Santiago stalked in halfway through the meeting and announced, “I´m here in place of Nicoletta, she abandoned me last night.”  His frankness caused an uncomfortable silence in the meeting hall, followed by the muffled sobs of Santiago´s sister Hortencia.  I surveyed the crowd trying to discern if this were the sort of native humor that I was not yet privy too.  But my host grandmother´s tears confirmed the sad state of affairs.  Hortencia´s crying grew more proncounced until she excused herself, and with her exit we lost the last shred of the audience´s attention to the workshop on vegetable gardens. 

Later, after the engineers had departed for the city and I was once more left alone with my ´modern´thoughts, I tried in vain to gather intelligence on Nicoletta´s disappearance.  The only response I got from the female members of my family were pitiful tears and sniffles.  I avoided Santiago so as to dispel rumors that I, the fresh female meat on the block, were somehow to blame for their separation.   During the next 48 hours, Santiago confined himself to bed and proclaimed that he was ´sick.´ All meals were brought to him in bed and his television kept on all hours of the day.  Then, the third day, he magically healed and was up before the rest of the family. 

Still oblivious to the specific going·ons, I politely greeted the Nicoletta´s mom and brother upon my return from teaching at the school.  The duo was clearly at odds with the surrounding · both were covered in shawls as if trying to conceal their identities.  “Have you seen Nicoletta??” the mother clutched my arm in a vice like grip.  I answered truthfully that I had not.  “I know she´s here, I saw Santiago drag her here by her hair earlier, he has her tied up in the house right now!” she screeched in broken Spanish.  As if her statement had not delivered the intended effect of scaring me she added, “The baby´s tied up too!”

Alarmed I jogged to the door of Santiago´s house and pounded until my knuckles reminded me of their fragility.

The mother and son had remained 25 meters away, huddled together.  Arriving at their side I whisper yelled, “No one is inside.” 

She looked at me with a mix of pity and exasperation.  “She´s bound and gagged, my daughter cannot answer you.”  Oh.  Right.  I convinced them to approach the house, to facilitate my breaking and entering plan.  We managed to open one window to peer into the side bedroom.  There, indeed, was Nicoletta´s pink shawl.  But no trace of a body…or a baby.  The other window, which would allow a sideways glance into the main room of the house, was a much more complicated ordeal. The window pane was broken at the very top, allowing me to slide a curved stick into position to unhook the inside latch.  In doing so I sliced my thumb wide open, but with the concentration of McGuiver, I did not notice until after the deed was completed.

Window open, we craned our necks and saw…

nothing. No trace of Nicoletta.  I didn´t know what else to do so I shrugged my shoulders helplessly and assured her I would personally call if Nicoletta showed up. The cloaked pair sulked away, never releasing each others´hands.  I hastily closed the window and attempted to erase all signs of my wrong doings.

“Psssssttt!!”  Thumb in my mouth, I looked up with a start. Nicoletta was standing behind a tree, beckoning me close.  “Jesus, Maria, and Joseph!  Your mother is so worried!  Why don´t you at least talk to her and let her know you´re ok??”

Between sobs Nicoletta recounted her past three days.  How she and Santiago had fought, he threatened her with a knife, and turned the gas stove on in an improvised murder attempt.  How Nicoletta had run home and her mother convinced her to divorce Santiago, but Nicoletta had realized how much she loved him and wanted to return to him. Then Nicoletta´s mother had tried to beat her and Nicoletta had called Santiago and run back here in the morning.

I listened wide eyed and incredulous.  Not knowing whether or not to believe all of her story and certainly not envying her position in life.

She paused for breath long enough to ask, “What did my mom want?” 

Now, a week later, Nicoletta and Santiago are living happily ever after, Nicoletta has been excommunicated from her family, and I try t o avoid Santiago.    Eeeeeeeeee.

Thanks for reading!