Friday, December 17, 2010

Ecuaflections

I would have spent today leisurely packing and recording my thoughts on a semester spent abroad for your reading pleasure. I would have spent today chatting with my host family while reflecting on four months of experiences and challenges, after returning sometime in the mid-afternoon from a great weekend at the beach. I would have passed the morning with a short bus ride and even shorter flight into Quito, since we decided to shell out $80 to fly in liue leui leue lieu of a ten-hour bus ride. I would have spelled 'lieu' correctly on the first attempt instead of flailing helplessly at my keyboard for about a minute in a stubborn refusal to use spellcheck. These sentences would be correctly structured and an enjoyable read instead of being a garbled mess of poor grammar tip-toeing the line between run-ons and "creative".

But no. The Quito airport shut down for seven hours in the middle of the day. Because of a rainstorm. And we arrived maybe half an hour ahead of the bus we took such pains to avoid. Ecuastyle.

So instead of nice, orderly, and deeply reflective musings, I leave you with this pictorialization (*Palin'd!!*) of my current mental state after slogging through the rain back in Quito:

Credit for this extremely apt caricature goes to Allie Brosh, the talented blogger behind http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com. I'm pretty surprised I haven't used or referred to this image before. It's definitely popped into my head more than once during the past four months.

SLEEP THEN PACKING! Down to the last 36 hours...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Con L, con I, con G, con A, LIGA CAMPEÓN!

One of the most unexpected (well, for me anyway) developments of our time in Quito was becoming fans of actual, legit, not-American fútbol. Or to be more specific, fans of Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Ecuador, or la Liga for short - Quito's team, and also pretty damn good. We cheered them on to some semi-impressive level of finals in a championship tournament that took place between Latin American teams (hey, this fan-ship came as a bit of a surprise to me too) before they lost in I believe the quarter-finals while we were in Cuenca (and no, it was NOT because I forgot my jersey). But I think they recently won a game somewhere that was kind of a big deal. Maybe. Hey, here are some pictures!
Why doesn't soccer in the US reach the same kind of fan-frenzied atmosphere? Firecodes.
"Orgullo" - pride.
Yes, we all ended up buying jerseys off the street.
I wish I could describe the atmosphere of a game. We sat in bajo sur, or the section that Ben's host family warned us not to sit in. Apparently we were either going to get arrested or end up in the hospital, but thankfully neither came to pass. Instead, we were right beside the ligistas, the super-crazy dedicated fans who collect money for their tickets 10¢ at a time before the games, literally. Painted and all in white, they play giant marching-band style drums THE ENTIRE TIME. Without a break. And the cheers are more like songs, each with a distinct rhythm and melody. (Other reason the US will never be able to celebrate fútbol like this - general lack of internal rhythm.) For the entire game, everyone is on their feet jumping/dancing/swaying (depending on your level of intoxication) and when they score, WOW, what incredible energy. That is to say, WOW, I got beer spilled on my so many times, considering that la Liga won the first game I saw 6-1. That's a lot of beer-flinging.

Oh hey, a video!

(okay, well, it didn't load, but I'll try again soon)

One last fun story - at our second game, Michael, Audrey and I were approached by a man filming for a local TV station. He was asking fans to sing some of the cheers to use as teasers for advertising for games. The only one we even partially knew, of course, was the cheer fans sing after Liga scores. (Hoya Blue could learn a thing or two about fan discipline.) At that point, I only knew the ending part when each letter is called out, so before we sang it, a few Ecuadorians taught us the lyrics while the camera guy filmed. It took 30 seconds tops before we were ready to record it. Michael asked him when they were going to use the footage, and was the only one to see our 15 seconds of fame. Apparently, they first played the segment of us being taught the lyrics, followed by the caption, "20 minutes later..." before showing us singing the cheer correctly. Harumph. Try learning the Georgetown fight song and we'll see who's laughing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I got 99 problems and they mostly happen to be men.

Ninety nine, let me be clear, is a huge underestimation. It's everyone - on the streets, on the bus, in the mall, some even in our utopia of a campus. If you asked me, what is my biggest daily frustration of living abroad, it wouldn't be the pollution, the danger of muggers, taxi kidnappers, or pickpockets. Not the threat of illness from food or water, the homesickness, language barrier, or desire for some freaking vegetables every now and then. It's the constant, unwanted and often humiliating attention from men.

Let me also be clear that this is not just me. Tall, blonde Americans are not the only recipients of unwanted attention. The young, the old, the locals, the foreigners, the comely and homely... apparently, the only necessary requisite for catcalls and come-ons is two X chromosomes. I've spoken about this at length with my host mom, who has an unwanted male admirer that has been calling her every weekend for years, and she chalks it up to machismo, the aggressive and often-overbearing pride men take in being, well, men. Talking to women my own age at the University who are from Ecuador, they admit that they are just as offended, humiliated, angered, you name it, by the attention. And yet...

First, it was funny. Did that mandarina hawker really just tell me I was "delicious"? Did the empanada seller on the bus call me a "muñeca"? Then it gets annoying. Okay, you said good morning to me, I was polite enough to respond, and now you're making kissy-noises at my retreating back. Really, Ecuadorian men, really?

Other times it's startling. While walking down a busy street on a two-foot wide strip of grass with traffic on one side and a chain link fence on the other, if you honk at me I'm going to assume there's an impending collision. Oh wait, you were just acknowledging the fact that I am, of course, a woman. Thank you, I hadn't noticed, and since you did honk and whistle from your unidentifiable make of a beat-up sedan spewing exhaust on which I am currently choking, why sure, I'll just hop right in.

You can't make it stop. There is absolutely nothing you can say to shut them up - any response is taken as encouragement, and makes the heckling get worse. One afternoon I was walking to a nearby mall about two blocks away, and passed two young guys sitting on a curb, fixing a bus. As I was approaching, they both say, "hola," very politely. Because they didn't speak to me in English (a clear sign heckling is about to ensue) and because I can't help but feel how rude it is to walk by without responding, I say hello as well. As soon as I had passed, a chorus of kissing-noises (you know, the kind you make to a dog) reaches my ears. Furious, I yell at them in Spanish to shut up. This is apparently the funniest joke ever made on the planet, as they burst out laughing and then proceed to mimic me in falsetto. So then I'm so angry, so humiliated that I'm actually in tears, still walking down the street. If I hadn't lent my pepper spray to a friend the night before, I'm not entirely sure I wouldn't have stormed back there and hurt them back in the only way I knew how. Sadly, I'm pretty sure they're not even aware what they're doing - I am just an object to them, devoid of feelings or thoughts.

I know that this is not all men; although I'm not sure it's not a majority. But - and chalk it up to the machismo if you'd like - I'm convinced that there is a significantly higher 'creeper' ratio in Ecuador. Take my conversation partner. There's a google doc online where you can enter your availability throughout the week and then contact or be contacted by someone with a similar schedule looking to learn or practice your native language. Cool, right? Super great way to meet people and make friends, I thought. So when I responded to an email from this person, I was really looking forward to our meeting. Nice enough guy, kind of shy and awkward, but since his English was very basic, we spoke mostly in Spanish which was fine by me. The next day, I accept a friend request from him on Facebook. Within the day, I get some unwanted comments on pictures of mine dating back months, not exactly the first pictures in the stack. Some samples: "mmmm... wow.. you look vey nice.." and, translated, "...what a beautiful view... and you too hehehe... when I improve my level of English I'll leave you a comment in English hehe..." Please, please, just don't. And also tell your friends to stop friending me. Kthanks.

Maybe I should have expected this. After all, at our first meeting, we began by speaking in Spanish. When I told him he should start asking me questions in English so he could practice too, what was the first thing out of his mouth? "Do you have a boyfriend?" Of course. Of course it was. That, by the way, is probably the most common question I've gotten from boys I've just met here in Ecuador. If you don't it's like you've just announced the start of open hunting season. The only appropriate answer, for the record, is, "Yes, and he's that hulking guy standing in the corner." Girls who say they have a boyfriend in the US are literally told, "Oh, well then it doesn't matter." Girls who have a boyfriend in Ecuador are told it doesn't matter if he isn't there. Ecuador, by the way, has the highest incidence of cheating among men. Colombia, I'm told, has the highest rate among women. The point of this being - it seems like it has literally never occurred to these guys that they will be rejected. The only possible reason you would not hook up with this person - especially if you're an American, since we're assumed to be, to put it delicately, "easy" - is because you are already hooking up with someone else. Period.

And the saddest thing of all is how it affects friendships here in Ecuador. Most of this had to be explained to me, and it took me awhile to see. I still don't understand the entire dynamic. Generally, the rule is that guys and girls can't really be friends, not just purely platonic friends. At first I was so frustrated because I couldn't seem to break in to a friend group, and wasn't using Spanish as much as I would have liked for that reason. It took me the better part of the semester to figure out, but any guy I talk to on campus is either blatantly interested in me romantically, or assumes I am interested in him. This has led to a few unfortunate misunderstandings, like the conversation partner. With girls, it's a little more complicated, but it has been explained to me that they generally are afraid of bringing a new girl to hang out with her group of friends, for fear I would 'steal' her boyfriend or another guy in the group - so even though there are a lot of people who are friendly to me in class, it never really results in an invitation to hang out later. Most of these girls have known each other since elementary school or earlier, and the social dynamic here is very, very similar to high school in the US.

If I had known this, would I have still chosen Ecuador? Maybe not, although I think there are similar dynamics at play in other Latin American countries. And hey, it could be worse - I could be in the Middle East. Mostly, and this makes me very sad to say, I think a lot about how much easier this experience would have been if I were a guy. I could travel alone. I could go dancing without having the night ruined by creepy men. (One night I was literally falling asleep after going dancing, and when I closed my eyes could only see the eyes of off the men who were staring at us all night. It was terrifying.) I could make friends, although still not with girls. (To be seen with an American guy is, apparently, not the best thing for a girl's reputation, although it's not too infrequent.) I could walk down the street, and just maybe, feel like a person - not an object. Despite the persistent inequalities between men and women in the United States, I am very, very thankful to be able to live in a country where at least I am granted that.

The fine print: Dad, I know you're not going to be happy reading this. It does happen to be a true part of my experience abroad, and since that's what I set out to record, I'm posting it here. And despite what I may feel, in terms of going about my daily routine I know that this doesn't really pose any serious threat to my health or well being (okay, maybe sanity) and even that can't be guaranteed anywhere, even in the US. The other interesting phenomenon is that the cat-calls and attention never, ever turn physical. Although admittedly, that may be related to the ever-present pepper spray in my hand.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Thanksgiving Weekend in Cuenca

What an epic weekend. In honor of Thanksgiving, Tom, Michael, Thomas and I took Thursday and Friday off of school to head down to Cuenca for a long weekend. Cuenca's been on my list to visit ever since my host Mom told me about its colonial history, and I learned it was one of the two UNESCO Cultural World Heritage sites in Ecuador (the other is Quito, fancy that).
DAY 1: Cuenca and La Liga, "hence the loss"
After stumbling bleary-eyed off our overnight bus at 6am Thursday morning, we wondered aimlessly (well, we followed Tom) until we found the city center and an open hostel. It ended up being a fabulous hostel, with a giant room with 5 double beds, super helpful family that owned the place, and HOT WATER. For $7.50 a night. Score. After dumping our stuff, we took off to explore the city. All told, I believe the final count was 6 churches, 2 ice cream cones, 1 cuy (first it was cute, then it was delicious) Thanksgiving feast, 2 markets, and 1 gun shop. Successful day.
It was understood that the highlight of this Thanksgiving day was going to be watching la Liga, one of Ecuador's awesome fútbol teams of whom we've become quite passionate fans, totally destroy a team from Argentina on the way to the quarter-finals. Now, I happened to forget my jersey at home, and also refused to barter my soul, firstborn child, or charity to beggars on the outcome of the game. Unlike the boys. Apparently, this resistance to alternatively bribing and threatening God (selling souls was involved at some points) resulted in the Liga's loss. Or so I am told, "hence the loss". Whatever.
But, we couldn't mourn the loss for too long, because we had to drag ourselves out of bed early the next day to get in a full day of hiking at el Parque Nacional Cajas, about an hour away.

DAY 2: El PN Cajas, "What are men compared to rocks and mountains," or "I stuck my leg in a marsh."
WOW. This is easily top 3, possibly higher, on my list of favorite places in Ecuador. We're dumped off the bus more or less along the side of the highway, but couldn't care less, gaping in awe at the vista surrounding us. Words really can't do it justice, and to be honest neither can pictures, but here are a few just to give you an idea...
It felt like the setting for a Lord of the Rings film. Even though the park is located inland in Ecuador, it's a RAMSAR wetlands site - something about the mountains must prevent the regular rains from filtering away, resulting in lots of mountain lakes and thick, mossy flatlands that ooze crystal-clear water with each footstep (sounds cool, until your socks are wet). Hiking with Tom, Michael and Thomas was easily also one of the most ridiculous experiences I've had in Ecuador. Like this beautiful panoramic video I was trying to take during lunch, interrupted by Tom:
Or Michael, who Tom reverse-psychologied into trying to jump from a rock to the stream bank. Mind you, we are in MARSHLANDS.
And as epic as the photos we posed for were, one of Jane Austen's lines from Pride and Prejudice kept running through my head (what, you don't quote P&P to yourself? don't judge) - what are men compared to rocks and mountains, indeed.
It started to get dark at around 4:30, but not because the sun was setting - oh no, that would be an imminent hailstorm. I happpened to have left my umbrella in my backpack from the trip, meaning I had a nice leisurely walk home while the boys hurried, hunched over, through the stinging hail. (And who didn't promise their soul to the Devil if Liga won? Oh right.)
After dinner and more ice cream, we played another round of hearts, which, despite an astonishing amount of trash talking, I won handily. Bah.
DAY 3: Ingapirca, ceremonial sacrifices and ritual baños (oh, that's what they mean...)
Our final day in Cuenca, we visited the famous Ingapirca ruins about two hours outside of Cuenca. They are somewhere on the list of "ten things you must do in Ecuador" according to Lonely Planet. Hmm. They are the largest known Inca ruins in Ecuador. I take it the Incas didn't do much building in Ecuador. What is left of them - the majority of the ruins are actually rebuilt - are decently interesting. The ruins are a result of Inca colonization of the native Cañari people (it is located in the province of Cañar), first a brutal process but eventually resulted in assimilation of the two groups.
History aside, we spent the majority of our 2-hour visit taking incredibly politically incorrect pictures. Here's my favorite series, from the "ritual baths":
And did I mention the llamas? I touched one, of course.
Later that night, we caught a bus headed back to Quito - though not before Thomas got himself lost for an hour, during which time I was convinced he was bleeding in a corner somewhere. But, not a minute too late, we made the bus and seven hours later in the early-morning light, arrived in Quito. That Monday was the national Censo (census) for urban areas, which meant you would literally be arresting for leaving your house between the hours of 7am to 5pm. Businesses were closed. Public transportation was shut down. It was a zombieland, not that I saw any of it, because our apartment doesn't have any windows that look out onto streets. And after all that, I slept through the actual census interview, taken at 8am, since I didn't wake up until noon. Oops. My host Mom told me she defended my right to sleep against the high schooler's insistence that everyone in the house be present. Yeah, Janette!