Tongue in Cheek
Language grabs my inner senses even when I don’t understand what’s being said. I wonder what the speaker intends to communicate then I focus on utterances made followed by evaluating facial expressions. Whenever I travel, I listen. I look at the face of the speaker and try to understand what’s being said even if I don’t know the sounds.
Did I travel to learn new languages? Or, did I learn new languages so I could travel?
No matter, language has just always captured my attention. Playing with sounds and subtle meanings, puns are fun. Understanding English grammar with most of its variations, I’m attracted to alliteration, rhymes and onomatopoeia …studying clever poetry is similar to looking at art. Like Legos, words are the building blocks of virtually every thought and nuance of speech. I’m hooked.
I like people who like to use words like I like to use words. There aren’t many who do, at least like I do. That may explain why I like maps too: placenames are descriptive words depicting and representing unique locations. And, some words just brush an idea, situation, emotion in perfect color despite that not everyone paints words using an English canvas.
Second Tongues. Growing up in New Mexico. I was surrounded by hodgepodges of local Spanish placenames, street names, surnames, flora and fauna, businesses and schools. Lingo among friends, slang, Mexican foods we ate, the piñatas at Christmas, the heritage of adobe homes and Latino culture collectively made Spanish completely logical side by side with English.
Living in Albuquerque, it was more like an accepted way to speak bilingually with two conspicuous heritages than it was like two completely different languages with one of them being foreign. Intermixing cultures was normal. Granted, languages were not used interchangeably on purpose, although certain words did slough back and forth without anyone noticing. Mexican culture, after all, was there first; and, it prevailed in lots of obvious ways that probably looked odd to first time visitors.
Thinking back, local Latinos incorporated English words into sentences spoken in Spanish, like el trucke for truck instead of el cambio, or el tren for train instead of ferrocarril. It just made sense; no one gave it any thought. Then there were all those Spanish words that we English speakers used; most thought they were really English words anyhow, like patio, arroyo, taco, casa, salsa, tortilla, and so on. We spoke one language having this inherent double vocabulary without particularly realizing it.
Education. For me Latin was boring, unusable; I passed. Then taking Spanish in high school, I did my typical solid “B” work, and ended up with a fairly good vocabulary. Conjugations and pronoun were complex for me. So then, I took German in college; the language required much more time and effort than I was willing to give to it. All those seemingly unnecessary verb variations and endings one had to memorize! Why couldn’t they just be more like English? So, studying language was not my forte, playing with it was.
Developing sensitivity for correct pronunciation of others’ accents and dialects or for British English or languages like French or Italian, I became good at reproducing sounds I heard, even detecting accents among others’ speech before they disclosed where they were from.
After joining the Marine Corps in 1965, I took a language test and scored quite high in aptitude, and was thereupon enrolled into an intense Vietnamese language school for eight weeks, a crash course that was deemed “necessary” we were all told, for the war effort. It ended up interesting, but not particularly valuable to the war effort in my opinion. Yet, studying an Asian language did elevate my appreciation for tonal differences and unique sounds not existing in English. I learned how to shape these tones within my mouth correctly, and was effective teaching others how to form similar sounds. Perhaps I did have an ear for sounds and tongues, and a taste for languages.
After Vietnam, I had a Turkish roommate who taught me the uniqueness of his language; and, how for Turks, pronunciation of an identical word could vary from one sentence to the next all depending upon certain key words influencing the subsequent sounds and spellings of vowels in words following them in the sentence. No other language does this that I know about.
Collectively, these experiences gave me new ammunition opening doors in social situations, engaging conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred, and more importantly adding a dimension of ability I could honestly enjoy throughout my journeys. My holster now full of unused bullet skills was so motivating to me, I became persuaded to pull the trigger on pent up but unused intellectual intentions over the next decades.
Old Rig, New Tires. Upon approaching retirement and after having been labeled a hopelessly incurable workaholic, there were predictions I’d either (1) not be able to “let go” at work, would return, would give unsolicited advice to my successor or others, become an eternal nuisance, etc. Or, I’d (2) suffer withdrawal symptoms impacting health and life in less than positive ways. I didn’t believe this crap of course, but nobody listened. Tsunamis of advice rolled in nonetheless; most of it, all wet. Instead, I made a clean break and made a one-of-a-kind decision. Check out the separate story, called “Cutting Cords” for how this decision played out—it explains how I got my first taste of extended south-of-the-border traveling (not just “touristing”). And, a year later, another sojourn south was planned and executed.
Going TEFL. Gaining life perspective and worthy purpose were ongoing quests, ultimately enduring responsibilities to self. But personal assets were an enigmatic conundrum since I was preoccupied with that “B-plus-iosis” affliction that often infected good intentions or healthy aspirations. So, as is so often the case, I plotted my plan and plodded my private journey without typical competition so many others thrive within.
After studying how to teach English as a foreign language (or TEFL, we pronounced it TEH-ful as if it were a real word) using formal online instruction for five months, I earned an official certificate by fall 2009 then decided to explore how to use it [I took the Bridge TEFL course; look it over online for more information]. Looking at prospective countries, I focused on Spanish-speaking ones first zeroing in on South America. This evolved into a license to do something previously unimaginable. Perhaps it became symbolic of something inside my head wanting to define what the word “explore” actually meant. I wanted to do more than merely tourist-taste what it might mean to be a real traveler. Once again, it was also modest rebellion against expected predictions for someone my age and a steering away from all the “ought” and “should” advice I kept wincing at privately that few others could understand.
Balancing my white-picket-fence upbringing against low-spirited premonitions from friends and family regarding risks of traveling abroad, the prospects to go became enticing on a different level. Mind you, we were not necessarily referring to regular coffee-table-book-type touristing. Y’see, I didn’t know anyone who pondered what I was considering as particularly unique or pleasing, but it did seem worthy and potentially fulfilling to me.
But Where to Go? I made extensive online deliberations among Latin American countries like Chile, Argentina, Mexico, while browsing through Internet brochures from several companies specializing in helping people do this sort of thing. I zeroed in on Ecuador in part because I had never been there, and in part because it was high in the Andes, one of those mysterious places always intriguing me and because I had liked Peru so much a few years back.
Instead of instructing young students in classroom-type environments, I chose working with businesses whose clientele spoke English, rationalizing I’d be better tailored for that kind of setting. During my Internet exploration, I discovered Spanish spoken in Ecuador was supposed to be the “cleanest” among Latin American countries, the country was stable, and they embraced what seemed like a distinctive culture. They even had chosen to abandon their own currency to use American money for everyday transactions.
Besides the Andes, there was also the Pacific coast, wild jungles, and of course the Equator itself, el Mitad del Mundo (as I learned was the popular name locals adopted for their country’s geographic position: the middle of the World); these intrigued me too.
I arranged a month stint in Quito, followed by a second month in Guayaquil through a partnering program sponsored by GeoVisions, a company whose online presentation was well-thought out and answered more FAQs (frequently-asked questions) that I personally was asking. Volunteers had to pay for this privilege, but costs did include room and board as well as community support from GeoVisions employees; and, it was affordable.
While Ecuador was obviously my idea, I also knew this volunteer-type traveling was not Carol’s cup of tea; but, I wanted to share the experience in a way that she could visit a part of the World she too had not been to. A plan was created where she and I would tourist for two weeks upfront, and I would then teach for ten. I’d personally be away for nearly three months.
Touristing Middle Ground. My wife, Carol, and I flew to Quito two weeks prior to my start date. We’d do honest touristing, visiting Quito’s museums and cathedrals, plazas and restaurants, and sauntered the streets with camera around our neck.
Our nephew, Daren, who’d traveled through the Andes himself said not to miss the markets at Otavalo; so, we hired a driver to take us there, getting our usual personalized tour in the process. On Saturdays, Otavalo markets capture this village with street after street lined with booths and benches; umbrellas, tables and tents; thick crowds, and streams of children playing amid parents’ serious commerce. There were more things to purchase than one might imagine a village like this could ever sell, more human business interactions, more multi-layered conversations meshed amid lots of emotional gesticulations, bartering, jostling, elbowing as we immersed headfirst into multiple charismatic aromas piquing virtually every sensory organ.
Slick just-gutted swine on taut skewers sizzled and dripped with their light orangey-pink entrails still fresh in pans alongside …for sale separately of course. These were flanked by neatly stacked steaming rows of just-singed corn on the cob as three older madres prepared for an onslaught of locals’ lunches inevitably leaving only sinewy, meat-clad bones for the dogs behind. Dogs barked in tearful anticipation, but kept at bay.
Beyond barely-washed carrots and decorative squash were stalls of souvenirs and household goods, brass llama figurines herded in place next to steep monuments of canned goods and heaps of imported shoes from China. Shoppers shopped and shopped. No matter if one bought something or not, a stew of social and business enterprise steamed for all to savor in shadows of hundred-year-old yellow and tan stucco buildings discolored with gray rain stains like wrinkles on older madres’ faces. Complicated aromas wafted no matter where one walked.
Once we got to know our taxi driver better, we hired him again to take us to other villages, mountain roads, and even a zoo with exotic equatorial species on the days we didn’t walk around plazas, alleys, museums, churches and public buildings.
Years ago (in the 1930s?) the Equator itself was honored with a grandiose monument a hour north of Quito; but interestingly, it had been plotted incorrectly by more than 300 meters. Another presentation was constructed after a more accurate line at precisely zero latitude was determined, memorializing this place for world travelers to experience.
The new monument was more practical (good parking lots, nice trails, souvenir stands, etc.); the original monument was architecturally more aesthetic in a park-like setting. Photos of me in the southern hemisphere and Carol in the northern (see photo) were split by a proverbial and conspicuous painted red line demarcating the actual two halves of the World. We watched a phony performance demonstrating how circulating water goes clockwise south and counter-clockwise north of the Equator (as true as this concept is, it wasn’t likely that true for those 30-40 inches separating the two water buckets); but, well, the young man practicing English was thriving on norteamericanos’ tips as well as oohs and ahs.
Some monuments were humorous, like that imposing twenty foot high ceramic-tiled green and yellow iguana; and, other outlandishly contemporary huge metal artworks on street corners that you could walk up to, touch, even walk under (see photos). Some modern office buildings and banks that were quite “edgy” architecturally. Nearby were old colonial buildings, well-seasoned with rain stains and historical imposition creating worthy contrasts.
Being the capitol, national flags, political banners, and governmental buildings saturated plazas downtown wherever there wasn’t room enough for a church. While evidence of poverty prevailed conspicuously on streets, sidewalks, and parks, so did new construction, street repairs, and trucks hauling stuff into and out. Police were conspicuous, prolific; yet, despite social class, everyone walked the same streets and sidewalks, and paid the same taxi or bus fares. Traffic always prevailed heavily and noisily amidst a mix of unfamiliar racket. In old downtown, sidewalks were uneven, and clothing people wore was either more businesslike, or much more bedraggled. Such contrasts were strikingly eye-catching.
By January 31st, Carol flew to Arizona to spend winter at our home in Bisbee and to visit her sister, Sue, and mother who now lived north of Tucson while I stayed to sojourn South America as an English speaker among those who wanted to learn the language of North America.
After checking in to Ordex headquarters, I received orientation with three other volunteers, but after meeting them, never saw them again. This particular TEFL teaching gig focused on conversational English used by those intending to work in the U.S. Of two main groups, there were those getting jobs at one of America’s amusement parks, like Disneyland or Six Flags; or older teenage girls becoming au pairs for well-to-do American families. Preparing the students to pass the “embassy interview” was a crucial component of classroom activities. The embassy had a specific purpose to seek out reasons students really wanted to go to the U.S. in order to screen out those wanting only to join family living there, or to eliminate others without a sufficient reason to come back to their native country.
These half-day sessions were in the afternoon, and since my own regimen included professional no-cost Spanish language instruction from a bilingual instructor at “The School”, my day was filled strolling between job-oriented destinations. No doubt it was the best place in town to walk around. My School was set next to a brightly decorated coffee shop students and staff liked to use. Each morning I walked to Gringolandia enjoying a cappuccino or latte as I people-watched from atop a coffee shop deck overlooking this oft-used avenue of garish-colored storefronts (see photo).
In class I gained from personal one-on-one Spanish conversation sessions, easily more understanding of Spanish than in any other forum before or since. There were numerous other Spanish language schools around, and I observed quite a few college-age men and women attending these.
Having free time, I hung out in the newer town center in Quito called Gringolandia (see next photo; the name is a take-off from a Mexican word gringo, but I couldn’t ever discover how this word migrated into Ecuador or this neighborhood). The community catered to non-Ecuadorians, not necessarily Americans, as the name might imply. It was obviously a safe and police-patrolled area even though I was admonished not to linger anywhere late at night or in “wrong” or “other” areas of town. During the day it was always OK here. English speakers from the U.S., Britain, and Canada represented perhaps one in five of those sauntering around … European students, local businesspeople and Ecuadorian students alongside hip locals making up all the rest. I often used local internet cafes to send email or to play GameKnot “tournament chess” games online, but I could play casual chess on the street as well. The internet lounges were used heavily by locals and tourists alike at usually a dollar or less per hour. They served carbonated beverages and coffee, and were social conclaves for many.
Small businesses abounded: pushcart vendors, corner bakeries, on-the-street barbers, tiny lunch counters seating two or three, miniscule five-foot wide laundries that tunneled into/between two stores with a makeshift corrugated tin roof to shed rain, kids selling gum, tire repair businesses operating out of a three foot deep shed, lock/key shops, manicure/pedicure salons, and on and on. People used these businesses; everyone seemed busy. This was the better part of town.
In the original El Centro, unlike Gringolandia, the historical old downtown, we saw trash cans overflowing with rubbish. Why trash accumulated was a curious and conspicuous thing to me but not a concern for anyone else. Even though there was also considerable litter on streets and sidewalks, there were people frequently sweeping walkways in front of their old downtown stores. It looked like it might have been make-work at first for those not having a job; but, my guess was that there was just too much trash and an inefficient removal system. Nearly all sidewalks were stained; I presumed from rain coming off wooden structures or water filtering into and through trash combined with time, or maybe it was from some sort of pollution.
Every other street had some new construction it seemed, but scaffolding was made out of flimsy bamboo. Workers didn’t use hardhats, and there were no guard rails, few safety ropes, or other paraphernalia that we’re used to seeing in the U.S. Were they more careful?
Trade and Commerce. Still, here in upscale Gringolandia, abject poverty was conspicuous. Begging was prolific, and some folks seemed on the verge of emaciation and destitution. Many mothers brought disabled or disfigured children to the corners gaining a few coins to assuage their daily difficulties. Some mentally-challenged held a hat or bag for their contributors’ use, somehow having learned how to smile with forlorn eyes; yet, people always seemed generous even if it were only a penny at a time. A fractional step above begging were those who sought earnings more entrepreneurially, like selling (more like reselling) individual pastries or baked goods, especially in business areas where professionals bought them one at a time. I saw a man standing by a typical bathroom scale charging a dime for anyone wanting to weigh themselves; people did. Girls opened candy bags to sell them by the piece. Little kids sold chewing gum or suckers for pennies …or volunteered their services washing windshields for a dime (there were opportunities of persuasion by these kids to gain attention of affluent drivers! …like deliberate dirtying glass). There were always a half-dozen, ten or eleven year-old boys plaguing passers-by, bargaining on-the-spot shoe-shines. Those wearing sneakers were bothered less, but some had scrubbers and whiteners for all those Nikes too. Police didn’t bother these less-advantaged kids.
Teenagers sold cigarettes three for a dime though I didn’t see much public smoking except at coffee or after a meal. I detected general discretion …an undisclosed protocol not to smoke around others one didn’t actually know. Despite refuse on sidewalks, there weren’t many strewn cigarette butts which I thought odd. Smoking seemed a cherished privilege despite one’s class.
Inside stores, coins were always in short supply which made making change challenging and causing recurrent delays for common purchases. Often one employee was charged with going to nearby stores to break a ten or a twenty or to get four quarters for a buck …in order to complete the sale. Customers never complained.
Like Oil and Water. It didn’t take long to appraise class distinctions just by choices of attire, or general cleanliness of clothing. But what was kinda striking was how average folks of obviously lesser social status deferred to those of means, and how these folks of means always seemed to anticipate, even expect such deferral. While there was this class consciousness, no one seemed dismayed by it. Tourists were oblivious to this point since they were so pleasantly and regularly deferred to as people of means; since tourists could afford to visit; tourists spent money; tourists created jobs. Tourists were thus always welcomed.
Team sports tee shirts were worn by most young guys, and 90% of these were bright yellow and white, a few were green and white representing the two favored Ecuadorian teams. Similar color decorations appeared in shops and places where teenagers congregated.
Mingled among the poor were businesspeople, students, merchants, laborers, and middle-class shoppers; an unusual urban mixing of jobs and intentions; of seeking and selling; of working, walking, and watching …different than American cities. Businessmen often carried small purses, too small for a computer but still flat, more masculine-styled leather or cloth purse to hold a cell phone, receipts, pens and the like. For such a predominantly Catholic country, I saw few priests or nuns outside churches; but, there were two or three police on every busy corner, or walking in pairs or small groups in parks or inside stores.
Notwithstanding Latin American clichés and myths being confirmed, dismissed or redefined, I discovered people remarkably friendly, engaging, willing to discuss cultural differences, politics, religion, military, childrearing, Hollywood, climate, automobiles, WalMart, dirty dancing, the U.S. role in the World, or just about any subject that fell off the tongue. Not very shy, they had an unusually keen interest in most things North American outside their own culture. They were fast to point out inconsistencies of American foreign policy on one hand, yet in my opinion, they embraced American iconic idealisms better than most Americans might on the other.
Courtesy and Communication. Those who knew English wanted to learn more than what they had; everyone had studied, was studying or already proficient. Being English/Spanish bi-lingual was considered a part of being educated, not a superfluous badge to wear. These “students” liked to ask questions, especially if they could display some English already learned. When I tried to speak Spanish, they were clearly polite and forgiving. Seldom was grammar corrected unless I asked specifically for it; even then, it was prefaced with statements indicating they knew what I meant even if not perfect. It didn’t really matter. Though speaking speed was laboriously slow, I was praised how well I pronounced oft-missed words, especially vowels, trilled “r’s” and certain tricky letters like “b” and “v” or “j” inside words. Even though there’d always be an American accent, my pronunciation was complimented regularly; that made me feel good.
How Ecuadorians mastered concepts of respect into daily conversations and actions is mostly underappreciated by norteamericanos. Observing some norteamericanos (or nortes as some would say) expecting locals to understand their English, instantly reminded me of how the term ugly American came about in the first place. Acts of language expectations were hard to explain, so I was embarrassed by such tourists acting dreadfully arrogant; I found myself apologizing for their behavior. Baffling me, the percentage of norteamericanos presupposing locals to know English was extraordinarily high.
Though my towering, over-six-foot tall, fair-skinned presence was obviously appreciated by everyone, otherwise blending into the culture wasn’t a particular challenge perhaps because I exhibited a comfort level they readily understood and accepted. I was just a traveler.
Backcountry Sidetrips. On weekends, I sought (my definition of) exotic places to go, places with strange names or places conjuring up images luring to visit. My good’ol maphead kicked into green-light mode.
Butterflies. From Quito, on my first weekend, I went to Mindo where butterfly “ranches” were located. I joined a couple from California who hired a driver; we took the all-day trip deep into jungle on the Pacific slope of the Andes. This area, referred to as the Cloud Forest, was a dense area of vegetation and unusual wildlife foreign to anything I had ever seen before. Skipping the multiple zip-line riding, I gondola’d over the natural green-layered crevasse, a huge plummeting gorge that gouged a deep hole in my own usual cautions about such “suicidal” aerial danglings as this one. My acrophobia and I hung on. The vastness of the view filled my lungs with air I didn’t know I could breathe; somehow I survived …gaspingly.
The butterfly ranch itself was loaded with a vast number of outlandish species flitting around in their vibrant au natural regalia with uncommon colors one may have seen on television or in some coffee table book: some huge, vivid and flamboyant; others in subtle blending, gray colored hues shyly alighting on leaves immodestly to present arms or to curtsy toward onlookers’ awaiting eyes; or others practicing their green camouflage hiding skills amidst leaves and ferns (these had to be pointed out to us). The ranch was probably two or three football fields in size and covered with an almost invisible netting to keep the trove inside, and predators out.
Paddling Down Creek. The next weekend, I signed up and headed west to the community of Santo Domingo joining a rafting party (see photo) set to deliberate the Rio Blanco, a fast-moving waterway perpetually fed by Andean snow. With more than a little spirit of adventure, we all eagerly entered the deluding, ever-pulling current in two bright blue rafts frantically oaring our way out for control of less-rapid flows. We were then literally swept away with serious-faced boatmen barking commands while jockeying positions based upon previous experience, coupled with the wisdom knowing we whooshed inside those currents’ unmitigated jurisdiction.
Supposedly a Class-5 rapids; it was probably closer to a 4 or 4.5 as we never did plunge over any waterfalls; but, sluicing between huge boulders encouraged a certain “abandonment of self” as a few sudsy plummets threaded us through near-vertical descents, a strenuous adventure for a height-fearing guy like me. “Abandonment of soul” would be a more accurate understatement. Throughout one near vertical spill down fast interweaving currents collapsing into a whirlpool of eddying water, only one person was thrown out of our raft …me …and boat handlers thereupon were more concerned about a blue and white oar I inadvertently ditched than they were about me; but, I was “rescued” promptly by my lifejacket collar and my wayward oar was swiftly recovered by those in the other raft. As the only one over 35 years old, I endured this one-of-a-kind quest pretty well over the three-plus hours it took to traverse the day’s passage. The Rio Blanco carried tons of ice-cold streamwater down bulging jungled-shouldered banks, covering scores of miles despite my never-ending shaking of muscles and nerves on my extremities and inside my gut.
A Cratered Lake. The next weekend, I explored a high altitude caldera lake west of Latacunga, a large natural lake that was once an active volcano in recent geological past. I believe the name of this lake was Lake Cotopaxi.
There was a steep and rocky (note these three photos) that one could hike down to the water’s edge.
There were also some young shepherds coercing flocks of sheep up the incline from the lake. Recalling a previous hike down a Grand Canyon trail long ago, I didn’t go to that bottom shoreline. During the week, when I’d have a few spare hours, I’d explore old churches, libraries, and public buildings one time, and then some of the crafts shops, coffee houses, souvenir shops, and little cafes on another. I kept busy.
Medical Sidetrip. I walked everywhere in Quito: up, down, around fairly steep hills. Though taxis were cheap, my homebase was in the Floresta neighborhood about a mile and a half east of Gringolandia, and my assignment at Ordex, about two miles north, making a basic five to six mile triangle trod daily. In addition to walking around town, it totaled seven to ten miles a day. With a high veggie diet, I was losing weight to boot, so being on foot was having a positive outcome; besides, I consumed much more culture visually by altering my routes. By the end of my second week, I noticed hip pain exacerbated by walking either uphill or downhill. I took pain pills; but, it became excruciating. Although I felt otherwise healthy, at my age I thought it wise to seek medical advice. Taking a taxi to the “better” hospital (they spoke fluent English), I had x-rays taken, received prompt medical advice, was prescribed some stronger pills, and was finally referred to a bilingual specialist for follow-up the next day. The hospital had been modern and clean, looking like a typical big hospital one might see in the United States.
Now taxiing instead of walking, I kept my next-day appointment and learned my right hip bone was inflamed, likely triggered by lengthy “on foots” I wasn’t used to. The doctor prescribed yet stronger pills, and within a day shooting pains were lessening and seemed adequately managed by the week’s end. He didn’t suggest I walk less, so I resumed my daily triangular hikes. The prescription refill cost just a few bucks, no questions asked.
My Emergency Room bill was much less than the U.S., but these same costs are more than most Ecuadorians might afford. There were “other” hospitals and “other” medically “just-as-good” alternatives for those who couldn’t afford first class, i.e., less cost, more wait. Nevertheless, my medical process was impressive in that it was prompt, accurate, and effective for me personally. While willing to pay a couple hundred dollars for this whole deal, I got the idea those who could not pay need not even try to get health services at this particular medical facility. Excepting wait times, I could not guess how standards might be different at lesser hospitals, but “corner doctors” and nurse practitioners were also ubiquitous at even less cost; these services were widely-used right on the street in an a la carte approach. I’m unsure how well the poor were actually treated; but sometimes a quick prescription was all that was needed. I was told there were also charitable clinics for more serious maladies. So, it was safe to say that all medical services were available to every Ecuadorian one way or another depending on variables most of us Americans could not otherwise fathom.
Quito was certainly a pleasant, well-tailored and comfortable high-altitude city, conservative in cultural demeanor and active with perpetual hustle and bustle. An enriching busyness prevailed throughout the city whether you were just sipping your espresso watching people or trying to eat and eke out a minimum living inside this intricate environment. Quito ably survived amid a sympathetic but complex class-layered civilization. Old architecture blessed the on-the-edge contemporary. Artistic monuments seemed to pop up everywhere (see photo). And, streets in more contemporary areas were swept clean regularly.
Port City Posts. The first of March, my Quito stint ended, and I flew to Guayaquil for the second half of my Middle of the World adventure.
It was a city of new buildings, taxis galore, and crowds walking around in business attire. In this city of three million, I had two assignments, one a tourist yacht company called Ecoventura who wanted their staff to improve conversational English with their English-speaking touring customers from the U.S. and Canada. The other job was with a newly-remodeled, newly-opened boutique downtown hotel that anticipated English-speaking business patrons to frequent their beautiful, freshly-renovated, European-style urban inn. Both assignments couldn’t be more different from each other. And, neither of these “jobs” would be like either of those in Quito.
Lots of Yachts. Ecoventura, a progressive, well-run company, was headquartered in a high-end suburb across the river in a place called San Borodin. It was an area of maître d’ -hosted expensive restaurants, fancy stores, even a modern American-style shopping mall with high-end stores bearing brand names I recognized.
Ecoventura was a travel provider for those wanting a private experience exploring the Galapagos Islands. They wholesaled space on three nice large yachts, each with ten rooms, an upscale dining room, and a comfortable outside lounging deck. Their quite modern headquarters was located in an imposing three-story office building with many up-to-the-minute contemporary security features and many eye-catching amenities for clients and employees (see photo). At the coffee shop on the first floor, they got to expect me each day before classes began for my daily caffeination.
Composed of six to ten male staff, my classrooms were made up of bartenders, stewards, waiters, chefs, engine room staff, and tour guides. Conspicuously eager to understand more than what they already knew, I was always well-received with smiling anticipations each day and perfect attendance. These guys even wanted to know all the English bad words to make sure they clearly understood what these words meant in Spanish. This was indeed enjoyable “work.”
A Boutique With a Stiff Neck. My other job at the boutique hotel wasn’t the same. While staff was friendly to me and desired to learn more English, there were headstrong onsite owners who micromanaged daily affairs to the dismay of everyone. Further, the very attractive wife, who wanted everyone to notice her jewelry, constantly insisted on special treatment, becoming upset publicly when not delivered. I observed how she wanted her coffee delivered to her table without her having to ask, or how napkins were never folded to her satisfaction, or how lunch was not quite arranged on plates as she had instructed them “over and over,” accompanied by overt sighs and groans (perhaps for my benefit or anyone else who might be listening). Activity accelerated whenever she entered the room. Except for her husband, no one ever sought her out.
While presenting common English conversational questions and responses to staff, I learned about their frustrations with work as well as their environment resulting in several “HR issues” and high turnover by my asking simple Socratic-styled questions in English then receiving thought-provoking responses in return. Each believed the owners were shortchanging them out of hours worked or with calculations of group gratuities. While showing respect for authority, everyone was definitely unhappy. As I diplomatically presented employee issues back to the owner, he let me know if they were unhappy, they could find another job as he went on to berate their lack of upbringing and foolish disrespect instead of probing for their feelings. “They should be happy to be employed.” Still, he appeared unusually pleased with my own managerial background (especially in travel), and kept seeking my corporate opinions about his operations in everything outside of human resources. These provocative and productive conversations didn’t produce everything he expected perhaps. While my overall classroom effectiveness was not likely measurable during these four weeks in Guayaquil, that my presence was repetitively sought by both staff and owners suggested I had an important role to play.
Trans-stooped. Getting to work each day, I rode public transportation using a senior pass for passengers over 65. This permitted travel at half the usual 25 cent public rate (already pretty cheap by U.S. standards); but, I was also issued a special photo I.D. allowing me to board buses and trolleys quicker. I avoided long public lines with just a tiny tad of prestige for having such a government-issued card (or maybe just an I.D. written in Spanish that I could now show my friends back in the States).
Buses were always sardine-can loaded. This meant standing room only in aisles designed for the average 5’6” male or 4’10” female sardine. I could never stand erect because of the bus’s ceiling, nor sit down because men always surrendered seats to women. Besides, it seemed women were more comfortable sitting three across in seats designed for two than men might be. For the rest of us, everyone standing purposely positioned themselves in more intimate European ways, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, butt to butt. Despite overbearingly tight standing quarters, I might have expected oppressive body odor, especially in tropical heat, but it wasn’t. Transit procedures became routine for me by the third day. Keeping alert to exactly where I was allowed me to approach the door just before my stop. Occasionally, buses would linger at major stops to allow a teenage boy to enter selling water, candy or snacks, or preach religious causes while seeking donations and handing out preprinted materials. These “vendors” bypassed laser gate counters the rest of us were required to walk through by jumping over a waist-high metal barrier, and then would exit at the back of the bus at the next stop. No one minded. In addition, every bus had a second employee onboard, or that’s what I thought. I found out later this #2 person was not actually employed at all, but “volunteered” his services to help collect fares and make change, to assist the elderly, and probably also to assure security. The driver paid him a token amount, like a quarter or half dollar, for doing these few services for him; these guys got on and off without paying by standing at the front door (despite the prohibition signs aimed at passengers not to stand forward of the fat white line). All buses had such a helper. No one minded.
Most times when buses approached a stop, it didn’t actually stop at all; patrons were expected to jump off the bottom step while the bus remained in motion even though quite slow. Seldom was there ever a complete stop; when we did, it was usually for someone infirmed or elderly. When I exited on my third day on board, after jumping I fell down and rolled to avoid injury; the bus drove on innocent of any possible liability or oversight (after all, it was my decision to spring off bottom step), but others walking by did assist my trying to stand up. I had no injuries, just some embarrassment and dirtied clothes. I was also careful in the future and didn’t even try to copy the flippant exiting gymnastics of locals. Bus drivers were always cooperative; I presumed I looked old enough to anticipate such respect with my prominent white hair.
On Foot. Off bus, I always had to pay unendingly attention to overhead obstacles, like street signs, roofs or archways. These were everywhere; I banged my head daily until I finally learned to be wary. I didn’t just feel tall, I felt like I was using stilts looking down on top of people’s heads when I wasn’t stooping or cricking my head down.
All police wore bullet-proof vests on the streets and always walked in pairs. Here in Guayaquil, I was unsure who was a police officer and who wasn’t since uniformed soldiers, or similarly-clad company-paid security staff, or even uniformed doormen, mingled everywhere as if they were all members of the same Ecuadorian army. Percentagewise, there were more such “officials” on foot than I remembered in Quito and lots more than what I was used to seeing in the U.S.
In stores, especially clothing or souvenir-type stores, buying processes were more complicated than in the U.S. or Europe as well. Often, the clerk who took money or credit cards handed the cash or card to manager-type workers who processed transactions. There was a lot of repetitious receipt-making, ringing it up on a cash register, then following up with a handwritten receipt or logging it into a ledger book. There were far too many employees creating behind-the-counter chaos, and the appearance of it all inferred clerks were not trusted by management. Nonetheless my Visa and MasterCard were always accepted. American currency was used by everyone in place of what had been once Ecuadorian currency counterparts back in the 1990s. Interestingly, use of U.S. coins was particularly common; mostly Susan B. Anthony or Sacajawea dollar coins we don’t see in the U.S. anymore (I had wondered what happened to them all; I think they must have been shipped to Ecuador!). Overly wrinkled one and five dollar bills were commonplace, even torn bills, and occasionally a very-wrinkled ten or twenty in upscale shops. My noticeably crisper cash caught the eyes of every clerk those first few days we were in Quito; but, by the time I got to Guayaquil, all I had to use were those overly-wrinkled notes everyone else had. Even the ATMs dispensed bank-flattened, previously wrinkled bills.
On The Street. After dusk in a middle class Guayaquil neighborhood, Garzota, where I stayed, constant honks, sirens, and car alarms went off at all hours until dawn with CD and car-radio music competing for center stage. In theatrical chorus, belaboring dog barks, cat screechings, and other unidentifiable nighttime sounds created an off key orchestra of urban sounds (without charge and without intermissions) except for all those frequent rhythmic accompaniments of rain on the roof or windows. Security for these middle class homes almost always included high, iron fences around small yards, iron prison bars on widows, and multiple deadbolts on outside doors. Evidently, bad stuff may have gone on during darkness, yet I still witnessed people walking around at night out my own window. Maybe some actions were precautionary where there were children or elderly residents. As a routine gesture, I received lots of well-intended advice about being careful; and, I did listen to a few strange “didja-hear’bout…” stories. Notwithstanding all the safeguards and guidance, it appeared relatively safe and mutually respectful all the time in both Guayaquil’s Garzota and similar to Quito’s Floresta neighborhoods.
Downtown during the day, street performers were numerous and spontaneous, especially around crowds of people. I lingered for an hour at Quito’s Capitol Plaza watching carefully-costumed mimes pantomiming screen actors of old, or special circus-type feats on the streets, or native dancers in colorful get-up. They actively sought tips; people were generous. These were happy events except for taxi cab drivers or impatient truckers or frustrated vehicle operators in haste. I remember watching trucks delivering blue bottles of water to businesses (tap water was never fit to drink, even for locals!) and their aggravated, mission-oriented faces while negotiating street crowds at a snails’ pace. I was told to watch out for pickpockets, but I never saw any. Maybe my tallness helped or because I was American, but the longer I walked around, the safer I felt.
Room and Board. Living quarters in Quito and Guayaquil were modest, clean, and what might be anticipated; both were supervised by older housemothers. I knew prospective homes were all prescreened by Ordex staff, customary client expectations were accommodated satisfactorily. In both, however, there were of course things most Americans don’t know or might find peculiar or annoying or distasteful. For example, in most Latin American countries, one simply does not flush toilet paper down the john. Instead you carefully folded it up and placed used paper into a receptacle nearby just for that purpose; this is disposed of regularly. Flushing paper often caused clogs …and a messy nuisance. In the common shower, there was just an on/off spigot …no hot water, just tepid tap temperature and some control over water speed. Drains worked slowly; who knew what might not be going down efficiently within this well-used plumbing. But, there were no bugs anywhere inside the house or on the windows! It wasn’t Burger-King-clean perhaps, but it was not dirty or unkempt either.
In Garzota, once clothes were washed in old, noisy machines, housemother Nelly explained to me in Spanish how they must always be clothes-pinned onto wooden accordion frames designed for this purpose. Clothes took virtually all night to lose most dampness on the bedroom’s tiny balcony except when it rained, which was often, in which case everything had to be brought indoors. Trousers were always pulled inside-out then hung to dry. But, they were clean and ready to be worn again. Storing clothes inside a suitcase became impractical. I had shirts, pants, and underwear all over the backs of chairs or on hangers hanging around.
On top of the nightly high-decibel, arrhythmic theatrical performances, roosters crowed for ten straight hours it seemed. Wondering why there were any live roosters in the city at all, I found out folks often housed poultry alive, routinely butchering them up for meals maybe once a week. While often such rangy roosters or chickens were kept inside houses apparently like pets, in one conversation held entirely in Spanish, I learned Nelly’s upstairs neighbor had three such roosters, of course to her livid dismay and frequent deliberately-to-be-overheard reprimands whenever the cocky voices manifested themselves. She didn’t like her neighbors much either. Listening to the roosters’ nightly chorus just became more racket over car horns and sirens.
Besides noise, there were outside lights lace curtains couldn’t shield. With no air conditioning, nights were extremely humid, very hot (likely 82-85 degrees). No one closed their windows savoring whatever breeze might linger through. To my good fortune, I feel less impacted by such regularly-warm temperatures and distractions than others, so I slept reasonably well albeit damp under the covers I always needed. Just like I was able to dismiss those repetitive outgoing gun barrages in Vietnam, or sleep through those incoming mortar attacks, Guayaquil became just another chapter in that particular book on how to sleep despite distraction and humidity.
In Quito, one houseguest was from East Germany; she spoke little English, but had volunteered to teach language in local elementary schools nearby. Two other girls from England were more interested in nightclubs than volunteering. The housemother, a widow, had a college-aged son living in an adjacent apartment; he was studying for a doctorate in biologic sciences, specializing in native species of monkeys. At dinners, many interesting and complicated conversations, plus difficult translations and new vocabulary was gained; words I’d not likely ever use again.
In Guayaquil, there was only one other houseguest, from Cuba; he spoke no English and was a boarder. Before I departed, he flew back to Havana to visit family. During dinners, there were spirited conversations about Fidel Castro, U.S. diplomacy, and world events, all in Spanish. I’m sure I missed many nuances and humor at the table, but my comments were still solicited. The neighborhood of Garzota was unquestionably a “better” part of town, middle class with one or two cars parked on the street. Stout pronged wrought-iron fenced the yards. Daniel, an older well-weathered gentleman, spent most of his day either standing inside a three by three foot toll booth kind of wooden structure when it rained, or walking around to patrol the street when it didn’t. The six or seven housemothers took care of him. Nelly provided dinner every night; others provided clothing or small change. In return, Daniel carefully assured no unauthorized person came inside gated yards he protected. He swept the sidewalks and gutters and picked up accumulated trash, greeted owners as well as passersby and guests he recognized with a smile. Hiring men like Daniel was quite common in better neighborhoods, and likely prevented random acts of vandalism or theft.
Nelly was originally from Peru and her husband was of Japanese descent but born in Ecuador. They also had an adopted, now-adult daughter who was an Ecuadorian-born black young lady. She and her fiancé (a native-born Ecuadorian graduate student) often joined us for meals; and, these conversations were also provocative and complicated. I was forced to create sentences in Spanish on intricate subjects as no one spoke English, but all were engaging and gracious. They always asked very thoughtful questions. The President of Ecuador recently was making overtures to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in a politically useful but anti-American sort of way; this subject was good bait for debates at dinner which I think I handled satisfactorily.
Equatorial Fare. Meals were more than adequate and probably more healthful than counterpart breakfasts and dinners in the U.S. Fruit was always part of every meal, especially huge avocados (a meal unto themselves), but other odd fruits I’d never seen before as well. Textures of these odd fruit were strange, sometimes gooey, some with tiny seeds and all with strange sweetness hard to describe. I’d never seen white pineapple before but they served it with nearly every meal. It was similarly sweet, but softer and less stringy; the whole fruit was eaten, even the core.
Chicken was the most common meat protein. A form of fried banana or plantain (or sometimes rice), were staples at dinners; but, there were also exotic vegetables or mixtures of things I’d not eaten before. Accompanying every meal was unsliced bread, a thick-crusted loaf baked the same day and purchased daily at a market a half block away. In this household, all drank Peruvian tea which was fine with me. Warmed mayonnaise was served as a regular condiment next to every plate and used for both meat and vegetables, maybe anything that wasn’t already over-sweetened with sugar. They even generously topped fried rice with mayonnaise seasoning. For dessert one time, we had a white layer cake cut first by a four inch wide cylinder to make a hole in the center, then removed before sliced into normal-sized pieces.
Dinner was always served late, never before 9 pm, sometimes as late as ten, European style, and not over until10:30 to 11 pm. Although it wasn’t a heavy meal, this made it easier for me to eat lighter since indigestion never let me eat much within three hours of retiring. Eating late also made what we call lunch the primary meal of the day. They called this meal the Spanish word for dinner, or cena, not their word for lunch. Since I was away at midday, typically between 1 and 2 pm, I was seldom able to partake in these feasts. This helped me lose a few pounds too.
In this Garzota household, Nelly’s friends came by often in the evening and might stay for dinner as well. Twice, music turned into opportunities for dancing to “oldies” from the early 1970s that lasted well past midnight, perhaps overshadowing a few more harmonies to those theatrical notes from the neighbors’ roosters (I wondered if the neighbors liked the music). But, there wasn’t any concern for anyone else above or below or next door or outside regarding noise or sleep.
Market. Once, I went food shopping with the housefather, Roberto, and watched him negotiate prices at the open-air market, a large (two acres?) open sided building with a corrugated roof to shed rain. This market was similar to that black market in Cuernavaca, just smaller. Rows of whatever you could conceive in the way of food, clothing or household goods were hawked by local producers and retailers. Observing a native-born Ecuadorian of Japanese descent speaking fluent Spanish, negotiating prices down (sometimes walking away when it wasn’t good enough) was amusing to watch and witness. Following him around, I asked questions in Spanish while scrutinizing how scales measured weight, how merchants wrapped their goods once sold, and how younger members of their own family participated in the marketing process. There was a job for everyone, no matter what their age. But it was usually the adult males who did actual negotiating and the exchange of goods for money. How money exchanged hands, how people became seriously engaged, and how food was transported in and out of this open-air warehouse was simply amazing to me. At all times, something was getting replenished or replaced. Newest, rawest, or freshest claimed the best price for food. Those in the neighborhood of lesser means could be observed pleading for edibles ready for replacement. Like Mexico, there were heavy layers of wafting odors with seldom any bad stench from unclean or rotten produce or waste. I watched how engaged people were in this process. They were usually happy or dramatic or even theatrical in their extremisms. This was as much a social gathering as it was a supermarket of goods. Mutual respect played evident as everyone abided by a set of unwritten rules. There were even roles for dogs and cats in the ultimate clean-up processes toward the back of the building.
A harried place perceived at a hectic pace, there were no cash registers, no receipts, no credit cards; just people with wads of wrinkled U.S. $1 or $5 bills or, more likely, pocketfuls of Sacajawea coins or even Eisenhower halves. People herding, bawling, brawling, bargaining daily needs. It was free enterprise, alive and thriving.
Encounters. Traveling around Guayaquil was markedly different than Quito. In Guayaquil, I spent my weekends at city parks …parkland literally filled with crawling live iguanas the size of small alligators and odd strangely-colored birds. Guayaquil had its own brand of rain-stained museums and old neighborhoods to visit; but, along the harbor’s edge was a reserve belt more than a couple miles in length and one city block wide with walkways, bridges, artistic sculptures, waterfront viewpoints, and big ships paralleled by carefully manicured lawns, trees and bushes that created a beautifully tailored harbor image, an image that in other ports was usually quite the opposite.
Walking 90 degrees from this park strip, one was instantly in the business center of the city with tall buildings and typical Latin American city urban-ness. I met a young man named Marco (see photo) with whom I played chess. He was studying English and was eager to converse with a native speaker while pushing knights and bishops around.
My local Ordex coordinator, a bilingual young man, Fernando, had two jobs: one was making sure I was taken care of, the other trying to arrange new business contracts like the two I was involved with. He rode buses with me the first two days explaining transfers and routes, and helped me obtain the senior transportation discount card. Fernando showed me around town too. Since he didn’t have a drivers’ license, his father would take us to a few places with a younger brother tagging along. By evening, father would drop me off at Nelly’s just in time for supper. One time I was invited to his home for dinner, and was amazed how many people were in that small house and how they found places for everyone to sit as well as to eat. I think there were five or six young kids in the family, plus there were a few aunts and uncles, girlfriends, mom and dad, and a grandmother …besides me. Since I was American, I received quite a bit of attention. Women, and older men got the best seating. I made it a point to engage the matriarch who spoke no English, and I used some easy to say words to praise her grandson for his help; this act of respect was not unnoticed. Feeling comfortable seeing how basic living customs worked, I also felt honored being included in these processes. Consideration and respect carried one a long way inside the culture even when one was not at all a part of it. I felt protected. I learned much.
Bonus! By the end of March my assigned working appointments were wrapping up. While assignments at the boutique hotel were not as successful as I wanted, I received good marks from the owner. On the other hand, the assignment with Ecoventura was much more superlative; they had applause, and too many complimentary things to report. The beginning of my fourth and last week, the Ecoventura go-to person approached me to ask if I had a week free at the conclusion of the assignment; I did. Letting me know if I were willing to pay for air transportation to Isla San Cristobal, they’d let me have the one remaining vacant cabin left on board one of three excursion yachts they used traveling around the islands in the Galapagos. These one week excursions were not cheap; each week, retails for more than a couple thousand per person. Each yacht had ten rooms, or space for twenty guests and a crew of eight. They had sold 29 cabins. Assuming the remaining one was not sold in the next two or three days, I could have it. It didn’t sell.
So, I flew to San Cristobal a day before the yachts’ departures. They even paid for my stay at a hotel prior to boarding the next morning. That hotel turned out to be an old dilapidated motel-type of place undergoing extensive renovations. Workers were laboring there on my arrival, making noise, and carrying all sorts of cement blocks, lumber, and fabrication paraphernalia. Just trying to find my way into the site was challenging.
Finally I was able to locate someone for my key. From the road it looked like it was under construction revealing bare pillars and gray cement slabs with black steel rebar sticking out all over besides alongside the construction debris, barrels, and empty boxes and piles of sand and gravel everywhere. Inside, the few rooms rented out were clean and OK …except for the strange six inch long greenish-brown lizards that came and went, in and out of the room as they pleased, kinda like extra-large insects, investigating who this particular guest happened to be and trying to make a friendly, at least nonthreatening first impression. They knew their way around the premises but couldn’t climb, so I slept just fine thirty inches above the pink linoleum floor.
Boarding Ship. Next morning after completing my stroll about the touristy harbor town and eating a light lunch, I boarded a dingy-type shuttle to get out to my particular yacht, suitcase and carry-on in hand. I had a cabin designed for two, all to myself, the last one at the stern on Main Deck. It was comfortable for one person, but would be probably pretty tight for two.
Sightseeing yacht cruises around Galapagos were in high demand; our three ships were deemed spacious by several other guests who had done their homework on the internet before choosing Ecoventura. I reevaluated my opinion. Food was quite good and varied, chef-prepared with first class presentations. Worthy brands of white or red wine were served at every evening meal creating cordial post dessert ambiance and dialogues. Clientele were well-mannered, moneyed, educated, and knew their wines. The crew was polite and engaging. One waiter in particular I saw using some English phrases we had worked on in class. I could’ve been more effective had I taken the cruise first, and then conducted classes; but oh well, I wasn’t going to complain.
Island Hopping. For seven days, daily sailings carried us to seven completely diverse, remarkably different local destinations. While there were really only two towns of any size throughout the islands, there were a few very small communities of caretakers and local farmers here and there. Yet most places were essentially void of people at all, no cars or virtually any other machines, fences or other improvements. It was undeveloped landscapes that varied much from one island to another. No two islands even remotely looked similar; each had its own peculiar personality.
One island was a desert, another prairie grasses and scraggly trees, one a dense jungle, another mounds of black and gray lava and cliffs of columnar jointing, a couple islands ruggedly mountainous, others flat, barely above sea level or volcanic with visible flows. One evening, I watched a full moon drift downward in the sky as the yacht approached the cleft rocks and caught the moon between the two. Each islet bore a remarkably diverse, sometimes colorful group of indigenous plant and animal species suitably adapted to that particular island; these were mixtures of not-seen-before life living comfortably side by side within these peculiar hard-to-reconcile environments. Where ancient lava flows abutted water’s edge were large black iguanas that one could hardly photograph since they looked just like the lava itself in look and texture, iguanas from two to three feet in length alongside hoards of fist-sized reddish-orange crabs darting sideways between sharp edges of rock around the volcanic cliffs …always dodging iguana.
Along rock ledges near the water were tiny penguins, maybe eight to ten inches tall. Around the grassy harbors were blue-footed boobies strutting like ducks, and male frigate birds (see photo) bursting in full bloom with burgeoning red chests like inflating balloons.
Amazing to me, though, was how virtually all animals never learned to fear the human species as a potential enemy as they evolved Galapagos-style over millennia. One could walk right up to a seal on the beach, or approach a flock of red-breasted frigates, or nearly step on one of the iguanas without any of them even flinching or moving away. We were admonished by guides not to stroke any of the animals (it was also against the law!), particularly seals, since human odor could (for example) persuade a mother to abandon her offspring had it been touched by people. Yet animals did frequently approach tourists out of curiosity or amidst daily routines. Humans were just no big deal to these adapted natural residents! On yet another island, in swampy jungle-like forests inland, enormous turtles would slowly slither and slop around while strange birds eyed us from low-slung limbs of gnarly old trees then with an embarrassing look, dart away as if just caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
At week’s end I flew back to Quito and overnighted to Atlanta by the next day, and on to Tucson to join Carol for our trip back home to Montana days after that.
Embracing Evolution. I could clearly imagine what must have mesmerized Charles Darwin more than 175 years before as I literally walked where he had walked, and came to appreciate what might have moved him to write The Origin of Species at least in a few small ways. The mood apprehended inquisitive eyes and caressed one’s spirit.
Inconsistencies from island to island were one thing, but inconsistencies from species to species compared to similar species I had seen before or entirely unique species having evolved only here, intellectually were quite profound in this context. An imaginary chance to accompany Darwin on the Beagle with him hijacked my own mesmerizations on the two-day journey ordeal back to the U.S.
Wondering how I might have deduced what Darwin had surmised on his own explorations or whether I would have accepted it as merely clever or different at the time, I conjectured about how he thought about his own adventures and whether he had any inkling about the massive impact of his work would have on the world. What would it be like just to talk to him, to see how and why he thought about what he did, the way he did? I then remembered two crewmembers onboard the yacht, two black brothers, one who was named Charles, the other Darwin. I could understand why parents would bestow such an honor and why they were proud of their own names.
I thought about the white baby whale skeleton on that lava hill (see photo); it was so big, yet it was just a baby … they even let us touch the bones (but not to disturb their layout). A few feet away from whale bones, amidst scurrying crabs, the surf erupted in a blowhole ten or fifteen feet into the air from between black jagged crevasses and 25 foot deep canyons carved between rock surfaces right in front of us. No guardrails, just unprotected, natural cliffs. We were inches away from this precipice.
Bilingual guides served captive audiences sensitive, educational Darwinian appetizers which we readily consumed while there, and that I re-ingested on my overnighter to Atlanta; however, I had more questions about that evolutionary menu. I wanted to sample more. I could go back now that I’ve been so well-primed; I could be a better traveler on such a second voyage, if that were ever to be.
So Far, So Good. To travel to Ecuador to teach English as a foreign language and learn Spanish as a useful byproduct, I also went to see what it was like to taste being a valid traveler, living among local folk, and trying to understand a completely different culture. To that extent, I have come to the conclusion there is much more to see and to taste than I would have ever imagined nor would have time to witness. Speculating how imminent days may yet unfold, I anticipate the unread next page of this book-to-come to contain considerably more ponderables of greater depth.
I received the improbable opportunity to fly 600 miles west of Ecuador into the Pacific Ocean to witness something that was so unanticipated, it has now left yet a greater ingrained lure of the “what might be” than ever before. The uniqueness of these unspoiled landscapes and preserved species was a special gift. The privilege to touch or get close to these imponderables with my feet and eyes was one more unforeseen, yet serendipitous event in my life. My South American journey was eye-opening and my education about worldly explorations expanded exponentially over those eleven weeks. I haven’t become the traveler yet, but I did taste traveling, and it tasted good. I indulged desires to immerse into Latino culture, trying hard to learn a language. I didn’t become fluent, but I tasted the tongue, and it tasted good.
Indiana Jones I am not. More than these life-enhancing events might suggest, I thrived doing something adventurous by my own definition, and worthy by self-setting standards. To just do things expected, or do the things presupposed by those who always knew better were avoided. If doing these things were competitive at all, it was competitive with self, not others; but, I’d like to think this was not a contest at all. For once I wasn’t necessarily concerned about winners and losers, just about those participating. It seems few really understand mere living within a veil of unpredictability, under a cloud of uniqueness among unique things. It’s not at all about following rules, but it’s not about violating them either.
It is more about mutual respect with nature, with certain others one meets along the way, and about writing one’s own record of events than it is living out someone else’s guidelines for being a more customary human being.
One usually does this pensively and privately, on purpose, on their own terms.
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