Journals from Semester abroad in Quito, Ecuador
2008-05-13 I survived the beach, just barely
A tropical sunset on the beach in Tonsupa, Ecuador.
Well, finals are over and it's about time for me to go home. I haven't written in a while, so first I'll update everyone on what I've been up to over the last couple weeks, and then I guess I'll reflect a bit on how the semester has gone.
Let's start with the tumultuous trip to the beach. Thursday May 1st was "Worker's Day", so there was no class. Naturally, no one went to class that Friday, either. A group of us planned a trip to Tonsupa, a beach town near Atacames on the northern end of Ecuador's coast. Everyone seemed excited to go, and we looked forward to the vacation as we frantically tried to work on projects and study for tests.
Suddenly, on Wednesday night, everyone but the couples canceled! That is, the couples and me. But hey, I hadn't been to the coast yet and the semester was drawing to a close, so I decided to go anyway, in spite of being sort of a seventh wheel (I'm not sure what kind of car normally has six wheels, but whatever. I'm stretching the metaphor, literally).
Three of us (Araceli, her boyfriend Diego, and I) planned to leave early Thursday morning, but it turned out that Diego had to work until eleven or so, and we ended up heading out around noon. It's a five-hour drive, so we figured it would be perfect; we would get there just in time to settle in and go see the sunset on the beach.
But as we all know, things never quite work out as planned. The drive started off well, and I was loving the subs in Diego's car. We hooked up my Ipod and danced away for hours, mixing reggaetn, salsa, cumbia, and the soundtrack to Hairspray. Diego thought Araceli and I were a little strange when we rocked out to good old fashioned swing, but I think he mostly found us entertaining.
Life got a little more complicated when we made it out of the mountains. All the flooding this year has wrought havoc on the coastal roadways, and Diego's poor little car took a lot of abuse from the many potholes. Some he could avoid, but in other spots there were so many that he just had to go over them as carefully as possible. Then it started pouring, and the potholes filled up and became nearly invisible. We hit a huge one, and the car turned off for a moment. It started back up without losing speed, but from then on we started losing power. The windshield wipers squeaked along, the lights flickered, and we had to turn off the music.
The rain finally stopped, and I was in serious need of a bathroom break, so Diego pulled over at a gas station. Unfortunately, after I did my business we couldn't get the car to start up again. A couple of the guys who worked at the gas station pushed us along and we got it to putter back to life, but just barely.
Since the road mostly went downhill, we were okay for a while, but the car finally gave in and sputtered to a halt halfway up a small hill in the middle of nowhere. We were a few miles past a tiny town, on a hill between two curves, an hour before sunset and looking at a threatening sky with no civilization in sight. This was not a good place to stop; if anyone wanted to rob us, it was easy pickings.
A little old man with a machete tried to help push the car to get it going, but no luck, it wouldn't start. Don't be scared by the machete comment; everyone in that part of the country has machetes because they work in the fields. Still, it did make me a little nervous
After a while, a guy on a motorcycle stopped to ask if we needed help, and offered to take Diego to the somewhat nearby town to find a mechanic. Araceli and I, alone in the hot, tiny, broken-down car, were feeling pretty nervous. It sounded way too much like the first fifteen minutes of a horror movie; rollin' down the highway rockin' out, when suddenlythe battery dies, in the middle of nowhere. Four and a half hours from Quito, half an hour from our destination, we listened to the lightning and watched the cars go by, keeping an eye on the time and realizing that it would be dark in about 45 minutes. Cops kept driving right by without offering any help until finally a truck with four of them in it pulled up by our window.
After all we had heard about police corruption, we weren't really sure if we should roll down the window or not. We opened it a crack and they asked if we were all right. We explained that her boyfriend had gone for a mechanic and should be back soon. They looked at us and, seeing that we were scared, the oldest one said, "Don't be afraid, nothing happens around here." Then they left, but in spite of their advice we were still afraid.
A few minutes later Diego arrived in a bike taxi with wrenches. There was apparently no mechanic in that little town, but someone had lent him a few tools and he got to work just as the same four policemen stopped by again. The five of them stood around scratching their heads and pointing at different cables, and somehow after a while they got the car started up again. They were all very nice, and had hilarious accents (I love how people from the coast talk!). One of them was a bit of a flirt, but I didn't really mind as long as it meant that they would help us fix the car!
Anyway, by this time the sun was setting. We made it over the first hill and covered a short flat stretch, but we had no power for headlights and soon the car turned off again. Luckily the policemen had followed us, so they hopped out to stand around scratching their heads again. Diego pointed out a cable that was still disconnected, they put it back in its place, and magically the car was back to normal. The headlights turned on, the windshield wipers went at full speed, and the car was just as happy going up hills as going down.
Two hours after we had rolled to a stop, we were on our way again. We made it to the beach around 7:30, only to find that the power was out! We were renting an apartment that belonged to Diego's aunt, and nothing in the neighborhood would turn on. We dropped off our stuff in the apartment and headed to the beach anyway; even at 7:30 at night, it was hot out!
Diego hadn't told us how close we were; the apartment was only two blocks from the beach! We went to one of the beachfront restaurants and grabbed some dinner (the service, sadly, was terrible), and since by then the power was back on we headed to one of the bars/clubs on the beach itself. I'm not really sure how to describe these; basically it's a big round/oval hut in the sand, with stools around the edge, where they sell drinks and play music. There are tables further out on the beach, too, and people dance, talk, and drink the night away. What really surprised me was how young the guys who work there were. There are no laws against children serving alcohol here, apparently; the boy who served us was probably about ten. The other bar/club we went to on Friday was the same; the oldest one said he had just turned eighteen (he looked younger), and the others looked to be between twelve and fourteen.
We soon discovered that I wasn't exactly made for the beach I don't really like seafood, I don't drink alcohol, and I hadn't brought a significant other! No one would quite believe me on that whole I-don't-drink thing; one of Diego's friends asked me seven or eight times, "But really? You really don't drink?" And I said no, I never had, and he said, "What about beer?" I laughed and said sarcastically, "Hmm, beer has alcohol, right? No, nope, never drank it." But anyway, while Araceli and Diego enjoyed the romantic beach atmosphere, I occupied myself sipping a delicious pineapple smoothie and chatting with one of the waiters.
Eventually we headed back to the house to sleep. Araceli pointedly told me to make sure to be up at 8am to enjoy the beach before it got too hot, and jokingly threatened that if I wasn't up they'd go without me. I laughed and told her to wake me up in the morning.
I rolled out of bed at 7:45 and got ready to go. Around 8, I knocked on the other bedroom door; no answer. I ate some bread and drank some water, then knocked again. No answer. I called Araceli's cell phone, and they finally woke up, around 8:30! Yes, Araceli has become rather Ecuadorian in her scheduling habits : )
We headed out to the beach around 9, excited to swim a bit. The waves were big, but I wasn't too worried. I didn't go out very deep, but suddenly a huge wave pulled me out farther from the shore and I couldn't touch the sand. I tried to swim back, but the undertow was strong. Still, I felt like I was still in control, and I started swimming diagonally and making some progress. I heard someone else yelling "Help! Help!" and I (silly me) yelled "Over there! Help him!" A jet-ski headed over there, and while they were saving the other guy I realized that I really wasn't getting anywhere. Scared, I yelled "Help! Help!" but no one heard me. My own friends were yelling and pointing the other way, "Help that guy!" Nobody saw me, nobody heard me, and I thought I might drown.
Luckily, a big wave pushed me back closer to shore just when I was really getting desperate and I touched wonderful, firm sand. I made it back to shore, gasping, and no one really took any notice. They were all talking about the other guy who almost drowned
I grabbed a towel, and being the nerd that I am, pulled out some flashcards. We were high up, on the dry sand, and everyone said the waves never made it that far. Finals were the following week, and I really needed to memorize some phrases and theory for translation. I got about halfway through, and had the flashcards all organized into little piles of ones I knew and ones I needed to review, when a huge wave surprised all of us and covered my towel and work in water and sand. I do love those Uniball pens, but they don't stand up to water
Later we went out for lunch, spent some time in a pool, and played some ping pong. Around five we headed back to the beach, Diego, Araceli, two other couples, and I. We sat on the stools around another one of the bars/clubs, a bit above the beach. I was feeling a little melancholy what with being number seven, and when one of Diego's friends started asking about my love life and I had to explain about Oscar, a couple tears escaped. I excused myself and went down on the beach to sit on a log by myself and just let it all out. I cried hard, I sobbed, and after a while Araceli came down to try to cheer me up. Eventually it passed, and we saw three of the boys who worked at the bar/club taking a break to play some soccer. I dried my tears and said, "Hey Araceli, wanna play soccer?" Neither of us has ever played, and she was in a dress and I was in a skirt, but the boys were happy to have us play. The oldest one was probably about fourteen, and we played three on two (Araceli, the oldest boy, and me, against the two smaller ones), but I'm still not sure if we managed to win. It was a lot of fun, playing barefoot in the sand, disregarding most of the rules, and it cheered me up a lot.
That night we went out to eat and listen to music again, and this time while I was drinking my customary pineapple smoothie someone asked me to dance. He was kind of old, but I didn't have anything else to do so I danced anyway. He turned out to be a great dancer, and I actually had fun, but after that song they switched to salsa and I went back to my pineapple smoothie. He came back later and we danced again, but by that point he had had a little more to drink and didn't dance as well, so I decided to avoid him and went back again to my pineapple smoothie. A few songs later he came over with a pia colada, but I politely declined. When he insisted, I explained as politely as possible that I don't drink, and I don't accept drinks from strange men, either. He tried to put the drink down in front of me, and in the process spilled Diego's tequila all over my skirt. Just my luck We went back to the house before 10:30, avoiding him.
Saturday was much better. Diego got up early and made us a tasty breakfast of French toast and bacon with juice, cereal and yogurt. Then we went back to the beach (where our soccer-playing friends worked) to enjoy the sun and the music. They actually played Bob Marley, and better yet, swing! I taught one of Diego's friends to dance swing, and when they put on bachata I taught Araceli to dance that, too. Our amigos the soccer players thought it was pretty funny watching the gringa teach people to dance.
That night, we went out dancing on the beach. Araceli, Diego and I met up with two of his guy friends who weren't there with dates. They bought a bottle of something or other, and we headed to the same place we had gone the first two nights. Unfortunately, no one had ice, and since they had bought the bottle somewhere else, the waiters didn't want to give them any. Diego tried, then one of his other friends tried, and no luck. But since I had spent two nights chatting away with one of the waiters, I decided to give it a shot. I went and found him, and I guess he had enjoyed our conversations because he gave me the ice no problem, plus a big grin. From then one, whenever anyone needed ice, they sent me, even if I was in the middle of dancing a song! Everyone, including the waiter, found it pretty entertaining.
Sadly, Diego's friends didn't dance much, so I was just sipping another pineapple smoothie and tapping my feet. I saw a guy who was alone and kept making phone calls and hanging up, frustrated, and eventually he noticed that I was dancing away in my seat. He asked me to dance, and I said sure. When I stood up, he laughed. "No, Im too short for this!" I was barefoot, and still an inch or two taller than him, but it didn't matter. He was a great dancer, and started telling me about how his girlfriend couldn't come to the beach and he had come with his cousin, her boyfriend, and another couple, and they were off being all romantic and had left him alone. I grinned, explained my very similar situation, and we danced nonstop until three o'clock in the morning. Luckily, he's a soccer player too and doesn't drink much, so he was just as good a dancer at 3 o'clock as at 10 o'clock.
The next morning we headed back to Quito. Poor Araceli got a bad case of food poisoning (I think she ate shrimp for every meal the whole weekend; it overloaded her system), so she slept the whole way back. We made it back to the drizzly reality of Quito around 3pm and headed back to our respective houses for a long nap.
On second thought, this beach story is really long. Maybe I'll put Guayaquil and end-of-semester reflections in another e-mail I'll probably get to it around Thursday or Friday. Here are a few vocab words to end the epic:
1) cable de alagarto: jumper cables. We didn't have any
2) pitillo: The Columbian word for "straw" (as in for drinking pineapple smoothies). Remember, in Ecuador they say sorbete, in Mexico they say popote, and in Honduras they say pajilla. Here, on the other hand, paja means "masturbation", so pajilla would be a quick masturbation. Oh dear.
3) patilla (not to be confused with pajilla): the Columbian word for "watermelon." In the rest of Latin America, as far as I know, it's sanda.
4) morocho: Depending on the context, this can either mean a black person or soup made of corn. Or, it can just mean a mestizo who is pretty tan. I'm not really sure who's allowed to use morocho to refer to black people and in what context, however I've had a lot of trouble negotiating racial vocabulary. For example, most white/mestizo people I know here refer to black people as morenos, which really just means that they're more tan than other folks. But when I use that word in conversations with black friends they correct me and say no, they're not morenos, they're negros. But if I say negros when talking to white/mestizo people, they correct me and say that's derogatory. Hmph, maybe if they think it's bad to be black, negro is derogatory, but the black people themselves don't seem to think so.
5) monos vs. longos: I think I've already mentioned this, but the racial vocabulary reminded me of it. There is, as I've said, a serious rivalry between people from the coast and people from the mountains of Ecuador, and each side spends a lot of time stereotyping and insulting the other. A common term that Quiteos use to describe people from the coast is monos (monkeys), which my Gender and Society professor explained refers to the fact that there are so many black people on the coast. Apparently the stereotype is that black people are primitive, like monkeys. Nice I dont know if everyone thinks of that connotation when they call costeos monos, though, because it is extremely common even among liberal-minded folks. People from the coast, on the other hand, sometimes call people from the mountains longos, which is a derogatory term for indigenous people (there is a large indigenous population up here).
6) igualado: I can think of another word in Spanish for it (confiesudo), but Im not really sure how to explain it in English. It basically means that you automatically trust people you don't know very well, or you're really direct and personal with them. We gringos are pretty igualados, what with our directness.
7) remar: I'm not sure if quiteos use this verb, but guayaquileos use it to mean spending a lot of someone else's money. For example, someone invites you to lunch and you order the most expensive dish on the menu, plus two drinks and a fancy dessert.
8) afrentoso: another word from Guayaquil; quiteos would say goloso. It means you can't/don't resist eating a lot, especially unhealthy food.
Okay folks, I'm signing off for now. I'll send another novel your way over the next couple days I can't quite believe I'm leaving Ecuador a week from today, and I have a lot to ponder before I go.