February 28, 2009


Josephine and I are developing our own way of talking, which includes a great deal of "mija" (my daughter, used endearingly ever since we heard the guys calling each other mijo) and an occasional, "que the fuck haces, chica?" (what the fuck are you doing, girl?). Josephine jokes about speaking Swanglish, but in truth she's so mixed up with English and Spanish that her native Swedish has wandered off. It took her two days to remember how to say "excited" (emocionante). "Maybe people don't get excited in Sweden?" I offered helpfully, but apparently they do. Mostly over new Ikea catalogs.

In 1998, a woman wrote a Spanglish novel called Yo-Yo Boing! Here's a little excerpt:
Ábrela tú.
¿Por qué yo? Tú tienes las keys. Yo te las entregué a ti. Además, I left mine adentro.
¿Por qué las dejaste adentro?
Porque I knew you had yours.
¿Por qué dependes de mí?
Just open it, and make it fast.
You open it.
Why me? You have the keys. I gave them to you. Anyway, I left mine inside.
Why did you leave them inside?
Because I knew you had yours.
Why do you always depend on me?
Just open it, and make it fast.
Props to the Puerto Rican author, Giannina Braschi.

February 26, 2009

Language Revolution

Check it! I met with my companera Lorena today, and we learned two languages worth of past tense in 40 minutes, with perfect pronunciation to boot.

El martes por la manana me levante a las nueve y cuarto. Te busque pero no te vi, entonces te envie un email y te pregunte si querias encontrarte conmigo el Jueves.

I can do it in second and third person, too. There was context, there was listening, there was speaking, there was patient practice, there was a memory game...it was totally painless. Language exchange = revolution.

February 24, 2009

Non-linear love

Did you know that Nabokov wrote novels on index cards? And that he shuffled them to see where the plot might go? And that he died and left a packet of cards with a half-written novel on them, which he demanded his son burn? Wow. The son didn't burn the cards. He locked them in a safe with a plan to publish them later.

Index cards are wonderful. They don't exist on this island, so I intend to import them via a friend (shout out to Robin!). With index cards, you can even make your own Hipster PDA.

February 21, 2009

Faces vs. races

There was an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times yesterday about how racist white people are and how scared we are that black people know. That made me laugh a little. The silver lining on the cloud of prejudice was this finding: when people practice distinguishing faces from a group, like a group of black people, their biases against the group deteriorate. 

"I already knew that!" I wanted to shout.

Seriously, though, teaching is one psych experiment after another. A group of 14-18 year old Saudi boys looked like carbon copies until the second week they were in my class, when my vision magically changed. Their faces turned one-of-a-kind and I never confused Mohammed with Tariq again. The byproduct of this sight shift was that I saw the distances between their personalities. There was as much variability among the Saudi boys as between the Saudi boys and their American counterparts.

Conclusion: seeing individuals is the antidote to racism. And language teaching is good for humanity.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Today the American exchange students took a field trip to Puerto Chino, a beach on the other side of the island. Since my own students finished their midterm at 9AM, I jumped in the van and tagged along. White sand, parrot fish, and only a couple of angry horseflies.

February 19, 2009

Top 10 Spanish Phrases

que haces? what are you doing?
todo bien all good
adonde vas? where are you going?
a la playa to the beach
comer to eat
cuanto es? how much is it?
claro que si of course
creo que si I think so
no se I don't know
nos vemos see you

February 18, 2009

Strange fruit

Waxy and hollow; brown pit like a wooden marble; smell of roses. "Eww, tastes like potpourri," said the American girl, so I ate them all myself. They're delicious. They grow on trees in the highlands.

February 16, 2009

Language Exchange Day 1

Holy crap! Yesterday was huge and I'm still overwhelmed.

For a year and a half, I've wanted to start a language exchange centre so that two people could sit down across a table and teach each other languages. It's such an obvious and enjoyable solution to "I know the rules but I can't have a conversation," but no one does it. 

Well, yesterday, with about 40 Ecuadorians and exchange students, we began. Day 1 was all about welcoming, relaxing, and having fun, so here's what we did:
  • Bilingual sentence charades; pick and card and act out the phrase until someone guesses it in English or Spanish (e.g. "Can I ride your horse?"/"Puedo montar a su caballo?"). Then make the audience say both. Good laughs here.
  • "Am I a polar bear?"; link arms with a partner and ask other pairs yes/no questions to about the animal picture on your back until you figure it out (see pictures).
  • Photo scavenger hunt; teams of 4-5 were formed, and then my assistant Libby and I (yep--I have an assistant) read off 15 items in Spanish and 15 in English, including "a German on one foot," "shaking hands with a tourist," and "a blue-footed booby." They had 30 minutes, and I am still in awe of the first team back, who got 29 items.
The idea with all of these was not to teach language, but to show them that they could teach each other, even total beginners.

Finally, at the end of the afternoon, we gave people their new partners. Imagine a room of blind dates--really nervous, really excited people doing their best to have a conversation. That was my favourite part. Now they're responsible to their partners, which means Partner A has to call Partner B if he can't meet. On Sundays they're invited to facilitated exchange sessions with me and Libby, basically to teach them how to teach, and the rest of the week they can meet on their own.


Who knows how big this will get. Like I said, I'm still overwhelmed. There are already things I would do differently, and I'm bound to make a million mistakes, but I keep reminding myself that this is an experiment. Me and Darwin, we're all about evolution.

What do you think? Would you ever do a language exchange?

February 15, 2009

How things happen

Last night, I had a moment of seeing all the trails leading to where I am now. It began in the sweaty cave of la discoteca, between a merengue and a salsa with Jefferson, whose gentlemanly manner suits his non-Ecuadorian name. His friend John passed around sips of beer in a small cup and asked me questions--easy ones like softball pitches for kids. John's from Cali, Colombia, and I told him that four Colombianas are the reason I came to South America.

Then Jefferson and I began the salsa. He asked what I was doing despues and I told him I was going to bed. He laughed. He meant after my contract ends in August. Back to Canada or on to another country, I told him. Voy a dormir. Haha. I didn't know anyone else at la discoteca, but some people waved because they had seen me in the swimming race or the Senorita Playaman competition--a silly award-by-applause affair of dancing and speeches.

Jefferson was explaining that the salsa is a slow, romantic dance, and yet all the feet I could see were shuffling too fast to learn from. I just looked up and tried not to worry. Valentines hearts and balloons stood out dark against the neon glow of the black lights, and I remembered that it was February. How had I gotten to this moment of dance, Spanish, and friendship so suddenly?

Let's see. The Colombian women I tutored in Saudi had sparked my interest in South America. My friend Lauren's childhood enchantment with the Galapagos had prompted me to apply to this job. Las Fiests de Galapagos had generated a colossal collective hangover among the American volunteers, which kept them in bed last night, which meant I ended my bar tour at an early 12:30AM and started walking home. My runs had taken me past the construction site where John worked, so when he saw me in the dark he had walked over with Jefferson, the polite dance partner that Sara had introduced me to when I arrived. Finally, four weeks of listening to Sara gossip fluently with everyone in town had imparted enough Spanish that when Jefferson and John invited me to la discoteca, I could say yes and chat with them during reggaeton tracks, during which we all catch our breaths.

The night couldn't get any better, so I walked home ("voy a dormir"), took a shower, and went to sleep.

Happy Valentines from the Galapagos!

Frangipanis in pink. Who knew? These flowers have the nicest smell in the world. If you ever find the perfume version, you're a lucky soul.

February 14, 2009

The Queen

Las Fiestas de Galapagos
have begun! A week of parties, parades, fireworks, and competitions to celebrate living here. Integral to Las Fiestas are las candidatas, the girls trying out to be queen. They all come from different neighbourhoods and some even fly in from the mainland. I know a former queen, the beautiful Belen, and she spent last week preparing them for their performances. So far, the girls have tossed candy off parade floats and balanced on power boats for photo shoots, but I'm anticipating much more--singing, dancing, and perhaps even a bathing suit competition. 

I ran into this group on the way to the beach, where today's festivities are being held. There was a kayak race in the morning, there's a concert starting right now, and I assume there will be something in town tonight.

The queen's crowning will probably be on Wednesday, if I've got my fiesta schedule right.

How to say...

"We're sharing a drink."

Compartimos una bebida.

Josephine and I are quite fond of this. When you order a drink at Pollo's, you're usually asking for one of two things: a big bottle of beer for $2.50 or a big rum and coke for $4.50. (Pricey for Ecuador, but so it goes, and to be fair, they mix drinks strong.) Josephine and I like to share the latter, and when the guys ask why only one of us is drinking, we get to say our favourite phrase.

February 11, 2009

Hey, sailor

The same way the local guys wait for the tides of American girls, I wait for the tides of sailors. Were it not for the cobblestone road between the university and the beach, they would literally wash up on my doorstep. So far I've met two Italians, a Spaniard, a Brit, a Kiwi, two Canadians, three Americans, and a Jamaican named Mikey. I'm not talking about the tourists on cruise boats, but the people who sail for years, or the people hired to help those crazy people.

Either way, and regardless of age, gender, or nationality, they have great stories, because they're sailors. Magi the Spaniard and Mikey the Jamaican, for example, came to the islands with a French couple who bickered incessantly on their enormous wealth-blue yacht, and after only a day in the bay, Magi was kicked off. Some skirmish. He said he was happy to offload, though sad to leave Mikey, with whom he had developed a wonderfully strange pronunciation of English. 

Today I put on my goggles and swam out to the newcomers--two catamarans and a mono-haul. The distance was easy, but as usual I had to manage my fear of sharks, sea lions, and rays. No one here will give me a straight answer about the sharks. A surfer was bitten on Isabella Island, you see, but more on that later.

Having passed the imagined minefield of foes, I lifted my goggles. The American boat was silent and the Austrian reserved, but the pay-off was the third: a catamaran from South Africa. Hooray for sailor etiquette. Gideon from Capetown invited me aboard, offered me a shower and a towel, and introduced me to his wife Chantal and two children--Josh and baby Indy. "Is that short for something?" I hoped aloud. "Indiana Jones. We were gonna change it, but..." "No, no! You're living my dream! I wish I had a baby named Indy!" "Get your own dream!" said Josh, waving a wooden sword. I think he was trying to protect his blonde brother.

The government lets them stay for 20 days, provided they don't leave the bay. I suspect the park fee for cruising the other islands is steep. They said they planned to stay for two weeks, and would I like to come over for cocktails? After all, someone needed to keep company the young man they picked up in Panama to help crew ("just running errands in town now"). Apparently he's a surf instructor from California and very charming.

Josh waved his wooden sword, I dove into the shark pool, and the people on the beach asked where I had been for an hour. I love my doorstep.


Congratulations to Kai, who won the second name-that-movie contest (see comments for the answer). I wanted to send him a beer from Saudi Arabia, but the country had me stumped, booze-free as it is (if only in decree). But then it hit me: near beer! The skinny, jeans-sagging, Airwalks-rocking seventh grade boys of my youth came back to me in all their glory, sipping warm cans of non-alcoholic beverage at the Third Street snack bar. The things we do to look cool. Here's to sobriety!

Photos for Greg

This summer I convinced my friend Greg to enter the annual 3-Day Novel Contest. We killed ourselves for 72 hours and wrote the thing together from opposite sides of the country. It was about Hugo and Darcie and their parallel lives in insomnia. When the last word was written, I had to pace the train tracks because I was too high on it all to talk to my family. The judges overlooked dear Darcie and Hugo (fools), but I remain deeply grateful that Greg held my hand as we stepped into the fiction ring. He's an amazing writer.

And yesterday was his birthday. 

Greg: Sorry these are a day late, but can you spot yourself in the pictures?

A German tourist took them after the Festival of Light this summer. The fireworks had just finished dumping their smoke on Vancouverites, and I stood up to call you in Fredericton. I have a habit of wandering around while I'm on the phone, as you can see. The German asked if I was a dancer, but as you know, I'm just a hippie.

Happy Birthday, friend.

February 10, 2009

Name that movie #2

Hey, friends. As before, don't be distracted by the photo, which is there just for kicks (although upon closer inspection, don't you think Baby looks more scared than she should? It's water.) Anyway, see what you can make of these Spanish subtitulos.

te masturbaste?
va a venir a la cuidad un amigo mio
hace anos que no le veo
te gusta estar cansada?

los hombres aprenden a amar la persona que las atrae, y las mujeres se sienten cada vez mas atraidas por las personas que aman

que tipo de projecto personal?
preguntas sobre el sexo
tienes un problema
tengo muchas problemas, pero son mios
creo que va a empezar a llovar

February 9, 2009

Death by empanada

$1.50 for a fried banana with cheese and a massive empanada? You can't say no to that. Or at least Josephine and I couldn't, when two women lit up a deep fryer at the beach yesterday afternoon.

The empanada, soaked well in grease, revealed its meaty innards when we were halfway in. I knew it wasn't chicken, but I pressed on, fool that I am. After wiping our oily fingers with our towels, my new Swedish friend and I hiked to the lookout in time to watch the sun set in a pile of clouds. I felt OK. I felt less OK at 3AM this morning when I rolled over and thought to myself, "You deserve this."

The last time I tried to digest ground beef was in Ankara, where my three Turkish hosts produced a very special dish from their hometown Antakya: a meatloaf the size of a poker table. The boys slept soundly that night as I learned how to throw up into a squatter toilet.

Four-legged animals have been off the menu for, oh, eleven years now, so maybe the enzymes for dissolving their special flesh have washed out of my system; I don't know. All I know is that from now on, quadrupeds can stay on that side of my line in the sand.

In Turkey, I might note, I knew what was coming to me. I asked the boys what they were cooking, and they said et (meat). Here, I know the word carne, but I'm still shy asking questions. In conclusion: less meat, more Spanish.

February 8, 2009

Have a good weekend

This sounds stupid, but the weekends overwhelm me a little. I have so much time to think about how much time I have left on the island, and I haven't learned how to relax like this sea lion. Things that help: running, walking on the trails, having mini Spanish conversations, reading, trying new places for lunch, and looking at the photos I've already taken, whereupon I remember how lucky I am to be here.

February 7, 2009


A shout out to anyone who manages to learn English!

I'm fucking tired of you

I'm tired of fucking you

If you can laugh at the difference, then you're in. Because while everyone thinks that cursing is crude, an ESL learner knows that it's a delicate art. Even before you deal with pronunciation and stress, you have to get those fucking words in the right fucking order. Dios mio.

This shout-out was prompted in part by my students. I just finished my evening class, which marks three weeks of teaching in the Galapagos. Administrators in Quito warned me that the students were true islanders, i.e. that they would stroll in an hour late without homework or apologies. Not so! Most of them break sweats under the classroom's single fan in their efforts. English is idiomatic, filled with annoying phrasal verbs, and stressed so strongly that people must think we learned it sipping gin and riding roller coasters.

So, bravo, all you ESLers!

February 5, 2009

Salad days

I miss vegetables. We're 600 miles from the mainland, so importing them is expensive, and the farms in the highlands don't seem to produce more than a few wilted herbs. 

Yesterday I started daydreaming about vege stir-fries, dragon bowls at the Naam, and my mom's caesar salad. I mentioned it, and apparently I'm not the only extranero with a longing.

Fabio the Italian drew an artichoke in the sand. He eats the leaves raw with salt and quarters the heart with a knife, he says. He flies home tomorrow, presumably to wait for the first artichokes of spring.

Tubias the Dane craves asparagus. He likes them steamed in salt water, dressed in butter, and topped with black truffle.

Strangely, what I want most is celery.

Giant Tortoise Sex

Last week, Sara's dad took us to Galapaguera, a tortoise breeding station in the highlands of the island. We trekked through the hot, dry sanctuary and found a herd of them hanging out in the shade. On her last visit, Sara said, two were trying to have sex, but the male was working on the wrong end. I asked if maybe he knew what he was doing. If you live for 150 years, aren't blow jobs inevitable?

I couldn't find any reports online, but behold these shocking sex-related tortoise facts:

-They keep their penises in their tails.

-They don't sexually mature until 20-25.

-Prime baby-making age is 60-90 (ick).

-Foreplay: males bite the females until they immobilize themselves by pulling in their legs. 

-Frustrated non-dominant males sometimes try to mate other males and boulders.

-During sex, they emit "rhythmic groans."

-"Do they do everything slowly?" you may ask. Apparently so: sex takes an average of two hours.

February 3, 2009

Gringa Hunting

A bus dropped 20 American girls at the university yesterday and the boys were already waiting on the beach. The sun set before the girls finished orientation, so the boys walked home. They reappeared yesterday with frisbees and soccer balls, but the mugginess kept the students inside checking Facebook. Finally, last night, the two groups swam through each other. I was at Polo's early, so I saw the whole scene unfold. 

The girls wear tank tops and order drinks with sugar cane and lime. They don't speak Spanish, so they wait until the boys dart in with English questions. The music's loud in Polo's, so everyone leans in. When the girls get tired and wander back to their home-stays, the boys circle on the curb in front of the bar and discuss. The girls are here for three months, which is long enough to start something.

Doesn't the term make you laugh? It's the best thing I've heard since I got here. It's demeaning to both parties and a little bit malicious. Mmm... language.

February 2, 2009

To the winners!

This post is dedicated to Parker and Kai, good friends and winners in the name-that-movie contest. See "comments" for the answer.

Their secret prize is this virtual beer. Pilsener, of course. It's the only beer here. I'm no expert, but it seems okay, provided it's served really cold.

I'm reminded of Turkey, another one-beer country. There you'll drink Efes Pilsener, which apparently gets its unique taste from rice added at the brewing stage. Its been described as having "a tangy malt and hops aroma, rich malt in the mouth, and a bitter-sweet finish that becomes dry and hoppy." Thanks, Wikipedia. Ecuador's Pilsener, meanwhile, "has a noticeable corn edge to the flavor and it reminds me very much of the flavor and feel of Miller High Life." In addition to being corny, Ecuador's beer of choice is a measly 4.2% beer, compared with Efes's 5.0% Sorry, boys.

two beers, please:
iki tane bira, lutfen
dos cervezas, por favor

Happy Birthday, Steven!

Today is my brother's 20th birthday. He's kind of wonderful. He laughs really hard at movies and always helps me when I'm stressed.

We're never together for his birthday, but two years ago he came over from the island, and we had an awesome night of dancing at Honey. We both passed out on the bus home, where people put their luggage.

Steven, wish I could be there, or you here! I hope 20 is the best year yet.

February 1, 2009

Taking shots

A Russian photographer took this in the President's Square of Quito when we weren't looking, and then walked over and asked if he could email it to us later. We watched him work for a few minutes. He was wearing brown and he moved very slowly to get different shots of people. He blended in quite well, but still, people noticed him.

I think that's why I'd prefer to be a writer than a photographer. To be a photographer, you have to wear the technology around your neck. Everyone knows what you are doing. To be a writer, you just have to have a memory. I could sit down and write an article about the quiet protest that was going on behind us, or a short story about the woman selling gum next to the fountain, and no one from that day would remember me taking the mental shots required to do it. Writers are sneaky in that way, I think.

Name that movie

It's not Dirty Dancing. I just like the photo.

Still sick, and still watching movies to distract myself. I am, however, learning Spanish! With Espanol subtitles turned on, I can jot down all sorts of phrases--useful phrases, funny phrases, random phrases. Today I noticed that all my little subtitle chunks make for an awesome synopsis of the movie, patchy as they are.

Can you guess what I watched this afternoon? 

(Hint: the last lines are probably the most useful)

ves algo?
no bromeo
puede ser
como dormiste?
ya regreso
te veo manana
no hay cura
otra vez
va a comenzar
mi beso
que tal dormiste?
donde vives?
ellos no saben donde vivo
quien son?
todos estan muertos
solo necesito un minuto, esta bien?
ire arriba
me gusta shrek
5 de nosotros eramos inmunes
dijiste 5?
hoy ya es muy tarde
no me ire
como lo sabes?
Dios te lo dijo?
por algun motivo
nosotros somos un legado
esta es su leyenda
luz en la oscuridad

A secret prize for the winner.