custom-made suits and el grupo japonesa

Cuenca has a disproportionate abundance of certain kinds of shops and buildings. Churches. Yummy-smelling panaderías. Papelerías, where the dry erase markers cost about a third of the price of those at Staple’s, and last approximately a third as long. Tiny, alarmingly cramped bodegas that sell everything from fresh eggs to instant chicken noodle soup to triple A batteries. (Some just sell dry goods, but some carry fresh produce, too. Jay and I are lucky to have two that sell produce on our corner, across the street from each other. We think they´re magic, like clown cars, because they can fit avocados, light bulbs, and four choices of pasta within a 10-by-10 foot space. We call them “the magic store” and “la tienda mágica” to differentiate between the two.)

But I digress. Also on the streets of Cuenca reside a wide variety of tailors advertising “trajes hecho a mano,” with jackets, pants, shirts, and ties gracing their windows, some quite elegantly. So it is that, here in Ecuador, Jay and I each want to buy a custom-made suit – an unthinkable purchase in New York. I do have a suit. I bought it on sale from the downtown Brooklyn Macy´s – not the best version of that store – two days before a job interview, and it looks somewhat ridiculous. (“Oh! It´s sort of… sporty looking,” Jay said encouragingly when I brought it home.)

So we´ve been window shopping for suits and I asked my landlord, a smart dresser, for her consejo. She pointed us to a handful of shops, and yesterday Jay got fitted for a black suit at one of them. It was very exciting. First, we had to make sure that they made two-button suits. The moda here in Cuenca is the three-button suit, something that looks good on linebackers and basketball players, and is an unlikely choice in a country where, according to what my 103 class told me during a physical descriptions lesson, I am, at 5´2”, considered “medium height.” A week ago, Jay tried on a three-button jacket made of a gorgeous, subtly flecked black wool. “I look like I´m wearing a tube,” he said.

So, yesterday we went to a store that sold two-button suits. We looked at swath after swath of fabric, trying to determine the most versatile weight and color. Finally, the attendant brought out a large sample of Austrian cashmere, deep lustrous black, with a delicate texture provided by fine, slightly raised vertical lines. Jay decided on that one. The attendant was delighted. “Es el mejor,” he informed us earnestly.

He gave Jay a jacket to try on and began measuring him everywhere – the breadth of his shoulders, the length from his spine to where the jacket should fall, the inseam of his pants. He then called out a young man – the tailor who would make the suit – and issued him very serious instructions about how fitted Jay wanted the jacket (again, slimmer than how Ecuadorians like it) and how wide the shoulders should be, occasionally asking him questions. The tailor was focused and intent throughout the entire process, squinting his eyes, nodding, pinching bits of jacket material along Jay´s back and shoulders, and finally saying, with expert decisiveness, “Sí. Listo.” Jay was elated when we walked out. “I have no doubt that guy´s going to make a great suit.”

This week, I´m going to try to find one for myself.

It´s strange that suit-purchasing has become such an exciting quest for two people who, as a general rule, dislike shopping.

We´ve done other things, too, things we tend to like in New York, like see live music. Thursday night, we saw a jazz concert at the University of Cuenca´s performing arts center. The music was bad (complex, highly technical jazz attempted by musicians who, in Jay´s estimation, “don´t have the chops for that”), the tickets were free, and the mixed-age crowd was decidedly liberal intellectual-looking – what you might expect to find in a college town, but somehow oddly delightful and comforting here.

Last night, we attempted music again. We went to a bar-restaurant advertising live bands on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. The main act was fun – a competent cover band playing upbeat Latin pop songs that everyone except Jay and I knew the words to. When everyone got up to dance three songs into the set, we did, too. Then everyone sat down at the end of the song. Then the band started the next song. Then everyone got up to dance again. And we did, too. It was kind of fun, the up and down between each song. We didn´t need to commit to dancing to anything beyond the given song.

But the opening band stole the show, and not through any superior musical ability. When we arrived around 8:00, a group appeared to be warming up, but the restaurant was empty, save for one very large party occupying the back table. I asked the waitress when the band was starting. Not until 11:30, she told me, they´re just doing the sound-check now. But, she added, “el grupo japonesa” was going to open for them, starting in a half an hour. She gestured to the large party. There were ten, maybe twelve young men and women, all Japanese, all talking animatedly in a language I will assume was Japanese, and all eating large quantities of hearty Ecuadorian food. I had to clarify. “Ellos?” The waitress nodded, smilingly.

So, obviously, we made it a point to see the Japanese band. They were fairly bad and fully delightful. They weren´t all onstage at once; different members came on and replaced each other with various instruments. There were four regulars onstage – an accordionist, a lead singer, a violinist, and a utility guy who played many instruments. The lead singer, who sang with a kind of uninhibited gusto, introduced the songs in broken Spanish. These were clearly not immigrants to Ecuador – or else, very recent immigrants, all dozen of them, which seemed unlikely. (I was surprised to learn early on that the Chinese, along with the expected Peruvians and Colombians, are the leading immigrant group in Ecuador. There are Chinese restaurants in Cuenca – one of which I will most certainly dine at before the end of my stay here – and Chinese-owned stores selling $2 towels and $11 sneakers. But the Japanese aren´t flocking here.) The local crowd seemed bemused and delighted. “Este canción es de Irana,” I thought I heard the lead singer say. “The song´s from Iran,” I told Jay, though I couldn´t be sure that “Irana” is the Spanish word for Iran. (It´s not. It´s just “Irán.”) On came a flute. Off went the singer. The violinist started playing a series of legato double-stops, solo. Then, after a pregnant pause, he picked up the pace, everyone joined in, and the unimistakable strains of “Devil´s Dream” came bursting from the stage. I looked back at Jay. “Ireland,” he grinned. Right. A not-very-good, 11-person Japanese cover band was playing songs from Irlanda while on tour through Cuenca, Ecuador to a crowd that includes two New Yorkers who are inherently interested in neither Irish music nor unwieldy Japanese cover bands.

The night was full.


they say the neon lights are bright on neo-gothic hilltop churches...

It has been three weeks since I last posted. In that time, my mother has come and gone, Jay has arrived and settled, and my laptop has been broken and tentatively promised repair. (The words “Apple Service Provider” have never sounded so simultaneously out-of-place and welcome.) Such excitement here in Cuenca…

My mother´s visit was lovely. She was show-and-tell at all three of my English classes, and the students (naturally) just loved her. They asked all sorts of questions, requiring her to give rather full, sophisticated answers, including to the students in my beginner 103 class, who were, at that time, working on understanding the difference between “she gave the book to him” and “she gave the book to he.” To that class, Mom ended up giving a lesson on attachment theory and the recipe for pasta Bolognese. She taught my intermediate 204 class some of the crucial differences between psychoses like schizophrenia and dissociative disorders like DID that commonly arise from childhood trauma. She discussed, of all things, her sports allegiances (strongly Boston, of course, but Mom isn´t what one would call an avid fan) with the beginner 104 class. In all classes, the happy, familiar topic of food came trotting out whenever a silence fell. Two different students in my beginner classes, asked, with delightful, unabashed curiosity, what my mother thought of Jay. (Jay has since visited my 103 morning class – just this morning, in fact. Johanna asked him, with a slightly mischievous, beguiling smile, “What do you think of your mother-in-law?” When he replied that he thinks she is “lovely,” Johanna informed him earnestly that my mom had said the same of him. He laughed. She then asked him why he got divorced from his first wife.) In all of the show-and-tell visits, the only question that went laughingly unanswered came from Maritza, who asked my mom, “How many years you have?”

We did some touring of Cuenca. Went to the impressive, rich Museo del Banco Central, which houses artifacts and history from the Cañari (6th-15th century), the Inca (mid-15th century-early 16th century), and the Spanish colonial civilizations. We visited a museum attached to a monastery that opened in the 15th century, and is still running, with 26 nuns and, most remarkably, two novices currently living in the convent. We took the 30-minute bus ride to Baños, a small, very rural town that boasts its own thermal springs, with an upscale hotel/spa attached. We spent a pleasant few hours swimming with local families in what seemed very much like outdoor community pools, save for the lack of chlorine smell and the distinct pale jade color of the mineral water.

Jay arrived on Friday (a week ago), and he, Mom, and I shared a weekend together. On Sunday, we visited the Cañari and Incan ruins at Ingapirca. We took a guided tour, led by a charming bilingual guide with a passion for his subject matter and a penchant for emitting short, slightly self-effacing bursts of laughter after expressing his opinion on a certain subject. When we were walking through the small but substantive museum at the site of the ruins, for example, he told us about the Cañari´s practice of placing their infants´ heads between V-shaped wooden planks to force their heads to grow into an elongated cone-shape, which was believed to be both fashionable and a symbol of status. “You may think that this is strange, that they thought these coneheads were fashionable,” our guide said. “But then it is always just the style. Some people may think that these tattoos today are strange, or these piercings on the nose and places. It is just the same, I think.” He looked around at us. “Heh-heh.” He wasn´t particularly funny, per se, but his laugh was disarming and contagious.

Ingapirca was not a town, but a sacred site, which housed a temple, living quarters for priests and important people, and ceremonial grounds. The ruins were largely of the Cañari civilization, though the Incas did rebuild the main temple itself, which stands atop a high hill in the center of the ruins. Though the history is, of course, fascinating, the actual ruins were not as purely impressive as I imagine those in Peru to be, where the Incans settled for a much longer period. In fact, for me, Ingapirca was most striking for the mountainous setting, which was profoundly beautiful in a timeless (spiritual, if you will) sort of way. The Cañari peoples chose their site of worship with a reverence for its natural beauty.

The highlight of the day actually came before we even reached Ingapirca. The bus ride there took us through a series of small towns inhabited largely by indigenous descendents of the Cañari and Incan civilizations. (Though sparsely inhabited of late, apparently: our guide informed us that two million of Ecuador´s 12 million citizens have emigrated to other countries, mostly New York and Spain. That was the most surprising morsel of information picked up that day.)

Along the way, we stopped at a neo-gothic church – Iglesia del Virgin del Rocio (Virgin of the Dune) – that was carved directly into the stone cliff of the mountainside. The church was recent, constructed from the 1880s to 1940s, but was at the site of what had previously been a Cañari temple. The Spanish had decided to build the church when they brought an image of the Virgin Mary up to the sacred site during a disastrous drought. When the rain came, the construction began. The blue-and-white façade of the church, and our approach to it by climbing steep and winding stone staircases, was very pretty and dramatic. The inside, on initial impression, was relatively ordinary by comparison: dim lighting, dark wooden pews, a decorated altar. Our guide pointed to the altarpiece, a glass encasement which contained an image of the Catholic Virgin against a backdrop of a moon, which was the symbol of a prominent goddess for the Cañari people. “It´s a mixing of religions,” our guide said.

And then someone turned on the lights by the altar. Above Mary and the moon, a neon sign blinked to life. The words “Ave Maria” shone in a neon blue semicircle; below it, in neon pink, read “Virgin del Rocio.”

“Heh-heh.” Our guide had no choice but to explain. “Yes, some of these things have been donated. For example the chandeliers,” he gestured to a curving glass, art-decoish structure, “and, heh, the sign. It was probably from a company that made those signs.” Everyone stared for a moment at the neon pink and blue lights. I giggled too loudly. “It, uh, doesn´t quite fit,” our guide said, in a moment of remarkable understatement. “Heh-heh.” On the way down the winding staircases, Jay, in great delight, went with overstatement: “That was the most profane thing ever.”

And to close this post with a brief, delightful randomness anecdote: I ran into Dara Moses, who I went to college with, on the streets of Cuenca. She was there with her colleagues for a conference on providing health education and care in undeveloped countries. We tried to meet up one night, but my phone message got lost in the folds of friendly incompetence that Dara said characterized the hotel she was staying at. No fear; Cuenca is a small town. I ran into Dara (literally, while going for a run) at Parque de la Madre the night before she left town. She was marching in a parade with organizations promoting things like health and peace. “How funny is this?” she said wryly. “I´m in Cuenca at an anti-Bush march.” Ah. Just like Wesleyan.


it's a small town...

I have been here two weeks now. Hopefully, my students know more English than they did two weeks ago. This week, in my intermediate 204 class, we are doing a unit on “trends across the generations” (an improvement, I think, over last week’s “big moments in your life” unit, which involved some modification on my part so that the very sweet, slightly awkward 13-year-old boy in the class wouldn’t have to answer questions like, “Describe how you felt on your first date.” Though I could only take the differentiation so far: when we were discussing the dating mores of “your parent’s generation” as presented in the book, and laughing at some of the outdated expectations for “him” and “her,” I asked, “And what about ‘him-him’ – two men going on a date? Or two women?” This question was met with blank stares and stony silence, save for a slightly embarrassed, sympathetic grin from 18-year-old Juan Pablo. I had prepared myself for a range of reactions to that question, but the near unanimity of their response startled me. I had known the class four days at that point. I moved on.)

Tonight we were discussing memorable events that everyone in their generation will remember. I asked them to write down the first such event that came to mind. I was excited to hear about defining moments in Ecuadorian history over the past two decades. It genuinely surprised me (though maybe it shouldn’t have) that about two thirds of the students wrote down “9/11,” including the afore-mentioned Juan Pablo, whose father was on a business trip in Manhattan at that time. (Fun fact! More Ecuadorians live in Queens than in Cuenca.) The others wrote about the overthrow of Ecuadorian President Abdala Bucaram in 1997, who by most accounts was as genuinely unhinged as he was corrupt. It was a seminal moment in Ecuadorian history: it marked a point of optimism, followed by quick disillusionism, as the government descended into chaos and further corruption. Ecuador has had seven presidents in the past eight years. The most recent, the former Vice President Alfredo Palacio, came to power this past April, when then-President Lucio Gutierrez was voted from office.

So I’m starting to learn a bit about Cuenca and Ecuador. Ostensibly, I should also know more Spanish than I did two weeks ago. But while my Spanish is better – at the very least, I can summon the Spanish I already knew with greater facility – it’s not vastly improved. I spend too much time speaking English to see the kind of quick improvement I experienced while studying abroad in Italy. I’ve yet to dream in Spanish, and doubt that I will.

The language on the streets is all Spanish, which helps. Not that there aren’t plenty of English speakers living here. But Cuenca – which isn’t “touristy” per se – attracts a particular kind of tourist, one who has formed a sort of transient community. There are a lot of European and American travelers on extended stays here, mostly college-aged and twenty-somethings wanting to learn Spanish and/or travel cheaply, and plenty of English teachers who tend to be older (the teachers at my school range from 22 to 55). My first night here, I wandered into a stylish restaurant called Café Eucalyptus on the main drag of Gran Colombia, and settled down at a table by myself. Within seconds, I was engaged in conversation with English-speaking people all around me, and ended up dining with an American man, Canadian man (both here on a 4-month business project), and Ecuadorian woman (girlfriend of Canadian man). The experience was thoroughly, benignly pleasant – including the chance to practice my Spanish with the Ecuadorian, who knew almost no English – and mostly notable because I feel certain that, had I sat down next to that same party of three in most other circumstances, I would not have ended up chatting over a plate of tostados de yucca with them. This is one of the particular pleasures of traveling to a place that attracts the kind of tourist who stays for a month or two (or eight).

Cuenca is small enough that these chance encounters become part of the fabric of living here. The week after my dinner with strangers, I ran into the Canadian man at a bar. I have run into Dave, the college kid from my hostel, no fewer than three times since moving from the hostel, and often bump into teachers from my school where we haven’t planned to meet. Maybe this phenomenon is typical of small cities in general, where all of the young people are at one of three places on a weekend night. But – while I would not choose to live in such a small city permanently; while I thrive on the quality of the infinite and evanescent in New York City; while I love a city that extends beyond my capacity to know it, that always offers a new mystery and fresh discovery – I find the smallness here thoroughly, charmingly different from my life at home. One of the reasons we travel, I suppose: to try on the habits of another as our own for a time.


the second annual corn festival

On Friday night, I danced on a table at a club in Cuenca. It’s funny, the only other time I’ve danced on a table was when I was studying abroad in Italy. It’s funny, also, because I don’t even dance in New York. (My first summer in New York, I was denied access to a trendy club by a cross-dressing bouncer wearing fuzzy ears and a tail, who looked my friend Joanna and I up and down, settling on the Velcro-fastened sandals on our feet, and said to Joanna’s friend, who would have been hip enough to gain entry without us, “They’re not even in heels. Sorry, I just can’t do that tonight.” At which point he swiveled away on his two-inch spikes, tail swishing behind him.)

The club was called Pub, and played a perfectly danceable mix of techno and pop. It is where my housemates go most Friday nights. Apparently, Wednesday is the big night for the salsa clubs. The most popular is actually called table (Mesa), but I don’t imagine that people do salsa on tables, unless they’re large ones. I’ll go and find out. And maybe learn how to do something beyond the basic step in salsa.

Other highlights from a lovely Cuenca weekend:

Went to a fascinating handicraft store called Galápagos. The lovely owner spent half an hour telling me about her chess pieces carved of dried coconut and shaman necklaces made of trout skin (“Este no tiene un precio,” she said apologetically, though my interest was not in buying it).

On Saturday, I attended the second annual Fiesta del Maiz. I told Sofia, one of the teachers at the school, that I was going.

“A fiesta for wheat?” she asked.

“No, corn.”

“Oh.” She paused, considering. “Maybe we can dress up as ears of corn.”

The Fiesta del Maiz was held in Parque de la Madre, the largest park in Cuenca, just across the river from the centro. It had all the trappings of a sunny day festival: singing and dancing performances by people clad in colorful skirts; grilled meat (and corn); crafts; little children and dogs running around. There were prizes for the best performances. The winners in the dance category had performed a very solemn number, circling around a large basket of corn, stepping and bowing in time to the dirge-like music, before finally lifting the corn onto their shoulders and marching offstage.

The MC had to keep reminding people to applaud. (“Es muy importante,” he insisted. “Tenemos ganadores de la Fiesta del Maiz.”) The second place winners in the singing category were quite excited about their honor, jumping up and down and squealing. A young boy around 9 years old gave the acceptance speech, at one point sternly telling the chattering audience to “cállase,” which got a laugh.

Tomorrow, the fiestas will be across the United States. And what’s a gringa to do on a 4th of July in Ecuador? Cap off a day of teaching with a cookout amongst other gringos, of course.


the green pen is smaller than the blue pen

I’ve finished my first week of classes as an ESL teacher. I like my students quite a bit – a mix of middle class professionals and students, mostly young adults and a handful of teenagers.

I find the task of teaching them English considerably different from teaching elementary students and adult soon-to-be-teachers – or, rather, an odd conflation of the two. Today, I spent nearly 40 minutes teaching the young women in my level 104 class how to say things like “the green pen is smaller than the blue pen,” and “the pink pocketbook is more beautiful than the brown pocketbook.” When Fernanda commented, as I held up an O’Keefe print and a photograph of lilies, that “the flowers of the photograph is more realism than the flowers of the painting,” I thought, with fondness, that for all their differences, my old South Bronx students and current Ecuadorian ones share a propensity for errors in subject-verb agreement.

I teach only 5 hours per day, though I have three separate classes to prepare for and assess, which means I’m working full days during the week. Because of the amount of time I’m spending at the school – amongst teachers from the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, and Australia – I find that I speak a lot more English here than I’d anticipated.

Of course, I speak Spanish in the streets, stores, and restaurants. Also, I get free twice-weekly Spanish classes at the school, which are helpful. But at night is when I can really speak it – albeit with non-Ecuadorians. I moved on Monday into a house-o’-international travelers – a lovely, high-ceilinged, two-story house with 10 (I think) bedrooms. Plus the rooms where the owner and her family live. I’m really glad I ended up here. For one thing, the others in the house – 20-somethings from Germany (5), Scotland (1), France (1), and the United States (1) – are all very fun, interesting, energetic people. Secondly, we only speak Spanish in the house. Everyone besides me has lived here at least three months, many have been here since September, and all speak better Spanish than me. This is good. They can correct my subject-verb agreement.