from Cuenca . . .to Galapagos . . .

Blogging this from Guayaquil airport (free wifi): we are waiting to board our flight for Galapagos!  Our flight has been delayed by an hour, so we were asked to go to the gate counter, sign the passenger manifest to confirm the airline informed us that the flight was delayed; had our snapshot taken on a smartphone, and each given a packet of snacks and a box of peach juice (as a consolation prize!) It’s kind of cute.

We arrived in Guayaquil yesterday afternoon, and visited the Parque Historico Guayaquil which was a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It featured lots of animals, which led me to joke to Joe that “maybe we don’t need to go to Galapgos now!”

It’s a bit a pathetic that we spent 10 days staying put in Cuenca to do that stereotypical tourist thing: learn Spanish and do a homestay, but I haven’t blogged about it.  Our Spanish did improve somewhat, but I still feel dumber than the kids who can prattle away in Spanish.

It was a bit weird to have to do homework everyday again. I felt like I was back in high school. Also even though Joe and I have been together for so long, and have shared/experienced so many things together, we’ve never really been classmates together, so that was a bit of an interesting experience also, having to do homework with him and argue about the answers.

But it was good to have a routine: Try to eat breakfast at 8 AM at our homestay with Charo in a ‘suburbanish’ neighbourhood, so we could leave at 8:30 AM, walk 30 minutes to class across the river to the historic downtown Centro district to start  our 2-hour class by 9 AM. We had a private tutor, who taught out of her office at home, so our classroom was in a very domestic setting: with her adorable 3-year old daughter Malena, and her cat Serafina wandering in and out at will, both obviously used to the rotating cast of students, and were not shy. After class, we would poke about Centro a bit, then walk back 30 minutes to Charo’s to do our morning homework, eat lunch (biggest meal of the day included in the homestay).  After lunch, it would take us 35 minutes to walk back to class (since we were weighed down by our full bellies). I had a hard time staying awake in the 2 hour afternoon class. (I had the same problem staying awake after lunch when I was working too; my second wind wouldn’t kick in until after 5 PM.)

After class we’d get coffee or ice cream in Centro and do our homework, before walking back to Charo’s (another 30 minutes), and Charo would have take-out of some sort for dinner, and then surf the net. It was nice to have a routine life for an extended period, not having to worry about travel arrangements (where to go, to stay, how to get there.)  But our brains were taxed in a very different way: learning a new language at this age in life . . . especially all the verb tenses and conjugation! Argh!

Like English, Spanish, is full of regional differences. Some of the words we’d picked up from Mexican Spanish back home didn’t really work in Ecuador, also possibly because they’ve become outdated.  Then of course, there’s verb conjugation and other grammatical differences in general that are challenging for English speakers.

Joe took 3 years of Spanish in high school; I took a quarter’s worth of Spanish at a junior college about 10 years ago. I took French in high school, which was somewhat helpful, since some of the grammatical oddities are similar and I sort of remembered them. For instance in English, it’s “It’s cold,” “I’m hungry”; but in Spanish it’s “It has cold,” “I have hunger” (same as French.)

Joe, being of an engineer’s bent, got more frustrated than I did about the exceptions to grammatical rules (he wants them to have more logic!)  I was mostly upset at my brain that it’s getting old and can’t remember things as well as when it was younger. We ended our course just as we were getting to the interesting part with past tense (we had already booked our Galapagos trip.)

But it was a good immersion experience. Charo would tick us off whenever we spoke English at home. ‘You’re only allowed to speak Spanish here!” And the end of the week, my cousin P sent an email with a photo of a Chinese poem; my brain had been so soaked in Spanish, I couldn’t read any of it.

We found our tutor Maria Elena on the internet. Over a three day weekend in Banos, we were debating whether to go to the Amazon or go to learn Spanish in Cuenca, and emailed inquiries for both activities. We heard back from Maria Elena on Sunday before we heard back from the Amazon tour folks, so off we went to Cuenca on Monday.

I have to say, maybe the people in Cuenca are used to all these foreigners, so they slow down when they speak Special Spanish with us, because they know it’s easier for foreigners to understand Spanish when it’s spoken slowly. When they’re talking with each other (i.e. a local talking to a local), they go at full speed, and it’s hard to catch anything.  My ultimate goal is to understand Spanish spoken by locals at their normal speed. We’ll see how close we get in a few more months! In his book ‘River Town’, Peter Hessler talked about speaking ‘Special English’ to his Chinese students, that was slower and had a more limited vocabulary; that’s probably how Maria Elena and Charo talked to us.

Cuenca is a popular destination for people to (1) learn Spanish, (2) for Americans to retire; and in some cases both. It’s appealing as a city with preserved colonial downtown, complete with a UNESCO seal of approval, yet it’s the third largest city in Ecuador, so it has the major infrastructure and facilities of a major city; including the worst of both worlds as a growing city: lots of traffic congestion in the narrow streets of a grid laid out hundreds of years ago. The buses and trucks mostly spew black exhaust (a pulmonary throwback to Bangkok in the 80’s for me); and car alarms are constantly going off (a sonic throwback to the 1990’s for us.) There’s a growing middle class, who would prefer to drive their own cars rather than take the crowded buses.  We saw lots of vintage cars from the 70’s and earlier, which had been carefully repaired and maintained as the main family car; 5 or 6 people crowded into each little car going on Sunday excursions. I saw Datsuns, a Corolla like the one my step-mom had in orange, and even a Maverick like the one my mom had in orange. The more well to do seem to favor SUVs, like Kias.  Chevrolet is a popular brand here, for newer smaller cars. I don’t think we’ve seen many Hondas, but Toyota has major presence here.

We met up with a friend  (Marie Cecilia) of a friend  (Loutz) who teaches urban planning at the University of Cuenca: she told us one problem was that some of the colonial buildings in Centro had gutted their interior patios, to become parking lots for people working or going to downtown. A loss of historic values against the needs of a modern society.  Parking in downtown is about $1 to $1.50 per hour (rather high by local standards.) In the ‘suburbs’, i.e. where we were staying, the streets are wider so people can park on the street. They are starting to build bikeways, but in Centro, it’s also hard to bike on them, due to the cobblestones.

Americans retiring in Cuenca (and other places in Ecuador) is quite a phenomenon; it was almost a complete surprise to us, but for one of our fellow garderners at back home telling us about it. (It was a bit odd that he’d thought about it, because he’s probably not that much older than us.) The ‘jubilados’ are probably driven by two factors are probably that the (1) cost of living is a bit cheaper than back in the US, and (2) the currency is the US dollar, and the climate is pleasant.  From the Cuencanas and other Ecuadorians, we heard some of their reaction (1) the cost of housing has gone up, driven by the influx of Americans with more buying power, (2) some of them find it hard to adjust to the culture (dogs that keep barking, a more laid back attitude toward efficiency), especially if they don’t learn Spanish, and then some of them end up going back to the US.)

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