Tag Archives: Ecuador

New Years Day in Ecuador

Whenever I get really cold, like one of those deep chills in my bones, I think about the time when I was living in Ecuador, a couple of guys in my town asked me if I had any plans for the day after New Years. I never had any plans, not really, a big thing that I took away from my experience in the Peace Corps was that feeling of being like a little kid. My communication skills weren’t really one hundred percent, and it wasn’t exactly like I knew what I was doing down there, so I basically relied on the good nature of the people of Pucayacu for everything.


So I went from no plans to having plans, they’d take me to these natural waterfalls nearby, we’d cook, we’d swim. Great. And it was great. That morning the guys came by to pick me up. They were in the back of a large dump truck, which isn’t supposed to be some sort of a joke or creative imagery or anything like that. This was a heavy-duty dump truck, like right off of the construction site.

I guess that word of our trip had spread, one invite led to another and this casual daytrip snowballed into a community pilgrimage. Normally it would have been easy for us to take the bus, but apparently these waterfalls were pretty far off the paved roads, and besides, all of the drivers were hung over from the New Years festivities. This guy’s uncle had the truck, and he didn’t mind dumping us off at the waterfalls about an hour and a half away from town.

Seriously, he actually dumped us out. As soon as we got to where the path was no longer wide enough for the truck, he hit the dump button and the whole back of the truck tilted up. “Jajaja!” everyone laughed as we fell over each other, smashing and piling out the back door.

The day was like was any other day in Ecuador, that is, a total adventure. I learned within a few weeks in country that, regardless of what I was doing, I couldn’t rely at all on my expectations of how something was supposed to happen. Ecuador always had a way of throwing me for a loop. Like, it’s only a four-hour bus ride, right? Yeah, it’s actually an eight-hour trip, and there’s a military checkpoint, and you’re sitting next to a guy holding a chicken.

We had a great time, a lot of swimming, tons of eating and drinking. As the sun set, my neighbors had me play volleyball against unwitting opponents oblivious to my spiking ability. A few hours after that, someone said, “Well, I guess we should get going.”

“Great,” I offered. I was exhausted, and I wanted nothing more than to take a shower and get to bed. “How are we getting back, is your cousin picking us up?”

“No, my cousin only had the truck for a little while.”

“So …”

“Yeah …”

And this began what felt like an eternal quest to get home. Like I said, it was a holiday, and even if there were pickup trucks or buses traversing these sparsely paved back roads, it would have been unlikely even on a good day to find a ride capable of getting all twenty or so of us back at once.

After what had to have been two hours of waiting, somebody somehow convinced a passing cattle truck to haul us up the long mountain path. No sooner had we all piled in, standing room only, in a sawdust covered flatbed, did it start raining. Pouring. As we ascended in altitude, the nighttime chill plus the downpour made every second a test of endurance.

We were bumping along the road, I was kind of hunched over so as to try and maintain some sort of standing up balance, and my thin t-shirt and jeans combination was soaked through. And then we stopped because there was a flat time. And nobody uses jacks in Ecuador, you have to walk into the woods and find some stones big and flat enough to pile up underneath the wheel.

I eventually made it home, shivering, wondering if I’d ever get warm again. I know that the mind has a way of exaggerating pain and discomfort, but I remember even in the moment that feeling of being beaten down by the elements with absolutely nothing to provide me with even the tiniest bit of comfort.

Anyway, yeah, so whenever I get cold, whenever I’m walking to the grocery store and I get to the point where I say something to myself like, “It’s freezing out,” I just put myself back in that pickup, I can still feel the rain on my back, and I know that it’s all going to pass, no matter how bad things get, it’s all momentary, I’ll be back in bed soon enough.

Latacunga to La Maná

This was right at the end of our two-year stint as Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador. My wife and I were heading back to site on a bus snaking its way through the Andes.


The voyage was indeed long and painful, more so than usual. Maybe it was because we had been traveling for about a week now, probably spending half that time sitting down on various buses, but the hours were starting to feel like days. Three bus rides out of the Oriente and we made it to Latacunga, one more five-hour trip before we’d be able to hop on the back of a pickup and take it an hour more back to site.

The buses from Latacunga were probably some of the worst in the country. Where I’d classify the majority of Ecuadorean buses as too small, the three or four bus lines that cross the Andes from Latacunga to La Maná were even smaller. And these buses were always packed. They left the Latacunga terminal full, and then after crawling through city traffic for two or three blocks, there would be another stop to let on a couple dozen or so more people. Most of these latecomers would be indígenas who lived throughout the various mountain communities along the route. The aisle would be packed with people standing against the seats, the women’s long, traditional shawls hanging in the faces of all the people sitting down.

The indigenous people lived apart even from other Ecuadoreans. Their fellow countrymen were practically foreigners, so us gringos might as well have been from another planet. On those crowded buses, even though tickets were sold with assigned seating, you needed to board very early and claim your seat as soon as possible. You might hop on the bus only to find an indigenous family of four sitting in your seats.

Thankfully this never happened to us, but I’ve seen confrontations like this play out in a very formulaic way. The person would ask them to get up, showing them the ticket with the seat number. This person would be ignored. The next act would be to request help from the bus driver or his ayudante, who would also try to get them to move. This would also be ignored. Maybe the passengers might say something in Kichwa that nobody else understood. And that was usually as far as these situations went.

On this particular trip, we had our seats and the bus was packed. Half an hour or so out of Latacunga, the bus stopped outside of a bakery. My wife and I had always noticed this exact stop, everyone got off the bus and bought bags of bread. Whenever we took this trip, we were always so exhausted from just settling into our seats, so we never felt compelled to go and check out what the fuss was all about. But we only had a month left to go before our service was over. I was starting to feel nostalgic for all of the things that would soon be nothing but memories. I got off to get some bread.

After two years in country, I knew how the lines worked. Everybody walked right up to the front and shouted out their orders. “Fifty cents worth,” I held out my money. The lady working the counter ignored me and proceeded to help everyone else. I started getting impatient, especially as more people started entering the store long after I did and were served before me. I kept repeating me order, but my presence wasn’t even acknowledged. Finally after everyone in the store was helped, as the bus started honking and revving its engine, the lady handed me my bread without a word and took my money.

I’m not looking for special treatment, but I just hated it when random people acted as if I barely existed. No matter how comfortable I felt in Ecuador, no matter how well I spoke Spanish, no matter how many friends I had back in Pucayacu, as soon as I left the comfort of site I was just another dumb gringo, just another tourist at the mercy of the crowd.

Pissed off, I hopped on the bus just as it was pulling away. And as soon as I got on the bus, I ran straight into a bar running alongside the aisle, slamming my head right above my left eye. I’ve hit my head countless times in Ecuador, but this easily had to be the worst. I was actually stunned. For a second, all I saw was white, my every sense consumed by a liquid fire that ran from my head and spread throughout every nerve ending in my body. I couldn’t breath. I could barely stand up.

The initial agony passed and I regained my senses to see four or five teenagers pointing and laughing at me, not even trying to hide how funny they thought the whole situation was. I was overcome with a rage that I hadn’t felt in a while. I can take the pain, I can take the humiliation, but I was absolutely fed up with being laughed at. Everything I did was under scrutiny. Every time I misspoke, every time I tripped over my own feet, every time I asked the wrong person the wrong question, I was laughed at. Every time I spoke in English, every time I walked by a group of people, every time I took a breath, I felt like people were taunting me. The constant spectacle that was my presence was enough to paralyze me, to make me spend days at a time indoors without showing my face in town. When I even suspected people laughing at me, I withdrew into myself, tried to ignore it, to block it out, to wait for the embarrassment to pass, hoping my face wasn’t red.

But this time was different. Maybe all of those repressed feelings had been bottled in for too long. Maybe the pain from the collision prevented me from swallowing my pride and finding my seat. But I lashed out. I got right in their faces and started cursing at them in a mixture of English and Spanish.

“Motherfucking chuchas,” I screamed through clenched teeth, “you want to laugh at me? I’ll give you something to laugh about!” The teenagers immediately stopped and recoiled in shock. That’s right, I thought to myself, not so tough now. I went on for another thirty seconds or so of rage, holding my head and lecturing them about how you shouldn’t laugh when somebody hurts themselves.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. My wife pulled me back.

“Rob, your head,” she said with a worried look on her face.

I pulled my hand away from where I had hit myself. It was red. There was blood running down the side of my face. My rage turned into shock and I sank meekly back into my seat, feeling suddenly very vulnerable and very hurt. The ayudante gave me a roll of toilet paper and I rolled up a bunch to put pressure on the lump that was beginning to grow. I was starting to shake. Finally coming to my senses somewhat, I looked around the bus to find every single person staring at me, open mouthed, not saying a word. I wanted to die. I wanted to disappear. Even worse, I felt like I wanted to cry. It was probably one of the most humiliating moments of my time in Ecuador. I felt like an asshole gringo who hit his head and took it out on a bunch of kids. As much as I loved my time in Ecuador, this had to be the absolute low point. I was sick of being the foreigner, the real or imagined butt of other people’s jokes, the source of everyone’s entertainment. I spent the next four hours nursing my wound, closing my eyes, and imagining that I was on a plane back to New York.

Breadmaking: A skill worth pursuing

While I was living abroad in Ecuador, I got really into cooking. After the culture shock wore off, after the initial feelings of exciting and new wore into the normal rhythm of daily life, I started to feel a rumbling in my stomach, a yearning for the tastes and comforts of what I was used to back home. Without access to what I would consider normal groceries, I had to learn how to make what I wanted with the ingredients at my disposal.


Whereas Ecuadoreans receive the majority of their carbohydrates from rice, I was longing for my North American diet of bread, the thick, crusty loaves that I took for granted back home. So I learned how to bake. Everything boiled down to trial and error. Sure, I could read a recipe, watch videos of people kneading flour and water into dough, but it was only after doing it myself that I began to understand what a lot of people talk about when they describe bread making as a Zen-like, almost spiritual experience.

It’s something that I could only learn to appreciate by making it into a daily practice, by starting out with words on a page and developing those recipes into my own muscle memory. Again, trial and error. Like two cups of flour, that sounds simple enough, right? But the cookbooks never explain that flour scooped out from a sack with a spoon tends to measure out to a greater volume than that same flour packed into a measuring cup.

Stuff like that makes a big difference in the end product. So do variables that nobody could ever teach me, like the discrepancy in what my oven thermometer assured me was the inside temperature compared with the undercooked doughy loaves suggesting a different level of heat. Or the fact that on humid days, I found it necessary to keep a bowl of flour next to my counter space, to prevent the dough from sticking to my hands and the work surface.

When I took my first really good loaf out of the oven, I’m talking a deep brown, crusty bread, steaming from the inside out, I knew that this was a skill worth pursuing. After a few months, bread making became almost second nature. I knew how to make a dough without even using a measuring cup. Judging by touch and texture, I could tell if a little more water was needed, maybe an extra blast of heat at the end to really give it that golden finish.

After I had a comfortable handle with the basics, I was able to start experimenting, adding different ingredients, molding the dough into various shapes. My understanding of the leavening process allowed me to craft baguettes or custom cakes. With just three simple ingredients, I was able to create an endless amount of goods I’d normally buy prepackaged at the grocery store.

If I flattened out the dough, I had pizza crust. If I made those crusts a little thinner and cooked them on top of a hot skillet, my rounds inflated into perfect pitas. By adding some sugar and eggs and frying my dough in hot oil, suddenly I had fresh donuts. I found that all of these tricks could be applied to everyday dishes I hadn’t before considered, like yeasted pancakes, or by eliminating yeast all together, by replacing wheat flour with other grains, I could fashion my own tortillas.

After reading something online about sourdough bread, I decided to capture my own wild yeast, to leaven my bread without the use of the dry-active prepackaged convenience. The process was slow, starting with a tablespoon of flour and water, leaving it in the kitchen to attract the myriad microscopic organisms floating invisible through the air. I’d add a little more water and flour each day, giving everything a stir whenever I happened to pass by.

There was life inside of that cup. In that controlled environment, although I couldn’t see it, there was feeding, there was reproduction. Eventually my starter bubbled with visible proof of success. I poured a little into my next bread, and it actually rose. When I pressed my hands to the dough, I can’t explain it, but the texture was slightly different. I’m having trouble describing the difference, but it’s something that was noticeable only because I had become so familiar with my everyday process.

The finished product was denser, it had a definite sour taste, and as I took a few bites of what I had baked, I thought about the microbes and yeasts unique to that region, to my kitchen. I had made something distinctive, and this was the end result. How did human beings come up with this process? Without an Internet or cookbooks to consult, who thought to grind up grain into a flour, leave it out for days to moisten and rise, and then bake it in the oven?

It’s all too common to lose myself in the contemporary world, with the comforts of our modern food system, the many shortcuts available to every home cook. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn how to bake bread, to really make it a part of who I am. When I’m in the moment, when I have my hands in that dough, when the mixing turns to kneading and the mass becomes something real in my hands, I imagine the generations that came before, I feel the whole of humanity behind me, the future stretching out endlessly in front.

Originally published on HonestBlue.com

Thinking about Ecuador

I’ve never once run into someone in New York, someone that I know. It never, ever happens to me, not on the subway, not when I’m walking to the deli, never. And I’m out. I go running all the time. I ride my bike everywhere. I’m taking my dog for a walk at least twice a day. I know that I know people in New York. I know that people live by me in Astoria, Queens. My brother lives live five blocks away. My uncle, my sister-in-law, all within walking distance. A lot of my coworkers are really close. Yet I’ve never just happened upon anyone just walking around. How is this possible?

I know, there are like eight million people living in this city. Which is crazy. That’s a lot of people. It’s so many people. It’s enough people so that when I’m walking around, I’m constantly surrounded by lots and lots of people, everywhere. And it’s just insane, that really weird feeling of going about my day, walking around, seeing so many other human beings, everywhere, I can’t walk fast because the sidewalks are just jam packed with bodies, and I’m looking at everybody, at their faces, at what they’re doing, and I don’t know anyone, not even one person.

That’s a feeling that, I think, it has to be antithetical to our nature, as social animals. I walk past two people, three people, four people talking to each other, talking on their cell phones, I think, why am I not talking to anybody? Why isn’t anybody talking to me? I’m having a bad day, I’m stressing out about problems at work, problems at home, imaginary problems that I’m imagining up in my head, and I look up and I just see this wall of human activity, and I don’t have anything to do with it, with any of it. And I’m just like, is it even real? Does that even make sense?

I didn’t grow up a New Yorker; I grew up a Long Islander. But it wasn’t all that different. In fact, it was worse, because instead of walking around everywhere, everybody drives, and so instead of staring out at a world of strangers, I’d just be staring out at a world of cars, all driven by people, yeah, but everybody kind of hidden behind the reflections of their windows. Which is, again, it’s worse, because it takes a special someone to cut you off walking on the sidewalk. But in car? It’s all too common.


The only time I ever walked out of the house and ran into people that I knew was when I spent two years in the Peace Corps. I lived in a really small town called Pucayacu located in the subtropics of Ecuador. It wasn’t even a town really, but I hesitate to call it anything else, because all of the other English words available to describe societies smaller than towns evoke feelings and sentiments that aren’t really appropriate to what Pucayacu is, what it was while I was there.

In Spanish, Pucayacu isn’t a town, it’s a parroquia, which, translated to English is a parish, which is misleading, because a parroquia in Ecuador doesn’t have anything to do with religion. The parroquia itself was broken down into twelve or so recintos, a word that, until now, I’ve never felt the need to translate, but Google Translate is telling me that it means “enclosure.” So imagine smaller than a town, and then even one level smaller than that.


It was the exact opposite of what it’s like here in New York; I’d step out of my house and I’d know absolutely every single person that I ran into. And they’d all say hi to me, “Buenos días Don Roberto! Como le va? Como ha pasado?” every single person, every single time. There was only one road in and out of town, and so imagine what it was like trying to make it to the end of the road to head out for a run. Or just to buy a soda from the señora who sold groceries out of her kitchen. “Hola Roberto!” every time, everybody inviting me in for some snacks, for some coffee, for a second or third lunch, to sit with their families in front of their houses for a while, to ask me questions about the United States or, when those questions got old, to tell me at length about Ecuador, about their lives, about their families, and why don’t you spend the evening over here? Have dinner with us, come on, you can help our kids with their homework, and come out to the farm with us tomorrow, we’ll show you the animals, the plantains, we’ll go swimming in the river and drink beers in the afternoon.

Sometimes it was all too much. I’d just want to be left alone. I didn’t want to have to make up words to “Hotel California,” pretending to sing a convincing American hit every time somebody brought out a guitar. Once in a while I really did just want to walk to the end of the road and go for a really long run, without stopping every time I’d pass somebody on the side of the road waiting for a pickup truck, explaining that I’m not running from anything, that I’m exercising, that I’m working out, declining rides from every car and bus that stopped along the way, “Hey Roberto, what are you doing? Hop in, we’ll take you back!”

But here I am, back in New York, I’ve been back from Ecuador now for almost as long as I was there. And I walk out of my house, and I jockey for a spot on the sidewalk, to keep my head down and shuffle along like everybody else, no eye contact, nobody saying hi, nobody knows who I am. And I think about all of this and it’s like, the grass really was greener over there. Everything was greener over there. The butterflies were neon-bluer over there. The sunsets were alive, the stars at night exactly like you’d imagine them to be. Everything was bursting with color, exploding with life; it was a world away from where I’m from yet somehow it was more intimate, intense, familiar.

Delta Airlines: You Suck

I’ve got a bone to pick. It’s with Delta Airlines. I’ve put this off for way too long, almost two years now, almost no chance at receiving any restitution, but I figure what the hell, I’ve got a story to tell at least. It all started in 1984 when my mother gave birth to a beautiful little me.

OK, seriously, my wife and I were living in Ecuador, serving in the Peace Corps, and come time to end our service, the US government gave us the option of buying us a ticket back to New York or giving us some money and allowing us to shop for ourselves. “As long as it’s an American airline,” the government said, “and you have to pinky swear.”

We took the cash and booked a flight out of Guayaquil for a pretty reasonable price. Whatever. Airline tickets are a huge scam anyway. Did you know the price you find on the Internet all depends on where you’re searching from and what kind of operating system you use? (Yeah, it’s kind of an Internet rumor, but I’m presenting it as fact here, and look, here’s a link I found from some web site I’ve never heard of before substantiating my almost baseless claim.) We found a good deal from Delta and we went with it.

It was a really numb, emotionally taxing day and a half. There were too many thoughts and feelings to process. We sat there in the Guayaquil international terminal just ready to be away, back somewhere, somewhere not so in between, you know, that hollow feeling you only really get in an airport, that delayed sense of not going anywhere, not yet, but not really remembering having been anywhere else. Wow, I’m so deep.

Anyway, it would be stupid of me to sit here and write out all the ways that everybody already knows why they hate airplane travel, the lines, the waiting, the more lines, the security, the pat downs, the random screening, the taking your laptop out and putting it in a separate bin, the buying a bottle of water for six dollars right before security and then security telling you that, sorry, you can’t bring that bottle of water past the checkpoint, that you can spend another six dollars on the other side. Just, please, it’s so fucking annoying. I’m getting actually upset just imagining it enough to write about it.

And even on my best of flying experiences, you get to your terminal, finally, and the plane is never going to leave when it says it is. Boarding always takes way too long. Much longer than you’re expecting. And taxiing. And then sitting on the tarmac forever. And then finally taking off. That’s best-case.

When things go wrong though, they don’t tell you about it all at once. No, that would be too painless. Annoying, sure, but let’s see if we can’t take this situation and stretch it out past the limits of human suffering. OK, yeah, that’s a stretch. But it was a colorful sentence. I’m sure AIDS and cancer are much more of a cause of human suffering that a layover. But just indulge me.

They just keep you there in the terminal for a little bit longer. Maybe an hour. Maybe two. And then maybe they’ll actually start boarding, pretending like some sort of progress is being made. But then, no, OK, actually we’re all going to have to do a reverse boarding, and then what’s the problem exactly? But every passenger is asking that same question, “What’s the problem? When are we going to New York?” and so clearly those people aren’t satisfied with their answers, so why add to the chorus of discontent?

That’s what happened to us. We sat around, all afternoon, all night. Pretty soon the airport started to shut down. I didn’t even know airports closed. Deltas wouldn’t tell us anything. When the flight was going to leave. How long we were supposed to just sit there waiting. They made us feel even more like cattle, more even than the regular plane traveler does who hasn’t had a huge delay.

Other passengers weren’t as patient as we were. One lady had an actual rage fit that lead to convulsions and her being sent away in a wheel chair. At least she got to sit. We were on the cold tile floor. Delta promised to try to find us hotels. Mission not accomplished. Some buses arrived eventually, but lacking that killer instinct to push aside fellow human beings in the name of looking out for numero uno, the buses left full, us still trying to find a comfortably clean spot on that vast airport floor.

It’s a good thing we didn’t get on that bus. It turned out not to be a hotel, but a brothel. Honest mistake. There are lots of brothels in Ecuador. Could have happened to anyone. More yelling. More convulsions. More wheelchairs. Finally, just when a riot was all but certain to foment, Delta tells us that, sorry, the plane is broken. A new plane will be coming in from New York. Eventually. At some point in the future. Definitely not tonight.

They never got us hotels. I literally spent the night squirming on the floor, falling asleep every ten minutes but waking up ten minutes later, some arm or leg deprived of circulation, screaming pins and needles for some blood. It was one of the worst nights ever. You ever pull an all nighter? You know how, when you wake up in the morning after a good night’s sleep, your breath is terrible, you need to brush your teeth? But without sleep, it’s worse, you can kind of feel it coming on gradually, the bad taste, the grime accumulating on your molars.

Understanding of our discomfort, Delta promised us four hundred dollars each in compensation. That was really nice of them. I’d endure a night of suffering for four hundred dollars, totally. And so everything looked like it would work out. We got on a flight the next day and eventually made it back to the States, where I resumed my ambitious career waiting tables and started this blog where I write a bunch of nonsense every day.

Oh yeah, but that four hundred dollars? What Delta secretly meant was, “We’re going to tell you four hundred each, to shut you up for the night, but when you get back to the US, it’s actually going to turn into one hundred each. And it’s not going to be real money, it’s going to be Delta Dollars,” or whatever stupid bullshit name some brilliant marketing whiz came up with to label its “store credit only” policy.

Sorry! And your compensation for the shittiest flying experience ever is … even more bullshit, but only a fraction of the bullshit that we promised. Fuck you Delta. I wrote email after email, vowing to myself and to the Internet that I would not accept the one hundred dollar voucher, that I was promised four hundred dollars by several Delta employees and that I had better get four hundred dollars. But nothing. This went on for months.

Finally I had to fly somewhere and I clenched my teeth, swallowed hard, and cashed in my one hundred dollar bonus. But that’s it. Delta, you have lost a customer for life. The next time I have to fly, anywhere, and you guys pop up as the cheapest option, I’m going to pay more, I’ll pay that extra hundred, two hundred, three hundred dollars, just to give myself the satisfaction of knowing that I’ll never give you so much as another cent ever in my life. I have never wished the demise of a company more than I hope you guys go belly up out of business. You are everything that’s wrong with America, its bloat, its arrogance.

We went back to Ecuador last summer. There was a problem with the return flight. But LAN Ecuador, our carrier for that trip, immediately put us up for the night in a really nice hotel, they paid us something like four hundred dollars each, cash, they gave us food, they said sorry, they valued our business, and they meant it.

I’ve made a big to-do about getting to my point here, but it’s this: Delta, you are the worst airline in the history of aviation, of transportation. I hate you. I’d rather have flown TWA Flight 800. I’ll never fly you again. I promise.