Guinea Pig (Cuy)- 16 May 2010 Part 3

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The brother and sister prepare potatos for dinner. A massive pot full to the brim. Mama is preparing a fire. It’s not that cold but I guess it will be in the evening. Then mama and Maria emerge with two very large sticks. It’s not long before the Cuy (guinea pigs) are skewered on the end and being rotated by hand over the open fire. They bathe and baste the Cuy with oil, slowly turning them. They tap on the skin to test their readiness, until they find it hard and crispy like pork crackling.

I try to be very practical about this meal. I eat meat all the time. It’s only appropriate that I accept where it comes from. And I’ve eaten some Cuy meat at my homestay so I know I like the taste. It’s really similar to rabbit.

When I take out my camera to capture the cooking process, Mama lifts one of the Cuy so I can see the face. I find it a little disturbing. ‘Don’t worry honey. I’ll make you star’ I say to the impaled creature. Mama laughs. Having been in the states for many years she understands English pretty well. I play photographer to model and take a few other pictures. They position the Cuy in various states of cooking or performance. I stop when I realise this is making me feel worse rather than better.

As time drifts by, Maria tells me that some people cook Cuy in the oven. But this is the traditional way. They taste better this way. She also says it’s a particular skill. One her sister doesn’t have.

Maria’s daughter comes over. She hovers for a while watching the progress of the cooking. Her mother breaks off a paw and passes it. Daughter plays with it and makes mock scratching sounds and movements in my direction. And then she puts it in her mouth and crunches on it.

I can’t help but cringe and hide my face like I’ve just seen a car crash. My stomach does little flip flops. My whole body shudders. The family are laughing hysterically at the foreigner.

This brings some doubts about my capacity to eat this meal. ‘I’m fine as long as it’s cut’ I tell myself and the family. The reality is I am feeling less confident by the minute.

When Maria asks me to go eat, I take a place at the table with brother, sister and the children. They are nowhere to be seen. I’m tired from the day and my Spanish is getting worse by the minute. There are so many things I want to ask, but I’m not sure I have the words for a situation like this. I consider my plate.
There is a bed of about 15 small potatoes in some kind of sauce, a boiled egg, and a ‘leg’ of the Cuy. I try not to look at the paw, complete with nails, waving surrender to the sky. I pick up the only eating utensil I have, a spoon. I hold it in the air like a surgeon while I contemplate it’s usefulness. I start the spoon on the potatoes as I look to others for clues on how to tackle the meal. Everybody else is eating with the hands, and tearing at the flesh with their teeth.

I have a momentary memory of my grandmother’s table, and the scavenging of my pork chop bones. I only ever ate what I could cut with my knife and fork. Mum or brother would then grab my bones and gnaw them clean. I didn’t like the experience of eating from bones, even at 6 years old. Wow- this is going to be hard.
I peel the skin from the body. I don’t eat skin on chicken, so I’m sure not going to here either. Underneath is the sinew, fat and flesh. It looks like a piece of KFC. I’m sure it tastes ok. I just won’t look. I keep that picture in my mind’s eye as I sink my teeth in.

But there are more bones than meat and not looking is impossible. In fact, getting to the edible part is quite difficult. The fatty parts are slimy in texture. The meat under the skin is like sheet of sinew. It’s rubbery and tasteless. As I eat the leg, the muscles snap away from the bones. I try to get my teeth into the leg meat and the knee opens and closes like it’s trying to run.

To make matters worse, one of the kids swallows a bone. It triggers the gag reflex and she loses her mouthful across the table. ‘I hope that doesn’t put you off’ Mama says.

Of course not. Why would it?!?

I eat my egg and manage to finish it. But I am eating so slowly that everything is going cold.
I find a hair in my potatoes and that ends the potato eating distraction.

Mama comes in again and asks me if I am enjoying it. She looks at my plate and says ‘I don’t think so’. I try to protest but it is obvious to me I’m not going to make much more progress.

When Maria comes in I make idle chit-chat hoping I won’t be offending anybody. All I can think about is how much has been invested in this meal. And I am hating the whole experience. She looks at me and chuckles. I feel embarrassed but I have already chosen to accept whatever social punishment emerges from this experience. I just can’t do it.

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The Cajas (Parque Nacional)- 16 May 2010 Part 2

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On Saturday morning I wake at my usual 6.30 time. Damn bodyclock! Nevertheless I am looking forward to a day with my teacher, Maria and her family in the Cajas. They own a property there, something which is uncommon now days with skyrocketing housing prices. I guess that means that the land that has been in their family for a long time.

Hearing me in the shower, house mother gets up to prepare my breakfast. I need to remind myself that I am actually paying to be fed. Her service feels so unnecessary. Somehow I feel at the mercy of their household customs, unable to have a conversation that would adjust our daily and weekly routines. This morning breakfast is a pear (already cut up) and an omelette. I’ve lucked out with both the fruit and the main breakfast today.

Over breakfast, Pozi is a topic of conversation. House mother says ‘maybe she will have to return to Australia’. She looks very stern. There are tears in her eyes. ‘Or England with her family’ I suggest.
The sombre mood is broken by a buzz at the gate. It’s the delivery of the weekend paper it appears. Paper delivery seems like a strange expense when nobody in this house works. Guess when you don’t work, you have time to read the paper. Or need it to look for jobs.

At the same time, Maria and the kids arrive. She is very early. Lucky I’m ready. I grab a hat from the hat wall upstairs and race downstairs again. It turns out the her husband has taken the car to work today. We need to get a bus to her mother’s house in Baños. It’s all the same to me, so we hail the bus at the end of my street.

When we arrive at her mum’s house, her brother and sister are there too. The brother has a little boy who is coming too. 8 travellers today. I wonder about the car ride, until I discover we are riding in the truck. Maria has pointed the truck out as we arrived, but I didn’t understand the significance.

The brother rides in the front and the rest of us climb in the back. I sit only for a moment before I start to feel sick. I’m happy for the excuse to stand though. I take photos all the way to the Cajas. Maria’s daughter laughs at me. Little mud brick houses, and the large country estates. The water packaging factory. The Ecuadorian women farming and carrying gear on the backs. The street dogs, cows, donkeys and horses. And of course the truck.

Now it feels like I’m travelling.

We stop at the house. It’s a beautiful little house that really could be in any countryside. When her Mother asks me about ‘Cuy’ I automatically say I have eaten some before and yes I liked it. ‘Not to eat’- Maria says in English ‘outside’. I follow the kids outside to find a little building with pens. Each pen is filled with guinea pigs. I hold one of the little ones, but he struggles and squeals and I feel bad. He gets returned to the pen before the kids (or I) can harass him too much.

Much to family’s disappointment I have to admit to not drinking coffee. They make me a herbal tea which is amazing. It reminds me of the herbal tea’s Ani made on the farm in Germany last year. It’s filled with flowers and herbs I have no idea about.

It’s about midday by now and we are off on our walk. We are dropped at the bottom of a large hill and told that the lagoon is over the first rise. With fishing rods and three children in tow we head up. There is no set path to speak of, we are following a small stream up to it’s source. The grasses and shrubs are as tall as the children, which results in multiple cries of distress and eventually tantrums in their frustration to keep up. It seems like a strange activity with the children, but I guess they breed them tough in these parts.
We do eventually find horse hoof indents and follow those. This way there is a little more space for the kids to move freely. Though it’s very muddy underfoot.

The ground is spongy, like peat moss in Scotland. They point out the tiny orchids to me and remind me that many of these plants are amazing sources of medicine. It is illegal to take even a piece of dirt from this area.

When we eventually arrive at a small lagoon. The children are too tired for fishing rods. It must be 1.30 by now. I’m starving and wondering if they have packed a lunch. It appears not, as the bananas are presented. I am hungry enough to eat them, despite hating the squishy texture in my mouth. The nuts emerge and I eat multiple handfuls, even though the taste burnt.

The place is serene. This is the beginning of a string of 7 lagoons. Maria suggests we move to the next one. I really want to do it even though it means a move even further away from food.

We abandon the children and a sister about halfway. It’s simply too far for their little legs. Maria and I push ahead.

As we sit at the new lake, she tells me the backstory of her brother and the child. It seems the mother has a drug problem and he used to have a drinking problem. He has gotten better with the birth of a son, but she has gotten worse. The child is a bit behind developmentally because mum took too many drugs during the pregnancy. Nonetheless, they are happy because it could’ve been much worse.

In the background of her story I am wondering why she is telling me all this. In Australia, most people wouldn’t share this information. Not the personal stuff. I am grateful and interested and in no way want to dissuade her from sharing. But I can’t help wondering if she hopes or expects something from me? Is it a cultural difference? Is she just particularly brave? Is there freedom in me being a foreigner? Am I am meant to have a role somewhere? Or is it just part of a growing friendship?

I take note of the awareness, but do nothing with it at this time. I simply nudge her as her brother emerges over the crest of the hill, following the stream, fishing rod in hand.

‘It’s a really big lake, you should take a look’ her urges. Right now, the idea of walking further again doesn’t appeal to me. The belly is rumbling rather loudly. I’m not exhausted. I’m just hungry- a significant distraction.

We begin our descent and gather the children on the way. All the grasses are matted to make multiple makeshift burrows for rabbits. We take the shortest route possible, which includes children and sisters rolling down the hill across the grasses. It’s a great way to keep the kids happy. And a fast mode of travel too.

When we arrive at the bottom, the brother is nowhere to be seen. They call and whistle loudly but receive no response. They scare me with all the stories about people getting lost and dying in the Cajas, and at the same time assure me about the brothers familiarty with this environment.

I reckon if he hasn’t followed the same stream as us, there would be another through the valley the other side of the hill. The exit is probably only ten minutes. I volunteer to go look. I haven’t had a shift of carrying children on my back up the hill, so I think that’s fair. They obviously don’t because the sister goes. Naturally 10 minutes after she departs, the brother arrives.

Then we start the trek back along the road. The kids are tired and keep falling over into the dirt. I’ve stopped trying to speak in Spanish because my brain is fried without fuel. Am the only one who is hungry? Are they secretly well-adjusted to hunger pangs so it doesn’t bother them? Am I just a spoilt westerner?

Luckily, others are at least tired. Maria’s youngest is 3, and he is well past it. Her and her sister take turns carrying him until he falls asleep. Then the sister positions him on Maria’s back and she wears her vest over him, fastening the zip at the front. It’s a well improvised baby harness, though probably really bad for her back.

We arrive at the house around 4.00, after taking a shortcut across the back of the farms. We are dirty and tired. There are chips and coke. The chips are open. I dive my hand in without a second thought. Mama offers me a bowl to put the chips in. I realise I’ve been rude. I make my apologies, but I don’t really care. I am so hungry.

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The dark cloud- 16 May 2010 Part 1

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Friday I do 2 extra hours of school to make up for my lost time. In truth, my teacher and I have chatted in Spanglish for at least half my lesson time.

I really like our sidetrack conversations, despite the awareness that I waste my money when I indulge. We talk culture, international relations, local politics, the ‘immigrants’ (who I discover are actually the indigenous people), gender inequalities, familial responsibilities and local customs. All the stuff that interests me. Which is also why it’s really hard to say- ‘can we get back to the lesson please?’

Arriving home, Pozi is lying in the parents room watching TV. Her presence there gives me a permission I haven’t had before. I’m still tired from Wednesday night and the idea of anything requiring energy (or drinking) does not appeal to me at all. I lay down too, comforted by the law and order program she is watching with Spanish subtitles.

As the light starts to fade, Pozi admits to feeling unwell. Not ‘chu chucki’ unwell. The same pain she had before she went to hospital.

Apparently she still had some pain when she left hospital. They wanted to do some more tests and make sure she didn’t have bowel cancer, or something else wrong in addition to the parasite. But she was really over the hospital experience. So they suggested she monitor it, and if it didn’t get better she should return.
She doesn’t remember having it in Canoa, but she can’t be sure. She was involved in a relationship there that occupied a lot of her attention. She wonders if she was merely distracted (for 6 weeks).

I listen to her considerations about what action to take. It’s too complex for her to try and deal with it in Spanish. She tried that before. But she thinks her American doctor in Quito has returned to the States. She needs to get her files- so needs to phone Quito. It’s Saturday tomorrow so it’s a bad time to find any doctor in Cuenca- let alone one that speaks English.

Later in the evening the house parents and Pozi appear at the door. They are talking doctors, medications and courses of action. I am an innocent bystander in this event. Pozi’s body language is awkward. She is pulling faces in almost every response. She shifts her weight from side to side looking like she will run away any moment.

Papi is trying to give her some kind of pills. I have recently found out he is on dialysis so I guess the medical world is pretty familiar to him. He looks very confident in his advice. But Pozi is saying ‘Oh yes, You are a great doctor. Where did you get your degree again? Where do you work?’ He’s got anti-inflammatories and pain killers in his hand. He’s trying to say that our drunken night out might have inflamed something. All I can think of is that neither of those things will do much if it’s bowel cancer. Taking the foil pack of anti-inflammatories, she cajoles her way out of the doorway. I don’t hear the end of the conversation, but I imagine she may not be able to do much until Monday.

Salsa at La Mesa- 14 May 2010

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She is sitting in the lounge room when I arrive home. I have never seen anyone sit there before now. It’s one of the many spaces without lightbulbs. I’m impressed at the way she claims space in the world- without permission or offense. She is perched quite naturally at the end of an antique sofa. A book in her hand, but chatting with the family, each of them gradually succumbing to her presence.

At the table she reminds me about salsa night tonight. I haven’t forgotten. It’s a must apparently, but doesn’t start til quite late. I’m already planning an afternoon nap so I can keep up. Her friends work in a cafe and won’t finish til 11.30pm. We make plans to go there about 9.30 and have ‘before drinks’.

I’m feeling buoyant after an enjoyable class- even if it wasn’t that productive. I’ve also managed to organise to start late tomorrow and make up extra time on Friday. After all, last Friday’s lesson wasn’t very fruitful.
The cafe we go to is at the bottom of the hostel. It’s dark and cosy. The boys make us ‘muy fuerte’ mojitos. They go down quickly and easily. We have two before we depart and they charge us for one.

The club- like just about everywhere here, doesn’t look like much from the outside. We walk a long passageway to a small room. As we approach the doorway the staff get excited to see Pozi. Afterall this was her home away from home at one time. They take my jacket and handbag. I stop for a moment and remove all cash from the hand bag. Not that I don’t trust them of course.

More mojitos are swiftly provided. I’m not even half way when one of the guys asks me to dance. I have already told him I love salsa despite being bad. I feel early warnings are an effective disclaimer.

I manager okay until he tries to turn me. I go in completely the wrong direction. I’m not sure how, but seem to get my arms tangled. I’m still upright though, my feet aren’t tangled. He just laughs and starts over. Luckily he seems to have a sense of humour.

After about 20mins, and substantial coaching from my partner, I’m actually making turns without injury to myself or others. I imagine myself flailing about- all arms and legs in a world of compact people and skilled dancers.

Feeling flushed we retreat to the bar. From my leaning position there I spy the southern bell, her female student (the friend of the club owner), the British teacher and a few others. We greet each other warmly, and I make some introductions. Our local student screws her nose up at me when I point to the local guys we are with. I’m not sure which kind of snobbery or judgement she is struck by, but I choose to ignore it.

The rest of the night progresses in a bit of a haze. I move between chatting and drinking and dancing. The dancing is always with the same guy. In my drunken state I imagine I am dancing very well, and am fluent in my Spanish. And with the complete lack of inhibitions at this stage of the evening I very well may be.

Before I know it the club is closing and we are being ushered out the door. We go to a pipe smoking place. Cigarettes emerge and I take one without thinking. I haven’t had a cigarette in 3 months. I realise this half way through the cigarette. It feels harsh and foreign.

I don’t know when the kissing starts, but soon there are three couples in various states of intimacy. In the back of my head somewhere I can hear myself asking ‘are you happy with this decision?’ but I’m too drunk to respond- even to myself.

I’m vaguely aware of him asking me if I was ‘borracho’. I openly admit I am.

As Pozi hails a cab and motions for me to get in. I hear myself say, I will track him down again soon. Afterall, I know where he works. Even as I hear my own words, I wonder if they are true. And whether he cares about my intentions or not?

The clock in the cab says 4.35.

As I set my alarm I realise I’m getting less than 4 hours sleep. I’m concerned about potential room spinning, but I am asleep in seconds. When I wake though, I am still drunk. My stomach is making little rippling motions. The sense of sleep deprivation is like walking through molasses. Oh god, I’m too old for this. I manage to shower, dress myself and present for breakfast. I even eat the breakfast, but am soon disappointed that I did. It doesn’t stay down.

I don’t even make it two steps across the school room, when my teacher spies me. She laughs immediately. ‘Not a good sign’ I think. As I walk closer she’s giggling ‘chu charqui’. I’m the sideshow today and other teachers gather around to look.

I discover later I am making apologies in perfect Spanish. The school’s director is listening and is impressed. But right now I just want the world to stop. Teacher says I should go home and get some sleep. We will make up the time next week. I accept the offer without question, express my gratitude and resign myself to the laughter.

I try to sleep my way through the rest of the day. At 1.30 there is a tentative knock at the door. It’s brother asking if I want some lunch. Thinking rice might absorb any alcohol left in my system I eat. Only to have it rejected. I return to sleeping and awake about 5pm desperate to eliminate the nausea and the cranking headache. I throw a jumper on and go for cola. Anything to increase my bloodsugar. I feel better almost immediately. I manage to get some toast in my stomach without rejection. I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

With a new clarity, I realise we only had 5 mojitos. In future, I need to realise that requests for ‘muy fuerte’ is asking for trouble in Ecuador. Only drinks in bottles from now on.

A New Arrival- 12 May 2010

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House mother has been talking for a few days about the appearance of her Australian friend. She is a previous homestay student who stayed longer than usual. I’m curious to meet this Australian. I have no concept or expectation, but figure it’ll probably be fun.

I’m not sure if it is my misunderstanding or changing of plans which has her arrival date and time in a state of flux. On the day of her eventual arrival, house mum tells me at breakfast. She has a spring in her step, and a smile I haven’t seen before. When I get home from school, father looks all spruced up. We stand in the kitchen, like cattle in field without a farmer. The brother puts his arm around my shoulder and gives me a squeeze. He lingers in a comfortable manner, grinning to the universe on his new leaning pole. The whole house is filled with grateful anticipation.

As she arrives the family crowds around her. Eventually she emerges from the hugs and kisses and we exchange Spanish greetings. At the table, she breaks into English. She says she’s from Sydney but I detect a British accent. ‘You too?’ She asks. ‘No, family’s in Adelaide but I’ve been living in Brisbane’. I hope she doesn’t detect the indignant undertone that just crept into my response.

We have an extended conversation in English as the family follow the volleying of words without any meaning. She apologises to them in Spanish. She has been travelling for 18 months. There are boyfriends and various accounts of random expeditions. But recently she has been in hospital in Quito. This has made her homesick for the first time and she is thinking about a visit to her parents in England and then returning to Australia- at least for a while. It’s her birthday next week, and she’s really excited to be with people she cares about. Brother has even cleared his room out so she can stay.

Stay? Nobody said anything about staying???

When she returns to Spanish prattle, her confidence with the language is impressive. When I actually listen to her it’s mostly phrases and words, rather than sentences. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with a few amount of words. There is a lot of arm waving, facial expressions, and impressions that highlight meaning where pronunciation or words may be lacking. She is captivating and I feel insecure.

Feeling somewhat displaced I retreat to my room. I change clothes and go for a run. Instead of clearing my head it becomes a time to stew. I begin to wonder if they will be around much now the friend is here. I’m bothered by the English speaking. I’m not paying extra to hang out with an Australian. I’m frustrated that she understands the family and I don’t. I’m disappointed that she has answered them before I can even begin to decode their messages. But most of all there is a voice of a little girl who thinks they like her much better than me. And somehow I think that means I’m less fun, less lovable, less worthy.

When I return they are not home. I steal an apple from the basket in the cupboard feeling a little guilty and then depart for a 5.00 salsa class with a series of doubts floating through my head.

I love the salsa and it’s a welcome relief, if a little basic. There are 5 of us- 4 girls, a guy and the male teacher. Erlend (from Norway) is not a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but he is trying his hardest. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s barely out of high school and from a small town in Norway. He doesn’t speak much, and when he does I have to concentrate and cock my head to hear him. He looks lost even when he knows what he is doing.

After running, dancing and worrying all afternoon, I return home starving. But the house is empty. I search the house for snacks without any luck. There is literally nothing but mustard and rose tea in the fridge; onions and a papaya in the fruit basket. Searching my purse I realise this is the 3rd day in a row I have forgotten to go to the bank. I might get a meal for $1.50 in my purse, but I can’t be sure. I contemplate going to the bank, but it’s a dodgy thing to do after dark.

By 7.30 I’m pacing the stairs. Having been actively kept out of cooking activities, I feel like an invader even opening a cupboard. If nothing else I need a cup of tea. I risk the potential offense of helping myself. Before the kettle has finished boiling, I hear the rattling of locks and chains, squeaky gates and the car in the driveway. I have my tea by the time they get into the house. They arrive with the sweet white bread we eat everyday. I eat two rolls with jam while they disappear for a moment. House mother asks me if I’m sad. I tell her no, even though she’s read me perfectly.

At house father’s insistence there is chicken cooked up for dinner. I am so hungry I eat every last grain of rice on the plate. All the while resenting the experience.

The lonely planet really was right when they said that this is a country that laughs in the face of the Atkins diet. Every meal is served with bread, potatoes, pasta or mountains of rice- sometimes all of the above. This is a country where carb-loading is a way of being. I was excited the other day to see a can of tuna. But by the time it was served there was a full plate of spaghetti with a few flecks of tuna scattered among the tendriles.

Tonight, I find the food particularly depressing. Perhaps the clogged feeling I have adds to my bitterness. Can I really take another week of this?

After dinner, Pozi (the pom aussie) peaks through the doorway.’ Do you have any spare coathangers?’ ‘No, but I can re-organise if you need some’.

I suspect it’s a ruse. She leaves briefly and then calls out- ‘Actually I did want to speak to you about something else?’ She comes in and takes a seat on the corner of the bed.

‘Are you okay with me being here?’. She gets points for being direct.

‘I don’t know’ I respond. Despite my anxious thoughts today, I remain highly aware that they are completely speculative at this point.

‘I don’t really have a relationship with the family right now. You obviously have a good one. You understand them, I don’t yet. I really need to learn Spanish, and I concerned about having an English speaker in the house…..’

As I speak, more and more stuff rolls out. All of which she graciously accepts, providing explanations, reassurance and solutions as appropriate. She didn’t know herself that she was staying until she arrived and she didn’t know I was here.

We agree to play it by ear, and if there are any issues that we will talk it through. I’m not completely confident about it, but agree nonetheless.

The real problem is- she is awesome. Spirited. I want to stay and get to know her better. I think we will get along like a house on fire.

But I know we will speak in English. Go on jaunts and hang out independently. She will speak with the family and interpret when I don’t understand. And every day will be easier to coast.

I can hear Norv’s voice in my head drifting across from the Galapogas. This is a new nest. You are meant to have been budgied out already.

Friendship and comfort. Discomfort and results. Choose!

The Cuencano Sean Connery- 11 May 2010

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Monday morning I arrive at school and have a 20min conversation with my teacher in Spanish. Ok-with help translating some words. ‘Wow! What a difference two days can make’ she says. ‘Did you hang out with Norv this weekend?’. ‘Not much’ I reply. She just nods her head. ‘You are much more fluent now, much faster’. I am stoked.

I practically run home after school. I’ve stayed too late uploading my blog. I laugh at the wolf whistles from the gym junkies hanging outside their temple. My lack of hair hasn’t offered any great immunity to latino attention.

When lunch arrives there are vegetables on my plate. Green vegetables! Brocoli to be precise. And I think there is celery and carrot in there too! Unfortunately it’s nowhere near close enough to the Australian recommendation of 5 serves. I am grateful nonetheless for small mercies. I’m hoping my bowels will be too. It prompts a conversation about eating habits in Australia. I’m hoping vegetables will continue to make an appearance at the dinner table. (This turns out to be very wishful thinking).

I retire to homework and then some blogging. House father comes in looking through draws, frequently cocking his head to observe me. I wait for him to ask something, but nothing comes.

About 30mins later, Mr Sean Connery arrives. I am suspicious that his arrival is prompted by our meeting yesterday, and slightly flaterred if my suspicions are accurate.

House mother brings him into my room. I am writing from the bed. My head really isn’t in Spanish mode. Maybe I’m a little intimidated. After years of share house living the bedroom is a private space, an intimate space. I remove myself from the bed, and put some shoes on.

House mother interprets initially. We talk back and forth for a bit. How do I like Cuenca? How long am I staying? Brothers and sisters? Who is married, who is not? Typical stuff in Spanish world. We are standing in the door way- an attempt to distance myself from the giant bed occupying most of the room. I can feel his breath on my face and the kinetic energy he is eminating. I try to manoeuvre a little more space but there’s not really a way to do this without being obvious.

Suddenly, the conversation moves to him telling me how beautiful I am (quite a few times) and a finally ‘a nice person’. And then has hand warps around my waist and pulls me in to him.

I can feel the heat in my face. When I become aware that my face is bright red, the heat only increases. I’m not quite sure how he expects me to respond. This guy moves fast.

I can feel my performance persona arrive. I glue a wide smile to my face. A nervous giggle escapes, but I keep smiling as I sashay sideways out of my bedroom.

The house parents have discreetly disappeared. As they return I study them closely, wondering how to interpret their behaviour.

The four of us are standing in the hallway now. House father tells me that ‘Connery’ is a master parachutist. And he teaches karate. I tell him both those things scare me. It’s an attempt to create some distance. I’m happy to stick to yoga.

It’s the wrong thing to say. In demonstration of understanding, he attempts to lift his leg above his head. His eyes light up as he does it and a big grin appears on his face. I realise that probably wasn’t a way to cool things down.

Another brother and his wife arrive. They join us in the living room at the top of the stairs. It’s the guy from the economics conversation. The wife is wearing a strong scowl. In my paranoid state I’m sure she hates me. I wonder if Mr Connery has a wife. Afterall- it’s never the mans fault when he hits on someone.

Luckily, their arrival shifts the conversation and the energy of the space. I’m off the hook.

In need of a debrief but unsure of the politics of the situation, I want to walk to the supermarket with house mother. This plan is railroaded when house father insists we drive. He assures me it’s going to rain. In the car, somehow we jump from casual conversation to ‘Do I like his brother?’. I just stutter. I don’t know how I feel about the little whirlwind. I don’t know what is appropriate, or how things might be interpreted. House mother answers for me- ‘a little’. It seems a safe response, and my silence is taken as consent. I add ‘he’s a grandfather’. House father goes on and on about how fit he is, how he used to be in the army, what a good person he is. I suggest he might be a Casanova. I thought Casanova was a Spanish term, but he doesn’t know have a clue what I mean. Through my awkward laughter, I manage to reply ‘A man who likes many women’. ‘No no’, he protests. ‘He has just had many problems with women in his life’. Gee I wonder why?

The car falls silent. After a few moments I speak in English ‘this has to be one of the stranger conversations I have had in Spanish’. House mother is already chuckling. ‘Que?’ Says house father. ‘Translate if you wish’ I say to house mother.

Parties, Ecuadorian style- 10 May 2010

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It’s Saturday night. The crew from school has partied themselves out. Without comrades willing to make an expedition I resign myself to a night in. Though it seems ‘house mother’ has other plans.

In actual fact, house mother is probably only 40 years old at the most, and so not much older than me. My Spanish teacher has been telling me that we have a lot in common but the language barrier has made it difficult to confirm this.

These days, when they say ‘vamos’, I simply grab my stuff and go. I have given up asking where. Although this time, I at least know the three of us are walking, her brother is involved and it’s not far.

The other day, Norv and I walked through a rough area of town declaring we wouldn’t do it on our own, or in the dark. This is where brother lives.

There is construction in the ‘house’ next door. As we arrive, the workers and onlookers stop to watch us. The bottom floor is cement driveway. Two dogs lie sleeping in the back corner. The gates are black wrought iron. I have to crane my neck to see the top. She rattles them to attract the attention of the residents. I see a slice of face appear at the window. It seems to watch for a very long time before the blinds fall shut.

A man appears at the gate. After a complex opening, we follow him inside to a large apartment. I am greeted by two young girls. One I met the other day. When I kiss her hello she grabs me tightly. The younger one follows suit. I’m not quite sure what I have done to deserve such a warm response, but I’m not complaining. The girls tell me over and over again that I have beautiful eyes. With few people in Ecuador with blue eyes, I guess I’m a bit of a novelty.

I am commandeered quickly into the children’s room, even while the adults are pushing a glass of something into my hand. I presume it is alcohol though looking at the bottle does not help me decipher what kind.

In the girls room we exchange Spanish and English names for the things on the walls- gato-cat; perro-dog; pierna-leg; cama-bed. They soon get tired of this game and want to show me their dancing. The regaton music comes on and I am quickly astonished at the girl’s dancing.

Regaton is the highly sexualised hip hop to which some people do the ‘doggy-style’ dance. At 6 and 8 years old, I’m trying really hard not to be horrified by the rump-shaking, girating and chest thrusting. I’m slightly more horrified when they start performing for the cheering family. Just to make the situation a little more difficult, the girls are trying to pull (or push) me onto the dance floor with them. And the adults are encouraging them.

In resignation I stand behind each of the girls exaggerating each move, failing my arms and making faces. They don’t appreciate my mocking, but it’s my only real way to subvert the situation without causing too much offense. Should I be doing this? I don’t know. The parents think it’s hilarious. Of course soon the children tire and the adults are full. Then the adults start with very similar moves. Subvert that one!!!

One of house mother’s brothers has taken a shine to me. Luckily he’s not into the doggy style dancing or I might be in a lot of trouble. He’s about 4 times my size. He keeps saying things to me in Spanish with a terribly sincere expression on his face. I am choosing not to understand.

The 8 year old comes over and tells me not to go home with him- he’s a bad man. I’m a little freaked out- wondering if that is an 8 year old taking ownership of me as the new toy, or whether there’s more to it. And at 8 does she even know what that actually means? It seems even stranger when this guy who has been telling me I have to come and see his house tells me I should dance with his 16 year old son. His son is very sweet, so I oblige, despite feeling like I am in some kind of twisted voyeurism.

The son is a good dancer, though most people are compared to me. ‘very bad’ I say. ‘Who me?’ He responds. ‘No no. Me!’ He accepts my admission and we finish the dance. I manage to miss most of his toes.

The father continues with his wooing through his sister (who speaks some English). ‘He has only been with 16 year olds’- she says. Having had a few extra drinks by now it’s a little harder to disguise my panic and/or disgust. I think I’m squealing a few random questions at this comment. ‘No no- you. You are like a 16 year old’.

I’m not really sure how to take this but for the moment I choose to believe it is meant to be a compliment. He threatens to see me at mother’s day tomorrow, but luckily this particular clan never arrives.

Having said that I wouldn’t mind a few more side conversation with the girls.

Sunday morning comes around and I take a short run (in the rain) to shake the last dregs of alcohol out of my system. Perhaps not the best idea, cause I feel pretty average afterwards.

We arrive shortly after 12.30 and stay through to 6.30. All the children arrive, with their kids and their grandkids. People marry and have babies young here so some of the great grandchildren are already 10 or 12. I’m wondering how old the ‘head mum’ is here. 14 kids, each with at least 3 of their own, and half of those with well into creating the fourth generation.

The table seats ten, but we still eat in shifts. Even then people are scrambling for places to sit. At numerous points in the day every flat surface is taken by a plate or a butt.

The sun emerges in the middle of the day, and one of the elder sisters pulls out rugs and everybody lays on the small patch of grass at the back.

The dog goes missing twice as the front door and gate continue to be left open. Luckily he never goes far.

Not too many people attempt a conversation with me. It is probably a good thing, cause most of the day I am in a state of overwhelm. But I am understanding more. At least i think i understand.

I do manage a conversation with one of the brothers. Of all things he’s asking about economics and agriculture and the difference between Australia and Ecuador. I make a mental note to do some research on my own country. I’d like to be a good ambassador.

I’m guessing about our mining industry, coal, wool, beef, etc etc. Somehow I find I have enough words to make some sense. I do pull out my dictionary when we start talking imports and exports. He’s not phased by it’s appearance so neither am I.

Somewhere along the line the eldest brother appears. House mother speaks to me in whispered tones about him. He’s the eldest brother. That is all I understand from her description. She hasn’t ‘briefed’ me on any of the other arrivals so I get the impression he is important somehow. He’s also the first sibling to arrive with blue eyes.

I’m trying to work out how this family fits together. And also kinda fascinated by this guy. He must be at least 60, but he’s a bit Sean Connery. I watch the way people react to him and it seems different to the others, though I see no reason for this. I get catch watching a little too intently on a number of occasions, by him and others. It’s probably really rude, but I am enjoying the rhythms of the day.

His daughter and grand children arrive. The two grandsons are almost blonde, with blue eyes bigger than any I’ve seen. Another brother arrives. He has blue eyes too. I also notice another sister who has blues eyes. I’m now guessing the first husband was fair. It’s the elder children who are fair. In Australia this would be so common, but here it’s so strange to see.

There has been card games running all day, but I’m not familiar with any of the games. I sit and watch hoping I can work it out, but I don’t. And I don’t fancy trying to ask for the rules. As the games finish, one of the uncles starts with card tricks. I’m a bit partial to cheesy tricks. I am watching carefully to try and work it all out- making sure I am oohing and ahhing in the rights places. I reckon my responses are probably more entertaining than the kids, if only because I should care less. I can feel the two older men hovering at the table watching me, but I try to pay no attention to it.

Secretly I am hovering near my bag, keeping an eye on the time. I have promised to meet Norv before he leaves for the Galapogas. I put an X on my map as I arrived so that I could find my way into town independently, but there was no need. The host parents are ready to go anyway.

I meet Norv at 7. I hug him and don’t want to let go. I’m going to miss my security blanket. Hanging with Norvan is easy. He knows me, puts up with my anxieties….. and never asks why I’m single. But I know that I am ready for a break too.

He’s not feeling that excited until we meet an American Uni student who has just done 3 months in the galapogas. She shares all the secrets he wants to know. Places to camp, hostels, eateries, water taxis, the really important tours- and the ones you can leave- all at student prices. Norvan is stoked, and I’m really glad for him. Of course now there is an opportunity to genuinely do it on the cheap, I wish I was going too.

Oh well, save that for later I guess.

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