Jess Vs. The Volcano
Trip Start Jul 03, 2006
8Trip End Dec 20, 2006
Last weekend was my interview with ESPOL University in Guayaquil. I was seriously dreading it: Almost everyone I've talked to has described Guayaquil as dirty and dangerous. It's also the biggest city in Ecuador, which doesn't really suit my style. But the university is supposed to be the best in Ecuador (which could mean anything: I wouldnīt, for example, get too excited about "The Best Asian Food in Berryville"). The pay is 1/3 more for 2/3 the hours that I have now. More than anything, I just felt that I had committed to the interview, and it would be rude to cancel, even if I really didn't think I wanted the job.
So I got on the 8am bus for the 5-hour drive, which would put me there right on time for my 1pm pick-up. And it would have...except for the landslide. It's always something, I guess. I finally rolled in at 3 and spent 20 minutes searching for a pay phone. When I found one, it wasn't working because "the electricity was out." I don't know how this affects the phone system, but apparently it does. When it came back on and I could call, I got Tom's answering machine. The Guayaquil bus station is totally overwhelming and insane, and at that point I literally almost walked right over to Departures and hopped the bus back to Ambato. I had given it a good try, hadn't I?
But I didn't, and eventually I connected with Tom and Andy, the British Directors of CELEX (the foreign language department of ESPOL). They were great! And more surprisingly, Guayaquil was great. After the interview, I hooked up with a Peace Corps volunteer named Robert--interestingly, I found him through travelpod! (username travelingrob). He was such an awesome host. We stayed the night with a friend of his, who cooked us an amazing dinner and answered all my questions about the city. On Saturday, Robert spent the morning showing me around and then took me to the bus station.
The truth about Guayaquil is much more complex than I'd been led to believe. It absolutely is dangerous: One of Robert's PC friends has been robbed twice, plus a third attempt--and she's only lived in the city for a month. But there's so much life there--and that's what seems to be missing in the Sierra. A sense of liveliness and energy. Also, the renovated parts of Guayaquil are truly beautiful: The Malecon 2000 is a garden-fringed walk along the Guayas River that rivals any developed-world equivalent. Walking towards Las Piņas, you pass fountains and museums on your left, and moored sailboats and green islands on your right. Near the Malecon, you can walk up 500 steps to an old lighthouse that now serves as a look-out point. From there you can see the whole city stretching out from one side of the river, and oddly undeveloped land on the other.
Of course, Robert reminds me that this "renovation" was purely superficial, and that the money could have been spent on more important social causes. He also points out that only the wealthy can afford to eat at the restaurants by the lighthouse, or shop at the stores on the Malecon. He thinks the vast majority of citizens probably feel alienated at places like that. I respect that opinion, and probably would have shared it more closely when I was in the Peace Corps. But I guess I see value in beautifying the city: Value in terms of pride in the city, and in terms of attracting (or at least not repelling) visitors. Of course, it shouldn't be done at the expense of the majority of citizens--but what a shame, to believe that you can have either a safe, socially just city, or a beautiful, appealing city, but not both. It will be interesting to see how I feel after some time there.
Anyway, it was the beautiful parts of the city, along with the vibe I got (largely thanks to my hosts), that made up my mind. That, and the impeccable professionalism and dedication of Tom and Andy. The difference between CELEX and my current environment is pretty amazing. I love that they're not just dedicated to improving language instruction at CELEX--they do outreach throughout the city. They want to raise the standards everywhere. I really appreciate that. So I've accepted a 6-month contract (longer if I don't wind up in grad school next fall!) starting at the end of January. I'm nervous about a few things: I haven't lived in a big city in a long time, so that will be strange. I also really want to do a good job for them, so I'm a bit intimidated. My current job has slowly sucked all of the CELTA out of me, so I hope I can remember how to actually teach.
Back at WSI, it was Anniversary Week. Each day this week, we had to present lectures and activities on the "History of Rock." All of this is leading up to next week's "Customs Party." Georgia, Megan and I thought about showing up with our suitcases and passports, ready for Customs. We're not quite rude enough to do that, but not quite kind enough to point out that the signs should read "Costume party." IT'S A LANGUAGE SCHOOL, FOR GOD'S SAKE!! Check the dictionary--or check with your foreign teachers--before you print out scads of signs advertising a Customs party!! Anyway, for my lesson, I did a gapfill on Janis Joplin's "Piece of my Heart." (a gapfill is when you give students the lyrics but delete some of the words, and they have to listen and fill them in). The best part was having them read the answers aloud--it is priceless to hear a 12-year-old boy, in the monotone of the beginning language learner, recite "you-know-youīve-got-it-if-it-makes-you-feel-good-oh-yes-it-does." Or, "didnīt-I-give-you-everything-that-a-woman-possibly-could-honey-you-know-I-did." Or, "never-never-never-never-never-hear-me-when-I-cry-cry-cry-cry." It's one of the greatest feats of my life that I got through that without laughing hysterically and mortally wounding every ego in the room.
But while I was forcing small boys to recite Janis Joplin, something much more sinister was rearing its ugly head: Tungurahua volcano. Damn you, Tungurahua. Damn you. Before I get into this, I should confess something outright: I was planning to leave Ambato early. I've been looking into a grad school program, and grad school means GRE's, and my current hours leave me no time to study for, much less take, the GRE's. Whatever commitment I might feel to the Wall Street Institute was trumped by my desire to get accepted into this program. So I planned to finish out the semester at WSI, and say Adios in November.
But on Monday, Georgia and I noticed a relatively large plume of smoke pouring from the volcano--bigger than we'd seen thus far. On Tuesday, I woke up with a nasty sore throat. On Wednesday, I had a stuffy nose, and my lungs were burning. I coughed all night and woke up Thursday with "poison head"--the feeling that something very, very wrong has made its way into your body. By Friday I was hacking like a TB patient with a pack-a-day habit cooking Styrofoam over a tire fire. I could barely get out of bed, and with every breath I felt searing pain in my throat and lungs. It became quite obvious that I was not going to improve unless A) Tungurahua stopped erupting long enough for wind to carry away the ash and fumes, or B) I got the hell out of the toxic soup that Ambato had become. Clearly I'm extremely sensitive to some component of volcanic ash or fumes (my guess is the Sulphur Dioxide). Other people were having minor symptoms--eye irritation, mild cough, even the occasional nosebleed. But only a few of us looked like the Walking Dead. So people kept saying to me, "You think THIS is an eruption?? This is nothing! Wait 'til the next big one, like last August...the skies were dark for two days...ash fell for two weeks...you have plenty of canned food, right?" Oh...crap.
So on Saturday I fled to Quito. It was all I could manage to throw a change of clothes and a toothbrush in a bag. I wasn't thinking straight--and I'm quite sorry about that, because now that I am, I realize how stupid it would be for me to go back right away. I felt somewhat better within hours of leaving the soup, but I'm still coughing a lot, and I fear I may have a respiratory infection. It's not just the inconvenience of illness--Iīm terrified of breathing that crap in again.
So I'm stranded in Quito with a change of clothes and a toothbrush. Not really sure what to do next. I'm going to see a doctor tomorrow, though from what we can discern, medicine here revolves around a shot in the butt. No, thanks! But some ORAL antibiotics might be in order.
The funny thing is, I only JUST NOW made the connection that my volcano is the same one that made international headlines in August by violently erupting, burying a few villages, and killing a handful of people. I remember Mom sending me an e-mail about it (along the lines of, "why, exactly, are you going to Ecuador??) And I remember thinking, Come on, what are the chances that I'll be near that particular volcano?? Granted, Ambato isn't in the "death zone"--we won't get buried by lava or anything (just toxic soup). But you'd think I could have at least noticed the name of the volcano I was living near. Damn you, Tungurahua...Damn you...