You Wear Heels to Tango

to tango

My fascination with Spanish didn’t start as a love of language, but with a crush on a literature professor named Juan Dabove. He was not especially charismatic, nor particularly attractive, but he was from Argentina and lacked not of masculinity.

We spent a year and a half discussing the Dirty War in Argentina and Borges, Bioy Casares, and Luisa Valenzuela, among others. I tried to imagine the pampas and Buenas Aires in 1976. I pretended to understand the stories; He pretended my critiques were insightful. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries every day, sometimes twice a day, one summer simply because the main character Ernesto hailed from Argentina.

In 48 hours, I’ll leave for Mendoza. While I was sitting in Dabove’s class, I figured that I’d get to Argentina at some point, but I wouldn’t have considered that it would roll out this way. I thought I’d go for wine and tango, maybe a bicycle ride around Buenas Aires.


I can’t decide if I’ll be seeing a lot or a little of Argentina, after all. Unlike Kilimanjaro, I’m going for the views this time because the summit doesn’t last very long. And, I’m bringing my shoes if I do find wine and tango.


Posted by on December 13, 2014 in aconcacua, climbing, education, literature, travel


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Dos: Learning from Don’ts

Four weeks from today, I’ll leave for my climb in Argentina. I’ve spent the last year getting ready and, I think, I’m mostly ready. In August, I climbed Cotopaxi and I saw the error of my ways in a few respects.

First, I learned to make sure the ice axe is the proper size for the job. I’m 5′ 2″ and 70 cm, not 48 cm, is the right size. I cursed myself and my naïvety many times as I leaned down to use my too short axe to stabilize myself.

Short axe vs. long axe

Get ready for heavy feet, I mean really heavy. My boots are 2.5 pounds a piece, without crampons. Recently, I heard a program on Radiolab that confirmed that the added weight on my feet was the worst place for it in terms of increasing my energy consumption. I can’t do much about it, except to train in my double boots, and add 2.5 pound weights to each leg while I climb the stairs in my building. Outside of my building, I hike with my pack loaded, the leg weights, and regular hiking boots.

Spantiks and leg weights

After I get back from the Abuga and/ or Cojitambo, I climb the stairs. I count the times I go up, ten trips up for each stair. To keep myself motivated, I imagine doing the same thing at 8.6% oxygen saturation as opposed to 15.4% here in Azogues.

Stairs to Climb

Our guides on Cotopaxi taught us something called the French technique to climb on ice and to use less energy. It’s similar to a crab walk, lifting one foot over the other. It required the use of an unusual combination of muscles in my hips. I simulate this crab walk by climbing the stairs sideways, lifting one foot over the other.

French Technique

With just a few more weeks to train, hopefully these strategies, and some weird hip muscles, will get me closer to the summit.


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El Día de Los Difuntos

Colada morada y guaguas de pan

Yesterday, the 2nd of November, was the Day of the Dead in Ecuador. Here it is a different celebration than the one famous in Mexico: there’s no carnival outside of the cemetery gates, or altars, or skeletons; it’s less about laughing at death than remembering, and being remembered by, the dead. After Lucha prayed for her dad, she said, “Acuérdate de mí.” I was reminded of Memorial Day in the U.S., but with more focus on memorial. Ecuadorians eat guaguas de pan, or bread babies, and stands crop up selling colada morada- a boiled drink of fruits and spices. Some people observe the tradition of dressing in black or purple, the colors of mourning. In my family, only Lucha wore black. It’s a day to spend together with the family: eat, go to a cemetery, or two, leave flowers, say a prayer, and go eat again. These are a few photos of the day.


Lilia looking for her grandma's grave.

Luchita at her father's grave

propeller headstone




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El Abuga Ho

El/La Abuga

I knew the first time I saw her that, sooner or later, our relationship would probably get out of hand. La/El Abuga is a 100 ft aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary that sits on a hill above my town. I’ve asked people why El and La are both correct, but no one hazards a guess. Maybe it has to do with the baby Jesus in her arms. I visit El/La Abuga often. Sometimes Lucha asks me to pray for her and I do. On Friday, I brought some company with me.

School kids

Drawing the Abuga

From my house, it was 2:15 minutes round-trip a couple of months ago. I’ve shaved minutes off, first in the approach, then running down as soon as I get to the top. There’s a family that lives on the hill and I’ve gotten to know them better with each trip. I met a ten-year-old girl named Nadia who lives in a small, tin-roofed house right below the Virgin. She grabbed my hand one day as I went by, and I’m pretty sure we’re friends now. Today, I got there and back to my front door in 1:36. I wear a kilo weight on each foot and, when I’m not going for speed, a pack with rocks in it. If I miss a day, then I have to go twice to make it up. By November, I plan to go twice a day, regardless.

I climbed Cotopaxi at the end of August. It was incredibly windy, cold, and physically demanding. At 18,000 ft, we turned around. We jumped over a few crevasses and our guide thought it prudent to head down. I had no experience climbing glaciers, so I was surprised Peace Corps approved this one. In 77 days I’ll be on Aconcagua. Hence, I’m praying for Lucha more often than I did in July.


And that is my Rain Man training regimen leading up to December 18th.

One last thing, there’s another medal at the top.

El Abuga


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Term: Posh Corps

peace corps poster

Definition: Peace Corps site placements that lack the stereotypical hardships of service. Sites with: running water, electricity, internet, washers and dryers, indoor plumbing and/or hot water.

Among volunteers this term can be loaded, implying that a volunteer is not suffering enough to earn real PCV status. For this reason, I’d like to break apart this Peace Corps stereotype in light of what it means for the host nationals we intend to serve, PCVs, and people at home who may be unaware how the needs of the countries we serve reflect the type of work and lifestyle that volunteers will lead while they are abroad.

As a volunteer in a middle-class community of educated professionals, I count myself among those who are in “posh corps” placements. At times I’ve felt that I would let people at home down if they knew how much I wasn’t suffering in Ecuador, like Peace Corps seemed to promise that I would. Or that, frankly, my family would not support my being here if my placement were not “hard enough”. I signed up for worldwide service; yet here I am, working and enjoying some amenities common to the US, just like the population of teachers I work with. I am as guilty as anyone for believing my experience would be like the posters, something like a very rainy season on M*A*S*H with fewer martinis, and English teaching instead of surgery. It is nothing like I imagined, except for the teaching part. Also, there’s a lot more rum and zhumir here than gin. This may be a sign that recruitment propaganda is in need of an overhaul.

Needless to say, I was uneducated about Ecuador and the TEFL program. In itself an important reason to come, to expel provincial ideas about the world that I maintained unknowingly. Volunteers live at the level of the people in their community with the goal that they will integrate into that community allowing them to share their expertise with the host nationals who request them. In the countryside, they may have an outdoor toilet and they might live in the home with the family for their entire service. It all depends on how the people they work with live, and the cultural expectations of the community. On the other hand, I live in an apartment in a mid-sized city. I continue to eat with my Ecuadorian family, but I have the option to eat at home. I have hot water and a bath tub. On weekdays, I go to work in heels and a suit jacket, just like I did in the US.

Among PCVs, enduring hardship to serve comes in various forms and can be self-inflicted. There are volunteers who bathe in cold water though they have hot water available, or who do laundry by hand regardless of having access to a washing machine. The idea being that suffering is a requirement to be a dedicated volunteer. It’s worth reflecting on why the notion exists that hardship is part and parcel to sharing information with the people we live and work with. Without going too far into murky waters, it seems to be rooted in nostalgia for the 1960s and reflects a paternalistic ideal of the world beyond US borders. Though I worked with struggling communities in the US, I never once felt that I should hand wash my clothes or take a cold shower to better serve their needs. I ask, how would host nationals interpret this motivation to go abroad to endure hardship? If the shoe were on the other foot, how would I feel if someone came to visit me and decided to camp on my lawn because my house was nicer than they expected it to be?

In short or long, being a volunteer is about sharing skills and learning new skills from our communities. There are difficulties inherent to integrating and working abroad; we are people from distinct cultures, languages, and ideologies, and it’s work to build friendships and working relationships in spite of these differences. Yes, I’ve taken a few bucket baths when the water was out. I’ve done this at home in Colorado, too. Thankfully, the world is a different place than it was in the 1961 and the work we do has evolved according to the needs expressed by the countries who host volunteers. There isn’t a “posh corps” so much as there are volunteers who fulfill the requests for skills in a variety of communities, like we always have. The reality that we are serving in increasingly better off communities may just mean that soon we’ll be out of a job, like we hoped.


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The National Pastime

9th of October Market

At some point, you may have been lead to believe that soccer is the national pastime of South America. I can’t speak for the rest of the continent, but here in Ecuador the pastime, without a doubt, is food related: buying, cooking, eating, and discussing the resulting weight gain among loved-ones. In contrast to the US where, with the exception of important holidays, food is something of a nuisance and a distraction from more important business, like playing or working. At home in Colorado, I have eaten many a Little Juan burrito because that’s all I had time for. Here when I skip lunch, Lilia, sister #1, will tell me, “Taz, taz!” like the warning that a child is about to be spanked… She has also pinched me.

Since food plays a central role in relationships, it makes sense that care would be expressed in observations of each others’ waistlines, and how chins are growing or shrinking. Right now I am “hecho hueso”, or “thin as a bone”, but not a “calavera” or “skeleton”, because that would actually be an insult. I have the same chubby parts I’ve always had, but I’ve been gone for a week on a tech exchange and I missed lunch with my family a couple days after I got back. Last year I thought these observations about my body fat percentage would drive me mad, not realizing the comments were directly proportionate to the time I’d been away. My family would really like to see me content in Ecuador and gaining weight would be proof of that.

Lunch is the hub of the day in terms of family gathering. It is also the biggest meal. My sister gets up at 5AM to prepare lunch for five of us before going to work: soup, salad, chicken, and rice. This isn’t soup from a can; the soup usually requires shelling and soaking beans before cooking them. In exchange, I buy food, wash the dishes and help clean the kitchen. I suggested that we make meals to freeze and reheat for lunch during the week so that she can sleep longer, but she thinks the family wouldn’t like reheated food. It’s probably better that I fail in my attempt to export fast-food culture.

Besides lunch, coffee at 4PM and merienda at 8PM are times when a rotation of family will come to eat and visit. Since it’s a big family, everyone can’t be there at once. But, those who eat lunch elsewhere will come for an egg and rice for dinner, or a cup of black tea with lemon.

Azogues Market

This Friday we, three sisters and a niece, went to the market to buy fruits and vegetables. The purpose of going as a group is not to avoid three separate car trips to the market, but to do the shopping together. It might take longer: waiting for people to arrive, dropping people back off at home. Accepting this ‘inefficiency’ is a shift away from the ‘time is money’ reasoning that has governed my life. Here, time is not about money. Few Ecuadorians would eat a frozen burrito, alone, while standing up and working through lunch. It’s not logical to do that when the time to eat and prepare food is central to maintaining relationships, not a distraction from productivity.

After 19 months in Ecuador, this perspective of time is more logical, and less frustrating. I still have a few months to hone my eating and hanging out skills before I have to figure out how to export this pastime back to the US.


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Today was a good day. I usually have a good day when I meet with the weavers. We were supposed to renew our discussion about painting the shop next to the road. It has been nearly a year since our plans stalled, why I’m not sure. Today, though, we painted the shop.

Delfina Minchala guaman

But, I’m not just talking about painting the shop. That was great. What was really great were all the moments when I was reminded that this is what I came for. Having one in a day is nice- sometimes it’s a long parched week when I can’t exactly remember- it’s rare to have so many in one day. I slept badly last night, maybe I should always sleep badly. Maybe it’s made me intolerably sentimental…or normally sentimental. I haven’t made a list in awhile, so here goes:

1) Arrive to find Elvira in the shop. She has money and does not want to talk; She wants to go buy paint. I foolishly respond that I’m not dressed to paint, and we need to plan this out, then realize I’ve waited a year for this, and she’s wearing a brand new velvet embroidered skirt. We’re both committed. The paint splatters on my clothes will be fond mementos.

2) Doña Clementina is not interested in paint, but in buying straw to weave hats. I know what buying paint is like and Elvira is on a mission, so I go buy straw. We enter a house through a picket fence door and sit on very tiny stools in the entryway. A woman brings a large, four-foot-long bundle of smaller bundles of very straight, thin off-white straw. She saved the best, softest straw for Clementina. Clementina instructs me to touch the straw as she unfurls one piece. She says, “This is stiff.” Then she unfurls another straw for me to touch and says, “That is soft enough for a fine hat.” She’s one of few weavers who can make the finest hats. I pick out three long bundles for .20 a piece, so that she can teach me to weave tomorrow, not hats though, just tiny baskets with lids.

3) We get distracted by the weeds in the yard. Clementina and I use machetes to mow down the giant tree-like weeds that have grown in the last year. At the same time, I fend off those who are convinced this work will give me blisters and who want to take my machete. I tell them they are offending me and they laugh. I show them that I don’t have any blisters and they tell everyone.

4) We finally start painting: five women in velvet skirts and two in jeans. People driving by let off some good-humored whistles at us working. Elvira asks me if I’d like to wear a hat to keep the sun off of me. I say, “Yes,” and think, “I’ve come to the right place.” We have lunch in the spotless cafe across the road. 1.75$ for cow foot soup, beans and rice, and lemon water. France wins 2-0 against Nigeria. Elvira does not let me pay.

5) How can I describe this handshake? I can’t, so I’ll tell you. One of my favorite ladies, Delfina, arrives and I shake her hand and say her name. She smiles and shows her perfect dentures. She’s 79.5-years-old and I think she and my grandma would have been good friends. When we take a coffee break, I ask if there’s enough bread for me to take one and she says, “We all eat, or no one eats.” She’s a good one to have on my side.

And that is what happened today. We painted until the rain clouds came and thankfully they came right when we were finishing. Whether or not I’m sleep-deprived, I feel very fortunate to work and learn alongside these women.






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