Goodbye, Cuena. Hello, rest of South America.

I have no idea where to start.  While I’ve been here in Cuenca for just under four weeks now, I feel I’ve already succeeded in creating a home away from home. It wasn’t very hard to do so. The people here are all fantastic. The city in a perfect balance between old European and South American culture, and I’ve made a handful of friends here that I can honestly say qualify as more than Matt friends. That’s not to mention the kids I’m working with–they’re my favorite part. Just for some context, a Matt Friend is a name Haley and Brynna gave to those sort of people who I believe are my good friends, but I’ve only met like, once, and they probably think nothing of the sort. I’m not changing my ways. I have so many more friends than I would otherwise. Reality is how you perceive it.

Now, that being said, I’m leaving Sunday. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Cuenca–maybe the last week or two of August–but I’m buying a backpack and I’m going to the coast. I was initially planning on going to Esmeraldas, but Marcelo and David and everybody else I talked to looked at me, made some gestures and faces, and then detailed how it was a stupid idea. But kidnapping aside, Esmeraldas is a beautiful, fantastic place. Just only for Ecuadorians and other South Americans. While this did make me want to go even more–couchsurfing could provide me with the friends and backup needed–I decided to be rational and cut the first leg of my trip to Montanita and Puerto Lopez, to see the debauchery of the first one and the whales at the second. I heard you can see whales for like 20 bucks at Puerto Lopez, so I’m definitely going there. And my friend Yuni, an Israeli guy I hiked Cajas and hitchhiked back with, is going to be in Puerto Lopez, so we’re planning on meeting up. From the coast I’m headed down to Mancora, Peru, for a couple of days, and then to Lima for another to meet with Trish and others. After Lima, we’ll be off on our Bolivian adventure. After that? I may be going to Chile, but I don’t know. I’m going to try to ride a llama to Machu Piccu and Cusco at some point and do the natural touristy things, but when and how I’m doing all of this I have no idea. And I’m going to do it with the limited cash I have, probably coming home absolutely broke. Side note: if anybody knows of any extremely high paying and exciting jobs available in Madison that don’t require many qualifications, please tell me.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m leaving Cuenca if it’s been so fantastic. You wouldn’t b the first. Cuenca is wonderful, but I wake up everyday and I look at the mountains and the river disappearing behind trees and can’t help but think what else is out there. It’s why I left Madison. I acclimated so quickly to the city (not the elevation) and found so many similarities to my home in Wisconsin, and I think the fact that Cuenca hasn’t quelled the restlessness that was my impetus for leaving Madison is telling that I need to keep going. Marcelo keeps telling me I need to travel, since I’m constantly doing it in my head now, and I should do it alone. I’ll learn more about myself that way, and will become a better person because of it. He speaks from experience and his Master’s in psychology, and I’m finding enough truth in his psychobabble to go, though only going about half of it alone.  Also, it’s actually cheaper for me to travel than to live in Cuenca. How? I’ll spend an average 15 dollars a day while traveling versus 20 dollars a day here. Aurora ends soon, so the kids are leaving me at more or less the same time I leave them. It’s a good time to go, and while I don’t have too much of a plan, I’ll be seeing Trish and her friends the first of July, and Zake the first week of August, probably somewhere in Chile. I’m thinking Santiago, after spending a few days with Senora Lentz in Vina del Mar and Dario’s family in Concepcion. More about Dario in a bit. I think it’s best to go without a plan. Every backpacker I’ve met so far has shrugged and scoffed whenever I asked him where they were planning on being next week, and told me they only know what’s going on tomorrow, the day after at best. It’s a bit frightening, but the freedom is so appealing I’m doing just that. I keep having to remidn myself that I have more than two months left down here. So I’m going to the coast Sunday, after going trekking in Cajas again, and this time not worrying about nearly falling to my death off of various cliffs. Again. That’s a story for another time. Marcelo, some others, and I are going with a guide this time, and not Jose, my new Ecuadorian friend who has an unfortunate tendency for getting into peligroso situations. It’ll be safer that way–although probably not as fun–and we’ll follow the unmarked path that we were somehow expected to follow in the first place. But it was so beautiful. And the llamas looked as hilarious as I expected them to. That, plus the frequent bursts of adrenaline, made it perfect.

So Cuenca has been incredible, and I’m still trying to decide if it trumps my first summer in Madison. Right now, I’m saying it’s an apples/oranges situation, but if I had to choose, I would say it doesn’t. Yet. There is still time…I mean, I’m not even halfway through my summer. Last summer was beyond anything I could have expected, and although it might be the romantic bias that comes with hindsight speaking, I’m finding it is a very hard set of experiences to trump. Although, this summer will probably be the same when I look back. I shouldn’t compare these experiences, though, just accumulate them. However, on the other hand, it’s been said that restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress. To get more out of life, you need a little of both. If I’m completely satisfied with the past, there is no point in moving forward. So thank you, Thomas Edison, for summing up my feelings so eloquently. As I prepared to move out of the 39 N Mills apartment in December, my friend Andrew asked if I was ever sedentary. I don’t really like the word–not only it’s denotation/connotation, but it reminds me of sedimentary, which a classification of rocks, which are non-living objects, and things I feel people should strive to differ from. So no, I try my best to stay moving, but if it’s worth anything I try to move forward with purpose, and not just progress for the sake of progress. I mean, tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgement. (A)SO to Dolores Umbrige for that one. Errors of judgement such as following Juan down what turns out be yet another frightfully high, steep, and narrow cliff, and this:

A week and a half into living in Cuenca. I’m walking down the street later at night looking for a bus stop, and stop two well-dressed businessmen to ask where the nearest stop is. We start talking, and they get really excited that I’m from the United States. I’m unsure why (I found out later), but quickly got over it as we kept talking. We’re having a friendly conversation about their work, what I’m doing in Cuenca, their limited travels to the States, and how their kids’ recent joint birthday party went down. So this is Donald and Juan. Donald and Juan have very thick accents, and have a tendency to talk really, really quickly. I thought I knew everything they were saying and was following along just fine. As it turned out, I didn’t, and I wasn’t. They pointed me to the closest bus stop, gave me their cards, and asked if I’d like to meet outside of their office building at the end of the workday the following day. So I looked at their business cards, saw their office was on a very busy, populated street frequented by police, and figured what the hell, why not. Very little risk involved here. These are two young guys I just had a great conversation with who were keen to help me out and had just found out I had arrived pretty recently and didn’t have too many friends yet.

So I went the next day. We met outside of the building with a big group of Ecuadorians, and Juan introduced me: “Hola todos! Bienvenidos, este es Matt de los Estados Unidos. Hola Matt!” I wasn’t expecting this. I was quickly ushered into this building with Ecuadorian families and women and men of all ages, and once again feel pretty safe about the situation since I’m amongst a bunch of people and a mother and grandmother quickly started talking to me and made me feel safe enough. So I walked in. That was a stupid thing to do. I really wish I didn’t do that. We walked upstairs, and made our way into a dusty room with plastic lawn chairs and a screen with energy drinks and cosmetic products projected upon it. I sat down in the front row, and Juan announced: “Matt! Thank you so much for being here! It’s really great to have you here. Would you stand up and tell everybody about yourself and what you’re doing here and what you think of our product?” What the hell? Why? What product? I thought we were going to get coffee or beer or something. I know it’s 4:30, but was that really too much to ask? So I stood up in front of thirty or so people, and all eyes were on me. Nobody spoke English–including Juan and Donald (especially Juan and Donald)–so I tried to speak Spanish as formally and as eloquently as I could and gave a seven or eight minute impromptu speech about myself and my fabricated opinion on energy drinks that proved to taste like liquefied tums and chalk mixed together, all the while wondering why the hell I was there and how I could get out. After I gave this terrible speech I sat down, and was handed a Dixie cup of a yellow chalky liquid that I didn’t want to drink because I started to get mass suicide by kool-aid like vibes. While I was sitting in my lawn chair in this dirty, dusty room full of visibly poor and super friendly Ecuadorians, Juan was giving a speech on his energy drink and cosmetic products and how they not only cure obesity, but epilepsy. His partners gave testimonials on how they previously had brain cancer, drank the chalk, and were cured. This is when it dawns on me. I was not going to die, which was a very comforting start, and the chalky liquid I had been ignoring in my hand for thirty minutes was probably safe to drink. I no longer felt I had to choose between living and being impolite. After that though, things went a bit down hill. Juan is at the top of a pyramid scheme, and keeps referring to me during his speech, asking me to stand next to him, and thanking me because he thinks I’m going to bring his business to America. I don’t know how this happened. I just wanted to make some friends. But all I know is that thirty more minutes later I really have to pee, and am sick of hearing about face wash that turns dead skin into diamonds. This last one is an exaggeration, but people really gave testimonies about how they cured their epilepsy and cancer  through these products. Mentiroso. Finally the presentation ended, and as I’m about to walk out, Juan corners me and thanks me again. I tell him I’m sorry, but I can’t and won’t do anything he’s asking me to do. Now, don’t get a bad opinion of Juan. He was a genuinely good guy, and was just trying to make some money to feed his family. I felt legitimately bad about having to tell him I didn’t want to sell his shit. But even if I did have the time and motivation I wouldn’t have sold his product, because it was shit. I’d prefer Airborne and Robatussin mixed on the rocks to that drink. After I broke the bad news to Juan and endured his depressed face, Donald walked up to me and had me take pictures with him and a bunch of women holding the drink and pretending to drink it in the most ridiculous poses. It was like it was for a stupid, cheesy magazine ad. It turned out it was just that, so if you see somebody who looks like me posing in some terrible ad for a terrible product in  South America, it is in fact me. So that’s how that happened. After taking thirty or so pictures in various poses with people who acted like they’d never seen somebody with blond hair and blue eyes before, I was thoroughly over the spotlight and sprinted out of the office. Once I regained my freedom I bought a 15 cent loaf of bread and walked down the street contemplating my life, my decisions, and how I desperately needed to learn more Spanish.

But that’s the worst of Ecuador so far, and if that’s the case, I feel I’m doing pretty well.

On a better note, I’ve been through so many incredible experiences. I’ve befriended Marcelo, David, Muhi, and Dario, four incredibly different and interesting guys, all of whom I have already learned so much from. Marcelo is the psychologist at Aurora, and one of my closest friends and informal Spanish teacher. He also sings in a screamo band, which I did not expect. David is the 27-year-old owner and chef of Casa del Centro and is recently married. He has two adorable little girls who walk around the restaurant in princess costumes all day, and he’s absolutely hilarious. Muhi is Malaysian (he considers himself a citizen of the world) and just finished his PhD in Australia, and has traveled pretty much constantly for the last year or so, having visited nearly every continent. Needless to say, he has a lot of stories. Dario is from Concepcion, Chile, and is 24-year-old violin professor. He recently graduated, and is traveling before starting his career at the University. Dario lives on two dollars a day, and has the most impressive and respectable character and way of living. I admire Dario so much, and I’m sad about leaving him behind. If I go down to Concepcion, though, which is a legitimate possibility, I may stay with his family. We’ve all hung out late into the night playing guitar and violin and signing everything from the Beatles to Buena Vista Social Club. Doing so has easily been one of the highlights of my trip. I never would have thought a year ago I would be singing Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd with people from Ecuador, Malaysia and Chile after a long day’s hike in Cajas. I suppose I should have seen something like this coming, though.

About two weeks ago I ran into a guy on the street who was wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. I broke conversation with Marcelo, and said to him: “Hey, my best friend goes to Notre Dame.” Him: “Really? What’s his name? I’m a junior.” Me: “His name is Matt, he’s going to be a junior too.” Him: “Are you kidding me? No way! I love that guy, we studied econ together all last year. My name is Kyle, nice to meet you.” Matt was speechless, of course, that I ran into Kyle, of all people, outside of a bar in Cuenca, Ecuador, of all places. Kyle and I quickly became friends, and I went out with his big group of American sustainable business interns from USC, Notre Dame, a small school in Pennsylvania, and Colombia. We went to Banos one day, which is a region outside of Cuenca with hot springs and many ritzy spas. We ended up going to the ritziest of spas and were very annoying as large groups of loud foreigners tend to be at quiet spas. I felt a little awkward and uncomfortable being a part of that sort of  group, especially as I caught the dirty looks of the Ecuadorian couple making out in the corner of the hot spring as some other girls in the group were throwing mud at each other. But Kyle and I sort of hung out on the periphery. Oh, I also took two mud baths, among many steam related activities. I had no idea my skin could ever get so soft.

I’ve met a pretty solid number of people down here on university programs from the states, and after having introduced myself, have gotten some mixed responses. From a few of the East Coast frat stars and their Western and Midwestern counterparts, I usually get strange looks and questions asked in a tone that implies that it’s not ok to move a continent away on your own to do something awesome with your summer. Here’s the beginning of a conversation from last weekend: “Wait, so like, you’re here on your own, without anybody? Why would you do that” A: No, I’m not alone. I had a contact down here, and have made friends since arriving. And I mean, why not? 2: “So you just get wasted every day, or what?” Really? That’s why I would come down here? Other people are less confused, like Danny and Petter, two guys I met the other night. Danny is a 19-year-old student from Occidental College near LA (Obama went there for two years before transferring) studying Diplomacy and is in Cuenca on an agricultural internship with the Ecuadorian government. Petter is a 24-year-old computer scientist from Oslo, Norway, down here for a month studying Spanish. It bothers him that he can only speak Norwegian, English,and probably another language perfectly while his girlfriend is also fluent in Spanish. He also has various other business and personal reasons.  When I explained to Danny and Petter what I was doing down here, they nodded like it was a normal thing to do, and excitedly asked about my backpacking plans. They spent the rest of the night telling me told me endeavors and adventures of their own, each inspiring and exiting to hear about. I like these guys. As we moved onto what we were studying and our basic backgrounds, Danny began talking about a Conflict Studies and Humans Rights graduate program at Utrecht University. I looked into it some more, and found other graduate programs in International Human Rights and Criminal Justice. I don’t know if I can find anything more specific to what I want to do with my life. It’s only a year, although it costs betwee 15,000 and 18,500 Euro, depending on the program. Still, I would be done by May 2015.  So there’s another avenue I’m thinking of pursuing. Thank you again, Danny. Astor, so it’s my turn to sublet from you?

I’ve met marvelous people in Cuenca, and my Spanish has improved so much. If I keep moving at this rate, I’ll be highly proficient by August. Well, I hope I will be. No promises. I’m still not entirely sure what highly proficient means. Also, I need to learn how to roll my r’s. I can’t do it. I’ve tried so hard, and I just can’t do it. The kids keep laughing at me. Any suggestion on how to do this? Caitlin, you’re a speech pathologist. Please help me. I love Cuenca, and for that reason I’m leaving Sunday for Puerto Lopez to see whales, and after that to Peru. I want to leave Cuenca while I’m still in love with it, and not when I’ve exhausted my time here. It’s a good enough time to leave as any, and this way Cuenca will always be a place I’ll be wanting to come back to, and will come back to when I get the opportunity. I feel like I’m squandering my time in South America if I remain in one city in one country. So, that being said, it’s off to the coast and two months of hostel hopping and backpacking. Three outfits and an iPod will be enough for seventy days, right? That’s how Dario does it, expect without the iPod and instead a violin.

I’ve realized that I really have no idea what I’m doing. Just enough to make it back home, which is really all I’ll need.

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One thought on “Goodbye, Cuena. Hello, rest of South America.

  1. Here is how to produce the tap R starting in English. Say “pot of coffee”. Say it repeatedly until the T in “pot” is sounding like a D sound. Try to get into a zen like state and focus on the D sound tapping on the “rood” of your mouth. Do this for awhile. Now try saying that “tapped D” in the word “pero”. If you are successful, keep practicing. Then focus on using the word “pero” in some phrases and sentences. When you have mastered phrases and sentences, make a promise to yourself to use the word forever correctly when you converse. Get back to me after you master that and then we can start working on the trill RR. Best of luck and go to Chile. Its supposed to be great.

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