Not Your Average Summer Wedding

Last Saturday, I got to do something I have been dying to do since moving to Kuwait: attend a Kuwaiti wedding.

There is something fundamentally appealing to me about foreign weddings.  Having been to about a dozen weddings in the US, I know what to expect.  On the other hand, getting the opportunity to take a glimpse into another culture’s beliefs about love, wedding rituals, and style of dress is incredible. While in Ecuador, I went to a wedding and, to be honest, was a bit disappointed.  The wedding was great and there was a fun gathering (with delicious cuy [cooked guinea-pig]) following the ceremony, but overall, it didn’t feel much different than an American wedding.  I knew that, on the other hand, Saturday’s wedding would definitely be different than any of the six US weddings I have participated in, and boy, was I right. Continue reading

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Ramblings of a Burgeoning Expat

The past couple of weeks have changed things for me here in Kuwait.  The focus of this blog is more about my travels than it is about me and I don’t like to write about anything too personal, especially when it may affect others, but I’m going to come out with it and say that Jeremiah and I decided to break up.  (I apologize for that run-on sentence).  We had been together for a year and a half, which was an amazing feat since we were together in person for less than a third of that time!  I don’t know any other guys who would have worked as hard as he did to maintain a relationship under those circumstances.  We were friends for years before we started dating, he was my best friend when we were dating, and we’re still good friends.  I’ve spoken with him a few times since the break-up, and it’s been wonderful to be able to be honest about how we’re dealing with it.

Continue reading

A Quick Hello

The last few weeks, I have been completely and utterly trapped in a world of resumes, cover letters, and excel spreadsheets.

Why?  Well, in less than three weeks, I will return to the US to attend the University of Northern Iowa International Teaching Fair.  There, as I mentioned several posts back, I hope to obtain a teaching contract that will allow me to, once again, live abroad.  I began registering for the fair in October, became fully registered with all my letters of recommendation on file and portfolio completed in December, and began researching the schools with openings this month.  I’m now in the process of emailing cover letters and resumes to schools I would like to work for.  It’s both tremendously exciting and nerve-wracking.  And, above all, time-consuming.  Right now, schools I’m interested in range from Bolivia and Brazil to China and Serbia.  They are all over the map.  Although I would like to stay in South America, so that I could keep practicing my Spanish, I have read time and time again that teachers attending these highly competitive and fast-paced job fairs have to remain geographically flexible.  I would name a couple of regions that I am avoiding, but I’m afraid that if I did, I would end up landing a job there- life is just funny like that sometimes.

So, the posts will be sparse until I am through with the fair.  Expect a post around February 10th, declaring where I will end up next year.

Also, I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO excited to come home!  Unfortunately, I’ll only be in the US for one week (I wanted to come for two, but the varying prices of plane tickets from day to day forced me to limit my visit to a week), and will be in Iowa for 3 of those days, really only leaving me an afternoon and two full days at home.  I’m used to anticipating vacations, not homecomings, but I have been fantasizing about things I’m going to do for weeks, and as January 31st draws closer and closer, the daydreams are only getting becoming more frequent.  Things I am excited about: running my dog Tabooli, eating good Thai food in Tuptim Thai, seeing a handful of friends, hugging Elena’s pregnant belly, sleeping in my bed, taking a HOT shower (and shaving my legs!), throwing toilet paper into the toilet (I’m sure I’ll accidentally put it in the trash a few times), eating a humongous salad, catching up with my family, and- more than anything else- seeing Jeremiah.

This visit is conjuring up a weird mix of dread and excitement for me- as my departure date approaches, I have so much to do in regard to this teaching fair, and there are times that I wish I had more time to get it all done.  Yet, I’m keeping a countdown.  That’s how ready I am to be home for a short while.  Even if I end up leaving the fair empty-handed, I will be glad that I was able to spend a few days in my homeland.  But… I hope to have two reasons to be glad.

Año Nuevo!

So, I know that Christmas made it into two posts, but I’m going to be honest.  For me, the season of comfort and joy was more like the season of nostalgia.  There were, without a doubt, many wonderful things about being here for the holiday, but Christmas is a holiday that holds so many memories, traditions, and- although I’m 25 years old now, I’m going to admit that I still think this way- magic.  It makes sense that, as great as Christmas is for me in the US (with my family and friends), it would be hard to beat in another country with an entirely new family and circle of friends.

Thank goodness that New Year was different!  I remember Reyna telling me one day that she preferred New Year to Christmas and that here in Ecuador, it’s an equally important, perhaps even more celebrated, holiday.  One of my friends was thinking about going to the Coastal region for New Year, and Reyna thought that was a terrible idea.  “No, she can’t!  Her family will be so upset.  She really shouldn’t.”  “Why?”  “Because, above all, New Year is about being with your family…  You’re not going to the beach!”

About being with family?  New Year?  I’d definitely never thought of New Year like that, but here, it’s very true.

For the last several New Year’s, I’ve had to work until around 10:30 (waiting on tables of couples enjoying a pre-party meal at Brick Oven), then, tiredly, head to a friend’s party.  I think there may have even been a couple where I just went home, or went to a bar with coworkers.  As midnight approached, we gathered in anticipation, did the countdown, then cheered.  I would leave within twenty minutes of the year turning.  Definitely not a favorite holiday- fun, nonetheless, but nothing terribly special.

Maybe it was the newness of it all, or it could have been the fire, but this was my favorite New Year I have ever experienced!  It more than made up for any melancholy during Christmas.  I’ll break down how we enjoyed the holiday here, so you can see why I fell in love with the Ecuadorian New Year.

Tradition #1: Muñecos de Año Viejo.  Translated “dolls of the old year,” these dummies represent the year that is about to pass.  They are made out of clothes, wood, or metal, then covered with paper mache and painted to resemble people, cartoons, or animals.  I saw, available for purchase, a few smurf muñecos (anyone from Med-o-Lark gets why that needed to be said).  Here in Reyna’s house, her kids set to work creating their own muñecos.

Painting one of the Año Viejos

Once it was dark, our muñecos were put on display outside the house, so that passerby’s could view our creations!

The sign reads El inicio del fin del mundo- The beginning of the end of the world. Dramatic, yes!

At midnight, without a thought of all the time that had been put into making these, Reyna’s sons threw them down into the street (hehe, that makes me think of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAYL5H46QnQ- “This ain’t my dad, this is a CELL PHONE!”  Anyway…) and lit them on fire.

I don’t think I really need to get into the significance because the names say enough- the “old years” are being burned.  With the coming of a new year, burning these dolls is a tangible reminder of the passing of another season of life with the hope of a new one beginning.  Plus Ecuadorians like fire.

Tradition #2: Kids stop traffic and pander for small change.  I didn’t see this tradition coming, and found it HILARIOUS.  Three of Reyna’s grandkids, around 7 pm, put on masks and grabbed a few shoe-boxes.  Juan Pablo helped by obtaining a large rope, as thick as a garden hose.  Reyna’s house is on a street corner, so Juan Pablo tied one end of the rope to the corner of our driveway and stood on the catty-corner.  Both streets near our house are one-way streets, so whenever a car approached from either of the two directions, Juan Pablo pulled on the rope, tightening it so that the car could not pass.  Then, the kids would run up to the car and hold out their shoeboxes.  The driver would roll down the window and give the kids a few centavos, then Juan Pablo would loosen his grip on the rope so that the car could pass.  In the US, it would totally not be legal!  Here, completely normal.

They did this for, I’m not exaggerating, four hours and made a total sum of about $9.  Weirdest tradition ever, but they loved it!

Tradition #3: New Year Trinkets for everyone.  I helped two of the women in my family assemble little jars for each member of the family who was celebrating with us.  In each jar, we put about 25 cents, some rice and bits of paper (decoration/ filler), and I wrote a one-word fortune to put in each one.  Like happiness, love, friendship, luck, etc (of course, I wrote the words in Spanish, so I checked the spelling with Anita Julia on almost each one before actually writing it!)  Just before midnight, we gathered in Anita Julia’s living room and Carina (Reyna’s daughter in law) handed them out, along with some cherries (I remember Elena mentioning how one of her husband’s Cuban New Year traditions is eating 12 grapes- I think we were supposed to eat grapes too, but Anita Julia bought cherries).  Then, everyone opened their jars and had to share a hope for the new year and read their paper fortune.  My self-made fortune was happiness, or felicidad.

Tradition #4: Reflection.  Around the time that we opened our little Año Nuevo jars, Carina gave everyone three pieces of paper.  On one, we were to write everything we were excited to let go of from 2011, all of the bad things that had happened.  On another, we were to list our favorite things from 2011.  On the third, we had to write wishes for 2012.  It goes without saying, since blogging is mostly synonymous with reflecting, that I enjoy reflecting, so I liked this extension of the usual resolution-setting.  When we were done, we put our papers into a small bag.  No one looked at them- they were for the authors’ eyes only.  At midnight, when our Año Viejos were being burned, Jhon Henry (Reyna’s son) threw in the bag of our written disappointments and dreams signifying that whatever painful things we had endured in the previous year were now through, and the good things and things we wished would come were no longer on pieces of paper but, more importantly, in our minds and maybe in sparks and ashes that would float upward into the stars to a universe or deity that could maybe do something to help us along in the coming year.

Tradition #5:Late-night phone calls to friends and family far away.  While we were gathered in the living room, Reyna made several phone calls to relatives (around 11:50 pm).  They asked if I was going to call my parents and I laughed, because they were most definitely sleeping. Here, everyone was awake, from the babies to the grandparents.

Jorge, on the left, had a few too many cervezas and is conked out, while Reyna is talking to a cousin and Anita Julia is holding the phone. Baby David is being cute, as always.

Tradition #6: Midnight hugs.  After counting down, everyone hugged everyone, the way people are sure to clink glasses with each person at the table when making a toast.  In a country of cheek kiss greetings, I rarely give or receive actual hugs, so this was nice.  When Reyna hugged me, she said, almost tearfully if I’m not mistaken “I’m so happy to have you in my house!”  And I realized how incredibly happy I was to be here too.

Tradition #7: The suitcases.  After everyone had completed the round of hugs, we grabbed a couple of backpacks that had been packed earlier that day and ran out the door.  We then circled the block with our backpacks.  This short trip with baggage during the first few minutes of the new year is taken in hopes that the year will turn out to be one filled with travels.  By taking a couple of minutes to walk around the block at something like 12:05 am, we were doing our part to ensure that 2012 would bring with it plane tickets and opportunities to visit faraway places.  I couldn’t have loved this tradition any more.

While on our mini-trip, I was able to see families all over burning their muñecos and bits of paper. The streets were completely alive with light, smoke, and laughter.

Tradition #7: Fireworks.  From about 11:45 to 12:30, the sky was ablaze with fireworks from every direction.  It was incredible.  We just had sparklers and a few roman candles.  Ecuadorians are such pyros.

One of Reyna's grandsons, Estefano, holding the exploding roman candle.

Tradition #8 (last one!): the next-day/year cena.  Just like Christmas Eve, we didn’t eat dinner until late.  This time, it was planned.  Eating the New Year banquet (much like the Christmas cena with turkey, rice, etc.) is the last thing you do before finally going to bed.  We started eating at around 12:30.  Unlike Christmas Eve, I was full of energy from all of the exciting new traditions, fireworks, and fun, so eating that late didn’t feel very strange.

Following our dinner was the buñelos, as traditional a holiday dessert as pumpkin pie in the US.

I finally went to bed around 2, feeling so content with my 2012 kick-off.  Happy New Year to all of you reading this!  May it be full of all of the good fortunes I wrote in Spanish on those pieces of paper.

Christmas in Ecuador, Part II

The last post addressed the general Christmas season in Riobamba.  Now, I will go into my Christmas, how I merged my traditions with those of Ecuador and how my family celebrated Christmas.

First, I’ll be honest and say that it was harder to be away for Christmas than I thought it would be.  Especially because, a few weeks before December 25th, things were a bit rocky in my house.  I seriously considered switching host families.  Plus, I spent a considerable amount of time either sick with a cold or with some kind of stomach thing, and as we learn in Med-o-Lark camp counselor training week, kids are always more prone to homesickness when they don’t feel well.  I’m happy to say that things with Reyna have improved and I do not want to change families anymore, but being away from my real family and friends during Christmas made me miss them.  My other volunteer friends, Alice and Felicia, felt the same way.  The weekend before Christmas, we had a little English-speaking Christmas party!  It was fantastic- Christmas carols hummed in the background, we ate Christmas treats from Sweden, England, and the US that we had all done our best to cook with limited Ecuadorian ingredients, we chatted, and we watched Love, Actually, one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies.

My contribution to the Ecuadorian Christmas was the American tradition of baking cookies.  Ecuadorians really do not bake much.  I thought that maybe it was just that Reyna wasn’t into baking; her oven functions as more of a storage space than a kitchen appliance and she had no flour or measuring cups on hand.  But, after describing this phenomenon to Alice and Felicia, I learned that their families used ovens as cabinets as well.  My Ecuadorians-don’t-bake stereotype was confirmed when I searched a few kitchen supply stores for measuring cups and measuring spoons, only to find that they don’t exist here.  But this didn’t keep me from giving those in my host family a taste of US holiday spirit!  Over the last few weeks, I have cooked no-bake cookies (which were the easiest to fake, because the measurements didn’t have to be that exact, since no baking was required), sugar cookies (these tasted alright, but kind of failed because my estimations of the ingredients didn’t work so well), and chocolate chip cookies (these turned out pretty well!)  I spoke with Reyna earlier in the month about gift-giving here, trying to get a feel for how it worked.  I’m used to spending around $20, more or less, on each family member, plus buying things for some friends, but this Christmas, I never would have been able to afford to spend like that, so I wanted to know about how much I needed to spend.  She said it was more about being together, that the gifts were not very valuable.  I offered to cook many cookies for them, and to make them a nice Christmas day breakfast, and she said that would be a wonderful gift!

Christmas Eve, I started on my chocolate chip cookies, an American classic.  Since chocolate chips don’t exist here, I had to make my own by chopping chocolate bars into little pieces.  Reyna’s son, Juan Pablo, watched me do this and asked if I was going to crush them and melt the chocolate.  Poor dear is clueless of the magic of chocolate chips.

Making my own chocolate chips! Also, notice my homemade measuring cup, made by calculating how many cups were in a half liter, then cutting my 500 ml water bottle in half.

I had to adjust the ingredients because of the high altitude, adding a little more liquid, baking powder, and reducing the sugar.  When the dough was ready, with all the appreciation in the world for what I had made, I scooped a bit onto my index finger and savored the taste.  Then, I looked at Juan Pablo, this 25 year old man and asked “So, have you ever made cookies?”  “No, never!”  I then gave a grown man cookie dough for the first time in his life.  If, by April, my students know no more English than when I came and my Spanish is still at a basic level, my time here will be justified by the fact that I introduced an adult to the wonder of raw cookie dough.

The finished product.

Reyna’s family LOVED the cookies!  It made me very happy.

Another tradition that I dragged with me into my Riobambanian Christmas is the singing of Christmas Carols.  Of course, there are carols here too.  They’re called villancicos (bee-jan-see-coes).  But I’m a sucker for the songs that I know, so I was often listening to the English Christmas carols I had in my itunes library.  I taught my students a few carols.  I realized, after the fact, that I should have started teaching them earlier, because many of the last few days of school were devoted to preparing for the Christmas program, so they didn’t really learn the songs very well.  One of the classes in Guamote sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at their program, in front of all their parents!  Here’s a clip of them singing.  They start out super confused, because I think they had forgotten it (and, with this class, I didn’t teach anything but the chorus), but after about 20 seconds, they remember the song! Also, they say “and a happy new you” because our Good Morning song has the words “good morning to you,” and I think they couldn’t get that phrase out of their minds…  Even with its flaws, the video makes me smile!

Finally, my celebration of Christmas night/ day.

Christmas Eve, there were some problems with the chicken (which was being cooked in a store- Ecuadorians and their complexes with using ovens!).  It was supposed to be ready for us to pick up at 6:30, but it wasn’t ready until about 11 pm.  While we waited, we relaxed with the family, drank some wine that I had bought (gosh, I miss red wine!), and… I slept a little.

I love this photo of Reyna with her grandson, David!

Finally, the chicken arrived (“Wake up, Tricia!”).  Even though it was a Saturday, I had woken up at 5:30, since my body is used to that now, so I was exhausted and felt more like sleeping than eating a huge meal, but I ate what I could.  Here’s my plate:

My Cena plate: chicken (with mushroom sauce), corn and pea salad, rice with ají.

We sat around the table, enjoying the highly anticipated chicken, for about thirty minutes.  Then, afraid I would fall asleep into my plate, I tried excusing myself and going to bed.  “No, we still have to open the presents!”  I was sure we were going to open them the morning of Christmas, not Christmas Eve!  “Really?  We’re doing that tonight?”  “Yes!”

Oh Arbol de Navidad, oh arbol de Navidad!

So, we were up until about 12:30,  opening presents.  Here, the presents were much less of a big deal than they are in the US.  In addition to baking, I gave Reyna and Anita Julia framed pictures that I had taken of their family- they loved this.  I liked that being together was a more important part of the holiday than buying presents the receivers would be awed and delighted by.  It reduced the pressure to spend a lot, but was equally wonderful and special.  My favorite present was an Ecuador-made purse 🙂  After all the presents had been opened, we took a few pictures around the tree.

My Christmas 2011 family picture 🙂 - poor baby David was SO tired!

By the time I finally went to bed that night, it was hard to sleep because there was some sort of concert in a nearby park, and speakers were blaring the music.  There were also fireworks blasting, of course.  It was definitely a different kind of Christmas.  One I will always remember!

Christmas in Ecuador, Part I

Today is December 26th, the day after Christmas.  A day when the whole world seems to slow down and catch its breath after the busy holiday season.  Finally, after what has been a busy 2 weeks, I have a chance to write about what Christmas was like here in Ecuador.  This post will address general Ecuadorian Christmas truths, while my next post will go over my Christmas experience.  Yay!

All my life, Christmas has meant pine trees, dazzling Christmas lights, the 1980’s Avon advent calendar (Rachel Mills knows the one), New Testament readings from the earlier chapters of the gospels, Christmas letters from friends and family afar, specific gift lists of what I hope to buy for each member of my family and close friends, snow, baking and indulging in Christmas cookies, Christmas carols and Christmas movies, church services, and finally, a morning of opening stocking stuffers, a tasty Christmas breakfast, then the opening of the presents under the tree, and finally, the mid-afternoon Christmas lunch (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, casserole, and dessert).

Christmas here was not that different than what I was used to.  It lacked cold weather, Christmas letters (I guess they’re not done here), pressure to buy expensive presents for every loved one in your life, English, and baked goods.  Things involved in Navidad here that I was not used to included: buñuelos (fried balls of dough served with a thin honey sauce), Christmas programs in every school here, endless parades, fireworks, live music late into the night of Christmas Eve, huge nativity scenes in every home and school, an increase in crime, Novena- the tradition of gathering together and praying for 9 days before Christmas, beginning December 16th, and the tradition of giving bags of candy to children at schools.

I enjoyed the holiday season in Riobamba very much!  About three weeks before Christmas, the center of the city came alive with Christmas lights.

Parque Sucre was a hub of activity and Christmas spirit! It kind of put Topeka to shame…

Then, the naciemientos went up: extremely elaborate nativity scenes.  Reyna helped assemble the one at Once de Noviembre.  There was also one in Guamote, and one in Anita Julia’s house.  Every house I visited this month had one occupying a corner of the living room.  I went to a teacher’s house for dinner early in the month, and her naciemiento had 3 Baby Jesuses!  Here, nativity scenes contain much more than just Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the kings, and a few barn animals.  They usually contain an entire zoo of creatures- tigers, lions, ducks, dogs.  Another strange thing I found was that often, compared with the other characters of Christmas, Jesus was huge!  I don’t know if this was to emphasize that he was important, or divine, or what, but it was not uncommon for Mary and Joseph would be Barbie-sized, and their newborn the size of a human toddler.  Naciementos contain fake snow, Christmas lights, and anything else that will help add decoration- small houses, shops, toys… Here are a few pictures from the Nacimiento at Jorge and Carolina’s- Reyna’s son and daughter-in-law- house in Quito (where I’m staying for the week)

I’ve zoomed in on Homer Simpson, other tiny toys, the girrafe, and tiger…

Onto the Christmas programs.  I know that Christmas choir and band concerts are not unusual in schools in the US, however, here, in the escuelas (elementary schools), each teacher is in charge of planning a song/dance, then a few days before Christmas, the schools puts on the program and invites the parents and members of the community.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Oxford Gardens Christms program.  It’s the school where my English friend, Alice, teaches.

Yes, those are 5 year-old dancing presents 🙂

In preparation for these programs, each teacher picks a uniform his class will wear.  This usually requires the parents to either do some shopping or go to a seamstress.  Then, maybe beginning 2 or 3 weeks before the program, each class works diligently on learning the dance.  I can’t imagine having to take on the role of choreographer as a teacher, but here, dancing is such a part of the culture, the teachers don’t seem to have any difficulty with the task.  Here are some pictures of the program in Guamote:

I have so much respect for this kindergarden teacher, being patient enough to successfully teach 4 year olds a dance!

The cuarto A class (about the age of 3rd graders): Up close is one of my favorites, Marta.

These are the cuarto B and quinto classes, totally shaking their booties while dancing to this popular Reggaeton song! So funny.

The sexto A class did a dramatization of the Christmas story, complete with live donkeys, machetes, and blackface (?)

Time to address the parades.  Parades are so common here that word for parade, “desfile” is not only a noun, but also a verb.  For the last few weeks, it has been completely normal to be stuck in traffic because suddenly, you are behind a parade.  There were even parades Christmas morning, a time I figured everyone would stay inside their houses with their families.  I actually was in a parade with my teachers at Once de Noviembre the 20th of December.  I had to buy a uniform for this and I was pretty excited about it beforehand.  However, this parade was so huge (there were probably about 30 schools in it), that we were desfilando for perhaps an hour and a half.  I was relieved by the time we reached the finish line.

Some of my ornery boys!

Alex, leading the band of Once de Noviembre

The teachers of the colegio!

Here are just a few pictures from the parade in Guamote

The students' parents walked with the classes, making the parade quite a family affair.

Last, but not least, usually the last day of school before Christmas (this year, it was Friday the 23rd), donors come to the schools, equipped with hundreds of bags of candy and crackers.  This seems to be more of a necessary part of Christmas than a nice, unexpected gesture.  Here’s the line of children waiting for their bag of candy in Guamote:

Just like most parts of my own culture and heritage, I had to spend Christmas in another country to really understand and value my own Christmas traditions.  I enjoyed the holiday traditions of Ecuador as well.  Hope everyone reading this had a nice Christmas, filled with the customs and traditions you know and love.

Christmas Letter, 2011

With daily temperatures ranging between 45 and 70 degrees, people wearing masks to protect their faces from, not snow, but ceniza (volcanic ash), and talk of Christmas cuy feasts, it’s hard to believe that I’m in the middle of the Holiday season.  I thought I’d take a few minutes to reflect on my year and send my sentiments (digitally) to some of my loved ones.  The sending and receiving of Christmas letters is, without a doubt, one of my favorite Holiday traditions.

To illustrate the dynamic year 2011 has been, I’m going to begin by describing my New Year’s celebration at the birth of the year.  I spent most of the evening busily waiting on tables at the always popular on holidays Brick Oven Courtyard Grille.  At around 11:00, I was finally able to shed my barbecue-scented fancy ninja suit and don more gay apparel.  I then headed to Soteria Thompson’s house for one of her always fun parties.  Two weeks later, Brick Oven closed its doors for good.  Two months later, Soteria moved to Cambodia.  That’s basically the way the rest of the year went, ever-changing.

I celebrated the closing of the restaurant I had given 4 years of my evenings to by going to Orlando, Florida with family and friends!  It was a trip I had planned with Rachel Mills months back, and the timing couldn’t have been better.  I flew with friends Rachel, Jono, and Kristen and spent a few days with them at Epcot and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Then, I was joined by family: Mom, Aunt Judy, Grandma, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Keith, along with grafted in members Elena and Israel.  It’s the first time a friend trip has merged with a family trip that seamlessly, and I had a wonderful time with all.

In December of 2010, I was working three jobs, sometimes all in the same day.  By January, I was down to one (which only gave me about 10 hours a week).  After returning from my vacation, then soaking up a few days of lazy bliss, I started substitute teaching, a job I had put off the year before because of its inconsistent hours and difficulty (seriously, teaching is tough- subbing is brutal!)  Although my bank statements made it pretty clear that only working one inconsistent job was hard on my finances, I enjoyed my newfound free time, and more than anything, free evenings, which I had not had regularly in years.  I excitedly filled them with yoga, religion classes, movie nights with some of my favorite girlfriends, and I started getting together occasionally with this one guy.  I’d known him since 2006, but we really hadn’t spent time together in years, other than unplanned sightings.  Because of an extremely random text message, we started hanging out again.  By March, it was clear that we both wanted to change the nature of our friendship.  On March 11th, when we decided to post the relationship on facebook (making it official…), there were more than a few “Is this a joke?” comments.  Nine months later and thousands of miles apart, I think the answer to that question is clear.  Falling in love, without a doubt, made this a year I will always remember.

We're totally normal.

In March, a long-term sub opportunity fell into my lap.  I spent the next 2 months teaching 8th grade math at Chase Middle School.  I cannot state how good of an experience this was.  This was the first time that I was really in charge of a classroom and was able to test out classroom management styles, teaching approaches, and experience the life of a teacher, in all of its hardships and glory.  By May 25th, my last day, I felt like so much more of a competent, effective teacher than I had felt the day I began the assignment.  But I didn’t have much time to reflect on my lessons from working at Chase, because the evening of the 25th, I drove to Lincoln to catch a train.

Friend of 16 years Teresa Lundgren and I had been planning a cross-country train trip for months.  We purchased 15 day, 8-segment rail passes and planned a trip that would allow us stops in San Francisco, Sacramento, Southern Oregon, Portland, Seattle, and Salt Lake City.  We had friends to visit at every stop, which really made the trip fantastic.  We learned much more about Amtrak travel than I think we cared to know, and became adept at sleeping in not-so-much reclining seat.  My favorite cities were Seattle and San Francisco; seriously, fell hard for them.  Though the best part about the trip was spending two whole weeks with one of my dearest friends, who also exited the country a few months later.

Sunsets viewed from a train window are really fantastic.

I was home for four days, just long enough to do laundry, repack, and spend some time with Jeremiah, before I up and moved again, this time to Maine (surprise!)  What pulled me there this summer was a camp I had worked at in 2006, Med-o-Lark.  I spent 10 weeks there, serving as the Waterfront Coordinator and counselor to the Leaders in Training.  It was one of the best ways I could have chosen to spend my summer, and I have already agreed to spend my following summer in the same manner.

The only thing that made being at Med-o-Lark hard was not being able to spend time with Jermeiah, but my light at the end of the tunnel (not sure I can call driving a boat on a semi-regular basis, making tons of new friends from all over, and lobster banquets a “tunnel”…) was his visit following camp’s end.  I, very happily, worked as his personal New England tour guide, taking him to Mount Dessert Island, Rockland, Waterville, and Boston.  We were happy to stay with and be in the presence of Dez and Mel in Waterville and the Merrills in Boston on this vacation.  I have a feeling it won’t be his last trip to Maine.

September and October were pretty chill.  I substitute taught, got my Visa, spent time with loved ones, and prepared myself for my rapidly approaching biggest trip of all.  On October 25th, I entered the southern hemisphere.  I’m now a quarter of the way through my time in Riobamba, Ecuador, where I’ll be teaching English (through Teach English, Volunteer!) until the end of April.  I spend my time here practicing my Spanish, preparing lessons, traveling around this gorgeous country, meeting people from all kinds of cultures, and teaching in an elementary school and high school.  I’ve dreamed of living in South America for literally years, so I feel so fortunate to be where I am.  When I miss my family, friends, and the comforts of home, I remind myself how blessed I am to be here.

The gorgeous view of Mt. Chimborazo from Once de Noviembre, where I teach 3 days a week.

Reyna and I striking a pretty goofy pose in front of the imaginative Christmas tree she had our students assemble!

To put the corresponding New Year’s bookend on this lengthy letter, I believe that this year, I will be partaking in the wild festivities of an Ecuadorian Año Viejo (Old Year).  I’ve already seen life-sized dummies (muñecos) in shop windows.  Here, these dolls symbolize the regrets, mistakes, or anything from the old year the person buying or making the muñeco wishes to rid himself of.  The night of December 31st, everyone lights their dummies on fire in the streets, in celebration of a new chance, in hopes that the following year will be better.  I’m happy to say that it will be hard for me to think of many things I need to burn away from 2011.  It really was a good year.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!  I truly think of you and miss you often.