Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dentists and Dancing!

First things first:

I don´t have parasites!

The vicious bout with intestinal problems was thankfully shortlived, and I satisified my parasite-related curiousity with a quick and astonishingly cheap visit to a local laboratory. Instead of going to a doctor, filling out tons of paperwork, and paying way too much, all one has to do in Cuenca is bring a small sample to the lab and hand over $3.50. A part of me was secretly hoping that I did have something living inside me, as it would both give me something interesting to write about, and something to blame for my feeling crappy. I had concocted this image: upon taking the anti-parasitie elixir, my denizens would die a slow, dramatic death, and I would be suddenly imbued with superpowers, or at least slightly-improved powers, no longer hindered by malicious invaders. But, alas, my poo was deemed rather nondescript (I have the printout to prove it), so my grand vision has been dashed, and I can´t blame occasional malaise on some faceless enemy. I can, however, get lots of rest, drink lots of water, eat good food, and do my best to avoid ingesting fecal matter. I have a new habit:

going to the dentist!

I´ve already been three times! In the interest of doing worthwhile things before I leave Cuenca, I´ve decided to throw some money into a little self-improvement. Last Christmas, my folks were amazingly kind enough to gift me a root canal, which I really appreciated. I didn´t appreciate, however, the off-handed news from the dentist that I would also need something called a crown on this already traumatized tooth, or it could easily and without warning shatter into tiny, expensive pieces. I suppose it would be much too sensible to offer a root canal/crown package deal, and finish the job while I was already conveniently in the operating chair, drooling enthusiastically. I already knew I needed a couple of cavities filled, and wandering around crown-less seems irresponsible, so it was an obvious decision. And, by having the work done here, I´ll be saving approximately one million dollars.

I had three cavities filled today, fairly quickly, and for free! They know I´ll be back on Monday to get my crown and pay up--the Doc´s already shaved my tooth down to a nub, so I reckon he figures I won´t take flight without getting that taken care of. After so many suspicious stares on the street, it feels nice to be trusted. Dr. Zumba is a quiet, efficiency-minded person, without being unfriendly. He was about to delve into my gaping mouth when I thought I´d break the ice with a ¨good morning!¨ His response was polite, but that was the end of the chat. Perhaps he has doubts about my ability to converse, as on my first visit, in a bit of a daze, I had failed to respond to his gentle urgings of ¨cierre.. cierreBefore I could refocus my attention from all the hands in my mouth to simple spanish verbs, he resorted to a softly-accented ¨close.¨ Stifling the urge to manually remove his hand from my mouth and insist that I can understand him, I closed my eyes and refocused my efforts on not choking on my own saliva, as Dr. Zumba quietly commanded, ¨close... open... close...¨ Speaking of taking orders:

I´m taking a salsa class!

Under the tutelage of a brilliant, mildly flamboyant instructor from Cuba, I´m taking a shot at unraveling the secrets of salsa. I met my instructor, Dani, on that wonderful night at La Mesa, along with his boyfriend, Juan, and the gorgeous Colombiana, Josna. After five visits to the dance academy, I have made a startling discovery: I have hips. As a lanky, white man, I´ve long been under the impression that I´m inherently lacking in certain areas, namely hips and booty. And swing dancers, at least in my experience, don´t concentrate too much on hip-swaying and booty-shaking. But as I get more comfortable with the salsa rhythm, I find myself moving in ways that have previously been reserved for behind-closed-doors special times. And this is where much of the beauty of salsa lies--the flamboyancy, the fluidity of movement, the liberation of oppressed hips.

Dani is a very in-control teacher, and does not allow half-assed effort. He sees that I can, and insists that I do. My first few sessions with Dani were aerobics-style, and at times even a bit militaristic, as he assessed what I could already do, and wasted no time in pushing me to go further. If my arms weren´t being team players: ¨C´mon! C´mon! Esooo.¨ If my hips were lacking luster: ¨I want more style! More style!¨ When my steps began bordering on automatic, robotic: ¨C´mon, I want you to feel the music!¨

After a few days of steady progress, I was feeling pretty damn good. I showed up at the academy on Saturday morning surprised, but unconcerned, to find a small group of people. Dani was in the midst of administering a grueling workout to a fellow dancer, barking orders, pacing around like a drill sergeant. Realizing this intensity would almost certainly spill over into our session, a tiny cloud of apprehension began forming in my already slightly foggy brain. As we began, Dani´s demeanor was as predicted, and the group of people that had been milling about now sat with glazed expressions, boredly transfixed on the lanky gringo who has the gall to think he can learn salsa. My performance is subpar--my body sluggish--and I quickly regret opting for that final, superfluous Friday night beer. As the struggle continued, I found myself resenting the onlookers, at one point exhorting them to get up and dance along, to do anything besides sit there and stare as all the style and grace I´d accumulated pathetically seeped out of me. I reached my low point, grimly nodded in acknowledgment, and promptly mentally sprinted in the other direction. What was I going to do, give up? No, I was going to chuckle at how foolish I felt, and revel in the absurdity of it all, of the idea of being in a dance academy on a Saturday morning in Cuenca, Ecuador, prancing around while curious locals marveled at the spectacle. How fantastic! Raising my chin, I met my own gaze in the vast mirror, and forced a goofy grin. With Dani´s commands echoing in my ears, I plodded onward, feeling incredibly fortunate to be so damned ridiculous.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Recent Highlights Include:

Another week in Cuenca! I´m still here. It feels good. Unfortunately, my general lust for life has been dampened by

Intestinal Problems

but I´m feeling a bit better now. Yes, again, intestinal problems. When I first arrived in Cuenca, I was stricken with a terrible bout of bathroom-based explosions, but that was almost three long weeks ago. This time has been a milder case, but makes me wonder: what´s wrong with me? As Kat said, ¨Boy, you sure are susceptible!¨ This comment got my pride a bit riled up, as I like to think I have a stomach of steel, and can eat most anything the world has to offer. I concede: stomach is comprised of some lesser metal, aluminum perhaps. My ever-concerned spanish teacher, Mariana, was quick to suggest that things are living inside of me. Imagine that! Uninvited guests, making a home in my poor, embattled intestine, feasting without permission on the countless German cookies I´ve ingested. As part of my investigation into a solution, I stopped at the local laboratory, and the prognosis is good. All I have to do is bring in a bit of feces, hand it over along with $3.50, and they´ll give me the answers I need! I suppose now all I have to do is wait patiently, sipping coffee, while the Immodium A.D. wears off. But enough about me,

How are you?

I´ve purchased my ticket home, and this has me looking ahead to seeing family and friends, and imagining the glorious scenarios that await--dark beer, driving cars, hugging loved ones, etc, all the lovely things I´m lucky enough to have available back in the United States. All this thinking of home, however, has refreshed my sense of here and now, and I´m very excited to make sweet love to Cuenca during my remaining time. It´s easy to chalk up my vague listlessness to sinister parasites, but it´s certainly not uncommon to find oneself disenchanted while traveling. Without warning, the days become fleeting, lacking a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and thoughts of escape start creeping in. But, remember the lesson from my last entry? Don´t leave early! Or at least try your damndest not to. Speaking of a ¨sense of accomplishment,¨

I have a job!

Or something like that. Yes, as of Monday, I´ve been teaching English to a rather intelligent bunch of pre-pubescent boys. The five of us meet for one hour a day, five days a week. We´ve been trying to set up this sort of class for a couple of weeks now, so in order to help attract students, I set the price quite low. Fifty cents per person, to be exact. A couple of my friends think I´m crazy for not asking for more, but I didn´t come here to make money, and besides, that 2 dollars a day pays for lunch! So, for now, I´m happy to have a full belly and to hang out with some youngsters who apparently think I´m ¨cool¨and ¨funny¨.

I´ll take it!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Questions of Divinity

This morning I´m filled with that slightly bleary tranquility that at times greets you after an extensive night of imbibing. Wednesday isn´t usually the day I would choose for a night on the town, but when someone suggests an excursion to La Mesa, it´s unwise to defer. Yes, this steamy little cave of a bar is a Cuencan institution--the perfect battleground for the classic struggle of man vs. inhibition. ¨The Table¨is where locals and extranjeros alike come to sweat profusely, ideally in unison, to the rhythm of salsa.

What this joint lacks in ventilation, it easily makes up in aguardiente-augmented enthusiam. Ever the frugal traveler, I stopped by an aguardiente fueling station prior to heading out, so as to arrive at La Mesa with a head start on my social lubrication. I was blessed with the company of a highly diverse, rambunctious bunch of revelers, a motley crew comprised of locals, yanks, Europeans, and an Australian or two. Included in the bunch was a little Ecuadorian firecracker named Isabel, who got me out on the floor almost immediately--a much appreciated push in the right direction--because while these hips aren´t prone to lying, they can be a little hesitant at times. And so the intoxication began, with everyone partaking in the same potent cocktail, a delightful mixture of adrenaline, endorphins, booze, and that indefinable joy that comes from partner dancing.

Each partner is another gift. Isabel´s combination of backleading, following, and freestyle pushed me to innovate and allowed me to settle more comfortably into the salsa rhythm that has so often confounded me. Dana and I discovered a form of swing-style salsa (I wonder if I can market this?) that suited us just fine. Cassie gave me the chance to practice straight-ahead salsa, and practice my beginner level moves.

La Mesa is not a place where people come to huddle around tables and bottles, biding their time. Quite the opposite--people come to dance, it´s that simple. After a few dances, the floor had become increasingly packed, the air thickened with smoke and heat. In the cool outer hallway, I contemplated making my escape, but as luck would have it, I was trapped, attached to the bill of a friend. I wandered back and forth for a bit, shaking off the mild claustrophobic discouragement, and eventually mustered the will to make another incursion. Passing through the small seating area, I hear ¨Disculpe, eres el hijo de dios?¨ (Excuse me, are you the son of God?). It turns out that years of intense catholic imagery has emblazoned the visage of a white, long-haired, bearded savior onto the collective consciousness of Ecuador. Setting aside the bizarre, complex issues this brings up, it seems to be a pretty good gimmick for me. My knee jerk response to this question was to let my hair down with a bit of a flourish, effectively giving the people what they wanted: a caricature to gawk at. We all had a good laugh, and my response proved to be an excellent one, as suddenly I found myself back on the dance floor with a friend of the curious fellow, a beautiful girl from Cali, Colombia who really knew how to move. I had certainly noticed her before, but wouldn´t have had the guts to ask her to dance if her friend hadn´t asked me if I was Jesus. How bout that. She is a special kind of dancer, with a receptive follow, who had no expectations of flamboyant turns and tricks, but simply enjoyed the way I moved and joyfully, gracefully responded in turn. Soon the bar was clearing out, and I , left with a phone number and the promise of another dance, was riding high.

And what have we learned from this night? For one, don´t leave early--a fascinating concept that is applicable to many aspects of life. And of course, what is always clear in hindsight: Fear is the ultimate paralyzer, and if we´re afraid of failure or rejection, nothing will ever happen. So gentlemen, ask her to dance. (And ladies, say yes!)