your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them."
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden - This quote is dedicated to Lynsey and the well-designed castles she's steadily building as we speak.
With one year under our belt, we came back to Cuenca in early August after 5 weeks back in the U.S. It already clear that this year will unfold very differently from the first, and will build the bridge into what comes next. Here are some snapshots, thoughts, and news (big and small) about the beginning of the continuation of our life here in Cuenca...
Year two started amidst a cold, rainy, and unclear August. We came back to a different Cuenca. Our apartment felt unlived in and empty - not fully ours after some on and off use over the summer. Plants withered from want of water, and we spent many weeks with our minds still back in the States with the people we'd left, again.
And the cold! Cha-chay! Cuencanos are vague about claiming a winter, but based on the chill we felt it must be July and August. Our stone-tiled floor became ice, and the blue of the sky hid from us for most of the month. We long awaited the September sun to return and for daily life to come back to life.
Another new change was the feeling of friends long gone. Their time or contract had come up, and they were off to either “start working” (usually younger teachers felt that it was time to start their careers after living abroad for a year) or to continue their travels/adventures/search in some new corner of the globe. Lynsey and I can luckily still name a number of quality friends who have also decided to stay, though they can probably only be counted on a couple of hands. Seeing people go is one of the toughest parts of living abroad, but the flip-side is the friendships that take root fast and strong when you cross paths with those special people from your same mold.
A highlight of the last month had to be a backpacking trip we took to a new and gringo-less area of Ecuador. I found the description for the hike in one of our guidebooks that was almost too good to be true: mostly downhill, waterfalls, exotic vegetation, and passing through towns known for their cheese production! Though originally I considered going solo, the mention of cheese perked Lynsey's ears in a big way and it was decided that we'd head out together. After a couple of bus rides and a pretty full day of travel, we arrived in Salinas - and it did not disappoint on its cheesy promises! The community serves as an impressive example of a “co-op,” and their community store offered a host of cheeses that are known to be some of the best in the country. We took what we could bear (needing to remember that our hiking diet should have some things other than cheese in it too) and headed out through picturesque countryside down the western slopes of the Andes.
One of the things that set this hike apart from some others were the curious locals. Due to relatively little foot traffic, we had many local campesinos genuinely asking, “Where are you going?” and “Where are you coming from?” I dig these questions because they're a rare opportunity to share the culture of hiking with locals and send the message that they live in a beautiful place that is valued by others. We even met a friendly dog who chaperoned us for a few hours on the first day - a rare occurrence and welcome change from the barking bluff charges of most territorial and mangey mutts.
Navigation proved a challenge on this hike, to say the least. At one point, Lynsey tastefully told me, “your definition of 'trail' is bullshit.” I had to smile at that one. Our map was rudimentary, and once we were out there we learned that there was actually no one “trail” to be found for first-timers. Are the trails obvious to the locals who use them? Of course, but to the extranjero there are a plethora of paths zigzagging down the countryside. Lynsey calculated that we spent mas o menos 10+ hours backtracking over two days, and here's the worst part: each time we were “off trail” we were heading downhill, so can you guess what we had to do to backtrack? Yup, and each step burned the legs at it frustrated the mind. The slogs back up took a little vigor out of our step the first day, but we still set up camp to witness one of the more spectacular sunsets we'd seen to date, literally looking down from a land above the clouds.
The next day we descended into the jungle (after getting lost a few times, again…) and cruised through lush green vegetation and the occasional bright, striking flowers. The hike had dropped over 9,000 feet in elevation over the span of two days, which has got to be a personal record for the both of us. We marveled at the dramatic shift in ecosystems while trying not to mind the dull aches in our knees. Another region uncovered, and more confidence to continue the search for other undiscovered gems in the hills.
Economy and Opportunity
Getting back to Cuenca, it was nearly time to start working again. Work, oh, work. And money, what a pain! Last year we constantly felt the steady pull of low(ish) salaries coming into direct conflicts with old tastes, many of which snuck back with us after our recent trip to the U.S. This dilemma sets up the perfect circumstances for an exercise in living simply. I could live on $420 a month (my current salary at CEDEI School), in a “Spartan-like” existence, with some sacrifices related to eating, drinking, and “doing” things that would need to be endured. It feels so snobby to say “endured,” but it's true - how often do I deny myself? Not enough, I'm certain of it. So, the equation that remains seems to be to work more for more money to eat, drink, and maybe “do” more. “Money” and “more” have always gone hand-in-hand, haven't they? This value, the love of more, has been rooted so deep in my brain that it may take a lifetime to suppress. That being said, continuing the exercise of frugality is one of the most refreshing things about this life. We experience a lot with technically so much less. This year will be an experiment in this regard, and I hope to have worthy results to report.
On the actual work front, both Lynsey and I have taken new positions that are worthy of reporting. I'm teaching social studies and science at the K-9 CEDEI School (under the same foundation where we taught English). With 8 preps (I teach all grades from 3rd-9th), my mind has become a splintered mix of little faces and content that spans the globe. The job has thrown new and unprecedented challenges my way, all relating to ESL and finding some common ground with 3rd and 4th graders. I'm as tired as I was my first year at Curie HS in Chicago, but I've also been in it enough to know that these are the hardest days.
Lynsey has big news to report! After proposing various projects to the director of CEDEI, she was given a position as the new director of “Marketing and Strategy” for the organization - I'm so damn proud of this girl! Last year she taught English as a means to the end of living this life (and getting a visa), but it was clear that neither her head nor her heart was in it. Teaching certainly isn't for everyone, and being committed do doing something that sparks little passion is a recipe for tough times. So, designing materials for the organization will suit her much better, and I don't doubt that our school's image is going to be looking a hell of a lot better with her behind the wheel.
On top of that, just a few days after she took the position at CEDEI, she connected with a well-known designer here in Cuenca, and is now doing work in an established studio just blocks from our house! I apologize for the overuse of exclamation points, but this is BIG TIME NEWS. She is tasked with real design work again that fulfills her need to do something meaningful, and this is by far the best thing we have to report for year two thus far.
In both of our job shifts we are getting back to work that aligns more directly with our interests and passions, and doing them abroad will undoubtedly open up all kinds of new perspectives on our respective professions. Where these opportunities might take us is guessing which way the wind will blow, but I'm certain it will be somewhere we want to be.
To change, progress, and time marching on!