Cuenca, al Final, Though not Quite

My wonderful friends, Marcel and Veronica, rode with me in the taxi to the bus station and walked me to the gate. A nice sendoff. They just needed to tuck a little packed lunch in my mochilla and it would have been the perfect good-bye to my younger-than-me parents!

Cuenca, I have such mixed feelings about you. I will say, to start, that if you are traveling in Ecuador, you must see Cuenca. Visually it is a mix of colonial Spain and the Vatican. 52 churches scattered around the city punctuate this impression. As I wrote in my last post, Cuenca is beautiful and the people and markets are splendid.

But this trip is about checking out places to park my caravan and pitch my tent, and Cuenca, which comes highly recommended, and seemingly affirmed by a seemingly endless stream of immigrants from northern climes, was high on the list to check out.

And that is probably the biggest problem. How does a 500 year old Ecuadoran City, built on Spanish conquest and colonialism, settled into decidedly conservative, conventional ways and institutions, accommodate this new invasion by new colonialists? In some ways, too well. In some ways, everything changes.

Too well? As a recent article in Cuenca Highlife, a local English language newspaper reported about “urban renewal” in the Historic District; “. . .the cost will be born by working Cuencanos, many with incomes well below [that of] the ‘economic refugees’ who have relocated from North America.  Plaza San Francisco [the site of one such development] is a microcosm of global inequalities, and draws attention to the inherited advantages of those of us born into social positions that have historically benefited from exploitation of non-European workers in former European colonies.”

The money is arriving, according to another recent article, from big investors who see the future of Cuenca as a comfortable enclave community for gringo retirees and escapees. The tramway now being built to relieve the central district of traffic and fumes from old buses, has so far put 200 local enterprises out of business. One doesn’t have to have been to Bangkok or Mexico City to see where Starbucks will be setting up shop. Some of us may only have $1300 in Social Security, but that is still an order of magnitude more than local working Cuencans, who are being driven out of the historic center by rising rents and gentrification.

The city was born of colonialism, as the author of the Highlife article points out:

[The] cultural wealth, however, has come at the expense of other cultures, which have been marginalized. The built architecture of Cuenca is the product of one of two activities: either manufacturing exports (quinine and panama hats) that exploited people in rural areas of Azuay; or from large haciendas, especially sugar cane producers in the temperate valleys of Paute and Yunguilla, which also exploited rural workers. Rural workers, or campesinos, in Ecuador worked in relations of dependence and without pay until the late 60s or early 70s, right around the time current American retirees may have bought their first house.

The local indigenous population does have an ongoing, albeit, uneasy presence in Cuenca. The markets, including Plaza San Francisco, cite of the currently debated gentrification. “Plaza San Francisco has long been the interface between the rural and urban worlds of southern Ecuador — a place where poor rural workers have come to supplement their incomes by selling to urban middle classes.” The indigenous vendors, and urban poor, as well as the working class, stand to lose with the ongoing development:

The potential to increase the value of San Francisco and surrounding areas is what has led the Bank of International Development — a division of the World Bank — and the Ecuadorian central government to provide funds for municipal intervention in the square.These interventions are intended to increase economic activity and boost growth, but as in all such projects, the benefits fall very unevenly. Plaza San Francisco provides a local example of how tourism and development projects affect actual people who are being ‘developed.’

I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety, because it is a succinct explanation of the new colonialism of development and gentrification that too many western immigrants to developing regions wittingly or unknowingly precipitate and participate in.

The fact is that though we want to think well of ourselves and the financial benefits we bring to places, it is important to be aware of our impact. I can’t resist one more insight from the article:

The displacement of the popular mercado also reinforces the racial hierarchy of the current global division of labour. North Americans in Cuenca do not support racial hierarchies, however, displacing the popular market will also lead to a phenotypical whitening of Plaza San Francisco as it becomes a transnational social space oriented towards the tastes and imaginaries of North American and European tourists and lifestyle migrants.

This, then, is my first and strongest objection to Cuenca as a place to live. Cuenca is a beautiful place built at the expense of indigenous peoples. The lovely religious and colonial architecture is a direct repudiation of the spirituality and aesthetics of these people. What is loved by the immigrants with fat wallets is the ongoing, never ending legacy of Pizarro. We may offer aid and assistance, and want to do the right thing. Volunteering to teach English is welcomed, and deeply ironic. In the end we are 21st century colonialists continuing a 500 year project pretty much unbroken, bringing what we think of as progress and enlightenment, some of us even bringing protestant proselytizing. All the time wanting to improve our own lives at the expense of the natives.

I meant this as a summing up, but it has turned out into a long attempt at explaining the role of migrants from the historic colonizing countries to former colonies, in an ongoing project of colonialism. This could actually could be a sufficient reason on its own to resist the charms of Cuenca. But, of course, I have more to say on the topic. In my next post.



Cuenca Ecuador: Ramblings Heading for a Conclusion

After a couple of weeks with a bad cold, which coincided, not coincidentally, with two weeks of really lousy, cold, wet weather, I went out with my friends walking in Cuenca, under a random and resistant sun.I was reminded what a beautiful city it is, and what a sweet temptation.

I’ve now been in Ecuador almost 3 months, and in Cuenca for about 7 weeks. As Cuenca was a destination for me in terms of considering retirement, and I was fortunate enough to gain a couple of friends along the way who also wished to spend time here, I have had the time to check things out and get a feel for the city.


Cuenca is architecturally and geographically gorgeous. The historic district is a living museum. Each blocks yields to the next in order of magnitude. As it is hilly, and the surrounds are mountainous, there are views from every angle. Oh, and the sky! West Texas would blush in jealousy. Being at 2600 meters, with the coast on one side and the Amazon valley on the other, the sky is a constant collision of wet clouds and sunshine. Yes, the beauty of Cuenca cannot be denied.


Of course, beauty may be a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a place to stay. It is necessary for me. I don’t know if “beauty is truth,” but the truth is, I need beauty where I live, as well as perspective-enough elevation to have a sense of where I am. Having a bit of a perspective and an ever changing horizon matters to me. Even threatening black clouds dropping over the mountain vista has an ominous charm. So I will give Cuenca full marks for inspiration.

I did rouse myself for a turn at the public market on Wednesday, one of the two big market days of the week. My post-cold lethargy made it a slog to get there, but I found my pace when I arrived in the midst of traders and buyers, and stacks of fresh produce and glistening fish. Cuenca has great markets. I realized how good when I was in Riobamba a couple of weeks ago catching my cold and touring the markets (not coincidentally, I suspect) There on Saturday, market day, the markets begged for buyers, and many sellers’ stalls stood empty. The women selling hornado de chancho, a whole roast pig served with mote (c0rn) and llapingacho (potato patties), were a uniform wearing dispirited lot, having squabbles with each other while badgering passers by to eat at their pig.

Assembly line hornado in Riobamba

By comparison, the marketers in Cuenca smile in their randoms marketing clothes and tease each other and the customers. If you don’t buy, there is nothing more than a smile and a nod, no pushing. The markets here are a joy, even if you aren’t buying. And a photographer’s dream.


And the markets provide all sorts of possibilities for good cooking. As Cuenca does not really have a culture of eating out in the evenings, and the main meal of the day is mid-day, it helps to cook for yourself or yourselves. The main meal of the day, almuerza, can be a real money saver for people on a budget, but it is generally fairly prosaic and not terrifically inspired.

Typical $3 almuerzo

There are many kind words for Cuencans; pleasant, gentle, kind, self-effacing and helpful. But full stop at “quiet.” This morning as I write, at 8 AM, the local park is trying out the loud speakers. We are a kilometer away and it is a concert in the front room. Car alarms are a constant. We have come to consider it Cuenca’s theme music. I’ll never hear a car alarm again and not think of the days in Cuenca when 10 a day would be a quiet day. At night the local bar empties and the loud voices carry on as if it were noon, not as if the rest of the neighborhood had been asleep for hours.

Cuenca’s people are probably a very good reason for moving here. I haven’t met a mean one yet, though I am sure they exist, and they seem to me to be tolerant beyond reasonableness with our outsider ways and our big footprint.


They are also family people before anything else. In most Latin cities the evenings are spent in paseo, strolling with family or friends in the town square, and hanging out at taverns and cafes that ring the square. It is a social time and my favorite time of the day for this reason. In Cuenca people go home in the evening and stay there. There is a rush home, a marienda, or small dinner, and then, of course, I don’t know. It is private. Cuencans are a private bunch, it seems. My Spanish teacher told me that the local big park (home to this morning’s 8 AM concert) used to be a place utilized mainly by drunks and drug users. These days the place bristles with activity and weekends are full of families. She told me this was due to outsider influence, and Cuencans were getting outside more.

But back to my cold and the weather. I know that colds, and swine flu, of which there are 3 confirmed cases in Cuenca at the moment, come from rhino-viruses and not a change in weather. Mine probably has more to do with being in closed spaces such as markets and buses than with the weather. But I have barely been able to keep warm for the last two weeks, which has certainly made me feel more miserable. The spring-like weather of Cuenca seems to be one of its main selling points. But I think we tend to envision spring as a season of sunshine and blossoms, and warm weather broken by a few cool breezes. Here what I have experienced is Seattle spring on a bad day. The mornings are cold and cloudy dismal gray. Any tiny crease in the cloud cover causing reflections of the the sun that is surely out there somewhere is a reason for optimism. The optimism is sometimes rewarded with a full blast of sunshine which is, alas, quickly erased by a cold wind bringing in darker clouds and a freshet of rain. This cycle can continue all day till late afternoon yields to a downpour. And, as the PR agents say, there is no heat in the homes, as it is always springtime. I have had a cold and been cold for two weeks.


When the weather good it is glorious. Sunny days broken by clouds that wander by as close as your neighbor, ending with sunsets beyond words.


Cuenca is full of museums and galleries, and musical events. You cannot want for entertainment of that sort. We spent yesterday afternoon in two different museums, one dedicated to hat making and the other to Latino handicrafts from different countries. Both were homed in marvelous buildings. There are more museums to be seen. Art and history, archeology and anthropology are all properly celebrated. Pumapungo Museum itself is worthy of a trip to Cuenca. The Alliance Francaise hosts many events, musical and otherwise. The immigrant community of westerners also sponsor activities and fundraisers.

Cuenca is a pretty extraordinary place. A walk this afternoon took us first to some beautiful stairs up to the historic center, to a bookstore where I could exchange a handful of books for a new one, almuerzo, the post office, a street corner eyeglass repairman/photocopier, coffee and desert in a decidedly gringo little cafe and back via another grand staircase.


I leave Cuenca tomorrow, and I really don’t envisage returning. Ecuador was a surprise for me, and a gift. But I won’t be settling here. I’ll write about this decision and why later in the week. If you have gotten this far, thanks for your patience with such a long and rambling post.



Riobamba (and Guano)

I passed through Riobamba a while back and remember thinking that there was more here than I could see on an overnight stop and I should return. I was wrong.


When I came through the first time I was on my way to Cuenca, and, anxious to get there, I made it a very quick stop. I remember wandering around in the cold looking for some dinner and I stumbled into a place called Peri Peri Chicken. It was warm inside. I was also lucky in that they had some really good grilled meats and home-made french fries with a nice salad and some homemade sauces.

My second stroke of luck was finding a very sweet little hotel across the street from the train station, hence its name, Hotel Estacion. It’s run by a family and has that feel to it. The price is right, too, at $20 a night for a single room. On each floor there is a sitting room at the stair landing, and on the 3rd floor there is a working fireplace. You can go out on the rooftop and get photos of the mountains and the city, which is especially nice if the volcano Chimbarazo is making an appearance. Today she has been hiding behind a bank of clouds, but I have hopes for the morning, before I leave.



So, I have returned to find that I really missed little the first time around. There are some old buildings worth a look, and a couple of markets. But having been to Otavalo and having been in Cuenca for 2 months, I have seen some splendid markets. In Cuenca I have almost reached my fill of splendid architecture.



I decided not to waste the rest of my day in Riobamba after having gone to the markets and had a good wander. So I was advised  to go to Guano (yes, I had a second take on the name, “Guano is the excrement of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats, pinnipeds, or (in English usage) birds in general.“), which is a touted artisan town close by. I walked to yet another market, this one more interesting than the one on the tourist maps, and got the green bus to Guano. The trip on the bus was great. I sat with a 3 generation family as the mother of the infant breast fed him and they all shared an ice-cream cone. The bus took me to the central plaza of Guano. I looked around and thought that I must be mistaken, this could not be the town center of a much praised artisan town. I wandered for a bit and came back and asked in a store if this was the town center. Yes! Of course! It was 1:00 on a Saturday afternoon and most everything was closed. There were a few gift shops, but it was all pretty much ticky-tacky. A popular item was small donut shaped pillows which made me think maybe there was a hemorrhoid epidemic in town, or the bus rides were getting to people where it hurts. I went past an amusement ride for children, but it looked of despair. The local church has an ancient looking building attached proudly boasting its inaugural year of 1950. There was a relief of a dog on the side with a mouth-full of thatch. I was not understanding this town. Maybe it needs a name change?

I feel required to show one classically pretty picture of Guano

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I grabbed a bus back to Riobamba. It was packed stem to stern and there was no more standing room. The bus assistant kept yelling for us to go up to the second level, which didn’t exist.

After I arrived back I went to the Peri Peri Restaurant for the second time on this trip, having not found another of interest. I had the $3 almuerzo (set lunch) and headed back to my room for a long evening. Fortunately in the morning I will be on an early bus for Banos, where the food is excellent and there are hot bathes to recover from today’s folly.


I love a $3 Lunch!

Quitting-Does it Make you a Quitter?

Everyone (I think!) has had to quit something at some time or another. Just look at the divorce rate! Jobs! Friendships! Schools! Yes, we mostly all quit something, and most of us “quitters” suffer self-doubts because of it. As the childhood taunt goes, “quitters never prosper.”

I have quit more than a few things in my life, and the self-recriminations have been epic. It is a surprising blow to one’s self-esteem to feel required to quit something. But is quitting a bad thing? The label “quitter” is certainly not one to be envied, but look at people who never quit-bad jobs, marriages, toxic relationships, schools that don’t serve their needs, ad nauseum.

Things I have quit:

  1. Bad jobs. Having come up working class, I had my share of really lousy jobs. I had waitressing jobs where cooks have chased me with knives, owners have cornered me in walk-in refrigerators, and worse. I left one job, at International House of Pancakes, when at the end of the week I owed them money, for meals I hadn’t eaten (really, who could actually eat that crap). I left a job on the Alaska Pipeline when the foreman would not call me by my name, but called me “split-tail,” and treated me accordingly. Oh, the bad jobs I have seen!
  2. School. This is the one that haunts me, unreasonably. I did not finish my PhD, as I was going through a divorce, and, I think more-so, because the academic job market and academia itself was changing, and I don’t that that I was suited to that sort of a teaching career. Rationally I don’t regret it, but it does keep me awake at times and comes back to me in my dreams.
  3. Relationships. I never have quit them when I ought to have. After years of being in a bad marriage, it took my ex-husband to pull the plug. I’ve been in friendships where the other person has treated me poorly, but still I hung on, to the point of ridiculous. But I have also stayed in good relationships through good and bad, and thousands of miles. Included in relationships, of course, is family, and this I have also stuck with, for the most part. I come from a definitively disfunctional fucked up family. I have no relationship with 2 of my siblings, by mutual choice, and a fraught one with one sister. We struggle through our extreme differences because, with my closest brother having died, and also my parents, she is the family of origin I have, and vice-versa. I do have a daughter and 2 grandsons, and an ex-son-in-law, and we all manage to stick together.

This posting has been a bit of an exercise in self-redemption. Yes, I have left things and people and jobs, but is it such a bad thing? There is a job I regret having left in Korea, but I gave plenty of notice and left for what I felt were essential personal reasons. I have a few other regrets, but mostly I feel that when I have quit it was because it was time to move on.

The alternative is tenaciously staying and not quitting (quitters never prosper). It is the moral high ground. It shows resolve and strength. Or so they say.

It looks like fun, but…

It is actually a lot of work!

How long does it take to plan a holiday? For most people, much of the joy of travel is in the anticipation and planning. It is complicated if you are traveling with someone, a bit less so if you are traveling alone. But it takes time to plan airfares, buses, hotels, sights, visas, and what to bring. Most people are lucky to do this once a year, hence the gleeful anticipation.

While I was teaching in Asia, I took several trips a year. As the term, or half term, dragged on and the grading of papers added to the tedium, there was always a trip to plan for. Anticipation of a new exotic locale, or a return to one I loved, added a bit of a spring to my step and helped me get through the stack of papers. Let’s see, 10 papers graded, now I can spend a little time looking for hostels, or flights. The whole stack done? Time to take a break and go buy airline tickets.

Now the travel is different for me; it is my life. I am leaving Cuenca on Friday for about 5 days in Riobamba and Banos (Ecuador). Going to both places involves buses and hostels. But the following week I am getting on buses to Peru, which involves dubious border crossings, and even more dubious cities on the other side in north Peru. I’ve been trying to sort that trip for the last few weeks. Meanwhile, my two fellow travelers and I are planning to meet up in Yurimaguas to take boats to an Amazon jungle tour, and onwards to Iquitos. Oh, and it is necessary to get tickets and arrange lodging now for Macchu Pichu. I am also taking a Spanish class.

I’m sort of missing the stack of papers to mark. For some reason it has just occurred to me what a long strange trip this is becoming. I have been, since January, in Melbourne, Australia, Seattle, Miami, Medellin, about 4 cities after that before I got to Bogota, and about 4 more cities before I got to Ecuador, and then on to Quito, Banos, Riobamba, and now Cuenca. Each of those stops required lots of planning as well as some long flights, and some very long flights.

It is fun to plan, of course, but also work. Maps and books and websites are my resources. I’m really grateful to my fellow traveler bloggers. Yesterday I came across a blog about traveling in the south of Peru, and I found out about Peru Hop, a great, safe, comfortable way to travel around the south of Peru. That is a find that will save me a lot of time and grief.

In Bogota I got very sick, (emergency room care in Bogota), but during my recovery I met a French couple who have become good friends and fellow travelers. I will travel with them to Iquitos and the Amazon, and around large bits of Peru. We have an apartment together in Cuenca, and I watch Veronique with her maps and books, and websites, planning the details of the next 3 months in Peru. Meanwhile, Marcel takes care of the logistics with their camper-truck. They both spend hours a day. What I honestly hadn’t noticed was that that was what I was doing, too.

I am not complaining. I love my travels. But I need to recognize the work involved, and maybe reorganize some of it more efficiently. Less time choosing places to stay, and perhaps staying in some places longer might help. As well as choosing to do less. Do I remember all of the museums and places I’ve visited?

Vacations and holidays aren’t long term travel. I learn every day how to travel better. 6 months now, and I think I’m improving. Yesterday I sent a box of clothes I brought with me back to the States. I’m giving away more than I sent. I’m now down to a medium-sized backpack. I’m still figuring out how to un-complicate my travel. I see no end in sight to my travels, so it is about time I got good at it.


World Wide Wednesday – Ecuador

Ecuador encompasses everything from the seashore to the Amazon jungles, but my time here has been spent in the Andes, though not the world’s tallest mountains, they are geologically the closest to the sun  (Chimborazo peak, Ecuador: the closest place to space on Earth). The skies reflect this association. The people are as charming and gentle as any I have met. The presence of the Spanish conquest is echoed in the Churches (52 in Cuenca alone) and the architecture, and the arts.


Cee’s Odd Ball Photo Challenge: 2016 Week 23

I’m offering an oddball gallery, rather than just one photo this week.

Here are some photos from the Prohibido Centro Cultural in Cuenca, Ecuador. ( It is actually a quite interesting gallery if appreciated from the perspective of the Spanish conquest, the inquisition, cultural displacement, the deaths of 90% of the indigenous population, as well as Catholic/Judeo Christian morality. In other words, the dark underbelly of this beautiful city.







Am I too old to learn a new language?*


This year, as I travel through South America, I am finding my limits. A one mile swim followed by a 5 mile hike takes all that I have and I am rendered exhausted beyond words. (It didn’t help that after the 5 miles, we arrived back home to find the power out and a 5-floor stair climb awaiting.) My recovery time is much longer, as well. It is frustrating.

My language learning skills are equally challenging. I admit to never having been good at second language learning, but I have been studying Spanish online now for over a year, and tested at intermediate level when I started my course at Cuenca University this winter/summer here in Ecuador. Being a “false-intermediate” (I haven’t every taken a course, so my intermediate skills are spotty, with big holes) I was probably overly confident. My class has been a huge challenge, and has been getting increasingly discouraging.  My false confidence was probably encouraged by the kindness of Ecuadorians, who are very pleased when anyone tries to learn their language, but there I sit in the classroom feeling that my brain is impermeable brick. Sometimes I have to fight back tears of frustration and embarrassment. I am starting to appreciate better why so many immigrants to Ecuador, and Mexico as well, fail to learn the language.

Those immigrants most often are “mature” adults of retirement age. I suspect many of them have not been in an education environment for 40-50 years, so learning is even more of a challenge. At least I have been an educator for my career. We older people get the message from society too much that we are past our prime. This message is reinforced by our experiences with our bodies and minds. In an episode of Frankie and Grace, Frankie has a hard time passing her driving test. She has let her license expire because she was afraid of failing the physical part of the test-vision. But what turns out to be the obstacle is memory and the written test. As her doubts deepen, her sons get worried about her mental capacity.


But Frankie is wiser, of course. She remembers learning in university that the human brain responds to similarity of conditions when trying to recollect information. Since she usually studies with a bong-full, she replicates the conditions and goes and takes the written test while high, and passes with no problem. Yes, her memory was slipping a bit, but she had strategies for overcoming the problem. She had many years of learning and experience.

I recalled this episode (my memory is not that bad) while I was struggling with my Spanish class. I’m only encouraged when I see my fellow student, who is young and Japanese, struggle with cognates (cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning or spelling). Though her brain is young, fresh and retentive, it lacks the ability to connect new words to words from her native language. For me, some Spanish vocabulary is a small step from my existing English vocabulary, and Spanish is not such a “foreign” language to Americans, especially those of us who have lived in communities in the US that have a large number of Spanish speakers. This is an advantage of both culture and age, and it is an advantage I have.

According to the article in the Guardian, “Am I too old to learn a new language?,”Picking up a new language’s vocabulary is much easier for adults than learning the rules that govern its grammar or syntax. This is because new words can be easily mapped on to a learner’s pre-existing knowledge.” I think we also have more mature social skills, and can understand speakers of other languages better because we can read the environment and body language better. This is a real advantage for me, as I have spent the last 14 years living in non-English speaking countries.

But how can I learn Spanish when I get frustrated and demoralized? In English language teaching most instructors rely on the “communitative approach:”

The communicative approach is based on the idea that learning language successfully comes through having to communicate real meaning. When learners are involved in real communication, their natural strategies for language acquisition will be used, and this will allow them to learn to use the language.(source)

This approach emphasizes the use of the language being learned in real life situations, and “success” is measured by the ability to communicate. Prior to taking my current class, I was gaining confidence in my Spanish. I was increasingly able to communicate effectively in my dealings with a monolingual Spanish environment. This successful communication increased my confidence, and thus my courage to continue, and, hence, my learning. Despite the kindness of my teacher, I feel my confidence and skills have actually deteriorated. We have been studying, from a book, grammar. The emphasis has been on verb conjugations and especially irregular verbs. Irregular verbs are highly unlikely to have English language cognates. They seem to hit the side of my brain like bugs on the windscreen. Dead on arrival.

Yes, we can learn a new language in our 60’s and beyond. It takes patience, and the right approach. If you are looking for a language school, pay careful attention to their methodology. An emphasis on rote learning and grammar is clearly not the best way for us to learn languages. We need to be able to build on our strengths and develop confidence by way of successful communication.

An important added benefit to language learning is that we also are strengthening our brains in the process:

Learning a new language may not always be easy for adults, but there is research to suggest that doing so is beneficial for brain health. As we get older, most of us experience an age-related decline in mental functions such as attention and memory, and in some people the acceleration of this process leads to the development of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. A number of recent studies suggest that learning a foreign language can slow this inevitable age-related cognitive decline or perhaps even delay the onset of dementia. (source)

Just as we need to actually increase our physical exercise as we age, so it is the case for mental calisthenics, “”Learning a language later on in life might be more beneficial than learning it earlier, because it takes more effort,” Bak continues. “It has parallels with physical exercise – a stroll is good for your health, but not as beneficial as a run.””(source)

Next month I’m going to Machu Picchu with a couple of friends who are 10 years younger than I. They will climb the mountain. I will be very grateful to be able to hike the site and climb the stairs, and communicate with the patient guides in Spanish.