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ADVENTURES IN WRITING – MANIFESTING DESTINY

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Writers are adept at making lemonade when the skies pelt the earth with lemons, and the weather in Cuenca was providing plenty to be sour and bitter about. We channeled it as best we could into writing projects. As sad as it may be that we aren’t maxing out our Instagram feed with sunshine-soaked eye-candy, we’d rather be a little ahead of the game so that we can guiltlessly take advantage when the weather finally does turn. Knowing the rain isn’t taking any breaks certainly makes it easier to avoid taking your own.

The work on Skyjack is in its final phases, so it feels more measured than the first few dizzy nights. My jackhammer fingers have developed a lighter touch on the keyboard, and I’m forced to be mindful of the weight of words. A poorly-phrased sentence or badly constructed scene will not only have repercussions on the climax as it approaches, but it will ripple through the whole work like an off-smell or overdone noodles ruining an otherwise enjoyable meal.

Treading a line between caution and the impulse to try and sprint for the finish line is a strange feeling, but hitting 44k words felt amazing. I know I can wipe out 6k in a night, and that knowledge tempers any urgency I have to finish quickly. I want to finish, but I want to finish in a way that honors the rest of the work.

Travelers are perpetually searching to escape to somewhere with weather more alluring than wherever they are from, but Cuenca’s persistent afternoon showers are proving a welcome reinforcement for a master procrastinator like myself. Exploring on foot has always been a treasured activity, even when the journey is little more than a jaunt around the neighborhood. My presence in a gymnasium is a sure sign I’ve lost a bet, and yet I’ll gladly wander streets, both familiar and unknown, for hours. Countless days have been spent roaming through markets, discovering hidden routes, unusual architecture, dynamic street art, and generally soaking up the energy of whatever city I’m in. This predilection is intensified by the knowledge of our limited time here, and wanting to take advantage of that time would otherwise be a distraction to the writing that needs to be done.

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Eyes on the prize in Cuenca, Ecuador

My first attempts at each new piece once left me gaping at my laptop for an hour struggling with where to begin. Choosing my words felt like grasping for a lamp’s pull chain in the dark. That blank screen can still be intimidating, but the dam has sprung some leaks. I’m starting to be able to tease out the story in a situation and uncovered my voice, stowed beneath years of productive drudgery, in all the rooting around.

J has unearthed a kindred spirit of sorts, a pair of them, actually. They are another couple working to build their own platform promoting affordable travel and the continued growth and understanding that can be attained by opening oneself up to other cultures. Traveling offers us the opportunity to find commonality between ourselves and people we may not have imagined to have much experience resembling our own. It somehow manages to expand our perception of the physical world while making it conceptually smaller. The correspondence between us sparked a similar intimacy, connecting us across continents through wires and radio waves. One of them was even Ecuadorian.

“In stark comparison to this new territory we find ourselves in, a gig in a restaurant is the Big Easy. I keep reminding myself that it’s the familiarity that provides the illusion of ease. Take away all of my training and throw me back in a dish pit, and I’m sure I would make all of the same mistakes I’m making with my writing now.”

Our first piece for them gives us the occasion to address ideas that are broader than the scope of our current narrative. I’m particularly eager to address the real and perceived dangers of traveling as a woman. Friends and coworkers consider me capable. My parents immigrated to the United States and think nothing of having resided in New York’s outer boroughs during the 1970s. Still, I was forced to field misinformed comments about the harm I was courting by leaving the country.

I appreciate that these remarks come from of a place of concern more often than one of ignorance, that the media does a great job of minimizing the violent crime Americans are exposed to with relation to those living in the rest of the world. Some nations use propaganda to inspire nationalism within their citizens, some distract them with sales and SUVs.

I’m not the kind of person whose curiosity can be sated lying on the private beaches of a resort. I find the unlimited buffets generic and wasteful, made especially gratuitous by their proximity to communities which are often impoverished. I believe the entertainment to be exploitative, the shows a mockery of the cultures they claim to celebrate. Sterility is a priority in a hospital, not a vacation.

There is so much beauty to appreciate in this world and it becomes more accessible by the day. Cuenca’s rainy afternoons inevitably break into the most singular sunsets. The natural wonders are breathtaking, but really it’s the interactions, the warm moments among strangers, that make the adventures memorable. If it means having to watch my back, well as a woman, I’ve had my share of practice.

Dusk in Cuenca, Ecuador
Dusk in Cuenca, Ecuador

As we’ve struck on adversity, be it writer’s block, queries falling on uninterested ears, or just the classic vanilla of depression, I have taken up the refrain that all of this will make much more sense a year from now. This is so different than our previous jobs, where we could measure our work in tips received and hours scheduled. Results are often tangible. The payoff for hard work often comes quickly, and in rapid succession, especially in cities with thriving or bourgeoning restaurant cultures. In stark comparison to this new territory we find ourselves in, a gig in a restaurant is the Big Easy. I keep reminding myself that it’s the familiarity that provides the illusion of ease. Take away all of my training and throw me back in a dish pit, and I’m sure I would make all of the same mistakes I’m making with my writing now.

It’s not exactly the most encouraging sort of talk, and when in doubt, we put our heads down and pound the keyboard: there goes another 3k, and we’re up to 47k.

I can understand why people don’t switch careers. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to have gleaned some intelligence through experiential education. There’s comfort in knowing how to impress a boss, navigate a client meeting, change the printer cartridge. Eventually, you’re able to find flow in a stack of TPS reports.

I’ve never been one to stay in my lane, preferring a more fluid path to wherever I’m headed, but they say you should write what you know and I’ve learned a hell of a lot about restaurants in twenty years.

Service fields encourage a sink or swim approach to training. It can certainly be cruel, is often hilarious, but actually does serve a purpose in weeding out people who would buckle under the pressure of warmly accommodating the not-so-occasional rude patron. I began writing articles geared toward helping others succeed in an ironically stressful industry. My pieces outlined the steps involved in putting together a hospitality-focused resume, provided actionable tips for team leadership, confronted how sexual harassment is uniquely problematic in a workplace where employees are meant to perform as though they are always enjoying themselves and are often reliant on tips.

Rio Tomebamba with the Andes looming in the distance, surrounding Cuenca, Ecuador
Rio Tomebamba with the Andes looming in the distance, surrounding Cuenca, Ecuador

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates at least 14 million people in the United States work in the Accommodation and Food Services sector. Despite 1 in 25 Americans being employed by the hospitality industry, I found few places to circulate my work. Most platforms and publications which claimed to be about food and beverage had elected to discuss those topics from the perspective of entertaining the consumer. The little attention shown towards the people curating the dining experience seemed relegated to puff pieces tracing the career trajectories of Chefs or Sommeliers, their struggles and perseverance diluted down to PG-13 soundbites.

It made me angry. Part of being a skilled hospitality professional is an ability to authentically convey deference, especially towards guests whose current actions may not be deserving of it. The polish which must be exhibited to ensure patrons aren’t embarrassed during these interactions can sometimes lead the uninitiated to believe the person serving them is not especially bright or worthy of their respect. The hypocrisy of the guests who write reviews criticizing service which they simultaneously deem to be “unskilled” is a source of amusement to those in the industry.

However, food writers are not disgruntled patrons yelping in earnest. They purport to be journalists, at least on some level, and in a demanding industry where shifts commonly end in some combination of tears, ranting, and copious amounts of alcohol, it’s demeaning to treat the work of creating a positive experience for others as though it weren’t real.

It’s not often you come across a glaring hole between what should be and what is. I began taking notes for my own platform, one where service professionals could find information about the very real careers they pursue. If you want something done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself.

The next day, I finish the story at around 51k, but by that time, there was never any doubt. Almost as if by inertia alone, the story pulls you where it wants to go, you and your characters wrangle over those last words, and like an improv session in some smokey, dim room, deals are struck, clear and beautiful notes are broadcast, great music is made. The room goes black, and the concert is suddenly over, the players already waiting for you at the next gig. You have a record of all those nights, woodshedding, hitting false notes, learning new tricks, all collected and etched into vinyl with the final keystroke. You can revisit as much as you want, but that singular concert is over. The new territory just got that much more familiar, a new song on your lips as you explore.

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