Sunday, December 27, 2009

Airport Schmair-port

So it's dark and cold outside as I sit in the Quito airport. Despite all the luggage that I have to deal with for the next twelve hours, I thought it was necessary to buy my Mom a dozen roses. They are one of Ecuador's biggest exports, ya know. Anyway, I am sad to leave this beautiful country, but also excited to come home to see everyone, not to mention a little nervous about the weather conditions back in the good ol' Midwest...
Yesterday I went with my host mother to Otavalo and Cotocachi. Both are amazing little towns nestled between sprawling farm lands and rolling hills. Both are known for their artisan markets. I believe that Otavalo is the largest indigenous artisan market in South America. I had fun bargaining, but it was a new experience with my host mother along; she haggles better than I, of course, and kept asking me if I thought something was cheap or not. Fun times. After we left Otavalo, we drove for about an hour out of the way to eat at a restaurant called Fritada Amazonas. The only thing they serve is fritada, obviously (fried pork meat with seasoning, que rico!), but we also ate choclo, hamas, avocado, and empenadas. After entirely too much food, we drove back and visited Cotocachi. There is a huge market for leather goods, here, and again Magdalena helped me get the best prices possible.
I am happy to have the trip come to an end. I didn't feel ready to leave Ecuador until I was back in the mainland and all the other students departed. I felt right at home on San Cristobal, and I'm not much of a big city girl. But all in all I had the most amazing experience of my life, so far...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Feliz Navidad!

So I celebrated Christmas last night, Christmas Eve, with my host family in Cumbaya. I made some gingerbread cookies with my host sister and helped her make a tiramisu (but she insisted we add passionfruit juice to the cheese mixture, typical Ecuador). First, we all trucked downstairs of the condominiums they live in to visit my host mother's cousin. There were about twenty people coming and going in the hour we spent there. Some of the kids read the story about Jesus being born (as far as I could gather) and one of the little boys reluctantly played Silent Night on the guitar. They gave each other gifts, and I got a small bag of candies, cookies, suckers and even M&Ms. They explained that this is a tradition, to give everyone a candy bag at Christmas. I was grateful to be spending the holiday with family, anyone's family, however it did just make me miss my own all the more...
Next we took the desserts to my host father's parents home. It was like walking into a bank, so beautiful and there was even a butler. Again, they exchanged gifts and I received more junk to rot my pearlies. It wasn't until midnight that we sat down to eat turkey, potatoes au gratin, spinach salad with apples, carrot and squash salad and some red wine. We naturally followed this up with the tropical tiramisu and my cookies. We left the house around two in the morning. Outside the gate was a black and white dog standing in the trash bin, having his own Christmas dinner. (I must explain the trash bins in these neighborhoods: they are small metal baskets on a stand about four feet high. I assume this is in an attempt to keep such scoundrels out of the trash, but obviously not very effective.) It made me think of Charles Dickens somehow...
Today we all slept in, which was very nice. At noon we went to my host mother's parents house in another small village. Here we had another huge meal: chicken, mashed potatoes, carrot and squash salad (again), and avocados (since they have a frickin' avocado tree in their backyard!). Afterwards most of the adults fell asleep on the couch (it's like a whole room of my Uncle Earls) and I taught the kids how to play Rummy and War card games. We came home around seven, but they are now in Mass.
Tomorrow morning the kids are leaving with their uncle for Esmeraldas for the weekend, so they can visit the beach, now that they are on vacation from school. I'm heading to Otavalo tomorrow and then leaving for the airport early Sunday morning. 

As my travels are coming to a close, I have been reflecting on how much has happened and how I have changed during the past four months. I am truly grateful for everyone who has supported me and loved me while I took off on such an endeavor. And touched by all those who kept in touch with me, even though I'm not a great pen pal. I am sad for all the things I have missed in the lives of my loved ones back home, but am also reminded of this quote:
"For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in Cumbaya

So I am back in Cumbaya (Quito), spending the xmas holiday with my host family that I first stayed with when I came to Ecuador. Leaving the island was rough: I did not want to leave my host family and all the friends I made, not to mention the beautiful island itself. The Yepez family made me a farewell dinner of lobster and rice and potatoes and more homemade hooch. We exchanged gifts and I bawled like a blubbering baby. We all arrived in Quito on Saturday and were put up in Hotel Corlina. Sunday evening we had our farewell dinner, and then few by few, students were taken to the airport to return home, or else continue on their travels. I was surprised by how emotional I became, saying goodbye to some great friends, trying to make plans for Spring Break (Asheville, baby!).
Monday some of us went to the Oswaldo Guayasamin museum in Quito. It is his old home and studio converted into galleries of his collections of pre-colonial artifacts, his original artwork, and a side exhibit of other painters representations of Guayasamin. He is considered one of the most influetial and important artists in all of South America, and was from Quito. I was so happy that I had the chance to see his museum. He was a spokesman for peace and used his work to depict the agony and suffering caused by war, slavery, and oppression of culture.
Later, me and two friends rode to Mindo, a small town just a few hours from Quito. We stayed in a small cabin, surrounded by lush green hills and small streams rushing. Mindo is known for the butterflys and orchids that grow, this time of the year is supposed to be the best for the orchids to be blooming. We walked up a long muddy road to the Marioposia (Butterfly Nursery) where we entered a small area, netted closed, of course, with probably one hundred beautiful butterflies. There were owl eyes and blue morphos, and plenty more that i couldn{t identify. We were told that because there hadn{t been much rain lately, most orchids weren{t in bloom. We had lunch in town and took a two dollar bus back to Quito. We all went out together that night, dancing in downtown Quito is not near as much fun as dancing in San Cristobal, and the other four students left the next morning. I woke up alone in a huge hotel room and felt ready to come home for the first time in four and a half months. I packed my things and left them with the hotel, while I roamed around Quito by myself. I went to the Cultural center and saw a lot of pre-colonial artifacts, including many pots made by the Incas. I walked around more, ate an almuerzo, and then rested in a park for awhile. There was an artisan market set up, many families out together, and even a brass band in the park and a small parade.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dos Tiburones y Dos Angelitas

Saturday I went with my class to fish with the new program, Pescando Vivencial. The morning started off great, us 8 students were pumped to catch a big one. A local restaurant named Deep Blue (owned by one of my many host uncles on the island) was going to cook it for our dinner that evening. Our first bite bent the line and Carolyn jumped up and strapped on a belt with a holder for the pole, that way she could hold the line and reel in as fast as she could. Try as she did, she wasn't fast enough, because a lobo came up and munched our catch, lure and all. This was a disappointment, as the sea lions just swim with the boat and are obviously waiting for us to catch anything. What lazy little stinkers they can be! We fished many different areas, but didn't have anymore nibbles. Finally, much later in the morning, we had two bites at once! Both of the fishermen turned tour guides grabbed the poles and tried to reel them in quickly. To all of our dismay, two black-tipped sharks snagged these fish, but also bit down on the giant hooks. For the next twenty minutes or so, the professional fishermen struggled and fought with these sharks, about five and a half feet long, splashing and squirming on the end of the line which can hold up to 350 lbs. Finally, one fisherman was able to cut the line, freeing the shark. The second one was hooked and the lure pried from it's giant mouth. I saw it's eye, a white-ish grey orb that seemed to gaze at nothing. The shark was freed and released and the fisherman cheered and wiped the sweat from his forehead: he had saved his lure, with only gills left. We had no more bites that day, but luckily for us, the other boat with students had caught a wahoo and a tuna, so we would have something to eat with our rice that night for dinner. It wasn't until then that I heard a superstition about having bananas on boats. Apparently this is terrible luck, not just for fishing, but for anything to go wrong. "Well, that explains alot," I commented, as I recollected all of us happily chewing on the bananas earlier that morning, wondering why there were not more bites on our lines. It was an amazing experience, and so scary to see the sharks that close. Now I understand why the fishermen have resorted to long-line fishing and other newer techniques, in order to catch anything and not be robbed by sea lions and sharks. 
Monday night was the kickoff of this week's XMAS activities put on by the tourism chamber, who my father and sister are members of. I helped my sister for two days painting large cardboard candy canes and mistletoe cutouts, stuffed about 500 small grab bags of candy for the kiddos, and made little votive candles with plastic soda bottles. That night me and my friend Jazmine dressed as angelitas with white dresses, paper wings and garland halos and held votive candles and walked in the parade, behind a very unhappy white horse pulling a carriage with about twenty kids piled on. Afterwards we went to a cafe and sat at the bar to have a beer. Even more pictures, as everyone wants to take a picture with an angelita and her beer mug. 
After the parade there was a holiday cartoon shown in the square and my family dished up hot chocolate and bread for everyone who came. Last night all the different elementary schools presented their handmade ornaments for the city tree. Tonight I am face painting after class, I have been practicing my tree and star shapes, I hope I can get it right...

Friday, December 11, 2009

Una Semana Mas...

Somehow I only have one week left on San Cristobal, before returning to Quito and setting out on my own for a few days before returning to the states. Where has the time gone? This week was the last week of actual classes (next week is final presentations) and the last hours spent volunteering. On Wednesday, I taught the level 4 English class Solomon Burke's "Gotta Get You Offa My Mind" = awesome. Today I made XMAS cards with the kids at El Progreso and brought juice and cookies to have a little party. They all made cards for me and wanted me to take pictures with all of them and me and the little XMAS tree they have set up. So funny to do when it's nearly 90 degrees outside. Very sad to say goodbye to all of them, I can't say for sure that I'll be missed, but I will miss all of them, for sure. 
Tonight I'm going out for drinks with friends, but not too many...In the morning I'm going fishing with my classmates and my professor, who's the director of a program called Pescando Vivencia (Livelihood Fishing). This is a new program happening on San Cristobal to try to persuade more fishermen to have an alternative income in tourism. 
I'm finishing up my final papers and presentations. I'm writing my final project on how the tourism industry has influenced people living in San Cristobal to learn English as a second language, incorporating my service work experiences. 
I'm not sure how I feel about leaving the island so soon, returning to a large city and then back to the US. I have many new friends to keep in touch with, but am also excited to return to my loved ones back in the states. 

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Cumpleanos Almuerzo

Tomorrow is my papa's 59th birthday, so there was a huge almuerzo today to celebrate: sopa, rice, chicken, ensalada, and papas fritas. I helped the women in the kitchen all morning. I'm still not sure if I was more trouble than I was help, but it was fun and the food turned out great. First, I apparently don't know how to cut up a chicken correctly. But I had a chance to redeem myself on the second bird. Then I made an ensalada with cooked carrots, peas and corn, apple, tomatoes, green pepper, and cilantra, with salt, lime and, of course, mayonessa. It turned out pretty good, though, and once all mixed together, my sister told me that it was an experiment, a good one, since we would indeed be eating it. Then I browned some potatoes in butter on the gas stove (something I can definitely do, thanks German heritage!) and added some oregano. There was juice and homemade liquor. It was brown like whiskey, but it had been infused with pasas (raisins) and burned like the devil. For dessert we ate watermelon and pineapple, and then some retired to the hammocks while Vicente brought out the cds, including Shakira, everyone's favorite. ;) We danced a little, and he sang a lot! All day friends and family showed up to wish him "Feliz cumpleanos!" and to eat some of the food on the back porch and visit for hours. He has a twin brother, and the two of them are ridiculous when together. They joke and pretend to be the other one, even though they don't look that much alike at this age... I love the idea of a party for whomever shows up, though there were probably thirty guests over the course of the day. The gifts are for everyone: great food shared among relatives and lifelong friends, dancing and drinks. And there is always room for one more at the table...


Saturday was a minga limpieza (community clean up day). Two of the students are volunteering at the recycling center for their service work, and they organized the whole event with the municipio. We all recruited our families and met at the city building at eight in the morning. We waited for about half an hour (in true island-time fashion) for the people from the municipio to show up and unlock the door. Once they did, they gave us all t-shirts and gloves and giant trash bags. Then we were delivered by pick-up taxi to different areas around town to pick up litter. There are many open lots around the schools and between neighborhoods, so lots of trash blows into the plants and trees there and gets stuck. Along the streets there are lots of little bits of trash, and in small ditches lots of people just chuck their finished bottle, bag, or can. After about three hours of hard work, we all were amazed at how good it looked. My brother told me that not many local people like to participate in mingas anymore, they are becoming less connected to the idea of community as a family. It was great to see so many young locals, however, helping out. Maybe it will ignite a passion in the next generation, like my own. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Suerta Chica

Last Saturday I was invited by Jose, my host brother, on his day tour with his tour group. I joined about fifteen rich, old Germans on a very nice boat. First we went snorkeling at Isla Lobos and the tourists all gawked and squibbled about the iguanas, very red now for the mating season, and the frigate birds all circling overhead, ready for someone else to find some dinner to steal. They are indeed the Bad Boys of the Galapagos Skies...We then navigated to Leon Dormido, so beautiful each time I get to see it. We were distracted when Jose spotted a group of dolphins swimming and jumping out of the waves, we followed them for awhile, and I was tempted to swim with them, but knew I wouldn't be able to keep up at all. Jose said that I was good luck to have on the boat, as no one (including myself) had seen dolphins yet. I kept this information to myself, assuring them that, yes, indeed, it was because I was freeloading on their very expensive trip that the dolphins chose to make an appearance. Yes, yes, and you're welcome. "Ya, bitte shon!" 
Here I will briefly comment on how incredibly hilarious it was to witness Jose, who has excellent English, but a very strong Spanish accent, fumble with German around these old fuddy-duds. He's so funny and genuine, but they totally ignore his desperate attempts at learning their own language in order to better serve them. It was not taken personally, however, he laughs at all of them behind their hairy backs...
To my dismay, none of the geezers wanted to snorkel around the giant rock formation, where all the sharks and giant manta rays like to hang out. Since I didn't exactly feel right about insisting they wait an hour on only me to do it, we navigated on to the beach. Once at Porta Grande, I went snorkeling by myself around the mangroves (very cloudy mess) and almost RAN INTO a giant sea tortise! I nearly spit my snorkel out of my mouth, and he seemed to do a double take, before darting off into the cloudy water. I returned to shore and slept in the sun a little. When we were navigating out of the bay a while later, we saw many more tortises, one pair was, you know...copulating. Another sight that is rare and surely due to my presence on the boat trip. 
When I returned, I went to school to help out on the Thanksgiving dinner that was planned for that evening. We had five chickens (I would have preferred cuy), mashed potatoes, spinach quiche, green bean casserole, stuffing, rolls from a local paneria (bakery), pumpkin pie, and apple crisp. It was so good, I couldn't help but eat a lot of everything. Fast. And so later, after one and a half beers, I started to feel like I was inflating slowly. After getting very sick from a holiday dinner overdose, I decided that my system can't handle meals without white rice and fried plantains anymore...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Muchas Islas

So I haven't written a new blog in a while, I'll try to do an accurate job of updating what I've been doing. Halloween weekend some friends and I went on a sea kayaking and camping trip. Twelve of us rented a boat and left in the early afternoon. We rode to a beach where we paired up and kayaked along the coast to another beach. A couple little sea lions swam around us and followed for awhile. Gradually, Ingvild and I noticed that our kayak was filling up with water, and that we were tipping a little more than we liked as some larger waves hit us. We raised our paddles, the sign for the boat to come pick us up. Feeling good about sitting so still, we suddenly tipped completely and were briefly dunked. Once more at the surface, we caught each other's eyes and burst out laughing. Then a group of pelicans that had been floating in the water near us began flying our way, I was sure they were going to land on our heads, but they passed us by. Phew. We climbed into the boat and picked up the rest of the gang and watched the sunset on the water as we navigated to a different beach, Porta Grande, where we would camp. I ended up opting to sleep in the open air on the floor of the boat, there was almost a full moon and it was Halloween night. So beautiful! We also had been watching baby hammerhead sharks fishing in the waters around where we had anchored, so I wasn't too stoked about making a wet landing to get to the beach (wading in knee-deep water to shore from the boat). 
The next morning we began kayaking more after breakfast and arrived at Cerro Brujo (Witch Hill). This rock formation was a little spooky (appropriate) and had many caves, which we snorkeled through. This is the picture of The Cathedral on Facebook, if you've noticed. Next we rode to Leon Dormido and snorkeled through the channel; here we saw MANY (more than twenty?) Galapagos and white-tipped reef sharks, which were probably about ten feet below us. I also saw a few spotted eagle rays, very large and also close. Finally we snorkeled again at Isla Lobos (Sea Lion Island), where of course, we saw sea lions, marine iguanas, rays and lots of fish. 
The next day we left for our two week trip. First we rode to Isabela, where we stayed in nice hotels for three days. Here we took lots of little tours. The Wall of Tears was one interesting stop: a huge stone wall built during WWII by prisoners on the island. The idea was for them to build a huge room where they would be placed and closed off and left to die. Hence, the name. We saw lots of estuaries, red and white mangroves, another galapaguera (tortise hatchery), and the most beautiful beaches in all of the places I've seen in the Galapagos! The sand was the most fine, it seemed to stretch clear into the sun, and were so peaceful and empty. Another day we hiked five hours to Volcan Chico and saw the huge crater, I think it's the second largest in the world. Anyway, no Pompeii action and we all made it back safely. 
Once we left, we travelled to Santa Cruz, where we boarded our tour boat for the rest of the islands. My boat was the Eden, a beautiful ship which housed 16 of us for the next four days. We had all incredible meals on the boat, and then our guide would take us hiking and snorkeling each morning and afternoon. Thankfully I didn't get seasick or too sunburnt. We went to Bartolome, Seymour, Genovessa, and then back to Baltra. I saw so many gorgeous sunsets, rock formations, volcanic rock, iguanas, fur seals, sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs, red-footed boobies, blue-footed boobies, lava gulls, birds of paradise, frigates, penguins, and rays, not to mention more new fish! We sadly said our goodbyes to the crew and arrived in Baltra, where we directly crossed the ferry (they could totally just build a bridge, but that's kinda the point in this culture) to Santa Cruz. Here we stayed in another hotel for one week. This is the most populated island, at about 16,000 inhabitants, and is also the most touristy. We took some tours here and snorkeled more, but immediately noticed how a fleet of four or five tour boats meet up at each site, depleting my feeling of satisfaction, due to the higher populations. (Ha! sorry I had to geek out on some tourism theory, there). We spent one day visiting Floreana, the least populated island, of about 150 people. This island is the most mysterious, as there have been many unsolved murders and cryptic stories. In the highlands we hiked around the 'pirate caves' where buccaneers used to hide out and hide their booty. (I found none) There are also the remnants of hollowed out rocks where a German family had lived after WWII. Very cool, and I tested out a rock ledge bed, deciding if I could live in a dollhouse for a whole summer, I could live in a cave on the side of a mountain, too. I visited two beaches while in Santa Cruz, but they couldn't compare with Isabela. The people are friendly, for the most part, but I find that folks here on San Cristobal are the most genial. Santa Cruz has more Westernized (and more expensive) restaurants, gift shops, and of course, night life. I had a lot of fun, but was very happy to return to my favorite island: San Cristobal. 
Now we're back and things are 'back to normal.' I am starting new service work tomorrow, helping teach English to kids in El Progresso (a small village in the highlands) and to make Christmas decorations out of recyclable materials. I am still helping teach English at the university. Tonight I taught them the words to the Beatles song, Baby You Can Drive My Car. They loved it, even more than the Willie Nelson song I played for them in the last class. 
Some unrelated business, my email account was hacked into, so I've created a new one. If you haven't already, please drop me a line:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

On the Boat Again

Last Saturday my class went on a snorkel trip for the day, along with our professor, everyone's favorite. We cruised to Isla Lobos (Sea Lion Island) and snorkeled. So beautiful! Check out my pictures on facebook, because I saw so many critters in the ocean with me! A sea turtle, chillin' on the ocean floor, a marine iguana eating algae and then swimming by, so many fish and sea lions, of course, but also a few manta rays and sea urchins. We snorkeled around there for about an hour and then boarded the boat to go to Leon Dormido. This is a very famous rock formation that rises about 450 feet out of the ocean, a small channel between the two formations and flat on top. So peculiar! There we snorkeled through the channel, checking out the coral and fish and Galapagos tiburones (sharks)! At first mention of this opportunity to view such creatures, I was pretty nervous. I don't really have any desire to see sharks in the same body of water as my self, mainly in fault of how many shows I've seen on Discovery or Animal Planet and all the bad things these guys can do. Oh, and Steven Speilberg didn't help things, either. But when we saw them, they are pretty small, maybe only three feet big; and they were also very far below us. I tried to swim very quietly so as not to draw their attention. It worked, however, it was a little too dark for my pictures to turn out. So this'll remain a typical fish story, you had to be there. After we got through the channel, the plan was to snorkel the entire distance around Leon Dormido, keeping close to the edge to see as much as possible. The current, however, was quite strong, and swim as we did, we got nowhere. So we headed back to the boat, where we loaded and rode to Porta Grande, a beautiful beach on the other side of the island. We had lunch on the boat and then enjoyed the beach a little and explored the area. We returned in later afternoon, only a few people sunburned. 
I went dancing again that night, and realized that the reason that everyone sings along, is that these songs aren't new. My friend told me that yes, he's heard these songs since he was little. People on the island don't like change, he said. I nodded solemnly, that explains the rice at every meal, I said. He didn't laugh, but agreed with a shrug.
Sunday I went snorkeling at a spot which is supposedly where Darwin first landed, in 1835. We didn't see much other than fish and some cool coral, but the visibility was crystal clear and the water was brisk and refreshing on the humid afternoon. 
I finished another class this week, Conservation of Natural Resources in the Community. My final project required me to interview several people in the town, which was an amazing way to truly learn about the issues on the island. 
Last night everyone made costumes (I was a flamingo) and went to a costume party at one of the bars. There was live music and way too many people in such a small place, but it was really fun. The costumes were funny, everyone had come up with something on the fly, and with extremely limited resources. We all made many trips to the sole fabric store, the man chuckling at us as we explained our disfraces (costumes). 
This afternoon, some friends and I are taking a short trip for some kayaking and snorkeling. We'll go to Leon Dormido again, hopefully we can swim the circumference. Also, we'll get to kayak in some caves, which I'm really happy about. We'll camp on Porta Grande, the beach we visited last week, and return Sunday afternoon. 
On Monday our whole group leaves for our one week vacation, a tour of the other islands. I'm not sure where all we will visit, but I know that we spend some time on Isabella and Baltra, which used be a US Navy base during WWII to protect the Panama Canal, FYI. After our fun trip, we'll spend one week in Santa Cruz, where we'll start our next class. We'll return to San Cristobal on 15 November, with only five weeks remaining before venturing back to Quito. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

First at Twenty-Six

So I realize that I haven't updated the blog recently, but have felt like nothing extremely notable has really happened to pass along. I'm not bored, by any means, but have settled into a schedule of school, volunteering, swimming and snorkeling, and hanging out with friends everyday. But last night, sitting on the moya (pier), watching for meteors, me and a friend began listing all of our firsts that we've experienced on this trip. So here it goes: First time I've been abroad for this long. First time I've eaten cuy. First time I've eaten crab and lobster and ceviche and chicken intestines. First time I've really seen the ocean and been to an island and snorkeled. First time I've tutored English to non-English speakers. First time I've been chased off my beach towel by a honking male sea lion. First time I've danced salsa and merengue in a night club. First time kissing an Ecuadorian ;) First time I've lived with a host family. First time I've lived in a house with three generations. First time I've helped with a beach clean-up. First time to speak Spanish for such an extended period of time, total immersion. First time I've drank so many different types of juice. First time I've had a pedicure in a foreign country. First time so close to the equator. First time hiking on a volcano. First time hiking over 14,443 feet (new record is around 15,500)! First time I've had such intensive courses that I love. First time volunteering with a National Park. First time I've body surfed in the waves with sea turtles. First time at a turtle hatchery. First time in a lighthouse. First time showering with lizards every day. First time having to translate all my jokes to Spanish. First time I've called for a taxi in Spanish - and it came. First time I've sat in a hammock and drank wine and watched the sunset on the majestic view of Cotopaxi. First time I've sat on a boardwalk and drank beer and watched the sunset. First time I've legally (?) ridden in the back of a truck. First time I've mountain biked in another country. First time I'll spend XMAS alone. And in another country. First time I've seen a carnivorous plant in it's natural habitat. First time I've seen a caiman. First time I've swam in the Tiputini River. First time I've been so tan in the middle of Autumn. First time I've felt this good. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dancin' Fool

The sun is shining and the air is fresh, I keep having to remind myself that back home leaves are fire-like colors and the snow is teasing the crisp air. The weather is still very warm (around 70's) and often it becomes grey and misty (garuna), but it's not even chilly at night. I'm becoming spoiled and I fear the change will be much worse than last year when I returned to Colorado after visiting Tucson, AZ. 
All the students are getting together this afternoon in order to cook and celebrate Thanksgiving, Canadian style! We're having chicken instead of turkey, salads, mashed papas, homemade rolls, and apple pie. We'll celebrate again in November, and will be more of a potluck-style. Cooking with family and friends is perhaps the activity I am missing most (other than riding my bike). I am looking forward to using fresh fruits and vegetables from my family's farm and from the local markets to prepare some dishes of comfort food!
Last night I went dancing again with a friend until 3 am! So much fun, and I'm getting pretty decent at salsa and merengue. Today I slept until noon and my legs and feet hurt. Totally worth it. It's so cool that EVERYONE dances and sings and struts their stuff on the dance floor. Absolutely no hesitation about it. The dance floor gets absolutely packed and people are dripping sweat, moving to the beat, one song flowing into the next. After a good while, the DJ switches it up with slower songs, and everyone pretty much returns to their tables and drinks and rests. Men put their arms around each other and sway and belt out the lyrics, women reapply makeup and fix their hair. Something I really like is how people drink here. Everyone buys beer in a larger bottle, and gets a few small glasses. You then pour for others and salud! and drink, throwing the last little bit on the ground (for the homies). It's typical of this place, everything is shared among friends. The dangerous part of this practice, of course, then is to continue dancing in these sticky puddles of beer. 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Turtles, Birds and Fish

Last weekend I made cheese empenadas with my mama and told her I also wanted to make tortillas with her sometime. I am trying to learn as much as I can about all the great food I'm eating! On Sunday the whole family took a taxi (they don't have a car) to the highlands to the family farm. They own around 20 hectares of land, where different crops grow in random places, as the land has never been cleared, actually better for the crops and the birds and insects. They have pineapple trees, banana trees, orange trees, guyaba trees (a long skinny pod with large black seeds inside that are covered in a sweet, white film that you eat), chickens, coffee, roses, pumpkins, papayas, corn, and many other fruits and vegetables. They are also building a house on the land, so they can stay there on the weekends when they come to work. They also grow some coffee, but don't cultivate it; how incredible to see a coffee plant as tall as me with shiny red berries, the humble beginnings of java. 
After a harvest that lasted most of the morning, we rode in the back of a truck (with said harvest) to Porta Chino. It was like stepping into a postcard: fine white sand, clear blue water, pelicans and blue-footed boobies perched on black volcanic rocks and a few sea lions, sprawled out on the shore. I played in the waves for a few hours, while the kids made sand castles and the adults sat in the shade. 
Then they took me to the Galapaguera, the turtle hatchery that opened on the island about five years ago. The older, larger tortises hang out among the trees and shrubs and pools, with winding trails between them. They are from the hatchery in Santa Cruz, since they were mostly around twenty to thirty years old, and they all had a number painted in fingernail polish on their shells. In another section, there are the younger turtles, ranging from one to five years old. They are kept in secure cages and more closely monitored and fed. Dogs, cats, rats, and even ants are the predators to these babies, so they are guarded carefully for five years until they are old enough to survive in the protected area surrounding the hatchery. After that we went to a small open-air restaurant in El Progresso, a small village in the highlands, and ate an enormous almuerzo (lunch).
This week I've been starting my service work. I help out with an English class every Wednesday night here at the university and also meet with three students outside of class, two hours each week to tutor one-on-one. 
My other service work is assisting in environmental education through the National Park for the local kids in the community. October is Bird Month, so this Saturday we'll be stopping cars on the road from El Progresso to tell drivers to slow down. Many birds and iguanas have been killed by cars cruising down from the highlands. Tomorrow I'll help the kids paint posters for the awareness campaign. 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Island Livin'

I arrived at San Cristobal on Sunday, the 20th. We were immediately whisked away to the university which is very small but lovely and conveniently right across the street of Playa Mann, the main beach. There are sea lions lounging like old men, scruffy whiskers, scratching against rocks, coughing and sneezing a little obscenely, and of course, carelessly sleeping the day away. Blue footed boobies glide above the sea, and suddenly turn and dive into the water like torpedoes to fish. Lizards of varied size and color scoot along the sidewalks and crabs tend to hold down the black volcanic rocks along the coasts. 
My new family has welcomed me into their modest home with, again, much love. Vicente and Gladis Yepez are in their fifties. They own a speedboat tour company that is run out of the front of their house. Vicente also is on the board of tourism for the island, as he seems to be one of the town's spokespeople. He is very short and a little grey, with eyes always wrinkled in a grin. Gladis is a math and art teacher at one of the primary schools. She spends the evenings after dinner sorting craft and art supplies for her next day's classes. They have two daughters, Pamela and Danielle, who are around my age, that both work in the family tourism office. Pamela has a five year old, Paula, who became my best friend in about the first thirty seconds of meeting me. She has no front teeth and long hair and a small puppy, which she carries everywhere like a doll. Danielle has a 14-month old, named Dante. He's a very happy little boy, who's favorite game to play is throwing a basketball across the tile living room floor and running after it on his bowed legs. It should come as no surprise that everyone lives in the house. My room has an outside entrance to the house, where I have a bed, desk and chair, dresser and my own bathroom. Upon arrival, they showed me around and gave me a key to lock my door. There were beautiful fresh flowers in a vase on the dresser, and they showed me that I have two "friends" in my shower: two tiny lizards. I just tell myself that they are keeping other things out of the shower; lizards I can live with. 
Vicente also told me about their family farm in the highlands, which I will soon get to visit. I think all the fruits and vegetables eaten in the house come from the finca (farm), and the eggs come from their aunt's chickens. Yesterday morning I had juice made from beets and oranges. Sabroso!
I am taking a new class this term, Health and the Environment, along with a Spanish course and my IPSL course. I have my long class in the mornings, and then all the students each lunch in the restaurants in the community. Sometimes we have breakfast or dinner with our host families, other days we eat breakfast in the university and eat lunch at a restaurant. I've eaten lots of fresh fish, lobster tail, shrimp, fruits, plantains, rice and beans and of course, chocolate covered bananas on a stick. I am also running every morning before school, which condones my above behavior of eating EVERYTHING THAT I COME ACROSS. 
For my service work, I am dividing up my hours. I am spending about 8 hours each week volunteering with the Parque Nacional doing environmental education for kids in the community. October is Bird Month, so we have activities planned every Saturday morning. My other service work is about 6 hours each week here at the university teaching and tutoring English. I sit in on one class each week and help with group conversation and activities. The students are from the community and range in age from 17 to 42. They are very friendly and eager to learn. I am also tutoring two other students outside of class a few times each week to help them with homework, studying for tests, and pronunciation. 
It is very safe here and most everyone is very outgoing and genuine. It is such a nice change to be able to walk alone in the middle of the street at night, as opposed to Quito. I am diligently searching for a bike to rent, although I live a five-minute walk away from the university and Playa Mann. I live one house up from Playa de Oro, which is also right next to the Malecon, which is the strip along the docks. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Leaving Cumbaya

So somehow a whole month has already ticked away and I am leaving for San Cristobal on Sunday? Hard to believe, since it feels like I just got settled in Ecuador. My mama says that winter is coming, since it's rained every afternoon for the past three days; as good a time as any to move on, I s'pose. I've finished my wildlife conservation biology class (final in the morning) and have really enjoyed it. My professor, Dr. David Romo, has a very interesting way of teaching, and the wheels in my head are, as always, spinning nonstop. Environmental ethics are a tricky thing, and so is ethical behavior in development and conservation. Once more, I am questioning everything I have been taught, and that's a good thing. Never let your mind grow stagnant; reexamine all that you have been told, dismiss that which insults your soul. Anywho, enough soapbox. I find it incredible that I have not become homesick. Not that I haven't missed family and friends, but I am totally at home here, mostly due to my incredible host family and their open hearts. Plus, I have made some great new friends, we immediately became so close! I feel like a small chapter of my travels are coming to a close, and once more, I am setting off for a new place that I can't imagine. I will be living with a new host family for the next three months, taking three more classes, and doing some service work each week. The details of where I am volunteering are not definite yet, so I won't write until they are. Until the island...ciao!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fun with Volcanoes

This last weekend was action-packed! First, I traveled with my class to Riobamba and stayed at an indigenous community's hostal, Achiknan, where they are trying to embrace eco-tourism as an alternative to agriculture and cattle raising on the arid paramo (highland plains). The people were so kind and worked hard to feed and provide for thirty people. They played music for us with charanga (small guitar made from an armadillo shell, kinda like a mandolin), guitar and flutes while the women sang. One of the women grabbed one of our professors, Esteban, and began dancing, hands behind their backs and little steps back and forth. They were very understanding of our questions and tried to explain the best they could in Quichua, which was then translated into Spanish, and then again into English. The next morning, after a satisfying breakfast of fried bread with jam, coffee and eggs, we drove to the refuge of Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest volcano. Because it is merely one degree south of the equator, and due to the shape of the globe, it is the world's closest point to the sun. It's peak reaches 6257 meters high and although we didn't hike to the glacier, we trekked a few miles along a ridge and explored a cave which is used as a temple for local indigenous tribesmen. Inside were gifts of flowers, money, food, wine, and even the badge of a policemen from Quito. We were told of myths about a condor and a toad and a cowboy searching for bulls near the glacier who, when he didn't ask permission from the gods, was turned into a stone pillar near the top of the peak. Our hike lasted most of the day, as we had to hike slowly and breathe deeply so as not to faint from lack of oxygen. At our highest point, we were around 15,500 feet high in elevation. We hiked down to a lodge owned by a man who had once been Ecuador's finest mountaineer, where we hungrily gobbled our almuerzo. Then, without showers, we were rushed to the satellite campus in Riobamba where we met with students learning English and visited with them for an hour. The four students I spoke with were all about 14 years old and very formal. They were interested in learning English in order to travel and go to a university. I am often jealous that schools in the United States don't require a second language course until so late in education. These kids were so advanced for how long they had been studying, and all seemed to take it so seriously. Later we checked into our hotel in Riobamba and were finally granted showers with hot water, crappy movies in Spanish, and beds that weren't bunks. Saturday we split up, as some of the students were returning to Quito while the rest of us had made reservations at a hostal named The Secret Garden, about an hour outside Machachi. Some of us piled into the back of a little pickup truck, along with our backpacks, and rode along the jerky road, all dry and loose, taking in the countryside. The hostal has only been open for about two years, by a family (he's Australian and she's Ecuadorian). It provided an incredible view of Cotopaxi, which means "throat of the moon,"and is Ecuador's highest active volcano at 5,897 meters. We enjoyed a hike up a dried riverbed that afternoon and saw some waterfalls, and played with the numerous dogs that are actually pets of the hostal. The next morning, after breakfast, we rode to the national park and parked at the trailhead. I say 'trailhead' because that's what most of us would consider what we hiked. In reality, it was an extremely steep hill of scree and gravel with high winds. All types of people were attempting to reach the glacier of Cotopaxi: we students in North Face coats and llama wool gloves, families in jeans and sneakers with little ones bundled up, only their eyes and noses showing, experienced mountaineers decked out in snowsuits with crampons, snowshoes, pick axes and more dangling from their packs, and even a crazed looking tourist swigging whiskey (he didn't make it too far before sitting down for a long spell and then reluctantly returning to the parking lot). We all paced ourselves as best we could, stopping to catch our strained breaths and taking pictures of the incredible panarama. About halfway between the parking lot and the peak is a lodge, which sells hot cocoa and postcards. After a warm drink, some of us headed further up, to reach the glacier and took pictures of the ice formations and the landscape below, which seemed more like a painting. After descending to the vehicles, and then returning to the hostal, we ate dinner in some kind of oxygen-deprived stupor and packed up to head home. What an amazing time with the volcanoes, paramo, llamas, and friends we made along the way!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Big Time in the Jungle

Hola! It hasn't been that long since my last post, but so much has happened, I'll try to cover all the details. Last weekend my mama and my sister and I went to the Botanical Gardens in Quito, absolutely beautiful. Orchids and carnivorous plants and bromeliads and many, many others! On Sunday we all went mountain biking (Don't worry Mom, I was wearing a helmet) on an old railroad line. It was great, running between people's backyards filled with gardens and cows and chickens and sheep, it was 17 km, around 10 miles. At the top we rode about four more blocks through a little village and found my mama's parent's house were we had lunch with all the family (around 30 of us, reminiscent of any Rumback get-together). Monday morning my class met at the university and we traveled to Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station, deep in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, along the Tiputini River. We did some research experiments and presentations, jungle hikes and boat rides. We learned firsthand how diverse the region is and how fragile the ecosystems are between plants, insects, birds and mammals. I saw howler monkeys, caimans, toucans, macaws, kingfishers, taiper prints, turtles, lizards, tarantulas, and countless ants and other insects. We also got to climb up the towers to walk in the canopy of the rainforest, about 45 meters high (again, don't worry Mom, we were roped in). Our professor and all the guides working at TBS were so knowledgable and funny, kind and helpful, it was really sad to say goodbye after one week and return home. Our last day we rode a boat up the river a ways and put on our lifejackets and jumped into the cool, murky water for a flotador (float trip) back down to the station, which lasted about three hours. Because there is a parasite in the Amazon rivers called an umbrella or a penis fish (it enters you, male or female if you pee in the water) we all climbed out along the shore to go. That's all for now! Besos!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Me gusta Ecuador!

So I have arrived and settled into my new home in Quito, Ecuador. I am actually living in Cumbaya, a small suburb, with my host family. Their home is a beautiful condo in a gated community, very close to my campus, Universidad de San Francisco. Yesterday the international students and myself took an all day city tour and got to know each other. Most students are Americans, a few Canadians, and two from Norway. We first rode to Volcan Pululagua, an enormous forested volcano about an hour outside the city. It is very nice to be able to admire geography so similar to Colorado, and even more novelty with the valleys patterned by farms in the valleys below. Next we went to the Museo Intinan and Mitat del Mundo, the monuments and museum marking the middle of the world. We learned about the culture of the Wuaorani and Kichua indigenous tribes and tested the unique gravity at the Equator, by balancing an egg on a nail, etc. Hilarious. We stopped at a small restaurant afterwards so that I was able to check off one of my goals in Ecudor: to eat a roasted cuy. Yes, yes, a cuy is a guinea pig (sorry, Katie!) that is roasted on a spit over an open fire or a bbq. Esta muy delicioso! I took pictures, of course, because those are bragging rights, mi amigo! After my adventure with fried rodents, we went to the Old Town of Quito and the Panecillo hill. At the top of Panecillo hill is a statue approximately 120 feet high of the Winged Virgen of Quito. (I believe that this is the only representation of the Virgin Mary with wings) It was built in the late 1890's and you can climb to the top and get a bird's eye view of the sprawling city. We spent some time in the city square, where many Ecuadorian families spend the weekend afternoons, buying helado (ice cream treats) and flying kites. We visited Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, an historic church built from 1605 and completed in 1765. It was nearly fifty feet high and the walls and moldings were all made of gold and intricate carvings and paintings. Que bonita!
My host family is very accomodating; Fernando, mi papa doesn't speak any English, but he is still very talkative and interested in my family and schooling. Magdalena, mi mama, is very thoughtful and goes out of her way to make me potatoes and porkchops, while the rest only eat cheese and bread for dinner. I have dos hermanas, Andre (16) and Gaby (15) who are very sweet and help me with Spanish vocabulary, and mi hermano Fillip (8) reminds me of a Latino Dennis the Menace. We played tennis this evening and he said I was a decent match, que comico! One subject my family doesn't seem to understand is that I don't like sugar in my coffee, my juice, or on fresh papaya for my breakfast. They were all standing around me at the table, disbelief and a little disguist in their eyes when I declined the sugar bowl. They wondered about my family, and it wasn't until I explained that my dad likes sugar in his coffee that they were able to seem a little more at ease.
Today and tomorrow are my orientation days at school, tomorrow I will travel to the embassy to obtain my censo and visa. The campus is beautiful and most students seemed very outgoing so far. Classes start on Wednesday, and I will also be starting my PADI certification classes soon (to become a certified scuba diver). Monday I will travel to Tiputini Biodiversity Station for the week, along the river Tiputini. It is much like ExploreNapo, the research station in Peru that I visited last summer, with international researchers and cold showers and canopy walkways. I will be there for the week, and return on Friday. Until next time...kiss kiss!