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!