Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Living in Quito

Getting enough quality time on the internet is nearly impossible here. Nothing is easy. Nothing at all, which I guess is my first lesson regarding living abroad. Add about three hours and $10 to everything at the very least (by the way, $10 here is like $50 at home). For these reasons, I have not been able to adequately post about my last two months in Ecuador.

I spent the majority of September in orientation for nearly 12 hours a day that included practice teaching for two hours and two hours of Spanish lessons (I am not sure class was helpful though because my Spanish is still reproachable). During this time, I made about 40 friends of which nine are still living here in Quito. The rest of the group dispersed into the provinces south and west. It was very strange to go from seeing these people everyday to seeing only three or four of them once or twice a day, if at all. We had the rare instance of having a large group of people who got along and were pretty much amazing, friendly, and exceptionally interesting. I look forward to our reunion this weekend in Cuenca for the festival.

In September, I learned how not to get robbed (with the exception of my host family's incident, I have been lucky and DILIGENT), how not to get sick, if possible, and how to survive public transportation without dying, which has proven to be the most difficult thing here. Riding the buses is what I imagine surfing would be like if you were a sardine. More than once I thought for sure I was going to die while getting on the bus. I am completely serious when I write that they barely stop, and they most definitely have no concept of 'crowded' or too many people on a bus. If I hear 'Siga' one more time..... Frequently, the buses have stopped for me but there is no room and I have to stand on the first step, like the very first step you take to get on the bus, as in hanging out the bus. I could write an entire novel about my bus experiences here during the first two weeks and it would be quite involved and humorous.

My first month included an interesting trip to a Festival in the barrio Guapulo where I listened to a Spanish Nirvana cover band in a hippie bar. I also danced salsa in front of a huge church with hundreds of Ecuas until the wee hours of the morning. I road in the Teleferiqo to the top of Mt. Pichincha and almost died from lack of oxygen 12,000 feet up. (That is another thing, it is HARD to go from sea level to 10,000 ft. in the Andes. I was huffing and puffing for weeks. The stairs still kill me.) I experienced a few clubs for 'gringos', a Cuban club with an excellent live band, and may interesting restaurants. I have to tell you the majority of the food the Ecuas eat is rice, chicken, bananas, and potatoes FOR EVERY MEAL. It is very bland. I think I have had enough to last me a lifetime.

On a more serious note about our time in September, four members of our group were kidnapped by a masked gunman carrying a machete while hiking on top of the mountain in Quito. They spent the entire day hiding from the man from whom they managed to escape. Luckily, the national police (with PERSISTENT coaxing from the U.S. Embassy) rescued them unharmed. Three French tourists and one Australian were with them, and also escaped. Needless to say, our fellow volunteers were slightly traumatized, yet, they all stayed in Ecuador. So I won't be hiking Pichincha again....

My host family is very nice. I enjoy talking to them and feel I am extremely lucky to have been placed in their home, even though they kind of abduct me and take me to tile stores, mall food courts for lunch, as well as 8 hour visits to grandma's house. It is very frustrating to live with a family in another culture, but the experience is worth it, as they are kind, generous, and especially helpful during this experience.

This month, I began teaching. I have two classes: Sufficiency I and Advanced 2. Who knew it would involve me studying English grammar for at least an hour every day. These are the two most advanced classes, so it proves slightly challenging to teach but I enjoy them for the most part. I teach four hours a day from 7 to 9 am and 6 to 8:30 pm. Classes are Monday through Friday morning. I spend most of my days planning for classes and wishing I could eat munchos, butterfingers, mac & cheese, and peanut m & ms. Having to be up early is not exactly fun, as I have to catch the bus at 6:30 a.m. then I don't get home until after 9 pm. We eat dinner at 10 p.m., which is about the time I fall into bed. Eating this late has been a very difficult adjustment. People here barely eat breakfast then wait seven hours for lunch, and another seven to eight for dinner. Needless to say, I've taken to snacking and maybe even taken emotional eating to an entirely new level. They have tasty snacks and I've come to love the mora (blackberry) anything: jugo (juice), yogurt, ice cream, etc. you name mora and I love it. I am trying desperately not to become a gordita, a.k.a. a little fatty. I haven't been able to join a gym yet so I have been practicing karate in my driveway and bedroom. People stopped to watch when I was in the driveway so I started doing exercises in the privacy of my bedroom. I look forward to finding a gym soon. I NEED to find a gym soon.

There are days when I am fine and think I will make it without a problem. On other days, I am ready to hike down the street to the airport to catch the next plane to Miami. Being a 'cultural learner' is difficult in not so obvious ways. Stay tuned, there is a great deal more to come....

Friday, October 05, 2007


The Teleferiqo and La Festival de Guapulo

Friday September 7.
I have no idea how my host mom is managing without a fridge. She has managed breakfast and dinner every day without the modern appliance. It astounds me but also makes me wonder how important it is to have until I think about ice cream. That is enough to make me want a shiny fridge in the kitchen.

On this lovely Friday in September, my friends and I headed to the
Teleferiqo, which is a cable car ride up to Mt. Pichincha. Four of the other volunteers and I decided to take a bus to the attraction. It was more than strenuous to walk up the hill to find the bus. The altitude is kicking my ass. It was only 25 cents to ride to the bottom of the mountain. I still can’t get over the 25 cent bus rides. We stupidly started trekking up the hill as soon as we got off the bus. The altitude is horrendous coming from sea level. It is so daunting to deal with that I often want to just plop down where I am to take a little nap. We were huffing and puffing all the way to the guide who pointed out the FREE shuttle up to the top. Dumb Americans. We gratefully jumped onto the shuttle to the top where we paid $4 to ride the cable car to the mountain 4100 meters in the air. The ride up was slightly scary but had incredible scenery. On top, we got out and immediately added a layer because we could see our breath. Jefe, Ashley, and Ava (my friends in the group) wanted to climb the mountain. Meanwhile, Brookie and I nearly died. It was exceptionally hard without being acclimated. I was nearly crawling against my will. Silly mountain climbers. After two summits and lots of pictures, we called it good for the day and vowed to complete the trek in May.

At 9:30ish pm. Jefe and Ash arrived at my house in a taxi. We started a chain in order to be safe and to make it easier. This might be a trend. We picked up Brookie and headed to the Festival de Guapulo as our director suggested. This new barrio is directly south of the Mariscal, which is the "new city" and most touristy in Quito. The taxi driver turned right off of a busy street, which teleported us into an entirely different world. The winding, steep, and deserted roads headed straight down the hills into a valley. We transported to a place I’ll never be able to explain adequately. A description would require pictures, not words. It was a narrow one way road down surrounded by little houses squished together in true Quito fashion. The taxi driver was frustrated and stopped in front of a few small bars and a little crowd of people. We all looked at each other nervously and asked if he was positive this small bit of activity was indeed the festival about which Therese told us. He feebly said ya and declared we should get out and pay. We appreciated his patience but were slightly terrified about where he was about to leave us. Luckily we were in a group and therefore, brave enough to venture into the unknown and slightly scary streets our first weekend here. We decided to have a beer at this hippie bar near our drop off. Of course, we stood out but the artsy and cozy place reminded me of a Latino Vermont hangout. The man behind the bar arranged two benches and a table for us in the middle of the main room which was empty except for the bar, one other table and a fireplace. It was so surreal that we were drinking $1.50 beers (really quarts) in a barrio in Ecuador. We shared stories, watched a band get ready, as well as a masked man appearing as a wolf, and a girl get salsa lessons. It was simply spectacular. This little whole-in-the-wall bar had walls littered with items right out of the Sign of the Sun store. The walls were adorned with random art and it was more like being in a decrepit hippie living room than a bar. We finished our first round of beers and left the bar slightly confused about the festival. I sent Therese a message to ask where we should go. There were bands in the street and food on small stands but nothing fancier than what you’d see in Quito during the day. In the meantime, we entered a small saloon where a band was playing. It was basically a Spanish frat party. The band was playing what sounded like Nirvana. It was hard to say. They were in a small room off the bar that was filled with couches and bean bags. We were invited in. Ash and Brooke sat on the bean bags near the windows and band. Jeff and I sat on the arm of a couch next to locals who were dishing out their own version of fire water in a mug they passed around for all to sip. I ordered four beers in my best Spanish yet. The lady still wrote the check out to “the gringos”. We jammed out with the band for awhile completely enthralled with how unreal the evening was. I sat in a room in a barrio in Ecuador, South America listening to an Ecua Nirvana cover band. We could not stop commenting on how truly unbelievable it was. The room was dim and comfortable. The band was decent and I could tell Ashley and I were going to get into a lot of trouble on our adventures here. I took this opportunity to send Mr. Brownie Sundae a text about my profound experience.

Therese finally called and requested our presence at the church. We inquired with other onlookers about the festival. They gave us directions to the church which is where the festivities actually were. They also made fun of us for thinking the street party was it. They also informed us not to leave the twisting main road because the other streets were dangerous. Loaded with helpful information, we headed down the main road to the party. The cobblestone road curved and snaked down the mountain into a valley in an unfamiliar fashion. We finally reached the church at the bottom which was obviously where the festival was, as the square was packed with people and featured a live ensemble. We courageously ploughed through the crowd to locate Therese, which we miraculously did. She introduced us to the group of men with whom she was dancing. They were gruffy, shady, and not at all what I’d picture this adorable, stylish, inspirational and exciting girl to be mingling with. It was strange to see such an amazing female blatantly settling. We were let in on the secret only privy to the Quito volunteers. It was funny and slightly awkward to see her make out with the strange Argentinian man with long hair. I mean she was in charge of us… weird.

Eventually we needed beers so we went to a small store run by a little lady where we bought drinks to head back to the festivities. The music was a mix of salsa, reggaeton, and hip hop. Two crazy dudes approached us and one tried to steal Ashley’s beer. They were sketchy and talking to her when one pulled out a small street brochure from which he started snorting cocaine. Jeff uncomfortably grabbed Ashley who luckily responded well. I told her I needed to go to the bathroom so we could escape the sketch balls. Jeff convinced the nice lady who owned the little tienda to let me pee in her bathroom. She snuck me around the counter and led me to the shadiest bathroom I have ever seen. It was much worse than the one in Massachusetts where you just pee into a stainless steel hole. However, I did not care because I was slightly intoxicated and happy to be at a festival in Ecuador. I was in Guapulo dancing and drinking with new friends.

We returned to the square where we spent the rest of the evening dancing to all the different kinds of music. We witnessed a fight I thought for sure was going to end up somewhere in the middle of our vicinity because we were next to the men beating each other. However, people broke it up so we could enjoy the music. Ashley kept chatting it up with random groups of strange men. She convinced all of them to dance with her and poor blonde Brooke who took the harassment like a champ. Meanwhile, due to my major skepticism of new people, I made Jefe dance with me. It was nice to be next to a boy. It was even better to dance and to have fun. I did get tricked into salsa dancing with an Ecua man when Jefe ran off to the bathroom. My first real Latin dance turned out to be a blast.

The entire evening was super and unbelievable. We danced and talked until the band stopped playing. Then Ash’s Ecua men safely led us to a taxi and saw us off. We negotiated an overpriced $8 ride home but it didn't matter because tt was one of the best evenings ever. And despite my desire for better clothes, shoes, style, and make up after seeing the Ecua ladies, I had a lot of fun. I think our safe little drop off is going to work all year : )