Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Getting Ready Round Two: Coming Home

As promised, this is going to be a contemplative and reflective post. So if you want action-packed adventure, this might not be to your taste.

First, I want to relate my experiences these last few days. Everything’s all connected now to that reflecting and the feelings surrounding going home, so I guess it’s not really “first” but just a way of introducing the topic.

Basically since I got here, I was planning on going to the coast for my last week in Ecuador. Gradually, all my Kalamazoo friends changed their plans, until there was no one else in the country with whom I could travel to the ocean. Deciding not to let that deter me, though a bit more apprehensive about it, I went to the coast anyway.

It was... an experience. I’m glad I went. I don’t know what else I would have done for the two days I spent there, so I guess it was a good use of that time, but it wasn’t particularly “fun.” I discovered quickly that a gringa traveling solo in the northern coast of Ecuador is pretty obvious (tourists go more to the southern coast it seems) and I wasn’t really prepared to be alone with my own thoughts for so long this close to going home. I might have been able to do it when I wasn’t so focused on home, but, being so close to seeing the people I love and miss, that’s all I’m really thinking about in my down time. I need distractions and interactions with other people or I regress into homesickness. And my psyche wasn’t helped much by the continued need to lie and say “Oh, yes, I’m alone right now, but only because my amigas are sleeping in/here already/didn’t want a pincho/are meeting me in ten minutes/etc. It’s tiring trying to keep up all those little fibs that very well may have kept me safe. I met a couple friendly people (all men, so those acquaintances only lasted a few minutes) but most of the time I walked along, ignoring any “Holas” or “Hellos” (even one “Hey you!” in a thick Ecuadorian accent) because literally all of them were intended as piropos. I counted at one point. In a five minute walk along one of the roads I received seven piropos.  Sometimes I felt like it would have been easier to be deaf, instead of just pretending.

But I did see some cool things. I first went to Esmeraldas, but didn’t stay long, since the streets made me feel a little uncomfortable (piropos again. And the fact that I stick out like a sore thumb in a population that is mostly black). The guy at the hostel that first night didn’t really flirt with me outwardly, but he gave me a business card to the hotel with his personal phone number on the back. I threw it in the first trash can I came across. Walking around that morning I spent in Esmeraldas though, I managed to run across a food market accidentally. The carts of fruits and vegetables were wonderfully colorful and the street was strewn with dirt and peels and other organic bits and pieces. I was even passed by a man carrying a squealing piglet by its hind legs. I ate a bit and then decided to hurry up and get out of town. On my way out, someone pointing up at the sky caught my attention. The sun had a full rainbow around it and there was another circle of light and a rainbow off to the side as well. I don’t know why they were there, but it was a pretty cool phenomenon to see.

From Esmeraldas, I took a short (and very cheap) bus ride to Atacames, a popular beach town a little way down the coast. I spent at least an hour wandering around trying to find a place to stay and finally found one that was completely over-priced and awful, but I took it anyway. Atacames was crowded and there weren’t many more gringos there than there were in Esmeraldas. Which didn’t help my sticking out. I had some good food, saw a couple salsa bands playing music on the beach, and got splashed with a lot of water and sprayed with a lot of foam.

Don’t worry, the water and foam is normal. It’s Carnaval. Apparently, in this area of the world, people splash and spray each other to celebrate. Whether they know each other or not. There were a number of teenaged boys who used this tradition as an excuse to chase me down the street with a foam spray can, but it was kind of fun, and the foam disappears quickly.

I spent most of my alone time thinking. And, as I said before, most of those thoughts came back around to just missing the people I wasn’t with. But I made a few attempts at redirecting them to things about Ecuador and reflections on all of my experiences.

You see, as I post this, I have only 95 hours left in Ecuador. That’s not much.

It’s been a good experience. I’ve improved my Spanish beyond recognition, and some other abilities as well. I use all sorts of Ecuadorian slang and some of the different sounds that people use to express feelings and reactions in their conversations have become part of my repertoire as well. I’ve even started remembering conversations I’ve had in English in Spanish, just like I used to remember Spanish conversations in English.

As far as other newly developed abilities go, I can now eat all of the meat off of a bone. And then some. My host-dad still puts me to shame. He can clean a bone so there is literally nothing but bone left. He eats all the tendons, ligaments, cartilage, and gristle in any piece of meat.  It’s impressive. I can eat considerably more gristly meat than I could before I came, but I’m still not that good.

I can now recognize a cacao (chocolate) plantation from a bus window. And bird of paradise flowers no longer make me excited. (Did you know that they’re actually super common?)

 I’ve gotten used to paying next to nothing for meals and transportation, and I know that when I go home, paying for food is going to be really hard. As if I wasn’t cheap enough already. In contrast, I will have a hard time remembering that I can actually drink the water out of the tap when I go home. I’ve gotten used to buying bottled water or boiling it.

Walking down streets is going to be interesting too. I’ve gotten very good at totally ignoring any man that looks in my direction, as any form of recognition just invites the piropos. I’m also good at being what they call “de pilas” which literally translates to “of batteries” but means to be “on your toes.” It’s just the best way to be when you’re on your own on the streets. I guess I’ll just be a bit off-putting to strangers for a while when I get back.

As much as I’ve gotten used to ignoring men, I’ve also gotten used to ignoring airplanes. I don’t even notice the noise anymore as they fly over my house coming in for a landing.

I can dance salsa.

I can flag down a bus or a taxi.

I can jump off of a bus while it’s moving.

I don’t use a seatbelt. That’s because, in most taxis, it would take you about ten minutes to find the stupid thing and retrieve it from the cracks between the seats, and by then you’ve already arrived.

I can tell you my ecua-phone number, in English, Spanish, and Quichua. But I’ve basically forgotten my US cell phone number.

I’m a pro at solving problems with skype, and knowing when they just can’t be solved.

I can run well at sea level (the result of living at a high altitude for 6 months).

A can both recognize and imagine the voices of just about every Kzoo student on my program.

I understand why curvy roads exist. (A concept that is rather foreign to flatlanders. And Michigan, my friends, ain’t got no mountains.)

I can follow a soccer game (though really, it’s called futbol).

I can sing along to the entire repertoire of car alarms that exist in Quito.

I can sing all the words to all the songs in my itunes that talk about home.

And I will not remember to throw toilet paper in the toilet when I get home. (This is me apologizing in advance.)

There’s a lot of things I’m going to miss about Ecuador. Some I’m sure I haven’t even thought of as possible things to miss, but others are pretty obvious.

I’m going to miss the food here. Granted, it will be nice not to be served potatoes, rice, and bread with a hunk of meat and a “salad” frequently as a balanced meal (Can anyone say more carbs please? No? Didn’t think so), but there are some really tasty things here. Ecuadorians have soup just about every day as the first course for lunch (the biggest meal of the day) and they certainly know how to make some good soups. The fruit here is also superb, since nearly every kind you can think of will grow here year round. (Though their apples are usually sub-par.) I’m going to miss the variety and abundance of bananas and plantains. Particularly the plantains, since those don’t really make it up to Michigan that often. I’ll be happy to get back to something besides mozzarella and queso fresco for cheese though. They don’t really eat any other kinds of cheese here.

I’m going to miss being able to hop on a bus, pay a quarter, and go anywhere in the city. And it’s not very expensive to go places outside of the city as well. I won’t miss having to take the bus though. In Kalamazoo, I can go just about anywhere I want walking, and at home I have a car I can use. Which is much easier than a bus.

And, of course, I’m going to miss the people here. Fortunately I’ll have my Kzoo people to remember Ecuador with at K, but it will be hard leaving all of my ecua-friends behind.

Looking back on my first impressions of Quito and Ecuador has been kind of interesting. Now that I’ve been here for so long, some of the things that originally made a big impression on me have become normal. The machete in the back of my host-dad’s car is now no more abnormal than the jackknife in my mom’s car at home. The walls lining the streets are just the way things are. It will be weird to go back to a city that has houses with porches and front lawns. The street vendors have also become an every-day norm, and I will miss buying the occasional ice cream or candied peanuts on the bus. Another normal thing is all the signs being in Spanish. When I hear tourists conversing in English, it’s a novelty. I’ll admit it. I stare. One thing that’s still impressive to me is the plants. There are just SO MANY in Ecuador. And I hadn’t ever seen most of them before.

But, as much as I’ve learned here, and as much as I will miss it, I am ready to leave. I am ready to go home. And I am ready to remember it all fondly.

Hasta pronto mis amigos! (See you soon my friends!)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A few tiny pieces of land.

Today, the day after my return from the Galapagos islands, just happens to be Darwin’s birthday.

The Galapagos are said to be the source of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas. People talk about Darwin’s finches, his trip there, and everything else you can think of. Actually, Darwin only spent a few weeks in Galapagos, classified the finches completely wrong, and made his evolutionary observations mostly on the tortoises that the Beagle, his ship, brought away from the island to eat. (All sailors who came through Galapagos in that time period took tortoises with them for food since they can live up to a year without food or water. That’s part of the reason that there are so few left now.) But all the same, Galapagos had a big influence on Darwin’s thought, even if he arrived in and left the Galapagos as a creationist.

Our trip, though much shorter than Darwin’s, was, I’m sure, much better informed.

We flew into Santa Cruz, one of the larger islands, on Saturday and immediately were fed and taken to the beach. Which I think is a grand start to a vacation. We were actually shown around town a little bit first, introduced to the sea lions all over the sidewalks, and generally welcomed to the islands. My first impression of Galapagos, even in the town, was that it is beautiful. You’re always surrounded by water, and the water is that pure tropical blue that only happens in warm waters close to the equator. The water, next to the black rock of the volcanic islands and the white sand of the beaches, creates a scene out of a catalog. Except that it’s real. And not only that, there’s new things to see everywhere. The sea lions are not so much friendly as they just aren’t scared. The same with the iguanas. They will all still run away from you, but you can get within a few feet of them before they decide to move or warn you to move instead. I think we just spent our first half a day figuring out that we really were in the Galapagos, it was gorgeous, and we had a whole week to enjoy it. Our first trip to the beach found us swimming excitedly and sunning as though we’d never seen the sun. Chandler and I swam way out towards where the big incoming waves were crashing, but found it impossible to get past the point. The current was too strong. The struggle was worth it though. We got to see a sea lion swimming along inside one of the big waves. It was incredible.

Day two, we visited the only fresh water lagoon on any of the Galapagos. It’s in a volcanic crater high up on Santa Cruz. Fragatas (Frigate birds) and other animals go there to get fresh water for themselves. Fortunately, the pond (it’s not really big enough to be a lake) is protected by the park, so the town doesn’t use it. If they did, it would probably disappear. We also made our first visit to a tortoise breeding center. It was actually pretty exciting at first to see where the tortoises are bred and taken care of until they are old enough to be released. The breeding centers are necessary because the tortoises need help rebuilding their population levels, and the young ones have a hard time surviving in the wild before they’re about 3 years old. Before that, they are just too small and get eaten by rats and cats and dogs and all manner of things. At three years of age though, they are big enough to be safe from such threats. Post-breeding center, we returned to the beach. We went swimming in the ocean just about once every day while we were in Galapagos. And I don’t think any of us were complaining.

Our third day, we set off early for the docks and boarded a couple of boats to set out on a (fortunately) calm sea. It was so calm, the captain was agreeable to having a few of us sit out on the prow of the boat. Michelle and I were the only two who took him up on the opportunity, and it was quite the experience. It was kind of cloudy while we were out there, but it never rained on us and the sky was still bright. At first, we were spotting sea lions and few sea turtles in the water ahead of the boat. Then, suddenly, there was a dolphin leaping up to the side of the boat. Then more. For about ten minutes, a school of them followed us and jumped around a bit, causing Michelle and I to jump up and down (seated) and clap our hands together, laughing like little girls. Eventually, we had to go back into the boat as we approached Floreana, another of the good-sized islands. We stopped first to snorkel around the base of a giant rock outcropping populated by blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. The snorkeling was amazing. I saw many types of fish, a number of sea lions and sea turtles, a couple manta rays (waaaaaay down from where we were) and even a shark. The Galapagos don’t really have coral reefs, or even all that many corals, but they have a lot of fishies and big animals. From the rock, we went up onto Floreana to see a small trickle of water seeping out of the rocks. The only flowing fresh water source on all of the islands. Floreana has an interesting history (which you can read a summary of here) because of that water. The first settlers on the island left a few other interesting things behind, and the geologic construction of the island is interesting, but it’s still a pretty small island. Floreana has a small community, barely able to be called a town, and ice cream (more important that the fresh water, if you’d have asked me while I was eating it). Once done exploring the island and eating our ice creams, we took off for the largest island: Isabella. We arrived on Isabella too late to do much except watch the sunset, eat dinner, and go to sleep.

Our first full day on Isabella was filled with an extensive hike up the volcano Sierra Negra to Volcan Chico (The little volcano that is part of Sierra Negra and exploded most recently). The volcanic rock and lava formations were incredible. I’ve never been that close to lava flows before. The volcano is still active, but not violently so. All you can see of its activity are a few clouds of steam emanating from holes in the rock. But the sheer variation in the colors of the volcanic rocks, their formations, and their structure was mind-blowing. Not to mention the fact that the landscape was desolately gorgeous as well. We ate two large snacks on the way out and back, to tide us over until lunch. It was nearly too much food, and would have been if I hadn’t decided to join the group that ran the last half of the way back to the trail head. We got back long before everyone else, so the guide that ran with us took us down to a little shop and bought us all beers. Once the rest of the group finally caught up to us, we went and got lunch and then headed back to town and had free time to swim or do whatever we wanted until dinner.

The next day we made a visit to the wall of tears. After WWII was over, the US tried to get a 100 year lease on the Galapagos, since they had had a military base there, but Ecuador didn’t give it to them, so they left, and Ecuador tried to populate the island with prisoners instead. They brought them there and gave them hard labor to do to keep them from revolting. The hard labor was to build a giant wall around the prison compound. Apparently many died in the process (the saying goes that there, “the weak will die and the strong will cry”) and some, if not most, were put into the wall itself. In 1959, the Galapagos islands were made into a national park and the prison compound was disbanded, finally halting the construction of the wall. For the time that the prisoners worked on it, the wall isn’t very long, but its story is still disturbing. After the wall, we went to another tortoise breeding center. This time though, we got to see a turtle egg, and even two turtles in the process of making those eggs. It can take them up to 4 hours. We didn’t watch that long. Our afternoon was supposed to be taken up with looking at penguins, walking an iguana trail, and snorkeling. But it started raining. We did see a few penguins, and some of us went snorkeling in the rain, but we abandoned the walk and eventually just returned to the hotel for hot chocolate.

Our last morning on Isabella though, we split up and some people went to see the iguanas while the rest of us went snorkeling in a little lagoon-y area. I saw way more sea lions, some interesting starfish, a swimming iguana, and a bunch of little tiny shrimp-y looking things. In the end, we had to pack up, eat lunch, and head out for the next island: San Cristobal.

San Cristobal has the largest population. Our first day there (after arriving the evening before), we went to a beautiful beach with a mangrove lagoon for our last bout of snorkeling. The lagoon was very shallow and murky, but I saw two sharks, a sea turtle, and some fish that were fun to follow around and annoy. The main beach was perfectly white, with clusters of black rocks and a HUGE population of iguanas. All the swimming kind. We regretfully left the beach for lunch, and then headed over to the Darwin Research Station. There, we saw more tortoises (by this time we were kind of sick of them, to tell the truth), land iguanas, and, the most exciting bit, Lonesome George. Lonesome George isn’t really all that interesting. He looks just like all the other tortoises, and he’s not even that giant. But his story is what makes him interesting. We had some free time after visiting the station, so we all ambled through town, buying delicious ice cream at one of the best ice cream places I’ve ever been to, buying little Galapagos trinkets, and generally having a good time. At some point, Adrianna, Katie, Mysha, and I found ourselves down by the Artisan Market, right next to the Ocean. There was a built up cement area with benches for sitting and looking at the bay and places to tie up boats where a large group of locals were jumping off into the water. Most of them just wearing clothing and not bothering with swimsuits. Adrianna and Katie decided to join them, and, after seeing their first jump into the water, so did I. Of course, I didn’t have any chance to back out at the last minute, since one of the Ecuadorian boys who had been jumping in came up and gave me a little push that sent me over the edge. What ensued was great fun. We jumped and dove into the water repeatedly, joined by the local kids and having a blast. It was an awesome experience I’m not going to forget.

Our last day in Galapagos, we had to cross the island to get to the airport island next to San Cristobal: Baltra. On our way we first stopped at an entrance point into a lava tunnel. It’s made by lava creating a crust and running hot under that solid crust, until it runs completely out of the middle and leaves the crust behind. It was a pretty cool thing to see. Our second and final stop of the morning was to see yet more tortoises. These were basically wild though, which I suppose made them something new and different. Sorta. The fun thing about the stop was an empty shell we were able to crawl into to pretend to be a tortoise. And ice cream. I ate a LOT of ice cream in the Galapagos. The islands are just so HOT.

In the end, we all had to return to Quito and to the realization that we have so little time left. In exactly two weeks, I plan to be sleeping in my bed in Michigan by now. I guess the feelings that brings up are the next to tackle. Stay tuned!

Galapagos pictures here! Sadly, these are only pictures from the last half of the trip (wall of tears and on) because the memory card I filled up in the first half is missing. I think it’s lost for good at this point, and I’m really disappointed about that, but there’s not much I can do.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Turning 21 is the least exciting thing I’ve done this week.

It’s true. Or nearly. I suppose sitting in bed writing a paper is less exciting, but it seems that life wants to convince me that the experiences I have are more important than the number of years I’ve been alive.

Last weekend Adrianna, Katie, and I caught a bus to Mindo, a town in the middle of the cloud forests not far from Quito. Adrianna went with the K group a while ago, but Katie and I had never been. We arrived Friday night and wandered the town looking for some food and a bank. We found both, though the bank was a couple of ATMs on the side of a truck from Banco Pichincha. It was the most jank bank I’ve ever seen. And that was the basic sentiment among all three of us. Our hostel turned out to be a really nice little place, $9 a night, breakfast included, and we got to sleep in the attic. It was a really nice big room with four beds, two hammocks, and a bunch of chairs. Access via trapdoor.

Our first full day in Mindo, we decided to do some canopying. Which is the Ecuadorian way of saying zoom across ziplines. We took a taxi (we rode in the back of a truck) up to the site, harnessed up, and spent an hour or so zipping across the sky. Katie and I topped off the experience by having a go on the “tarzan swing.” A giant swing from a platform. It was awesome.

Post-canopying we decided to go tubing. Turns out, this is white-water tubing, and the “tube” is actually 6 tubes tied together and guided down the rapids by a couple of guys who know the river. You sit on them and hang on for dear life. It started raining while we were on the tubes, so we were soaked with no hope of becoming dry by the time we were done, but it was fun.

Since it was so rainy, we ended up just walking around town a little and hanging out in our hostel the rest of the day. We actually stopped at a little shop and bought some string and I gave Adrianna and Katie hair wraps. It was nice and relaxing. We did try to find the only discoteca in town, and succeeded, but for some reason the loud noise and flashing lights just weren’t as inviting as we thought they would be. So we left.

We dragged ourselves out of bed before six the next morning to go bird watching with our hostel owner. He’s an accomplished bird-watcher and showed us a number of really neat birds. All before breakfast. We saw three different types of toucans, a couple hawks, some giant birds I don’t remember the name of, and a bunch of little colorful birds. After catching a taxi back to the hostel and eating breakfast, we decided to nap for a bit before attempting anything else.

Post-nap we went to see the mariposario, which is a butterfly house. Adrianna had already been, but Katie and I spent a good amount of time holding butterflies and taking pictures. We tried to go to a cable car across one of the ravines, but it apparently closed too early for us to do so. Instead, we went back into town to an orchid garden. THAT was gorgeous. We then had to hurry up and eat something and catch our bus back to Quito.

Unfortunately, it rained a LOT while we were there, and I came home with a pile of wet clothing. The only good side effect of rain is that it gives you a good reason to drink hot chocolate. So we got really wet, and drank a lot of hot chocolate. But overall it was a good trip.

Monday was my 21st birthday. That’s a big deal in the US. It’s nothing here. None-the-less, I enjoyed it. At la Caleta, I was sung to in Spanish, English, German, and Danish by all the volunteers and the two kids who were there. In the evening, I went out with some friends to a really nice Chinese restaurant and we had a good meal. Nothing crazy, but plenty of good things.

Yesterday was a huge celebration in the entire Proyecto Salesianos for their founder Don Bosco. We spent a bunch of time getting ready and waiting for things to start (The volunteers were charged with keeping the kids busy), but finally walked over to the party. When we got there, nothing was happening, so the volunteers decided to check out what was going on in the theater in the plaza where the party was. We were ushered in as we approached the doors by a bunch of eager people and found ourselves in the audience for the filming of Ecuador Tiene Talento (Ecuador’s got talent). We sat through a bunch of sound checking and four of the entrants before giving it up and returning to our party. The four we saw were a band that was pretty good, a 14 year old boy who could sing really well, a girl who did a traditional dance (she got booted), and a lady who did exaggerated lip-synching (she also got booted, thankfully).

Back at the party, we got to see the four kids who had been sent off to Ambato again (they were back for the party) and we watched the salesiano’s talent show. It was much more interesting, particularly the group of kids called Circo del Semaforo (Stoplight Circus). They were surprisingly good for a group of kids all under 18 and most probably under 14. At the end, a couple of kids who looked to be about 13 were juggling fire, and another was doing crazy tricks with the fire clubs. Yes, Ecuador has talent, but I don’t know that the judges are actually going to see it in that theater.

When I got home, my family had a cake ready for me and I was sung to in Spanish and English again, with the addition of Portuguese this time, courtesy of my host-sister. So, turning 21 has been fun, but it hasn’t been a crazy party, and I’m ok with that.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

One More Month of Kids, Classes, and Adventures in Ecuador

I thought I’d be writing a lot this month in Quito. I guess I was mistaken. I’m basically working a part-time job at la Caleta these days. I work Monday afternoons from 2:30 till 5:30ish, and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 9 till the same time. It varies between being fun and being boring every day. The crew of volunteers is excessive when you think about how many kids are actually AT la Caleta now. Currently there are only two beds being taken up in the younger kids’ room, and one in the adolescents’ room. Jose Luis and Luis Antonio are the only kids left, and Jairo is staying in the big boys’ room. Jairo barely counts as a kid though. He’s been at la Caleta for a long time, and will be there until he can move out on his own. I guess you could almost say that he’s one of the “successes” that has come through the organization.

When I first came back from vacation, there were five other boys still at la Caleta, but four of them were transferred to a farm in Ambato where they can stay more permanently and where there’s more space for them. One kid left at some point since last Thursday. I don’t know where he went or why, but today I found out he’s not expected back any time soon. That’s something that’s very hard to see and deal with, working at la Caleta. The kids can only stay there for about three months before they are supposed to move on to another site. Sometimes they make exceptions, as in the case of Jairo, but for the most part, the kids cycle through pretty quickly. I wish that there was some way that they could provide a little more stability than that, but apparently that’s not an option. The four who went to Ambato are sorely missed by those of us still at la Caleta. Alex and Camillo, the older two of the boys that left, were both relatively well-behaved and wonderful kids. They were, for the most part, happy and cooperative and helped out around the Caleta a lot. The two younger ones, Hamilton and Javier, were actually pretty new to la Caleta. They had been picked up somewhere on the coast. Whoever brought them to the Caleta found them in a run-down shack on the coast with a drunk mother who was perfectly willing to give them up on the spot, no questions asked. Camillo was at la Caleta because his step-father wouldn’t let him live in the house. He stole some money from him once, so he made Camillo leave; the Caleta people picked him up off the streets. Many of the kids that come through la Caleta have seen their parents fight every night, drink themselves into oblivion, or take drugs that prevent them from caring for their kids. Some of the kids themselves come in addicted to drugs, and the Caleta really isn’t ready to handle that.

Sometimes all of the hardships these kids have seen, and our inability to give them a normal life, make me want to scream at the world. I want to berate the perpetrators of the crimes that have put these kids on the streets and stripped them of any chances for an easy life. I find it hard to think about my own life in comparison to theirs. How can all of the opportunities that I’ve had exist in a world where all of these children are pushed out? And there are more. The workers at la Caleta know the parks where kids sleep. We walked around the Caleta’s neighborhood last week, with someone pointing out every place that kids sleep, the corners where they work, the children of the vendors who actually have stands and don’t receive help from la Caleta because “their families have money, and the kids are only there so that people will pity them and buy more,” and the street where they can’t even get to the kids at night because it’s too dangerous and the kids that are there are almost all drug users. All of those children, and there are only 3 living in the 20 beds that the Caleta has.

The only thing that keeps me from going crazy trying to comprehend the size of the problem is that we ARE making a difference to those three kids. When Jose Luis came to la Caleta, it was almost impossible to make him hold still long enough to even figure out what grade he was in. He was an impossibly skinny little boy who was full of energy. He used to dance around the Caleta, singing (only choruses, the kids don’t know any songs in their entirety), and pestering everyone else. The first day I met him, he was sulking the whole time just because some of the girls were saying his name. I still have no idea why that upset him. Now, every morning, he gets up, eats, helps clean the Caleta with Luis Antonio, packs his backpack, and takes the city bus to school on his own. When he comes home, he actually likes sitting down and getting his homework done. Or at least standing relatively still next to a table. Sitting might still be asking a bit much. It helps me deal with the impossibility of providing the children of the world with the opportunities they deserve to know that, at least, I am able to help some of them, however few they may be.

One of the problems that makes my hours at la Caleta boring at times is that there are entirely too many volunteers working there now. Of course, the three K kids (myself, Chandler, and Emily) are leaving at the end of next week, and apparently the two German girls are also leaving, so that will cut down on the number by a long shot. But there will still be the Danish couple, the Australian girl, and the Ecuadorian guy. At times, we’ve had 8 volunteers at la Caleta at once, which is just too many for the number of kids that are there. I’ve spent a good amount of time organizing shelves (be the full of blankets or books), and making beds. Of course, I’ve also had a lot of free time to play baseball (no, let’s call it an approximation of baseball, since they don’t really understand the rules) and kick a soccer ball around with the kids.

There’s a guard at the gate to la Caleta 24/7. “The guard” is actually three different guys that trade off shifts. All of them love the kids, but one is more involved than the others, sometimes even playing soccer when his shift ends. The other day, he fixed a little orange bike that was sitting in a storage closet and the two younger boys have been riding it around since, squeaking like it’s never even heard the word “oil.” Of course, the kids don’t really distinguish between the guards that much and call all of them “Don Guardia” (basically: Mr. Guard). Not exactly surprising since they’ve started calling all of the volunteers “volun” or “volunta.” Particularly Luis Antonio. He doesn’t seem to understand that we have individual names. And everyone still calls me Clara, the name of one of the German girls. She and I have similarly cut and colored hair, are about the same height and weight, and are both gringas. It also doesn’t help that we started working the same week. The kids insist that we must be sisters, even though we come from different countries, and many of the adults at la Caleta still get our names mixed up.

I could probably talk for ages about la Caleta, and the people there, but I also want to talk a bit about Ecuador in general. You see, I’m coming home in a month.

It’s strange to think that this experience is finally drawing to a close. I’ve been in Ecuador for so long. In many ways, I’d become resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to be home for a long time. So long that I didn’t really think about the exact length of time. It was incomprehensible. Now, suddenly, I find myself close enough to the end that I actually can wrap my mind around it. It’s weird.

I’ve gotten so used to Ecuador. Things function differently here, and I’m comfortable with that, finally. My host sister is back from college in Brazil, after 5 years, and I find that I really like having her as a sister. It makes the family dynamic more fun, and I feel like I know my own place in the family a little better with someone else as an example. If Nani does it, I can too.

I know my way around the city pretty well now, which busses to take where and how to push just right to make sure I get on or off without anyone trying to snatch my bag. I find myself thinking of Ecuador as a place that’s always going to be there. If I want to go visit the jungle, I can do that, but I don’t have to go NOW because the jungle’s ALWAYS going to be there. Which is a sharp contrast to what my brain is trying to tell me now that I’m close to going home. NO! The jungle is NOT going to be a three hour bus ride away in a month. YOU HAVE TO GO SEE IT NOW! I guess I’ve finally settled in and realized that, yes, I’m LIVING here, not just visiting and studying for a time. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time if I spend an afternoon sitting on my bed reading. Sometimes in life, we need to take a break like that. Sure, I don’t do that when I’m visiting some amazing place, but I do when I’m at home. And Quito is home now.

 As I get closer and closer to my return, I find myself missing home both more and less. Now that it’s so close, I just want to be home. There’s not that much left, why not just rush through it and get home and see everyone that I miss? But then, some other part of me wants to make time SLOW DOWN so that I can experience everything that I still haven’t seen in Ecuador. Of course, there’s no way I could see everything in the country in 6 months, even if I DIDN’T have classes, but part of me wants to TRY.

And all these mixed-up feelings are exactly what I expected to feel, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

In a month, no matter what, it will be nice to go home.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A New Year to Remember, and a Trip to Remember Too

Hello again! I have returned to Quito and I’m ready to share the 2 week long saga of my post-Christmas adventures!

Adrianna, Mysha, and I have spent the days since Christmas travelling around Ecuador and enjoying the ease with which a group a young college kids can go places in this country.

Our adventures started late Christmas night when we caught the 10 hour bus to Cuenca, a southern sierra colonial city. Mysha has an amazing ability to sleep, but Adrianna and I were awake for most of the ride. Which meant that when we got to Cuenca (at 6 AM) and had to wait until noon for our room to be available we ended up wandering the city in a daze. Nothing was open for a couple hours, being the day after Christmas, so we were wandering empty streets with nothing to do. After a good nap we ventured back out into the much more lively streets to actually get an idea of what the city is like.

Turns out, Cuenca is a pretty quiet place. At least in the colonial part where all the touristy stuff is. Our time was filled with museums, restaurants, and wandering. We took a page out of Katie, Michelle, and Emily’s book (they were in Cuenca before us and overlapped our trip a little) and stuck to a 2 meal a day routine. We would get up late, go get a huge breakfast, wander around until we were hungry again, and get a big dinner. In our wanderings we discovered that the parks in Cuenca are equipped with speakers and play music at just about every hour of the day. It was kind of nice. We also had a great time one day playing around on a cluster of rocks in the river that runs through Cuenca.

One of our saving graces was a used bookstore we found with a number of cheap books in English. I picked up two Ellis Peters mysteries and a science-fiction novel. I’m almost done with the last one now.

The first of the two museums we went to was a museum of modern art. Almost all of the displays were short films. Adrianna, Mysha, and I had a good time laughing at the strangeness of some of the pieces and laughing and our interpretations of the rest of them. Some of the pieces were actually pretty good, but most of them made no sense whatsoever.

The second museum was a more of a cultural museum, with a historical part on the Incan ruins in the museum’s back yard and a huge ethnographic section on the different regions of Ecuador. The museum closed pretty early, but we stayed and wandered around the ruins for quite a while. At the end, we were surprised to find a bunch of cages full of tropical birds, including a number of parrots who said “Hola” repeatedly and didn’t know how to say goodbye.

We also visited the giant Cathedral in the middle of the city and an overlook up on one of the neighboring hills. The overlook was beautiful. We went at night and looked out over all of the city lights. Cuenca is actually a big city, even though we only really spent time in the historical center of it. The Cathedral was gigantic. We walked in and the walls seemed to go on forever before they reached the ceiling. It was beautiful. The Cathedral has two large bell towers in the front that look really short compared to the rest of it. Apparently a mistake in the design caused the towers to be built considerably shorter than they were supposed to be because if they had been built to their intended height they would have caused the entire thing to collapse.

A lot of our time in Cuenca was focused around meals. Cuenca is sort of known for having good restaurants and we took advantage of that. After our first day, we found a delicious breakfast place that we returned to later. We ate at a Brazilian café, an Ecuadorian equivalent of an apple bees (with Ecuadorian food of course, not American food), and the top pick of the guidebook where we groaned about having to pay $10 for our dinners. That’s expensive!

The big exciting thing we did in Cuenca actually involved leaving the city. One morning we caught the bus out to Ingapirca, an old ruined Incan town. We got in for half price with our student IDs and wandered around for a few hours before catching the bus back. The big attraction of Ingapirca is the temple to the sun-god Inti. It’s a good-sized structure oriented to the solstices and with a much better construction than the rest of the buildings and walls in the complex. The Incans took great care in their important constructions, carving down the rocks they used in the walls to make them fit together perfectly without putting any mortar in between. The temple was constructed that way, but the rest of the buildings and walls weren’t. We climbed around on everything, took a bunch of pictures, and generally enjoyed a sunny vacation day in a beautiful place with good friends.

When we’d had our fill of Cuenca, and with the New Year approaching, we got on another bus towards the coast. We had to go through Guayaquil first, and the bus ride to Guayaquil from Cuenca was the most beautiful bus ride I have ever taken in my life. Possibly the most beautiful ride, period. It started out with cloud-capped mountains jutting out of the valley we were travelling through. When we broke out to the other side of the range, we found ourselves high up on the sunny edge of the Andes looking out over the top of a coastal cloud-bank that was hugging the sides of the mountains below us. It was like being in a plane above the clouds, but with our feet still on solid ground and surrounded by the greenery of the Ecuadorian Jungle.

When we got to Guayaquil, a man came up to me and asked if we were going to Montañita (we were) and then proceeded to move us to the front of the line, get us our tickets, and send us on our way. With a payment. Apparently that’s his job, snagging lost-looking tourists, getting them tickets, and making sure they get to where they want to go. It was actually pretty handy.

It seems that all of the tourists in Ecuador were headed to Montañita for the New Year. We had to catch a third bus to get us to our hotel in Manglaralto (the town next to Montañita) and met a Canadian girl who was on vacation from teaching Science in a school in Colombia. Throughout our trip, we met more American, European, and Canadian tourists everywhere we went, though the vast majority were in Montañita for New Years. We also met a number of Chilean and Argentinian travelers.

Montañita was an experience. The town is basically a hippie tourist haven. There are little artisan tables set up along the sides of the streets selling all manner of trinkets and jewelry, intermingled with the street-food stands where a person can easily fill up on pinchos (skewered meat) and choclo (their version of corn-on-the-cob, it had giant white kernels and is a lot hardier than our yellow sweet corn). There were no cars on the streets, just crowds and crowds of people. One of our first stops was a little convenience store with a dress shop hanging out front where Adrianna and I each bought a piece of more coast-appropriate clothing (ie. Something that is light-weight and easily worn over a bathing suit). Not only do little stands for food and trinkets exist all along the streets, but there were also drink stands. Some of these stands sold Batidos (delicious smoothie-like drinks of every flavor tropical flavor you can imagine made from the fruit, milk, sugar, and ice), but others sold cocktails instead. There were a couple streets that were basically lined with mini-bars where you could just walk up and ask for a coco loco or a piña colada or anything else you so desire. And only pay $2.50 for it.

However, we didn’t actually go to Montañita first. Our hostel was in Manglaralto, so we stopped there to clean up and drop off our stuff. And to admire the three iguanas that lived in the tree outside our window. Manglaralto is a world apart from Montañita. It’s just a quiet little costal town without much to speak of. It has one cluster of restaurants that all serve the same thing, and a nice beach. And that’s about it. We actually went to those restaurants twice for breakfast and it was a yummy and filling experience. Batido, bolón, and a fried egg. Deeeeelicious. (A bolón is a ball, made from boiled and crushed green plantains mixed with egg, encasing a small piece of cheese and fried.)

From Monglaralto, Montañita is really just a nice walk on the beach away. The two towns have rock banks on their ocean sides, protecting them from the waves, but the stretch of beach in between is mostly empty. On our first walk along the stretch, we found a dead puffer fish (I’d never seen a real one up close before) and a dead eel-like fish of some sort. Not to mention all the little crabs and snails that live in the sand (crabs in the dry, snails in the wet). We generally walked to Montañita in the morning and took a cab home at night, though New Year’s night we walked back on the beach because we couldn’t find a taxi.

Montañita (and to a smaller extent Manglaralto) is known for its surfing waves. Surfers from all over come to the town to ride the waves. We just had a good time swimming in them. There’s something really satisfying about rising up on the crest of a giant wave just before it breaks, or diving into a wall of water as it starts crashing down over your head. Water is really powerful, but it’s not just a scary thing, it’s also a FUN thing.

We had some good times in Montañita. A guy playing music and chatting on the street (there were a lot of musicians about), who lived in Montañita, decided to take a liking to me and would try to talk to me and get me to dance to the music every time he saw me. This led to him being dubbed my “boyfriend” for the weekend (by the other girls I was with) and me avoiding him at all costs. At one point I didn’t see him in time and he roped me into a conversation with him and his friend which ended in one of them giving me a “wish bracelet.” Apparently, when the bracelet falls off, my wish will come true.

Not only did I meet new people, I saw all sorts of people I knew from before. Some of the USFQ exchange students who were still in the country were in Montañita, and I saw 3 of the girls I volunteer with at la Caleta, the two German girls and one of the Ecuadorian educators.

New Year’s Eve was a blast. Montañita, already full to bursting, seemed to double its population in the hours leading up to midnight. As it got later, the town got busier, and Adrianna and Mysha and I escaped to the edge of the rocks, where we were able to hang out and laugh without being surrounded by people. We decided to run back along the beach, instead of going up to the top of the rocks, even though the waves were reaching the bottom. Every time a big wave came, we had to stop running and jump up onto a rock to avoid getting drenched.

At some point before the craziness really started, we were down on the beach and another guy decided to take a liking to me. I liked him better though, and even consented to hold his hand and be dragged back and forth in the waves. That’s because he was about 5 years old. I only understood about half of what he was saying, but it didn’t matter, because he didn’t really need me to respond. I just looked amazed whenever his eyes got big and said a lot of variations on “No, really?” People had long since started setting off fireworks, and he seemed to really love that. I think we played together for about half an hour before I finally was able to make an excuse and get away.

The actual New Year celebrations started about half an hour before midnight. People started crowding down to the beach until there was barely any free space, even with the tide way down from its previous height. Fireworks were going off everywhere, big ones, small ones, and ones that we kept a good distance from in case something went wrong were exploding over our heads and shooting fountains of sparks into the air. The beach dogs (instead of street dogs) were going nuts and some of them were snapping at the fireworks, but none got close enough to hurt themselves. I think they were just having a good time.

At one point, about 20 minutes before midnight, a horde of surfers came running out onto the beach and went out into the water to surf in the new year, and brought all the people on the beach into one big group.

Big circles started to form around a number of raging bonfires on which everyone was putting these big dolls. It’s tradition in Ecuador to burn a big doll, I assume made of papier mache or clothing stuffed with straw, to burn away all the bad from the old year. These dolls have small fire-crackers in them that pop as the dolls burn. Once the fire has stopped popping and it’s down to the wood frames of the doll, someone else would throw on the next one. As soon as the fire was small enough, and sometimes before, people would jump over it. Most of the time they made it, but occasionally someone would forget to jump and basically just run through the fire, or they would slip and fall and have to roll out. I was amazed that no one got hurt.

Thinking about it now, I think this year was the most dangerous New Year I’ve ever had, but we all made it through and we had a blast doing it.

Out last day in Montañita, the first of January, Adrianna and I went out and explored the tide pools surrounding the big rocky peninsula that juts out from the coast by Montañita. The rock was all volcanic and very rough on our feet, but we suffered through the pain and were rewarded by the sights of barnacles, anemones, sea urchins, crabs, hermit crabs, and other small forms of marine life. The waves had carved out some awesome shapes in the rocks, and we explored everything we could reach.
Of course, every vacation has its ups and downs. Our first night in Montañita, I lost my phone. I had put it in the pocket of my new clothing and it had fallen out. All was not lost however! Someone picked it up (apparently out of the ocean!) and called us the next morning. We were supposed to meet them just after the New Year, but the calls didn’t go through, and we just went back to our hostel. The people who found it were staying in Puerto Lopez though, and we finally managed to meet up with them while we were there. So I have my phone back and it still works, despite spending some time in the Ocean. Que suerte! (How lucky!)

The trip to Puerto López was uneventful. We just caught the bus north, paid the fare, and hopped off when we arrived. We were staying at Hostal Maxima, which, it turns out, is named after its owner, Maxima. Maxima was a character. She’s married to a man from New York, and lived in the states for more than 30 years. The last few though, she’s been in Ecuador, so her English has gone a little downhill. We talked to her in Spanish, but she talked to us in the best Spanglish I have ever heard. Every other sentence, if not every other word on occasion, she switched languages. At first it was confusing, but it was fun to listen to. We spent a good amount of time having our ears talked off about who-knows-what by Maxima. It was fun. One of her favorite subjects was her pets. She has a bunny, some tropical birds, a cat, a couple dogs (I think Spike, the biggest and youngest, was actually her husband’s dog), and a monkey like creature named Kish (or Quiche, not sure). He’s NOT a monkey, Maxima was very insistent about that, but I can’t remember what he actually is. They’re illegal to own, but Maxima has special permission because she rescued him from a family that had him illegally and was going to kill him, and because she keeps him in a good-sized cage and takes good care of him. We got to scratch his back.

Puerto López is a small city, not just a town like Montañita and Manglaralto. The beach was considerably rockier and the harbor was full of old fishing boats. Some were huge ocean-going vessels for big-time fishing, others were smaller boats that were likely taken out for day-long fishing trips. Our first couple days we spent wandering the beach and drinking batidos (I think they were even better in Puerto López than in Montañita). Here the batidos and alcoholic drinks were sold at the same little beach-side huts, bigger than the stands from before, and accompanied by beach chairs to sit in. in one of our wanderings, we ran into a group of Argentinian girls playing with poi. Of course I had to show off, but I also taught one of the girls a new trick. Circus people around the world are all friendly, all share their knowledge, and are ALL awesome. I love having a connection to a community like that.

We once again found ourselves spending time reading our books in the hostel. This time though, we also spent time cooking in the hostel because it had a kitchen. Our first day, we got up and went to the store to buy pancake makings and didn’t end up finishing breakfast until 3 PM. It was delicious. By the time we left, I was able to mix the pancake batter without looking at the recipe.

Puerto López actually has some exciting this to do though. It’s the only town from which you can get to La Isla de la Plata, a mini Galapagos-type island (much closer to shore) that has a huge population of birds. Adrianna and I got a deal on our tour (through Maxima, that lady is CONNECTED) and set out early one morning to the boats. The ride is about 90 minutes to the island, and then we hiked around for a couple hours looking at the birds. There was no need to look FOR them, they were EVERYWHERE. The largest bird population on the island is of blue-footed boobies. They would just stand in the path and squawk at you as you tried to walk by them, trying to protect their babies. We saw babies in every stage of development, from just hatched, to almost ready to fly. We also went through the territory of the Nazca birds and saw all of THEIR babies. In among them was an Albatross baby too, but we couldn’t get very close to him. He was HUGE! We also saw a few different birds in flight, tropical birds (that’s the translation of their name in Spanish, soooo descriptive), red-headed something-or-others that were predators to the boobies, and frigate birds. The island was also home to a bunch of little lizards, but really not much else. It’s basically a desert island. Technically it is covered in “Dry Tropical Forest” but that consists of a bunch of dead and dead-looking trees, with a few green leaves thrown in here and there.

Our tour also included snorkeling, but we were thwarted from enjoying that part of it much by the large number of tiny jellyfish in the water. I managed to stay in for 15 minutes, despite the stings, but I paid for it later. Fortunately jellyfish stings only hurt for a few hours, then they itch a bit, then they go away. We may not have gotten to snorkel much, but we definitely got a story out of it!

The other exciting thing we decided to do was to go visit the beach “Los Frailes.” Supposedly it’s the best beach in Ecuador. We took the bus up to the national park and, at the entrance, met a lone German guy from Berlin. He ended up spending the rest of the day with us in the park. It was Kind of fun to make a friend. We took the round-about path to the main beach, which turned out to be a very good choice because it was FULL of gorgeous views. The swimming itself wasn’t phenomenal, but it was definitely different. The waves were big, and the beach was steep, so they crashed very close to shore and as soon as you got past the break point, you couldn’t touch the bottom. I think we were there at high tide though, so that might have had something to do with it.

One of the things Adrianna and Mysha and I noticed while on the coast was our ability to climb stairs, hike, and run. Without running out of breath. Ever. Apparently the last 5 months spent living at altitude has done our lungs some good! Adrianna and I actually had a conversation while running on the beach without gasping in the middle of our sentences, and my legs got tired before my lungs did while hiking around on Isla de la Plata.

Finally, it was time to leave the coast and make our way home to Quito. We caught another night bus from Puerto López and started the trek home. Half way through the night, when I had finally started to drift off and had made myself comfortable lying across three chairs and the hallway, I was rudely awakened and almost thrown to the floor by the bus stopping with a jerk. We had hit another car. No one on the bus was hurt, but one of the men in the other car was knocked out and knocked up a bit. We barely got the back corner of their car, but a bus does damage no matter how much it hits. Our bus lost its front passenger-side window, shattered on impact, and the door was jammed for a while. After a half hour or so, and ambulance finally arrived and took the hurt guy to the hospital (at that point he had managed to get up and walk around until he was sitting somewhere comfortable). And finally, after an hour and a half, a new bus arrived and we set off on the rest of our journey to Quito.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well on the ride. I amended that by sleeping when I got home, only waking up when it was nearly lunch time. My family was, it seems, determined to give me a good old Ecuadorian lunch to welcome me home. We started out with chicken foot soup again, but this time I actually managed to eat one of the feet! (I gave the other one to my host-dad.) But that’s not the end of it. My host-mom then pulled out some leftovers that they had saved for me. A leg and “breast” of a guinea pig. I can now say, honestly, that I have eaten cuy (Ecuadorian name for guinea pig). It wasn’t bad. I think it would have been better freshly cooked, but it was still tasty.

It’s good to be back in Quito.

P.S. Pictures!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Una Navidad Feliz

Merry Christmas everyone!

Last night I finally felt like Christmas was here. Ecuadorian Christmas celebrations are different from US celebrations, but there really is something to the Christmas spirit throughout the world.

We spent Christmas Eve (and EARLY Christmas morning) with my host-mom's youngest brother and his kids (Maria Amilia, 4 and Juan Fernando, 10ish). We sat around talking and, at least for the younger adults, keeping the kids busy. Juanfer (Juan Fernando's nickname) has quite the arsenal of nerf guns, so we ran around shooting each other for a while. Cocking Amilia's gun for her just resulted in getting shot, but she would cry if you didn't, so I spent a lot of time running from her after cocking her gun.

A little while before midnight, we sat in a semi-circle around the nativity scene and listened to the final Novena. The Novena is something that just about every Ecuadorian family does. The nine days before Christmas they read parts of the Christmas story, sing, and recite prayers. We finished the Novena just before midnight, and once it was officially Christmas, Juanfer and Amilia attacked the pile of presents under the tree. Once everything was open, we adults ate dinner while the kids played with their new toys. Amilia soon discovered that I (and my jacknife) was very good at getting through the packaging on toys and putting them all together, so I spent most of the rest of the night undoing twisties, ripping open bags, and snapping pieces of plastic together. By the time we left, it was nearly 2:30 and we didn't get home until 3:00.

It may have been a different kind of Christmas, but it was definitely Christmas, and that's all I needed.

So a very merry Christmas to you all, and a happy New Year too. I'll see you next year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Approaching Christmas

Ok, it’s been nearly a month since I last wrote down anything about my experiences here. That time certainly hasn’t been void of writing, but it has all been school related.

The semester finally ended for me on Wednesday. I took my last exam and rushed home to pack up and head out for Otavalo again, this time with Adrianna and Maggie instead of the entire Kalamazoo group. I didn’t realize how much I had gotten used to trimesters until I had to sit through 16 weeks of class (trimesters are 10 weeks). We struggled through to week ten only to find that we were just past the half-way point and had a long way to go. AAAHHHHHH!!!

But I like doing this in order, and there’s more to December than finals and end of the school year trips to tell you about.

The beginning of December is a giant party in Quito. It really starts at the end of November (around the 28th) and continues until the 6th of December. The whole stretch of time is called “Fiestas de Quito” (Quito Parties), and the last two days most people don’t even have to work.

One of the fiesta days I spent wandering around the big downtown park with a small group of people. We watched a bit of the parade that started at 9 am and ended at 2 pm, though definitely not all of it. Quito area seems to have a lot of marching bands. A lot of our wandering just involved exploring the park, chatting, looking at the large display of painted hummingbird sculptures, and avoiding long anthropology papers, though we definitely sampled some delicious street food along the way. We also

On the 5th, a good sized group of us all paid a visit to the Plaza de Toros to see what bull fighting is all about. Quito recently banned the killing of animals for sport, so the Matador no longer kills the bull, but everything else is the same. There’s an almost ritualistic form to the proceedings of the show (I call it a show because there is really no better word for it). Everyone is dressed in practically colonial clothing (not the audience, but all of the officials of the show) and they do things in a specific order for the entire thing. It was a strange experience to watch. At first, I found the brutality of it horrifying, but after a while I think my brain just decided to numb the part that felt bad about hurting the bull and it was at least interesting to watch, if not anything I would call “fun.” The best part of the whole show was when one of the bulls decided he didn’t want to go back into the pens under the stands. (Since they can no longer kill them, they have to shoo them out of the plaza after the matador sticks them with a final pokey javelin thing.) He ran around the plaza for a good 15 minutes, avoiding the wranglers and completely ignoring the other bulls they let out to try and lure him back in, except for charging them a couple times. He was definitely the favorite bull of all the Kalamazoo people.

Watching the bull fights was an interesting experience that I am glad to have seen, though I don’t think I’d ever really want to watch it again. It’s just too cruel, and I don’t like it that my brain is capable of adapting within the moment to overlook that.

There were some non-bull related things that were fun about the fights. The food outside the plaza was tasty, and watching the people in the plaza was at times interesting and at other times kind of hilarious. At the end of every bull’s fight, the matadors would walk the circle of the plaza, catching hats, scarves, and sometimes even jackets, kissing them, and throwing them back into the stands. If the audience approved of the Matador, they would wave handkerchiefs and hats at the end of the fight. One thing that’s common throughout the Fiestas de Quito, but particularly so in the bullfights, is a call and response where one person says: “Que vive Quito!” and everyone responds: “Que vive!” The best translation of that is “Long live Quito!” and “Long may it live!” One of the variations of this call and response that I heard a lot of in the stadium is “Que chupe Quito!” (“Que chupe!”) which basically means “Let Quito drink/get drunk!”

Since the Fiestas de Quito, I’ve been more or less absorbed in school work and living in Quito. It’s starting to feel very normal to me now. I’m no longer stunned EVERY time I see a mountain anymore. I don’t even flinch when I have to pause a conversation for the plane flying over the bus terminal. I recognize the entire ride home from school. I’ve gotten to a point where I can pause and appreciate life, instead of just appreciating what is different about it. It’s nice.

The end of the school year brought mountains of stress, but also some fun end-of-the-year stuff. The capoeira group of which my class is a part had a big dinner and party for the end of the year, everyone invited. I went and had a fantastic time, talking to people, eating delicious food, and dancing until 2, when the people I had ridden with decided it was time to go home and to bed.

I still don’t feel like my classes are really over. Partly because I left for Otavalo so quickly after my last exam (Geology. Hey, at least it’s over). According to the online grades, I did fine in all of my classes, which is a relief. I wasn’t sure, since many of my classes didn’t give me back ANY graded assignments. But the semester is DONE and I’m sure I’ll realize it eventually.

Otavalo was, once again, quite fun. Though this time it was much more relaxed than when we were in the Kzoo group. We arrived, walked around and generally chilled out after a long couple of weeks studying. The next morning we got up and made our mandatory trip to the market. I think I finally got most of my Christmas shopping done, though no one will be seeing their presents until February at the earliest. We wanted to do some hiking while in the area, but we didn’t really plan well enough to actually climb Imbabura, the local mountain. Instead, we hiked up to “La Cascada de Peguche,” the waterfall we visited in the big group. The only difference was that this time we walked through the entire town before hiking the short stone-paved trail to the waterfall. We even hiked up to the top of the fall, and I ventured into the small dark tunnel through the rock to see another part of the stream. Seeing the other side wouldn’t have been all that exciting, except that you couldn’t see it from the opening. The water flow was a lot stronger this time, and, after climbing back down to the base of the fall, only Adrianna and I braved the closer of the two bridges. We got blasted with enough waterfall mist to make us distinctly wet for the next half hour or so, while we hiked back.

Since we missed lunch, we ate a VERY large dinner of Ecuadorian Chinese food in a Chifa (Chinese restaurant). It wasn’t quite Chinese food as I’ve had it before, but it wasn’t bad, and there was a LOT of it. We rounded off the night by going to a pie shop for desert.

Our return trip to Quito provided us with a guitar-playing singer to serenade us for a while. He was actually a very GOOD singer and sang a couple of sad Christmas songs, a bolero (ballad), and something he thought for sure we should know. I guess the Ecuadorians knew it, but none of us Americans had heard it before.

And now it is Christmas Eve. I think this is the least Christmas-y I have ever felt at this time of the year. I just can’t seem to get into the Christmas spirit. It has to do with a lack of cold weather, a lack of snow, and a lack of family. I walk around the streets and hear Spanish Christmas songs, only recognizing them for what they are when I stop and listen to the lyrics. Otherwise it just sounds like the songs they play every day. There are a few songs I know from Spanish classes over the years, and some are translated English carols or songs (and there’s always “Feliz Navidad”) but for the most part none of the music feels very Christmas-y. It’s also strange to see Christmas lights on trees that still have leaves and palm trees all over the place. I’ll be glad when I can get back to Michigan and see some snow. I miss the cold.

Even if I don’t feel like it’s Christmas, Christmas is still happening around me. My host mom has spent the whole day wandering around, wrapping presents, and cooking, while wearing a white, red, and green apron. I heard an ad on the radio with some typical Christmas songs that I’ve come to recognize since the season started here. While we were in Otavalo, we saw a parade of children dressed as angels and shepherds walk by. Everywhere there are signs of people celebrating. Little shops, all with the same Christmas decorations, have sprung up around Quito. Even in places where there shouldn’t have been space. On every street corner near a shopping center, there are little stands in which one can buy wrapping paper, ribbon, and gift bags. All in individual package sizes.

This year, I’ll be dreaming of a white Christmas with the assurance that one is not coming my way. None-the-less, it should be fun to spend it with my host-family, and at least some bit of Christmas spirit I’m sure will come my way.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope that wherever you are, you enjoy it thoroughly. 

P.S. I'll be travelling through the first week of January, so don't expect much communication from me until then.

P.P.S. Otavalo pictures here!