Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thanks

As my time here draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about all of the people and things that have gotten me through the past five months in good humor. In no particular order, here they are:

The Magic Bean for keeping their ice cream stand open until 10:30 pm. Every day of the week.
Tvshack.net for streaming LOST to those of us outside the continental U.S. and its territories.
Bungalow 6 for hosting the best Ladies Night in all of Quito every Wednesday.
The Supermaxi chain for providing most comforts of home and fresh bread at all hours.
David and the Gimnasio Forcenter staff for pumping the jams every morning while I learned how to pump iron.
The senoras for teaching me the secret to getting married on Monday afternoons.
My family for putting up with my spotty contact and for their hugs, felt even a hemisphere away.
Jimmy for making every day at FUDIS one to enjoy and for all of my huevos fritos.
The Team for their care packages and emails.
The owners of the Linksys wireless network whose internet I stole for the better part of 4 months.
My VASE friends for making every trip a true adventure, even if it was only to the Mariscal.
Coffee & Toffee for their chocolate volcano and their Wi-Fi.
Bob Marley and the Black Eyed Peas for providing the soundtrack to my time in Ecuador.
Sylvia for teaching me how to salsa like a pro.
My Kindle for saving me a fortune in baggage fees and making me look like a huge nerd.
Lonely Planet’s Ecuador & The Galapagos Islands Guide for being my bible and almost never steering me wrong.
Reese’s Pieces for being so damn delicious.
Café Killari for not charging tax, ever.
The best friends in the world for making me smile every time I opened my inbox.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Peru

In the interest of making the most of my time here in South America, I headed south to check out Peru last week. My tireless and trusty travel buddy Olga and I spent ten days exploring the country on the well-traveled gringo trail, hitting all of the major sightseeing stops. Here are my top five:

#1 Machu Picchu

Ever since one fateful episode of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” back in the 90’s, it’s been a life goal to check out these Inca ruins. Perched between two mountains (Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu) in the cloud forest, this incredible city actually left me speechless. And we all know how rare that is. I still really don't have adequate words to describe it; all I can say is that it's absolutely worth seeing.



#2 Huacachina

I was expecting the Peruvian coast to be similar to what I’ve seen in Ecuador – green and humid. Huacachina was anything but. We headed there to try sandboarding in the giant dunes of the Peruvian desert – I’m surprised I wasn’t detained at the airport for the amount of sand still lodged in my clothes and body after a week. Watching the sun set over the dunes was an experience I’ll never forget.



#3 Nazca

When I first heard about giant lines in the desert hundreds of kilometers long that appear as animals when viewed from the air, I was skeptical. After all, what ancient culture was advanced enough to pull off something like that? The Nazca, that’s who. Olga and I rented a tin can – errrr hired a plane – to check them out for ourselves. Definitely didn’t disappoint.



#4 Lake Titicaca

Aside from making me laugh every time I say the name, Lake Titicaca is a breathtakingly beautiful place (not just the scenery – it’s the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,500 ft). We visited the floating islands of Uros, which are built on layers and layers of tortora reeds and spent the night with a family on Amanti Island where we were treated to live music and dancing. We also toured Taquile Island and took in some amazing views of the lake and the snow-capped mountains of Bolivia.



#5 Iglesia de San Francisco

We only had a day in Lima for sightseeing, but the highlight was checking out the catacombs below the San Francisco church. Said to be Lima’s first cemetery, there are thousands of bones and skulls arranged in creepy patterns lying underneath the church. Lucky for me it’s open to the public and I was able to get my fix of South American Strangeness for the day.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Historic birthday, historic city

So my 25th birthday was a few weeks ago. It passed without mention here on this blog, but some major celebrating occurred, as is only fit for a milestone such as this one. I never gave much thought when I was younger to what I would be doing or where I would be in my twenty-fifth year, but I can say with certainty that spending it in Ecuador never crossed my mind. Still, being sung to in both English and Spanish and having various toasts made in my honor was a welcome surprise. A bunch of VASE friends and I went to Baños to celebrate two birthdays the other weekend: mine and Leslie’s, who is the other US volunteer. There was cake, there were candles, (thanks for sending, Mom!), there were mystery drinks at the bar, and a fireworks display. We also decided to go white water rafting down the Rio Negro, which was an appropriately thrilling and dangerous activity to appease my quarter life crisis. All in all, 25 ain’t so bad.



Since I’m now officially old, it only made sense to visit Ecuador’s finest historical city: Cuenca. A few brave friends, both old and new, agreed to put up with the punishing 10 hour bus ride with me, and it was completely worth it. Everything that I feel Quito is lacking, Cuenca has. Beautiful churches on every corner? Check. Cobblestone streets? Check. Ambling river? Check. Inca ruins nearby? Check. It was a perfectly touristy cultural weekend, complete with guided tours and museums, and plenty of postre to keep me happy.



Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Art Exposition

Way back in February when I was trying to figure out what on earth I was going to do at FUDIS since being a therapist was out of the question, I brought up the idea of doing weekly art activities with the patients to Ines. Nearly four months later, I (with the help of so many exceptional people) managed to pull off quite a classy viewing of a selection of the paintings done by thirty-two of the patients at FUDIS.

The past few weeks have been a blur of organizing and collaborating with FUDIS and VASE to get this art exposition ready – I can now add floral arrangement and curator to my repertoire – and it all came together last night at the inauguration of the exposition, called “Una Arcoiris de Esperanza”, or a Rainbow of Hope. About 75 people came for the speaking program/cocktail party and the local news channel showed up to capture it all. Seeing the room full of people and the large camera hovering right near the stage made me incredibly nervous to give my toast (in Spanish, no less!), but all went well and I managed to not dissolve in a pool of sweat at the podium. After speaking to many of the guests about the paintings and my time here in general, I stepped back for a moment to reflect on the scene around me. Not only was it an amazing feeling to know that hey, I helped make this happen, but also to know how much this would do for both VASE and FUDIS. Both foundations need all the exposure they can get, and this was such a wonderful opportunity to get the word out about the good things that both programs are doing here in Ecuador.

Even though I still have three weeks left, it already feels like I’m starting to say goodbye to Quito. The expo was the culmination of everything I’ve been doing here, and looking around I realized how much I’ve actually accomplished. There were definitely days working at FUDIS where I felt frustrated and lonely, but in that moment, I felt so much love and appreciation for everything that FUDIS and VASE has given me since I arrived.




Monday, May 10, 2010

Cotopaxi

One of the most recognizable peaks on the Panamerican highway, Cotopaxi, has been calling to me ever since I arrived in Ecuador. Literally meaning “neck of the moon”, it is the world’s highest active volcano and stands at a mighty 19,347 ft above sea level. For a while, I had entertained the thought of trying to summit this beast, but my lack of technical skills involving crampons and ice picks convinced me to scale back on my ambitions. Hence, Sunday found me and a few friends on a guided trip up to the snow line and around the national park.

On a clear day, you can see Cotopaxi’s snow-capped peak from Quito. Unfortunately, Sunday was not a clear day. Oh well. Onward and upward we went in the bus through the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park and to the parking lot, where we would start our ascent to the base camp at 16,400ft. The wind was howling and icy rain was pelting us from all sides as we trudged along the path covered in volcanic ash. With the fog closing us in on all sides, it felt like we were on another planet. Certainly not Ecuador, since it seemed pretty strange to be seeing snowflakes so close to the equator. Even though I’d been hitting the gym pretty frequently, it was still difficult to breathe at that altitude. We finally reached the Base Camp refuge after an hour of hiking and were treated to lunch and hot tea. Everyone in our group was soaked and freezing, but we sat around the table animatedly swapping stories and sharing travel tips with fellow volunteers and other backpackers from a handful of countries around the world. I think everyone was secretly relieved when our guide told us that the visibility was too poor to continue our hike up to the glacial line. Instead, we scrambled back down to the parking lot to pick up our bikes and zoomed down to Laguna Limpiopungo, about 8 miles away. Freezing hands aside, it was a great ride and once we emerged from the clouds there were some spectacular views. It’s amazing that a country as small as Ecuador can have such diverse landscapes; the sparse vegetation and craggy mountains were a stark contrast to the lush cloud forest and humid coast that I enjoyed the other weekend. Sometimes I forget that I’m living in the Andes mountains, and this trip served as a reminder of what an amazing part of the world I’m calling home for a few more weeks.







Monday, May 3, 2010

So I joined a gym back in February in order to ease the suffering of my poor lungs at approximately 9,180 feet above sea level. I’m pleased to report that I can now run for 30 minutes straight at a halfway decent speed! I definitely wasn’t anticipating so much altitude training, but it’s been a good experience overall. The place is pretty ghetto (no surprise there, since I paid $40 for three months!) and populated with lots of muscle men who check out their pecs in the mirror in-between reps. One of the reasons I keep on coming back, though, is my trainer David. Though he has very few skills by way of personal training, he is hilarious and always yelling at me that I’m too “suave” in my abdominal region. So when he wasn’t at the gym mixing up protein shakes all last week, I started to worry. It turns out that he left for another job, taking his sweet Hits of the 70's mix with him. I feel so cheated! I mean, it’s not like he was exactly helping me turn into the next Kara Goucher, but still. I’m heartbroken.

In other news, Olga, Oskar, and I headed to Mindo on Saturday to check out the cheapest ziplines in South America. What a treat! Mindo’s a small town two hours north of Quito with a lot of cool stuff going on – rafting, a butterfly farm, organic coffee farm, horseback riding… Since we only had the day there, we spent our time zooming across the cloud forest in the pouring rain, making friends with the butterflies, and eating. Solid day, even if most if it was spent soaking wet.





Yesterday I went over to Olga’s house to join her in feasting on a homemade cake and to say hi to my old host family. It was so great to chat with Paola, my old/Olga’s current host mom, over tea and catch her up on my project and find out how the family is doing. It’s afternoons like that when I really wish I had a host family – sometimes living at FUDIS can feel a little isolating. But then I talk with other volunteers whose host parents call incessantly asking when they’ll be home, and I’m grateful for the freedom that I have to come and go.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Last week was our mid-term evaluation camp, and it shocked me into realizing that I have less than two months left here. Not a lot of time to accomplish a long list of things – including travel and putting together an art exposition. I have a feeling that the time will fly by.

In the interest of seeing as much of Ecuador as possible, I headed to Montañita with Natalie, Olga, and Ida for a quick two-day trip over the weekend. Montañita had been described to me as a hippie paradise, and it didn't disappoint. Reggae poured out from every thatched-roof restaurant and the markets were crammed with every hemp product imaginable. We had a great time relaxing on the beach during the day and sampling the endless varieties of cocktails at night. There was a fun mix of people there – foreigners from all over the world traveling the “Ruta del Sol” and plenty of Ecuadorians too. Wish we could have spent more time there!

Alas, it was back to the work week on Monday, but I was pleased to finish my towel! Check out this fine craftsmanship:



Tuesday we had our monthly FUDIS birthday party, which is always a fun activity for the patients and the señoras alike. Can’t wait to celebrate my cumpleaños next month!






And finally (FINALLY!!) I am so unbelievably happy to announce that I am officially headed to Columbia University in the fall for my master's in social work. Residents of New York City, rejoice.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Work Things

I realized this week that I've been writing a whole lot about all of the traveling and sightseeing I've done, but next to nothing about my work at FUDIS. Don't worry, I've found time to volunteer in between trips, and things are going really well.

Every Monday the senoras come for a few hours to what I like to refer to as "The Stitch and Bitch". We sit around eating snacks and embroidering handtowels and chat from 3 to 5:30. It's probably the highlight of my week, mostly because I get to be so crafty. The ladies assured me that I can definitely get married now that I've mastered the art of embroidery. Super. Here are some photos of my progress:



During the last few weeks of March, much of my time was consumed by preparing Fanesca, which is a traditional Ecuadorian fish stew/chowder served at Easter. Fasneca has 8 grains in it (supposedly to represent the apostles? I never paid attention in Sunday School), and every single one of these grains has to be peeled. Hence, many an afternoon was spent with a few patients and a 2 pound bag of peas or corn. Though it wasn't my favorite task, it was a great way to get to know many of the long-term patients better. And the end result was absolutely worth the work. Yum.



There's been a really great group of patients and families here at FUDIS for the past week or so; sometimes it can be really hit or miss with so many people coming and going. We've got quite a few long-term patients staying with us right now (here for the next 2 to 6 weeks), and it's nice to have such a family atmosphere in the building. Jorge, a patient from Argentina, brings fresh flowers every day and likes to play Argentinian love songs during lunch. I have a really hard time understanding his accent, though, and Jimmy thinks it's hilarious to listen to us talk. There's another couple, Luis and Marta, who are here for the long haul and like to get rousing games of cards going at night. They're big into word searches, and I'm currently trying to teach them the joys of Soduku.

One of the biggest projects that I'm working on right now is putting together an exhibition of the patient artwork that we've been doing in the past few months. Amparo, the director of FUDIS, is super excited about it and got a friend to frame 40 of the paintings for free. There's an reception planned for late May with the hopes of raising some money for the foundation - more details on this later - but it's a pretty big deal for us and I'm really looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

La Basilica


Since the last few weekends have been consumed by traveling, I was long overdue for some quality time in Quito. One of the sights on my list was the Basilica - I've tried to go twice before but it's notorious for being closed at strange hours. Luck was finally on my side and it was open (!!!!), and we were able to climb to the top of the towers before a storm blew in over the mountains.






Also, for all of you non-facebook users: I finally made an album of photos from the last three months. You can check it out here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2045823&id=15000007&l=616e609492

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Amazon.com


Since 95% of Ecuador is Catholic, pretty much the entire country had a vacation for Easter last week. Though FUDIS wasn’t closed, I took some time off to travel. TO THE AMAZON. Hello, fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

It’s nearly impossible to describe how amazing it was to be cruising along the Cuyabeno River and seeing spider monkeys leaping from tree to tree, or spying bats sleeping upside down on a trunk, but I’ll do my best to give you some highlights:

We spent our first afternoon swimming in the Laguna Grande and took in a really spectacular sunset along with the birds and pink dolphins. Later that night, we were told that we were going to look for caimans. So back we went to the same Laguna. Um, really? Lo and behold, there were caimans aplenty, and one got rather close to our canoe. Possibly a little too close for my own comfort, but our guide Jose is some kind of caiman whisperer and made sure that it didn’t jump onto my lap.



Most of the trip was spent knee-high in mud, trekking through the forest looking for every kind of Amazonian beast imaginable. We saw tons of birds and insects the size of my hand and monkeys and butterflies. But one of the coolest things we saw was right above our heads at the dinner table one night: a snake swallowing a bat. Who needs the Discovery Channel? video

One of the things I was most excited about was going piranha fishing in the river. Alas, my fishing skills are no better in the southern hemisphere as they are at home. I caught nothing, which is just as well because later that night a fish jumped into our boat and all I could do was scream “IT’S A FISH! IT’S A FISH! OH MY GOD IT’S A FISH!” hysterically until Olga kicked it out. Granted, we had just come back from a night hike and I was sufficiently creeped out already, but I clearly am worthless in a panic situation and would make a horrible fishermen.

So maybe I’m not exactly cut out for life in the jungle (and I have the bug bites to prove it), but it was an incredible trip only made better by the company. It doesn’t get much better than sitting around the table playing poker by candlelight with a room-temp Pilsener in your hand and a tarantula hanging out on the beam directly above your head.



Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Happened to March?

So it appears that the month of March was an epic fail for regular blog updates. April will be better, I swear! The last few weeks have been flying by…here’s a recap:

I was invited to the home of one of the senoras who volunteers at FUDIS for the weekend in mid-March – at first I was dreading the 48 hours, since the main topic of conversation between myself and the senoras is my love life and how to find an Ecuadorian boyfriend. I was anticipating a matchmaking weekend, but instead was pleasantly surprised by my warm welcome into Marina’s family. She runs a cultural exchange between Ecuadorian high school students and kids in Montana, so the whole family was used to having an American around. Marina took me to an interesting exhibit of Ecuador’s biodiversity at a museum, I went on a little road trip with her daughter and discovered the joys of biscoche and homemade cheese in Cayambe, and attended a family party that rivaled those of the Hantz family variety. It was such a treat to be surrounded by aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews for the weekend, though it did make me miss my own family.

Luckily, I didn’t have to miss them for long because Sophie and her boyfriend Hunter came to visit last week! We had a blast touring Quito and spending an evening with my volunteer friends for the first few days, and then the three of us headed to the coast for some beach time. We stayed in Canoa, which is a tiny little surf town filled with cabanas and bamboo huts; shoes and shirts not required. Since the sun is so strong we spent most of our time in the shade – Jorge the cabana guy was kind enough to set up an extra-large structure for us each day once he saw how white we were – happily reading and playing cards. My one appointment was to watch the sunset in a hammock each evening, which was easily kept. It was hard to come back to Quito after such a relaxing few days, but it felt good to be back in the mountains with no mosquitoes in sight!


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Culture Shock

Before I left for Ecuador, I attended a pre-orientation weekend organized by ICYE – North America (aka United Planet). We talked a lot about experiencing culture shock; how the first few weeks would be like a honeymoon phase, followed by a rejection phase, and finally moving on to acceptance. Blah, blah, blah, yeah, yeah I’ve been abroad before ain’t no thang.

Yeah, right.

In the past two months, I think I’ve experienced every up and down possible on this culture coaster. Now that things are starting to level out, I’ve realized that a lot of the things that surprised me when I first arrived don’t bother me as much. Perhaps I’m moving toward acceptance? The following are some of my observations:

Making sense of change: Carrying a $50 bill is as good as having no money here. Why? Most things are so inexpensive here (bus is $.25, 3 course lunch is $2) that many small stores simply don’t have the change to process your cash. I cringe when I have to change a $20. There was one incident where my empanada man had to ask his neighboring store owners to change my $20 for the $.99 I owed him. Sorry, pal. Next time I’ll buy five.

Give me the green light: Driving here is a white-knuckle, cold sweat inducing kind of experience. Taxis are known to honk at a traffic light instead of stopping at the red. Busses play chicken on steep mountain roads with no guardrails. Seatbelts? What seatbelts? And a stop sign never means stop. It means “hey there may be another car coming so make sure you flash your brights, maybe slow down to only 45mph, thankyaaa”. As far as acceptance goes, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel safe in a moving vehicle. But I’m getting much more adept at crossing the street, so that’s something.

Showing it off
: I was told before coming here that I should bring conservative clothing. Well, that was easy. All I own are crewnecks anyway. I happily (read: wrongly) assumed that everyone else would have the same fashion sense as me. Many women here are into the tight, belly-baring look, and yet I still get cat-called walking down the street. I’ve been advised to take it as a compliment. I’m not there yet, but am able to largely ignore the whistles that come my way.

Eternal Spring
: I mean it. Lonely Planet was not kidding. I dress in the morning in a t-shirt, cardigan, scarf, and jeans. By noon I’m down to the t-shirt and am slathering on the SPF 50. A few hours later it’s all back on again. I truly began to appreciate the weather here after my trip to the coast, where it was 90 and humid all day. Quito, thank you for your perfect range of temperatures and your cool breezes. New England, I hope spring comes soon.

Paper or plastic
: Ecuadorians love food in bags. Milk, mayo, yogurt, you name it. I’m not sure if they like the idea of squeezing every ounce out or if it’s just easier to stack in the fridge, but bagged consumables are a big deal here. I approve of the milk bladder, but the mayo’s a tough one for me to get past.

Breaking the language barrier: Thankfully, the Spanish that I learned in high school was Latin American, but there are so many words that are unique to Ecuador. My favorite, “chevere”, means cool. I was surprised to rarely hear “adios” used, as it’s only for when you won’t see someone again for a long time. “Ciao” is the regular way to say goodbye. Huh, didn’t anticipate that one. Ecuadorians also insert the word “super” into everyday talk. Super-fácil, super-chevere… it’s strange to hear English inserted in such a casual way, but I like it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Baños

Sincerest apologies to my 8 readers for the lack of timely updates. So much has been happening! Dad came to visit last week and we had a wonderful time wandering the streets of Quito and enjoying the outdoor cafes and markets. Showing him the sights made me realize how far my language skills and knowledge of the city has come. Of course, I was quickly slapped in the face by the limits of my Spanish when I went to see Alice in Wonderland in Español last week, but I digress.

One of the main reasons I was so excited about Dad’s visit (aside from the Reese’s Pieces he was bringing) was our planned trip to Baños – a little city tucked into the Andes mountains that’s known for its thermal pools heated by the nearby Volcán Tungurahua. We lucked out staying at an insanely gorgeous hotel high above the city that offered unrivaled views of the landscape and spent the weekend hiking around various waterfalls and soaking in the mineral pools. Of course, a weekend with my Dad is never without some kind of adventure - we also tried grilled cuy (guinea pig), rode a few rickety cable cars and risked our lives on a bridge swing (a slightly safer cousin of the bungee jump. Just as terrifying.) Photos to come of the cuy tasting!



Friday, February 26, 2010

Table for Glasses



Yesterday a group of eye doctors came to FUDIS to give all of the residents a free examination. Out of a group of 32, 24 of them needed glasses. For many, it was the first time they had ever had their eyes checked.



It was amazing to watch how faces would light up when the correct prescription was found and words could finally be seen on the screen. That second when everything comes into focus; the world seems more crisp, brighter somehow. It was such a wonderful moment to witness. Some of the patients were so funny choosing their frames – they would go back and forth between pairs, asking everyone waiting what they thought. The technicians were incredibly patient and so generous to donate their time. What a gift to give.



That afternoon brought up a memory of the first time I realized I needed glasses. I was twelve and watching cartoons with my sisters. I can remember thinking that Bugs looked a little more fuzzy than usual. A few weeks later, I was sitting in the chair at the eye doctor’s, hearing the news that confirmed what I already knew. How different my experience was than that of some of the people who I’ve met here.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Trip to the Zoo

Last week I was invited to join in on a trip to the zoo by Jimmy, the cook at FUDIS. Since I spend the majority of my free time in the kitchen (hah big surprise) with him and the other cook, Rosa, and her daughter, Alexandra, I was only too happy to show them that I have other interests besides eating. We left early on Sunday morning to catch the sights at the animal market outside of Quito. I was definitely the only gringa there and prayed that I wasn’t going to be sold alongside the cows and goats.

The town also boasted a beautiful church, and we dropped in to light a candle for the patients at FUDIS and pose for a few pictures.

After wandering the town a bit, we hopped on a bus going towards the zoo and I was dismayed to discover that half of the shoppers from the market were also headed our way. There were live chickens and bags of feed scattering the aisle, but nobody seemed to mind. It was this sort of scene that I had envisioned when anticipating traveling in Ecuador, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. It was a relief when we finally reached the zoo and I could step off the barnyard on wheels.

Confession time: I can’t recall ever going to a zoo in my life. Readers, thanks for reminding me if I have. We had a blast checking out the animals, many of which are native to Ecuador, and feeding a few of them. There was a moment when a ferocious looking donkey bared its teeth at me and I panicked, thinking that I really should have opted for the rabies shot, but luckily it only wanted the carrot I was holding. Whew. Close call.