Sunday, January 31, 2010

Otavalo and the Goodbye Dinner

VASE organized a trip for all of the volunteers to travel to Otavalo, which is a city about two hours north of Quito, high in the mountains. We all piled into a little 12 person van and headed for the hills, so to speak. Otavalo is well known for its giant indigenous market, which has just about every variety of Ecuadorian handicraft you can imagine. Stalls upon stalls of ponchos, hammocks, bracelets, art, blouses…. Every time I passed by a stall someone would pop out of the stacks of clothes saying “Hola, senorita, que quieres?” Now, these people are quite small and tend to blend in with the colorful materials, so I was just a little terrified to hear a disembodied voice asking me what I was looking for the first time.

After spending an hour bargaining and buying, we took a hike to this amazing waterfall just outside of town. We had been warned that the water was very, very cold, but being a stubborn group we all brought our bathing suits anyway. Good thing we did, because the Ecuadorian standard of frigid water is about as warm as the Atlantic in August. It felt like bathwater to me! We were pummeled by the waterfall for about half and hour, pausing to take a photo or two.

On the way back, we stopped at Cuicocha, which is a crater lake formed by the nearby Cotacachi volcano a few centuries ago. Our guide who brought us up to the viewing platform made us all close our eyes as he lead us to the railing. The sight I saw when I opened my eyes took my breath away. This stunning blue lake framed by mountains just made me fall in love with Ecuador even more. We hiked down to the lake to take a boat ride around the two smaller islands in the lake. Word is that they’re populated with a ton of guinea pigs, and that’s why they’re considered a delicacy here. I’m looking forward to trying some delicious cuy one of these days – they’re sold off the street on spits with the claws still on. YUM.

We were back by 8 o’clock, just in time to head over to my host grandparent’s house for dinner. Brendan and Olga (the other volunteers staying with my host family) and I were surprised to find a fancy meal when we got there – somehow it wasn’t communicated that it was a goodbye dinner for us. My host father, Omar, made a very sweet speech saying that we were considered a part of the family now and were always welcome back at the house. I was thrilled that I just understood it all! Grandpa Hector fed me glass after glass of wine, then insisted that we all try a shot of his favorite liqueur. Thanks, Gramps, but it was pretty awful. Later Omar showed us a few of the documentary projects that he and my host mother, Paola, had been working on in the past few months. They do a lot for the Ecuadorian Air Force, and Omar described for us what it was like to be filming while flying in these huge jets. It looked pretty crazy to me, and thanks to Hector’s bartending skills, watching the planes do flips made me nearly go cross-eyed. I’ll miss this family when I move to my project!

Life on the Equator

As my life has become far more interesting since arriving in Ecuador, it’s high time I start using a blog to make sure that everyone knows what awesome things I’ve been up to. Here goes:

For those of you who don’t already know, I’ve decided to spend the next six months volunteering in Quito with a program called International Cultural Youth Exchange. I’m doing it for a lot of reasons, but the two main ones are to learn Spanish and to get some serious hands-on social work experience. There are 12 volunteers in total who arrived in January – most will stay for a year, but there are a few of us who are here for six months. Collectively, we represent the U.S., Germany, New Zealand, Iceland, Estonia, and Sweden. We all stick out like sore thumbs when we travel together in Quito.

The ICYE Ecuador office, better known as VASE, has done wonderful things for me in the past two weeks like provide me with an orientation, a host family to live with, and Spanish classes. They also coordinated my volunteer project, which starts February 1. I’ll be working at Fundacion FUDIS, which provides communal housing to patients at Quito’s cancer hospital. The Plan is to work with the psychologist there to provide support and activities for the patients and their caregivers during their stay at FUDIS.

A Taste of What I’ve Been Doing in the Past Two Weeks:

I usually get up around 7:30 on days that I go to Spanish classes. By that time, my little host brother and sisters have already left for school and my host parents are usually at work down the street (they have an office at my host father’s parent’s house). I have a quick breakfast of hot chocolate and a roll and then I’m off to catch the bus. The bus system in Quito is pretty sophisticated, with three lines running regularly. Though there is a bus stop right across the street from my host family’s apartment, I take another more random bus that drops me off very close to my classes. There are about a million different random busses that go around Quito, so you have to check the signs on the front of the bus to find out where they’re going. A man hangs out of the open door yelling to confirm the destination. I listen for “Las Amazonas!” and flap my arms furiously to flag down that bus. There’s usually music blaring from them and sometimes the inside is decorated with fuzzy mirror covers and Virgin Mary statues. For reasons that I have yet to understand, there are also baby sneakers hanging from most rearview mirrors. The party busses are a hilarious way to start my day. I have Spanish classes from 9 until 1 with the other volunteers from my group, and then we all get lunch together.

There are restaurants on every street that have set lunches, or almuerzos, that cost between $1.50 and $2.50. You get a fresh squeezed juice, the soup of the day, a plate of rice, meat, and a few vegetables, and a little something for dessert. There are typically two options: meat or fish. Occasionally there will be a chicken foot or two in the soup – a rather unwelcome surprise for me, but the locals eyes just light up when they get a lucky bowl like that. After lunch we’ll go to the park down the street to do our homework and play Frisbee or kick a soccer ball around. A lot of times, kids will ask to play with us and they’ll throw the Frisbee a few times before running off to their friends like it’s a dare or something. Some of you may recall my pitiful hand-eye coordination skills – I get laughed at a lot.

Around 4 we have to leave the park because it starts to get a little sketchy and I catch another party bus back to the apartment. I’m usually the first one home, since the kids go to their grandparent’s house down the street after school. There isn’t really a set time that everyone gets home, but it’s usually between 7:30 and 8. My host mother will heat up some of her lunch leftovers for dinner – always soup and most of the time rice and some kind of meat. Sometimes the kids have eaten before and aren’t hungry, and sometimes we all eat together. It’s great when we do, since there’s always lots of laughing and miming words. Though my Spanish has improved significantly since I arrived, it’s still hard to find the right words sometimes. I’m going to have some mean Pictionary skills when I get back.