Monday, September 27, 2010

Cotacachi Saturday

How´d you spend last Saturday? Hiking the perimeter of a volcanic crater lake?
Well, then I´m guessing it wasn´t as cool as mine!
Tom, Amanda, Meaghan and I left Quito at the verrrry early hour of 7:30, taking the Otavalo bus, then another shorter bus to the town of Cotacachi, and finally riding in the back of a pickup the rest of the way to the volcano.
There´s an unremarkable little tourist area at the base of the volcano, a museum that by all indications was closed, and finally the sendero or trail around the perimeter. Tom´s guidebook told us it would take between five to six hours. Being relatively fit twenty-somethings, we laughed at this estimate. Four hours, tops, for sure...
The next hour or so we spent clambering up steps in what we believed to be the steeper part of the hike, with frequent pauses for pictures of the absolute breathtaking vista, both to our left, into the lake, and to our right, out into the countryside.
Incredibly, not too far into our hike, Tom spotted what I believe to be a condor circling in the currents of air coming over the top of the volcano, without a single flap of his considerable wingspan.
Feeling thus emboldened by our sacred symbol, we pushed on to the highest point in the hike, convinced we had completed at least a good two-thirds within about two hours. Oh... if only we knew...
The top!
The next few hours of the hike went like this:
Jessie falls down while trying to eat candy while descending the steepest part of the hike. Whoops.
Meaghan´s boots actually tie themselves together and trip her. This is only funny because no one got hurt...
"Guys, we´ve GOT to be at least halfway by now."
Half an hour later: "Okay, this is definitely the halfway point."
After the trail veers off into the backcountry for a good 45 minutes: "Well, at least we can see the lake again..."
"Cow pasture?"
"Where are we...?"
Loooong story short, the trail meandered a LOT more than we expected. All told, the hike took us about six hours, including a long detour down a road (definitely not the trail, judging by the number of farm vehicles rumbling by us) through a piece of beautiful, isolated, and apparently very poor farmland.
We probably passed through a total of four or five different types of forests and brush land, from the scrub at the top of the peak, to subtropical behind the volcano, into some strange evergreen anomaly in between cow pastures. Tom had an interesting theory that the fauna varied depending on the patterns of air and therefore moisture carried over from the lake, or blocked by the high volcanic walls. Altitude, of course, would also play a role in the great variety that we saw. By far this is one of my favorite hikes I´ve ever done, and despite the unexpected length and resulting soreness the next morning, I´d go back in a heartbeat.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Weekend Update #1: The Hacienda

Such an epic disappointment. This refers to the Saturday after the first full week of classes, when the Office of International Programs organized a trip for the international kids to a hacienda (in this sense of the word, essentially a blend of an estate and a farm) two hours outside the city. The trip cost $25 bus, food, and drink included, with proceeds going to a local charity. Despite the 7:30am meeting time, it should have been a beautiful day.

After disembarking in the historic town of Nono, we walked (read: hiked) up a hill, through pastures and farmland, to reach the house. We must have been significantly higher than Quito, because we all were dying from the altitude.
Hello, South American pastoral

After reaching the patio attached to the house, we sat expectantly for a bit waiting to see what would happen next. It was about 10am. I expected, I don´t know, maybe food, music, bonding, something of that sort. What I did not expect, what this:
And so the tone was set for the rest of the day. One of the program leaders, otherwise a very reasonable guy, led us in a series of the most ridiculous drinking games until they finally fed us at 1:30. And when I say "games", think, birthday party games for twelve-year-olds with the addition of shots.
Game: Climb a greased pole. If you fail (which you will), take a shot.
I was utterly baffled by this. Mostly, everyone was a pretty good sport about it, but after an hour or two I had really given up. I could not easily participate in any of the games, since apparently choosing not to take shots at 11 in the morning wasn´t good team spirit. A lot of the kids, myself included, were really hungry after waking up at 6:30 to make it to this shindig. I wasn´t expecting a whole lot, but a bowl of chips would have been nice.
Wheelbarrow race: Race to the infamous greased pole, both parties take a shot, and return. Tom, ever the gentleman, took a shot for both of us.
After getting to known the international programs staff over the past week, I knew them to be nice and well-intentioned people. But geez - was this what they thought we wanted? It was like catering to the worst of American exchange student stereotypes: "for food and care, just add beer". Sitting in the hacienda watching the bacchanalian celebrations occur below, I spoke to some students from Germany who felt the same way - out of place, and vaguely insulted. Even some of the students who participated in the games felt disappointed with how the outing went.

Later, the OIP sent us a surveymonkey questionnaire about the party, and (anonymously of course) I was quite honest about how I felt: The hacienda was beautiful. The food, once provided, was very good. Spending a day meeting our fellow students was actually quite nice. However, there´s a difference between providing us with alcohol, should we choose to imbibe, and constructing an entire day of activities around binge drinking. Overall, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. But, this was just one day out of many, and was one of the very few "bad" days here in Ecuador so far.

Estoy sin voz....

Recent realization: Speaking Spanish is infinitely more difficult when one cannot speak at all. Beginning sometime during the craziness that was Saturday, my voice slowly decided that, after a week of being sick and a weekend of not enough rest, it was not entirely necessary for it to stick around. I woke up Sunday morning (wait - no - afternoon...) unable to make any kind of vocalization. My host Mom found this pretty funny, but was very sweet about it.

Also, because of said illness and weekend festivities, I´ve got a pile of reading and catching up to do for classes. And I´m STILL about three weeks behind on blog posts about the fun stuff going on around here. I promise I´ll get my act together soon. Personal fav, from Tom´s 21st:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


First stomach bug has (tentatively) been survived. After nearly three days of urrrgh I was so close to giving in and delving into my stash of Cipro... but antibiotics are for the weak, and I managed to pull through and drag myself to class for the first time since Monday. My wimp of a stomach plus an un-fun head cold, traceable to the looong bus ride home from Atacames, kept me home Monday morning and all of Tuesday. My goal is to go to at least one of each class this week, achievable if I don´t die before tomorrow.

In the meantime, I´m catching up on a bit of schoolwork, some serious NAIMUN crunch work (hi Nora and Lopes, hope you´re reading!!), and blog posts about the past two weekends. Checking email for the first time since Monday brought some really sweet emails from friends that I didn´t know I needed so much until I read them. I´m going to share some wise words on language immersion from my dear friend Will that certainly inspired me:

"We've got two options: look a bit like a dork and do our best to use Spanish even if we're self conscious OR, herd around with English speakers and communicate perfectly well. We're sacrificing the ability to be understood, so that we can understand a new language...

...which is so true, and definitely something I´m going to try to keep in mind in the coming weeks. Making local friends has definitely been the biggest challenge for me. Granted, USFQers have as a general rule gone to school and grown up together, and breaking into their little microcosms is about as tough as it would be in a high school setting (read: really freaking tough). However, that´s no excuse for giving up and hanging out with Americans all the time, especially when it´s your language acquisition at stake. For a number of reasons my catchphrase here has already become "Awkward is my life," so I guess I´m just going to have to embrace that as I try to, awkwardly, make myself some friends.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pre-Weekend Update

This weekend, Tom pretty much by his awesome self has figured out a way to get about 12 of us up to the beach at Atacames, bus and really sweet cabanas for two nights included, for about $30 dollars. Awesome points to Tom.

That means that right after our last class on Friday, we´ll be heading down to the station to catch our 3pm bus. Excited for: warm Pacific waters, reading on the beach, and going dancing at night. Fears: Really, really bad sunburn - one more fun side effect of living on the equator. Hopefully SPF 100+ will see me through :P

But before that can happen, there are still two days of class to go, including a presentation on neoclassical environmental economics based on about 30 pages of reading. About econ. In Spanish. Ready.... set.... GO!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

They Said There'd Be Days Like These

If this is going to be an honest account of a semester abroad, then it can't all be pretty pictures and crazy adventures. And that means admitting that yesterday was... not so good. First of all, the combination of not getting quite enough sleep and maybe a touch of food poisoning from the sketchy chancho (pork, a.k.a. pig roasted whole) we ate on Saturday, made it a pretty tough Monday to start. The first few homework assignments were due, including a 9am presentation. I had yet to track down textbooks for all of these classes and was (am) feeling pretty lost. I tried to buy yarn for Basic Weaving over the weekend, failed epically, and was now unprepared for class. Silly stressful things like that.

But mostly, I really let the language barrier get to me. In the classes where the vast majority of students are Ecuadorians, with myself and maybe one other international student, keeping up with rapid-fire notes or a professor who flips through powerpoint slides as if they were merely a suggestion of things we should learn is about all I can handle. If those classes include class discussions, it's easy to start feeling like the stupid kid in the corner, unable to answer questions or get picked for a group project. Do that all day, and it will likely end with a few tears in a bathroom stall.

Last night I went over notes and prepared assignments for today and then went straight to bed. Having days like yesterday, I'm figuring out, doesn't happen because we're really that horrible at speaking Spanish (although it can feel like it). It happens when for whatever reason - lack of sleep, altitude, stomachache, pollution - we're not on top of our game, and it affects everything about the day. Today was better - not great, but better. I still don't have books, but I do know where to pick them up tomorrow. I don't have my censo card, but at least I found the store to get the requisite i.d. photos. Small steps.

And, because I'm pretty sure pictures are the only reason people would keep checking this blog, here's one of my favorites from this past Sunday...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Today, I Paid $2 to Almost Die

WHAT a day. After a very interesting Saturday (details to come) I woke up early to get a head start on some homework for Monday. Too bad none of the internet cafés open until 10am at the earliest. By about 11:30, I had finished up and was on my way with Amanda to meet Tom to go climb the Basilica of the National Vow. This was a find of Tom’s from last Sunday, which he described as kind of scary but worth it.


Sidenote: I am afraid of many things. Heights, great speed, tight spaces, clowns, etc. Normally, in places like theme parks or rope courses at summer camp, I can reason my way out of fear using the line of rational that if the risk was great enough that I have a reason to be afraid, then no insurance company stand behind that activity and if there had been an accident in the past, the company would have been sued for all they were worth. Definitely an upside of living in such a litigious society. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning tends to break down outside the good old US of A.

The Basilica is first and foremost an incredible cathedral. Not knowing much about church construction, I do know that walking up the steep park to the entrance, one feels what its original architects intended: awe at the scale and magnificence of the monument. And, unlike most great cathedrals elsewhere in the world, you can poke around most anywhere inside. Including two of the three great spires.

A few flights of stairs up, and one arrives at the first major stopping point – a wide open area along the front width of the church that houses the organ and some amazing stained glass work. From here, one can view the expanse of the nave below. Strangely enough that was the one place in the church where we were not allowed. Another flight up, and we were above the ceiling of the nave – literally. From the floor directly above the first stopping point, a rickety wooden bridge with two rope handrails extends over the arches that form the ceiling of the nave. The stone slopes down to meet with the walls, making it a soft tumble of about 15 feet if one were to, say, put a foot through the wooden planks that creak with every step. Sadly, this is the easy part.
The bridge, now over the front of the nave, ends in a small wooden platform, with a nearly vertical ladder leading up about a story. Chicken wire forms a cage over the back of each step, preventing one from putting a foot through the stepladder and slipping. Upon submitting the ladder, one is now fully outside, along the bas of the smallest spire. (‘Small’, of course, is relative.) Two flying buttresses support the breadth of the spire. Along the outermost buttress, two more flights of ladders wind around to the top platform of the spire. The first ladder is much steeper than the second, but hovers directly over a very solid-looking roof. The second flight turns 180 degrees back towards the spire, but hangs over… well, to think of it now, I’m not really sure because after one quick glance I was done looking. Also, the chicken wire ends about four steps from the top. Sure, it’s easy to think of chicken wire as unsubstantial support, but just wait until it’s taken from you with no warning. I’ll never look at lawn ornaments made from chicken wire the same again.
Okay, dramatics aside, the view was pretty much the most incredible thing ever. Quito is a very unique city in that most buildings are only a few stories high, the largest ones twenty at most. It stretches down the length of the valley, long and thin, like someone poured orange-and-beige buildings into the valley and they came to rest in a lake of urban settlement. At the far southern end, the giant statue of the virgin stands guard over Quito from what must be a man-made hill, so perfectly placed as a stopper to keep all of those buildings from flowing right out of their lake. We didn’t stay for too long, however, since as Tom remarked, “Wow. This is not significantly less scary the second time around.”
We scooted down the three ladders, lightly stepped across the bridge, and returned to the safety of wide stone floors with walls and normal-people stairs. Or so we thought. A not-at-all touristy gift shop stood at the opposite end of the floor, with a flight of stairs leading up from one wall. It led to a very classy café, with yet another flight of stairs going higher still. It became apparent that we were not only able but expected to ascend to the belfry in one of the twin towers that formed the imposing front entrance of the cathedral.
Why the hell not.

First, a green spiral staircase led up three white-knuckled floors, passing the original clock machinery that used to run the white-and-blue clocks, the faces of which were at least twice as tall as I am. We passed these clocks as well, and the four or so bells on the floor above, and FINALLY reached the upper-most floor by way of two very suspect-looking rebar ladders (no chicken wire this time, but at least we were inside).

Admittedly, this climb was not as bad as the first. Instead of a bloody and crunchy death, the worst that could happen was a rough fall from slipping on one of the ladders. Still, by the time Tom, Amanda, and I descended, there were lots of shaky legs. And hugs. Many hugs.
Tom headed home to join his family for lunch, and Amanda and I wandered back through Quito, first looking at a small part of the very large Sunday art fair in el Parque Ejido, and then unsuccessfully searching for a yarn store where I needed to buy materials for my weaving class. Later, Tom, Molly and I will meet back up to work on an Economía Ambiental project, and I’ll get online to post this!
View of the first tower we climbed, as seen from the second

Thursday, September 2, 2010

This is the last time I will post about boring things like my class schedule, I promise.

I´ll spare you the 15 permutations it took to get here, but my class schedule is FINALLY set (as well it should, considering today is the last day of add/drop).

For this to happen, I first had a little come-to-Jesus with the academic advisors in la Oficina de Programas Internacionales. Maricarmen very tactfully explained that my schedule as it stood as of last post was going to be very challenging. Now, she had mentioned something to this effect before, but seriously - as a Georgetown SFS student studying STIA to boot, and I´m not going to let a full courseload of fourth-level direct-matriculation Spanish classes intimidate me. Yeah.

But the more I thought about it as the week wore on, I realized she had a point. Yes, I could keep my schedule and maybe even do well, but it would most definitely mean a boatload of reading and essays every weekend. (Well, yes, this is like, you know, college.) It took me a few days to come around, but then it began to sink in that this semester wasn´t about taking the most difficult classes possible and spending every night holed up in the library. (But... guys...! College!!) We´re supposed to be going out and meeting people, using Spanish outside the classroom (concept...) and traveling somewhere new and beautiful every weekend. It wasn´t necessary to keep up the same killer pace as any other semester at home. Having realized this, I changed my schedule.

Well... that´s almost what happened. Really I checked my degree audit online at the beginning of this week, and realized that not counting this semester, I had room to take 15 classes but only had 11 or so credits left. That´s when I really started getting all Bambi about this whole boondoggle and loosened my death grip on my class schedule.

First, instead of going to Seguridad en el Medio Oriente, I checked out Empredimiento Ambiental (Environmental Entrepreneurship) during the same time slot, just to see what it was like. COOLEST CLASS EVER. At this point, I´m pretty jaded in terms of STIA-esque classes, and it´s rare to be introduced to completely new concepts that I´ve never studied before. This class, with an awesome professor and really well-informed students, continually brings up new concepts or case studies, or introduces old ones in ways I´ve never examined them before. Right after class I registered for it online.

The next class to get the boot was the last SFS core class remaining, Latin American Thought. It was the most difficult in terms of the level of Spanish that was required, but dropping it felt like admitting defeat. Come to think of it, it still does. I can only comfort myself in the thought of copious weekend trips unhindered by essays on "la soledad de America Latina".

To drop this class, I went back to Maricarmen of endless patience for assistance. I´d looked through some extracurricular-ish classes but hadn´t seen much that I was excited about taking. She knew the courses better than anyone though, so I asked for a recommendation, "You know, something easy, maybe an art class!" (Art class? Will the hilltop even take me back??)

Scrolling through the course list, she found an opening in Tejido Básico, according to her one of the best professors and a personal favorite of hers. It happened to be at the same time as Latin American Philosophy, so of course it was meant to be. She made the change so that I would be enrolled in the class for the next morning.

I had forgotten to check for the building and classroom the day before, so I got to campus a few minutes early to look it up online at one of the banks of computers. I ran into Tom who was waiting for his class to start. We then had a conversation that went something like this:

"Going to class?" "Yeah, I just have to find the classroom first. I switched into an art class!" "Oh cool, what class?" "Um... Tejido Básico. Maricarmen recommended it." "Tejido? What is that?" "You know... [pause] I´m actually not sure."
[[Sidenote - I´m not stupid, or even that blonde really, I was just not that concerned with whatever this class was I had signed up for. It was art. Art was art. That´s all I´d needed to know.]]
"Tejido... that´s weaving, right? I´m pretty sure that´s weaving." "Weaving?? I´m taking a weaving class? That´s awesome!!"

So yeah. I´m taking Basic Weaving. Be jealous.