Sunday, October 24, 2010

USFQ's Unofficial Mascot

I've been meaning to share some photos of the beautiful husky that roams USFQ's campus. He's completely aloof and rarely deigns to acknowledge you, but he can do that since he's just that beautiful. Take a look -
I'm on a mission to learn his name... maybe then he'll love me...

**Update: his name is Nobu. He still doesn't love me :( **

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Weekend Update #4: Papallacta Saturday

The weekend before last, myself, Tom, Ben, and Jeff planned a relaxing day hike/bath soak in the nearby town of Papallacta, known for its excellent hot springs.

Buuuut, due to a bus station mix-up, it took us until early afternoon to actually get there - not exactly our 10am start time. We hopped off the bus to a light drizzle, and kind of stood there for a minute. It become eminently clear that no one actually knew where to go to even start hiking. Two of the guys had forgotten rain gear. I'm not sure who said it first (*cough* Jeff), but it wasn't long until...

"So guys.... hot springs?!"

Sounds good to me! So we hopped in a cab, okay, the back of a pickup truck, whose driver said it'd only be a dollar. It was only after we got in we had forgotten to ask where we were actually going... oh well! (No wonder it took us like 4 and a half hours to make the two hour trip...)
Thankfully, after about 10 minutes the truck dropped us off further up into the hills, in front of a very promising looking hot spring resort. Especially promising, we thought, when we saw this sign:
"Admission is restricted to people who have consumed alcohol"

That's when you know you're in the right place... Misleading translation aside, we paid our $7 admission and were soon admitted to paradise.
The entire complex was beautiful, just a series of pools channeling naturally heated water (full of healing properties?) to tired tourists and quite a few locals as well. I can see why this is a popular destination spot. I just have to say - gentlemen, if we ladies aren't supposed to wear miniskirts after 35, PLEASE no speedos after 50. Thank you.
Even the natural streams that ran alongside the resort were mildly warm. No wonder the vegetation was so lush.
Jeff was particularly enthralled.
Instead of cabbing it back down to the bus stop, we chose instead to do the walk ourselves, passing through some of the most beautiful rural countryside I've seen here.
Let's pick on Jeff some more.
My lunch, before...
...and after. (It was delicious.)

We'll have to go back sometime to do some real hiking. Every weekend here is a mini-vacation. Someone told me the other day we only have eight left - it's incredible how quickly this semester is going. This weekend I'm staying in Quito to catch up on work and do some exploring. I'm off to Old Town to scope out the coolest sights for Mom and Dad's visit. Some of the girls are joining me in the afternoon, but right now it's just me and Thomas' guidebook. I'm looking forward to it :) Until next time!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Weekend Update #3: Otavalo and Tom's 21st

Okay, more stories from the past, this time from September 17th-19th. We spent Friday-Saturday in Otavalo, a prosperous indigenous town known for its incredible market, and then Saturday night (and earrrly Sunday) back in Quito celebrating Tom's 21st birthday. Let's do this one through pictures:
Most adorable dogs ever in our hostel, La Rosario
Walking through the town after dinner
The market
Everybody found some sweet deals. Bargaining is part of the culture - only silly gringos pay full price...

Back in Quito for Tom's 21st, I make my first alcoholic purchase (*ahem* it's legal). It was a Smirnoff Ice, and it was legendary.
Tom looks delighted.
Some hours later, Tom is now sporting EVERYTHING he bought in Otavalo. (To be fair, it was really cold in his family's apartment.)

After enjoying a delicious chocolate cake, we headed out to la Mariscal for the evening. Let's just say, it was a fun time. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TOM!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Weekend Update #2: Atacames

Okay, so this is embarrassing. This was maybe our third weekend in Ecuador but whatever, it was awesome, so I'm going to write about it now.

We left after classes on Friday for our 4 to 5, okay maybe 6, but definitely-... gosh darnit. SEVEN, if we're lucky, hour bus ride due north to Atacames.
We passed through some incredibly beautiful countryside. This being our first big trip outside of Quito, I was absolutely enthralled. Even now, no matter what I bring with me on bus rides here, I always end up staring out the window. Along with the incredible view came views of incredible poverty, which got Tom and Molly talking about economic development. Then again, it doesn't take much to get Tom and Molly talking about economic development.

Late Friday night we arrived at the Atacames bus stop and snagged a few moto-taxis (I'm going to try to find a picture to borrow from a friend, I didn't take any) which was, at the time, the sketchiest method of transportation I had yet to take, and headed to our hostel. Our hostel was awesome:
The beach was awesome:
And Jeff almost killed himself in the middle of the night trying to get a glass of water:
The beach itself was a fascinating juxtaposition of the timelessness of nature, and the transient existence of humanity. Just look -
in comparison to
Looking down the beach, to one side lapped the ocean, as enduring and imposing as ever. To the other, a string of tacky tiki-bars lined the beach, beyond which ran a crowded street bordered by concrete-and-rebar buildings that were in permanent need of a new coat of paint (or a structural inspection). The people were a very strange mix of kids like us, tourists who probably didn't know what they were getting themselves into, and locals. And when I say "locals," the crowd ran the gamut from prostitutes to toddlers. Seriously.

During the day, families and kids flocked to the beach while various vendors hawked their wares (cornbread? choclo? sunglasses?) to uninterested tourists. Chairs, sandcastles, and a lot of litter was left scarring the sand at the end of the day as the beachgoers retreated home. Returning hours later for the evening frivolities (the tiki bars had their appeal), the tide, already high at 4pm, had retreated, leaving the beach pristine and fresh, almost as if the tide had absolved it of the earlier transgressions of its careless patrons.

I didn't take too many pictures here. Everywhere I looked, it was just too beautiful or too depressing to photograph. It was a lovely weekend dancing, exploring caves and playing in the surf, but this is probably the only place in Ecuador I've seen to which I wouldn't return.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gringo Starr

We won! name. Really we placed fourth or something, Tom/Ben/Jeff/Meaghan/Mike's team did better though. Next time, we'll be in the money, I'm sure of it. Regardless, Meaghan's awesome name already earned us a free meal to a restaurant in la Mariscal - woohoo!

This week for the first time, I'm actually buried under work. A paper and group project due in Econ on Friday, two tests and a large presentation for Monday, and still we're planning a big trip this weekend to Baños... oh man. And this Thursday, Thomás hooked us up with awesome tickets to some sort of Brazilian music festival... or so I gather. Whatever, I bought a ticket. It's called Cappallera I believe, but it would obviously be in Portuguese so who knows how you actually spell it. (Spanish, among its other wonderful qualities, happens to be completely phonetic and therefore very easy to spell. Not so much when you start mixing in French.) Lots to do in the next few days!

In related news, I'm kind of behind on blog posts. I'll get some pictures up tonight and hopefully share some past adventures over the next few days :) As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's Tuesday night, and you know what that means!

...Quiz night at Finn McCools, everyone's favorite Irish bar owned by a Canadian but frequented by gringos right here in Ecuador... well you get my drift.

Last week

Last week, we *almost* won. I mean, we placed fourth. But we were SO CLOSE. This is going to be our night. I can feel it.

Tuesdays are by far my favorite day. After an exhausting 5 1/2 hours of class on Monday, I wake up early to check emails and read the news on the oh-so-wonderful wireless at home. Make it to school around 9:15, grab a cup of the most delicious organic coffee at the place across the street from campus and catch up on reading for classes. The first classes of the morning are weaving and diving - hello, study abroad. (Stay tuned for recent revelations about how I'm better at weaving than literally anything else here, including Spanish, unfortunately...) After diving ends at 1pm, I meet Mariel, Amanda, and whoever else is around for a relaxing lunch at a local Ecuadorian restaurant - huge bowl of soup, rice, some kind of veggie, some kind of meat, a desert and delicious juice. For $2.50. Amazing.


The next 45 minutes or so until my next class I spend lazing in the sun by the laguna, doing more reading and/or avoiding my overly attentive conversation partner (oops). The last class of the day is environmental entrepreneurship, possibly my favorite class here (other than weaving of course). After heading home, a good workout in my apartment building's tiny gym, shower, dinner, and some homework, it's time - for trivia night.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Addendum to Post: Tom Got Bit by a Dog.

CAN'T believe I forgot to mention this. Tom, in a hiking endeavor on Saturday, managed to get himself bit by a dog. He is okay and is going to continue being okay, thanks to a battery of five rabies shots over the course of the next month. We are now free to make fun of him. Yeah, Tom!

Halfway There

Wow - nine weeks have come and gone, making this the exact halfway point in an 18-week semester. In some ways, it's not surprising - walking down the street to go meet friends at the mall or on the way to school, I'm taken aback sometimes by how normal the whole routine has become. Buying bread at the panadería on the corner, greeting the same wizened old guard out front at a neighboring apartment building, and paying the 25 cent fare for the daily hectic bus ride to campus... that doesn't feel like being abroad, that just feels like, well, life.

But then there are those moments that jar you back to the insane reality that you are spending a semester living a completely different life. Looking out the window of the bus on the way to school usually does that for me - from the vantage point of the highway running along the ridge, all of Quito is spread below in the bowl of the valley, with breathtakingly beautiful mountains (here, they're just hills really) beyond. It's as if someone poured houses and buildings out of a jug at the top of the valley, and they all settled on the gentle slope of the valley floor, only a few venturing higher up the slopes.

Another moment came today while waiting for my Suelos (soils) class to start. We were going to be taking a soil profile at a site nearby but since myself and the other American didn't know where to go, we were told to wait in front of the building for the coordinador (the teacher's assistant, also just a student in the class) to come fetch us. 2:00PM, 2:05PM, 2:10PM... and then, out of nowhere, the TA - who it had just then occurred to me really was one of the most attractive boys in the class - comes roaring up ON A FOURWHEELER.

And motions for us to hop on. So, perched on the back and hanging on for dear life, we roar back through the parking lot, out the front gates, and onto the main streets of Cumbayá. And then careen around the giant, busy, terrifying traffic circle. And down a crowded side street for maybe half a mile, most definitely keeping up with traffic. We end up, thankfully in one piece, at a nearby construction site where digging for the foundation of a building had conveniently left a perfectly exposed soil profile. (A nice change from the digging in Belize!) Call me crazy, but somehow I have a hard time picturing that going down at Georgetown - although I can think of some classes that would be greatly improved by copious usage of recreational vehicles. It was pretty darn awesome.

Short catch-up on this past weekend: Saturday morning we managed to get ourselves to Mindo early in the afternoon. Apparently there is some beautiful waterfall hikes, but the chilly temperature and coming weekend trip to Baños, supposedly even more awesome, had us limiting our activities to visiting a butterfly/orchid/hummingbird house, watching a local fútbol match, and ZIPLINING.

Oh my goodness. To paraphrase a good family friend, that's about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. $10 got you a sturdy harness, helmet, gloves with wooden grooves glued to the palms (for steadying yourself by holding on to the wire), and a pair of guides to ensure you don't die. There were ten lines total, which according to the signs totaled over three thousand meters. It was a long freaking way. I started the first line honestly not that scared. I trusted the guides and I trusted the lines and harness. After the first jump, I started screaming mostly out of exhilaration and partly to scare Amanda, who was still behind me. (Hi Amanda!) Then, maybe a third of the way out, I looked down, heard my voice jump up at least an octave, and started screaming, in earnest, for the rest of that line. We were WAYYY up there.

Starting the second line, I had gone into autopilot where my instincts say "NOOOO!" but social constraints say, "Dude, you gotta do this" (incidentally, also how I broke my tailbone). Then, ten whimpering seconds into the second line, I had the thought - "Hey. I paid ten dollars for this. I better freaking enjoy it." So I quit whining, opened my eyes, and was just awed by the beauty of what was around us. Each line stretched from ridge to ridge, with different parts of the valley in between. Hundreds of meters out there, the lines disappears against the backdrop of the selva (rainforest) and it's as if you're floating among the clouds that slowly pour over the ridge, with only the "zhing!" of the wire to remind you that you're not dreaming. The tenth line came much too quickly.

We took the $2 bus back to Quito in time for Saturday night festivities. Mariel (some of you know her as Molly) had somehow talked me into going on a double date with two guys from her host sister's job. They were, reputably and in person, very nice guys. (And at 25 years old, with a steady job and a car, quite a catch compared to most of the guys we were used to meeting!) And though I'm calling this a "double date", a date here in Ecuador has a very different connotation than in the US, especially amid a college hookup culture. It was a really fun evening that felt more like friends hanging out than any kind of intense, tension-filled date (and after a few experiences with some not as respectful or observant individuals, that was a relief for me).

They took us to La Ronda, a beautiful and lively street in Old Town, full of bars and small restaurants, chocolate shops and boutiques. With its narrow cobblestone street, canelaza vendors (a hot cinnamon drink, with or without alcohol) and the backdrop of beautiful colonial architecture it felt like we'd walked into a holiday celebration. We spent the night going bar to bar having a drink or two at each one (the coffee is delicious!), enjoying the incredible live music, and laughing at the people around us. Around 1AM the street starts to empty out, and I was dropped off with a polite kiss on the cheek. Americans have something to learn!

OH! And though this could easily deserve its own blog post... LESS THAN A MONTH until I turn 21. And you know what that means...

[Concerned family members and future employers, to clarify exactly what that means - I will be free to drink alcohol for the first time, as that has been previously eschewed by choice.]

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. I may very well miss being sober. But it will also be a relief to not have to turn every offer of a drink into a life story detailing the circumstances of how that choice came about. Really, it seems like the end of an era. Sobriety, for whatever reason, has for a while defined a part of who I am and I don't really know how I feel about that ending.

I'll add some pics to this post when I get a chance. Until then, ciao!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Coup pt. 2

Sorry guys... leave the internet and it´s two days before I can get a chance to post again. Hopefully that will all change today! We´re supposedly getting wireless internet at the apartment - fingers crossed.

So. There I was, sitting on my bed and watching events unfold. First, the troops positioned on the embankment one by one ran to the wall in front of the hospital; then then took the guardhouse; ten minutes of confused panning of the camera ensued. Next visible movement was the sight of troops running along the wall of the building - apparently they´d gained entry to the compound. Finally, a motorcade of cars came zooming out from around the corner - that must be Correa, they got him out. But the gunshots continued. Suddenly, the camera panned to the left, where on live television we watching as a soldier, standing at the top of the embankment, tumbled down the stone median and lay still at the bottom. Other soldiers ran into the camera´s view, crouching by the wounded man and then frantically calling for medics.

This wasn´t supposed to happen. Was this really happening?? Ecuador´s modern political history, though unstable, was at the very least peaceful. The only death on record, in fact, was a ninety-year-old man who died of a heart attack during a political rally some years before. But this fighting, over something at trivial as budget cuts, made such a mockery of the democratic political process that the possibility that this could get serious seemed all too real. The light-hearted tone we´d taken earlier in the day was due to the belief that truly, this just could not escalate to a critical level. But four casualties later at ten o´clock at night, that conclusion was now thrown in doubt.

Listening to Correa´s speech given from the terrace of the presidential palace some minutes later, it became clear that he was in control again, with the military and a large popular movement behind him. Things went basically back to normal the next day, but with no classes and a large police presence. Over the next few days, it became clear that what we had witnessed was not, in fact, an attempted coup, but rather a piece of pretty low political theater. The police did walk off their jobs, but when Correa went to their barracks and essentially taunted them, ¨Kill the president if you´re brave¨, he knowingly put himself in a situation where he would be threatened. Apparently, this was exactly what he wanted, even if he hadn´t planned out specifically what was going to happen. The full picture is still developing - one would think he would use this to bolster support for his austerity measures, but I´ve heard he´s now raising salaries for the police and military. Most Ecuadorians I´ve spoken with realize what Correa was doing and aren´t buying it. One nice man I spoke to for about an hour at the coffee place in Quicentro on Sunday described Correa as taking advantage of the people´s, "Lack of political culture" - not of education exactly, just the sophistication to know when the process is being abused. In many ways this is representative of Ecuador as a whole. There may be the infraestructure present, both political and physical, but often times it is not used correctly.

Monday, October 4, 2010

El Golpe de Estado

As many of you are by now aware, this past Thursday in Ecuador there was an alleged coup attempt on President Rafael Correa's government. Everyone here at school is fine, and while things were touch-and-go for awhile, it is unlikely we were ever in any real danger.

Early in the week I'd heard rumors that there would be protests over austerity measures recently announced, specifically for police bonuses. This would mean no classes, since getting caught in the middle of a protest can mean getting arrested, and for international students, deportation. So, Thursday morning walking from my weaving class across campus to scuba diving class (oh, study abroad...) I wasn't entirely surprised to see what looked like the entire student body milling around in the middle of campus. Walking into my next class, I was a little more surprised to find that no one was there. After waiting about five minutes, I figured it had been cancelled and made my way to the computer lab to check my email. I walk in, only to find literally every international kid I knew hunched over computers.

Before I could even say anything, Molly sees me and says something along the lines of, "Thank God! We thought you were wandering around the streets of Quito or something."

"GUYS. What is going on?"

And then Tom finally explained to me the following - this morning, the police had gone on strike to protest cuts in their wages, bonuses, budget, what have you. President Correa had gone to the police barracks to address them, where he had made quite an incendiary speech, at one point pulling open his collar and daring the police to, "Kill [the president] if you're brave." Instead, they threw some bottles and teargas at him. At that point, we were hearing all kinds of crazy rumors - Correa's been injured, the police are holding him hostage, he's in the hospital... Well, they all turned out to be true, although we didn't know it at the time.

For the next few hours, we were ordered by the Office of International Programs to stay on campus. It was unclear if that was because if we went back to Quito (campus is actually in the neighboring valley of Cumbayá) we'd immediately be hit with teargas and robbed, or if they were afraid we'd walk through rallies and protests, risking arrest and therefore deportation. So, trapped in our little paradise of a University, we spent the next few hours eating at one of the restaurants (Leo's has got nothing on USFQ - the food on campus is prepared mostly by the culinary students, and is excellent) and playing frisbee. It was a little gringo-island, entirely deserted except for the international students.

Finally, at around 2pm, one of the staff informed us that now would be an ideal time to go home, since apparently negotiations were now underway between the police and the government. The subtext was, who knows what kind of hell is going to break loose if (when) they end. So, a group of about 20 gringos, back packs slung over us front-ways and my pepper spray in hand, proceeded out the front gates and onto the bus back to Quito. (I stole the sign prohibiting us from leaving campus on the way out.) We'd heard that a few students had been assaulted near the front gates, and the bank across the street had already been robbed - just a few signs of the general lawlessness spreading through Ecuador in the absence of the police. This was the only point during the day when something bad actually could have happened, "something bad" probably being a robbery more than any kind of serious attack.

Thankfully, we all did make it home safe. Jeff said that as he was walking up the hill to his house, he could feel teargas burning his eyes and throat from protests nearby. However, once we were in our houses, the danger was all but nonexistent. The only thing left was to watch the news and wait for something to happen.

After plugging in the television in my room (I wasn't aware until now that it actually worked...) I watched the looting in Guayaquil, teargas in the streets and burning tires in front of police stations. On the channels controlled by the government, all they showed were interviews with prominent Correa supporters and the pro-Correa rally in front of the presidential palace. From here, it became clear that Correa was in the hospital, he was being held by the police, and we were witnessing a possible coup. [History note - no president has finished his term in Ecuador since 1996. Ecuador has had about ten more presidents than the United States, even though their list started about 40 years later. Term limits, when respected, ranged from 4 to 5 years. Presidential turnover is just not unusual.] However, the military, also hit with austerity measures, was pledging support for Correa. And it's kind of hard to stage a coup without the military. So... now what?

At around 9pm that night, anyone watching the live feed fed through one of the channels from right in front of the police hospital where Correa was being held witnessed exactly what happened. The military essentially staged a violent rescue of Correa, from his own police. The police hospital was surrounded by a parking lot and then high chain link fence complete with a guard post, although the gate was wide open. From there, a two-lane highway ran in front of the building, with the lanes of traffic closest to the hospital some feet higher than the lanes going in the other direction. They were separated by a sloped median, paved with stone, on which the camera man was laying and shooting the live feed. Not meters away from him, military troops lay, guns steadied on the top of the median aimed towards the building. It was unclear whether there were live or rubber bullets - were we really about to witness a firefight between the military and police?

(to be continued, have to go to class...)