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Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador

a travel blog by Theresa

Many people ask, "what are your plans after graduation?"

Here's mine: I'm off to Ecuador for half a year to teach English, and have a few adventures along the way.
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Boston, United States

My last days in the US are now in full swing. With lots of packing, preparing and goodbyes still to come, I don't have too much time. However I thought I should get this going before I left.

Some of you may remember my extensive emails from past travels, but this time around I'm trying out this I guess not so new-fangled blog trend.

I leave in two days, followed by five weeks of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certification, and then a teaching placement in the capitol city of Ecuador--Quito.

Quito is located high in the Andes mountains. I look forward to acclimating both to the altitude in this mountainous region and also to this warm, exciting culture.

Sorry for such a quick hello and goodbye. I will do my best to update this blog as often as possible but please also email me or send other news of your own while I'm away.

I hope this finds you all well. Stay tuned for more info!

permalink written by  Theresa on August 21, 2008 from Boston, United States
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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solo sé que nada sé

Quito, Ecuador

I've been in Quito now for almost a week. The trip down was wicked easy and I only had a 1 day delay for my baggage...not too bad. From my flight, the baggage of about 30 people didn't make it to Quito with us. But all is well now.

I'm living with a warm, welcoming Ecuadorian family which consists of my host mom, Salomé, and host sister, Gisela. They are such good people and I love conversing with them over dinner. Also, by some chance of fate, I made it into this home which happens to be vegetarian. Qué suerte!

This week at my school, Experiment in International Living, I had 4 hours of Spanish class each morning, mostly conversing and going over grammar but also learning about Ecuadorian culture and history. In the afternoons, we had orientation to the city and culture of Quito. The days have been long as we're each getting used to this new routine, but I know that the coming weeks will be even busier.

In my course are 6 other girls, and one lonely boy. But so far we all get along great; I'm glad to have these friends as a local support network.

I'm finally used to the altitude, but it took a few days. The first day I was here, my mom took me to el centro histórico, or the old town. Gorgeous architecture and old cobblestoned streets, but its also quite hilly so I was plenty tired when we returned from that! the air is much thinner here, for sure.

But I'm really enjoying this city so far. What I like best is that basically wherever you are in the city, you can still see a mountain or volcano or other greenery in the distance. Since Quito is in a valley, we are surrounded by glorious vistas. The view from the roof patio of my school is incredible--on a clear day you can see the snow capped volcano Cotopaxi, which is the tallest active volcano in the world!

Ecuador also is home to Cayambe, which is the only volcano literally on the equator, and Chimborazzo which is technically the highest mountain in the world (when measured from the core). Pretty neat. I hope to be able to visit and hike part of Cotopaxi and other mountains in the area. There is so much to do in Ecuador, it's incredible.

Since most of you probably haven't been to Ecuador, or even heard much about it, I'll try to include some history/culture/interesting facts in each post, as well as some of my own observations.

One new phenomena is that 80% of the time, I'm the tallest person I can see. Okay, 80% is high. Really, I'm not that tall for US standards, but here in Ecuador, the average heights for men and women are much lower. Many men are my height, but few women I see are as tall or taller than I am. I pass by many adults and elderly people who are about chest high on me, but usually shoulder high is the average. It's no big deal, it just makes the hand holds on the buses and trolleys a bit low but perfect for smacking me in the face at a quick stop or turn.

Public transportation is really important here. There are at least three types of buses that run different routes all around the city. There are also 3 trolley lines that run North-South along 3 major roads. The city is organized on a North-South grid in the valley. I live in the Northwest part of the city so have to zigzag my way into the downtown area to reach the main streets. Each morning I walk to the bus stop a few blocks away, then switch to a trolley line which takes me to school. What's funny is that even though I technically live closer to school than some of my classmates, because I'm not as close to the N-S main streets, it takes me a while longer to get to school.

Let's see, what else.

At my house there are 2 dogs, Chiquita and Sultana, who are very friendly but also guard the house. Their domain is the outdoor garden and pathways. We have a very nice yard in our enclosed plot of land. The dogs always stay outside--since the weather is mild here and pretty much the same year-round, it works out well for them. There are also tons of dogs out roaming the streets.

Also in my neighborhood I once saw 3 cows grazing on the grass in the small park area, and also a man going around with 2 goats (my mom says that you can buy milk from him).

I try to stay connected with politics in the US as well as politics here (there is a very important vote coming up on september 28th--and voting is mandatory in Ecuador) but it's hard since for now I have limited access to the internet.

This weekend I hope to enjoy getting to know my city better and figuring out all the cool stuff there is to do.

I'll try to update again when I have a chance, but I know the coming weeks will be long and stressful--at least 10 hour days of classwork and teaching at school, 45-60 minute commute each way, coursework and family time on top of that once I reach home. So we'll see.

But I hope this finds you all well.

permalink written by  Theresa on August 29, 2008 from Quito, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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another one bites the dust

Quito, Ecuador

This week was jam packed, but went by so quickly. Each day I was out of the house from about 715 in the morning, until 715ish at night. Long days for sure. Class is going well but it is hard for me to be in the same place for such a long period of time. Luckily, we do have a few breaks where we can move around. There is also a lovely roof patio on the building where I spend most of my free time. It has a great view of Pichincha--the volcano that borders the western side of the city--and on clear mornings even snow capped Cotopaxi is in view in the southeast. Unluckily, there are not many clear days.

Weather in Quito is variable. It is hard to plan for the day because the weather can change frequently and for apparently no reason at all. I believe it was Thursday this week in which I left my house in the morning with a light fleece on, was taking in the hot sun outside around noon, then observed the first real storm I'd seen around five, with intense rain and even a short hail storm. Afterwards it was quite pleasant. There are many microregions for weather patterns in Ecuador. Even just traveling an hour outside the city and the weather can change dramatically. So cool.

Wednesday I had my first English as a foreign language teaching experience. I am one of the teachers for an intermediate english class of about 15 adults. On Wednesday, three of us taught a 40 minute lesson a piece. For monday I must prepare a 65 minute lesson. What I really appreciate about this lesson planning is that there is time built in for lesson planning, brainstorming and preparing in each days schedule. My teaching team has 6 students and one advisor. We all help each other out with creating innovative lessons, preparing materials, giving feedback and practicing anything we need beforehand. It's nice to have this support when it's my turn to teach, but also to be there for the rest of my team. It's wonderful practice. Though this class of adults is outside my usual target audience, I am already learning a lot and enjoying myself.

During my 25 cent commute each way, I have many opportunities to observe the same stretch of the city. I am learning street names better and have a better grasp on the layout of this long and narrow city. I also see many entertaining things if i'm lucky. For instance:
Q: How many pizza hut employees does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Apparently it takes one on the ladder and at least 15 surrounding him on the sidewalk.

Since I traverse the same route in the city each day, I am beginning to recognize familiar faces on my buses. This morning when my seatmate disembarked, an eager middle-aged man practically leaped out of his own seat to take this empty seat. At first I thought this was a tad creepy. Then I learned the story. Apparently this man, Kevin, sees me on this bus each morning and has been trying to get up the nerve to talk to me because he wants to practice his English. So we had some pleasant conversation and I helped him pronounce a few words of interest to him, which he had listed in a notebook taken out of his makeshift briefcase. I am sure this will be only one of the many of such encounters.

I am glad it is now the weekend so I can relax a little, catch up on much needed sleep, spend some non-academic time with my friends here, and have some adventures.

Sunday our group has a trip planned to visit Papallacta--a collection of natural thermal pools about 1.5 hours outside of Quito. The vegetation and hiking around there are said to be beautiful, but just taking a moment to relax outside in some of nature's hottest hot tubs will be sure to be a highlight of my weekend. Inshallah.

This is all for now. Hope you are all well. =)

permalink written by  Theresa on September 5, 2008 from Quito, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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¡Viva Guápulo!

Quito, Ecuador

What an adventure! Last night I went with my classmates and other friends to the neighborhood of Guápulo in Quito for the celebration of the virgin of Guápulo held in the church plaza. The taxi took us through a winding maze of narrow, steep cobblestoned streets as far as he could and then we walked the rest of the way, following the sound of music. I wouldn't say the hills were alive, but the energy coming from the church plaza was palpable.

Upon first sight, I was overwhelmed. At least a thousand people crowded into this stone courtyard--people of all ages and lifestyles. Many children dressed up as clowns or gorillas joined their parents in the festivities. Other adults dressed as gorillas, cowboys, bulls, conquistadors; others wore masks and carried cages on their backs with live chickens, or in once instance, a teddy bear inside.

Everyone was so excited and full of life. Apparently this entire weekend is a party for this neighborhood as they celebrate their saint's day. Along with the dense crowd, there were dozens of food and drink stands and also a tent that housed a few fooseball tables. On the far end of the plaza a stage was constructed and a band played. With such energy and beats, it was impossible not to dance. And in Ecuador, if there is no dancing, it's not a party!

At one point, the music stopped and a man announced that the vaca loca, the crazy cow, would now be making an appearance. He was right! A man yielding a paper-maché cow spewing fireworks and sparks into the crowd made his way through the mass of people. From a far, this seemed quite hilarious, but as he came closer and the vaca loca starting backfiring, it was a bit more intense. As whole fireworks were shot out of the cow, the crowds were forced to duck rather than be hit. Luckily my friend Laura ducked just in time and missed catching a spiraling firework with her face.

When the cow was partially on fire and out of ammo, he left the scene and the crowd was getting more and more into this new vibe. A crowd of guys moved a 30ft tower into the center of the plaza and soon more fireworks were lighting the dark night sky. Costumed party goers and others like myself joined in the festivities, dancing around this explosive tower, sparks flying everywhere. It was exhilarating! They definitely have a different way of celebrating than I am used to, but I loved to observe and be a part of this cultural experience.

Into the wee hours of the morning (and presumably all night, though I didn't stay for all that time) the music continued and three rounds of firework towers were constructed and set off during my time. Dancing, laughing, running away from the men in bull costumes trying to gore you (in jest, of course, but still slightly painful and awkward), and enjoying the company of friends and hundreds of strangers. That was my night.

It was a night of new things for us all and a way to kick back and enjoy our time together outside of the classroom. Dancing is something that is so integral in Ecuadorian culture that I hadn't experienced yet, though I am sure I will have more practice in the coming weeks and months. I can't wait!

I know this fiesta seems strange and maybe even mythical, but you're just going to have to take my word for it. Like many events and places I go regularly in Ecuador, I don't bring my camera. Just being light skinned and fair haired brings me enough unwanted attention. Of course, it doesn't lead to anything--just me ignoring comments as I walk past or avoiding quizzical looks. No worries. I've got my street smarts. I hope my words are descriptive enough to give you a glimpse of this small part of the culture I have found here thus far.

permalink written by  Theresa on September 7, 2008 from Quito, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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A Breath of Fresh Air

Mindo, Ecuador

“I am going to unexplored regions, ‘to the land of mist and snow,’ but I shall kill no albatross.”

I read this line from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this week and for some reason took quite a liking to it. Though unexplored regions were not on my agenda, a land of mist and clouds was. After my second week of TESOL courses, our group of 8 students and local guide, Jenny, made our way to Mindo--“ the last misty stands of cloud forest on the western Andean slopes” (Lonely Planet).

After a 2-hour bus ride from Quito, we arrived in beautiful and warm Mindo. Our first activity, after getting situated at one of the many hostels in this newly booming eco-tourism hub, was white water tubing. Yes, tubing—not rafting. Six regatas (inner tubes) were tied securely together in the shape of a flower. Five people plus two river guides all piled onto each cluster of tubes. We were given the instructions to hold on tight, lift our feet and lean back if we come upon any rocks (which happens all the time) and to lean forward to avoid being smacked by vines, branches or leaves when nearing the array of flora on either bank of the river.

Though this was only a level 1 rapids river, it was definitely more intense than we’d expected of a tubing adventure. While we had imagined drifting lazily down river in our individual inner tubes, it turned out we were plastered with life vests and helmets and told not to let go of the rope hand holds on either side of our seats (the empty spaces between the tubes).

The guides on my tube cluster were amazing. They never spoke once but always knew what the other was thinking and needed in order to get down river avoiding the huge rocks but still aiming toward the rapids. The water was a nice, cold temperature and I was given a bath a few times over during the numerous tippings to avoid rocks and hit the rapids. Spinning our way down river I was able to watch the tube cluster ahead with some of my other friends. This was particularly hilarious because of the variety of facial expressions. Phil looked as if he were in pain the entire time and I could always hear Colleen’s laugh as water got rough and then smooth again.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself going down the river, conversing with those in my cluster as well as the guide who so helpfully identified these gorgeous flowers hanging from the trees as “flowers.” Lisa and I, who sometimes can’t control our sarcasm, countered by identifying “tree, water, rock” etc and laughing with our guide. He also informed us that the river we were on is the tamest in Mindo. I could’ve gone for a bumpier ride. Next time I’ll have to look into more challenging rapids.

After tubing we visited a butterfly conservation center. This center is for research, education and preservation of the native butterfly species. Along with the natives were also some monarchs who had migrated down for the winter. It is amazing how different all the chrysalises look and how they camouflage into nature, posing as leafs, branches, droplets of water etc. So cool.

In the afternoon we went on a canopy tour—zip lining. This was wicked cool. Not only the speed and freedom you feel while zipping across the valleys and canyons, but the views of the surrounding mountains were incredible. The course was made up of 10 lines, going across various canyons and valleys to give us multiple views and experiences. Some lines were long while others short. My favorite was the “kangaroo” in which the guides at either end pull the lines down to make you bounce up and down as you glide across the open space. Though given tasks to keep you on track and slowing down enough to land, it was hard to concentrate with the amazing greenery surrounding me. During each ride I could feel my mouth agape in pure awe of my surroundings. This is a beautiful ecosystem. On one of the rides I was connected to the instructor in “superman” formation and literally flying across the open space, rather than the usual seated position. Chevere.

That evening we attended a frog concert at the local frog education and research center where we encountered many species of frogs and toads and heard their insistent calls. This center has helped to create a safe environment for the frogs and the number of species to habituate the area has now grown astronomically—from the terrible 2 species 3 years ago to now about 20. Sweet. We were also given a tour of the frog pond, spotting some of the cuties we were hearing. We also were taken into the woods surrounding the area to try and spot more tree frogs but also other common animals to this part. Like the giant cockroach which is at least as long as my hand. Yuck. We also saw some cute snakes and spiders. Another aspect of this environment we learned about is the existence of a micobacteria of a certain type of wood that glows in the dark after exposure to light. It looked so cool.

That was Satuday. It was a long, full day. On Sunday we rose early and set off for the waterfall. There are many waterfalls in Mindo. With our guides, one of whom is a birdwatching and nature guide, we hiked up a wicked steep trail, stopping along the way to learn about native flora and fauna. As well as ascending the slippery, winding trails we also traversed a rock wall (with the aid of a tow rope) to reach the top. Down the road a bit was the entrance to one of the waterfalls in the area, but don’t ask me which. Another 500 meters down, around, up and down again, across a wobbly two plank bridge to reach the other side of the river and we were there. The waterfall was beautiful and the water nice and crisp.

One of the motivations in coming here (other than the refreshing hike and splendid natural surroundings) was this waterfall and a lovely ledge from which to jump.

Upon arriving, the door opening the path between the rickety ladder to climb back up from below was closed. And we were bummed. Though most, after seeing the distance had changed their minds, Phil and I were still trying to find a way to fit this experience in. Luckily our guide inquired multiple times on our behalf and had the door/ladder opened. While we prepared to jump, the other girls were repelling down rocks alongside the waterfall to jump from the 20ft rock into the churning water below. It looked cool, but we were set on this jump. Phil was the first daredevil of the day and jumped nearly three quarters the way across the river at the base of the waterfall. I was warned not to jump quite that far out. So off I went, plunging down the approx. 50 feet to the deliciously chill water below. Such a rush! Carried down river by the force of the waterfalls, I quickly reached the shallow bank and the built in ladder straight up the cliff. Once I reached the ladder I climbed right back up to go again. It was so much fun.

Unfortunately when I arrived at the top, bad news awaited me. Phil had accidentally kicked my camera case (including extra gig memory card) over the edge. He then jumped down after it, to try to locate it, and I joined. A good jump again, but not quite the same great feeling now that I was on a search and rescue mission. Or should I say a failed search and rescue mission. My case is long gone. But at least my camera was not inside; it was being used to document all these water adventures. So sometime I should be able to get a few photos up.

This hike was definitely my highlight for the weekend. The entire weekend was incredible though. I was just so thankful to be outside in nature again, away from the bustle of the city and pollution from the cars and buses. The pollution in the city is terrible. To be able to breathe again in Mindo was incredible. To walk around and enjoy every moment, bliss. But of course, we couldn’t walk everywhere. Our favorite alternate mode of transportation was by truck. Our guides would roll up in their white pickup and we’d all pile in the bed, holding on to the guard rails for balance as we zipped down the streets. Swerving to and fro to dodge pot holes, man holes, dogs, cars, people, etc we were given a full body workout trying to stay upright. We were also kept on our toes because as we swerved to avoid an obstacle we’d go right into the tree line and usually we ducked in time to miss serious damage. The fresh air during these travels, the great views and the constant entertainment were thrilling. Though we did learn that if you applied bug spray with DEET before getting into the truck, you were more likely to disembark with some of the paint on your body rather than on the truck. A small price to pay, really. Bug spray was entirely necessary. And even though I practically bathed in it over and over again, I was still eaten alive. Laura and I have welts all over our legs from massive amounts of bug bites. Jenny has a trail of bites down her left arm. Everyone else came out fine—protected by those of us who weren’t as lucky. =( But this is nothing new—I’ve always been devoured by biting bugs. Oh well. As long as the itchiness and swelling goes down soon I’ll be fine. I certainly wouldn’t trade the experience of the weekend for anything.

permalink written by  Theresa on September 15, 2008 from Mindo, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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balancing eggs and other such fun

Quito, Ecuador

How is it that already a month has passed? Though I am feeling much more accustomed to the city and know my way around better, there is still so much that I want to do and learn and see. Ecuador is full of excellent experiences to encounter.

Classes are progressing quickly as usual. I have just finished my third week of classes, have 1 two-hour class to teach left (in which we’re focusing on reading comprehension through Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”), and then supposedly I’m ready for the real world. I’m nervous about this real world, but excited as well.

I will be teaching within the English Language department (CEC), which is part of a local University. Crazy. This will be very different from my prior teaching experiences, and even from the practice I’ve been receiving in my courses. But a great experience nonetheless. Plus it gives me great vacation time/travel opportunities in which I will spend my meager earnings.

So, other than taking classes, teaching classes and completing class work, my weekdays are rather boring. However our favorite dreamland, the land of weekend, always comes around again. =)

This week and weekend there has been a cultural festival in Quito so the plan was to meet up Saturday to attend some of the concerts. However, when it was time to meet up with all my classmates to go to Parque Carolina to enjoy ourselves with some musical entertainment, a HUGE storm swept into the valley. At the time I was in a mall, El Jardín, with Lisa getting lunch and looking for a few things for school and for the birthday of Colleen. All of a sudden, the lights in the stores went out and a pounding was coming down from the sky. The metal roof of the Supermaxi (supermarket monopolizer) alerted us to the teaming rain outside. We were thankful to be inside. Unfortunately, one can only stand to be in a mall for so long so eventually we braved the fierce weather outside. Got drenched trying to find the rest of our group who was nearby at a café and then gave up to go watch Elf at my house. It was so stange though. Usually the storms in Quito have passed by rather quickly. This was the most violent rain storm I have witnessed so far, and also the storm with the msot endurance.

To make up for missing the concerts (which were cancelled because lightning hit one of the tvs set up to display the stage to the crowd) my classmates and other miscellaneous friends and I met up in the evening to chill and go dancing. It was fun, but I really hate that here they can smoke inside at some public venues. There is no way to avoid reeking of cigarette smoke. Not my favorite aroma.

Sunday we got up early despite our late evening out and met up to go to the Mitad del Mundo. Though I´d been to the monument before, I had yet to visit the sweet indigenous museum, Museo de Sitio Intiñan—or the Path of the Sun. Ayla, Claire, Colleen, Laura, Lisa (classmates), Meadhbh and Felim (Irish friends) and I went up and learned all about the old native traditions and tested some of the typical equator activities. We toured some authentic and/or recreated homes and buildings, hundreds of years old at times. We also saw a recreated tomb in which their indigenous ancestors would bury their dead in the fetal position in clay pots. This tradition was to help the dead depart in a similar way to their entrance, growing and coming from the womb. However, they also had a tradition for when a chief died. Apparently, when a chief died, all the family and servants of the chief would be drugged with the meat/juices/something of a certain cactus plant and then buried alive inside the tomb with the chief. They would be knocked out, hallucinating as they were interred and then would die of suffocation once the tomb was closed. This was a tradition of honor seeing as the chief was a good person, all who go on to the next life with him will also have good lives.

We learned all about the indigenous sytem of calendar and solar clocks. It was pretty cool because our tour was around noon and since it is so close to the Equinnox the shadows were crazy. For the solar clocks, 6 months of the year, they use one side of the stone, and the other half of the year the other—but with the Equinnox, the sun’s direction is perpendicular so must be read in a different manner. We also got the do the typical water experiments, watching the water swirl in opposite directions in the two hemispheres and go straight down on the equator. I balanced an egg on the head of a nail. Our strength was tested multiple times. Resistence is less when physically on the equator, and you literally weigh a kilo less when you are standing on the equator. We rounded out our day with a lovely lunch and then headed back into Quito, except for Felim who had to catch a different bus back to the village in which he now works and harvest sugar cane. Good work for an engineer. He now has mad machete skills.

Alright, well I’ve got to finish up my lesson plan and preparation for tomorrow and start to put together my portfolio. Hope you’re all well!

permalink written by  Theresa on September 21, 2008 from Quito, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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Fiestas, politics and adventures

Quito, Ecuador

This week I finished my TESOL certification course! On Monday during the break in my practice class, we threw a surprise party for my classmate Colleen. The students pretty much planned it all. So cute. They brought snacks, music, and a cake. We also got her a balloon. Thursday was our last practice class. We ended a bit early and had a party with the students. They are awesome! They bought pizza, drink and snacks and each of us a gift and card. So nice! We chatted and danced for a few hours. We cleared the chairs and tables out of the rooftop patio and danced up there for a while with the other class and teachers too. It was a lot of fun to hang out with the students. Once the school closed, we went downtown to continue the dancing.

Dancing is an integral part of their culture and it was fun to partake in it with them. I’m learning a lot, but still am not the most graceful participant. But at least the people I was with were good dancers and strong leads so I did my best to follow along. During a salsa/techno song we had an energy ball improv dancing game around the circle. It was hilarious—some of my friends have sweet moves (though I would not put myself in that category).

This weekend in Ecuador is the vote on the new constitution. Since voting is mandatory for all Ecuadorians 18+, it is serious business. A lot of things are closed down because some Ecuadorians must travel great lengths to vote in their original hometown. There is almost no way to re-register so if you move away from where you lived growing up, you’ve got to travel to vote. Also, due to the vote, there is la ley seca which means that from noon on Friday until noon on Monday, no alcohol sales are permitted. If you are seen drinking alcohol during this time, purchasing or selling alcohol, or even just suspected of partaking in such spirits, you can be fined or thrown in jail. It’s serious business. La ley seca means that all the bars are closed for the weekend and stores with alcohol have those sections closed off. The ban on alcohol is supposed to make sure that all citizens make conscious decisions when voting on Sunday.

This whole month has been crazy with talk of the new constitution. I am no expert, but I know a little. There are so many changes going into the new constitution and this makes it very controversial; there are both good and bad things in it and many people are conflicted in making a decision. While they might agree with many changes, they are afraid of others that will take hold if it passes—and vice versa. The population is split. Tension is high and propoganda all around the city continues. Graffiti everywhere promoting sí or no, banners hanging from private homes, spray paint on walls and city buses, even rap songs telling of the artist’s opinions on the vote. There have also been some marches so try to rally support for either side. This has been going on all month and now tomorrow, it will all be decided. I don’t know enough to speculate which way to the vote will go, but I am curious about the outcome.

With the US presidential debate yesterday, we had originally planned to watch it at the Irish pub, a favorite of my Irish friend Felim. However, with la ley seca, this was a no go. Instead USers from all over Quito piled into the few restaurants with cable tv. I went out with my fellow USers to watch the debate downtown at Uncle Ho’s, an Asian restaurant that was designated as a viewing spot by the Obama campaign here in Quito. Every seat was taken. Many people were standing at the back, while the others covered every spare inch of floor space. It created quite a mess for the waitresses and cooks trying to get food to everyone. We shared a table with a man from the US Embassy in Peru, in Quito on vacation. The poor guy had no clue what he was getting himself into when he responded to his hankering for Asian food by going to that restaurant. He was really interesting though and we talked a lot about the current situation down in Bolivia and how he’s dealing with that down in Lima.

Though the tv was at an awkward angle from where we were sitting, I could see almost all of what was going on, but most of my group could only hear. Before the debate started, it was a loud mess in the restaurant, but once Jim Lehrer gave his introductory words, the place nearly fell silent for the duration of the debate. I was glad to have the opportunity to watch the debate. Being so busy and with minimal access to the internet this past month, it’s been hard to keep up. Though I feel both candidates could have actually addressed the issues better, instead of doing the usual political dance around them, I was still glad to see the two facing off.

After the debate, we went back to my friend Jenny’s place and talked about the debate with some Ecuadorian friends who’d also watched the debate. We also talked about the politics in Ecuador. It was great to be able to have such discussions, alternating between English and Spanish. I must say my political vocabulary in Spanish is pitiful.

Right now I write to you from my new apartment into which I moved this morning. Though everything is unpacked, I still have a bit of organizing and decorating to do—make it my own. But it’s really nice. I live in a house with 2 others (at the moment). I have my own large room with lots of natural sunlight, a huge walk-in closet and also giant bathroom with a view of Pichincha (the mountain to the west of the city). While I used to lived pretty far north in the city, now I am centrally located which is awesome. I’m so glad I’ll be taking far fewer cabs now.

Cabs in Quito are plentiful and reasonably priced during the day. Of course, you must be careful to take only registered cabs and watch the meter to make sure it’s not fast (there are many tricks some cabbies try to pull to increase the fare). But at night it’s a different story. Once daylight is gone, the meters are turned off and you must bargain for your fare. Being gringa, cabbies almost always offer an extremely high price, hoping I won’t know any better. Too bad for them. I know my prices and have gotten pretty good at arguing my fare down to what I consider reasonable. Driving at night is also an experience. While traffic rules are followed for the most part during the day, this is not the case at night. Traffic lights are merely a suggestion. As long as you honk you horn while you’re going through the intersection, you’re fine. Drivers here take many more risks than I am used to. Even the bus drivers shock me at times, fitting these giant city buses through the tiny spaces between cars in traffic, or merging without regard to others who might be in the lane. Crazy.

Anyway, that’s just a little update on what’s going on with me. Now that I’m done my TESOL course, I have 2 weeks off until I start working. Tomorrow night I’ll take an 11-hour overnight bus to Puerto Lopez, a small fishing village/beach town, with Phil and Laura. I’m excited to relax for a few days. There are also some day trips in that area we can do during our time in the south. I'm especially looking forward to visiting La Isla de Plata. We’ll book it back to Quito near the end of the week to grab some clean clothes and go with the rest of our group on a weekend trip to Baños, a natural and adventure haven for travelers in Ecuador. I´m very excited and will be sure to let you know how it all works out when I return. =)

permalink written by  Theresa on September 27, 2008 from Quito, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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beaches and the poor man's galapagos

Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

Puerto Lopez is a small fishing village on the coast, a mere 12 hour bus ride from Quito. I embarked on this journey with Phil and Laura. Though the bus ride was not ideal (delays enroute of at least an hour due to an accident ahead, ambulances zooming by) at least we were about to travel at night and not miss out on a day. The driver tried to make up for as much as possible, only slowing down slightly for the speed bumps, zipping around corners as we ascended and descended the mountains, and playing chicken once or twice trying to pass the huge mack trucks heeding our passage.

Luckily once we got there, it was easy going. This small town is easily navigated and we found our beachfront hostel quickly. After settling into our treehouse-like bungalow, we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast the hostel offers. Much better than many continental breakfasts I’ve had in the past.

Monday: day of arrival. This weather was kinda gross, overcast and misting/drizzling all day, but we didn’t let that stop us. We explored the village streets, walked along the beach, played on a swing set, and did some reading (me)/napping (them) on the beach as well. It is really pretty there. Unfortunately, we were informed by some locals that due to the conflicting air currents that come together in this region, there is usually little sun. Therefore, we could not expect much more than this type of overcast day. Oh well. We made the most of it, lounging mostly on the beach or in the hammocks in our hostel’s courtyard, decorated with plentiful plants, trees, flowers and pets. They had two dogs: Scooby Doo (a beautiful black and gray spotted Great Dane, very chill) and Canela (=cinnamon in English, a small pup whose breed I cannot identify, but an energetic pup). There was also Raita, a guanta…what this is in English I have no clue. It looked like a giant hamster, and she certainly had personality. When Scooby Doo ate Raita’s portion of dinner, Raita had no problem running up to Scooby Doo and biting him on the leg (it’s all she could reach). Fun pets to observe, indeed.

Other interesting animals to observe were the crabs that littered the beach with tiny holes. We spent a bit of time sitting on the beach and I took to observing these funny workers. Though the crabs nearest our resting place stayed hidden, the others just a few yards away were quickly back out, doing their business. It was so funny to watch them and learn about their different mannerisms and personalities. At this point you're probably scoffing or shaking your head or laughing a bit. That's okay. But really, these crabs were full of personality. One of the bigger crabs worked slowly to clear sand out of his home (the holes all of the beach). He'd scoop the sand out with his claw very slowly and then meticulously pat it down, doing a little dance over the pile of sand he'd created to the side of the hole. Another crab had a very different approach. He just chucked the sand out of his hole and left it wherever it landed. He was a bit lazy I think. Another was just running back and forth across the wet sand, near the tide coming in; I think he was practicing his dueling skills. Some crabs were timid while others went around messing up everyone elses work. It was hilarious. I really enjoyed watching these little critters.

Also on Monday we went to the restaurant at Hotel Mandala, which is wicked sweet but out of our price range for accommodations. Luckily, the food was well priced and delicious!

Tuesday: adventures galore. We had planned to visit La Isla de Plata, aka the poor man’s Galapagos—this island is a part of the Machililla National Park. One of my favorite parts about this tour package was the discounted price for our admission due to our foreign residency here in Ecuador. I am so glad I already have this resident ID...and I look forward to reaping the benefits from it on future adventures too. For this trip, it meant paying $5 instead of $20 for park admission.

On our tour were a group of traveling Brits whom we’d met at the hostel, a few other couples, and (lo and behold) a group of people we knew from Mindo! So funny! Our friend/guide Lady had accompanied some of the German volunteers placed in Mindo for a beach excursion during their vacation. What a riot! And so much fun to have them there and catch up with them again, even though it’s only been a few weeks since we’d seen them.

Okay, back to the tour. We took a relatively small boat out the 1.5 hours to the island with out whole group, 2 guides, and crew of the boat. On the way we came upon a pair of humpback whales and traveled with them for a while. Whale season in this region is late June to early October. The pregnant whales that arrive in June birth their calves and the rest of the migrants come to find partners. So late in the season, we were lucky to see this pair, a male and female.

Once on the island, our bird watching began. We hiked around half of the island spotting different types of birds: blue-footed, red-footed and masked boobies, frigate birds and some others whose names I have forgotten. The most plentiful were the blue-footed boobies. And by plentiful, I mean they were EVERYWHERE. They’d often set up camp, nest and all, in the middle of the hiking path and we’d have to bushwhack around so as not to upset them/get bitten. These birds are quite territorial.

Each year they chose a new mate, lay 2 to 3 eggs, and raise one chick. It’s survival of the fittest. The strongest chick will push the others out of the nest, and once out of the safety ring of excrement the parents made, they will no longer care for the babes. The male and female blue-footed boobies are nearly identical visually, only the size of the pupils differs: females having larger pupils than males. However their calls are distinct. The females have a course, low almost quacking sound while the males have a smooth, high whistling sound.

We didn’t see many blue-footed babies because they had a high level of rain on the island last winter and the ground was not dry enough for this breed to conceive and raise young. However the masked boobies were far more successful, living on the windy side of the island. We saw babies of many ages, from a month or more old to a day old, broken eggshell still in view, chick without any feathers.

The older chicks were fluffy white—looked wicked soft. The blue-footed booby eggs were whitish-blue while the masked booby eggs were speckled brown. The parents were very protective of their eggs and nests (for the most part) and especially of their babies. I say for the most part because there was a time when we came quickly around the corner of the path and stumbled upon a nest, mother and two eggs. The mother was so surprised by our arrival that she flew away. Very uncharacteristic.

We saw only a couple red-footed boobies; this breed has been in trouble in the past couple of years but now on this island there are 18 pairs. A good comeback so far. The frigates were everywhere in the air and trees once we hit the cliffs leading to the sea. They prefer to stay on the cliffs.

As for other nature, there were plenty of speedy lizards, a stick bug, and some moths that I saw. Our hike around this trail took about 3 hours and it was HOT by the end. Though still overcast, it was very bright and I got a bit of color.

The surroundings on the island were rather bleak. This is dry season (one of the 2 seasons in Ecuador--can you guess what the other is?) so there is not much vegetation. However, there were many barren trees, cacti and plentiful loofah plants. Though the loofah pods look dead, once you break off the encasement around them, inside is the lovely exfoliating sponge plant we all know and love. Though slightly different from the loofah's my family used to grow, I was amazed by this plant. The loofah's merely act as fertilizer for the plants in the area, since this is a natural reserve and nothing may leave the park. Pretty neat.

Once back on the boat, we ate a quick lunch and headed over to a cove to do some snorkeling and swimming. There were some really cool fish there, and the water was beautiful too. And a wonderful temperature to help us cool off after the hot hike. I don’t know much about fish, so can’t identify anything I saw, but others mentioned rainbow fish and barracudas. I liked the small bright blue ones that swam in schools all around me.

The ride back in the boat was much smoother than the way to the island, but I still prefer to go in slightly bigger boats. Too rocky for my liking. Especially on the way there when the captain would cut the engine so we could view the whales. That was not so nice to my tummy, but I survived, all my breakfast intact.

We arrived back in Puerto Lopez around dinner time, said goodbye to our Mindo friends who were leaving that night, cleaned up and headed out for drinks and dinner with our new English friends. Unfortunately, by the time we all were ready to head out, it was quite late and restaurants in Puerto Lopez close earlier than I’m used to. So we had to try a few out before heading back to Mandala to order quickly before they closed the kitchen. Another delicious meal and tons of stories told amongst our new friends.

Wednesday: more Machalilla Park. All around Puerto Lopez, we walked but were always passed by these motorcycle rickshaw type taxis offering to take us where we needed to go. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning that we finally got in. My goodness….what a bumpy ride! A few times I hit my head on the ceiling, got dust in the eyes, and nearly slid out of the open sides of the rickshaw. All in good fun. Phil, Laura and I took this taxi to the main Machililla National Park to visit Los Frailes, supposedly the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. This crescent shaped beach certainly held up to this superlative. GORGEOUS! When we got there it was almost sunny, and nice and warm. We relaxed, read, went for walks and explored. For the most part, we were the only ones on the beach, with others wandering past at times, but not staying long. Unfortunately, at some point, the clouds came to cover the sun thicker, and the wind picked up. Still a nice beach day, but definitely not the best for swimming or sunbathing. Oh well. I got some more reading done and found some cool shells and rocks when Laura and I explored the far end of the beach; Phil opted for the closer end with the cave. Also cool.

When our taxi driver arrived to pick us up at the aforementioned time, we headed back to our hostel to shower, change and be on our way. It was really nice that we could hang out at the hostel and use their showers since we’d already checked out that morning, and received all the info we needed to make our excursion for the day possible. Each morning, Consuela fixed our breakfasts and would tell us everything we needed to know and gave tips as to what we should see while here. I was especially glad for her tip that you hire a taxi to take you to the park, set up a time for him to return, and don’t pay him anything until he brings you back to Puerto Lopez—just to make sure he comes back for you. Smart lady.

We wandered the streets a bit, had an early dinner (which also served as our lunch), picked up some snacks for the road and were on our way on another overnight bus back to Quito. This time it took only a bit over 11 hours. Not bad, especially considering all the stops we made to pick up people from other bus terminals along the way. The one annoying thing was that the tickets were very disorganized for the return trip. We were told to sit wherever, but then when given our ticket receipt, were not only assigned to completely different seats, but also totally separate from one another. Weird. And then when we arrived at Porto Viejo (I think) our bus filled up completely but there were multiple double bookings of seats. Therefore, we wouldn’t move out of out incorrect seats because our assigned seats were already full. Eventually the ticket lady couldn’t deal with the fuss and drama and just told everyone to take whatever seat available. Much better.

Unfortunately, I was just getting to sleep right before this drama incurred and was unable to get back to sleep for the remainder of the bus ride. So I got maybe an hour’s sleep, and quite a fright when Laura (who sat next to me) had a nightmare about being pick-pocketed and assigned me the role as the thief, unbeknownst to this fact beforehand. All of a sudden I had her fist in my face, and grabbing at purse strap—luckily she awoke immediately and we both laughed about the situation heartily. Good reaction time. Hopefully Laura will be able to use these speed skills in the future if she has too…. none of us look forward to any sort of petty theft, but it happens.

Anyhow, I think this is all for my days on the coast. Now I have a little relaxation time in Quito to continue settling into my new abode and then tomorrow night our whole group is off to Baños for another adventure trip. Woot.

permalink written by  Theresa on October 2, 2008 from Puerto Lopez, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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Quito, Ecuador

permalink written by  Theresa on October 3, 2008 from Quito, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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a few more waterfall adventures

Banos, Ecuador

Baños. Amazing. This weekend I went to the adventurer tourist’s dreamland with a few friends (the usual crowd plus our friend from Ireland: Jenny, Andrea, Lisa, Laura, Colleen, Ayla, Phillip, Claire, and Meadhbh) for our last group trip…or at least the last one planned by Jenny. It’s so nice to have someone who knows the ropes figure stuff out for you. It was a real vacation; all I had to do was show up.

Alright, so down to the nitty gritty. Friday night we wound our way through the mountain roads, 4 hours outside of Quito to Baños (I swear, with all the traffic, it seemed like 1 whole hour was just getting out of Quito). Our local guide, Paolo, met us off the bus, showed us to our hostel (wicked sweet place...comfiest bed I’ve had yet, I wish I could’ve taken it all back with me, except for the tiny ants) and then we grabbed a quick bite around 11:30 before heading to bed. We would need all the energy we could muster the next day.

Since we entered the city under the cover of darkness, it wasn’t until I arose Saturday morning that I beheld the majestic mountains and volcano surrounding the city. And not mountains like those around Quito—beautiful, green mountains.

I miss greenery. After engorging myself at breakfast, our zigzagging car ride brought us up, over, through and around some mountains, clinging to steep ledges overlooking the river below on the way to our destination: Cashuarco. This region/location is named after the specific type of sand found there. This was also the location for our day on canyoning: trekking through the river, repelling down waterfalls and jumping off of stuff into the deep pools. Our three guides (José, Fabian, and Paolo) taught us the basics in repelling and safety for the day. We suited up in wetsuits and harnesses and started over to the first waterfall. After climbing down the embankment, our first task was to jump the 8 meters down the first drop off to reach the first repelling line. No sweat. I’ve found that I really like jumping off of things. And this was totally safe. Since we had 2 life jackets with us, we jumped 2 at a time and then threw the jackets back up for the next recruits. The first repel was shorter, to get us used to this new skill and also was on dry surface. However, once you reached the bottom of this line, you had to stand on a ledge smaller than my feet until you were hooked up to the next line and cleared to continue. Yikes. I loved the repelling, but having to wait here, only hooked onto the rock with my safety line was nerve wracking. Especially when the next person was descending closer and closer to your head and there was definitely not room for more than 2 on that small, slimy surface area. The next repel was a zipline, starting out next to the rocks but then you give a lot more slack as you fly through the air to the calm river bed below. Lots of fun. During this ziplining, I felt I had much more control than the previous ziplining experience I had. It was cool.

Then we trekked through the river a bit to reach the next activity. The mission, if you chose to accept it, was to scale the side of the river bank to reach a small ledge and jump into the water below. Obviously I accepted the challenge. Fun, as usual. A short jump, probably only 4 meters or so, but nice. And since the water’s not all that deep, you really shouldn’t jump from higher. And you’ve got to be careful to aim for the exact deep pocket in the river, because there are rocks everywhere.

The next repel was alongside a waterfall, wet and slimy rocks. At the bottom there were 3 choices: swim around the waterfall tumbling into the pool (easy), swim through it (hard), or swim along the outskirts (medium). I’ll give you one guess as to my decision. Yup, and the water felt great and it was nice to have a real current to get through. After this repel, since I was one of the first, I was able to lay out on the rocks and take in some sun until the others finished. This was also lovely. The sun felt so good—and the water was pretty cold, especially after being in it for so many hours.

After some more aquatic trekking, and a baby hop down another 2 meters, we reached a dramatic drop off. We hooked onto safety lines while we waited for our turn to repel down alongside, and sometimes through, this waterfall. The twist on this leg of repelling was that you only repelled ¾ of the way down, then you unhooked from the lines and jumped the rest of way, about 5 meters.

From here, the end was in sight. A tiny jump down into the final pool where the water drains—I have no clue what happens to the water from here, but there is a river just down the way, so maybe there’s a way it joins back to that. Crazy though. There was only one small pocket of depth in this pool—and it got shallow really fast. But that didn’t stop us from climbing up the rock overlooking the pool and getting a last jump in.

We hiked up the path, overlooking the river and gorgeous green mountains and passing the trout pools (they grow/raise their own). Most of my peers had this trout for lunch—they are very proud of their trout, and I’m told it was delicious. I was completely satisfied with my omelet, rice, tomato &onion salad, and patacones. I LOVE patacones. Many times before coming to Ecuador I had the Puerto Rican version, tostones, thanks to some good Puerto Rican friends of mine in town. So I eagerly devour these delicious, meaty fried plantains. So good. Chifles, banana chips, are another of my favorite banana snacks here. Delicious and rich in potassium—everybody wins.

Back in the van, we sang along to a diverse collection of late 80s, early 90s hits from the states, got some techno in there, and also some latin flavor too.

Once back in town, we got cleaned up, walked around a bit and relaxed before the evening activities. This month in Baños is the celebration of their virgin, the local icon Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa. Yes—month. Every night for the whole month of October there is a celebration, on a new street corner every night. This morning we saw a marching band leading a procession of churchgoers carrying pedestals and statues of the virgin and other religious icons around town, to and from the church.

By this point in time, I was in love with Baños. I was looking forward to this trip long before I came, having read about this city in multiple travel guides. I was right. This is my kind of city. Manageable size and tons to do. Beautiful mountains and greenery in every direction; even a snow capped volcano (Tungurahua) that erupted earlier this year. I could totally live here. I love city and nature together. Okay, so it’s not really city, but enough for my liking. And it is quite touristy, not my favorite, but I love it nonetheless. Just to be outside, have so much available: hiking, rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, adventure sports, spas…the list goes on.

Now that I’ve sung enough praises, I’ll continue in my account of the weekend. Saturday night included a delicious meal out and then out and about on the town. My friend Camy was also in Baños this weekend and we just so happened to run into her on the street and made plans to meet up later. We also hung out with our guide Paolo and some of his friends. Playing games, conversing, and of course dancing. Always dancing. Such a warm culture, and patient too. I do think I improved my dancing quite a bit that night and maybe some language too. I love hanging out with the locals because then I get to practice my Spanish a whole lot more than when I’m with my English speaking friends. It was awesome to have such a diverse group of people out that night and by the time I reached my bed, I was exhausted. Luckily the soft bed and comforter enveloped me immediately and I was sound asleep in moments.

Sunday morning I again ate way too much at breakfast (it’s so hard when there’s so much, and it’s so good) and then we were off. First stop, puenting—or swing jumping. This is where you get in a harness hooked up to some rope apparatus on a bridge, stand on the ledge and jump, swinging like a pendulum. It looks like so much fun. Unfortunately, my morning eating and then zigzagging car ride made my stomach a little queasy and I didn’t feel it could take such a leap. Boo. I was really looking forward to doing this. Next time. But Phil’s stomach was strong enough and he took the leap of faith and said it was awesome. I’m jealous.

After this we went to the Pailón del Diablo, a spectacular waterfall destination. Seriously, it’s a crazy waterfall. We hiked down, up and around to get there and see this intense waterfall. Then, creeping through the cramped crawl space between rock ledges, almost cave like, we wound our way up to the top viewing balcony, directly behind the water crashing down. There was no way to experience this and stay dry. So I got my second shower for the day.

We had a lot of fun here at the waterfall, in the water, scraping through the rock caverns, and viewing the tumultuous water at the base of the waterfall. Apparently someone was once crazy enough to try to kayak in this water…I don’t know the specifics, but the kayak is still wrapped around some of the rocks in the water below the falls, so I wouldn’t guess it ended too well.

On our way back into town we stopped to have a quick ride on the tarabita. This is a cable car that zips across the open air space over the river. Like a roller coaster, but slower. However the sudden stops and starts keep you on your toes and holding on to keep from falling over or out of the small, not quite secure car. Lovely, really.

After a quick stop at the hostel and lunch we were back on the road to Quito. Now it’s raining sheets outside and I’m here in my cozy/cool 58 degree Fahrenheit room. Houses in Ecuador rarely have heat. Luckily, having a bedroom for the past year in a converted porch, I’m quite used to this.

permalink written by  Theresa on October 5, 2008 from Banos, Ecuador
from the travel blog: Adventures in Teaching and Living in Ecuador
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