Saturday, November 21, 2009

20 Days In Ecuador (with 10 more to go)

Our story last left off with our protagonist in the lovely southern city of Loja the night before she is to depart for the capital city: Quito. We rejoin our story there...

The day is November 15th and the time is early. Too early in fact. As foolish as I have been before, nothing could prepare me for the harsh reality that being told we were actually leaving for the airport at 6am did not mean that it would be ideal for me to be outside of my warm bed and locked house and standing on the curb with all of my bags. We flew from Loja to Quito but only after convincing the powers that be that it would be a waste of a day to make a 13 hour drive when we could make an hour flight. (I know for most of us that math doesn't make sense but just try to imagine how windy and dangerous the road must be for that to be the reality.) Not that my family in Loja was terrible, but I was ready to leave. Having nothing to do all weekend was nice, but again I was ready to leave. Apparently however I was too ready as I snuck downstairs to carry my bags to the door I set off the alarm and woke up all of my family. I then carry my bags outside and lock myself out of the house. The time is 5:45 and I assure myself that since they said we were leaving at 6 I shouldn't have to wait that long. Then comes 6:20 and my family finally realizes that I am outside and they bring me in for breakfast. Breakfast done I go back to wait outside. Finally at 6:45 the taxis arrive to take us to the airport (which is an hour away) so that we can make our flight on time (boarding ends at 7:20). At least I felt like slightly less of an ass when I found out Maddy had also been waiting outside since 6.

We get held up at check in as we have too many bags for our tiny plane and they tell us they will just take them all - to which everyone else starts adding all of their carry-ons -- and then they stick us with the baggage bill. We try to give Marta cash to pay for it but she insists that she doesnt' want us to worry about it so she will just use her credit card. She is of course ignoring the fact that it took forever to check in because the airport was lacking electricity. The rest of us go ahead and go through security as it is now 7:40 and our flight is scheduled to leave at 7:50. Sherrilynn (who is a mix between an overprotective mother and Dwight) insists on going to help Marta. I am trying to tell the others to just get on the damn plane as all of the plane crew is yelling at us to get on the damn plane but it takes a good 10 minutes of convincing to finally get Heather and Maddy on the tar mack. As we are taking a tiny plane we have to walk out to it and make it all the way to the door before Marta and Sherrilynn come out of the terminal door. Apparently Marta insisted on using her card despite the lack of electricity so the poor worker had to go digging around to find a manual credit card thing. Way to make sure you are living the Rotarian values and not being a pain in the ass to other people.

We arrive in Quito nice and early and all a little tired. My host family however has other plans for me. For once I totally luck out and get parents that speak fluent English. (Adam, you will be happy to know they are also 1 of only about 100 Jewish families in the city of 2 million people.) My "dad" and "mom" want to take me to the historical city center to see the sights and Maddy decides to join us. In retrospect, it was a great decision as we are given no other time to see anything in the city and I totally would have missed out on the experience. We check out a cool old church that is COVERED inside with gold leaf and see some of the old traditional buildings, grand plazas, and the virgin on the hill. They gave us Monday "off" to adjust to the altitude and then they have us hit the ground running.

In 4 days we spend time with 4 different clubs and attend/present at 4 different club meetings. Yes, it was exactly as fun as it sounds. A lot of us got frustrated as we were really starting to see that there is so much of an agenda behind the things that we do and we don't know about them so we are just stuck following along despite being sick, tired, or both. We only visited 2 schools and 1 preschool all week and neither were very enriching. We also visited a medical center, a revived pueblo (with a cheese factory) and some school buildings without children. The best program related thing we did was visit a boy's home where we got to talk with 6 of the 8 boys that live there about how they ended up with out a home or family in Quito and what they were doing to keep themselves off the streets. They all had a very special bond with the woman who runs the place (7 days a week and 16 hours a day as a volunteer) so it was cool that I had my printer as I took photos of each of the boys with her and gave one to each of them. They all put them in their wallets right away and showed them off to anyone who would look.

Friday was our free day and other than my Monday visit downtown and a short trip to The Middle of the World (to "see" the equator) we didn't get to do much touristy stuff. Heather, Marta and I headed out early(ish) to Otavolo which is a tiny town about 2 hours from Quito that is knows for its amazing market. Unfortunately the market is Saturday but the Quito clubs changed our schedule so we had to go on Friday. It was still pretty cool and not having to battle a million other tourists was worth it. The best part of this free day was trying to go home and having all of the roads back into the city blocked due to a religious procession wherein pilgrims walk about 30km to a church to pay homage to the Virgin de Cesine (Virgin of the Swan). The closed the roads without notifying anyone and wouldn't open them back up to anything other than foot traffic until 4am. It was at this time 730 so we pull into the closest hotel which doesn't have lights to find a room for the evening. Heather and I room together in a room that has no key (they can't find it) and no lights (power went out right when we pulled in). We bought and drank a bottle of wine, washed our faces with wet wipes, and chewed some gum to brush our teeth before setting the alarm for 4am and turning in for the night.

Saturday we did stuff with our 4th Quito Rotary Club which included but was not limited to visiting a butcher to meet the cows that were going to be slaughtered, standing outside a cheese factory for about an hour waiting for a tour/presentation, planting a ceremonial tree in a monochromatic town square, getting sunburned, and drinking wine out of plastic cups. You can guess what the highlight was.

Sunday we headed to where we are now, the lovely city of Ambato. You would have no reason to come here unless you are headed somewhere else (which we are tomorrow). While we have been here, we have been mobbed by children wanting stickers, eaten local foods, visited a school that wasn't expecting us and wasted over an hour wandering around its campus, eaten local foods, eaten hamburgers with local flavor, eaten local foods, visited an electric generator, eaten local food, tried local sweets and eaten local food. The group, sans Sherrilynn (the 3rd to get sick) visited the nearby town of Banos (which is the only reason you would know Ambato) and rode an aerocar to a waterfall, hiked through the jungle, crawled our way to the very edge of another waterfall, and tried local foods.

We are not really liking this town as 1) they are totally unorganized and have had to set schedule for us, 2) we are splitting our time between 2 clubs and no one ever knows what is going on 3) we had to switch host parents after 2 days (although my first family did leave me waiting for them for 2 hours and my new family has WiFi so I am not complaining) 4) we just spent almost 4 hours at their ridiculous joint club meeting and 5) they waste a lot of our time. Tomorrow is our first travel day where we are expected to do vocational work as well. We are also not happy about that - and neither is our next town's club. However the drive is only an hour and it is our last day here so we are hoping for a smooth ending and transition onto the next.

As of today our adventure is 2/3 over and talk is increasing about being reintroduced into our lives in the States. Listening to the others talk though, I can't be happier that I only really have myself to worry about. I actually missed my students yesterday (for like a second) and panicked that I won't remember their names but mostly my thoughts of returning focus on only having school for 10 days and then having 2 weeks off for winter break and what I will do with my free time. Right now I am contemplating recovering from this trip well into the new year.

I still don't have a working camera so I have been using Heathers. Most of my pictures are under her folder on our site. Check out all of the photos at: http://picasaweb.google.com/Ecuadorgse09

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Re: 8 days and 7 cities later

Sorry my dears, here is the correct link for the photos

http://picasaweb.google.com/EcuadorGSE09

buena suerte!

8 days and 7 cities later

Okay, so perhaps my last email was a bit dramatic, but it was still the feeling at the time. The whole first week here in Ecuador was go, go, go until about Friday night when we arrived in Loja. Granted it has not slowed down too much but even a little is good.

We left for Cuenca on the 10th and stayed until the 13th. In those 3 days some awesome things happened - and some not-so-awesome things too. First, the awesome things.

AWESOME THINGS
1. We visited 2 schools outside of Cuenca proper in the more rural countryside populated by the indigenous peoples of the area. The first school was kind of blah but the second school was amazing. There were 2 teachers and 2 classrooms and about 30 students in grades 1 through 7. The 2 teachers teach all of the subjects on a rotating schedule of direct instruction and independent work. They really did not have much for the students but they give them everything they have. Just like in the US, they have a big problem with the students not doing their homework because they go home and watch TV. Apparently a lot of the parents are uneducated so they cannot help their kids practice their reading or do their math. Some of the better students the teacher pointed out told us that they make sure they always do their homework because they want the kind of opportunities that the city children have. However, the school director told us not many children will grow up and leave this area,. The kids were pretty precious and some of the older ones put on a dance performance for us. It was a story about a fox (a little boy in the 3rd year) and a hunter (a boy in the 7th year) and the incredible hunt between them. The little one had been practicing quite a bit and died with quite the dramatic flair.

2. At the same school I had finally managed to make Heather^s camera work with my portable printer. (Thanks to one of my co-workers who suggested I invest in a portable printer and to Polaroid for making a printer about the size of a digital camera for $50.) Many of the students were dressed up for the dance performance and their parents were there to watch so I grouped some families together and took pictures of them. They thought seeing the pictures on my camera screen was cool until I actually printed out a little 2 x 3 for them to have. They were totally amazed. Some said it was the first picture they had of their family and others were excited to send the small photos to their parents so they could see their grandchildren for the first time.

3. The Canadians were again following us and were preparing in Cuenca to distribute about 200 wheelchairs. I am not sure if it was planned or by accident, but our group was waiting for our silly city tour/shopping day at the same time the Canadian group was preparing to distribute wheelchairs so we jumped in and helped. I am pretty sure none of the Canadians spoke any Spanish so even my clumsy sentences were enough to ask people what size chair they needed and to make sure they felt comfortable. The Rotary Club of Tomebaba has been working with this Canadian group for about 2 years to organize this mass wheelchair distribution across the country. The Ecuadorian club members have been carefully screening applicants to make sure they have a true need for the wheelchairs. At the club the people received certificates and their new chairs then posed for a quick photo. Some came in carried by family members and some where on homemade wheelchairs. Helping with the wheelchair distribution was probably one of the coolest things I have ever done. I might even have to stop speaking ill of Canadians.

NOT-SO-AWESOME THINGS
(This section needs to be kept short so as to not take away from the awesome things.)
1. While out for a run, I was attacked by a vicious monster (or perhaps some stupid dog bit my leg) and then he gathered like 20 (or maybe 3) of his friends to chase me down the street. Thanks to my awesome marksmanship (or sheer luck) I was able to ward them off with giant boulders (or maybe some fist-sized stones) and escape with my life.

OTHER THINGS
Of course other things happened in this last week too! We went on a shopping day around Cuenca where we got to eat a local delicacy (faint of heart, look away now) - guinea pig! Sorry, but it was actually pretty good. We also got to eat at some pretty fancy restaurants - although I am still trying to figure out how a super classy/expensive restaurant can say they serve local indigenous food when it costs so much and no indigenous people have probably ever been there. We went to another Rotary dinner (but the food was lacking and our presentation still did not work right). We also stopped in a couple little towns and looked around a bit at local life and culture. Our families here in Loja are great as they all live on the same block so we are not isolated. That was a hard part for me at the other homes. Well...that and the fact that I was the only one taking time to do all the pictures and update our group blog. Our first night here was kinda harsh as we first went to a presentation by a local group trying to get funding and then went to dinner. Dinner at 7 would not have been so bad but most of us did not eat on the bus ride here and we were starving. We went to some fancy hotel with a restaurant who apparently did not understand the idea of bringing us some bread. It was about 8:30 before we were finally served our dinner. We had left Heather behind when we went to the meeting and then left my host family behind for dinner. Then ended up showing up to dinner around 9:30 so the night continued to drag on despite everyone desperately wanting to go home. Yesterday we went to a small town outside of Loja to visit the countryside which included eating at some fancy spa hotel and then spending some time at the club president's village estate. It was a pretty relaxing day despite the biting flies and Maddy having an allergic reaction to something she ate. She is fine though as we had 2 doctors with us and enough epi pens for everyone. Last night Heather and Sherrilynn got roped into going out for a dinner with the cowboys who are in town and stayed up dancing until 2am. I actually liked getting my paper done and being in bed by midnight (although I kind-of got left behind).

Today we are going to see the cowboys then who knows what. Tomorrow morning we fly to Quito for the next 5 days and we will actually have some free time. We had to talk them into letting us fly instead of making the 13 hour drive. Our only concern is that they will not let us take all of our bags on the plane. Only time will tell.

My pictures are only at the group site for now and since my camera is not working most of my photos are under Heather's photo album. The link is picasa.google.com/ECUADORGSE09. Enjoy!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ecuador (Behind the Scenes)

What? I have already read your blog! No, no you haven't really. Yes, I have been asked by my Rotarian leader to write a blog for our group (with the help of my co-GSE members) but that doesn't mean that I can say whatever I want - like I usually do. So, just because I can, I am taking you behind the scenes.

Anyone who has spoken to me, or at least tried to, in the last 2 weeks knows that I was a mental and physical wreck. It has been weeks since I had time to exercise and I think I left work maybe 1 time before 7pm in those 2 weeks. In addition to trying to plan for missing 3 weeks of school, I am trying to fight a totally illegitimate grade a nincompoop of a teacher is trying to give me, start my next grad school class, prepare for my trip to Ecuador, collect school supplies for my trip, create a blog for my trip and design an awe-inspiring PPT presentation to represent our team while we are traveling for the next month. Oh, and practice my Spanish, do my regular teaching work, and attempt to not die.

Note: Bad things happen in threes.

Background: The night before we leave, I am trying to run some last minute errands and instead run my car, at a decent and unstopping speed right into the wee little butt of a fully rebuilt totally stock '73 VW Karmen Gia. My car is a Huyandi, it isn't big, but it is half again as big as this particular car. Being that much bigger and driving without hesitation means that I possibly demolished this guys car. His little rear VW engine had parts of his trunk and rear fenders in it, the left fender was cracked all the way up to the driver's side door, and pieces of his rear turn signal were literally embedded in my front bumper. Yes, I know you are going to say the good thing is that no one is hurt. And while I do agree with you, that isn't my point. It sucked. Like those stupid vacuums that the bald dude is sticking onto bowling balls. You should have seen the look on the guys face when I said "This totally sucks as I am leaving the country first thing in the morning".

The second bad thing I am hoping was this next event but I might be mistaking the 3rd bad thing for the 2nd.

We are told that we have to be at the airport at 5. For this reason I don't get to see Chris one last time before I go but apparently that doesn't matter as long as I don't die. I also get to be the only person at the airport until 5:45. Joke is on me I guess. I end up having WAY TOO much stuff and have to scramble and throw my stuff into Heather's bag so that I can make weight and not pay for it. (Did I mention I didn't go to sleep at all Friday night? Well, I didn't go to sleep at all Friday night.) Then Marta shows up with what she insists are the last pieces of my Rotary uniform to which I insist are not. My cries fall on deaf ears and I am to believe that the sweatshirt I needed in XS will fit just the same in a M. Maybe if I was intentionally wearing my BF's sweatshirt.

We wait an hour, take an hour flight to LA, wait an hour, take a 4 hour flight to Miami, wait an hour, and then take our final 3 hour flight to Guayaquil. In that last precious hour before landing I am desperately trying to get some sleep when I get a rude awakening: my pants are cold and soaked through with some sort of liquid! What?! "Did she pee herself?" you ask. You wish! (hater) The guy next to me who has now polished off 6 bourbons since dinner has "accidentally" spilled his ENTIRE drink on my lap and I am sitting in its amazingness. He says he's super sorry but his words fall on deaf ears (probably like my same sentiments to the VW owner the night before). This is Bad Thing #2 in part because it was cold, wet, and uncomfortable, in part because there was still an hour left on the plane, and in part because I smelled like alcohol and was sticky from the soda. Oh yeah, and also it was terrible in part because we were set to be greeted by the President of the Rotary Club at the airport. Cool. Wet (check), smells like hard A (check), looks like she hasn't slept (check). What a great first impression. To make this experience even better, our team leader INSISTS I put on my Rotary sweatshirt at the airport. 1) it is humid in Ecuador and a sweatshirt is not needed, especially in the airport and 2) my sweatshirt is soaking wet. I try to explain this to her, as I also try to explain the wet pants but she'd too caught up on her feelings of goose bumps from meeting other Rotarians on the plane. (They were from Canada, who cares?) I put it on but attempt to take it off 3 more times without being detected to no avail. She says it is VITAL I wear it as these people are going to want to take my picture as soon as we get off the plane. They obviously don't have much experience with Americans and international travel.

Upon arriving in Guayaquil we are greeted by a bunch of important people but namely our host families. We are taken home where immediately it becomes clear to me that I don't speak a lick of Spanish, my thighs are sticking to my pants, and I have an assignment due for grad school. It was amazing to finally sleep however. Our first day here they decide it would be awesome to go for a sailing trip. Why does everyone who has a boat think that every other person in the entire world loves boats? Maybe if I loved boats so much I would buy one. Heather and I ended up with the same host family and while she and our host, Rafael, chatted away in their fluent Spanish, I decided to sleep for most of the 2 hour drive to Salinas on the coast. As soon as I step on the boat I feel nauseous. I take a "less drowsy" (BS) Dramamine and then proceed to sleep in awkward places and positions for the duration of the boat trip. I then slept the entire trip home, but so did Heather. A girl gets tired after partying on a boat all day.

Today was our first "vocational day". We also had to wear full uniforms. I think Marta, our leader, looks at us like dressed up purse dogs when we are in uniform. Thank goodness she takes a million pictures so that no one misses a moment of our shared clothing experience. We spent most of the morning and afternoon at a school where the 6th graders intimidated me with their Spanish and I digressed from speaking somewhat broken Spanish to mumbling and asking someone else to translate for me. It was also around this time that I discovered I forgot my camera battery charger at home (great move) and that it will most likely not be able to be replaced or delivered while I am here. Note 2: I would like to lump this event with Bad Thing #2 as the following just tops the cake and HAS TO have the final spot. We then spent the evening in even fancier Rotary uniforms and the situation digressed to everyone saying (in Spanish) that I don't speak Spanish at all and then proceeding to talk about how sad that is (or at least that is what I am going to say they were saying). Too bad I understand you buttfaces.

BAD EVENT #3: Yes, it is so bad I need to yell it. We get back from our formal gathering of shaking hands, kissing babies, too many photos, a 7 foot Canadian woman, a dirty old man hitting on Heather, and an open buffet/bar to an email from the man who was supposed to be my substitute for the next 3 weeks telling me something drastic came up and he has to cancel. It is likened to picking the perfect surrogate parent and then having them tell you that starting immediately you'll have to find someone, or perhaps a group of random someones to take over their position as the person giving your seed life immediately. I have no idea what to do. My kids could end up with a different person every day. They could learn absolutely nothing in the next 3 weeks. All of my VERY hard work in carefully planning my time away from my class could quickly be made a waste of time. I also still haven't done my grad school work. I didn't pack my Nike + IPOD running thing and I gave myself a goal of running everyday (not that the 2 are mutually exclusive but they make for good companions). I forgot to print out all the requested pictures of my friends, family, and life. I have turned into the tech go-to person which means I am in charge of making sure everything goes good with pictures, PPTs, blogs, emails, etc.

Tomorrow we leave for our 2nd city, Cuenca. I hope that things start turning around.