Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Thanks to all of you for following me on this amazing journey. I got home in Texas on Monday night, filled with a mixture of sadness to be leaving Ecuador, excitement about returning home, and exhaustion after traveling for the whole day.

My last few days in Ecuador were perhaps some of the best. It's a sad fact about the exchange program that (at least in my case) the best part of the trip comes at the end. Still, I know that I left at the right time. Not only did I have no memory left on my iPad, I'd almost completely used up my cash reserves. I sincerely promised everyone in Ecuador that I would one day (hopefully sooner rather than later) return to the country I called home.

Some of the highlights from my final days were going hiking on Ilaló (an extinct volcano just outside of Sangolquí) with my class and playing with my school's soccer team for the first two games of their season. Here are some of the best photos from those final days. Enjoy!

 Hiking on the way up Ilaló with my friends from Iceland: Jana (L) and Arnar (R)
 Jana and I each slipped on the way down the muddy slope
 Mud seems to be a bit of a theme in these photos. Everyone from the soccer team was completely dirty after our 2-2 tie last Monday.
 Though we were still muddy, this half time picture shows us on our way to an 11-0 win over another school on Wednesday.
 Packing my bag on the day before leaving.
 My friends at school threw me a party on Friday, my last day of school. Jana took these photos, for I wasn't allowed into the classroom while they were setting up the "surprise" party.
Me with all of my classmates at the going away party.
My host family and me at our own going away party. They gave me an Ecuadorian backpack to take home with me.

I appreciate all the comments and interest that everybody has shown in this trip. Writing this blog has been a great way for me to share details about my trip. I hope you've all enjoyed it. Thanks again for reading.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Galápagos Islands

I spent Thursday through Monday (four nights, five days) in the Galápagos Islands. We stayed on La Isla Santa Cruz, making trips by boat to Isabela and Santa Fe. Here are some of my favorite pictures that I took from the trip.

Here's a cool example of some of the wacky plants and animals in the Galapagos. This is a cactus (our guide said prickly pear) with a soft bark.

Sea lions just hop onto docks and boats to sun themselves. We saw these sea lions (lobos marinos in Spanish) while we were waiting to get on a boat to transfer to a different island.

While on Isla Isabela our group went snorkeling. I'm ashamed to admit how bad my underwater photos turned out, but this one, showing the sea turtle, turned out pretty nicely. My favorite part of that snorkeling trip was just chasing that turtle.

The next day our group went to a wildlife reserve for turtles. There were turtles all around, though they weren't super happy about all the tourists with their cameras. Our guide estimated that this turtle here is a little less than one hundred years old. Apparently, there were once fifteen different turtle species in the Galapagos. Now there are eleven species remaining. However, that's counting the famous "Lonesome George" as a species to himself. George was found in the 1970s, and as far as we know he's the last one of his species. He's around 120 years old, so scientists have about thirty years left to find a suitable mate for George. The only problem? He's just a little bit timid after all these years by himself.

A highlight was scuba diving on Sunday morning. This was one of about four sea turtles we ran into on that trip. We also swam with rays, sea lions, and a whole bunch of fish.

The trip was spectacular for several reasons. First of all, the Galapagos are gorgeous, with warm days, cooler nights, expansive beaches, and unlimited wildlife watching opportunities. The cooler part for me, however, was the independence to explore that the trip afforded us. Our tour guide helped us see different parts of the Galapagos and learn some of the history, but from there we were basically on our own. I was really proud of how our group is now proficient enough in Spanish to make our way around without any issues. Finally, the trip to the Galapagos represented a bit of a treat after four months of sometimes grueling work. I'm looking forward to coming home at the end of this month, but seeing the Galapagos made me just a little sad to be leaving this amazing part of the world.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mindo and Baños with family

Dad rented a car, risking the crazy scary drivers in Quito and its surroundings. As we raced through steep roads with sheer drop offs we munched on mangos, apples, strawberries, and two different types of bananas.

We spent two nights in Mindo, a town in the cloud forest a couple of hours west of Quito. We zip lined our way through the tree canopy.

We tubed through the white water stream and stayed at a fantastic little hotel called the Dragonfly Inn

After two days we drove the two hours back through Quito and then another three hours south to Baños on Christmas afternoon. We rented bikes for what we thought would be a couple hours of downhill riding on the path called the waterfall route. Sean's wise response here is about the fact that we had already been riding uphill for a quarter mile or so. He was the first to sort out that Dad missed the turn that would have put us on the left side of the mountain you see left of this waterfall.

The fun continued as we rode and walked uphill for nearly an hour before finally turning back. Dad's directional problems were compounded by a flat tire.

Sean and Mom called for us to return the infernal bikes and continue the waterfall route in our car. After stopping to check out this gorge, we each paid the $1 fee to cross a few hundred feet over the riverbed in a totally safe cable car towards another waterfall.

The cable car brought us to a little tavern on top of the waterfall where we fished for our own dinner in a tank of trout. You can't quite read the sign in back, but it reads "Trout, rice, plantains and salad for $3.50" We (Dad) chose to add a 600 ml beer for another dollar. Our meal for 4 was $11.75. The math still doesn't make perfect sense. Pretty sure they under charged us.

Now we're all back in Quito, looking forward to having dinner with our Ecuadorian friends. Mom, Dad, and Sean are heading home tomorrow morning. I feel a bit melancholy to be saying goodbye to them again, but I've got only five weeks left until we're all together again in beautiful (yeah right) Texas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas South of the Equator

The Steele McDonough gang arrived in Quito on Tuesday night. Though Dad complained about Mom trying to take the lead in the customs process and then getting annoyed when she didn't understand the Spanish, we all met up without any issues and made our way to our hotel in Quito's La Mariscal district. Here's some of our favorite photos from our three days in Quito.

This is from our first morning as we crossed a pedestrian bridge.

On our first night we went to La Ronda, a historical street that was traditionally home to Quito's artist class. I took the opportunity to order guinea pig (cuy).

The next day we went together to my high school, pausing to take a picture at El Choclo, or the corn monument.

My classmates and teachers were really excited to see my family, mostly to confirm the reports that my dad is even taller than I am.

Later that afternoon we went into Quito's historic center, making stops at La Basilica.

Yesterday we took a ride on the Teleférico, a trip that I wrote about back in September.

Sean and I nearly fell off the cliff face for this photo.

Then we asked a man already carrying his sleeping two-year-old son to take a picture for us.

We left Quito last night to spend two nights in Mindo, a cloud forest about two hours from Quito. Tomorrow we're looking forward to celebrating Christmas in Mindo and then hopping in the car to go south to Baños, a town known for its thermal springs. Hope you all enjoy the photos. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas is coming...

So, long time no post? I notice that I've gradually posted with less and less frequency over the course of this trip. While this is a bummer for the people who want to follow my every movement (and I know that that's a burgeoning number of you), I'm a bit encouraged by this. At first, every little event here prompted me to make a blog post. Now, I'm proud of how normal life seems. Of course, all of these revelations are coming as I'm beginning to think about my return to Texas. I'm not yet ready to come home, but I feel like by the end of January, when I catch my flight home, I'll be ready to be in Texas.

I've been hearing some Americans complaining about holiday fatigue. Let me tell you all: we've got nothing on Ecuador. The end of November and all of the month of December is a time for partying here. The sixth of December is Quito's independence day (remember that in November we celebrated Cuenca's independence). The celebrations for Quito's independence started on Thanksgiving. At first I was a bit confused; I couldn't imagine why Ecuadorians would be celebrating Thanksgiving. Then, my host mom explained to me that they were just beginning the celebrations for Quito's independence.

These guys were part of the group from La Mejia, a sort of officer training high school for Ecuadorians. Their claim to fame is their ability to shout "Viva Quito" very loudly in unison several times.

This was a cool dance group. If you look closely at the boots the man is wearing you can make out some bells. The whole dance that they did was used to maximize the shaking of the bells, creating a cool effect.

Celebrations culminated with the weekend before the sixth (the actual date fell on a Tuesday). There were parades, art displays, street parties, and a general agreement on radio stations to only play traditional Ecuadorian music punctuated by "Viva Quito!" However, there were only about seven songs that they were playing. When the same songs are played as a constant soundtrack for about two weeks you start yearning for cheesy Christmas music. At least there's a little more variety.

Fortunately for me the Christmas music has started up. There are plenty of traditional Spanish language Christmas songs, but they've also adapted Jingle Bells, giving it Spanish lyrics but keeping the tune. The Spanish lyrics are just "Na-vi-dad, na-vi-dad..." (I forget the rest of the song).

Everyone, however, is gearing up for New Year's celebrations. In Ecuador Christmas is a much smaller holiday. For me this is a bit of a reversal. I'm used to counting down the days till Christmas starting on Thanksgiving and then going to bed at around 10:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve. Here New Year's is celebrated on the street, with fireworks, food, and little bonfires where figures (usually prominent politicians) are burned along with pieces of paper representing the parts of the year they want to forget about. People also dress up in funny costumes, which generally results in men cross-dressing. We'll have to see how I do with that tradition.

In other news my family (the one in Texas, that is) is coming to visit me in Ecuador for Christmas. I've been checking out cool places I want them to see in Quito, and we're all looking forward to a trip to the cloud forest in Mindo (where I went cliff jumping a couple of months ago). Be looking forward to a bunch of even more touristy than normal photos from our adventures. My poor family is going to be reliant on me for directions, so I'm sure we're going to get lost a few times. My awful sense of direction combined with a bad habit of avoiding asking for directions will almost definitely combine to lead us on some less-traveled paths in Quito. It's all part of the adventure, right?

We went together to El Panecillo (the little bread, in Spanish), a small hill dividing northern and southern Quito. It offers panoramic views of the whole city. Behind Vero, Dori, and me you can see a little bit of southern Quito.

My Icelandic friend, Arnar, with me as we were riding in the back of a pickup truck to teach at an impoverished school. On the sweaters: we got them together at an artisan market in Quito. Super good lucking together, right?

Thanks for continuing to read this blog. I'm not sure if I'll be able to get another entry in before January comes along. At any rate, I'm looking forward to getting home so I can see you all in person. Until then, enjoy the photos!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Día Deportivo and Tamales

I'm getting better and better about figuring out how to manage school and family commitments. Yesterday, Saturday, was an example of going between school and family. While that doesn't sound like much of an achievement, I'm quite proud that I now understand what's going on around me. In my first days (or weeks, more like) I just followed my family around, figuring out where we were going through context clues. Now, with some improved Spanish skills and a little bit more experience with this family I feel like I can anticipate our plans a little bit.

Friday night we started the process of making tamales. I wrote about this at the beginning of my trip, but I'll bore you all with the details because I think it's a pretty cool process. On Friday night we ground up 5 lbs. of corn into corn flour, using the same grinder that I took pictures of in September. It's really hard work! Alexis and I took turns grinding, but my arms are still sore.

The next morning I got up early for the Día Deportivo (my school's version of Field Day). Lucky for me, it started at 7:30, meaning I had to leave at the same time as any other school day. Cursing my school, I got up early on a Saturday morning to catch my bus.

Each class at my school designed its own jerseys for the day. The competitions for the day included a 5k run, the beginnings of the inter-school soccer championship, the selection of the class with the best uniforms, a pet competition, a beauty competition, and bailoterapia (dance-therapy). I ran the 5k run, and learned that the distance, though it doesn't sound like much, can be rather hellish. I'm putting my difficulties down to the altitude (I was running at about 2500 meters about sea level) and the early morning. However, my new found love of Ecuadorian animal crackers and complete lack of preparation may have made the running a bit difficult as well.

Each class nominated a boy a girl to represent them and a boy to serve as an escort in the beauty competition. Tom, my friend from Germany, was nominated for his class.

My class, posing together in our super sweet uniforms.

While I was dying (read: running) doing the 5k, the girls were doing bailoterapia. This is basically where a dance instructor equipped with a lot of hip-hop and a microphone shouts out dance moves for them to do. I got back in time to watch the last couple songs. After having participated in the last bailoterapia (my school has a session once a month) I enjoyed watching my classmates without having to participate.

My friend Gustavo and I after finishing the 5k. I wasn't wearing a watch, but the guy working the finish line told us we finished in 5th place with a time of 22 minutes.

My soon-to-be-professional-dancer classmates doing the bailoterapia. Can you see how relaxed they're getting?

There was more to the sports day, but I left early so that I could get home to help out making tamales (and shower). I thought most of the muscle work was done, but I was so wrong. I got home to find Dori enlisting everyone to help her stir the corn flour/egg/water mixture. The mixture was quite thick, so we worked stirring it for about half an hour, working in thirty second shifts. Here's a couple of pictures of us working to stir the batter-mixture.

Once the batter was deemed worthy by Dori we started the process of making the actual tamales. Starting with large leaves which I'd flattened with an ironing pin, we dolloped a couple of spoonfuls of batter into the leaves. Then, we put a little bit of peppers, carrots, chickens, peas, and onions in the tamales. After that we folded the leaves up and put them in big pots, where they were steamed for about an hour. For dinner and breakfast we enjoyed tamales.

The first step: put about two spoonfuls of the corn flour mixture in the leaf.

Dori, ladling in chicken and onions to the tamales.

The tamales, ready to be steamed in the big pots.

Breakfast this morning: tamales, lemon tea, and mangoes (in mango season, which is right now, you can get mangoes for about $.25 each)

I'm pretty jealous of you guys with your Thanksgiving holiday. The kids from my exchange group are getting together on Thanksgiving to celebrate, but it's not the same. Still, I'm planning on making an apple pie variation I found on the internet, so I'll let you know how that goes. If I remember, I may even take some pictures of my attempt at American baking. I hope you're all well. Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Ecuadorian holidays

I had most of the last week off from school for a three day national holiday. The first day off (last Wednesday) was Día de los Difuntos, a kind of Ecuadorian version of day of the dead where people visit the graves of their family members. We celebrated by doing a bit of a whirlwind tour of Quito's cemeteries to visit Miguel and Dori's relatives' graves. Each of the graveyards had a bit of a festive atmosphere. A bunch of enterprising shopkeepers had converted their stores completely into flower shops. Many of the cemeteries have a system where the graves are stacked one on top of another in a wall, so some people were walking around with ladders that they were renting to people for $.50. Although it might seem a bit morose to be going around to graveyards, it was an interesting experience.

Another part of Día de los Difuntos is enjoying colada morada and guaguas (pronounced wa-was) de pan. The colada morada is a syrupy like drink made from cooking berries, pineapple, and herbs in huge vats. The guaguas de pan, (guagua is a Kichwa word that means babies), are a special sweet bread filled with jam and topped with a little bit of frosting. I like to dip the bread in the colada morada. It's a combination guaranteed to induce a sugar rush. Last Sunday we made colada morada together at home (see pictures). At school on Tuesday, the last day before the holidays, we also had colada morada.

Thursday was Independencia de Cuenca. Each of Ecuador's major colonial cities (Guayaquil, Quito, and Cuenca) celebrates a different day for independence. We decided to spend the day in Latacunga, the capital of Cotopaxi province to the south of us. I can't claim the drive was very comfortable, for we managed to fit six people into Miguel's 1986 Toyota (we drove with Miguel, Dori, Dori's sister Lloma, Vero, Alex, and me). But if I thought we'd been uncomfortable with six, I was in for a rude awakening when we met up with another sister of Dori's (Jenny) and Jenny's son Andrés. I'm not exactly sure how we did it, but we drove around Latacunga with eight people in the car.

Andrés is my age and he and his mom were in Latacunga to check out a technical university there that he wants to start attending next year to start training to be a mechanic. Latacunga was a nice break from Quito. For one thing, it's much smaller (its population is around 150,000), so we enjoyed being able to move around a bit more freely. Also, the province of Cotopaxi is named after the volcano of Cotopaxi, which dominates the view on the two hour drive to Latacunga. I took some very unsatisfying pictures from the car as we were driving down, but they do capture the coolness of driving past a volcano.

On Sunday the whole family went hiking together on a mountain nearby. The base, where we parked the car, is around 8,000 ft, and we hiked all the way up to 10,000 ft. The top is capped by a heavily graffitied cross that's visible from all over the valley. Likewise, we got panoramic views of Valle de los Chillos (where we live), as well as some partial views of Quito, around half an hour north of us.

After a very active vacation I'm ready to get back to school. I'm looking forward to practicing soccer again and seeing friends. The homework situation continues to be pretty manageable. The only studying I've had to do over the break has been studying the "constitutional" presidents of Ecuador. I have to know the dates of their presidencies and a significant achievement from their administrations. The dates are most difficult for me because Ecuador's constitutional presidents have a history of being replaced by military juntas for periods. As a result, there are a lot of Ecuadorian presidents who only served for a couple of weeks. Sometimes, the same man was elected president several times throughout history, like José Maria Velasco Ibarra, who was president five different times between 1934 and 1970.

I should get going at this point. I've forgotten most of the commitments of José Velasco. I think he must have done something to piss of Ecuador's military, because he seems to have had the honor of being deposed through coup several times.

Dario and Vero cooking up some colada morada.

The master at work. Notice also the huge quantity of colada morada my family made. We had around 15-20 people, but it's still an obscene amount. It sure was good though!

The final presentation. Time until sugar rush: 3 minutes

The view of Cotopaxi Volcano from my house.

Cotopaxi as seen on the drive back from Latacunga.

Group picture in Latacunga: from left to right, back row - Vero, Dori, Alexis, Miguel, Andrés, me; front row - Lloma, Jenny.

Group photo at the top of the mountain. If you look over Vero's left shoulder you can see just a little bit of Quito to the northwest.

Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed the photos.