Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Soccer, the weekend, and the mail

I found the soccer coach for my school this week. I introduced myself and asked if I could practice with, and hopefully eventually play for his team. He told me that soccer games for Dario Figueroa (my school) don't actually start until February. However, he invited me to participate in the three times a week practices. My first practice was last Wednesday. It felt great to be playing soccer again, even if I was getting schooled by Ecuadorian kids. I do have the unique advantage, however, of towering over everyone I play against. I'm always open to head the ball into the goal, and I have no qualms with pushing people around.

This weekend was totally mellow. Saturday afternoon I went with Alexis, Veronica, Dori, and Miguel to an interactive science museum in south Quito. Veronica worked at the museum for a couple of months earlier in the year, so she was able to show us all the secrets to the interactive exhibits. For example, I can now separate the inseparable horse shoe things that all science museums seem to have. Then, we drove up to "El templo de la patria" (see photos). It's a natural balcony looking out on Quito, where Ecuadorian rebels defeated the Spanish in the battle for Quito's independence. On the anniversary of that battle, the 24th of May, President Correa addresses the nation from the same spot.

I'm also getting comfortable enough in my Spanish to ask different people about their views on President Correa. One of my biggest interests is politics, and I'm really curious about how Correa is perceived by Ecuadorians. One of the bigger items on the Ecuadorian news this weekend was Correa's trip to New York City to make a speech at the United Nations. While in NYC, he spoke at Columbia, where he got grilled by a college kid for cutting back on freedom of the press in Ecuador.

It seems that Correa is playing out the role of populist Latin American politician, a role that's been played pretty frequently in each Latin American country. He's disliked, if not hated, by many in Ecuador's intellectual class. This may be because he's been ruthless in cutting back on opposition voices in Ecuador. The editor of one of the country's two major daily newspapers has just been sentenced to three years in prison and fined $40 million after the editor wrote a piece that criticized Correa. Nonetheless, Correa has been successful in bringing a degree of political stability to Ecuador. He hasn't yet been ousted by a popular uprising, something that can't be said for most of his predecessors.

My views about Correa are a bit colored by those of my host family, who aren't supporters. Miguel, my host dad, is really interested in Ecuadorian politics. He ran for Quito's city council in 2006. Dori says she was the only one to vote for him. For the political pundits out there, Miguel hasn't ruled out running once again, though he no longer lives in Quito.

Today (Monday when I'm writing this) was a cool day. Mom, Dad, and Sean sent me a package around the 7th of September filled with things that I realized I needed here in Ecuador that I never packed. They paid extra so that the package would get here super quick, but they never reckoned with the slowing power of the Ecuadorian postal service.

Apparently all packages over two kilograms (about 5 pounds) have to go through Ecuadorian customs. After going through customs, the packages are dropped off at post offices. However, they just wait at the post office, waiting to be picked up by the addressee. So today I took an adventure to go find the post office. I had a vague idea of where the post office was, and my host mom Dori had given me pretty good instructions. Still, anyone who's ever traveled with me knows that my directional instincts are basically non-existent. Nevertheless, I set out to find the post office.

I only asked five different people for directions, but I eventually made it to the post office. After paying five bucks (the worker said it was for customs, but I have a lingering suspicion that I bribed him) I was able to leave the post office and catch a bus home. When I got home, Dori announced that I'd gotten a surprise. She showed me the six letters that had been delivered all together by the mail man. Thanks for all the letters, guys. It was a cool feeling to open all the letters, even if they had been held up at the post office for a couple of weeks. I felt a bit like Harry Potter when he figures out that Dobby's been intercepting his mail.

All in all, a pretty cool day. I got to read all your mail at once. Please keep sending the updates, either by email or snail mail! It's really fun to hear from you all. I hope you enjoy the pictures. They were taken by Veronica, for I forgot my camera the day we went to Templo de la Patria.

The Pacheco family (the only photo taken by me)

Miguel and me

All of the boys together. We're standing around the national seal of Ecuador

Me, once again with the national seal

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Teleférico, transit, and birthdays

Friday was my birthday. It was a day that was at once totally cool and very sad. I was constantly thinking about how I'd be celebrating if I had been in Texas for my eighteenth birthday. However, I found myself in Ecuador, getting up at 5:45 in the morning so that I could make it to the bus in time. That morning (around 6) Mom and Dad called, making me tear up on the phone. It seems like the special days like this are the hardest (so far). However, this somewhat melancholy start to the day proved to be by far the low point.

As soon as I hung up the phone with Mom and Dad, my host mom Dori served me up some wonderful birthday cake. For my breakfast that day, I had freshly squeezed orange juice (my favorite), two slices of birthday cake, and jello. I then ran out the door to catch the bus (as a special birthday seat I was even able to find a seat) to school. At school, my classmates made me a birthday card and we made plans to celebrate my birthday, and the birthday of another one of my classmates, next weekend.

I got home after school on Friday to have a big lunch and some more birthday cake. Then, Dori gave me a tour of Quito's historic center (see photos). We also walked into about five different churches in the area (the historic center has at least one church every block). We returned home by bus.

Here's a quick word on buses. There are five or six different bus companies, each with a different colored bus. This is the way you can tell which bus to take to reach your destination. All of the buses, however, have a conductor who leans out the open front door announcing the route for the bus. Oftentimes, the bus only slows down enough for people to jump on. The doors don't usually close for awhile, for it's not uncommon for people to stand on the steps when the bus is especially crowded (I had to do this on Thursday on the way to school). On the bus, the conductor goes person to person collecting the bus fares (usually around 25 cents).

I'm completely in awe of the conductors. Not only do they have to go person to person collecting payments, they have to remember who's paid and who hasn't. Then they have to make change, meaning they're constantly carrying mountains of coins with them. The fact that they never drop change all over the bus is a miracle in itself. Then, they have to deal with the generally crazy people using the buses. On Friday, my bus to Quito had a Hip-Hop group (two men and one women) who rapped for everyone on the bus's benefit. Especially in Quito, it's common for people to use the bus as a medium for hawking things they're selling. I also was on a bus last week that was graced by the presence of a man who made a speech describing what happens to prostitutes (the short version is they go to hell). Nonetheless, I love the buses because they make Quito and the surrounding area super accessible at a really affordable price.

Using two different buses, I went into Quito on Saturday to meet up with the seven other foreign students to go to the Teleférico. We were accompanied by two people from Xplorer, the study abroad agency I'm affiliated with in Ecuador. The Teleférico is a gondola built on one of the mountains surrounding Quito. It rises up to an elevation of 4050 meters (13,300 feet), offering truly spectacular views of Quito. After a bit of hiking at elevation and lots of pictures, we went horse back riding. The experience was capped off by the panchos and hats we all wore.

After finishing the horse back riding, we returned to Quito for lunch. We ate at a Pizza Hut, which had all of the American students groaning at first. However, Pizza Huts here are sit down restaurants, and we enjoyed a really nice lunch. Then, after Sofi, our coordinator from Xplorer, told the waiters it was the day after my birthday, they brought me a huge brownie and sang happy birthday to me (in Spanish).

It's been a totally different, but still very enjoyable birthday. Thanks also for all of the birthday greetings on Facebook and in emails. It's always great to hear from everyone, but it's especially nice on my birthday. I hope you enjoy the photos!

Here's a shot of the central plaza in Quito's historic center. It's a monument to the fighters in the original revolution in Quito in 1809 for independence from Spain. As I understand, the revolution was crushed by the Spanish. Ecuadorians still trace the beginnings of their independence struggle to this time.

This is the presidential palace in Quito. The president, Rafael Correa, works, but doesn't live in the building.

Here's a kind of crappy shot showing the landscape we got when we arrived at the top of the Teleférico.

All the Xplorer students at the top of the Teleférico

All the boys: Tom (Germany), Micah (USA), and me

There was a llama there. I couldn't resist the urge to take the picture.

If you can look past the two flying gentlemen in the foreground, you'll get a look at one of the snow capped peaks, partially obscured by clouds.

This is the poncho I wore while riding the horse. I'm obviously going to have to get one of my own before I leave here.

It was a truly beautiful day. The background of this picture shows the horses we rode later on.

Monday, September 12, 2011

First day of school!

Hello everyone. I'm going to have to be careful to manage the length of this blog post because there's so much to write about that's happened this week. First, I'll put in a quick word about food.

I've continued to eat really well in Ecuador. I've also been enjoying a variety of fresh foods. Today, we bought ten oranges ($1) from a guy selling oranges to people in their cars. When we got home, Miguel (my host dad), made fresh orange juice for us to enjoy with dinner. Earlier this week, we enjoyed fresh chicken. No, we didn't get chicken that was two days old or something from the market. Instead, earlier this week, the Pachecos bought a live chicken and on Wednesday night, after days of debate over who would kill the chicken and how they would kill it, Dori's younger sister killed it! Dori wanted me to understand that this wasn't uncommon, and that they had paid extra to have one of the best chickens in Ecuador. I admit that I totally enjoyed the chicken we had in the following meals. Another cool thing we did this week was make tamales. First, we ground up corn (see pictures). Then, using the infamous chicken, we had chicken tamales.

On Friday I had my first day of school. On Thursday, the other exchange student from my program (Tom, from Germany) went up to the school with our host families to register and buy our uniforms. When I walked into school uniform shop, the man who supplies families with uniforms started worrying. He was sure they wouldn't have clothes big enough for me! As it turned out, there was only one pair of pants that the school couldn't supply for me. Instead, the school gave me some fabric to take to a tailor. Yesterday, I picked up my new pants from the tailor and they fit me well.

Friday, I got up early (5:30 a.m.) to catch the bus for my school. The uniform is pretty easy, but I still managed to mess it up. I wore the wrong socks, and I also managed to wear the wrong tie. Dori caught the wrong tie before I left the house, but by the time I had realized I had the wrong socks it was too late. In addition, the fly crappy pants that the school gave me completely broke midway through the day! Fortunately, I had a really long white shirt that practically hung to me knees, so I don't think anyone else noticed.

Other than my uniform issues, the first day of school went really well. I got to the school at 6:55, thinking that I was only just in time for the beginning of school at 7. However, I realized later that the school day doesn't start until around 7:30. While I waited for the school day to start, I chatted with the other exchange students in my class. Surprisingly, my class of ten students has four exchange students: two Icelandic kids, a girl from Switzerland, and me.

Ecuadorian (and apparently a lot of international) schools have a system where students stay in the same classroom all day while teachers rotate in and out. This works nicely, except on Friday, we only met with two teachers. Apparently we're going to have eight classes a day this week, but on Friday we had lots of time to chat and play card games. I taught them all how to play the wonderful card game of Spoons. The classes we did have were interesting. First, we had a class on Kichwa, the Ecuadorian indigenous language. I can now introduce myself in Kichwa and say how old I am! The other class we had was ecology. Both of these classes promise to be really interesting. I also feel comfortable in the classroom with my new classmates.

This coming week, I've got a full week of school; with the exception of Wednesday, when exchange students from Xplorer (four Americans and four Germans) have an Xplorer event. We all have to register with the Ecuadorian census of foreigners living in Ecuador and then we're visiting our embassies to receive a security briefing (this sounds interesting but will probably be boring). I'm excited about this meet up because when we last met up with the staff from Xplorer, they told us about a possible trip to the Galapagos Islands in December!

I continue to be more comfortable in Spanish. I can always get a point across, it's just with a bit of an accent and with some of the incorrect words. But everyone has been patient with me as I learn. I love getting all of your emails. Keep sending them! I'm sorry if I respond slowly. Nonetheless, I like the opportunity to hear from you all. Thanks for reading!

This is the corn grinder we used to make the tamales.

Here's a photo of me grinding up the corn, assisted by Dori's younger sister from Spain. She's also the one who finally killed the chicken!

Here's a photo of me in my uniform.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The first week in Ecuador

So my first blog posting from Ecuador was totally lame. The reason for that was I was sitting in the internet cafe, typing furiously, because if I was on the computer for more than an hour, I'd have to pay an extra 50 cents. It's a good reason, isn't it? Anyways, I'm going to do this differently. I've found an internet cafe much closer to my house. It's also much cheaper.

I got into Ecuador really late on the Thursday night. My flight landed around 11, then I had to go through customs, then collect baggage, and have my baggage screened... Anyways, by the time I finally met up with my host family, it was about 12:30 a.m. I felt really bad, but it was great to meet all of them. They made sure I had all my baggage, which I did. I later learned that the previous American exchange student they hosted lost all his baggage. His luggage didn't arrive in Quito for five days! Anyways, me introduced ourselves, and then jumped in Miguel's (my host dad) 1986 Toyota, which has the distinct smell of gasoline on the interior.

We drove through Quito to get to where my host family lives, in one of the southern suburbs of Quito. Miguel didn't feel the need to stop for red lights, so we made it home pretty quickly. Still, by the time we were going to bed, it was about 1:30 a.m. I was completely exhausted, and fell asleep immediately.

Since my first day, I've been getting used to life in Ecuador. I struggle to compare the climate to Texas, but to me it seems kind of like one of our very warm days in December. The sun rises around 6, and then it sets at 6 p.m. When the sun is out, it can be quite warm, but without the sun, it gets quite chilly. I'm in a valley surrounded by mountains, and we're at an elevation of around 8,000 feet.

My host mom, Dori, isn't happy unless I'm eating everything, and then asking for seconds. It's sometimes a tall order, but somehow I manage. The food is bland, but full of fruits (papaya and orange are favorites for juices). Each meal contains either a white rice, potato, or plantain; sometimes all of the above. The biggest meal of the day is eaten around 2 or 3; with a nice breakfast in the morning, and sometimes just tea for dinner. Dori's convinced that Americans are fat because they eat their biggest meal in the evening; rather than in the day.

Alexis, my host brother, has been really nice about including me in activities, and speaking slowly to me in Spanish. I brought a soccer ball and pump to Ecuador, so we've been playing a lot of soccer. For the second time in a row, my team lost. I'm beginning to think that I'm the problem.

I'm beginning to get more comfortable in Spanish. I can now hold a conversation without stumbling, and my mistakes are fewer. This gives me great opportunities to talk with the host family about all sorts of things. They're curious about a lot of things American. Veronica, my host sister, studied and worked in the US for four months, and yesterday we were looking at her complete collection of the US quarters for all the states and territories. Both Dori and Miguel have family members who work in the US, and they're both interested in being able to point out on a map where their family members live.

I feel totally welcome in Ecuador. On Sunday, Dori hosted a birthday party for her niece and sister at our house. When they realized my birthday is coming up, they included me in the celebrations (see photos).

Tomorrow, all the exchange students (three Americans and five Germans) are meeting in Quito to have our orientation. Thursday, I'm going to my school for the first time, but it's just so that I can register and buy my uniform. Friday is my first day of classes.

It's been a crazy few days. It's hard to comprehend that just last week I was still packing for this trip. I miss family and friends a lot, but it feels good to know I have a secondary family in Ecuador.

First night: From left Miguel, Dori, me, Alexis, Veronica, host mom of Micah (other American), and Micah

Birthday Party

Monday, September 5, 2011

Finally in Ecuador

Hey guys!

I just wanted to make a quick post saying I got in to Ecuador without any issues. I´ve been placed with an excellent host family, and Í´m quite comfortable. I don´t have much internet access in the home of my host family, so I´m using the computer at an internet cafe. Here´s a quick list of my recent activities.

On my first night, I was picked up around one in the morning by the Pacheco family at Quito´s airport. My host dad, Miguel, demonstrated the phrase "don´t stop for stoplights." Apparently, it´s okay to just roll through stop lights in Quito at one in the morning. The next morning, I visited a megamall called San Luis shopping, where I bought a new cell phone. Later, Alexix (host brother, 14) and I explored a new park with bike trails. We only have one bike, so I biked and he held on! I also got a chance to see my school in person.

We´ve also been doing some exploring in Quito (my host family lives about twenty minutes south of Quito). It´s a gorgeous part of the world. They call Ecuador the land of eternal spring for a reason. I´ve also been getting excited about the prices of some things. Here´s a quick sampling.

Soccer ball $50
Gallon of gas $1 (yes you read that right)
Three course meal between $2 and $5

Of course, there are a lot of things cheaper in the States (like the soccer ball).

I continue to be impressed by the beauty of the country. I´m in a valley surrounded by many mountains, two of which are snow capped. The weather´s great, and the food is wonderful (especially the fruit).

I´m sorry that I don´t have any photos up right now. I´m going to have to figure out a better way of updating the blog. Hopefully, I can update again soon, next time with pictures. Until then, adios!