Monday, July 23, 2012

Cuenca, Dia de los Difuntos

Cemetery in Cuenca
 In Ecuador, el Dia de los Difuntos is celebrated on November 2nd to remember the deceased. This past week, we had Wednesday through Friday off, and the majority of high schools and universities have the entire week off for the feriados. For the Day of the Deceased, families made a traditional drink called colada morada and a bread called pan de guagua which date back to pre-colonial indigenous traditions. The drink is made with several types of fruits typical to the region, especially pineapple and blackberries--the blackberries give the drink the characteristic dark purple color, as well as many spices including cinnamon.
The bread is made in the shape of a baby--guagua is Kichwa for baby--and has a sweet flavor. Families typically bring a large pot of the drink to the cemeteries in which their loved ones are buried and use the day to remember them.

In Guayaquil, this day is typically a calm day for families to spend together. However, Cuenca's foundation day is Nov 3, creating a more upbeat atmosphere through the smaller, highland city.

I arrived in Cuenca with Dave and a few friends around 10pm on the 2nd and headed to the house of a friend. Rather than taking a regular bus that costs roughly $8 for the 4 hour trek into the mountains, my friends wanted to take a van, for which we paid $12 each to a company called Atenas that does direct routes exclusively between Cuenca and Guayaquil. Although I'd rather pay less, it was far more comfortable and we arrived sooner than we expected.

We spent a little bit of time relaxing at our friend's house, where the rest of my friends would be staying, before we took taxis into the city to find the hostel Dave and I had reserved. When we finally located it (Hostal Hogar Cuencano), we were greeted by a tired owner who told us there were no rooms available. After going back and forth explaining to him we had made a reservation a while back and establishing the fact that he was in fact the person that emailed Dave back earlier that day telling him it'd be no problem if we got in a little late, he realized that he had mistaken two other travelers for us. The two guys, also New Yorkers had apparently reserved a room for the next night but decided to come early and try to get what they could. They ended up tricking the owner into thinking one of them was the Dave he had been in contact with, and they had already headed out to the city by the time we got there.

The owner's only solution at first was to give us his maid's room, since she had gone off on vacation, and only charge us half price ($5/each). After looking it over, I told him we'd leave our bags with him, head out and wait for a phone call from him that the two guys had arrived back at the hostel and were moving their stuff into the maid's room. We went off to get a late dinner, explored some of the city and returned back to have our bags all moved into the room we had reserved. I was frustrated with Celso, the owner, at first but I appreciated that he took the blame and was able to solve the issue for us.

The next day we went off to explore the markets and the city. We found markets and fairs everywhere we went, with bands playing the local Andean music throughout the city. Each day we spent in Cuenca we followed a fairly similar routine of searching for delicious food, good deals at the markets and enjoying the city.

The view of the large three domed cathedral seen above is taken from the San Francisco Market. The Cathedral is located in the central part of the city with a park located in front, as is typical for many South American cities to be based around the most important church and a central plaza. Much of the festivities that took place over the long weekend were also centered around this area. The main flower market is also very close, where Dave snuck off to buy a flower for me, and decided against it when the woman told him the cost was 25. His assumption meant that this woman was trying to get 25 dollars out of him; until he realized she was referring to cents. 

Note: This post was written in November 2011 although unpublished until July 2012. 

Ecuadorian Futbol

Yesterday night I headed to the Estadio Banco Pichincha with a few international students and an Ecuadorian friend from one of my classes. The game was between Guayaquil's Barcelona team--logo and name basically copied from Spain's Barcelona--and Quito's Liga Deportiva. I saw Liga a couple months back in August but the Venezuelan team wasn't too strong and we missed the only goal of the game. The atmosphere wasn't too strong because the game didn't matter much since it was a certain win, and the other game I went to in Cuenca had been last year during the World Cup--the teams playing weren't great so most people preferred to head to the bars to see the World Cup games. For those reasons, I'd have to consider last night's game an introduction to "real" Ecuadorian futbol matches.

Although Barcelona isn't the best team in Ecuador, their fans are known to be the most intense. Because we were heading to the game around rush hour, the city buses were out of the question and all of the radio taxis that are stationed near our ciudadela were occupied. We hailed down a yellow taxi, which is typically not the safest thing to do--but with the license printed in three different parts of the car, the photo matching the taxi driver, and taxi seguro on all sides of the car, it's considered the best option when you have no choice but to take a yellow taxi. The trip cost five dollars which isn't too bad given how far we were going and the fact that we overloaded the taxi. When he reached a point where traffic was too bad, he let us out and we followed the herd of Barcelona fans to the stadium for about 20-30 minutes.

We wasted a little time waiting for someone else to meet up with us so when we got into the stadium there were no seats left in the section we bought tickets for--Trifuna. The tickets cost $9/each and are a level above general admission. General admission is a section used primarily by the most intense Barcelona fans, and rarely are women found in that area. Fireworks and fights are fairly common in that area. Since the bleacher seats in Trifuna were full we remained standing behind the seats throughout the game.

Since the two teams playing are from the two largest and most important cities in the country (as the largest port city, Guayaquil is the business center of the country, while Quito, the capital is obviously the political center), it's obvious that there's a strong rivalry between the two teams. Like in every match, the fans for the opposing team are delegated a given area in which they are permitted to sit, to avoid fights between fans (although its still pretty common among fans of the same team).

By halftime the score was 1-0 Barcelona--with excitement circulating because Liga will fall to second place if they lose this game. However, soon after the second half began Liga scored their first goal. In the last five minutes or so of the game Liga had scored their second goal, resulting in many Barcelona fans (primarily families) leaving to get a head start on traffic, and some of the few Liga fans that were there trickling out to avoid confrontations with angry Barcelonistas. Barcelona came back to tie the game shortly after but Liga was able to break the tie in the very end of the game to get the win.

Note: This post was written in late October 2011 but left unpublished until July 2012. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez is a small beach town about 4 hours from Guayaquil by bus. Its main attraction is whale watching that occurs between the months of July and October--but are most popular during the month of August--while the whales migrate south to find warmer waters. My main reason for wanting to go though was to go to Los Frailes, a virgin beach in National Park territory (Parque Nacional de Machalilla) that is considered one of the most beautiful beaches of Ecuador.

This week is vacation week for the majority of the international students, so I went with a few people who would be returning to Guayaquil on Sunday and another group of about 8 continued traveling north along the coast after Puerto Lopez. The courses taught in English get a break this week but since I have one course taught in Spanish I had to stay back with just a few other international students. Next week we'll have only classes Monday and Tuesday and the rest of the week off for Dia de los Difuntos--Day of the Deceased and other celebrations throughout Ecuador.

On Friday morning I headed out for Puerto Lopez with one of my friends, Sharae. The start of the trip signaled to us that we were in for an interesting weekend. When the city bus stopped at the terminal a mob of male domestic and blue collar workers looking to get on the bus for work swarmed the bus and started pushing it and shaking it. I thought for a few seconds that they were actually going to tip the bus over, and the bus driver was not amused either, so he was refusing to open the doors to get in or off. After they calmed down momentarily the doors swung open and the fighting to get on the bus began again, while I had to push my way off.

Right after that incident we crossed the street to get to the terminal. As we were walking by the bahia (black market) to the side of the terminal a man started approaching us coming from the terminal. His eyes were glazed over, he couldn't walk in a straight line and he had his arms kinda flailing side to side. We tried to walk farther to the left, away from him but he came right toward me, made some unhuman growl and grabbed my arm. I immediately smacked his arm and pushed him off me and he just kept walking, while the people that watched around us just laughed at me. Although it shook me up a little it was relieving that the man was so clearly not capable of actually doing any harm to me because he had almost no motor skills at that point.

The rest of our trip that day was relatively peaceful, arriving around 12 to a pretty empty town, finding a cheap hostel for 7 dollars each and heading to the beach while we waited for the other girls to arrive. Since we all had been exhausted from our exams all last week, and there was also nowhere to go at night, we just stayed in our room and went to bed early to wake up for Los Frailes the next morning. We ended up taking mini chiva carts (basically a motorcycle with a cart attached behind it for two people) for the 20 min or so ride to the beach, and picking up local fruits on the way at the main market for our lunches. It ended up being $5/cart each way and they stayed at the beach to wait for us until we were ready.

The beach was absolutely amazing--making me miss having a camera. Just about nobody was there--just a few couples were there during the entire afternoon, the weather was pretty warm and the water was crystal clear. When we got back to Puerto Lopez we met up with the other group traveling for the rest of the night. The beach is lined with a chain of mini bars that have chairs and hammocks (I prefer the latter) available for the customers. Being the only gringas around we were an apparent target but I was glad to stay in the 7dollar hostel where we didn't get robbed, rather than the 5 dollar one where that was an issue. Thankfully, we were all able to make it out of Puerto Lopez safely--either back to Guayaquil or onto other travels.

After my weekend at the beach, on Monday I had a field trip with my international trade class to Cuenca. I love Cuenca, so I was excited to return but it ended up being a lot less exciting than I'd hope. It was a 4 hour drive to a 4 hour lecture in the university on the outskirts of Cuenca, before driving four hours back. The celebrations were already starting that day but since we didn't spend any time in the actual city, I wasn't able to see any of it. Next Wednesday I'll be heading out to Cuenca with Dave, when the celebrations are really in full swing, and pictures will finally be posted. Until then I'll be in the Guayaquil area for the most part, while everyone else has their vacations in the Galapagos, Peru or Colombia.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

La Nariz del Diablo

I've been pretty busy with school and realized I had not yet written about the train I took a few weeks back to La Nariz del Diablo. I ended up heading there with some of the French speaking international students so it was a good weekend of mainly Spanish (with them occasionally reverting to French or me reverting to English). The train typically runs between Riobamba, a city that I had stayed in when we had traveled to climb Chimborazo, and a small town called Alausi. Our original plan had been to take a bus into Riobamba, stay the night and take the train ride in the morning. However, we found out that the tracks near Riobamba are currently in construction so we instead decided to head to Alausi.

When we got to the bus station around 10 am we found that the next bus to Alausi (direct) wouldn't be leaving till 130. My friends wanted to get going as soon as they could so we decided to take an indirect route--first going south toward Ingapirca--Ecuador's most notable Incan ruins, and then catching a second bus on the side of the road to Alausi. The bus driver signaled for us to hop off when we reached a side of the road where there was a restaurant and a  couple trinket stores--and nothing else really in view. They drove off and since it was past lunch time at that point we decided to sit down to eat. Just as we had all sat down the bus arrived (which we had been told would be arriving in an hour or so) so we all sprinted to it as it was starting to take off. All the seats were full so we all had to brace ourselves for an hour/ hour and a half standing with all our bags while the bus went up and down the Andes mountains. As locals started to get off the bus along the way we were eventually able to get seats and we arrived soon after. The indirect bus route ended up arriving just around the same time we would've arrived if we had taken the direct bus (as I had tried to point out at the bus station) but we ended up meeting another French girl on the second bus--who seemed thrilled to be around French speakers again.

We ended up finding a hostel called the Panamericano for 8/each and then headed to get dinner. We found that the majority of restaurants were closed--one restaurant owner told me that most places shut down on Saturday afternoons so families can spend time together. We eventually found a small place to eat seco de pollo and ended up chatting with the owner for a while after. Like many small towns in the Andes here, the electricity was shut off until about 6 or 7 at night for construction. When we arrived back at the hostel we found all the doors locked and had to bang on the doors for about 10-15 minutes before we were finally buzzed in. We ended up deciding to stay in the rest of the night rather than risk getting locked out again and woke up early for the train.

While we had been told we'd be able to buy tickets the day of the train, we found the next morning that they were all booked through the day till 2. We all needed to get back to Guayaquil, and I had to prepare for a class presentation for Comercio Internacional but we ended up getting helped out by the man managing the ticket sales. He told us to be patient while he scanned the computer for cancellations. One couple almost was unable to get on the train despite the fact that they had made reservations a month back. He found room for us in the 9oclock autoferro, a little bit cheaper than taking the actual train but it goes the exact same route along the tracks, just doesn't include food. When he asked for our passports I realized I didn't have my copy and blanked on the numbers. Eventually he turned to me and quietly said, please--just invent some numbers. We were told by him to tell anyone who asked us that we had reservations a month back, or he could get in a lot of trouble. However once the train got going, it was more than half empty, so I'm not quite sure why getting the tickets had become such a process.

In the past, passengers had been allowed to ride just on top of the train, for more thrills. A couple years back a couple of tourists didn't see a cable coming and ended up getting knocked down the mountains so it's now prohibited. It was still a good mini trip. We enjoyed being in such a small peaceful town--a huge change from Guayaquil.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Spelling Bees and House Building

This past Tuesday we finally hosted the Spelling Bee at our school. The set up was a little unique but it was successful nonetheless. The competition was divided into 3 levels and within each level a student went head to head against another student, and whoever spelled the most out of 5 words correctly went on to the next round. I was so happy that the two levels that I had worked with had a frequent number of ties in which both students spelled all the words correctly and had to go into multiple tie breaker rounds. Although I was correct in my predictions of who would win from the two levels, the rest of the students also did very well and I was thrilled to see so much improvement with the students.

With the 8th year students before the competition. Robert is the boy on  the left, the winner  is the girl right of center

One boy in particular, Robert, went on to win second place for his age group (Just 8 in each level), and had improved the most significantly out of all the students. While he had struggled with a number of the more difficult words when we practiced, he was confident at the spelling bee and although I was a judge I couldn't help but beam while I told him he had spelled a word correctly. His English professor told me that after the spelling bee he told her that she needed to give him a prize because he had improved so much that he considered himself a winner--the cutest thing I have ever heard.

Now that I'm done with the spelling bee, I'm glad to be moving on to other things. I've been interacting more with entire classes and I've lead a few classes completely on my own. My director Maria Elena seems to be comfortable giving me full responsibility over the class and slowly the students are learning to cooperate better. Last week Maria Elena asked me to start a lesson for her because she had to go downstairs for a minute to talk to the principal. I was already scheduled to help another professor with her lesson and we had already developed a whole lesson plan for the class so Maria Elena assured me that she would only be five minutes. That five minutes quickly turned into the full hour--me without a teacher's book, a marker for the chalkboard and without knowing the name of a single student in the class (except one who participated in the Spelling Bee)--of teaching the differences between can and cannot to a class of 35 9 year olds. My days are always interesting though--while the other two interns are assigned specific professors to work with, I'm kind of thrown around and never know what class I'll be with or what I'll be doing until the class has started.

After another week at my internship, on Saturday I headed to Duran, a municipality near Guayaquil, to build houses with the other international students. We were working with Hogar de Cristo, a local organization that provides micro loans, economic assistance and minimal housing for families in order to deal with the housing shortage that plagues Ecuador. According to a presentation done by the head of Hogar de Cristo, Guayaquil suffers from the 3rd highest housing shortage in the world, after Calcutta and Port-Au-Prince. I was surprised to hear this because I would think that it would be less of a problem than in larger mega cities (Guayaquil's population is only between 2-3 million). What was probably most shocking was that just over 8 million of Ecuador's 13 million citizens lack housing completely or live in housing so minimal that it cannot be considered dignified (eg, houses made of cardboard and scrap metal in slums). The most basic housing they build in order to pull people out of these situations consist of concrete walls on the first floor and a bamboo second floor. The organization's website can be found here. Two American students are currently interning at the organization, developing the English language site for the organization.

I had been anticipating helping with the actual construction of houses, more students than expected showed up and the organization we were working with did not have enough tools on hand so they asked me and a few others to cook the lunch for the 40 students, plus the families for whom we were building houses. We made seco de pollo, a typical Ecuadorian dish that consists of chicken, tomato, bell pepper, onion, cilantro and naranjilla (beer is also used instead to give the meat flavor and moisture) and served over rice (In Ecuador white rice is served with almost every lunch and dinner, and is never missed completely from a day). The food was cooked on an outdoor carbon stove borrowed from a family that uses it to sell typical street food.

Although I was disappointed to not participate in the actual building, going to the main market area to buy the ingredients at various little shops was an interesting experience, as well as seeing the women who helped us deal with the cooking. I had to overlook the fact that the butcher dropped a piece of chicken on the dirty floor before tossing it in the bag, the plastic bags used to get the coals burning faster and the lack of kitchen tools that I'm more accustomed to using. In the end one of the students made the claim that it was the best seco de pollo she's had here, and everyone else seemed to enjoy it as well. I guess this proves the assertion true that the street food made under some of the less sanitary conditions always tastes the best (eg. ceviche sold from peddle carts on the beaches).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ecuador Living

About a week ago there was a robbery near my house, which has had me on edge since. Our university stresses the importance of safety precautions and often uses examples of what has happened to students in the past to ensure that current students will not be in danger. The problem I found is that it creates two extremes--those who feel constantly paranoid and fear to ever go beyond Samborondon, and those who find exaggerations in what we've been told and become convinced that nothing bad can actually happen. Since our program started most of the other students have asked me questions about whether or not I had ever actually felt unsafe, in danger or whatever else during my stay here last year. While I answer truthfully, that no there was no point where I felt particularly uncomfortable in that sense, I've found that I need to use caution when explaining this because my response can sway students into thinking that NOTHING could happen--which is far from the truth because international students are quite frequently robbed.

Also, while I never felt in danger last year, I had only been here for a month and upon my return I've found much more caution among Ecuadorians. Since last August I have found that our ciudadela has heightened security noticeably. Without a residence card that opens the two main gates, cars are not permitted to enter, a side entrance allows non residents to enter, based on certain rules that I don't fully know. While pedestrians were able to pass relatively freely in the past without a physical barrier (there were still guards making sure no one suspicious entered), a guard now stands at the gate monitoring everyone who enters and exits. Following the robbery incident, maids and other domestic workers' bags were being searched upon entering and exiting.

At the university, security also seems more paranoid. Just as last year, we have ID cards that we have to scan before scanning our fingerprint in order to enter the campus. However, last  year I brought mine maybe 40% of the time; I usually just asked security to let me in and they did willingly. Yesterday though, I forgot my card for the first time and I asked security to let me in, they gave me a hard time and told me I can't come in without my card, so I just reverted to playing dumb exchange student ("que? que? no entiendo") until he let me in. 

Among my Ecuadorian friends in addition to the international students I find the extremes regarding their perceptions of safety. While there are some who rarely venture outside of Samborondon, others try to convince me that really nothing will happen if I take a yellow taxi (yellow taxis are not safe in Guayaquil due to the trend of express kidnappings, private radio taxis are recommended). Although I don't want to just keep myself within the Samborondon bubble (the municipality is more like a suburb outside of the city, filled with palm trees, beautiful houses, malls and half the restaurant names in English), I can see that some of those who choose to are justified--I've never been kidnapped or robbed at gun/knife point but I'd imagine that if I were to, I'd end up keeping myself within the safest bubble possible.

So, I'm learning to take into account the frustrations of heightened security and paranoia with the million benefits that come along with living here. Stopping at Pandorado for pan de yuca or whatever else I'm craving (maybe a birthday cake for a friend this past Thursday) is far more satisfying than getting some quick snack at a Starbucks. Basically anywhere you go, the food will be amazing. Although I like to occasionally go for dinner at Cocolon (Typical Ecuadorian food with a classy spin on it) or Positano (amazing Italian restaurant owned by a man from Napoli), I can also enjoy the most delicious food at my host family's house or out at a small restaurant where a 3 course meal costs $1.50-$2.00.

Also, while Ecuador is a fairly small country, the diversity allows you to travel relatively small distances to reach a diverse amount of places. While last weekend I took a 3hr bus trip to a beach town (Montanita--party town with a mix of tourists and Ecuadorians and the most amazing cheese empanadas sold at a main corner every weekend till after 5am), this weekend I headed into the sierra (where the Andes mountains are found) to take the "Nariz del Diablo" train. The Galapagos is of course another popular destination for travelers while in Ecuador (and some people's sole purpose for coming) but I'd prefer to save my money for now on less expensive destinations. In a few weeks I plan to head back into the Amazon during a short school week.

More to come about La Nariz del Diablo and other things going on in my next post..

Saturday, September 3, 2011

First Full Week in Guayaquil

This week marked the end of summer and beginning of classes and volunteering for me. I'm taking two classes on the bimester schedule which are a Spanish language class and a poli sci/econ course. The classes that last the entire semester are taught in Spanish and directed toward the native Spanish speakers and I am taking one--Comercio Internacional. I'll add one more class next bimester for a total of 13 credits. I'm also doing a volunteer placement at a private school in the city of Guayaquil which serves students aged 4-18 years old. The picture above shows all the little presents I was given on my first full day at the school from the high school aged students. I'm primarily working as a teacher's assistant for the English teachers but I may also be helping coordinate some of the extracurricular activities, such as spelling bees, debate clubs and fairs.

My classes and volunteering run Monday-Thursday, giving me a long weekend every weekend. Yesterday and this afternoon we took advantage of the university's pool that doesn't seem to be used much by other students and exploring more of Samborondon. Today I headed back to Parque Historico with some of the other international students. The section with the monkeys, caimanes and some other animals was closed but we were able to see the birds shown below, foxes and other animals, as well as the colonial section of the park.