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).