Sunday, August 26, 2012

First Day of School!

Even though I’ve been in school for over 15 years, the first day is still always scary. At the University of San Francisco, most of the Ecuadorians are from very rich families and all the international students studying here are also very rich. So it’s definitely a different feel from what I’m used to. To start, the campus looks like a resort: giant fish pond, water fall, palm trees, and girls in heels lounging near the water. The buildings all have names and are all connected to each other, so you have a 15% of finding your class on time. My first class was History of Latin American Republics which is about 80% Ecuadorian students. The professor seems very nice and helpful and she even got in an argument with one of the students concerning culture. I think I’ll stay in this one.

The second one was Introduction to Ecuadorian Culture which is all American students who barely speak Spanish. It’s a little frustrating but I realize that I will get out of it what I put into it. The third class was Macroeconomics. Now, I hated Microeconomics in English so you can only imagine how I feel about Macro in Spanish. I am the only gringa in the class and right away I noticed how anti-American the professor was. At one point, he directed his gaze at me and told the class how the United States “screwed Ecuador’s economy.” Although I agree with this statement, I felt incredibly uncomfortable being the only American. I wasn’t sure whether to apologize or act like I hadn’t understood. Later in the class, he split us into groups and asked what we would do if we were on a desert island. He was obviously looking for social organization, division of jobs, resource management, etc. But the girls in my group found it more useful to build a clock right away. When I suggested that shelter and food would be more important, one girl snapped at me that that was a stupid idea. Needless to say, I didn’t speak for the rest of class. It’s going to be an extremely difficult class to keep up with, but I’m ready for the challenge.

My fourth class was Quichua which I was really excited about. The class is about half Ecuadorian, half American. The professor seems nice enough except he drew 5 identical faces on the board to represent 5 different emotions. I’m going to have to use my dictionary a lot! The fifth class is probably going to be my favorite. The title is translated to Environmental Entrepreneurship, or Environmental Administration. There were only 5 of us in the class and the professor was young and really passionate about the subject. We discussed corporations, empresas, oil, “going green”, and he agreed to help me on my research project about oil and the Indigenous populations.

The sixth and final class is called Andinismo and it involves hiking, rock climbing, and bouldering. Every weekend throughout the semester there is a hike somewhere around Ecuador. I’m incredibly excited to be involved in this!

Camping at Mama Tungurahua

Before I came to Ecuador, my friend introduced me to her friend in Quito via facebook. My first week in Quito, he invited me on a camping trip to see Volcán Tungurahua. Now, this volcano had been in the news because it had been erupting… so naturally we wanted to see it! On Friday night, Nicolas and Santiago picked me up and we went to Nicolas’s apartment where we hung out with a few of his friends. The next morning we picked up his friend Ivan, or Pili, and headed down south. On the way, I learned a ton of new words in Spanish- mostly bad words. We stopped in the town of Salceda and bought their famous ice cream popsicles and then ended in Baños. There, we ate lunch, walked around a bit, and asked where the best places were to camp.

We decided on a mountain in between Baños and Mama Tungurahua so the view was incredible. Driving up the mountain was amazing. The valley was filled with clouds and all along the path you could see rose farms and small cottages. We arrived on top and hiked up a hill to find Casa del Arbol, a place where a lot of people camp. Since it was only mid afternoon, we went back to Baños, found a bar and hung out. We returned again to Casa del Arbol just before dark and set up our tent. The view was just as incredible at night- the lights from the city dotted the hill and the clouds were illuminated from the moon.

For the rest of the night, we roasted marshmallows for s’mores and had conversations that were, for me, very interesting. May I remind you that there were three boys and me. The topics ranged from: Where would you rather get shot- the balls or the stomach? to Would you rather have a penis the size of a ping pong ball or the size of your arm? Needless to say, I was laughing the entire night.

The next morning we had a big breakfast, swung on a swing over a ravine, and said goodbye to the family of kittens at the campsite. Although we couldn’t see the erupting volcano right above us, the views were amazing and it reminded me again how much I love the outdoors. It was an amazing weekend with new friends and new adventures.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fire and a Dead Cow

Today was a pretty normal day until around 4 in the afternoon when I looked out the kitchen window and saw everyone running around and franticly throwing things into the back of Sebastián’s truck. I went outside and they told me there was a fire up near the condors and we had to go put it out. I grabbed my work gloves (like they’ll protect me from fire!) and hopped in the truck with Taryn, Maddy, David, Marcelo and Sebastián. We drove extremely fast up the landslide which they call a road and when we arrived at the end of the road, we ran to the edge of the cliff to see where the fire was. Thankfully, the fire was actually on the other side of the canyon from the condors and since it was technically within the park boundaries, we didn’t have to do anything. We sat on the edge of the cliff and watched the oddly beautiful fire engulf lonely trees and eventually die when it reached the edge of the cliff.

When we returned to the farm, Sebastián informed us that a neighbor (as in 30 minute drive away) had a cow that had died and we were going to go pick it up to feed to the condors and bear. Once again I grabbed my gloves and loaded into the truck. The cow had fallen down a hill covered with trees so David climbed up and cut down the brush so the cow could roll down the hill and hit the road with a thud. David and Marcelo heaved the cow into the back of the truck as we stood there and tried to keep Selena (7 years old) from kicking it. We arrived at the farm and had to quickly drag it to the back since it was getting dark. The next hour was spent in the dark skinning the cow. This was incredibly different from the alpaca since cows have much more fat. Just for an image, none of us were wearing gloves, even David whose hands were covered in blood. Wearing gloves means you’re a sissy. After the fire and cow fiasco, we all scrubbed our hands in the river and then scrubbed them with boiling water and then used half a bottle of hand sanitizer all over hands and arms. Then we crashed in bed… like always.

We also caught a trout.
And killed and plucked a chicken.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

What you can't find in Ecuador

Since I arrived in Ecuador, I have tried finding two simple items: a notebook and butterfly band-aids. The first incident happened when Taryn cut her finger up pretty badly so we had used up our stock of butterfly band-aids. When we arrived in Baños, we figured we could find more in any of the pharmacies in the city but oh were we so wrong. We stopped in the first pharmacy when we first arrived at night. It was empty with three women behind the counter. We asked for band-aids (bandajes) and one woman returned very confidently with a roll of medical tape. Taryn held up her open wound and said that we needed actual band-aids, which we held up for them to see. The mean woman told us briskly that those don’t exist… as we’re holding one up for her. Another woman retrieved cotton wads and proceeded to show us how we could put the cotton on the wound and then wrap the tape around it. Taryn and I looked at each other, confused, and tried figuring out how this wasn’t just a complicated band-aid. Finally we held up the band-aid again, pointed to it, and said “simple bandage.” They seemed to understand this and one of the women brought out a small plastic tray filled with assorted band-aids. None of them were larger than two inches- not to mention anything fancy like a butterfly one- but they would do the trick.

Another incident where I couldn’t find something simple was when I was trying to buy notebooks for class. I didn’t think this would be hard. In fact, I had been in several papelerías (paper supply stores) and thought I would be able to find a cheap, simple spiral notebook. But once again, I was very wrong. I walked around with my friend Erin and first we went to a larger chain store inside the mall. Sure, they had plenty of notebooks but they all had ponies or robots or boy bands on the front. I knew I didn’t have to stoop this low, so we kept looking. We walked along a few main streets and couldn’t find any of the papelerías that seemed to be everywhere until you needed one. We ended up at the MegaMaxi (think Target) and they had plenty of notebooks, too, but none with a cover that wouldn’t make me seem like a star struck 9 year old girl. Shouldn’t a simple notebook be easy to find?? As I’m writing this, I still haven’t found one. I guess I’ll just suck up my pride and dignity and buy a Justin Beiber spiral notebook. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Baños at night

This weekend, Taryn and I decided to head to the tourist adventure town of Baños which is on the edge of the Oriente (Amazon rainforest). On the bus ride there, we met three people: two Ecuadorian guys named Ivan and Marco and one Austrian girl named Victoria. Since we didn’t know where we were going to stay and it was already dark, we found a hostel with them complete with a flirty owner, hard beds, and a cold shower. About five minutes after arriving, Ivan asks us if we wanted to go on a tour up the volcano for $3. Of course we said yes and so we hopped aboard an obnoxiously bright party bus complete with blaring reggaeton and flashing Christmas lights. We drove up the side of the volcano for about 45 minutes until we got off and went to look at the amazing view of the city lit up in the darkness below. Our tour guide took great pleasure in pointing out the black volcanoes… against the black sky. We watched a “comedy show” that consisted of two men asking for money in a funny way and then headed back down the volcano.

The next day Taryn and I found a better hostel complete with a giant rabbit and a group of worshiping Jewish people. We wandered around Baños and ran some luxurious errands such as going to a post office and calling home. The town is very small- the main strip consists of two blocks filled with taffy, crafts, and adventure sports. Since neither of us wanted to spend much money and didn’t have the balls to go base jumping, we loaded the party bus once again for a day tour of the waterfalls around the city. The ride was just about the exact same as the night before, but this time an Ecuadorian family sat in front of us and when the teenage girl’s iPhone flew out of the bus, she screamed bloody murder and jumped out of the bus. It was sure worth the $2 extra we paid for the daytime tour.

The night scene
At night, Taryn and I went out and once we hit the street with the bars, we were ushered into a bar where the bouncer stamp attacked us and introduced us to the bar tenders in the “VIP” section. The bar tenders gave us free drinks and wanted a kiss on the cheek as payment. It’s so funny being a white girl here. I don’t feel like it’s that uncommon, especially in Baños, but it’s hard to ignore the special treatment that we receive just for being white. When an Ecuadorian does not automatically assume I’m from the United States or Europe, I do a little victory dance in my head. After the first bar, we headed across the street to a bar with mostly Ecuadorians. A few songs in, the Macarena came on and Taryn and I were really excited and started dancing. As I was showing off my Macarena skills, I looked over to see two guys pointing and laughing at us and only then did I realize that no one was doing the Macarena. Taryn and I flew out of that bar. 

The next morning we went grocery shopping and then tried finding a bus to Quito since our stop was along the way. All the buses were full, but one of the drivers looked us up and down and ushered us into his bus where we sat directly behind the driver. The ride was uncomfortably long since our seats weren’t actual seats but we made friends with the driver. When there was a lot of traffic on the road, the bus driver went rogue and swung the bus onto the field next to the highway and just passed the entire jam. It was cool. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Machismo and Uselessness

Since the workers on the farm consist of Marcelo (40 ish?), Pato (39), and David (23), we get hit on quite a bit. Taryn and I have both been to Latin American countries so we both knew that men flirt relentlessly with any female that’s in front of them. This can include whistling when we take our sweatshirts off, staring directly at our butts, or making sexual jokes about us. I never feel threatened by any of these because I know men here are held to a different standard than men in the US or some European countries. When men whistle or say something, you simply ignore it and take it as a compliment. Of course, this can get out of hand, but I never felt uncomfortable on the farm.

Even Marcelo who is married and definitely not into us will whistle and joke along with Pato and David. Pato is a different story entirely- he likes his women older and is not afraid to tell us all his stories. Although some people in the US will scoff at the actions of these men, this is simply what they know culturally. There is no reason for me to get upset over a whistle when I know it’s a way of joking around with us. I cannot hold men here to the standards of men in the US because they are two different cultures. That being said, there is a line between harmless flirting and harassment and it takes a bit of time and experience to differentiate between the two.

Machismo on the farm leads to the three of us female volunteers being inútil, or useless. If we can’t shovel fast enough or we don’t know how to cut the logs a certain way, this equates to us being inutiles. Maddy has the hardest time with this and one day it was her job to herd the goats back into their pens. Now, the goats are mini devils- they can smell the gringa radiating from our un-calloused skin. So for Maddy to herd all the goats herself is a difficult task but Marcelo decided she could. When Maddy is supposed to be heading back with the goats, we see her walking slowly, goat-less. We then see the goats in the cow field so she runs after them and tries to herd them into the right field. After they escape several times and all we can do is watch, Marcelo yells her name over and over, thinking this will help. Maddy turns around, enraged, and yells “WHAT?!” in English. Marcelo of course doesn’t understand and only laughs which makes her even more upset. Maddy eventually gives up and lets the goats graze in a different field and Marcelo only laughs and says inútil over and over.

To sum this up, machismo can’t be taken personally. You can’t fight it by simply yelling or talking back, but you need to prove yourself as strong and able. Ignoring men is the best way to do this. 


The closest big city is called Latacunga. It’s not a touristy city at all, so there’s not much to do but we were relieved to have internet, laundry, and restaurants. The first morning we were there, Maddy woke up sick, so Taryn and I hung out at the hostel and made necessary trips to buy soda and limes. We walked around a bit and I called home to find out my grandma, Gaga, was very sick in the hospital. This really threw me off since it was so unexpected and of course I made a big scene in the store. I tried to shake it off and promised I would call later that weekend. After, we walked around the big Saturday market and bought fruit and a sugary substance called panela that I came to love.

That night, Taryn and I really wanted to go salsa dancing so we found a small bar (after arriving at a club that had been shut down two years earlier) and sat down at a table. Soon after, a middle aged man sat down and didn’t say anything. He proceeded to show us his military ID and pay for our beers with a $20 bill without saying a word. He was really weird. I didn’t enjoy talking with this mime, so we acted very uninterested but he had trapped us in the table so there was no escaping. Finally a guy from another table came and made him leave but not before he dramatically blew out the candle on our table. After that was over, we salsa danced with some normal guys for the rest of the night.

The next morning, I woke up with a huge headache and knew I had to call my family. As it turns out, my grandma had passed away a few hours before. Since it was a Sunday morning and everything was closed, I had to call from my cell phone where the only reception was in the middle of a public park. So I caused a big scene there, too. I was extremely frustrated because I could only talk for a few minutes and all the internet cafes were closed. I realized how much I had taken communication for granted since I couldn’t talk to my family for another few days.

That Monday on the farm, I became sicker and sicker until Marcelo made me go to bed. I walked an hour by myself to San Ramon only to find out there was no internet which made everything ten times worse. To cheer me up the next day, Marcelo and David caught my favorite white fluffy llama, Santiago, and let me ride him!! He wasn’t too happy and his sister, Luna, spit in my face but it was so worth it. 

Ministerio del Ambiente

As some of you may know, I have a deep interest in the environment. My academic studies usually focus on environmental aspects in international relations and so working on the farm has given me some insight into aspects of agriculture and endangered species. When Marcelo mentioned that three people from the Ministerio del Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) were coming to the farm, I couldn’t believe my luck. When they arrived, I followed them around wide-eyed, listening intently to everything they had to say.

The reason for their visit was to check on the condors we have on the farm. In Ecuador, there are only 70 Andean Condors remaining, so they are extremely endangered. Our farm has two condors in an enclosure an hour up the volcano and the Ministerio del Ambiente is very interested in relocating them to a larger enclosure once one is built. The three workers got in their truck and asked if I would like to go visit the condors with them and I course I nodded very enthusiastically. The ride up, we talked about different species, Latin names, and how to treat deer with diseases. Although it was relevant, I wasn’t that interested and so once we got to the condors, my interrogation started.

They were very good teachers and listeners so they answered all of my questions. I started talking about policies surrounding endangered animals and then snuck in some questions about Indigenous communities and the effect of oil. I also asked them how their department has been working with these issues. I got a lot of very interesting information that I feel I shouldn’t share on the internet. Let’s just say that their opinions weren’t exactly the opinions of the government, who they work for. I enjoyed my time with them and am planning on setting up an interview with the main worker when I’m back in Quito. 

Skinning the Alpaca

So today, I came back from shoveling goat shit and almost fainted when I saw a dead alpaca lying near our bedroom. Apparently Jack, the dog, killed it and so we needed to skin it to feed it to the bear and condors and it was David’s job to skin it. David is 23 years old and is Marcelo’s cousin (or nephew- I’m still not sure). He lives on the farm and is a really nice, strong guy who doesn’t flinch for anything.

Anyways, David strung the alpaca carcass up on a high beam near the hens and asked if we wanted to help. I was very reluctant to even look at it because I figured I would faint, but when I saw it, it was oddly beautiful. Taryn helped David as Maddy drew and I took pictures. The alpaca was all muscle and hardly any fat which created beautiful patterns of red and purple veins all over its body. Once the feet, head, and fur were removed, David let it hang there to dry for a few days.

I know many of you are probably gagging and thinking “how disgusting.” I thought I would have that reaction, but helping in this process made me realize that death is a natural part of life and when one animal dies, it helps the others live. I decided not to include a picture of the skinning to be respectful to the alpaca. 

Daily Schedule

Every day on the farm was different and brought surprises, but here’s a schedule of a typical day.

6:00 am- Wake up, hit snooze.
6:15 am- Roll out of bed, put Muñeca (the dog) outside, and go to the kitchen to cook breakfast.
7:00 am- This is the time we’re supposed to start working.
7:20 am- This is the time we actually start working.
7:30 am- Feed the bear and deer. Move the sheep and pig pens.
7:40 am- Herd the goats up to the field where they graze all day.
8:00 am- Start a project. Examples: digging water canals, cleaning out the river, shoveling a garden bed, weeding.
12:00 pm- Lunch!! We cooked different variations of rice and vegetables every day.
12:20 pm- Since the guys didn’t have to cook and ate really quickly, they would play a game, Zapo, right outside our kitchen.
1:00 pm- Finish the project.
3:00 pm- Volunteers stop working. If we were bored, we would help out with the animals the rest of the afternoon.
6:00 pm- Dinner!! We cooked more rice and vegetables.
9:00 pm- Usually we went to bed really early because there was nothing else to do. 

Arriving at Ilitio

“Take a bus going south. When you hit the town of Lasso, get off the bus at the second intersection. Get in a pickup truck and go east until you hit the farm.”

These were the directions I had to find the farm, Hacienda Ilitio. I knew that Cotopaxi was south of Quito, so I headed south hoping I wouldn’t get too lost. I arrived at the bus station and heard someone yelling Latacunga, which was in the direction I needed to go, so I ran to the bus and managed to get the last seat. I sat next to a very flirtatious old man who interrogated me about my love life, Mexico, and tried setting me up with a man sitting across the aisle. When I needed to get off the bus, he insisted on getting my phone number so I temporarily forgot how to speak Spanish and hopped off the bus unscathed.

The bus pulled away and I was left on the side of a highway, alone, with no camionetas (taxi trucks) in sight. I took a deep breath and ran across the highway to a store that would know where the camionetas were. I looked like a ridiculous tourist: big straw hat, two big backpacks, and a bag filled with food and a frying pan. The woman in the store started laughing and asked if I needed a camioneta which I responded to with a weak nod. When the truck arrived, I climbed in and told him I needed to go to Hacienda Ilitio and 45 minutes later, he pulled up to a picturesque farm house and told me to get out. I was greeted by Sebastián, the farm owner, Marcelo, the live-in farm manager, and Taryn, another volunteer.

The farm was unbelievably beautiful. The huge orange house was straight from a magazine and behind it, the volcano Cotopaxi popped out of the clouds showing off its breathtaking glaciers. There were fields filled with alpacas, llamas, horses, sheep, cuy, hens, ducks, falcons, and even a bear! The gardens were overflowing with quinoa and cauliflower and many unknown greens. Our bedroom was big and the bathroom was an actual bathroom complete with warm water and a toilet! We didn’t have to work until Monday and so Taryn and I hung out for the rest of the day. 

The Hostel Life

I have had the luck and privilege of traveling to many amazing places and not having to follow the typical tourist path. My first week in Ecuador, however, I experienced a whole new level of traveling: the Hostel Life. When I landed in Quito, I had to take care of some errands that required me to stay in the city. I found a really great, friendly hostel called Vibes and was immediately invited to a big party the second I walked through the doors. Of course, no one spoke Spanish and everyone had the money and means to travel through South America for months on end just partying and taking Spanish lessons.

The thing about hostels is that they provide you all the comforts of home including English, hot showers, and pizza. What they don’t provide you is the culture of the country where you are staying. I spoke with many of the people staying at the hostel and they “had enjoyed” Quito, but admitted to not having experienced much of the city even though they had been there for a few weeks. I’m disappointed to know that the Europeans and Australians (and the occasional traveler from the US) will go home to tell stories of hostel parties and getting lost because they don’t speak the language.

Most of my time in Quito was spent running around the city, registering my visa, and buying items I would need for the next month on the farm. I did not have time to do much sightseeing or wandering the streets, but I knew I would have plenty of time in the next 10 months.