Before I left for TBB, I thought Ecuador would be my least favorite core country. This judgment was based solely off the fact that I didn’t know much about it and it was closest to home so it made it automatically less enticing and exotic. These assumptions were completely irrational and turned out to be just completely wrong. 6 months later, as I’m sitting in Washington D.C. writing this, I’m reflecting about my time in Ecuador, and I now believe that it was my favorite core country and the one I’m dying to go back to the most.
Ecuador, and frankly all of Latin and South America, is so diverse geographically. Ecuador is divided into three regions, coastal, the Andes Mountains, and the Amazon - and of course the Galapagos off the coast. We were fortunate enough to get to live in two different regions, the mountains and the coastal region, but there is so much of Ecuador I still want to explore.
We stared our journey in Ecuador in Quito for a couple days. We stayed at Mission Carmelita and had orientation with Experiment in International Living (EIL), our partner organization. While in Quito we visited the Basilica and Virgin Mary statue, one of the only ones depicted with wings. Quito is an awesome city - it reminds me a lot of San Francisco. It’s incredibly long and skinny, expanding outward isn’t possible because of the close proximity to the mountains (The altitude is around 9,000ft). The Spanish influence is very evident around Quito, especially old Quito, but the narrow cobblestone streets and gothic architecture are artfully crafted and impressive.
Our first homestay was in Riobamba, Ecuador - located about 3 hours south of Quito. Saoirse was my roomie, and our family was awesome! Marie Elena and Rodrigo, the parents, were both teachers. They had two daughters, Michu (16) and Vivi (21). The family was involved and energetic and genuinely cared about me and Saoirse’s well-being during our time at their house. Best of all, they reminded me of my own family in terms of their demeanors and interactions, which was comforting. On our first day with them, we had a nice chicken feast at a fast food chain called Gus. We were each handed a pair of plastic gloves so we could eat our chicken with our hands without them getting dirty - ingenious idea if you ask me, cutlery is so last year. Then Saoirse and I were whisked away on a triple date (if you consider Saoirse and I as a couple). We thought we were going to the mall to pay Vivi’s phone bill, but ended up picking up both of the girls boyfriends then going to the mall to play air hockey and eat incredibly disgusting egg whip and then driving around Ecuador for 2 hours, surrounded by beautiful PDA from our new sisters. One boyfriend, had a broken leg from jumping off a roof at a fiesta (talk of doing cocaine and/or heroine was brought up but unsure if that was the cause of the jump??). The other boyfriend really took a liking to the hook-up culture in the United States and stated that it’s really the best way to meet people (disclaimer, this boyfriend broke his wrist about a week later from falling off his longboard - apparently not the first time he has done this. We were lucky enough to visit him in the hospital one night!) Aside from the vibrant social life we experienced on our first day, which was unsurprisingly very similar to how teenagers interact with each other and their significant others in the United States, the family’s home was very nice. They were clearly upper-middle class and had a car and a garage and two dogs and both girls had their own rooms and Saoirse and I had our own rooms, and stainless steel appliances, and multiple T.V.’s. I could go on with all of the modern amenities we take for granted so often, but it was oddly strange to be in a home so similar to my own again and realize how uncommon these seemingly normal household items are in the rest of the world. They even had a treadmill, which I happily ran on until I kind of broke it… (the treading folded on top of itself so I’m not really sure if it was my fault and the treadmill had clearly not been in use before me, so no real damage was done.)
Aside from our riveting home life, during our time in Riobamba, our fieldwork consisted of volunteering at a botanical garden called Ricpamba, that focused on conserving endangered species in Ecuador. Although we did basic yard work like weeding and raking for the two weeks we were there, the work was calm and rewarding and I really brushed up on my skills for my future organic garden. However, I don’t feel any more motivated to help my father mow and/or shovel. The garden was brutally understaffed so they appreciated our help immensely, but I left wondering how the 6 person staff would ever get anything done after we left. Ecuador is extremely corrupt and conservation gardening is not at the top of the urgent agenda.
We also started our last seminar unit about sustainable agriculture and resource usage. The unit covered a wide range of topics that can be categorized under the brand idea of ‘protecting the environment,’ but we discussed and debated how to create a profitable and ethical energy plan and should water be a private or public commodity and can farming be a profitable career. The seminars started with delving into thinking about how many stakeholders and byproducts and resources and time and money and energy go into all of our daily actions. At first I felt like I understood that the process was long and complex and obviously everything we consume came from somewhere and will end up somewhere else, but after a few seminars I began to realize that just because I recognized the system doesn’t mean I’m automatically in the right. I am still a consumer, and a heavy one, and there are serious repercussions for all of my actions that awareness cannot justify. I quickly became ‘anti-stuff’ and began crafting plans for getting rid of all my clothes and unnecessary belongings and how to raise chickens in my backyard. I now have more eco-plans than my mother will probably support and even more questions about the fate of our world in even the next 5 years, but don’t worry I am working on solutions. The books in our environment unit were very inspirational to me, so check out Omnivore’s Dilemma, Cradle to Cradle, Collapse and Delivering Development if you haven’t already!
Back to our cultural immersion at our home stay! We happened to be in Riobamba during the whole duration of the celebration of the Baby Jesus, a traditional Ecuadorian post-Christmas 12 day holiday. Every night the same group of our host family’s friends would get together at someones house and sit in a circle and have a short mass, then eat a light dinner and drink an insanely sugary drink and then dance the same dance for 45 minutes. The first 4 or 5 nights Saoirse and I were quite confused as to why these people hung out and did the same thing every night (at this time we did not know it was to celebrate Baby Jesus). I became a master of the Bamba, the one dance they did, after doing it once on the first night so I was really confused why they kept making me do it and why everyone else still found it enjoyable (Saoirse has no rhythmic abilities and our family picked up on that quickly, so they demoted her to a clapping position, which she continues to struggle with today.) However, we caught on to the traditions and started to make friends with the regular nightly crew. There was the obese baby, Gordita (cute little fatty in Spanish), and the teeny tiny fluffy puppy and the clan of unamused 12 year old boys and the mom’s that love to talk - all typical dinner party attendees. After 8 or 9 appearances, Saoirse and I felt like family and could confidently approach people for the hello and goodbye cheek kiss. Our family hosted the party on the last night we were staying with them and it was just very evident that they were the family in the group of friends that liked to go all out. There was a mariachi band and two cakes to celebrate both daughters birthday’s even though it was only Vivi’s and both crippled boyfriends made an appearance and we had costumes for dancing the Bamba. There were tears and tamales and whiskey and wine and it was just a whole big shindig.
Continuing with other aspects of Ecuadorian culture, we had a mere 5 Spanish lessons to jumpstart our abilities, because no one speaks English very well, if at all. I learned a lot about the grammar, and could pick up pretty easily because of the French I took in school, but speaking was a lot harder. I got pretty good at understanding what our family was saying for the most part, but thinking of a coherent answer that I could actually say usually turned into me repeating si multiple times. Saoirse was a little bit better than me so we could manage to communicate at a basic level with our families, but it was interesting to think about how much was probably lost in translation. The food in Ecuador is very distinct as well. Lunch is the main meal of the day and it almost always is soup, followed by a heaping plate of rice, chicken and beans of some sort. Our family just gave us money for lunch everyday so after 3 days of eating the same thing we opted for the fruit bar down the road and ate fruit salad everyday for lunch for 2 weeks. Breakfast was often a batido (warm milk and fruit smoothie) and a piece of bread. Dinner, if we got it, was small and usually an empanada or bread and cheese. Ecuador has amazing sugary fruit juices, but the corn is absolutely atrocious compared to Iowa sweet corn. Starch and sugar are the main constituents of the diet - I’m not really sure if I ate any vegetables the whole month and a half I was there.. I did however make a podcast about diabetes in Ecuador (it’s the #6 cause of death and has risen 110% in the last 30 years) for my media project, I will try to get the link to that eventually and put it on here.
To wrap-up, a couple of the fun activities we did while in Riobamba were going to 4 soccers games in the oldest stadium in Ecuador for the U20 tournament and taking a day trip to Banos, a very touristy town. The soccer games were tons of fun - we got really into cheering like the locals and it brought me back to my soccer days and joking about all the really motivating things coaches say on the sidelines. “FIND FEET! GET OPEN! MOVE TO THE BALL!” The stadium food was also very good and the tickets were $1.50 for 2 games so it was really a win-win. Banos is a breathtaking small town located in the valley of very tall mountains. We swung off the ‘edge of the earth’ at Casa de Arbol, and took a waterfall tour that included zip-lining, flying squirrel style across a canyon. It was the first time we saw other white people in Ecuador, which was expected because they only go to the known touristy towns. Shame. Regardless, it was a fun day, but it left me eager to explore all of what Ecuador has to offer.
This is only part one of my Ecuador expedition so stay tuned! I’ve accepted that this journey is coming to a close, but the travel bug is bursting inside of me along with whatever remnants of parasites are still swimming up in there…
Happy Daylight Savings America,
It’s not so great to be back ;-)
An attempt to document my journey through 5 countries, 3 global issues and billions of people