After having gone to the official site of the equator (yes, that’s right, there is only the one…), I still don’t really understand the three zeros. One, I know, is zero degrees– that makes sense– but what of the other two? It’s certainly not elevation. Oh well! What I do know is that I have officially put one of my legs on either side of a yellow line that represents the center of the earth, although I’m not sure if that changes over time (Pops?). Either way, in that moment, I didn’t expect to feel so centered, if you will, feeling incredibly close to the sun, the clouds, and green volcanoes raising up on all sides of me. There was no certain intensity in that moment, but I couldn’t hold back a feeling in my stomach that this was somehow significant. And, even in these fews days that I have been in this amazing country, I can already tell that it is.
My arrival to Ecuador began with a somewhat sketchy taxi ride in which I was way overcharged, but at that point I was willing to accept it, as all I wanted to do was be done travelling, get in to bed, and sleep. Which I promptly did. The next morning, the whole group (18 of us) headed out to a small town, San Antonio de Pichincha, for our orientation, which took place at a hostería called Rancho Alegre. A really beautiful place, colorful, green, lush, tranquilo, and the friendliest family who so kindly took care of us for the 4 days we were there, feeding us at regular intervals, keeping us happy.
Our academic directors, Leonore and Fabian, filled our innocent heads (as gringos are often perceived) with so much information, from the niceties that will give us a leg up in our families (ahi no mas), to how to avoid being robbed (never leave your belongings while helping someone else, especially if it looks like a baby is about to be dropped), and all the details of our excursions and academic papers and assignments. Yes, this is an academic program, but I couldn’t be more excited for the academic sections of this semester. I do love experiential learning…
On the first afternoon, we experienced our first “drop off,” in this case, a mini drop off. We were put into groups of three, and then given a place to find in San Antonio de Pichincha. Some groups had no idea what they were looking for, such as a tienda de abarrotes, but my group had the relatively simple centro de salud (Health Center). We were told to find the place, talk to someone there about the history or story behind it, and then report back within 2 hours. Luckily, it was relatively simple to find the centro de salud. We asked one women who pointed us in the right direction, and then ended up asking a confused looking security guard, who was definitely willing to help the three of us gringas, but a little skeptical. In the centro de salud, there were several mothers with young children, and a dental exam happening practically before our eyes, at least from our view in the waiting room. We waited about 10 minutes, feeling a little guilty about disturbing the pace of this busy clinic, until the doctora had a minute to speak to us. She was incredibly friendly, as most Ecuadorians are, and took the time to show us around the clinic, encouraging us to peak in on an older man getting his teeth cleaned/pulled, showing how privacy exists in very different forms here. After her repeated warnings for us to be safe, to take advantage of this beautiful country (will do!), we headed out to explore the town a little more, and then back to Rancho Alegre. As the rest of the groups made their way back, it was so interesting to hear everyone’s first experience out on their own, the people they encountered, the mistakes we all made, and the amount we learned in just that small activity.
This mini drop off was in preparation for the big one, which was yesterday, as we left Rancho Alegre and made our way back to Quito, to the Alston Inn– our homebase in the city. My group was told to go to Pifo, a town to the east of Quito. Each group was given vague directions, along with some ideas of what to do when we made it to our destination. Leaving around 9:00 from San Antonio, we took three buses and one taxi to make it all the way to Pifo, which in total took around 2.5 hours. It was a fun journey, finally getting out on our own to explore a little bit, having to be resourceful and ask questions, and clearly being the only foreigners in the small town of Pifo. However, I didn’t feel to out of place, I only knew that I looked it. It seems to me that people don’t stare, they avoid making eye contact, and there have been only minimal catcalls from the men. More honking than anything. Inevitably, I compare this experience to my Nicaraguan experience last summer, in which people constantly stared at me, catcalls came from all directions, and I was made much more aware that I was blonde hair-blue eyed different. Even in the small town of Pifo, knowing we stood out like many sore thumbs, I didn’t experience that same sensation of being different and having everyone know it.
Once in Pifo, we made our way to the main plaza, and sat down there for a little while, watching the small town go about its business. It was quiet indeed, until the kids came pouring out of the school, and until we went to go find a place to eat lunch. Eventually we settled on one of the many ‘chicken’ places, with a sign on the front that said ALMUERZOS (lunch). As lunch is the big meal of the day here, there is set meal that everyone is served– one that always begins with soup. We started with a delicious soup of potatoes and corn, and then moved on to the main course of rice, chicken, potatoes, and a small salad, seemingly a very typical lunch. And yes, I ate the chicken. I could write forever about food (Fruit! Fruit! I love the fruit!), but for now I will briefly mention that I have decided to eat chicken and fish while I am here. Hopefully I can avoid the rest of the carne… But, both chicken and fish seem to be integral parts of both the culture and the daily food options. We learned that chicken, eggs and dairy products are subsidized, making them much cheaper in Ecuador than in many of the surrounding countries. Thus, the eggs for breakfast everyday, the chicken soups, and chicken this and chicken that. Fish too, is important– much more on the coast than in the sierra, but it nevertheless finds its way up the mountains, and to the many cevicherias in the area. So, it’s been a bit of a struggle so far, eating meat, but I want to make a commitment to this culture, to this country and to its generous people. As Leonore told us many times, the best way to do that is to eat, and eat a lot, and exclaim over and over again, Que rico!! And say muchas gracias. Y buen provecho. The niceties are very important in the sierra.
Other than the drop offs and the information loading sessions, we were also oriented through a very fun salsa lesson, some beautiful Andean music performed by a local group, a visit to the official Mitad del Mundo site, an Ecuadorian film, a fantastically interesting lecture on current politics and history by a wonderfully eccentric ex-pat, a Spanish placement test and interview, and information on our host families! Who I will meet in about 5 hours!
For the next month, we will be living with families in the Los Chillos valley, south of Quito, and taking 5 hour intensive spanish classes every day. Along with a few other field study classes. I’m excited for the chaos, the discovery, and cannot wait to fulfill my curiosity about my family, the house, daily customs, etc.! This will be a weekend of discovery before classes start on Monday.
Even in this short time that I have been here (not even a week yet, but it feels like forever!), I can already feel myself falling for this beautiful country, la gente tan amable, the very comfortable climate, and the array of tropical fruits… I’m excited for the real work to begin, to speak Spanish all day every day, to be so exhausted at night from thinking so much, and for all of the discoveries I will soon make. I’m so thankful to be here, for this opportunity that feels more and more incredibly every day.
Love to all, Hash Brown
PS: Photos to come!!