The coast, the end of Quito, the start of a new adventure

Well, it certainly has been a while since I’ve given the blog a good update, and it’s feeling like time for it! These last three and a half weeks in Quito and on the coast have been non-stop amazing, full to the brim, and certainly overwhelming to begin writing about… Where do I start?!

Quickly, about our classes in Quito, which take place in the building called El Experimento, or The Experiment in International Living. The lucky thing about that is that, other than having an amazing view of the city from our fourth floor classroom, the other SIT group also has classes there, so I’ve been able to reunite with wonderful friend Hannah! In some ways, it’s surreal to see someone from home so far away, but in other ways it feels completely normal. Either way, reunions are wonderful. But, back to the actual class part, which has been altogether amazing, too.

Here is part of the view from our classroom– but we’re a little farther away! That’s the virgin up on top of “el panecillo,” the little bread loaf.

Each day, we had two lectures/talks about different aspects of Ecuadorian society and culture. Some were more academic, with statistics and a power point presentation, and some were more simple, sharing a personal story, or a more tangential discussion of a subject that ended with few notes but a wonderful sentiment. Some sample topics: women in Ecuador, the different meanings of poverty, Afroecuadorian history, the plurinational state, GLBTQ movements, Indigenous peoples, etc. etc… In the end, whether I had gleaned much information from the lecture or not, I was so grateful for the opportunity to learn from these accomplished, intelligent, and wise Ecuadorians, that were so willing to share with us. It gave me a great appreciation for my years of Spanish class, and how much I have learned since coming here– otherwise, I would never have been able to learn from these men and women, never been able to access their worldview, their unique lens. Today, we had our last lecture, by an anthropologist working for the state department who represents los pueblos no contactos, the indigenous group in voluntary isolation. In Ecuador, there are two such groups, and his job is to fight for their rights, without ever actually coming into contact with them. But, he keeps track of oil companies, tourists, and other sorts that try to access their territory, and records signals or signs of these groups, the main ones being footprints and deaths of foreign people on their land… Tricky job, it seems. But, he was an amazing, dedicated man.

**Side note: my host abuela just walked into my room and gave me “quesito con choclo” which is corn on the cob and cheese– so good! Corn here is like nothing I’ve ever had before and it is fantaaaaastic. Especially with a little quesito…

Back to the story: two weeks ago, we had our last group excursion, this time to the coast of Ecuador. We were in the province of Manabí, close to Machalilla National Park, and arrived in the city of Manta via a ~45 minute airplane flight from Quito. Then, we ate lunch. Yum!!! The first of a few fishy meals– in the best way possible!

Then, we all climbed back onto the air conditioned bus, a little escape from the equatorial humidity and heat, and took off on the real adventure: our village homestays. Myself, Abbey, Lindsay were placed in the town of Puerto Cayo, and we were the second group to be dropped off… Luckily, our host mom was there to greet us, as her house was right off the center of town so she could see the bus coming, so we didn’t have to wander around looking like lost gringas… Which we did the next day, no worries.

Anyways, our host mom, María Eugenia, took us to her house, introduced us to her family (her mother, grandfather, husband, and two little girls… such a wonderful family!), and showed us our room, complete with some beautiful mosquito nets. I should have got the message and put on Detan (ecuadorian DEET) right away, but instead I ended up getting 30 bug bites on one foot my first day. I then learned my lesson, and applied the DEET with devotion. The house reminded me a lot of the house I stayed in Nicaragua, in that it was all open to the air, bucket showers, metal roofs that amplify the rain, large storage spaces of water, andddd a LOT of fried food! Thus is life in a hot, humid environment, it seems, and I have to say, I am pretty proud that I ate (almost) everything that was put in front of me those 5 days, including…

Pata de vaca!! Cow’s hoof!!!! That was perhaps the most interesting thing I ate that week, but definitely not the hardest to eat. Nope, I could sort of pretend that the cow’s hoof was a weird kind of chewy mushroom-eggplant thing, but I had a much harder time with the fried pieces of pig fat. I could recognize that it was a cultural difference, that I had been raised believing that the fatty parts of the animal were not for eating, that their texture was not meat per se, that one eats meat for protein, etc. Well, I ended up eating a lot of fat, straight fat, fried fat– for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can’t say that my stomach especially likes thinking about all of the meals that week, but I am, in the end, happy that I was able to experience the culture of the coast through a very important expression, food.

However, it did bring up some ethical dilemmas in my head… Not so much about eating animals, that I know I will not do when I return to “my” culture, my life at home as I know it, when I have control over my food. The dilemmas centered more around the sharing of food, the generous giving of food that María Eugenia performed every day. I felt guilty about the fact that I wasn’t enjoying the food she was giving me, that was obviously a norm and something delicious for them. I wanted to like what I was eating, I wanted to bond and share with the family over this essential part of life– but instead I had to chew and swallow as fast as I could, and smile and lie when we said que estuvo muy bueno”… that it was very good. It was hard for me to rationalize this barrier to sharing and enjoying culture with the disgust my stomach and tongue and mind felt at eating parts of animal I never would have touched otherwise, when I think I would have been very happy with fried plantains, eggs, or any other vegetarian fare she would have made me, that is also typical to that area. All in all, I am happy I ate everything I did, but it certainly was an experience that made me think and reflect on cultural differences, and my own personal ethics in terms of opening myself to these distinctions.

You might ask, what exactly did we do in those 5 days we spent in Puerto Cayo? That’s exactly what we were asked by our host family as we stepped off the bus, and Abbey, Lindsay and I glanced at each other with some doubt in our eyebrows, as we had no idea what we were going to be doing either! All we had been told was that we were there to conduct a “village study,” to observe, participate, and talk with the people of the town, through both informal conversations, and perhaps more formal interview. It was, essentially, a practice for our independent study project (ISP) that begins next week! It was comical in some ways, going to bed on our first night with no idea what we were doing the next day, but with some vague ideas to walk around the town, identify the school, health center, and stores, and maybe talk to a few people!

The days unfolded like a flip book for us, filled with images that still seem a bit unreal, but in all, make up this wonderful experience with their inevitability, facilitated by the openness and friendliness of everyone we encountered.

First, we made friends with the police, and they took us on a little trip in their police truck…

Here are the police and our host dad, Armando, having some fun on the bouncy bamboo bridge! This river was not the one we had been hoping to reach, but because of all the rain, we couldn’t pass through to the other side to continue on the road. Thankfully, there was a cool bridge to play on!

Abbey, Lindsay and I also took the girls to the beach one morning:

Puerto Cayo seemed to be on the brink of tourism, with some restaurants spotting the beach, and some bus loads of Ecuadorians coming in on the weekend. Still, the main economy is fishing, and it’s interesting to think how the development of tourism would change the character of this town, in which few of the men were working while we were there, as you cannot fish during the new moon. We saw groups of men sitting in hammocks, relaxing in the shade during the noon sun, while making fishing nets from hand. An uncle of our host mom owned a cevichería, where one makes ceviche — fish marinated/cooked in lime juice– which we ate for breakfast one morning, as you are meant to do.

One night, the police organized a game of soccer for us, including them and some other local teenagers. We played at 8 PM, probably for an hour or so, and it was one of my sweatiest times in my life, closely rivaled by the few times I went running in Nica. But, it was so much fun, I didn’t even notice that I was so sweaty!! Everyone was so open, so willing to accept the gringas in town for a few days, and couldn’t believe that we were leaving so soon! I also noticed that the boys/men were much more willing to pass the ball to the girls than in some coed games I have played back in the US… There was competition, but not so much that they wouldn’t give us the ball!!

We played on a small cement “cancha,” and later learned that we were playing “indor,” a version of soccer that is played with a small, heavier ball, and with a few different rules. You can see the cancha from this photo of Puerto Cayo:

Too beautiful!! I do love the coast: the fast talking, friendly people, the wonderful ocean, the plantains. Yes, for a few days, the heat, bugs, and meat were all worth it.

We all reunited between 3:00 and sunset at an hostería about one hour to the South, full of stories from our week, but also struggling to convey all that we had experienced and learned. It seemed that everyone had a unique, but amazing, experience. For me, it was a moment when I understood why I chose to study abroad, to leave my life behind for a little while. I was exposed to a whole new set of beliefs, of food choices, of recreation, and it was a beautiful way to learn, simply through people. I found my thoughts reeling back into my head, with no conjecture into the future or past, simply being in that moment because there was no where else to be. Perhaps it was the heat, that easily shuts down my brain– but it was a moment that I remember distinctly feeling so happy, so engaged, open for whatever was to come.

Now, I have to harness that feeling again, as I am about to start a new adventure, and by far the most challenging aspect of this study abroad experience… My ISP, independent study project! This involves three weeks of “research,” through interviews and observation, and then one week of writing a 30 page paper… in Spanish!! Ah!! But, I’m so excited, even though there’s a lot of unknown still, and I’m leaving in three days…

Here is what I do know, however: I am going to el Valle de Chota, in the North of Ecuador, a region populated by Afro-Ecuadorian communities whose history is different from the other Afro-Ecuadorian community on the coast, as those in Chota were enslaved by Jesuits in the 18th century, to work on sugarcane plantations. Now, there is a vibrant community, from which many of the Ecuadorian national soccer players come from, and an education systems that I will be lucky enough to work within… According to the 2008 constitution, “el pueblo afroecuatoriano” has the right to their own system of education, called ethnoeducation, incorporating their culture and history into a traditional form of education, one that was historically excluded minority voices and histories. So, I will be working in a high school, perhaps teaching english, and doing whatever else is needed, and brushing the surface of the ethnoeducation, and trying to study the impact it has had on these communities. Wow, it truly seems like a world away– but hopefully today I will find our where I’m living, what I’ll be doing, and when I’m going exactly. I’m so excited for this challenge, this entry into a whole different side of Ecuador!

It is going to be a big change from Quito, where I’ve been having so much fun exploring the city, eating delicious food, cooking food for myself, and been given a lot of independence. Not to mention our amazing classes. Here, I am comfortable, and it’s a little strange to know that in a couple days, I will be on that opposite spectrum, having few connections, immersed in a different culture, and trying to navigate what exactly I’ll be doing for the next month… Here’s to adventure, to the discovery of more, what I came to Ecuador to find!

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