Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ecuador...the "leftovers"

Even as I type this I cannot believe it...but I said goodbye to my 3rd school, my 3rd group of students and my 3rd country today. How is it possible that my time in Ecuador is already over?

Of course I'm sad about this because I will probably never see my adorable kids again, there are many volunteers I will never be able to compare crazy host family stories with and because I will no longer wake up in the middle of the Andes Mountains.

But is it sick and wrong that I'm less stressed out about those things and more stressed out about the fact that there was so much about Ecuador I never got to blog about?? Maybe, yes. But nonetheless, I am going to try to capture at least some of the "leftovers" of Ecuador or at the very least, post some very fun pictures.

So first off, I don't think I've even metioned my host family. I lived with a woman named Pilar and apparantly, I also lived with her husband although, I kid you not, I saw him a total of 2 times. So here is Pilar...
I also lived with two kids named Jorge and Maybel who were cute...yes. But annoying. Seriously, these children were up at all hours of the night (they were 7 and 9) and pretty much abused there housekeeper and their dog. But like I said, they were pretty darn cute...but apparently not cute enough for me to get a single picture of these hellions.

On the other hand, my dog, Mimi, was defiintely photo worthy.
This dog was the best. She was chained up for about 95% of the day but this dog would literally choke herself to say hello when I got home every day. Seriously...I need a dog. Maybe I should spend more than 10 consecutive days in a row first I suppose... when you walk out of my house, right around the corner is the "gym." I know this does not seem noteworthy but for any of you who have ever seen the move Dodgeball, I am telling you, I lived next door to "Average Joe's." This picture doesn't really do it justice but here goes...
Moving onto cuisine. So if any of you have read my recent blog comments, my tastebuds have been severely desensitized. This comes as a result of eating a bread roll for breakfast, a bread roll (sometimes with butter on it) for lunch and a plate full of white rice and potatoes for dinner.

Let's just say that when I could, I ventured out of the house to seek out some more interesting options. Here is what I found...

The world's best french fries. I'm not kidding...amazing...
Chocolate pizza. You are probably imagining some dessert pizza with a pastry crust with chocolate and maybe even some ice cream. Nope, not in Ecuador. In Ecuador, they take a regular cheese pizza (imagine Tombstone) and just drench it in chocolate syrup. Bizarre...yes. Pretty decent? Yes!
Last food experience that I have to write about...So as many of you know, I love food. Love it. I have been known to search high and low to discover the new cuisines in a city. But if you truly know me, you would also know that as much as I love fine dining, there are very few foods that beat my classic favorite: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

The plain blue box, flourescent orange powder, delicious Kraft Mac. So when I saw the Kraft blue box on the shelves of my neighborhood grocery store, my mouth was watering.

So for my last day of school with no students, I proposed to the other volunteers that I cook them this culinary delight. Well, I was faced with a look of disgust from my fellow volunteer Danai who claims that she does not eat food out of a box. I almost responded by saying "You mean that food does not grow on trees in boxes?"

Anyway, I threw down the gauntlet and said that she should make her "au natural" Mac and Cheese and I will compete head-to-head with my Kraft. Thus, the 1st Annual Mac-Off was born...
Let's just say the reviews were mixed (ok fine, everyone preferred hers, except me) but I was proud of my Americana lunch and honestly, I don't think there is anything I would have rather eaten at that moment.

Speaking of school, here are just some more "school leftovers"...

Here is the swing we eat lunch on and sometimes take a little siesta...
I think I've mentioned that Thursdays and Fridays are maintenance days at the school and my artist's hand has been put to the test. Check out my alphabet and our two amazing murals...
And lastly, I can't end this blog entry in any other way than with my incredible students. I know I haven't written much about them this time but that doesn't mean that they aren't amazing and I am not going to miss them so much!
(one day, the government sent doctors to the school for checkups...this was not our form of torture)

Well...there you have it. Even with this "catch-all" entry, it is hard to even imagine how much more I could write about this amazing country in the middle of the world. And again, as hard as it is to imagine, I know Peru will have even more adventures in store.

BUT...before I get to Peru, I am headed on an "intermission" adventure to the...GALAPAGOS ISLANDS!! I am leaving tomorrow morning for an 8-day cruise around the unparalleled islands that people say is literally like leaving this planet. I am heading onto a boat with 15 other strangers (yeah...this is no Royal Caribbean...we're talking small...) and am a little nervous and a LOT excited.

Yes blog readers...that means 8 days with no internet and no updates but come back next Saturday for a full report. I don't think I'll let you down...


P.S...FYI...I finally added those crazy white water tubing pictures to my Mindo trip from a few blogs ago and they are pretty fun if you want to scroll down a ways to the blog "Things you tell your parents AFTER you do them..."

Monday, August 25, 2008

It was the best of times…it was the worst of times…

It’s Monday blog time and you know what that means…another crazy weekend adventure. And what trip to Ecuador would be complete without a weekend trip to the Amazon jungle??

Yep. So Friday directly after school, my friend Andi and I set off to the depths of the Amazon Jungle to see what it had in store for us…and let’s just say it had a LOT in store.

I packed up my usual “starvation food” of PB&Js, Ritz crackers and Ziplocs full of cereal and we were off.

We caught the bus from Otavalo to Quito right around 3pm (I am now an expert at hailing buses as they hurl down the PanAmerican highway and jumping in while they are still moving). The bus was pretty nice and like every other Otavalo-Quito bus ride I have been on, showed another Sylvester Stallone movie…gotta love watching Cliff Hanger in Spanish for the second time.

So we arrived in Quito and started wandering pretty aimlessly through the ridiculously overwhelming Quito bus terminal and from what we could tell, the next bus outta there to the Amazon didn’t leave until 10:00 p.m. Now considering it is a 6-hour bus ride, this was not good news.

Luckily for us, some extremely sketchy guy asked us where we were going and took us directly to the booth selling tickets to the jungle leaving in 10 minutes. Where did this guy come from? Is this a scam?? No time to ask questions…

We bought our tickets and were sent to this strange spot on the side of the road where we started to seriously think we had been conned out of our $6. But suddenly, a bus with the word Tena, the city where we were headed, rolled up and we hopped in.

Randomly, Andi got the window seat and I got the aisle. Let’s just say Andi won the seat-picking lottery on that one. About 10 minutes after “take-off”, the bus suddenly filled up to its brim. People completely lining the aisles, people sitting on armrests, you name it.

So, for the next 6 hours, there was a woman literally in my lap. Six hours of winding, dirt roads in the pitch dark. I wanted to complain but then I remembered that at least I had a seat, which was clearly a bonus.

We pulled into Tena around 11:30ish at night. Got off the bus and found ourselves in the midst of a rainstorm. And it was actually really fun! (I think at this point, just not having a woman falling into my lap was pretty fun…)

We tried to stay at a hostel that was recommended to us with no luck so just kind of stumbled into a place that said “HOTEL” and figured, great! We thought we were really living it up staying in a HOTEL and not a HOSTEL (it’s amazing how just one letter makes a pretty big difference). It was a bit more expensive than we had planned but there was free breakfast so we were happy campers.

We got up to our room and discovered that we also had…TV!! We immediately switched on CNN and I think that Andi and I were quite possibly the first people to know about the Obama-Biden ticket at 1:00 am. We felt “in-the-know” for the first time in a long time.

We went to bed and woke up excited to see what this breakfast had in store for us. Well, it wasn’t exactly the Las Vegas style hotel breakfast buffets. Choices included: weird eggs, weird hash thing, weird juice and pretty good croissants. But we ate it and were off to the jungle.

We hopped a taxi to the nearby town of Mishaulli. Before we left, past volunteers told us that here in Mishaulli, there are little boats all over just waiting to take you to the jungle. So we got out of the taxi and headed to the beach.

There at the beach we only found these huge, long canoe-boat things with a ton of locals. Looks good to us! So we went down the rocky beach headed to the boats. Of course, I fell and skinned both knees. Obviously. What is it with these people and their opposition to stairs and handrails??

Anyway, we boarded this boat with actually very little idea of where we were going but we knew we were not leaving here without riding down the Amazon River. So we did!

We rode about 20 minutes or so down the river and it was so awesome. To be honest, if I would have taken the same exact ride down Lake Minnetonka, it probably wouldn’t have been so noteworthy but to say we were on the Amazon River (or an offshoot of the Amazon River…turns out the real deal is in Brazil I think) in the middle of the jungle in Ecuador was pretty darn cool!
Our boat came to a stop at some place so we hopped off (when in Rome…). We went up the beach and suddenly, we were in this crazy little Amazon place where monkeys were EVERYWHERE! And not just monkeys! Other crazy animals too! We happily forked over our $1 and had our little tour.

We probably didn’t understand a thing about what the woman was saying about medicinal plants but we did manage to pick up huge turtles, cradle monkeys, shake hands with a very sad little monkey and watch a little anteater thing eat a sucker from a little kid. The pictures do it way more justice…and definitely check out the video of me with my monkey…crazy!

After our tour of the Amazon, it was back on the canoe to head back to Mishaulli. We grabbed a quick (and slightly strange) lunch and got on the bus back to Tena.

Within 8 seconds of being on this bus, we hit something. I still have no idea what, but this led to several minutes of people yelling at each other and fighting and then our bus going to some strange place (maybe the police station? Not so sure) and moral of the story, it took us quite a while to get back to Tena.

But we did get back and I managed to spend the afternoon doing something I haven’t done in months…hang out at a coffee shop! Andi and I found this place called Sticky Fingers in my guide book and we went there and proceeded to eat THE two biggest desserts known to man. And when Andi finished her banana split with no problem, I knew we had a good thing goin’…
We played cards for a couple hours and moseyed back to the Hotel (note: no “S”) and watched some more CNN. Shockingly, for the entire 3 days we were there, we learned nothing more about our world than the Obama-Biden ticket. If anything else has happened since I left, please let me know.

Then Andi and I went out to dinner to what is considered a very “upscale” restaurant in Tena called the Marquis. White table clothes, candles and even Starbucks coffee. So after looking at the menu, we both decided to get Filet Mignon for a whopping $5.50.
Andi, who is usually a vegetarian, got her steak and said it was a bit too red for her tastes. Mine was a little more well-done so we swapped plates. Now this is where the story goes straight downhill…

We went out for a drink (literally, one drink) and headed back to our lively hotel where we turned on CNN, turned off the light and went to bed.

At about 3:00 am…life went terribly wrong for this girl. I actually woke myself up because I was moaning. Yes. It was my first (and hopefully last) food poisoning experience in South America.

I spent quite a bit of time in that hoTel bathroom but that was definitely not the worst of it. Remember those 6 hours of winding roads that got us here to Tena? Turns out they are still winding and bumpy on the way back even with a plastic bag close at hand. Poor Andi just had to watch while I turned from ghost white to pale green. I just was on a rotation of wanting to throw up, wishing I was throwing up, or actually throwing up. Lovely, I know.

Even though there were some moments when I didn’t think I’d ever see my family or friends alive again, I have managed to pull through and have now held down two meals in a row and honestly feel like a new woman. It may be a while until I can look a rare steak in the face…or at least not one that only costs $5.50…but I have lived to tell the tale.

So, it was the best of times…it was the worst of times. Amazon Jungle…CHECK!


Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Rosens do Ecuador...Part II

So from the title of this entry, this is part 2 in a little blog mini-series. If you haven’t read up on part one yet, scroll down to get the whole story!

We last left off with Rachel stratling the gear shift and me falling out the door of the public bus from Quito to Otavalo. Let’s just say that after a day of nothing but driving, our level of happiness was about to sky-rocket.

We managed to hail ourselves a cab and arrive at our hotel: La Mirage. This may be the most aptly named hotel I have ever stayed at because I literally could not believe my eyes when we walked into our room.

Keep in mind that I have been living in the 3rd world for more than 4 months now and a set of dresser drawers is enogh to send me over the edge. So when we walked in and saw this…I was pretty much speechless:
Yep…champagne, robes with rose petals…and yes…even rose petals in the toilet bowl!
Were we seriously just jammed in the front of an overcrowded public bus being harassed by a slimy bus driver?? Somehow the rose petals in the toilet made the day from hell disappear.

After a lovely dinner, Rachel and I hit up the town. Now for any of you who have ever gone out on a weekend night (or really any night for that matter) with Rachel or I, you know that if we are put in charge of deciding what to do or where to go, we will 9 times out of 10 choose a karaoke bar. So why should Otavalo be any different??

Yep. That’s right ladies and gentlemen. Rachel and I stumbled into a local karaoke bar and showed off our stuff. We were the ONLY gringos in the place and out of about 5000 song choices, there were about 12 in English.

But we managed to find some oldies but goodies and wow the crowd with our vocal talent. Karaoke runs a bit differently here in Otavalo. Now I think I’ve mentioned before that this place is quite possibly one of the most laid back towns I‘ve ever been to. This is a place where people can’t even be bothered to stand while waiting for the bus but instead lay down at the stop.

Why should karaoke bars be any different? People do not have to get up to sing but instead, they just lazily pass a wireless mic around the bar for people to sing into. It was great…and I think that Rachel definitely garnered some Ecuadorian fans in the process.

After our musical debut, it was to bed. We had an early day at the market!

Now I know I’ve talked about the ridiculously amazing market here in Otavalo but there is another market that I had not yet been to that Rachel was fortunate enough to experience with me for the first time…the Animal Market.

I’m sure some of you out there have visions of a glorified butcher shop or maybe some of you well-traveled readers may envisions crates of chicken feet or pig snouts. Nope. Not in Otavalo. These animals are LIVE!

People come to the market bright and early every Saturday morning with animals in tow, ready to sell, trade or even cook their animals! Clearly, this is one of those “youhad to be there” experiences but it’s not every day that I can say I’ve seen a bag full of guinea pigs, a man wearing a backpack filled with baby lambs or woman carrying countless chickens by their strangely, oversized feet…here are some pictures…
We finished up the Animal Market and headed into the craft market where Rachel and I promptly began to boost the Ecuadorian economy. Somehow by the end of the day, we had walked away with Alpaca scarves, Alpaca sweaters, Alpaca hats, some jewelry that looks awesome now but I’m sure I will wonder what the hell I was thinking when I bought it when I get home…and a carved Ecuadorian band. How can you leave without one of those??
Well at this point, Rachel and I were seriously ready for a nap. But when we got back to the hotel, we discovered the one thing that is even better than a nap…a massage! Yep…we both completely indulged ourselves and had some pretty amazing…and incredibly strange treatments.

Both of our treatments started out basically with a sponge bath after the masseuse basically unrobed us. A bit awkward.

After the sponge bath, we were instructed to get into a thermal bed that was basically like getting into a Domino’s Heat Wave bag. Needless to say, it was hot!

But even with the awkwardness and almost cooking ourselves in our hot packs, it felt amazing.

So after that and another great dinner, we were ready to hit up the town…

We met us with some other volunteers and basically did a little Otavalan bar crawl complete with $16 bottle service (yep…$16 for all of us to drink all night), burning up the dance floor and of course, taking some ridiculous pictures in the process.
But perhaps we hit up Otavalo a bit too hard…because it hit back.

Let’s just say that Rachel got up close and personal with those rose petals in the toilet bowl. (Disclaimer…I was given outright permission to discuss this hangover on this blog…) And when Sam finally arrived in Otavalo mid-Sunday morning, let’s just say he wasn’t rushing to kiss his wife.

Needless to say, our original plans of visiting the hot springs were altered. (Somehow sitting in a local bus for an hour followed by soaking in boiling hot water that smells like rotten eggs didn’t appeal to Rachel at this exact moment)

So we left Rachel to bond further with the porcelain throne and Sam and I hit up the Otavalan market for another round.

It didn’t take us long to look like complete tourists. We got to take some good pictures in the main square while being stared at by locals and Sam bought a Panama hat that I personally think he looks fabulous in but his wife made him throw away as soon as she laid eyes on him (maybe this is why I am not married…).
Sam and I went back to the hotel and found that Rachel had survived the experience and we spent the rest of the evening just lazing around the hotel.

Monday morning and my last day with the Rosens…we were ready to take the town by storm. After a little convincing, I had persuaded Rachel and Sam that there was no need for a tour guide on our day to explore Otavalo. I just kept telling them that tazis are everywhere and so easy to find.

Well, wouldn’t you know that this Monday happened to be the day that the taxis decided to strike??

Yep. Not a single yellow cab in sight.

Ok. Solve the problem. We literally stumbled into a travel agency and I tried to explain to them our problem and all the places we wanted to visit. At this point, I was desperate and would have probably given all of my Alpaca purchases up to this guy for a ride to the “must-sees” of Otavalo.

The guy started explaining this amazing private tour that included everything we wanted to do and more. I was ready to warm up my credit card for the transaction when he informed us that for a 7-hour tour complete with Ecuadorian lunch and private guide would cost us $25 a piece. Um…let me think…DONE!

The day was awesome. The only problem with it was that it went so smoothly that I really don’t have too many funny things to write about…the good days just do not make for good blogging material…

We visited the Magic Tree, a waterfall and I even convinced Sam and Rachel to ride in the back of the pick-up with me.
We also visited an indigenous instrument workshop and an indigenous home to see how they spin yarn. Note the TINY size of this women…keep in mind that Rachel just barely surpasses the 5 foot mark…
After a great lunch, it was off to a beautiful lake. It is a four hour hike around…we took a short cut (aka, when up and down one set of stairs) and called it a hike after about 4 minutes.
I went back to the hotel with them to soak in my last minutes of pure luxury. We ate dinner that wasn’t just rice and potatoes, drank wine and I just tried to squeeze every last minute of being with them as I could.

It was hard to say goodbye but it was so amazing to see Rachel and Sam that I honestly can’t imagine now how I would have gone two more months without seeing them. It was hard to believe that it had been 5 days since our screaming hello hugs in front of the awkward bellhop in Quito. Five equator visiting, boring tour driving, karaoke singing, market shopping, self-indulging, hangover inducing, waterfall visiting and friend reuniting days.

And another five days of traveling with the Rosens I will never forget.