My first day riding my bike to work was a disastrous adventure! I had tried once before, mind you, but half-way there remembered I forgot my computer and had to turn around, then the traffic was too scary to attempt a second try and I would risk being late. Anyway, for some reason the day I planned to actually make it to work on my bike was the same day I chose to haul my bag of laundry to the city center and also bring a bag full of foodstuffs for lunch and snacking. So off I went, riding the rickety streets balancing a heavy bag on either handlebar, with my work shoes delicately woven between (which I only had to stop to retrieve once, luckily). In between my house and office there is a large ecological park with giant trees, a pond, a river, soccer field and several paths for walking/running/biking. I chose the wrong one of course, and wound up on a hilly path that required me to frequently hop off and walk (about ten cycles on my bici and I am already huffing and puffing from the 9,000 feet altitude in Riobamba). At the end of that path, I was almost in tears, the heat of my strenuous ride mixed with the shame that culminated from the stares I received from everyone I passed, most likely wondering what that crazy foreign bag lady is doing. I trudged down the next road into the small village, attempting to find my way back to the correct path. And that’s when I saw it. For the first and only time in my three weeks here: the elusive Chimborazo, the tallest volcano in Ecuador, most often covered by the misty fog that surrounds the city. Snow-capped in all its glory, a sight to humble even the proudest of men. In that moment, I forgot that I was running late to work, and all the woes of my ride until then. I took a deep breath and continued on, enjoying the beautiful ride on the dirt road past the crops and the cows, laughing at myself and at the thought of what the farmers must think of the blond girl riding her bike through their land. I followed my instinct and the river, gave a timid “Buenos dias” to the indigenous women I passed on the road, and finally I was greeted by the familiar sight of the building that houses my office. That morning was an adventure, but this is what I love about living abroad – everything is a challenge. Traveling from home to work does not mean mindlessly getting into my heated car and driving with ease along the same route I drove yesterday and will drive tomorrow. It means being open to the journey, being aware of my surroundings and appreciating the beauty in the small things along the way.
Since then I’ve become accustomed to the route, and on the days when I don’t have meetings in the city center or in the campo, I travel by bike and brave the traffic laden streets in the morning, seeking refuge in the park, zooming down the steep hill at the entrance and riding along the (correct) path next to the river, enjoying the morning air and the song of the birds. At the end of the day when my work is done, I strap on my helmet and my headlamp clad with my butterfly pin from Ometepe, and head towards home, in the park, past the couples making out, or on the street, past a skinned pig being thrown into the trunk of a taxi, all the while marveling at the most incredible sunset on the clouds that touch the tops of the mountains and Tungurahua, changing drastically throughout my twenty-minute ride home. The only other time in my life that I’ve used biking as my mode of transportation was in Fort Collins, which you can imagine is mucho mas tranquilo,
considering it’s a super bike friendly city. Here cyclists are not so common, and although some people do bike around, it’s not like there are bike lanes and you have to be much more careful. I enjoy biking because you have to be constantly aware of what is going on around you, no daydreaming or catching sight of your own reflection in the window of a comedor, or else you will run into a curb (does it seem like I am speaking from experience?). But I also love riding the bus, challenging myself on figuring out on my own where to get off so I can catch the next one, running to stop it when two women tell me that’s the one I need, que va directo al centro!, ignoring stares as I eat my green chia smoothie with a spoon, passing the same dogs that hang off the edge of a roof every morning and the same woman on the corner selling juices, and hopping off it as it stops for a split-second just right in front of my house.
One moment I am traveling between meetings in the middle of the city, and then suddenly I find myself walking down a dirt road in the countryside in my dusty Mary Janes, absolutely beautiful surroundings, eating ice cream cones with two local women that have a small farm and big dreams. This is what I love about my job; every day is different, unexpected things happen, I get to visit new places and interact with la gente on a real level, and it’s the epitome of balance between technical wit and computer work with working in the field and interacting with people. I feel really grateful to be here in Ecuador, there is a special feeling about it, and my job is different than it was last year. I have the independence and freedom to design a program for my students that represents what I love about this country and why I want to be here. The challenge, of course, is that I’m still discovering, learning more, and digging deeper into what that really means – whereas last year I had six months of Nica experience under my belt before starting the process. It is all a journey and I’ve already learned so much in the past several weeks, I can’t even imagine what’s more to come.
Work takes up a lot of my time, but in my spare time I’ve been exploring the markets and buying fresh fruits and veggies, bartering for a pair of Colombian shoes on the street, buying incense from a man in a wheelchair and exchanging a very old woman 50 cents for a bag of an unknown liquid that will supposedly help a stomachache, trying new foods like quimbolito (delicious cake made in a plantain leaf and boiled in vapor), tortillas de trigo (really thick wheat tortillas with cheese inside), ceviche de chochos (not really something I can explain because chochos are a new grain to me), hornado (baked pork), and bolon verde (fried ball of green plantain with meat), cooking and cleaning my house in preparation (and aftermath) for a birthday/housewarming party we had at my house, complete with made-from-scratch-pizza, chocolate beer and jello shots in a watermelon, visiting a farm and feeding chickens and cuys, testing out Riobamba’s only selection of craft beer, and conversing over dinner and watching movies with my roommate.
I’m also determined to travel on the weekends and visit my guide book’s proclaimed five “must-see” places in the Central Sierra region of Ecuador; last week I began with a train ride to Nariz del Diablo (which means Devil’s Nose). The train here is a pretty big deal and has turned into a tourist attraction for foreigners to Ecuadorians alike. From Riobamba I took the train to Alausi, a cute little mountain town, on the Ruta de Quinua (quinoa route), where we stopped in Guamote and visited the quinoa museum. Quinoa is a sacred grain native to the Andes; the story is that a star came into the fields at night in the form of a beautiful woman, enchanted the farmer and he returned to the sky with her, when he had to go back to Earth she gave him a sack of a golden grain to grow, and ever since then it’s been used to feed the Andean people! In the Inca cultures from this region, they used quinoa as an ailment but also as a sacred medicine and had magical properties for rituals and ceremonies. It’s a highly adaptable crop that can grow up to 12,000 feet above sea level. I loved learning more about the yummy superfood and I also ate carrot cake made with quinoa which was probably the best cake I’ve ever had in my life. The countryside was, of course, SO BEAUTIFUL and it was fun to take a solo day trip to a new place. I made some new friends including two older Ecuadorian couples who
were real interested in what I’m doing here, and a kind older Argentine woman who is traveling on her own through Ecuador for a month (then I ran into her on the street in Riobamba the next day, yay!). We changed trains in Alausi, the scene changed as we were joined by a bunch of foreign tourists, and set way for the Nariz del Diablo which is a mountain on the route that is so steep that the train has to complete a series of switchbacks to make it down. It wasn’t very scary, but it was breathtakingly beautiful and worth the hype. In the valley the group rested for an hour and I had tomate de arbol juice and my second piece of cake of the day, oops. The train didn’t take me all the way back to Riobamba, so I caught a bus in Alausi with my new friends and explored some new territory and more of my new city. ‘Twas a great day trip and struck the pace for my intentions to travel a lot on the weekends and get to know different places in the region.
That’s about it for your glimpse into the life of Chelsea, hasta la proxima!