I’ve been in Ecuador for about a week and a half now, and I’ve been dying to get all these things onto “paper,” but have only had time to scribble some things here and there and have now done my best to make it cohesive!
My first day in Ecuador was exciting – honestly, I feel right at home in Latin America, walking cobblestone streets among dilapidated buildings and street vendors, purchasing roasted seeds and cooked Maduro bananas (this is a first!), exploring the streets and figuring out where I am and how to get where I am meant to be going. I had about three hours to explore Quito before traveling to Riobamba, so I stuck to the centro histórico (old town) sector and visited the main sights of the city. Quito itself was the first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety, so I figure you can’t go wrong. My two main destinations were La Basilica, the tallest church in Ecuador – you can climb to the top for incredible views of the city – and La Compania, a ridiculously extravagant and beautiful church. One of my happier moments was when the ticket seller at the Basilica informed me that I have the best Spanish accent of any American he has heard! In between my selected visits, I wandered through plazas and side streets, and joined la gente as they watched street performances of musicians, dancers and a man that made incredible paintings using spray paint. Sunday was probably the best day for my condensed tour of Old Town, because everybody goes out to walk around and the streets are closed off to cars. My favorite thing I saw was a man in a chef’s hat with a blow horn attempting to herd people to his restaurant. So many entertaining things that just do not happen in the U. S. Some good news is that there is a brewery that makes craft beer not too far from the hostel where I was staying. It was a short visit in Quito but I will definitely have many chances to return, yay! More than anything, it reminded me of Guatemala with its European-reminiscent architecture, plazas and narrow cobblestone streets (and surrounded by amazing green trees and hills); however it does have its own vibe. This is my first time traveling with a guidebook and I’m finding it super helpful for getting around, learning about Ecuahistory and culture, and finding the best spots to visit.
Not 24 hours after landing in Quito, I arrived in my host city, Riobamba, where I’ll be living and working for the next six months. The city is much smaller than the capital, but more spread out and larger than the cities I’ve lived in before like Leon, Matagalpa, and maybe even Bilbao. There is a historic city center with beautiful parks and colonial buildings, as well as a more modern part marked by a wide avenue lined with giant palm trees and restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. In general it is a flat city, but surrounded by the Andes mountain range and several volcanoes: Chimborazo, the tallest in Ecuador, whose summit is the farthest point from the center of the Earth, and Tungurahua, which is currently erupting and has been spewing dark clouds of smoke and layering the city with ash ever since I’ve been here. This region has the strongest indigenous presence in the whole country, and it’s common to see the traditional indigenous dress (for women, a long skirt, a poncho and a hat) daily on the streets. They have a special market on Saturdays, when they all come into the city to sell their products and artesania. I bought a beautiful ribbon from a woman named Rosa, who made me a “guango” which you wrap around your hair like a ponytail. I have started learning a bit about their lifestyle and I’m super excited to learn more, especially of their native language Kichwa, which is widely mixed into the Spanish spoken here.
First impression of things that aren’t different than Nicaragua: taxis honking at you, people selling anything you can imagine on the street, the people being incredibly nice and generous (when I was getting my passport checked at the airport the official next to me was actually having a light, fun conversation in English with the woman he was attending). Things that are different- the taxis aren’t collectivos (meaning they only take one party at a time and you don’t have to tell them where you’re going before they agree to take you), and the bus system seems a bit more organized and less chaotic – there aren’t chicken buses, and at least during the hours when I’ve taken the bus, it hasn’t been packed nose-to-armpit with people. Also, there are actually addresses and street names here! A lot of them refer to people and places, in Ecuador and other countries. I live on the corner of Londres y Lisboa (London and Lisbon) with my new roommate Wellington who is a friend of my friend Fernanda. It’s a really nice house where I have my own room and bathroom, a big window with lots of light, and even hot water! I was super spoiled in the States so it is not that hot for me, in contrast my roommate thinks it’s “super caliente.” But either way, I am grateful, for the climate here is SO NICE and it can get pretty chilly, especially at night. The house isn’t central in the city, so to get to work I’ve been navigating between the bus lines 8 and 13 and taking advantage of stopping in the city center after work to run errands, conveniently buying toilet paper and toothpaste from the indigenous woman running through the streets. Soon I am going to start biking, yay!
Since I’ve been here, I’ve been working almost every day, with a few days here and there to explore my new city and meet new people. With Global Glimpse, I am working with two incredible people and our team is US-Ecuadorian-Nicaraguan, which makes things fun and we’ve been learning a lot and comparing things among our cultures. Luckily they understand me when I use Nica-isms and Fernanda always corrects me when I use the wrong word and teaches me the Ecuadorian replacement, which happens muy frequently. Our first week of training was exciting and inspiring, and although there is a lot to learn and it was challenging to dive right in while I am still adjusting to my new surroundings, the week was speckled with Led Zeppelin and other music sharing and activities to lighten our load like arts and crafts for our Big Love baskets, meetings in coffee shops, and yoga breaks of course! Don’t worry Matagalpa team, Soy Un Arbol will never be the same without you. One of my favorite parts about this job is that I get a super unique taste of local culture that I feel I would never have if I were just visiting this country as a tourist, and I get to meet people in different communities and participate in activities like making tortillas and eating cuy. Read on to learn what that is all about (if you dare).
One thing that has changed dramatically, and will surely continue to develop in a positive way, is my relationship with food. First of all, I’ve gone from a gluten free/dairy free diet (super easy to maintain in the US when health food stores are a five-minute drive away) to eating bread every single day and with almost every meal, and drinking real milk in my coffee as well as other lactose products. This is not necessarily by choice; however, I am choosing to not be stubborn about such things and warmly accepting whatever is offered to me as I delve into Ecuatorian culture and customs – plus, alternative choices are not widely available (also, bread is delicious and I have to make up for the months I’ve gone without indulging, right?). This has been an adjustment that I anticipated, but the real change stems from my environment and the people around me from whom I am learning a lot. As I mentioned, there is a strong indigenous presence in Riobamba, and many of the people living in rural communities work every day to harvest products. An organization in town organizes a “canasta comunitaria”, or community basket, where once every two weeks, the people come from outside the city to contribute their products in the basket. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to sign up for sharing a basket, but we ended up getting a giant bag of fresh vegetables and fruits, including ripe and green plantains, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, watercress, beets, potatoes,
pumpkin, zucchini, limes, oranges, lima beans, papaya, pineapple, watermelon, and granadilla, among other things (some new to me). All for $17 total (split between two people). So, all of a sudden I had a new house and a bunch of food that came straight to my kitchen from the earth, dirt and all. With this intimate relationship with produce comes automatically a higher level of awareness, and requires more time and thought. For example, just before writing this paragraph I spent about two hours in the kitchen: cleaning, peeling, boiling and mashing potatoes, pelando a giant bag of Lima beans, preparing a salad from scratch, reheating leftover yucca and Maduro on the stove, washing all my dishes by hand, and taking inventory of all of the fruits and veggies I have from my canasta so I can plan for the week. Having come from the States, where I myself am guilty of eating a pre-packaged salad from Whole Foods while driving from one meeting to the next (yes I literally ate a salad while driving), it is a drastic difference to be so aware of exactly where my food is coming from, and spending time and energy in preparing it and enjoying it with friends. Something I am super stoked about!
Speaking of food, I have tried SO many new things in the past weeks. Some of which were a bit more daunting than others: lengua (cow tongue), menestra (a dish with meat, rice and lentils or beans), tortillas verde y Maduro (not the same time of tortillas in Nicaragua or Mexico, they are made with platanos and have cheese inside them and are a bit thicker), humita (tamale like thing made with dry corn and cheese, so yum), tamal, jugo de tomate (juice made from a sweet type of tomato), habas tostadas (roasted Lima beans), encebollada (soup with onions and tuna, they put popcorn in it), and empanada (not the same kind as they make in Argentina or Chile). There are so many new fruits here, even more than in Central America – I’ve tried taxo, pepino, granadilla and pitahaya, which is not the same pitahaya in Nicaragua, nor is it spelled the same way. It’s typical to eat bread with almost every meal, and if you have lunch at a comedor they will typically serve you soup, a main dish, and dessert. I have a feeling this adventure through Ecuadorian gastronomy is nowhere near complete, especially thanks to my friend Fernanda who has introduced me to a lot and is always there to explain what something is (and remind me of the word so I can write it in my little book). Within my first week in Riobamba, I passed my first test: eating cuy! My vegetarian friends should probably skip to the next paragraph. For those who are not familiar, cuy is guinea pig and it is a typical dish here in Ecuador, usually served to an important guest (in rural places) or for a special celebration. My experience was rather daunting, especially because before trying the dish, I not only saw the little buddies roasting for hours before our meal, but I also held a live one from the coop, and then proceeded to watch our hosts slicing their bodies in half and chopping off the heads so that our plates weren’t served with the whole thing (although they did come with the heads, which some people eat). It was pretty tasty, the skin gets pretty crunchy and the meat was real salty. Shoutout to Marsha, I am turning into a bone girl! I would eat it again but probably not something I am going to seek out. Sorry if this grosses ya’ll out but it is my philosophy that while living in another country I should participate in local culture and try new things, especially when it is a significant custom (and if that’s what’s being served for lunch).
Woohoo, I’m super excited to get back into blogging! I hope my online community will enjoy reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Overall everything is going great down here in Ecuador, I’ve adjusted to my new life rather rapidly (surely there will be good days and bad days), and I actually feel as if this is the deepest cultural and language immersion I’ve experienced yet.
May the adventures commence!