I opened up my laptop to write this blog post this evening, and was startled to look at the battery indicator. 34%. With how busy the Peace Corps training schedule keeps me, I rarely use my laptop – I realized I haven’t charged it once since I left Seattle, a month ago. For contrast, I charged it twice a day when I was a student at UC Berkeley. So what’s been filling my time?
I haven’t written a blog post in about two weeks. During the beginning of that time, I developed my first bout of foreign illness. My fever crested at about 102.5F, and I was throwing up off and on throughout the week. My host mom and I suspect it was the ceviche I tried from an unknown restaurant the previous weekend in downtown Quito, near Casa de la Cultura, an Ecuadorian cultural museum with an extensive art market on Sundays. The art was stunning – a mix of traditional styles, local panoramic views and eccentric perspectives. It’s too early in my service to purchase anything now (I still don’t even know where my host community will be) but it definitely inspired me to create some art of my own. I brought a small “adult” coloring book of floral patterns, and my eight-year-old host brother adores it; we’ve been doing a lot of coloring lately. I also brought a set of watercolor papers designed to be used as postcards, so close family and friends, look for those in your mailboxes after a 6-8 week waiting period with the unreliable Ecuadorian post.
After wandering through the market, I headed to El TelefériQo with a friend. Despite commuting an hour into Quito every weekday to visit the training center, I hadn’t had much opportunity to see the city. The gondola ride starts at the edge of Quito’s city center and runs all the way up the east side of Pichincha Volcano – one of two major volcanos accessible from Quito, the other being Cotopaxi – to a lookout named Cruz Loma. With proof of my Ecuadorian work visa, I was able to snag the local’s price. But even with the discount, entry alone was about half my daily Peace Corps wage. Clearly, the place was a tourist trap – but it was exciting to hear English spoken around me by someone other than a Peace Corps volunteer for the first time in Ecuador. For fifty cents, one man had two alpacas tied to a post, and you could dress up as an “authentic” Ecuadorian with ponchos and cowboy hats alongside them. In typical Quito fashion, we were completely surrounded by clouds once we got to the top, and couldn’t see the view in any direction. It was a chilly “thinking of you” from San Francisco’s Karl the Fog. Still, I had an excellent time traipsing through a few of the trails near the top. According to my iPhone data, I walked around six miles that day throughout the city. A few days later, when I was at the peak of my fever, my phone recorded 18 steps total for the day.
Hiking at the Top
The following weekend, I was feeling significantly better. That Sunday, my family took me to their farm. I live in a subdivided house, fairly typical of the tight-knit extended Ecuadorian families. In my apartment is the great-grandmother and her husband. She has two daughters, both of whom live in different apartments within the house with their husbands and a few of their children. One of their children lives in yet another apartment in the house, with her husband and her two children, an eight-year-old and a three-year-old who’ve become my closest Ecuadorian friends. Another branch of the family lives on this farm, where they have chickens, rabbits, a cow, 4 dogs, a cat (and three of her adorable kittens! I carried one around for the entirety of my visit), lemons, yuca, sugarcane, alfalfa, walnuts, avocados, and, the reason for our Dia de Los Padres visit, guinea pigs. We picked out a few of them for our Dia de Los Padres dinner feast.
The ambassador from the Untied States to Ecuador came to visit us at training that week. Ambassador Chapman is a lifetime diplomat – besides a seven year stint in commercial banking – and the embodies the epitome of Southern hospital. He eagerly invited us all to his weekend early Fourth of July celebration for fellow American ambassadors from nearby countries, embassy employees, dispatched military personnel and expats. I attended yesterday along with a dozen or so other Peace Corps trainees and volunteers, and wolfed down the American burgers they served.
Week three of pre-service training also marked our first field trip as a cohort! We visited Otovalo, a predominantly indigenous community, and El Chota, a predominantly Afroecuadorian region of Ecuador. In Otovalo, we visited a local school, where we spoke with members of the indigenous community about their culture and history, learned a few words in Kichwa, and danced with them in honor of the summer solstice, or Initi Raymi. The Inti Raymi – translated to sun festival – is a religious ceremony traced back to the Inca Empire in honor of the sun god Inti. Following the school presentation, we traveled to los Cascadas de Peguche, a beautiful waterfall site near Otovalo. The sacred waterfall is part of Bosque Protector Cascada de Peguche, and is an indigenous cermonial site prominently utilized for purification ceremonies during Inti Raymi. Although we visited the day after the sun festival ended, a local spiritual leader recreated the purification baths and ritual for us, allowing anyone who was interested to participate, and explaining the meaning in Spanish as we went along. Afterwards, we visited the Otovalo market, one of the most significant markets in South America. We practiced our Spanish through haggling with the market vendors, and I was satisfied walking away with a new necklace and alpaca-wool scarf.
Participating in the Purification Bath
We spent the evening with different host families in El Chota. That night, the women of El Chota invited us over to a rambunctious baile, where we listened and danced along to the disticnt Chota Valley bomba music, as well as obiquitous songs like Despacito (without Justin Bieber, of course). The women of El Chota have mastered an awe-inspiring form of dance, where they move more gracefully than I ever have, all the while with intricately decorated, full winebottles nestled atop their head. One woman, who looked to be in her early sixties, walked effortlessly through the fiesta with a full fruit basket balanced atop her head. At the end of the performance, she presented it as a gift to our boss. I came home from the trip with my ankles dotted with sandfly bites, another nasty bout of traveler’s sickness, a full-body coat of sweat from the Oriente-adjacent weather patterns, and more thoroughly in love with all of Ecuador than I was prior. With each new aspect or city I learn about, the more I admire Ecuador’s biodiversity and breadth of culture. I am eagerly looking forward to immersing myself in the sub-culture of my host community over the next two years, but I’ll need to visit my different omnibus friends from training over the weekends to have a chance to explore all the corners of this beautiful country.
A mural reminiscent of the Let Girls Learn initiative started by Michelle Obama
Views from our Walking Tour of El Chota