A Lot of Lasts

I had imagined something grand for my last day in Quito. My last day of study abroad, a couple of weeks after most of my international friends had flown home. I had decided to stay an extra two weeks, visiting with my host family and traveling around the country.

We just wrapped up my last trip in Ecuador. Setting off two weeks ago on Sunday night, we headed to the beach. Hiking in the rainforest, relaxing in beach towns and taking a boat to an island were all part of the fun. After that we headed to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, to visit an Ecuadorian friend named Sam who we met in the Amazon rainforest one morning. Sam showed us around “his town”, which included a gorgeous lighthouse overlooking the city at sunset.

The next day a friend suggested, “let’s climb a mountain today”, so we ate breakfast in a little cafe avoiding the 95 degree heat and ended up on top of a 14,000-foot volcano in Cajas National Park that afternoon, where it was probably below 40. I bid my friends farewell in Cuenca and headed to places unknown with Adrian. We were in a little town in the middle of no where that went crazy for the national football (uh soccer) championships, we hiked into a rainforest populated by jungle crabs, toucans, coatis and parakeets that live no where else on earth; and on Christmas we were eating tuna, bread and apples after dark for dinner with some strangers at a ranger station in the jungle where a storm had knocked out all of the power, electricity and running water.

IMG_0490

It was a great two weeks, but here I am. My last day in Quito.

I had imagined something epic. Like the time I ran up Volcan Pichincha in under an hour and hiked down with someone I met on top. Instead, I decide to walk around with Adrian and see everything for the last time. There is something about soaking in the familiar one last time that is even better than doing something new and epic.

IMG_4588

Quito has become more than a city to me. It’s a home. I remember my first week here, when everything was so exotic. Excited street vendors shouting and trying to sell me things I could not identify; extravagant fruits, snacks and grilled guinea pigs. The crowded markets and bus chofers yelling at me, hurry up! Move out of the way! Pay your fare! Now it is not like that at all. I enjoy the exotic fruits, street food, and cuy. But now rather than being unable to fathom eating them, I cannot imagine not eating them. Grabbing a grilling skewer from my favorite curbside stand, popping a tomate de arbol in my mouth or chowing down on a bowl of hot chicken-foot-soup has become my norm. Surviving the ecovia, hurrying up and paying my fare has become as natural as riding a bike. Now I cannot imagine a city without honking taxis, narrow European-style streets and thin mountain air. Alas, it is my last day in Quito.

We hop on the Ecovia bus for the last time and I realize that I will miss the crowds. We wander around the Iñaquito market and buy avocados, tropical juices and maracuya fruits from the usual vendors who I have befriended. We linger a minute even to read our favorite pieces of street art (graffiti) for the last time. We head to the park to eat our last grilled street foods for a dollar and feel our lungs burn as we sprint past the futball and ecuavolley courts, where so many fun competitions were had. Cotopaxi is turning pink from alpine glow and it is time to hurry back.

It hurts to say good-bye, and my eyes are teary as we head to the airport and the sun drops behind Volcan Pichincha for the last time. It was an epic four months filled with life-changing experiences and even more amazing people. Some day, as I promised my host brother, I will be back. I will walk the streets of Quito again, tasting the street foods and my host mom’s cooking, visiting with old friends and playing futball in the park with new ones. Nothing, though, can ever be quite the same as my first day in Quito, or the last.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Why You Should Study Abroad

IMG_6322

  1. Now is your chance, if you’re in school! I am on track to graduate in four years, despite a semester abroad. Talk to your adviser or study abroad coordinator and they can help you figure everything out.
  2. It is actually cheap. Worried about money? You can apply to a huge number of scholarships offered by organizations and colleges that want people like you to study abroad. Once you go, making money is possible – some of my friends work – and if you go somewhere inexpensive, like I did, your expenses might be lower than they are back home. Prices while shopping, buying coffee, paying for room and board (with my amazing host family), and recreating treat my wallet kindly.  Studying abroad will not necessarily set you back financially – and it will boost your resume and hiring opportunities when you return.
  3. It is really easy. Your university wants you to go abroad – and so they make things easy. Set up an appointment with your adviser or study abroad coordinator to realize just how simple it might be, regardless of your major.
  4. To live with an amazing host family. Joining the crowds at a futbol match with your host brother and his friends means truly immersing yourself in the culture. Speaking Spanish, while discussing current events, going crazy at soccer games, and eating authentic foods with my host family enrich my time abroad and allow me to enjoy every single day.
  5. To learn about yourself. You grow as a person. If life begins at the end of your comfort zone, as people like to say, then life must begin when you study abroad.
  6. To learn a new language to put yourself ahead. Not only does it open doors for your future, and broaden your global awareness – it gives you a sense of accomplishment and happiness.
  7. To be a part of globalization. Get out and see the world, because our planet’s seven billion people are more interdependent than ever.
  8. To improve your communication skills. In an era of increasing internet usage and crumbling communication skills, studying abroad and working across cultural barriers will boost your ability to interact with others.
  9. It will change the way you think. Anything you do after heading home will be enriched by the unique perspectives, skills, and thought-processes you gained abroad.
  10. To have the time of your life. Study abroad has ups and down like everything else, but the downs will be the best learning experiences and the ups will be the most fun times of your life.

.

.

.

.

.

Things Not to Pack

  1. Your iPhone. It takes away from your experience–being unconnected on the weekends was great for me–and you very well might lose it if you bring it.
  2. Shorts. Either there will be bugs or it will be cold. Bring rain pants instead. More importantly, wearing shorts is not a part of the culture–I honestly cannot think of a single Ecuadorian friend who wears shorts–and, for girls, will bring unwanted attention.
  3. Bug spray. Okay, don’t actually believe me on this one or you might get bitten to death, however, I have never needed it–I spent four days in Yasuni National Park in the amazon rainforest and despite wearing no bug spray, was bitten only once, and that being solely because I was too busy photographing a Pygmy Monkey to brush off a mosquito that landed on my hand. It really has not been a problem at all for me, despite traveling to all corners of the country. No promises, though. You should pack a lot anyway, in case the mosquitoes show up!
  4. Malaria medication. Bug spray might be necessary in some cases, but in my unprofessional opinion I have gathered that no one should bring Malaria medication. Available Malaria-prevention drugs have potentially harmful side effects, and from what I have heard, Malaria is very rare and nearly eradicated from the country. Sometimes benefits outweigh the very small risk from not taking it. Consult your doctor.
  5. Considering not getting your Yellow Fever vaccination before coming, if it is not covered by your health insurance like it was for me. If it is expensive for you to get in the states, consider that it may be worthwhile to stop in Quito and get it for $15. The savings might make it worth the inconvenience.
  6. Anything common that you have to go out and buy and don’t already own. It can probably found for a lot cheaper here. For example, a scarf or hat, shampoo, soap, bro tank, etc. You’ll want to go to the market anyway for the experience, and buying a sweater will help your wallet and the local vendors’.
  7. Snacks. A lot of people suggest packing Costco quantities of snacks, but (1) it will disappear super fast, (2) street food and snack food is delicious, cheap, and abundant here and (3) it will cost you more and take space in your bag.
  8. Ecuadorian currency. Other than coins, the Ecuadorian Sucre is no longer valid as of the 1999 economic crisis and subsequent dolarization in 2000. I sure hope you already knew this if you’re planning a trip, but this is something to look forward to!
  9. Charger adapter. I’d recommend not bringing your phone or laptop anyway. Leaving my technology at home in Quito when I travel has enriched my experience. If you must bring something that needs charging, the outlets here are the same at the U.S. standard! Don’t bother with those silly adapters that you need in most countries.
  10. Expensive stuff. Jewelry, expensive clothes, etc. You could lose it on the bus, forget it somewhere, or have it stolen. Folks here are very friendly, but the occasional person who needs money more than you do will be tempted by that expensive watch you just set down on the counter. Don’t risk it. The exception would be a camera or binoculars–there’s no living without those! And robbery other than pick-pocketing is extremely rare as long as you avoid sketchy areas at night, so unless you keep your $1000 camera in your back pocket…

Remember, traveling as light as possible makes for a better experience. Another tip, don’t forget to bring copies of your passport. You will want to pack a camera, extra batteries, sunscreen, any kind of medication you need, anything technologically advanced or not manufactured in Ecuador (imported items are very expensive), a journal, an eye mask, a travel clock, good hiking shoes, warm clothes, rain jacket, lots of extra plastic bags, etc. Cheers! Enjoy your trip.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

A Guide to Surviving Ecuador

A field guide to surviving Ecuador:

These skills are essential for a good trip to Ecuador:

  • Learning to like rice—or how to survive without eating
  • Understanding the Ecuadorian honk:
    • -I’m bored let’s make some music
    • -I am not stopping, move outta my way
    • GO the light is green
    • -Hey let’s GO already (light is red)
    • honk honk honk; taxi taxi taxi
    • -hmm bad traffic… I bet honking will make the traffic get better!
    • *Keep your ears out for power outages. A crescendoing honk ensemble is a sure sign of traffic light woes and another power outage
    • pretty girl! beep beep, beep beep, beep beep
    • -Just making sure my horn still works—it hasn’t been tested since a minute ago
    • -hi
  • Learning the local slang:
    • -chevere (great, awesome),
    • -achachay (brrr)
    • -taita (dad)
    • -guagua (baby)
    • -que bestia (yikes! wow!)
    • -chuta (dang!)…
    • -etc.
  • Figuring out the bus system
  • Learning to bargain—or forever pay the “gringo price”
  • Practicing your pushing –or forever wait for the mythical empty bus. Once aboard, prepare to shove some more if you ever wanna get off
  • Accepting the dearth of good chocolate chip cookies
  • Dealing with that person sprawled across acres of real estate while everyone else is squeezing you to the back of the ecovía
  • Bringing lots of sunscreen. Bug spray might be unnecessary, though—I have not worn it once
  • Staying alert for pickpockets, thieves or worse. Though to be honest, it is not bad—I have been careful and have not run into any trouble. Most people are very friendly
  • Once I walked into the police station asking for directions to the best pizza place. Learn the way of the locals. Let us be honest, the locals know more than you will ever know about where to eat out, how to get somewhere, which beach is the best—you name it. The pizza was very good
  • Understanding Ecuadorian Time. Being uptight will only frustrate you. Talking to your neighbor or stopping to watch a futbol match is more important than hurrying somewhere to be exactly on time. Carrying everything on my back, never making reservations, and deciding last-minute where to eat or stay has helped me deal with that. Learn to be patient. You catch a bus, and if you realize it is taking you to the wrong place, make that an opportunity to head somewhere else. The culture is different here. Learn to embrace that.
  • Understanding Ecuadorian directions:
    • One day I was hiking to a tree house with a swing that sways over a canyon, overlooking an erupting volcano. It is spectacular though few people hike it—most drive. Along the way, we pass some kids herding llamas who tell us “three kilometers”. After a few hours and a “4 km” sign, we pass a “3 km” sign and I know there are only a few miles left. Your destination will always be “dos cuadras mas” (two blocks) and “aqúisito no mas”—a vague local term meaning right over there. After everyone waves vaguely, “aqúisito no mas, dos cuadras”, you will have walked two blocks for every person in town
    • -They will not admit to not knowing. It is rude not to give your best guess, even if that amounts to a random guess
    • -The directions will not include landmarks. The hostel you are seeking may be next to the only plaza in town, but instead of saying so, your direction-giver will wave in that direction—”aquisito no mas!”
    • -You should survive such inconveniences by using triangulation. Cobble together a mental diagram of the average suggested direction, and determine which way is most probably correct
  • Learning Spanish. Seems obvious, but the number of gringos frantically waving their hands trying to explain themselves to the taxi driver or waitress is unfortunate
  • Learning how to have fun! Ecuador will be miserable if you are the only person unwilling to put yourself out there and enjoy it!

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.