What’s hidden in the Cloud Forest? (posted by Blair in Ecuador)

April 10, 2013

At the beginning of the semester, we had the opportunity to spend a long weekend in the Bosque Nublado (Cloud Forest) of Intag in the Northern Sierra (mountain) region of Ecuador! On Saturday morning, 22 SIT gringos, Fabian (one of our directors), and Leonore (our other director)’s son, Nico, all piled on a bus. We drove for about five hours, an additional two hours than expected because there had been a landslide that blocked our highway. Fabian pointed out the Imbabura and Cotacachi Mountains/Volcanoes, telling us the indigenous legend of how the two fell in love and that when they have an argument, there’s a volcanic eruption.

When the bus stopped, we hopped out and tossed our bags into a truck, then started out on a walk. We walked for another hour, learning about the flora and fauna, the legends of the area, and a bit more about our plans for the weekend from Fabian. Along the way, we passed a bunch of horses tied up that were going to carry our stuff where the truck could no longer pass. There is no way to get in or out of this place without walking for half an hour, and that’s in good weather!

We arrived at La Florida, the hostería (a long-term resort-type lodging arrangement) to an already prepared, and much appreciated lunch of salad, veggie enchiladas with beans and rice, and oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies with tea and coffee! It was quite delicious; all the food comes from their fields, which operate with a very specific system of natural equilibrium. They don’t use any chemicals on the plants because it is the natural combination of distinct species that keeps weeds and bugs from taking over.

Arrival at the Bosque Nublado, the Cloud Forest

Arrival at the Bosque Nublado

After dividing into our cabins, we were walked through the set-up.

1. Electricity: La Florida has electricity in the main building, but it is simply nonsensical to install it everywhere, so we went to bed by candlelight for a week. I definitely suggest doing this, it was a wonderful experience.

2. Toilets: There are outhouses which have different underground levels where waste is broken down. They use a human waste composting system, so the waste is constantly mixed with very specific soil combinations to aid the breakdown process, and eventually used as fertilizer. This is one of the only places in Ecuador where toilet paper can go in the toilet!

3. Water: They receive their water from the nearby river, where it passes through a natural filtration system on its way to La Florida. However, this means the water heating system is the sun. If there is no sun, which is rather likely in rainy season, the water comes out fresh cold from the river.

The cabins also had wonderful hammocks hanging outside the rooms, which we promptly piled into and chattered the evening away about the beauty of our home for the weekend.

We had a discussion with Carlos, the owner of La Florida and a Cuban-American citizen who decided to move down here after he visited Intag’s Bosque Nublado once and fell in love. He now lives with his wife, a Spaniard, and they are working to save this section from mining destruction. Japanese, Canadian, and Chilean companies all want to come to Intag to mine for copper, even though the region has only .06% copper. This is the average percentage of copper stored in the ground throughout the entire world and extracting this tiny amount would cause more damage and create more waste product than the copper’s value. However, Intag is specifically being targeted because of Ecuador’s open trade agreements due its the neoliberal policies installed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and because of Intag’s low human population density.

However, Intag has many species unique to this area, many with medical uses, and possibly yet-undiscovered species, as we learned more about the next day. After a delicious breakfast of yogurt with fruit and granola, more fresh fruit on the side, bread, and real coffee, we set off for a hike through the primary forest. We learned of the interdependence of all the living organisms of the Cloud Forest, how each species is able to thrive because it relies on another for protection, because the existence of each species ensures that no one takes over, and because human interference has not yet taken place in this area. However, many plants have been extracted to create medicines, such as the face-numbing medicine you receive at the dentist that turns you into that person who is walking around poking yourself in the mouth to make sure it’s there.

Roberto, our guide, explains the medical uses of this giant-leafed plant, as well as how to roll the leaves into the shape of a 'gun' as part of our tour through the forest

Roberto, our guide, explains the medical uses of this giant-leafed plant, as well as how to roll the leaves into the shape of a ‘gun’

Roberto led us along, tromping across the river in our tall rubber boots to a part with many felled trees. He started hacking around with his machete until he found a specific tree, el Arból de Sangre del Drago (Drago Blood Tree). He cut a slice into it and a red blood-like substance started to pour onto his machete. Roberto then put this blood on his hand and explained that it can be eaten to cure stomach issues. As he started to rub it into his hand, the blood turned into a white cream, which can be used to disinfect and speed up the scabbing process of wounds, as well as used as a bug repellent and sunscreen. This one tree of the entire forest can be used for many purposes, but depends entirely on the existence of the other species throughout.

 Arból de Sangre del Drago (Drago Blood Tree) bleeding onto Roberto's (our guide's) machete

Arból de Sangre del Drago (Drago Blood Tree) bleeding onto Roberto’s machete

The next evening, we had a seminar with a local group of women who use a reed plant of the forest and natural dyes to make different products (purses, placemats, bracelets, hats). These women are also working on an eco-tourism project to bring income to the community, as well as bring attention to the situation with the mining companies. Last year, a group of German volunteers just happened to record an interaction between a mining company and some community members on their iPhones, which they were then able to use with International Human Rights groups to win back their land rights.

On my last morning at La Florida, I woke up to a bunch of commotion outside my bedroom. Silvia, a birdwatcher had come to do her biannual research on hummingbirds and they had just caught a new species for the area. Silvia walked us through the different measurements on the bird and why they’re taken (predicting the age, assuring it does not have stomach issues, checking to see if it’s pregnant), then held the little colobrí (hummingbird) up to my ear so I could hear its blood coursing through its tiny little body. It was amazing! The bird actually flapped its wings in my ear, and hummingbirds can flap their wings 50-80 times per second! What an incredible experience.

This crazy little guy, fittingly named the Rhino Beetle, also got stuck in the bird net and was a pain to cut out because of all his sharp edges.

On our last morning, this crazy little guy, fittingly named the Rhino Beetle, also got stuck in the bird net and was a pain to cut out because of all his sharp edges.


Uncomfortable, and savoring it! (posted by Blair in Ecuador)

March 6, 2013

I often feel uncomfortable.

I stick out like a sore thumb, walking down the street in my sneakers and backpack, while Ecuadorians pass in heels with their pocketbooks clutched tightly to their sides and wiping my blonde hair out of my face after a bus soars past. The stares, car honks, hisses, catcalls, and whistles ensure that my attempt of ‘avoid eye contact and if you can’t see them, they’re certainly not staring at you’ does not work. They make me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I typically walk home from school with my gringo neighbor, Nick, and one or more gringa girls who live nearby as well; we generally get a few honks and plenty of stares, but it is easy enough to ignore them and continue our group conversation. However, one day last week, I walked home alone to stop off at the grocery store. I had nothing to distract me from the expressions of attention being paid to me. I was making sure to stare straight ahead at my path on the sidewalk (which is actually essential to walking the sidewalks of Quito, there are bumps, cracks, small and large holes, chunks of missing sidewalk, trash and dog poop cluttering the sidewalks), but I could still feel the stares coming from all sides. Walking along a main road, I heard a chorus of honks, but knew better than to turn my head for any one of them. When I got to my bus stop, three middle-aged men hissed and clicked as I walked by. And sure enough, when I got off the bus and was heading into my neighborhood, a kind gentleman leaned out the bus window as it pulled away and whistled his approval of my backpack (certainly nothing else, right?). That day, there was no conversation to drown out the noises, there was no group to retreat into. I felt very uncomfortable.

Last weekend, I was in a group of new Ecudorian friends I met through my cousin. I missed a part of the conversation and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh along with the group as they very easily might be laughing at me – something I did, something I said, or just because someone cracked a gringa joke (more or less your classic blonde jokes).

Although I have an absolutely wonderful homestay family with an incredible house, delicious food, and a luxorious room, to retreat to my home would involve a couple hours on a plane. Living only about 45 minutes from University of Richmond is something I have always taken for granted. Any time I just need to get away from UR, I hop in my car and head home, where I get a big hug from my doofus dog, an even bigger one from my mom, a wonderful night’s sleep in my own bed, and some steaming blueberry pancakes in the morning. The flight home from Quito, Ecuador would be a bit more than 45 minutes.

It’s these moments that (well, first I laugh to myself, then…) I remind myself that I may never get this opportunity again. How many more times will I get to say that I feel uncomfortable and have very little control over changing it? Sure, I can go abroad and say, “wow, when will I have the chance to travel throughout all of South America, see Igazú Falls and Patagonia, lay out on the beaches and go to the Rain Forest, and come home with pictures of beautiful places” but, personally, I want my abroad experience to include truly experiencing a bit of the culture. I want to be able to tell the stories of the people in my pictures, to talk of my conversations with my sister when we went hiking that time, and to be able to share what I’ve learned about the struggles that the Ecuadorians of the Oriente are facing.

More than that, there are many people who do not have the opportunity to study abroad, to experience a different culture, and to feel completely and utterly uncomfortable in that culture. I am so incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity, to feel this feeling.

On the other hand, there are international students at UofR who are certainly going through this entire process in my culture. These students certainly have moments when they feel students’ stares all around them, they don’t know whether to laugh, and they feel that they don’t have anywhere to call home. Let’s look out for these students, help them to understand our converstaions and our culture, see if we can’t help them to feel more comfortable, maybe even to feel at home.

Now what about the “and savoring it!” part then? When I do realize they’re laughing at me, I first remind myself what our director told us: “The Ecuadorian government lets in hundreds of thousands of US tourists each year for two reasons: first, they provide income for many Ecuadorians and second, they are a source of entertainment for the rest of us.” With this in mind, I proceed to tell one of two jokes I have now mastered in Spanish, depending on the audience. That way, we can all laugh together (though they’re certainly still laughing at my horrible accent).

Finally, at the end of the day, no matter how frustrated I was that afternoon with the ridiculous catcall or at dinner when I couldn’t follow the conversation, I always remember that I will never feel quite this same type of uncomfortable again for a long time. And it’s the rain that helps us see and feel the sun, right?

Some of the group went to Crepes & Waffles for Hannah's birthday, where we felt right at home in our gringa group; all white foreigners! ...and the chocolate crepes didn't hurt.

Some of the group went to Crepes & Waffles for Hannah’s birthday, where we felt right at home in our gringa group! …and the chocolate crepes didn’t hurt.

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness

because it shows me the stars.” -Og Mandino

Education and Experience (Posted by Blair in Ecuador)

February 25, 2013

We have now successfully made it through the first week of classes! For the SIT program, we have a Spanish Exam at the beginning of the semester, in which our language level is determined. In this SIT Ecuador program, the Spanish instruction is done through a program called Experiment in International Learning (EIL). EIL has a staff of Ecuadorian professors who have Spanish instruction education and experience. EIL also helped SIT with the homestay placements, so the Spanish classes sometimes incorporate specific interactions with the homestay families.

 The yellow bus gang is ready for our first day of school in Ecuador!

The yellow bus gang is ready for our first day of school!

On Monday, we were placed in our different classes; ours is the biggest class. We are seven girls sitting around our square table with Profe Vladimir at the white board at the front. School is in some extra classrooms of a state pre-school/childcare facility, so there is a picture of the pope and some holy crosses scattered throughout the room. The general class layout is a two hour segment of grammar, followed by an hour and a half of cultural learning, then a final hour of vocabulary and slang. We have breaks between each section and chow down some snacks brought by the EIL program, usually typical Ecuadorian food.

For instance, on Monday, we went over the subjunctive and conditional tenses, ate an Ecuadorian bread-wrapped-in-a-leaf snack called quimbolitos, read about the Incan history of the Valley of Los Chillos, then learned about the history of Ecuadorian slang and its connection to Kichwa, the language of the Incans.

On Wednesday, after learning about connecting words in the morning, we watched an Ecuadorian movie named “Qué tan lejos” about the journey of an Ecuadorian girl to get to Cuenca and break up a wedding. Throughout the whole movie, we were asked to write down Ecuadorian slang and our profe paused it every once in a while to make sure we were clear on what was happening. He also paused at points to talk about the Ecuadorian landscapes we were seeing and the different cultural aspects, such as the music, and political connections with the roadblock. We finished the day off with a game: each person chooses a Hispanic character, writes it on a piece of paper, and tapes it to their neighbor’s head. Everyone then has to ask questions to determine who they are. The best part was that our profe, the only guy in the room, was the only female character: Dora la Exploradora.

Class photo after the game, still with our character nametags which we used for the game in class

Class photo after the game, still with our character nametags

We also have special days that provide a different type of learning. On Thursday, we had a mini learning excursion into a nearby town, Sangolquí. We went to the church in the center plaza, where our professor told us about how the Spaniards used the Catholic church, from the architecture of the actual building to the masses and ceremonies held inside, to assert their control over indigenous Ecuadorians. Afterward, we went to the town park and library, where we read a bit about the history of the town and checked out the library. Sangolquí is a small town, much like Ashland, Virginia. However, its library is one floor of a tiny building with about 5 small bookshelves, 3 computers, and a stack of newspapers. Our profe was explaining that reading is not a popular activity among any age group, which is reflected in this library. We then went to the town market, where we spoke with some of the vendors about their sales, which have gone down significantly with the installment of a Wal-mart brand supermarket, MegaMaxi.

Profe Vladimir and class heading into Sangolquí Church as part of a class "field trip"

Profe Vladimir and class heading into Sangolquí Church

A tiny selection of the wide array of fruits, veggies, and other produce items at the main Feria of Sangolquí, a local market

A tiny selection of the wide array of fruits, veggies, and other produce items at the main Feria of Sangolquí

We also have had a couple academic seminars during this week. We have a 20 Questions activity that we have to complete throughout the semester. It is an opportunity for cross-cultural learning, with questions from “How much importance do people place on appearances?” to “What does it mean to be a part of a family?” and “How can you ascertain the importance of God in people’s lives?” There are four parts to the assignment: the first part is observations of how people naturally behave, followed by explanations of why this might be the case. The hard part is that we then have to talk with two or more people about what they think of our observations and explanations, but without simply asking them the question. The final section is reflections, in which we discuss how willing people were to actually converse on the subject and how the culture ties into the question and answers.

At first, I really felt this was a silly assignment, it seemed we could learn more simply observing and that the conversations would be uncomfortable. However, I have realized that the assignment leads to an essential learning and very informative conversations. People are generally very willing to talk about the question, they are often interested to know what I think and sometimes see an aspect of their own culture for the first time.

This program ensures that we are always learning. From waking up and insisting that I do not need to eat three pieces of bread with ham and egg along with my fruit and smoothie for breakfast, to navigating my way back home in the evening and attempting to discuss the day around the dinner table, Spanish class is the least learning of it all! More than just taking in information, we’re forced to analyze and use it every single day. I have to remember that my profe said that we do not throw things in Ecuador because it’s seen as rude, as well as the warning we received during a 20 Questions Seminar about lending things because you might not see them again.

The only source of knowledge is experience. -Albert Einstein 

Living, Learning, Loving (Posted by Blair in Ecuador)

February 22, 2013

The homestays are a very important aspect of the SIT program. I think the experience of living in a different culture almost requires this aspect. The families help us a lot with our Spanish language skills, as well as cultural behavior learning, information about Ecuadorian society, and, obviously, the quintessential family love and caring. I can go to my mamá when I have a headache, when I’m frustrated with my classes, even when I feel really confused about being here in Ecuador.

More than just living with a family, we often have homework assignments that incorporate them. Sometimes it’s something as simple as talking with them about an Ecuadorian movie we’re watching or a news item we talked about in class. Later in the semester, we have to write a Personal-National History Essay about a historical event in Ecuador that also affected some family member of ours and how his/her personal account compared to the history books. These little assignments help us learn about the history and culture, as well as to form a closer relationship with our family members.

Living in a homestay certainly has its difficulties as well. It sounds so silly, but after “moving out of the house” into university housing, I felt that I was in control of my life: how I spend my time, what and when I eat, when I sleep, when I get to simply have some alone time. This homestay is quite an adjustment. Now, I depend on my host mamá for my food, for clean clothes, and for help in absolutely every part of life.

Mamá prepares and serves us all the food, sets and clears the table, washes the dishes, stores the food, and the kitchen is spotless again before I know it. Still not sure how she does that… I still don’t know how to boil some water for tea on the gas stove because she’s in the kitchen asking what I would like before I can even find the kettle!

I have washed my own clothes for myself at home since I was about 14, when thought I was too grown-up to have my mom do my laundry (I don’t remember her objecting too much). I have no idea how to wash clothes here… and the machine is even in English! Apparently you have to hook up some hoses though, lesson learned. But my mamá simply insists upon doing it.

I went to the pharmacy with my mamá the other day when we were running some errands and I remembered I ran out of band-aids. When I went to buy them, not only did I have to ask my mamá how to say band-aid, she had to explain to me that No, you don’t buy an entire box of band-aids, who would possibly need that many? About 10 minutes of explanation later, we left the pharmacy with 5 individual band-aids.

Apart from Band-aid runs, we get to go out with our families and they show us around their city. We went on Saturday afternoon to the Virgen de El Panecillo, a hill in the center of Quito where a priest built a large Virgin Mary back in 1976. From that point, you can see all around the city of Quito, much like the panoramic view I got to see from the Volcanic mountain hike on my first day here [see Centers of the World (Posted by Blair in Ecuador)].

The Virgen de El Panecillo from directly beneath, after climbing many flights of stairs for a better view of the city, Quito

The Virgen de El Panecillo from directly beneath, after climbing many flights of stairs for a better view of the city

My host dad pointing out the historical churches of Quito's Old Town, after climbing to get a better view of the city

My dad pointing out the historical churches of Quito’s Old Town

We also got to go to Molinuco Falls on Sunday, which is a HUGE waterfall at the end of a lovely hike. The walk there includes smaller waterfalls, some pools where you can swim, even a ‘Meditation Pond!’ For an idea of the size and force of this waterfall, you should know that I could feel the mist from where I was standing in the photo below!

The GIANT Cascada Molinuco (waterfall); it was so powerful I could feel the mist from where I was standing!

The GIANT Cascada Molinuco

The option to live in a different culture, in a society different from mine, to share with the people of that society, and to live for some time in a different country is a rare opportunity. Not everyone can spend a year of their life hopping between countries due to their committments. I believe many people also prefer to stay in their safe and comfortable space. However, the information and the lessons that I will have learned by the end of the program, whether learned in the classroom, in the daily activities of my family, or during the excursions we take, will make this an unforgetable semester.

Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them.” Lao Tzu

P.S. My family prefers that I do not write about them personally in this blog. We will also be living with a family in a different section of Quito beginning in March and I hope to be able to talk a bit about them.

Centers of the World (posted by Blair in Ecuador)

February 4, 2013

My first day at Quito’s 9,350 feet of altitude after a long flight began by meeting up with two girls from my SIT program (Camila and Teaghan) and two more whom they had met in their hostels. We headed to the Central Market in Centro Histórico/Old Town together to grab some breakfast before exploring the city. We were convinced that the soup we were being sold did not have actual sangre (blood), but rather an ingredient which they called sangre simply due to its color or consistency: silly assumption. We enjoyed the experience for what it was, got some extra iron in our oxygen-deprived bodies, and continued on to silly assumption number two!

We hopped a taxi, filled it with one too many people, and went up a nearby mountain on the TeleferiQo (Quito slyly snuck their Q into that one, but it’s just like any other ski-lift style hanging cars that take you up a mountain). On the way up, I clearly remember saying to the group “Hey, maybe we should walk down on that trail, it looks like a good time.” I could hardly make it to the door of the hotel by the end of the afternoon. At the top of the TeleferiQo, I learned that we had plans to hike up higher so we started walking up. I had no idea that the plan was actually to climb the inactive volcano seen in this picture. Below is another picture showing how far we actually made it and how much relaxing had to be done.

Pichincha Volcano which we hiked near

Pichincha Volcano

Pichincha Volcano from our calling-it-quits point after we were too tired to continue

Pichincha Volcano from our calling-it-quits point

That night we met our academic directors and a bunch of the SIT group arrived in Quito! Our directors introduced themselves: Fabian, an Ecuadorian Anthropologist who seems to know absolutely everything about his country, and Leonore, a US citizen who moved to Ecuador to raise her children and who can tell some great stories. They asked us to pack a bag for a couple of days, fed us a delicious Ecuadorian corn-husk snack, and sent us off to bed. The next morning, we headed out to San Antonio de Pichincha, better known as the location of “La Mitad del Mundo,” a monument to the ‘center of the world’ with a line marking the northern and southern hemispheres; unfortunately, the line is in reality a bit off-center by current calculations.

Orientation in San Antonio consisted of reviewing schedules and expectations, health and safety guidelines, an introduction to experiential learning, lots of discussion about the homestays and cultures in which we will be living, an overview of the rules and regulations, etc. There was plenty of time to get to know one another a bit, as well as time to eat delicious typical Ecuadorian foods (we actually ate about five times a day!). We took advantage of the opportunity to practice our Spanish and to meet our first Ecuadorian friend, Roberto, the son of the Hostería owner. The directors had also set up a night to watch an Ecuadorian movie, a night to hear some Ecuadorian/Andean music, and a salsa class with Maestro Lucky! We also had a couple of “drop-offs,” in which we went to a certain part of town in groups to learn about the area; this observation and asking questions is a sort of introduction to what we will be doing with the Independent Study Project (ISP) later. Finally, we had the opportunity to talk with students from different universities of Quito about all sorts of topics: Ecuadorian slang, travel throughout the country, politics and religion, and everything in between.

Orientation also included a required reading of “The Green Banana,” a personal account by Donald Batchelder of “temporary difficulty, resulting in a discovery which resolved the problem while opening up a whole new perspective of shared belief and speculation.” He admits that the green banana had only ever been an unripe fruit to him, while the people whom he met had known of its properties and uses for years. The tale includes a rock which the people state marks the exact center of the world and how each person has his/her own center of the world; the author states, “Personal discoveries converge in a flow of learning moments, developing a healthy tug of war between that original center of the world from whence we come and the new center being experienced.”

Because of the orientation schedule, I did not get to visit La Mitad del Mundo monument in San Antonio. However, I believe my entire semester in Ecuador will be full of encounters of centers of the world, from the Intag Cloud Forest in northern Ecuador to the Rain Forest in the South, and that I have a lot of learning to do from all the people who I have the opportunity to meet along the way.  Donald Batchelder says it best: “Personal discoveries converge in a flow of learning moments, developing a healthy tug of war between that original center of the world from whence we come and the new center being experienced.”

Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a green banana or two along the way?

Quito from above: my home for the next few months

Quito from above: my home for the next few months while I study in Ecuador


You can read Donald Batchelder’s “The Green Banana” here: http://suzy-friendship.blogspot.com/2010/09/green-banana-donald-batchelder.html

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