Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!

I decided to make my first photo a good one... salsa classes!

As many of you have been asking me about the food situation here, I thought it necessary to write a little because I imagine you’re thinking that I’m eating guinea pig every day. Don’t fret, I’m being very well fed, and regrettably I haven’t even eaten “Cuy”, or guinea pig, yet. It is the national delicacy, and I frequently see the cuys being roasted on a rotating rotisserie spit. It’s quite a sight seeing skinned guinea pigs with their little teeth and paws, but the Ecuadorians seem to love it. It’s an indigenous specialty that dates back to Inca times and is supposedly high in protein and low in cholesterol. I’m actually really excited to try it. My experience with Ecuadorian gastronomy so far has been really positive, and I haven’t been sick thankfully. The diet is amazingly well balanced. It’s really fun to roam the isles of the markets and grocery stores and see things that I didn’t even know existed. The diet here is primarily based on varieties of protein rich strains of corn, which is really interesting. “Chochos” are a corn variety, and kids eat them as snacks. The Ecuadorians have found a million and one uses for corn. They toast it for tostadas, pop it for popcorn, mill it into cornmeal, and boil it for other uses. As you can see, it’s a corn-crazy country. They also rely on quinoa and other amazing grains that NASA has even used to send with astrounauts in space. They’ve found really light, complete protein grains in the Amazon here. Anyway, I eat a lot of tamales, empanadas galore, and a national specialty, humitas, which are kind of like corn dumplings. I also eat tons of soup. It’s served as an appetizer before every meal and we usually put popcorn in it, which is the traditional way to eat many soups. So basically I am full all the time.

I’ve been to quite a few food markets, and they have been really colorful. The fish markets are really lively and there are usually about 20-30 vendors all trying make their fish the most attractive to clients. Fish heads fly everywhere and the vendors hurriedly clean the fish, which means you can’t escape quite a few fish scales in your hair. It’s a beautiful thing. You also have to delicately walk around the fish blood, ice, and fish bones, but it’s really fun. The meat markets are a little harder to stomach. Fully skinned cows and pigs hang next to segmented cow spines, chicken feet, cow tongues, and many other bright red pieces of meat. Many Ecuadorians cook with ALL parts of the animal, so nothing goes to waste. This is an admirable method of cooking, but I am used to my sheltered process of buying perfect, cleaned meat from Publix. It’s great to go to these markets though because usually the meat is less expensive, and the taste is amazing because the meat is so fresh- sometimes too fresh! (For example, blood still dripping).

On to more recent events…
Today is Halloween, and it’s been really fun seeing the Ecuadorian decorations for us silly Americans. Ecuadorians do not celebrate Halloween. Instead, like most other Latin American countries, they celebrate the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), which has completely different roots than our pumpkin-carving and candy day. It’s more of a celebration of life while also remembering and honoring those who have died. The typical way to celebrate the day is to make “Colada Morada”, a really thick berry drink with corn flour, and “Guaguas de Pan”, or basically huge pieces of bread in the shape of dead babies. Yes, that’s right. The tradition is to dip the head of the baby in the Colada Morada and bite it off! I had some issues with this. An older tradition involves going to the tombs of loved ones to clean them and to cook a humongous lunch for the dead. The indigenous cultures here believe that the spirits of their loved ones will rise and that they will eat and celebrate with those still on earth. I am really looking forward to seeing how the town celebrates on November 2nd.

The past couple weeks have continued to be really great, and I finally got to meet my Rotary sponsor and attend a meeting. My sponsor, it turns out, is 86 and is the oldest Rotarian in Ecuador and quite possibly all of South America. I thought that was really funny. He has been a Rotarian for 53 years, so I have a great source of information. He is a renowned orthopedic surgeon in Ecuador, and he still practices! The man can hardly walk, but his grip and concentration are amazing. I’m not so sure this is safeJ I accompanied him and his wife to a hacienda in a nearby town (Puembo) for a special, bi-annual Rotary meeting. It was great to hear them review the pillars of Rotary. There were so many similarities between their club and the club in Downtown Gainesville that it made me marvel and how interconnected Rotary is. I thought what one man in particular had to say was interesting. He traveled to Evanston, Illinois, in the past to see the Rotary headquarters. He said that he had expected an opulent, grand monstrosity of a building in true American style, but he was pleasantly surprised to see a somewhat humble, yet obviously multicultural headquarters building. After the meeting they treated us to an amazing, who-knows- how-many-courses lunch, and I was able to meet other scholars and youth exchange scholars as well. It was a great introduction to the host club in Quito, whose emphasis is “dar de si antes de pensar en si” (give of yourself before thinking of yourself). Next step is making my presentation!

I had some other general tidbits of information for you all of things that struck me funny in the last week. For example, we talked about women who opt to be drug-trafficking mules to make a living. If you haven’t seen the movie María Full of Grace, I’d suggest it, as it deals with this topic, and it’s practically a spitting image of where I live. I learned that there is a really strong American military presence in Manta, a base in Ecuador. Plan Colombia has placed such a stronghold on Colombia that many of the drugs are now coming into Ecuador to circumvent the anti-drug efforts. Export of drugs is less easily detected in Ecuador because most of the attention is given to Colombia. The jails here are full of foreigners who, almost 99% of the time, have been caught for attempting to export drugs. As you can imagine, many boats leave the coasts here full of drugs, and it’s common that they sink. So what is to become of the floating packages of drugs? “Fishermen” go to fish drugs (or “pescar la droga”). This produces a whole lot of truancy, as kids would rather spend the day fishing for drugs. Speaking of drugs, I was told that they don’t sell anti-depressants (don’t worry, I’m happy) because of religious reasons. I don’t really understand this yet.

I’ve also had many conversations with women about the woman’s role in society. In all honesty, I’ve found the culture to be far less machista than I had anticipated. What I’ve found most interesting that it is extremely common for married me to have lovers (yet if women commit adultery, it’s seriously shunned, and their basically outcasted). It’s just shocking to me how open the men are about their infidelity. For instance, I was making copies the other day, and I saw a poster listing the top twenty reasons to have another lover! It was copyrighted! I have to admit I laughed at the jokes, but I was shaking my head at the same time. As in many other foreign cultures, children live with their parents until they marry. It’s kind of a nice arrangement. Mom still does your laundry and cooks. What could be better? In all seriousness, this creates a bit of a problem for some Ecuadorians in regards to marriage. Many women become so used to not having to do laundry and cooking, that having to fill this societal role is horrifying for them. Most young women in Quito are well-educated, and they simply don’t want to have to begin to conform to the traditional role of women here. On the other hand, many women rush to marry because this means they can finally move out of their parents’ homes. More often than not, these couples have serious problems later. One of my female professors told me that one of the most horrible things in life is to never marry because society will think that there’s something wrong with the woman. She said that it really is a goal of every woman more or less to marry to avoid this societal stereotype. Anyway, the women that I’ve met are typically strong willed and are active members of the work force. I’ll leave you with the most recent quote from my house mother, Juana, “Laurencita, the men here may be the heads, but the women are the necks!”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Yeayyyy!!! The first post...

Finally, the first update! I’m so sorry that I have neglected this site, but I’m going to try to have updates every week from now on (fingers crossed). Internet is a little tricky here, but we’ll see how it goes.

Before I continue, I want to thank any Rotary members who may be reading this site. Thank for again for making this experience possible. I’ve only been here for three weeks, and it’s already been such a gift. Thank you.

The last three weeks have been an experience. I feel like I’ve done so much every single day that by the time 9 o’clock hits, I’m ready for bed, which is pathetic, but a combination of negative oxygen, thinking and trying to speak in Spanish all day, suffocating pollution, and walking to and fro makes an American girl quite tired (not to mention pick up soccer games). The family I’m living with has been extremely generous and kind. The mother is an amazing cook from the coast, the father is a soccer fanatic, and their daughter works in a casino, so I rarely see her. They’ve gone out of their way multiple times to show me the city and to make me feel welcome, and they make me laugh all the time.

Adjusting to Quito is going to take some time I’ve come to see. At first, I honestly thought I was going to get robbed at every corner, but I’ve become a little more (but not fully) used to walking around town. People never cease to stare at me and whistle in that oh-so-lovely way of calling a dog. Walking ahead without giving the man the satisfaction of replying has taken some getting used to, but I know I need to or else six months of cat-calls is going to get old very quickly.

The most striking, negative differences I’ve noticed so far have been the level of extreme poverty, corruption (at all levels), the amount of children who work on the streets, the filth, and the men who think it’s perfectly fine to harass women. On the other hand, I’ve noticed a sense of family that doesn’t exist in the U.S., daily interaction among people who are genuinely pleased to see each other, ingenuous ways of making a clean living, and a happiness with what one has that has already begun to make an impact on me. From what I’ve experienced and heard in the last three weeks, I am beginning to see how Ecuador really is a land of extremes. Being middle class is a struggle when the great majority of the people constitute the haves and the have-nots. Dollarization was implemented in 2000 here, and it has had overwhelming effects on the people. The job market is horrible, and people consider themselves lucky and blessed if they have a job. While a two dollar lunch to Americans seems unreal, it’s a special treat to some Ecuadorians when the baseline salary for some is $170 A MONTH. Additionally, while healthcare is “free”, many people know that in order to get any kind of decent health care they need to go to a private clinic. Many doctors merely work in public hospitals to obtain a retirement stipend after 30 years of service. They shortchange the patients and make their real salary in their own private clinic because they really have no interest or incentive in serving the public community. What this translates to is a lot of poor people receiving inadequate treatment in public facilities. Education here is also “free” to some extent, but in the public, free, university close to my school, students are packed in the classrooms taking the class while standing up. People hawk their wares outside the classroom doors while men urinate two feet away in the rose bushes. Across the street in the private university, the students are seated and enjoying polished floors, air conditioning, and are not plagued by the slightest annoyance, for there are ample security guards and fences.

Of recent interest in Ecuador is the presidential “election”. I put election in quotes because it really should be called presidential purchase. Out of 13 candidates, it’s no coincidence that the richest man in Ecuador, Alvaro Noboa, came in first place in the first round of elections (the run-off will be at the end of November). Additionally, Gilmar Gutierrez, brother of past president Lucio Gutierrez (who was ousted), came in third even though he was no where on the map prior to the election. The headline in the papers after the election was plain and simple: “ELECTORAL FRAUD”. How can the people expect their government to be just when the president buys his way into office? The Ecuatorian tribunal hired a Brazilian company to administer the election. The company, called e-vote, claimed that their equipment didn’t function as planned on election day, and that there is no way to manually re-count the votes because the ballots have already been sent to recycling! The police officers are corrupt as well. For instance, when getting pulled over, it is common knowledge that bargaining wage for pay-off is two dollars. Simply slip the two dollars between the registration and the cedula (I.D). The police officer will skillfully palm the two dollars while glancing at the documents, and the driver may say “Para sus colas” (for your Cokes). They then will both go on their merry ways- as simple as that. For many Ecuadorians paying a fine is torture for some unknown reason. They would rather pay a bribe (say of two dollars) instead of showing up and paying of fine of .25 cents.

I know I’ve mentioned pollution quite a few times in my e-mails, but I haven’t spoken about the initiatives to clean up Quito. Two modes of public transportation, the trolley (Trole), and the Metrobus, both use clean energy. These have been recent improvements, so the effects are just beginning to show. The city also allows for a “Ciclopaseo” every 15 days, where one of the major roads is closed for cars, and bicyclists are able to ride their bikes all day long. This promotes both well-being and a cleaner city. The public parks also offer quite a bit. The largest park, Parque Carolina, is one of my favorites because I go to a hilarious outdoors aerobics class on Sunday mornings with quite the spandex-loving crowd. I can also run (or attempt to run because of the altitude), and play in soccer games. There are literally 30 going on at one. It’s amazing. They also have these crazy caterpillar trolley buses for kids that always make me laugh, and I’m really tempted to hop on one next time. Another reason for going to the Parque Carolina is the watermelon! There are fresh slices everywhere I look. I have to be careful though because watermelons are often injected with city water before they are sold so that the store can charge more (by weight), and city water works magic in my tummy.

Before coming to Quito I thought that I would have quite a few conversations about President Bush and my views on government. I am asked about Bush occasionally, but the people here seem to differentiate between the man America elected and Americans themselves. Of greater concern to people is my religion. I never thought that being Jewish of all things would spark such debate (all the time- literally). In a country that is 90% Catholic, people find it fascinating that Jews do not believe in Jesus. It’s really hard to describe Jewish beliefs in a nutshell while tactfully imparting the core beliefs. Many times we’ve had to just change subjects because people really just don’t understand. Anyway, these conversations have been trying, and I thought about just not answering the religion question anymore because it always begets a lengthy conversation, but I think it’s important that I at least try to describe what Judaism is because for many people, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of it.

I’ve traveled a bit on my weekends and during the week as class trips, and the trip have been beautiful. I was able to go to Otavalo, and indigenous market with all kinds of interesting goods and handicrafts. I need to go back to do some serious shopping. I also went to Ambato last weekend and to a great Baptist camp that my friend took me to. We went to a really interesting outdoor church there, and I literally slept at the base of the most active volcano in Ecuador, Tunguraghua. It was an experience, especially when we traveled to see the refugees of the last volcanic eruption that many of you may have heard about two months ago. They are living in homes and tents (Rotary sponsored, no less) in the nearest town to their devastated homes. It was a really humbling experience to meet these people and to see that they literally have nothing. On the whole, their days consist of walking back to the ruins of their home and land, sitting there for a while and lamenting the loss, remembering what once was, and coming back to the refugee camp to play some volleyball and start the process again the next day. After meeting these people, we went to nearby Banos, a thermal bath town, and we quickly left on an escape route because the volcano I mentioned earlier decided to produce two landslides that were about to trap the city. It was insanity I tell you. Thank goodness that the man (Pastor Steve) knew a back road and got us out of there safely. It was a bit too much to handle as he was flying up the side of the mountain trying the escape the converging landslides. It was pretty cool to be Indiana Jones for a day, but I could have done without almost peeing my pants.

This past week I went to some other, safer, thermal springs called in a town called Papallacta. It was absolutely amazing, and the scenery was unreal. I was soaking in natural baths all day while gazing at a volcano. What more could you ask for? (Watermelon). Being the Floridian that I am, I didn’t think that I needed excesses of sunblock to bother myself with, but this Floridian looked like a British tourist after a long day at the beach. I have now realized just how strong the Andean sun is, and being that we were 10, 500 feet closer to it didn’t help.

So that’s the last three weeks in review more or less. There have been eight hours a day, five days of week, of classes in between, and some salsa lessons. I’ve also taken the black market up on some one dollars D.V.D.s, which is fabulous. The coming week brings my first Rotary meeting (finally), and beginning some volunteer things in the city, which I am looking forward to. Take care everyone, and send me pictures of Halloween if you get a chance. I promise to be better about updating the site.