Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Quito fun times

First things first. GO GATORS!!!!!! I watched the entire UF vs. FSU game on Saturday at a sports bar, and I was muy orgullosa of the Florida Gators. I screamed and was the ugly American in the bar, but oh well, it was really funny. People tend to not have any interest whatsoever in American football here, and they really didn’t know why I was so engrossed in the game. They were watching Ronaldinho on the other T.V. (Barcelona vs. Villa Real), which was also an amazing game. That man scored some beautiful goals. Anyway, it was a day full of sports, which usually isn’t my cup of tea, but it was a much needed taste of Americana I think.

Thanksgiving was a fiesta! Emily and I cooked up a storm. We made turkey, sweet tea, peas, garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, BBQ beans, potato salad, cranberry sauce (well, from a can), spiced apples, seven layer bars, chocolate pudding, and the crowning achievement….PUMPKIN PIE from a real pumpkin. We rock. We tried finding the ingredients for other things, but it was a quest for the holy grail, so we were content with what we could actually find. The family I’m staying with had never tried most of the food we prepared, and it was really fun sharing the holiday with them. We even had little Thanksgiving placemats and pumpkin colored candles. I was sad to be away from my family, and especially my sister, but it was good fun to bring the tradition to Ecuador and to prove ourselves as qualified cooks. The family told me that, in light of such tasty culinary achievements, it appears as thought I am now prepared to marry. I laughed because I knew there was a shred of sincerity in their comment. (In the past here, men had to prove their hunting skills and women, their culinary skills, in order to be deemed ready for marriage). I’m glad the times have changed! I brought some of the leftovers to school the next day, and the teachers and students also really liked trying pumpkin pie. It was really funny fielding their questions about the food because it’s typical food to me, but they looked and poked at it like it was an alien creation.

Sunday was the second round of the presidential elections. As I noted in a prior blog, the election appeared to be HIGHLY corrupt, but I’m really happy that Rafael Correa won. The election was between two highly controversial men, Alvaro Noboa and Rafael Correa. Noboa is the wealthiest man in Ecuador and one of the wealthiest men in the world. He owns about 130 businesses here and runs the great majority of the country’s banana plantations. He has run twice before in the past, and has lost, so many speculated that he would bribe and buy his way into the presidency this time, as to not risk losing face for the third and final time. He has claimed that he has been sent by God to run this country in public speeches, and while the Quiteños laughed, many of the people from the pueblos believed him. He made some really outlandish promises, like his initiative to build 300,000 homes in a year. Many pointed out that this would require an almost impossible construction rate as well as land that Ecuador simply doesn’t have, especially in the city. I recently watched a documentary that a Swedish woman made about Noboa’s mistreatment of his banana plantation workers. I swear I watched the entire thing with my mouth agape, and I vowed to never buy bananas again (but then I thought about how much I love bananas). I saw the plantations and the decrepit living conditions of his workers. They receive about $20 a week, if that, live eight people to a room (two to a single bed), use cardboard for their mattress, store water in banana plastic bags with toxic chemicals, use bathrooms with fecal matter spilling over onto the floor, and are covered with pesticides that fall from aerial sprays. Granted this documentary showed only one person’s point of view, but what she captured on film was undeniably grotesque. When the workers rioted and striked due to their horrible living conditions and pay, Noboa paid off assassins in Guayaquil to start shooting at the plantation. She got this all on tape. The police stood idly by as killers invaded the plantation. What really struck me about this story was not only Noboa’s explotation of the people, but that the workers don’t have any other options for work. They subject themselves to these conditions, these chemicals, and this mistreatment because they view this as their only option for work.

The sad part is that Noboa had a compelling and effective way of garnering the votes of the poorer people of this country, which far outnumber the wealthy. And in a country where everyone has to vote, wealth and education don’t win, numbers do. Thankfully the numbers were in Correa’s favor. By appealing to his divine connection to the Almighty and by literally handing out food and clothing, he won the support of many. When I was in the jungle last week, for example, I noticed that the only shirts that the people at the camp wore were political advertisements in support of presidential candidates and others political offices. Why wouldn’t a person vote for a candidate that gives them food, clothing, and the promise of shelter?

The Ecuadorian economy is not the strongest, and many people fear the influx of foreign businesses and free trade. I’ve seen “No T.L.C” (free trade) grafitti everywhere because the majority of the people prefer Ecuadorian, not foreign, products on the market. They already have problems with Asian products flooding the markets because producers of similar products here are going out of business because they simply can’t produce the same product at such a low cost. Noboa wanted to open the borders completely, which would definitely have it’s benefits, but many Ecuadorians would lose immensely and their economy would really have to reshape itself. A temporary shock for a permanent gain? Who knows? The same was said about dollarization here, and the people are still suffering.

I’ve talked more about Noboa (thoroughly criticized really) because I’ve read and had conversations mostly about the threat of his coming to power here. He was the more sensational and controversial figure. Rafael Correa was the favored candidate in Ecuador more for his not being Noboa than for his merits actually. He is an economist by profession, and he’s come into the political sphere kind of by surprise. While he doesn’t have any glaring downfalls, the people are skeptical because he is like many other presidential candidates of the past who have won and have robbed the country blind. Correa is said to be on good terms with Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, and many Americans here fear this friendship, which also extends to Fidel Castro. Correa made quite a few lofty promises in his platform, so time will tell.

During this election I have really come to think about the American electoral system.
For instance, voting here is mandatory, and you don’t vote, you’re fined (both times). Is it better to mandate obligatory voting, or does the American system of voluntary voting engender better results? Is one form more “democratic” than the other? Is it better to only have the informed and opinionated at the voting booths? I really don’t know.
Good news! These upcoming days (leading up until the 6th of December) are the “Fiestas de Quito” for the founding of the city. There is so much going on that I can’t even keep track of it all, let alone see it all. Tomorrow I am going to my first bull fight, and I am really looking forward to it. A woman “torera” will even be fighting! That’s exciting because it is extremely rare to see a woman in this arena. Shakira is also coming this weekend, and I am going to see her with my new roommate. Que suerte to see Shakira in South America! I hope it’s all in Spanish…

I hope all of your Thanksgivings were tasty and full of fun and family. Please let me know how you are doing if you get a few free moments. Take care.

(Apologies for not having pictures. I have tons, but for some reason the blog won't upload them. Maybe next time:)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Amazon Jungle

It doesn’t get much better than this. The last two weeks were introductions into two other worlds that I really didn’t know much about. Before going to the Amazon jungle for a week, I spent some time visiting different potential volunteering sites, and I was touched by what I saw. I first went to a shelter for adolescent mothers called Talita Kumi, a refuge that many Rotary scholars have visited. It was a humble building that is in great need of repair and finances, and the couple that runs the shelter couldn’t have been nicer. They took me on a tour of the home, and I noticed in their kitchen that they didn’t even have enough food to last them through the week. They aren’t financed by the government (laugh), and provide this refuge for serious circumstances (for young women) with their own money. They teach them how to make chocolates and traditional foods so that they can sell their goods on the street to provide for their children. The other place I visited was called “Enseñame a pescar”, which means Teach Me to Fish. It is essentially an after school program for truly needy children. I entered a class of 30 children of varying ages, and let me tell you, I didn’t know how poorly I understood and spoke Spanish before meeting them. They laughed at me so much I couldn’t help but be put in my place. It comes to find out that I was the first visitor they have ever had at the school, and I was the first North American that many of them have ever met. They asked some of the most endearing questions- What color is the sky? Do you have cows? Does it snow there? Can you salsa dance? Do you eat a lot of oranges in Florida? Do you have Superman cartoons there? How far did you go in school? Why do you want to be in Quito? Can you speak English? They also sang songs they had learned in class, and of course they wanted me to sing and dance with them, so what’s a girl to do? I realized though that choosing a volunteer activity here is going to be harder than I thought. There is just so much need all around the city that I feel like I’ll be neglecting a worthy cause when I choose to spend my time in another.

Before going to the jungle I also had quite a few conversations with my professors about race issues in Ecuador. I’ve noticed that people often use the “vos” form of speaking, and it turns out that people sometimes use this very informal tone to address people who are of more indigenous descent because it’s insulting. The color of skin here is far more important than I had anticipated. Practically the entire population is mestizo, but the visible amount of indigenous blood that people have differentiates them. People often judge others simply based off their last name. If the name is more indigenous sounding, the person is assumed to be of a lower class. My professors agreed that there is more racism toward the indigenous here than against the Afro-Ecuadorain population. I find this interesting because it seems that people are prouder of lighter, Spanish skin, which goes to say that they value the physical traits of their colonizers. Food for thought.

Speaking of thought, I had a lot of time to think this past week in my adventure in the Amazon. I still cannot believe that Ecuador is home to such a variety of landscapes. The Amazon seemed like it was worlds away from civilization, but it was just a five hour bus ride away from Quito. I went with three other students from the Academia de Español and two of the professors. We first went to a lodge called Shangrila, which was an apt name because I fell in love with that place. There was a whole loft of hammocks! My paradise. We had a really knowledgeable guide, and he taught us about the medicinal uses for many of the plants we saw. The jungle reminded me a lot of the Costa Rican rainforest, but we didn’t see any monkeys (or anacondas for that matter, thank goodness). We went hiking, tubing, and canyoning. I had never been canyoning before, and the whole time I was thinking that this activity would never fly in America. It was quite dangerous, and I wouldn’t believe we were all hoisting ourselves up crevices of canyons that had no visible bottom. The rain made it even more interesting because flash floods can apparently occur. We were also able to walk to an indigenous community that was near. The people spoke only Quichua, the most popular indigenous language. Our tour guide was bilingual in both Spanish and Quichua, as are many people in Ecuador (only Spanish is taught in the schools). The town had only about 80 inhabitants, and the “mayor”, Monica, prepared a traditional drink made of mulled yucca root called “chi cha”. Indigenous women used to chew the root and then spit out the root into a bowl. This was stirred and served! Today it isn’t made with saliva (thank goodness), and I didn’t like it, but it’s very high in calcium, and very poor communities can survive off of only two bowls of this drink a day. Yucca is ubiquitous, and I’m beginning to like it more. After Shangrila, we went to a more rustic site without electricity called Amarongachi. I liked it equally as well because it was perched right on the Napo river, and we woke to birds, chickens, and the owner’s 10, that’s right, 10, children. We went on awesome excursions. We climbed waterfalls and swam in a lagoon. The best part was having a local guide who has lived on the land his entire life. We were able to be a part of their family for three days and play cards (a popular game called “cuarenta”) by candlelight. I was sad to go because I love nature so much, but Emily and I were off to Baños for her last weekend in Ecuador. We got a hostal for $6 a night (breakfast included), and we were quite proud of this conquest. We kind of missed the boat in Baños because we thought there would be a lot of thermal baths. Wrong. Instead, we went biking and seemed to get lost even though there was really only one road. Oh silly Lauren and Emily with their map. We saw some great waterfalls and went to see the Pailon del Diablo, an amazing waterfall that’s the convergence point of two main rivers. After our nine days in nature that re-inspired us, it was time to head back to good ol’ Quito. Next are Thanksgiving preparations!!! Emily and I have planned a menu, but we haven’t tried shopping yet. I have a feeling we won’t be able to find a few important things, so it might me a more Ecuadorian Thanksgiving than we think. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. It is by far my favorite holiday, so I will be missing my cranberry sauce, family, and famous gratitude circle. I’ll be there in thought. Wear your Turkey pants and eat some extra in my honor!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Mama Negra, the Devil's Nose, and more...

I don’t even know where to start because this past week has been completely packed with new experiences. Thursday was the Day of the Dead, and it was amazing. I went to an old, indigenous village in the north of Quito, and I was able to experience the age-old traditions of indigenous families who came to clean and paint the graves and tombstones of their loved ones. They also brought massive portions of plantains, soups, special breads and fruit to eat with the dead. I don’t really like cemeteries, so it was kind of creepy seeing so many people standing on and eating over the graves. Some of the graves were very humble, and others were ornate, but many were simply forgotten. That was sad to see, especially if I could see that it was the grave of a baby. The people really weren’t crying either, as it was more of a celebration, and the people were happy to be there. I also had the chance to visit two of the major churches here to see the catacombs (San Francisco and the Basilica). The catacombs are only open during this day, so family members can only visit their dead one day a year. The catacombs are kind of eerie because they were kind of humid and there were practically innumerable hallways of mausoleums. Mausoleums are basically the only way to contain the dead because there simply isn’t enough land for burials (except in the north). In order to secure a space for a dead family member, the family has to rent the space. From what I understand (and I hope I am horribly mistaken), a person cannot buy the space forever. So when the family forgets, ceases to exists, or simply forgets to “pay the rent”, the caretakers empty the space in the mausoleum and throw away the bones. Just like that! There were some really old graves though, and some even dated back to the 1800s. While it’s not exactly my cup of tea to hang out in cemeteries all day, I enjoyed this very unique Latin American experience, and I admire the respect the people display for their loved ones.

This weekend was pure craziness. I went with another Rotary scholar, Emily, to Latacunga, a town about 1.5 hours south of Quito (on a good day). Latacunga is a small town compared to Quito, and everyone was talking about an insane fiesta that would be going on called Mama Negra (Black Mother), so we made it our mission to go. It took us forever to get there, but the excitement was palpable on the bus, and it was worth the trek. I don’t know the history too well about this parade, but apparently, during the founding of the city, the people found a statue of a woman that was covered in what they thought was black paint. After trying to wash off the “paint”, they realized that it was indeed a statue of a black woman. They then honored this statue and a fiesta followed called Mama Negra. I might have this wrong, but that’s what I understood from the woman next to me in the parade! Honoring a woman, especially a black woman, is unique and surprising in Ecuador because of both machista attitudes and strong, prejudicial stereotypes against the black population, which constitutes a small portion of the total population. We could hardly move in the streets because of all the people, but that kind of made it all the more fun. Basically, the whole parade (about four hours), honors the Mama Negra, who actually is not even a woman! It’s a man that paints himself black and rides on a horse. The honor of being the Mama Negra is supreme, and it’s passed down every year to important figureheads in the community. The star is not the only one who cross-dresses. There are tons of men dressed as women, complete with wigs, sequins, and dresses who entertain the crowd. And…the people in the parade don’t throw out candies like in the United States. Instead they are all equipped with bottles of alcohol, and they pour their lot in the mouths of the crowd or in their cups. Another favorite was .75 cent boxes of wine that they threw out instead of candy. As you can imagine, I’ve never seen so many drunk people in my life, but it didn’t get dangerous. People (and I especially mean the MEN) just went to the bathroom anywhere they deemed fit, which made us really careful of where we walked. Right. It was an awesome parade, and I’m glad that we got to see traditional dances and costumes. How could I have missed a parade honoring a cross-dressing, painted man?

(This is basically a crucified pig that is surrounded by skinned guinea pigs that all have packs of cigarettes and alcohol tied to them)

Sunday was a trek to a city in the southern region of Ecuador called Riobamba. Emily and I wanted to be adventurers and go on the acclaimed “Nariz de Diablo” (Devil’s Nose). I wish I could tell you that we ventured into the unknown and almost escaped death, but it is actually a train ride through tranquil towns and countryside. The reason it holds such a formidable name is because at the end of the 7 HOUR ride (I’m not kidding), we scale down a mountain with switchback rails, and it’s a sight. I’m sure if I were a railroad engineer I would have appreciated it even more. Anyway, we caught the train at an early 6 a.m. and it wove through really poor areas to the south of Riobamba. We saw many poor children that ran alongside the train and clapped as we went by. At first I thought it was really cute that all of the children of the villages came out to see the train, but then I realized that they came to wave to the tourists to try to beg and receive candies. Many vendors came up on the train (we rode the whole way on the roof), and when they saw that we were approaching a pocket of children, they would sell lollipops and other candies to the tourists to throw to the begging children. Some people said that the vendors and the children work in tandem and that the kids returned the sweets to the vendor so they could make more money without having to buy more candy. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that I don’t think people should be throwing candies. If they really wanted to help these children they should throw toothpaste and toothbrushes. Or they could throw books, socks, underwear- whatever would actually help the children. Sure, what child doesn’t like candy, but when I saw two year-olds left abandoned to beg from the train, it just made me think that the tourists are promoting a sort of unhealthy hope and system for the children. We also saw breathtaking plots of land that people cultivate with their herds of animals, and it amazes me that people of such humble resources can exist with so little and yet have everything they really need. Their homes barely exist, and some are literally tied together, but they know how to cultivate almost impossible pieces of land. I hope I can include some pictures of what I saw in the future. Anyway it’s been a packed week, and next week is a week in the jungle with my school, so my next update won’t be for another two weeks. Hope everyone is doing well and is getting ready for Thanksgiving. I’ll miss being home, but I’m planning a killer feast with Emily that we’ll cook for our friends and family here. Hasta luego!