Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Superstitions and...TEAR GAS!

This has been a rather calm week after the Quito fiesta-ing last week. I had to accustom myself once again to eight hours of daily Spanish class, and there was a lot of coffee involved (which I know is bad). Ecuadorians are big coffee lovers, and they often drink “esencia”, or “essence”, which is a reduced, extremely potent coffee syrup to which they add water or milk. I especially love the steamed milk varieties. They have all kinds of yummy drinks actually. I recently tried one called ponche, and it consists of a raw egg that is slowly cooked in boiling milk. It kind of tastes like egg nog. They also drink “morocho”, which really sticks to your ribs. It is made from corn flour and all kinds of interesting stuff. I have had a bit of a cold lately, so I decided to take the plunge and try one of the really scary tea concoctions on the street with my professor. I honestly felt like I was drinking some kind of green goop you would see on Double Dare (you know, the old T.V. show). The man first asked me what all of my symptoms were, and then he mixed all of these different kinds of liquids together (although I think he makes the same drink regardless of what the client describes). To this viscous mixture he added pollen seeds and other flaky things that scared me. Then he topped it off with aloe! I drank the whole thing and waited to die, but I was perfectly fine, if not even a bit better. They also have awesome fruit drinks here, and I really like “batidos” because they are made with milk and sugar. Yummmm. The fruit here is unreal. It is so fresh, and there are so many types that we simply don’t have in the U.S. Pitahaya, Maracuya, Babaco, and Granadilla are just a few examples of what the U.S. is missing out on.

I don’t think I’ve really touched on the highly superstitious nature of the people here, so I thought I’d share my experience on the bus today that I thought was impactful. I was sitting with my professor and I was admiring a really cute, chubby baby that was swaddled in a blanket. I kept staring at the baby and the baby caught my gaze and wouldn’t avert his eyes. His mother realized that he was looking at me and immediately covered his eyes. She then let me know in a not-so-subtle way that it was not okay to be looking at her baby. I was kind of taken aback, because usually people are complimented in the U.S. when you tell them that their baby is adorable. My professor told me that the reason she covered his eyes was to prevent my energy from entering her baby. Being that adults are older and stronger than babies, some people believe that adults can easily transfer their bad energy to babies. Many parents also put a red bracelet on their children’s wrists, because the color red is believed to ward off bad energy. I also noticed in some situations that people do not shake hands. I found this odd because people are typically very warm and welcoming here. I was told that negative energies can pass through the hand, and if a person is having a really good day, they hesitate to shake hands in fear that they will lose their good energy. Likewise, people do not want to receive potential negative energy, and they may not shake hands. Another interesting practice involves the famed guinea pig, or cuy. Sometimes people go to a shaman if they aren’t feeling well. The shaman will pass a live guinea pig over the entire body of the infirm, and then he will kill the guinea pig. He will then cut open the animal and observe all abnormalities with its organs. They say that the guinea pig instantly changes and absorbs the disease or problem of the sick person, and the shaman can find out what’s wrong with the patient by looking at the now sick guinea pig. I’m skeptical. Another superstition is not bathing after eating. I’m rather sure this derived from the common-held belief that swimming after eating is dangerous. I was not too surprised by this thought because the same thing happened in Costa Rica. My house mother, Juana, is always waiting for something fatal to happen when I shower after dinner, but I’ve survived unscathed so far, thank goodness. I can’t think of any more superstitions, but there are tons more.

The Christmas season is picking up here, and it’s been fun too see all of the nativities, lights, and trees. Ecuadorians celebrate Christmas much in the same way that Americans celebrate the holiday. Many people have never heard of Hanukkah though, which is funny. I was describing the dreidel game to a professor, and he told me that they play a similar game in Ecuador with a four-sided top. I looked into it a little more, and I soon realized that it is actually a derivative of the dreidel game. Exiled Jews from Spain brought the game here, which I think is really neat. It’s lost its religious significance today in Ecuador, but its roots are with the Spanish Jews centuries back. Many people here are dreading the holiday season because they don’t have anything to give to their families. The more fortunate also dislike seeing the sadness and poverty in the streets. I was told that many indigenous people come from their homes in the farms and fields to Quito to ask for charity. It has been interesting to see the shopping malls here and to observe the people who have the resources to shop in them. They compose such a small percentage of the population.

I also want to touch on an interesting conversation I had over dinner with my host family tonight. My roommate, Karin, is from Switzerland, and her Mexican friend, Sandra, flew in from Mexico D.F. last night. We all had dinner with Cesar and Juana (dad and mom), and we talked about stereotypical slang. Cesar asked me if I was offended when someone called me a gringa. It truly depends on the intent and tone of voice in my opinion because I’ve come to see that not everyone intends to offend when they use the word gringo. Nevertheless, the word still has negative connotations, and I’m not quite sure why. Ecuadorians use the word to describe all foreigners of lighter skin, not just North Americans. I’ve always thought that being called a gringo was an insult because it assumes that as Americans we are brutish, arrogant, insensitive, egotistical, and unaware of other nations. I’ve never really thought about it or asked fellow Americans about it though. My house father thinks it’s a synonym for foreigner, devoid of all negative connotation. Who knows? I’d like to hear your feedback about this if you get a chance. Are you or would you be offended to be called a gringo? What kinds of connotations does the term hold for you? (I’ve also observed how important it is not to say “American” to refer to someone living in the United States. NORTH American or Estadounidense is preferable because all South Americans are Americans technically as well).

Oh! I almost forgot to talk about my first experience with tear gas! Yikes! That stuff is horribly immobilizing. I was walking to the bus in my own little world last Friday when, all of a sudden, I noticed that everyone was walking away from the main street covering their mouths and wiping their eyes. How strange, I thought. I kept on walking (like a complete idiot), and then I saw a massive protest. Behind the mob were clouds of tear gas. I quickly realized that I probably needed to not be in the middle of a protest, so I jetted and ran. Tear gas is so fast-acting it’s amazing. It affects your throat more than it affects your eyes, in fact. I honestly felt like if I didn’t drink something my throat was literally going to fall out of my body. It comes to find out that college students all over Quito are protesting because the city bus drivers want to raise the rate from .25 cents to .35 cents. All of this rioting is over a mere ten cents, but when a Quiteño rides four buses daily, this increase can add up. Needless to say, the protests are still going on, but I’ve found a better way to get home tear gas free.

This is the week in review. I hope everyone who is still in university isn’t stressing too much over final exams. It sure is nice not to be in those shoes right now! For any and all who want a silly laugh, I’d recommend seeing “Happy Feet”. It’s a movie that combines a little Latino culture with penguin life…something we all could use.

Monday, December 04, 2006

¡Viva Quito…Viva!

The fiestas de Quito are in fully swing, and I am thoroughly wiped out because I’ve been all over the city festejando in the past week. Wednesday was my first Corrida de Toros, or bull fight. I had heard that bull fights are kind of vulgar town events, but I found the bull fight to be thoroughly entertaining and in good taste. The corrida is still going on, as there are nine days of activities, and I went on a day when six different toreros (bull fighters) from Spain, Ecuador, and Mexico fought. Bull fighting really is an art. People really dress up to come to the plaza de toros, and not a single man is caught without his Panama hat (by the way, “Panama hats” are really from Monticristi, Ecuador). It’s quite the who’s who. The first fight we saw was a Rejoneador, or a torero on horseback. He never actually got off the horse, but rather killed the bull and did everything else on horseback. He was only 22! There are actually five stages to a bull fight. (I never knew this.) The “autoridad” decides how long each stage will last, and he has a quorum of bugle-blowers that announce the stages. The bull first comes out and the helpers to the torero taunt it with their capes to tire it a bit. Then come the “picadores”, men on horseback (not the toreros) who jab a spear in the back of the bull, which begins the bleeding process because it’s a profound wound in their backs. Then come the “banderillas”, the little spears that the “banderillero” (another person who is not the torero) puts in the back of the bull. Then, FINALLY, comes the torero with his (or her) cape, which is technically called a “muleta”. During this stage, the torero displays his/her ability with the cape, and it is a sight to be seen. The bull is thoroughly tired by this point, so it’s not as if the torero has complete domination over the bull in a sense, but on the other hand, they do some really amazing things with their cape that I don’t really care if it’s not completely legit. I had the chance to see a woman bull fighter, and she actually prefers to be called a “torero” and not a “torera”, as if to signal her complete equality with the men I think. She was fearless.

As I’ve mentioned, this week holds the fiestas of Quito, which commemorate its founding in the 1500s by the Spanish. Many indigenous groups oppose this holiday because it signals the perversion and conquest of their people, and for this reason, there is a concerted effort to praise and honor the indigenous tribes. Thursday, November 30th, marked the official beginning of the holiday, and my friend, Karin, and I went to the Pregón, a HUGE festival in the center of the city. There were all kinds of traditional dances and presentations. There were so many people though that I was holding on to my purse like a madwoman while trying to push and shove my out of the throngs of people. Being here has taught me the importance of traveling light! I try not to take anything that won’t fit in my pockets, and if I do I have to leave the house knowing that it might not come back with me later. On Friday I went with friends to a wooden car race for children. It was a great event because the kids make the cars themselves, and they launch down an insanely steep hill. There are different heats for kids between 10-16 years old, and the kids have car racing uniforms and helmets and everything. We watched with baited breath sometimes though because the kids crashed, but nobody got seriously injured I think.

I also had the opportunity to go a fundraising party for a friend of an Ecuadorian friend of mine. We don’t have similar things in the US, so it was a neat concept for me. It’s a called a Fiesta de Solidaridad (Solidarity) The girl who organized the party has been battling with cancer for a while now, and in order to raise funds for medical costs, she invited everyone she knew to a dance hall. She charged a cover, and she also charged for alcohol, etc. I think it’s a really good idea because her friends can donate money to her while also celebrating having a good time.

Saturday was chock full of activities. I went to a traditional parade in the morning called “Desfile de Confraternidad”, and we saw all kids of school bands, beauty queens, traditional dances, colonial costumes, and traditional Inca dress as well. I learned that some indigenous communities here refuse to inter-marry with other groups, and they have maintained their pure blood since the founding of Ecuador. We also went to a concert called QuitoFest because I wanted to see what the punk rock scene was like here (just out of curiosity), and it was insane. We didn’t stay long, which is good because today I found out that ten people were stabbed in the mosh pit. Apparently there is not only great hostility between the roqueros and the police, but been the different roquero groups themselves as well.

The capstone of the Fiestas de Quito, was, without a doubt, seeing SHAKIRA! All I have to say is that if every woman danced like her the world would be a much happier and beautiful place. She is amazing. We arrived 2.5 hours early because we thought that this would give us PLENTY of time, but we were wrong. We were sitting in the third to last row! The coliseum was really small, which was perfect because we could see her really well. She sang most everything in Spanish, which I loved, but the good ol’ “Hips Don’t Lie” was in English, and I was glad. She is half Lebanese, and she is a trained belly dancer. This training, combined with Colombian blood, is fatal!

Sunday was my second fútbol game here, and it was a poorly played game. The best part of the games is the fans because they are absolutely loco. They have fireworks galore, huge flags that cover entire sections of the stadium, and they throw toilet paper on the field like it’s their job. I learned the Liga (Quito team) chant, so now I can sing with the best of them!

I almost forgot to write a quick note about the Chivas here. Chivas are open-top buses that have live bands on them, and they go around the city during this week. People pay to ride on them, and it’s truly a madhouse. The people drink and blow whistles while riding in the streets of Quito at literally all hours of the day. Yesterday’s big celebration involved the victory of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. He was re-elected as president there, and many of the Venezuelans here and Ecuadorians took to the street to celebrate. I felt a bit uncomfortable because of the U.S.-Venezuelan tension.

Needless to say, it’s been a busy week in Quito, and it makes me wish that we had such town pride in the U.S. Tomorrow is dancing in the street! Take care everyone…and an early Feliz Navidad.