Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Politics as (un)usual

What a day not to have my camera with me. Quito was absolute chaos. The congress here is completely corrupt, and the people are tired of it. Usually congress members aren’t politicians, lawyers, or anything of the like. Instead, they are television personalities and other members of society who have celebrity status for one reason or another. They are VERY well paid by Ecuadorian standards, but what do they do to deserve this $3,800 a month? Interestingly there are no checks and balances within the different branches of government, and therefore, the congress has its autonomous power to do whatever it wants. For instance, the congress recently breached a constitutional law when they decided to re-instate a notoriously corrupt man as the “fiscal”. The constitution states that 1) the fiscal must be elected from a group of three highly qualified people, and 2) a fiscal can never serve the position more than once. This fiscal who was recently appointed, Cucalon, has served as fiscal in the past, and surprise, surprise, he wasn’t elected this time among two other candidates. Error numero uno of the congress. The second error, and that which incited the Ecuadorian public, occurred last night. The Ecuadorian public has been asking for ages for a raise of $10 for the lowest paid laborers of society. The congress decided that $10 a month was just too much and that $4 was more reasonable. Fine. What did them in was their simultaneous decision to raise their own salaries $1,000 a month to $4,800! And who can stop them? Nobody. The interesting part is that Rafael Correa, the new president, voluntarily decided to halve his own salary. Usually presidents in Ecuador make $8,000 a month. He decided that this was unjust in such a poor country and decided to pay himself $4,000. He also included a clause with this decision, however, that states that nobody in a public office can earn more than or equal to his salary. Hmnn. This leaves the congress where then exactly? The congress has enraged the public, breached the constitution, and put themselves at odds with the president. Brilliant.

In light of their decision to stuff their own pockets while allowing the majority of Ecuadorians to live in poverty, the people took to the streets. And I, being the political science student, was just dying to observe. So we went to the protest to see what all the hullabaloo was about. There were literally masses of people screaming, waving banners, chanting vulgarities, throwing eggs at the congress building, violently fighting the police, and escaping the tear gas when it finally came. I am really dangerously nonchalant about tear gas now, which is probably bad. The congress was in session inside the building, but all of the members fled through the back door when they realized their lives were in serious danger. What started out as a peaceful protest slowly evolved into an anarchic, irate display of lawlessness. At this point we decided to call it a day, and it’s a good thing we did.

I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The congress had defied the people and the president. The people were fighting each other, and what was it really all about? $60,000 a year. Would this sum cause complete chaos and anarchy in the U.S.? I don’t think so. But it’s not just about the money. It’s about a system of corrupt “politicians” who have ruled the country for years. It’s about poverty. It’s about a polar divide in society. It’s about not trusting a single member of the government or police. It’s about living off of less than $2.00 a day.

So I got to thinking. What exactly would be the problem with installing a dictatorship here? What would be the benefits and drawbacks? In all honesty, democratic governance has not been effective here on the whole. How can it be when the congress is as corrupt as they come? I honestly can understand why many people would opt for a dictatorship. The president could dissolve the congress, clean up the nation, and try to start anew with democracy in a few years after giving the nation the heavy hand that it needs maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that prior to coming here I didn’t ever know the reality of a truly faulty democracy. I think as Americans we automatically assume that democracy is best because it’s our system and it works rather well for us and has for generations. After living this reality, however, I can honestly say that I’d rather support an effective dictatorship that a completely corrupt democracy. But what if Ecuador turns into a dictatorship? Tourism will likely come to a standstill, and many people will suffer in their businesses. More people will starve. Ecuador will lose international support, and the U.S. will likely enforce an embargo. What is Ecuador to do? Should they reform the country and rid the nation of corruption while simultaneously potentially alienating themselves from the United States and other major world powers? Who would this really be helping if Ecuadorians would just be more adversely affected? Would it cause more poverty? They're stuck between a rock and a hard place as they battle with choosing between the worse of two evils.

This situation has made me realize how important it is to thoroughly investigate foreign news because in the U.S., our news is limited, and we sometimes only hear the end result of foreign affairs. In the case that Ecuador turns into a dictatorship, U.S. citizens would likely only hear how Ecuador is a dictatorship and nothing more. What we wouldn’t be told in the news is that the congress was highly corrupt and made unconstitutional decisions that negatively affected the country. As a student and tourist I probably would opt to travel somewhere else. As a north American, the word “dictator” scared me. But now I can really see the value in complete political control in a developing nation.

I will leave you with a thought in light of today’s events. Is it better to have an open, democratic, but corrupt government, or a dictatorial, but efficient government? We’ll find out soon I suppose.

(I forgot to add that I saw Correa in his armed car today. It passed me on the street just by chance, and I couldn’t get over how he had the window down. That’s very trusting. I waved at him and got “the nod”. I usually hate “the nod”, but this was the best nod ever! I don’t think Bush would ever drive through the streets to see how the public was really living.) Buenas noches a todos.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

First funeral…

Politics are changing in Ecuador. With drastic change come hit men and death apparently. On Wednesday night, while at the Rotary meeting, a Rotarian received a very important phone call, which informed him that the Minister of Defense and her daughter had just died in a “helicopter accident”. I put this in quotes because I find this highly unlikely. When Jaime Roldós, a past president here recently took office, he was killed in a small commuter jet. Funny that Correa and Roldós are very similar in ideology, no? The Minister and her daughter were in two separate helicopters (new, state-of-the-art, armed forces helicopters), and they crashed for some unknown reason. It’s interesting that Nobot, Gutierrez (past ousted president), and Noboa (corrupt candidate for this presidency), all had a meeting last weekend, and now this tragic “accident” occurred. It’s also interesting that both of the helicopters didn’t have black boxes. How exactly does a brand new helicopter not have black box?

The death of this legendary die-hard socialist really hit Quito hard. The President declared a national period of four days to publicly mourn her death. All flags were put at half staff, and there was even a funeral service Thursday in Quito not even 12 hours after her death. I really wanted to go to find out more information. So I went. I was able to see President Correa in person (15 meters away). I am so astounded that the common public can be so close to the President here. My only point of reference is the heavily guarded President Bush, so this “mix with the commoners” deal really has piqued my interest. I sat among the schoolmates of the daughter of the Minister, who also passed away. It’s funny how funerals are really sad even if you never knew the person. I watched all of her classmates hug, cry, and try to console each other, and I just thought to myself that I’ve been rather lucky not to have had to experience the death of a best friend. It was kind of surreal actually to be surrounded by the chants and red flags of the members of the Ecuadorian socialist party. In all honesty, I was kind of uncomfortable to be surrounded by chants calling for Marxism and socialist reform. The irony though was that in a sea of black and mourning, the intense red color of the party stuck out like pulsating, vibrant, bleeding life.

I sat in the stands observing all the people: indigenous leaders, diplomats, congressmen, past presidents, family members, schoolmates, political revolutionaries, members of the press, etc. It was a conglomeration of all members of society. The members of the press really made an impression on me though. They seriously behave kind of like bloodthirsty animals. They scramble, scatter, stretch, and sprint to get that million dollar picture of the Minister's sister who can’t hold in the tears any more. I found them to be a bit ruthless, although I understand that they have stories to write. For crying out loud though, is it so hard to honor silence? As I was saying, it was surreal to hear the chants of the socialists while watching the bishop walk up the path to the coffins. He was carrying a white and a red rose, one for both the mother and daughter. He approached the public in complete, solemn calmness, but to his left were paparazzi and the throngs of disrespectful chanters. Then came the protests. It really was the most interesting funeral service I have ever been to. I just hope that the President exercises good caution, because if history repeats itself, he is the next to go.

I also wanted to fill you in on some other little things that have happened recently. I noticed a sign in the bus the other day that really made me laugh. It said, “Be respectful, and keep the bus clean please; throw your trash out the window”. I wish I were joking! This may explain why Quito is so very dirty. It’s incredible. Anything that has a convex surface is considered to be a perfect resting place for all kinds of garbage. I really don’t understand why they don’t have better recycling initiatives here. So much plastic, paper, and glass goes to waste. It really pains me to throw these products away. There are just so many other pressing needs that recycling has always taken a back seat, which is a shame.

I recently had an interesting conversation with my new professor about prostitution in Quito. He told me that it is technically illegal, but there are certain sectors that go conveniently overlooked by the police. In order for prostitutes to pass under the radar, they must work only in these certain sections and they must carry a medical card with them, which shows their blood work results every three months. If they are caught outside the zone, or without their card, they are doomed. I find this really interesting. The government officially states that prostitution is illegal, yet the same government also has a rubric of official requirements for this business. Makes you wonder…

That’s all for now, folks. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I’ve found a new love of ping-pong, and pretty soon I’ll be ready to take on Forrest. Forrest Gump, that is. Seriously though, it’s fun. I challenge you all when I get back!

Friday, January 19, 2007

A season of many firsts

I have a lot of random, disjointed anecdotes to share with you, so bare with me.

I’ll start with some really stirring images I saw on the television concerning robbers in an indigenous town. The robbers had apparently stolen some tools and chickens, and their misfortune was that they were caught. Worse yet, they weren’t apprehended by the police, but rather by the indigenous locals. Stealing in indigenous villages is a serious sin. The three core mandates of many indigenous groups are the following: 1) do not steal, 2) do not lie, and 3) do not be lazy. I think I commented earlier about how indigenous members of a town called Pelileo attempted to burn a criminal alive at the stake. It’s a sad reality that many of the indigenous are forced to take justice into their own hands because they know the “police” will not intervene. I think that many actually prefer that the police don’t intervene because they want to practice their age-old system of justice. Whatever the real reason is for the lack of real police presence, I don’t know, but what I saw made an impression on me that will be hard to shake. The whole town congregated (including young, old, infirm, disabled, the WHOLE town), and they even brought lawn chairs, drinks and visors. This was a spectacle, sport, an interesting Saturday afternoon’s activity that would teach their children a good lesson. The two robbers were stripped to their underwear. They were first lashed with really hard straw whips. Then came the most terrifying part for me. They were completely smothered with stinging nettles. I had a small taste of stinging nettles in the jungle, and the blisters the plant caused hurt like mad. I can only imagine how it must feel all over your body. Then, to finish off the lovely castigation, the two men were both doused with ice cold water (I saw the ice cubes) just in case the bleeding wounds and prickling blisters all over their bodies weren’t hurting enough.

I didn’t really know what to think. On the one hand, I had to blink and remind myself that I am living in the 21st century, but on the other hand, their system of reprobation is serious, and I doubt that those two men will be repeat offenders. I can also guarantee you that none of those children who were present will even think twice about stealing. There is definite merit in this. Sometimes people need to be singled out to make a lasting impression for the whole.

Moving right along…I had the chance to go with my professor to the numismatic museum here, and I thought it was really intense to see her reaction the exhibit. Ever since dollarization, the people here have talked about how much better it was to have the Real and Sucre. The Sucre, when it was strong, enabled a middle class, and 100 sucres could buy groceries for a family of six for a week. In 2000, when the cunning economists had waited long enough during the inflationary process, 25,000 Sucres was equivalent to one dollar. Insane. College tuition cost about 500 Sucres in the past, then in 2000 the tuition was thousands upon thousands of Sucres. I saw my professor’s face and demeanor completely change as we walked into the room with a collection of old Sucres. I listened to her recall a happier, more prosperous time. She looked at all the bills and told me what she could buy with them in the past. They were also gorgeous colors of the rainbow, and she said that people never even looked at the number value; they knew the value by the color. This has caused many problems here because people weren’t used to looking at the number ($1, $5, $10, etc.), so they were kind of confused at first (and many were conned). I tried to imagine what the experience must of felt like for her. Here she was, standing in a room full of currency that used to be completely valid. Now the money is a tourist attraction. How would I feel if all of a sudden I were looking at millions of American dollars that meant absolutely nothing because the U.S. had been more or less forced to adopt the currency of the world’s superpower? I sometimes gather that the people feel like they lost part of their Ecuadorian identity when dollarization place. What had been theirs for a very long time was suddenly taken away and made null and void. I guess the situation wouldn’t be so bad if they liked the dollar, but the majority don’t.

Another issue that I think is kind of interesting is that the highest level of education that is offered here is the Masters degree. Sure, there are law degrees and medical degrees, but for students to receive a Ph.D. in any other field, they have to leave the country. Basically this means that if a student isn’t fortunate enough to receive a scholarship, the highest level of education they can obtain is predetermined, and only the wealthy can enjoy the luxury of pursuing higher degrees.

Ah! Big news in the world of Rotary. I finally gave my first presentation. I kept asking for months, and there was never a good time for them, so I finally insisted and presented this past Wednesday. I practiced on all the students at my school (there are actually a lot now). In spite of having practiced, I was surprisingly nervous! It went really well though. I was glad that I finally got to explain what my purpose is here, because I hadn’t really had positive Rotary experiences here so far. I go to the meetings every Wednesday night at the Swissotel, but nobody really tries to include me and involve me in conversation or in the club for that matter. This is in part because the club is ALL men. Well, there is one woman, but she rarely comes. I am always very uncomfortable with the club, but after the presentation I felt much better. I found it very funny as well how everyone paid so much attention to me from the minute I walked in the room because I was wearing a suit. My my my how a suit changes everything. (I usually wear less formal clothing, and coincidentally, no one makes an effort to speak to me). This night though, the whole club wanted to know my name and they “introduced” me to the club. I laughed because many of them didn’t even realize I was the same girl that had been attending their meetings for the past three months. Anyway, I talked all about my host Rotary club in Downtown Gainesville (6970), and I spoke about Gainesville, Florida, the U.S., and all about my experiences in Ecuador and the cultural differences I have experienced. They were really laughing during some parts that I hadn’t even anticipated. I’m really glad that the presentation finally broke the ice, because a Colorado Springs Rotary club is coming to Quito early February for a wheel chair project, and I really want to travel around Ecuador helping them with the distribution of chairs.

This past Thursday I went to my volunteer site, a refuge for adolescent mothers. I am just starting with the organization, so it was my second visit. I first felt very uneasy because I was thinking about how the girls would view me. Unfortunately, my predictions were right. I entered and saw about four mothers and their babies staring me straight in the face. What exactly should I say? Do I just smile and try to find something to talk about? Should I be nervous that I don’t speak Spanish perfectly? Should I just keep my distance and let them approach me if they want? I don’t know the next thing about being pregnant or the hardships that these girls have had to go through. The very reason they’re there is because they have nowhere else to go. Their families have kicked them out because their pregnancies are shamed. So how exactly do I go about relating to these girls who are the same age as me (or younger even)? They just looked at me with somewhat questioning, yet primarily disinterested eyes. Maybe it was just because of my own uneasiness there, but I felt like they were thinking “Who is this north American girl who knows nothing about us? How could she possibly help us? She knows nothing about our lives. I bet she’s just here to fulfill some volunteer requirement or to feel good about herself.” That’s the definite impression I got, so this is going to be a hard one, folks. The most striking part of the visit, however, was completely unexpected. Before going I was thinking that I would primarily help the mothers by teaching English classes, listening to their stories, helping in workshops, etc. I quickly found that there is more need that what I had anticipated. I walked into a common room and noticed one girl helping three young mothers. I didn’t focus on what they were doing because I just wanted to sit down to see if the group would be nicer that the last one. I finally asked what they were doing (naively), and the girl who was teaching responded point blankly, “learning how to read and write”. I took an audible gulp. I hadn’t even considered the illiteracy factor of some of the mothers. Here I was thinking about the babies of these women, but the women themselves have elementary levels of education as well. I immediately felt a strong wave of disbelief come over me. These three ladies were in their 20s, and they have children. And they don’t know the difference between blue and yellow. I then looked at their adorable children and felt my heart sink. How can I hope for these children when their mothers can’t help them? Then I thought, no, Lauren, you have no right to judge these women, just as you don’t want them judging you. But this is a hard situation. Illiterate adults with the cognitive development of young children are having more children.

Another interesting event in Ecuador is that the new president, Rafael Correa took office on January 15th (Monday). It was a grand day of meetings and much pomp and circumstance. I wanted to experience all of the hullaballo, so I went, well, attempted, to go to the congressional building in the morning. I heard that practically all of the South American presidents would be there. Indeed, Chavez, Uribe, Bachelet, Lula, Garcia, and Morales were there. The president of Iran also came. Yes, you read that right. It seems as though in Correa’s infinite political wisdom, he decided to invite all the world leaders to his inauguration, and that includes the president of Iran. I can’t believe I was within meters of both Chavez and the president of Iran. I know it’s silly, but I was actually a little on edge because of my U.S. identity. You never really know what can happen. I saw loads of posters with Correa and Chavez shaking hands and embracing, and this also made me take a few deep breaths. Anyway, the police were blocking passage on the road that leads to the congressional building, but I decided to be my persistent self and get us in. The funniest thing is that the only I.D. I had on me was my ISIC card! Ha! I flashed it to the police and told me that I was a representative of U.S. students and that I was writing an important report on the election. He believed me and let me through. That ISIC card really saved the day. I had perfect timing because as soon as we entered we saw Correa’s brigade- the whole bit. It was great. I’m interested to see if/what things will change in the coming months under his presidency. I’m optimistically hoping that he will be unlike most of his predecessors.

I hope 2007 is treating you all well. E-mail me or send me snail-mail. I like hearing from you!

Saturday, January 13, 2007


I know this is long overdue, but I just wanted to say Go Gators! I watched the game with other Gators here in Quito (as well as Buckeyes), and it was really great. My dad graduated from Ohio State, so bets were going strong, but alas, the BETTER TEAM WON!

I know this picture is blurry, but can you see the time and quarter? 1st quarter, 14:45 on the clock, and what's the score? 7-0!! I honestly thought it was all over...

More to come soon!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Holidays, Peru, and Parasites…oh my

I am so sorry that it’s taken me almost a month to update the blog, but it’s been a whirlwind month in the life of Lauren. Being in Quito during the holiday season was an eye-opener, as it was a really different experience. Pictured at left is the Rotary Christmas party, and it was quite a grand event. Quito was very alive with the Christmas spirit. Many people put their Christmas trees outside on their terraces, and practically every family had a nativity. The churches also constructed massive nativity scenes, and there was even a scene in the local market made out of only fruits and vegetables! The streets turned into seas of green and red, and a shopping frenzy really did hit the city. It was interesting seeing the families that had the financial means to buy gifts and those who didn’t. Many poor families came from the smaller towns to beg for money, and the highways and city streets were literally packed with begging children asking for charity during the holidays. Some kids even held ropes across the roads to force cars to stop (and hence make the driver pay the children to drop the rope). I’ve never seen so many begging children in my life. Many Quiteños that I’ve talked to have said that they really dislike Christmas because it’s hard to see so many needy, starving families. Others protest the consumerism that hits the city, and I even saw a Santa Claus (stuffed) being hanged from a bridge in the city with a sign that said “consumerism will suffocate you”. My impression is that there are very mixed feelings about Christmas. A lot of people hand out little packages of candy and animal crackers, but I was so tired of seeing people give the children candy that Kjell and I went to buy toothbrushes and toothpaste to hand out to the children. We went with an Ecuadorian friend of mine to an orphanage to hand them out (pictured below), and we later just walked the streets and gave them to the children. (A lot of the beggar families come prepared though, and we even saw them toting sacks full of hand-outs they had received). I didn’t see anything at all relating to Hanukkah, which was sad, but thanks to the people who sent me such beautiful cards.

Quiteños celebrate Christmas more on the 24th than on the 25th. This seems to be the case with most holidays here, as I think they prefer to sleep and recover on the actual day. I helped Juana (house mom) a little to prepare Christmas dinner, and I made my grandmother’s famous potato salad and lemon pudding. Juana liked the Thanksgiving dinner I made so much that she insisted on fresh pumpkin pie again! The whole family came to the house, which was really nice because I hadn’t met any of the family prior to Christmas. The tradition is to eat at 12 a.m. on the 25th, but we gave in at 10 p.m. We also exchanged gifts after dinner. It was really nice to spend this time with them, and I loved seeing how another family celebrates the holiday. They don’t really lavish each other in gifts. It’s more about cooking and being together all day.

As many of you know, Kjell came on December 16th, and we traveled around Ecuador and Peru. We had such a great time, and it was such a treat to have my own body guard for two weeks. We saw all of the highlights of Quito (the virgin statue, parks, museums, the Teleferiqo, markets, malls, etc.), and we even squeezed in a salsa lesson at my favorite place. We traveled to Mindo, a very tranquil jungle-ish town that has tons of birds, butterflies, and orchids. It was literally one street long, so it was really quaint. We saw absolutely amazing waterfalls, and we went on really long hikes (one of which was straight up the side of a mountain with only a rope to help us along). It really was a nature lover’s paradise, so it was a much appreciated change from Quito.

After having gone to the very touristy Otavalo market in the north, I wanted to go to a more authentic, indigenous market, so we went to a town called Saqusilí, and it was a sight to be had. We were two of six tourists (yes, we counted), because the town was pulsing with indigenous people buying their weekly goods, and we stuck out like a sore thumb. There were four markets in close proximity: a potato maket, a textile market, a fruit/veggie/miscellaneous market, and an animal market (which completely blew me away). The animal market had a very distinct smell of fish mixed with chicken, guinea pig, and rabbit, so you can only imagine how long we lasted there. We saw tons of people crowded around big cloth sacks, and we didn’t understand what was going on. Plus, where were all the animals? It turns out that the rabbits and guinea pigs (cuy) were in the sacks because the sacks were moving! We saw tons of live chickens and cuy, and I still can’t get used to the idea of eating guinea pig (but we did- keep reading).

After the Saqusilí experience, we ventured to the Cotopaxi volcano, which is close to a town called Latacunga. It was a stressful adventure just getting there, but it was worth the anxiety because we hiked to the refuge, in the snow no less, and it was an impressive sight! One day we are hiking in tropical forests and the next we are half-way up an active volcano. We definitely hadn’t planned for snow, and we were in our tennis shoes and jeans. We, the two bumbling Floridians, quickly realized that we were in for it and succumbed to wetness and extreme cold. When we entered the refuge we saw everyone else in their Gore-tex and super-human strength hiking equipment, and we felt really ridiculous. The next day we ventured off to a volcanic crater lake called Laguna Quilatoa. We went with the brother (and family) of my favorite professor, so it was an interesting experience to spend the day traveling with an Ecuadorian family (advantages and disadvantages). After getting horribly lost, we finally got to the most beautiful lake I have ever seen. (Other than Bear lake). Its piercing blue/green color coupled with majestic rock/mountain formations circling it created for a truly unique sight. We hiked down to the bottom and took “donkeys” back up the almost vertical climb. The donkeys were a riot because we rode them bareback, and they were really lame, so were laughing the whole way.
(Yes, that's snow and ice behind us. Can you see the snowflakes on my eyelashes?!!!)

Kjell and I also had the chance to go to Otavalo so he could see the craziness that goes on there as well. Otavalo doesn’t even hold a candle to Saquisilí, however. We later went to Cotocachi, a small town to the north of Otavalo, because its specialty is leather goods. Kjell is now the best-equipped French teacher in the state of Florida! Later we went to a lake near the town called Cuicocha. I had to haggle with the taxi driver (why do they all try to take advantage of tourists without fail?), but we got there. It was another stellar view. We hiked up the ridge a little bit, and as we ascended we had a 360 degree panoramic view of the beauty of Ecuador. Amazing!

On Christmas day, Kjell and I ventured to Peru. This was an adventure and a half. We flew to Lima, and I had heard that Lima was really dangerous, so I was on high alert. We had the taxi driver take us to the center to town for a short tour, and Lima is really a beautiful city. I had been so scared of it that I was really surprised to see how much it offered. The town square was amazing, and the supreme court building, along with the colonial style buildings, are truly worth visiting (more than a night, that is). We then moved on to Cusco, the hub and starting point of the Machu Picchu adventure. Cusco is a really quaint city, and we walked the whole thing in one day. We were completely museumed out by the end of the day. We tried coca tea for the first time, and it tasted like normal tea. It’s entirely legal, as cocaine production relies on other chemical agents and literally tons of coca leaves. We tried some mystery soups and food in Cusco as well, and we paid dearly for this. While in Cusco we saw really interesting remnants of Inca architecture and stonework. The Spanish colonizers built on top of the Incan ruins, which created for really interesting structures of stone on the bottom and Spanish architecture on the top and for the walls. The streets are cobblestone and are really narrow. Some streets still have the old, Incan walls, and we even saw the famed 12-sided stone and the “puma” shape that’s said to exist in the rock wall. (The puma was one of the most important and sacred animals for the Incas.)

The next day we went to a valley that certainly lives up to its name: the Sacred Valley. It is a valley of gorgeous scenery and Inca ruins. We first went to Sachsaywaman and saw the amazing, ragged (yet purposeful) creation of the Incas. Some of the rocks were 5 times my height (which yes, I know isn’t that much of a feat given my stature, but you get the point). We then went to Pisaq, which was my favorite. We saw old Incan “baths”, and I learned more about the ingenuity and precision of the Incas. They constructed conduits for running water, and they figured out exactly what kind of architecture was necessary to withstand earthquakes. Amazing. From there we traveled to Ollantaytambo or “Ollanta” for short, and this was another remarkable Incan fortress. By the way, I learned that there were only 13 real Incas in history. Only the kings of the tribes were called Incas. The people they ruled over were called Quechuas, and they never received the title of Inca, for it was only reserved for the kings. Also, the women never wore gold in these times, as gold was the symbol for man, and silver was the metal for women. Our tour guide’s wedding ring, for example, still carried this tradition, as it was a mix of silver and gold. It also wasn’t believed that gold was very precious (more precious was the spondylus shell). The Incas believed that gold was the earthly representation of the sun, their deity. It was thought to be masculine while the moon was feminine. Thus, the earth was in perfect harmony between sun and moon (woman and man).

The next day (day 3) we began our Machu Picchu adventure. It was absolutely unforgettable (for good and bad reasons)! The travel agency I had booked with overlooked us, so we had some glitches, but needless to say, we arrived at kilometer 104 of the train, and we began our two-day Inca trail adventure. We hiked for about seven hours the first day. The trail itself was more exposed than I would have liked, as power lines were visible, but after a while we climbed further into the mountain, and the beautiful landscape slowly revealed itself to us. We trekked through about four different climates, as some parts were quite dry, others were tropical, others were downright rainy and muddy, and others were so thick with fog that we could barely see ten feet in front of us. I learned that in olden days there was not just one Inca trail, but rather about eight trails existed, and they spanned from the northern tip of Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and more to the south as well. They were paths for the Inca tribes and warriors to travel from tribe to tribe. They moved goods and really vital information through these paths. Runners in the day used to carry ropes that had been tied in knots in a special way (but a trained person) to another tribe, and there used to be only one person who understood the knots and who could relate the message to the town. This way if the runners were captured with the message, the captors would not be able to decipher the message written in knots. The runners used to run on the Inca trail with a satchel of coca leaves to give them energy without having to eat because the leaves contain iron, calcium, and other vital nutrients.

The rain at the end of the day was really quite strong, so I was really worried that we wouldn’t be able to see Machu Picchu. However, as we approached the “postcard” lookout point, the clouds opened, and there was one of the most awesome sights and feats of human creation staring me in the face. After walking all day thinking about what it was going to look like, Machu Picchu revealed itself to us, and I was completely overwhelmed by its grandeur. Kjell and I literally stopped in our tracks to soak it all in. The mountains that surround it are enormous, and they make you feel like you are simultaneously trapped and free in the valley. We stayed in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, and the next day, we rose with the roosters and were at Machu Picchu at 6:30. It was a perfect time to go, as the dense clouds slowly began to lift, and we were able to witness the transformation of Machu Picchu practically by ourselves because the throngs of tourists hadn’t arrived yet. Our tour guide explained the many parts of Machu Picchu to us, and then we had a few hours to roam. We saw the living quarters of the nobility and commoners, the common areas, the amazing condor creation and many other things. The sun-dial was quite impressive as well. Apparently, the creators of the national Peruvian beer, Pilsen, wanted to film a commercial in Machu Picchu and somehow “sneaked” a crane into the ruins. The arm of the crane fell and chipped off the most vital part of the sun-dial, and we could see the damage. Can you believe that the company ruined one of the best sun dials of all time just to make a measly beer commercial?

Kjell really wanted to climb up Waynapicchu, the mountain that frames the ruins in the background of all the pictures. They only allow 400 people to climb every day, so we were really lucky to go up, STRAIGHT up, that is. We ascended in record time, and we were able to see Machu Picchu from a really neat angle, as we were perched really high above the ruins. I can’t say enough about Machu Picchu. It completely blew me away. On the way back to Cusco, we took a really hilarious tourist train, and the attendants gave us a song and dance show. As if that wasn’t enough, they then put on a ridiculous fashion show trying to entice the customers to buy alpaca goods. By the way, alpaca is absolutely amazing. I know understand why the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, wears it everywhere.

After our amazing Machu Picchu triumph, we decided that it was time to finally try the Andean delicacy that we’ve been fearing for so long: cuy (guinea pig). We decided to have it oven baked instead of fried because we really couldn’t stomach the idea of biting into crunchy guinea pig skin. It was presented to us in traditional fashion- head, teeth, paws and all. Yummmm. It was then quartered for us, and we dug in. Firstly, there really isn’t much meat on a guinea pig, and secondly, it had a really distinct taste, and I didn’t like it one bit. I should probably try it again, but it may be a while, because I associate it with severe food poisoning. Who knows what exactly it was that we ate, but Kjell and I became violently ill on the way home to Quito. Nothing really is as embarrassing as fainting in the isle of a packed plane. Yep, that’s precisely what I did. I thought I was dreaming but then I realized that all of the Spanish-speaking people that were crowded over me were real (as was the orange juice that was running down my face). Fainting+trying to speak in Spanish after fainting really just through me for a loop. Poor Kjell was worse off than I was, and he got to such a point that I decided to take us to the hospital. Going to a hospital at 3 a.m. in a developing nation is kind of a scary thing, but everything turned out fine. It turns out that we both had severe bacterial infections and parasites! I like to think it’s E. Coli because that sounds more interesting, right? I was really disappointed that we were so sick because I had been looking forward to New Year’s eve so much. The Ecuadorians have so many fascinating superstitions. They burn huge, stuffed dolls, change into yellow underwear, eat 12 grapes, and run around the block with packed suitcases at midnight. They also cross dress a whole lot, and it’s more like the U.S. Halloween. Oh well, next year! Anyway we’re back to normal now. I’m studying again at my academy, and life in Quito has resumed.

A happy, healthy, and prosperous 2007 to everyone!