Lauren's adventure in Ecuador

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Row, row, row your boat

My time at the lodge has come to an end, and I´m surprisingly a little sad to leave. I was supposed to volunteer for a month, but instead I cut my stay short by a week because a friend of mine, Tracy, came to visit, and I decided to leave with her! My time at the lodge was great, and the best part was getting to know the staff and the tourists who came from all over the globe. I think I´ve met people from 15 different countries in just three weeks. Living with the staff at the lodge afforded me the opportunity to have really interesting conversations about HIV, education, family structure, natural medicinal remedies (especially for the machaca bug), teenage pregnancy, etc. One of my favorite ladies who works there is only 29 and she´s already a grandmother. I couldn´t believe it. But then I listened to her story multiple nights after dinner, and I came to know one of the strongest women I have ever met. She shared with me a little about the pain in her life, what living in a tiny community is like, and how it was to be pregnant at 13 and now have a daughter who gave birth at 13 as well. When I was leaving I wanted to leave some of my clothing and bathroom things for her, and I gave her a bag of stuff. At first she was really grateful, but then I could tell that something was wrong. I had never anticipated that giving her things would make her feel bad or would be insulting. That obviously was never my intention, but I think I embarrassed her by giving her things. She lamented that she had nothing to give me in return, and I just laughed and told her that she had given me her friendship and dinner conversations and that I had learned a lot from her. She didn´t understand. Anyway, I learned a good lesson with the giving of my clothing that I had never anticipated. I think I should have been more cautious and tactful about giving. It wasn´t charity. I was just trying to help someone that I admire.

Having the opportunity to be in Tena has also been a good experience. It is worlds away from Quito, and I was able to learn about a different community in Ecuador. The town is really small, and everyone knows everyone (seriously). Practically everyone has a child slung around their hip. Most people are very hot, tired, and looking to make a dollar or two. There is literally a brigade of popsicle salespeople, and people roam the streets hawking whatever object it is that they got a good deal on and are trying to sell this week. The people have much darker skin here, and the Kichwa descent is very apparent. Some poeple including guides at the lodge are 100% Kichwa. They also seem to look older to me than they are because of thier thick, leathered skin and multiple children in tow. They are very hard workers, and their posture and finger nails attest to their work ethic. They are also big drinkers, and when they drink it´s not the occasional cocktail, it´s two days of debauchery. Sometimes I stare at the young mothers on the street or bus because I can´t believe how full thier hands are; their babies are usually quite dirty and crying, and they usually have a burlap bag that weighs a ton with some kind of vegetable in it. Likewise, older women walk down the street with no shoes, and I look at their weathered, calloused feet, thier deep, almost chiseled wrinkles, and I think about what kind of life they have had and what they have gone through. I wonder if they´ve ever seen an iPod, if they´ve ever traveled outside of Tena, if they´ve ever had a day to rest, take a bath, and eat chocolate cake. I doubt it. But their life is rich in many other ways. They look at the yucca and corn plantations and smile because they can tell it will be a good harvest, they take their kids canoeing to fish, they drink chicha, and they´re happy to have lived a fruitful, sun-filled day. I really love how life is so slow here. People eat when they´re hungry and sleep when they´re tired. It sounds simple, but it´s a beautiful thing. They take life day by day, and they don´t worry about tomorrow because they´re too worried about making ends meet today.

Tena has been a bit of a shock for me because it´s been dirty, trying, and outside of my comfort zone, but I´m glad I came here and met such wonderful people. I learned tons about medicinal plants and Kichwa cooking, and I saw some of the most amazing sunsets on the Andean range framing the Amazon basin. It´s time to move on now though. Tracy and I went to a small town that we had heard a lot about called Misahualli, but it turned out to be a flop. The best part were the monkeys and not because we ooed and ahhed over them. Quite the contary! I was seated on a bench enjoying a nice ice cream cone when, whoosh!, someone stole my crackers! It wasn´t a person though. It was a sneaky thief. I hate those monkeys! It then started to throw my crackers to break them in the pack and then proceeded to try to open them. Meanwhile, I was confused because I´ve never exactly had to con a monkey into givng me my things back. Fine, take the crackers I thought. But apparently they are intelligent little devils, and he started opening the zippers on my backpack. I saw he was going for where the malaria pills are, and that´s where I drew the line. I just started to throw things to distract him, but this was no small nor stupid monkey, and it bore it´s teeth. I was honestly scared but also upset because I really wanted my ice cream! But at this point I was wearing my ice cream (and so was my backpack). To make matters even more wonderful for me, the poor foreigner, I was smack dab in the middle of the town square, and my hooting and hollering was drawing attention, and people were having a good laugh and the dumb North American. I laughed later becuase I honestly must have looked like a complete idiot fending off this silly monkey, but I was scared it would bite me. A nice boy finally came over and helped me, and my anxiety lowered. Going to the city was worth the monkey experience. Now Tracy and I are getting read to take a four day, white water kayaking class, and I´m psyched. I just hope that I don´t break something or get hurt.

I also wanted to mention that I read online about what happened at Virignia Tech. I honestly couldn´t believe it. I sat back and thought about how many people have expressed how concerned they are for my safety here in Ecuador, and then this happens at a university. I just happened upon Yahoo news and saw the headlines, and I had to take a doubletake because I couldn´t believe what I saw. People down here ask me what is wrong with the United States. First Columbine, now this, they say. Do parents not spend time with their kids? Is it because you all eat fast food? Is it because you are obsessed with success and working a lot? I don´t really have a good answer for them. They have a point though.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Simple pleasures

I´m still surving the Amazon, and I´m learning how to unwind. Who knew it could be so hard to learn how to do nothing and relax? I know, I know, you must be thinking, right, Lauren, poor you. Seriously though, there´s an art to doing nothing. I think there´s even a book by that name, and if there isn´t , I will be more than qualified to write it in about three more weeks. I´m learning how to really appreciate the poeple who come to the lodge. As you know, I´m very much the talker, so I chat away with the guests, and I´ve met some really great people. I know it may sound funny, but I think that people should travel with business cards because I´ve met so many scientists, engineers, and other professionals who´ve met other great contacts from their field at the lodge. I also thought that maybe it´s also because people are on vacation with nothing else to do at night, so they actually give everyone a chance, aren´t caught in the hustle and bustle of their lives, and resign themselves to hammocks and conversation. It´s a beautiful thing to see how people actually listen and entertain themselves by asking people about the most interesting parts of their lives. Everyone really does have a story. Max Ehrmann is right.

I´m also really enjoying the cacao fruit. I know I already mentioned this, but I seriously cannot get over how much I love this fruit. It´s almost better than the chocolate that it later produces. Almost! The mazorca, or the body of the fruit, has this impressive red-orange watercolor look to it when it´s ripe. The most amazing this is that the fruit grows right from the trunk of the tree and not from a branch. (Maybe look it up-it´s neat). Then the fun part comes of whacking it open with a machete. I am getting good at this. Then you finally get to devour the fleshy pulp that cover the beans. I love walking around with my cacao fruits and then taking them tubing with us. La da dee dee doo, just floating down the river with some great fruit. I´ve also made it my business to get a batido (great fruity milshake made with WHOLE milk-yikes) every time I come to town. I´ve had three different kinds so far and plan on trying all 15. Like I said in the title, simple pleasures.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch life is good. I have found which hammocks I like best, and I´ve started to make friends with the staff. It´s funny how a day with nothing planned turns into something. I´ve done a lot of reading, and I especially like Isabel Allende these days. Most people know her for The House of the Spirits, and I´m currently reading her book called Paula (dedicated to her daughter). It´s a good read. I´m also really beginning to learn to love the rain. It´s torrencial here. When it rains, it really rains. Most people want to enjoy the rainforest without the rain part, but that´s why it´s called what it is. I love listening to the rain now though. I can spend a good hour in the hammock listening to the changes in the rain. Then comes the sunset if it´s an afternoon rain, and then what´s a girl to do? That takes another hour.

As I mentioned last week, I´ve been meeting tons of international people at the lodge. I had to translate for a old Norweigan couple these past three days, and it was trying. First off, not only did they not speak Spanish, but they didn´t speak English well either, so this created some fun times. The woman also had leg problems, so walks that take three hours took five. Think nightfall in the jungle. Yeah, I´ll get to that. So we go on a walk with the couple and four other guests. The guide, José, shows us a plant called Ortiga, or stinging nettles. He tells the group that it´s good to put Ortiga on the body to help with blood flow. So what´s the most logical thing for the Norweigan lady to do? Drop her pants of course. I really wish I were making this up. This 60 or 70-something lady undid her pants and proceeded to rub Ortiga all over her thighs while we all watched with mouths agape. It´s one of those morbidly interesting things that you really wish you weren´t seeing but you can´t seem to take your eyes off of. (Preposition). Then, because of her slow walking, so didn´t get going to head out of the jungle until late afternoon. The guide went ahead with two Italian people, and left me with the other four people, and we had to follow the path out of the jungle in the dark. I finally got fed up with being really scared and yelled at by the guests, so I yelled for José to come back at the top of my lungs. We all knew that there was no rational reason to get more scared just because it was dark outside, but you can´t help being a little concerned in the jungle at nightfall. The guests were a little upset to say the least.

So that´s the week in review. Meanwhile, I´m having way too vivid dreams because of my malaria pills and hoping not to get dengue. Wish me luck!

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Being Jane isn´t as fun as I thought it would be

I safely arrived in the Amazon, but the past week hasn´t really been what I had wanted or expected. I´m never good with change, so I´m trying to stay positive while duking it out loads of spiders and ferocious conga ants. The lodge that I´m at is absolutely gorgeous. Amarongachi tours owns two sets of cabins, and I´m currently at the really nice ones (electricity), but the threat of going to the bug infested, more rustic cabins looms. Anyway, the nice cabins are called Shangrila, and the place deserves the name for sure. They have a whole floor of hammocks, a full bar, and a sight that literally takes your breath away. One man who I was translating for sat in front of the view for hours. After about three hours I noticed he was still sitting there. He wasn´t reading or listening to music. He was just sitting there taking it all in. He made a really great analogy and noted that he could stare off into the jungle basin much in the same way that he can look at the burning embers of a fire forever. Even though the jungle is composed of immobile objects, the landscape and the mirage of clouds is always changing, especially after a rainstorm. I saw the most amazing red sky last night after the rain, and I got frustrated because there was just no way to capture the beauty on film. (Which reminds me, there will be no more pictures on the site for the next three months because of my technical ineptitute. Sorry. More reason to see me when I get back!)

The lodge, like I said, is gorgeous, but the problem now is that it´s low season, and there aren´t many tourists. I went from a very hustle and bustle life in Quito into the middle of nowhere, so I´m having to learn how to find things to do and be patient. For example, I had to literally wait for the bus to take me into town for an hour yesterday! I was seriously dreaming about how glorious it´s going to be to drive a care again when I get back. I was talking to my mom about this, and she advised to fully appreciate this time, but I just laughed at the irony of the situtation. When I was drowning in my studies/thesis/volunteering/jobs during college all I wanted was a week of mindlessness, and now that I have a month of it, I want something real to do! I think I will dedicate myself to studying Kichwa (dialect of Quechua), the indigenous language here. The people who work at the lodge are indigenous, and they are fully bilingual in Spanish and Kichwa, and I think it´s a good opporutnity to learn. This past week there were some tourists, so I was able to go on hikes and on the river with them. I´ve already met people from Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Cuba in the short week that I´ve been here. I´m just hoping that more people come.

Working in a travel lodge has made me laugh a few times because it´s worlds away from the five star, five diamond service that I was used to giving at the Broadmoor hotel last summer. I serve the people and eat with them at the same time. I really kind of just do my own thing, and whatever that is is fine with the staff! You have to love it. The staff also doesn´t really concern itself with the details. If the people want cold water and there is none, well, sorry. And that´s that. The guides bring water on the hikes, but they only bring two or three cups for the people, and it´s funny to watch their expressions when they realize they have to share the cups! Erica would have a fit with the lack of sanitation. I´m getting my share of all kinds of bacteria though, so I think I am going to have the world´s strongest immune system in the U.S. You can´t exactly be fussy, for example, when you´re on the bus, and there´s a chicken sitting next to you on the next seat. I just laugh. I was sitting yesterday on the bus, and I happened to look down, and there staring at me were two chicken heads! Oh my.

So we´ll see how the next three weeks in the jungle go playing Tarzan. I´m learning about all the medicinal plants and am loving the beauty. Who knew that the jungle had so many leaves and roots to eat? I love eating the cacao fruit as well (where chocolate comes from). The jungle really is a playground, but when I saw a rainbow boa beaneath me in the caverns yesterday, I just about lost it. I´m still very much a GIRL when it comes down to it! Happy Passover to my family, and happy Easter too. I´m dreaming about Jelly Belly jelly beans right now. Take care.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Por Fin!

I know it´s been all too long since I´ve updated you all, so I apologize, but life has been a bit busy on the equator. I finished my scholarship some time ago, and now I´m gearing up for new adventures. It´s crazy that six months have passed already. The time has seriously flown by, and I can´t believe that I´ll be leaving Quito. I also think I haven´t written as much as usual on the blog because things haven´t surprised me and shocked me. I’m kind of getting used to life down here, so I haven´t been so flabberghasted (wink). I think this a good thing.

This photo has nothing to do with anything, it's just a little taste (literally) of the culinary delights. Yummmm.

Regardless, even if I´m not commenting on the good and bad of Quito, rest assured that life here has a way of sending me little surprises almost every day. I don´t know if any of you have been keeping up with the political situation here, but there is still no resolution. The congress was dissolved, and they protested saying it was unconstitutional and dictatorial. There is supposed to be a vote for the Asamblea Constituyente April 15th to officially create a checks and balances system (somewhat), so the sneaky, ousted congress members have found a few judges to rule in their favor and block the vote. I don´t understand how this happens. How is it that a random, local judge in the coast or the jungle can make such an important decision that affects the entire country in this especially heated time? Why isn´t the supreme court here deciding these matters?

I also want to touch on crime a little more. I find it fascinating that people here are very hesitant to help when they witness crime. Firstly, people don´t want to involve themselves because they don´t want to put themselves in harm´s way. I can fully understand this. What I don´t understand is the police. I´ve heard of cases when good Samaritans have helped someone seriously hurt by taking them in their car to a hospital. How nice, right? Wrong, the police make them their first suspect. One of my favorite professors, Monica, told me that one of her good friends was recently murdered on the street. He was an elegant man, always dressing in nice suits and with jewelry. Three men attacked him and killed him in broad daylight only to take his wallet. Even if these criminals are caught on camera, etc. it doesn´t matter. The afflicted person has to file a report and go to the police before anything can be done. So what happens in the case of murder then, you ask? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A dead person can´t exactly get themselves to a police station to press charges. Sometimes, just for appearances, the police apprehend the criminals, but then they´re set free four days later because nobody has come to incriminate them.

So now that I´ve painted this lawless picture in your mind, I want you to consider just how many wealthy people live in Quito. It´s amazing. With all of the chaos and lack of order or rule, there still exists a very wealthy class of people that risk driving their Mercedes and wearing white pants. This dichotomy still fascinates me and depresses me at the same time because it´s made me see how very “dog-eat-dog” a society can be. I also see how it´s really every man for himself. Mind you, I´m saying this after also witnessing the amazing acts of Rotary here, so I’m trying to put it in perspective I think.

On to a more amusing topic…names for romantic relationships. I think it´s really funny when people ask me if I have an “enamorado” (meaning someone you’re wildly lovey about), and I say yes, I have a “novio” (boyfriend). I didn´t realize that the chain of seriousness went as follows: pasatiempo, pelado, enamorado, novio. In English it would translate as: someone to pass the time, someone to flirt with, someone to lust after, and someone who actually has your heart. But it gets better because just yesterday I heard someone say that her friend was her “amigovio”. This really made me laugh because it´s a combo of amigo and novio. Anyway, none of this really matters and it’s juvenile, but it amuses me.

I also had the opportunity to go to the Universidad Central, the main public university here, and I sat in on a class to see what a Spanish literature class is like. It was a really great experience because the professor was a riot. His method of teaching was really similar to what I had experienced at the University of Florida, but he was far more frank and open with his students, which called my attention. I also though it was hilarious that after an hour of class he just decided to stop for a second to go smoke. He literally just put the book down and walked out. The kids were totally used to this. But then he must have had a great, fleeting thought, because he came running back and stood at the door, one arm in, one arm out, so that he could technically smoke without being in the room. Hehe.

So, Lauren, if you´ve finished your scholarship, what are you up to these days? Ah, good question, thanks for asking…

After my scholarship ended, my sister came to town, and we can a grand, albeit short, exploration of Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. As many of you know, she´s quite the go-getter, so resting was not an option. We went to the jungle and to another nature town, and then we embarked for one of the most stressful and unfortunate experiences of our lives: the Galapagos. Yes, you read that right. One of the world´s most precious treasures really through us for a loop. We got on the plane happy as can be in Quito, and when we arrived in Baltra and found out that OUR BOAT WAS BROKEN; we were not happy campers. The other people on the boat had apparently already found out, and we were the only people who came without knowing. Four people on the boat found out in good time and opted to not even go. Erica and I were furious. A representative from the boast didn´t even have the courtesy to come to the airport to receive us. We only had Miguel, the most horrible guide ever, to tell us what was happening. Usually when something like this happens, the boat company is supposed to put its passengers on another boat of equal or better quality, but our company did not do this. They gave us a revised itinerary that included day trips to islands that we didn´t even want to go see. So basically we were going to have to stay in a hotel on the main island, wake up at 4 a.m., and take day trips. I really wanted to cry. The company said that there were no spaces on the other boats, but I didn´t believe any part of it.

To top it all off, I was the only one who spoke Spanish, so I had to be the translator for our group, and that was a task and a half. A woman from the boat finally had the respect to come meet our group, and she told us that we all had to come to a unanimous decision about what we wanted to do. And I had to mediate it all. It was such a tense environment because everyone had thousands of dollars invested in the trip, and we all had different interests. We finally came to an agreement four hours later that the company should refund half our money. We made the lady write up a contract, and she signed it. After all that stress, we finally an agreement- or so we thought.

We got up and ready by 5 a.m. the next day, and the got us on a plush day boat. Great. At least we were on water. Then came the lady, except this time she had a written contract. She passed it out to the group, and the first thing we all thought was, how interesting. This is WRITTEN IN SPANISH! The contract basically would forbid us to ask for any more money back etc. The dates were wrong, my name was misspelled, and it was a disaster. She told us that if we didn’t sign it there would be no trip. We got off the boat. How horrible. I finally got in touch with my travel agency (where I booked the trip), and they got a first-class boat for Erica and me, and we were elated. It wasn´t what we wanted, and it would mean one more day in the same island, but we took it. We had no other option. So a five day tour turned into two solid days in the islands, but what can you do?

The photo to the right is my "Whahoo! We got a boat dance!"

Erica and I tried to make some serious lemonade out of our lemons. Well, we’ll actually call them pina coladas, if you will. We got on a different boat and we saw the northern islands. I had wanted to see the southern islands, but what I was really after was the famous blue-footed booby, so I didn’t care where we went at that point. I just wanted to see the coveted booby. Yes, the name is fun. I know. We saw a sampling of the astounding beauty that the Galapagos has to offer: boobies, frigate birds, penguins, a shark, turtles, tons of fish, families of sting rays (awe-inspiring), loads of sea lions (Erica’s favorites), and some other treasures that I’m forgetting. The islands themselves are amazingly beautiful. We hiked up to a simply gorgeous lookout point one evening, and we could see the sunset and its reflection on both sides of the sound. It was pure tranquility, but then I remembered that I was surrounded by tourists speaking every language known to man. It’s fascinating how many people come from all corners of the globe to see these islands. We met all kinds of Europeans and others from Israel, etc. Erica and I met quite a few people on awesome, long-term, South American or worldwide adventures, and it really inspired us to travel the world for a year. We’ll see if it comes to be, but I’d like to dream about it for the time being:) The Galapagos really gave us a good run for our money, but at least we got to take part in a little of its magestic beauty. It really made me more appreciative of all the times that things go right it life. We tend not to notice because things are going as they should, but when something like this happens you realize that you should be more grateful for all the times when it was smooth sailing (haha. Get it?).

My birthday passed as well, as I was happy to spend it in Quito. The Rotarians actually sang to me (in English), and that was cute. People here sing in English first and then they sing feliz cumpleanos in Spanish. I find it entertaining. I did a lot of things that made me feel good like running at the gym, getting my hair cut, and eating! I also went out dancing (salsa of course), and danced until I couldn’t move my poor feet anymore. You know it’s a quality place when they serve chicken soup at 2 a.m. to give “fuerza” (strength/endurance) to the dancers! Feliz cumpleanos a mi!

I’ve been gearing up to leave Quito, and today is the day (wish me luck). I’m headed off on the 8 a.m. bus to the jungle. That has a funny ring to it. Seriously though, I’m going to a lodge to work for a month as a translator. I went to this lodge (Shangrila,, with my language academy, and I absolutely loved it, so now I’m going back in a different capacity. They need English/Spanish translators for their guests who come and don’t speak any Spanish. That’s where I come in. Meanwhile, I’ll be helping lead tours through the Amazon (neat, right?), canyons, rivers (in tubes), and the like. I’m really looking forward to it, but it has its dangers, like bed bugs (not joking), boas, tarantulas, and generally disconcerting people who give me a strange look. Anyway, I will really feel worlds away, so email me! Send me love! I’ll send you a monkey.