Monday, February 09, 2009

The South American adventure begins...

Sorry it has taken me over two weeks to write. As usual, my emails/blogs are far too long. If you know the logistics of the trip or are not interested in anything but stories, skip the first half of this. I miss you all! Please let me know what is happening with you all. I’ll try to respond personally as best I can to emails especially…and the next post will be significantly shorter. I promise…
(picture of the group of travelers in the cloud forest my first weekend.
from left to right: Will, Me, Priyanka, Amit, Anita, Peter, Angella)

So after a week of frantic errands and fights with the insurance company, I took off at last in route to Quito! I arrived here Friday just over two weeks ago, and as I got off the plane, I realized I was trusting Amit (one of my closest college friends and roommates who has been doing 6 months of intensive language here) to meet me at the airport. In the midst of the craziness I had not written down an address or phone number for my host family or anybody I knew in Ecuador. I had no information at all. Luckily, as soon as I walked out of the plane, I could see Amit in a window waving emphatically…a wonderful greeting and comfort to begin my adventure…

Many of you may still be a bit confused by my travel plans a (I’m not totally clear).
I am spending three months total in South America—mainly backpacking from Quito eventually down to Santiago. The hope was that this would be quite the adventure: exploring one of the most beautiful parts of the world, spending lots of quality time with incredible friends, experiencing new cultures, reflecting on my life and future, and trying to learn some Spanish and guitar along the way. To give you a quick idea of the travel plan, I arrived in Quito, Ecuador on January 23 and settled into host family’s place (where Amit lives) after first being swept off for a weekend trip to a cloud forest. I started my four weeks of intensive Spanish classes the Monday after I arrived, because I decided that even though I have travel partners who speak Spanish, I was tired of traveling places without putting in the effort to communicate on terms other than my own. Although a month isn’t enough, it was at least a beginning…Near the end of February, I finish my month of classes, and Amit and I will start our two months of backpacking Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, with a week in the middle in which Jamie will be joining us back in Ecuador for some extra adventures.

I’ve waited for over two weeks to post because I’ve felt like it’s taken me a long time to get my bearings here. My time has already been full of wonderful adventures, but I was definitely not prepared, and have been extraordinarily lucky, as my opening story demonstrated, that I have been able to rely on my college friends here in Quito—Amit, Priyanka, Priyanka’s sister Anita, and more, to help get me acclimated to the city and language. Thankfully, they have all been extraordinarily patient and good-natured about everything, making the transition much easier than I could have possibly imagined. As I’ve already mentioned, this first month is much more structured than the rest will be. I’m living with Amit and his host family, going to intensive language school (one on one classes), exploring Quito and the surrounding area, and spending lots of time at Priyanka’s apartment (which is always full of people) this first month. These last weeks have already made for a very different international experience than I’ve ever had before. In the past, my travels have been focused on the specific history of an area and on work pertaining to my passions in conflict resolution or community development. Here in Ecuador, I am finally learning a language, staying healthy, and taking the time to explore the wonders of nature. Unlike my friends here, though, I have not yet gotten tied into volunteer work that fits my interests and gives me access to the stories and experiences that have really transformed my life these last years. Instead, I’ve been trying to get a sense of the basic language, culture, and history that I failed to really learn prior to the travels. And for now, I’m just enjoying the adventures…

Highlights of my first two weeks:
+Trip to a cloud forest the first weekend. A group of eight of us (college friends and a web of connections from there) traveled to Mindo, a beautiful village about two hours from Quito with lots of outdoor adventures. We spent Saturday zip-lining over incredible valleys/ravines and laughing at some of the absurd zip-lining positions and the great yells that accompanied them. We then hiked to a gorgeous waterfall, visited a house of butterflies, and went to—yes, I’m serious—a FROG concert. I imagined frogs in tuxedos croaking the chords of a xylophone when we first heard about this. It was instead, a simple but enjoyable nighttime nature walk to view tiny frogs and cockroaches the size of my shoes. On the trip, I also had my first churrasco, a healthy (ahem) Ecuadorian special of thin steak covered with fried eggs and served with French fries…yum.

+ Exploring Quito. It took me a while to find my way around and build up confidence in my limited Spanish, but this week, I spent several afternoons exploring the historic center and some of the famous Quito sites alone and with some of my friends. One day, I wandered along the cobblestone streets through the main plazas (plaza grande and plaza de San Francisco), enjoying an odd mix of sights and sounds: a couple playing accordion and guitar on the side of the road, dozens of men lining the plazas shoe-shining, women in indigenous clothing selling fruits, toddlers running around aimlessly, youth selling papers, and many tourists (mostly Ecuadorian on this particular day) making way to the many historic sites. I had some incredible coconut ice cream and learned all about the history of the most famous downtown churches—one built of 7 tons of 23-carot gold and filled with paintings of the prophets and of hell that took well over a hundred years to complete (beautiful architecturally but a disturbing history).
Another day, Anita and I made our way to the Panecillo and climbed a huge statue of the Virgin of Quito to look out over Quito. It’s amazing how little I know of this history, culture, landscape, everything really. But it was awesome to look out over everything, enjoy the breeze, and expand what little I knew of the city. We then went through a really unfamiliar and different area to end up at the Cemetery of San Diego, blocks and blocks of intricate tombs perched on the hill in the valley between all these volcanoes. The place had these stack tombs, floors high, that were then decorated at the ends. And the place was enormous, stretching in all directions farther than our eyes could see. Anita and I commented back and forth about the odd feeling and off-beat beauty of the place and the great contrasts with this enormous gray expanse crested into colorful neighborhoods and the mountainsides. And finally Friday, a group of us went to a world-wide orchid exhibition at Parque Itchimbia and enjoyed taking fun pictures and basking in the views from yet another hill looking over Quito (as the jumping picture shows here).

+ Language school: Although taking hours upon hours of one-on-one Spanish can be overwhelming, the professors are down to earth and interested in our lives; I get to spend breaks with Amit, Anita and other newfound friends; and we have hilarious presentations every Friday (singing solos in Spanish last week-- my songs were slow Andean songs WAY out of my range). I also get to spend hours working on my weakest areas of Spanish and discussing favorite subjects like religion, politics, feminism, and history. One of the most disturbing aspects has been hearing from my professor about machismo culture here in Ecuador. My professor talked extensively about how married men are only considered married when they are physically inside their houses, and that women are expected to accept that. We talked about the need for deep transformation but the overwhelming obstacles here, especially with the many isolated indigenous communities in Ecuador.

+ Papallacta: Last weekend, we took a day trip to the hot springs of Papallacta, and spent hours relaxing in the famous dozen or so hot springs. A wonderful way to follow an exhausting week of Spanish.

Daily Absurdities
- Basketball in Ecuador: a group of at least four Americans (called the gringos by the Ecuadorians we play with) have been playing basketball three times a week with Ecuadorians at one of the parks here in Quito. The basketball is interesting to say the least. The games go to whatever the guys playing decide, often to be extended by five points if the game is tied. Most of the guys call fouls on nearly every play, and they love to call traveling on us Americans for random things. The funniest thing, though, is trying to communicate without street Spanish, something that almost got me into a fight with a huge guy when I was trying to explain why I called a foul on him by demonstrating it on him. It was not easy to get out of that bind…And one of the guys, Walker, who plays with us tried to get a guy to stop holding him by saying, “NO PUEDES, NO PUEDES! (you can’t! you can’t!) AGH!”

- My salsa dancing: I’ve been going to weekly lessons and laughing at just how bad I am at dancing. But having fun nonetheless. My new name, given by my salsa teacher is “Utstent”. Amit is now calling me that on a regular basis.

-I was walking downtown when one of the buses came by with the horn to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”

More to come soon—an amazing 16 mile hike today to be discussed… until then, love to you all and sorry if this was painful to read…


laneyvaugh said...

Wonderful post, Hudson. Thank you for the pictures and stories. NOw we can feel as though we are traveling with you. Keep us posted. Love you to the sky

Anonymous said...

Hudson, it's great to hear of your journey thus far in Ecuador. Sounds like the language and cultural immersion is taking hold. I can remember from my time in Costa Rica, while living with a host family, that the first few weeks of only Spanish speaking left me feeling totally exhausted and frequently disoriented.
I laughed out loud when you mentioned the bus playing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Believe it or not, I heard the very same thing nearly 30 years ago when I was in Quito. What an amazing little piece of cultural mixing!
Be well, and look forward to your next post. Lee Ramsey

Glenn Booth said...

Hi Hudson; I just read your second post and really enjoyed it. I got winded just reading about the climb up to 14000 ft. Ah, sweet bird of youth! Life sounds very abundant south of the US....I envy your opportunity for such a wonderful adventure but get the feel of it from your very good posts. Take care, be aware.

Love Glenn