"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A good day

Picture this:

Three gringas running down a steep cobblestone road that descends from a mountain. One is in shorts, another has a headlamp, and the other (yours truly) is galloping in sandals. The bus back to town arrived and apparently we wouldn't miss it for anything.

The day was gorgeous - our first day without rain, and one of the more cloudless days we've had in three weeks. I've been walking to and from class each day (about an hour one way) and that's been a real mood lifter. I love it. Especially today with such spectacular views, though yesterday we did spot nearby mountains with snow on them.

Saturdays, though, are big days for the local outdoors scene. Tons of people descended on the trail with mountain bikes. We had no problem with them, until one spot in the trail where we have to go single file through a few poles. This time, while we were going through, I heard a 'Permiso' but it was too late - behind me was Mandy, who couldn't move out of the way in time before the biker hit her in the leg. What seemed like a split second later, a man on a bike directly behind hit her and fell over. Because he was clipped in, he fell comically sideways, cursing the way down. Bikers were coming from the other direction. So Mandy and I were stuck in the middle, wanting to disappear from this bicycling disaster and at the same time trying so hard not to laugh at the ridiculous situation. I feel pretty sure it wasn't our fault at all, but I do hope not to run into them again. Or them into us...

Anyway, it was so clear, we finally spotted some major glaciated peaks nearby - Cotopaxi, I'm pretty sure? We've even seen Antisana. There are just too many to count...

We worked in our small language/culture groups for a short while before breaking up and presenting our Ecuadorian feast. Each group had a dish to prepare, and ours was corviches. Unfortunately when we went to the local grocery store, they had none for sale. So while I waited outside, my group came out with ice cream. I'm happy to say our facilitator just laughed when he heard the story...

A small group formed to go up the local mountain Ilalo, and we even walked all the way from training to approach it. When we got to town, we decided to hop on a bus to take us part way up the mountain...but it was more complex than just hopping on. It passed us going around the corner so we thought we'd missed it. But there it was - and Abby chased that sucker down like a pro and caught it for us. Took us way up for quite a great start, though it feels a little like cheating. Cobblestone road melted into footpath, into cobblestone road, into dirt road, and finally to footpaths among high altitude farmland.

We kept taking wrong paths but wrong isn't all that bad - these trails wrapped tantalizingly across Ilalo neither descending or ascending, just going straight across with the valley below and sweeping views of the green mountain buttress ahead. For another time, I hope?

Eventually we worked our way to the first cross which we noticed had just been graffito tagged the same day. And then the best reward of them all: getting to ridgewalk. Nothing better. Our tentative plan was to get to the top and descend down the other side to another town where apparently there's some kind of wood...bar...or something. But it was getting late (this is all after class, remember) we decided that no matter how unbelievable the views were on the other side, we had to go down the way we came.

So after walking down leisurely, we spotted that bus.

It was only 6ish, so we celebrated with beer (the guy working there had a White Sox cap and, unrelated to my praise on that or not, he gave us a free bottle...).

Wrapped the day up with my host family who cracked me up. I didn't understand most of the rapid talk but it was still funny.

Yeeah! Good day.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Been a while

A lot happened between then and now.

-Host mom was in the hospital for four days (recovering now, she'll be fine I think).

-Went to the circus. I already have reservations about using animals for entertaining (or anything, really) so I was reluctant but caved in. The only animal was an acting dog dressed as a small tiger. We also saw a clown teach little children typical Michael Jackson dances (yikes), and someone dressed in a stereotypical Asian costume climbed around in suspended hoops.

-Went to La Mitad del Mundo for a cultural experience last Monday and have lots of video to process. Went to the 'real' equator where the guide had us do a bunch of 'experiments' demonstrating the remarkable physical differences you experience on opposing sides of the line representing the Equator. They were gimmicks.

-Just wrote up my first charla: a quick intro to the erosion of rocks and creation of soil, tied to the overuse and misuse of land by humans that causes extremely rapid erosion. All in Spanish. Writing in Spanish is way easy for me now that I've settled in, but my impromptu speaking skills have sort of plummeted. Reading aloud something already written: again, way easy. It's in my head, I just have to make use of it.

-I love these tiny potatoes (about an inch in diameter) with homemade cheese sauce (queso de campo pureed with onion and milk). Fun fact: "There are about five thousand potato varieties worldwide. Three thousand of them are found in the Andes alone, mainly in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia."

-The bag my host family gave me has ripped two times. But it's easy to get fixed - for $1, a repair shop will fix it for good.

-Today I bought a piece of cake from the bakery near our bus stop and managed to safely transport it by bus to the training center. Maybe someday I'll get a quick video of the bus to show you what an enormous feat that was.

-I've been fighting an awful mood all this week, and all last week. And the week before, I was sick. Just have an overall feeling of discouragement.

Anyway, here's a super quick video update with nothing of real substance:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Good things

There are roughly three things, mas o menos, that make my heart soar. And I woke up to two of them this morning.


Guagua Pichincha was completely out. For any fellow aspirantes in Tumbaco, you may recognize this picture, minus the eruption plume:

It's Quito, of course, and check out that pointy snow-covered peak towards the center. That's the pointy peak ("Rucu", I think) we can see from Tumbaco. Guagua's last recorded eruption at the GVP (Global Volcanism Program) was in February 2008 when it had a few phreatic eruptions - those caused by aqueous interaction with hot material.

So obviously I'm hoping for something non-destructive to happen while living in Tumbaco, because I have the PERFECT VIEW.


They released a short YouTube video this morning which was thankfully not VEVO (VEVO doesn't work in Ecuador). Still working on the next album to be released soon! These guys are truly inspirational, talented people. I doubt one of my days passes without thinking how I can improve my world based on how they've influenced me. I was lucky enough to meet, interview, and photograph them a couple years ago and am so happy to say they're just as incredible in person as one would hope and expect. Anyway...tonight I dug out one of their other recent videos and watched it as a treat because the internet's working well today! It's almost a half hour long. Enjoy...

Incubus Xmas Present to Our Fans from Steve Rennie on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Claimjumping aspirantes

Hmm... the last few days. We: 1) started our organic gardens, 2) learned about dengue, malaria, fever, TB, and 3) went to Quito for a Peace Corps office tour.

Starting our jardines gardins gardens last Monday was by far the most engaging activity I've participated in during training so far. We cycled through several work stations, including: tilling and fertilizing the plots, worm beds, seed beds, seedling care and transplant. When we cycled through them all in small groups, the field was ready for planting and all us aspirantes lined up on one side. On of the count of three, we all ran out as language groups claimjumper-style to nab our preferred plot of land because this is, after all, a competition. Our group got our first pick:

I'll let you use your imaginations about the malaria/dengue/etc. talk, but we got our anti-malarial medications (in cute paper bags with our names on them like prizes). My medication: the one that makes some people go crackers and have insane dreams. I get to start it any day and can't WAIT! sarcasm. I already started having crazy lucid dreams ever since I was feverish last week, so I don't believe they need any help. But it's way better than getting a fatal form of malaria.

Next! Today we all migrated west to Quito to visit the Peace Corps office. The journey involves a bus to Quito, a bus to a bus station, another bus somewhere else...etc. We made it with the help of our language group facilitators and went on a grand tour of the place. The best part was visiting the NRC director's office, where there is a map of pins designating previous omnibus volunteer locations, and pink pins that designate sites where our omnibus will go - it was here that I suddenly got a revelation that I knew where I wanted to go. A pink pin sat right near the slopes of the perpetually erupting Sangay volcano in the Oriente/Sierra border. Another pink pin was nearby. I know, I'm flexible and will go wherever they send me because that's what I originally agreed to when I came here. But having a site right on Ecuador's most active volcano? Yes, please! I'm so eager to find out where I'm going, but I'm trying to wait without reservations or expectations.

It took a long time to get back to Tumbaco, and when we finally made it, our language group only had a little time to start thinking about making a community map from the town center to my host family's house. I randomly ran into Paola yesterday while walking through the town center (which is bustling and active in the afternoon), so she took me around on a paseo to point out important places like health centers, schools, churches, a *vegetarian restaurant*, etc.

Speaking of vegetarian...I feel really lucky to be with my Ecuadorian host family. They completely understand and respect my decision to be a vegetarian, and all my meals have been problem-free. They're always great meals, but sometimes they're spectacular. The other day, Paola made me a tofu dinner (from a bag of dried tofu). I had to ask three times, tofu?! No way! This morning, I had toast with a slice of queso and tomato on top. I had two and wanted so many more! Yuuuum. They also tolerate my completely random homework questions like, "What are three Ecuadorian words for 'friend'?" or "What is the name of the municipio administrator?" (no one seems to know).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A long day

I thought I would sleep in until my host abuelita knocked on my metal door well before I planned to wake up. Breakfast! Today I found out my hunger is back, strong as ever. I finished my 'grilled cheese' sandwich, was offered another bit, and then another half.

The first most important part of the day was going to the grocery store (SuperMaxi... I have an urge to add 'pad' after that) with my host family to buy a few things for the house and a pile of spices I needed to make chana masala, my all-time favorite Indian dish and basically what I survive on in the United States. $9 later, I had what I needed. I also spent way too much on a book of Neruda poems at 'Mr. Books' adjacent to the Supermaxi.

Back home, I started settling into my homework for tomorrow (yes... trainees get plenty of homework) when my host mom came up to ask me when I'd be started lunch. I guess it's lunch I'm making, not dinner! Got all the ingredients together, started my usual routine, and made it. It turned out a bit different - not as spicy and the chickpeas a bit too soft. But in my opinion, it was fabulous. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough. Especially in a culture where lunch is the big meal of the day. My host family seemed to like it at least...

And next, laundry. Without a washing machine, laundry is done on a piedra... a rock. But it's more like a cement table with a faucet. My host mom showed me how it was done, and it takes ages of muscle work to get clothes cleaned. Apparently I didn't do a good enough job getting the suds out, so when abuelita came home, my clothes went into her washing machine.

In between doing the laundry, it was already dinner time so I helped Paola and Mateo make pizza from scratch inspired by my left over tomato paste. While it was cooking, I tried doing my homework - reading Made to Stick and my Spanish book. I have so little time to get Peace Corps homework done, it's ridiculous. The pizza was amazing though a bit heavy on the oregano. I finished my first piece and Paola asked if I wanted a second. Oh, yes. I gobbled the second piece down faster than the rest of the family could ever start their second pieces, which had to be the first time I wasn't the last one done. Carlos looked from me to my plate and to me again, shocked. Mmmm, American-like food.

The laundry was finally done so it's hanging outside now. With all the constant rain, I wonder how long it'll take them to dry?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Slacking is my favorite.

Sounds like I mostly got rid of the fever but a lot of other aspirantes are getting it. For those in my group who feel sick, hope you all feel better soon. You will, it's just really lousy for a little while.

For me, though, the world is a much happier, more beautiful place now that it's not an icebox of nausea.

I tried to take Friday easy because I still had a little bit of a very low grade fever going on, but thankfully it never came back. Most of our morning was spent talking about general safety, and to demonstrate the lessons, we performed skits showing bad and good behavior (PC here is huge on skits). We talked about the EAP, the evacuation plan in Ecuador, and several aspirantes performed a puppet show about what to do and what not to do when PC goes through the stages of EAP in an emergency.

And then the fun really began.

Kelley, a PCMO, arrived to talk to us about diarrhea.

First, though, a funny story. Later that night, having dinner with the host family, my host dad asks what we did today. So, very timidly, I said we talked about diarrhea. He thought I said we talked about theories. Theories about what? he asked. Ohhh, no. Not theories. Diarrhea. He seemed disappointed.

Anyway, Kelley gave a humorous talk on poo and related illnesses. And the worst part - worms. I'm hoping I can avoid them completely. Maybe that wasn't the worst part. The worst part might have been that the talk was right before lunchtime.

A large group of volunteers around Ecuador came to talk with us privately, without PC staff, so we could ask them our personal questions without fear of repercussions. I think it was time well spent and I got a lot out of it.

Now the best part, where the title of this entry comes from - a couple aspirantes brought their slackline kits with them, so two were set up in the very large walled-in yard of the training center. While a bunch of people played soccer, I and others slacklined. And it felt SO AMAZING to get back on the rope. It's regrettably been over a year since I last did it, but I'm happy to say it's like riding a bike - it comes right back. My balance is a shaky and my muscles are way weak so I can't do an on-line start, but it'll come.

Today was Saturday, and yes we had class at 8:30 a.m., which means I got up at 6 a.m. Class on Saturdays is culture and language, so we worked in our small language groups on grammar and the history of Ecuador. During break, I laid in the sun and soaked in the warmth, fully appreciating what a beautiful day it was. Finally, I can feel it!

Morgan & I & others had plans to wander around Tumbaco afterwards to 1) find food (apparently there's a vegetarian restaurant around here somewhere?!), 2) find a champa (a waterproof jacket, I think?), 3) find sandals and sneakers. We lost the other interested people and couldn't exactly find the restaurant, but we ran into Ricky and a bread/ice cream store at the same time so things were great. We were having little other success, though, so we tried the mall which is a loooong walk in the direction of Quito. I think we spent about an hour looking through all the books in Spanish. One, a Neruda poetry book, I almost bought. I wanted to buy Latitudes Piratas (the posthumous Crichton book) but it was $23. Ouch! No.

Once more, no luck. But we did buy some ridiculously amazing spaghetti alfredo with a salad for $4. It was the definition of ginormous, and we probably should have shared.

I wandered home around 6ish, no problems with the host family. All is well.

Tomorrow: wash clothes 'on the rock' as they say.

Also, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD! It's also my half birthday. Weird.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fiebre got me.

I was feeling relatively ok yesterday, but I didn't get any sleep the night before and woke up with a racing heart. Still some chills. But I went to training and got along mostly fine except for a little nausea.

PC changed the plan for today and asked us to go home and get money to buy our required cell phones. So back on the city bus which bounced us around for what seemed like ages - and instead of letting us off at the regular corner so we can catch the faster bus, it continued on. I found about 3+ others who live really close to me (yay!) so we walked home together. Grabbed the money, took something for the nausea, and walked to the park center with the others.

The Sickness, whatever it may be or why, started increasing. We walked from store to store in the city and had virtually no luck finding the enormous quantity of phones that we needed. As we went to each new store, I felt weaker and weaker and really just wanted to lay down. At the final store that could supply each of us, I got a chance to slump down and rest. Chills came on and nausea attacked, I felt indescribably...bad. Eventually I was shaking pretty hard and no number of coats would warm me, despite it being pretty warm outside. I was the last one to get a phone, and the venders gave me a caramelo (candy) to make me feel better :)

We returned to the training center on the bus again, this time completely packed with children - and me, trying oh so incredibly hard not to be sick. I passed on lunch as I did with breakfast and laid in the sun for a while which took away the chills so long as I soaked. Oh yes, I got a little red. It didn't matter. Training started, and not soon after, a doctor came to get me upstairs for a checkup. Temperature: 102. She gave me two tylenols and told me to lay down and sleep until she was ready to take me home. Despite noisy fellow aspirantes and blinds that fluttered so hard in the wind that they sounded like bird wings flapping (interesting dreams...), I definitely got some easy rest.

After the doctor dropped me off at home, I settled right into bed with some difficulty sleeping. A couple hours later, my host mom and grandma arrived in my room to ask me bunches of questions. I don't remember really what they were, I just wanted to go back to sleep. Paula came back with a thermometer of her own because neither of us could see the silver line in mine. Low grade fever now. I slept, she came back with a little soup, and still I had a low grade fever.

But oh what a beautiful restful sleep I had last night. No racing heart, no chills, just sleep. Paula woke me up and asked for my temp again - still, 38*C, about 100.something. We decided I shouldn't go to class despite how incredibly sad it made me. Today is Brigadas Verdes - the training class is going to local schools to ask kids about ecoclubs and is starting their personal gardens (a sidenote - I just had a very difficult time writing that in English: first 'jardines', then 'gardins'). If I feel better later, I'll go. I hope I can!

Paula brought me a toasted sandwich with some kind of mystery jam - I'm not really sure what the name was. And mandarin juice that's a tad bitter but quite good.

So... here I am. It's a partly cloudy day and every once in a while, the sun shines. I want to be OUT there, with everyone else! But for now, I guess, it's sleep time.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

All is well. I think... I hope.

That low grade fever in my last post went down right after I wrote about it, but I still held a warm metal bottle of tea in my down sleeping bag when I went to sleep. THAT is bliss when you feel like the world is an ice bath. Hot spots to hold a hot thermos - on your neck, under your arms...and yes, between your legs.

So I woke up mostly fine. Just still a little achy and a little tired but nothing like yesterday. Still no appetite so that bowl of fruit that's normally very strange to me was extra difficult to finish (I didn't, it was my first meal at home when I couldn't eat everything). Out the door, and my host mom walked me to the bus again but I was on my own after that.

Training is much, much easier when you actually feel ok. We had many more sessions on rules and organization like money distribution, banking, student loans and the like, and again drew out on posters what we felt was needed to become functional volunteers. Throughout the day we had more interviews to get a baseline on our progress through training. My first interview was with a language proficiency facilitator who asked me a series of questions in Spanish. Eh, it didn't go so well. I expect to be placed in one of the novice levels because everything I said was pretty choppy. I snuck in a subjunctive verb and that's about it. I'm disappointed with how I did, but I'm ok with starting out in a lower level so I can erase 'blunders' and start sort of fresh.

After lunch (soup with many noodles, a bit of cheese, and potatoes, rice, lentils, some kind of meat, strawberries and cream and some kind of amazing juice - again, all for $2) we returned to split ourselves in groups according to our perceived level of Spanish proficiency. Beeline to the novice section! And it seemed like a good choice. I feel like I could keep up in the class, enjoyed the company of the other students, and actually learned quite a bit. I was the last person to be called away to have my Natural Resources Conservation interview with the coordinators, and they just asked me more about my skills. It was a lot like a short job interview.

Then I was told my host mom called and would meet me at the bus stop in town where I'd be dropped off. I just missed the bus, so I hopped in a taxi van that costs $.05 more. And my host mom wasn't at the stop. So I walked home the way she showed me yesterday, and had no problems - except I didn't encounter her all the way to the casa. And no one answered the bell! So I walked back to the stop (it's about 15-20 minutes away) and still nothing. So then I walked the main street to the bus stop where I go in the morning, and nothing... and walked back to the casa. By that time I was totally drenched from the rain, but at least Greta was there to open the door!

Dinner was phenomenal. In the States, I never really gave quinoa a chance. The taste didn't jump out at me, it was just... eh. But here, I almost feel out of my chair with glee when Paula said that was what I was having for dinner. For vegetarians and vegans and even omnis, it's the ultimate grain with a complete set of amino acids...basically it wins the prize for healthy food. So Paula made me a quinoa and potato soup, YUM. Carlos was around for a little while, and helped with some questions on my five-something-page homework on safety in Ecuador and Tumbaco. But then Paula took over, and then thankfully Mateo showed interest and helped me with most of it. Such a patient bro! He not only helped me fill it out, but helped me understand what some of the questions were asking (and sometimes what he would say).

Think it's time for sleep... 10 p.m. has been a normal bedtime for me the past week.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Manzanilla tea vs. 100.2 degrees

I was perfectly fine yesterday until I took a shower. It wasn't a cold shower, not a hot shower, somewhere in between. Somehow after the shower, I felt terrible. I was freezing cold, and curled up in bed to shiver for an hour before finally falling asleep. And it's not that cold in my room - like 64* at night which isn't terrible at all. I spent a winter in New Mexico in a room that went down to 42* and lower at night... this is nothing.

When I woke up, my throat hurt and I coughed some drip out, popped one of those throat numbing tablets in my med kit (haha, am I the first to use my kit??), and went to breakfast. I tried to explain my symptoms as best I could to my host mom, and I'm happy to say my family seems to totally get me. I had one fried disc of platano verde (YUM YUM YUM) and would have had more if I didn't feel so lousy. And then, as seems the fashion around here, we were rushing out the door. My host mom Paula led me to the bus stop many blocks east from here, and we waited for probably 20ish minutes before it finally showed up. $.20 will get you anywhere in Tumbaco. The ride to Campo Alegro (our training center) is easy, but the way back is harder...

So we arrived at "school" and I thanked Paula. We had a full schedule today about policies and the like, and I'm heartbroken to say PCT/PCVs have been prohibited from going to Banos, or anywhere near the volcano Tungurahua. It being one of the reasons I was beyond happy to accept my invitation, I was less than pleased today.

At lunch, we wandered up the dirt road to a casa where, in the back, the family had a cozy restaurant set up. Lunch is just $2, and included a soup, a salad, rice, a chicken leg, pina juice, and a watermelon slice. Unfortunately, the soup had a chunk of beef in it and I think it was chicken broth. But Chloe nabbed my chicken leg so all was well with that.

More meetings and more of me trying very hard to pay attention to the speakers and our activities and not to how cold I was or how achy my head and body were. I'll admit it was a bad day for my Spanish, I felt annoyed and just wanted to speak English. With any kind of illness, it's no fun to expend energy other than taking care of oneself. Finally, it was 4:30 and we waited for the bus outside. The first one to pass didn't have Paula, but the one 40ish minutes later did. She showed me how to get home, so I sure hope I can manage my way there and back tomorrow. She asked me if she should come with and I said... no... I'll try alone!

Greta, my host abuela, immediately asked if I wanted something hot to drink. Yes, I said, hot is good. She presented a cup of manzanilla and lemon and ordered me to drink it all while it was hot, and when I slowed down, Paula took her place. It took a while, and Paula and I made small talk... I realized mid-conversation that *I was speaking Spanish and understanding most of it*. Sweet relief, I thought, this is possible! And then we even had an argument in Spanish! She asked if I wanted to put more tea in my metal bottle, and I said no, it's only for cold water. She then told me yes, I need to drink warm liquids. And I bowed my head in defeat and said OK. Con dulce? No, sin dulce. I laughed.

So out of curiosity I busted out the med kid again and took out a disposable thermometer. Ugh, 100.2*F, a low grade fever. Best remedy - rest, liquids, stay warm. I'm keeping an eye on it, but I must say, I'm really excited to see the PC medical team tomorrow. I don't know why I'm ill, but maybe it's a reaction to the vaccines we had a couple days ago?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Host family, day1

I've started a photo blog here: https://picasaweb.google.com/govolcano/PeaceCorpsEcuador so please feel free to check that often, as I hope to update it often!

We left San Patricio for good after a meal heavy on yogurt. Some kind of fruity yogurt smoothie, and fruit totally covered in purple yogurt. I'm not used to eating yogurt so... that's a bit tricky.

Kelley, a PC medical officer, gave us a crash course on using the giant medical kit we all received. I'm actually really impressed with the kit and I totally appreciate having it. And whenever we run out or come close to doing so, they send us supplies totally free of charge. I like this.

Next the staff performed a series of culturally overexaggerated skits that included a few trainees to demonstrate some situations we might encounter, but I think it was more efficient at loosening us up and getting us to relax a little about our pending encounters with our new families. The skits were hilarious though - definitely thought the one of the 'kids' digging through Paige's bag (sorry Paige!) was the funniest.

They fed us again: a chicken or cheese (yo) sandwich with ridiculously amazing tomate de arbol juice. My favorite drink so far. Now suddenly I realize why a month before Ecuador, I started CRAVING orange juice. It was preparation because I was never really a fruit person before.

We were led to a new room where Andrew gave us a sort of pep talk about meeting our families, and handed out a map so we knew where we were. And then we picked up cards with our names, and were released to the foyer to find our families! It took a lot of looking and confusion for my host mom and me to be united, but it happened...dragged my luggage to the street, and into a taxi we went. My home is way, way far from the training center. I wonder who else is nearby? PC said we were put into clusters. Farther and farther the taxi drove, until we reached a locked gate, entered that, and came across another locked gate. Home!

Home is three houses, all the same family. Paula, my host mom, introduced me to her mother Greta, a lovely woman who speaks clear Spanish and flashes smiles at me all the time. Paula's young son Mateo was home, as was Matias who immediately shared with me his favorite music videos on YouTube, and asked to see mine. And there's Mario. M-M-M.

My personal space is enormous. Way bigger and nicer than I ever had a right to expect. I live in one of the three houses on the second floor. There's a large living/study room, a kitchenette (without cooking abilities), a bathroom and shower, my room, an extra room - all to myself. Totally private.

My host family is not obligated to make me lunch and I have to pay them for this in addition to what the Peace Corps gives us to pay them for breakfast and dinner, but even still they invited me to lunch. Another great soup with potatoes, carrots, onions and pasta (I'm loving the soup thing), a salad (tomatoes, broccoli, and a little lettuce with olive oil), rice, and a type of lentil cake (torta de lenteja?). I took a bite of the lentil cake and freaked a little - the texture reminded me exactly of meat. I asked again what was in it: Paula assured me it was just lentils and eggs. Oh, eggs? I'm not used to those either. More adjustment.

Peace Corps also told us not to have the cheese or milk until our stomachs settle in a week or so, but Matias offered me some to put in my soup. And it was that familiar white semi-soft salty cheese like queso de campo in El Salvador, so I accepted it. Eight hours later, I still feel fantastic.

Carlos (?), Paula's husband, arrived after work (he teaches English), and tried to get me connected to the wireless internet. We tried for what seemed like hours, and many people filtered in to help - that's another strange thing to me here, all the people around all the time! Finally they were successful and I was able to get on and Skype my parents.

Paula called me back for dinner, which was a quiet meal between herself, Carlos, and me of the same salad, rice, and a grilled cheese sandwich of the white queso. They finished way before me, so they drilled me with questions and, maybe it was nerves or tiredness, but my Spanish went down the drain. I think I disappointed my host dad, because I can speak Spanish when I'm 100% focused, but if I loose concentration, away it goes. Paula asked me tough questions like why I'm a vegetarian, and how the economic situation is in the U.S. Yikes. I excused myself at 8:30 due to exhaustion, but here I am at 11 still trying to get settled. I hope I can sleep in. Tomorrow, from what I understand, they're taking me to Quito to a market where people sell local crafts like textiles and hats. Hmmm...we'll see! I wish I could take pictures but from everything I've heard, I don't feel comfortable doing that just yet.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ecuador staging and day 1 of training

Just a couple days have passed and I have so much to write about!

On Wednesday, staging day, I slept in to the glorious hour of 9:30 a.m. in a heavenly, cozy hotel bed. Got one final meal of avocado/carrot/cucumber sushi for breakfast from the Whole Foods right down the way. Registration started at 12 and then, with the turning in of a pile of paperwork, we became official Peace Corps trainees.

Staging lasted from 1 to 7 and started off with one of those icebreakers where you have a list of skills, experiences, random facts, and you have to find someone in the room to match one. I may have scoffed a little at it, but I'll admit - it helped me learn names. Most of the day was spent discussing commitment (Are we really ready for this?), a broad safety overview, a reminder of Peace Corps' Core Expectations, all reinforced by small group skits and by drawing pictoral interpretations of our anxieties and aspirations.

Almost all 42 of us made it. Well... it seemed like a lot of us were there. Maybe in the 30s? Our last meal was waaaaay way far from the hotel at J Paul's where I had a pretty miserable veggie burger. I'll try and forget it and just remember the fries and salad for my last American meal.

I didn't bother going to sleep. I got some more Denali work done (submitting a pile of brand-new EarthCaches tonight!!), got the video above finished, got re-packed to see if I could get things a little more organized for arrival, and tried so hard to catch one final episode of It's Always Sunny. I don't even like TV, but I do enjoy seeing that once a week. But I totally ran out of time. Suddenly it was 3 a.m., and time to congregate downstairs in the hotel lobby.

And then sleepiness REALLY hit me. I was zombified. We piled into a coach bus to head for the airport and I don't even really remember the ride. Our mass of PC people and luggage blocked the entrance and caused some kind of security problem, so we continued on to checking and inudated them. But luckily our flight was hours away...

Yet the weather continued to plague us. Apparently the turbulence was so bad on the same earlier flight to Miami that a couple flight attendants were injured enough to be hospitalized - so instead of flying over the ocean, our flight went overland. Fun!

In the Miami airport, we all sought out our very last meal in the United States but it seemed a lot of us were disappointed. After walking for ages with Lindsay, another trainee, we gave up finding food and returned near our gate for a cheese pizza from Pizza Hut. Got my very last soy latte, and I'm happy to say it was pretty good!

On the flight to Quito, I came in and out of drowsy conciousness. I tried reviewing some Spanish but I literally couldn't focus my eyes. Those 3 hours and something minutes seemed like days. And then came our descent! Our very rapid descent. The very first thing I spotted was Guagua Pichincha, an active volcano located right on the edge of Quito. And the airport is right next to it.

Entering the country was a piece of cake and a lot faster than other entries I've had. There was no whooping or cheering when we arrived like I've seen in some other PC videos, but a group of support staff was there to help us check in and gather back our Peace Corps passports. Pink ribbon tied to all our bags to help us grab each others' luggage (a Peace Corps tradition, I guess). And onto a coach bus for a long ride through the city to our temporary home at San Patricio.

I didn't feel shock being here. The streets look familiar, the language barrier doesn't put me off because it's not that huge for me. I have this huge sense of familiarity already, and I feel like this is right, like being here is what I was supposed to do and it just took so long to do it.

San Patricio is a spacious building like a community center where our two-bed and one bath dorms are located upstairs. Up many flights of stairs. We remembered our altitude (like 9000 feet I guess?) immediately climbing them for the first time. I now have to throw toliet paper in the garbage instead of flushing it because of the plumbing and treatment system, and when I turned the shower on, a great fountain of water gushed from the top of the head and showered the entire bathroom.

During dinner, a lot of the Ecuadorean staff stopped by to introduce themselves. We ate a tomato soup, popcorn (apparently quite popular?) and rice (there was meat and veggies too but I skipped this). One massive game of bananagrams followed, probably 14 or more people joined in. At least three of us brought a set.

The NEXT day, today, we had a breakfast of rolls, eggs (I passed), and Nescafe (Firefly Cafe, if you're reading this, please rescue me after I graduate from training!!!). We loaded up the same coach bus and headed our bumpy way to Peace Corps' new training center in Tumbaco. It's a really nice property with an open area in the center and bunches of classrooms inside. We had a seminar on safety and met the Country Director. It was a day filled with paperwork - they set us free to complete six tasks.

1. Forms! A form to tell them our host family preferences (please be receptive to me being a vegetarian, please!), a skills inventory to see if we have any other skills not in our application, a short bio with yet another aspiration statement (I think it's my third and each time it's getting more and more robotic), a form for personal data, and the third time I saw the authorization of use of material (our bios and photos can be released to anyone).

2. Allowances! An envelope of cash to pay our host families for the first two weeks to reimburse them for lodging and food.

3. Photos! I didn't know about this and I definitely don't want to see my photo.

4. Immunizations! I'm almost getting used to being poked by needles. I got a typhoid, yellow fever, and heptatits A shot in two arms. Ouch. The typhoid began to ache in a lot of our right arms.

5. Language Test! An 80+ question Spanish exam to gauge our abilities. I think I did decently well on it. The oral exam is on Tuesday...

6. Open a bank account! I had to sign five times for my bank account. They had to be totally identical to my passport signature.

A federal officer from the U.S. Embassy came by to give us a presentation on safety. While it was helpful, he had a lot of stories about crimes committed in Ecuador (not necessarily against PCVs though). It's not meant for us to be paranoid, but just totally aware of what's going on and to avoid putting ourselves in the same position as those victims.

We had these amazing humitas for an after-lunch snack. They're basically sweet cornbread baked in banana leaves with a few giant raisins inside. I'm looking forward to more of those!!

For our last activity, we split into our two program groups - Natural Resource Conservation and Agriculture. I'm in NRC doing Environmental Education. We introduced each other, and I'm happy to say I took a small leap and did mine in Spanish. The worst part of the day: when the program leader said we're not allowed to go to Banos, which is the major town at the base of Tungurahua volcano that is currently erupting. Because I'm in communication with the Geophysical Institute and it would be with them that I go anywhere near the location, and I have experience around erupting volcanoes, I'm hoping to work out a dialogue between the two organizations. It would be a huge shame to not be able to volunteer my free time at the observatory.

Anyway, tomorrow at 11 a.m. we leave with our host families. I'm nervous! Excited, but so nervous. I hope they like me...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Surprise flight out of Chicago

You've probably heard of that massive snowstorm stretching across the U.S. Chances are, if you're in the U.S., you're in it. Chicago was supposed to be one of the hardest places hit, and so it was no surprise when airlines began preemptively canceling their flights for Wednesday. Naturally my flight was canceled Monday night. I didn't worry about it. I really assumed I'd be flying out Thursday now instead of Wednesday, so I went to bed happy and content and woke up at the beautiful hour of 10 a.m.

I called SATO travel.

They only gave me the choice of hopping on a 4:05 p.m. plane THAT DAY. And there I was, sitting in my PJs, unshowered, ready to throw in a pile of laundry and get my packing done at the pace and time I wanted. I called the staging coordinator who said it was ok if I missed that flight, but I had to book another out. I called SATO back. Again, they didn't give me the option of leaving after the storm was over. "Oh, and the 4:05 p.m. just canceled so now you're on the 3:05 p.m."

I'll admit it, I began getting teary-eyed wondering how the hell I could do it all. I thought of those few hours at home with my family that would be taken from me. We're not the kind of family that draws out goodbyes, so the last few hours are usually crucial for us to bond. And we didn't get that. It was me running around the house trying to gather things, shouting out for help from my dad and Laurie (who were champs, thank you).

I mostly finished just in time at 12:30 p.m., just and hour and a half after my flight was rescheduled. The snow began flying.

The airport was eerily quiet. While we waited in line, we heard over and over again that United flights were canceled... but mine was miraculously still going to make it. I practically walked right through security, and laughed when I saw only about 15 people waiting at our gate. Shortly after, the snow really began flying and the wind picked up. No plane yet, and we were supposed to be boarding. And then there it was. With each step of the way, though, I was denying it would actually happen. I WANTED to stay. I wanted to be stuck in a blizzard... it's historical. I thought it would be fun spending an extra day at home on the couch while the snow piled on and on Even when we began boarding I had my doubts, until they sprayed the plane with green defrosting goo.

Despite insane winds, the takeoff was beautiful. So here we are in D.C., perhaps four or more of us early birds. Nothing exciting weather-wise is happening here - it tried to rain, but failed at that too. But staging registration begins at 12 noon tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to resting in the morning and getting more last minute work done.