hey there, Cuenca

The rocks were slick with water.  I stepped forward and slipped, using the mossy ledge on the left to keep my balance while reaching for a wildly swinging rope on my right– the only thing that kept me away from the river.  With wet sneakers, I continued up the narrow ledge, gingerly stepping from rock to rock, under vines and branches, until I reached a slightly more stable part of the trail.

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We climbed up and up– the altitude was tiring, but the scenery was invigorating.  Also, there’s something about having only a thin rope separating you from a rapid waters that keeps you awake.

The Andean mountains are a bit chilly in the morning, but the longer and higher I climbed, the hotter I became.  At some point, I started focusing on the flowers, the river, and my footing more than my labored breathing.  We passed cows and llamas, saw hummingbirds high in the trees, and eventually made a loop back to the main building.

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We came here to Termas Papallacta, a spa and hot spring, after visiting our second school in Quito.  Before that, on June 29, we travelled to a small compound that housed about 900 young students.  I sat in a class, taught 8-years olds how to sing “Old MacDonald,” and was then whisked away to explore Quito’s more historic buildings.

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The day after, we went to another school.  After conferencing with the principal, we played with the kids during the last ten minutes of recess.  Giving us each a bag of chips, our trip director encouraged us to share, saying that it would be a great way to get them to interact with us.

She wasn’t wrong– within three seconds of opening my bag, a huge group of youngsters crowded around me, eagerly reaching out their hands.  While passing out snacks, I made my way over to the playground, and eventually ended up on the seesaw.  I wasn’t the only adult who was willing to have a little fun, and soon enough there was another group of young children fighting to be the one to play with us.

The recess bell rang, sounding more like a bomb-warning siren than anything else, and the kids reluctantly ran off.  Two by two, my classmates and I were placed in rooms to work with the students.  My partner and I stayed with chatty five- and six-year olds.  Gradually, they came to us, wanting help with the sums they were practicing and full of questions about our lives in the United States.

In Ecuador, being punctual is not as strict as it is in the United States, and true to Ecuadorian spirit, my partner and I were almost fifteen minutes late to our next meeting– but only because the children were sad to see us go.  As we walked to the front of the class to say goodbye, they crowded around us, wrapping their arms around our knees and thanking us for our help.

Eventually, we made our way out of the class and onto a bus that would take us to Papallacta.  We napped and conversed for about an hour, finding ourselves surrounded by massive mountains and new vegetation, before finally arriving at the hot spring.  It seemed like the only thing around us were a river and the mountains; other than that, we were beautifully isolated in the Andes.

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Our time there was short.  After one fantastic night and part of the next day, we had to leave for the airport.  On the 31st of July, we would fly to Cuenca and meet our host families.

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I won’t write about my family just yet– but I will say that they’re absolutely fantastic, as is the city.  Classes have been keeping me extremely busy, but it helps that we’re starting to settle into a routine.  Soon, I’ll write all about my family, my classes in Cuenca, and our weekend excursions!

hello, Quito

Much like New York, Quito is a city with sirens, graffiti, and dark alleys.  People move through the sidewalk in crowds while music blasts from passing cars.  Enticing smells float from brightly lit bars and restaurants while small shops see a steady stream of people come and go.  It’s different from the United States, but the night scene is incredibly familiar.

After passing through the darkening city, we pulled up to a small hotel.   We received our room assignments and lugged our suitcases up two flights of stairs.  The atmosphere is much thinner this far up, and our hearts were pounding wildly from our brief burst of energy.  At this point, we just wanted to get settled and go to bed– our flight landed an hour later than expected, and another 45 minutes to the hotel meant that we weren’t sleeping until two in the morning.  Luckily, my roommate and I were rewarded with a quaint room that was perfectly sized (for me, at least!).

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Because I didn’t feel like pulling my suitcase up another flight, I offered Michelle the loft (and the double bed!) that was upstairs.  I took the small bed on the first level.  Since breakfast was being served in only six hours, we tried our best to get to sleep– it wasn’t too hard… warm blankets + exhaustion = out cold.

After waking up, we trekked down the stairs and across a small courtyard to the main branch of the hotel.  In the daytime, it’s a completely different place!  Dark green ivy crawls up the walls and bright red flowers add strategic pops of colors.

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Tables and chairs are placed outside on small balconies and further down on the grounds.  It’d be a great spot to enjoy the weather and drink some tea!  We passed them, though, and went inside, finding tables filled with fresh fruit, juices, coffees, teas, granola, and much more.

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After eating and gathering a few things, we walked about five minutes to a nearby museum that displays artifacts from indigenous Ecuadorian groups.

You know how Europeans came to North America and interacted with, or sometimes oppressed, the Native Americans?  The same thing happened to indigenous Ecuadorian peoples, only with the Spanish.  We heard more details about Ecuador’s past in what served as a medium-sized lecture hall nestled in the museum.  Ecuador’s history is absolutely fascinating, and what’s even better is that in 2008, Ecuadorians made a constitution that promotes values of equality for all groups of people.  This includes indigenous people, but also extends to women, to those in the LGBQT community, and even to nature!

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After a couple of lectures, we were finally allowed to take a tour of the museum.  Our guide was friendly, funny, and extremely knowledgable.

“Have you ever seen a sculpture with coffee-bean eyes?” he asked while pointing to a statue.  “Have you ever wondered why their eyes are like that?”

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“It’s because they’re high!”

We laughed.  “No, really,” he continued, “the shamans do this in order to see and make sense of their visions…” a lengthy explanations about different types of shamans, purification ceremonies, and indigenous history followed.

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After the museum, we had lunch at a place called Crepes & Waffles (you only get one chance to guess what they served).  It was a bit embarrassing being in such a big group (there are almost thirty of us total), because we attract a lot of attention.  Still, eating lunch at that small place was a fun experience, and once we finished we had the chance to walk around the city a bit.

Within the hour we were off on a bus tour.  It was one of the highlights of my day.  Quito has an amazing blend of decrepit and meticulously cared-for buildings.  You can see a traditional and modern styles sitting right next to each other.  But more striking than that is the streets– and the way everyone drives!  Everything seems incredibly steep and narrow.  I would love to shake the hand of every Ecuadorian driver.  Navigating the maze-like roads is not for the faint-of-heart.

While on the tour around the city, we had a few chances to take photos.  We were gradually climbing the mountains and ended up getting some absolutely fantastic views.

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Seeing the city in this way made me realize that Quito is HUGE!  It seems to stretch out forever.

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While up on this particular mountain, we had the chance to climb up a statue of a winged Virgin Mary.  Ecuador is a very Christian country, but they differ from the Christians we might think of in America.  For example, the snake in Ecuador is revered– it’s said that he can travel to the underworld, become wise by learning there, and travel back up again to share his knowledge.  For this reason, there’s a snake at the feet of the Virgin Mary statue.

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Eventually we made our way to Ecuador’s main plaza.  Many of the buildings that surround the plaza have government connections; one has housed previous presidents, another is called the Archbishop’s Palace (although he doesn’t stay there any more– according to our guide, he “doesn’t get as many visitors nowadays”).  Oh, and in the next week or so, the POPE will be making a visit to Ecuador, stopping to speak at the Plaza while he is there.

We ate dinner in the Archbishop’s Palace, which has been partially been converted into a classy hotel.  After that, a taxi quickly took me and a few others back to the hotel, where we can unwind and prepare for tomorrow.

So far, Quito has been absolutely amazing.  The people here are warm, friendly, and accommodating– especially to such a loud and obvious group of tourists.  The air is fresher, in a way, and the mountains are so much bigger than anything I’ve seen before… they provide a great backdrop for when you’re eating outside.

There are a lot of small differences that I’ve already noticed, too, like not being able to flush toilet paper (you have to throw it in the trash can!) or the fact that natural light is prevalent (electric lights are used a bit less).  Also, the food here is fantastic, even for a vegan, and I don’t think I’ll get over how great the fresh juices are.

Tomorrow, we’re headed out at eight in the morning to observe some schools around the cities.  It’ll be another very long day, but I think it’s going to be pretty amazing.

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