Saturday, June 29, 2013

Cotacachi y Cuicocha

Fellow volunteers and I took the bus from the north bus station in Quito to Cotacachi, a town about 5 miles northwest of Otovalo (which I still need to go to for some hiking and the market there).  That weekend, there was a festival with all of the indigenous groups in the area called Inti Raymi in Kichwa (it means "sun festival") and also commemorates San Juan, San Pedro, and San Pablo.  We went to the town to see what it was all about.

On the first day, the men start dancing around 9:00am or 10:00am and dance until about 7:00pm at night.  The dancers wear these leather chaps that have sheep or alpaca furn the outside.  they also have these giant black hats that are made out of a hard material and have symbols on them of all different kinds.  I think the hats kind of serve a dual purpose because the next item that the dancers have are whips made out of rope, steel cables, or chains.  As they dance around the town, they whip the ground.  The dancers, at least the male dancers, also drink a lot all day, so there were tons of teams of riot police dispatched all over the little town to prevent fights from breaking out between the different groups of dancers.  On Sunday, the women danced, but since some of us had to work, we were only able to see the part of the festival on Saturday.
After wandering around the town for a bit and watching the different groups' dancing, we took a couple of taxis to a nearby lake called Laguna Cuicocha.  I guess you used to have to pay to get into the park where the lake is located but now it is free to enter.  The lake is absolutely gorgeous.  There are lush green mountains that border one edge and then you can walk around the other edge.  The park even has a little visitor's center where you can purchase hot empanadas and canelazo.  The lake itself is actually fairly large and there is a small island in the middle.  Too bad we didn't have more time left in the afternoon because I would have loved to canoe or kayak on that lake.

At night after we ate dinner, we walked around the town again, but stuck only to main, well-lit streets (pretty much the entire male population of the town was plastered and they still had those steel whips).  While Otovalo is famous for its Saturday market, Cotacachi is famous for its leather goods.  I was not even planning on buying anything, but then my friend wanted to look around so we ended up wandering into a store and started trying on jackets (dangerous).  We both ended up walking out with really cool bomber-style jackets.  While we were trying them on and deciding if we wanted to purchase them, our other friend decided to come in the store and mess with us to get us to hurry up.  He ended up buying a jacket even more expensive than either of ours.
After half of our group was clad in Cotacachi leather jackets, we wandered down a street and got help from two very nice women who were running a food stand at night (they were going to be dancing the next day).  They called cabs for us and waited outside with us until the cabs arrived, and tought us some Kichwa words while we waited.  They even went to the cabs first to make sure they were the cabs that were called to make sure it was safe for us to hop in.  They also told the cab drivers where to take us so that we could get on a bus back to Quito.  While we were waiting with them, we saw a group of drunk men stumble out of a house next door.  They were followed by a woman who must have been one of the men's wife - she was carrying all the steel cable whips (smart lady).
Once we got on the bus leaving Otovalo and heading back to Quito, there were no seats left so we stood for a little bit until more people got off and some seats opened up.  While we were standing, there was a lady who had two seats to herself and just had a bag sitting on the empty window seat.  She was really stubborn and refused to move the bag so that one of us (or one of the other 10 people standing) could sit down, claiming she paid for both seats.  Who knows what was going on with her, but it made the ride back pretty hilarious.

All in all, it was a great trip (even though I got sick from whatever we ate for dinner).  And the jacket is pretty cool too - it's too hot to wear it much here, but it will be perfect for fall and winter in Michigan.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

First Two Weeks in Quito

For my very first weekend in Quito, I managed to fill it with a lot of interesting, random things.  On Thursday night (June 13), I went with some students from my undergraduate university to Calle de la Ronda for a chill time.  We tried a famous Ecuadorian drink called canelazo, which is a hot alcoholic drink made with wine, cinnamon, and fruit.  We tried the mora kind (raspberry).  It wasn't bad, but was pretty thick and a bit syrupy (pretty sweet too) so we had to get some empanadas to go with it.  We wandered to another restaurant down the street and tried some chocolate de Ambato (Ambato is a city in Ecuador) and the hot chocolate was really good.  

However, even though La Ronda was bustling with people when we arrived, by the time we left at midnight, the entire street had been abandoned.  We were pretty surprised because usually it isn't like that, but unfortunately, we discovered this as soon as we had left the restaurant with the hot chocolate, closing the door behind us (bad move - next time, we will stay inside until the cab arrived).  There were two security guards, but one went to deal with a crackhead under a bridge further down the way, and the other was paid by the only other group in the street to escort them back to their way (meaning that both guards had left their posts totally abandoned - not cool bro).  We walked up the street, staying alert, and found more cops at the corner where upon our cab driver came flying through, up the street, past a police barrier to pick us up.  Muchas gracias, taxista!  The street is really pretty at night,so it is too bad that you can't really just walk along the streets in the historic district (or anywhere really at night).  I ended up going back to La Ronda during the day later on in the weekend and was able to get a couple nice photos.

On Friday morning (June 14), I went to the QuiCentro Mall to meet up with more people and walk around a bit.  As we were in the mall, we saw two American basketball players in warmup uniforms.  I went  up to them to ask them if they were Americans and what they were doing in Ecuador, and found out that they were playing for a professional Ecuadorian club basketball team called Mavort.  They ended up giving me all the tickets that they had in their pockets for their game on Saturday.  So that was awesome.  Later that night, the same friends and I ended up going to a nightclub in Quito called Times.  It was pretty fun with great music, but it can be hella expensive so watch out.
Saturday night (June 15), I went to the Mavort v. CKT basketball game with a friend from work.  It was quite the experience.  We were two of four total extranjeros there and the court was about the size of a high school court.  The CKT (away) team must have brought a bus full of people with them because their fan sector came prepared.  They all had matching blue hoodies with vuvuzelas, fired off two glitter guns during the game, and had a bass drum from a marching band that someone kept banging the entire game.  Our team lost that game, but it was quite the experience.
On Sunday (June 16), I went to the Dia de Refugiado Mundial festival in Plaza de San Francisco.  It was my first trip to the historical center and a very beautiful place.  The fair was very interesting too - lots of organizations there as well as refugees selling craft items and delicious food and performing spoken or musical pieces in the plaza.  Some volunteers from an organization were even roped into participating in a princess fashion show with some little girls too.  Only in Ecuador, jajaja.  
It was also Father's Day in Ecuador, and so of course I skyped with the padre.  Managed to find two videos from the events in the plaza too (not of the princess show though):

Drummers in Plaza de San Francisco for the Dia de Refugiado Mundial Festival

An NGO participating in the Dia de Refugiado Mundial fair:

Last week was my first week of work at the organization.  It was mostly spent getting familiar with the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process here in Ecuador and learning Ecuadorian constitutional and administrative law.  In 2008, Ecuador wrote its 19th constitution, so we're using that and an administrative law called ELJAFE.  Everything is all in Spanish again so there will definitely be a learning curve, but I am positive that by the end of the summer, my Spanish language abilities will greatly improve.  I also really like the other volunteers and employees that are here at the center - mostly from Canada and the U.S., but some from Ecuador, Colombia, and Spain.

This past weekend, I met up with two friends from work to go to see El Panecillo in the Historical Center.  Two of us ended up being late because on the way to meet up with the third person, I saw a tiny Persian corner store in Quito called Shirin, so of course I had to stop and see what it was all about.  It is a really cool place, and I will definitely have to go back.  The owner is a man named Ali who has been living in Ecuador for quite some time.  I was amazed that it actually wasn't too difficult to switch into Farsi (and only a random few Spanish words crept in when I forgot the Farsi counterparts).
El Panecillo was pretty cool.  It's dangerous to walk up the stairs to the statue on top of the hill (thieves and muggers are waiting for dumb tourists), so we were able to take a taxi to the top.  It was interesting to see the contrast between the old and the new parts of Quito as well as to be able to view the mountains and whole city below.  The statue itself is of Virgin Mary who is said to protect the city.  The name "Panecillo" itself comes from the shape of the hill the statue sits on.  When viewing the hill from afar, it looks like a little bun of bread, hence the name "panecillo."  On the way back down, we had the taxista drop us off at the Basilica de Voto Nacional.  It is a beautiful church, but unfortunately we arrived 15 minutes past the last entry up the spires, so we'll have to go back for another view.

On Saturday, June 22nd, my friend from work and I were sent to Santo Domingo to assist with a workshop ("taller") about refugee rights and other types of visas for the Colombian refugee population living there.  The ride to Santo Domingo from Quito can take anywhere from 2.5 hours to 4 hours, depending on how fast your driver decides to take the curvy highway up or down the mountain.  Our drivers made it in 2.5 hours (possibly less).  Which meant my head was spinning for some time afterward.  The highway however is absolutely beautiful, passing through lush, green mountains and farmland in the hills.  Even sticking my camera out the window, I was able to get some great pictures.
The city of Santo Domingo itself is another story.  After telling four different Ecuadorian friends that I was going there for work and was looking for something to see, they each said almost verbatim that the less time one spends there the better because it's a dirty, disorganized city.  This made me feel really sorry for pobre Santo Domingo because even the guidebook said that the only reason to go to Santo Domingo is to take a bus somewhere else.  Pobrecita ciudad!  When we arrived to the city, however, the image didn't entirely change.  The climate there is muggy because it is lower in elevation and closer to the coast.  We didn't see much of the city, but of what we did see, the nicest and newest building was a Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Getting sick for two days after off of the chicken I ate in Santo Domingo (not at the KFC) there hasn't really changed the image unfortunately. Apparently, there are festivals there.  Maybe next time.
Monday, June 24th, was my first day of client interviews.  They went well for the most part, especially given that it was my first time doing them and everything, with the exception of one interview, was conducted in Spanish.  It is really interesting to learn about all the different types of legal issues associated with immigration of all kinds to different countries.  While not all of those I spoke with were refugees, it was a really interesting experience.  It is difficult sometimes for me to understand certain Latin American accents, but I think this will become easier over time and important to be able to do.

On another note about the work in general, working on these types of issues really puts your life into perspective.  Just looking at the dates of some of the things I have seen over the years, it is crazy to think about what was happening for that person and what was happening for me at the same time.  While someone might have been fleeing for their lives, I was enjoying an undergrad study abroad in Spain or griping about law school classes and exams being difficult.  A month after my last birthday, I was still able to hang out with my friends, come and go as I please from my university, home, or wherever, and my biggest concern was probably finding a summer job and managing student loans (these are still valid concerns).  But no one was coming to my family's home, threatening them or me with death or forced recruitment, and I wasn't leaving everything behind to flee and arrive in a brand new country penniless.  One of my friends was working at UNHCR a while ago and found a sign in a hallway in her office building that said, "A Refugee Would Like to Have Your Problems."  So true and so humbling.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

First Day Out and About en Quito

Condor y Toro

After hunting down where exactly my internship building location is, I walked up this hill to the Fundación Guayasamin.  It is a museum in the house of a famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin, with a connected building housing more of his art.  The painting above is called Condor y Toro, and it represents the tension between the Spanish and indigenous Ecuadorian cultures.  It is a gigantic piece, and was my favorite of the visit to the museum.
[casa de Guayasamin]
The house, built in 1977, is absolutely beautiful and $3 gets you a guided tour of everything, including the little bonus of sneaking into the library (which apparently is not part of the tour but could be tossed in if you asked nicely).  At the end of the tour inside the house, there is a quote on the wall that was very poignant and moving:
Si no tenemos la fuerza de estrechar nuestras manos con las manos de todos, si no tenemos la ternura de tomar en nuestros brazos los niños del mundo, si no tenemos la voluntad de limpiar la tierra de todos los ejércitos, este pequeño planeta será un cuerpo seco y negro, en el espacio negro.
If we don't have the strength to reach our hands out to the hands of everyone, if we don't have the tenderness to take the children of the world into our arms, if we don't have the will to clean the world of all the armies, this little planet will become a dry and black body in a dark space.
Despite becoming very rich and famous as a painter and artist, Guayasamin came from humble origins (the eldest of 10 siblings born in 1919 and whose father was a taxi driver).  He described himself as being a painter and a voice for the poor and voiceless, and his many different paintings of Quito nestled among the Pichinche mountains were reflections of his various moods as captured by the mountains.  Another famous Guayasamin quote:  "Yo lloraba porque no tenía zapatos hasta que ví un niño que no tenía pies."  It means, "I was crying because I didn't have any shoes until I saw a boy who didn't have any feet."

[another view of Quito y Pichinche]
Quito Azul
El Violinista

[dead/dying souls reaching for freedom]
After the Guayasamin museum, I had enough time to visit a small museum toward Mariscal, called Mindalae.  To get there, it was my first time on the Ecovia bus (there are three lines that basically run north-south throught he city).  You've got to be careful on the buses because they get crowded, pickpockets and thieves are adept at their crafts, and unaware tourists make great targets.  However, I managed to get myself and all of my $3.25 off the bus without incident.
Ecovia, Red Line
The museum was really small so it took just the right amount of time to go through.  It has a small, but nice, collection of indigenous art, pottery, ceramics, weaponry, textiles, and clothing from all of the indigenous groups in Ecuador.  It was really interesting to see the differences in dress among the groups, as well as learn about how many diverse indigenous groups there are in the country. 
[indigenous Ecuadorian clothing]

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Flying In and Day One

I've been fly so long I fell asleep on the --- plane.

The lyric by Weezy (aka Lil Wayne) is accurate.  Despite my best efforts to stay awake, I fell asleep on both the flight to Atlanta and to Quito, which was probably for the better to avoid motion sickness.  De verdad, the flight was not bad at all.  Only about 5 hours in the air from ATL to UIO.  And the weezy part is also kind of accurate given that Quito is about 9,300 feet above sea level.  The good news is that aside from being a bit tired with a mild headache in the afternoon, so far so good with the altitude.

Aside from flying in yesterday and taking it easy today just running a few errands, it's been chill so far.  A couple first impressions:

The city is beautiful - I can't wait to get to the historic center and walk around buildings and streets from the 1500s (or older).  During the day, you can see the green mountains and hills with the roads winding through them.  The sky is really blue with big, fluffy, white clouds.  As the summer goes on, I am told that there will be fewer clouds and more blue sky.

The sun started setting around 7:45/8:00pm and the view of the city at night is equally beautiful.  At night, the roads are lit up with this yellow light from the houses and cars, making the long, narrow city look as though it is made up of golden veins snaking their way through the terrain.  Seeing that from above was pretty cool.

Going around the stores today, it is still odd to me to be in a foreign country and using US dollars.  Ecuador has its own coins but they are used interchangeably with US coins (including US dollar coins which I am gathering are used far more often here than I've ever seen them used in the US).  At least this takes away the issue of worrying about exchange rates and having to check all the time to find the best rate.

Driving in Ecuador (at least Quito) is a whirlwind.  Cars follow some rules more than others, but basically lanes and speed limits don't really matter and stop signs and yielding are optional.  It's a game of aggressive and defensive driving that everyone plays so I'm glad that I'll just be a passenger (with a seatbelt).  Most of the cars that I have seen so far are little Suzuki, Honda, or Chevy SUVs (with some compact cars).  And most of the cars here are manual (stickshift) drive, which is impressive considering the "hills" (aka mountains) that Quito's roads are on.   Lots of steep hills that would more than test most American stickshift drivers on their best days.

I thought that the phone I used while in Spain, Morocco, and Switzerland would work just as well in Ecuador with a new sim card.  No such luck, amigo.  Apparently, although pretty much the entire world uses a cell phone frequency different from the US and Canada, Ecuador and a few other Latin American countries follow the US frequencies.  Meaning that I'll most likely have to buy an Ecua-phone for my sim card since I cannot figure out how to change the frequency on the euro-phone.  So much for trying to be prepared on the communication end.  

For future reference (yours & mine):
2013 GSM World Map - GSM Country List

Today there was a World Cup qualifying match between Ecuador and Argentina (they tied, 1 to 1).  The whole city was pretty much preoccupied with the match.  At night, there was even a short burst of fireworks (I am assuming because of the game).  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going to Ecuador!

By this time tomorrow, I will have already landed in Quito and hopefully be home to my new residence for the next few months.  Quito was the first city to be named a UNESCO world heritage site and I am looking forward to seeing how blue the skies are 9,000 feet above sea level.  I'll have one week of relaxation (and mostly adjusting to the altitude) before starting my internship.  Will update soon!

Look at those skies.  Beautiful at any time of the day or night.

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