I’ve spent the past couple days waiting: waiting for the odd side pain that sprang up so fiercely in the Passport Control line at the Quito airport to subside; waiting to get home, despite my best efforts to gun the three-hour drive from Denver to my hometown (my father kept reminding me rather absurdly that 80 is not an appropriate speed at 65, to which I only answer: if that’s how fast half the other cars are going, I’m simply keeping pace); waiting for blood tests, CT scan results, and ultrasound readings; waiting for the pain in my intestine to go away; waiting for dizziness from my pain meds to wear off. I have waited out some symptoms only to have more appear—and to my surprise, the dizziness has nothing to do with my prescription drugs, because I finally went off the narcotics and found I was still tripping down the hall at the doctor’s office today. I am waiting for the fever chills to cease, for the headache to go away, and for the achy muscles to calm down so I can start working out again. I am waiting to feel well enough to pack, to see friends, and to start on the enormous to-do list of this summer-before-college.
With all the excitement of the past few days, South America feels like a dream and a star away.
I’m trying to fight the silvery tendrils of fatigue that keep winding themselves around my mind long enough to consider: Was it worth it? Did I do everything I had set out and more? The answer to that was a no-brainer for Russia: I hit absolutely everything I’d intended to do in three months, from visiting Moscow and Saint Petersburg to braving a solo cross-country train journey to see my friends and former host family in Kazan. Then again, talking with Jenny in our hostel late in our last night, we recalled how we didn’t know quite what to expect with South America. I’d been to Peru at age 13, but on a sheltered trip with about six adults that was far more about tourism than volunteerism or immersion. But this time…well, two gringas who don’t speak Spanish, who knew what would happen?
Did I learn Spanish? Not with the scholarly fluency of a Barcelona university lecturer, but I improved enough to whet my appetite for more. All you really need to know though is how to say is mentiroso, because you’ll be calling an awful lot of guys that when they try to pick you up.
Are you married?
How did you know?
I only wish I was kidding.
Did I do some volunteer work that was actually meaningful? Well…for the first month, no. I was sorely disappointed by the program I’d picked, once which was acclaimed for its gap year projects focusing on responsible eco-sustainability and income-generating initiatives. I won’t dish the dirt or name names here, since I’d rather not get my blood boiling, but let’s just say I question whether I did anything actually helpful to the small community we were staying in. And since the Spanish lessons that were included in the $2300 month-long package never materialized, it was difficult to ask the virtually non-English speaking on-site managers what we were supposed to be doing anyway.
Mes Número Dos, however, was a striking improvement. I recommend anybody who likes working with children and is traveling through Ecuador to spend a month or longer at Arte Del Mundo, a literacy and arts non-profit based out of Baños, Ecuador. As the organization is known locally, La Biblioteca Interactiva de Baños is an after-school program for elementary school kids who would otherwise spend the afternoons on the streets while their parents work. There are shelves packed with books and bright, colorful beanbags where the children can practice reading with volunteers. After about an hour, the group transitions into activity time with a new theme for every day: in a given week, the kids might play charades in the Imagination Corner (their first introduction to the concept of dress-up and playing pretend); write stories in mini-books; build a model of the solar system; weave bracelets; or create their own version of the rhythm group STOMP. I love seeing children improving their reading skills, but it’s exciting that kids also grow creatively at the Bib. School culture in Ecuador encourages kids to have the “right” answer, so they can be paralyzed when we ask them out act out an emotion or animal. Their minds are being stretched in other ways by this program. Obviously, not every day is some profound discovery for them, and sometimes an afternoon is spent just trying to contain the noise and energy levels of 20 eight-year-olds. But when you hear from parents and grandparents how their sons and daughters come home excited to show off some new craft they learned to make, and hear them express gratitude that their children have a place to spend their time productively, you know you are contributing to a community, even if it’s not ending world hunger. Also, the program provides lodging for a very modest fee ($175-200 a month, I believe) and there is often the chance to teach english in the evenings as well.
Did I experience a different culture? Yes. I’d have gained more by living with a host family, but I still learned a lot during my time. I hesitate to generalize here, because within the country there are differences between, say, an indigenous family in the North and a middle-class family from Quito. I can say that at times, attitudes differ greatly from those in the States, like the powerful connection some indigenous tribes have with nature. We might call their deep reverence for the earth and her life-giving properties some kind of hocus-pocus, but you can feel that magic has a place in Ecuador that it lacks in our country. Other times, especially in Baños, I felt like I was living amongst my mother’s extended family. Except for the dried blood in the soup at the open market—that never makes an appearance at family fiestas in New Mexico.
Did I spend two amazing months with one of my dearest high school friends? The hardest good-bye was the last one. Even though Jenny and I will see each other again, we are departing to opposite coasts for college and don’t even live in the same state to begin with. I’ll try not to cry again, and instead remember that I was incredibly lucky to have such a great time with her. Honestly, the whole trip could have stunk, but at least we got to hang out. That and who else would put up with eight weeks of my (entirely uncontrollable) snoring?
Whatever else that happened wasn’t necessarily expected or hoped for, but I won’t forget it soon either: bridge jumping, eating guinea pig, riding a llama, going rock climbing, dancing salsa (a LOT of salsa), holding hands, using a machete, perusing artisan markets, trying to cook, building a garden roof, getting lost in translation (or in Baños).
It was pretty neat. And I feel pretty lucky it happened. And now…onto next adventure.
Just as soon as these fever aches go away.
6 pm Sunday night:
Me: What should we have for dinner?
Jenny: (Looks in fridge) Hmm…Well, we do have that chicken we bought at the open-air market last week sitting in the freezer.
Me: But it does have to defrost…
Jenny: Well let’s pull it out and then we’ll make pasta with grilled chicken and vegetables!
Sounds like a perfect plan, right? I am reminded as I pull out the frozen-solid chicken (bones and all, folks) that my mother always started defrosting chicken around 4 pm if we planned on eating it that night for dinner. I heat up some water and pour it over the chicken, kneading it a bit to try and get some warmth through the inches-thick breast while silently pondering Salmonella’s rate of occurence in Ecuador. What did my grandmother used to do to cook a chicken? Have I ever actually seen anybody cook a whole chicken in my household? I must admit, we fell prey to Ecuador’s insanely low food prices: $3.50 for a whole chicken at the mercado, or $8.50 for three frozen chicken breasts at the grocery store. You tell me what looks better on an $8 per day food budget.
6:30 I finally decide to tackle the chicken to at least get the meat off the bone before I grill it. I stare the pale pink, bulbous thing down. Do I go for the wings first? Maybe try taking off the skin? But the skin has good flavor, best to leave it on…I flip the chicken over. My formerly-feathered friend’s hollowed-out chest cavity gapes back at me. Maybe I should trim the fat first, I think to myself, and while I’m at it I just take the skin off because let’s be honest, I’m hungry and there’s no point getting fancy anymore. I just need to try and not poison either of us.
6:40: Skin is gone, so it’s time to face the unpleasant. I grip one wing and with a nasty crunching sound, pull and twist—instead of a nicely shaped, ready-to-cook wing, I have a very disturbing half-maimed chicken carcass. This is not how I pictured my first grilled chicken dinner to look at all. Hmm. What step did I miss? I decide to come back to the left wing and start on the right. I fare slightly better, and with the help of a knife manage to fully separate this wing from the body.
6:45: Since I’ve handled the wings with such grace and dexterity, I decide to tackle the breast. Doesn’t look like I’ll be able to peel it right off the bone…maybe I’ll try slicing the chicken down the sternum and go from there! Another sickening crunching noise, interspersed with sawing sounds. Trickles of blood. Then—ice. The chicken is still half-frozen. Damnit.
Jenny walks to the refrigerator and opens the door. SMACK! Out fall the dozen eggs we just bought at the market.
Jenny: We’re having eggs tonight.
With a sad look at my chicken, I pick it up, carry it over to the stove and put it back in the pot. Maybe I can heat it up a bit more and go for a second attempt then.
7:00: Check on the chicken. The outer corners of the breast are starting to turn white. Just hopeless, I think to myself.
I’m sure it will come as a great surprise from what I’ve written so far, but I don’t have much cooking experience. I can make a mean egg scramble, and with the help recipes I’ve done some nice babagannouj, applesauce muffins, cakes, brownies, kale salad and even Thanksgiving side dishes. Jenny’s time in the kitchen, however, self-admittedly has extended no further than sandwich-making. Together we are improving, but there have been a number of incidents—stir-frys with unwashed vegetables, forgetting to check on the soup and letting it reduce down for an hour longer than it should have—that do not inspire total confidence in her cooking abilities. Granted, I do take full responsibility for the Bok Choi Incident, in which I made a leafy green stew that simply did not sit well with her…so suffice to say, for both parties, a whole chicken was really ambitious. And when I get in over my head, or I’ve bought more vegetables than anyone could realistically eat in a lifetime, there is only one thing to do: make soup.
7:15: Jenny finishes picking the eggshells out of the bag of massacred eggs and pours the mixture into a frying pan. I furiously grate mozzarella cheese to keep up with the rapidly bubbling egg whites and dash over to stir the cheese in before the scramble totally dries out. Jenny takes my place by the sink and finishes cutting vegetables, although it seems to me that perhaps we should have cooked the broccoli and mushrooms first and then the eggs. But it’s not the time for more judgement until—
Jenny had put the three eggs that survived the Refrigerator Incident on the kitchen table. I didn’t notice until that moment, when one single, rebellious egg begins to drunkenly roll ever so precariously towards the end of the table, how very uneven our eating surface really is, can’t do anything but let out a garbled “AHH” while the little brown messmaker flips over the edge and flies crashing, just like its brothers did before, to its imminent doom.
7:30: We finally recover from the second trauma of the evening, not even counting the Failure Chicken that is merrily boiling away in a pot of water with salt and curry powder thrown in for good measure. I saute the vegetables without much incident, save a few bits and pieces falling out of the pan like they always do. Jenny and I eat our dinner quietly, exhausted by the evening’s events. I go upstairs to search for soup recipes.
8:00: Jenny and I venture out to the supermarket. With a chicken curry soup in mind, all I need is a granny smith apple and some more eggs for breakfast tomorrow.
8:30: We return from the market without further incident, although the bag boys looked happy to see us for the third time in one day (It’s amazing how not having a grocery list leaves you open to forgetting many things each time you go to the store). Jenny’s friend is waiting for us outside our apartment. As she greets him, she passes me the bag of eggs that she carried so carefully all the way back, but the flimsy, slippery plastic slides through my fingers and—CRACK!
Well, we all know what that noise means by now, don’t we?
This time we can do nothing but laugh, so much that I actually choke on my own spit for the first time in over a year. I go inside, chuck the eggy goop in the trash and start work on my soup.
10:00: Soup is done. I taste. And what a good soup it is.
For many years, I have had a rather tumultuous relationship with my denim. It’s not like skirts, where I have had many flirtations and a few true loves (oh, my black bandage mini, how I miss thee!), or dresses, with which I have a smooth, steady relationship of committed love (my darlings, I dream about you—I can’t wait to come back and wear you all summer long!). Jeans on the other hand—quite frankly, it’s just hit-or-miss for me. Since I am not a pencil-thin size 0, it is a hassle finding a pair that simultaneously flatters my hips, thighs, and butt. Scratch that—it’s damn near impossible. I don’t have the time to search far and wide for the holy grail of Levis, so I will admit that I’ve settled for close seconds, pairs of skinny jeans and flares and boot-cuts that are flattering, though not fantastic. Until now.
Here in Ecuador, there is a place where the river runs blue (with dye, as opposed to running brown with mud from Quito’s water pollution). The streets are crowded with torso-less mannequins and signs trumpeting deals for the damas and the hombres, $12 pantalones, $10 jeans. Though vendors mostly peddle skinny jeans, you can find them in any color, wash, or pocket design, with jeggings and leggings floating around in most shades of the rainbow as well. Don’t like the price at one store? Walk away, you can find the same pair two doors down for less. Just bring a native Spanish speaker to do the talking, or you might end up with the “gringo tax,” that little price hike that means you’re being taken for a sucker.
But why, why is this mecca of blue jeans such a special place? Take a closer look at those mannequins. No, not the front—the back. Notice something? Yes, that is what they call a Brazilian butt. But if you aren’t quite so well-endowed, don’t worry, they also have a Cuban cut for those medium-range curvaceous derrieres. This sounds too good to be true, I know. But then I saw the magic conjured by these two-and three-button high-waisted designs—my god, talk about an hourglass figure! And muffin tops? A thing of the past, I say. The pleats, sewn with expertise and an ample bottom in mind, flare out below the belt loops in the back to incorporate the extra fabric a badonkadonk needs to breath. And your behind doesn’t just look good in these jeans: it looks full-on, stop-and-stare, you-can’t-be-a-gringa-because-your-ass-says-otherwise AMAZING.
It is the particular wonder and woe of travel that, when you stumble upon a real treasure such as Pelileo, it is inevitably intransient and irreplicable. I ask myself, “Will I really ever find such a fantastic deal again, such clear perfection in a fit of pants?” It made it hard to leave with only one pair. But alas, my backpack cannot hold more, and perhaps the beauty of this encounter is better preserved by the singularity of just this one souvenir of my visit to the City of Jeans.
Taken from a journal entry this morning: I write from an early-morning, softly-swaying hammock where the air is (miraculously) dry and the blood bugs cannot reach me. The blood bug, if you’ll permit the digression, is the highland jungle mosquito’s close companion, a nasty little monster that will chomp your legs up in mere seconds if you dare to venture out in the daytime with shorts on. Read: My legs looked like I had the chicken pox this week. But that is really of no interest to dramatize futher, there are bigger fish to fry.
Out on the street, men a full head shorter than me stroll in flat, obsidian felt hats with a single long plait down their backs, while women in embroderied white shirts with strings of golden beads around their necks carry babies, produce, and handmade goods. This is Otavalo, a hundred-years-old trading center home to an indigenous people that work hard to preserve their culture and customs even in the age of cell phones and Facebook.
After hours saturated in dramamine and the unpleasant clench of my stomach that I´ve come to associate with the winding roads of Ecuador, after a mid-morning stop at the doctor’s (Claudia, a girl in our group, was ill), and then a mid-afternoon stop at a hospital so pristine it hardly seemed to belong in a country of such poverty (Claudia, it turns out, was really ill and needed an IV), we finally ascended into the rumpled-laundry highlands of the north. The dense, lush cascades of guava and papaya trees are no more, replaced by spiky, leathery-looking plants right out of the Paleozoic era and the feather tapers of the eucalyptus tree. A quick side note before continuing: Claudia is fine, although doing her best to avoid the dietary guidelines set down by the doctos (essentially, nothing with flavor or spice, which leaves bread and maybe some guacamole).
Back to Otavalo…What a relief to breath mountain air again! I am in seventh heaven. Compared to Mindo, where we went last weekend, Otavalo is a burgeoning metropolis, but perhaps that’s not saying much considering the former’s nightlife offerings encompassed about a hundred paces on a single road. Still, eating pizza while a folklorico ensemble serenades you with rhythms that transcend flamenco and cumbia to something that is uniquely Andean is a treat you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
However, this town isn’t famous for its music, but for its Saturday market that spills over from the central plaza into side streets in all directions. Plaintains, fried egg and rice balls, silver earrings, drug rugs (those infamous wool pullovers) patterned with llamas, hats crocheted and knitted to look like Spongebob, Smurfs, or Nemo, or the Alien from toy story—it was, suffice to say, positively overwhelming. Add to that the conspicuousness of being gringa and asian to the eyes of the locals, and that, my friends, is where the title of this blog entry comes in. You can’t cross the street without men calling you their princesa, their bonita (pretty), whistling, calling…it’s clearly a game to them, but when vendors do it do you, do they honestly expect you to come trotting over, eager to buy their wares? I got so fed up last night with one man harassing us out his car window that I finally stepped out and screamed an aggressive QUE? in his direction, which got him to put his foot back on the gas and leave us alone. Men can be crass in the states, but you forget in America that women are still treated with such disrespect elsewhere.
In other news, I scored some great jewelry today.
Whew, has it only been four days since we’ve arrived? I’m writing from the middle of the cloud forest in a little village called Santa Marianita (population 400). We’ll see how far I get with this entry, as my numerous bug bites are calling to me to return to my room, take a benadryl, and wait for this insatiable itch to go down. Pretty picture, isn’t it?
In all seriousness, this Andean jungle is stunning. Our camp is based two hours outside of Quito, tucked off the side of a winding, single-lane road in the middle of vast, craggy mountains. After a few hours of sunshine in the morning, misty clouds creep over the hilltops and it begins the steady on-and-off daily drizzle that continues well into the evening. Not exactly the ideal weather for drying clothes when we only have a washing machine, but the land is lush and green for all this moisture. And of course, this wetness brings all sorts of creepy crawlies out to play. Although Claudia, one of the two British girls on our trip, claims the really terrifying insects were in the Amazon (think tarantulas the size of your palm), I`ve already gotten up close and personal with a few giant cicadas. Yesterday, there was a funny smell coming from our room mid-afternoon. As we all laid down to take a rest, something fell down from the ceiling rafters, and Claudia cried, “THAT`S what’s been stinking up this room!” Lying on the mat in the center of our bedroom was a little dead bat. Welcome to Camp Maquipucuna!
Time to get off the computer, but more adventures to come!
They said it wouldn’t happen. It couldn’t. It was just a capricious notion, brought on by the heady perfume of the Massachusetts spring blossoms. She wasn’t serious about dashing off to South America on her gap year—did she even know where Ecuador was on the map? I mean Russia made sense, she’d been there before, but Ecuador? She stopped taking Spanish three years ago for goodness sakes! Well, give it a few months, her father said. Hopefully she’ll forget about it.
Ah, the vain musings of parents whose daughter is infected with the travel bug. Little did they know, doubts only strengthened GapGirl’s resolve to get herself and a backpack down to the equator for some volunteer work, Spanish immersion, and maybe (DEFINITELY) some salsa dancing on the weekends.
Although if we’re being honest here, I definitely had my doubts too. There were the transatlantic skypes with SaucyShanghai, my high school co-hort, who spent most of this year teaching English in China. We scrambled to find volunteer organizations that weren’t exorbitantly expensive (try $4,000 for two weeks saving turtles in the Galapagos!) but would also provide a safety net for two eighteen-year-old girls whose grasp of the Spanish language went only a bit further than “¿Donde está el baño?” Sounds simple, right? Wrong. There’s a reason you shouldn’t use Google to write your research papers. There are far more efficient ways of turning up information, but alas, they do not have research databases for student travelers with filter features for “Extremely Cheap,” “No Bedbugs,” and “No hablo español.” (To be fair though, the last part I’ve been working on.) So Google it was, and with enough poking around, we finally found a few gems, non-profits both abroad and locally-based that we’re really excited to be working with. More on that in further posts.
Eventually though, the plan began to take shape. Deposits were put down. Water purification systems were purchased. Money was (not) exchanged, since Ecuador actually uses the U.S. dollar. I even sprung for Iris Bahr’s memoir, “Machu My Picchu” in the spirit of Andes-related travel (this gal is like the Sarah Silverman of travel writing. Brash, inappropriate, and very funny). And now, with a day away, this trip is ACTUALLY happening. Although it might not, if I don’t go deal with that laundry…and with that, Gap Girl says good night. Look for another post in a few weeks once I track down a computer!
Ryazan, Russia: I visited Ryazan with my friend, Natalia, to go see the semi-final for the student league of KVN, a popular Russian comedy show. We spent the hours leading up to the semi-final wandering the streets of Ryazan, the hometown of famous poet Sergei Esenin. Esenin was quite the tortured artist, as one might guess from his statue near the city’s Kremlin.
If you will note here on the excellent table Tamara set out for us, the little things in the center of the table that look like mushrooms— those are hard-boiled eggs with the ends of tomatoes capping each one, with tiny drops of mayonnaise on the top made to look like spots. And you thought this blog wouldn’t have cooking tips on it…