Bittersweet

This past week was very sad for many of us. It was our last few days teaching at the schools, going to Spanish class, having Education seminars and spending time with our families.

On Tuesday night we were invited to have dinner at Paulina and Grace’s house. They live on the same side of the mountain as everyone else, but just further uphill and from the town. It was a very nice meal, especially being that we were all together. Wednesday night, Josie and Tori’s family hosted a small party at their family restaurant. We had the whole back room to ourselves. We were all surprised to see an early birthday cake for Josie as well. It was a very kind gesture, but funny too since the candle was a question mark, not knowing what age she was turning. And to continue the tradition, her head was pushed into the cake after she blew out the candles.

Thursday was our last day of Spanish class. We were all invited to learn to cook at a local chef’s home. He lived further away from most of us, but had a beautiful house. There we made tortillas, some salsa, a hot pumpkin/milk drink, boil some sweet purple potatoes and roast some corn. It all tasted very good, and afterwards all of us played frisbee in his yard. In his yard there were also two young calves and two dogs running around.

Friday was the last day of teaching, and for some it was very hard to say goodbye. Those teaching in the high schools developed a close relationship with their students because of the similarities in age. The others who taught in the primary schools also had hard times saying goodbye, but Josie, Zach and I couldn’t have found it easier to leave. All three of us have had so much difficulty in the past 4 weeks, whether is was breaking up fights, teaching unsupervised classes, helping disabled kids find their classes, or getting oppressed by a teacher. We know that we had all done our best trying to get through to the children. Many of the kids were upset to see us leave, so they attacked us with hugs.

That night there was a farewell dinner, which hosted all friends and family. This was all being held at someone’s property who hosted parties. Brooks and I started walking to the party when we turn around to see our dad in his very old, banged up, red pickup truck. It was one of the tiniest trucks I’ve ever seen, but he picked us up. When we arrived, Brooks and I both made a grand entrance, hopping out of the back and the front seat. Both of us waved hello to everyone like we were famous. We had a wonderful view of San José de Minas and were able to watch the sunset. At this event, we all received keychains, diplomas, and roses. After dinner, all of the families got up and started dancing. We all had the best time ever enjoying our last night and spending it together. After we left, most of us finished packing and went to bed early.

Saturday morning, I woke up at around 4:30-4:45am to watch the sunrise the last time I was in San José de Minas. The original plan was to go to Paulina and Grace’s house because of their view, but since Brooks couldn’t wake up, I went up to the roof and watched from there. It was very peaceful and interesting to hear all of the roosters cock-a-doodle-doing and stray dogs barking. After taking a few photos and listening to the early morning noises, I went back downstairs to finish some last minute packing. Around 7:15am, the whole family had breakfast. We took a few photos, then Brooks and I received a gift from the family. A wooden plaque with a picture and family name engraved on it. They all also asked for our home addresses and Facebook profiles so that we could keep in touch. Leaving the house to walk to the town square, I gave Maria a hug goodbye and we both started tearing up. Even though she wasn’t a family member, she sure felt like one. She fed Brooks and I all meals of the day, and have been the best meals I’ve had throughout this entire trip.

Everyone needed to meet in the town square at around 8:20am to leave with our private bus for Quito, at around 8:30am. The minute Brooks and I arrived at the town square, there were already so many families there getting ready to say goodbye. Brooks and I thought we were lucky to have said goodbye at the house. Our host parents couldn’t walk us because they needed to work. When I saw other people in the program crying and getting very emotional, it made me realize how lucky I was to have been with such an amazing family. I saw Vanessa and Annie saying goodbye to their host family and crying hysterically. I had also gotten to know their mother very well so I said goodbye to her and to their siblings. While hugging their mother, Anderson, their little brother, grabbed hold of my leg to say goodbye. Anderson is a second grader who I thought at the primary school. He and I had become very close, since we had spent our recess times together. When I looked down to give him an actual hug goodbye, he was crying. I was so heartbroken to see him so distraught and upset that we were leaving. This also made me start to cry because it showed me how much we had touched the students just by being there and spending time with them. And before I knew it, I turned around and saw Victor driving up in his old, rickety, red pickup truck. He ran out of his truck just to give Brooks and I some water bottles for the road. I bursted into tears and gave him the biggest hug ever. Though he would be quiet most times, he has been so considerate this entire trip and I couldn’t be more grateful. When we all packed up on the bus to leave, everyone was crying on the bus and no one was talking.

Around 10:30am we arrived in Quito and had the day to ourselves. Most of us went to the mall to buy some last minute things for Peru. That night we went out to dinner to Crepes & Waffles to celebrate Josie’s 19th birthday. We also created a scavenger hunt that was made up of fun facts of everyone in the group, and so she ran around guessing who those belonged to. Everyone rewarded her with gifts. Later we spent the night talking with each other on the roof.

Today, we got up this morning around 4:30am to leave for the airport. While on the bus, I saw the sun rise again for the last time in Ecuador and all I could think to myself was how unbelievable everything has been. I still pinch myself everyday to remind myself that I’m in South America. It’s all been a dream come true.

Our flights this morning were to Lima and then Cusco. Flying over the Andes Mountains was such a crazy view. When landing in the small Cusco airport, the pilot had to land quickly for some reason, perhaps based on the aerodynamics and altitude. It was quite scary, but we all arrived safely and no one lost any baggage. When walking down the staircase out of the plane, I couldn’t have felt more winded. A whole bunch of us felt so weak, let alone having to later carry my 75L backpack up a whole set of stairs in order to get to the hostel. After catching our breath, a few of us girls went out to eat lunch. Seeing Cusco was so different from San José de Minas. Here, it’s very beautiful and I can’t wait to see how our hike to Machu Picchu goes.

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Photographs – 9

Baños de Agua Santa

Our exciting weekend began by having to wake up around 4am, packing up the old Chevy Blazer, and then starting the 5-6hr drive to Baños de Agua Santa.  Of course, because it was so early, Brooks, Kelly and I all fell asleep.  At one point during the drive, I woke up to the sound of “Hotel California,” by the Eagles, on the radio, while the sun was starting to rise.  The sky lit up light pink and gold, and I had to wake Brooks up so that he could see it too.  The rest of the drive consisted of either going through a town or driving along farmlands and seeing hundreds of cows.

Once we arrived in Baños, 5hr later, we had breakfast at a local restaurant and then headed over to our hostel afterwards.  Brooks and I were lucky enough to not only have our stay paid for by David and Kelly, but also get our own rooms.  Brooks and I were both on the top floor and had a great view of the town.  After we got situated in our separate rooms, we all met up downstairs, headed out into the town of Baños and began our excursions.

First stop was at one of the many waterfalls, where we rode in a “tarabitas,” or a cable car.  This tarabitas took us over the river and to the other side of the waterfall.  There, we walked across a cable bridge that went over the width of the waterfall.  About 20min later, we made it back to the other side of the river and hopped in the car to go to the next stop.  The roads in Baños are all cobblestone, hug the sides of the mountains, and are narrow two way roads.  The mountains are coated with bright green trees and cascading waterfalls, some even falling onto the roads.

Our second stop lead to a “canopy” stop.  There we were able to zip-line down a steep cable overlooking a river and few small waterfalls.  Here, the zip-lining was set up differently, unlike when we were in Mindo.  Our harnesses were placed on us backwards, so instead of sitting up straight, we had our stomachs facing down and our backs hooked into the cable.  On top of that, our legs were also strapped in, giving us no movement in our body, other than our arms.  There were two cables set up side by side, so Brooks and I were able to go together.  The minute he and I were let go, he flew passed me and soared down the cable super fast.  I, on the other hand, wasn’t heavy enough to go as fast as he did, which led me to stop 3/4 of the way down.  One of the workers had to hike down and hop across a river in order to help me.  He had to throw me a rope to grab onto, so that he could pull me back to the end.  It was very scary, I kept thinking I would fall down and crush my face against the rocks in the river beneath me.

After going canopying, we were driving alongside the mountain and saw some locals on the side of the road that were doing bungee jumping.  Brooks and I wanted to go bungee jumping very badly, so we stopped on the side of the road and did it with Kelly.  David was too afraid to do it, so he watched us from another bridge across from us and took pictures.  Brooks went first, then Kelly, and then I went last.  The most difficult thing about it, was probably having to be able to climb up onto the ledge and stand up straight.  I was worried I would slip and somehow hurt myself with the bungee cord while falling.  Luckily I made it up perfectly, and jumped without any problems at all.  It was by far one of the craziest things I have ever done.  Even once I climbed back up to the side of the road, my legs and arms were shaking.

Our last stop before lunch was to a waterfall called, “Pailon del Diablo.”  To get to this waterfall, there was a hike downhill that took about 15-20min to get to.  There we went up a staircase and got up alongside the waterfall.  Thankfully, Brooks and I had our rain jackets on, but Kelly and David got super soaked.  We then walked around to a cable bridge that was in front of the waterfall, and after a few minutes we headed back up.  The hike up seemed to be three times as long as the hike down, it was super tiring and very humid.

Soon after getting all sweaty and smelly, we drove back into town and went out to eat lunch.  After lunch, David gave us 2hr to relax and free time to do whatever we wanted.  During those two hours, I walked around town alone and was browsing through different stores.  I don’t exactly know what I was looking for, but I really enjoyed being able to take free time to be by myself.  I eventually found a café and ordered a cappuccino and a cup of stracciatella ice cream.  I sat outside the café, while listening to the local radio blast from inside and just people watched.  I saw tons of tourists walking through town, along with some locals selling fruit or making taffy, as one of the stores did across the street.  About an hour and a half into my alone time, I took my time to walk back to the hostel and couldn’t have felt more at ease.  I had no worries and was so happy to be in a beautiful town, surrounded by gorgeous green mountains and waterfalls.  Once I got back to my room, I found a channel on the TV that was only playing music videos and laid in my bed those last 30min before heading back downstairs for adventure number four.

We took the Blazer about 30min up the mountain to a place called, “La Casa del Arbol,” where the swing to the end of the world is located.  The drive up was on another cobblestone path, passing by different farms and a couple dozen cows.  During this time, the sun was just about to set, so once we did reach the top we were able to see that happen.  The four of us waited our turn for the swing, took photos, and climbed up into the treehouse.  From the top of this mountain, we got a great view of Tungurahua Volcano, which had actually spewed lava and volcanic ash just the week before.  We all enjoyed the view for a little while before we left for dinner.

Dinner was decided earlier on in the day, after I shared how much I was in the mood for pizza.  We went to a recommended restaurant and it couldn’t have been any better.  After pizza, I treated everyone to dessert at the same café I went to earlier.  Once we stuffed our bellies even more, we walked back to the hostel, for another hour long break and some time to digest our food.  David, Brooks and I met downstairs for the last time that night and headed out for some Karaoke.  We were all pretty stoked to sing, but once we walked inside, Brooks and I immediately decided we didn’t want to sing.  I guess we both felt like we would get a bit embarrassed.  It was funny though, because inside the Karaoke bar were multiple booths filled with drunk people in there mid 30s to mid 40s.  Once we saw that, we couldn’t help but laugh and seize the moment to belt out our favorite songs.  After we each sang one song, we then left and walked the two blocks back to the hostel.

The next morning, breakfast was being held at 8am for those staying in the hostel.  I woke up and showered, just in time to be down and ready for breakfast.  Turns out I was the only one in the group ready at that time.  Thankfully I knew enough Spanish to ask the woman at the front desk where breakfast was.  She walked me outside, across the plaza, and down a side street to a tiny restaurant where I got free breakfast.  At that time it was a bit misty out, but was nice to spend some more alone time.  I ate a small roll of bread with a side of butter, blackberry jelly, some scrambled eggs, blackberry juice and some hot milk with coffee.  On my walk back in the rain, I ran into Brooks, David and Kelly, and just told them I’ll meet them again once they finish breakfast.  When they finished, Brooks knocked on my door, and said I should start packing up and be ready in the next 20min.

About 20min later, we were on the road again.  David told us how we practically did everything you could do in Baños in just one day, so we headed back home to Minas early.  Before you knew it, we all passed out in the car once again.  A few hours later, we stopped in a town neighboring Quito for some lunch.  While eating lunch, a street car race started going on in the center of town.  Every few moments, you would just see a race car or police on motorcycles speed down the street passed the restaurant.  Right after we finished, we ran across the street to start the last hour of the trip.  While driving the last hour to San José de Minas, all the windows were rolled down, the radio was blasting, we were all eating mandarins and were taking turns spitting the seeds out the window.  Even David was peeling and eating mandarins while driving, and all while going down a steep and narrow road.  This road was very similar to the one to and from Otavalo, but instead was a two way road, so lots of caution was needed to be taken after every turn.

After that last stressful hour of being in the car driving back, we made it back to San José de Minas safely.  Brooks and I dropped off our things and then headed over the the PL’s house.  We hung out for a bit and got notified that there won’t be any seminar tomorrow because a large portion of the group is heading to Quito to go to the doctor.  So now I practically have my entire day free tomorrow after teaching.  And as of right now Vanessa and I have planned to meet up after lunch. 🙂

Photographs – 8

Stereotypes

Right now, it’s raining in Minas and has only generally started raining recently.  When we first arrived the area was very dry and farmlands were struggling, now within the past week, these farmlands have been flourishing.  All the mountains have gradually been turning more and more green.

The past few days have ben the same routine.  Monday through Friday Josie, Zach and I have gone to teach at Alejandro Larrea.  The school has continuously been somewhat wild and difficult to deal with; breaking up fights, kids hitting each other on monkey bars, and the constant abandonment of teachers, which leads to children going missing and leaving classrooms.  Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we’ve all gone to more seminars discussing the core focus of education.  The discussions this week have focused on whether or not teachers and students are equal, while touching on the book Teaching to Transgress.  Also discussing how race, gender, class, and sexual orientation affect our participation, how we engage, and what’s actually taught.  Yesterday’s seminar was another “Who Am I?,”  which are seminars mainly directed at our thoughts and how we identify ourselves.  Our central topic we evaluated were stereotypes.  This was a much more personal seminar because most of us became vulnerable after the exercise we all participated in.  Throughout our entire seminar room, there were labels posted on each of the walls (Rich, Poor, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Fat, Muslim, Black People, White People, Asian, Latino, Democrats, Republicans, Gay, Transgender, Lesbian, etc.).  We were required to go about the room in silence and write down the first word that comes to mind when we think of these groups.  It was amazing to see what some people wrote in the groups that I categorized myself in.  Some I believed were true, but majority seemed to be false.  At the end we all talked about how stereotyping are almost always revolved around negative opinions and tend to not be true.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are now filled with two hour Spanish classes, instead of the previous three hour Spanish classes.

The rest of the group just left for Otavalo after seminar today, leaving the program leaders and Brooks and I.  Brooks and I heard from our host brother David, who’s in Quito at the moment and won’t arrive in San José de Minas until much later.  He let us know that we will be leaving for Baños de Agua Santa between 3-4am, and will head out on a 4.5 hour drive.  We’re leaving with David and Kelly, our host siblings, and we can not wait for this weekend.  Baños is apparently one of the places you must visit when you come to Ecuador, and we could not be any luckier to be going with our host family.

Otavalo

Friday morning, the group was ready to leave for Otavalo, a largely indigenous town about an hour bus ride from San José de Minas.  We were off to a late start because Zach and Edoardo thought we needed to meet in the town square at 7:30am, rather than 6:45am.  Once we got moving, the bus got crowded pretty quickly.  We continued to make stops along the way, and then our one hour trip quickly turned into a two hour journey.  Once we got dropped off in Otavalo, it took about 30min of wondering around before we found our hostel.  Quickly after we all dropped our bags off in our rooms, we left for lunch.  Lunch was in a beautiful pure white café with a view of the market.  Each of us had either turkey sandwiches, caprese paninis, or bagels, all with free drinks; it was quite a luxury for all of us.

Once lunch ended, the majority of us left for a hike that passed over a large hill overlooking Otavalo and giving a breathtaking view of Imbabura volcano and San Pablo lake.  While hiking over the ridge, in the distance all you could see were acres of farmland, grazing cows and some purple alpine flowers blooming.  No photo could ever give such a beautiful view justice.

After about a few group photos, hours of hiking and nagging from Chris later, we were finally about to see the Birds of Prey show at Condor Park.  At this show, there was a great “bird’s eye view” of Otavalo and Imbabura.  We got to see a couple large and small birds.  Throughout the entire show, Nick couldn’t stay put.  He kept saying he wanted to volunteer and get selected to hold one of the birds.  Before we knew it, he was running to the back of the line in order to do so.  All of us got a good laugh, especially because of his new purchase of purple sunglasses he had been wearing the entire time.

Soon after the show ended, we began our second small journey to El Lechero, a 1,000 year old tree.  Reaching the tree, the clouds started to lower and the sky began to glow gold.  After walking up a small steep mound, I saw El Lechero, the sacred old tree, overlooking San Pablo, Imbabura, and Otavalo.  Just moments after I saw this amazing view, I dropped my backpack and could not help but start to cry.  Everywhere I looked and everything I saw made me so speechless.  There were sweet crisp smells in the air, cool gusts of wind and pure silence; truly heaven on Earth.  The legend of El Lechero says that the tree on top of the mountain and the lake were once two souls in love, but were kept from each other because of their families, so they decided to escape to be together.  In their attempt to escape, they were cursed and turned into a lake and a tree.  According to other stories, El Lechero is also said to have magical powers.

After leaving the safe haven of El Lechero, we divided up into two pick up trucks and were driven back into town.  All of us had cravings for pizza, so a little bit of research later, we found a restaurant that supposedly had the best pizza in Otavalo.  The pizza was fresh, thin, and very tasty.  We split up after dinner for our nightly ice cream routine and bought Magnum bars.  At the hostel we went upstairs to the balcony and had toasted bread with Nutella, while having small conversations with each other.  I quickly went to bed after it started getting late and too cold to sit outside.

The next day I woke up at around 7am, got dressed and headed down to a free breakfast being held in our hostel.  Definitely one of the best breakfasts so far.  After we finished eating Paulina, Leah and I cleaned out our room and checked out.  We left our bags downstairs at the hostel and started our day at the market.  The market was very colorful, filled with many locals and only a few tourists.  The streets were packed with vendors and stalls selling different things like sweaters, foods, paintings, linens and bags.  It was great because every one of us were able to haggle down prices and bargain with the vendors.  Just about everyone in the group bought alpaca sweaters, some bought paintings, others got pipes, bracelets and other trinkets.

When leaving Otavalo around 4pm, we had our own private bus.  It was nice to have more space and room for all of our newly bought souvenirs.  While on the drive back to San José de Minas, the clouds lowered very quickly and driving seemed to be getting very difficult, especially being on a cobblestone road.  Looking out the front window, you could barely see five feet in front of the bus, let alone see down the cliff to the left of us that we were driving on.  Our driver was going so fast, with every turn he made, some of us would grab onto seats, onto each other, shout, or even feel like vomiting.  This all went on for a little less than an hour long.  Luckily we made it back to town safe and sound.

Photographs – 7