Thursday, July 28, 2011

It's a jungle out there

Alissa and I choose a program called RICANCIE to introduce us to the jungle. RICANCIE is an organization run by 9 Quichua communities that created a community based ecotourism project. In their programs, you live within a Quichua community to learn about the history and culture of your chosen community and partake in their daily activities.

We choose the community of Rio Blanco, which is 1.5 hours out of the city of Tena and a 2 hour hike from the Napo river, because of its remoteness and the community's knowledge of medicinal plants. About 30 years ago, 5 shaman from a nomadic Quichua clan founded the village of Rio Blanco. Going from being hunter gatherers to farmers and cultivators was a drastic change for the people of the community, but the community soon began to prosper which was only facilitated by opening the village up to ecotourism and by selling their cocao beans.
Motorized canoe down the Napo River with our guide Ramon

Sangre de Dragón
Good for bruises, makeup, and inducing abortions

Our tour guide was Ramon, the 19 year old son of one of the original founders. Timid and shy, I was doubtful that he would be a good guide, but he soon proved himself to be attentive and knowledgable his own quiet and sweet way. We learned that Ramon was in University in Tena, a level of schooling that not a lot of Ecuadorians, especially those from remote parts of the jungle, reach. He lead us through our 2 hour uphill hike through the jungle and through the medicinal herb gardens of some of the homes in the community. Ramon broke apart leaves from each plant for us to smell, and each had its own interestingly distinct characteristics. We learned about many plants which can be used for things like headaches, sore throats, and wounds. Others such as Hierba Luisa and Canelo were good to make teas in the morning. One plant in particular that I found interesting was called Sangre de Dragon, or Dragon's blood. The sap from the tree was a liquidy black juice that Ramon said was a good analgestic and was also often used for bruises, makeup, and inducing abortions. Hm pretty multifunctional.

That night we met the other group traveling with us, a group of kids studying abroad from the University of South Florida. They came with a professor, Michael, who had been coming to Rio Blanco for over 10 years and knew the community members very well. Michael proved invaluable to Alissa and I because of his knowledge of the community, and let's be real, because he spoke Spanish and our Spanish still kind of sucks. It was from him that we learned about the history of the community, the tensions between the different tribes, and how the community began its ecotourism program. He also invited us to join them on their trip to the shaman, which was not originally on their itinerary. Ramon's father, one of the original founders, was also the senior shaman of the community and would conduct our cleansings.

Ramon explained that the process of becoming a shaman is long and arduous. Firstly, the future shaman must be the child of the elder shaman. Mostly boys are chosen for this task as it is seen as too hard for girls, although girls are not prohibited from becoming shaman. Most start training between the ages of 25 and 30, and are not allowed to have the title of shaman until at least the age of 40. During this time the shaman will learn the names and uses of many plants as well as numerous healing rituals. Ramon said that his father only had 2 sons, of which he is the older. I'm not sure if he wants to follow in his father's footsteps however, as he expressed interest in running a tour that travels throughout Ecuador. However he says that he is learning about many of the plants and rituals from his father.

Plant used to make ayahuasca

A common type of healing ritual is the cleansing ceremony which we were to take part in. The "limpieza" is a traditional ceremony that has been conducted by the Quichua community for generations. It consists of taking ayahuasca, a drink made from many plants containing hallucinogenic powers. Those that take the ayahuasca with the shaman follow him on a journey into the jungle and it is intended to clean the body of bad spirits such as sicknesses or evil ideas. Then one by one the people participating in the ceremony sit in front of the shaman while he gently beats you with paja toquilla leaves while reciting a chant. Not everyone that wants to be cleaned has to take the drink, and many avoid it since it makes most people vomit. Alissa and I both decided to try the ayahuasca along with three other kids from the USF group since hey, when else am I going to get the chance to try hallucinogens in the Amazon forest? After nightfall the ceremony commenced starting with the ayahuasca. The muddy looking concoction tasted exactly how I expected, like bitter Chinese medicine. We blew out the candles leaving us in pitch black darkness, and waited for the drink to take effect in the shaman before he continued the limpiezas of each participant. About 15 minutes later, I heard the sounds of many people vomiting over the side of the patio. Alissa and I didn't end up vomiting, but I definitely felt nauseous a while into the ceremony and the sounds of people puking their brains out in the background certainly didn't help. It's hard to say if I had an experience with the drink. I know that when I closed my eyes the world started spinning and I would see neon lights. I also felt like I was daydreaming on speed, and I'd see images of random things that didn't make sense. But when I opened my eyes I was oriented and didn't see anything at all. I'm going to assume that what I saw didn't mean anything, since I can't interpret anything out of a pixelated girl riding a pixelated unicorn into the sky. One of the girls, who was really severely vomiting, said she had a really good experience however. She said she got the answer to one a personal question she was focusing on, and the solution was something she hadn't thought of before. Michael also vouched that he had taken the drink on several occasions and had experienced the jungle journey with the shaman. He said sometimes it takes more than one time for the drink to have an effect, and the person taking the drink has to be extremely focused as well. I believe the drink definitely has some powers, but I'm not sure of what to make of the pixelated unicorns or sock puppet frogs I saw in my "visions." The ceremony was incredibly long, as each person got at least 10 minute cleansings with the shaman. Alissa and I couldn't make it through the whole ceremony as sitting in the dark for hours took its toll. The next day Michael told us that the shaman was actually having a fight with another shaman from a nearby village. It was incredible because he was coming in and out of his visions, making sure that those that were sick were ok while at the same time continuing with the cleansing and fighting with another shaman in his visions. We heard that afterwards he was so exhausted he couldn't even stand after the visions were finished.

The next day we particpated in "mingas" or communal work. The other guide, Edison, took us to his family home where they harvested yucca and plantain plants. We each got to uproot a yucca root, and in its place we put a branch of the plant which would regrow into another plant in 6 months. Afterwards we cleaned and peeled our yucca and learned how to make a chicha, a traditional fermented yucca drink. We were also baptized in a nearby stream and given a name in Quichua. I was baptized as Suma Huarmi, which means pretty girl or queen (hey, I didn't choose the name the guide did). We also gave our guides names in English as well for the closing ceremony we would have with the community. We named Edison Lewis and Clark because he was such an excellent guide, Ramon was baptized as MacGyver since he had a solution for everything and was always there to catch us right before we ate dirt, and Maximilian (the little brother of Edison) was baptized as the Mad Hatter since he helped make our leaf crowns and was a little jokester.

Waterfall we swam in
Supposedly was home to an anaconda before but legend has it the people
made peace with it and it hasn't bothered anyone since

During our last night in Rio Blanco some of the people of the village came to our cabanas for an intercambio or exchange of our cultures. The community shared traditional songs and dance in their traditional wardrobes, including one of a wedding ceremony. In exchange, we taught them the hokie pokie and I taught them how to make a paper boat that my grandfather had taught me how to do. In the end everyone participated in song and dance. It was a really nice little fiesta, and we all left feeling very unified even though our cultures were so different everything had to be translated in 3 languages. This community, with its unique culture and warm hospitality has definitely left an impression on me.

The new road they were so proud of and a traditional house built on stilts

During our last dinner, Michael brought up some changes he'd been noticing in the community. Recently the community has been beginning to prosper through its ecotourism project and production of produce. The fruits of their labor (no pun intended) are begining to modernize their community, starting with a road that was built last year from the edge of the Napo River to their village. They are so proud of this road, because it means that their children can more easily to go Tena for school and because they can bring their cocao, yucca and plantains to sell in Tena. However this has led to more destruction of the rainforest to make way for more fields. By next year they will have a generator that will provide electricity to all of the village. As Michael said, you can't blame them for wanting to develop their community and provide a better future for their children, but this is coming at what cost to the rain forest?

I wonder what will happen to Rio Blanco and to Ramon in the future. I wonder if the village will become just a tourist attraction and the virgin forest destroyed, and if Ramon will end up taking his father's place as shaman. I hope one day I can make it back to Rio Blanco to visit this beautiful community. I hope also that as it progresses to the modern age, it never loses its innocent charm.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tea cures all

Agua de manzanilla (camomile) probably the most commonly prescribed medication in all the places I've visited in Ecuador. Literally they use it for everything. Tonsilitis? Have some aguita de manzanilla. Vaginitis? Put some manzanilla up in there. Internal hemorrhoids? Steam of agua de manzanilla. I actually did a little research on camomile tea, and apparently it is supposed to help with inflammation and stress. I think I'm going to take a couple kilos with me before I go back to school then.

Birth control

Flavio told the 16 year old high school girl working with us that watching a birth is the most effective form of birth control. He was right. Another 16 year old girl came in in labor scared shitless, and after she was settled on the birthing bed she proceeded to vomit everywhere. Covered in her own puke she started pushing, but wanted to give up after the baby's head came out screaming no puedo no puedo. Thankfully after one last push she was finished. However it was definitely not a pretty sight.

Things like this never fail to frustrate the doctors. They say they don't understand why, when IUDs, birth control pills, injections, and implants are completely free, when they go to schools to help educate the children about safe sex, why do people still have unwanted pregnancies? And why are so many girls still getting pregnant so young?

They say that the culture is at fault for some of this. According to the doctors in Puembo, some of the women want to be on birth control but because of machismo the men don't want to use condoms or for their women to be on the pill. God knows why. Others believe the word of their neighbor more than that of their doctor. For instance one woman thought that tubal ligation would give her cancer, which is completely false and unfounded.

The scary thing is that birth control isn't just for the sake of population control; putting women through unwanted pregnancies can have dangerous repercussions. Since like most of Latin America Ecuador is a Catholic country, abortion is illegal throughout. The combination of not using birth control and abortion being illegal have made illegal abortions the third most common cause of maternal mortality in this country. Which is a scary statistic. And if abortions won't be legalized anytime soon, it's time to focus our efforts on preventing unwanted pregnancies to begin with. However it's probably easy to say that with a fresh pair of eyes only looking in. After seeing the frustration of the doctors and all the work they have put into this cause, how do you know if you need to try harder, or if the people just won't change?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dar la luz

Literally translated "dar la luz" means "to give the light" but in Spanish they use it to mean "to give birth." It's a beautifully poetic phrase, and its and especially appropriate phrase to describe the events that occurred last night.

I think I'm beginning to develop a thirst for blood and guts, which is why I asked to do a Saturday night guardia. I was promised blood, guts, and babies and that promise was kept. We were up to our knees in births starting around 10PM last night, with a total of 3 normal vaginal deliveries and one that I will never forget.

Around 11PM while we were tending to a knee injury (about a 4 inch cut, deep enough to see the aponeurosis), we were interrupted by screams of a pregnant woman crying that her water had broke. Immediately we rushed her to the sala de partos, fixed her in a bed and screamed puje, puje! The woman pushed, and to our horror a small arm started to emerge from her vagina. The doctors gasped, backed away, and someone left to find a hospital in Quito that would accept her for an emergency cesarean. Dr. San Pedro, the doctor attending the birth, sighed, looked at me and told me that this is one of the worst things that can happen in a delivery. With each contraction the baby's shoulder and torso would be pushed down on the umbilical cord, asphyxiating the baby.

If this had happened in a private hospital in Quito, or if we had been in the States this would still be bad news bears. But this dangerous medical emergency was compounded by the fact that we didn't have the staff or the equipment to do a Cesarian in the madrugada of a Saturday night. Instead the baby would have to suffer the hour long trip to a bigger hospital in Quito where they could preform the surgery. I watched the seemingly lifeless arm coming out of the mother's vagina as they attempted to find the fetal heart rate with a doppler to no success.

"Un mil lo sientos señora, one thousand I'm sorries, ojala que su bebe vive, I hope that your baby will live" said Dr. Favio to the mother, who seemed to be in no distress at all. "This is a very grave situation señora, do you understand? It is necessary to get you to Quito as fast as possible or else you will lose your baby" Dr. Alvero explained. No response. She had said before that this was her second child. After being asked again she said it was her third. It wasn't until she got to Quito that she admitted it was her ninth child, and she had not received any prenatal care past her second month despite the fact that it is completely free in this country. One visit to an obstetrician could have prevented this unfortunate circumstance. With one ultrasound or with the maneuvers of Leopold the doctor would have easily known that the baby was in a transverse lie, which can be corrected in the clinic. Instead Dr. Favio spent the trip to Quito with one hand in the woman's vagina to prevent fatal umbilical cord prolapse.

The baby made it, by some miracle. Luck was on its side that night.

At the same time that light was being given to newborns last night, one went out. A 24 year old boy came in with a deep chest wound to his left side which punctured his lung. When I got out of the last birth and returned to our humble 10 bed emergency room (literally a room with 10 beds) he had a Glasgow score of 6 out of 15 and was being kept alive by manually pumping oxygen into his lungs. His heart rate was 34 and dropping. They fed him some epinephrine which made it spike to 60 but then drop immediately back to its starting point. Finally it was decided that there was nothing more we could do for him, and the doctor stopped giving him air. He explained to the boy's mother that they had tried their best but he was not going to make it. The mother started shrieking, blocking the doctor's exit from the side of his son's bed and begging him to continue but the doctor refused. Other family members came in and were stricken with the news that the boy was dead. "Levantate levantate, get up get up!" his brother screamed. Grief soon turned into anger. "You killed my son" the mother screamed in the doctor's face. "No, THIS killed your son" Flavio said as he ripped off the makeshift compress they made over the 5 inch stab wound. It was such a tragic scene. I couldn't help but think of the irony of just giving life to 3 babies as one was going away. I'm not a very religious person, and usually not a very corny person either but I hope that this boy found his light as well.

So much commotion for our humble hospital in one night. I am back again tomorrow, hopefully I will have more stories to share.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

It´s not even 10AM yet and already I have cleaned 2 children, both under 2, with second degree burns on at least one fourth of their bodies. The sad thing is that these aren´t even exceptional cases here, it´s the most common reason small children come for curations. In developed countries this would be considered neglect. Small children should never be left in the kitchen unattended, as this is where most burns happen. They should always be supervised while the stove is on. Why don´t these parents know this? Your tears won´t take back what pain your children are experiencing right now. And I, even though I am helping your child, can´t take away the excruciating pain, screaming, and crying either. The interns have told me that you would never clean a burn the way we do in America, where the child would always be anethetized before even attempting to treat the burn. But here there is not enough anesthesia, and the children have to suffer more for it.

I don´t think my heart can take any more children like this.
Give me something to sew please.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Turno

Which Jordana calls a guardia but she also calls an esfero a boligrafo. Anyways in Yaroqui a turno is your turn to do a night shift call. I feel like so much happens in Yaroqui that I can't remember everything even when it just happened.

Firstly, I did my first set of stitches!! It was on some dude that cut himself on a nail. Luckily for him though he didn't cut through the underlying facia, but he did need around 8 stitches. They let me do everything, from the lidocaine to the stitching and wrapping. Super chévere.

I also rode in an ambulance for the first time with a pre-eclampsic woman. We stopped by McDonalds, and the rule holds true: Micky D's ice cream cones are always better abroad.

The next patient was a 25 year old boy who tried to commit suicide by ingesting grass weed killer. He came complaining of stomach pain (duh), and he also had fresh cut marks on his wrists. I got to insert the stomach catheter via the nose, where we aspirated what was in his stomach and injected charcoal to inhibit the absorption of the poison. It was kind of heart breaking, because at one point the intern, Luis Fe, asked if he was having any problems with his family or spouse. To which he nodded and responded "no me quieren" which means they don't love me. This morning he looked a lot better though, and he was discharged and referred to a psychiatrist, which most likely he will not see. Hopefully this was only a cry for help though, and he won't try to commit suicide again.

In pediatric emergencies, there was a 5 year old boy with a zipper clamped on the foreskin of his penis. Like that thing was stuck like the jaws of life. And the kid was such a trooper too. He wasn't even crying, and when he was asked if he anything hurt all he said was "no." He was sent to Quito to get the zipper removed though.

Que más...2 more births, I've been promised the next one so fingers crossed!

I finished off my day by observing a labaroscopic cholecystectomy, which Jordana helped with. Super, super chévere. They said I could even help with one in the future.

Sigh...currently fixing my debit card issues because I didn't think to check my expiration date before I left...

Then I'm off to sleep like a baby.

Hasta luego!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Only in Ecuador

Last night a drunk man came in with a ruptured anal sphincter. He had been bored by a bull in the anus.

I haven't talked a lot about what I've been doing clinically lately, because up until last week I wasn't doing anything. Ecuador has 4 tier health care system, and for the first week I was in the first tier which they call the subcentros. The town I was in was called Pifo which is about an hour away from Quito by bus. The subcentros are where people living in rural areas go for the non emergent things, like common colds and lab tests. And the doctors there weren't super friendly either because my Spanish really is not up to par, and they didn't seem to like to teach a lot. It was nice to be able to see patients in a rural setting but at the same time I wasn't learning anything.

Fast forward 2 weeks, and I changed to the second level in the system, to a hospital in Yaroqui. I should have done it so much sooner. I'm currently working in the emergency room, and I get to be so much more hands on. I've learned how to clean wounds, stitch, do EKGs on an ancient machine, and the next adult that needs an IV line is mine. Also so many babies are born at the hospital, so I've gotten to see one and hopefully I can help in the next one.

Although I'm having such an amazing experience, at the same time the hospital just breaks your heart. They're constantly running out of equipment or supplies, and there is always a shortage of workers. You can also see how the public health care system screws over many of their patients. This one middle aged man was recently diagnosed with precancerous gastritis after being bounced around from specialist to specialist for 14 years. And it is unlikely that any specialist will see him now that he's been through them all, and he is most likely going to die. I've also seen so many teenage pregnancies in Ecuador due in part to the lack of reproductive knowledge. Most of the girls that are pregnant for the first time are in their teens or early twenties. And in one tragic case that Alissa and Jordana saw, a 13 year old girl was raped and impregnanted by her step-grandfather. Stuff like that just breaks your heart.

Tomorrow I do my first overnight shift, hopefully I have a lot more to report back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cosas Malas

Long story short.

Last weekend = Cuenca, this cute city south of Quito. Also = Corpus Cristi, = a child's dream, a diabetic's nightmare as all the streets were lined with sweet treats.

Order of bad events
- we walked into a bunch of drunk kids
- drunk kids pinned Carlos to a wall
- Alissa and I run
- one kid catches Alissa, Alissa gets away
- kid on Carlos beats him up, steals his camera and wallet, breaks his finger (literally a 45 degree angle)
- we find police, to go the hospital
- Carlos leaves next day for Quito, returns to the US for surgery

Order of kick ass events
- Alissa and I, while wandering the streets the next day, recognize the robbers
- We bring police, tell them in broken Spanish what happened
- Police detain the kids, question them, and file a report

Well, it we were bound to get robbed at some point. At least we made it out alive.

Tomorrow I go to a different public hospital, which is supposed to be super cool and hopefully I'll finally get to see some of the awesome things Alissa and Carlos kept talking about.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

You know that How I Met Your Mother episode, where the Lily got "food poisoning" from a bad bowl of soup, and Marshall is just awaiting his inevitable fate?

That's how I feel right now.
Or correction, that's how I felt yesterday.

My current unfortunate state of being started with a bowl of ceviche in Salinas, the beach resort of Ecuador. I've been craving ceviche for so long now, since it was one food I haven't tried in Ecuador yet. So we finally found a place by the beach, looked decent, I mean it was called Cevichelandia so how can you go wrong. Apparently you can because fast forward 24 hours and Carlos was sick, and in 48 hours I was puking my brains out.

I had a good 3 week run though at least.
It was still worth it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

¿Dónde está la biblioteca?

Studying never really ends.

Alissa and I spent our first week in Ecuador in an intensive, 7 hours daily Spanish course. I feel like my Spanish has improved much since the beginning of the trip, but it is very far from where I want it to be. Especially for use in the clinics. Poco poco I guess.

My weekly schedule:
Monday: San Francisco University with Dra. Bustamante to work on Maternal Mortality project
Tuesday: NOVA Clinica, to observe Dra. Bustamante and her husband in their private OB/GYN practice followed by la clase de espanol in the afternoon
Wednesday: Pifo, a rural public clinic an hour away from Quito
Thursday: NOVA Clinica, la clase de espanol
Friday: Pifo

The private and public health care systems in Ecuador are very different, and I feel fortunate to be able to observe both. The private health care system is basically like our CAP experience. Consultations can last up to an hour, and a vaginal exam and ultrasound are conducted for almost every patient. In Pifo, the doctors see 20 patients in one morning and each patient gets 10 minutes, tops. However everything (aside from medicines, but including all forms of contraception) is free. But of course with less time per patient and less resources, some things must be sacrificed. One of which is sanitation. Some of the cleanliness practices in Pifo would make these doctors fail their PBEs. For example, I don't think I've ever seen my obstetrician wash her hands. And the table where she does the vaginal exams doesn't even have a changeable sheet over it.

More on private vs. public health care later.

Funny Ecuadorian Spanish words I have learned this week:
Guaguas = children
La Trompa = Fallopian tube
Planificacion = family planning
Hacer cola = to wait in line

I'm off to Guayaquil and Montanita this weekend, hasta luego!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

27 bug bites later...

...I can cross jumping off a cliff next to a water fall off my bucket list.

Jordana, Alissa and I went to Mindo this weekend, a cloud forest renowned for its biodiversity. I'm not so sure about that though, because the same annoying stupid kind of bug kept on biting me. This isn't your average whimpy kind of American bug, these creatures aren't afraid of 98.8% DEET. And their bites make you bleed.

Our trip started off with a 2.5 hour bus ride from Quito for $2.50. The bus driver reminded me of how my father drives, which is not a good thing. The whole way he kept pushing the gas pedal and releasing, push, release, push, the entire way there. Good thing I have a tough stomach.

The hostel we stayed at was probably one of the nicer ones I've been to. It was owned by an ex pat who used to be a nurse in the states, but came to Ecuador to do the Peace Corp, fell in love with an Ecuadorian, married him, and moved to Mindo to start a hostel.

Another thing I can cross off my bucket list: riding in the back of a pick up truck. There are taxis in Mindo but the trucks will take you to the cascadas (waterfalls) for a dollar. The view was so beautiful on our way up, but I couldn't take many pictures for fear of being bounced out of the truck. Despite my sore sacrum at the end of the ascent, it was a really cool, scenic ride ride.

La Cascada de Nambillo is probably the most popular waterfall in Mindo. And probably the most popular thing to do there is to jump off the cliff into the bottom of the waterfall. Which, has been on my to do list ever since I saw some boy meets girl movie where they both jump into the waterfall and then start making out or something. This jump was not as romantic, since A) my Bou bear wasn't there and B) the jump was friggin 40 feet high and I was screaming the whole way down. Despite all this and the fact that I probably wouldn't do it again, it was so worth it.

Alissa said she'd kiss this boy on the lips if he dived in head first.
He chickened out though and didn't even jump at all.
Grow some balls.

After our scary descent, we took a chocolate making tour at this place where they make their own organic chocolate. Sweet, literally. We were so chocolate out by the end of the tour, yet we couldn't resist the BEST BROWNIE EVER that came at the end. I'm telling you I've never eaten anything like it, it was so crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and so, so rich.
I'm entering cephalic phase just thinking about it.

Probably the best, richest brownie I've ever had.
Crispy on the top, melty in the middle.

Mariposa (butterfly) in Mariposas de Mindo

The next day in Mindo we woke up early to do a canopy zipline course (10 ropes $10!). I've never done a course like this before, so I don't know if it's normal to be able to do all this crazy upside down stuff inside the US or if you can only find it outside, but either way I lived to tell the tale.

Oh crapo, I just got guacamole all over my keyboard because I'm trying to type and eat at the same time. Wasted avocado.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Latina mannequins, baby got back

This picture probably doesn’t do justice to how perky the butts were on these mannequins.

Luis took us on a trip to Baños, a city about 2.5 hours from Quito. I love traveling with Luis because he stops everywhere for food (and shopping, where we saw the mannequins). We had these ice cream popsicles I wish I remembered the name of. Each popcicle had three flavors: mango, pineapple, and some other fruit we don't have in the states. And the center was strawberry. Yumscicle.

Other eats:
Chugchucara , the typical food of Latacunga, which has enough cholesterol to pretty much last you a life time. It consists of fried chunks of pork, mote, fried bits of pork skin, fried banana, and toasted corn.
Sweet tamale from the side of the road, drive through eating like nothing you've tasted in the states.

We finally arrived at Baños around 7 at night, when it was already getting dark. And after arriving in a new town obvi the first thing you want to do is check out the local party bus. In Ecuador they have these buses called chivas , which are these truck thingies with no walls, just rows of benches, flashing lights, and loud loud music. The chiva took us to a part of the Tungurahua volcano where we got a beautiful view of Baños at night. There was also a bonfire and a clown. Actually the clown was only feeding the bonfire and there were other people telling jokes in Spanish that I did not totally understand.

Baños is known for its natural hot springs and its water falls.

I wish we had more time to explore more in Baños, but so little time, so much to see.

The beautiful Cotopaxi volcano, as seen on our route back to Quito.

Quito, take 1

We finally met Jordana, the other exchange student living with us. Jordana is Venezuelan, but is in her fourth year of medicine in Holland. She’s fluent in four languages: Spanish, some dialect of Dutch that escapes me, English, and Dutch. I don’t understand how people do that. We learned that she just got engaged two weeks ago to her fiancé, whom she had been dating for four years.

Alissa, Carlos, Jordana and I started out the day with our ascent to La Virgen del Panecillo. La Virgen is on top of this really big hill/mountain, one of many that surrounds Quito. From the top, you get an excellent view of the entire city.

I’d been studying my trusty Lonely Planet all night in preparation for this journey, which said that you should not, for any reason, walk to the Virgen statue. So we jumped in a taxi, negotiated our $4 price, and were on our way. Twenty minutes later, we’d barely moved 5 blocks because of all the traffic. Our taxi driver said it might take all day to drive up to the top, so we should walk. Oh yeah it’s perfectly safe, he said (in espanol). Trusting tourists that we were, we paid him half the price of the trip, jumped out, and started walking.

The view from the bottom of the hill was amazing. Panecillo (the hill/mountain) was littered with houses, and each pocket of houses was painted a different color. Some were green, others orange or yellow. I was rudely interrupted from my thoughts by a construction worker, who was yelling something incomprehensible at me in espanol. I assumed he meant that we couldn’t take pictures. Right. Good thing we had Carlos and Jordanna on board. I guess he was yelling because he didn’t want us to get robbed of everything we owned, including the clothes on our backs. No pueden pasar. I’m so thankful for people like that in this country, who want to help you out even though you’re not one of them.

I’m not so thankful for what happened next. These other construction workers told us, roughly translated, “We rob pretty girls like you here. And we’re going to start with the Chinese one.” That rattled me a little bit. But it was a good reminder for me that I need to be aware of my surroundings. Oblivion might have been an annoyance back at home, but it can be dangerous here.

Our next taxi driver, thank god, was much better. He took us to the top of Panecillo in no time at all, and even gave us a little tour and waited for us to come down. Never go up the road leading to the top, he said. I want you to be safe, otherwise you might get a bad impression of Ecuador and never come back.

The rest of the day was spent wandering around La Plaza Grande. We took a tour of the president, Rafael Correa’s governmental building, which was not only free but they took a picture which you got gratis at the end. Dulce.

Much more of Quito to explore, more to come.

Up In the Air

Boston Logan --> Dallas --> Quito, Ecuador

I’m not one to talk to strangers, and definitely not one to have lengthy conversations with them. That’s not to say that’s a characteristic I want to have, it’s just simply how my life has panned out thus far. And it’s something I’m working to change. Change came easy on my first connecting flight from Boston Logan to Houston, Texas. I was more than ready to hunker down in my seat after bordering, armed with my Lonely Planet Ecuador and Barron’s Complete Medical Spanish book (complements of Tri) when I was interrupted by this mid generation hippie looking guy sitting next to me. He turned out to be quite personable, and I set myself a challenge to work on my stranger conversational skills that I would probably need later. Our conversation spanned many topics in that four hour flight, and I can now claim to be a pseudo expert on environmental engineering (his career), cloth diapers, bee keeping, Portuguese, and how his first child was born via midwife.

The next flight proved to be exciting, there was another older gentleman on business sitting next to me who chatted me up about different parts of Latin America, the oil wells in Texas, his upbringing in Wisconsin (do these men ever stop?). Yet still, remembering my goal for this journey I obliged in conversation. Turns out, as he translated, there was a tour group of 20 Ecuadorians who were coming from a trip to China, that understood no Chinese. Which is funny because I’m a Chinese American going to Ecuador who knows no Spanish. I fell asleep for some time, and when I woke up we were beginning our ear popping descent to Quito.

I think this is when I first started feeling butterflies. Thoughts raced through my head, what if my host family doesn’t like me? What if I don’t know enough Spanish? What if this was a mistake and I should have just gone to China instead? I sat, glued to my window. Soon the clouds transitioned into fuzzy lights, which became streets lights, cars, and houses. After the touch down and all that security business, I finally arrived at the welcoming gate. Somewhere along the ride one of my contacts had fallen out, leaving me with a weird half clear vision. So it took me some time to find two women standing beneath a sign reading Elaine Chian written out in colorful curlicue handwriting. The ride home was a blur, the two women (one who had introduced herself as Suzy, one whose name didn’t catch) chatted away in Spanish. We arrived shortly at Calle de San Cristobal, where I was shown to my room (more like mini apartment). However, my happiest surprise was that Alissa and Carlos would be staying with me! We had originally thought we would be in separate host families, but discovered that not only did they put us in the same household but we were staying with the parents of Dr. Espinel, the guy who is coordinating our projects. I was introduced to his mother, Ana, and later his father, Luis (who are probably the best host grandparents ever, but more on that later). They live with their daughter Suzy and her son Marcelo, and their dog Minino. Their son lives with his family in an adjacent complex. By the time I had arrived it was already midnight, so not much else happened that day.

The next day I was awakened for breakfast and greeted with the most amazing fruit juice. The name of the fruit escapes me but it was some Amazonian fruit you can’t find in the United States. Carlos, Alissa and I spent the rest of the day with Luis (abuelo), getting to know San Francisco University (where our project coordinator is) and some of Quito.