Journals from Semester abroad in Quito, Ecuador
2008-04-18 The Honduran side of Ecuador
Marcia, riding to Salinas in the lap of luxury!
Sorry it's been so long; I traveled last weekend, and I've spent the week catching up on homework. I finally got to see a bit of Ecuador outside of Quito, and although nothing (nothing!) worked out the way we had it planned, I enjoyed it. It reminded me a lot of Honduras It seemed so much more real than spending time with upper-class kids from the San Francisco.
My conversation partner, Marcia, invited me to visit her house in Guaranda, which is a small town about five hours from Quito by bus. She goes to la USFQ, too, because of a lot of hard work and scholarships. Those of you who will be here next semester, write this down: go to the basement of la Casa Tomate (the building where the international programs office is) and visit the Oficina de Diversidad tnica. Get a conversation partner there, and you'll get to hear a different perspective on Ecuador. Most of the students looking for conversation partners are from indigenous families, partly because of the office that handles conversation partners and partly because for them English is a third language. Many of them spent middle and high school learning Spanish, not English like mestizo Ecuadorian kids. They may have taken a few English classes, but the emphasis was on Spanish, and since there is an English requirement at la USFQ, they really appreciate having someone to practice with. And if things go well, they just might invite you to go see their town. Most USFQ students live either in Quito or in Cumbaya, but these students are from other parts of Ecuador and many go home relatively often, offering you the rare opportunity to travel with an Ecuadorian to go see more Ecuadorians, rather than with gringos to see a tourist spot.
This is definitely Latin America: Marcia told me to meet her at the Ministry of Labor (where she has an internship) at four o'clock so that we could go from there to the bus station. My host family told me that considering the rain and the traffic, it would take me an hour to get there by taxi, so I left at 3pm. The rain slowed and the traffic sped up, so I got there by 3:30. Not bad, I thought, I brought my Ipod, I can wait half an hour. I entertained myself watching formally dressed businessmen hurry back and forth from office to office, almost trotting, but then stopping every time they saw someone they knew. "Hey, how've you been?" Then they went back to rushing through their day.
Four o'clock arrived, and no sign of Marcia. She walked by a couple minutes later, but didn't seem to notice me. Around 4:30, she said, "I'll be right back, I just have to get something upstairs." At 5, she was finally ready to go It turned out that she had meant to say 4:30, or maybe that she said 4:30 and I heard her wrong, so she was technically only half an hour late, but I waited an hour and a half.
Anyway, we finally left and I cheered up a bit. The bus ride was entertaining, and cheap. They only charged us $4.50 each for a 5 hour journey, and it was a nice bus. Not quite Greyhound status, and there was no bathroom, but it was very comfortable. While we waited to leave, several people got on the bus, selling food, drinks, and other trinkets. One older woman made us laugh, calling out in a sing-song voice, "Waa-ter, waa-ter, waa-ter," and when no one paid attention, she snapped "Ey! Water!" We all laughed, and she walked off the bus grumbling, "Well, I woke you all up, but still no one's buying any water"
The bus finally headed out around six, and within half an hour or so, two clowns got on the bus. Literally, clowns, with the red nose and all. They did an act, one calling out jokes from the front of the bus, and the other answering from the back. After about twenty minutes of making us giggle, they got down to business, selling gumballs, three for twenty five cents. What a job; riding buses at night, telling jokes, and making your money from bubble gum.
Once the clowns got off the bus, Marcia and I talked a lot about life in Ecuador. She's from an indigenous family in a relatively rural part of Ecuador, and she told me about how during her dad's generation the discrimination was much worse than it is today. Because of everything he went through when he was young, just for being indigenous, when he had children he did his best to raise them as mestizos (people who have a mix of European and indigenous blood; the majority of the population of Latin America). He only spoke to Marcia and her siblings in Spanish, rather than in Kichwa (the indigenous language of Ecuador; mestizos spell it Quichua). He sent them to mestizo schools, and bought them mestizo clothing. Marcia's mom never wanted that life for her children, but since traditionally in their culture the wife has little or no say, she couldn't do much to change it.
Marcia, however, was a little rebellious in high school. Like in most Ecuadorian schools, uniforms were required. Marcia, however, is indigenous and proud of it, and wanted to wear her traditional long black skirt and white, decorated shirt, with the hat and gold necklace (see the pictures on Facebook of my trip to Otavalo; it varies a bit from town to town, but the basic idea is similar). She started wearing that to school, and kept at it in spite of the ridicule. A year later, almost all of the indigenous girls at her school were wearing their traditional clothes to school.
In the last decade or so, indigenous groups have politicized (is that a word in English?) and have more power and respect than in previouswell, in previous centuries. There is still a long way to go, but things are improving. Over the last few years, Marcia's dad has started speaking Kichwa again in the house, though sadly his oldest daughter (Marcia's sister) is no longer fluent in it because of so many years of speaking Spanish. Since the grandparents' generation is mostly monolingual in Kichwa, that really does create a communication barrier.
I told Marcia about everything I've run into since I started spending time with David and the rest of the guys, and she was surprised to hear how explicit some of the racism was. She didn't want to believe me when I told her about the club that still doesn't let black people in. She did acknowledge, however, that the racism against black people is probably worse here than against indigenous people, because they aren't represented at all in the government.
Around 11pm we got to Guaranda, and of course it was raining. Luckily, Marcia's family owns a little unfinished house that is only a block from the bus stop. There are no carpets, there's no shower, and some of the windows don't actually have glass (just the ironwork that you see on most windows around here), but there are two beds with many many blankets, so it was fine with me. It was a little chilly, since the walls are imperfectly constructed brick with no insulation and holes here and there, but I slept in long pants and a sweatshirt and I was okay. We collapsed into the beds and fell asleep, planning to wake up at 6 for a trip to Salinas (a nearby "touristy" town, smaller than Siguatepeque, Honduras).
We actually woke up around 8, when Marcia's dad dropped by. Her family lives up the hill, a couple hours' walk away, so he was the only one I met. We did the usual small talk in Spanish, then he started talking to Marcia in Kichwa while they toasted some bread with cheese and made a sort of sweet, hot drink that tasted like something somewhere between tea and coffee with a lot of sugar. Marcia has taught me a few basic Kichwa phrases over the year, and they mix in a lot of Spanish (the way I do with Mary, Araceli, and other bilingual friends) so I picked up bits of the conversation. Most of the Spanish words they use are either numbers or modern words like "car", "cell phone", "computer", etc. because Kichwa has not created its own new words for these neologisms.
At one point, Marcia's dad asked her in Kichwa what my name was, and I answered him in Kichwa that my name was Lily. His surprised smile was the highlight of the weekend, I think. It was strange though, when I was trying to pick out familiar words in Kichwa, or piece together answers, words kept occurring to me in Japanese. It seems that when I'm trying to remember a word in a foreign language and my brain can't find it, it resorts to the next-newest language. The same happens with Japanese; Spanish tends to interfere more than English does. I really would love to take that Psychology of Language class I heard about
Anyway, back to the story. While we ate breakfast, they told me about how they make cheese and sell it for $0.70 a pound in "downtown" Guaranda. They also grow plenty of fruits and vegetables, and eat mostly their own products. The cheese was tasty, and very fresh. They also told me about a few local superstitions, such as that if you get squirted or bitten by a skunk it gets rid of negative energies or spells that people might have put on you. Oh, and in this part of the world zorro means skunk, not fox.
Around 10:30, we took a bus to downtown Guaranda, which supposedly would take us to the bus that would take us to Salinas. Unfortunately, a mudslide had blocked the main road to Salinas around 8:00 that morning, so there was no bus. So we went the normal rural Ecuadorian way: we found a truck that was bringing something that direction, and we hopped in the back. The guy said he was going to leave at 11, but he drove around in circles (literally, the four to six blocks over and over again) in Guaranda for a while running errands and picking up more goods and people, so we finally left around noon. We were curled up in the wooden truck bed, wedged between a large cabinet, bags of cement mix, and the groceries of one of the women who was lucky enough to ride up front. Since we had to go the long way, we went by one of the tallest mountains, which was covered in snow. We did our best to take pictures with our cold fingers, as we hid under a tarp from the hail and tried not to bruise our butts on the hard wood when we went over the bumps, rocks, and holes in the dirt road.
The views were beautiful, though, and the other cars were entertaining. Of the eight or so that passed us, seven waved, threw kisses, or made other entertaining gestures/comments. The other car was full of women. We laughed and laughed Marcia was especially amused, because she had never traveled with a gringa before and apparently people don't usually wave at the passengers of the trucks they pass. We started betting on whether the next carful would wave; one came full of businessmen in their fifties, and I said, "Aw, they're kinda old, I don't think they'll wave" But an old guy in the back seat with a huge moustache gave me a big grin and a wave as they passed, and we cracked up again. A few minutes later we slowed down to go over some serious bumps, and we slowly passed a pick-up truck with a couple of seven or eight year old boys in the back. I figured they were too young to say anything, but no, one of them grinned and said, "Hooola, mamaciiita!" We just about fell out of the truck laughing at that one. The kid probably came up to about my elbow! They start young around here.
Sadly, we also passed a lot of blue hearts. Apparently it's a tradition here that whenever someone dies in a car accident, a large blue heart is painted on the road at the spot where they crashed, as a memorial, reminder, and warning to other drivers that they should slow down and drive more carefully. We passed so many! Sometimes there was just one, where someone lost control and swerved off the road alone. Other times there were three or four. Once I saw ten or fifteen in one place, I guess from a bus crash, and several of the hearts were half-sized, representing children. I couldn't help thinking about how difficult it has been for me and for Oscar's family to deal with just one death; I can't imagine dealing with three or four in one family, especially if some of them were children.
Anyway, after a chilly, bumpy two hours, we arrived in the famous metropolis of Salinas. Just kidding, I doubt there are more than ten thousand people living there, there isn't a single stoplight, and it's pretty far from the usual tourist spots. Just to clarify, this is the Salinas of the Sierra (mountains), not the Salinas on the coast that has beautiful beaches. Apparently gringos tend to mix that up, and show up in chilly mountain Salinas all sunblocked and ready to swim.
Marcia and I ate some lunch ($1.50 for a bowl of soup, a plate of chicken, rice, and potatoes, and a glass of juice), then started looking for the salt mines. Luckily, the rain had cleared up a bit. A Salinas man who looked like he was in his fifties said he was walking that way, so we followed him down a squelchy mud path, across a stream, and up the other side to where one of his cows was almost ready to give birth. He was very informative, telling us all about different varieties of cows and how to take care of them, and about how Italians, Swiss, and Americans tend to come to Salinas, fall in love, get married, and stay. He pointed to a pair of houses up on the hill and said, "Those both belong to Italians who married Salinas women."
When we reached his cow, he told us "Go that way, down, around, then up, and you'll see it." Um, okay. So we continued on the muddy path that way, down, around (a few times around, we weren't really sure what "around" meant), then up, and we eventually found the salt mines after falling a few times in the ankle-deep mud. The salt mines were very intricate, colorful rock formations with strange bubbling pools that apparently produce salt. We poked around for a while, then climbed down the hill to cross the narrow but furiously rushing river and climb up the other side to get back to Salinas. The rickety wooden bridge was a little scary, and it shook as I crossed, but we made it. Keep this bridge in mind, it appears later in the story
Back in Salinas, it started raining again. We meandered around a bit, then found the cheese factory. From the outside, it just looked like a relatively large house, but they apparently make large quantities of cheese that they export to a variety of countries. We tried to go to the chocolate factory, which was the main reason I had been excited about Salinas, but unfortunately it doesn't open on Saturdays.
By this point it was around 4pm. We went back to the main plaza where we had eaten lunch and dropped by a touristy store to see if we could find any sweaters. The biting cold and the heavy rain had surprised us, and neither of us was quite prepared. I was wearing long pants, tennis shoes, a long sleeve shirt, and one sweater. Brrr. Everyone else in town had rubber boots, but unfortunately my feet are so big that even Marcia's dad hadn't been able to lend me any before we left Guaranda.
We didn't find any sweaters we liked, so we asked directions to the intersection where we could wait for a truck headed to Guaranda. We tried to wait under the overhang of a small building, but the rain and the cold got to us anyway. After almost an hour and a half, we gave up. It turned out there had been a second mudslide, and no one was going to try to drive back to Guaranda that night, so we were stuck in Salinas. As we climbed back up the hill, disheveled, wet, and cold, a group of kids pointed and me and laughed, saying "Hahaha, look at that gringa! Hahahaha." For some reason we laughed too, marveling at the cruelty of children but trying to stay positive about the whole situation. I was actually kind of enjoying the adventure of going with the flow in rural Ecuador.
We found the two hotels in town, and since the cheap one was closed, we stayed in the "expensive" one. "Expensive" means $6 a night per person, which I thought wasn't bad at all, though the rooms just had beds in them, the bathroom was shared, and there was no heat. Well, there isn't heat anywhere in Ecuador except in some cars, so that really wasn't a surprise, but we were so cold after waiting in the rain that we took a quick nap under huge piles of blankets. Then we went downstairs by the fire and tried to warm up some more; Marcia just about stuck her foot in the coals, and it was still clammy after five minutes or so!
At around seven or eight we walked back to the plaza to eat dinner in the "fast food restaurant", which was the only place open that "late". The sign was in English, so we expected fast food to mean hamburgers, but the food wasn't particularly American or fast. It was a normal Ecuadorian meal: soup, then a plate of rice, fish (which I'm slowly learning to tolerate, since options are limited), and fried banana. We were the only ones in the restaurant, and the guy who worked there put on a movie for us while we drank some tea, then some hot chocolate. The two young guys who work at the hotel showed up near the end of the movie, so we waited for them to finish eating and walked back to the hotel together. They invited us to go out dancing, and though we were tempted to find out what a dance club looks like in such a small town, we were feeling sleepy and declined the offer.
We set an alarm for 6am to catch one of the earliest milk trucks headed back to Guaranda. When we woke up, we realized that the heavy rain had caused a power outage, and that for some reason there was no running water either. We put our muddy pants and shoes back on and headed down the stairs to the dark hotel lobby (about the size of your average living room). In spite of the sign that said "permanent service", there was no one there and we couldn't find the bell. We called out the guy's name, "Luiiiiiiiiis! Luiiiiiiiiiiis!" but he didn't answer, so I left the key on the desk and we decided to leave. The door, however, was locked, and we couldn't get out. When we tried, we heard a beeping sound, which we thought was weird since the power was out and what beeps without electricity? It was getting a little creepy, this dark, silent, locked hotel with strange beeps, and we were worried. Then I remembered that I had seen a little door around the back of the hotel, so we poked around a bit until we found the kitchens and went out through there. What a relief to be outside, enjoying the sunrise!
As we walked down the hill to the road back to Guaranda, we got a view of the swollen, muddy river and realized that the rickety wooden bridge we had crossed just fourteen hours earlier was no longer there; the river had swept it away overnight.
We decided that instead of waiting for a car, we would start walking towards Guaranda. If one drove by, it could pick us up, and at least we'd be farther along. We walked for almost an hour and a half, until we finally saw a pick-up truck on the side of the road, with a wooden bed half full of metal milk containers. We asked the driver where he was headed, and he said he could take us to the first mudslide. Perfect. We waited a bit, until the other guy showed up with the donkey loaded with two more 40 liter metal milk containers. Unfortunately, just then something I had eaten the day before decided to make its escape, and I threw up a little on the side of the road. But really, it made me feel better, so afterwards I jumped cheerfully into the back of the milk truck with Marcia and a few indigenous women and children. The children were on their way to their Sunday catechism class, which is apparently about an hour from home. They travel alone, or with other children. The women were helping with the milk.
They all talked in a mix of Kichwa and Spanish while I tried to catch the half of the conversation I could understand. We made it to the first mudslide, crossed it on foot, then hopped in another truck. It took us to the second mudslide, which we crossed on foot again, then hopped in another truck for the last stage of the journey. Each truck charged us a few cents for the ride, ranging from $0.10 to $0.60 each depending on the distance traveled. Apparently they charged Marcia and me more than anyone else just because I'm a gringa and she was traveling with me. That happens a lot But at least in this case it was only a difference of twenty or thirty cents total.
We finally made it back to Guaranda by about 9am. Marcia's family had misunderstood her on the phone and thought we would be back for dinner the night before, so they had apparently bought all kinds of tasty food for us. They had even made a special, traditional dish, just so that I could try it for the first time: guinea pig. Yes, guinea pigs are food here, not pets. I once heard about an Ecuadorian who moved to the U.S. and missed his traditional food, so he went every once in a while to pet stores and bought guinea pigs, took them home, and cooked them. But he kept having to change pet stores, or they would get suspicious.
Since we got stuck in Salinas, however, I missed out on that particular delicacy. When we finally got back to Marcia's unfinished house, we took a little nap, ate some breakfast (rice, tomatoes, and fried banana slices with cheese melted in between), and listened to music while we waited for Marcia's boyfriend and sister to arrive. Her boyfriend got there around 11:30, but her sister took longer. Since Marcia knew I needed to get back to Quito to get homework done, but she needed to wait for her sister so she could get the money that would get her through the week in Quito, she brought me to the bus station and I went back to Quito by myself. It was, of course, raining again One funny note, people here tend to say "Ya va a llover" (It's about to rain) when it's already raining. They do it all the time, and it always makes me laugh. "Oh, it is? Wow, how do you know?" But apparently rain doesn't really count as rain until it's a downpour, so you're allowed to say that if it's still light rain. But light rain here would be heavy rain in Oregon/Seattle, I think.
Anyway, the bus ride on the way back was just as entertaining as the one on the way to Guaranda. First of all, I was sitting right up front, so when we got a flat tire and the driver pulled over and got out to fix it, I noticed that his seat was actually a strapped-in lawnchair, one of those plastic jelly kinds. Top-of-the-line safety equipment, that is. I also noticed a lot of people putting ketchup and even mustard on potato chips, which seemed weird to me until I realized that it's basically like putting ketchup on fries. They're all potatoes, right?
A four year old boy sitting behind me found me terribly interesting, and decided to engage me in conversation for most of the five hour drive. His weary mother seemed too tired to suppress his endless energy, so he spent an hour or two poking my shoulder, then hiding and giggling. It was cute at first, but got a little tiring after a while Then he started asking questions, and wanted to know the why of everything. "Why do you wear that necklace?" "Because someone I loved very much gave it to me." "Why did he give it to you?" "Because he loved me too." "Why did he love you?" etc, etc, etc His grammar was cute, though; I haven't really talked to many kids that young in Spanish, and it was funny to hear him say, "Ye te pon el audfono! Por qu te poniste el collar?" At one point he asked if the girl next to me was my sister, which made us both laugh, since she was a thoroughly tan indigenous girl with a long, thick black braid. I smiled and said, "No, we're not sisters, though we do look an awful lot alike, don't we?" He made us laugh again when we went by a huge sinkhole in the road that a construction crew was working to fix and he said, "You know what they're doing? They're making a swimming pool for me." He was a hopeful kid, that one.
We finally made it to Quito around 6:30, though since we came in from the south it took me another hour to get to my host family's house in the north end. One quick note before I conclude this long story: "SS.HH." means bathroom (servicios higienicos), not "be quiet." That is one of my recent discoveries Also, a minga is a meeting of friends and neighbors in order to get something done in the community. I think it's a Kichwa word, but mestizos here understand it.
Ok, time to sleep I'll send this in the morning, I don't want to get out of my comfy bed to go to the chilly dining room where I have internet access!