I looked up the other day and realized that this time next month, I’ll be 21 and in my second week back in the States, si Dios quiere (Lord willing)…wow, the time is flying.
The fact that I’m that far into my semester abroad also means it’s been a long time since I last wrote. Which is kind of unfortunate because a LOT has happened in the last month or so. A week ago, I got back from one of the most spectacular Spring Breaks I think the world has ever seen, with back-to-back stays in the Galápagos Islands and the Amazon rainforest. I can’t fit either of those things into just one picture or just a few well-chosen words (except for possibly “unbelievable,” which doesn’t help you out at all). I say that not to brag but with the hope that maybe if I say it enough the whole thing will seem less like a dream; the opportunities have come and gone, and I still can’t believe that I actually went. I hope I can go back someday, but if I never do I’m really glad that I went now and with the people I did.
But first, let me back up a couple of weeks. Buckle up.
Fanesca, a distinctly Ecuadorian dish, is another one of those things that I’m glad I had once and hope to high heaven that I’ll be able to again. Basically, it’s a soup, and the best way I can explain it is as something like chowder, with a milk base…but chowder on a scale you’ve never seen before, with twelve added ingredients rumored to stand for the twelve disciples. I’m not sure what Peter and John have to do with frejoles and habbas, but fanesca is traditionally served over the Easter weekend; I for one am glad my host family moved it up a couple of weeks. They had almost all of their Quiteño relatives over to help eat all of the enormous pot’s worth that they spent two days preparing. (No joke, I think I could have sat in that piece of cookware pretty comfortably!) I was excited to be able to follow the conversation at the table, but still couldn’t quite marshal my Spanish enough to really participate much. They spent the evening singing karaoke in the living room, and everyone except for my host dad’s mother and sister seemed to have a good time. Sadly, the leftover soup disappeared before I could eat it for lunch the next day; I suppose that’s what I get for leaving to meet my project partner in the middle of the afternoon (but our presentation about stereotypes in Ecuador went well, so that’s a plus…my classes were pretty light on work until the last few weeks before spring break, hence my radio silence).
The weekend after the amazing fanesca, some friends and I visited the town of Baños. I’d been told that I just had to visit it, because it was right at the foot of an active volcano (!) and something of a requirement for anyone in Ecuador...honestly, I just needed to get out of Quito’s polluted air and figured there was as good a place as any. Baños seemed to me to be all about tourists, as if every shop, hostel, and discoteca owner were there to help every gringo tourist in Ecuador do whatever it is they might want to do. One of the main attractions is puenting: for $20, you can jump off of a bridge with a harness and helmet on and a line attached to your feet, and all without a waiver of any kind! (I was pretty far from interested, having no desire to jump off of a bridge in any way whatsoever.) So another girl and I rented bikes instead and tried to make it to the Pailon del Diablo waterfall 10k outside of town; we got poured on as soon as we reached the parking lot, but still enjoyed our adventure in a multicultural camioneta back to the town itself. The rain and clouds made it a quiet night and, sadly, kept us from seeing the smoke that billowed out of Tungarahua’s crater the next day. Even though we didn’t have much of a view because it was still socked in, hearing the mountain rumble from the Swing at the Edge of the World (really at the lookout station halfway up) made the trip worthwhile...well, that and friends who like to take crazy pictures! :)
About that…I have so many pictures at this point that it’s daunting to think about going through them all and choosing which ones to share and how. I tend to not take pictures unless we’re standing around and waiting—I’d rather see or experience a thing than watch it happen through my viewfinder—so I can’t show you some of the most memorable parts of my spring break. I’m sorry you won’t be able to see the dolphins, sharks, manta ray pods and (singular) penguin I saw from various boats in the islands, or the sea turtles that startled me while snorkeling along a black beach (which used to be the entrance to pirates’ hideouts once upon a way back when).
Every day was full of surprises for us. The fisrt was just the scenery; the archipelago's volcanic landscapes are startlingly dramatic. And their strict protection means plentiful wildlife; I DO have pictures of marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions (which are called lobos del mar, “wolves of the sea”) because we saw hosts of them. And tortoises from breeding centers on three different islands…so many tortugas. There were some aspects of the tour that I wished were different--mostly how very tourist-y I felt--but I think taking the opportunity was the right decision. Students with a cultural exchange visa like ours only pay $25 for the national park entrance fee upon landing, for one thing, which is less than even national Ecuadorian visitors pay. And though it was a pretty short trip, I knew I only had a few days because our time at Tiputini had been on the books for Easter weekend since November or December.
I’m so glad it was. If you ever get a chance to go to the jungle, take it; I don’t know how to explain to you the intricate almost-overabundance of life that exists in the Amazon region. USFQ is a partner in a biodiversity research station, and our Oregon program met students from Boston University who had been there for almost a month, working on projects from katydid camouflage to classifying birds…but it seemed that people could live there for a lifetime—like our guide, Meyer, had—and still hardly scratch the surface (although every student regarded Meyer as the irrefutable expert and ultimate source on all things Amazonia). It was all our untrained eyes could do to try and observe any one level of everything that’s happening in the rainforest every single moment of the day or night; we fell asleep to frog song overlaid with cicadas chirping, tried to fend off mosquitos on our expeditions morning and afternoon, and peered carefully through tangles of green with and without sunlight to see everything we possibly could.
There’s no hope to see all the jungle has to offer in two days—I was told it’s actually more likely to see a different species, even a rare one, than to see any particular one a second time—but it felt like two days in a dream world. I wanted to go back the moment we got in the boat to start back to Quito on Monday morning, and spent quite a portion of the two-hour boat ride, two-hour bus ride, second two-hour boat ride, and wait in the airport (for a 30-minute flight) seriously considering getting the dark blue mark on my hand tattooed there, so I wouldn’t forget the fruit Meyer had had us hold on each of our palms. (The juice from mine had seeped into the creases and stained something that looked like a snail on a branch, it only just faded…I decided against making it permanent, but still wish I could remember the names of all the plants he told us about!) And the animal and insect life—I had thought there was a lot going on in the fauna department in the Galápagos, but it doesn’t even compare to the quantity and variety in the jungle. I don’t usually like creepy-crawly things (like my host mom did, I tend to shudder when someone mentions them), but it was incredible to see so many fascinating creatures and the way they all live together in an ecosystem continually dying and growing, bursting with life.
Ecuador’s government—or their tourism departments, at the least—are represented all over the place by a distinctive rainbow-spectrum logo and the slogan Ama la vida, “love life.” There is certainly a lot here to love, a constant hum of happenings whether you’re listening from a big city or a vast wilderness. The coast, the sierra, and the Amazon regions each have a different sort of thrumming rhythm…and I’m going to have to start listening for Oregon’s, Colorado’s, wherever I’m headed really. What’s important to the people here? How do they talk about it? How do I talk about it…¿Cómo te digo? Sometimes I don’t know where to start. And I’m really bad at knowing where to stop…so here’s good for now. :)
Love and hugs until we meet again!