In Between a Writing Frenzy: wks. 13-14

View from the back of Urban Agriculture Program office

View from the back of Urban Agriculture Program office

I moved out of my host family’s house and to Hostal Macondo during this last week, where I became the strange guest who lurks in the kitchen after hours with only the glow of a computer screen lighting the room. I left occasionally to scout for provisions (read: guava ice cream), but largely confined myself to the hostel. It was a pretty but mundane place, despite the its magical namesake – except for the wooden parrot hanging in the courtyard that never stopped swinging, breeze or no breeze. On the fourth night I finally finished Cien años de soledad, with a sense of fulfilling destiny.

On Wednesday I went to the urban agriculture site for the last time and planted the herbs I’d bought from a local market: rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena, mint and lemon balm. I said my goodbyes to Angel, Fidel and Juan (the workers) and the eleven puppies behind the compost, bought a round of bread for everyone, and left the farm.

That afternoon, I taught the last English class to my small group of municipal employees; there was food, music by Simon and Garfunkel,11:25-LastClass1 lively debates on immigration and the American dream, and the exposition of English swear words that I had promised to give before I left, complete with a few gestures to give my students a well-rounded skill set. When the municipal boss man dropped in to shake my hand, three of us hastily obstructed his view of the whiteboard, giggling. In short, the best class ever.

11:20-BlueDomesFriday was my last day in Cuenca. In between printing and binding my final essay (now a plump 28 pages long), I paid $2 to attend the national orchid exposition behind the cathedral, where I saw an astounding variety of orchids, bonsais and succulents. There was also a man selling honey and bee products, including bee bread (“Take four pieces a day for fifteen days, to correct your nutritional deficiencies”). I struggled not to spend the rest of my money, and eventually left with a little jar of hand cream made with bees’ royal jelly. I already have honey shampoo from the agro-ecological fair, and my collection of apian curiosities grows.


They grow up so fast!

Later, another night bus – but not before I almost stole my room key after checking out of Hostal Macondo. On the way to Quito, the driver’s mild road rage set me a bit on edge (we passed the same van about five times on curvy mountain roads- it wouldn’t surprise me if this conflict had started generations ago). Still, I enjoyed the nighttime scenery. Once I thought we were passing by a glacial lake, until I squinted and saw a valley cloaked in clouds. As we drove into Quito at dawn, Pichincha looked like a cutout on the horizon. I realized again how much I love this city, even though I didn’t expect to. I’m travel-lagged from a near all-nighter, but it almost feels like home.



Less homey: the creepy man in orange who ambled up to me when I got off the bus, started up a one-way conversation, and resolutely ignored the much-friendlier Ecuadorian man on my left. Man in orange said he was Argentinian; I told him I was from Cuenca, declined to name my family, and hoped he would go away. He had a roll of wire and pliers, and as he talked he twisted a small treble clef and broke it off. He stuck the treble around my ear, remarking that this was much easier than getting a real piercing. I declined to pay for the adornment, and he bristled, but said an Argentinian never rescinds his gifts, and finally walked off. I climbed into a taxi, bargained the driver down to a slightly more reasonable price, and was on my way (“¿Me ve cara de gringa? $2.50”).

The sense of déjà vu when I got to the hotel was incredible. I stared into the room where we had all waited for our Quito host families to pick us up three months ago, nervously twisting our fingers. I didn’t realize how far I’d come until then, arriving alone after 280 miles of independence. Leaving the hotel for lunch brought an echo of my first walk in the city, hand clenched over my bag, looking around warily. A lot has changed since then. Buses sped by, packed to the gills with people, and I actually missed riding them.


Cuenca: wks. 11-12


Your brain on field research


It’s ISP season! For those unfamiliar, it’s the Independent Study Project required of all SIT students, for which we travel to separate destinations for four weeks of field study, then complete a 25-30 page essay at the end. It’s not impossible to do gradually, but I personally am not the gradual type. I’m a hare aspiring to be a tortoise. Or maybe just a hare aspiring to be a jackalope, because I imagine the horns slow you down quite a bit.

So I’m halfway through the ISP period, and reaching the point where I need to start writing. It’s the kind of thing you can dance around by doing chunks at a time – acknowledgements, abstract – before making the final investment. Can’t delay for long, though, since I basically need to have it done by the end of this week. Usually students write during the fourth week, but I may be visiting farming families around Cuenca then, so better to do the bulk of it now.

11:10 Cuyes color

Guinea pig: it’s what’s for dinner. (Note: I have not actually eaten guinea pig in Ecuador…yet.)


Vegetables for delivery



In the meantime, this city is fabulous. I see green things every day, and there’s an ice cream shop that’s heavenly. On a normal day I take a bus to the urban agriculture office at 8am, then visit one of the program farms. The primary one, Yanaturo, is where I help with whatever’s happening that day – cutting grass for the guinea pigs (meals, not pets), making compost, planting radishes, etc.

11:2-GraffitiPianoManOn Monday and Wednesday afternoons, I teach English to ten municipal employees; their certified teacher went back to New Mexico, and then they drafted me, so I do my best. I’m going to take this opportunity to implement my personal philosophy of language learning – that no one truly knows a language until they can curse in it. The last day will be a profanity-laced learning adventure.

But it isn’t the last day yet, so we’re learning about grammatical constructions, learning vocabulary and correcting homework errors. Yesterday I took various foods (NUTELLA) to class to teach flavor and texture words. Then my beautiful students took it upon themselves to bring local dishes to class tomorrow. Teaching adults is fabulous.

On a different note, I’m suffering from a touch of the homesickness. Odd, since it hasn’t been a problem for the last two months. I attribute it to the encroaching stress of the ISP (though not as bad as finals at Whitman) and to being without the group I spent the first two months with, sharing our wacky experiences and going on excursions together. To compensate, I ordered books on Amazon that I’ll read during my six-week winter break, and bought a box of crunchy pastries to munch on. Let the essay-writing begin.

Unrelated: I’ve also had many opportunities to expand my “Dogs of Ecuador” series. The following is a small exposition. 11:16-MamaDog2   11:10 TableDogCOLOR11:10-BenchDog11:16-Puppies1


The (k)Night Bus: wk. 10

My time in Quito has come to an end. In ten hours, I’ll get on a bus for nine hours and travel south, down three hundred miles of the Panamericana highway. I only wish it were during the day, because the Andean scenery is incredible.

11_1 Ecuador Map

Quito is indicated with a blue arrow, Cuenca with red. Ecuador is only as big as Colorado, but the mountains make for long bus rides.

ISP time is upon us, and at last I’ve sorted out my life, at least for the next four weeks! I’ll be studying urban agriculture in Cuenca, living with a host family, making the acquaintances of engineers and agriculturalists and activists. I’ll be working under the auspices of the municipal (autonomous, decentralized) government – which, frankly, I feel more comfortable with than branches led by El Presidente, who recently challenged another legislator to a fistfight. I won’t name him because he seems to google himself on the daily to find out who’s criticizing – then calls them out in his weekly address to the nation. It’s the quickest path to fame I’ve seen around here.

Back to Cuenca. The two of us with projects there would have left at the crack of the crack of dawn this morning, but then it turned out that that bus didn’t exist. As we are often reminded, nothing goes according to plan in Ecuador. Thankfully, we discovered this detail the night before, saving ourselves a trip to the station. So now we’re on a night bus (service for the stranded witch or wizard) and headed on to the next adventure.

This last week has been exclusively focused on pinning down requirements and logistics for the ISP (Independent Study Project), and there’s been a lot of high blood pressure going around – between students, who decide their topic/destination and fill out paperwork about it, and program directors, who help us arrange everything. Ours is a small group, which makes things easier – I can only imagine going through the process with fifteen people.

Back at the house, all of my belongings have been crammed into two backpacks and a suitcase. The windows are shut, the bed is made, locks are on the luggage, money is stuffed into my socks and the contents of my smaller backpack are meticulously layered in order of priority. I’m always amazed by the way my possessions seem to multiply when it comes time to pack them up. It happens in college dorm rooms, but I wasn’t expecting it here; after all, I am but a humble student, traveling with a week’s worth of clothes and a few necessities. I should be able to whip it all together in an hour or two.

Not so. After 24 hours of sporadic effort, it’s all ready. I’ll arrive in Cuenca early tomorrow, with circles under my eyes and a new pair of hand warmers (courtesy of my fabulous travel buddy, who knits in her free time). Then we’ll embark on our separate adventures.

10:19 Doki&Beto

I hope my next family has dogs.