Sunday, October 31, 2010

Me encanta...

Iliniza Norte: 5126 meters/ 16,818 feet
8th highest peak in Ecuador

This is the mountain that Tom and Kimberly and I picked to hike this weekend. Friday began our five day holiday break from classes and, while everyone and their mom (literally, a lot of families are here to visit) decided to head to the city of Cuenca for the super long weekend, we decided to go climb mountains for Saturday and Sunday. While bus tickets and hotel rooms were completely booked for Cuenca, we boarded empty buses destined for small towns on the way to our mountain of choice, Iliniza.
We began early Saturday morning by meeting at a bread store to get breakfast and hit the road. We made our way through the trolley and bus terminals of Quito to head to Machachi and then to El Chaupi. In El Chaupi we hopped in the back of a pick-up truck and headed toward the start of the trail that would lead to Iliniza.
On the bus ride there we looked out the windows anxiously to see if we could spy our mountain. We caught site of it and immediately knew it was the one. Iliniza used to be one huge volcano. However, the crater split a long time ago and now there are two distinct mountain cousins that are side by side. Iliniza Sur (South) is a mountain defined by snow and glaciers. It is the sixth highest peak in Ecuador and is an extremely technical climb involving guides, ice picks, ropes, etc. Iliniza Norte (North) is a rocky, orange and red mountain that can be climbed without a guide but involves rock scrambling.
So, we arrived at the beginning of the trail that would lead to the refuge that sits on the ridge between the two mountains. We began to hike through what looked like a desert. We were walking through sand mostly which can be hard on the legs. We took a break for lunch and ate our tuna fish and crackers as we surveyed the beautiful view. At that point we could see Cotopaxi, the third highest peak in Ecuador and the one we are hoping to climb in a few weeks. In fact, we stared at it envying its grandeur knowing that this hike was a preparation for that goal. We continued to hike on having to climb a steep and sandy ridge. But we laughed and joked the whole way as we enjoyed talking about experiences in Ecuador and Demetri Martin comedy. We reached the refuge after three hours of climbing. We put our gear down and chose our bunks. This was a tiny, one room refuge with bunks stacked on top of one another and a tiny, tiny kitchen. This refuge could hold twenty five climbers which was amazing. After placing our gear on our bags we decided to hike to the lagoon between the two mountains. This involved climbing on the edge of what felt like moon dust. We were on our hands and knees at times as we climbed along the ridge and looked down into the steep valley. We reached the lagoon which was an eerie bluish green. But it was captivating. Kimberly and I sat and watched the clouds come in the background and the sun begin to set as Tom ran over to touch the snow at the base of Iliniza Sur. The landscape was so beautiful!
We went back the refuge to cook pasta for dinner and to set up our beds. As we ate we talked to the other climbers from all over the world. But soon after eating we all went to bed but not before leaning in to listen to a Demetri Martin comedy soundtrack on Tom's ipod. Sleep was not coming for any of us. At first it was hard to steady my breathing. It is weird to fall asleep when your breathing is altered because of the altitude. Between that and other hikers waking up at two to go hike Iliniza Sur, we did not get much sleep. I got up at about 5:30 to go watch the sunrise. I stepped outside and looked over a world of beautiful deep blue sky that was changing as the sun came up. I looked out and could see three volcanoes in a row. First, Cotopaxi. Second, Antisana. Third, Cayambe. Then, as I looked around Iliniza Sur, I could see Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador which lies about 6-7 hours away! The view was spectacular and I do not know if I could ever fully describe it. Never have I seen the line of volcanoes so distinctly and they looked impressive in the distance. The looked like looming, perhaps sleeping giants and I was in awe of what God has created!
Excited to start hiking we hurriedly ate breakfast and packed. We decided to only take one pack with water and snacks and to rotate it as we climbed. We started to ascend thinking the rock climbing that we were doing was only for the first little part. Little did we know that that was the easy stuff and that it only got worse as we went on. We were climbing on rocks with nothing to our backs besides a cliff that went straight down. The tiny trail of footprints was sometimes very hard to see. At times, there was nothing to grab on to. You had to be careful because many of the rocks were loose and again there was a rocky sand mixture. We also had to watch our heads because sometimes small rocks would slide or fall from above. None of us expected a climb of this kind. We enjoyed the first part and took tons of pictures. But as the climbs got more technical, we did not dare to remove our cameras from our pockets. We needed our hands!
I was climbing in tennis shoes as my hiking boots are at home in the States. This made things all the more dicey for me. At times I was panicking. Never in my life had I done any climbing near what this was like. About 300 feet from the summit I stopped due to the lack of grip on my shoes. That was good enough for me. I was going to sit there and figure out how to get off this mountain while Kimberly and Tom went to the very top. In my mind, I had gotten close enough. But congratulations to then for making it all the way!
We did finally make it down. We stopped for lunch on a ridge and enjoyed the view before heading back to the lodge. After grabbing our gear we headed back down the trail where the pick-up truck was waiting to take us to town. We enjoyed talking and laughing and making other mountain climbing plans on the way home. I arrived at the apartment with dust in every crevice of my body and my gear, with tired legs, and with a sunburned face (even though we had put on 70 that morning). Took a shower and helped my host mom set up the Christmas tree. What day is it? Oh, Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Birthday, Road Race, Pifo= muy cansada (very tired)

Although I did not travel this weekend, this has been one of the best weekends yet. It all began Thursday night when family came in from Guayaquil and we were cooking up a storm for a ten o'clock dinner. It was great to meet new people and immediately be welcomed into the extended family. On Friday, we all woke up to go to celebrate Estefania's (my little ecua sister) birthday at her school. We bought a cake and candies and a pinata. We had the best time setting up and awaiting her grand entrance. That was fiesta #1... after which we went to the mall for a bit (at least us girls did). I left to go all over Quito to find my new running shoes that I had purchased online. They were being held hostage in a post office to the south of where I live. It should have been easy to get there, but in typical Ecuadorian style there was a protest and the police had shut down one of the streets. Thankfully, I got to the post office, rescued my shoes and returned to the house. We had dinner with the family and fiesta #2 (which also means cake #2). Then, we left to drive through the city at night, which is gorgeous. I am falling in love with Quito...But my extended family continues to joke on me because I, a silly gringa that has been here for 2 months, know Quito better than my host family, or at least some places. That's what you get for walking everywhere or taking public transport. You may get lost but you learn to navigate this gigantic city.
On Saturday I enjoyed my cup of coffee and God's Word in the silence of the morning, which are my favorite times in Quito. The mornings are so beautiful! Then, we all had a good breakfast and headed to the artisan market. My host mom had never been and we both had fun buying scarves and bargaining for the best deals. I think that she will be returning soon. We went back to the apartment to make the best shrimp tacos ever and spend hours talking and laughing.
After washing the dishes and cleaning up, I got ready to race in the 10k Nike race We Run Quito 2010. It was a 7pm. race starting off near my house. It was so cool to be jogging across the city to get to the starting line and to see tons of neon shirts (the race shirts we were given) coming from all directions. There were 7,000 runners and the atmosphere was crazy! We started and a shout "Viva Quito" (Live Quito) was heard during the first kilometer, to which everyone answers "Viva!" It was so much fun. There were stages for music groups and lights shows. There were people lining the streets. I ran by a guy dressed up as a monkey. And we finished in the middle of the park by my apartment. I quickly got my glow-in-the-dark medallion, blanket, and bag, grabbed a cup of canalazo and jogged back to the apartment for fiesta #3 (yes, there was a cake #3 as well). At the house, family just kept coming through the door. And with every family member came introductions and kisses. It was a great party. Shrimp, cheese, cake, and great family members. Karaoke followed and we sang late into the night.
On Sunday I woke up early to take the bus to Pifo, where I lived the last time that I was here in Ecuador, to visit my friend. My heart was so happy to be walking the same streets and I had forgotten how much I love that little town. Everything and everyone looked the same. We walked to church, enjoyed the service, and ate Chinese food for lunch. After lunch and brownies, we went up the hill to 700 steps which are the steps that take you down and up a pipeline. We all dared each other to walk them without stopping. And we made it, huffing and puffing. We sat at the top of the opposite hill to look down on the valley. It began to rain but we didn't mind. We just sat there in silence, enjoying the beautiful country. The country I love...
Full weekend, but a wonderful one. Good time with family, especially the times washing dishes with my host mom. Check off the bucket list, running a road race 3,016 meters above sea level. And reuniting with friends in a small town. Wonderful weekend.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Beautiful People

This past weekend we journeyed to Otavalo, which is a market town about two hours north of Quito. Otavalo is known for its huge market of indigenous arts and crafts. But before one jumps to think that this is simply one huge tourist trap, let me inform you that this has been going on since the time that the Incas reigned in Ecuador. This market was one of the very first places where the indigenous people came to barter and trade. And that is still going on today. Not only is there the arts and crafts market, where you can find anything from fertility statues to purses and llama blankets, but there is also an animal market and a fruits and vegetables market. This market is still a way of life for these people and it was a unique experience to get to step into this culture.
We arrived on Friday by bus and found a great hostal only a block away from the market. Hostal America International was quiet, peaceful, and very comfortable for $7. We immediately went to find food and stumbled into a tiny restaurant where we are fruit pizza complete with mozzarella cheese, strawberries, apples, peaches, and pineapple. Now, this may sound weird but it was absolutely amazing and I will definitely be trying this when I return back to the States.
After eating we found ourselves lured into the market which was rather quiet on a Friday afternoon. We had decided to do our Christmas shopping and so we began to peruse. We spent several hours bartering with vendors over the things we wanted (this is expected and it can be very fun) and showed off what we had bought to each other at the hostal.
Shopping had worked up a hunger so we wandered around the town of Otavalo for a bit and then made our way to the Shenandoah Pie Shop. Now this place was truly wonderful. Theses ladies had about 10 different flavors of pie. Chocolate, maracuya, strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, pineapple, apple...and more. We decided to have dessert before dinner and we each bought a warm piece of pie for $1.20. It was incredible!
After that, we had to walk some more. We went in some stores in town but mostly just enjoyed the night air and the atmosphere of Otavalo. We could hear Andean music being played from inside several restaurants; this music has a sound which, for me, is enchanting as it involved flutes of all different sizes and pitches and has a rhythm that makes you want to sway with the poncho clad musicians.
Having readied ourselves for dinner, we went to Buena Vista, an upstairs restaurant that overlooks Plaza de los Ponchos (the market square) in town. We had a beautiful view and the quiet atmosphere of the restaurant was just perfect. We decided to splurge (vowing to eat cheaper the next day) on the file mignon for $5.80. It was so worth it and reminded me of my Dad's favorite steak and potato nights at home.
We were so completely full that we went back to the hostal to relax and watch television, a luxury that we had not had in any previous hostals. We just wanted a night to relax and so we gladly took it!
Saturdays are Otavalo's huge market day. The market in Plaza de los Ponchos swells to other streets and basically takes over the town. And they start to set up early is what I found out. The first sounds I heard began at 4:30am! We woke up at 6:30 and got ready to go to the animal market. This starts at 6am and goes til 10am. So we got up and walked to a local bakery just as it opened to buy a donut. Then, we started following the people to the animal market. The animal market is fascinating. It is a mass of people bartering over live chickens, cows, huge pigs, sheep, chicks, goats, and, of course, guinea pigs. We weaved our way in and out of the crowds of people and animals to look at all the variety and watch several deals being struck. I had a slight urge to try to haggle over the price of a pig, just to say that I had done it. But I resisted. It was such a unique experience though; unlike anything I have ever seen before.
As we made our way back into the heart of town, we meandered through the fruit and vegetable market. You could by anything imaginable here. The colors were magnificent.
Next, we took a taxi to Parque del Condor, which is way up on a mountain outside of the city. We could see Volcan Imbabura partly hidden under a cloud. At this park there were several unique bird species to observe and they were all so interesting. However, the main attraction are the condors. There are only 40 condors left according to the 2009 census of these (I'll be quiet frank...Ugly) birds. This park had four in captivity; which means, ladies and gentlemen, that I have seen 10% of the remaining condor species. Anyways, the park was great. Jon had assigned me to take a picture of a condor, and I did not fail him. There was a flight demonstration which was also very interesting.
We headed back into town to eat from one of the women cooking on the street. We ate a delicious
plate of llapingachos (potatos and cheese) meat, lettuce, beats, and a fried egg; this is typical ecuadorian food. And, of course, on our way out we had to stop at the pie shop for round two.
This trip was filled with good food, relaxing, and wandering through new places. But what fascinated me the most was the beauty of the people. I found myself in awe of how gorgeous indigenous women are; women of any age. Their appearance, their strength, their culture...all captured my interest. I enjoyed watching the men in their traditional blue ponchos. I enjoyed listening to the banter between friends that most likely saw each other every Saturday as they took part in this tradition. I was fascinated by the life and vigor of these people.
I stopped to talk to several vendors as I shopped on Friday. I tried to use this opportunity to practice my Quichua. One woman looked at me like I had four eyes and asked me why I would want to learn Quichua. I expressed to her that it was a beautiful language and that I was enjoying learning it. She seemed amazed and as she continued her tiny, meticulous stitches, we continued to talk. I told her that I had even heard of a Quichua church in New York; her language was not dying or reserved to her own country after all. She seemed excited at this news and her eyes sparkled. I am pretty sure she still thought that I was the strangest gringa girl for wanting to learn Quichua. But it was that conversation with her as well as another conversation with a man sewing a typical Otavalo mask that were great highlights for me. He explained to me the significance of the mask and allowed me to practice more of my Quichua. In fact, each time I passed by after that, he would fire off a question to see if I was ready. I enjoyed shopping for things to help me remember Ecuador, but these conversations as well as some others, are the things I will remember the most. These are the things I did not have to barter for, for they held the highest price.
These were just two beautiful people, with a beautiful language and a beautiful culture. We have a Creator who created beautiful people all over the world. And we are but flawed image bearers. Therefore, consider how beautiful our God must be! I cannot even imagine...but one day I know I will see in full.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jumping Off Bridges

What an incredible weekend! This past weekend we packed our bags and headed to Banos. We were so glad to be leaving Quito for a bit since the government crisis had kept us cooped up. So we left on an early Saturday morning bus and headed to the notoriously touristy town of Banos.
Banos is an adventure town to say the least. You can do a variety of activities in this small town that sits right below a volcano that erupted in 2008 and 2006. You can ride dirt bikes or go carts. You can go hiking or repelling down waterfalls. You can go rafting or just enjoy walking around the town.
We first arrived and decided to find a hostal for the night. We finally settled on an amazing hostal with an amazing rate of $5.50 a night. Therefore, Hostal Santa Cruz has become one of our favorite hostals. After finding a hostal we bought two dollar pizzas that were delicious and geared up for the afternoons activities. First on the agenda was horseback riding, which was on my bucket list. Although I have lived on Horseshoe Point Road all my life and have seen horses every single day, I had never ridden a horse. So I mounted Burrajo and we all headed on a one hour ride through town and then up a hill in the countryside. The view was magnificent and riding a horse was thrilling.
Next, we dismounted only to scamper off to find someone to take us bridge jumping. Processes in Ecuador never cease to amaze me. We went to one place and said that we would like to go bridge jumping. The man said "Sure" (in Spanish of course) and we asked when. He told us right now. We handed him fifteen dollars, signed absolutely no papers, showed absolutely no identification, got into the back of a supped-up golf cart and were headed to the bridge. From the moment I stepped onto the bridge, it took five minutes for them to have me strapped in and ready to jump! Ha! I barely had a chance to look down to see where I was jumping. Actually, down below were rapids. several onlookers from town were staring at the three crazy gringitas who were about to be absolutely foolish. I asked to guy harnessing me in, "Es seguro?" (Is it secure?) to which he answered in a questionable manner... "oh sure..." We barely had time to think before they were ushering us to the side of the bridge and telling us to climb over onto the tiny square of a platform mounted on the outside of the bridge. Looking down took my breath away. Hands up, Kimberly! (We would be jumping at the same time) Uno, dos, tres! Free fall! That was the craziest feeling of my life. This bridge jump was more like a huge swing. So you free fall and then swing under the bridge. I barely heard myself scream. While we enjoyed the rest of the swing over the river, we laughed so hard at the thrill and immediately wanted to go again. Lesson learned... Trust is easier when you are rushed and do not have time to question. Do don't think. Worked in this case...but I do not suggest it for all of life.
After bridge jumping we went around town watching all of the guys working the taffy on the door posts of their shops. Picture huge wads of taffy being pulled and tugged to keep it soft and mixed. We made it a point to try each one so that we could decide our favorite flavors. Coconut was mine but blackberry was a very close second. Since we had a bit of time we decided to go and visit the church of the saint of the holy water. Apparently, this saint and her waters from the volcano have saved hundreds of lives. The church was packed and we thought that we were attending a mass. So we stood in the back admiring the church and listening to the priest. Slowly I began to pick up on the fact that this was not a mass but a funeral! So, another check off the bucket list; we have now, not purposefully, attended a catholic ecuadorian funeral.
It began to rain and we chose to go to dinner at Casa Hood. This place was the most wonderful restaurant with fireplaces, bookshelves, and a Spanish movie playing in the adjacent room. We ordered lasagna and burritos and later dessert and coffee. We enjoyed our candlelit table, looking at books from all over the world, and talking for hours. I was able to trade one of my books for one of theirs for just a dollar which was an exciting process. We absolutely loved this place and the rain beating down outside made it all the more surreal.
After dinner, we changed into our bathing suits and headed to what Banos is famous for, the banos. These are hot pools naturally heated from the volcano. So, as it sprinkled rain we sat in these hot pools and gazed at the night sky and the waterfall that was to our right! Although the pools were crowded at night, we had a relaxing hour or so before we headed back to the hostal and off to bed.
The next morning we got up bright and early to pack and eat an amazing breakfast at Cafe Blah Blah. We enjoyed pancakes, eggs, bread, and coffee before we rented bikes for $5 dollars and headed down the road toward a town called Puyo. We rode for 3 hours and about 30 miles enjoying the sites of waterfalls (even riding under a small one) and riding through a tunnel carved in the mountain. Most of the ride was a thrilling downhill ride although we had a lot of uphill stretches towards the end. For the sake of time, we did not make it quite to Puyo but we were very close. We flagged down a van and payed them to take us back to Banos, where we had just enough time to return the bikes, get our book bags, buy taffy, and run to the bus back to Quito.
This weekend was incredible and filled with so many fun activities and great times with friends. However, I will never forget the feeling that washed over me while I was on the back of the horse and on my rented mountain bike; a love for this country. I have been enjoying my time here and growing accustomed to living life here. But I feel like this was the trip in which I fell in love. While riding the bike and the horse, I just paused to look around, to breath in the air, and thank God for allowing me to be here. He created this beautiful place and these beautiful people and I am enthralled. I am even more enthralled with the Creator of this creation and am praising Him for giving me this love.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Thursdays of almost coups...

Let me just begin by saying that this was not on my bucket list.
On Thursday morning I was sitting in my Ecuadorian Culture class where we were discussing Ecuador's crazy history of presidents and leaders, many of which were ousted by the people. We began discussing recent developments in the government and things that were being voted upon and discussed in the present. Our professor said that it would be very possible to see strikes against decisions made involving education and workers' benefits. However, we really thought nothing of it. After all, we receive Embassy emails almost weekly of some kind of protest. Yet, at that very moment the door opened and a student told us that they were canceling classes for the remainder of the day due to a revolt in Quito. Everyone was supposed to go directly home. And I wanted to say to him, "Muchacho, what timing! Impeccable!"
No, it was not part of the class and it was not a joke. As my friends and I were trying to exit the university, they stopped us and told us that it was not even safe for us to leave. We had to stay because things were so dicey in Quito and they were not sure we would be able to make it to our residences. However, after a few hours they said that transportation was running somewhat and that we better try to get home now before things turn worse. So we made our way to Quito carefully not sure what we would find. We found everything closing down. Some of us stayed together until we had to split up to take different buses; however, we promised to call when we made it. The bus that I had to take to get home did not seem to be running to my stop but I took it anyways figuring that I would have to walk the rest of the way. However, thanks to the Lord, the very last stop was my stop... the driver changed his mind right at the end. I was able to get home.
Now here is what was happening... On Wednesday, Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, voted against giving the national police force some of their benefits. Therefore, on Thursday there was a national revolt, meaning that this was not only taking place in Quito but in other major cities such as the coastal city of Guayaquil. The were demonstrating right outside the presidential palace, which is very accessible to the people. Do not think White House where I could not even throw a rock and hit it. I can touch the doorknob of this place if I wanted to. This is where all demonstrations happen. Apparently, they were striking and Correa went out to negotiate with them. It was then that he was sprayed with tear gas and jostled a bit. He was then taken to the Police Hospital where he was basically being held by the police force. This had all the makings for a coup and many thought that this was it. The people would decide once again.
The nail-biter of the day was who would the military side with. The police were revolting and the president was calling for the military to step up and do the right thing. However, the military have not always been Correa fans. But, the decision was made and they would respond to support the president.
Meanwhile, Quito and other cities nationwide were going crazy. Imagine, all of your law enforcement has decided to take the day off to complain about the president. Things went crazy. Some banks and supermarkets were robbed. Some cars near the school were broken into. Things began to shut down just to stay safe. In Guayaquil the looting went as far as stealing cars and refrigerators so I am told. So think about a bunch of Americans trying to make our way back into the city. We are already targets anyways because many think Americans always have money. Now, we really were a bit nervous. Do we take the bus? Would that be the safest? Do we take a taxi? That seemed to be safer, however, there have been stories of people getting robbed in taxis. What on earth would stop them from doing that today? But we made it safely, praise God.
As things began to shut down, so did we. We were told not to leave the house. We watched the news and read other news blurbs online. The airport shut down and a state of emergency was declared. Peru closed its border to Ecuador. It was not until later that afternoon into the early evening that the news got truly interesting. I could not believe what I was watching. On the television was a gunfight between the military and the police outside the hospital where Correa was being held. This is really not that far from me. Think same city...maybe ten or twelve blocks. The military were successful in rescuing Correa out of the hospital and taking him to the presidential palace where tons of supporters were now gathered. One moment I'm am watching him being rescued out of the hospital into a car and then five minutes later he is on the balcony shaking his finger and letting those who revolted know that this will not go unpunished. He would not negotiate. What a night! What a day! We were not sure what we would wake up to.
However, miracle of all miracles, Quito slowly returned to normal the next day. Things seem to be back into their rhythm. The airport is now open and people are moving about the city. Correa is still president and it appears that the police force has gone back to work. All is well.
I have been reminded of God's sovereignty so much these past few days. God is so good that this did not happen a week ago when my friend and I would have been right at the heart of the madness in the city. God is so gracious that this did not happen only a day earlier when I was walking by myself to get groceries. God is so faithful that none of the students were hurt. God is sovereign and in control of all things. I am reminded that even leaders are pawns in His hand. Governments are only things He controls and moves as He wills. I got to see that this week and I am so thankful. All the more reason to praise the Mighty God who delights in doing His will.

Who is like Him
The Lion and the Lamb
Seated on the throne
Mountains bow down
Every ocean roars
To the Lord of hosts

Praise Adonai
From the rising of the sun
‘Til the end of every day
Praise Adonai
All the nations of the earth
All the angels and the saints
Sing Praise