Monthly Archives: January 2003

Back in Cuenca

Back in Cuenca and Ready to Start Teaching
Guayaquil, Gualaceo, Cuenca, Ingapirca, Cajas National Park, Quito, Otavalo, Bahia de Caraquez, Canoa, Banos, Riobamba, and Alausi.

Those’re the Ecuadorian towns and cities and sights we’ve visited during the last month. And now we’re back in Cuenca. I’m ready to settle down and start teaching.

Quito
Two weeks ago, we graduated from our TEFL course, and everyone in the program–undergraduates from two different colleges who were studying Spanish at our school, staff members, and us–flew from Cuenca to Quito for a week-long vacation. I’m not crazy about Quito–it’s huge and bustling and expensive and full of gringos. But that’s just my impression; I’ll admit that I didn’t make it very far off the beaten path.

Otavalo and La Mitad del Mundo
Next, we were off to Otavalo, a scenic little town a couple hours’ bus ride north of Quito. It’s famous for its market, where Otavalo’s indigenous people sell their wares. We also visited La Mitad del Mundo–literally, “the middle of the world.” It’s a monument that marks one of the spots where the equator passes through Ecuador. It’s worth seeing, but as my friend Ed remarked upon seeing the spot, “You’ve seen one equator, you’ve seen ’em all.”

The Beach–and Carlos the Colombian
After Quito and Otavalo, we took a bus six hours west, to Bahia de Caraquez, a town on the north-central coast. The weather was warm and muggy. We spent a night there and then made our way north, to the delightful village of Canoa. It’s really a gorgeous place–pristine, undeveloped beaches, big waves, lots of hammocks for lazing about, excellent seafood restaurants, etc. And now I am, quite possibly for the first time in my life, sunburned to the point of peeling in January.

One late night, a group of us was walking along the beach, and we ran into a guy named Carlos. He was tall and thin and had long dark hair. He was tending to a bonfire; we stopped and sat down and started chatting. We told him we were from the U.S.

“Oh,” he said in Spanish. “The United States. I would never visit there. It’s much too dangerous. Much more dangerous than my home country, Colombia.”

He was serious, of course. And his comments are revealing: to most Americans, Colombia is an exceedingly dangerous place. But not to Carlos–that’s his home; America, instead, is a land of violence.

We hung out in Canoa for three days and then we all took a bus back to Quito. At that point, everyone in our program except five of us who’re staying in Ecuador returned to the States.

Banos
We decided to do a bit of traveling on our own, so we took a bus five hours south, to Banos. These days, the town is famous not just for its comfortable resort amenities (hot springs, hiking, waterfalls, and good restaurants), but for the impending destruction that’s been hanging over its citizens’ heads for some time: Tungurahua, an active volcano that towers above Banos, has been threatening to explode for the last three years.

When Tungurahua began bubbling and smoking in 1999, the people of Banos were evacuated, but the mountain never erupted. Eventually, everyone in Banos was allowed to return to their homes, but some (less intrepid) tourists still stay away. Despite the smoldering peak looming above us, we had an enjoyable few days and then took a bus south, to Riobamba. We stayed there one night, and then, at 7 a.m. the next day, we boarded the famous train headed for El Nariz del Diablo–The Devil’s Nose.

The Devil’s Nose
El Nariz del Diablo is a mountain south of Alausi. In what’s considered a feat of railroad engineering, tracks have been built that ascend the mountain’s peak using a unique series of switchbacks. This is all well and good, but what we and all the other gringos who lined up that morning were interested in wasn’t railroad engineering, but, rather, the manner in which we were to ride six hours to Alausi: on the top of the train.

It was really fun: as we made our way into the countryside, the cold morning unfolded around us; famers looked up and waved at us; yapping dogs chased after the train; and cows and pigs and sheep regarded us–two entire train cars of silly foreigners on the wrong side of the roof–with lazy indifference. (Here’s an excellent site site with photos illustrating the journey from Riobamba to El Nariz del Diablo.)

After arriving in Alausi, we hopped on yet another bus. Five hours later, we arrived here, in Cuenca. And as I said, it’s nice to be back in familiar surroundings. Hopefully, next week I’ll start teaching English at the school we’ve been attending, the Centers for Interamerican Studies (commonly referred to as CEDEI). And a few of us are looking for an apartment together. I’m happy to call Cuenca home for now.

My Audition for Big Brother Ecuador
It’s true. Just this afternoon, I was approached by a guy on the street and asked, in staccato Spanish that was very difficult to understand, if I would audition for “Gran Hermano Ecuador”–Ecuador’s very own version of Big Brother.

Is Ecuadorian reality television ready for Newley Purnell? This guy on the street thought so, apparently. (Interestingly, this guy also thought I was Ecuadorian. I’ve yet to meet any 6’3” Ecuadorians.) And so I figured why not?

I followed him across the street and filled out an application form. And then I had to sit down at a small table so that a trendy-looking Ecuadorian woman could interview me in Spanish. She peppered me with questions like “Do you have any tattoos or large scars?”, “What’s the toughest thing you’ve ever done in your life?”, and “Are you racist?”

It was slightly nerve-wracking, this interview. But I survived. And they said they’ll call me if they’re interested. I’m not holding my breath.

Photos Coming Soon
I swear. I’ve got a ton of great images and I hope to post them here soon.

What’s on tap

The TEFL Course: Successfully Completed
Tonight I’ll be awarded my certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). It’s been a busy week–classes in the morning, student teaching in the evening, and a short research project thrown in for good measure. We also had to pass a rather difficult grammar test yesterday. I can know hold forth on the difference between the present perfect continuous and the future perfect continuous, and I can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about modal verbs.

Backpacking in the Andes
Last weekend, some friends and I went on a two-day, 15-mile backpacking trip in the amazing Cajas National Park, which is at a lofty 13,000 feet. We were miles from anyone, and the terrain was amazing. I found these two photos of the park–they’re representative of what we saw. It didn’t look at all like you’d expect Ecuador to look.

Off to Quito, Otavalo, and Bahia de Caraquez
Tomorrow morning, our entire TEFL group flies to Quito for some celebratory sightseeing. Then we’ll visit Otavalo before making our way to Bahia de Caraquez, a beach resort renowned for its eco-friendly practices. We’ll be there for four days, and then we’ll return to Quito on the 24th. After that, I’ll return to Cuenca.

First week and a half in Ecuador

My First Week-and-a-Half in Ecuador

My first ten days in Ecuador have been wonderful.

What I’ve Been Up To:
I flew into Guayaquil, the country’s biggest city, on Christmas night. Guayaquil’s a large, humid, unattractive metropolis. I met up with my fellow TEFL students at the airport, and, the next day, we walked around the city’s riverfront. That afternoon, we took a bus five hours into the Andes mountains for a few days of orientation in Gualaceo, a small, quaint town. We ate and drank and had some initial discussions of our impending coursework with our very knowledgeable teachers.

Last Sunday, we drove the hour or so from Gualaceo to Cuenca, where our classes are held (and from where I’m pecking out this missive on a keyboard with just enough strange characters on it to make typing difficult). I really love Cuenca–with 280,000 residents, it’s Ecuador’s third-largest city (after Guayaquil and Quito, the capital), and it’s a beautiful place, full of narrow cobblestone streets and red tile roofs and old churches.

The city’s known for its rich culture–and indeed, it’s been both culturally and physically removed from Ecuador for some time: until the 1960’s, the roads connecting it to the rest of the country weren’t even paved. The people here are friendly and open, and since very few of them speak English, my Spanish has been improving daily. I’m staying at the excellent Hostal Macondo; my simple room has neither a phone nor a TV, which I appreciate, as it forces me to read or write. (As it happens, I’m not there much–except for a few hours in the afternoon, we’ve got classes and student teaching from about 8:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. during the week.)

Ecuadorians celebrate the new year in exicting fashion: at midnight, families and friends gather together to burn life-sized dolls, dressed in clothes and often made up to resemble a family member or political figure, that represent the past year. People take turns jumping over the flames as the new year arrives–it’s out with the old, in with the new. Accordinly, a big group of us set fire to our very own doll on new year’s eve. It took a while to really start burning, so one of the guys in our group hastened the process with the best accelerant he could find: floor wax. (Yes, floor wax.) We also detonated a bunch of Ecuadorian fireworks that night. Some of them, we learned, can be unpredictable.

Other happenings: yesterday, our TEFL class took a day trip to Ingapirca, the site of Ecuador’s most important Incan ruins. It was pretty interesting, and the drive, about two hours to the east, was beautiful. On the horizon is a trip to Cajas national park next weekend; the weekend after that, we’re off to Quito and Otavalo.

Speaking Spanish:
As I mentioned, I’m speaking Spanish (or trying, at least) every day. While my skills are good enough for basic conversation, there have, I’ll admit, been a few screw-ups. There was the time earlier this week when I asked the guy at the front desk of the Macondo to please wash the clothes in my notebook. The word for notebook is “cuaderno.” I was aiming for “cuarto,” or room. And then there was the slightly more embarassing mishap in which I asked the woman in a fancy pharmacy if they sold soup. Her puzzled look told me immediately that I’d not used the word for soap, “jamon,” but, rather, “sopa.”

Other Observations:
–While I haven’t been in Ecuador nearly long enough to supply any cogent cultural commentary, I can say that I feel comfortable and welcome. As far as my program goes, the instructors are incredibly good, and although I have some English teaching experience, I’ve learned a great deal in only the first week. And my fellow students represent an interesting variety of backgrounds–there’s a builder/sailor, a cabinetmaker, and a wilderness guide, among others.

–The altitude: Cuenca sits in a valley at about 8,000 feet. And let me tell you this: every day, when I climb the four flights of stairs to our classroom, my heart and lungs and quads cry out for the days in which they enjoyed the oxygen levels provided by DC’s sea level air.

–The weather: it’s great. It’s usally sunny, and I wear a tee shirt and light pants in the morning and afternoon, and then it gets chilly enough to need a sweater or light jacket at night.

–Daily costs: by American standards, they’re very low. While imported luxury goods like electronics are expensive, food and other essentials are quite inexpensive. A sampling of items and their accompanying costs: an average set lunch (juice, soup, dish with meat and rice or vegetables, and dessert): $2.00. A 22-ounce local brew (a good beer called Pilsener): $1.00. A bottle of water: $.50. My room at the Hostal Macondo (shared bathroom; includes continental breakfast): $11.00/night. A pack of Lark cigarettes: $1.00. (I don’t smoke, but at that price, it seems like I should start–imagine how much money I’d save!) Two cheese croissants, one chocolate croissant, and one dinner roll (my dinner last night, in fact, freshly baked and purchased from a bakery): $.49. One adult ticket to El Senor de Los Anillos (“The Lord of the Rings”–in English with Spanish subtitles): $3.90.

–The food: not only is it inexpensive, but it’s quite tasty. My favorite dish so far is one called pepito de pollo. It’s a chicken sandwich with scrambled eggs, french fries (in the sandwich), mayo, hot sauce, and vegetables. I also like the hamburgesa campesino: a burger with scrambled eggs, mushrooms, mayo, and ketchup. (Eggs play an important roll here.) There’s also an impressive variety of fruits–and, hence, smoothies–and breads and vegetables and other delights.

The only American-style fast food joint in town is a KFC near the new mall (the mall, by the way, opened recently and was soon swamped with curious Cuencanos–it contained the city’s very first escalator). I’m neither ashamed nor proud to report that I sampled the fare at this KFC for the first time yesterday. I recommend the number one combo–drum stick, fries, drink, and cookie–which costs $1.90.