Hooray! We graduated for the summer! The past week and a half has been a whirlwind. I did a bit of juggling between writing my final paper and spending time with my dad and sister, Tira, who came to visit from Idaho. The weekend before last, we went up north of Quito in the Andes near the town of Ibarra. As anyone who knows my dad (and me) would expect, we spent the day on Saturday enjoying the murky algal waters of the natural hot spring resort of Chachimbiro. It was super relaxing, despite my looming finals. Early on Sunday morning, Tira and I got to do a bit of horseback riding around the resort. It turned out that it wasn’t such a good idea to ride a 6-mo pregnant horse up a steep mountain, so I decided to walk on the return instead limp along and risk hurting the mare. After the horses, we hopped in an unmarked taxi with another couple that the hotel owner pointed out for us. Tira and I chose to sit in the back of the truck rather than crowd inside the cab. Unexpectedly, the driver loaded in two empty gas tanks that stunk up the rest of the otherwise gorgeous drive. We got on a bus headed to Otavalo, the well-known artisan market, after the driver dropped us off in a small town of Urcuqui. Taking all these different buses and connections took a lot more time than just traveling in a private vehicle like I did before with CIMAS, but the experience is so much more intense (and cheaper)!
In Otavalo, we looked around and bought more blankets than we should have. Fortunately my purchases were limited because my credit card wasn’t working in the ATM that they had there. For some reason, my card doesn’t work in most banks in Ecuador, so I have to keep my eye out for all the Banco Internacionales if I want to take out cash. We were thinking of going to see a bull fight in Ibarra on our way back. I was the only one who was really into that idea and shopping in the market took a while, so we headed back to Quito instead.
During the majority of last week, I worked on my final essay. Even though I stayed with the theme of family, the focus changed quite a bit. I ended up talking about the impact of modernization on the family. My dad and Tira spent the weekdays visiting Tena, which is in the Amazon, so I got a lot of work done. Moreover, another group arrived at CIMAS, so I got to know a few more friends before the SU crew graduated on Friday. The staff at CIMAS sent us off with a certificate, a t-shirt, and delicious, surprise lunch.
More on the transportation system in Ecuador: the public transportation/bus system is pretty extensive here. Even so, I found out when I tried to buy tickets on Thursday to go to the coast on Friday night, that in the summer, everyone is on vacation, and they go to the coast on the weekend, and we had quite the adventure, getting five people (dad, Tira, Colleen, KC, and me) to Puerto Lopez. Although we only spent about 13 hours in total from our houses, we had to take a 2 hours bus ride in Quito to Quitumbe, the southernmost bus station. There we shuffled frantically from bus company to bus company trying to find five seats on a bus headed even in the direction we wanted. Finally, one company opened up a new bus to a city near where we were headed and we took that to Puertoviejo. The overnight ride was stiff, and we all had to keep our bags right with us to make sure we didn’t get robbed, like the couple we met later in Puerto Lopez, who had their wallets and phones taken on their ride. In Puertoviejo we made a transfer to a new bus, and then again to a third bus since our departure from Quitumbe, all before 7am.
At last we made in to Puerto Lopez! The streets were full of solicitors from travel agencies trying to take us on their tour. Lots of yelling and in-your-face sort of sales. We decided to wait and look around for more options.
Our first hostel was on the malecón (beachfront) and it reeked of fish when we got there. The rest of the experience there was subpar, but we stayed in Hostel Itapoa the second night and it made up for the shortcomings of the first night’s accommodations with lots of cats, a lovely garden, delicious breakfast with a view of the ocean, and a convenient list of reasonably priced tours.
After we dropped our bags off at the first hostel, we spend the rest of the day napping on the beach, playing in the ocean, and eating some fresh ceviche (mine was octopus. Yum!) To my dismay, we were all pretty tired by the end of the night, and after only one drink we had to retire to our rooms. The bed was a big upgrade from the bus the night before, so I slept well even though I could hear the festivities down on the beach until the wee hours.
The next day, we changed to the new and improved hostel a few blocks down the beach. The pedicab, or mototaxi ride that we took to the national park turned out pretty great. They are the primary mode of transport in Puerto Lopez using what looks like a buggie welded onto the back of a motorcycle. We got a great deal of only $1 per person sharing one taxi on our way to Machalia National Park because the driver fancied Colleen. It was a squeeze for the five of us in one and we had to use our feet just a tiny bit to help it get up a hill of two. On the way back, he even invited us all to go dancing with him and his friends.
The best part of Puerto Lopez was Los Frailes. The beach in the national park was nothing short of paradise. It was impeccably clean with clear, turquoise water that was never cloudy because the sand was made of heavy coral particles that sunk to the bottom. We took a short hike through the dry tropical forest to a viewpoint and from there we went a bit further to a beach that was practically empty. As we were leaving, we saw the sign, warning us not to swim there because of strong currents. Oops! Nevertheless, we spent the day with that beach all to ourselves. Both of my friends tried snorkeling for the first time and we all had a blast. I even did a bit of characteristic skinny-dipping. ;]
We saved the best for last. On Monday, instead of going to my orientation for classes at USFQ, I went on a whale watching tour and visited the “Poor Man’s Galapagos”, or the Isla de Plata. On the 23km boat ride to the island we saw dozens of whales partaking in their annual courting and mating rituals (lots of jumping Humpbacks). They pass by Ecuador between June-September on their annual migration path. We hiked on the island for a few hours and got to see lots of pairs of Blue-Footed Boobies as close as arms-length away. Everything was very dry, and looked like winter in the states because all of the trees loose their leaves in the dry season. I would love to go back and check out the island in the rainy season when it is so lush that sometimes the paths grow over in a matter of days. After the hike, we did some of the best snorkeling I have ever done, right off the island in a protected cove. I felt like I was witnessing some kind of Finding Nemo reenactment.
The trip back was not so fun: I was sad to leave and my legs hurt because of the salt and the cold (horrible combo). We didn’t have as much time as we had anticipated when we got back, so my dad, Tira, and I basically just showered, put our wet stuff in our bags and headed to the bus station. Krista and Becca, two other girls from CIMAS, arrived earlier that day and we barely saw them in passing as we hurried to catch our direct bus to the Mariscal in Quito. Even though I was sad to say goodbye to all four of my friends, I didn’t realize at the time how much I would miss those girls. After only two days, I’m feeling a bit lonely in Quito without them.
Next, I left my beloved host family to go a whole four blocks to my new host family. In general, I’m pretty sad to leave my old family, so it is a good thing that they will still be close by. I was surprised to be greeted by a smiling housekeeper, Lida, and an older host brother, Juan Andres that I didn’t know I would have. I met my new host mom and sister the next day, and they all seem nice, but it’s still too soon to say how we will get along. Juan Andres took me on the buses to the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito, my new school. From our brief introduction, he reminds me a lot of my ex-boyfriend, which is a bit weird.
Anyways, the university is gorgeous! It’s like a tropical version of SU: about the same size and it has the same Jesuit-y feel to it. Today, I got up at 5am to take a bus at 6am for my 7am mountain climbing class. I was a bit concerned that my host mom wasn’t up when I left, and I found out the night before, she fell on the stairs and went to the hospital. I felt bad because I didn’t have a clue what happened until after school today! During my first day with my conscience protected by ignorance of the fall, I was off to classes. I met one other study abroad student from Michigan names Maura, who I spent a good part of the morning wandering around with. Besides her, I made a few Ecuadorian friends in my climbing class, met a guy names Jon in the library, and Jean Carlos after sitting in on a Beginning French class. As a general rule, I’m trying to avoid to groups of other gringos, because I would hate getting to the end of my trip having made only friends from the U.S. I’m sure we will end up being friends, but I am focusing my energy on making friends with nationals for now. I was exhausted after my last class, Marine Ecology and Oceanography. I had a bit of trouble getting on a bus to come home because I didn’t know where the stop was. When I got on the bus, this really grandma shared her seat with her grandchildren so that they could offer me a seat. No one had ever offered me a seat here unless they were leaving, and I really appreciated the gesture. I’m not going to lie, because this transition between programs has been difficult for me, but I know that things will get better as long as I can appreciate the beauty in the small things.