The Pope is Coming!

The Pope will be arriving in Ecuador in less than a week and the excitement is almost tangible. It seems like everyone in Ecuador is talking about the visit especially about which days they will have off of work! The Pope will be visiting Ecuador’s largest city of Guayaquil and then spending two days in Quito where he’ll give mass at the old airport, now called Bicentennial Park.

I too am excited to watch the flurry caused by Pope Francisco’s visit although I’ve been told to expect internet outages… Yuck! One phenomenon that has really gripped me has been the onslaught of songs welcoming the Pope to Ecuador. Every night the local news broadcasts a new artist performing another take on what is quickly becoming an old classic, “Bienvenido Papa Francisco.”

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Another interesting occurrence has been the use of Pope Francisco’s visit by the Ecuadorian government to promote their political agenda. Television advertisements featuring the Pope often appear next to quoted phrases about social equality. One example being used in ads is the phrase “Debe exigirse la redistribución de la riqueza” or “The redistribution of wealth should be required.” This phrase echoes the government’s current political battle in raising taxes on inheritance and real estate sales.

I prefer this government promotion welcoming Pope Fransisco to “the country that loves life!”

Government poster for the Pope in Ecuador

In the Shadow of Pichincha

Quito lies on the eastern edge of Pichincha, one of many active volcanos in the region. Pichincha’s highest peak reaches almost 15,700 ft. Oddly enough, there’s an amusement park at it’s base appropriately titled VulQano Park. Adjacent to the amusement park is the TelefériQo, a cable car which takes you just 2,700 ft from the summit. That’s where I went last Saturday.

Katrin and I took a taxi for $4 up to the park and found it to be mostly abandoned. The rides surely drew a crowd but there were many deserted buildings which seemingly had lost their purpose since the area opened in 2005. It was odd to see signs worn from disuse indicating the direction to discotecas, restaurants, bars, stores, and museums all of which were empty and overgrown.

Abandoned buildings at Quito's TelefériQo

These decaying facilities surrounded others which had been well kept. The building selling tickets for the TelefériQo, for example, was beautiful with floor to ceiling windows and marble floors. I’m sorry that I didn’t get a picture of it although I know I’ll be heading back there to summit Pichincha sometime during my stay. The view from the lookout areas at the top of the TelefériQo were phenomenal, I recommend spending the $8.50 to ride to the top. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

While on top of the mountain I walked up a dirt path and found two llamas laying down minding their own business. Looking up, I saw a sign hanging on a nearby shrub which read “Pictures with llamas with hat 50¢.” My first thought was “YES! I ABSOLUTELY WANT TO TAKE PICTURES WITH LLAMAS WEARING HATS!” You can imagine my disappointment when the girl put the hat on me instead. Although, I still consider it a justified expense.

They should have been wearing hats...

The rest of the week has been pretty interesting as well. On Monday, the folks from Vida Verde took Katrin, James (a student from the UK) and me to the Centro Historico district in Quito. We toured the area with many beautiful colonial era Spanish buildings and churches. Then, around 11am, we watched the changing of the guard at the center of governance, el Palacio de Carondelet.

The changing of guards is a 45 minutes ceremony with a full brass band accompaniment. It occurs every Monday at 11am and is normally attended by the President, Rafael Correa. This week the Vice President, Lenín Moreno, took his place as it was his last week in office. Soldiers in full dress uniforms with spurs on their boots marched holding spears tipped with Ecuadorian flags. School children from the primary, middle, and high school grades were selected to attend and sat in front of all the action. I enjoyed seeing this ceremony and I’m hoping to sneak back on another day to see President Correa. I appreciate Vida Verde taking us on these outings around the city without any extra expense or planning on my part.

Ceremony at el Palacio de Carondelet

Every week at Vida Verde the school pairs you with a different teacher. At first I was not excited for the transition, I had enjoyed working with Hipatia, but in the end I think such a simple change helped further improve my Spanish. This week I worked with Elena, her style was very different from Hipatia’s. Hipatia made me speak and we would converse for much of the class whereas Elena talked my ears off. At the beginning of the week I had trouble comprehending the quickness of her speaking but by the end of class today I felt like we were speaking together rather well. I’m starting to work at the A2 level and everyday I am noticing an improvement in my ability to speak and understand.

Tomorrow is a national holiday marking the Battle of Pichincha. The battle captured the city of Quito from Spanish rule in 1822. There are no classes tomorrow so Katrin and I are headed to Baños for the weekend. It should be fun!

Danger and Surviving on the Kindness of Others

When locals tell you that it’s dangerous to walk the streets at night, you should listen. As it is in Quito, my host mother urged me to take a taxi home when going out to the discotecas. However, last night I ended up miles away from home and without enough money for a taxi ride home. How did I end up in such a situation and what was I to do?

Saturday night I went out for a drink with Katrin. It was my first night on the town and I brought with me a whole $19 because I did not plan to drink much. When we arrived in the Mariscal district in Quito, Katrin showed me a hole in the wall bar which only served warm fruit juice mixed with alcohol. It was their specialty but after one cocktail I decided that it was a bit too sweet for me. While sitting in the bar planning out our evening, a boy with a dozen roses tucked under his arm no older than 7 or 8 years old came up to me begging for me to purchase a rose from him. As with everyone else, I told him no, he then proceded to give me the saddest face I’ve ever seen a kid make. I held my ground and watched as the little guy struggled to open the heavy door on his way out.

I stayed with Katrin in the bar as she drank a second $1 fruit-ahol drink and texted some other Americans to ask them to join us. Without a response from the Americans, we walked around the Mariscal as it was the first time I had seen it at night! It was beautiful! It was probably around 11pm when Katrin and I were standing outside of a “backpacker” club called The Attic when her indecisiveness pushed me to suggest entering the bar and letting the night take us – which is exactly what we did.

When I was charged a $4 entrance fee, Katrin offered to pay for the cab ride home. The club wasn’t incredibly packed but the night was young and the DJ was solid. Katrin and I headed for the bar and she ordered another mixed drink while I ordered the most manly drink on the menu, a $3.50 shot of tequila. We ended up joining a group of pool players as they brought competitive bar pool to new heights including a “loser gets slapped bet.” After a few games of pool the DJ turned up the music and the dance floor began to fill.

I was not yet ready to dance so I bought two more shots and one of the pool players bought one for me as well. With four shots and a fruit-ahol under my belt, I became the dominant male dancer on the floor. While everyone else stood around bobbing I was taking full advantage of my salsa skills and I even danced a little merengue. I had an incredible time dancing with the chicas in the club although I did find out that the girl I danced with the most was only fifteen (the legal age for drinking and entering a club in Ecuador is 18).

As the night wrapped up I bought a bottle of water for $1 and around 2am Katrin came to me and informed me that she was leaving with someone. I asked a few required concerned friend questions before letting her rush off completely forgetting that she had offered to pay for the cab. As I left the club I realized my mistake, I was short on cash with only $2.50 left in my pocket.

During the day $2.50 would have been plenty to get me home but the cabs raise their prices at night. The first cab driver I asked wanted $4 the second $6, both were overpriced and refused to accept what was left of my money. I was reminded about a story from one of the students at Vida Verde who told me about being mugged in the Mariscal a year prior. Walking back was not an option so I kept shopping around until I found a cab driver who offered a $3 ride back. When I told him I only had $2.50 he reluctantly accepted. Immediately upon entering his cab Javier locked all the doors and reminded me of how dangerous Quito was at night. Without Javier’s concern for my wellbeing over finding a larger fair I might be writing a very different post today.

So far, I have prided myself on being prepared and packing well for this trip. Last night I slipped up and could have gotten myself into a lot of trouble. Luckily for me, I found someone more concerned with my safety than taking home a larger paycheck. Thanks Javier for an excellent end to another adventure in Quito!

Fact: The average yearly income in Ecuador is around $5,000.*


I Regret this Already

Today I found out that there is a downside to living with your teacher. Apparently Hipatia took it to heart when I told her that I enjoyed challenging myself and taking the more difficult subjects in school. Instead of having to complete only one or two homework assignments tonight I somehow ended up obligated to work through six of them. Now I have to live with the consequence… regret.

I had a rough start in Spanish class this morning but after about 30 minutes I decided to relax. Once I stopped trying to process every word Hipatia was saying to me I started grasping entire sentences and topics. I am not to the point yet where I can discern the meaning of words from context but I hope that will come soon. As it turns out, understanding other people speaking a language does not give you a diploma in speaking it yourself. I stumble and fall continuously but I’m getting better.

Speaking of stumbling, you know how I said that I was dying to don my capoeira pants? Well, I almost died while wearing them or at least I thought as much. Yesterday, Katrin joined me for my first capoeira lesson in five years. Our instructor worked us so hard that I could hardly standup at the end, no joke. Today, my entire body is so sore and stiff that I can hardly move. Although, I still made it to my salsa class today and am headed back to capoeira tomorrow.

Today, we only had two hours of class before Hipatia, Katrin, and I walked with the owner of the school, Rosa, to a market about 45 minutes away. It was a great experience, I was introduced to parts of the city that I had never seen before. We walked through the Mariscal (appropriately called gringolandia by the locals) and the banking district before reaching the market. The market was teeming with activity, there were many vendors for fruits, vegetables, flowers, wood and clay products, and toys. There were even entire restaurants packed into the stalls. I bought some fresh coconut juice from a fruit juice vendor for 75¢, it was delicious.

After leaving the market, the four of us found our curiosity piqued by a large group of people protesting in a park. While there, I took some pictures of the assembled crowd and the police standing nearby. After that short stent in the park we trudged home our bags laden with tasty foods including fruits which I could not possibly identify. Hipatia has been trying to explain all of the varieties of bananas and plantains to me but I can only process so much alien information. I keep telling her that in the US there are only three kinds of bananas – green, yellow, and brown.

Hipatia invited me to cook dinner with her again tonight. I really enjoy spending time with her in the kitchen. She does a great job provoking me to speak by asking interesting questions and she has no reservations about politely critiquing my grammar and assisting me with new vocabulary. I am gaining a lot of information and practice from the 4 hours of classes per day but the educational value of my home stay is equally significant.

This trip has been incredible and it is only at the beginning.

Nails on a Chalkboard

Oh boy do I feel bad for Hipatia. Not only does she have to put up with me at home but I am also her student for 4-hour Spanish lessons 5 days a week. I’m kidding of course. Although at times (pretty often) my Spanish might sound like nails scraping against a chalkboard she responds well and does a good job interpreting me.

I am quite glad that Hipatia is my teacher this week as I feel she knows best what level I am speaking at. I have started at the DELE A1 level which is lower than I was hoping but I feel as though it is an adequate starting point for me. I still consider myself to have a large vocabulary however I often confuse or forget words and my grammar is in need of some work.

The class runs from 8:30am to 12:30pm and is taught completely in Spanish. Hipatia asks many questions and I respond as best as I can. When I don’t understand something, Hipatia takes the time to rephrase her explanation which is a method that works fairly well for me. She also uses visual aids like picture books and other objects around the classroom to help me understand new vocabulary or grammar concepts.

If anything, starting at such a low level has not discouraged me but rather has given me a further motivation to do well to progress quickly. I want to feel as though I can express myself easily and proficiently before the end of my four week stay. The most difficult part of speaking Spanish is that it does not flow naturally for me – I take too much time to construct what I want to say in my head before letting it out of my mouth.

After class I explored an area of Quito which was close to the school. Hipatia had given me directions to a vegetarian restaurant which I’m proud to say that I found without getting too turned around. My meal consisted of four side dishes surrounding a rounded pile of rice and accompanied by soup and warm soy milk. It was a large and delicious meal for a total cost of $2.50.

After lunch, I headed back home to bang out my homework and managed a 30 minute nap before it was time for Salsa class. Katrin introduced me to a Salsa studio in the Mariscal district, a popular area for tourists and the more affluent residents of Quito. Our class was an hour long and my instructor Angie was terrific. She was always patient when I made a misstep and I felt as though I was picking up the moves quickly. I think it came easily, in part, because of the similarity to some of the ballroom dance moves I learned practicing at Elite Ballroom in Morrisville last semester. I am liking the swiftness of the Salsa moves. The constant push and pull between myself and my partner makes it feel like I’m on a roller coaster ride.

As I was leaving the studio I saw pictures of men practicing Capoeira and I asked the instructor if they taught Capoeira at the studio as well. Of course they do, which is good because I’m dying to don my Capoeira pants which I made certain to pack. The last time I practiced Capoeira was before I left Boston in 2008. I know that the strength required to pull off the moves will be a renewed shock to my system. I remember being so utterly wiped after a class with Mestre Calango that I would down an entire super-sized Big Mac meal. Yuck, I can’t wait…

I now have a set schedule for after school activities. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I will dance Salsa then on Tuesdays and Thursdays I will play Capoeira. Now I’ll be looking for a nearby Yoga studio to fill my weekends!

After Salsa class, Katrin and I headed home to join Hipatia and her younger daughter Angie for dinner. I asked Hipatia to let me cook with her tomorrow. Learning how to cook Ecuadorian cuisine, yet another thing to be excited about.

Mariachi for Mom

Yesterday was mother’s day in the U.S. and I was surprised to find out that the holiday was celebrated in Ecuador as well. The day began with a cold shower, which I will need to get used to, followed by a warm breakfast made by my host mom, Hipatia. Then I had the opportunity to meet the other Vida Verde student staying with Hipatia. Katrin, from Germany, has short hair and many tattoos. She told me of surviving her first week of classes at the Vida Verde school and explained that they don’t go easy on your homework assignments.

Following breakfast, Hipatia invited me and Katrin to join her family in celebrating mother’s day. We traveled an hour by bus to Northern Quito where Hipatia’s mother lives. Her family was very inviting when two foreigners arrived to celebrate with them. The celebration started when a Mariachi band burst into the living room and played for about five minutes. Everyone danced and enjoyed the music, I’ve posted the video (taken prior to the dancing) below.

After visiting with Hipatia’s extended family, Hipatia, Katrin, Hipatia’s two daughters Nathaly and Angie, and I walked through a large park. The park was scattered with all kinds of playground equipment overflowing with their young caretakers. Children and their parents were everywhere, vendors were selling their goods on the sidewalks which included everything from candy to puppies.

The walk led us to a ginormous indoor mall. I could not tell you how many stories tall this mall was because the floors and stairs seemed to continue as far as the eye could see. To me, the most amazing thing about this mall was that it was completely packed with people, including the arcade. I would have believed that the entire population of Quito had decided to go to the mall yesterday if I hadn’t seen the nearby park equally full to the brim.

Finally, after a failed attempt at buying liqueur on a Sunday in a predominately Catholic country, Katrin and I decided to go home and enjoy dinner and the internet before retiring for the evening.

My first Spanish class starts in less than an hour, wish me luck!


I’m Not Embarrassed

After landing, I met my chauffeur who drove me about 45 minutes from the Airport into Quito. Edward was an extremely friendly guy who told me with pride that the only words of English he knew were “Hi, my name is Edward.” I told him that it was OK because I did not come to Ecuador to speak English. This was my first extended conversation only in Spanish but I was not as lost as I imagined I might be.

Edward and I carried on a conversation for the entire trip discussing our families, movies, politics, and the sights around Quito. There is no doubt that he had to interpret some poorly spoken Spanish from my end but I mostly understood him. I even taught Edward a new English phrase! When I asked Edward what he did for a living he responded with a laundry list of skilled labor like plumbing, electrical, woodwork, chauffeuring, etc. To this I named him a “Jack of all trades” he seemed to like his new title.

When I arrived at my host family’s home I was shown my room and watched about an hour of TV with my host mother Hipatia and her younger daughter Angie. I was too excited to sleep so I’m running on fumes today. I’ll be heading out shortly to visit with Hipatia’s mother to celebrate día de la Madre!

I am not afraid or embarrassed of my poor Spanish now. I am confident that my use of the language will grow in complexity as I begin my studies. For now, I am encouraged by the experience of another polyglot named Benny Lewis. He runs the polyglot blog Fluent in 3 Months and I’ve posted his TEDx talk below. His recommendation for learning a language? Speak early, speak often.


Into the Fire

My Chemistry Professor, a multilingual Dutchman, spent his childhood Summers abroad immersing himself in new countries and languages. On our first day of class he asked an auditorium of nearly 300 students to identify themselves as either polyglots or monoglots. I could count the number of polyglots on my hands. Too few, and I was in the majority knowing only one language.

I had taken my last formal Spanish course (equivalent to a second semester college level) in high school, 8 years prior. After that, my exposure to the language had been minimal until I met an Ecuadorian girl in that same Chemistry class last Fall. Befriending her opened my eyes to the large hispanic culture which thrived all around me. The portion of Spanish speakers in the U.S. was found to be greater than 16% in 2010 and was growing rapidly. Spanish is the official language in 28 countries and is spoken by over 500 million people. Empowered by this knowledge and with a longing to communicate with people around the world I set out to acquire this new language.

In December, I started studying Spanish by utilizing the free online language learning resource Duolingo. And by January I was ready to test my proficiency – my school offered a free language competency test and I took it. I did well, I placed into a third semester Spanish course which was equivalent to my competency in high school. I was learning quickly but as the semester progressed I became consumed by my other courses and started neglecting my Spanish work.

My travel plans began to evolve after reading a forum post by a Duolingo employee who stated that learners were more likely to complete the course on their website if they had plans to travel to a country where that language was spoken. Additionally, I had been following a language learning blog calledFluent in 3 Months which suggested that the quickest way to learn a new language was to speak it. From there I decided that traveling to predominantly Spanish speaking country and immersing myself in the language was the best way to advance my goal to learn Spanish.

After considering many countries in Latin America I decided on Ecuador. I found a Spanish school in the capital, Quito, and made arrangements to stay with a host family. Now I’m sitting in the airport waiting to board my flight and I could not be more excited!

E.T. Phone Home

My plane departs from Atlanta around 5:30pm tomorrow evening. It’s a relatively short flight (only four and a half hours) to Quito. I am excited to start my new adventure!

I am packed and ready for the trip, all that’s left is to decide how I’m going to communicate with everyone back home once I leave. Thanks to AT&T, my iPhone is locked to their network and I am unable (without illegally jailbreaking it) to use a local network provider for cellphone service in Ecuador. Instead, I will be relying on internet technologies like Skype and Google Voice to keep me connected.

The good news is that my everyday US cellphone number will continue to work, albeit, with some subtle changes. I will forward all of my calls and texts to my Google Voice number. The calls will not come to my phone, but rather, the caller will be redirected to my Google Voice voicemail and I will be able to check the voicemail online. Messages sent by friends with their iProducts will continue to come to my phone like normal. (Thanks Apple now how about adding VOIP?)

This solution precludes instant communication unless I am connected to wifi and I’ll have to return phone calls via Skype (for 2.3¢ per minute).

Pros: easy and cheap. Cons: delayed response to calls and must be connected to wifi.