Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ridin' Solo

So what was planned as a three month single country trip has turned into a seven month who-knows-how-many-countries journey.

I'm in Peru now, hence the change in the title of my blog (the old one was a little overdramatic anyway).

I left my laptop in Quito with the Susongs because it's too heavy to carry around, which means that now I have to pay for a lot of the internet I use, which means my blog posts won't be as extensive anymore after this. Hopefully they will be a little more frequent though.

I set out from Quito on December 8th, and after a much longer than planned goodbye visit in Salasaca, a stop for the night in Alausi, and about twelve hours on the road, I arrived in Loja and bought my ticket for the bus that would take me across the border to Piura, Peru. I had to wait in the bus station for 11pm to arrive, which was several hours, during which I survived a mini loneliness breakdown with the help of a long facebook chat with Molly Vejvoda. She's literally the best.

The nine-hour bus ride across the border started at 11pm sharp on December 9th, and thankfully it was much easier to sleep on a bus than I was expecting. I didn't wake up until the bus stopped a couple hours later and all of the foreigners had to get off and show some people our passports, and then later when we arrived at the border at about 4:30am. We all got off the bus, filled out some forms, had our passports stamped, and then walked across a bridge with a sign above it saying "Welcome to Peru." We got stamped again on the other side and then the bus came over to pick us up.

When I woke up the next time all of the mountains I had called home for three months were gone and we were driving through a flat and sandy landscape. We arrived in Piura at about 7:30am, I shared a taxi to my next bus station with a fellow American I had found, and then got on the bus to Chiclayo. Later a friendly Chiclayo local and her elderly uncle found me in an internet cafe with all of my things and practically dragged me from hostal to hostal until they found one with hot showers and talked the price down for me, and I spent the afternoon relaxing and exploring a little and enjoying not being on a bus.

The following day I took the first bus out to Trujillo, and after a few hours and an overpriced taxi to Huanchaco, I met Carlos ("Pinky"), my first couchsurfing friend. He took me on a tour of the little beachside town of Huanchaco, where I had only planned on staying one night, but ended up staying three because there were so many cool things to do. I learned how to Salsa a little, biked to the Chan Chan ruins, went sandboarding on some dunes in Laredo, and also visited the Huacas de Moche ruins. Pinky was an awesome host, super friendly and outgoing and a great tour guide. He knew nearly everyone in the whole town by name and went out of his way to make my time there really fun. Hopefully proof to all you skeptics that when used with caution, couchsurfing is not dangerous!;)

I left Trujillo on December 14th and arrived in Huaraz at about 7:30am the next morning. I took a taxi to my next couchsurfing friend Frank's place, a hostel and tour agency called AndesCamp. I was only planning on staying here two or three days, but ended up staying eight because Frank made me feel so at home and introduced me to some awesome friends, Eric and Wilder. Huaraz is a beautiful place surrounded by stunning mountains, and during my stay there Eric (an official mountain guide) took me ice climbing and on a gorgeous trek to the crystal blue Laguna 69. We had a lot of fun together and after a week I felt like I had known these guys for years. They made me a part of their Mountain Project Peru Team as the U.S. contact and Spanish/English translator, so if you or someone you know wants to be a sponsor or needs any translating let me know! We also have a facebook page so if you want to show some love give us a like here.

I left Huaraz on December 23rd on an overnight bus to Lima, and then from there made the 22-hour winding bus journey into the mountains again to Cusco. I arrived on Christmas day and found an internet cafe where I had a nice skype call with my family and then with my friend Florian from Salasaca, and then walked around the Plaza de Armas in Cusco city and the surrounding area. Cusco is probably my favorite city I've been to so far, it's beautiful and happy and the Christmas decorations made it even better.

The next day I made my way towards San Salvador to the Suyai Wari project house, where I was planning on spending six weeks as a volunteer, it was about forty-five minutes outside of Cusco city. Surprisingly I didn't have any trouble finding it even though its literally in the middle of nowhere. There I met Enrique and Aybe, the directors of Suyai Wari, a handful of other volunteers from around the world, and a terrifying monkey with a grudge against all females. Duncan, a nice older Scottish man, showed me around the house that first day. It's two hundred years old and was originally a monastary. It was huge and had a lot of interesting side rooms and passageways, and one room that used to be a sanctuary and still has a lot of old Catholic ceremonial things laying around.

I spent a nice four days there playing with the local kids, going on nearby treks to Inca ruins, and eating delicious vegetarian food. Then on December 30th I took a bus back to Cusco city to meet Frank, Wilder and Eric, who had come all the way down from Huaraz to spend New Years with me. With them was Christina, a new French friend who was also found through couchsurfing. Together we had an awesome time in Cusco for a few days, and then somehow they ended up carrying me off with them on the rest of their trip around Peru. I didn't mind, but in the rush to buy our bus tickets, go back to Suyai Wari to get my things, and leave Cusco, I lost my debit card. And so after several days hopping around from Arequipa to Paracas to Lima, I'm back up north in Huaraz again waiting for my new one to arrive.

So that's the update, sorry it was so long in coming! It's hard to condense nearly two months of traveling into one post, so I'll have to tell you guys more of the details when I get back in March. Believe it or not I'm actually starting to look forward to going back to the US, the homesickness has slowly started creeping in.



Saturday, November 3, 2012

Salasacan Life

I’ve just finished my fifth week living here in the middle of beautiful nowhere, aka Salasaca, Ecuador. I literally can’t believe it’s been this long, the time has flown by. I’m now more than halfway through my entire trip, and because it’s felt so short I’ve started considering extending it past Christmas. Nothing is final though because it’s turning out to be a really tough decision.

I’m still working as a volunteer at Katitawa school, a small private(ish) school that runs about thirty kids from a Quechua Indian community. The school is funded by Robert (the director) and donors and previous volunteers from all over the world. One of the main things that make this school different than the others in Salasaca is the presence of the volunteers. Being exposed to so many different cultures is something really special (for the kids and us), and the contact with native English speakers can definitely be an advantage in a world where speaking English seems to be so valuable.

I’ve been continuing my job as assistant to the kindergarten teacher, and I have to say I’ve developed an incredible admiration for anyone who teaches kindergarten as a profession. It can be a challenge to say the least. We have a new teacher who is absolutely amazing compared to the one we had when I first got here though, and she makes everything so much better. But she was sick almost all of last week, so the first day she wasn’t there I found myself trying to keep eleven four year olds busy for three hours with no prior planning.

Three hours sounds like a short amount of time until you hear “Yo terminé!!” (I’m finished) thirty seconds after giving them an activity you were hoping would last a good twenty minutes at least. After we colored several pictures, cut out circles, sang all the songs I could think of, painted handprints, rocks, pinecones, our clothes and some paper, we finally went for a walk to pass the forty five minutes remaining until lunch. Take it from me, one adult to eleven tiny children in an Ecuadorian countryside isn’t the best idea. After doing some serious sprinting and backtracking and almost giving up as they ran rampant through llama fields, roadside drainage systems, and a graveyard, I vowed I would never have children. (Just kidding, mom ;)) But we did all (miraculously) make it back to the school with wet shoes, muddy faces, and painted clothes just in time for lunch.

Besides the kindergarten I’ve also been teaching some English classes. Before this I had no teaching experience at all, so it’s been a challenge for sure, but one I’ve enjoyed. It was exhausting getting my planning together the first couple of weeks, but when everything started coming together the results were very rewarding. I think with enough preparation and experience I could really enjoy being a teacher in life back at home too.

I’m still living here at Pachamama, the volunteer hostel, but most of the people who were here before have gone and new volunteers have come. Right now we are eleven; three Brits, two Australians, two Americans, one Swede, one German, one Icelander, and one Slovakian. It’s a fun group and I’ve made some good friends, even though we regularly argue about things like what puddin’ is and how to say Adidas properly.

Right now I’m planning on leaving this coming Monday and doing some traveling with my British friend Lucy for a week, and then coming back for the school’s fifteenth anniversary party on November 10th and 11th (and also just because I can’t bear to leave completely yet). After that I’m not sure, but I’ll go back to Quito to see if I can help the Susongs for a little while at least.

In conclusion I was going to make a list of all the things I miss from home, but it turned out I couldn’t think of enough for a proper list, so I gave up. The only thing I truly don’t want to live without are my amazing family and friends who I miss so much. Other than that I’d take Ecuador any day. I love living in the middle of nowhere. I love seeing Chimborazo out of my bedroom window. I love riding in the back of a pickup through panoramic sunsets or up the side of a mountain. I love hanging out with people from all over the world. I love coming home to Quechuan people dancing in the living room (..sometimes). I love walking to school on dirt roads. I love deciding which volcano we’re going to hike this weekend.
I don’t think I’m ready to go home anytime soon.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Guinea Pigs, Europeans, Kindergarten and More

A lot has happened since my last post. Even though it’s only been three weeks today since I arrived here I feel like it’s been forever. When I think about all that I’ve seen and experienced in these past three weeks it makes me excited about what’s going to happen in the many more to come.

Right now I’m living in Salasaka, a tiny little town between Ambato and Baños with almost nothing in it. I got here on Friday after a wonderful road trip with my mismatched little family, composed of Teresa, Fabion (who works with the Susong’s ministry), and Lisa and her daughter Amanda, Americans who arrived in Ecuador a week after I did and will be living in Alausi for a year. It was a fun drive, Ecuadorians are crazy on the road. We almost died at least seven times; the adrenaline was intense. We arrived safe and sound but we did run over a dog apparently. I was asleep for that part thank the lord Jesus.

First we went to La Merced, an indian community where Teresa and Fabion were going to hand out shoes for the children in their project there. It was a gorgeous day, and the people were all very friendly and patient as they handed out the shoes to the mothers one by one. Later they showed us their guinea pig farming project, where they are raising them with the goal of giving a breeding pair to every family in the community. After spending some more time talking with the kids and taking pictures, we almost got away without them trying to feed us, but just as we were pulling out to leave (after politely refusing dinner) they came running up to the truck with plates of food. They passed the plates inside to us, and we saw a lovely display of boiled potatoes on a bed of lettuce, topped with an entire roasted, shriveled up guinea pig complete with hands, teeth, and face. Thankfully we were not expected to eat our meals in their presence, so as soon as we got the chance we bagged them up and gave them to someone in the next town who would be a little more appreciative.

We spent that night in Alausi, and after a little apartment-hunting the next day, left Lisa and Amanda there to start their new life. We arrived in Salasaka later that evening and Teresa and Fabion left me to start my new life as a volunteer at Katitawa School.

As soon as I got here I met Florian, a guy from Germany who has been here for four months (partly because he was robbed by pirates, but that’s another story). He took me to the volunteer hostel and introduced me to the other volunteers. There was Rebecca and Tim, a couple from the UK; Barbora and Matt, a couple from the Czech Republic; Yitka, also from the Czech Republic; and Pamela and Mark who are from the United States. Shortly after I arrived Vera came, and she is from Sweden, and then on Monday Meaghan from New Zealand arrived. (If I get home and am saying things in English with a foreign accent, it’s not my fault!)

The first night and the next morning felt so bizarre. Here I finally was in this tiny little town whose existence I had genuinely been questioning, meeting all these foreign people and the eighty year old man who almost single handedly runs the school, having long conversations about God with my first German friend, and making “mustahd mash” for dinner, all within about 1.5 hours of being here.  

After a couple days I got more used to things though, and now it couldn’t be more normal that there are conversations going on in at least three different languages at dinner.

On Monday I had my first day at the school. It’s about a forty minute hike from the hostel, a good bit of it straight uphill, so that combined with the altitude factor make a nice morning workout. I was assigned to help with the kindergarten class, but the paid teacher didn’t show up that day and it turned out to be just me and ten little wild children. We all made it out alive though and at that point that was my main goal.

I do enjoy life here, but it’s quite a bit more rustic than it was with Teresa. The hostel is creaky and cold, there is no hot water for showers (unless it’s heated on the stove) and we wash our clothes by hand. Right now the internet isn’t working here so the nearest access is here at the internet café in “downtown” Salasaka. It’s about a thirty minute walk, unless you hitch a ride in the back of one of the pick-up trucks that serve as the local taxis. You can even get a ride with an unofficial taxi, which is basically just anyone with a truck.

Every morning at 6:30, Robert (the eighty year old director) makes a big pot of oatmeal for everyone’s breakfast. We eat our lunch at the school, which usually consists of rice and beets, soup and popcorn, or rice and lentils, depending on the day. For dinner the volunteers take turns going shopping and cooking for everyone on a budget of $1.25 per person. So far the dinners have been really good and it’s always nice to sit down with everyone after a long day.

It is so gorgeous here that most days when I wake up and walk outside I think "Seriously?? This is where I live?!" The hostel has a back deck that sits on the edge of a hill looking over a valley and the mountains in the distance. The view is amazing day and night, and on a clear day you can see up to four snow-capped volcanoes. On most nights after getting back from working at the school we all sit and watch the sunset from the deck and read or chat about the day.

As far as the work goes though, at this point I liked what I was doing in Quito better. I miss the kids at the ministry and my little family at the Susong’s. I don’t feel like I’m making much of a difference here, and unless I find out a way to do that I’ll probably be heading back to Quito pretty soon. This is a beautiful and unique place and I have enjoyed the past few days, but there’s something missing for me.

Thank you for reading and for the encouraging comments about my last post, you all mean the world to me!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

One Week In

One week ago I was just finishing my first day here in Quito. My head was spinning from all of the Spanish translating I had been doing and I was exhausted from the lack of oxygen at this altitude, but that didn't make me any less ecstatic to be here. Even after a week I still find myself smiling uncontrollably when I see the white face of Cotopaxi (Ecuador's second highest volcano) glowing in the morning sun, or the mist against the towering Andes in the distance after an afternoon rain. This is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

Right now I'm living with Teresa Susong, a missionary who is an old friend of my family. She and her husband Dan (who is visiting the U.S. right now) have a ministry fighting against child labor, and helping those who have been victims of child labor to finish their educations ( It's been really interesting to see what goes into a ministry like this, and the work and passion that Teresa puts into it all is inspiring to say the least. She's truly being the hands and feet of Jesus every day, and I'm thrilled to be able to do what I can to help.

So far what my job has been is helping out at the ministry center. Kids from around four to fifteen years old, all from difficult family backgrounds and often extreme poverty, come to hang out at the center after school. The ministry center feeds them a hearty lunch, leads them in worship and a Bible lesson, and helps with their homework. My duties have been helping Blanca our cook make lunch, doing a little filing in the ministry's social worker's office, helping the kids with English and computer homework, and cleaning and organizing around the center. Right now it could use a lot of sprucing up, so I'm starting by decorating all of the bulletin boards with Bible verses and fun themes. If anyone has any creative ideas or favorite verses to share I'm very open to suggestions! Like I said, most of the kids come from very difficult backgrounds and broken families, so there are quite a bit of behavioral issues. But they are all very sweet and affectionate when they want to be, and I love getting to know them. They really just need so much love, and I'm learning they have so much love they want to give, too. There is nothing sweeter than kisses on the cheek and never ending smiles and waves and hugs from the littlest ones.

Besides spending time with the kids, one of my favorite things so far has been helping Blanca cook. Unlike last fall in Mexico, I really like most of the food here! It's so fun to be able to help her and learn simple healthy dishes. And speaking of food, there's a bakery AND a fresh produce store right outside the gate to our neighborhood, a 3 minute walk from the house! Even if it was further than that it would still be wonderful though, because I love taking walks here. The weather is absolutely perfect. It's unique because you get warm sunny weather and cozy fall weather all in the same day. In the mornings it's always gorgeous bright blue skies with a temp around 75, but by the time the sun goes down it's a nice 55 or 60.

Everywhere I look is a backdrop of towering, indescribably beautiful mountains and hills, contrasted against perfect blue sky and puffy white clouds. But one thing that makes the beauty stand out even more is the contrast of the poverty in the foreground. The majority of the people here live in small rented concrete houses or rooms, don't own vehicles, and work long hard hours for a tiny salary. The other day I went with Teresa to visit a lady who wanted her son to be in the ministry's night highschool. There is a mountain behind our house with a monument of a cross on top, and this lady lives toward the bottom of it. A dirt road led up to her rented house, which was a tiny little building made of grey cinder block. Someone from the states would definitely regard it as more of a shed than a house. They had an amazing view though. The sun was just starting to set and was casting shadows and glowy light all over the mountains in the distance and everything in the valley between us and them. It was literally breathtaking. She led us inside where the walls were also plain cinder block and the floors bare concrete, and the crisp air from outside seeped in through cracks around the windows and ceiling. The house was divided by hanging blankets. We sat down at her table and she told us about her life and family. She is a single mother of five children, one of whom is fifteen and wants to go to the ministry's highschool. He works construction full time during the day, and will now start attending the highschool in the evenings.

When I think about the fifteen-year-olds I know in the states compared with this boy, the contrast is sobering. I wish that everyone would travel just to get some perspective; just to see that no matter what kind of "economic crisis" we might be having in our country it will never compare to what most of the rest of the people in the world will live in for their entire lives. We have so much to be thankful for, and so much to give! If anyone would like to make a donation to this ministry or even come and volunteer some time here yourself, please talk to me and I know Teresa will help you work it out, she's great like that. Trust me, coming here isn't as crazy as it sounds. ;)

P.S. I will try to upload some pictures soon! I haven't taken many yet because I don't carry my camera everywhere because of theft, and also if the kids saw me with they would probably destroy it. :)