Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What I Do These Days....

So. School’s done, what ever do I do to fill all of my glorious free time? Well, there’s this little thing called the ICRP (InterCultural Research Project, phew, what a name), which has been filling, um, some, of my time. The general concept of an ICRP is a project/internship/apprenticeship/volunteer work within the community that we are living in. Our program’s program is relatively flexible, and the first couple of months we were researching and testing out organizations to figure out how we would fill this five-week span in Jan/Feb, while also reading and discussing texts on development, volunteerism, and Ecuadorian society. Unsurprisingly I elected to do something within The Arts. I actually have two separate jobs, one at an organization called Arteducarte (Art to Educate Yourself) and the other is an apprenticeship with a well-known Ecuadorian painter.

Arteducarte is an organization that brings local artists into public schools to hold art workshops once a week. It is a non-profit, completely Ecuadorian funded program, although it was originally founded by the Guggenheim. Now, to the average American, this idea sounds cool, but not ground shaking. But what I’ve come to learn after working several months in the schools is that Ecuador really has very little infrastructure for art education. The school system is very structured and much of the schooling is based on repetition and memorization. Meaning, children don’t get art education. Also meaning that many kids don’t know and/or have forgotten how to be creative. Overall meaning that Arteducarte is slowly bringing a very important new thing to select Quiteño schools. The thing that I’ve find really fascinating about the program is the type of projects that the artists bring, usually more conceptual and open-ended than traditional classroom art projects. The artists usually have to work within a subject area given by the teacher, and I’ve seen solar-system hats, animal arm-puppets, clay monsters, and collaged counting books, among many other things, flow in and out of the classrooms. I’m a volunteer in the classes twice a week (read: crowd control, interesting foreign distraction, occasionally I’m actually useful), and I also work a couple of days per week in the office (read: cutting cardboard, filling glue containers, counting paper, painting things white, probably the most concrete contributions I’ve given). It has been a fun experience, especially talking to the very intelligent director of the program and reading the v.cool book they recently published. I’m not ever, ever, ever going to be an elementary school teacher.

The other part of my ICRP is a bit more, well, “open-ended.” I convinced our program leader to let me figure out some type of apprenticeship or internship within the Quito art scene, so that I could get a feel of what’s going on here and possibly form some contacts. I landed up with the painter Marcelo Aguirre (he was my painting prof. fall semester), who had just started a job of coordinating a shiny new gallery space in the basement of a graduate school. Which is neat, and actually a pretty big deal, because the Ecuadorian art market/scene dropped dead after dollarization, and this is a small symbol of progress for the art world here. For the first week and a half, I worked really really hard with a couple of other folks to mount a painting show in the space, including a quite complicated installation. It was fun, I learned a lot, I worked dutifully, and I got great feedback from my temporary co-workers. After the opening of the show and wrapping up all the details that pertained to it, my workload quickly dropped off, and left me scrambling to fill my time. I’ve been hopping from person to person, visiting studios, filling odd jobs, being a secretary. It’s been hard to not have a fixed way to fill my time, and jarring to be in the work force for a bit. The experience has certainly forced me to think about future job possibilities and what-people-do-with-their-lives. And, although I’ve kind of had fun being a little floating worker-drone, it reminded me that (as I found when I was working 40+ hrs/wk in NYC) being a student isn’t all that bad, and I’m not too upset that I have to slave away at my studies for another 1.33333333 years... life advice quite welcome at this point.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The bi-polar trust issue.

One thing I realized recently is that my trust has been put through a rigorous obstacle course since being in Ecuador. Usually, at least in the States, I’d say that I’m a naturally trusting person. [This is not to say that I’m not cautious in some ways, growing up in the dirty D did teach me to religiously lock doors, be alert outside alone after dark, and to be weary of anything that came on my porch and rang the bell (often resulting in me cowering motionlessly in my room if I heard the doorbell ring and was caught home-alone). For these things I am thankful. I felt triumphant when, during a string of break-ins and muggings on campus, I knew more or less how to deal with the situation and didn’t have a panic attack.]
However, Ecuador is a different story. I don’t really trust anything. Food and water have the potential to invert your intestines. Vendors, upon hearing an accent and seeing hazel eyes/delicious creamy complexion, have the tendency to double prices. Ditto to nighttime taxi drivers. Dogs attack. Buses veer off cliffs. Random people harass. Electricity fails. The Internet glitches. Stores close randomly. Time is flexible. Things get stolen. Hot water makes itself scarce. Walls are topped with barbed wire and broken glass. There are security guards with massive guns. People misinform rather than admitting that they’re unsure. We´re living with essential strangers. Even the earth, the ultimate constant!, rumbles with earthquakes and spews out lava unpredictably.
I noticed that I had become so untrusting when I went to places that I trusted. In Peru in the tourist-infiltrated hostel and more recently at an amazing eco-lodge in the Ecuadorian mountains, I relied on the advice of others, used honor systems, and left valuables lying around. Wow! I take trust for granted! I realized that trust is yet another one of the convenient little advantages that comes in the tidy package of privilege. If everyone around you has similar resources, there’s much less temptation to abuse others’. (Funny how these things reveal themselves). And I am looking forward to returning to my comfy trusting home, so that the little sliver of me here that is always on edge, always suspicious and guarded can rest and rejuvenate, remember to trust again.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Traveling vs. Study Abroad

I just returned from a ten day vacation to Peru, which was kick started with a quick tour of southern coastal Ecuador. After wrapping up the academic loose ends, breathing a deep sigh of relief, and cleaning my room corner to corner, I hopped on an overnight bus with friends to Guyaquil to watch the National University Track Championships in which, I am proud to say, I had several friends running. After suffering through the oppressive heat of the equatorial coast and exploring a bit of the Big City, we escaped to Salinas, a classy beach town. And, after just one night in a sterile hotel, Rachel U. and I hopped right back on the bus towards Guyaquil, to begin our Peruvian Adventure.
Before we even made it to Peru, the experience already felt different. We found ourselves in a cavernous, arching airport of glass, metal, and polished stone, being approached (actually, more like attacked) by the over-friendly, over-helpful, and over-English-speaking sales ladies in duty free. A stark contrast to fluorescently lit bus terminals with shifty eyed ticket collectors and being approached by pre-pubescent vendors of gum and cigarettes. The businesspeople and upper-class patronizers of the air made me, in my casual attire tinged with the South American Explorer aesthetic, feel a bit out of place. It was also the first trip that I’ve planned All By Myself, and Rachel and I found ourselves a bit giddy to be mature grown-up type travelers in a real live airport.
¡Bienvenidas a Lima! Wow. A throbbing hoard of expectant family members at the exit of the airport, followed by a half hour taxi ride through the expansive city of roughly twelve million. We stumbled upon a hostel in our guidebook in the touristy suburb of Miraflores, and decided to take a chance there. It turned out quite well and we were very comfortable; comfortable enough to stay our first six nights there. We met a variety of young backpacking adventurists. People you meet traveling are a distinct breed. When we first arrived, I was full of interest for the stories of Australians with around the world plane tickets and the Americans motorcycling the length of America del Sur, and was excitedly engaged in tales of traveling escapades. And then, after a few days, the dialogues started to blend and blur. It seemed like everyone and their brother had visited Machu Pichu, and couldn’t for the life of them understand why Rachel and I weren’t racing to the Inca Trail. I heard all about muggings, hectic buses and taxis, embarrassingly broken Spanish, wild nights out, and explanations for the recesses from “real life.” I felt myself grow uninterested in the tales, yet unable to start conversations without the prescribed safety questions. And it was really hard to watch people swoop in, without ANY sense of the native language or customs of a place and expect to be accommodated to. It was weird, too, to sit on my ivory tower of The Study Abroad Experience and reflect and interpret and observe what was going on. But I really enjoy being critical, and I’m also quite thankful for the experiences I’ve had in the past with traveling in an intuitive way. My family is a great bunch of voyagers, and I’m grateful for the perspective they’ve given me on experiencing journeys and breaking the box of tourism.
The trip was great. We didn’t “do” a lot, in terms of the requisites set up by the tourist industry. But we did relax, cook and eat good food, have serious conversations, almost die from laughter (literally), and meet some truly interesting people. It was nice to dip our toes into the webby world of backpackers. But I don’t think I could do it for six months.

Friday, December 01, 2006

I do funny things in Ecuador to help me recognize that time is passing. Despite my efforts however, sometimes it still feels like I’m trapped in a vacuum where the seasons never change, school is endless, and holidays are a formality imposed to symbolize the march of time. Little things help me remember that I’ve been here for over three months; we’ve gone through three tubs of dish soap, birthdays have come and gone, my vitamins are slowly but surely disappearing, and soon I get to bust into my advent calendar. Sometimes I wonder if I hold myself religiously to routines that deplete things so that I remember that days are separate and irreversible. It sounds like I’m kidding, but seriously after watching the same cracked concrete pass under my feet for months and feeling sunny skies nip at my back every single morning, it sometimes feels like Ecuador is some alternate reality where repetition becomes the real measure of time. I try to take new routes and vary my schedule when I can, also something which I do at home. Habits can be both comforting and suffocating.

It takes me a long time to accept new “realities.” When I arrive in any fresh situation, everything is “cool, amazing, unbelievable...” I sometimes think I have an abnormally long honeymoon period. Usually right about when I start to settle into/accept somewhere, the end is imminent. And all of the cool amazing unbelievable things have somehow become shadows of memories recorded in the stories and pictures and souvenirs. This may be because I change realities like I’m changing my socks, and realities tend to mold me like I’m a warm batch of play dough. Even now I am still having flashes of “Wow, I live in Ecuador”, where I wake up to my own reality for a second and understand it, but usually only for a fleeting instant. But most of the time it is hard to comprehend “I am living, breathing, studying, eating, and existing in Quito, Ecuador.” Language has been a huge factor. Sometimes after listening and talking a day away in Spanish, I don’t believe it actually happened, that I, little old (ex) monolingual Julia is actually subsisting in Spanish. And I’m not falling on my face. And then I wonder, “Wow, how was there a time that I didn’t understand Spanish?”

Sometimes, especially in the grocery store or walking alone in the city, I have slightly out-of-body experiences, where I’m watching myself, an anonymous visitor, stroll purposefully. If someone interacts with me, it is an abrupt jolt out of my little haze. Wandering around by myself is private time where I can put my mentality on autopilot so as to not have to deal with or interpret the huge experience I’m experiencing. And what has been especially hard to realize here is that all of my old realities still do exist. But it is almost impossible to imagine what is going on in Durham, Kalamazoo, in the lives of my friends (especially those in distant creases of the world), or my family, or my nation. Which has been a useful shield in many ways; I haven’t been particularly homesick or jealous, there are fewer things for me to worry about, I’m able to take risks. Sometimes it helps to think about what I must sound like or look like from someone else’s perspective, what with all of the travels and experiences and cultural blunders. But I still feel like it is going to be a challenge to have to return and tuck my six months abroad into a neat little box that I can present to people when I’m faced with the inevitable “How was Ecuador?” So if you want to make me really really happy, ask me REAL questions about the experience, let me talk, reflect, and be a little bit different. Because I’m still not exactly how this has all altered my overall perspective, but it sure has done something, and it will be quite the interesting reentry in March.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Food: part III: typical meals

I’ve written lots about food mostly because I think it’s interesting and a big indicator of how/why cultures develop as they do. It’s also a considerable part of the experience, because there are a lot of novelties and it’s a terrific way to familiarize yourself with a culture. I also happen to LOVE food. And I’ve picked up a ton of great ideas that I will most certainly be integrating into my diet when I return. [If you’re antsy to try something new, here are two of my favorites: home-popped popcorn in a cream-based soup for texture (put a handful in every couple of bites so it doesn’t just disintegrate), and fresh mozzarella bits in steaming rich hot chocolate (I know it sounds weird, but try it in a less-sweet hot chocolate, it’s amazing...)]

Desayuno: For the first 2 and a ½ months my breakfast was as follows: one scrambled egg, bread of some variety (sometimes with marmalade or dulce de leche, sometimes plain), hot chocolate, and either a piece of fruit or some deliciously exotic juice. Big breakfast, no? I enjoyed it for a while, but finally told my host mom that I wasn’t accustomed to eating eggs every day, and now I usually get granola or some combination of the other stuff... sin juevos.

Almuerzo: During the week, Kalamazoo generously provides our meals in the cafeteria at USFQ. Cafeteria is usually a cringe-inducing word, but the food in this place is phenomenal. There are always cold salad items (beans, lettuce, avocado, carrots, etc.), a soup (Ecuador is soup-crazy!), rice, meat or the vegetarian alternative, bread, fruit juice, and an extraordinary dessert. And it’s all prepared by the culinary students at the University. And it’s all delicious.

Merienda: Bread, of course. I drink a lot of tea here, too. And eat tons of fruit (gotta pack it in before I get back to the LAME fruit of the states...).

Cena: Prepared by my host mom, who’s quite a good cook. Usually meat, vegetables, and rice (I’m starting to tire of this combo...) Usually with juice. Hardly ever with dessert :( Sometimes just a soup, or on special occasions just hot chocolate :) Occasionally fried plantains or pasta. We eat LATE, which has been a challenge, because I’ve been known to get a bit grumpy/uncomfortable when I’m hungry, but I’m adapting....

All in all, I’ve enjoyed Ecuadorian food, and haven’t found that there’s too much I miss horribly or that I absolutely despise. I would say, actually, the hardest thing has been giving up control over my diet and not being able to cook for myself (which I miss A LOT! Especially with my lovely cooking buddies!). Pretty much all of my meals are decided for me, which definitely gets tiresome, but also makes it that much more exciting when I actually do get to elect what I eat. And I’m going to export a crapload of scrumptious Ecuadorian foodstuffs back with me to the states!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

10 Things that are dangerous or scary in Ecuador, and How They Make My Life More Thrilling.
By Julia the Recovering Hypochondriac

*Serious Disclaimer* My parents, greater family, and the weak of heart probably shouldn’t read this. And if you read it and consequently have a panic attack, don’t say I didn’t warn you, and don’t try to convince me to hop the next flight out of Quito. South America is a zany place.

1- Plugging in my computer. My 3-2 plug adapter has one fat prong and one that has been hitting the diet pills; unfortunately, the holes in my wall are identical twins of the skinny variety. Meaning that when I have to re-plug in my computer (which is every day, because when it’s plugged in I can’t open my dresser...) it’s kind of like playing Russian roulette. The stakes aren’t quite as high, about every tenth plug in I get a fun little shower of blue sparks and a loud POP. This has trained me to (a) plug in my computer as little as possible and (b) do it in a very awkward manner: body back, head up, eyes behind the screen. If anyone has any advice about this, I’d be pretty glad to hear it, because the prongs of my adapter have started to melt...

2- I already touched on this, but bus rides are damn frightening. About three weeks ago, Rachel Brainerd and I were involved in a hit-n-run bus accident on the way to school; needless to say we were shaken up. On the way home from Mindo last weekend, I saw a bus that had its entire face smashed in, apparently from a run-in with a tenacious guard rail. And I don’t even want to go into the numerous disastrous tales I’ve heard about buses. But buses are a necessity of life in Ecuador; a necessary risk.

3- Being a pedestrian in Quito. Probably tops on the scale of seriously risky things to do while you’re here. Unfortunately, also a necessity, since my hermit days are over. The driving in this country is Xtreme. Rules, well, they don’t seem to exist. Pedestrians jet into the middle of chaotic intersections, while taxis navigate fleeting gaps in traffic. The speed limit is “as fast as you can go in a shitty five speed.” Drivers are merciless; there is absolutely no concept of right-of-way that we can find in even the most uncivilized of the States. Look, look again, make sure your shoes are tied, look just one more time, RUN.

4- Walking in general, even when you’re not crossing streets. Circumnavigating potholes, pointy things that stick out of sidewalks, random steps, ramps, and elevation shifts, dog crap, slugs, and other various detritus if you’re in the city. Avoiding Mud with a capital M, cliff edges that threaten to initiate a plummet, sneaky monkeys, fish that hide out in quick sand and have a unicorn horn that they dig into unsuspecting feet, dog crap, and slow hikers if you’re in the mountains. Mom, if you’re reading this, take it as a memo to bring your ankle brace. “Just in case.”

5- Yummy food. Yummy food’s night job is intestine emptying.

6- Tap water. An evil conspirator with Yummy Food.

7- Being in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. I’ve heard exciting and chilling accounts of being robbed at gun point, having bags slashed open and emptied, wallets being lifted, jungle pirates (no joke), money pilfering, the brandishing of needles filled with threatening mysterious liquids, old smelly men sticking things down their pants, and hot pursuits after sluggish pickpockets. Chances of these occurrences are amplified by looking touristy, white, or rich. These things obviously aren’t meant to be taken lightly, and it is worth the trouble to be over-cautious. I feel safe in my immediate neighborhood.

8- Flying into/out of Quito. It is the second most dangerous airport to take off or land from in the world, thanks to a fun combination of buildings/city set in a valley (the airport is IN the city, so the planes fly unnervingly close), thin atmosphere at almost 10,000 feet (nothing for the wings to sink their teeth into), and a fairly reliable accumulation of clouds. Luckily for us, that means that only the most skilled pilots are allowed to fly in or out; in fact, many of the best pilots in the world are Ecuadorians.

9- Lack of safety enforcement, standardized regulations, or disclaimers. The U.S. goes totally overboard with this kind of stuff, and it’s pretty sick how often idiots sue businesses in there. But Ecuador could maybe stand to have a few more metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical safety nets in place. I guess it fits in with the laid-back, fatalistic attitude of the culture to not have the standardization, and has made for some seriously stimulating situations. It just means that you should investigate what you’re doing before you do it a bit, instead of being initially or naively trusting.

10- Street dogs. I’ve personally never had any trouble with ‘em, but my buddy Marlene was bitten and had to get some nasty rabies shots. The runners of the group have had to adapt their running style so as not to perturb the more territorial mongrels. I try to avoid them and not emit anxious hormones.

10.5- A combination of 2 daily hazards--- a dead street dog on my path to school, which remained there for 3 days. I was pretty sure (even by day 3) that it was gonna get up an attack me.

OK, now that I’ve scared the pants off half of ya’ll out there, I want to let you know that I didn’t write this just to be a jerk or make you worry unnecessarily. I think it’s an important part of the “study abroad experience” that things here are topsy-turvy. These are some of the day-to-day realities that a large percentage of the world’s population face. We are VERY sheltered in the United States. And being here with the unpredictabilities and perils has loosened me up a bit, especially because no one in the group indulges the hyperbolic accounts of my health situation. But I’m still no risk taker, and some of the circumstances have pushed me way past that friendly li’l thang I like to call my comfort zone. (For the lovely LandSea-ers out there, I’m finding my edges) But I’ve managed three months so far and can’t really turn back now, so I’ll continue to embrace and adore the wild wonderful world of Ek-wah-dorrrr!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Clases y “La U”

Universidad de San Francisco Quito... what a place. If living in a Quiteño host family is a warped view of “normal” Ecuadorian life, than USFQ is like normal Ecuadorian life’s genetically mutated step-cousin. Which is to say, we’re dealing with the crème de la crème of society; the student body, in fact, is reminiscent in ways of dear old Duke, but instead of popped collars and boat shoes, we’re talking enormous sunglasses and head-to-toe coordination. I enjoy how Aubrey described it: the entrance to school is like the runway at a fashion show, and you KNOW people are scrutinizing your every stylistic decision; you just can’t tell who, because their sunglasses are so fucking huge. So, needless to say, the dirty sweatshirt and jeans that the typical American student sports to class don’t exactly cut it here. And this is partly cultural; Ecuador is a country that values first impressions strongly, aesthetics are important. But this also has some serious implications, I’ve seen a lot of noses that have recently been “jobbed,” and the vast majority of girls could stand to eat a hamburger or 17.

The University itself has a very different feel from most universities I’ve experienced in the U.S., mostly because it is a commuter school, since Ecuadorians live at home until they are married. The campus is a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y gorgeous, with a fishpond, clock tower, appropriate landscaping, Buddhist temple, colonially inspired architecture, and a VIEW. It’s the only Liberal Arts school in Ecuador, and amongst the only in South America. Students congregate on any available surface, and a lot of times it feels to me more like high school than college: socializing between classes, sharing rides to school, gossip. There is a massive exchange student population, mostly Americans, which is good/bad. Good in terms of the professors and faculty generally being understanding of the “exchange student mentality,” meaning we are cut a break language and culture wise. Bad in terms of “there is a massive exchange student population”, which consequently forms two very comfortable cultural bubbles, each side pretty much sticking to their propia cultura. Unlike at K, where our tiny population of foreigners is a novelty to be revered, at USFQ I think that extranjeros are something of a nuisance. I have a handful of Ecuadorians that I would call acquaintances, but I thus far have been totally unsuccessful in gaining real Ecuadorian friends (I’ve tried! It’s hard!). I try to take up any opportunity that involves hanging out with Ecuadorians, and it has been good for me, because I’ve found I’m less picky about who I hang out with, just because I’m so damn desperate, and some wierd/crazy opportunities have popped up.

Classes... I have FIVE classes and two seminars, not including gym classes. Let’s just say that it’s a bit different from the THREE I’m used to at the Zoo. I have two art classes: ceramics (a totally different approach, I kind of feel like I’m in middle school...but I’m working on shaping it into an independent study) and painting (a good class, the professor is a well known Ecuadorian painter and the class is very open ended; I’m doing paintings of trash I find around Quito). Geology: The only class I have that is entirely Ecuadorian besides me, which is cool, but the class is booooooooring. It is kind of funny though, because I get picked on a lot, I’ve turned into something of a class joke, but in a good way. Andean Anthropology: My least favorite class I’ve ever taken. Ever. End of story. Advanced Conversation Spanish: The perfect mix of vocabulary and discussion for my level of Spanish. No grammar! Hallelujah!! Taught by a funny middle-aged Chilean woman. Seminar on the Galapagos Islands (where we’re going in February!) and our service-learning project seminar (more about that later). Andinismo (Mountain climbing gym class, but I rarely go, unfortunately, too busy!) and Tennis. It’s quite the schedule, Mondays and Fridays are the only day that I’m finished before 5 o’clock, and most mornings start at 8.30 (which is really 7.45 when you factor in the transportation). But luckily I go to bed every night at 11 (because I’m a square), and the scheduling has not been so horrible. Plus, there are tons of long weekends, because Ecuador has a festival for just about everything. All in all, school was a secondary motive to go on study abroad. And, although I’ve appreciated seeing a University-In-Action, I’ve been putting the bare minimum of effort into it (enough to pass, of course), and just absorbing as much culture and adventure as possible!