Letters from Ecuador: 9.26.2006

Ten years ago this month, I – freshly graduated from high school – flew to Quito, Ecuador, to teach English at an orphanage. Ok, well, really, I was getting out of my hometown, making my mark, immersing myself in language and culture, learning something new about a corner of the world far, far away from my tiny Eastern Oregonian hometown. Teaching English at an orphanage was just my means to do this.

This year I’ll be looking back: posting emails from a decade ago, and reflecting on my experiences from a much older, wiser perspective (riiight). I made editorial remarks in italics, but otherwise, say hello to 18-year-old me.

September 26, 2006:

Hola amigos and sorry for the wait between updates. First things first– I’ve figured out the shower here! Half in Spanish, half in English. ‘F’ is for frio, and ‘C’ is for cold… so I no longer have to worry about which knob I turn. Same result.

This weekend Jonathan and I took our first trip by ourselves. We went first to Latacunga for the once-a-year “Mama Negra” festival, then to Riobamba to ride the “Devil’s Nose” train. Mariana went with us to the bus terminal, explaining everything we were supposed to do, who to call, which bus NOT to take, and suddenly we were through the gate, on the first bus, and all alone, everything Mariana said forgotten, of course. As for the rest of the trip– I was constantly humming that one String Helix tune, what’s it called? Oh yeah: Dos Gringos.

The Mama Negra festival we went to was pretty “chévere.” It was similar to Otavalo in that there was a huge market there, but this one was so much larger– the food section alone spanned several blocks. It was a sight: rows and rows of white and yellow flours and pastas, interspersed with green lentils and red chilies laid out on gunny sacks for display. There were heaps of oranges (40/ $1), barn loads of green bananas, and my especially favorite part: hogs heads by the dozen. Eurgh!

After a while of searching and asking, we found the parade featuring La Mama Negra (the Black Mum, according to one English-speaking fellow who thought he should explain to the gringos). There were many dancers, all wearing the same style of costume, with capes and hats and masks, and several marching bands, all playing the same song at varying levels of inexpertise. And scattered throughout were these strange contraptions which one of the dancers from each troupe hoisted high. This contraption consisted of a whole pig skin (head and all) stretched across a wooden cross frame, and bedecked with (full) alcohol bottles, which swung every which way as the dancer labored under its weight. And attached to some of the pig skins were Cuy, which are whole roasted Guinea Pigs. Yum yum…

Most of our misadventure was actually finding a bus that went to Riobamba from Latacunga. We asked several different people, and they all told us different (wrong) things. Once in Riobamba, we had to buy tickets for the train, and find a hostel.

Since the train is pretty much the only thing people do in Riobamba, it wasn’t that hard to find. Plus I know what “railroad” is in Spanish, having translated all the “Blue Railroad Train” lyrics into Spanish during one particularly boring Spanish class in high school…We found a hostel that I’m certain was a monastery in its former life. Our room had a very tall double door, the ceiling was twice as high as necessary, and the view from our door looked down from a balcony into the dim marble-floored hall far below. The lights flickered occasionally, giving the impression that the whole place was dimly lit with spluttering torches. Deliciously creepy, and hey, for three bucks a night…

So, the “Nariz del Diablo” train. Kate and Nicola (the Aussies) advised us to get to the train at about half past five or six in the morning so that we could get on the top of the train. This train ride, Mariana told us, would be about six hours long, and we would go (slowly) from Riobamba to Alausi. So, we woke up at half past five and got to the train at about six. Sure enough, people were already there, drinking coffee and preparing to climb to the top of the train.

Now, I don’t see what all the fuss was about, “getting” to the top of the train. There’s nowhere else to “get.” The tour train is composed of empty boxcars, whose tops have been fitted with railings tall enough to lean against while sitting on the roof of the boxcar. Business must be good for all the little old men walking around renting cushions. I strongly recommend one, or even two if you’re up for splurging the two bucks. So we drank our expensively disgusting coffee, climbed to the top of the train, which lurched away at exactly seven o’clock, a rarity in Ecuador, I must say.

I also recommend visiting your local psychic before deciding which day to ride the train. This way you can have a clear, drizzle-free day to sit on top of a train for seven hours. And those of you who don’t live in Eastern Oregon might also appreciate the scenery a little more than I did. There were neat little farms and stone fences and sheep here and there, but most of it was big, dry, brush-strewn hills, much like the drive down the Columbia Gorge from La Grande to Stevenson, only no bluegrass at the end.

Another advantage to being clueless was that Jonathan and I didn’t bring any candy. If you ride the Devil’s Nose train, either don’t bring any, or bring an entire duffel bag full. We passed many villages and farms along the way, and each time, several children would come running out to wave to the train. Or so I thought. After a while I noticed that the kids didn’t wave for very long, and became preoccupied with diving at things that were flying off the train at frequent intervals. Those things were lollies, tootsie rolls, Jolly Ranchers, etc. Smart kids, they already know how to work the system.

After about six hours, the train wasn’t showing any signs of reaching its final destination. We’d stopped a few times for food breaks, etc (in case people were tired of eating candy, which was basically all the vendors had on the train) but didn’t stop for long. It became apparent that we were lost after we went backwards, along another track, backwards again, along the other track again, and then stopped for twenty minutes in the middle of nowhere (no, the other middle of nowhere, not Eastern Oregon).

Finally, they took us back to Alausi (the final destination) which we’d passed an hour and a half before. That’s about seven hours so far. Ready to go home yet? Sucks to be you. You’re still in Alausi. You’ve got to take a two-hour bus ride back to Riobamba, then another two-hour bus ride from Riobamba to Quito. You’ll get there about… eight o’clock, I reckon. Then go to bed, because your weekend’s over and you have school at eight a.m. tomorrow. Do you have your lessons planned?

As for home life, the neighbor’s drummer gets a little better each day, I’m sure when he’s good enough they’ll let him play inside. And I’ve discovered that Mariana has a guitar behind the bar upstairs, so my picking won’t get TOO rusty.

The kids at the orphanage are, against their will, learning English, word by word. The other volunteers at the orphanage have made plans to paint “the patio” (the large open cement part of the playground) sometime this week. That should be fun. Violin lessons have settled down a bit–meaning that there are fewer kids at one time. None of them have really shown an interest in actually learning how to play the instrument yet, except the guy my age, Christian, who comes in for a while in between the odd construction job at REMAR. But it’s ok with me. Those kids have nothing to do after school (from one o’clock until bedtime), so if they want to just screech on the violin, it’s better than beating each other up, which is their favorite alternative…So, ups and downs, I’ve been here three weeks! I’m not ready to go back yet!



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