Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adventures in Ecuador — James Pierson

I went to high school at Vermont Academy, where they ran a study abroad program to Ecuador during the summer. After studying Spanish for seven years (surrounded by people who speak English as their primary language) I decided this trip would be great to help me to really apply what I had learned. After graduating from V. A. in the summer of 2002, I headed out.

We flew into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and spent a day roaming around checking out the city. It’s a fairly modern place that I didn’t find it too interesting. I did have an interesting conversation with two guys, though, and I’m pretty sure one of them made fun of me in Portuguese. The next morning we were off to Cuenca, which would be our home base for the next month.

In Cuenca we all split up to stay with our own host families. When you start living in someone’s house and you can’t really speak their language very well you start learning pretty quickly, though I must say the first week or so was quite confusing. Yes, I said I took seven years of Spanish, but no one said I was very good at conversing! Speaking was not the only way of communicating, though. People were very patient with me and helped me to understand things.

I was amazed at how close the people were in this culture. Every time my host family took me somewhere, even if it was people they just met, there were hugs and kisses galore. Awesome! I couldn’t figure out what happened with our culture. How could these people sit and talk to each other with their faces only inches from each other? If I talked to someone like that in the states, they would think I was coming on to them (or just weird) and probably not want to have anything to do with me. These people really have a strong cultural love for each other.

Other than running around with my host family meeting people, I also went to school to improve my Spanish. Its funny how much more I actually wanted to pay attention now that I realized how much more I had to learn. We also had this awesome pottery teacher who always had some kind of wonderful tea brewing for us in this extravagant glass tea pot. I loved working with her! She was always so fun and laughing about everything.

After the first week in Cuenca we went to Cajas. This huge national park is almost impossible to describe. You are hiking along mountainous terrain, all the while looking down into a huge open landscape. The vegetation was yucca, agave, and similar succulents, one with razor sharp teeth all along the leaves, as well as razor sharp grasses that you had to very carefully part to walk through. We had packhorses and guides taking us through this beautiful place. At about 9,000 – 10,000 feet it was quite a workout. Lots of little steps make it easier though. I tried chewing on coca leaves, which I was told those who did hard labor often chewed to help cure hunger pangs. It was interesting to say the least.

Then we were back to Cuenca for a few days, back in school, and then back out to the Amazon to stay with the Shuar. The Shuar are an amazing tribe in the Amazon. I was constantly planning how I could stay there forever. If I just disappeared with this beautiful girl into the rainforest, what could they do? They would never find me! OK, so obviously I came back—but not before being completely falling in love with the tribe and the rainforest. We visited a family in their home. This is quite an experience.

You enter the rectangular home from the front, and inside sits the host. The man of the house sits on a stool and greets people as they come in. The spot where he sits marks a boundary line through the house. You don’t go past him, period. The woman of the house comes out from behind a wall just a few feet behind the man, carrying a large (and I do mean large) pot of Chicha. What is Chicha you ask? A fine traditional beverage made by the woman of the house. She masticates Yucca, spits it into a container and lets it ferment. It kind of tastes like hard apple cider, with a little… well we’ll just call it added texture. All guests in the home must partake in drinking. And not just a sip, either! The woman walks around offering the bowl, inviting all the sitting guests to enjoy as much as they wish. Then she goes back to the pot, refills the bowl and passes it to the next person until the pot is empty. Or (as in our case) until she goes into the back room and refills the pot two more times. Yum. Did I mention that when you are handed the bowl, if you are a man, you do not make eye contact? Our instructor said, “you can stare at her breasts for all I care—just don’t make eye contact. ” When a man and woman make eye contact, it’s worse than flirting; it’s like asking them to go deep into the rainforest and… well you get the idea. So after lots of drinking, the man pulled out what looked like a two stringed violin and started playing. It was awesome to sit and drink and listen to his music.

Back in Cuenca we decided to have a fine meal of cui—a delicacy to the Ecuadorian people. Cui is roasted guinea pig—a wonderful food if you don’t mind eating what your friend’s daughter might be keeping as a pet! Following that up with a traditional large shot of corn alcohol makes it a little better, but not much.

After spending a little more time at school in Cuenca, we spent four days traveling around the Galapagos Islands. Quite possibly the coolest turtles-lizards-and-birds experience I have had. Walking around on the islands you constantly have to be careful not to trip over boobies—blue-footed boobies, that is. They are amazing birds that fly high above the water and then plunge like high dive artists into the water to get fish. Ironically, it’s this diving that also kills them. Eventually they go blind from hitting the water so hard with their eyes open, and no longer can get food. Frigate birds—with large red neck bladders that they inflate to attract females—were everywhere. Albatross were diving off cliffs to take off and clumsily crashing back to the ground, as their wingspans are so large that they can’t really land gracefully. The Galapagos turtles were so huge that I’m pretty sure that if I curled up into a ball I could fit into their shell. Walking the beach with sea lions was intimidating and awesome at the same time. None of the animals on the islands care at all that there is a human presence, as they have been protected for so long that they have no reason to fear. You can walk right up to a sea lion and talk to it, though I wouldn’t recommend doing that to a large male; one briefly charged me, but apparently decided I wasn’t worth his while as he quickly stopped. Guess I just got a little to close.

That trip changed my view of the world and life itself. I realized a love that can exist between people as a whole, and how truly amazing our earth is. It was then that I realized how important it was to maintain healthy relationships with people and with our earth.

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