So due to the long break between my last two entries, I have another quite substatial one before i venture away for the weekend.
After over a week of living the lifestyle of Ecuadorians, instead of being sheltered in a comfortable little Hosteria in a small town, I've started to learn a lot more about the Ecuadorian way of life, and how the culture works here. When you walk around the streets of Los Chillos, a suburb of Quito, there is a fascinating juxtaposition of small family owned stores such as heladerias (ice cream), panerias (bread), and other tiny restaurants, next to the new and, for everybody here, exciting mall that was just built a few years ago. The mall is filled with high end clothing stores, and many people will get dressed up in their nicest clothing only to walk around, even if they can't buy anything.
This leads nicely into a discussion of the social pressures here, which are based heavily upon class. Many of the students in my group are living with families that are very well off, belong to country clubs, go shopping at the mall for brand name clothing, and live a very modern lifestyle. These students tend to feel a lot more pressure to be presentable and culturally acceptable since their families place a lot of importance on appearances. I managed to have a family that is very laid back and although they are comfortable, do not live an extravagant lifestyle. Since they have a 1 year old, they very much enjoy just hanging out as a family, watching movies, while Juan Diego plays and runs around. This provides me with the opportunity to spend time reading and doing work in my room, but also to watch all sorts of TV in Spanish and occasionally in English (although with Spanish subtitles).
I have also become close with my host sister, Andrea, who is a lot of fun and always invites me to go out with her friends. This has been a great way to experience the youth culture of Ecuador and a good way to have some friends outside our immediate group of 15. I find that I can communicate pretty well with my home stay family at this point, and definitely better than with other people because we've gotten used to each other. This makes for a much more enjoyable time in the house and I really get a long with my host parents as well. Soon my host mom and I are going to make soft pretzels. She is actually a citizen of the U.S. as she was born in LA, however she has spent the majority of her life here in Ecuador, and her parents are Ecuadorian as well. Therefore she knows and adores pretzels, but you can't get them here so when I suggested we make them, she was very excited (as was I)
Everyday I have class at 8, so I'm up before 7 and can hop a bus for 5 minutes and then have a pleasant 10 minute walk from there. I enjoy the mornings because I love being able to have a refreshing walk with a gorgeous view, and because I don't get to do much walking when at home in Guilford. For the past few weeks, we have all had to be extra careful while walking the streets of Los Chillos, but I assure you we aren't looking out for thieves. Instead it is the children of Ecuador that we fear, since this weekend is the celebration of Carnival! Basically it can be described as a Gringo's worst nightmare, because the whole concept is that they celebrate with waterballoons, water guns, and spray foam. Passers by of all ages have to be on the lookout for flying waterballoons or grinning kids with spray cans. it has definitely kept us on our toes!
The safer way to walk to and from my house without getting soaked is on the bus. The buses here are the best place for people watching. My family doesn't own a car so whenever we go places it's either on foot or by bus. Also, since it costs .25 to get anywhere around Los Chillos, and only .40 to get from here to Quito, buses are practical and simple. I also find that the bus is a fascinating place to learn about the culture. Buses are more or less universal, it's not only the lower class or people without cars who ride them. In the front of the bus you will often find children sitting by their mom's or on the floor, often eating ice cream or some other treat that vendors sell on the buses. Often there are elderly women sleeping as the bus stops and starts in a way that can make anybody's head spin. The rest of the bus is filled with school age kids on their way to or from colegio, women on their way to or from the store, and anybody from old men, to teenage boys on their way to futbol practice. The other entertaining part of the buses is that they stop only long enough for you to grab a hold of something, and then immediately start moving again when you've got at least half of your body through the door. You have to learn how to run, hold on tight, and hustle up the stairs to either get a seat or a firm hold on the handle bars. It's quite the accomplishment the first time you do it without slipping and sliding down the aisle.
I've also found it interesting what parts of the Spanish language that tend to be hardest to work out. The part that I get the most nervous about is differentiating between the Tú form (which is familiar and casual) and the Usted form, which is more formal and respectful. Generally you address anybody older than you as Usted and anybody your age or younger as tú, but it gets very tricky with people of different classes, jobs, and titles. It's far too easy to offend somebody by using the familiar when they feel they deserve the formal, or to make somebody uncomfortable (such as maids or gardeners) by treating them with respect that they are not used to. However in general I can report that 5 hours of Spanish class a day combined with constant speaking to family members has already improved my language a lot. Although everyday is different, and you can wake up one morning having totally forgotten one of the easiest tenses that you had down pat the day before, progress is certainly being made!
And finally, my not so exciting but necessary addition to the blog is the recent dissapearance of my camera. I was at a fiesta at a house and we were taking pictures with my camera and dancing and it slowly made its way to a few different hands and then I guess right out the door. The most frustrating part was that I have been very careful with my camera whenever I'm out in public and have kept it close to me at all times, but at this small gathering at a friend's house I let my guard down and had to pay the price. In the same go, my friend Margaret had her cellphone, camera, and money stolen, so I guess I have to put things into perspective, be grateful that it was only a material item, that I'm physically ok, and that things could certainly be worse. I also have a nice lesson to hold onto for the rest of my traveling (and non traveling) days. But I bought a few disposables so I won't have to go without any photo documentation for a while.
This weekend we are taking our first excursion. We will be spending 4 days in the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve. Judging by the way our directors described it, I don't think we'll ever want to leave. We have a 6 hour bus ride, a short hike in, and then 4 days to enjoy 2 waterfalls, amazing local and vegetarian food, nature hikes, history lectures, and visits from local grassroots organizations. Many more details to come when I return!
Besitos to everybody, and I hope you're all healthy and happy.