This is the running narrative from my summer in South America.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Plans rearranged… (this is around day 32 I think...)
I am back in Quito 2 days earlier than I expected. Colleen (my roomate from the program) had to fly back to the states tonight because her mom is having surgery on her neck. So…Jeff and I cancelled plans to take a bus to Cuenca because that had been much more of a priority for Colleen than either of us. That way we only had a 4-hour bus ride and not the scheduled 8 hours and a 45-minute flight back to Quito. But enough with the boring stuff.
I think I have founf my favorite part of Ecuador…the southern coast. Except that the mosquitos on the coast were worse than any in the rainfoest…they waged war on my poor feet…I lost!
Sunday night Jeff, Colleen and I flew from Quito to Manta with the intent to catch a bus from Manta to Puerto Lopez, where we had reservations at a hostel. Once we reached Manta, we realized the travel agent had been incorrect when she assured us a bus would run at 8 pm, the last bus to Puerto Lopez left at 6 pm and our flight did not even leave Quito until 7:15 pm. So…we took a taxi to the closest decent hostel to the bus station and spent a night in Manta, a very sketchy city. We did not even feel comfortable walking a block up the street to a market, so we ate ritz crackers and peanutbutter for dinner in our room. Our room costs us $7 each and did not have air conditioner or hot water.
We left the next morning to get the 6 am bus to Puerto Lopez, actually Puerto Rico about 20 minutes past Puerto Lopez. I have to mention here that busses in South America are like nothing I have ever experienced. They stop and start at random without a definate schedule. Drivers switch shifts in the middle of routes and the bus does not come to a complete stop for people to exit or enter. You just jump, hold on and hope for the best. They also fly around tight curvy mountain roads and pass other busses without notice. I have learned to not get scared and simpy relax and know that I will eventually get to my destination and try not to get motion sick.
We spent 4 nights at Alandaluz, an amazing econolodge on the beach. We had a private bamboo cabin with a room for Jeff and Colleen and me sharing a room that had its own fireplace with a bathroom between the two. We ate the most amazing seafood everynight at the restaurant. I had shrimp, calamari, and fish baked in a coconut with a sauce for one dinner. We had pina coladas and deserts everyday and breakfast every morning at the resort. One evening we had to wait for donkeys to cross the road before we could walk back to our cabin. The beaches are gorgeous and covered with rocks the color of jade. The resort helps guest set up tours in the nearby beach villages. One day we took a boat to Isla de la Plata (poor man´s galapagos) and hiked for 3 hours looking at exotic tropical birds and sea turtles and tropical fish. Some people snorkeled, but it was too cold for me in the water. We took a boat to the island and I nearly got sick on the way there and back. The boat was flying and the water was rough so we were knocked around a lot. During this season humpback whales are migrating in the Pacific Ocean, so we watched whales swim and jump for a while on the ride back from the island. I was one of four people allow to sit on the top of the boat with an amazing view of whales less than 30 feet from me. It was beautiful despite the boat rocking a lot in the waves and the cool wind.
On Thursday we took a bus about an hour from the resort to a surfing village called Montañita and I fell in love with the place and made us go back the next day to spend the night there. It is a town of about 6 streets with bamboo huts and thatched roofs. Surfers and backpackers fill the hostels and cafes that line the beach road and hippies sell bracelets and incense on the sidewalks. Music is playing all the time, and people salsa dance with bare feet in the road. It is the most laidback fun place I have yet to visit. It is like David´s Gallery in Gulf Shores…if it was its own town! Just like all over Ecuador, there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. It would be fun to pet them, but they are mangy and dirty, and often skinny and hungry. When you are eating at a restaurant you just try to ignore the shaggy dog that walks freely into the kitchen and no one seems to mind. When in Ecuador…(I know my mom is cringing to read this)
Thursday was the first warm sunny day that we had on the coast, so we spent the day on the beach getting a tan with the intent to surf the following day. Unfortunately, the coast is sunny and hot from December to May and cloudy and cool the rest of the year, and our warm spell did not last. So the next day I ordered cocktails and sat on the beach people watching and reading. It was perfect.
Then that night several students from my class at UAB (including Chris…who I was supposed to travel with initially) met us in Montañita. So we had dinner and went out to taste the nightlife of the coast. One bar had a guy twirling fire. Jeff, Colleen and I planned to travel 8 hours on bus today to reach Cuenca and the only morning bus left at 5 am. So I knew I had to get up early and planned to be back at the hotel at midnight. Instead, I came in at 4, leaving time to shower and change clothes before catching the bus to Guayaquil, where we decided to fly to Quito due to the afore mentioned change in plans. So, as I write this…I have had 3 hours of sleep (on the bus) in the past 24 hours. But…I had a wonderful night and would love to go back to Montañita during their summer months and learn to surf. It was the way I have always pictured South America.
By the way, no one here waits in line. People just cluster around counters to order food or get tickets. Locals walk in front of you and do not think twice about it. If one family member is waiting in a line and reaches the front, you can guarentee at least 5 more people will appear beside him and in front of you. Yet, it is not inconsiderate here.
Now, I am in Quito for a few more days hoping to catch a standby flight soon. Jeff and I are planning to visit the historic old town, the middle of the world museum and some zoo place listed in the guidebook with snakes and lizzards. I want to see more of Quito before I leave, so I was happy to be back here. I have now seen the major city, the mountains, rainforest and the coast…so I feel that I have been able to really experience the country during the time I have been here. I still want to come back and visit the Galapagos Islands, but it is simply not a trip I can afford on a student loan budget. The other region of the country that I wanted (and planned) to travel is Baños…but it is not recommended right now due to a volcano that is about to erupt. The town was evacuated a couple of weeks ago and the US embassy is not recommending travel.
Colleen left tonight and I am quite sad to see her go. She has been with me since the beginning and I do not know Ecuador without her. It is amazing how well you can get to know someone living with them all the time in a foreign place for 5 weeks. I actually already miss the rest of the Interhealth group and they have only been gone for a week. I know as happy as I will be to get home, I will miss Ecuador. There is something very free about waking up and not knowing where you will end up at the end of the day. Carrying eveything I need in a backpack and not dealing with any of the usual stress and worries of real life has been amazing. I don’t know what I am going to do with myself when I get back home.
Update: Charlie is officially lost and I have little hope that he will make it home with me. I have retraced steps and infuriated the owner of the last hostel in which I stayed in Quito because I keep asking about him. It makes me very sad, I only hope he is with a little child who will love and snuggle him.
Okay, I need to get some sleep. Hope everything is well at home.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Survived the rainforest…
So I know it has been a while since I updated here and so much has happened that I may just make stories really brief and add more later. I also intend to edit this blog once I am home, so I can include the names of villages and communitites that I have visited and also fix the spelling mistakes from using a Spanish keyboard.
We arrived at the Yachana Lodge in the middle of the Amazonian jungle last Sunday after about 10 hours of travel. There were no long breaks, but multiple bathroom breaks to gas stations where we purchased snack food and drinks. Some of the bathroom breaks were actually just a chance to pop a squat on the side of the road…girls went to one side and boys to the other. At one point a car drove by and honked at the girls during a stop where there were no trees or trails to hide behind, so we just squatted by the road! Our bus got stuck in the muddy ditch on the side of one of the many gravel dirt roads on which we traveled. The entire group had to get off the bus and help push. Eventually another tour bus drove by and was able to pull the bus onto the road using ropes. We have photos! Then we reached a large motorized canoe with our tour guide and wrode up the Napa River for about 20 minutes to the lodge. The lodge was amazing. It is an ecolodge that supports a non-profit organization that provides medical clinics and high school education and vocational training for nearby villages. It uses solar power during the day, relying on generators from 6 to 10 pm to allow time to charge batteries and such. Then at 10 pm the power is cut off, and the guests usually go to bed. They met us with hot towels to wash hands and fresh juice and snacks. We found out we were supposed to have been given bag lunches for the bus ride, but our director (Wedemeyer) messed that up.
We actually stayed in cabins and not dorms. Colleen and I had a private cabin with 3 beds and out own bathroom. Each room had a balcony with a hammock. The first night there I went on a night walk through the jungle to see spiders and snakes. I felt it was something I needed to do to help get over my fear of these things. We did not see any snakes but multiple huge spiders. I cant say that I was brave the whole time…but I am still glad that I went. The next day we hiked through the jungle for 4 hours and saw poison dart frogs, birds, snakes, monkeys, medicinal plants and bats. We had an amazing guide named Juan who has been educated all over the world, but came originally from a jungle village where they fought with spears and made shrinking heads! He knew everything there was to know about a jungle.
That same afternoon we visited a local medicine man who gave each of us a spiritual cleansing ritual. Then we learned to shoot a blowgun and throw spears at a target. In the contest of guys vs. girls in blowgun practice…the girls won!
For the second full rain forest day, we set up a clinic for about 25 families from a community in the jungle. In order to reach to pavilion where we worked…we hiked for 2 and a half hours (about 4 miles we were told) with backpacks filled with water, lunch and medical supplies. We walked through knee-deep mud that was so think it pulled my books nearly off of my feet. We crossed rivers walking on sticks that you could not see in the swampy water. The people in our group held hands and walked sideways to keep balanced; otherwise we would have fallen into the water that was deeper than our knee-high rubber boots. It was about 90 degrees outside and more humid than the summers at home. By the time we reached the clinic, all of us were soaking wet and dehydrated. We saw patients for about 3 hours and gave out medications and treated skin infections. There was not a doctor accompanying the medical students, so a nurse and a dentist were the professionals overseeing the clinic. Without Dr. Wedemeyer there to complicate things…we actually had a very smooth clinic day. Then we ate lunch from the lodge and shared with the people from the village. To end the day before the 2 hour hike back, the villagers killed the med students in a couple of games of soccer!
Needless to say, we were all exhausted once we got back to the lodge for the evening.
The last full day in the jungle was supposed to involve visits to two different village clinics, but it was cancelled due to politics. The ministry of health (for some unknown reason) only allows the foreign doctors that visit the rainforest to work in villages every 6 months. Unfortuately, there had not been enough of a time lapse when we arrived to get permission to treat at the clinics. I don’t know all of the details of the situation, but we did not get another day of work. So, instead we visited the high school supported by the foundation that runs the lodge. The students at the school learn Spanish, English and other basic studies, but more importantly learn ways to grow crops and self-sustaining crops without destroying their land. They also learn about sustainable tourism and the politics necessary to avoid losing their lifestyle to the government that owns rights to some of the most valuable minerals from the area. We talked to the guide, Juan, a lot about the pros and cons of missionary involvement in local tribes. They bring many opportunites that the people would have never otherwise known, but the people also lose aspects of their culture that have been passed down generations. More about this later…
So on Thursday, we left the lodge and rode in the rain in the canoe for over an hour because the river had changed due to the rain and our bus could not meet us where we were dropped off. The visibility from the bus was limited around winding mountain roads, so the ride home lasted about 10 hours! I was so excited to be back to Quito that evening.
Once we were back in contact with Internet and phones, it came to my attention that some of the plans for people I intended to travel with have changed and thus my plans would have to change as well. So, I am going to try to catch an earlier flight home (August 2) standby. I have to get to the airport at 4am and home that one person misses their 6:30 flight to the states. Then, I will get to go home!
Friday night was the big goodbye night for the Interhealth group. We had dinner at a traditional Ecuadorian restaurant. (This, I have quickly learned, means soup, rice, backed chicken, potatoes and beets. I don’t intend to eat any of those foods for a while.) Then at 4am we closed down the bar that we have become regulars at during our time in Quito. The bartenders were giving out free drinks and shots to celebrate, and we danced all night long. One of the big things I have noticed about the nightlife in South America is that everyone dances all the time. There are not bars where you stand around and chat…you salsa! One of the guys in my group from Miami is dating a Latin American woman in Miami who taught him to dance and he decided it was his responsibility to teach me that night! I had so much fun. After the bar we went to a 24-hour café, where one of the Americans got mad that she could not order French toast at the Ecuadorian restaurant.
So Saturday, all suffering from hangovers and no sleep…most of the students left for home. A handfull of us remained in Quito last night and got dinner at an Indian restaurant then fell asleep watching a movie at the hostel.
Now, I am waiting to get on a plane tonight headed for the coast. We are headed to Manta tonight then taking a 2-hour bus to Puerto Lopez where we can go on whale watching tours and visit the poor man’s galapagos. I think we will meet up with another classmate once we have been there for a few days. From Puerto Lopez, we will head to the surfing village of Montanita and take surfing lessons. Then we bus to Cuenca to see Incan ruins and fly back to Quito next Monday. I am excited about seeing the last major region of the country that I havent been able to visit yet.
I am also getting homesick as well. I miss the people and comforts of home. I have learned so much from this experience and I feel like I am becoming a better person through it all. I am capable of more than I would have given credit a few weeks ago. I hope to make little changes in my regular life once I go home. I want to take more risks and do more adventurous activities. I want to learn to rock climb and go rapelling. I want to take road trips, hike mountians and camp in the woods. I know now that I can get over the fears I have always known and experience life in a whole different way. I know that I want to travel internationally again, and often. I want to see the world and fill up my passport along the way. I want to make global healthcare a priority in my practice. For all the frustrations I experienced in the clinics here, I think once I have more medical knowledge…I can actually make a difference in the lives of the people most in need.
As for Spanish, it has been my greatest disappointment. I think I set my hopes too high for having never studied the language. I have picked things up along the way, but I have no basis in the grammer of the language to start. So, I want to take more classes at home to learn some basics and travel in South America again. One good thing about my standby flight, if I am unable to get on the plane, I am scheduled to take 4 hours a day of one-on-one Spanish instruction for the next 3 days I would be in Quito. As much as I want to go home, I feel like that would be the last and best opportuinity to learn the language while I am here.
So that’s the latest. I don’t think I will have the chance to add anything until after next week when I am back in Quito again. As a sad note, Charlie (the little bear Jorden gave me to travel with in Ecuador) has been lost in the transfer from one hostel to another in Quito. I have gone back to the hostel 3 times to see if he has been located, but to no avail. I think he is probably lost in the sheets from my bed and maybe in a laundry room somewhere. It breaks my heart to leave without him, but I may not have a choice. I can only hope that he will turn up while I am at the coast and I can bring him back to the States with me.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Back in Quito…
So I am done with my 2 weeks in Otavalo and I have moved out of the home of the host family that does not like me. I just relocated to a great little hostel in the area of the city known as “Gringo Land” for the next two nights. There were 3 singles rooms, so I am alone for a little while, which I think will be good before leaving Sunday morning at 7 am for the rainforest. The hotel where we will be spending the week has been highly rated in many guidebooks as the best resort in the Ecuadorian rain forest. We are not staying in the resort area, but rather the student dorm area…I think this means a room of summer camp style bunk beds! I am still worried about the time in the rain forest, especially now that I know the director of this program will not be accompanying the group to there. We will be taking a bus for 8 hours and meeting a group of medical professionals who will be in charge of the group for the next four days or so.
I am going to take the time now to rant about the director of the Interhealth program, Don Wedemeyer. Overall, this has been a very good experience for me, and yet I haven´t decided if I would recommend it to future UAB students because of the director alone. Don Wedemeyer is the single most rigid inflexible human being I have ever worked with. He actually left a student because he went to the bathroom before getting in the taxi to go to a clinic and it was not a scheduled break. The group bus has almost left multiple students because they were less than 5 minutes late for the meeting times due to confusion in a foreign country where we do not speak the language. On the other hand, we usually wait 30 minutes to an hour for Don who never makes it to meeting places at the assigned time. His explanation for this is that he is working with multiple factors that influence his time. In addition, he speaks perfect Spanish and refuses to ever translate for the group, making one of the more advanced students do it instead. These things would be forgivible if not for his behavior at the health brigades. The man is a licensed physician and never does anything medical. I often get frustrated at the lack of skills I need to truly help the patients in the clinics. I cannot imagine knowing how to provide the desparately wanted care…and simply refuse. He claims that he cannot sign off on charts of see patients because he is in charge of the pharmacy…a duffle bag of meds that we donated and could be passed out by a nurse from the community we are visiting. When we work health brigades, we have between 20-30 medical students and only 2 doctors available to review each patient seen by a student and recommend a medication. His help would benefit these patients so much more than him standing in the corner observing. His wife, an MD from Columbia named Marta, is an amazing physician. During health brigades she is stretched to the max trying to see over 30 patients in 2 hours, but treats each one as if he or she were the only patient to be seen. She explains medicial and basic health advice to the rural people in a way that is informative but not patronizing or disrespectful to their culture. She also teaches the students about illnesses common to the region and what local remedies are ofen used.
In truth, Don and Marta´s 3-year-old son runs the show. His name is Eddie…and it quite a cute child, but his parents have no control over his behavior. One example, the entire bus of 38 people were seated and ready to leave a heath visit to get lunch before class and the whole group waited 10 minutes because Eddie wouldn´t walk down the stairs, and instead wanted to slide on the railing. Don stood patiently while Eddie played and the busload of adults missed our break time. He also makes long rambling announcements about nothing in a voice barely above a whisper to a large group of people. Whenever a student misses an activity due to illness, he asks or announces to the group what symptoms the person may have…such as “so and so is missing today due to digestive problems common to travelors…”
Okay, that is enough about Don. I have avoided mentioning him before now, with the hope that I had not given him the benefit of the doubt and he would be less heinous that I originally thought. This was not true.
But in general, things are still going well and I have hit the halfway point of my time in South America. I have spent more time in a bus than the rest of my life combined and that is before the long travel days to the rain forest. I don’t think I will be able to update this or check email until I get back to Quito next Thursday or Friday. So, my love to you all and keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Today is day 18 for me out of the country. And I still have not had a mental breakdown or cried to go home. Things are going well…
Okay…so I was very overly optimistic about the new family…they are kind of awful! To begin, they usually ignore me during meals and talk to Colleen. The Padre of the house is a college professor and only willing to discuss political or social issues…of which I have not learned the Spanish vocabulary in the 3 weeks of study to begin to contribute. Colleen speaks much more Spanish than me and still has to look up many words in her dictionary during meals. It really does not matter, because he is much more interested in telling us his thoughts rather than engaging in conversation. As an aside, he has rather racist ¨final solution¨ type ideas for dealing with poor local populations in Ecuador. So I sit silently and do my best to follow what is being discussed.
The Madre is not very bright at best and not a nice person at worst. She can´t keep up with her husband´s conversation, and often only speaks up to insult Colleen or me. The first day she asked if we worried about gaining weight by the way we ate. She looked at photos and told Colleen that she used to be thinner. Most recently this morning at breakfast, whenever I said anything…she said to Colleen…¨Melissa says…¨to ask if what I said was true. ¨She does not understand as much Spanish as you do, does she?¨ Granted, I cannot speak as well as people who have studied the language for much longer, but I understand more than I can speak…and I know when I am being talked about.
So…I avoid the home as much as I can for the week. The host families are supposed to do our laundry and feed us three meals a day. It was a struggle to get her to do laundry, and several of the meals so far have been bread, cheese and water. Last night, she did not even offer me anything to drink. I had to go to the kitchen and fix my own water. I lucked out with the room choice though…because I have a nice soft bed and Colleen is sleeping on a rock. We decided that evens out the not talking thing. The families are being paid $20 a day per student. Other students are staying in homes where they have English HBO…and claim the best way to learn medical Spanish is to watch ER with Spanish subtitles. Yesterday on the way home…(we walk along an old set of railroad tracks that are no longer in use)…we had to re-route due to a herd of cows blocking the way. I also passed a sheppard leading sheep along the neighbourhood streets on my way to the bus this morning. Once I was on the bus, Colleen and I were the only women not dressed in traditional long navy skirts with floral blouses and wrapped belts. The local women and girls dress this way every day. Even baby girls as young as a year old wear the traditional layers of clothing. Women and girls also carry babies and young toddlers on their backs swaddled in fabric. That way the baby is snuggled and safe and the women and girls can continue working and carrying loads. You will often see teenage girls in traditional clothes walking around with teenage boys in jeans and American sweatshirts!
Another thing I think I forgot to talk about way laundry. The richer people in the cities have washing machines, but no one has dryers. So in Quito our laundry was washed and hung to dry. Here in Otavalo, it is scrubbed in a washing pan and hung on the line. So, yesterday morning…I gathered my panties, socks and such from the line to take to my room.
In other news, today we did another health brigade in a mountain community. I saw four patients…one was a 2 month of baby boy that I got to snuggle and examine. He had a respiratory infection…but nothing else was wrong. I don’t know if I mentioned this in previous posts…but the mothers here breast feed openly in public. They can be in conversation with a doctor or selling goods in the market, and if the baby gets fussy…they pull out a breast and feed. The medical community recommends breastfeeding babies in poor areas for as long as possible…up to 2 or 3 years because it provides consistent good nutrition and protection from illness in regions where food and water supplies are dirty and unreliable. Most mothers have another baby before 3 years have passed. Many of the indigenous people have up to 6 or 7 children despite living in one room shacks with multiple families and without running water. Birth control is not widely available and information about such matters is limited. A survey reported that indigenous women want greater family planning, even more than the ¨richer¨ non indigenous women. Abortions are illegal in Ecuador, but I have been told that many occur undocumented and under the table. I can only imagine the danger to women’s health that occurs in these situations. Nutrition and dental care have also been a major issues in the regions in which I have been working. Young children have mouths full of cavities and most only brush teeth at school…not home. One 10 year old that I interview today drank coffee every morning and coke with dinner each night…and reported drinking no milk or juice.
Yesterday I walked to Cascada de Peguche…a waterfall along the low part of the mountains in Otavalo. It was beautiful. The climate has been amazing…I wear pants and long sleeves most days with sandals, but it wasn’t too cool to wade into the water to reach a flat rock below the falls.
Tomorrow we continue the health brigade, this time on the opposite side of the mountain.
Friday I leave to go back to Quito…where I spend the next two days before leaving for the rain forest. We are looking for something fun to do Saturday night such as a soccer game, but do not have plans as of yet. During the day we have errands to run and need to arrange travel plans for the next few weeks. I have heard that to reach the rainforest will involve a 7-8 hour bus ride followed by 2 hours in a canoe…automatic, not manual. I spend 3 full days in the rainforest and another 2 days travelling total. Then we return to Quito for the conclusion of the Interhealth Program and the goodbye party. Then that Saturday will begin my travel to the fun places to see in Ecuador.
We no longer have Spanish classes after tomorrow, because there is too much to do in the rainforest and students in the past have been exhausted by early evening due to the climate and physical exertion required. We will be touring many places that are important in agriculture, manufacturing and environmental ecology along with seeing patients in clinics. We get to visit a chocolate factory….mmmm! So tomorrow is my last class. I am disappointed with myself because I have not learned more than I have during my time here so far. I know in the rainforest, when I am back in a hotel with all Americans…that I will not speak much Spanish except when interacting with patients. I am considering taking additional classes during my remaining time here.
I forgot to mention in previous posts about my bank experience in Quito last Friday…note that it was 30 minutes until the bank closed on the first Friday of the month…and I was with another girl who has also never studied Spanish before this trip! To make reservations at the hotel for the weekend at Papallacta, you cannot simply call or go online with a credit card. You have to call to determine availability and then go to a specific bank and deposit money into a specific account, and then call the hotel back to confirm that the money was paid to then reserve the room. So we got to the bank and waited about half an hour to reach one of the only 2 open windows. We passed the cashier the money and while counting it, one bill tore in half. The cashier starts talking quickly about counterfeit money and asking for the other girl’s passport to fill out some official paperwork. We were both flipping through phrase books and dictionaries to try to understand what she was saying. She handed my friend a blank form and asked for a signature. Now, I do not know all of the laws in Ecuador, but the last thing either of us wanted was to be arrested for fake money in South America, so we refused to sign anything that wasn’t complete. Then a nice guy who spoke English came out of another line to the window to help translate, and it was explained that the form was required by the bank so that they did not have to replace out torn $5. We were not being arrested or in trouble of any sort. This entire process took quite a while though, and the bank line wrapped around the building during the time we were there. The people of Ecuador were NOT happy with us. I will never again get inpatient with the foreigners in the US who take a long time to do something because they don’t understand the language.
Okay, I have been asked by a classmate if my dissertation was complete…so I feel it is time to wrap things up.
I have now heard that Nana and Granddad are getting printed copies of this as well…so I am happy and love you both. I wanted to keep in touch, but mail is unreliable and expensive! To anyone else reading…drop me an email or join the blog to leave messages. I love hearing from ya´ll and have been surprised by how many people are reading this.
With love from Ecuador!
Mel

Monday, July 10, 2006

This entry will be short...I just have time to check email, but I wanted to add a few things that I left off from yesterday.
I have now tasted baked guinea pig...it taste like gross, fatty, slimy chicken. The waiter brings it to you spread out on a plate with the head still attached and charred brown. But, I got a photo with it, and knew the first question everyone would ask would be if I tried it...so I did.
I also visited a Shaman...like a witch doctor in this area...she "healed" my friend Evan of his lazy spirit. The ritual involved spitting alcohol and juices all over his body and waving a variety of plants and rocks against his skin. The next day he had a red rash all over his body. There was drum music and chanting to complete the picture. She determined he was healed when he danced at the end of the ceremony. It was crazy...I am now feeling much better, and I have arrived safely in Otavalo for the next week.
On the bus ride here last night I felt like an animal at the zoo. A little school-aged girl stared at me the entire trip and kept asking me questions that I could not understand. She could not have been more interested if I had been a space alien on the bus.
I am now living with a new family. They seem nice, despite a strange trend to decorate their home with pink girly dolls and stuffed animals, when the only children in the home are in their 20's. I have my own room and share a bathroom with Colleen again. I missed her this weekend; she did a different weekend trip, so we were happy to be reunited. At the new home, there is a compromise between water pressure and heat...so I took a dripping warm shower. They also have a way of heating shower water that seems to be common in Ecuador, but involves exposed wires and a flip switch in the shower. If you touch the shower head…you get a little shock jolt through your body. I only needed to learn that lesson once! They also speak much faster Spanish, and I get lost in conversation very easily. The food is great...the big meal is lunch involving soup, chicken, rice, veggies, and dessert.
We are about a 30 minute walk to our school in Otavalo and about 15 minutes to the place where we meet to do health brigades. In the mornings we are conducting a survey door to door about the health and sanitation of the people in the villages. The information will eventually reach the ministry of health for Ecuador.
That is all for now. I am on my way to this amazing hole in the wall pie shop named Shanandoa that serves homemade pie and ice cream for $2.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The most amazing 4th of July ever…and the worst bus ride ever!
So, I have pages that I could add from the past few days of my trip.
I will start with the 4th of July…We had the day off from classes, and so I went horseback riding with a group of students from my program. I spent several hours riding horses through the Andes Mountains until we reached a medicinal sulfur spring high in the mountains. I was expecting “beginning riding” that would have occurred in the US...old horses walking through a well-beaten path. We had 16 students, most of whom had little to no experience and 3 guides who did not speak English. Instead, I got a very lively horse galloping down cliffs and across streams. There were times that I rode down hiking rock trails that would have scared me to walk down. It was amazing…but I was so sore and bruised the next day.
Once we reached the spring…I experienced my first of many “cleansings” and splashed around in the pool. It was very cold, orange and tingled my skin a little…but a cut on my hand healed very quickly.
After we returned from the horseback trip, I became one of the first tourists to ever participate in Tamescal, a traditional sweat lodge ritual of the indigenous people. About 30 people in swimsuits crammed in an igloo-like structure and stayed for 3 hours.
The ritual has four stages, each symbolic and more intense than the last. This particular ritual was designed for the souls of healers to make us better at our profession. Before it began, each participant snorted liquid tobacco from a small shell into our nose. It burned and made my entire head tingle. We did it again before the last round began. The first stage represented air, then water, fire and finally earth. A campfire outside the lodge heated huge rocks until the point of burning red, and they were brought into the lodge to provide the steam. 9 new burning rocks were added to the room with each stage to represent the 9 months of gestation and the room symbolized the womb. Except for the burning rocks, the rooms was completely dark and the air so hot that it burned to breath. We had to remove any metal including glasses and rings or they would get hot enough to burn skin. At various points during the ritual, the leader sprinkled water on each of us to cool off, but our skin was so hot that it burned when the water touched. Different herbs and spices were sprinkled on the rocks along with water to make the room fill with hot steam. You are not allowed to leave until the doors are opened between stages or it would disrupt the energy of the ritual. The first stage was cut short because one girl had to leave due to asthma. There were several times during the ritual that I began to hallucinate and had to keep myself from freaking out due to dehydration and difficulty breathing. It is frightening to know that you cannot leave the small room for a set amount of time. I could write an entire entry about just the ritual itself…the music and prayers and beauty in a ceremony designed to reconnect the human spirit to the spirits of the earth and elements. Each round had 3 songs and various chants and words. Several of the advance speakers translated the Spanish for the beginners. The leader allowed students to offer meaningful songs from our own lives in place of the traditional music. One Jewish girl from New York sang a song in Hebrew and another student led Amazing Grace.
Once the ritual was complete, we left the room clockwise around different colored flags and gathered around a campfire where we had dinner outside under the stars. The air was cold during the night and each of us was soaked to the bone from sweat and dried quickly against the fire. The night sky shinned differently that night and rainbows seemed to surround the stars. I felt connected to the people and the earth in a way that I have never known before and probably will never experience again.
To end the night…our group of students set off fireworks around a second campfire where everyone gathered with blankets and drinks.That was my Fourth of July.The following day I toured a Vulture reserve where the endangered birds are cared for and when possible re-released into the wild.
We visited a schoolhouse in a small rural community that serves as a health clinic 3 times a week providing dental, gyn, and pediatric and basic family health care. The people in the community have the choice to purchase insurance for $2 to help cover medical expences they may need. Insured patients can then see a doctor for $1 at the clinic, while non-insured patients must pay $2. If a family or individual is unable to pay, no money is expected from him or her. It is the responsibility of the clinic and the community to determine if the person is truly in need. Thursday was the second of the main health brigades that the medical students participate to actually provide health care to the community. We went to another day-school where mothers again lined the walls with their children to see American doctors. In groups of 2, the students evaluate and examine patients and present to the main physician who recommends medications, etc. While there, I donated a bunch of Spanish books and toys that had been given to me by Jorden´s mom from Alabama Public Television. The teacher was so excited, and I have a photo with him where the children are gathered around reaching for the new toys and books. I was able to give books to children who have never had their own new book.
This weekend, we did not have any scheduled plans within the program…so 12 students planned a weekend trip to the hot springs about 2 hours from Quito in Papallecta. It was amazing…sitting in a hot bath surrounded by the snow-topped mountains. We stayed in a hotel with cabins that sleep 6-7 people each. In the bathroom of the cabin we had a huge pool that was filled with the natural hot water…and served as the place for gathering for the weekend. About a half-mile up the road, we walked to the main resort that boasts 25 natural mineral springs of varying temperatures and several nice restaurants and a spa. Signs in the hotel told what minerals were present in the various spas and what part of the body would benefit from each. We did not visit the spa itself, but at the restaurant I had dinner last night that would have been $30 a plate at home, but here I had dinner and desert for $10.
Now to the worst bus ride…this morning I woke up with the stomach bug that had been passing around the students for the past few days. Everything that was in my body was determined to exit as fast as possible…keep in mind that I am in a co-ed cabin with 5 other people and a single bathroom. I also knew I had to take a 2 and a half hour bus back to Quito, to then take another 2 and a half hour bus ride to Otavalo today. So we walked the half-mile to the bus stop where buses ran every hour. Once the bus arrived, it was full and I had to stand in the aisle for the entire rocky, mountain ride. It was hot and no one opened the windows. I was miserable and doing my best not to be sick. My classmates were wonderfully attentive and concerned. They helped me carry my bags and once a seat opened about 10 minutes from our stop, they made sure I was able to sit. I am now in Quito, and only hoping the bus that I will ride in a few hours will be less crowded.I will meet back at the Aya Huma hotel where I spent last week…to join my new host family where I will live for the next week before going to the rainforest. I will continue Spanish classes this week, along with clinic visits and participation in a public health survey of the people of Otavalo.
So…this is my update. I love you all and miss you much. I have tons more to tell…but can only write so much at a time. I have also been grateful for the support from everyone.

Monday, July 03, 2006

S´mores in the Andes Mountains…I am now in Otvalo, Ecuador at a hotel named Aya Huma. It is a lodge run by a woman named Mickey who works closely with the local people to help provide for their needs. The hotel we are currently staying at is in the middle of the native indigenous culture. After dinner the first night, local musicians and dancers performed for the crowd. The women still wear long skirts with shawls and traditional clothing. It is beautiful. The city is about 2 hours north of Quito between the two mountains Cotachi and Imbabura. The local legend says that the two mountains are in love and when the female mountain Cotachi has snow on her peak…it is her bridal veil she wears for Imbabura. Imbabura also has a heart shape on its side.
It was sad leaving the family in Quito. They were wonderful. The daughters’ relationship with each other and their mother reminds me so much of Alana, mom and me. The laughed and teased each other all the time. The dad of the family was great…he found some way to laugh at me every night, whether it was something I said in “Spanglish” or anything else. When we left every family member gave us email addresses to keep in touch…including a friend of one of the sons who we had only met twice. The night before we left, we drank red wine from Chili and made cheers to the rest of our trip.
I forgot to mention my scariest experience yet in Ecuador that occurred last week in Quito. I was with a group of classmates leaving Papaya Net (the most popular internet café among international students) back to our individual host homes. Colleen was not with us, so I was walking the last part of my walk alone. For most of the walk I was with a girl named Katie and I thought that the turn for my street was one block away from her home. But, somehow I took a wrong turn or was further away that I originally thought. I went down an unfamiliar road and ended up in an area that I had never seen before. It was about 7:30 at night and started getting dark while I was walking. The director of our program had warned us about “fake taxis” that do not have meters and rip off tourist. He told us to never take a taxi alone, so I was scared to try. I stopped at a hotel with a security guard and asked how to get to my street, but he didn’t know or didn’t understand what I was asking. I did not have a cell phone or anyone’s numbers to call and no idea how to get back to my street. I had a map in my backpack but feared drawing more attention to myself by stopping to look at it. So I kept walking hoping to reach an area that I knew. Once I reached a main street, I stopped the first person I saw the looked like they make speak English. She turned out to be an English teacher at the local school and knew the street I was looking for. She called me a taxi and told the driver where I needed to go. I hugged her and was very thankful for her help. Once I was in the cab, we went down several roads that I had never seen and I became scared that the driver was going to take me somewhere and I would never be seen again. I began praying that I could please make it back to my host family and I would be good from now on… I did make it home, and as it turns out I was not very far away from the house after all. But, at the time…it was the most afraid I have ever been.
Back to Otavalo…
Yesterday, we toured an indigenous weaver’s home and bought some sweaters and scarves and such from him and his wife. They are some of the few remaining people who use the traditional methods of weaving. Unfortunately, when they pass away…they will take that tradition with them. The younger people use machines and more modern ways to weave yearn. Saturday we visited the largest market in South America. There were streets full of booths selling everything from ponchos to jewelry to food. I learned to haggle and actually got pretty good at it by the end, despite the minimal Spanish. There were so many booths that it would be impossible to see all of it in one day, and we only went to the handicrafts market…not the live animal or produce markets nearby.We toured the home of a 65 year old man who made mats from reeds for a living. He had a single room home without windows that he shared with chickens and a pig. His bathroom was a toilet without running water outside the home with a curtain over the door. He has a single light bulb in the house and pays $10 a month for the electricity. He begins his day about 3 am and works until dark to make 2 mats a day to sell for $3.00 in the market. It broke my heart to see him bent over for hours making the mats. His hands are knotted and worn from the work and his back is hunched. The donations we gave him that day as thanks for letting us into his home probably amount to more that he makes in the market in a month. I took pictures of him that I want to frame to remember how most of the world lives everyday. He began working at the age of 5 and will continue until he dies. It made me think of my granddad who is around the same age. He is retired and spends his days with friends and family. That is how it should be.
Every night at Aya Huma, our group makes a campfire at an area in the woods in the middle of the Andes Mountains where we are staying. Last night we drank fruity Ecuadorian liquor and Pilsner’s beer and made s´mores. It gets cold at night and we all bundle up in our new scarves and hats and laugh and tell stories. Earlier in the day we visited a crater lake in the middle of the peak of a volcano. It was amazing. The view would take your breath away. It is the greatest feeling to look around in a place that is worlds away from home with people who were strangers a week ago and have become good friends and know how great life can be. I have definitely caught the travel bug…I want to do this for the rest of my life. I want to see the world.Speaking of bugs…I have now experienced my first side effect of international travel…stomach problems. At least I am surrounded by medical students with a ready supply of pepto. Recently, 3 students became really ill and one even left Otavalo for Quito to receive better care. I am not nearly that bad…just an upset stomach and bland food for a few days.
Today we are to tour hospitals and clinics that use traditional and modern medicine together and resuming Spanish classes this afternoon. Tomorrow I may go hiking or horseback riding through the mountains. Then I am going to participate in a native sweat lodge cleansing ritual. Later this week we get to meet traditional healers and someone will be treated from the group using guinea pigs, chanting, urine, herbs and magic.We are trying to work out plans for the last 2 travel weeks here. There are so many cool things to do in Ecuador that it is hard to choose for the time.
More later… I love and miss you all. Thank you for all the emails and messages of support. It is great to know that you are reading this and thinking about me. I can’t wait to share more about Ecuador.