Archive for October, 2011

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Chelsea: Surviving without internet

October 28, 2011

On Monday, I moved to Latacunga, a smaller city about 2 hours south of Quito. I have been working at an organization called Codesarrollo that works with small communities and cooperatives to offer loans and credit to people in rural areas or community groups. This week I was just observing different people in the office, but I hope to be visiting some communities in the next few weeks!

With this move also came a new host family! I am living with the director of Codesarrollo and her family! She isn’t home much since she has meetings a lot at night, but I’ve spent a lot of time with my host dad this week! He used to be a body guard for a few Ecuadorian presidents and has lots of pictures with famous people, so he’s pretty legit. I have yet to meet my host mom since she spent the week in Quito, but am excited to meet her when I return! My host dad here is a lot of fun – he took me around to try a lot of new foods this week and has enjoyed educating me on the greatness of the Barcelona soccer team here. We also had a random dance night last night in the middle of the living room, so that was a lot of fun! You definitely haven’t lived until you have seen a 70-year old man dance to a reggaton song/imitate young people dancing to pop music – let´s just say he knows how to drop it down low. Hilarious.

Anyway, off to the airport I go! Sorry no photos this week as I don’t have internet at my new house (BOO) and didn’t bring my laptop with me! I surprised my family in Quito this morning and spent the afternoon with them here! SO good to be back ¨home¨ again! Here’s to a great trip in Peru. Off to explore Lima, Nazca, and Cuzco and climb Machu Picchu!!

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Thomas: Spring break in Peru

October 27, 2011

For my week-long Spring break I set out for the indigenous nation of Peru, located in West-Central South America. I knew it would be a long and mostly spontaneous journey, so I chose to make it alone. My main reasons for traveling to Peru: experience one of the more indigenous regions of the planet and of course visit the ancient “lost city” of the masterful Incan Empire, Machu Picchu.

Day 1: I started my long journey by running to catch a bus to the International Airport here in the Buenos Aires Province, which is about a 30 minute drive from the heart of the capital city. After arriving at the Airport outside of the city, I jumped on a plane to Santiago, Chile. There I would experience a 4 hour layover until my next flight to Lima, Peru. I arrived in Lima at about 8:30 PM and my 3rd and final flight to the interior city of Cusco wouldn’t leave until 6:45 AM the following morning. I took a car into the bustling capital city of Lima to only sleep a few hours so I could be at the airport at 4:45 AM. I finally got to sleep in my 4th floor hotel room at around 11:30 PM to thumping music down below, only to wake up about 4 hours later to the exact same thumping. Lima is a very active city, with a thriving nightlife, which explains the loud music.

Day 2: I made it safely to Cusco, Peru in the morning and took a taxi to my hostel, which was located in the center of the city. Cusco is the old Incan Capital city and currently has about 300,000 inhabitants. It’s a beautiful city. My hostel was very nice as well. It had a gigantic courtyard in the center with rooms surrounding it. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and the staff accommodating. My 6 person room only cost $10 per night, which included a small breakfast and 24 hour tea. Upon arriving I took advantage of the complimentary Coca Tea, which helps with the extremely high altitudes of Cusco. Peru has long been a huge producer of the three coca trees used for chocolate, coffee, and coca (which unfortunately has been sometimes processed into cocaine and shipped to North America). For centuries, coca leaves have helped Peruvians with the altitude. Chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea has a similar affect on the body to drinking a cup of coffee.

Already on my first day I was able to meet people from all over the world and quickly become friends.

Day 3: I spent mostly exploring the city of Cusco with my new friends and hiking up a local mountain which offered great views of the city and Incan ruins. I would take the same hike all but 2 days of my time in Cusco. It was great exercise, even if it left you gasping for breath every step due to the thin air.

Day 4: I was asked to explore the countryside and more ancient ruins via horseback. Why not? My horse, Capricorn, was very tame and we were able to get along well.

Day 5: I decided to play futbol (soccer) with some people from the hostel. My team was horrible. Having never played soccer outside of gym class, I didn’t help much. My team consisted of 2 Danish, a German, a couple Peruvians and myself. We lost every game to our opposing teams which were made up of all Peruvian players who were actually quite talented. You could tell they have been playing for some time.

Day 6: Time for Machu Puccu, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. I woke up at 3:30 AM to taxi into a small town outside of Cusco called Poroy. From there I would take a 4 hour train through the mountains and the jungle until the small town of Aguas Calientes at the foothills of the Lost City of Machu Piccu. I finally arrived in Aguas Caliented in the late morning and quickly wandered around until I found the buses that take people up the winding rode to Machu Piccu. If this sounds like a lot of steps, work, and money, you would be right. Machu Piccu is so hidden and deep into the jungle that it’s very difficult to visit and required a lot of work and different forms of transportation. A lot of people choose to hike the Incan Trail which takes 3 or 4 or sometimes 5 days and costs $300-600. Initially I wanted to try to hike up to Machu Piccu for the experience, but after doing some research I quickly decided against it. Also, you much book your trail hike close to 6 months in advance.

When I arrived at the gates of Machu Piccu, alone I had no idea what to do or see. I was alone, it was misting rain and foggy. There were tourists everywhere of course and it just seemed like a cesspool of people wanting your money. There is one restaurant and hotel next to the ruins where one can spend $20 for a burger, which would cost about $2 in Cusco, and $600+ on a hotel room. Seeing those things, the large crowd of tourists, and feeling the light rain at the gates put me in a soggy mood. Immediately, one of the many tour guides approached me for a tour of the ruins. He said I need a guide, because the city behind the gates is huge and complex. I realized then he was probably right, it would be no fun to wander alone with knowing what I was looking at. So I bargained with him on a price and he begrudgingly accepted my offer, even though I was still about to pay 10 times more than what other tourists were paying in their large group tours. Relatively, I paid a lot, but got a personal tour of Machu Piccu. To say the least, it was breathtaking.  The masterful craftsmanship, engineering, and pure genius displayed by the Incas is nothing to sneeze at. They somehow managed to build an extremely high-tech and well managed society on a mountain side, hundreds of miles from other civilizations with handmade tools and no heavy equipment. It was a nearly perfect city and perfect society. Amazing, indeed.

Of course, the Spanish conquest in the mid-16th Century brought an end to the empire and the city was abandoned. It was only re-discovered and publicized in 1911 by an American professor at Yale who was conducting research in Peru. Hiram Bingham was searching for a lost Incan City, needless to say, he found it.

Day 7: My own journey to visit Machu Piccu would come to an end eventually. Three flights back to Buenos Aires and school on Monday!

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Sara: Banos and the move to Otavalo

October 26, 2011

This past weekend I went to Banos! It was so much fun, and everyone has been asking me what we did in Banos… the answer EVERYTHING! We got there on Friday night and ate some great Filet Mignon and then on Saturday we walked around the city, took a tour of the waterfalls in an open-aired party bus then hiked up and down a mountain to see the waterfalls, had a 2 hour massage and facial for only $35!, rented a go-cart, drove that to the hot springs, then had another amazing dinner at this restaurant called “La Casa de la Abuela.” Then on our way back to returning the go-cart we got stuck behind a 15 minute long funeral procession! Then on Sunday we went white water rafting (this is waaay more intense then a little river) with wet suits, life jackets, and helmets. We were in a boat with 3 guys from Poland which was super cool too! Although, the guide pushed me into the river and I had to get rescued by one of the Polish guys. It was fun nonetheless. We then took the bus home after saying goodbye to the awesome old couple that ran the hostel we stayed in and helped us with everything on our journey…we made record time back to Quito (3 hours).

But today I was up early and packed.  I moved to Otavalo (2 hours north of Quito) and am currently living with my new host family.  I have a mom, a dad, a sister who is 12 and a brother who is 9.  I start my first day of my internship in the Hospital tomorrow which I am really excited but a little nervous for!

100_1959 100_2021 IMG_1446 IMG_1466 IMG_1477 

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Alex: Raglan Surfing

October 26, 2011

Two weekends ago now, a group of friends and I stayed and surfed in Raglan. The experience was the type of surreal that I am quickly running out of creative ways to describe.

I came to New Zealand with three things in mind that I needed to do before leaving. The first, my real reason for being here at all is to conduct research. The nature of that research has mutated over time, but I have certainly done quite a bit of that. The second was to get a ta moko. I’ve made an appointment. The third was to go surfing, at least once.

When we (finally) arrived in Raglan, we stayed at this adorable, very hippy, hostel. The rooms were all old converted train cars, and the woman running the desk was this French woman who carried a duckling around most of the time. Like I said: adorable place.

We drove out to a point to see some fantastic views, and split into two groups. My group went down to the beach. I swam in the ocean which was surprisingly warm for mid-spring. I think I can finally say that I have gotten the hang of swimming in an ocean. Keeping mouth closed: check.

That night we went to a bar to watch the Irish get defeated by Wales, and watch Les Bleus beat the English. I was exhausted from swimming and being exposed to sunlight, but we stayed. In between games a few of us wandered around Raglan (not a difficult task, there’s not much to wander). We found a skate park covered in graffiti that made me pine for my skateboard (bad pun, sorry).

The next day the real fun began. We went surfing.

I live, and have always lived, in a place that is thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. One needs to drive for days without sleep to reach salt water from my home. Surfing for me has always had sort of a magical mystique. I suspect this is because it was so foreign, but also owes something to my love of other board-sports.

Surfing always seemed so serene and almost transcendent. Transcendent is not a word I use lightly. In my mind surfing was the perfect way to connect with the world. Floating out in the ocean, there are no distractions. There are no deadlines, no assignments, no worries but the tide and the waves.

Before my trip to New Zealand, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I had seen an ocean, much less been in one. I am always excited to spend time in the ocean. That said, I thought I was going to die there. Within the first ten minutes of surfing, I got in over my head and was swept out past the wave break. I had no idea until I noticed that even the experienced surfers were further in than I was. I spent the next hour frantically paddling my way back in. Moments before I became exhausted and was about to start screaming for help, I caught a lucky group of waves that brought me in.

I could not wait to get back to surfing.

So I did, with limited success. I had made the mistake of choosing a board that was short and therefore difficult to stand up on. I had also wasted a significant portion of high tide out at sea.

I didn’t manage to stand up, but it was still one of the most fun experiences I’ve had. I cannot wait to go again.
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Margaret: 假的 – jiǎ de – fake

October 25, 2011

One of my American friends here grew up on the east coast and is attending a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania studying business.  Some weeks ago a few of us were out for drinks when he asked us what cities he should try beginning his career in after graduation.  Naturally, I suggested Minneapolis – I’ve always seen it as a great place to be a young professional thanks to a good local economy and several Fortune 500 companies.  Beyond that, the city literally sparkles.  There’s a distinct Midwesterness about it.  Lakes and lush green parks nestle into urban areas, cut and crisscrossed by 84 miles of off-street trail, while the old brick buildings of the mill district remind of boom time long ago when the city was the flour milling capital of the world, all thanks to the mighty Mississippi – as if we needed even more beautiful shoreline.  One of my favorite images of the city is the view from Lake Harriet.  Take away the skyscrapers and you’ve got the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  Can’t.  Beat.  That.  My friend, however, was less than interested.  “Uhhh what!?  Why would I EVER go to Minneapolis?  Isn’t it like just a farm?”

When I close my eyes and think about home, I see the St. Paul campus in all its midsummer glory, surrounded by the wheat and the corn and the barley and blue sky and big white clouds.  I see myself in the heat of the greenhouses during a blizzard, working late into the evening.  I see myself waking up before the sun to bundle up and trek through subzero wind chill to the cozy Al’s Breakfast for a short stack drizzled with real maple syrup.  I see myself leaving a lecture, inspired, mind completely blown.  I see myself getting dressed up on a Friday night for a date in Tea Garden with my O-chem book.  Call me a nerd (please!) or nostalgic, but these are the things I miss so much that I haven’t been able to recreate here.  Minnesota is a great place, and I always knew that, but I think it took leaving for it to really sink in.  It’s the human condition, isn’t it?  I’m here missing home, and in a year, I’ll be home missing China.  Shucks…

I’ve sort of been down and out this week, increasingly dissatisfied with my phony Chinese life.  I used to always look down upon all the rich hipster kids from the University of Minnesota who go away on their dream study abroad vacations to Spain or Paris, where they have classes in English with other students from the U.  They take a million pictures of themselves in bikinis on the beach or at clubs until three in the morning and post them in obnoxiously titled album on Facebook to show the rest of us how much better their little fairytale life is than our own in sad Minnesota.  Then when they come back, they banter on and on about how “living” in Valencia have them a wider worldview and increased cultural competency.  I always thought, “I’m going to China.  I’m actually doing something real with my experience.”  And yet here am I, with the stereotypical travel blog, living a life as fake as the fake 100 yuan notes that fake cab driver handed me at four in the morning after a night out a few weeks ago.  I’ve got nothing on those hipster kids after all.

Many people (mom!) have false ideas of what studying abroad is like.  “You’ll get there and you’ll interact with the culture and you’ll make all these great Chinese friends right away and on Spring Festival, one of them will invite you home to their electricity- and modern sanitation-lacking village where their mother will teach you how to make dumplings and their father will teach you how to play erhu and they will invite you to name their newborn nephew.”

Easier.

Said.

Than.

Done.

In reality, my fake Chinese life is mostly devoted to trying to stay sane.  I spend so much energy each and everyday staring blankly up at my professors for six hours, trying not to get killed by a bus on the way to school, and finding a seat in a cafeteria packed three times its capacity that I don’t have anything left to give.  What do I do to try to stay sane?  Eating Skippy peanut butter out of a can with a spoon. Gouging myself on Snickers that taste a little off.  Going to WuDaoKou, the expat student area, to sit in an overpriced coffee shop eating an overpriced pathetic attempt at a panini and drinking overpriced tea bag tea with other lazy expats who, like myself, are too scared of real China to leave the cozy confines of the cafe.  Going through the motions until Thursday when I start my weekend early by dressing up and going out to expat bar areas with my American friends whom I pretend to like more than I do to dance the morning away until I roll out of bed the next afternoon and do it all over again.  Three times.

Fake Life Confessions:

I have no Chinese friends.  My language partner is Korean.  And I quickly discovered that the one Chinese friend I did have (her name was Smile) was using other foreigners and me for our English.  She told us she goes to Beida, but we found out she’s not even in college, and she’d blow up my phone every other day saying, “I’ll be waiting for you (insert place) at (insert time),” without even asking me if I wanted to meet or if I was free.  Most of the time, I feel conversing with a Chinese person, even if they’re conversant in English, takes tons of energy and effort, and I find that if given the choice, I will always choose returning to Zhongguanxinyuan to pass out over “hanging out.”  Do Chinese people hang out?  I don’t even know.

I haven’t relaxed in two months.  The trials of each day leave me absolutely exhausted, and unfortunately I have yet to uncover a method to relieve my daily agitation.  In America if I’m feeling stressed out, I can hop on my bike and be on a trail in ten seconds.  Think there is such a thing as trails in Beijing?  Think again.  If I had a bike, I’d be subjected to crazy driver-laden streets, and my bike would likely be stolen within a few months.  Go for a run, you say?  Have fun getting lung disease.  Beijing doesn’t really do parks either, unless it has an admission fee, a few hundred years of history, and about a thousand daily visitors.  I can’t relax when my roommate is around, which she always is, even on Friday and Saturday nights.  I’ve already read the two English books that I brought here (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a biography of Norman Borlaug of course), so I’ve started watching bootlegged movies on the internet.  I don’t even like film.  Maybe after this year though, I will cease to be made fun of for all the movies I haven’t seen…

I haven’t been anywhere in the city besides the university and three expat hangout areas.  My life is a constant rotation.  Beida, WuDaoKou, Beida, Sanlitun, Beida, Beida, Houhai, Beida, WuDaoKou, Beida.  I really haven’t even done anything else here besides school; shopping for fake goods at fake markets; searching for sad attempts at pizza, burgers, and sandwiches; and going to bars and clubs where white people are the majority.  One of my favorite restaurants, Pyro Pizza, is styled exactly like an American college bar, completely with beer pong tables, banners hanging from the ceiling that read “WuDaoKou Football Champions 1977,” and large glass beer steins filled with fake Budweiser.  I can close my eyes and pretend the gophers just lost and I’ve gone to Campus Pizza with some friends after the game.

I love McDonalds.  My girlfriend asked me the other day what I would eat if I could eat anything in Beijing.  I would eat McDonalds.  Hands down, no competition.  Although last weekend I went to the city’s only Burger King, and I must say, their fries are better.

China’s culture is increasingly more fake.  They’ve become obsessed with the West in every way and want more than anything to become rich like America.  Women will bleach their skin white and undergo blepharoplasty cosmetic surgery to create a double eyelid.  They love Nike, they love The North Face, they love Starbucks.  Buddhism is becoming commercialized.  They built a fake section of the Great Wall to capitalize on tourism.  Enough said.

My fake Chinese life has left me exhausted, and I haven’t left the confines of my cold tiled dorm room this weekend save for a frustrating erhu lesson.  Mom sent me a wonderful box full of twizzlers, peeps, granola bars, smarties, etc. and I’ve made dinner out of it for the past two nights and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt about it.  When I woke up this morning, my skin had broken out entirely, worse than it’s been since my middle school pizza face days.  Oh hey body, looks like you forgot all about high fructose corn syrup.  Ahh fake sugar, how I’ve missed you.

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Emily: Letters from Barcelona—weeks 6 & 7

October 24, 2011

Dear Montserrat: What beautiful hiking trails you have! It was nice to be out of the urban metropolis of Barcelona and in nature. 

Dear Salvador Dali: You were a crazy man, and your artwork is no less crazy; yet at the same time, I really enjoy looking at it. Thank you for introducing me to a new way to think and look at things.

Dear School: You are picking up. I have midterms this week. I was always hoping that studying abroad would be more “living” abroad and not “studying”.

Dear Passeig de Gracia: Every. single. day. I walk down you to get to my classes. I have never been one to feel like I need designer clothes (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Jimmy Choo) but really, making me walk by these stores day after day is driving me crazy!

Dear Holmes Place Gym: Your trainers look at me like I am crazy when doing my workouts. One woman (a Canadian living here) told me she knew I wasn’t Spanish because I was working too hard and sweating too much. I’m taking that as a compliment.

Dear Autumn: You have finally arrived in Barcelona. This means no more back sweat from my backpack, AND I was able to break out my pea coat I got on sale last March. Thank you!

Dear Sister: Yesterday you completed your second full marathon! I am so proud of you! I can’t wait until we can run together (me a half-marathon, you a full!)

Dear Spanish Cooking Class: You are probably one of the most fun and coolest things ever! I am inspired to take a cooking class in each country I travel to! Plus, I am way excited to cook some authentic Spanish cuisine for my friends and family!

Dear Family: 59 days until you are here! I cannot wait to show you España!

Dear Spanish Keyboard: Seven weeks in, I think I have finally figured you out.

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Chelsea: Bye Bye Quito

October 24, 2011

his is the first blog post I write with tear-filled eyes…

Unfortunately, I leave Quito tomorrow morning…and with that I also leave behind many friends and a wonderful family. Although I will be back throughout the next couple weeks, it’s starting to set in how little time I have left here and I can already feel my heart breaking!!

…here’s a recap of the weekend:
On Friday, I finished my last day of class with an essay and presentation! After classes I was able to finalize all of the details for my trip to Peru (which I leave for this Friday, ahh!) and spend time with some friends! That night, I went with two friends to La Ronda, a more historic part of Quito which is beautiful at night! We ordered hot chocolate and huge empanadas (that are incredibly delicious) that we couldn’t even eat half of – definitely should have shared. Afterwards, we walked around the streets a little bit, went into a few shops, and just enjoyed the beautiful night!!

On Saturday, my brother had classes all day to make up for a vacation day next week (how horrible) and my parents had to work in the morning. But, afterwards we made chocolate chip cookies – unfortunately they turned out a little bit flat, but I still managed to sneak a bit of cookie dough to eat. I spent the afternoon with my family and then went out (at 4:00, haha) with my friend Liz and a few of her Ecuadorian cousins here. After getting a little lost (I was glad to know that Ecuadorians too got lost here!!), we arrived at a high school dance…no joke. But, it was actually a lot of fun! Here, you can buy alcohol and smoke inside – so it was a little different atmosphere, and it wasn’t all high school kids – it was mostly people our age! Overall, it was a lot of fun and many many hours of dancing!

Today was a great last day with my family! I went with my mom to her job a little over an hour away. Besides running her own daycare, one day a week she works as a psychologist for a school/daycare and today she was holding a conference for parents at the school. It was really interesting and I’m glad I got to attend! Afterwards, we went to a restaurant with the family and I willingly (I even asked!) to try fried sheep’s blood. I know, what has gotten into me? Don’t worry, I’m still freaked out by vegetables on my sandwich. But, surprisingly it was actually pretty good – it just tasted like a spice!!

Afterwards, on the way home, my brother fell asleep on me – it was adorable, and I finally feel like I now have a younger sibling! Then, we came back home and my mom and I fell asleep on her bed watching Finding Nemo…totally precious. As we were making dinner, my mom and I were talking…and this turned into crying. My mom has such a big heart and really considers me her child! It was super sad to realize that I’m actually leaving tomorrow, but luckily I’ll get to come back! Later, I watched a little bit of Willy Wonka with my brother and he read me a Franklin the turtle book, which definitely took me back! 

…now, I’m avoiding packing! It’s hard to pack up again, not knowing what to expect. Although it will be hard to be totally by myself and not see my friends anymore and to move in with a new family, I know that it will be an equally interesting / fun experience! So, here’s to starting a new chapter of my life here in Ecuador, that is if I ever get packed…

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