FINALLY! Look at some pictures!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

One year later

One year ago today I was forgetting to wish my sister a Happy Birthday as I was running through the list in my head of everything that I had jammed into two suitcases, a duffel bag on wheels, and a large tote bag. Praying that my luggage would be under 50 pounds, I handed the American Airlines woman my passport and started my journey.

Man. Was I a WRECK that day. I just feel sorry for all of the people in the airport that had to look at me. I mean, I LOOKED fine, but throughout the day (the longest day of my LIFE), I would get texts from my siblings, or my MOM, or my friends, and no matter WHAT they said, I got teared up. The worst part of the day was the flight from from Miami to Quito. I couldn't even look out the window at the country I was leaving without crying. I STILL feel bad for the man sitting next to me.

Every time I've looked at the clock today, I've been thinking "At this time one year ago I was ______." And every time I think that, I think "That was ONLY a year ago??" So crazy. I still can't get over that I just up and moved to a country not knowing what was in store. Was I really that brave? Because brave is one of the LAST words that I would use to describe myself.

Over New Years, I was telling one of my friends that I basically live my life in fear: I was afraid to move to Ecuador, afraid to work in Ecuador, afraid to go to the jungle, afraid to climb a mountain, afraid to HAIL A TAXI, etc. Since being back, I've been afraid that I won't find a job, afraid that I'd be living with my parents forever (Love you Mom and Dad!), afraid of mice, afraid of interviews, afraid of phone calls, afraid of accepting a job, afraid of apartment hunting, afraid of moving, afraid of starting a new job... And that's only a few!

So right now, I want to thank everyone. Thank you for supporting me through everything. My trip, my return, my adjustments, and my job search. Thanks for putting up with my doubts, my aspirations, my constant mind-changing. The support that I have from you is what fueled my determination to help land me where I am today: living in Green Bay, WI working full-time (eee!) for a company in the dairy industry. The icing on the cake? I'm able to use both of my degrees on a daily basis. And I am so happy.

In the fall, I began what I thought would be a long, tireless search for a full-time job. I lived with my parents and worked part-time for my dad (Primary calf care and management is what my resume says, but what that REALLY means is that I woke up at 4 every weekday morning and fed calves. ) and nannied for a family part-time (That means I woke the boys up - 6 year old twins - got them ready for school and on the bus, and then returned to get them off the bus and stay with them until their mom got home. Exhausting. Oh, with a little mouse-hunting on the side, including not moving off of the couch when I saw a mouse scampering around the kitchen floor.). While I was doing this, I was looking for full-time jobs.

I applied for what seems like a million positions all over the place. I had several interviews. Then, in the beginning of December, I had an interview with a company called CRI in Shawano, WI. 12 days later (12 of the longest days EVER) I got a job offer. Two days after that, two weeks after the interview, I accepted. I was so excited. And scared. More scared, I think.

Right after Christmas I packed my bags again - almost exactly a year after I packed my bags for Ecuador - and moved to Green Bay.

My first week of work went spectacularly. Thank you for all of the well wishes. I truly appreciate them.

I also truly appreciate the followers of my blog for the 8 months that I was abroad. I loved every comment and every email that you sent me. When I wrote this blog, I wrote it thinking that there were only 3 people reading it: my mom, my grandma, and my aunt (who printed them for my grandma). Since being back, I've started to realize that more than just these three read my blog. People that I hardly knew were coming up to me and asking me questions and commenting on it. Whenever this happened, I got all embarrassed about my stories and experiences. I KNOW that I put them on the internet, but really, I didn't think people read them! I just found out last week that over the last year, there have been just shy of ONE THOUSAND hits on my blog. I was blown away. So thank you, to everyone. Really. I'm still shocked, but I'm also so flattered that you enjoyed my stories so much.

So this is it. The end of my Ecuador blog. The end of one chapter, to begin another.

The final time,

Just, Sara.

Friday, August 6, 2010

"It's 61 pounds." Shoooooot.

So sorry for not posting for so long! First, I am finally back in the United States (and realizing more every day how much I LOVE America!!). This post, however, is dedicated to my final days in Ecuador.

The day that I went to the zoo, I found out that, SURPRISE!, I had strep throat. Great. I'm pretty sure that it was from climbing Cotopaxi, but whatever, I climbed a mountain. I got a prescription from the school doctor, and went on my way. Two days later, I went back. Surprise again! A sinus infection!! I was NOT happy about it, but I was also not about to let my dumb, uncooperative immune system ruin my final days in Ecuador. So, I went to the beach. Smooooooooooooooth. The weather was horrible, and I slept on some couch cushions.

My favorite part of the beach was being able to see WHALES. It's mating season right now, so the whales apparently like to put on a show, and they kept coming up to breathe and stuff. I saw a couple of tails, but oh MAN it was awesome. I was so happy riding that boat and seeing all of the whales. I stayed at the beach until Monday afternoon, and finally got back to Quito Monday night.

My last week of summer school was just as boring as the other weeks. Those poor kids didn't learn any English besides duck and goose (duck, duck, goose anyone?). Our last field trip was to what I would describe as a fish farm. There were a bunch holes dug in the ground with fish in them. Boring. The kids loved it. At the end of the "tour" the kids were able to put their feet in one of the ponds. Full of fish. And the fish nibbled at your toes. SICK. I was NOT going to do it. Until the other teachers did it. Then I had to do it too. I was NOT thrilled, obviously. It felt disgusting.

During the week, at night I went and had dinner with the new friends that I kept on making. It was wonderful and stupid at the same time, because I was not getting better. Like, REALLY not getting better. I felt bad for the people around me, because I was hacking away all the time, but I kept saying, "I will NOT let my immune system ruin my final days in Ecuador!!" What a bittersweet time though, because here I am having SUCH a wonderful time with my friends and getting to know them so much better, and oh NO I have to leave?! So bittersweet.

The last week that I was in Quito, my friend Bibi moved into my house because he was homeless. I forgot how much I love living with other people!! It was SO fun with him there, and my house felt so much more HOMEY. I LOVED IT. And then, 6 days before my departure to the US, MICHELLE WEBB (one of my good friends from Madison) came to Quito! Michelle and her friend Annie were traveling through Ecuador, so I invited them to stay in my house in between trips while in Quito.

The last weekend in Ecuador (literally, 23483297 times a day, I was thinking, "Oh my GOD I only have x many days left! X many hours left!!"), Michelle, Annie, and I went to a little place called Papallacta. A SPA. HOW AMAZING. It had natural hot springs, and we decided to stay the night. I got a SUPER cheap facial (I need to stop spoiling myself), and it was the PERFECT ending to my trip. I was more relaxed than I think I've EVER been in my life. It was kiiiiiiiiind of a downer that I was still hacking up my lungs and blowing my nose every 8 seconds, but the spa treatment DEFINITELY helped :)

When we got back from Papallacta, I had to finish packing. Oh.MY.GOOOOOOOOOOOOD. The more I emptied out my drawers/cabinets/ANYTHING, the more I started to SWEAT. HOW was I going to fit all of this in TWO suitcases????? Well. Good news. I DID IT. And it was HARD.

My last night in Quito, I went to dinner with all of my best friends. It was SO hard saying bye to everyone. YES I cried (I'm my mother's daughter and my sisters' sister). It's funny how I romanticize my entire trip when I'm leaving. There were a couple of times where I was ready to hop on the next airplane to O'Hare. But in the end, what an AMAZING experience.

I got to the airport safely (thanks to Diego and his wife), and LUGGED my suitcases to the check-in counter. I was DREADING seeing the weight on those suckers. And then, I had this conversation:

Lady: Mmmmmhmmmmmm, this one is 61 pounds.
Sara: My mom is going to kill me.
Lady: Well, weigh the other one.
*Sara weighs second suitcase* - 42 pounds
Lady: Well, you can move some stuff around...
Sara: No, I REALLY don't want to open them.
Lady: ... It's going to be 56 dollars.
Sara: I'll just pay.
Lady: You really can move things around.
Sara: No, I don't think you realize what I went through to shut these.
Lady: You're SURE?
*Sara smacks credit card on the counter*
Sara: REALLY just let me PAY. I WANT to PAY.

So I paid.

My flights went well. On the flight to Miami, I kept on getting all teared up because I was so sad about leaving my new friends behind. And then I kept getting teared up because I thought my head would EXPLODE. Congestion? Flying? BAD COMBINATION. In Miami, I had a heart attack and was sweating disgustingly because I was going to miss my flight. Here I am SO close to being home, and I'm going to miss my flight. Great. But, thanks to my main Google man, Peter (I LOVE BEING ABLE TO CALL WHOMEVER I WANT WHENEVER I WANT), SURPRISE!!!!!!!!!! My flight got changed. So I got home with not other problems, besides the popcorn that was popping IN MY EARS the entire flight. I was SO happy to see my Mom, Jenna ("I was going to make you a sign! ... But then I took a nap" Thanks, Jen!), Taylor, and Laura. I gave them my suitcases. I got in the car. And I went HOME. Mohawk Road, I missed you more than I thought I did.

Until next time,
Sara, the truly all-American girl.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Teacher, I dropped my bag."

Since my time in Ecuador is winding down so fast, I feel a need to do EVERYTHING that this country is offering me. Beach: check (and going again this weekend!). Jungle: check (still can't believe I went to the jungle and didn't cry). Live in the mountains: check (what a nice view I have from my window). Climb a mountain? CHECK. Ecuador has changed me. In America, I am about the least adventurous person you'll meet. But not here. Here, I am going on adventures all the time. I'll be honest though - I'll PROBABLY go back to being a sissy in 13 days. I sweat less that way.

Last Saturday, my jungle friend Bibi, my Baños friend Mario, and my new friends Gabe from Canada and Audra from Ohio went to Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in Ecuador. I was a LITTLE nervous about the whole being 5000 meters in the air (about 16,500 feet, for those of you who are like my mom and said, "Sara, meters mean nothing to me.") after being extremely short of breath on the teleférico which was 4100 meters up (about 13,500 ft). Have no fear, my friends. I survived. ... Barely.

Now, I dressed as warmly as I could, considering I live on the equator, where it DOES get cold ("chilly" in Wisco), but there is no such thing as a below zero (Fahrenheit) winter. I wore jeans, tennis shoes, long sleeves, a sweatshirt, my fleece, a scarf, and then I bought a llama hat and matching gloves. Yep, I looked Ecuadorian.

The guy sitting next to me is Cuban - Mario - so that's why I don't look like him.

On the bus we climbed, climbed, climbed. Then, we stopped. They let us out. And we were told to climb. On foot. I looked up, and then I looked down. And then I got scared. Who am I kidding? Sara Vanderstappen climb a MOUNTAIN? Ugh. Even re-typing it makes me groan.

After about 3 steps, I was already panting. Shoot. I looked at the girls next to me though, and they said that they were out of breath too, so THAT made me feel better. And we all agreed that if the altitude got to us, there would be NO SHAME in turning back. So, I kept going up. And then I got to the snow. I liked the snow for about 5 minutes. And then I remembered why I hate Wisconsin winters so much! Brrrrrrrr. But this snow was ok, because I knew that I was going to be leaving it soon :) But seriously? It was so weird being in the snow in the middle of July!

At one point, I'm going to guess about 1/4 of the way up, all of a sudden my stomach was CHURNING and I had an instant headache. I have to turn back. I can't go on. I'm going to throw up. I sat down for a minute, and drank some water, and then I ate a Snickers. A few minutes later, I felt completely better. The guide told us to buy chocolate (no problem!) in case we felt sick. Good thing I listened! I was surprised that the chocolate actually solved my problem, but SO happy, because I didn't want to turn back. I was really serious about turning back, too - I even told the GUIDE that I was going back.

Bibi and Mario waited for me to get better, and then we started again. About half way up, my stomach started churning again. My cheerleaders Mario and Bibi were wonderful though, and we waited it out so that I could keep climbing. When we finally saw the refuge, it seemed to get easier, because we could see what we were climbing towards. While were were hiking, it started snowing REALLY hard. We were all covered in WHITE and freezing to death, but we KEPT GOING.

At one point, the ground was really steep, and COVERED in snow, and I thought for SURE that I would be falling off the side of the mini-cliff, but alas, I made it without falling. Surprise! I actually do have balance!

When we FINALLY reached the top, after a little over an hour of hiking, it was SUCH a good feeling. I actually climbed a mountain! Who would have ever thought! I WAS the last one in a group of about 20, but I don't even care. I CLIMBED A MOUNTAIN. The guide said that we could go higher if we wanted to see the glacier, but I said noooooo thanks, this was good for me! So I sat and made new friends with the other people that didn't go all the way up.

The walk down was... FAST. It was steep and the ground was sandy and not solid (the same as the way up, I suppose...), and my legs were in a HURRY. Bibi kept making fun of the way I was walking/running/looking like an idiot. I kept telling him, "My legs are going faster than I want them too!" And he just laughed and said, "I can see that!" Shoot.

When we got to the bus, we had the option of riding in the bus down, or biking. I was so warm and cozy in that bus! And I made new friends. And I do not regret even the tiniest bit being on a bike. On a mountain. Let's face it - I'd PROBABLY be dead on the side of the mountain somewhere... Now though, every time I can see the top of Cotopaxi (which has been a lot these days, because it's been SO nice outside!) I think, "Hey, I climbed that!" What a great feeling. But seriously, the end of my mountain climbing days...

In other news, summer camp is a BLAST. Not really. The poor kids are supposed to be learning English, but I'm selfishly just practicing my Spanish all the time. We just play tons of games. At least they have fun? I hope no parents complain though... Oh well! I'm leaving the country!

Today we took a field trip to the zoo. How interesting it was! The kids LOVED it, and I enjoyed it too. Although instead of having elephants and giraffes, they had raccoons, and white-tailed deer. Really? I literally bust out laughing when I saw it. I also got to walk INSIDE a cage with owls. And a sloth. I saw a few sloths in the jungle, and as in saw, I mean I think that what I was looking at was a sloth, but it could very well have been a bird's nest... They were BORING in the jungle (which I told our guide and it broke his heart), and let me tell you, it was JUST as boring two feet from my face. I wasn't even SCARED that it would JUMP on me, because they DON'T MOVE. BOOOOOOOOORINGGGGGGGGGGG.

The most exciting thing that happened at the zoo was when Mateo - slow, absent-minded Mateo - dropped his bag. I was standing with the kids, and I hear (in Spanish), "Teacher, I dropped my bag." I was thinking, "Well, pick it up, you dumb kid!" (I love my job), but instead of saying that, I said, "OK... What do you want me to do about it?" Then, I looked at Mateo. He was looking down. In the pen. Where the kangaroo was. And there was his bag. Are you kidding me?

Being the good person I am, I said, "Violeta! Grab that stick and try and get his bag!" So, she grabbed a stick, laid down on her stomach, and went for his bag. I was REALLY nervous about that dang kangaroo. She couldn't reach. Someone with longer arms had to do it. GREAT. So, I laid down on my stomach and reached for the bag. I couldn't SEE anything because of the way the fence was, but the other teachers were yelling at me, "LEFT! RIGHT! ALMOST THERE!!!!!" Until I grabbed it. I was SWEATING the whole time, because of the DANG kangaroo! Jesus, it could have attacked me or something! So, needless to say, I can't WAIT until next week's field trip....

Until next time,

Friday, July 16, 2010

"You are SO American!" Thanks.

Life is starting to go by extraordinarily fast. In 18 days I will be making my return to the United States, and I can hardly believe it. Two months ago, I could not WAIT for August 3 to come. Now, I'm starting to get more attached to Ecuador. Probably because I'm leaving. Oh well, at least I'll remember all of the good times and not the bad - I'm a romantic, you know.

Last Saturday I FINALLY did one of the BIG tourist attractions in Quito - the teleférico! I went with my new jungle friend Nick. It was his last day in Quito, so we decided to spend the day finishing being tourists (for him). The teleférico is a cable car that goes up the mountain Pichincha. When we got to the top, we were 4300 meters up. 4300 meters up = lack of OXYGEN. I walked five steps and was panting like I had been chased by a rabid dog (let's not re-live THAT experience, please). I quickly realized that my dreams of being a mountain climber were not going to come true (Let's take a moment and picture me being a mountain climber. HAAAAAAA Good one!!).

Later in the day, we went down to the Mariscal - the "downtown" of Quito where a bunch of restaurants and bars are - to watch the World Cup semi-finals. Look at me being intense! Nick was cheering for Germany, so that meant that I was cheering for Germany too. The men next to us (and pretty much EVERYONE else) were cheering for Uruguay. At one point during the game, when Germany was down, the man next to me looked at me and yelled, "ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!! ONE HUNDRED DOLLARSSSSS THAT URUGUAY WINNNNNNNN!!!!!!!" At first I stared at him like he was a maniac, and then I said, "Ha?! Ha!? No??! Thanks! Woooooo Germany?" He shrugged his shoulders and went back to his beer. In the end, when Germany won, I looked at him and said, "One hundred dollars?" He didn't like that very much.

We spent the rest of the day shopping for souvenirs for Nick's family (nothing like living here for 3 months and doing a little last minute shopping), saw a movie, and then met up with our other jungle friends Bibi and Kyle for a drink. They were REALLLYYYYYYY tired because they spent the day in Baños (remember when I was terrified to tears? Their trip wasn't that intense...). I then had to say bye to Nick, whom I had known for a total of TEN days, but I felt like I knew him forever! Maybe it's the jungle? Anyways, it was so sad to have to say bye to one of my new friends. I think that that's when it hit me that soon I would be the one leaving and I would have to say bye to EVERYONE. Dang. What a wonderful day I had though, with my new friend Nick. He kept making me laugh, because every other thing that I said, he would say, "You are SO American!" and then I would just say, "Yeah, I know!" Yay America!!

And then Sunday. The World Cup Finals. A holiday bigger than Christmas in Latin America. I embraced my Dutch heritage and put on an orange shirt (I look horrible in orange), painted my face (not PAINTED painted, just the Dutch flag on my cheeks), and met up with Bibi and several people I didn't know to cheer for Holland in the finals. We started at a Dutch cafe/bar thing that was SO packed that we couldn't see the TV. And it was packed with Dutch people, who are TALL. I've never seen so much screaming and shouting and ORANGE in my life. It was fun to watch. I couldn't understand anything, either, because everyone was screaming songs in Dutch, so I pretended.

When we got sick of not seeing the TV, we moved to where Nick and I watched the Germany/Uruguay match the day before. Still JUST as packed, but there was at least sitting room. Instead of watching the game, I made new friends - go figure, me not being interested in sports. The one guy was Turkish, but lived in Germany for a long time, so when he got mad, he would yell in German, and if he got REALLY mad, he would SCREAM in Turkish. I just laughed and laughed. And then it started pouring rain, and I got wet, and then I was mad. What a day. Holland lost the match, and people were seriously DEPRESSED. I was sad for them, and I gave condolence hugs as if they'd just lost a loved one. A LITTLE too intense for me, but whatever. At least I tried.

On Monday, I started SUMMER CAMP. Oh my GOD what a joke. I'm "in charge" of the English portion. There are 9 kids. Three of them know English REALLY well. Three of them are pretty good. Three of them aren't even old enough to read. Great. And they're all in the same group, so that makes it extra difficult, because one topic is both WAY too simple and WAY too hard at the same time. I've resorted to playing games like duck, duck, goose. They like that.

On Wednesday, we took a field trip. I had no idea where we were going, but we went to a "farm". It was more like a petting zoo, but the kids LOVED it. It was ok. I mean, it's only SO exciting to look at a goat. And a llama. And a donkey. And nasty guinea pigs. When the kids got done with all of that - YAY! There was a horse that they could ride! So, they all took their turns. And then, I KNEW this would happen, but I was DESPERATELY hoping that it wouldn't: "Teacher! YOU DO IT!!!" I said that I don't like horses. DO IT!!!!!! DOOOOOOOOOOO IIIIIIIIIIIIIITTTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! After about 8 minutes of saying no, I finally gave in. And then they all laughed at me. This is why.

I couldn't get on the STUPID horse. The kids never speak English to me, either, so this summer camp where I'm supposed to be teaching them English is actually a great opportunity for me to practice my Spanish. At least I'm getting something out of it. That and horse-riding skillz. GOD. I wanted to die. And they have swimming every day and BEG me to swim with them. I conveniently have forgotten my suit every time.

My favorite thing about this "camp" is the ages of the kids - Sebastian: 5, Zulay: 6, Angie: 7, Camila: 8, Violeta: 8, Carlita: 9, Jennifer: 10, and Nico: 11. The little kids are SO affectionate and always want to sit by me and hold my hand and be hugged. I LOVE IT. I have NOT been around kids enough in Ecuador, so now I am SO happy :)

Tomorrow I'm going with Bibi and two new friends - Audra from Ohio and Gabe from Canada - to climb Cotopaxi. Some huge mountain. I want to say it's something along the lines of the highest active volcano in Ecuador? I don't know, Google it :) Hopefully I survive - I could hardly handle going up a mountain in a cable car...

Until next time,
Sara the summer camp counselor

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Oh my gosh. That is awesome."

I spent a weekend in the jungle. If I was cruel, I would write an EXTREMELY long blog post about EVERYTHING that happened. Instead, I've decided to break it up into sections. Here goes :)

When I decided to go to the jungle, it was on a whim. I met Maike's roommate last Tuesday night, found out she was going to the jungle, and decided to tag along. Three hours before our bus ride, I got an email from Melissa saying that she couldn't go, but there were three other guys going that are really nice, so I should still go. Despite my queezy stomach, I headed to the bus station. There, I met the boys.

Birger - aka Bibi - a 35 year old Dutchman (to my friends who know Daniel Walker: Bibi is the 35 year old Daniel. Obviously it was love at first sight).

Nick - an 18 year old Dutchman who spent time in China and Australia in the last year.

Kyle - a 14 year old boy from Pennsylvania spending a month in Ecuador. Brave!!

When we got off of our 8 hour bus ride, 3 hour wait, and then 2.5 hour bus ride to the reserve, we me the two other members of the group.

Nessa - a 24 year old from San Diego who had just graduated from her Master's Degree at Berkley.

Farrah - Nessa's mom who was treating her to a graduation trip. What a brave mother! My mom wouldn't have been caught dead voluntarily taking a jungle trip (love you, Mom!!).

Front L to R: Bibi, Nick
Back L to R: Juan, ME!!, Nessa, Nick, Farrah

So, we had our group, and we clicked right away. Especially because of our guide.

Right when we got to the reserve, Juan started barking orders at us: Eat your lunch! Pay your money! Get your sunscreen! No bug spray! Get your water! Get into the boat! WHOA. WHAT were we getting ourselves into? As we journeyed down the Cuyabeno River to our lodge with Juan at the bow of the boat we quickly realized that MAN. Juan likes nature a LOT more than he likes people. Nessa and I were immediately determined to change this jungle man's attitude.

While we were cruising down the river, Juan would spot animals - mostly monkeys and anacondas on the first day.

Every time, he would signal Freddy, our driver, to stop the boat, take out his video camera and/or binoculars, and stare at the animal, all the while saying, "Oh my gosh. That is awesome." After realizing that these were his favorite phrases, Nessa and I started saying it too. By the end of the second day, EVERYONE was making fun of him. That helped loosen him up.

Juan had two personalities: his robotic-explaining-nature personality, and then his I'm-trying-to-look-like-I'm-having-fun personality. We realized that him speaking Spanish added a few more dimensions to his personality... but not much. Whenever Juan had something to say about nature, he would look at us all and say, "Super atención!", but that would just make us laugh and roll our eyes. What a guy. When we were there, he had been living at the lodge for 19 days. I couldn't even IMAGINE.

Towards the end of the trip, we started doing things because JUAN wanted to do them. Like hunt for boas. Or hunt for caimans (mini alligators). We drew the line, however, when he wanted to look at ANOTHER sloth - just about one of the most boring animals in nature. It doesn't MOVE, so it's hard to SEE, and when you DO see it, you feel like you're looking at a bird's nest. Even with the binoculars. So, on the last day, I opened my big mouth and told Juan that we don't like the sloths. I've never seen a man more hurt. Then we felt bad, but at least we didn't have to see the boring sloth?

We stayed at the Samona Lodge. I didn't step foot on the ground there; we had to walk on piers from hut to hut, and the individual huts were on posts. I know, I know, it sounds like JUST the place that you all assumed that I would stay :) Our whole group had one hut that was divided into three rooms, each with an individual bathroom. The walls didn't hit the ceiling though, so we might as well have been in one room. I bunked with Nessa and her mom, Bibi had his own room (because he wanted it), and then Kyle and Nick had their room. The first night though, Bibi found cockroaches in his room, and he decided to bunk with us.

Did I mention that there was no electricity and only cold showers? And that I didn't have a flashlight? We had to sleep under mosquito nets as well, which made sleeping HOT and HUMID, and it kind of gave me the creeps, because I was thinking about what kind of creepy crawlies could get under the net...

The doors had locks, but no one had keys, so we left all of our things out in the open for anyone to grab. Juan kept assuring us that it was safe, and it was. Except for ONE little incident, that of COURSE would happen to me.

When we got back from our first activity, Nessa, Farrah, and I went to our room and found that the door was locked. So we immediately all begin saying "I didn't lock it!!" and thinking how odd it is that it's locked. We tried using a credit card to get it open, but the door was being difficult. Nessa went to the kitchen to get someone to help us, and all of a sudden someone opens the door from the INSIDE. Turns out one of the staff members wanted to take a little siesta, and of COURSE he would not only choose my room, but my BED. At dinner later that night, I told Juan about it, and he was in denial, but then he went and talked to the staff, and it turns out this guy was super drunk or something. The good news is it didn't happen again.

The first night that we were at the lodge, we went on a night hike in the jungle. It was scary. And it didn't help that Nessa, Farrah, and I were at the BACK of the line. It also didn't help that Nessa and I kept turning around and turning OFF her flashlight to see just how dark it was. Yeah, it was so dark we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces. Juan kept finding tarantulas and big spiders and bugs, and while his flashlight was on them, the ONLY thing that I could think about was how DARK it was AROUND the little circle of light, so what kind of creepy crawlies were hiding there?? Nessa and I really bonded on the night hike, because we were holding onto each other for dear LIFE as we walked through the jungle. And we kept laughing and talking and the boys got mad because we were scaring away the wildlife. Oopsie!

The second day, we did a three hour day hike through the jungle. Nessa and I made sure to fight our way to the front of the line for this one. Juan was walking really fast during the whole hike - he didn't have to navigate his every step like we did - and so half the time I was yelling at him to slow down. I was sweating like a maniac because it was so HUMID out in that jungle.

At one point during the hike, we came up to this huge disgusting SWAMP. I was right behind Juan, and he turned around and said, "Sarita, be sure to step right where I step." Yeah right. THAT didn't work out, and while the mud stayed on his BOOTS, for the rest of us the mud was ABOVE our boots and up to our knees. I almost lost by balance about a million times, but I never actually FELL. Although it LOOKED like I fell because Nick was behind me and his boot got stuck, so when he pulled it out, I got splattered in mud... At least I got the real jungle experience?

Every night, we went to Laguna Grande to look for wildlife and to watch the sunset. The sunset was really nice... But it was LONG. We were all getting pretty restless in the boat, but then there would be Juan, happy as a clam sitting in the front with his video camera. People also swam in the lagoon, but I didn't because (1) I didn't want to be all wet and cold when I got out, and (2) I didn't think I'd be able to get back in the boat...

On our trips to and from the lagoon, we saw plenty of wildlife. We took what we liked to call a "sunrise cruise" on the last morning, and we saw a TON of dolphins. They weren't like flipper dolphins though. They were UGLY. We could only see their backs, but we saw some pictures and they looked pre-historic. The first five times we saw them emerge for air was kind of cool. But then, I got BORED. The only thing keeping me from telling Juan to take us back (which I eventually did...) was Bibi's reaction to the dolphins. Every time he would see one, his hands would fly up to his face, and he would gasp, "ohmygooooood" in his Dutch accent. I seriously had a better time watching him than the dolphins. This is how enthused I was about them:

One day, we went to a local river community and to a local Shaman as well. A Shaman communicates with spiritual beings on behalf of the community, and he is a healer as well. It was REALLY interesting seeing how he dressed and the rituals he performed. This is my favorite picture my friend Bibi took of him:

After the Shaman, we went to the community, and it was so wonderfully amazing to see how they live. They have a school, but sometimes they don't have teachers, so the kids go without. It's kind of sad, but they make due just fine. While we were in the village, they had this weird shooter thing. It was REALLY long, and you put a sharp stick in the hole, and BLOW, and out shoots the stick from the other end. We were aiming at a lemon, and guess what! I hit it on the SECOND try! I didn't do it again after that...

All in all, the selva (jungle) was an amazing experience. MUCH to my surprise, I LOVED it there, but I think a big part had to do with the amazing group that I was with. We all got along so well, and I'm so happy that it turned out like that! Juan videotaped all the time, so I bought one of the DVDs he made. It's LONG, and shows a lot more nature than I would like (what can I say, I'm a people person), but I'm glad I have it. There are a couple of shots where you can see how RIDICULOUS and DISGUSTED I look, but hey, that's the real Sara shining through, not the jungle Sara that I seem to have found. I've been hanging out with my new friends all week, and I'm sad to see them leaving Quito (Nessa and Farrah left on Thursday morning, and Nick is leaving on Sunday). Here's to being brave and making new friends! And straight from the homeland, too!! :)

Until next time,
Sara de la selva

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"No, dumb is the right word."

This has nothing to do with Ecuador or any of my time here, but it has re-kindled my love for a certain vocal artist. The other day I was talking with my friend Stephanie, and we were talking about concerts because my parents had just gone to the Tim McGraw/Lady Antebellum concert (THEY TOUCHED THEIR HANDS!!!!!! When I was talking to my dad about it on the phone, I said, "Dad, did you about pee your pants?" His reply? "Sara, I screamed like a girl." Oh, Dad, how I miss you!! And my mom just about passed out.).

Anyways, we started talking about the first concert that we had ever been to. I am not much of a concert-goer myself, to be honest. I don't understand why everyone has to stand when there are perfectly good seats waiting to be sat in. I also don't understand why vocal artists insist on pointing the microphone towards the crowd, indicating that we should sing along. I don't want to hear the girl next to me screaming the wrong words to the song. I paid money to hear YOU sing LIVE. Please.

My first concert was the summer after second grade, I believe. My parents took Jenna and I to Summerfest. To see.... MICHAEL BOLTON. I don't remember very much of the concert, mostly the song "Steel Bars" when some girls got lowered from the ceiling in steel cages. And I also remember my dad sitting during it. Upon these recollections, I decided to download Michael Bolton's Greatest Hits (1985-1995) CD. And I love it. I have no idea what possessed my parents to bring us to Summerfest, but I also remember us having a good time and getting sweet sweatshirts that I'm sure we wore constantly. Mine had several of the Summerfest smiley face logos on it. I don't remember Jenna's, but I remember not liking it. Oh well, I didn't have to wear it!

So, Michael Bolton has been the soundtrack of my life the last week. And let me tell you, I can't WAIT to listen to this CD when I'm in my car driving in the US with the windows down and just BELT the words out. I feel that I'm not getting the full effect of this CD until I'm able to have it in my car.

Since I've been doing NOTHING this week, I've started reflecting about Ecuador. Let me tell you - I am living in a backwards world down here. Maybe it's because I'm south of the equator? I'm not sure...

I haven't talked very much about the food down here, but I can sum it up in 3 words: meat, potatoes, rice. The typical Ecuadorian food is potato and rice based, accompanied with a piece of meat, which can range from chicken to beef, to guinea pig or dog. Everyone asks me what I think of the food, and I always say, "Well, it's alright..." I like the fruit. And vegetables. But blegh, give me a hot dog, please. One of the delicacies here is (I wasn't joking when I said this) cuy. GUINEA PIG. It is SO gross looking, because when they roast it up, it seriously looks like a rat on a spit. I have NOT tried it, and will not try it. Everyone asks why. So I explain that I had a PET guinea pig when I was younger (which really grosses me out now, but I do have a heart - I cried when she died in labor with her little guinea piglets), and how could I POSSIBLY eat an animal that used to be my pet?

Another thing I always think of when I see these guinea pigs is the guinea pig that my grade school friend Amy Stanfield used to have growing up. Her name was Molly, and we loved that thing. The only thing I didn't like about it was it usually pooped when I was holding it, and when I spent the night it squeaked a lot (she kept it in her room).

I discovered a little while ago when I decided to bake banana bread (it didn't work) that baking soda is prohibited in this country. I asked a million people why, and I finally found the answer. Baking soda is, apparently, one of the ingredients in cocaine, so in a valiant effort to reduce the drug trade here (it's not as bad as Mexico or Colombia - not even CLOSE), the government has decided to ban baking soda. The part that I don't understand is how they bake things. There are bread/pastry shops on EVERY corner - it doesn't make sense to me. So, I smuggled two boxes of baking soda into the country when I came back in April, and I gave one to my host mom who caters, so she is making cakes all the time (oh, how I miss the days of having cake for dessert EVERY DAY).

The school that I work for has a bus the runs specifically for teachers. It picks me up every morning at the bus stop between 6:20 and 6:30, and drops me off after school at 3:15. We are required to be at the school until July 9. On Monday, I saw a sign above the clock-in/out finger-scanner thing (it always takes about 5 tries to get my finger scanned, and it's embarrassing EVERY DAY because there is always a line) that said that after June 30, the teacher bus would not be running. Excuse me? I have no idea how I'm supposed to get to school without this bus! I don't have a car; it would cost over $10 in a taxi; I have no idea which city bus to take. When I was telling Peter about how they aren't having the bus he said, "That's dumb.... no, logically unsound is a better phrase." To which I responded, "No, Peter. Dumb is the right word."

Yesterday morning I arranged with the secretary, who gets on at the same stop as me, to meet me at the stop at 6:30 this morning so we can go TOGETHER to school, because she knows which bus to take. So I get there American-ly early, and wait.

6:25 - Sara, it's only 6:25. Don't start hyperventilating yet.
6:28 - Huh. I wonder where she is. Trigger sweat.
6:31 - SHE. IS. LATE. Trigger pacing.
6:35 - Should I call Diego? I know he doesn't leave his house until 6:45... Trigger nausea.
6:37 - I'm going to have to take a taxi. Trigger panic attack when I check my wallet and find FIVE dollars. Definitely not enough to pay for a cab all the way to school.
6:38 - Trigger hyperventilation.
6:41 - A pre-school teacher gets off a bus at the stop I'm at. "Sarita! Now I will have company on the long bus ride!" Trigger NEAR COLLAPSE because I am so relieved. Don't even worry about it - I acted like I knew exactly what bus I was supposed to get on.

When I got to school, I was in the administration office, and I saw the secretary: "SARITA!!!! I am so sorry! I slept late. I'm so happy to see you here safely!!!!" And then she promised that she would be that at 6:30 on the DOT tomorrow morning.

Since I live in a house by myself, I obviously have to feed myself. So I go grocery shopping. The Sentry of Quito is called Supermaxi. I get a cart, go around the grocery store and generally buy: American cereal, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and American Kraft singles. Then I have to spend 20 minutes picking out EACH INDIVIDUAL item that I want, since I don't know what's good and what's bad. It's generally a shot in the dark, and I've been really disgusted a few times (I found Heinz ketchup, but MAN did I make the wrong choice for mustard. And ranch dressing.).

Going through the aisles, everything is mixed up kind of oddly, like baking supplies are right next to the noodles, not like, vegetable oil. And there is an entire aisle dedicated to MILK. Not refrigerated milk. Milk that is sold in cartons and BAGS. It's so bizarre, and I'm always a little hesitant to drink milk here, because how can it stay good in the store if it's not refrigerated?

When I get to the check-out line, the first time I was perplexed. After realizing that HUH, my cart is NOT going to fit through to the other side, I discovered one of the MOST backwards things here. You have to take all of your things out of the cart and put them on the check-out (which aren't the conveyor belts that we have, but just a table), and then you leave your cart there. Naturally, the carts pile up like crazy, and it's horrible, especially since the lines are ALWAYS long. Your bags (after being tied shut by the bagger) get put into a DIFFERENT cart on the other side of the check-out lane. What's the point? EVERY grocery store is like this, and it just blows my mind. If I introduce wider check-out lanes to Ecuador, could I get rich?

Those are just a few things that come to mind right away about the workings of Ecuador. There are more, believe me, but those are the main ones.

I took tomorrow and Monday off because I'm going to the JUNGLE!!!! It was a very last minute thing (I just decided yesterday), but I met a girl who studies at the same institute as my friend Maike, and the institute is having a trip to the Amazon, so I'm tagging along. I'm very excited. And terrified. When I come back, you can just call me Xena, warrior Princess. Or maybe I'll find the crystal skull like Indiana Jones - but that's not likely because I'll be in Ecuador and not Peru.

Until next time (hopefully I'll survive the jungle!),
Sara/Xena (and Michael Bolton's biggest fan!!)

Monday, June 28, 2010

"You look like a stupid American." I know.

Over the weekend, I went to a town called Cuenca with my friends Kristin and Maike. I took Friday off of school (it's not like I'm doing anything anyways), and we took a bus on Thursday night. EIGHT AND A HALF FREEZING HOURS LATER (at least the nice man next to me let me share his blanket with him) we arrived in Cuenca. It was 6:30 in the morning, and we didn't know what to do. What if our hostel turns us away? We had nothing to worry about. They made us breakfast and had our room cleaned first, so we just waited around for about an hour freezing to death.

After showering and warming up, we decided to go on a double decker bus tour around Cuenca. It lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. This is why:

The traffic was bumper to bumper, because apparently they are re-constructing one of the main roads in the town. And by re-constructing, I mean ZERO TRAFFIC on this road where the bricks were all torn up and it is just MUD. Our hostel was on the corner of this road and to get in we had to walk through mud and walk over planks of wood. It was a little ridiculous.

The power lines in Ecuador are REALLY low, so every once in a while on this double decker bus, a siren would go off, and that's the signal for DUCK (otherwise you're going to get decapitated by a power line). So for the rest of the tour, I was afraid to look at what was around me because I didn't want to get offed by a power line, so I missed a lot of the town, I think. That's ok, I'm over it.

There is a hat store in Cuenca that is famous for their "Panama hats". The hats are all hand-made, and it was pretty neat, especially because Maike LOVED it. She's going to the Galapagos next week, so she needed a hat for the Galapagos. We were trying on hats like crazy, and Maike ended up getting two. We went back again on Saturday because she decided that she was going to get one for her grandpa and one for her best friend. Because I have such a fat head, I only put (a select few that actually FIT) the hats on my head and laughed at myself. Man, did I look ridiculous!

On Friday night, we discovered that there is NO night life in Cuenca, at least not anywhere near where we were staying. So we decided to go to the movies, which was pointed out during the bus tour. We took a taxi to the movie theater. They only had THREE movies playing, none of which we were wild about seeing. So we go to another movie theater. We got there at 6:25. We saw that Sex and the City 2 started at 6, so we decided to see it anyways. When we got to the ticket counter, there were three ANNOYING girls working. We asked them a question, and they were talking behind the glass, and I said, "We can't hear you." So they all start giggling, and tell us that no, we can't see that movie anymore because we're too late, and then they turned off the microphone and were talking and giggling behind the stupid glass. We were SO annoyed. So we left.

Saturday we went to Incan ruins - a 2.5 hour bus ride from Cuenca. It was COLD again on Saturday, but this wasn't going to stop us. On the way, our bus hit a truck. Really? It was ridiculous. Apparently the truck didn't yield to the bus, so the bus hit it. We were able to drive away, and no one was hurt, but REALLY Ecuador? We ended up just laughing about it, and me, being the tourist that I am, took a picture of the damage.

See? No harm done. But the bus driver was PISSED, and so were we, because we had no idea how much further we were going to be able to go. When we FINALLY arrived at the ruins, it was MUDDY. It had rained there all the previous day, so it was disgusting. We joined a group with two tour guides. Who were ten years old. They were freezing too, and despite their age, they were good at their jobs. I asked to take a picture with them, and they looked at me like I was crazy, but I'm beyond caring.

After the tour, the little girls said, "If you want to see the face of Inca in a mountain, follow us!" Maike and Kristin decided not to, but I went along. And it was a mistake. The group of 4 of us that went had to hike down a mountain, and it was MUDDY. I was slipping and sliding ALL OVER the place. And of course there is NOTHING to hold on to. About halfway down, guess what! It started POURING rain. That made climbing down this mountain WORSE. When we FINALLY got to the face (which wasn't that impressive, especially since the picture I took looks exactly like the postcard that Maike bought), I took ONE picture, and then I said, "Alright, I'm going to climb back up!" and left the group.

When I FINALLY got back to the top (after falling once - good thing that I was by myself!!!), I was SOAKING wet. I squeezed out my hair, and it was like I just got out of the shower.

I was freezing. I couldn't take a 2.5 hour bus ride back to Cuenca like this. So, I decided to buy a new coat. And a scarf. And I looked like an idiot. As Maike said, "Sara, I can't tell you apart from the Ecuadorians!!" HA Good one, Maike.

I wore that coat for the rest of the day, because my fleece just wouldn't dry. So we walked around town, we went back to the Panama hat store, and we ate dinner. Every time I saw my reflection, I started laughing. At one point, Kristin was walking behind me and she said, "Sara, I just can't take you seriously in that jacket." Wherever we went, I got stared at. And then Maike said, "You look like a stupid American." I know, Maike, I know. We even went back to the movie theater in time to see the 6:00 show of Sex and they City. And I looked like an idiot there too. At least I was warm. Thank GOD my American fleece, which ironically made me look LESS American, was dry on Sunday.

On Sunday, I woke up to a surprise phone call from my good friend Diego. Happy Birthday!!!!! And what a wonderful birthday it was. We took a bus to a town called Chordeleg. This is a cute little town where they sell all sorts of JEWELRY. We. went. nuts. The necklaces, rings, and earrings were all soooo pretty. I FINALLY found a gift for my wonderful mother (You're welcome!! And I didn't use your credit card to buy it!!). While I was on the bus there, my grandma Ann called me, and I got to talk to Aunt Jane and Aunt Jeanette as well, until I was too far into the stupid mountains and lost service. Then, when I was shopping, home called, and I got to talk to Mom, Dad, Jenna, and Tay. When I told Jenna where I was, her first question? "Did you buy me something?" Happy Birthday, Sar. And no, I didn't. But I still love you.

After a few hours, we took a bus back to Cuenca, and hung around town for awhile. And by hung around I mean sat on a bench trying to think of something to do. In Ecuador, EVERYTHING is closed on Sundays. So we sat. And then we decided to eat, even though we weren't hungry. We found a SKETCHY pizza place. It was SO weird. The tables were paintings, and on one was a painting of a naked woman (buen provecho!!), and then on a painting behind us was a naked woman being snarled at by a dog. I'm pretty sure that some major drug deals go on there. Oh, and, I ordered a Fanta to drink, and a guy left the restaurant, and then came back with a Fanta. If you didn't have Fanta, you could have just told me! I would have gotten something else. The pizza was ok... We ate really fast and then got the heck out of there.

I flew back to Quito last night instead of taking the bus with Maike and Kristin because I had to teach this morning. But surprise! My students didn't show up! So I've been sitting doing nothing, again, and it looks like that's how it's going to be for the rest of the week. Greeeeeeeeat.

Until next time,
Sara the American tourist.