Friday, November 29, 2013

Days 8-12: Spanish immersion and cultural program in Cuenca

This week I continued my Spanish immersion program in Cuenca, with 4 hours of intensive Spanish classes in the morning and exploring the culture and history of Cuenca in the afternoons (in Spanish, of course). 

My teacher this week spoke virtually no English, which means that the translations were often done through a mixture of charades and pictionary:   
So in my notes I have a lot of words that have ??? after the English translation.  My English-Spanish pocket dictionary is getting good use...

Surprisingly, though, my Spanish is apparently pretty good considering I have not taken any Spanish classes.  The instructors were all very surprised by this based on my level of Spanish, making me feel a little better.  I thank almuerzo en español in our lab!!  One of the instructors asked me where I took classes.  When I responded I haven't ever taken any classes, his response was "en serio?"  Ha.  Yeah, seriously!  The only other time I've heard that phrase was from the boy in my homestay when I answered how old I was. :)

In the afternoons I took in as much as I could of the rich history of Cuenca, including some 58-odd churches!!   Based on the population of Cuenca that's approximately 1 church for every 5500 people.  For comparison, Rome has approximately 1 church for every 3000 people.  For a relatively small city, Cuenca gives Rome a pretty good run for its money!!

We visited Cuenca's oldest church: the Church of the Shrine (also known as the Old Cathedral of Cuenca).  Construction of this church started in 1557, using stones from the ruins of the Tomebamba Inca colony.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, known as the New Cathedral of Cuenca, sits across the Parque Calderon from the old cathedral.  Construction of the new cathedral started 1885 and lasted for almost a century.  However, the church's towers were never finished due to an error made by the architect! 

We walked up to the top of the tower

 to take in views of Cuenca...
 the brilliant blue copulas...
 and Parque Calderon.

Although there was not enough time to visit them all, I passed many other beautiful churches during my walks too and from school...

My favorite being the "plaza de las flores", where you can buy a dozen roses for a couple of bucks!

A sample of some other beautiful historic buildings around town...

Today, we climbed some 400-500 stairs to get views of the town

And last but not least, enjoyed the local food, especially the fresh tropical fruit and fruit juices!!
 My favorite being Maracuyá...deliciously tart and sweet at the same time, even if it does look a little like brains and have the consistency of boogers...

And I enjoyed my Thanksgiving meal, Ecuador style: mote pillo (hominy and egg scramble), grilled pork tenderloin, potatoes, salad....and (of course) topped with Aji!

Last but not least-- I had a great time with my Ecuadorian family!   It was Robin's birthday while we were there, so we got to help him celebrate :)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

day 7: hiking in Cajas National Park!

es no broma!! Map, compass, navigation skills and acclimatization required!

While in Baño drinking cerveza and practicing my Spanish with Lucia, a german guy sat down next to us who had just biked 60 km into town!  He was a nice guy, and fluent in Spanish, so he quickly became part of our conversation.  We discussed all sorts of things, and how they differ among Germany, Ecuador, and the US.  And Lucia and I jealously heard about his travels all around the world over the next year. 

And fortunately for me, he was headed to Cuenca next as well.  I really wanted to hike in Cajas National Park, but knew it was unsafe for me to do so alone.  After hearing about his 60 km bike ride, I figured he’d be game for a good hike!  We met up Sat night in Cuenca for beer and decided to hike the Inca Trail-- a nice, long ~20 km hike.

In the morning, we jumped on the bus towards Guayaquil.  After both being solicited by Jehovah witnesses on the bus with a pamphlet that asked “¿Será possible que los muertos vuelvan a vivir?,” we jumped off the bus at the trailhead.  We loaded up on a high energy breakfast, Ecuador style:  carne con arroz y plantains.  And, of course, ají.
We set off on the Inca trail towards Laguna Luspa, the first of many beautiful lakes along our hike.  

We were relieved to see trail markers, as we’d both heard that route finding in the park can be difficult.  But we spoke too soon.  As we reached the first creek crossing with a gorgeous water fall, the markers ran out.

So we were probably on “trail” for no more than a kilometer of the hike.  The rest was bushwacking and route finding fun over rolling terrain covered with breath-taking lakes



And alpacas y llamas!!

Literally breath taking!  Or maybe that was because we were at 12-13,000 feet, breathing cold, thin air….

Fortunately, we reconnected with the "trail" just in time for the cold rain

All in all, it was a fun adventure hiking in Cajas!!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Day 6: homestay in Cuenca

On Saturday, I made the ~6 hour journey by bus from Riobamba to Cuenca.  Besides some slight motion sickness from my attempts to do my Spanish homework as the bus drove quickly among curvy mountain roads, the ride went smoothly.  I enjoyed the scenery and a very dramatic action flick dubbed in Spanish.  But most importantly, all my stuff and I arrived safely in Cuenca!  And we even had a bathroom stop (a luxury in the Ecuadorian bus system)!! Very thankful for that after demasiado jugo y té en la mañana …

I arrived at my homestay and rang the doorbell.  A young boy’s voice came on the intercom “¿quien?”  When I told him my name, the gate clicked open.  I was greeted by a sweet young boy, who gave me a tour of my new home for the week and quickly jumped into conversation.  He asked me all sorts of questions, and told me all about Cuenca and Ecuador-- its history and its people.  Then suddenly we were on to superheroes and the movie Happy Gilmore.  The discussion of Happy Gilmore quickly became a game of charades as he acted out scenes from the movie while I tried to figure out what the heck he was doing.  Oooooh….he’s swinging a golf club! 

The boy spoke rapidly and jumped from subject to subject in the way that excited children often do.  He was clearly a smart kid and excited to host a new guest, but I was having trouble keeping up.  The kid was literally bouncing off the walls.  It was endearing, but I finally had to ask him to slow down.  "Más tranquila por favor."  To which he responded by a face-palm and an eye-roll.  And then he sarcastically started talking reeeeeaaaalllyyy  sloooowly.  Awww, kids…got to love them. 

While we waited for my host mom to come home, he showed me his Lego cannon. Super cool!  I hid behind a pillow and held up a target for him while he launched Legos at me.  It was super fun, and it gave me a chance to practice phrases like “mas alto” y “mas largo.”  And when the rubber band mechanism eventually broke, I got to play with Legos and help him fix it. :) I wish I had made things that cool with Legos when I was a kid!

When my host mom came home from work, she showed me all around town.  Like her son, you could tell how proud she was of her city.  And I don’t blame them.  Cuenca is a beautiful city full of history.  I already liked it far more than any of the other large cities I had been to in Ecuador.  So when asked how I liked Cuenca in comparison to Quito, it was easy to respond with “me gusta mucho, me gusta mas que Quito!”

She brought me to a local bakery that had an amazing assortment of pan…an assortment that would rival bakeries in France!  Then we went to the market to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs.  There was an incredible variety of produce, including things I had never even seen before.  And of course, there were guinea pigs for sale.  Cuy, as they are known in Spanish because of the sound they make, are a delicacy in Ecuador.  Everyone here loves it and I am looking forward to trying it!  When in Rome, right?!

After stopping at a restaurant for hot chocolate and tamales, my host mom drove me around historical Cuenca, proudly pointing out all of the sights. As a highly Catholic city, there were countless beautiful churches, so many that I wonder if it can compete with Rome for number of churches per area.  If not, it certainly can for number of churches per capita!  Christmas decorations are already up and everything closes on Sundays!!   

Driving through the center of town, we spotted fireworks and stopped to admire the show.   While standing in the beautiful square, watching fireworks, I thought to myself: “Ahhh si, me gusta Cuenca.  Me gusta mucho…”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Day 5: mountain biking down volcán Chimborazo

A ~58 km ride down the Chimborazo volcano and along the former trans-American highway, passing by Llamas, Alpacas and Vicuñas and through remote indigenous communities!!

GoPro videos of the ride to follow...


Exposure of the tephra from previous eruptions! :)

 Vicuñas (a close relative of Llamas and Alpacas)

The barren volcanic landscape is almost reminiscent of mars...

More Vicuñas...and a baby :)

Hiked up to the Whymper Hut @ 5,000 m, but were not fortunate enough to get clear weather. :/  The summit of Chimborazo is up ahead, I swear!

 Whymper Hut, named after the guy who was the first to summit the volcano.

The highest altitude for me yet: ~16500 feet!

We made it!  

A slight break in the clouds and a glimpse the summit.  

My Spanish teacher Lucia and I:

 Dedications to all of the people who have lost their life on the mountain

Hot soup, chocolate and sandwiches hit the spot after the cold hike!
Our bike ride started at the Carrel Refuge at 4850 m (15,912 ft)

and continued down a former section of the Pan-American Highway!

The end of our ride: the city of Ambato @ 2600 m (8530 ft)

And of course no Ecuadorian day would be complete without cerveza and Ají (which I discovered tonight even makes pizza better!)