Well...nothing! In fact, whenever an in-depth conversation turns to exchanging childhood stories, I'm quick to say that mine was excellent. So why did I throw it away? To be fair, I didn't actually throw away my childhood. I did, though, just finish trashing all of my childhood "artifacts". That includes rock collections, bowling patches, soccer trophies, award certificates, prom pictures, arts & crafts, and countless other things. Things. That's all they are: things.
For most of my adult life I've battled quite an aversion to clutter. This aversion has manifested itself mostly in frustration and occasional house purges or Goodwill trips. But nothing has really fixed it. That's going to change. What I've learned is that those things that "have sentimental value" in fact have no intrinsic value at all, and most of those things lie around for years gathering dust in some box that can no longer be picked up because it has partially disintegrated. That which has value gathers no dust.
Certainly it is no coincidence that for the last year I've been actively studying Buddhism, or that more recently I've become captivated by The Minimalists. And I am certainly not unique in my quest to simplify my life and focus on my dust-free valuables, 99% of which are intangible. So where do I go from here? Well, I'm still waiting on 33 books to sell on Amazon, I have a dozen more to list, a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff to sell, a pile of trash (another's treasure!) to donate, and much more. In February, Allison will travel to South Africa for a residency rotation, and I plan on giving up TV for the month.
Inevitably, this minimalistic effort will take many forms. Ultimately, it's about reclaiming my space, my time, and my life. To celebrate, I had a "pitch party" by myself.
In all honesty, I would have rather been holed up in an East African hospital for a couple days. Of course, I say that only because I've been there. So where have I been that such an alternative has a strangely sick appeal? Well...
Last Thursday night some amigos and I headed up to Mariscal (north of old Town, a lively bar scene) for dinner. Quite an amusing evening, powered by seco de chivo (a goat dish) for dinner, and cold (!!) Pilsener, the first of three stops was some karaoke bar. Probably the most curious element of this establishment was its screen displaying disturbing gymnastics bloopers along with song lyrics. The first hint of something peculiar is that my song choice for karaoke was Gangsta's Paradise, no "singing" required.
For a reprieve from the horribly mangled gymnasts and the what-the-hell-are-you-crazy-Americans-singing stares, we chilled at Strawberry Fields, a relaxing establishment with walls practically built of Beatles memorabilia. Upon reuniting with more volunteers (and more drinks), we high-stepped it over to a dance club to, well, dance!
There we met just about every other UBECI volunteer, including the founders, and danced the night away. 3am: sleepy time.
After graciously passing on my work opportunity the next morning (hint #2), I managed to make it into my final Spanish class at 2pm. Though my voice sounded more like James Earl Jones than one would suspect my appearance could produce (hint #3), I finished. Twenty hours of Spanish: check!
On Saturday, about 15 volunteers headed to Otavalo, where we could shop till we dropped in the country's most popular market. To say that the streets were peppered with vendors would be like saying you might find a Catholic or two in Rome. No, these streets were heavily seasoned, even slathered with vendors, selling everything from stone carvings and hammocks to handbags and armadillo guitars (charangos). The whole group naturally split into individuals, and we spent about 4 hours roaming, struggling to find the outer edges, then later struggling to find each other.
The bus home dropped us off around 8:30pm, where I struggled (not emotionally - hint #4) to say goodbye to a few parting volunteers. And that is where it ended.
The night, you ask? Well yes. And my trip. What I would come to recognize, after another 4 days of bed rest, is that what started as a mere tickle in my throat on that crazy Mariscal night, what stole my voice in the following days, and what epitomized itself as uncontrollable shivering and stomach cramps, was in fact an infection I had developed. Yesterday I visited a doctor and was treated to a shot of Penicillin...in the ass! Painful? Not really. Strange? Hell yes.
The decision to end my trip a week early was a difficult one, one that was made through torn emotions, flickering travel dreams, and a bit of eye sweat (okay, tears). However, I must remind myself that our greatest disappointments come as a result of our own false assumptions. And this trip was planned with the assumption that I would be squeaky-clean healthy. Not so. And we all know that to assume is to make an ass out of u and me. Well, this time, it's just me. And my ass. And to twist the knife, an injection in my ass.
Tonight, I'm bound for the States and will land exactly one week early tomorrow morning. See you on the flippity-flop.
One benefit of this program through UBECI is that volunteers get an extra day off on Mondays. So, after our morning meeting I spent the day with a few other volunteers roaming around Old Town Quito, or El Centro Histórico. Upon disembarking the trolley, it's immediately apparent that one has entered a completely different area of town. This place reminds me of Europe! With it's narrow, cobblestone streets, colorful balconies, and lights strewn between buildings, Old Town carries the appearance of centuries long lost.
First on our list was lunch (of course). After learning that most places wouldn't reopen until 3pm, we landed in a nice little restaurant where we ordered two of each empanada served - con queso, de verde, and...well...something else that we never did identify. It would have taken quite the appetite to devour these culinary treats. And as Adam Richman would say in the battle of Man vs. Food, on Monday, the empanada was the victor.
Regardless, we were sufficiently fueled for some serious hiking through these hills, and our first stop was the Cathedral in La Plaza Grande. Here lie the remains of Antonio José de Sucre, a colonel who won the decisive battle in the liberation of Quito from Spanish control, and was subsequently the first president of the Quito provence. Two of us opted to pay $1 for a guided tour, which was entirely in Spanish. However, an Argentine couple joined us early in the tour, and they were able to translate our confusion into, well, less confusion.
Our next stop was the Basílica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow), a gorgeous church whose construction began in 1892. Though the church itself will not reopen to the public until July 5th, visitors can pay $2 to ascend the towers and behold the incredible views of Quito. And that is exactly what we did. Behold...
Our exit from the Basilica led us down the hill to the monument of Simón Bolívar, El Libertador of Latin America from Spain, and president of Gran Colombia from 1819 to 1830, following his defeat of the Spanish Monarchy. Not surprisingly, he and Señor Sucre were friends.
Though there is much more to see in Old Town, it will have to wait for another day, or maybe another trip. As for this coming weekend, a trip to Otovalo is planned, where we're excited to partake in the craziness of the festival of St. John the Baptist. Until next time...
Believe it or not, my jungle weekend began as a selfish drug operation, one in which I aimed to medicate with Dramamine any of the 7 other volunteers around me who might vom during our 6-hour windy bus trip to Tena. The ride was gorgeous, as we drove through wildly varying temps, endless mountain vistas, and enormous cascading waterfalls.
After pulling into Tena and paying a nickel to empty our dangerously overfilled bladders, we hoofed it to Atlantis, an Amazon tour company and hotel that came highly recommended by fellow volunteers. This company is essentially the love child of an Austrian woman and Ecuadorian native. Forty-five minutes and $45 later, our haggling was complete, and we had booked a caving expedition, a 2-hour night rainforest hike, 6-hour day rainforest hike, one night in the rainforest lodge, and two meals. $45? Yes please!
Because we were all so wretched starving and needed fuel for caving, we bounced over to the nearby Café Tortuga and gobbled some delicious hamburgers and plantain fries. Bellies full, we headed back to the Atlantis office and hopped into the bed of their truck for a ride to the Jumandy Caves.
Though we were told to wear suits because we'd probably get wet in the caves, we didn't anticipate the torrential downpour that began a bit before we arrived. Soaked and still quite excited, we hiked up a trail then dipped back down into the rainforest and quickly into the cave. Unfortunately the water was too high and the rapids far too strong to cross in the cave so we had to turn around. Round 1...ding!
Upon our return to the entrance, we noticed that we could no longer discern the pool, as the entire area was one massive flood. Even one of the owners of Atlantis said she had never seen the water that high. Lucky us! After a 45 minute wait or so, our guide took us back into the cave where the water seemed equally high and rapids equally strong. But, our guide seemed to think that it was passable so we each placed our lives in his hands and followed his directions. Holy crap.
With each traversal of the cave rapids, we fully understood that a misstep could sweep us into a cavernous waterslide, kind of like an underground washing machine that takes no prisoners. The most difficult part of traversing the rapids was that, with each step, the water would quickly wash away our feet so that they wouldn't have a chance to land on the rocks beneath. At one point, we were climbing along an 18-inch rock shelf next to rushing rapids. At another, we were told to dive into the water and swim toward a flashlight that our guide placed ahead of us. Needless to say, upon our exit from the caves and into the open air, my feelings of invincibility were tempered with a deep reverence for this powerful natural force.
Now it was time to hop back in the truck for a half-hour drive to the rainforest lodge where we would feast on a quick dinner and head back out the door for a night hike. We were first shown several spiders around the lodge, all of which were larger than most people like to acknowledge exist. Yes, I did choose to hold a tarantula-looking spider, fully equipped with 8 furry legs.
In the rainforest, we saw many odd-looking grasshoppers, stick bugs, and snakes. Yep, I held one of those too! On this hike, I learned of the vast abundance of cacao growing in the Amazon, and our guide happily chopped up some fresh cacao with his machete for us to taste. It was delish!
If the extreme caving wasn't enough to wipe us out, we were thoroughly exhausted following our hike, so we all retired to our bunks for the night. I've never had such a musical night of sleep (no, I'm not talking about the kind of music following a Mexican dinner). The sounds coming out of the rainforest were quite bizarre, and I couldn't wait to explore by day the areas producing all those curious noises.
When we awoke the next morning, the weather was a far cry from the previous day - the sun was shining brilliantly and it was already feeling a bit toasty. What began as a leisurely stroll along a gravel road quickly turned into an up-and-down grueling hike that left us drenched in sweat and smelling quite...um...natural.
Oh, but the beauty of El Amazon! While climbing and descending the ever-changing terrain of the rainforest, we learned of medicinal plants, 2500-year-old trees, and countless edible delicacies, such as the canela leaves we chewed as a mid-morning snack. The most impressive part of the rainforest is simply that it is seemingly infinitely lush. At the parting of trees sitting atop the crest of mountain, one can look for miles and observe nothing but the vast green that acts as a blanket for the natural intricacies that lie below.
Our return to the lodge was bitter sweet, knowing that the time had come to return to our over-developed, concrete lives, but also knowing that a shower would bestow much peace upon those within a mile radius of our nastiness. And with a final ride in the truck bed, we bid our Austrian and Ecuadorian friends goodbye. Until next time, Amazon. And there will be a next time. Adiós.
Well folks, I have arrived in Quito, Ecuador! I was happy to find that this year´s trip would begin just as last year´s did: me being dumped alone into a foreign airport, only to anxiously look for a sign sporting my name. And there it was, a sign, and the man holding it, Roque. He would become the first of many to exhibit patience with my pre-elementary level Spanish. I can´t image how many non yes/no questions I´ve answered with ¨sí¨. I can usually recognize my misuse of this simple word by the confused (more like contorted) looks on their faces. Upon arrival to my homestay, apparently my answer of ¨sí¨ meant that I did not want breakfast. Oops. Another key question has been ¨Cómo se dice ___ en Español?¨ (How do you say ___ in Spanish?)
Speaking of my homestay, ´tis excellent! I live with a family of 4 - Susana and Julio, and their two 30-something sons, Efraín and Edwin. There are also two volunteers from Cornell University, Bree and Alex. It´s quite amazing how the presence of just a handful of English speakers can feel less like a conversation than a refugee camp for non-fluent speakers. The food has been pretty basic so far, some pasta & rice with either chicken or beef, and maybe some beans or veggies. However, what has truly knocked my socks off (though I don´t wear any to begin with) is the fresh fruit juice Susana makes for every meal. She has made us papaya, passion, mora berry and strawberry juice. ¡Más por favor! (slurp)
As for the language, whoa Nelly! The 7 years of Spanish I took in high school and college doesn´t get me very far. However, I think it provides a good foundation upon which I can build during my 20-hour Spanish lessons that started today. They run from 2pm - 5pm, Tuesdays through Fridays. And let me say that 3 hours of one-on-one language lessons was intense! Imagine attending a class in which you were expected to answer every single question the teacher asked - no relying on other students! The teacher, María, is extremely helpful (and patient!), and I know that this time will pay serious dividends if I wish to return home unmamed.
Yesterday was my first day working as a volunteer. At 9am, all 15ish volunteers boarded a bus bound for the Chillogallo markets a bit north of where we live. Here our job was to gather children who are working with their parents as vendors in the market, and organize activities for them. We played fútbol, painted, played with Legos, and read books. I find the language barrier in this setting is better described as a Great Wall. Because, as it turns out, 3-year-olds don´t adjust the speed (or articulation) of their speech based on the country of origen of whoever´s lap their sitting on.
Well that is all for now. This post has taken me much longer than expected considering I had to install the USB drivers myself to connect to my camera in this internet cafe. Not too technical...unless everything is in Spanish. Next time I hope to tell you about the rainforest I´ll be exploring this weekend. ¡Hasta pronto!