Ecuador – Learning Spanish, Indigenous Markets, Soccer Passion and the Equator

Learning Spanish

We enrolled at Simon Bolivar school of Spanish in Quito and also stayed with a local family for a week. These were intensive lessons consisting of 5 hours per day and also about an hour of homework each night. The family we stayed with was highlighted by Martha, our new Ecuadorian madre. From the moment we walked into her house she embraced us and called us “mi amor.” Like my Michigan madre, Martha made her own raspberry jam, which was good but couldn’t be categorized as great. It was a nice way to spend a week as we would wake to desayuno, breakfast being served, go to school and then return for almuerzo, the big meal of the day. School was great and my profesora, Janet, was a perfect match for me. After the 2nd day I told her I really wasn´t interested in going over the homework and just wanted to practice talking and having a conversation. She agreed this was probably best and that´s how we carried on from then on out. After classes, we would explore Quito with new friends Anna and Jenna from the USA and then go home for homework and cena, which usually consisted of soup. Quito surprised us as a city as we hadn’t really heard much about it before arriving but it’s clean, modern and the public transportation is efficient. Also, near our school was a part of town affectionaly named “gringo-land” which had all of the comforts of home including several fine restaurants. The other comforting thing was that Ecuador has used the dollar since 2000, when their financial system and currency collapsed. On our last day of classes, Erin and I talked our profesoras to take a field trip with us to the local market. We bought the ingredients for ceviche and some beers and had a mini going away party before hopping on the bus for Otovalo, a mountainside village about 3 hours away from Quito.

Indigenous Markets

Otovalo was bigger than we had imagined but still small enough that you could walk anywhere you wanted. The four of us woke early and walked over to the “animal market,” where locals come to trade livestock and other goods. This was definitely one of the highlights for us as we were able to see Indigenous people and their families trading 10 chickens for a piglet, or two cuy, the national dish of guinea pig, for a rabbit. The clothing was bright and colorful and my favorite was the hats that everyone wore, old gangster hats complete with fedora’s. After the animal market, we walked over to the local markets for food and handicrafts, each going on their own spending spree for gifts and memories.

Soccer Passion

The following day we woke early and caught a cab to the soccer stadium. Coming from Philadelphia and having gone to Penn State, I felt comfortable with the craziness of gameday. This was something I’ve never seen though. This was truly crazy. People die for their team, kill for their team and live for their team and the language in the stadium was definitely rated NC-17. Being that this was an extremely important match as it was a world-cup qualifying match between Ecuador and Chile, you really couldn’t go 10 seconds without hearing hijo de puto or maricon, son of a bitch and faggot. Believe me, I’m censoring the rest because once learning it’s meaning it often made us cringe. We all went with Diego, a local, who taught us the team song. All 50,000 people in the stadium would sing it together minus the 250 brave Chileans regulated to their respective area and sometimes you would hear the hopefull chants of si se puede, yes we can!

Vamos Ecuadorianos
Esta Tarde
Tenemos que ganar

Here we go Ecuadorians
This afternoon
We have to win!

Ecuador won 1-0 after a late goal in the second half and at an elevation of 10,000 feet with constant rain, we were soaked and frozen to the bone and all ready for hot showers and bed. We fortunately got our wish.

The Equator

Ecuador is the only country that when you trace the equator and longitudinal lines at 90-degree increments, you find land instead of water. Thus, it’s name is Ecuador or equator. A 90-minute bus ride from Quito is the Mitad del Mundo, the middle of the world monument and museum. This was built a long time ago and now with the invent of gps, it was learned the monument was actually 250 meters off. So, the lucky land owner next to the monument has built up his own museum complete with really interesting history and experiments. From balancing an egg on a nail head to noticing the differences between northern, southern and equatorial water flushes, the $3 entrance was well worth it. Also, on the exact equator line there are weird forces at play. For example, I sat down on a stool and four girls each using only their two index fingers attempted to lift me from the pits and backs of my knees. The first time, the could lift me about 6 inches off the stool. Next, they each waved held their hands over my yead in a stack of 8, “soaking up the energies” before trying again. On the 2nd attempt they lifted me up with ease about 3 feet! Strange but true and I’ll leave it to science to explain this phenomenon. Afterward we learned a bit about the local culture of the Incans and even saw how to make our very own shrunken heads! I think I´ll pass on making one though.

Back to School, back to school

No matter the age, it seems the first day back to school is always an exciting, jitter-filled experience. Walking to Simon Bolivar’s Spanish School in Quito, Ecuador gave me flash backs to the fall weather in the Midwest, when I would be sporting new jeans and a sweater from the mail-order JCPenney catalog and thinking about all of the catching up there was to do with my friends. It used to be a big deal to my classroom early, choose a desk and organize all of the new pencils and books that were waiting in my backpack. This time the only thing I was wondering was if I would even be able to understand my teacher.

My one-on-one Spanish lessons lasted only a week, as they were intended as a crash course for the rest of the South American wandering I was about to start. The basics were taught and Friday was a fun day, complete with a trip to the market and a lesson on how to make Ecuadorian ceviche.

Above: Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche is served with banana chips and popcorn.

During the week of classes, we would walk 15 minutes back to our host family’s apartment for almuerzo, which was the biggest meal of the day and consisted of soup, rice, meat and vegetables. Martha, our guest mom, loved hugs, kisses and calling me “mi amor!”

Above: Host mother Martha serves home-cooked Ecuadorian cuisine.

The school was such of great benefit because we ended up meeting other travelers, mostly from Germany and the USA. With some of the new-found friends, we took a two hour, two dollar local bus, which was decorated with adornments hanging from the ceiling, to Otavalo, which is known for its weekend market.

Above: A local girl in Otavalo, Ecuador with her market purchase. It was squealing in the sack before she proudly took it out for the photo!

The livestock section of the weekend market was a showcase of everything from pigs to guinea pigs (which are used to make the national dish called cuy), all being sold for food to local Ecuadorians. The chaos of the market was in part created by crying babies, wrapped in long cloths and strapped to the backs of mothers and grandmothers.

Above: Children strapped to their mothers’ backs in typical fashion. There are so many babies!

Other noise contributors were squawking chickens, being held by their feet; an auctioneer, who sold household miracles such as super-sharp knives and infomercial style blenders; and food sellers, repeating “helado” or their product name for passersby to hear.

Above: Three chickens are held by their feet as this Ecuadorian lady negotiates a deal.

All of this commotion started at 5:30 am on the outskirts of town and lasted until 10 am, when everyone wandered into the handicraft market in the city center to stock up on things like hand-knit socks and winter hats. Since the elevation in Otavalo is over 10,000 feet, staying warm is a chore and many shawls and cozy alpaca blankets were for sale.

Above: Woven hair wraps are a popular item in the Otavalo market.

The entire weekend trip, including food, transportation and lodging cost around $20/ person. Ecuador has used the US dollar since 2000 when the sucre was replaced with the dollar due to an economic crisis. When the money exchange worker handed me dollars for euros, I had to smile. The green bills looked so familiar and I actually knew the denominations on the coins without having to inspect them one inch from my eyes.

Also through Simon Bolivar Spanish School, we had the opportunity to attend an intense Ecuadorian football (soccer) game. The match was played against Chile and was a South Africa World Cup 2010 qualifying game, which meant the stadium was PACKED! Arriving three hours beforehand, as advised by a local friend, our group ordered Ecuadorian lagers and toughed it out in our “ponchos plasticos” to stay dry while storms took their turns dumping on us.

Above: Gray skies do not dissuade Quito football fans.

I was impressed by the tenacity of the locals selling their goods. Whole families were frantically trying to pedal their goods in perfect unison with the weather. For example, in times of rain showers, people who sold umbrellas and ponchos started shouting louder, whereas later in the night, those selling tea and hot drinks marketed brilliantly in the cold weather.

Above: A local sells trinkets outside the game.

Once when a saleswoman and her little daughter heard someone yell for a poncho in the stands above me, they stopped and the mother threw her other goods consisting of candy and umbrellas, into her child’s arms in order to dig frantically for a poncho. She begged people to pass the poncho quickly to the buyer in the stands above and showed a brief sign of relief when her $1 coin was safely passed into her palm. She then grabbed everything back from her child, and I shouted, “Buena Suerta!” which means good luck. She quickly turned, smiled and said, “Gracias Chica,” as she hurried off to make her next big $1 sale.

Because all of these local experiences were possible through connections at Simon Bolivar School, I would like to say thank you to the staff there and would highly recommend this school to any people wishing to study Spanish in Ecuador. See www.simon-bolivar.com for more information.