Adios Moñtanita, hola Manta!

Well, I’m two bus rides down, approximately three dozen more to go!

Our supposed 3 hour bus ride north along the coast from Moñtanita to Manta this afternoon turned out to be more like 4 1/2 hours, and was quite the experience. Kathleen, Pascal and I are the three students participating in the traveling classroom program for the month of October. On Friday, each of us were each handed a piece of paper with a printed map we could barely make out, the name of our new host family, their phone number and the phone number for Manuel, the director of the spanish school we’re studying at in Manta. Along with our illegible map came a $5 bill – our bus fare.

Silly me, I was picturing a nice private van, which would shuttle the three of us up the coast and directly to our host families houses. Once I realized we were stuck taking a bus, I imagined the nice, over air-conditioned tourist busses I took in Peru and Bolivia, similar to the one I took up to Moñtanita from Guayaquil. We’re in South America after all — I should’ve known better. 

The bus we needed to take has no schedule, but between 6 AM-ish (emphasis on the ish) and 6 PM-ish, it runs every half hour, stopping for all of three seconds in the middle of the main road that runs through Moñtanita, allowing passengers to hop on and off. When the bus finally came, we shoved our packs in the back and jumped on to discover that there were no empty seats. Luckily, after standing in the aisle for 20 minutes or so, the bus stopped two more times and enough people got off that the five of us (we’d befriended a French girl and a Canadian guy also waiting at the bus stop with gigantic travel packs) were able to find seats. They were only going an hour or so north to Puerto Lopez, but they were able to get on the same bus as us. I should have seen that as a warning sign.

Instead of the direct bus I’d imagined, we ended up stopping close to two dozen times over the course of the next several hours. Our seats were barely padded, and as my ass went from sore to totally numb, my head began to pound from the ruckus around me.

For starters, there were children everywhere, of all ages, some crying, some screaming, some just talking and playing at an escalated volume. Women and men of all ages spoke Spanish loudly throughout the bus, and loose speakers, which had clearly been hand-wired into the two overhead luggage racks, blared a constant stream of static-y Spanish music. But it gets worse.

Have you ever heard the sound of metal scraping along concrete or asphalt? Imagine a gigantic metal dumpster being dragged across the ground, vibrating and scraping loudly… for hours on end. Okay, so there were pauses every few minutes or so, but I swear the engine of our bus was dragging directly along the highway with the tires. Every time our driver accelerated above 45 km, the roaring would start, slowly getting louder and louder until the scraping noises was booming. I wish I were exaggerating.

I was, ironically, thankful that I’d gone to bed ridiculously late on Friday night (I only got two hours of sleep.. oops!) and had a long day Saturday at the beach in the sun, so even though I had slept 8 hours on Saturday night, I was more than exhausted from the weekend. Eventually the noises around us because a sort of horrific lullaby that rocked me to sleep. I passed out for an hour and a half, and woke up for good as we pulled into yet another bus station to let passengers on and off.

At several points throughout the drive, the bus would stop for an instant and teenagers selling snacks — pans of stuffed breads or water and soda — would hop on, trying to make a few dollars.  It was certainly the Ecuadorian experience, and we were the whitest ones on the bus by several shades.

Thankfully, once we finally got to Manta I was able to call Manuel and let him know we’d arrived in one piece (yes Dad, the cell phone and Ecuador SIM card you insisted on making me travel with did in fact come in handy — now you can say I told you so in your next email.) Thankfully, a young man from our school came to pick us up, and took us each to our host families in a taxi.

My casa for the week isn’t a single house for one family. Instead, it’s a family-run hotel and my host family — a mom, dad, two daughters and a son — lives on the first floor. I have my own private room and bathroom (with hot water!) in the hotel, which is much nicer than I was expecting. The first night was by far the most challenging, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable and my Spanish slowly improves, I’ve been able to communicate relatively well. Of course my vocabulary is far from impressive, so I often need to stop them (or slow them down) when they ask me questions, but I’m getting by.

Overall, Manta is a relatively ugly harbor city. It’s spread out and none of the buildings are higher than five or six floors. I haven’t seen a single other tourist thus far, and I have to admit as weird as it is, I’m more than happy to be out of the tourist trap and fiesta town of Moñtanita. Of course living on the beach in a crazy party town where booze costs $2 wasn’t a horrific lifestyle for a week, but I’m ready to really experience the cities of Ecuador and move on to a more authentic part of the trip.

The only complaint I have thus far is our new schedule: starting at 8:30 AM, we have four hours of Spanish, broken up only by a single twenty minute break. It’s a lot, and by the end, my brain literally starts to hurt from all the information being thrown at me. I must be retaining some of it though, because I find I’m much more capable of having conversations with strangers, even if they’re relatively basic and brief!

The rest of my week is jam packed: tomorrow we have a trip to a panama hat factory, Thursday is a national holiday and we get to go paragliding (ah I can’t wait!), Friday we have a cooking lesson, and Saturday we have an all day trip to Puerto Lopez where we will be snorkeling and whale watching. The Sunday we get on our 7 hour bus ride east and into the mountains to Quito. Thankfully, we’re booked on a tourist bus with AC and nice seats, so there will be no repeat of our last bus journey!

en la cocina and calle de cocteles

On Wednesday last week, Verenice, our Spanish teacher at the school, came over to the cabañas to give us a cooking lesson. We made a traditional ecuadorian dinner — camarones sopa (shrimp soup), with a peanut-based broth and plantain “meatballs”.

The pictures below speak for themselves, but the group of us had a blast preparing all of the fresh food. I’d never shredded plantains before — they looked like a strange plate of scrambled eggs, or some sort of mushy shredded cheese — but they tasted delicious mixed with spices, a special spiced oil, and fresh cilantro. We shaped the mixture into balls, then them cooked right in the soup broth.

Verenice blended the peanut paste (peanut butter is apparently expensive and hard to obtain in Ecuador) with water in a blender to make it thinner and smoother, then put the liquid into a pot of boiling water, flavored with yuca, a white root-like vegetable that could be called an Ecuadorian potato, onion, and garlic. Then we added the plantain balls and our shrimp, plus a ton of spices. After twenty minutes, the soup was done and we dug in.

Verenice served the soup with arroz (rice), which was a perfect compliment. I’m not a huge peanut butter fan, so I could have done without the broth, but I loved all of the contents of the soup, a strange but totally delicious combination.

Arroz is a staple in South America, but especially in Ecuador. A typical plato consists of camaron, pescado (fish), or pollo served with rice and a coleslaw-type salad. In towns like Moñtanita that are right on the water, seafood is the freshest, most delicious option. All along the main road in town are ceviche stands, with men waiting to serve you fresh clams, mussels, shrimp and fish in delicious lemon sauce concoctions.

On Friday night, I experienced the Calle de Cocteles of Moñtanita. One of the main streets of town, and the only one with a name, is lined with dozens of small carts, each boasting bottles and bottles of booze, baskets of fresh fruit and blenders. For as little as $2.50, your personal bartender, who will fist pump with you, kiss your cheeks and personally arrange a plastic chair on the street for you to sit in, will concoct any sort of fruit and alcohol mixture you can dream of.

I didn’t bring my camera out at night, but here is one of the main cocktail stands during the day.

We had maracuya, which is a local passionfruit, blended with rum, topped with a strawberry. Our group sat chatting and watching the wide variety of crazy tourists walk back and forth along the “strip” — a 50 yard section of the street with dance clubs, bars, and alcohol carts that dead ends at the beach.

After drinking on the street (flashbacks to Ho Hai in Beijing where we walked around the streets with beer bottles in our hands) we headed into the Caña Grill, a favorite bar in town where they have a sand floor, $2 mojitos and a live band every night. I don’t typically like to go out and party when I’m traveling alone, and unlike a lot of travelers in SA, partying is far from the reason I’m on the road. But since I’d spent the week getting to know all the other students at the school, and quickly became close with Kathleen, Katarina, and Chloe, I felt comfortable letting loose a bit and going out, especially since it was our last night altogether before many of us went our separate ways.

The number of Ecuadorian men who tried to dance with our group of girls was laughable — as one of the British guys in our group said, there were busloads — but I had a blast getting my salsa on and jamming to some old American pop and RnB. I felt in control and safe the entire time, surrounded by some amazing other world travelers who, like me, were also exercising their new Spanish skills to tell our newfound friends where they were from and what they did in the ‘real world’. We danced the night away, literally, and had a blast.

perdon, una pregunta por favor…

Today in Spanish class, we started talking about construction work in South America — in our small town of Moñtanita there are 3 construction projects outside our school building alone, and the ruckas makes hearing our teachers rather difficult at times.

My teacher, Vernicia, explained that in the Ecuadorian culture, families don’t separate and children don’t move out at a certain age.

*Sidenote: My spanish teachers only speak in Spanish, which is super challenging but amazing for my Spanish skills! We had this entire convo en español, and I only had to ask a few questions to clarify! I am starting to string actual sentences together — instead of just saying “Baño?” (bathroom) with a sad, confused look on my face, I can come up with (on my own!) “Hola! Perdon, una pregunta por favor. Donde esta el baño?” (Hi, one quick question please, where is the bathroom?). It’s a solid start!

Anyways, I learned that instead of moving out, children live with their parents until they get married, at which point their spouse moves in with the family (typically men move with with their new wives families). In this tradition, families stay extremely close knit, helping one another and cooking large meals together, which also saves a chunk of money. When their houses get too small, they add additional rooms and levels, expanding as needed. I realized that I mistook this construction as a sign of wealth and tourism. Instead, it’s a common practice among the majority of Ecuadorian families.

The real thing that shocked, however, me was learning the average income of an Ecuadorian family. Vernicia explained that on average, most families (two parents and two or three kids) survive on approximately $700 a month, which translates to just under $8,500 a year. Of course the Ecuadorian cost of living is drastically lower, and in many cases the family isn’t paying any rent or mortgage, but my jaw dropped at that number regardless. I made more than three times that on my starting salary, and I whined every day about how little I made. My rent last year was $125 more than an entire family lives off of every month in Ecuador.

In some ways, the comparison is unequal. I had a solid roof (not just a piece of tin held down with rocks) and a real wood floor, proper plumbing, electricity and refrigeration  As a US citizen in a large city, I had access to an incomparable number of things Ecuadorian families only dream of. Of course, and partially as a result, the cost of living in the United States is exorbitant in comparison: just the cost of fruits and vegetables alone is a perfect example. Even still, hearing that number was a huge reality check that feeling grateful for what you make on salary as a US citizen with a college degree isn’t something we stop to think about very often.

That being said, the cost of living in Moñtanita is shockingly low. This afternoon, a group of 6 of us ate lunch for $22.50… total. And don’t think we were skimping — we ordered from the “menu del dia” – a choice of pollo, pescado or camaron (chicken, fish or shrimp) soup to start, and either pollo, pescado or camaron as a main entree, served with rice, a small salad and plantains, plus a small glass of soda, all for $3.50. Two of the girls indulged and bought coca colas for $1.50 each, which is pricy, since they usually cost between 50 cents and $1 at a mini market.

Speaking of, the two dozen mini markets throughout town have become my favorite. They sell everything from shampoo to batteries to fresh eggs to granola, and everything (sans the few imported items which stick out like a sore thumb) is crazy cheap. Yesterday, I paid 85 cents for dos bananas, dos naranjas (oranges) y uno pepino (cucumber). The day before, I paid 45 cents for tres huevos (eggs). Our cabañas — the housing for the spanish school — are a 3 minute walk down the road from the school building, which is on the main road in the center of town. The entire town is about 10 blocks wide and 4 blocks deep, dead ending right onto the beach. I love walking into town and wandering through the shops, picking my dinner ingredients as I go.

The only street with a name in the entire town is Avenida de Cocktales — I bet you can guess what that means. The calle’s three blocks are lined with cart after cart, all of which boast baskets of fresh fruit and a dozen or so bottles of booze. Most sell concoctions for between $2 and $3. And we’re not talking a single shot of rum. At the bar last night, drinks were two for $4, and our strawberry daiquiris had four simple ingredients: ice, sugar, strawberries and a lot of rum. It’s no wonder on the first day of class our teacher taught us the term for hangover.

I’m very clearly in a hippie, tourist town, one which deveoloped because of our relatively well known spanish school and because of the European and American tourists who come to booze, lay on the beach and learn to surf the great waves that the town was initially known for. It’s been great living at a relaxed, vacation-paced for a week, but I think by Sunday I’ll be ready to abandon this sleepy town for another ciudad (city).

And here are the pictures I wasn’t able to upload with the surfing entry (I went back to the beach on day 2 but just took pictures of Kathleen and Julia in the water).  It has been overcast our entire week (I literally havent seen the sun once) but I think that may be for the best — considering how strong the sun is here I’m sure I’d fry in an instant. So anyways, thats the reason for the grey sky pictures. Enjoy!

Es oficial: El surf no es para mí

For those of you who speak as little español as I do, that simply means that “it’s official, surfing is not for me.”

My program starts in Moñtanita, a hippie beach town known for it’s amazing surfing. For $75, you can sign up for 5 days of 2-hour surf lessons. Since I signed up for a package traveling classroom deal, I was automatically signed up for a weeks worth of surfing during my week in Moñtanita.

So yesterday, I gave it my best shot. Anyone who knows me (or lets be honest, looks at me for more than 5 seconds) can clearly tell — I am far from athletic. Sure, I hop on the elliptical or treadmill when I drag myself to the gym on rare occasion, and I love my hikes in Runyon Canyon with Amber and Mom, but my upper body strength is very clearly lacking.

Surfing is damn hard work. Those professionals make it look easy as pie — hopping up on their surf board effortlessly, riding the waves like they’re floating on clouds. Well, maybe it doesn’t look that easy, but I never thought about how dang tough it is until I was on the surfboard amidst the waves, barely able to lift my body off the board.

My teacher just laughed when I asked him if I was his worst student, which leads me to believe my joking question wasn’t too far off. I did manage to surf a wave standing on a leg and a knee, after two dozen tries and many, many wipe outs. I hit my tuchas smack on the bottom of the ocean, which – for the record – is not soft despite being made of sand, and I’m convinced I bruised my tailbone. After an hour of digesting too much salt water and too many failed, very pathetic attempts to stand on my board, I lugged the thing to shore and plopped down on the edge of the waves. My teacher dragged me in for another 15 minutes, determined to make me gain concentration. He even made me practice on land with my eyes closed. Despite his noble attempts, I decided I’d given it my all and had had enough.

Lets face it, not everything is for everybody, right? I wish I had video of my sad attempts, I’m sure it would be much better entertainment for all of you, but alas we were all in wetsuits in the ocean, not filming on the beach. Instead, I’m taking my $60 refund and applying it to a refresher scuba diving course. It’s only $85 for 3 dives, including one in the pool to reteach you, so I’m incredibly excited for that.

Spanish classes are long (two hours each, una en la mañana, una en la tarde) but I already feel like my Spanish is improving, and our teachers are really sweet and incredibly helpful. I wish I had vocabulary flashcards (my weakness) but learning some verbs and basic transition words is great for actually forming sentences and questions instead of just two or three words pathetically strung together so a shop owner or waiter can understand me. It’s great taking a language where you can walk out of your classroom and apply it in the outside world, especially since my roommates and housemates are in the same classes.

Off to buy some huevos y vegetales for dinner!