Sunday, July 31, 2011

Galapagos Here We Come!

This past week was full of errands - we planned Galapagos finally, yayy! Which is good, since we leave tomorrow at 8am. We were worried that since we planned so last minute we might have some problems booking, but it actually worked in our favor since prices drop as the departure date gets closer, probably because everyone wants to fill their boat. Our boat is called Estrella del Mar and it holds 16 people (pray for us that we get good shipmates). We sleep and eat on the boat, and it's a 5 day/4 night tour of the Southern islands. So we'll be gone and (maybe) internet-less from Monday-Friday. But I've planned some posts to catch you all up on our last week and weekends in Quito, so make sure to check back during the week. :)

And we'll be home in the USA late late on Saturday night!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

La Mitad Del Mundo

Yeah, yeah, I'm pretty behind on updating. I'm going to start with last Friday. Jenna and I were planning on going away by ourselves and having a nice relaxing beach weekend. But we decided to leave Friday evening, and use Friday during the day to see La Mitad del Mundo, the place where both latitude and longitude are at 0 degrees. I've heard from more than one person that it's really not the most exciting place in the world, but it's still something you have to do while you're here. It's about an hour away from Quito by bus.

To get there, we took a taxi to basically a random intersection, and the "Mitad del Mundo" bus passes by the intersection, and we had to wave it down.
Yes, we waited on the side of the road, waved down a bus, it stopped for us, and luckily we got seats. The bus probably stopped every minute and a half to let people on who were selling dvds, candy, ice cream, coloring books, chicken skewers, people who "rapped" and asked for money, people who begged, etc etc.

After about 40 minutes, we thought we saw the big monument that's right on the equator, but it didn't really feel like the right stop (especially because we figured Mitad del Mundo would be the last stop of the Mitad del Mundo bus), so we didn't get off. But after another couple minutes with the monument fading further and further into the distance, we realized that was definitely the stop. I blame Jenna because of the two of us, she has been designated the navigator because I'm useless. We ended up just getting off the next time the bus stopped, and literally stood on the highway and hailed a bus going in the other direction. While waiting on the side of the road for those 5 minutes, we were honked at 12 times. Our personal best so far.


So as expected, La Mitad del Mundo was very unexciting. You pay to enter the "city" which consists of the monument, some restaurants and gift shops, and museums. The museums you have to pay again for and they are bor-ing, so we didn't go into any of them.

el monumento - look, we´re in different hemispheres!
(except not, because it´s not really the equator)

We took some pictures, ate some lunch, and then went to a museum that's actually outside the "city" and is free.

Because we're science nerds, it was so fun! We also had the cutest museum tour guide ever. It was his very first tour and he was sooo nervous (and he had to do his first tour in English!), but he was great and now we're facebook friends. Supposedly the equator actually runs through this museum and not through the monument (although also supposedly, the equator ACTUALLY runs through some hill that's a little further away). Whatever.

We saw demonstrations about how water, when draining, spins counter-clockwise north of the equator, clockwise south of the equator, and straight down on the equator itself (I have some VERY interesting videos that demonstrate this if anyone is interested - totally not sarcastic at alllll). We also tried to balance an egg on the equator (supposedly easier, but we both failed), we saw how your muscle strength decreases on the equator, and how hard it is to balance with your eyes closed and arms out on the equator.

egg balancing - a fail

the "real" equator, maybe

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Crab Soup

Speaking of Ecuadorian food and cooking classes, let me teach you how to make crab soup (sopa de cangrejo):

1. Put soup in bowl.

2. Place crab in soup.

Y voila, crab soup!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Extra Activities

Last week we were roped into some activities through the school.

First we took a cooking class, which was actually a lot of fun - we learned how to make ceviche, which is great because we've been eating ceviche pretty much at least once a day and never had any idea what was actually in it. We wrote down the recipe and this week, if we actually get around to it, we plan on practicing so that we can make it at home. The recipe serves 25 people though, sooooo either we need to make some more friends, or we'll have to cut the recipe down.

We also took a salsa class through the school on Thursday after classes. We were all pretty terrible, I have to be honest. But it was fun though, and good exercise! There were more boys than girls in the class, so the boys got to take breaks but the girls had to dance the whole time. Exhuasting!

This week we promised we would play soccer with the school, but we'll see if that actually happens. If we do, it's tomorrow after class. If there's one thing I'm worse at than dancing, it's sports (um, or singing. Then sports). So we'll see what happens.

One night last week we also went to an arcade in the mall. It was one of the most fun nights we've had in Ecuador. We went with our roommate Ben. First we ate in the food court - a delicious meal of Taco Bell for me and Ben, and a hamburger for Jenna. Very Ecuadorian, we know (however, there's this lunch place called Carlos that everyone goes to for lunch every day because it's a pre fixe meal of $2, and is super Ecuadorian - so we decided one Ecuadorian meal a day is more than sufficient). We wanted to bowl (so cheap! $6 for a lane for a whole hour!), but there was over an hour wait, so we want to the arcade instead. This mall has EVERYTHING. We played some dance dance revolution, guitar hero, some drums game, skee ball, racing games, all of it. And it was so much cheaper than in the US. And so fun!

And most importantly, every time we go to the mall, we can sing Robin Sparkles. If you don't get that reference, you immediately need to start watching How I Met Your Mother.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


If anyone was worried, the alcohol ban in Ecuador was lifted yesterday. Which was good, because we went to a bar to watch the Paraguay-Venezuela game last night and who wants to watch a soccer game without at least one beer in you? Not me.


Getting to Banos for the weekend felt a bit like a miracle. You have to take a half hour taxi ride to the bus station, and then the bus station was the most overwhelming place ever. At a normal bus station, there would be windows where you buy tickets for the different buses. Here, they also had people yelling out the windows or standing around outside the windows just screaming the city names at you. Like as you're walking, someone will come up to you and yell, "Puyo Puyo Puyo Puyo Puyo" in your face and try to convince you to come to their window - even if you have no intention of going to Puyo. Our cab driver (who at the time we thought was a miracle worker, but he totally charged us double a normal fare) actually came into the station with us, bought us our tickets, walked us to the bus, and made people switch their seats so that we could all sit together.

Banos is this teeny tiny spa town right next to a volcano and surrounded by mountains and the rainforest. It's really touristy (for foreigners and for Ecuadorians on vacation too) and adorable. We got in around 11 pm on Friday night, dropped our bags off, and went right out. The whole town is about 20 by 20 blocks, and there are a few that have the bars and clubs and late night eats. Everything closes and everyone goes home at 2am on the dot.

We splurged a bit to stay at a hotel instead of a hostel, and it was such a good choice. The showers were unbelievable, breakfast was included, the rooms were clean and nice, and we had a hammock on our balcony that overlooked the garden! Life doesn't get better than that.

Our hotel:

Other than its spas and hot springs (for which it's named), Banos is known for its outdoor activities - hiking, biking, horseback riding, canyoning, zip lining, etc. There's one main road that leaves the town and there are different stop off points to see different waterfalls or that lead to different sites. The streets of Banos are basically lined with tour groups and vendors, so on Saturday morning we just picked one that looked good. We ended up renting these dune buggies for a few hours to take us from place to place.

At one stop, one of the buggies wouldn't start and Jenna and I had to jump start it (apparently the guy only explained to us what to do if something went wrong, and not to everyone), so that was pretty cool. We realized about halfway through that the guy we rented them from didn't ask us for any information except our names and hotel - no money down, no credit card or passport info, no drivers license, absolutely nothing. We totally could have stolen those dune buggies and driven straight home to Quito.

Our buggies:

We went on this crazy long zip line, and then hiked back up to our dune buggies. It was so unbelievably beautiful. The pictures don't even begin to do it justice. All day we couldn't stop talking about how pretty everything was. And it was sunny and WARM.

When we brought back the dune buggies, we actually had lunch at an Italian restaurant. The pasta was fine, but the pizza was so surprisingly delicious, although one of the boys had heard from someone that you just have to try the pizza in Banos, so maybe it shouldn't have been surprising. Does seem random though, right?

After lunch the boys went rafting, but Jenna and I opted out (I've never been a big a rafting fan) and had a nice relaxing afternoon that included a full body massage, the best ice cream in Ecuador (according to their sign anyway - I myself am not convinced yet), and candy shopping. Apparently Banos is famous for its taffy called melcocha - in all the little stores on the streets there are people making it and giving away free tastes (my favorite thing ever!), so I bought a few packs of different flavors to bring home.

taffy making:

When the boys got back, we walked over to the hot springs for some jacuzzi time before dinner. It ended up being really nice, but only after a few minutes of getting used to it. The water is sort of brownish from all of the minerals, so even though it's clean, it really doesn't look it. On top of that, the springs were also really crowded, and with a lot of people wearing inappropriately little bathing suits with a loooot hanging out which added to the sense of skeevy dirtiness. Jenna gave it the very apt name of "flesh soup." I know I'm painting a very beautiful picture here - but really after a few minutes you were able to ignore all the people around you and just enjoy the hot tubbiness of it all. And jumping into the freezing cold spring and then back into the hot one gave you such a rush.

On Sunday we did this great mix of hiking and ziplining. A truck drove us out into the rainforest, and we had two guides who took us around from zipline to zipline. We would hike until we got to a zipline, we would all ride it, and then we hiked to the next. About halfway through it started pouring, but it just sort of added to the feel of it all. Again, the views were so beautiful - even while on the zipline and looking around it felt like fake scenery.

We had a really late lunch at this restaurant called Cafe Hood which Lonely Planet described as "mostly Tex-Mex with a splash of Thai, Greek, and Indian." And that's exactly what it was. Totally weird, but kinda interesting. We caught the end of the USA-Japan game, then did a little souvenir shopping, and got back on the bus to Quito (even in the small town of Banos, people at the ticket booths were yelling in your face "a Quito a Quito a Quito a Quito a Quito").

And so our first weekend was very much a success! We are officially crossing "jungle" off our list of climates to experience while in Ecuador. We have the bug bites to prove we were there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


We decided our first weekend trip would be to Banos, a town about 3 and a half hours outside of Quito. We went with our friend Dave from NJMS and three other boys in our program. While Jenna and I asked to not have classes on Friday for better traveling abilities, the boys had class until 5. So Friday during the day we decided to take the Teleferiqo, basically this gondola thing that takes you up toward a volcano that you can then hike to.

Lonely Planet made it sound like it was very easy to get there by bus, but it was NOT. Three buses and an hour after leaving our apartment, we were told there were no buses to Teleferiquo, and so we disappointedly hopped in a cab and said "Teleferiqo por favor" and that was that - we were there in just 10 more minutes. The gondola ride up takes about 15 minutes. It should have been a really beautiful view, but it was so foggy that you could see absolutely nothing - not even the ground right below us.

Here's the beautiful view from the gondola:

And here's a picture of all the things you're supposed to be able to see from the top, and if you notice the window behind the sign - well, those are all the things you could actually see (aka nothing):

We decided to hike anyway, and things did start to clear up at least a little bit by the time we were done. We somehow must have gone off the path though, because after close to an hour we realized we were almost exactly where we started instead of any closer to the volcano. Oops. We blame the fog. And the altitude. Because we blame the altitude for everything.

Our German roommates went the next day, and they said it was the most beautiful day and the most beautiful hike with the most beautiful view. Figures, right? So we added it to the list of things we need to do again if there's time.

Here's sort of what you're supposed to be able to see, and what we were supposed to be hiking towards:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Not Dead

Unfortunately I can no longer say I am diarrhea-free. That's ok though because it's better than being dead. Jenna and I went out to dinner with our new roommate last night and wanted to grab a beer afterwards, but the bar told us no one was serving alcohol because 20 people had died. With our shaky Spanish, we thought he meant that yesterday was the anniversary of some tragedy and that the country doesn't drink out of respect. But no. Apparently people died of methanol poisoning this weekend, and so no alcohol at all is allowed to be sold in the country until an investigation is made. Certainly better safe than sorry. We were looking forward to going out Wednesday night because apparently it´s Ladies Night in Quito - but oh well.


On Thursday the school offered a day trip to Saquisili, a big traditional market south of Quito. It was not very touristy, which made it a really interesting experience. It´s actually a group of 7 different markets - big animals, small animals, food, textiles, other crap, etc. We were smellllllly when we came back!

We sort of just walked around and looked at all the animals and all the people trying to sell them. There were a lot of Quechua (indigenous) people who come down to the markets to buy and sell what they have, and it was fun to see the mix of very traditional with very modern outfits.

We tried some fried tortillas with cheese, and a few people also bought sugar cane and chocolate. I really really wanted to buy a baby duck, or a dog, or a pig, or a rabbit as a pet, but I restrained myself. Impressive, I know. In the textile market, I was debating buying an alpaca poncho because they are soooo soft and it is sooo cold, but I ended up not getting anything. Probably for the best, although I may end up with at least an alpaca blanket before this trip is over.

After walking around the markets and people/animal watching for a few hours, we got back on the bus and went to a nearby town called Latacunga. Apparently this town is famous for its traditional meal called chugchucaras - it is NOT for those of the vegetarian or kosher variety (or the health-conscious). You start with an appetizer of hominy and pork rinds. And then the main dish is pieces of pork, potatoes, popcorn, cheese empanadas, fried plantains, and more pork rinds. It was salty and oily and disgusting and delicious all at the same time. After that lunch, I definitely passed out for the whole bus ride back to Quito.

Jenna and I with our profesor Manuel and our finished chugchucaras

Speaking of delicious:

The weirdest (and best?) thing here - when you order ceviche, it comes with popcorn! You pour the ceviche over the popcorn and eat it like that.

A popular snack here are these huge toasted popcorn kernels. Jenna and I bought some and we're going to practice making them so we can come home and make them for everyone.

We finally went grocery shopping for the first time the other day. We think our roommates think we must be nuts because we have no food and don't cook anything ever, and they cook most of their meals. But at least now we have some breakfast foods, water, and coke zero - the essentials, duh.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Old City

Last Wednesday (Tuesday?) before class, Jenna and I took our friendly Ecovia bus 15 stops to the Centro Historico, or Old City. Lonely Planet has a walking tour of the area, but as the bus stop was right in the middle of the tour, we skipped the first half. We´ll have to go back and finish it another day. It´s a really hilly section of town, and coupled with a weak breakfast, we were quickly exhausted. It may have been the altitude, or it may be because we are pathetically out of shape. It´s impossible to say for sure. The highlight of the tour was a basilica, which has turtles and iguanas sticking out from the side instead of gargoyles. We climbed up to the bell tower for a great view of the city - our first real adventure!

the basilica


more climbing....

and the view!

After the basilica, we went on the oddest tour I have ever been on. In a park there's an observatory, so we wanted to just sort of peek our heads in and see the big telescope at the top. Instead we walked around with a guide who literally just pointed to (labeled) objects and said what they were. And I mean literally as in literally. "This is a telephone. This is a calculator. This is a more advanced calculator. These are books. This is a telescope." Super interesting, really...

First Two Days

Days 1 and 2: Sunday and Monday

We flew to Quito on a Central American airline called TACA. We got lucky with an exit row on both flights, so we had lots of extra leg space. We also had a meal on BOTH flights which was unbelievable because anyone who knows me knows I love terrible fake airplane food, and apparently so does Jenna! We considered getting a glass of wine with breakfast on our first flight to help us sleep, but decided 6:30 am was too early for drinking, even on vacation. On our second flight though, we ordered a bloody mary with our "meat pocket" (that's what was for lunch), and it was free!

We weren't sure what to do with ourselves on Sunday night, but since we were so tired, we decided if we went to the mall to have dinner and brought back a bottle of wine, we would just pass out early. We also figured that we could use the bathrooms in the mall instead of the dinky one in our apartment.

There were two problems with our genius plan though. Number one, the bathrooms in the mall are for preferred shopping members only, which means you need some kind of special credit card and code to get into them. So that was a no go. There are also blue laws in Ecuador which means you can't buy alcohol on Sundays. But the very nice man in the liquor store told us if we waited around until everyone left the store, he would sell us a bottle of wine. So we waited around and got our wine. Of course they didn't sell corkscrews though, that would be too easy. But the man told us about another store in the mall where we would be able to find one, and said that if we couldn't, we could come back and he would just open it for us. But we luckily found one, and fell asleep by 8pm.

happy with our wine!

On Monday we were told to arrive at school at 1 pm. We slept a good 12 hours and then had our first adventure on the Ecovia, the bus in Quito for our first breakfast - a German crepe place in La Mariscal, a neighborhood also known as "Gringolandia" (land of the Gringos, or Americans - we are not trying to be anything other than the tourists we know we are). Although we found it without a problem, it took longer than we thought, so we didn't have much time to walk around and explore the neighborhood. Breakfast included a crepe for each of us, toast with butter and jam, orange juice, coffee, and a dessert chocolate crepe (ok, we ordered that one separately - it just seemed too delicious to pass up). We were a little worried about the juice since it's on our list of things to be careful about consuming, along with water, vegetables, and street meet. But we are still four days diarrhea-free! Hurray! Keep your fingers crossed that that doesn't change anytime soon.

breakfast numero uno

Class is interesting. My professor, Manuel, is great. Everyone takes a quiz on the first day to see where you stand with Spanish, and you work on what you need. Other than some grammar exercises, I basically spend the four hours just chatting with Manuel in Spanish.

Wednesday and Thursday (today) have been much more cultural days. But these posts somehow take me forever to write, so you may have to wait until tomorrow or after the weekend for another update!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Jenna and I have officially been in Ecuador for three days!

I think we're still recovering from our crazy arrival day on Sunday when we awoke at 3:30 for our 6:30 am flight through Costa Rica to arrive in Quito at 2pm local time. FYI, Ecuador is central time, not pacific like I told everyone. Even though Ecuador is on the west coast of South America, if you actually look at a map (which I obviously did not), the west coasts of the two continents do not line up.

First things first - let me explain why we're here. Our program is called Andean Global Studies and it is basically a very flexible, very intensive Spanish language course. We are doing the medical Spanish program which means that the first week we take 4 hours of one-on-one Spanish classes every day, and for the following two weeks, we have the same instruction time but we will also be shadowing a doctor in a pediatric hospital here in Quito.

Jenna and I opted for an apartment over a homestay, but it feels more like a tiny hostel. We share the apartment with a really sweet German couple, and the man who owns the apartment lives in a house across the patio with his family. We have our own bedrooms, and there are two bathrooms, but one is outside on the patio and has no hot water - so I doubt we'll be using that one at all. Although the bathroom "with" hot water is really lukewarm at best, and sometimes is even icy cold. As we get used to 2 minute showers, and having to throw away our toilet paper instead of flushing it down the toilet (because apparently that clogs toilets), we are becoming happier with the apartment. Cesar, the man who owns the apartment, checks on us a few times a day and helps us call cabs at night.

While I don't have a great sense of the city yet (surprising considering how good my sense of direction is), our apartment is pretty far north of the "hip" part of the city. But we are about three doors down from the school which is very convenient. Other students may have hot water and wifi, but at least we don't have to take a bus to class. We are also in very easy walking distance of a huge mall with a food court, a bank, an internet cafe, and clothing stores (very necessary since we were VERY wrong about the weather, see below).

The most surprising thing about Quito is that it is FREEZING here. Considering we are in a country named after the EQUATOR, I was a bit taken aback. But it's because Quito is so high in the mountains. Since our beds are made with two fleece blankets and a quilt, we are warm at night, but during the day we are quickly using up our long-sleeved shirts and limited sweatshirts. Buying a fleece in the mall or an alpaca wool poncho in the market we're going to on Thursday is definitely a necessity we will be taken care of.

So that's your basic orientation to what we're doing in Quito! Updates soon on what we've been doing in and outside of class!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Adios America

Hi all!

I have been the worst blog updater ever this summer. I have good reason though. My life has been very, very boring - unless everyone wanted to hear what books I've been reading (so far, Kenneth Davis's Don't Know Much About Mythology and Michelle and James Nevius' A Streetwise History of NYC: Inside the Apple), or more details about my MCAT class, or how late I sleep (around 9-9:30), or what I eat...

You get the picture. I'm boring.

That is soon to change though! Tomorrow (reallllllll early) I leave for Ecuador for a month! I'm going with a friend from school, and we'll be living in Quito, taking Spanish classes, and shadowing physicians in a hospital/clinic in the city.

I have no idea what my internet situation will be like - so I can't promise Tuesday and Friday updates. But I can promise interesting updates when they do come! So make sure you check back every so often - or follow me on twitter @elenawelt where I'll be letting the whole world (all 60 of my followers, half of which are spam) know when I post.