Viajes de una gringa

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Once again, my students put a smile on my face

Tonight in class my students had to create their own inventions, and then “sell” them to me through an advertisement. In pairs, they created a brochure with the name of their invention and a picture, and 10 reasons why I should buy it.

Yesterday my iPod was stolen during conferences. In both classes, one group created a “super cell phone” that is impossible to lose, and if anyone tries to steal it, it electric shocks their hands.

Then one of my students offered to let me use her phone to take a picture of the vocabulary we had written on the board. I always take a picture with my iPod to remember the definitions I gave them. She emailed me the photo after class and wrote this:

Hope you’re doing great, too bad what happened with your iPod.
You can take all the pictures you want with mine, I’ll mail them every day to this address.
Hope you get a new one soon :)
Have a good night

Their genuine kindness made my night when I was feeling pretty crappy. There are still so many good people in the world, and they haven’t let me forget that. :)

Filed under kindness students good people

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Last night at ILE (my school) we had teacher conferences. All of the students are required to bring a representative to discuss their progress in class, as it is half-way through the cycle. The conferences usually take most of the class, so I wrote down a few assignments on the white board for my students to work on.

Once my students knew what to do, I took my grade book and their corrected midterm exams out into the hallway to begin the first conference. The class went by quickly, with conference after conference demanding my time and focus. Once I finished talking to the last parent, I brought my stuff back into the room and noticed my iPod was missing. “Don’t panic,” I told myself. I emptied my bag and went through everything. The iPod was gone. Maybe I put it in my jacket pocket. I went to grab the jacket, and found that that too was missing. Now I was panicking. I asked my students if they saw either item. They said they hadn’t noticed and offered to let me look through their bags. I know my students wouldn’t steal from me, and the fact they offered to let me check confirmed my faith in them. 

I ran into the hallway and found my friends, Abby and Melanie, and told them what happened. They both helped me look, retracing my steps, and asking around if anyone had seen my iPod or jacket. My students tried to help me remember if I was wearing my jacket at the start of class, and what could have happened. My boss and a few other teachers helped me look. I checked with the security guards. No luck. It was gone.

I know there is no chance of finding my stuff. Riobamba even has a market where stolen phones are sold. I thought about going, but my friend Hugo advised against it. It opens at 5am, before sunrise, and it’s full of thieves, and he reminded me that being an American girl would not be to my advantage in this situation. 

Losing my iPod made me realize how attached I am to technology. I always have my iPod with me. I use it as a camera when traveling, to connect to the internet and check in with friends and family at home, to check emails, to take notes when I get advice from fellow travelers. I use it as a Spanish-English dictionary for my students, and I use Viber to make international phone calls for free. I felt so strange going home without it. 

But I am trying to see the positive in this. As much as it sucks, it wouldn’t kill me to be a little less dependent on technology. After all, life is what happens outside of our smart phones and electronics. And in many ways, I am very lucky. I’ve been robbed twice in the last 12 months, and I was not physically threatened either time. The thought of being threatened with any sort of violence scares the crap out of me, so I’m glad I was unaware at the time that I was being robbed. 

Crappy situations also give you a chance to appreciate all that you do have. So many friends, co-workers, and students helped me look for my lost items. A few friends called and sent me Facebook messages saying they were sorry and trying to cheer me up. And really, they are what matter most. I lost material items that can be replaced. At the end of the day, it is insignificant. What I do have are great friends, a supportive family, a rich life full of amazing experiences, and a lot of other material comforts I often take for granted. And for all of that, I am thankful. 

“Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you.”

Oscar Wilde

Filed under theft stolen gratitude thankful real wealth is not material

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I have met some of the nicest people here in Ecuador, from all walks of life, and they make me want to be a better person every day. Feeling incredibly grateful for them this morning, and for the richness of this experience. 

Filed under people grateful love Ecuador

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Climbing Cotopaxi

One great thing about living abroad: you get the motivation to do things you might never think to do at home, wherever “home” is. If you’re like me, you may also get an exaggerated sense of confidence to do things you aren’t necessarily ready for.

My friend Ashley and I decided we wanted to mountain climb before we left Ecuador. Our original goal was Chimborazo, the highest volcano in the country. Ashley did some research, and we eventually accepted that this was unrealistic, and we would need to work our way there. So we began with Cotopaxi, another volcano that stands at 19,347 feet, the second highest summit in Ecuador.

imageAshley and I in front of Cotopaxi the afternoon before the climb.

We confirmed our trip with Gulliver Tours, and they told us we needed to be at the hostel at 9:30 Friday morning to pick up our gear. I finish teaching at 9pm Thursday nights, and there was no direct bus. A private car would cost me around $80. A night bus to Quito would mean arriving in a not-so-safe terminal alone around midnight and still having to travel another hour to the hostel. Hmm. 

I eventually decided to take an early-morning bus en route to Quito, and asking the driver to drop me off in Machachi, the town where we would meet. I would need to find the road to the hostel from there, which I was told was about a 20 minute walk. I was nervous. Actually, I was a bit terrified. Not only about the climb, but about arriving alone in a town I know nothing about early in the morning. 

To my good fortune, my good friend, Hugo, who is probably the nicest human being ever, accompanied me on the trip. He picked me up in a taxi at 4:15 am and we headed to the bus station. It is much more comforting to be with a friend when you’re sitting in a cold, dark bus station in a foreign country before the sun rises. I slept most of the way there, and he woke me up when we arrived in Machachi. The bus let us off on the side of the road. Turns out, the hostel was further than I had thought. We got a ride to the hostel and had a few hours to kill, so we had time to relax and get breakfast. 

Suddenly the nerves struck and I was freaking out. What was I doing there? How did I think I was going to climb this volcano?! As I began to doubt my ability to actually do this, I was happy to be in the company of a good friend, and a friend who has a lot of experience with climbing. 

As we ate and talked, my nerves subsided and soon Ashley arrived. It was a huge relief to be with the two of them. I would have felt very alone and overwhelmed had it not been for their company and support. I realized that morning that none of this would matter without the people who have been a part of my journey in Ecuador. The friends I have made make all of the adventures and travel worth so much more. I am pretty damn lucky to have met them. 

Ashley and I met our guide, and Hugo left us to embark on our adventure. We went to get our equipment; we would be using crampons, an ice pick, a walking stick, plastic climbing boots, a harness and rope, and lots of warm clothing. About 95% of the climb is on ice and snow.

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Trying on our climbing shoes.

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Ready to go!

Once we had everything we needed, we met another climber and guide pair and the group of us packed into the car and headed toward the refuge where we would spend the night.

The refuge.

The climb would start around 11pm, to give us enough time during the night to climb before the sun came out and melted the snow, making it more difficult and dangerous to walk. 

We spent a few hours hanging out in the refuge, taking pictures, getting to know each other, playing card games and word games, eating a hot dinner, and preparing for the climb. Bed time was 6pm - we would be waking up in four hours to get dressed and eat a small breakfast before driving to the mountain.

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A silly selfie with our guide.

Admittedly, neither Ashley nor I were sufficiently physically prepared for this. Though we had the advantage of living in the Andes Mountains and being somewhat adjusted to the altitude, it is still a very strenuous climb.

We started out climbing in the sand. This part of the mountain was about 60-90 minutes. Both of us went through phases of feeling extremely tired and physically challenged to feeling perfectly fine and energized. 

I thought I would hate climbing in the dark and cold, with only a headlight to light the way, but it was strangely peaceful and fun. The stars were a spectacular sight, without lights from a city to distract you. It reminded me of the scene in The Lion King when Simba sees Mufasa in the stars. Because of the altitude, some kind of chemical reaction caused “lightning” to strike across the sky, illuminating the outline of the mountains, with Quito lit up in the background. It was absolutely beautiful.

At this point, Ashley and I were feeling pretty confident. We got through the sand and up to the glacier. We paused for a snack and to put on our crampons, harness, and rope. The three of us (Ashley, the guide, Marco, and I) would be tied together so that if one of us fell, the other two could hold their weight and pull them up. 

We started the trek up the ice. After what felt like forever Ashley and I stopped, exhausted. It was steep, and all that we could see ahead was more steep ice. “When does it start to flatten out a bit?” I asked Marco. “It doesn’t.”

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Ashley and I during the climb.

It was steep ice for about the next 5 hours. That was when we began to doubt our ability to reach the summit. In the end, we reached about 17,000 feet before we called it a day. 

The trek down was equally challenging, and I was glad it was still too dark to see just how steep it was. I led the way back, with Ashley in the middle and Marco behind us. After a while my knee started to hurt from the pressure of my weight. The bottom of the mountain seemed elusive. The more we walked, the farther it seemed. 

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Nearing the end, thinking “Never again.”

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Me with our guide, Marco. Smiling for the camera, despite the pain and exhaustion. Marco has done this climb 251 times!

We finally finished the climb and reached the car, at this point exhausted, cranky, and sore. We didn’t even want to talk about our dreams of climbing Chimborazo. All I wanted was a hot shower and my bed. 

Though I am disappointed we didn’t reach the top, I’m still proud of us for attempting it, and for pushing our bodies and minds to do something completely new to both of us. It really is amazing what our bodies can achieve. I may not be destined to be an expert mountain climber, but I’m a little bit closer to the person I want to become, and that is a good feeling. I really do believe that we can do anything we set our minds to, and I’m excited for all that is still to come. 

Some views of the sunrise.

Filed under Cotopaxi climb challenge volcano adventure Ecuador

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Day trip to Salinas de Bolivar

Wanting to explore some of the surrounding area closer to Riobamba, I spent the day Saturday in a small town a few hours west, called Salinas. Another WorldTeach volunteer, Melanie, and I took a bus to Guaranda, where we were told we’d catch another bus to Salinas. Turns out, there were no buses, but we could go in a camioneta, a pick-up truck, for one dollar. 

Neither of us would have done it alone, but we got in the backseat, packed in tightly with two other people. There were seven of us in the car total, and about five or six more on a wooden bench in the back. It was a cozy ride, to say the least, but Ecuadorians never seem bothered by tight spaces or having to wait. 

Even though Salinas is close (I’ve been told a half hour by car) the total trip took about three hours. This no longer surprises me, as time has a way of escaping you in Ecuador. The ride was not without amusement, either. A woman riding along with us talked on and on about different cultures and what ethnicity is good to marry into. According to her, “Asian women will stop talking to their husbands until they apologize if they do something wrong. Sometimes they spend fifteen days silent until they get their apology.” She also said to avoid men who overly indulge in vices like drinking, smoking, or fighting. Melanie and I spent most of the ride quiet, stifling laughter and giving each other knowing looks.

I was excited to get to Salinas. The small town is known for its chocolate and cheese, all produced locally, and my host mom told me there was some nice shopping. 

We arrived hungry and stopped for lunch. There were two restaurants in town (at least in the center of town where the activity was). One was empty, the other full. We ate at the full one. We both ordered trout, which came with rice, beets, and a plantain for $3.50. It was delicious.

After eating we wandered out to find the famous chocolate and cheese. In the center of town was a theater/volleyball court and all the locals seemed to gather here to talk. We went into a store to ask where we could find chocolate. “Chocolate? Um, in any of those stores,” he said casually, vaguely waving his hand. Hmph. 

We wondered around for another minute and then found a shop advertising products made in Salinas. Bingo. 

We bought some chocolate, ate it, and then bought more. We tried the tea. We talked with the people. 

We walked around town a little more. The tourist center didn’t offer us much. There was horse-back riding, but it was a rainy, grey afternoon and pretty chilly. We had seen Salinas.

We got some coffee and talked for a while before finding another camioneta back to Guaranda, and then a bus back to Riobamba.

It was a fairly uneventful day, but all the same it was nice to get out of Riobamba and see another town for the day, and Salinas was scenic and tranquil. 

Filed under Salinas small town Ecuador Andes chocolate day trip

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What Teaching Has Taught Me

With each cycle of teaching, I learn new things and I try to improve on my teaching style and techniques.

I’ve also learned a lot about myself based on my reactions to difficult situations, how I handle stress, and what causes me to lose my temper. This experience has been eye-opening for me, as I have seen qualities in myself both that I admire and that I want to change. 

In my first two teaching cycles, I allowed stress to dictate my mood and behavior more than I’d like to admit. I grew easily frustrated when students talked back to me, refused to do their work, or whined about seemingly small tasks. I got worked up over things that I couldn’t control. I didn’t like when things veered away from the plan. But things will always veer away from the plan, and none of us can avoid challenges, nor should we try to. Those are the moments that test us, that bring clarity, and present an opportunity to be better.

I realized that when I snapped at my students, or made the schedule a priority over my relationship with them and the pace they needed to learn, it hurt both me and them. They fed off my energy, and I lost control. But when I remained calm, patient, and loving in how I taught, the students usually reciprocated. 

This cycle, I’ve slowed down. I am more concerned that they really understand the material, and less concerned about staying on track and on time with the grammar. It will all get done in time. I am making a conscious effort to let things roll off my back; to do what I can, and accept the things that are beyond my control.

At the end of the day, I want my students to enjoy learning English, I want them to feel that I cared about them and their education, and I want to know that I was the best version of me I know how to be. That matters so much more than finishing a workbook exercise or calculating quiz grades. 

As someone who is passionate about education and frustrated by the disparities in education across the globe, I never want to lose sight of why I’m here. I am here to teach, to converse, to share my culture and learn theirs, and to treat my students with the humanity and dignity that all people deserve. Education too often gets lost in the “system.” It becomes institutionalized, all about test scores and numbers and graduation rates. When that happens, we have failed. We have failed because it is no longer about people and their mental, psychological, and emotional growth. People should always come first. 

And so, this cycle I am trying to keep my stress in check and my attitude positive. When we were coming up with class rules, one of my students suggested that we should all “be motivated” while we are in class. I loved that. We have the power to make the experience one where all of us can prosper. If we all show up and do our best, not only to learn a language, but also to be the best people we can be, to encourage others and to create a positive environment, we will succeed. 

Filed under teaching lessons learning people education reflection

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Frustrations abroad

Some of the things you will encounter while traveling that will frustrate you, even if you expect them to happen and understand why they do happen:

  • Ignorance. People think differently all over the world, and regardless of whether it’s “politically correct” or not, or whether it’s offensive to you or not, you will hear varying opinions. 
  • The word “feminism,” at least in Riobamba, is considered by many to be a dirty word. I’ve been called a feminist in a way that was meant to insult me. I’ve also heard people complain about “all those feminists and liberals” in other countries. I will never understand why equality is such a horrific idea to people, and this has been a frustrating difference to accept.

  • Speaking of words being “dirty,” I’ve also heard the word “gay” used as an insult too many times to count. It’s one of the more popular ways to make fun of your friends or explain unusual behavior. This is another phenomenon I’ve never really understood, but people everywhere seem to have strong opinions on the sexuality of perfect strangers. 
  • Noise. I can hear every. single. noise. from the floors above and below me in my room. I hear every conversation, argument, toddler temper tantrum, and blasting electronic music. It is difficult to find peace and quiet in this city. Music blares from store speakers on every block. During elections, parades went by daily playing Marc Anthony’s “Vivir la Vida,” and I can no longer appreciate any part of that song.
  • Gender roles. This is a subject I am very sensitive to. I grew up surrounded by people who encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much pressure people place on your sex. Here, that pressure and those roles are even more blatant. I know it’s just another way of thinking, it’s cultural, and it’s all some people know, but I cringe every time I hear a statement like “Women are supposed to cook, clean, and take care of children. That’s not a man’s responsibility.” (Yes, I have heard statements JUST like that).

  • Differing thoughts on cleaning, food preparation, and health. Dairy is sometimes not refrigerated here. Dog poop doesn’t need to be picked up. Cakes, cookies, and other baked goods are left out all day, uncovered. Children all drink water from the same cup, or if there is no cup, from the nozzle of the water cooler. Stomachaches might be caused by the rain. Etc. I am still not used to any of this.
  • Personal space. Americans in general prefer more personal space, and keep greater distances between themselves and their companion when talking, waiting in line, etc. That is not the case in Ecuador. I’ve been closer than is comfortable for me on many occasions, and this is something I struggle to accept. 

These are some of the challenges that have come up for me. Of course, everyone is different, and one thing I have been struggling to improve this year is my acceptance of and patience for discomfort. 

Filed under frustrations abroad travel differences