Jan 212014

After six months of liv­ing in Ecuador, tran­si­tion­ing back the U.S. feels like relearn­ing how to ride a bicy­cle.  The man­ner­isms feel sim­i­lar but every­thing is slightly foreign. 

For exam­ple, I’m get­ting use to toi­let paper being in the bath­room, being able to drink tap water straight from the sink, the cashiers hav­ing exact change for a $20 bill, receiv­ing dol­lar bills instead of dol­lar coins, using an iphone instead of a old flip phone, get­ting use to snow on the ground, and of course, remind­ing myself that I know how to drive on the high­way.   

In some ways it feels like I’ve never left. But then I look at my right arm and see the tat­too that the Hourani peo­ple drew on me in the ama­zon, I look in the mir­ror and see that my hair is longer, my face is darker and I’m still wear­ing the home­made neck­lace that an Ecuado­rian friend gave to me.

Every­thing feels like a dream because my feet are in the U.S. but 12 hours ago I was in Ecuador say­ing good-bye to my host fam­ily and eat­ing my last Ecuado­rian dinner.

After lots of trav­el­ing I’ve learned the best thing to do is live in the present and to keep mov­ing toward the future.

In less than a week I return back to West­ern Ken­tucky Uni­ver­sity to fin­ish my last semes­ter of school. On my list of pri­or­i­ties I have plans dur­ing the first week to find a latino store where I can ask for plan­tains in Span­ish and then to host an Ecuado­rian din­ner and invite my friends over and give them a lit­tle taste of my experience.


The Things I will Miss

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Dec 152013

The Food

My Host Mother’s Soup

Street Food

 Fresh Fish

Watch­ing Soc­cer Games From My Room

Sleep­ing in Strange Places

Hav­ing Lots of Fam­ily Time

Late Nights with Local Friends 

Town Par­ties


Liv­ing in the Clouds


Tango Classes

Swim­ming the Amazon

Boat Rides

Big Beau­ti­ful Bugs

The Moun­tains

The End is Near

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Dec 152013

Like every end-of-the-semester-finals week, there’s always a love-hate rela­tion­ship involved. 

After study­ing for hours in the library, in your room, in the cof­fee shop that you call your sec­ond home, you walk in to take your last exam for your Gram­mar class, your Civ­i­liza­tion class and your Con­ver­sa­tion class, and when you hand in your test and leave the room, the first thing you say is, “YES… I’m done!” and then you think, “Oh… it’s done.”

Finals week always is reliev­ing and sad at the same time.

You say your last good­byes to the pro­fes­sors that taught you phrases you use every­day like, “Vale la Pena” (trans­la­tion: It’s worth it) and engrained into your mind that it’s “EL sys­tem, not LA syste.”

You say your good-byes to the pro­fes­sor that taught you about Machismo through fables, and made you appre­ci­ate being a woman in Amer­ica. 

You say good-byes to the dance teacher that encour­aged you to per­form a mod­ern dance on the streets of a small town called Cum­baya, and helped resur­face an inher­ent love of per­form­ing that you’ve always had and have recently missed.

You say good-bye to the crazy bus route that took you to and from school.

You say good-bye to the guards, to the man who always offered you free cof­fee, to the inter­na­tional study abroad coor­di­na­tors and to venders out­side of the uni­ver­sity that were always sell­ing you off-brand soft­ware pro­grams as you ran to class.

You say good-bye to the rou­tine that you’ve had for the last four months.

You say good-bye to the moun­tains that you use to pass and “that spot” where you would drink your $1 cup of cof­fee. 

Then you start to imag­ine pay­ing $2 for a cup of cof­fee or $3 for a mango and you think, “How am I going to adjust to the United States again?”

There are a lot of things I’m going to miss but for now, all I can say is “Thank you.”

Cultural Ambiguity

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Dec 122013


As we were walk­ing out of the door after my con­ver­sa­tion class on Tues­day, our pro­fes­sor told each one of us, “No se boracha demasi­ado. Dis­frute y cuidense.” — (Don’t drink too much. Enjoy your­self and be safe.)  

Wednes­day night was the begin­ning of the “Fies­tas of Quito,” a city-wide hol­i­day that cel­e­brates the foun­da­tion of Quito with big bands, huge free con­certs, danc­ing, parades, $3 chivas (open buses with a bar and a dance floor) and var­i­ous bullfights.

The “Fies­tas of Quito” already have a rep­u­ta­tion of attract­ing peo­ple from all over the coun­try to engage in two-days of drink­ing and par­ty­ing, but a Quiteño was telling me that five years ago to use to be worse.

Five years ago Quito was known for its bull­fights and use to attract peo­ple country-wide to drink, party and watch the Toreos show off their sport.  But recently, the pres­i­dent banned killing bulls in pub­lic areas and since then the hype that once defined the fies­tas has slowly disappeared. 

But they are still around.

Fri­day morn­ing my host uncle called me and said, “Let’s go see a bull­fight,” a cul­tural expe­ri­ence I didn’t want to refuse.  

was curi­ous. 

Even though I had pitched the idea to a hand­ful of friends, who refused to come with me because they didn’t like the idea of a bull run­ning around in area as peo­ple watched it suf­fer, my image of the event wasn’t as gruesome. 

When we arrived the crowd was slim. About half of the down­town sta­dium was filled and the tick­ets sell­ing out­side were only $10, whereas they usu­ally cost between $50-$90.

I appre­ci­ated the spec­tac­u­lar for its cul­tural value.

I loved lis­ten­ing to the music, watch­ing audi­ence throw their hats into the ring after each round, and watch­ing the torero kiss their hats and throw it back to them.

The whole event was immersed in years of Span­ish tradition.

As I watched round after round, I could hear the words of my Lenguage y cilivización pro­fes­sor slowly seep­ing into my head about the ambigu­ous iden­tity of Ecuado­ri­ans and their con­flict between their indige­nous and Span­ish roots.

Here we were in Latin Amer­ica watch­ing a Span­ish sport, in Euro­pean designed arena and speak­ing a Euro­pean language.

As I looked around the arena I also noticed that the spec­ta­tors were not the aver­age Joe’s. They were apart of the high-society and they looked more or less like Spaniards.

As I travel and spend more time the locals, I’m learn­ing that the iden­tity of this coun­try is more com­plex than most peo­ple think.  On the streets you can visu­ally see the his­tor­i­cal sup­pres­sion of the indige­nous peo­ple, in the gold painted churches you can see the Span­ish dom­i­na­tion of the Euro­peans, and in the face of my local friends I can see the inter-marriage and the mix­ing blood of both worlds.

Even though the Bull­fight was an event for the peo­ple of high soci­ety, I con­tin­ued to cel­e­brate the “Fies­tas of Quito” by going out danc­ing with a group of friends, a tra­di­tion that is universal. 

My Routine

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Dec 012013

When­ever I move to a new place I have a rou­tine of estab­lish­ing myself. It’s like wak­ing up in the morn­ing, you inher­ently have your list of things to do before you walk out of the door.

1) Brush your teeth

2) Put on clean clothes

3) Eat a healthy breakfast

4) Make sure you have your keys, cell phone and wallet

5) Smile three times

Check, check, and check.

When I move to some­place new, the rhythm of the inher­ent list is no different.

1) Find my cof­fee shop/ ice cream shop (depend­ing on the time of year)

2) Find a quite place where I can feel the wind.

3) Find a run­ning route

4) Find my SGI Bud­dhist community

In New York City my cof­fee shop was called the “Horse Cafe,” in Quito it’s Juan Valdez, which I call StarBucks-Juan Valdez because the two are basi­cally cousins.

In Min­neapo­lis my quite place was lean­ing up against a tree on the edge of Lake Har­riet, in Quito it’s the rooftop of my apart­ment build­ing where I can eat juicy man­gos and watch the clouds cud­dle the city.

In Ohio my run­ning route was to and from the local high school track, in Quito it’s around El Par­que Car­olina where there’s always “un mon­tón” (this is an Ecuado­rian phrase for “a lot”) of events going on.

But unlike all the other cities I’ve lived in, find­ing an SGI Bud­dhist com­mu­nity in Quito took the longest.

The rea­son was obvi­ous. In South Amer­ica the major­ity of the coun­try is Catholic, which gives a whole new mean­ing to the term “bible belt.”

Usu­ally I’m able to con­tact a Bud­dhist orga­ni­za­tion dur­ing the first week of my move but with in Quito you can’t just run into a prac­tic­ing Bud­dhist mem­ber on the street.

After the first three weeks I finally found my Bud­dhist fam­ily and learned that the major­ity of them live walk­ing dis­tance from my house. Over the past three months they have become my fam­ily away from home.

Over the last five years I’ve packed my bags 11 times, have moved to eights dif­fer­ent cities, and have learned that the tran­si­tion between place to place is much eas­ier when you plant roots in the com­mu­nity and cre­ate strong rela­tion­ships with people.

I’ve talked to other exchange stu­dents and the major­ity of them are ready, if not eager, to go home.

But I don’t feel that way. I have a my cof­fee shop, my quite place where I can feel the wind, my run­ning route, and my com­mu­nity of family-friends.

It has become a home.


I’m Not a Beach Person

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Nov 242013


I wouldn’t call myself a beach per­son, but in Ecuador all you have to do is pay $5, sleep on a night bus for seven hours and you wake up on the beach.

Over the last three months, I’ve become a non-beach per­son that goes to the beach at least once a month.

I had never been to Canoa’s beach, but every time it came up in con­ver­sa­tion peo­ple would either say…  “Canoa…que her­mosa,” ( which means, “Canoa…How beau­ti­ful”) or “I LOOOOOOOVE Canoa.”

The major­ity of for­eign­ers that I spoke to were ready to pack their bags and move to Canoa.


In the states we have beaches like Miami or Laguna Beach — beaches that encom­pass a big city, huge houses, high rent, ect. — but in Ecuador, beaches are  in quaint towns, filled with fish­er­man, lines of small inde­pen­dently owned restau­rants and cheap hos­tels ($10/night) for back­pack­ing Gringos.

They’re not flashy, all the locals know each other and the sun­sets are hol­ly­wood quality.

For those rea­sons peo­ple love it.  Peo­ple love it for its surf waves, its hip­pie atmos­phere, its extremely relaxed lifestyle and of course for the romance.

In Canoa it’s very easy to find your­self in the arms of a native as a foreigner.

That’s a thing.

Puppy love on the beach comes with the cul­ture,  and even though the rela­tion­ship prob­a­bly won’t last very long it doesn’t mat­ter because you’re in Canoa.

After spend­ing some time with a few local guys, I asked them if surf­ing, meet­ing for­eign­ers, lay­ing on the beach and par­ty­ing at night ever became a bor­ing routine.

They said no, because there’s always some­thing excit­ing to do.

For me after two days of lying on the beach, surf­ing, meet­ing other for­eign­ers, and danc­ing in the evening, I was ready to return back to Quito and do some­thing pro­duc­tive — any­thing productive.

Maybe that’s the Amer­i­can in me, the Amer­i­can that will prob­a­bly never move to Canoa.

Vale La Pena”

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Nov 172013


In the U.S. hitch­hik­ing is almost taboo.

But it didn’t use to be.

I’ve heard sto­ries about my mother trav­el­ing from Ohio to Col­orado, jump­ing from the back of trucks to cars with strangers, but I’m sure my mother wouldn’t encour­age to do it in this day an age.

In the United States hitch­hik­ing has a rep­u­ta­tion of being dan­ger­ous but in Ecuador that’s how you travel from a rual vil­lage to the city, how your visit your rel­a­tives on “El Día de Los Difun­tos,” and how you get to the Cotopaxi National Park when you don’t own a car, don’t have $50 and are trav­el­ing with locals.

It was Sat­ur­day when Car­men Rosa and I decided that our usual mun­dane Sun­day should be re-routed with a spon­ta­neous trip to Cotopaxi National Park, and like most adven­tures that take place in Ecuador, the most excit­ing and unex­pected parts hap­pen dur­ing transport.

After trav­el­ing an hour out­side of Quito, the bus dri­ver dropped us off in the mid­dle of the high­way, pointed to the right and told us that we could find a line of cars to take us to the park.

What we didn’t know was that those cars would cost us $50 (trans­porta­tion + guide), which was $30 more than what we had between us.  

So instead of turn­ing back, except­ing our unpre­pared defeat, we decided to con­tinue toward the peak and “Catch a ride.”  

I had never hitch­hiked before in my life, but Car­men Rosa was a pro. All she had to do was wave her hand and in a sec­ond a car or a truck would stop and we’d jump in the back.

The first ride, we jumped into a truck with two work­ing men who were trans­port­ing min­er­als to another cite close to the park, the sec­ond was a father and his two chil­dren, their fam­ily owned a restau­rant right out­side the park, the third was a fam­ily that had a pick-up truck and were also going to hike the Cotopaxi.

As we jumped from car to car, I noticed that peo­ple who stopped to pick us up weren’t even close to any of the descrip­tions you hear about in the states. Most of the peo­ple were with their fam­i­lies and had gen­uine intensions.

Three hitch­hik­ing rides later we made it to Cotopaxi, hiked up to the ice, hiked down to the lodge, had some hot coco and then it ran out of the lodge because it started hailing.

Just as we were reach­ing the bot­tom dur­ing the hail storm, I real­ized we would have to come back the way we came.

Luck­ily, within moments Car­men Rosa had worked her magic again and we had a ride to lift us out and away from hail storm. 

The fourth ride was a lovely cou­ple with space in their car with heated-seats. The fifth and sixth rides were two fam­i­lies with pick-up trucks and the sev­enth was a bus that we flagged down off of the same high­way where we started.

I will prob­a­bly never hitch hike in the U.S. for the rea­sons that we are taught, but hitch­hik­ing to Cotopaxi made the trip cost $2.50 instead of $50, and feel­ing the wind in your hair as your trudge along a dirt path with a vol­canic moun­tain beside you, is some­thing I prob­a­bly won’t ever repeat in my lifetime.

It was def­i­nitely “vale la pena” = “Worth it.” 

Nov 102013

The din­ing room table as is awaits its guests, with the colada morada in the middle. 

A Birth­day with Colada Morada

Grow­ing up attend­ing a inner-city pub­lic school, I was taught that one your birth­day you take three one dol­lar bills, pin them to your shirt and then through­out the day peo­ple will give you a dollar.

In Ecuador there’s no $1 bill shirt pin­ning but there are unex­pected parties.

I knew it was my host-sister’s birth­day on Mon­day, so on my way back from school I stopped by the flower shop, bought her some flow­ers, came home and opened the door to a house the smelled of home­made bread called guaguas de pan on four huge pots of colada morada.  

What is colada morada and guaguas de pan?

Colada morada is a typ­i­cal Ecuado­rian drink that is pre­pared once a year for “El día de Difun­tos” — hon­or­ing of those fam­ily mem­bers who have passed away.  The berry drink is sup­pose to sym­bol­ize the blood of those who have passed and the home­made bread called guaguas de pan, is sup­pose to sym­bol­ize the bodies.

So drink­ing “blood” and eat­ing “bod­ies” is more or less sim­i­lar to drink­ing wine and eat­ing bread in Church.

So I walk into the kitchen and imme­di­ately start ask­ing questions.

What’s going on? Are we hav­ing a party?” — and after see­ing all of the 50 beau­ti­fully pre­pared cups on the din­ing room table, I assumed the answer was yes.

Yes. Didn’t I tell you?” said my host mother.

Nope she didn’t tell me that her two sis­ters, her two sister-in-laws, her other daugh­ter, her two broth­ers, her seven cousins and their daugh­ters, my host sister’s boyfriend, and my host sister’s friends were com­ing over to drink colada morada and  sing happy birth­day to my host sis­ter.  

But that’s nor­mal.   

That night she and I (I vol­un­teered) ran in and out of the kitchen serv­ing colada morada and cake, a typ­i­cal Mon­day evening sur­prise at la casa de Vela.

Even with the noise of con­ver­sa­tion by fam­ily mem­bers, my host aunt Vicki (left) looks straight at me as I take her photo. 

SIDE NOTES: Colada morada is not served on people’s birth­days, but because my host sister’s birth­day is close to el día de difun­tos, we had colada morada.

OTHER SIDE NOTE: Below is the recipe for any­one who is inter­ested. It’s a sweet drink made with flour and is def­i­nitely “Vale La Pena.”



1 cup pur­ple or black corn flour

14 oz naran­jilla or lulo pulp (thawed if frozen)

2 cups black­ber­ries (frozen or fresh)

2 cups blue­ber­ries (frozen or fresh)

2 cups straw­ber­ries, sliced

1 pineap­ple, peels and core + 2 cups finely diced

5–6 cin­na­mon sticks

4–5 whole cloves

4–5 all spice berries

12–14 oz pan­ela or brown sugar

A few lemon ver­bena leaves, fresh or dry

A few lemon­grass leaves, fresh or dry

2 pieces orange peel

8 + 4 cups water



1. Place the pineap­ple skins and core, cin­na­mon, spices and pan­ela or brown sugar in a large pot with 8 cups of water. Boil for about 20–25 minutes.

2. Add the lemon ver­bena, lemon­grass, and orange peel.

3. Reduce heat and sim­mer for 10 min­utes. Remove and strain.

4. In a sep­a­rate pot, add 4 cups of water with the blue­ber­ries and black­ber­ries, boil for about 20 min­utes. Remove from heat, let cool down until safe to han­dle, blend and strain.

5. Mix the cup of the pur­ple corn flour with 1 cup of the spice pineap­ple liq­uid until well diluted.

6. Add the strained berry mix, the naran­jilla juice, the spiced pineap­ple liq­uid and the diluted pur­ple flour mix to a large pot.

7. Cook over medium heat, stir con­stantly to keep it from stick­ing, bring to a boil.

8. Add the pineap­ple chunks and reduce to sim­mer for about 10 minutes.

9. Remove from the heat, add the straw­berry slices. Serve warm or cold.


source: http://laylita.com/recipes/2011/10/18/colada-morada/


Nov 022013

The first day of ori­en­ta­tion, a pre­vi­ous stu­dent from La Uni­ver­si­dad de San Fran­cisco explained to an audi­to­rium full of of Grin­gos that Ecuado­ri­ans don’t tell you any­thing directly. You have to read between the lines.

The first time I con­sciously encoun­tered this was at 12 mid­night in Ambato, a city I had never set foot in.

I was trav­el­ing from Tena to Cuenca, which is in the south­ern part of Ecuador, with my friend Lina and we decided instead of wast­ing 12 hours of day time on a bus we would travel to Cuenca at night and arrive in time for breakfast.

So we made a plan:

Leave Tena at 7:00 p.m (check)

Arrive to Ambato at 11:00 p.m. (check)

Trans­fer to a bus going to Cuenca at 12:00 a.m. (no check)

When we got off of the bus in Ambato, the a bus dri­ver told us that the bus up the hill get­ting ready to leave was our bus. Nat­u­rally, we both started running.

But when we reached the bus all we heard was, “It’s full.” 

It’s full. It’s full. It’s full.

There were three buses going to Cuenca from Ambato at mid­night and they were all full.

Are there any other options?” we asked.

There’s a bus that leaves a 6 a.m.”

As I looked around at the sta­tion I couldn’t look past the lay­ers of dirt or the pas­sen­gers that had already claimed their beds in the wait­ing room for the night.

There’s no way we’re going to sleep here tonight. We’re going to get on a bus.”

Three sec­onds later a local walked up to the bus clerk and asked him for a seat to Cuenca.

He was in the same posi­tion that we were in and like us, he was denied by the clerk. But also like us, he had a look of con­fi­dence that he was going to board a bus.

I watched him closely.

If he can get on a bus, we’re going to get on a bus,” I thought.

To under­stand what hap­pens you have to know how the bus sys­tem in Ecuador works.

In Ecuador there’s a bus dri­ver and there’s a “wing-man.” The wing-man hangs out­side of the bus and shouts/or encour­ages peo­ple to board. Some­times buses will stop and pick up ran­dom pas­sen­gers on the side of the road because those pas­sen­gers will pay the “wing-man” in cash and that cash prob­a­bly go directly to the dri­ver and the “wing-man” under the table.

The other pas­sen­ger going to Cuenca spoke with a “wing-man” and, sure enough, squeezed him­self on to a bus.

After I closely watched him put his suit­case under­neath one of the “full” buses. I quickly approached him and told him, “We need to go to Cuenca too, is there any more room?”

There are two of you? I don’t know. I’ll tell the bus dri­ver that you’re some of my friends and that you also need to go to Cuenca.”

He told us to bring our bags closer to the buses and to wait for him to talk to the “wing-man.”

When he returned he told me that the “wing-man” said there were still no seats, but it didn’t mat­ter. Then he said, “Even if there isn’t any space, once the bus starts mov­ing, JUST BOARD THE BUS.”

Just board the bus? But every­one is telling us that it’s full.

As we watch him board the bus, and the bus slowly started to pull away from the sta­tion, I thought, “No, we’re get­ting on that bus.”

And then we started to run. When the bus turned the cor­ner so the bus sta­tion was out of sight, we boarded. 

Despite what every­one had said, we found two seats, paid the “wing-man” under the table and slept our way to Cuenca.

We arrived at 7 a.m., just in time for break­fast as a result of our deter­mi­na­tion to board the bus and “read­ing between the lines.” 


Kind Gestures

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Oct 272013

After a 3 hour hike through La Sevla, we arrived at a river had lunch, cooled of and did some swiming. 

After six days of film­ing in Bua with the Tsa’chila com­mu­nity, I return to Quito, washed my clothes and 24 hours later jumped on another bus, but this time it was for vacation.

Our mid-term break had finally come and a friend and I decided to make our first stop the jungle.

We stayed for two nights at Liana Lodge, which, after only meet­ing older Euro­peans with steady jobs and lots of vaca­tion time, got the feel­ing that this place wasn’t where most always-broke col­lege stu­dents go.

(Side note: it was a lit­tle expen­sive but it was def­i­nitely worth it) 

While we were there we hiked through the jun­gle, saw mon­keys, birds, snakes, smelled cin­na­mon trees, learned about nat­ural herbal plants, and swam in a river that could be in the movie, “Six Days and Seven Nights” with a pri­vate guide (that’s included in the package). 

One our last day we didn’t want to leave but knew we couldn’t spend any­more of our sav­ings to camp here for one more day.

But we decided to pay a lit­tle extra for one last tour and vis­ited a Quichua com­mu­nity. Our pri­vate guide  knew every­one on the island includ­ing a fish­er­man who was catch­ing fresh food for his fam­ily that day.

After we chitchat­ted with fish­er­man and his two chil­dren we headed back to the lodge.  While we were walk­ing I noticed that our guide had a fish wrapped in a banana leaf that was given to him by the fisherman.

We joked a lit­tle bit about eat­ing the fish for lunch, but I thought noth­ing of it.  

To our sur­prise when we reached the lodge our guide had asked the cook to pre­pare this fish for the two of us for lunch.

That after­noon we were enjoyed the kind ges­ture of the Liana Lodge staff and fresh fish, free of charge; a penny-pitching col­lege student’s dream.


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