¡Estamos en Cuenca! We arrived on Friday, after eight hours on a bus. We left Baños around nine in the morning, and the first leg of our journey was spent literally on the backroads of the Andes. The main road was closed for construction or something, so we followed some pretty sketchy roads, winding through river valleys and inching along narrow muddy roads on the slopes of the mountains. The landscape was absolutley gorgeous for the first couple of hours, but after that we were completely surrounded by a dense fog. I wish we could´ve seen more, because apparently the whole drive is supposed to be absolutely beautiful. I was kinda bummed, and to top it off I wasn´t feeling that great, so it wasn´t the most enjoyable eight hours for me.
Around six or seven on Friday night, we arrived in Cuenca, unloading all of our gear, which has mysteriously multiplied since we´ve been here and barely fit in the bus storage space, at the house of the mother of the owner of El Nomad, Cuenca´s homestay program, Arturo. We had a very brief orientation, then one by one we were whisked off by our families. Like in Quito, I have a mother and four siblings, except my hermanos are all a lot younger than me. My mom´s name is Carola, but she goes by Caro or Carolita, and my four siblings are as follows: Angie, age 14, Maria, age 12, Xavier, age 9, and the adorable little Federico, who just turned 7 on Saturday. They are such a sweet, welcoming family, and they live in this private residence area about fifteen minutes on foot from the University. There are always tons of kids playing and riding bikes around the area, which is fairly crammed with houses. A friend from our group, Gemma, lives like three doors away from me, and our moms are friends; everyone in the area seems to know each other, and Gemma´s little brother, Mattias, often visits the house looking for Xavi and Federico. It´s quite a pleasant little community.
For dinner on Friday, we went to one of the main malls to eat, sharing menestras, or chicken with rice and beans. When we left to return to the car, shy little Federico asked me to hold his jacket as we went down the main staircase, and then I offered him my hand and he took it. It was quite a precious moment for me, and so different from my experience with my family in Quito. I consider myself lucky; I got the best of both worlds, family-wise. I had the experience of being the baby of the family in Quito, and now I get to have this new experience of being someone that my siblings can look up to. I´m so grateful.
On Saturday, I woke up with a bit of a cold, much to my dismay, and then Gemma and I took a cab to the Centro, which, like the Centro Historico of Quito, has lots of gorgeous colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. We met up with the rest of the group outside the Catedral Vieja, or the old cathedral, where we waited for our tour to begin. Around 9:30, our double decker bus arrived, and took us on a brief tour of the Centro, ending at the Mirador at the edge of the city, basically this outlook point situated on a hill overlooking the city. We´d been riding on the upper level of the bus, but it started raining then so the majority of us switched to the covered, lower level. We had a brief salsa dance lesson after that, and then Gemma and I taxied back to our houses for lunch. My mom was in Guayaquil for the day, and the kids were with their dad, so I ate lunch with Gemma at her house; her mom, Maria, served us popcorn, broccoli and potato soup, and then rice with tuna and avocado. It was absolutely delicious, and Maria emphasized how important healthy eating is for her. I was thrilled to be eating veggies, which have been extremely lacking in my diet since I´ve been here. I love Ecuadorean food, don´t get me wrong, but veggies don´t play much of a role. If there´s one thing I miss from home, it´d definitely be veggies.
In the afternoon, Gemma and I went with Patricio, my mom´s friend, and Alejandro, Gemma´s brother, back to the Centro, where Patricio gave us a free guided tour, which was much more informative than the one from the morning. They also bought us the best ice cream I´ve had since I´ve been here. It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon, and we walked for a good two hours and I took a ton of pictures. I think I´m up to some 1300 pictures by now, and I still have a good three weeks left.
We also stopped at the Museo del Banco Central, which was closed, but we did get to see some of the Inca ruins and reconstructions out back. After that, we returned to our houses, rested for a bit, then headed out with our friend Forrest for our big group welcome dinner.
We thought the restaurant was pretty close to our homes, as Alejandro and Patricio had told us, so we stopped briefly for some drinks, but when I asked the waitress to make sure we were going the right way, she informed us it was much farther than we thought, and so we ended up taking a taxi. I really liked the environment of the restaurant, but the food was so-so; canelazo, bread with two types of salsa, then some sort of odd appetizer of cow intestines and kidneys (which I avoided), then barbecue chicken and beef with pasta and salad. Overall, it was underwhelming, and I ended up leaving early because I felt kind of sick again.
But yesterday was the best day I´ve had here so far. I went grocery shopping with my mom in the morning, then in the afternoon, when the kids got back, we went out to the outskirts of the city where their grandparents live. They own two beautiful houses on this gorgeous countryside property, with cows, chickens, corn, the whole nine yards. We had an exquisite traditional Ecuadorean lunch, and they informed me that the majority of the ingredients were grown and raised on their farm: the BEST corn on the cob (or choclo) I´ve ever had in my life, chicken, salad, papas fritas (these sweet fries), chicken soup, and naranjilla juice. It was probably one of the best meals I´ve had since I´ve been in Ecuador.
We had cake to celebrate Federico´s birthday, then, after cleaning up, the abuelito (grandfather) made humitas with me, talking me through the steps and having me make the majority of the dish. Humitas are basically mashed corn and onions, with oil, eggs, butter, salt, and sugar, with cheese as the center, or corazon (or heart, as my abuelito told me, because no vale una humita sin corazon), and then steamed inside the choclo leaves for an hour. We even mashed the choclo with a molino, which takes the place of a food processor, which was in the backyard; I have pictures of me using the crank or whatever you want to call it, to mash the choclo with my abuelito. It was such a fun afternoon, and I am so grateful to have have had that experience. He even talked me through the steps afterwards while I wrote them down, so hopefully I can make the dish when I go home in a couple weeks.
While the humitas were cooking, I went on a walk with my mom, Federico, and Angie. The countryside is so beautiful out there, and it was a nice break from the busier city that is Cuenca. We passed by maiz fields, other enclosures with cows and sheep, and a water processing plant. This part was comical for me because my little seven year old brother explained the me the process of how the water is cleaned for drinking. I now know how that specific plant processes its water for the city of Cuenca, and apparently Federico´s going to give me an exam tomorrow. Tonight´s a review session, but tomorrow, I have an
We ate our humitas afterwards with hot chocolate, had a couple great hours of conversation, then headed home. Probably the funniest part of the day, at least for the boys, was when we were getting in the car, all set to leave. There were a bunch of bugs flying around the inside of the car as we waited with the doors open, which prompted my conversation with Angie about my mild fear of spiders…it just so happened that a GIANT spider about the size of my palm appeared on my window, and I don´t know what force made me react the way I did, but I essentially began screaming like a little girl. And of course my siblings, especially Xavi and Federico, squealed with laughter. The darn spider was on the outside of the window, but seriously, that thing was huge. And the whole way home, they made fun of me. Fede even mentioned it yesterday as we were walking through the Centro. It wasn`t my proudest moment, but it was a funny one nevertheless, something Xavi and Fede will never let me forget.
Yesterday was our first day of classes at the University of Cuenca. Gemma and I walked there in the morning around nine, and our whole group met at the main entrance around 9:30 to orient ourselves. The schedule is a little different here; from 10-12 we have conversation classes with professors from Cuenca, the lower class from 10-11 and my class from 11-12. I think it`s definitely going to be beneficial for us to have class with actual cuencanos, so we can pick up on the accent as well as Cuenca-specific phrases that we didn´t hear in Quito. Plus our class groups are much smaller, either four or five people, so we get the opportunity to talk a lot more.
From 12:30-2:30, then, we have regular class with our UBC profs. It´s crazy to think that we only have two more days of class, and then our final exam on Thursday, which is just a simple essay. We have to turn in one final essay on Monday, then we´re done. I don´t want to make it seem like these six credits of Spanish were a breeze, but probably the quickest and almost pain-free six University credits I´ll ever earn. It helps so much that we´re studying material relevant to the country we´re in. I feel like I got so much more out of this class because of the opportunity to study abroad. I´m extremely grateful to have had this opportunity.
After class, I headed home for a late lunch of rice, beans, chicken, a yummy broccoli potato soup again, and strawberry juice. Man, how I love the food here. Angie and I went for a brief walk in the afternoon to pick up a couple things, then headed out with her friend Santiago and little Fede on a late afternoon walk to the Centro. It was definitely a little sketch as the sun went down, but I never once felt threatened, even though the Centro at night isn´t the best place to be, especially for foreigners. But we were quite a unique site, a tall blonde with her two petite siblings and their friend, who was quite a decent guide, actually. For a $1.50 each, we had sanduches de pernil for dinner (pork leg-meat sandwiches…Angie and Santi weren´t lying, they were delicious) then we caught a cab home. I did some homework, then went to bed early again, hoping to fend off this darn cold.
It´s been a couple great days here in Cuenca. I really do love this city. It´s a lot smaller than Quito, and more residential and relaxed, but I wouldn´t say that I like one city over the other. I love them both for different reasons, and I´m really grateful to have had the opportunity to live in and explore both. In three cities, we really did get the chance to see the diversity of Ecuador. And when we head to Guayaquil and Montañita next week, we´ll have the chance to observe more. I can´t believe I have less than a month left. Time really does fly.
Today, we have our conversation class and then we´re off to a museum and then some other excursion. Hopefully the nice weather keeps up; it´s pretty much been sunny and gorgeous since we´ve been here. Hasta luego, amigos; I´m off to class!