Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Little Rambling is Good for the Soul.

Currently relaxing back at in my apartment after an exhausting but awesome day of mountain biking at Cotopaxi, Ecuador's largest active volcano and one of the largest in the world. The tour took us up to the base of Cotopaxi and we started by riding down the winding road to the bottom. The road was really bumpy and all the vibration was a little tough on the hands. With me were four others - a threesome from the states on vacation and a British guy doing a 10 month exploration of South America. After that little bit we went off road across the beautiful valley below the volcano. It reminded me a lot of the scenes in Lord of the Rings where the fellowship is crossing those yellow fields to get to the Mines. Anywho, this is was by far the best section and we were literally the only ones riding it which made the whole thing more serene. We got to check out some Incan ruins (an old fort of theirs) which was c00l. Jan, the Dutchman of the Biking Dutchman company that hosted the tour, gave us a fantastic lunch complete with brownies made from cocoa plants grown in Ecuador - yummmm. 


This weekend got me reflecting a bit on the experience of traveling solo here in Ecuador. Despite the fact that I am down here by myself, I very much rely on others for weekend travels and such. This weekend my plans to go for a long trip fell through, and I was pretty bummed but also began thinking maybe I would travel to this particular place alone. Safety, of course, held me back and it made me a bit frustrated for a few reasons. At some level, I attach a sense of complete independence to the ability to take on that solo voyage and meet people along the way and have that quintessential backpacker experience. Also, I sometimes feel that I am too afraid of the world and the possible risks associated with whatever and it worries me that I might hold back from a truly great experience because of it. In truth, I questioned coming down here due to safety concerns, and that would have been a real mistake. Finally, it really bothers me the reality of having to take much greater precautions as a woman traveling alone than as a man. I don't think it's a fabrication to think that I would have traveled alone, no doubt, by now if I was a man, but have not partially because of being a woman and the dangers associated with it. 

All those points made, I have realized (definitely with the help of talking to others) that independence is what you make of it and I actually have a great deal of it and have cultivated more by coming down here alone. It's been a good learning experience to be forced into a new culture/language/location alone and to make friends and acquaintances on my own. It can get lonely, for sure, but working through that has been essential to the experience. At this point, I have a solid little base of people I call friends and I've realized how solo travel brings up countless opportunities to meet super interesting people. 

There's Austin and Aliya, two kickass freelance journalists who traveled here from Egypt to follow the Assange case and now Snowden as well. They're two of the most knowledgeable people I've ever met about world events (I suppose that's necessary for a journalist) and even in the short time I've known them they have caused me to reflect on the importance of having a stance on things, formulating an opinion, and being open to talking about it. They're also fantastic at questioning the status quo in a way that makes me think about my own role in, dare I say it, changing the world. 

Richard and Andrew are two chill guys I traveled to Banos with - it seems that we're all in a similar boat about trying to figure things out and hoping maybe Ecuador is a place to facilitate that. Andrew is studying for a law degree and working for an environmental lawsuit here and Richard came to work for a hostel pretty much out of the blue. In all honesty, it seems that most people here - foreigners at least - are looking for something. Or maybe we're just more honest about not having it figured out. There's a great amount of camaraderie in being in a new place together. I'll also add Justin, a paramedic here, to the list of we're-figuring-it-out.

There was a cool Australian guy who was traveling around the world. And Simon, a British guy I went biking with for the day, was doing something similar. He had a very interesting perspective on travel - I don't know whether it was a getaway for him or if it was simply taking advantage of being young. In terms of how long travel disrupts your "career" (or just career depending on how much weight you put into the whole idea), he said: Is there really any risk? At worst you work a bar job or whatever until you can get another job you want. Ok, so that didn't sound as philosophical as when he said it, but it does make me question the illusion I often fall prey to about the linearity of life. When in a place like this, maybe it's that you appreciate the figures that pop in and out of your life. Though I'd say there's a statistical likeliness that people who ship out to Ecuador on a whim are more interesting or have more to say than the average person. 

Quito has been a good reminder that I can't try too hard to prescribe a certain experience for myself. There's a lot of imagery out there that makes me feel that I have to have certain stories to tell at the end of this trip but there's no way to live up to them. I do believe that some of the best things in our lives happen when we aren't looking for them. So, here's to not looking too hard and having four more weeks to explore!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Banos 'n Stuff

Week 3 has come and gone, but not without the usual excitement and adventure. At work we had some great patients:

There was a young guy completely funded by the non-profit who got a below knee prosthesis. He was the most adorable 18 year old guy, and absolutely dominated his first day of walking. He had the biggest smile on his face while he practiced his gait with his dad cheering him on. It was awesome to think that this prosthesis cost him nothing and could totally change his life. I only say could because a lot of the effectiveness is up to the patient - whether they are actually using the prosthesis and practicing with it. But on our side of things, the process is completely sustainable. What's great about David's non-profit is that he has hired local Ecuadorians to work for him and he himself lives in Quito. Many other prosthetics non-profits aren't long-term because they provide an expensive prosthesis but don't stick around to make adjustments when the fit is off or when the patient's limb shrinks over time. With ROMP, the patient simply has to come back to the permanent clinic to get tuned up. 

Another guy we had was nicknamed Nacho, and he allowed me my first in-person look at cheetah blades (curved prostheses used by runners in the olympics, etc). 

So, Nacho had an awesome cheetah blade on his left side -- it was a great opportunity to see the difference in gait that occurs with the blades. He was really comfortable with his, so the difference was almost imperceptible. The biggest deviance was that he didn't bend his knee on the left side nearly as much as the right, and that's simply because without calf/lower-leg muscle on that side there is no process by which to push off the ground. The real benefit of the blade is that it is much lighter than a day-to-day prosthesis and the carbon fiber material is springy and allows a higher energy return as well. 


As the days go by I get more and more into the swing of things here in Quito. What I like most is being surrounded by Spanish, new foods, good people, and my work of course. I'm not so keen on the smoggy-ness/car infestation that there is here. Sometimes when I'm walking to work it is almost hard to breath because of the exhaust fumes from cars and busses. I think it would be tough to live with that for a long time. Quito is a great location, however, to have weekend excursions to places with tons of fresh air and nature. 

This past weekend I went to an adventure sports town in the direction of the jungle (the Amazon that is) called Banos. I went with a couple of friends - an American and a British guy - who I know through my roommate. We headed out on Saturday and had a 4 hour haul to get there... we got a bit of a late start and arrived around 1 pm. But we wasted no time in going to a spa - Banos is known for waterfalls, chocolate, and spas - called el Refugio. There, we all got something called "Banos de Cajon" which were wooden boxes that you sit in (your head sticks out) that fill with eucalyptus infused steam. You get all toasty in the steam and then they pour cold water over you... it felt great! In addition they give you some awesome tea-juice stuff to rehydrate with and the boxes are located in front of a huge glass window overlooking the mountains and river. 

After getting loosened up in the BdC we all got massages... it was the first time I've had a massage with hot rocks. At one point the masseuse left the rocks resting on my back and in my hands = immediate sleep. 

Needless to say, that was awesome. However, it was totally topped by the whitewater rafting we did the next day. We went to sign up for the rafting and the dude asked us if we'd ever done rafting before. Worried that we wouldn't be allowed to go we said yes of course. I think the last time I rafted I was 8 and mostly just sat there. Lucky for us, everyone going on the trip was a newbie and there wasn't really any prior experience necessary. They took us in a fun wagon-car thing, blasting music, as we drove to the river entrance. There they split us up and instructed us about how to paddle together and what to do if someone were to fall out. Everyone in my boat was from the US, Canada, or Britain so our team name was the Allied Powers - woohoo! The rafting was a level 3+, meaning mostly 3 with some 4 sections (the scale goes 1 to 5). It was a rollicking  good time with just the right balance of excitement - ahh, almost fell out! - and relaxation. The leader we had on our raft was a definite pro and seemed to be the alpha male of the raft leaders because he was always yelling at them to do things. He had a very urgent way of yelling "Forward! Paddle! Faster!" that made the whole thing more life-or-death seeming (in the best of ways). At one point we got a bit turned around and he yelled at us to row backward very fast... we didn't quite catch on fast enough and went directly into a huge rapid while facing backwards. It was awesome. 

The Allied Powers. Spoiler alert: We Win WWII.

If I happen to have the time, I'd definitely go back to Banos because there's so much to do there and everything is so cheap compared to the states... rafting for a half day plus lunch was only $30. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Work and Play (aka Trying New Foods)

This past week marked 2 weeks in country, meaning I'm 1/4 of the way through the project. That really blows my mind, especially because I know the rest of it is gonna go so fast. 

So, what's new? This past week was mostly about exploring Quito more (especially the food) and getting really comfortable with my surroundings. A safety checkup in case anyone's curious -- I feel really safe now that I know Quito and my area very well. I know what precautions to take, common sense stuff really, and I know how to flag a legit cab and can even communicate my needs in Spanish. So, on that front, all is well. And that realization has allowed me to enjoy things much more :)

There were some great personal and team successes this past week at the clinic. One of the best was fabricating and testing a prosthesis for a hemipelvectomy patient (the entire leg and half of the pelvis is removed). For this guy, the cause was cancer - osteosarcoma to be precise. Unlike clinics in the states, here we see a lot of young people, under 40. The two major causes for amputation that I've seen are motor vehicle accidents and cancer. But the cool thing about it is that these young people are rarin' to go on their new limbs so it's particularly fun to watch them walk and even run/do sports again. 

The man himself!

 Taking the first few steps. 
This guy was the definition of determination. 

The steps to get this guy back on his feet (one real, one mechanical!) were to:

1) Take a cast of the residual limb. This means using fiberglass cloth to wrap around the limb that has been amputated (once it's healed of course) and get a cast of the area. While doing this, David applies more or less pressure in certain areas that he wants to hold more or less of the individual's weight. He'll also draw out critical anatomy that helps to determine where to give more or less room in the socket.

2) The cast is then put in our sand box (brings be back a few years) and filled with plaster. This gives us the mold - in other words, we now have plaster shaped in the same way as the patient's residual limb. I can do this step!

Carlos (one of the other prosthetists) adjusting a plaster mold.

3) We then heat up sheets of plastic (there are different types for different sockets). For a test socket, that will need to be adjusted to get the right fit initially, we use a clear plastic, and otherwise there are various thicknesses of more permanent opaque plastics. After the plastic is heated up we quickly drape it over the plaster mold and force it to conform exactly to the mold with a vacuum. 

A little plastic action.

4) Once dry, we cut the plastic socket off the mold and grind down the edges until it's the exact shape we want. Then we buff the edges to make sure they're nice and smooth. 

Back to the old grind (ah, puns).

5) Finally, we attach the pylon (the metal rod that basically replaces the leg), the knee joint (if necessary), and the foot. Voila, we have a custom made prosthesis!

One of the greatest things about this experience is that all of the results of my work are so tangible. One day I may work on fabricating a socket and the next I'll see someone using that socket to take their first steps. Watching this particular young man learn to use his new leg with such determination was total validation. As hard as I work, I know it's nothing compared to the physical, emotional, and mental rehab that our patients do. And yet, they always leave the room with a smile. I can't wait to see this guy in a couple weeks to see how much he's progressed. What makes the story even better is that while he was in the hospital with osteosarcoma he met another young man with the same disease who had had a prosthesis already made for him. The other man was terminal, and before he died he gave our patient his prosthesis. Incredibly, all of the measurements were almost exactly the same -- it ended up saving our patient over $12,000 which is an astounding amount of money here (most Ecuadorians make about $400 a month). 


Besides all of this excitement at work, the week was spent mostly exploring new foods and seeing more of Quito. Here are some of the things I got to try this week:

Pan de Yuca - little balls of starchy yuca dough, often served with cold, fruity yogurt.

Exotic fruits - tuna (watermelon-like texture, light sweetness) and taxo (very sour, seeds much like a pomegranate).

Ceviche - consists, normally, of fish or seafood cured in a citrus soup (basically). Here it's eaten with popcorn and plantain chips (chifles). 

Cevichochos - chochos (white beans), chifles, popcorn, and tomatoes in a ceviche sauce. This dish is EXTREMELY popular here in quito and a pretty big portion runs you about $1. I wasn't a huge fan because it was pretty watery with the ceviche sauce and didn't have enough spice/flavor for me. 

"Executive lunch" (Almuerzo) - this is a full meal that costs $2.50 and you get a soup, a main dish, a juice, and a small dessert. The main dish is always a meat (probably chicken) and the soup varies. When I went with David it was a chicken broth soup and actually had a chicken foot in it which surprised me to say the least. 

Emborrajados - a much egg-ier version of fried dough, topped with condensed milk, honey, or sugar. 

Dylan, my roomate, and I walked around Quito on Saturday. We saw the Mariscal area which is considered "gringoland" and has most of the travel offices in Quito. We also checked out the super nice mall "Quicentro" which is, quite truly, far nicer than the malls near me in the US. On Sunday, I took the Teleferico to the base of the active volcano Pinchicha which overlooks the city. It was a beautiful view of Quito and the surrounding mountains, and it was nice to get out of the smog of the city for a bit. The Teleferico could be called touristy, but is mostly frequented by locals because the cost for Ecuadorians is about half that as for foreigners. I met two really nice ladies, Terry and Teri (hilarious, I know), who were on a program called "Road Scholars" that was taking them to the Galapagos for a week. It's pretty funny how much gringos stick out in Quito - I spotted these ladies in no time flat. At the top of the Teleferico I also bought some grilled chicken and vegetables that were being sold, and they were pretty delish. 

Can't really go wrong with that view.

I finished off Sunday by taking Lucky, the dog, for a walk in the park. On Sundays, Quito really emphasizes family time so there's a huge fair that happens every weekend in el Parque Carolina right near me. The place is flooded with food vendors, jewelry makers, game areas, and families. There are also tons, and I mean tons, of young couples sprawled out on the lawn, PDA in full force. It's not something that's as common to see in the states, so pretty interesting to see that intermixed with families. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Horses, Waterfalls, Volcanos, Oh My!

First, apologies for the horrible reference/joke title of this post. But you're probably over it already, so onward with the tale of Black Sheep Inn and the first weekend adventure. 

Day dos (2) began with another nom-licious meal - some muesli, bangin' eggs, and fresh juice with a base of tomate de arbol (this is a tomato-like fruit that can be used in everything from hot sauce to jam to juice). Then we set out on a horse-back adventure up higher into the mountains above the cloud forest. My horse was Estrella (meaning star... all the horses were named after astronomical features) and she was essentially the Khaleesi of the horses: a very sure-footed lady who liked to lead and would rarely let another horse out-gallop her. Sol, Pat's horse, was the alpha male and he and Estrella essentially led the pack. Ok, horse hierarchy aside, we set out from the town and took the roads up and up into the mountains. The horses much preferred walking on grass which was conveniently located on the very edge of the road/cliff so I had to trust the desire of the horses to not go tumbling off the side. 

The views were really stunning, as I'd gotten used to in the mtns, and we had a good bit of fun hyah!ing and vamos!ing the horses so they would gallop a bit. Like I said, I really didn't have to do anything because Estrella was dead-set on staying in front of the other horses. Most of the time I just told her how pretty and important she was. 

Yea, Estrella had a mohawk. Be jealous. 
Also, sick POV shot, no?

At our first stop there was a cheese-making factory, which was essentially just a big room with some guys pouring cheese curds into a big bucket. From what I gathered, the little cheese pieces get squished into a bigger block of mozzarella. They let us try some young and aged cheese, and the aged was much much better. They both had a really squeaky feel to them, but the aged had more salt/flavor. 

So from there we rode a bit farther, and had a bit of a horse pile up. Well what actually happened was that Sol kinda slid Pat off because he didn't like the other horses tryna pass him. But all was well. We stopped at this gorgeous little grassy hill - it was one of those places you think no one has ever found before (well, obvs not true in this case, but here's to dreaming) and had a beautiful view over the cloud forest. The CF occurs at certain elevations where the clouds sit low, below the hilltops and when you look down from above it's just a blanket of white. There was a wild horse on one of the peaks across from us, so that was rad. 

Cloud forest!

Wild horse, nuff said.

From there we walked to a small waterfall and Greg, the adventure-instigator, was in for a "swim" in 0.6 seconds. He convinced us all to join in and then climb the tiny waterfall to the second pool area. Climbing a waterfall: check. Humbertos (sp?), our really awesome nature-man/guide, took pics but didn't get in due to being commando (we found this claim debatable). After the 'fall, we once again mounted our steeds and rode back into town. It was probably my favorite single activity at BSI.


The next day we hit up Quilotoa, an inactive volcano-turned lake, for a hike. We hiked the entire rim of the crater, with magnificent views of the lake, and it took about 5 hours. The distance was somewhere north of 10 miles, and with all the ups and downs we did it was probably more like 13. It seems that people in Ecuador constantly live on the edge (literally), because the trail was edge-tastic. There was this adorable dog that walked with us the ENTIRE way around the crater. I gave him some popcorn so hopefully he thinks it was worth it. By the end of the hike I was basically lifting my legs with my arms to keep going - nothing like a huge hike at 12,000 ft! But it felt so good afterward to relax and read back at BSI. 

Also, props to BSI for serving us some bomb pancakes with, get this, cinnamon syrup. 

Mind = blown. 

The next morning we all chilled out, read, and did the super-short but super-fun zipline they have on the property. It was a pretty janky setup and the line went right through a tree top (pro tip: wear shoes) but I dug it (past tense of I dig it). 

In the early afternoon we made our way back to Quito and gathered at Dave's place for an epic Game of Thrones finale watching party. No spoilers, I promise. Fun fact: Dave's a huge GoT nerd, and for his recent birthday he had his friend make an iron throne cake that was actually edible. 

I gotta say, it's gonna be hard to top this trip, but there's plenty of time and plenty of places yet to explore. Over and out. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Black Sheep Inn

This past weekend I had an amazing 4 day trip to the mountains, specifically to an eco-lodge called the Black Sheep Inn. Eco-lodges are basically super environmentally friendly getaways. BSI had special no-water toilets, efficient heating systems, vegetarian food made from locally grown products, and tons more. It was ranked as one of the 50 best eco-lodges in the world by Nat Geo, and it only costs $29/night. 

We (me, Greg, Emily, Sarah, and Pat, who had just flown in from the states) headed out early Friday morning. We caught our bus at this huge bus terminal in southern Quito. As far as I can tell, the buses in Ecuador are used for everything and anything. On our first bus there were three boxes of chicks (as in, baby chickens) aboard. It was a bit of a culture shock to see live animals on a passenger bus. The first bus took us to Latacunga, which is really just a transfer station and not much of a city. But we got some food on the streets - bread, sausage, and "chochos" (an Ecuadorian white bean). Then we found this little grassy area by a river running through the city and sat down to eat. 

Lunchtime scenery

There were some city workers there who were cutting grass, but not in any way you'd see in the states. They used machetes to hand cut the grass and then put it into large grain sacks which they carried on their backs to dump out. 

From Latacunga we caught the bus that took us all the way to Chugchilan, the rural town where BSI is. Despite all the English that was spoken this weekend, owing to the fact that we're all American, there was no forgetting that I was still in South America. Vendors of all sorts of things - kebabs, nuts, popsicles, gum, you name it - would walk up and down the bus aisle trying to sell things to passengers. It's actually not a bad deal... as long as you avoid anything that could have been sitting out in the sun the goodies actually make for good (and cheap - usually 50 cents a pop) snacks. As we rode along toward more and more rural Ecuador I got to see, for the first time, the Andes Mtns. The landscape wasn't rolling hills or anything like I've seen in the states. It was more like interlaced hills and ridges, kind of like fingers that fit between each other while holding hands, and almost looked like something Gaudi - the famous architect from Barcelona - would have designed. The tops of the hills and mountains were lined with skinny trees that sat darkly against the cloudy sky. The road we were taking was literally along the cliff edges, and yet there was somehow still room for schoolchildren to be walking to or from school. The uniforms identified them as belonging to one school or another (or one grade or another?) and looked a bit like American track suits. It makes sense, though, because they seem to walk very long distances from home to school. Once you get into the mountains, all you see is farmland. The farms are grown on incredible slopes... There is almost no flat land to be found. I was excited to see that all the animals are grass-fed and allowed to lounge outdoors as they please (though they are kept in within a certain radius by a rope). There were all sorts of animals to be seen, from llamas to donkeys to pigs. There were also tons of dogs and puppies around, and they all seem to be of a similar breed - something like a small golden retriever. Some of the buildings along the road were painted with voting signs/information, such as "Vote for ___" and the date of the vote. 

View from the bus. Pinch me. 

When we finally arrived to BSI, we took a look at the place and all its amenities. There was a yoga room, a gym with workout devices made from simple materials (ie, pipes and plaster), a zipline, a sauna/"hot tub" (disclaimer: not actually very hot), and a frisbee golf course. In fact, THE HIGHEST frisbee golf course in THE WORLD. So, naturally, we played a round. It was the first game of FG I've ever played, and probably will be the coolest ever. We had an insane view of the sunset over the andes as we wove the discs between trees, farms, fields, errthing. I didn't exactly kill it, but I kept it respectable yo. 

How can you concentrate on FG with this 
staring you in the face?

After that intensity we had our first dinner, communal style. Every night they had a soup, a main dish, and a dessert = nummy (yummy + nom). With some nice food babies we hit the sauna for a, dare I say it, dangerously long time and I might have had a spiritual awakening in there. But, in reality, the sauna was totally awesome. After that, it was time to hit the sack and prepare for our epic horseback adventure the following day (to be continued... dun dun dun).

The Bunkhouse where the cool kids at.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


So it's been two days of work now and a total of 3 days in country. Yesterday, day 1 at work, was fantastic - David and the crew showed me how to consult with a patient and take a temporary cast of the residual limb (the part that remains after amputation), create a plaster mold for the cast, vacuum form a carbon fiber socket, and tons of other things. I am constantly surrounded by Spanish. Only David and I speak English, so I think I will learn very fast. I have already learned a few key phrases and words. Some of the ones I hear around the clinic the most are 

pero - but
mejor - better (important for determining whether a patient's prosthetic is more comfortable after an adjustment)
presion - pressure (on a certain part of the leg)

Well, there are tons more but that gives you an idea. I got to watch David with a lot of patients yesterday and they all took well to me being in the room. He explained that I'm a student from Duke/the US and they all seemed very pleased to meet me. 

It was so fascinating to see the countless odd jobs that David does as a prosthetist, everything from sewing a strap to drawing out anatomy on someone's leg. It really does seem to be a jack of all trades profession. And it's insanely active - I was up and down grabbing tools and sitting next to patients, grinding prosthetics and covering molds in plastic. It was exhausting but in a very satisfying and exciting way.

Some of the specific scenarios we had on day 1 were a trans-tibial (below knee), a trans-femoral (above knee), and complete leg (through the hip) amputation. It was a good variety of situations to see on the first day. Some of the time David was making adjustments of the prosthetic and others he was taking measurements to cast a completely new prosthetic. At first, I thought I might be grossed out by the residual limb, but there wasn't anything that shocking about it. There was an older woman with a bit of a sore on her residual limb, but even that didn't really bother me. 


Day 2 at work was a bit more sedentary... I was doing a literature review for a presentation that David will be giving next Friday. We're looking at tips for prosthetic users on maintaining their setup and getting into more demanding sports activity. 

The day was made more exciting, though, by a visit from Greg Krupa, who runs a sports/prosthetic medical gear company with David. He's also, if you didn't guess, David's brother. Anyway, he came by to do a delivery and is insanely awesome, just like David. We went to lunch together at a nearby taco place (I had a pollo y carne burrito with delish hot sauce) and he invited me that evening to hang out at his place with his two roommates from the states. So he met me after work at my place and we took the Ecovia, which is basically a bus-metro hybrid, to Centro Historico which is where he lives. The area was really nice, and quiet when we got there. There were a lot of sombrero (which actually just means any kind of hat) shops open -- it's in southern Quito and more where the touristy shopping is. His apartment was super nice, much more than mine, and not much more expensive. I live in north Quito so I guess the prices skyrocket in that area, though I'm not really paying that much regardless. 

The view from Greg's apt

I met his roommates, Emily and Sarah, who were awesome and we all nerded out about Game of Thrones for a while before hitting the town. We went to this cool New Orleans themed bar started by a guy who lived in San Fran and moved down to Quito a while ago. It's called Dios No Mueres, which means God Never Dies. The reason is because there was a President of Ecuador who was killed near that area (a long time ago) and apparently his last words were those. Furthermore, he is apparently buried in a tomb that abuts the bar. At the bar they were also having this art gallery presentation of jewelry made by indigenous persons. It was funny because there were photographers there for the opening and any time I'd look closely at a piece of jewelry they would take like 500 pictures of me. I started cracking up a few times, because they weren't doing that with any of the non-gringos (non-Americans). That must be what paparazzi is like. 

After the bar we went to a street called La Ronda, which the government apparently cleaned up significantly and which is now a tourist destination. We found a nice place to eat with some live music (we taught the maraca player how to politely ask for money in English). I had an Ecuadorian specialty, cuy (pronounce kwee) which is... wait for it... guinea pig! It was interesting enough, pretty tasty actually, and has been a staple of indigenous cuisine for a long, long time. I also got to try some tamales and some cornbread thing who's name I've forgotten. The walk between places was so nice, because Centro Historico is where all the old Spanish influence can be seen, and there's a lot of European looking streets and buildings. 

Down a street in C. Historico

It was great to see Quito by night, and with Greg and friends, who are very familiar with the area. I was not nervous at all about safety -- there were lots of police everywhere, on street corners and such, just watching out for everybody. This weekend I'll be going with Greg and the girls to an eco-lodge in the mountains... it's apparently ranked by nat geo as one of the 50 best eco-lodges in the world, and it only costs $29 per day with all food included. I'm so excited, and I'll be there from Friday (tomorrow) until Monday. I'm so glad I'll be going with those folks because 1) they're really awesome, and 2) it's always good to travel in groups. 

In other brief news, we got a new roommate today! A nice Italian guy named Dillon. He knows Quito fairly well so that will be muy bueno for me -- I'll make him tag along to various places. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

First Impressions

First, a brief overview of my project:

So, there's this program at Duke called DukeEngage and it funds students to travel abroad (or domestically) for either pre-determined group projects or student-proposed individual projects. I am doing the latter. As a mechanical engineer I really wanted to bust out of the 9-5 desk internship that I'd already experienced and get hands-on and interactive with other people. After a little research, I thought prosthetics might be a good fit. I followed some leads at Duke and ended up connecting with David Krupa, an American prosthetist who moved down to Quito, Ecuador to start both a private practice and a non-profit. So I proposed a 2 month long project to DukeEngage where I'd station in Quito and volunteer with David to make prosthetics. 

Modern Day: 

It's day two and a little bit here in Quito, but I wanted to go back to the beginning to talk about my first few hours and first day here. Day one began in typical Brucato fashion, hectic and dramatic. Literally as I was walking out the door to go to the airport at 3 am, my grandpa had a tumble down the stairs; it was a furious race between the two Brucato cars to see who could reach their destination first - the airport and the hospital. Luckily, Papa Pete - hearty old guy - was totally fine... just a few bumps and bruises. 

The rest of the trip was much less eventful. I had smooth flights from Albany --> DC --> Miami --> Quito. My thoughts before and during the trip were all over the place. For one, I didn't feel prepared because I hadn't really packed that much, and didn't have a great idea of what I would need. Or rather, I knew what David had told me to bring and it wasn't too much. The other major concern on my mind was safety. I had heard varying reports about Quito being a dangerous city, and I sort of psyched myself out the night before by reading up on some of the crime there. I debated how much I would write about the dangers of being here in this blog, but I have decided to be open about it because it is an important part of the experience. Anyway, the night before leaving I was trying to figure out exactly how to get from the airport to the city center, about 45 minutes away. My homestay host, a young woman named Janne, said I could take a bus from the new airport to the old airport and then a taxi from the new airport to my homestay. But David had offered to give me a ride, so I was trying to nail that down instead. 

View of Andes Mtns from the plane

So, here's the deal with safety. Quito is certainly not the safest city in the world. It is much more dangerous than my hometown. Of special concern are taxis -- if you take an unofficial taxi there is a possibility that you could get held up or robbed. Women should not walk alone at night, etc. As I said, I spent some of the night reading these stories to understand the situation in which I would find myself... which I do not regret, but it definitely freaked me out to say the least. I was SO relieved when David said he could pick me up from the airport. As we drove to the city center, he echoed what others had said - always take an official taxi marked by orange license plates and other identifiers. And I will not stray from that. That being said, Janne takes a taxi every morning and night to school and has lived in Quito for 13 years and has never had a problem. So the key is follow people's advice, be smart, and pay attention to your gut. On top of that I am in good contact with everyone I know here in Quito and my parents/DukeEngage at home. 

That all being said, I had the day off on Monday and David suggested walking around, exploring, and maybe doing a hop on hop off bus tour. Truth be told, I was rather terrified to go outside. I had built up an image in my mind that I would be jumped as soon as I left the confines of my home. I finally forced myself to venture out, and walk to the nearby mall. The sun was shining brightly and there were many people, and especially many women alone, walking around. I immediately felt better. I walked fast and with purpose to the mall, and then walked around to look at all the shops. The mall was nicer than the one close to me at home. The locals did look at me a bit funny - a blue eyed gringo girl walking around Quito - but not in a threatening way. I bought some staples at the local Supermaxi (grocery store) and carried them home. Excursion 1 = successful. Hilariously, because of the altitude (~9300 ft), carrying the few groceries back was a workout! 

I went out again a bit later to walk around the park - a nice place. Guys ride around on these ice cream carts and you can buy various yummies from them. Later at night, Janne and I went back to the mall to get some dinner. My initial reaction was ruh roh because I had convinced myself that going out at night was idiotic, but Janne says it's very safe around our area. I felt totally fine with her -- it was nice to be with someone who really knows the place. We ate in sort of the food court area of the mall; I got "pollo negro" (black chicken) for 3.25. 

Things that are cheap here:
-gas ($2.50/gallon)
-food ($2/lunch)
-coke (as cheap as water)

At night we posted up like an old married couple and watched a Spanish soap opera (Amores Verdidades). I'm guessing soaps must be the biggest consumers of waterproof mascara... too many tears (by about 100 litres) for me. Janne's ADORABLE dog Lucky watched with us. Today I checked my camera and 5 of my 6 total photos of Quito so far are of Lucky. On the camera topic, I decided not to bring my nice Cannon because I thought it might get stolen... but I'm sort of regretting that. I can use my iphone, yes, but I won't be able to zoom very well. I might just buy a little disposable camera and have some fun developing all those random photos in the future. 

Lucky, who's actually ghostwriting my blog

Well, that's all for now. I'll try to be less verbose, but I like giving details so no guarantees :)