After two years in college, I wanted a change. I switched my major twice, transferred schools, and quit the dance team. Still unhappy and torn between following the love of my life, and following my childhood dream, I decided to change my environment completely and study abroad. Luckily the college my boyfriend was attending, Southeast Missouri State University, would allow me to transfer any coursework back from overseas. Being able to get my degree without being physically present changed the game. Studying abroad would give me time to figure things out and “find myself.” My first study abroad destination was Ecuador in the fall of 2012.
My First Time Traveling Alone
Flying into a third world country is both strange and relieving. There’s a sense of freedom that makes you feel vulnerable yet powerful.
From the airplane, I could see several smoking volcanoes, and a small city in the distance. To the east were the Amazons and the air pressure made it hard to breathe. When we landed, I exited the terminal, and it looked like a scene from the movie Independence Day.
We waited for our luggage on the runway, as there were only about four parking spaces reserved for boarding and maintenance. When we entered the airport, there was a crowd of people screaming and waving at us. Then I was told to “find my family” and the 20 Americans I had traveled with quickly dispersed. As I was looking back at the airplane reconsidering my entire trip, a middle-aged man grabbed my bag and proceeded to walk to his car. I followed him because his vibe wasn’t threatening and he looked familiar.
I Was Absolutely Terrified…
As we approached the jam-packed parking lot, he began drilling me with questions in Spanish. The lot didn’t have designated spaces. It was just a big black cement lot filled with cars facing all different directions. The man asked how my flight was if I was hungry, what my plans were for the next day, and he inquired about my family back in Missouri. I’d never been fully immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment, and it was overwhelming.
To make things worse, the man couldn’t speak any English and the town we were driving through looked like something out of The Walking Dead. There was graffiti everywhere, nearly all the street lights didn’t work properly, and there were no traffic lanes. I was comforted by the fact that I was wearing a pair of very heavy Dr. Martens boots.
As the man was talking, I planned my escape. Realizing that I had no cell phone service and that my Spanish wasn’t even adequate for getting a ride back to the airport, I sunk into my seat recognizing the man may have kidnapped me on my first solo trip abroad. Then he pulled out a gate opener and slowed down beside a shoddy apartment.
The building was riad-style, with parking in the courtyard area. The man said to call him “Patricio” and proceeded to pop the trunk open. He went around the back of the car, grabbed my duffle bag, and then opened my door. After like 30-seconds I realized I had frozen in my seat, and decided to follow Patricio to avoid any problems. I would make my escape as soon as an opportunity arose.
Meeting the Family
We walked through the old building and took an old school elevator up to the second floor. When we got off the elevator it was dark, I could hear sirens in the distance and dogs barking, and all the doors in the apartment building had bars in front of them. I followed Patricio into a tiny apartment with green walls, where two women were waiting. One appeared to be my age, and the other was around 50. They had super strong coffee, fruit, bread, and queso waiting for me. The cute little host family I’d imagined looked different in third world circumstances.
The younger woman spoke a little English and told me that my class would meet downstairs in the morning. I was finally at ease and began to loosen up a bit. She said to call her “Tati” and showed me how to work the duct-taped electric shower, how to do laundry on the porch, and how to access the internet from their old school computer. I messaged my mom on Facebook to let her know I arrived, chatted a bit, and headed to bed.
The Smallest Apartment I Had Ever Seen
The apartment had two bedrooms and one bathroom. I slept in Tati’s room while her dad slept on the couch, and Tati slept with her mom in her parent’s bed. The living room, dining room, and office were all near the front door. The kitchen appliances took up one wall in the laundry room. Oh, and the couch was inflatable. Before I knew it, I had made it through my first night.
The combination of the altitude in Quito, Ecuador (approx. 10,000 feet above sea level), proximity to the Equator (and the sun), and the super diverse ecosystem of the Amazons being so close by made Ecuador the perfect place for a detox. My skin, hair, nails, and emotions were intense during my stay.
And So It Began
Each morning my host mom prepared a fresh juice along with a traditional breakfast. Her carrot-tomato-papaya-mango juice and blackberry juice were unlike anything I’d ever tasted. She also kept our apartment stocked with fruit and freshly baked bread. There was an orange fruit filled with tiny jello-like seeds called granadilla that quickly became my favorite. I contemplated sneaking the granadilla through customs on the way home. I also tried a fuzzy white fruit and something super sour that fell from a tree at the local zoo.
During my trip, I spent most of my time in the city. I wandered around, spoke Spanish, went to a few bars, and ate South American pizza. I got some pretty serious sunburn that removed a sheet of skin from my face, and any acne I had at the time cleared up immediately.
In the city, it was pretty hard to breathe. It was probably because of my asthma, combined with typical city pollution, the altitude, and the city being in sort of a valley between the mountains.
One of my favorite memories from my time in Quito was meeting people from Cuba, Argentina, and Australia. Going clubbing was nothing like what I was used to in the states.
First off, the multi-purpose bartenders were all professional salsa dancers and had a sort of protocol for when things got out of hand. If a fight broke out, the music stopped, the bartenders became the security, and eventually, the local authorities rushed in with riot gear and tear gas.
One time I went to a spot called “No Bar” with some other Americans and Ecuadorians. A fight broke out, and the local police stormed in with tear gas and riot gear. My host sister told me that since Ecuador didn’t have a national military, the state police were heavily armed. They couldn’t risk a major incident because they had no backup. After tear gassing the club and removing the people who were fighting, the music cut back on and then we all went back to clubbing like nothing happened.
City Kids in Quito
In Ecuador, everything is subtle. From the flavors in the food to the way people converse with one another. All of the veggies and seafood my host mom prepared maintained their natural flavors and moisture. I was accustomed to overseasoning, dry, burnt, or undercooked food. Not only was the consistency and temperature of her food perfect, but the meals were creative, and the flavors went well together.
My favorite meal, hands down, was “Sopa Espinacas.” It was a spinach soup with a hint of olive oil, warm queso, and french fries. I also had plantains for the first time during my study abroad in Ecuador. They’re now one of my favorite foods in many African and Latin cultures. You can’t cook a plantain wrong.
Making Poverty Beautiful
Ecuadorians don’t waste much. They find a way to use whatever the land provides. In the city, people do enjoy prepackaged yogurts, chocolates, cereals, and chips. However, it’s unlikely to meet someone with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer (except skin cancer).
Compared to places I’ve lived in the US, Quito is pretty tranquil, has hardly any violent crime, and the people keep to themselves. On the downside, the driving can be pretty crazy, and the cost of living is extremely high for what people make.
My host mother was an engineer, and my host father was an accountant. They were both well educated and considered middle-class by Ecuadorian standards. They were living in a two-bedroom apartment, renting out one bedroom to American students, and sharing a car between three people. A small family in the Midwest, with the same educational background, would have a 4-bedroom home and everyone would drive their own car.
I had a high school professor that was obsessed with Ecuador. He met his wife there, and they had two Ecuadorian-American kids. Then he adopted two Ecuadorian orphans, and eventually relocated his entire family to Ecuador.
I took his class five years before my trip, and just thought he was a crazy old man. Now, after studying there, I understand why he felt so passionate about Ecuadorian culture.
After a few days of city living, I considered never returning to the States. A few days into my trip, I got the opportunity to go to the thermal springs in a mountain town a few hours away. I would also get to ride a “teleferico,” wild horses, and see the Amazons. I jumped at this opportunity and headed out of the city that same evening.
The Starbucks of Latin America
As I trekked into the mountains, I discovered a place called Juan Valdez Cafe. My favorite foods are liquids: boba, coffee, tea, soup, you name it! I fell in love with Juan Valdez Cafe because they had fresh ground coffee, and hot chocolate made with wild cow’s milk. It was like the Starbucks of Latin America.
As we climbed, it began raining very heavily. We stopped at a little park pavilion that doubled as a restaurant, and they told us the horses would pick us up in an hour.
We played a little volleyball in the rain, joked around, and ordered food. When the horses arrived, they were quite skinny and emaciated. Some had bad attitudes, and we thought our group was going to have to split up since they weren’t cooperating.
I ended up getting on a black horse called Midnight that nearly threw me off the side of a cliff. I remembered Paulo Coelho’s phrase, “Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience” as I rode Midnight. I had a blast! I lived by Coelho’s motto during my entire study abroad and it helped me loosen up and have more fun.
The Mountain Town of Pichincha
When we finally arrived at our destination after four hours of riding bareback, we met a beautiful woman operating a hotel/spa in the middle of nowhere.
We paid to enter and received a locker to place our belongings. Then we got meal tickets and sat down at a huge table in the hotel’s dining room. I ordered yucca empanadas, and they hit the spot.
After eating, we changed into swimwear and headed across the way to the springs. It was freezing. When it would rain in the mountains, the temperature would seem 15-20 degrees colder than it was. The temperature could be 63, but it would feel like 40 degrees.
I was so glad to get in the thermal springs, but most were boiling because we were very close to Guagua Pichincha, one of the active volcanoes surrounding Quito. I finally settled into one that was slightly hotter than a standard jacuzzi.
Living Like A Local
Over the next week, I wandered around the mountain towns, met some cool people (and dogs), drank Latin beer, hiked to a waterfall in the Amazons, and visited the Equator.
Swimming in the waterfall was terrifying and yet so beautiful. Everyone needs to witness the Amazon rainforest in their lifetime. The sounds, smells, wild monkeys, poisonous frogs, and anacondas make it unlike anything else in existence.
To my surprise, the Andean Indian huts are still being used in mountain villages today. I discovered this upon being offered a local delicacy called ‘cuy.’ It looked like skewered chicken, but I had to ask around to double check.
Cuy could be purchased fresh or precooked. In the Andean mountain huts, families could have upwards of 30 guinea pigs running around that would serve as pets until it was time to make cuy. Yes, cuy is what they call guinea pig meat in Ecuador.
This type of rural farming was how generations of families sustained harsh mountain life. A guinea pig could sell for $20, while a fast-casual meal might only cost $3 or $4. For the record, cuy tastes like chicken, but it’s juicier and a bit gamier.
Life At the Equator
Going to the equator was one of the coolest things I did on my trip. There would be sudden gusts of very warm air, almost like walking through a cloud of smoke near a fire. The people living there had skin like leather, and I bought some handmade alpaca sweaters.
A local delicacy near the Equator was the chicken foot soup. It reminded me of frog legs floating in some chicken broth. I guess it was alright, but the bones threw me off.
I forgot to mention that in Ecuador, you won’t find a public restroom. Without easy access to restrooms, it’s typical to relieve yourself in nature.
Many of the people selling food also had minimal access to soap and clean water, which made eating there much riskier. It was common to encounter people whose hands were filthy. I once ordered a fresh squeezed pineapple juice at a cafe, and it had huge floating chunks of dirt.
After awhile in the mountains, my group caught the bus back to Quito to spend the last few days of our trip with our host families. As the bus made it’s descent down the mountains, we passed a shopping mall in the middle of a mountain town in the middle of nowhere.
I watched some kids that had just gotten out of school head down the mountain on foot. I also saw a funeral procession that consisted of about 20 sobbing relatives of the deceased, a wooden box cut in the shape of a casket, and some flowers. The people mourned and carried the casket toward a cliff where they appeared to throw it off the edge.
I bought a couple 25 cent empanadas from locals that would get on at the longer stops. I feared accepting food from strangers, especially in third world countries, but these were the best empanadas I’d had in my life.
Later on, I would discover that there was no regulation for street vending like we have in the United States. Locals could sell food they made at home to tourists, and it would help them to feed their families.
I remember one woman selling boiled snails and another selling underripe plantains, using their bare hands as serving utensils. I guess this practice is comparable to traveling to rural Arkansas and being offered roadkill by a local. Sanitation and hygiene standards might be different, but the person’s intentions were good.
As my trip came to a close, one of our final assignments was to compare the mountain towns versus the city in a third world country. I can honestly say I enjoyed the mountain life a bit more than the city life.
I’m originally from Missouri, and a country girl at heart. In contrast to US cities, Quito was very tranquil, and most of the graffiti was artwork. People avoided conflict, and the energies were subtle.
In the mountains and the Amazons, the views were breathtaking. The people were a bit quirky because they maintained a lot of their Andean traditions, but there is a certain beauty in being completely removed from the modern world. No one had cell phones or computers, the cars were old, and many people still rode horses.
Overall trying to live like an American in Ecuador was a bad idea. I enjoyed my trip much more after I stopped ordering American foods, and trying to get people to speak English.
Fish and chips in the US look something like battered fish sticks with french fries; the same thing in Ecuador looks more like a whole grilled fish served on a wooden platter with baked potato balls.
First World vs. Third World
I had to quit judging what it meant to be a citizen of a “first world country.” I lived my life expecting people to value my cultural norms, educational standards, and beliefs. I judged third world citizens, and the lack of technology, militarization, and media influence. After living in Ecuador during my study abroad, I began to shift how I viewed these differences.
I started appreciating their simplicity, humility, and oneness with nature. Ecuador has one of the greatest volcanic profiles on the planet. As it’s on the equator and at the tip of the Amazons, the food and climate are some of the most vibrant in the world. In a short trip to Ecuador, you can experience the Andes, the Amazons, 16 volcanoes, the Equator, thermal springs, cloud forests, tropical city life, and rural third world living.
Whether living with a host family or traveling to the luxurious volcanic resorts, Ecuador will take your breath away. I will return one day, and maybe this time I’ll stay.