Having finally arrived in Ecuador, the first week has been both achingly slow yet packed with activities. Orienting ones' self in this beautiful, chaotic country has been a pleasant chore. Armed with enthusiasm and vigor, a great group of new friends, confidence in my language skills, and my lucky #18 Broncos jersey, I have enjoyed the initial week of my stay here. My SIT program has been phenomenal, with our prophetic academic director Fabián Espinoza providing ample guidance, knowledge, and wisdom about all things Ecuadorian. If the first week is to be any indication, this journey near the equator is sure to be bursting with culture, music, food, learning, and most of all, fun.
Orientation began in Tababela at Hostelería Rancho San Carlos and continued in a hotel in Quito, providing the logistical details for the next four months. Academically my experience will be much more interactive, demanding, and valuable than the last semester in Spain. Traveling constantly, never staying in the same location for more than two weeks at a time, the upcoming spring promises to, if nothing else, provide constant stimulation. The group of 13 students hails from schools across the country, including a few unfortunate Seahawks fans from Seattle. I believe it takes a certain kind of student to seek out a research-based, experimental semester program in a developing country, and it is apparent that our group shares many similarities. I have no shortage of buddies to both exercise and eat with, and these two activities have guided my time here so far. We had multiple daily sessions with Fabián, or Fava, Honey Bear, Sugar Daddy, or just plain Jefe, in which we received a combination of practical advice on safety in Ecuador ranging from material security to physical and digestive well-being as well as discussions and lectures on Ecuadorian machista culture, politics, and history. In his past, somewhat mysterious life, the yogi-like Fava was a presidential advisor on issues regarding the environment, and he has made it clear that he remains adamantly politically active in this country. A true fountain of knowing, his frequent flakes of gold inspire me to seek a zen balance during my time here, engage in all intimate, fairly reckless, and enthralling activities not specifically prohibited by program rules, and experience the local culture in every way imaginable, including utilizing my newfound legality as fully as possible. He really is the man, and I am moved to perform at a high level in order to follow his beaming example, exemplifying the very best Ecuador has to offer.
Assignments so far have included self-guided excursions to small villages surrounding Quito, the world's second highest capital city of two million sandwiched between the dueling mountain ranges of the Andes corridor, and interviewing, interacting with, and observing with natives. The country presents an incredible demographic mix of native, European, South American, and Asian influences, among others, and an "Ecuadorian" identity is difficult to pin down. However, it is clear that the cacophony of sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes inherent in Sierra life inside and surrounding Quito provide daily excitement and verve to local life. The natural beauty is already stunning, with lush, green valleys and massive peaks surrounding the main population zone of the country. People are incredibly nice and outgoing, incredibly polite, always smiling, and offering advice or a helpful hand. Soccer is contagious, and two games with locals promise great times for the future. The altitude is definitely a factor in daily life, and a run around a Quito park, albeit with two collegiate runners, delivered a noticeable pulmonary burn at 9,300 feet. There is always a need to be mindful of one's self and surrounding, and after not losing a thing during a half-year in Europe my program cell-phone was skillfully swiped during a brief doze on the bus, despite severe physical improbabilities. Food has been solid if not bland so far, with the highlight easily being the vast variety of fruits and juices available at every meal - fresh squeezed and incredible. My growing list includes pineapple, papaya, passionfruit, blackberry, tree tomato, naranjilla (an orange relative), and guava. There is certainly no shortage of sensory experience to be had in this amazing place.
Politically, Ecuador finds itself in an incredibly interesting situation, with impressive social programs and infrastructural investment countered by potentially environmentally harmful exploitative practices, shady refutations of democratic civil society, and a trading equation skewed towards corrupt international influence. President Rafael Correa enjoys a popularity rating of over 70% due to tangible improvements to the country's physical makeup and lower classes, but his regime regularly silences, embarrasses, and jails political opponents, and short-sighted deals cut with China and large agro-businesses that threaten the safety and well-being of both some of the world's most bio-diverse areas as well as native indigenous populations would suggest a less than positive global influence. Correa has allied himself with a group of leaders spouting socialist doctrine while employing flashes of authoritarian control, including figures such as Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia, the Castro brothers of Cuba, and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela whom remain steadfast in their support for national sovereignty, refuting American influence and authority, and retaining, solidifying, and improving their own personal and political positions and ambitions. The Ecuadorian police are known for being easily corrupted and harsh towards foreigners, especially Americans, and I am excited to be in such a dynamic place during a crucial time in the formation of national identities and ideologies.
In short, my introductory time in Ecuador has been great, and the semester promises to be a great, exciting mesh of excursions and learning. I have just moved in to my first homestay outside of Quito for the next two weeks, accompanying an intensive language course. My family consists of father Jota, an architecture professor, mother Ana, sisters Ana, an engineer, and Cristina, a video game producer, and brother Pepe, a recent culinary school graduate. Their house on the outskirts of a small Quito suburb is spacious and beautiful, and with three dogs and four cats I have no shortage of love to go around. The group is planning a reunion on Sunday night at the only place showing the Super Bowl, the venerable T.G.I. Friday's, and the game promises to be a great one, with many implications awaiting fans of the losing team. All is certainly tranquilo, as the Ecuatorianos say, and I am incredibly lucky to be here.