Sunday, August 31, 2008

The First Few Days in a New Country

After long days of travel and getting adjusted in Quito, we met our host families on Saturday night. Along with two other volunteers, Bryce and Craig, I was picked up by Miguel, Marcia, and their son David. It's a big family with two sons, a daughter and son-in-law who have a 1 year old baby, Stephany, and a niece who lives with them because she is studying in Quito.

Bryce just graduated from Wake Forest and is from the Washington D.C. area. Craig is a lawyer in Atlanta, and it's a good set of guys. We were miffed at first because we'd heard that the house was an hour away from the orientation site, and since we're going to have long, 12 hour days, it wasn't something we were looking forward to. But that all changed once we met the family. Everyone is extremely warm and welcoming, immediately treating us like one of their own children.

Any doubts about the house were blown away when we arrived. It's basically a mansion just outside the city. The entire family lives here in two different buildings, and another building is rented out to another person. In the courtyard is a giant grill and tons of flowers and fruit plants from which you can pluck a fruit called "taxi" any time of the year. It kind of tastes like pomegranate but is stickier. There is a rooftop terrace with a view of the entire city, stretching in a narrow valley high in the Andes, over 9000 feet above sea level. Suck on that, Denver.

Besides a couple of headaches, the altitude sickness problem hasn't bothered me. Of course, when I walk up 6 flights of stairs, I feel like I just ran 5 miles, but that will hopefully improve with time. After a long dinner in which we talked about anything and everything, it was time for bed and our first day off.

On Sunday we had a picnic planned in a local park with the WorldTeach volunteers and their families. The picnic was supposed to start at 10:30, so of course we got there a little after noon. Piling into the family Land Rover, we got to see some of the city and learn our route to the city. Once at the park, with the mountain Pichincha in the near distance, we started to play soccer, or futbol. Within just a couple of minutes, we were winded and struggling, but we pushed on and played for at least another half hour.

It was great to play with Miguel and Daniel and some other volunteers. After some lunch, we headed towards La Mitad del Mundo, also known as the equator. We took the bus for 35 cents each way and were there within a half hour. The park cost $2 to get in, and of course, was nothing more than a tourist trap. A line runs through the park marking the difference between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and everyone can be a putrid tourist and stand on the line for 5 seconds to snap a photo. Since I was already here, I did the same.

Some people argue that La Mitad del Mundo isn't actually the equator, and that it's further north of the official monument. We didn't check out the unofficial source, but rather walked around and listened to a live band perform over the line of the "equator." Whether or not we were exactly over the line wasn't really important. It's the ideal that you're straddling two hemispheres that's interesting enough, and in reality, you're still there.

Of course, being at 9000 feet with a cloudy sky all day, I didn't put on sunscreen. So Casper over here got sunburned. My nose is now shiny and boiling, as well as the lower half of my face. I'm going to have to start carrying around sunblock with me no matter where I go.

The initial expectations have been met and I have to say, I'm having a great time. Everyone we've talked to and spent time with has been great, and our hosts have been excellent and caring. Patient and considerate, we are made to feel right at home. And we are home, for the next month anyway. Then it's on to Machala.

The food has been delicious. At lunch you can get a good meal for $2, which includes soup and a drink. A taxi should cost about $1.25-2. A bus trip should cost no more than .25 cents. Everything in Ecuador, we've been told, is negotiable. It's time to put some good haggling experience to use. We've heard enough cautionary tales to ward off an army from invading, but we've also seen how gentle and kind the people can be. All you can do is keep living and look out for yourself. Life in Ecuador definitely won't be easy, but it will be a rewarding challenge that I'm excited to tackle.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Alive and Well

This is just going to be a short post, as I don´t have much time at the Internet cafe. I am now in Quito, alive and well. and though I´ve been battling fatigue and the rigors of travel, I am here and safe with the rest of the WorldTeach volunteers. It´s a good group, and though orientation will be long and probably an overload of information, it´s good to get to work.

Yesterday we flew in from Miami and got settled at Hotel 6 de diciembre, and after some introductions, met with U.S. Embassy representative John Mason, who did his best to scare us and tell us everything we should watch out for and never do. Hopefully, we´ll never have to call him or we´ll be in real trouble.

Today we began orientation and had a few hours to walk around Quito and get lunch. After a great $2 lunch of meat soup and meat with rice and vegetables, some of us walked around and then got some drinks before stopping in at the Internet Cafe. Later tonight we´ll meet our Quito host families and head home with them. I´ll be staying about an hour away from the orientation site in the city, which will be a tough commute, especially during long days, but have been told that the family is great. I´m looking forward to meeting them. Hopefully the next post will come not too far in the future.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

In the Airport

From this morning...

Sitting in the airport now, it’s 7:47 a.m. and as usual, I’m here too early. It wasn’t easy waking up at 5:45 off of 2 crappy hours of sleep, and now I need to sit around and wait to leave Boston. Waking up that early usually leaves you numb and emotionless; you simply react on instinct and training. And this morning, I feel even number, as I struggle to figure out how I’m already sitting here at my gate, about to leave town for a year.

My stomach had this weird feeling on the ride into the city, not quite easy, but keeping its cool at the same time. It’s a strange feeling to be at the beginning of something huge and not knowing exactly what you’re going to see and do. My legs felt a little weak, my lower lip trembling at I fought back shivers. It was cold when I woke up, but these shivers were of a different breed. This was it, and there was no looking back.

In my experience, I’ve found that life doesn’t sit around for you to accept the change until you’re ready, it just happens. You have to find some way to get through it and keep going. One day it’s the incredulity that you’ve just graduated college. Then you can’t believe you’ve finished your job for the summer. And the next, you’re saying goodbye to your family as they watch you walk through the snake path to security.

As always, I manage to suck at packing. My enormous backpack, all 5500 cubic centimeters of it, came out to 42 lbs, for once under the weight limit, rather than straddling it. My other suitcase flew just under the radar at 52.5 lbs, and I wonder what I could have left out of the bags. I always either over pack or under pack. There is no middle ground with me, even after all of the traveling I’ve done. Add on my carry-on backpack with my lap top and other odds and ends, and it’s nearly on the verge of busting open. The lap top was advertised as “travel sized,” yet it’s clearly too large and heavy to do anything but weigh down the bag. I’ve probably got another 15 or 20 lbs with that one. And to top it off, I have my rather large camera bag for my new digital SLR and it’s accessories, which when slung around my neck, adds at least another 5 lbs to my neck.

All of this stuff better make it to Ecuador so I can stuff it in a closet and never use half of it. One of the most stressful parts of traveling is simply the traveling itself, and it’s even worse when you have a huge backpack on, another backpack on your stomach, a camera bag slung around your neck, while pulling another large suitcase. I might as well have a target on my back. All someone has to do is push me over and I’m done for.

By the afternoon I’ll be in Miami where I’ll meet up with the rest of the WorldTeach group. One more early flight tomorrow morning, and then I’ll be an ex-patriot. From here on out, I am a gringo.

I am now at the hotel in Miami, watching some football, meeting the other volunteers, and getting ready to leave for Quito at 5 a.m.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Quick Note on the Top 10 European Cities

If you'll notice on the left of the post is a list of my personal Top 10 Cities in Europe. I've never really given much of an explanation for how I came to this list, and since this is a travel blog, it only makes sense to give a reason. Now, I obviously have not been to every city in Europe, but I have been to a lot, so if your favorite city isn't on the list, don't feel bad. It could just be that I haven't gotten around to your neck of the woods yet. But in due time, hopefully, I'll get there.

Here's the list again:
  • 10. Barcelona, Spain
  • 9. Granada, Spain
  • 8. Taormina, Sicily
  • 7. Rome, Italy
  • 6. Interlaken, Switzerland
  • 5. Lagos, Portugal
  • 4. London, England
  • 3. Dublin, Ireland
  • 2. Prague, Czech Republic
  • 1. Sevilla, Spain
There are a few different things that go into making the list. First and foremost, Sevilla is at the top because I lived there for four months and had a great experience. But it was also a great party town with its own unique culture. Flamenco dancing and bullfighting are the pride of the city, and as images people associate with Spanish culture, they represent the very best in Sevilla. Cheaper than Madrid and Barcelona, it was also a city where you could stretch the dollar a little bit, though admittedly, not much further.

Sevilla, Spain

Prague was one of the best cities I've visited in any continent, and comes second to Sevilla only because I didn't live there, thus not being in town long enough to truly capture the local flavor. The exchange rate was great, allowing us to eat like kings for reasonable prices. There's so much energy and artistic beauty in the city that most people fall in love with it instantly.

Dublin and London, while fun cities with great cultures, dropped down on the list because they were so expensive. In Dublin, even buying food at a grocery stand and making it yourself costs a ton. The British Pound is bad enough, and when you take into account the fact that one beer could wind up costing around $10, that's going to take away from any relief you might get from the drink.

Lagos, Portugal and Interlaken, Switzerland were two amazing towns that were known within the circle of travelers backpacking the continent, but not overcrowded by buses of tourists. Lagos is an amazing beach town with a laid back attitude, yet there is still a downtown area with a few bars and clubs. The beaches were stunning and the surrounding scenery left you in awe. Interlaken, on the other hand, was a quiet little mountain town in the middle of the Swiss Alps where extreme sport junkies came to get their fix. Everything about the town was small and friendly, and with only a handful of hotels and two hostels, there was never a moment of overcrowding. The only bar in town was at one of the hostels. The scenery in Interlaken was like something out of a fairy tale.

Interlaken, Switzerland

Rome is a fun city with amazing history and activities to keep you busy for a week. Though I had a great time both times I visited, the city dropped down on the list because of how dirty and sketchy parts of the city could be. Street peddlers and gypsies were all over the place, and it was always necessary to keep your eyes open. I never felt unsafe and would go back again and again, but the city could be too much at times. Other Italian cities just seemed more laid back, which is where Taormina comes in.

Taormina is really more of a bigger town in Sicily, but with a rich history and a pretty promenade, it had a charm that made you feel welcome and at home. Delicious bottles of wine cost 1-2 euros, the food was great, and the locals friendly.

Blending in, Taormina, Sicily

Granada makes the list because of a cozy feel, tucked away in the Sierra Nevada. Also, I made a point of trying kebab in just about every city and country I visited in Europe, and Granada by far had the best kebab out of them all. I've even tried kebab in the Middle East, and it wasn't as good as it was in Granada. I tip my hat to the chefs.

Barcelona comes in at number 10, which may be a surprise to some. It's not that I don't like Barcelona, I do, but I don't necessarily love the city. So why does it make the list? It's a fun city with a great night life, but with that being said, you need to watch you back or you're in trouble. Don't even think about hanging out on Las Ramblas past 1 a.m. if you can't take care of yourself. Much like Rome, there is a problem with crime and theft, and it's important to keep guard. Visiting the city for a few days was fun, but I wondered if an extended period of time there would burn me out. Barcelona also had some great architecture from Antonio Gaudi and interesting museums, including the Pablo Picasso Museum.

There were other cities that just didn't make the list simply because it would have to keep going and going, nulling the point of a "Top List". I had a great time in Berlin and Vienna just like I did in Dublin and Granada, but for different reasons, they were kept off the list. I encourage everyone to get out there, experience these cities and others as well, and make their own list. There's a ton of world out there to see, and more often than not, you'll find yourself having a good time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Goodbye Stranger

Two days before departure and it seems that all of the pieces have finally fallen into place. Just after I'd finished up packing most of my stuff into one wheelie suitcase and my old trusty backpack, I received an email telling me my family placement for Machala. It's a relief to finally know.

I'll be living with a couple in their 30's who have a 5 year old son. The description says I'm living in a centrally located apartment with my own bedroom and bathroom. Amazingly enough, I lucked out with hot water, which is a rarity on the coast. The father is an electrical engineer and the mother is studying to be an English teacher, so I'm sure we'll have some great conversations and practice with each other.

Another cool thing to look forward to is the aspect of having a little brother. I'm the youngest child, and I've always wondered what it would be like to have a little brother to show the ropes to. Hopefully I'll be able to teach the boy some English and teach him a little bit about the U.S. When I was volunteering in Uruguay we worked closely with some kids and it was a great experience. I'm glad I'll be getting to do it again. Living with a child will be a culture shock on its own.

When I studied abroad in Spain I also had a home stay, but it was quite different than I'd imagined. Our SeƱora ran the place as if it were a bed and breakfast, rather than like a family. With two other American guests from my program, we were joined by constantly coming and going Europeans from England, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Italy, you name it. She had her moments, but could also be crazy, and it made life difficult.

Now that I'll be living without any other roommates and totally immersed in the culture and lifestyle, I'm excited to see the difference and just how much Spanish I can pick up in the process. Less than 2 days now until I check out...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Prepping For a Journey

In the months preceding my trip down to South America I've done a lot of research. Much more than I normally do before a trip. The reasoning is simple. When I go somewhere, I want to let my own experiences and perceptions happen naturally and not be affected by what I've read or heard beforehand. Naturally, as a good journalist should do, I do a bit of research in order to not go in looking like a fool, but I want the experience to be mine.

With Ecuador, however, I've been reading just about anything I can get my hands on. I'm excited to know about the place I'm going to be living for a year, and this time around, I want to know a bit more before I go in.

In my research I've come across the South American Explorers Club, which is a club for outdoor enthusiasts living throughout South America. With branches throughout the continent, including one in Quito, the club can offer a number of services. Besides maps, expert advice for local sights and adventures, and discounts on various travel related things, they also have services at their branch locations. From movie nights to free internet access with a membership, you can also just hang out at the office and talk with other travelers.

The only catch is that the membership is $50 for a year, which isn't too much when you consider the amount of things you get with it, but $50 is a lot of money to be shelling out at one time, especially when you only make $150 a month. Also, because I'll only be in Quito for a month, I need to figure out if it will really pay off to have the membership when I'm down in Machala. Either way, I'm sure at some point in my stay in Quito I'll take a walk down to the SAE office and see what the deal is. If it's as good of a deal as it seems, I'll spread the word.

Changes to Travel Guy

If you've opened up Travel Guy today and thought you clicked on the wrong blog, don't run away yet! There have been some changes and, I think, improvements to the blog. What does this really mean? Absolutely nothing.

These changes are only aesthetic. There is now a picture on the top of the page which I may update with a new photo every week or two. The background and font colors have changed, which I think is easier on the eyes. The old style kind of made your eyes blur and hurt after reading for more than a couple of minutes. This style should be better for everyone. Of course as time goes on, I might find the need to change it up again, but this will have to be decided in the future.

So again, nothing too major has changed. There aren't any new features, the writing will still be there with some photos if possible. And video will accompany stories if they exist. Keep posted for new updates from the road.


Culinary Features of Ecuador

Though the article appeared a week ago in the New York Times Travel section, this article on the culinary "gray-markets" of Ecuador is pretty interesting and has a nice photo component attached with it. Written by Martina Sheehan, the writer talks about traveling down the Pan-American Highway and trying different types of food along the way. Vendors will simply jump on the buses and peddle their food to the patrons, jumping off once they've sold whatever they could. Give it a read.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Last Train Out of Prague

There was a little gravel path for pedestrians, and behind it were little patches of well kept grass and large bushes with some sort of pink flowers. Though there was a chain to prevent people from going on the grass, as well as a sign in Czech saying the same, we started straight for the green. There was a moment of hesitation in my head, but I let it go and followed by friends into the forbidden zone. Once we sat down we had a tremendous view--to our left, the Charles Bridge, straight ahead, the river, the Royal Palace on the hill, and the rest of old town. Prague never looked so beautiful.

This was our last day in the Czech capital, and our train to Vienna wasn't until 5:15 p.m., so we had the whole day to just walk around and enjoy ourselves. It only took us about 10 minutes to fall in love with the city, about the time it took to get away from the depressing, Iron Curtain feel of the train station and surrounding areas. When we pulled in, we thought we'd somehow made a mistake, that this couldn't be the beautiful Prague we'd heard and read about. It seemed like we'd gotten off in Cold War Russia.


To our delight, the taxi kept driving, revealing better parts of the city and our neighborhood where we'd be CouchSurfing for the next couple of nights. It was a bit of a risk, not knowing what we'd be getting into. The idea of Couch Surfing was a bit idealist, that there were nice enough people to just open their doors for strangers. But it proved to be a great experience, something that worthy travelers could pass on from one to another. Our gracious host Mark spoke fluently in English, his father being British. He also had a girlfriend from Oklahoma, so we all got along very well. Mark told us some cool places to check out that we otherwise wouldn't have known about, and by the third day waiting for the train out of town, we just wanted to walk around and take it all in one more time.

Hosts, Mark and Sophie

Just being in Prague was enough, the feel of being in a hip, Bohemian city, that we didn't even have to go into museums or spend any extra money. We stopped by a Medieval fair in the town center, then asked a Travel Info worker where the Jewish Quarter was. "Everything is closed because it's some Jew holiday," she told us. David and I looked at each other questioningly, hoping "some Jew holiday," was just a bad translation. Letting Elyse handle the map, we wandered through the Jewish Quarter, which was closed, stopped at an outdoor cafe for some lunch, and walked around randomly until we found the Charles.

Old Town and Royal Palace, Prague

We still had some of the effects of last night's clubbing and Absinthe lingering in us, so when we found our little patch of green, it was like a gift from the heavens, just a nice little place to nap and take it easy.

We laid down and took in Old Town, snapping a few photos and playing with the fallen petals. Since we'd arrived a couple of days earlier, Spring had just come into full effect, and the temperatures had jumped up to around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a bit chillier and gray this day, but still pleasant by the water. People-watching, we noticed many going by and guessed who was Czech and who was a foreigner. Catnapping and just talking deep thoughts, we were loving our day and our little spot.

We were so relaxed that we inevitably lost track of time, realizing it was now around 4 o'clock. We still didn't even have the train tickets yet, opting to buy them before getting on the train. We headed back towards the Metro stop to pick up our gear at Mark's place, but somehow became distracted with souvenir shops. I don't know why, but even though we'd passed by these shops a dozen times, even during designated shopping times, it now dawned on me that I wanted to buy a couple of things for the family. I also had a ton of Czech crowns left that I needed to spend before switching back over to the Euro.

By the time we all wrapped up the shopping spree, it was now 4:30 and we knew we were pushing it. Hopping in the Metro, we rode across town and jogged up to Mark's apartment, where he was surprised that we'd waited so long. Our plan was to jump back on the Metro to the train station, but once we'd all finished packing up and going to the bathroom, it was closer to 5 o'clock, and Mark told us this was impossible. Our only chance was to jump in a taxi. We didn't want to have to spend the money, but had no choice.

We ran out into the street with our enormous packs weighing us down, just itching to buckle our knees. We must have looked like a mess. At first no taxis would stop, and I was sure we were doomed. But then at 5:05, a car pulled over and let us in.

"We need to get to the train station in 10 minutes. Please tell us you can help us."
"Where do you want to go after that? You see, usually when people ask me to take them some place that's impossible to get to, I ask them where they want to go next."
"Wanna drive us to Vienna?" He didn't say anything this time, just stepped on the gas.

David was a chatterbox on this ride, and though I was almost getting aggravated with it, considering how screwed we would be if we didn't make this train, I can see that it must have been his way of dealing with the tension. He asked the taxi driver question after question. How long has he lived in Prague? Did he enjoy being a taxi driver? What was it like during the Cold War? At one point the driver asked him if he was a reporter. Elyse and I sat in the back in near silence, I only spoke to tell him he spoke English very well and sounded almost Australian. He told us he learned a lot of his English from watching TV.

Since it was now 5:12 and the last train was at 5:15, we were still sans tickets, and the ride from the train station a few days ago took almost 20 minutes, I was in that state where you except failure and just ride it out in a sad, who gives a crap anymore attitude. Looking out the window, I was enjoying seeing the sights, but figured we'd be driving back soon enough.

Somehow, the driver must have taken some short cut that the original driver missed, because the next thing I knew we were pulling into the depressing train station with a minute to spare. We didn't even have time to think about how this man had just gotten us here so quickly. Everyone else was broke at this point, so I had to give him the rest of my crowns. I overpaid him a lot, but since I was leaving the Czech Republic and wouldn't need it, he went above and beyond by getting us to the station, and mentioned that he barely makes enough to get by, I figured he needed it more than I needed a couple of bills sitting on my dresser.

We double timed it into the station, begging to cut the long line of people, telling them our train was leaving as we spoke. Elyse got to the front and charged the tickets, now that we were out of money. With nothing to do while she waited for authorization, I shifted around anxiously and gripped by backpack tightly, knuckles white and scared. I loved Prague, but didn't want to spend another night here, missing out on our one day in Vienna.

The tickets arrived, but too late, and I was sure by the time we ran up the steps to the platform we would see an empty track. But the train was still there, thanks to some inefficiency. As it started to roll along, we jumped on for dear life, nearly missing the train and stumbling onto the tracks. We'd made it, we were on the train.

Finding an empty car, we threw down our packs and fanned our shirts to relieve some of the sweat. We still couldn't believe it. As we rolled out of the station and into the countryside, we could see that things were much different once you left the city, and the depressing image of the train station seemed to remain. We didn't really care though. We were just happy we'd made it. Sun setting, we relaxed with some music and got ready for the disembarkation in Vienna, just to start it all up again.

The spot by the river

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pre-Travel Woes

Every day that goes by gets me closer and closer to what I wanted to do--that is, be out there, on my own for the most part, and experiencing the world. Now that I've got some time off before I leave for South America, there's not much else to do but think about what's to come, and as it would turn out, worry about it.

I'm not usually a big worrier. I read The Tao of Pooh in 10th grade, and it kind of changed my perspective on rushing through life always running from task to task. Of course, there are always things here and there that will cast that aside, but in general, I try to keep an open mind. I can't remember getting nervous before I left for 5 months in Europe, but rather excitement at the prospect of a great journey. That's why I find it so troubling that I'm now getting more and more worried with the countdown to Ecuador.

I will be gone for close to a year. It's hard to say exactly for sure how long until I get down there and sign a contract with my school, but it will be in the range of 11-12 months. First was the issue of where I would be living and teaching. Would there be other Americans near by? Would I be in risk of diseases? Would the crime in the city be high? Now that I've found out which city I'll be in, Machala, the only piece of the puzzle left is finding out what family I'll be living with. Still, nothing will really settle the issue until I get there and can inspect it for myself.

But every day now, I spend a little more time just thinking in silence, trying to appreciate what I now have which will soon be gone. I look all around my room at things that have been there for years, yet I've never paid much attention to. I look at all the posters I've accumulated over time. The little stains in the wallpaper. The imperfections and grooves in the ceiling. The exact placement of objects on my desk, as I've left them for the last ten years. Soon, all I'll have to go on is my memory of it, and I want to remember it perfectly.

The last couple of days I've been waking up around 11, going to the gym, and then just finding things to keep me busy. I like to sit out on the deck and look at the trees blowing in the wind, given that there would actually be a nice, sunny day out of this rainy month we've had. I've always loved sitting on the deck and just thinking, looking at the side of the house or the trees in the back. I try to stop time whenever I'm out there and just let it last a little longer, but I always know that soon enough, it's time to get back in the house and do something else. I wonder if I get an opportunity to sit on a deck or stoop in Ecuador, what will I be looking at?

Adding to the pressure of moving from a modernized country to a developing country, being away from family and friends for an extended period of time, and the very real possibility of running out of money well before my year commitment is up, I now also have to worry about my health.

My program includes Global Underwriters' insurance, yet I'm not sure of exactly what they'll cover. It's described as a supplemental insurance, but since I'm no longer a student, I won't be covered by my father's plan starting in October. Should I get sick, I could be in some trouble. Worse yet, after spending $400 on vaccinations, I still need to fill a prescription for Malaria pills. While trying to do so today, I found out that I would only be allowed a month supply, and the rest would cost me upwards of $700. After calling the insurance company to haggle, the best they could offer me was going back to CVS every day for 10 days to get a month supply each time, at a cost of about $300. There is no way I can afford this. Not on a budget that requires me to cover the cost of most everything.

So now I also have the burden of trying to rationalize my health versus money I don't have. I wanted to get some life lessons, and it seems that they have already started. I don't want to keep putting burdens on my dad to help out, but I might need a crutch of some kind in order just to make it through.

I'm not going to lie, I chose to volunteer with WorldTeach because they had so much to offer, had a great reputation, and are affiliated with Harvard University, which I take to mean they are a solid organization. However, I feel a bit agitated with the way I've been finding out at the last second of these extra expenses. I'm OK with not making money for a year, even having to pay to volunteer, no matter if everyone else says I'm an idiot. I just wish it would have been laid out more clearly during the application process that on top of the program fee, there is also the cost of vaccinations and Malaria pills, which are all but necessary.

In retrospect, it does no good to think about what could have been, because I'm going to Ecuador no matter what, and I'll go into it with an open mind. Yet I can't help but think that it could have changed things if I'd have known just how much I would have to be putting into this project. This isn't just about me going to teach English and learn Spanish, it's also about me learning about how to deal with real life situations and growing as an individual in ways that I couldn't have in college or in an entry level job. I can see that I'll be getting down and dirty from the start.

Maybe it's just a precursor of things to come, these uneasy feelings. Life isn't always laid out with a blueprint, and things are often not as rosy pink as brochures will make appear. Or I could just be getting cold feet before the big jump. I know one thing for sure, I don't like the feeling that I have. Before taking trips in the past I've been excited, eager, indifferent, and listless, but never depressed. Now I find myself fighting to remember why I want to do this. I know in the back of my mind that there was a time, months ago, when I was extremely excited about it, and I knew exactly why I wanted to do it. I can't quite remember why right now, but I'm hoping that once I get there, it will all come back to me.

For now, I'll just have to keep taking it all in, saying goodbye to friends, preparing for the pack, and doing my research. With every great adventure, there must be a minor problem. Life is a series of valleys, and the ups and downs are a part of the process. To avoid them is to avoid reality. There can be no happiness without the sadness, and all I can hope for now is that I'm getting the depression out of the way now, so that I may be completely and utterly thrilled to arrive in Quito in T minus 2 weeks.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Machala, Machala

Machala (Ecuador)
After months of waiting and desperate anticipation, I finally found out last night where I'll be living and teaching in Ecuador. The first month will be spent in Quito for orientation, but after that initial phase, I'll be moving south to the small city of Machala. The city has a population of about 216,000 inhabitants according to Wikipedia, though a former volunteer has said it is the fourth largest city with 280,000 people living in the area.

Machala is the capital of the El Oro region of Ecuador, and is known as the "Banana Capital of the World," because of its main economic staple, the banana. It is also located close to Puerto Bolivar, one of the biggest ports in South America.

The city is about 2 hours north of Peru, and further south than Guayaquil, which leads me to believe that it's going to be a long bus ride from Quito. I am also going to be in the coast, which means the temperature can be hotter and the risk of Malaria will be higher. I've read that there are many differences between the Sierra and the Coast, so I'll be looking forward to seeing the difference after orientation.

I'm not sure how I'll adjust to the smaller city life, but then again I currently live in the suburbs, so living in a city has got to be some sort of improvement. The city has gone under some reconstruction in the last few years, and based off of some videos I've seen on it, the city sort of reminds me of Miami. You can find a link to a video of the city at the bottom of the post. It's funny that half of the clips are just the same fountains over and over again.

Instead of teaching at a university, it looks like I'll be teaching for the quasi-governmental organization called SECAP, or Servicio Ecuatoriano CapacitaciĆ³n Profesional. This organization has branches throughout the country and provides vocational education and other services. I'll be teaching 20 hours a week, Monday through Friday. With two classes a day, two hours each, I'll also have to spend extra time grading work and working on lesson plans. This is going to be a lot of work because I've never had a teaching job before. Classes will run for 3 months, followed by a one week vacation and another week of preparations for the next semester.

I don't know the family I'll be living with yet, but I do know that there are two other Americans from my program who will be in the city as well, though they are teaching at the university. This city is not very popular with tourists, so I should get a more authentic experience and stand out as a foreigner. Hopefully, that means the locals will want to open up to me, rather than ignore me.

Though I don't know anything about Machala, I'm excited to finally know where I'll be next month, as well as the challenge that awaits me as I figure out how to live in another culture and adjust. Of course, I can't guarantee right now how much Internet access I will have, and though orientation will be full of long, 12 hour days, I will use every spare opportunity to keep writing and blogging about the experience, so check back frequently for more details.

I've also just purchased a Canon Rebel XTi DSLR. This is my first DSLR, and I'm hoping to take some excellent photos in Ecuador and throughout my other travels. I'll be posting pictures whenever I can of the things I see and do. My "older" digital camera also has video functions, so whenever I can, I'll be taking short videos of the areas and posting them on the blog as well.

Stay tuned...

Friday, August 15, 2008

I Saw One of My Favorite Bands, Radiohead, and All I Got Was This Stupid Blog Post

This has been a big week of sorts. On Tuesday I went to my first Red Sox game of the year, which is also most likely the last one I'll go to before I leave. I had no plans on going until the night before when my friend told me he had an extra ticket. I didn't really have the money, but he said I didn't have to worry about it. To make up for it, I bought him a beer and burrito, which in the end wound up costing just about as much as the ticket.

It was one hell of a game. The Sox scored 10 runs in the first inning, with David Ortiz hitting 2 3-run homeruns in the first inning alone. They blew the lead, however, and by the end of the game the score was 19-16. We didn't even stay though, leaving instead after the 7th because my friend had to get up at 5:30 and I had to get up at 6:00. I hate leaving games early, and that's a perfect example of why.

Thursday was my last day of work, so I didn't really care if I went in extremely tired. That was because on Wednesday I went with my buddy Goldberg to see Radiohead play at the Comcast Center, formerly known as the Tweeter Center, previously known as Greatwoods.

Since the tickets went on sale back in early Spring, I'd been trying to get tickets. There was a small window of opportunity when they first came out, but Goldberg didn't know what his job situation would be and didn't want to get them yet, so months passed by as I saw no new tickets open up. Scouring the Internet nearly twice a day for half the summer, I checked Craigslist to see who was selling seats. Though the prices were high, I still couldn't get him to go with me.

Now the issue was how much they cost. Since he had no job, he couldn't afford to go to another concert. I too was running low on money, but had no problem spending more to see my favorite band. Two days before the show, he got in touch with a guy who was selling two tickets for $40 each, $15 less than face value. Apparently he knew the band manager and was able to get better tickets for free. Somehow, he completely lucked out.

One of the best parts of the night was that I actually got to see the show with Goldberg. He has a great sense of musical talent, and will always pass along bands for me to listen to. He helped get me into Radiohead, and as such, we have great discussions on their music, as well as other bands we're into. I was considering just seeing the band with someone else or by myself, but that wouldn't be as worthwhile. I'm glad I got to experience the music with him, because it made the whole night like a "first of last hurrahs" before I leave in two weeks. Sometimes an experience is only as good as the person you share it with.

Though I was exhausted from the night before and work, we headed down to Mansfield and got pumped up for the show. We got in early to try to get a better parking space, but even that doesn't mean you'll get out quickly at the Comcast Center. Whoever designed the place must have been the worst student in their class, because there are only two roads in and two roads out. Every car is jammed on the same exit, causing cars to just sit in park for 2 hours after the show. Knowing I'd have to get up at 6 a.m. for my last day of work, I wanted to try to get out any way possible.

The Tweeter Center was always known for good tailgating, but in the last year or two, management has begun to cut down on the allowed tailgating. We watched as patrols of cops went up and down the rows busting people for drinking. One group of fans had to pour out two 30-racks of beer into the police golf cart. It was a bit ridiculous, to see these cops taking away the drinks of the fans, yet as soon as they entered the venue they could buy a beer for the low-low price of $8 a cup.

Grizzly Bear was just getting ready to go on as we got inside, so we stopped off at the merchandise tent to look at shirts. We were amazed to find that every shirt cost $40. They were made of recycled bottles and a note said if you bought one you'd be doing your part, but I couldn't help but thinking that if you really wanted to do your part, you could donate that $40 to an organization directly.

The price gouging was terrible, and there were no alternatives in sight. The cheapest thing on the menu resembling a meal was a burger for something like $7.50, so we settled on giant pretzels for $5. The grains of salt were about the size of large chunks of hail.

Finally Radiohead was getting ready to come out, and the place was getting filled up. We had seats in the newly created lawn-seat section, so what used to be just lawn now had chairs, whereas the real lawn was just behind us. We were uncovered, and though it was a little chilly, it was a perfect night for a show. It was also one of the only nice nights this area has had in the last month.

The stage set up was awesomely arranged with rods of LCD-like bright screens, connecting to make one big image of color and the stage itself. Sometimes you would see only lead singer Thom Yorke's face, and other times you would see designs run from right to left. Radiohead opened up with "Reckoner" off their new CD In Rainbows. They wound up playing ever song from In Rainbows, as well as others from Kid A, Amnesiac, OK Computer, and The Bends.

Often times bands will sound great on a CD, and then when you see them in person they sound terrible. Clearly, their talent lies in the ability to get a record deal, and not in making the record. This was not the case with Radiohead, however. Thom Yorke's voice was perfect and just as it should sound, while the musical accompaniment was equally high quality with what's been produced from the CDs. At one point during "All I Need" Yorke forgot the lyrics and laughed it off, just playing the guitar until he picked it up at the next verse.

One thing that I always find amazing at concerts is the people watching. Some people just have no idea how to control their emotions as they listen to the music they enjoy. Now, a standard and safe way to enjoy the music is just just move your body slowly and let your head nod back and forth, left and right. Maybe you can even drum on your legs a little as you shake them around. This is the easiest way to enjoy the music without making a scene.

Four guys a row up to the left were the definition of "dodes". Drunk and loud, they were screaming at everything. They definitely did not fit in with the crowd that was quiet and anticipating the music. These guys would have fit in perfectly at a Metallica or Ozzfest concert, and they were so drunk they probably couldn't tell the difference. One kept yelling, "Thom for President." Apparently he wasn't aware that he's English. His friend on the right kept waving a cell phone in the air so the light would shine on, while his friend on the left kept waving a lighter dangerously close to his neighbor's eyebrows. For a minute I thought these guys might ruin the experience, but then I realized I wasn't going to let these clowns spoil the night.

Over to the right in the steps was a girl who must have been tripping on LSD, because she was airily floating around not paying attention to anything else, seemingly becoming one with the music. The guy on her right couldn't handle the excitement, and went from air drumming to air guitar one minute to the next. From time to time he would raise his hands in the air and look up to the sky, mouthing the lyrics. Since we were so far back in the nose bleeds and I couldn't really see the stage well anyway, I just watched these crazy dancers from time to time.

The band played a great set and came out with two encores, finally ending just before 11 p.m. After the mad rush out of the venue where everyone just rushed forward like sheep, we made it back to the car and only had to wait in traffic for about 20 minutes, luckily. So I finally got to see them play, and if all else goes wrong, at least I got to hear them live. Though it cost a lot, it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been, and I'd gladly go see them again.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Long Time No Write

It's been a while since I've had something to write. There just hasn't been much going on lately, and there's been pretty much no travel going on for me this summer. Aside from a couple of trips into Boston and Providence, I really haven't gone anywhere. Bogged down with my first 40 hours a week-job, I've been finding very little spare time to get away, and even less time to get the energy to just get some thoughts down.

This is only temporary, but still a scary thing to consider. At some point in my life, I'll be just as busy, scratch that, busier, and I don't want to lose the passion of writing. If I don't get to incorporate writing at a professional level, I want to at least be able to continue to do so at a personal one. I'll need to find a way to balance out the time between work, play, and writing.

In upcoming travel news, I've made tentative plans with some friends I made in Spain to camp for a weekend in the Adirondacks in upstate New York in a couple of weekends. I haven't gone camping since I was a little kid, so I'm looking forward to getting back out there and embracing nature. My friend David, who is living in Syracuse for the summer, just wrapped up a 5 week backpacking trip around National Parks. He camped out the entire time, so I'm sure he'll have some good advice and tips.

Today I got my vaccinations for Ecuador, and though the injections themselves weren't very painful, the bill afterwards was. After waiting an hour past the appointment time (letting the cost of parking increase), I discussed my options with the doctor, who was very helpful. We decided on vaccinations for Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and a prescription for Anti-Malaria pills.

There are three types of Malaria pills to consider before leaving for a danger zone. One type is taken daily and has few side effects. Taking it daily can become an annoyance, however, so this is recommended for shorter trips. The next type is taken once a week, but also up to a month after you return. The side effect with this pill, however, is "lucid, comic book-like dreams, and the possibility of psychosis." As much as I'm interested in the possibility of starring in my own cartoon every night, I'm not too sure I want to risk losing my mind permanently. Still, the chances of developing psychosis are very rare.

The third type didn't develop much interest, so we agreed tentatively on option 1, though it all depends on when I find out where exactly I'll be placed, as this weighs heavily on the risk of infection. A few weeks ago I was talking to a co-worker who was in Vietnam in 1969. On the topic of Malaria pills, he said "they give you the runs pretty bad." Yippee.

Speaking of that, I was also given a prescription for some pills to help with Dysentery in the event that I get it, which is a strong possibility. Oh boy, I can't wait!

So after I received my Hepatitis and Yellow Fever shots I was all set. The Typhoid vaccine comes in two forms, oral and injection. The doctor recommends the oral option, whereby you take pills off and on for several days, clearing you for a year. This option makes you about 90% free of risk. The injection, however, only puts you at a 70% area.

Because of the terms of my insurance provider, they have to check what was done before they'll even consider paying for anything. Though I'm not going to be a tourist, but rather a working volunteer, it's quite possible that United Health Care won't help in paying for any of these life saving vaccines, which I just don't understand. And what's the cost for all of these "luxuries?"

The receptionist told me I owed $400 without blinking, as if this were nothing. I gulped.

Not just a lot of money on a good day, this was particularly alarming because it's more than I make in a week, I had to take the day off to get these shots, I'm saving up to buy a DSLR before I leave, and they told me they don't accept credit cards. I had to go find an ATM downstairs, which luckily was my own banks, saving me the surcharge. And on top of it all, they didn't validate the parking, adding on another $7 to the trip.

I've planned all along how much I would have to spend in order to do this year of volunteering, but I never even factored in the cost of inoculations. I suppose I can scrimp and save a little more, living more tightly in the last few weeks at home, but it's just a sad addition to the stress I'm already seeing pile up as the time gets closer. Not only do I have to front all of the money straight out of college, watch as friends start making nice paychecks, but I can't even count on insurance to cover legitimate expenses. But oh well, it was my choice to do this, and I'm gonna stick with it.

My friend Adam has already left to teach in Chile for the year, and though I haven't talked to him yet, I've heard he's doing OK so far. Soon enough it will be my turn to get on the plane, and when that happens, there will be plenty to write about.

One thing I've been thinking about, however, is the preparation I'm putting into this. I've never really done any research on where I traveled to. I more or less blindly picked Sevilla to study in, and like the idea of going to a place with few preconceptions or hopes of what it might be like. I want the place to speak for itself, and not hear someone else's impressions guiding my own experience. But over the course of the summer, I've been reading up as much as I can on Ecuador. Not that it should have any profound impact on my time, but it's going to be a bit different to expect something, rather than figuring it out on my own this time around. With less than a month, all I can do is earn some more money and enjoy the time I have left in the U.S.