An Ecua-Thanksgiving

When I was a volunteer with WorldTeach in 2011, I spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas in Ecuador. As Thanksgiving is a holiday that is not celebrated locally, that particular weekend in 2011 was actually one of the most difficult that I’ve ever spent abroad. The Friday after was actually the most challenging – not because I was missing out on shopping deals, but rather because I knew that all of my family was gathered at home, eating leftover turkey sandwiches, and simply enjoying each other’s company. I, on the other hand, was just going about another day of teaching in Guayaquil.

This year, however, Thanksgiving was much different. I was again working, but in my new and quite different role. This weekend my job had me leading an End-of-Service conference for nine volunteers who arrived in country in February 2013. As they came together in Quito for three days, we decided to plan, prepare, and enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner together. I have to admit that I was nervous about how it would turn out – but it was fantastic! The familiar tastes – turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, mac & cheese – and spending time with familiar faces made the holiday especially enjoyable.

This EOS conference was a blast for me, because it’s a lot of fun to hear volunteers’ reflections as they look back on a year in Ecuador and prepare to move on to new experiences. This group in particular is small, so they’re super close-knit and supportive of one another. Even though I haven’t been Field Director for their whole time in Ecuador, it’s been great to get to know them and it will be tough to see them go.

Here are a few pics from our Thanksgiving dinner:

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My new favorite “hueca de Quito”

Having spent several formative years in high school and college working at a classic small-town diner, I definitely appreciate a good local eatery. Several months ago I came across a very cool blog called “Huecas de Quito.” Unfortunately the site hasn’t been updated in about a year, but the premise is noteworthy nonetheless. “Hueca” literally translates to hole, but in this case more specifically refers to hole-in-the-wall. Huecas de Quito is a collection of posts about visits to various cevicherías, mom & pop restaurants, juice stands, and other small eateries throughout the city. I love the idea, because these are all spots that you never see written about in guide books and on very few other websites. I’d love to visit as many of these “Huecas” as possible, but with my current work schedule, that project has been pushed to a back-burner.

However, I recently found a hole-in-the-wall that will probably become one of my favorite spots in the city. Cafe Aguila de Oro is not your typical coffee shop. There are various cafes in Quito where you can pick up decent cup of coffee, from small, singular shops to chains that resemble Starbucks (which fortunately doesn’t exist here, nor its Pumpkin Spice Latte monstrosity). However, Cafe Aguila de Oro is unique because you can’t buy a cup of coffee – there’s no espresso, drip, French press, lattes, cappuccinos – the only product that they offer is freshly toasted bulk coffee. The simplicity is beautiful – just $6.00 a pound (up to half the price of comprable coffees in groceries stores here) for one of three options: Light, Medium, and Dark. You can get it in whole bean or they’ll grind it for you right there in house…and that’s where your choices end.

I think one reason that I like Cafe Aguila de Oro so much is that going there feels like you’re stepping back in time. It is situated in Quito’s historic center, right behind the Presidential Palace. I can only imagine what this place would’ve been like 50 years ago or more – but my imagination is helped by the old-school machinery (even the cash register is a classic) and retro designs. Probably the reason that I dig this place the most, though, is that I’m a self-admitted coffee addict, and I’m always looking for new places to get decent beans. Looks like Cafe Aguila de Oro will be my go-to shop for the next while.

On surviving long-distance bus trips

After completing a month-long orientation for new volunteers in September, I’ve now moved into a few months that will include visiting volunteers all throughout the country. I recently traveled to Puyo, on the edge of the Amazon, and yesterday I returned to Quito from Machala, which is lies on the south coast, near the Ecuador-Peru border. That trip to Machala was a very quick one, and I traveled by bus, so I ended up spending about 25 hours on buses and about 36 hours in Machala. All of that bus time gave me plenty of time to consider what it’s like to travel by bus in Ecuador over long-distances, and I’ve come up with a few essential tips to make that experience as enjoyable as possible:

1. Keep your bags safe: It’s always unnerving to let a piece of luggage out of your sight, but on more reputable bus lines, a uniformed employee will put your bag in one of the luggage compartments and put a numbered sticker on your bag. You’ll then use a ticket stub to get your bag back at the end of your trip. With this system, I’ve always felt that my luggage is secure.

2. Try to get a seat in the front row: Sometimes when you buy your ticket, you’re given a choice of where to sit. And sometimes you just sit wherever you want when you get on. If possible, try to sit in the front row. Some people say that the front rows can be a bit more dangerous in the event of an accident, but they have the added advantage of a little bit extra legroom and no seats in front of you. And you never know how far back the seats in front of you will recline.

Watch your knees! Bus seats usually recline a lot more than what you find on an airplane

Watch your knees! Bus seats usually recline a lot more than what you find on an airplane

3. Keep yourself occupied: Having just completed two 13 hour bus trips in just a few days, I can tell you that sitting on a bus can get really boring. Fortunately, I grew up going on family road trips and taught myself just sleep through long rides in a car. However, when I can’t sleep I like to have a book or something else with me to pass the time. Just know that long-distance buses in Ecuador will play movies – which will likely be action flicks played at a very loud volume. And more than likely the DVD will be skipping and/or there will be issues with the sound or image. So, I also like to bring a fully charged iPod to drown out the crappy movies that might be playing.

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4. Bring a snack and dehydrate yourself: On most trips that are six hours or more, your bus will stop just once for food, to stretch your legs, and to go to the bathroom. And that stop won’t be at a state-of-the-art rest area that offers your choice of fast food. Instead, it’ll likely be at a little mom and pop restaurant with just a few menu options. And you’ll likely get hungry before and after your stop at that little roadside restaurant, so it’s a good idea to bring some chips or something else to snack on. There will also likely be a bathroom on the bus – but there is no guarantee that it will be functioning. Even if it is, it will definitely be locked and you’ll have to bug the chauffeur to open it for you. Better to just not drink anything before or during the trip.

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5. Wear some comfortable shoes: Because you won’t have much chance to walk around and stretch your legs, it’s almost guaranteed your feet will swell up – so wear some comfortable shoes and loosen the laces!

I try to keep my feet comfortable while travleing with my favorite running shoes

I try to keep my feet comfortable while traveling with my favorite running shoes

Now, those tips may seem to portray long-distance bus travel as a pretty unenjoyable experience, and, well, I guess it is. But the time actually passes pretty quickly. And at an average price of about $1 per hour, you really can’t beat the cost. Sure, you can fly between major cities. But why pay $45 to fly from Quito to Guayaquil, for example, when a bus ticket is just $10??

And the best way to pass the time on a long-distance bus trip? Travel with a friend. So, if you want to keep me company during my long bus rides, come visit Quito!!