First Report from Otavalo, Ecuador

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January 13th 2009
Published: January 16th 2009
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My flight down to Ecuador this year was uneventful; I left Calgary at 7:00 on January 8 and flew down via Dallas and Miami. A taxi driver was waiting for me with a sign with my name on it (spelled correctly!). He took me to my hotel (accommodation and breakfast $20). They had a wireless network so I got an email out before I hit the sack at about 12:30 AM local time - it was a long day.

The director of the school picked me up at my hotel at 9:30 Friday morning, and we drove out to Otavalo. I think it took about two hours, much of the time just dealing with the traffic in Quito and along the highway. The main north-south highway winds it way through the mountains and is only two lanes. The large trucks creep slowly up the hills with a line of traffic behind them. Passing is done whenever, and the oncoming traffic seems to oblige by pulling over as far to the right as they can. They are building a new airport for Quito, with what will be an hour and a half drive into town. The roads from that area are narrow, winding, and plugged up with much traffic. I didn't see any evidence that the roads were being upgraded to serve the new airport.

Otavalo is much different than Cuenca, my previous experience in Ecuador. It is a much smaller town, and seems to survive mostly on tourism and the clothing/cloth trade. The indigenous population here seems much more prosperous, probably because they are producing most of the stuff being sold. Otavalo is famous for their outdoor market, which peaks on the weekends when people come from far and wide to both shop and sell goods. On weekends, the hotels fill up with bus tours from Quito full of shoppers.

The town does not have the historic feel of Cuenca, which was designated as a world heritage site. Friday I walked downtown with Liliana who is the daughter-in-law of my hosts. She is married and lives in an adjoining house with her husband and two children. Francisco is a year and a half, and Anita is about 8. My hosts are Laura and Noe, and they are about 60. Laura looks much older because she has been dealing with breast cancer, she has had several courses of chemotherapy. At first, I thought that her husband was her son-in-law.

The house where I am staying is in more of a working class neighbourhood. The house is a three story, cinder-block cement construction. The houses here run together, so there is not much of a yard. There is a driveway with a gate at the street, a small garden at the front. The house is small; the third floor is really just a sheltered roof with no walls; the laundry stuff is up there. With the son's family living next door, they share their meals. They have domestic help, a young girl named Nina who comes in the morning, helping with cleaning and preparing the noon meal. The area feels like a neighbourhood. There are people out on the street talking, greeting each other while they walk. Buses run by on the street, there are dogs barking all over the place. At the end of the block, there is a small market with convenience stuff, vegetables, and meats. There are several schools and day-cares within a few blocks. My experience last year seemed so sterile in comparison. I've met half a dozen friends and neighbours of the family already.

I am getting a good feel about this stay, it is much different than last year. It is nice to have more of a family setting with younger kids. I spent the afternoon playing card games with Anita and making friends with Francisco who played shy at first. I brought some children's books down with me to donate to local schools, and I dug out a "Curious George" book and read it to Francisco, translating into Spanish as best I could "Jorge Curioso el mono y el hombre con el sombrero amarillo"...

I spent quite a bit of time Friday talking with Liliana while she prepared the noon meal, and afterwards when we walked downtown. Already I have enjoyed the experience. Last year in Ecuador, I stayed with a very busy couple who were gone most of the day with their jobs, and left me with much solo time. I don't see that happening this year, there will be people around here all the time. Nobody speaks English, at all. That's not quite true. Anita is in elementary school and is learning English. She was able to read parts of the Curious George book.

My Spanish is coming back, I am pleased that I am making myself understood. I feel much more confident than last year for some reason, and I'm more tempted to dive into conversations without much of the mental preparation that I used to do all the time before speaking. The family seems to think I am doing well, but when they get together at meals I have a hard time following what they are talking about.

On my walk with Liliana, we followed the route I will use when I start school. It took us past the famous Otavalo market, and we stopped for a bit to look at stuff. I can see the difference in the materials here. This area is renowned for its clothing and fabrics, and from what I saw, the variety and quality was much better than what I saw in Cuenca. We visited the school and I had a look around. It is a much smaller school than what I went to in Cuenca, they perhaps have room for 6 students one-on-one. The school occupies part of the top floor of a small 3-floor office building about two block from the market. I saw three teachers/students in progress. After we visited the school, Liliana had an errand to run, so we picked a spot to meet later and I went off on my own for a bit of wandering on the streets. I purchased a SIMM card for my cellular phone and some time cards to get it going, so I now have a cell phone with me down here.

I have to secure my internet connections so I can get my emails and blogs out; as I write this I don't know yet from where I will post it.

On Saturday, I walked downtown to see the famous market. The market square becomes the centre, with vendors now stretching far out on all adjoining streets. It was an incredible sight and experience. I walked about, taking it all in. I wound up in the main town square, and was wondering about taking some pictures when I was approached by a very short indigenous woman. She greeted me and asked where I was from, and we had a conversation about where I lived and where she lived. She told me about her weaving done at home, and showed me a photograph of her weaving scarves, both with a loom and freehand with various wooden bars. She then took off her backpack and started showing me her work, it was lovely. She told me that each scarf took two days to make, and I just about fell over when she told me the price: $5 for two. I know that negotiating is the norm down here, but I couldn't bring myself to try for a lower price. I chose two pieces, and then asked if I could take her picture.

I continued my exploration of the market and was taken by the vast amount of woven work, most of it very beautiful. I am going to have a hard time picking the things I will bring home with me due to my limited space.

I walked home in time for almuerzo, and then had a nap. My afternoon was spent reviewing my Spanish books, and playing with Francisco. I went for a short walk in the other direction from downtown, just to check out the neighbourhood.

On Monday I started school at the “Otavalo Spanish Institute”. The first order of business was to assess my abilities with Spanish, which are pretty rusty after about 9 months of no use. We started with some pretty basic review of articles and adjectives. For some reason I had thought that there would be internet access at the school, but that is not the case. It is a pretty simple facility, but in a fairly modern building.

On Sunday, I called a fellow in Ibarra, the next big town up the road, who in involved somehow with what appears to be the only gliding club in Ecuador. We made arrangements to talk next Friday about some potential flying on the weekend. I look forward to that. He seemed interested in the fact that I was a gliding instructor as they have a shortage of them here. It will be interesting to see how this works out.

Additional photos below
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16th January 2009

HI John, sounds like this trip will be more relaxed for you. The kids next door sound fun. How do you say "squawk button" in Spanish?
16th January 2009

Sounds great, John. I wish I were as adventurous as you. It's nice that you are staying with a family who treat you so much like part of their family.
18th January 2009

1st Blog
Everything sounds awesome John :-) Do you happen to have Roald Dahl's "The Twits" with you to read to Francisco? (if you could ever translate that?) Trevor always got such a hoot out of that one at the lake. Looking forward to hearing more. Love Sue
19th January 2009

I like the part about Curious Jorge! Loves it. P.S. Can I have one of the scarves? HA!
22nd January 2009

On the road again...
Sounds like the family has made themselves "your" family. I'll bet it helps your Spanish move along more quickly and you'll be good for Anita's English. Very cool... Neat story about the weaver. She's probably going to look for you every weekend :)

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