prepare yourself for a monster of a posting....
Nearly 2 weeks in Quito now, and everything is busy, exciting, and overall going really well!
But before I rave about Quito and my experience thus far, I have to briefly update on the week before I arrived! I went from Boston to Minnesota for a 6-day whirlwind visit, and though I was running short on time, as always, I was glad to see my family. (thanks again to my visitors/moving crew! I couldn’t have managed without you!) We celebrated my brother JD's birthday with homemade Swedish pancakes (thanks Didi!), and I had a blast with my 4-year-old niece Linnea when we went to visit my brother Kirk and his fiancée Julie at their home in Ely, MN. Linnea and I listened to her CDs the whole way up – about 5 hours - and I now have The Little Mermaid soundtrack completely memorized...who knew!
Since this following is quite extensive, (sorry!), my hope is that the little paragraph headers will help you navigate through it all
ARRIVAL IN QUITO AND THE FIRST FEW DAYS
On to Quito: I arrived during the evening of March 25, and my first views of the city were spectacular. I've never been to a city that is so thoroughly surrounded by mountains, and with the seemingly every-expanding landscape all lit-up, the view coming in was amazing. The taxi ride to the hostel made me nostalgic for all the other times I had been in Latin America and so excited to be back...
My first day could not have been better. I woke up after a long night's sleep, went straight to a market in the centro historico (old town) to get that dose of fresh fruit that I've been longing for: pineapples and blackberry juice. (mangos are out of season!) Shortly thereafter, an Ecuadorian photography student, Jorge Luis, approached me and we started chatting. Shortly thereafter, I suddenly had an Ecuadorian friend and tour guide to show me all around the centro historico. It was great! I was glad to be able to practice my (rusty) Spanish and he told me all about the legends that go along with some of the famous churches and plazas. He really wanted to talk to me about U.S. politics. Apparently, the majority of Ecuadorians are Obama (pronounced, ohbamaah) fans. However, he informed me this is because Obama is moreno and doesn’t love war like Bush…ah yes. So after about 5 hours of walking, Jorge Luis and I had lunch at a small typical Ecuadorian place - soup, chicken, rice, beans, and juice for $1.80 each - where I had to duck my head because the ceilings were so low. We then parted, I went back to my hostel to relax for a while, and he went to work. I then made my way to a barrio on the edge of the city called Guapulo. Though only 2k from the center of Quito, Guapulo is incredibly calm, and has the most breathtaking views of nearby mountains. The colonial style housing and cobblestone streets made me fall in love with the area immediately, but it is slightly too far via public transportation for me to live there. Although, anyone that comes to visit me will have to stay in Guapulo!!
The next day was another day of exploring. I made my way to a large park in the north end of town, Parque Carolina, where the area is much more modern and wealthy. There are a plethora of high-rise apartments and a few malls, and it is not quite as polluted and loud as the old town. I walked and walked and then relaxed and read in the park for a little while. The weather the first few days was about 70 and sunny, the perfect temperature and altitude to get me slightly sunburned without realizing it until the next day Thereafter, however, it has rained nearly every afternoon or evening. Apparently April showers apply near the equator too.
MY WORK VOLUNTEERING AT ASELER
On the Friday after I arrived, I went to the office of the non-profit I’m working at, ASELER (Asesoría y Servicios Legales para los Refugiados en Ecuador/ Legal services and Advice for Refugees in Ecuador) to continue my training. Oh my goodness, there is so much to learn. I’m very excited for the incredible challenges that are ahead. I simultaneously feel extremely lucky for the opportunity to be here and slightly overwhelmed with the amount of material, systems, and concepts (in Spanish) that I need to get a handle on ASAP. The 4 other people that work here, including the director, are all very welcoming and accomplished: fluent in multiple languages, have multiple masters, and a deep understanding of refugee law that I’m hoping to soak up over the next few months…
But before I go on about my experience at ASELER, I should explain a bit about what they/we do. ASELER is a non-profit that is a project of an organization in San Francisco called Asylum Access. In short, we help people right appeals to become officially recognized as refugees. The longer version: when a person decides to leave their country because they are fleeing persecution, the person must go through a RSD (refugee status determination) process to be recognized as an official refugee. Once this is established, the person can remain in the host country legally. If they are not recognized, they legally are not allowed to stay in the host country. Contrary to popular belief, resettlement in the US is extremely rare. In fact, it is very difficult to even be granted official refugee status in Ecuador. There are an estimated 250,00 asylum seekers in Colombia (Colombians in Ecuador that are eligible to seek refugee status) and about 15,000 of which have been recognized as refugees. Yikes! That leaves much for us to do! For our work, we generally help Colombian asylum seekers - those who have been targeted by the guerrillas or the paramilitaries and therefore fled to Ecuador - go through the RSD process. And since I’ve been here, we’ve also had a few Peruvians and Cubans come through our door. We most frequently help those who have already applied for refugee status once but have been denied, and we write their appeals for them - but we also help with first instance applications, meaning those that are applying for refugee status for the first time.
So, now that you have that context under your belt, my hope is that everything else will make a little more sense. Every day, 8am to 5pm, we have people that come to our office seeking help gaining refugee status. We conduct preliminary interviews to determine if we will either take on their case, meaning we’ll write their appeal OR if we’ll give them a half-hour lesson on the RSD process and a template to help them write the appeals themselves. If we decide to take the case, we usually have just a few weeks to write and submit their appeal as there is a deadline for appeal submissions 30 days from when the asylum seeker receives their rejection letter for their first application. As you can imagine, this means we often work in overdrive to: take their testimonies, clarify any inconsistencies from their first application and interview, do research on the area (usually in Colombia) they are from in order to support their claims, and determine which and what international laws and references we need to use to support the arguments. Hence, the first few days of work have been quite a bit to grasp but also fascinating. We frequently have people that come in who have had mothers, fathers, cousins, brothers, sisters, and/or other family members that have been tortured, threatened, or killed in Colombia. (I would be more specific, but I’m not allowed!) More or less, it is really unfathomable the types of hardships some of these people have endured and the situations they are fleeing. However, I should also state, that since being officially recognized as a refugee is the only type of free ‘VISA,’ in Ecuador, there are many people, often economic migrants, that come in to our office trying to take advantage of the system. So we also do a lot of lie-detecting too.
We are about to finish up the first appeals case that I’ve been working on. I mostly helped write the legal arguments for it, which was really fun, and my boss seemed to be pleased with my work, which was encouraging. As I mentioned earlier, however, I am really looking forward to when I have a better command of everything. I think as I learn more, and as my Spanish improves, I will absolutely love the combination of challenges this work presents: helping people, researching, and writing. And since there is so much work to do, and so little time for training people, as you can imagine, it is mostly learning by doing! Have to love working for a new non-profit
APARTMENT HUNTING AND THE SAFETY CHECK
Other than work, which really takes up most of my time, my priority when I first arrived had been to find an apartment. And I’m thrilled to say I moved into a fabulous place on April Fools Day. I was staying in a simple and clean hostel, hostel revolution (have to love that name), run by a very nice Australian, who has a little dog-named Shakira. And while the hostel was fine, and there really weren’t too many people staying there, it wasn’t in the best neighborhood. This became quite apparent to me last Saturday afternoon, when I was walking back to my hostel, and three sad, poor, and pathetic 14-year-olds tried to rob me. One never really knows how they are going to react in these types of situations, likely because they hope to never be in one of them, but I must admit I had the exact wrong reaction…I saw the tallest of the three kids, still a solid 6 inches shorter than me, put his finger under his shirt as if it were a gun. They then surrounded me and started asking for my money and my camera. I simply said I didn’t have either – which was a lie. I had about $10 and my digital camera. I just continued walking and they did the same, looking sort of defeated. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was as I should have just given them something. I also was just sad for them as they were so young and needy. Though Quito is pretty safe during the day, I do hear more and more stories, and am not taking any chances… It is a hard adjustment and harsh reality, but also necessary in order to live here safely.
Understandably, I began to focus solely on finding an apartment. I got the local paper, El Comercio, and called many, many people with postings in the classifieds; but it was through a friend of my co-worker that I ended up finding my amazing place. It has four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, brand new hardwood floors, and is on the second floor of a building that is in the safest area I know: two blocks from Parque Carolina, the equivalent of Central Park in Quito. The space is huge – with a large dining room and living room – and I particularly love that there are huge windows so there is great light that comes in. There currently is a trendy young German woman, Germaine, who recently moved and will be here in Quito for the next few months with an internship at a travel agency. And my other roommate, Olivia, is a lovely young British woman who has been here since the fall and is moving next weekend. I’m not sure whom our fourth roommate will be, but our friendly landlord – an older Ecuadorian man named Galo – is sure to find someone respectable. It seems as though he’ll be taking good care of us…we have six different keys just to get into our apartment!
QUITO: PEOPLE AND THE VIBE ON THE STREETS
All the people I’ve met so far have been absolutely wonderful. The expat community -primarily volunteers, English teachers, and students - is seemingly large as it is easy to meet people, but also very small everyone seems to know someone through someone else. As for all the Quitenos I’ve met, they are welcoming, interested, friendly, and eager to talk to you about just about anything. And, there are so many intriguing things to see here, I’m glad I’ll be here for a while! I’ve seen about 6 different impromptu soccer games taking place in la Parque Carolina; a man preaching the gospel in one of the plazas; a plethora of stray dogs; fruit stands everywhere; indigenous women selling the daily newspaper; a shop selling hundreds of ties, and only ties; a man selling razors on the street; a roast suckling pig in the window of a restaurant; a man juggling in the middle of the street – stopping traffic – to get some money; big malls with stores you see in the states and then some; a truck that drives through my neighborhood on the weekend selling fruit out the back; families walking together in the park; men on bikes selling ice cream; aerobics in the park with about 50 people participating (oh yes, I participated with some friends, and it was hilarious and fun!); many loud busses that make for the disgusting pollution here (struggling to not be bothered by this); couples kissing in the parks; international restaurants galore, anti-Bush graffiti, families riding in the backs of pick-up trucks, older men playing accordions in the streets, women with raspy voices selling lottery tickets, beautiful artwork in the park on the weekend, backpackers in internet cafes, and just lots and lots of people…
LAST WEEKEND – THE PARK, EL PANECILLO, DANCING, DINNER
After feeling a bit more settled into my apartment, I had a weekend without an agenda, and it was awesome. Friday night was really relaxed as my co-workers and I were all pretty spent from the week. We met at a hotel with where there was a Spanish guitar player singing some songs (including one of my favorites, Buena Vista Social Club). We then made our way to dinner at an Arabic restaurant - with excellent mint tea – and called it an early night at about 11:30pm. The following day, I met some of the young women I had just met the night before for aerobics in Parque Carolina – so hilarious but really fun – and I then went to El Panecillo with Olivia and her German friend Sara. El Panecillo, literally the little bread loaf, is a huge statue in the southern part of the city that is up on a hill. After taking a short taxi ride to the top, you see the most incredible views of Quito, and get a sense of how gigantic the city really is:
It is estimated to be 4K wide and about 50K long…somewhere around 30 miles long!!!
After some photos at the top, we made our way down to centro historico to a famous street called la Ronda. It is a beautiful, traditional, colonial street that actually reminded me quite a bit of Antigua, Guatemala. We had a little lunch and then made our way back to our respective apartments. That evening, however, is when the real fun began. We decided to go out dancing, which means that you don’t actually go out until about 11pm…this was a new concept for an early-rising gringa like me. However, it was definitely the most fun I’ve had yet! Went to a place with incredible ambiance called Rhonda Antigua where there was a live Colombian band with really great singers. We danced, and danced, and danced – salsa, cumbia, merengue, bachata, and more. We were all spent by the time 3am rolled around, so we called it a night and made our way home. If I could somehow live without sleep, I’d be quite pleased to salsa dance every night…I’m hoping to take some lessons starting next week
The following morning I woke up and decided to go for a run in the park. It was a wonderfully sunny day, and although I definitely felt the altitude, it was great to be outside with my heart rate up. I’ve been practicing yoga nearly every day, but I miss my running…And then, that afternoon (Sunday) we decided to make a big lunch/dinner at my friend Mauricio’s house. He is a wonderful Chilean co-worker, who has live all over, but grew up in Quito and is currently living with his family. It was great to be in a home, and his family was extremely nice to allow our group of about 8 people take over the kitchen and make shrimp and arugula salad, cooked veggies and pasta, hummus, delicious chai tea, vegan raspberries brownies, and my cookies – oatmeal raisin, chocolate chip, and chocolate chip with macadamia nuts (I know, quite a variety of cookies, but I had to fulfill everyone’s requests!). After a whole lot of cooking, eating, and story telling, we all went home to get ready for our work/volunteer-weeks.
And, well, that sums it up for now. This week I’m hoping to look into where/when I’m going to take salsa lessons and if I’m going to teach English; and next weekend I’m off to Banos with friends from work. Think spas and whitewater rafting in a bohemian sort of town…can’t wait! Hopefully the next postings will be shorter and coming more frequently!
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Much love to all –