The beginning of the backpacking stories: Montanita, Puerto Lopez, and off to Peru

I’ve been on the road for five days now (two months to go), and with my one backpack, three shirts, two pants, and eight pairs of socks and underwear, have passed through three places: Guayaquil, Montanita, and Puerto Lopez. Guayaquil five years ago, apparently, was the Tijuana of Ecuador. In other words, el dompe, which is Tijuanan Spanglish for, clearly, the dump. My first few minutes in Guayaquil are pretty telling of what the city is like. I’m about to go into detail about my whole trip out there, so bear with me until the end of this:

I took a shuttle van from Cuenca to Guayaquil, which cost twelve dollars and took about three hours. Before the bus ride, I was hanging out in the buseta station (the shuttles have their own separate terminal), and a little six year old kid named Cesar walked up to me, mumbled something I could hear, and hopped into the chair next to me. Cesar was covered in shoe polish because he worked as a shoe shiner in the market, which is illegal. Child labor here, though, is pretty commonplace. I would see a lot of the kids I used to work with at Aurora working in the markets on the weekends, or skipping school to work before Aurora. So Cesar was really dirty, and as he was unintelligibly talking to me, I realized he was asking for money. He put his shoe shiner box down, and starting asking more clearly if I could spare anything. I gave him my lunch instead. What happens more often than not, I’ve learned, is the money you give to these kids goes straight to their parents, and their parents don’t always spend it on them. It goes to new clothes for the parents, booze, drugs, or something else. In some situations the kids benefit, of course, but Cuenca is no different than the rest of the world. There are good and bad people everywhere. So I gave him my lunch. He was like forty pounds. As he was eagerly chomping down on my lunch, his nine year old friend and apparent colleague Lenin came over and shared everything with him, and I gave them both my iPod to play Angry Birds on. These kids flipped when they starting playing it…they were so excited. I spent the next hour hanging out with these two before I had to go, and realized as I was leaving that a lot of people were giving my dirty looks. I still haven’t fully understood why, but I wonder what I was doing wrong. It goes back to what Jess was telling me earlier about walking the kids home: of course your first world mindset is kicking in now, but you have to think about what it’s like for these kids in these neighborhoods, and how the people around them are thinking. So here I am a few days later, I’m wondering if there were any unintended consequences of hanging out with these kids, and why people were looking at me so sourly. Anybody have any insight on this?

Back to the buseta. These drivers must get paid something extra if they make it there with time to spare, because good lord, I feel lucky to be alive. Either that, or these men clearly didn’t have the mother I did constantly telling them—as they were that annoying little antsy kid in line with their mother at the bank—“Patience, Matthew. Patience is a virtue. Calm down. It’s just a few minutes.” I shudder to think what I would be like without that constant chiding. And I’m still slightly more impatient than most.  I, and probably countless others, thank you for that, mother. I chose to pay the extra four bucks for the buseta because it goes through Cajas, and therefore is much faster. I realized quickly into the trip, though, why the larger bus doesn’t go through Cajas. In the early evening, a really thick, heavy fog descends upon the mountains in Cajas. It’s brooding gloom  (AP Lit alumni, I hope you thought of Ortman the minute you read that). I say that because below the fog, I’m sure there are hundreds of shells of burnt vans and corpses at the bottom of the mountains. The roads in Cajas are very well paved, and there are three lanes everywhere you go. One for going down, and two for going up. The middle lane is the passing lane for those going up. Of course, though, nobody is going to pass anybody in the fog. Or, rather, this is the hope. As we’re barreling down the Cajas lanes at 65 mph en route to Guayaquil, our driver is going between helping me with my Spanish pronunciation, laughing at various jokes, messing with the radio, and of course, blaring his horn and subsequently passing giant, apparently too slow buses and semi trucks. I wish I had been sleeping. I don’t know exactly what the drivers’ thought processes are, but the best guess I can venture is they’re thinking that if it’s this foggy out, there is no way in hell somebody would be stupid enough to pass somebody. So, that being said and assumed, the passing lane going up the mountain is going to be free to pass downhill. Of course, they’re not thinking about the fact that in a buseta-bus collision, the bus is going to continue unfazed. Every time the van jolted left, I was thinking “No, he’s not going to. Now way. He’s not that stu—oh shit, hold on, here we go. We’re doing this. Again.” I was having this exact conversation with a friend I met up with in Guayaquil, a coworker of Danny, who I stayed with the night I got in. He’s also a telecom engineer, and is from Ottawa. He was telling me that each time he goes back and forth from Cuenca, he sits in the far back, in the middle. I was sitting behind the passenger seat so I could catch the window. But sitting his way, in a head on collision, you’re in the safest position. But then again, when tumbling down a mountain, anything goes.

When we miraculously made it into the greater Guayaquil metro area, the guy driving in front of us was either drunk or attempting to commit insurance fraud, which is a thing that’s been made possible to do in the past five years. He was going from eighty to forty to sixty to thirty to ninety to drunk off his ass all within the same few miles, and my vigilant driver was still hyped up on enough adrenaline from nearly dying in the mountains to slam on the breaks in time to avoid crashing. The guy in the passenger seat was videotaping the whole ordeal with his cell phone. Eventually, the guy turned off, and we figured we were over him. We weren’t. When we pulled into the parking lot to get out and take taxing to our subsequent destinations, he pulled up behind us, got out of our car, and started screaming at our driver for driving like an idiot and to immediately delete the video. They were arguing for a while, and after some carefully placed “vete a la mierda-s” and “concha de tu madre-s,” my driver caught a solid left hook/suckerpunch to the jaw. So they starting fighting, and then took their shirts off, which is apparently a thing people do. After walking around in a few circles huffing and puffing, they continued to fight. A security guard from a bank next door slowly sauntered over, stood behind the guy who initially accosted my driver, casually raised his baton, and cracked him over the head. He crumpled, slowly got up about ten seconds later, and dejectedly and angry walked to his car as my driving was screaming “A donde vas? Ya peleamos! Ya peleamos!”. As this was all starting to happen, I quickly moved about twenty yards away with everybody else from the van. A women looked at me and said “Bienvenidos a Guayaquil. La gente aqui es muy malo. Ellos son como ninos. Cuidate.” Welcome to Guayaquil. The people here are very bad. They’re like children. Be careful. So that about summed Guayaquil up for me. I’m heading back in two hours to grab a connection to Mancora, Peru. I’ll just be in the bus station, but maybe more stories to come?

I’ve been spending the last few days in Montanita and Puerto Lopez, two coastal cities about 20 miles apart. Both are absolutely gorgeous, and quite different from one another. Montanita is a debaucherous surfer town of four square blocks with cocktail stands all up and down the main block for two bucks a pop. So my three days there went like this: go to a crepe stand with Andrew (18) and Collin (19), two guys from Southern California I met on the bus from Guayaquil, hang out on the beach, read, and just bum around, grab dinner when we felt like it, get two dollar mojitos and 90 cent 40 oz beers from the former crepe-now-cocktail-stands, and learn how to salsa in the many beachfront discotecas. It wasn’t a bad life. I can see how some people get stuck there. I was reading on the beach the other day, and after about twenty minutes I looked up to see that I was surrounded by probably a hundred crabs. It was incredible. I moved to grab my phone to take a picture, but scared them with my movement and caused them all to scatter. Puerto Lopez is about the size of Montanita, but much, much quieter. I think they may be like Montanita at certain times of the year, since there are about eight or nine bars on the beach, but at least for now it’s pretty dead. I came here from Montanita with three English girls named Ana, Cassie, and Sophie and a Dutch girl  named Joliene. I met them all in my hostel, and all happened to be heading to Puerto Lopez at the same time. We went to Isla de la Plata yesterday, which is like a poor man’s Galapagos, and saw blue footed boobies, albatrosses, other weird birds, and WHALES. Real live humpback whales, jumping in and out of the water. It was like Free Willy. Absolutely spectacular. Puerto Lopez has been pretty tranquilo, and I’m looking forward to moving on to basically the Montanita of Peru. The only difference in Mancora is that it’s really hot and sunny all of the time, and people may not wear fanny packs all of the time. Those are a huge thing here. It’s weird, and a bit amusing. It’s been really overcast in Montanita and Puerto Lopez, since it’s nearly constantly covered by a massive cloud. It’s supposed to let up on the weekends only, although I’m not sure how that works.

From Mancora I’ll be meeting Trish in Lima. I’m not sure where we’re going from there, but we’ll figure something out. Maybe Bolivia? Chile? Uruguay? Trish is looking for warm, so we may be heading to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, or possibly Brazil. I’ll have to reassess my funds to see what I can and cannot do. Wherever we go, though, it’s sure to be a blast. I don’t really know how it couldn’t be. The only plans I have past being in Lima on the 2nd is going to a 4th of July Party at the US Embassy, probably in Lima. I like it this way…never really knowing where you’ll be in a week, living with nothing but what’s on your back. It’s liberating. Nobody really tells out about the down side of travelling, though. For example, you always hear about the incredible people you meet along the way—like Joliene, Collin, Eddy and Dario—but nothing about how you have to leave these newfound best friends for more or less ever. It’s crazy how quickly you can get really close with people in just a few days, although saddening how you move on from them just as quickly. Although, I now have places to stay and people to hang out with if I ever go to Melboure, Concepcion, Utrecht, London, Jerusalem, Oslo, or southern California. Also, the great thing about living out of a small backpack is that everything you have is right on your back,  and can be carried on busses and planes as a carry on. However, the down side to that, which I realized today, is that once you put something dirty in the bag, no matter how many plastic bags you wrap around it, everything in the bag begins to smell.

So, that being said, I’m off to find a washing machine and a shower.

Pictures of whales, blue footed boobies, and run-down third world coastal cities to come when I find a way to upload them from my phone. 


Goodbye, Cuena. Hello, rest of South America.

I have no idea where to start.  While I’ve been here in Cuenca for just under four weeks now, I feel I’ve already succeeded in creating a home away from home. It wasn’t very hard to do so. The people here are all fantastic. The city in a perfect balance between old European and South American culture, and I’ve made a handful of friends here that I can honestly say qualify as more than Matt friends. That’s not to mention the kids I’m working with–they’re my favorite part. Just for some context, a Matt Friend is a name Haley and Brynna gave to those sort of people who I believe are my good friends, but I’ve only met like, once, and they probably think nothing of the sort. I’m not changing my ways. I have so many more friends than I would otherwise. Reality is how you perceive it.

Now, that being said, I’m leaving Sunday. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Cuenca–maybe the last week or two of August–but I’m buying a backpack and I’m going to the coast. I was initially planning on going to Esmeraldas, but Marcelo and David and everybody else I talked to looked at me, made some gestures and faces, and then detailed how it was a stupid idea. But kidnapping aside, Esmeraldas is a beautiful, fantastic place. Just only for Ecuadorians and other South Americans. While this did make me want to go even more–couchsurfing could provide me with the friends and backup needed–I decided to be rational and cut the first leg of my trip to Montanita and Puerto Lopez, to see the debauchery of the first one and the whales at the second. I heard you can see whales for like 20 bucks at Puerto Lopez, so I’m definitely going there. And my friend Yuni, an Israeli guy I hiked Cajas and hitchhiked back with, is going to be in Puerto Lopez, so we’re planning on meeting up. From the coast I’m headed down to Mancora, Peru, for a couple of days, and then to Lima for another to meet with Trish and others. After Lima, we’ll be off on our Bolivian adventure. After that? I may be going to Chile, but I don’t know. I’m going to try to ride a llama to Machu Piccu and Cusco at some point and do the natural touristy things, but when and how I’m doing all of this I have no idea. And I’m going to do it with the limited cash I have, probably coming home absolutely broke. Side note: if anybody knows of any extremely high paying and exciting jobs available in Madison that don’t require many qualifications, please tell me.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m leaving Cuenca if it’s been so fantastic. You wouldn’t b the first. Cuenca is wonderful, but I wake up everyday and I look at the mountains and the river disappearing behind trees and can’t help but think what else is out there. It’s why I left Madison. I acclimated so quickly to the city (not the elevation) and found so many similarities to my home in Wisconsin, and I think the fact that Cuenca hasn’t quelled the restlessness that was my impetus for leaving Madison is telling that I need to keep going. Marcelo keeps telling me I need to travel, since I’m constantly doing it in my head now, and I should do it alone. I’ll learn more about myself that way, and will become a better person because of it. He speaks from experience and his Master’s in psychology, and I’m finding enough truth in his psychobabble to go, though only going about half of it alone.  Also, it’s actually cheaper for me to travel than to live in Cuenca. How? I’ll spend an average 15 dollars a day while traveling versus 20 dollars a day here. Aurora ends soon, so the kids are leaving me at more or less the same time I leave them. It’s a good time to go, and while I don’t have too much of a plan, I’ll be seeing Trish and her friends the first of July, and Zake the first week of August, probably somewhere in Chile. I’m thinking Santiago, after spending a few days with Senora Lentz in Vina del Mar and Dario’s family in Concepcion. More about Dario in a bit. I think it’s best to go without a plan. Every backpacker I’ve met so far has shrugged and scoffed whenever I asked him where they were planning on being next week, and told me they only know what’s going on tomorrow, the day after at best. It’s a bit frightening, but the freedom is so appealing I’m doing just that. I keep having to remidn myself that I have more than two months left down here. So I’m going to the coast Sunday, after going trekking in Cajas again, and this time not worrying about nearly falling to my death off of various cliffs. Again. That’s a story for another time. Marcelo, some others, and I are going with a guide this time, and not Jose, my new Ecuadorian friend who has an unfortunate tendency for getting into peligroso situations. It’ll be safer that way–although probably not as fun–and we’ll follow the unmarked path that we were somehow expected to follow in the first place. But it was so beautiful. And the llamas looked as hilarious as I expected them to. That, plus the frequent bursts of adrenaline, made it perfect.

So Cuenca has been incredible, and I’m still trying to decide if it trumps my first summer in Madison. Right now, I’m saying it’s an apples/oranges situation, but if I had to choose, I would say it doesn’t. Yet. There is still time…I mean, I’m not even halfway through my summer. Last summer was beyond anything I could have expected, and although it might be the romantic bias that comes with hindsight speaking, I’m finding it is a very hard set of experiences to trump. Although, this summer will probably be the same when I look back. I shouldn’t compare these experiences, though, just accumulate them. However, on the other hand, it’s been said that restlessness is discontent, and discontent is the first necessity of progress. To get more out of life, you need a little of both. If I’m completely satisfied with the past, there is no point in moving forward. So thank you, Thomas Edison, for summing up my feelings so eloquently. As I prepared to move out of the 39 N Mills apartment in December, my friend Andrew asked if I was ever sedentary. I don’t really like the word–not only it’s denotation/connotation, but it reminds me of sedimentary, which a classification of rocks, which are non-living objects, and things I feel people should strive to differ from. So no, I try my best to stay moving, but if it’s worth anything I try to move forward with purpose, and not just progress for the sake of progress. I mean, tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgement. (A)SO to Dolores Umbrige for that one. Errors of judgement such as following Juan down what turns out be yet another frightfully high, steep, and narrow cliff, and this:

A week and a half into living in Cuenca. I’m walking down the street later at night looking for a bus stop, and stop two well-dressed businessmen to ask where the nearest stop is. We start talking, and they get really excited that I’m from the United States. I’m unsure why (I found out later), but quickly got over it as we kept talking. We’re having a friendly conversation about their work, what I’m doing in Cuenca, their limited travels to the States, and how their kids’ recent joint birthday party went down. So this is Donald and Juan. Donald and Juan have very thick accents, and have a tendency to talk really, really quickly. I thought I knew everything they were saying and was following along just fine. As it turned out, I didn’t, and I wasn’t. They pointed me to the closest bus stop, gave me their cards, and asked if I’d like to meet outside of their office building at the end of the workday the following day. So I looked at their business cards, saw their office was on a very busy, populated street frequented by police, and figured what the hell, why not. Very little risk involved here. These are two young guys I just had a great conversation with who were keen to help me out and had just found out I had arrived pretty recently and didn’t have too many friends yet.

So I went the next day. We met outside of the building with a big group of Ecuadorians, and Juan introduced me: “Hola todos! Bienvenidos, este es Matt de los Estados Unidos. Hola Matt!” I wasn’t expecting this. I was quickly ushered into this building with Ecuadorian families and women and men of all ages, and once again feel pretty safe about the situation since I’m amongst a bunch of people and a mother and grandmother quickly started talking to me and made me feel safe enough. So I walked in. That was a stupid thing to do. I really wish I didn’t do that. We walked upstairs, and made our way into a dusty room with plastic lawn chairs and a screen with energy drinks and cosmetic products projected upon it. I sat down in the front row, and Juan announced: “Matt! Thank you so much for being here! It’s really great to have you here. Would you stand up and tell everybody about yourself and what you’re doing here and what you think of our product?” What the hell? Why? What product? I thought we were going to get coffee or beer or something. I know it’s 4:30, but was that really too much to ask? So I stood up in front of thirty or so people, and all eyes were on me. Nobody spoke English–including Juan and Donald (especially Juan and Donald)–so I tried to speak Spanish as formally and as eloquently as I could and gave a seven or eight minute impromptu speech about myself and my fabricated opinion on energy drinks that proved to taste like liquefied tums and chalk mixed together, all the while wondering why the hell I was there and how I could get out. After I gave this terrible speech I sat down, and was handed a Dixie cup of a yellow chalky liquid that I didn’t want to drink because I started to get mass suicide by kool-aid like vibes. While I was sitting in my lawn chair in this dirty, dusty room full of visibly poor and super friendly Ecuadorians, Juan was giving a speech on his energy drink and cosmetic products and how they not only cure obesity, but epilepsy. His partners gave testimonials on how they previously had brain cancer, drank the chalk, and were cured. This is when it dawns on me. I was not going to die, which was a very comforting start, and the chalky liquid I had been ignoring in my hand for thirty minutes was probably safe to drink. I no longer felt I had to choose between living and being impolite. After that though, things went a bit down hill. Juan is at the top of a pyramid scheme, and keeps referring to me during his speech, asking me to stand next to him, and thanking me because he thinks I’m going to bring his business to America. I don’t know how this happened. I just wanted to make some friends. But all I know is that thirty more minutes later I really have to pee, and am sick of hearing about face wash that turns dead skin into diamonds. This last one is an exaggeration, but people really gave testimonies about how they cured their epilepsy and cancer  through these products. Mentiroso. Finally the presentation ended, and as I’m about to walk out, Juan corners me and thanks me again. I tell him I’m sorry, but I can’t and won’t do anything he’s asking me to do. Now, don’t get a bad opinion of Juan. He was a genuinely good guy, and was just trying to make some money to feed his family. I felt legitimately bad about having to tell him I didn’t want to sell his shit. But even if I did have the time and motivation I wouldn’t have sold his product, because it was shit. I’d prefer Airborne and Robatussin mixed on the rocks to that drink. After I broke the bad news to Juan and endured his depressed face, Donald walked up to me and had me take pictures with him and a bunch of women holding the drink and pretending to drink it in the most ridiculous poses. It was like it was for a stupid, cheesy magazine ad. It turned out it was just that, so if you see somebody who looks like me posing in some terrible ad for a terrible product in  South America, it is in fact me. So that’s how that happened. After taking thirty or so pictures in various poses with people who acted like they’d never seen somebody with blond hair and blue eyes before, I was thoroughly over the spotlight and sprinted out of the office. Once I regained my freedom I bought a 15 cent loaf of bread and walked down the street contemplating my life, my decisions, and how I desperately needed to learn more Spanish.

But that’s the worst of Ecuador so far, and if that’s the case, I feel I’m doing pretty well.

On a better note, I’ve been through so many incredible experiences. I’ve befriended Marcelo, David, Muhi, and Dario, four incredibly different and interesting guys, all of whom I have already learned so much from. Marcelo is the psychologist at Aurora, and one of my closest friends and informal Spanish teacher. He also sings in a screamo band, which I did not expect. David is the 27-year-old owner and chef of Casa del Centro and is recently married. He has two adorable little girls who walk around the restaurant in princess costumes all day, and he’s absolutely hilarious. Muhi is Malaysian (he considers himself a citizen of the world) and just finished his PhD in Australia, and has traveled pretty much constantly for the last year or so, having visited nearly every continent. Needless to say, he has a lot of stories. Dario is from Concepcion, Chile, and is 24-year-old violin professor. He recently graduated, and is traveling before starting his career at the University. Dario lives on two dollars a day, and has the most impressive and respectable character and way of living. I admire Dario so much, and I’m sad about leaving him behind. If I go down to Concepcion, though, which is a legitimate possibility, I may stay with his family. We’ve all hung out late into the night playing guitar and violin and signing everything from the Beatles to Buena Vista Social Club. Doing so has easily been one of the highlights of my trip. I never would have thought a year ago I would be singing Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd with people from Ecuador, Malaysia and Chile after a long day’s hike in Cajas. I suppose I should have seen something like this coming, though.

About two weeks ago I ran into a guy on the street who was wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. I broke conversation with Marcelo, and said to him: “Hey, my best friend goes to Notre Dame.” Him: “Really? What’s his name? I’m a junior.” Me: “His name is Matt, he’s going to be a junior too.” Him: “Are you kidding me? No way! I love that guy, we studied econ together all last year. My name is Kyle, nice to meet you.” Matt was speechless, of course, that I ran into Kyle, of all people, outside of a bar in Cuenca, Ecuador, of all places. Kyle and I quickly became friends, and I went out with his big group of American sustainable business interns from USC, Notre Dame, a small school in Pennsylvania, and Colombia. We went to Banos one day, which is a region outside of Cuenca with hot springs and many ritzy spas. We ended up going to the ritziest of spas and were very annoying as large groups of loud foreigners tend to be at quiet spas. I felt a little awkward and uncomfortable being a part of that sort of  group, especially as I caught the dirty looks of the Ecuadorian couple making out in the corner of the hot spring as some other girls in the group were throwing mud at each other. But Kyle and I sort of hung out on the periphery. Oh, I also took two mud baths, among many steam related activities. I had no idea my skin could ever get so soft.

I’ve met a pretty solid number of people down here on university programs from the states, and after having introduced myself, have gotten some mixed responses. From a few of the East Coast frat stars and their Western and Midwestern counterparts, I usually get strange looks and questions asked in a tone that implies that it’s not ok to move a continent away on your own to do something awesome with your summer. Here’s the beginning of a conversation from last weekend: “Wait, so like, you’re here on your own, without anybody? Why would you do that” A: No, I’m not alone. I had a contact down here, and have made friends since arriving. And I mean, why not? 2: “So you just get wasted every day, or what?” Really? That’s why I would come down here? Other people are less confused, like Danny and Petter, two guys I met the other night. Danny is a 19-year-old student from Occidental College near LA (Obama went there for two years before transferring) studying Diplomacy and is in Cuenca on an agricultural internship with the Ecuadorian government. Petter is a 24-year-old computer scientist from Oslo, Norway, down here for a month studying Spanish. It bothers him that he can only speak Norwegian, English,and probably another language perfectly while his girlfriend is also fluent in Spanish. He also has various other business and personal reasons.  When I explained to Danny and Petter what I was doing down here, they nodded like it was a normal thing to do, and excitedly asked about my backpacking plans. They spent the rest of the night telling me told me endeavors and adventures of their own, each inspiring and exiting to hear about. I like these guys. As we moved onto what we were studying and our basic backgrounds, Danny began talking about a Conflict Studies and Humans Rights graduate program at Utrecht University. I looked into it some more, and found other graduate programs in International Human Rights and Criminal Justice. I don’t know if I can find anything more specific to what I want to do with my life. It’s only a year, although it costs betwee 15,000 and 18,500 Euro, depending on the program. Still, I would be done by May 2015.  So there’s another avenue I’m thinking of pursuing. Thank you again, Danny. Astor, so it’s my turn to sublet from you?

I’ve met marvelous people in Cuenca, and my Spanish has improved so much. If I keep moving at this rate, I’ll be highly proficient by August. Well, I hope I will be. No promises. I’m still not entirely sure what highly proficient means. Also, I need to learn how to roll my r’s. I can’t do it. I’ve tried so hard, and I just can’t do it. The kids keep laughing at me. Any suggestion on how to do this? Caitlin, you’re a speech pathologist. Please help me. I love Cuenca, and for that reason I’m leaving Sunday for Puerto Lopez to see whales, and after that to Peru. I want to leave Cuenca while I’m still in love with it, and not when I’ve exhausted my time here. It’s a good enough time to leave as any, and this way Cuenca will always be a place I’ll be wanting to come back to, and will come back to when I get the opportunity. I feel like I’m squandering my time in South America if I remain in one city in one country. So, that being said, it’s off to the coast and two months of hostel hopping and backpacking. Three outfits and an iPod will be enough for seventy days, right? That’s how Dario does it, expect without the iPod and instead a violin.

I’ve realized that I really have no idea what I’m doing. Just enough to make it back home, which is really all I’ll need.

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My kind of natural remedy

So you’re not feeling the greatest. You’ve lost yourself, aren’t interested in doing what you’ve always liked to do, and you stopped loving yourself. You don’t even like yourself, which of course makes it hard to imagine how others would even like you in the first place. A friend of mine described her present state to me as such, and here’s my advice:

Come to Ecuador. Do something utterly life changing. Give a kid his only meal of the day at 6:30 pm and feel their love when they climb all over you and start one of countless tickle fights and laugh in the sweetest way possible. It fills you with so much life and so much heartbreak at the same time, while infusing you with such an incredible amount of confidence and a concept of the goodness of humanity (added to that which comes from just traveling, the myriad failures and eventual successes in the process, the random conversations with people you meet on the street who become your best friends if for just the beer you share at a nearby bar, and really just overall not dying). Basically, travel. I’m not even kidding. Money isn’t an issue if you really look at it. If you do it right, t’s a couple grand all summer, including flight…tops. Get set up with places in Guatemala teaching English, Spanish, and sustainability, Ecuador doing what I am, Africa to see everything is has to offer, both the horrific and marvelous, or Cambodia to combat human trafficking.  And if you can’t do that (and I’m only accepting legitimate reasons for no) there are substitutes. Do the same thing at home, in your community. It’s less of a challenge and risk, but the outcome is just as righteous. Basically what I’m saying is: what I always found as the best way to feel better was make others feel better, and test yourself in the process. It will show you that people do love you, and that you should moreover love yourself. At least that’s how it’s been for me–how it is for me.

Also, read Peter Singer’s essay on Famine, Affluence, and Mortality –>

Mijos, Matias, y viviendo en Cuenca

That’s me. Matias. Or, at least that’s what I’m called at Aurora, la casa por ninos pobrecitos. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, since Luchito introduced me to all 50 or so of the kids as such. There really was no changing it after that, although I don’t think I want to. I like the sound of it.

The kids at Aurora are absolutely the greatest little people in the world. I love being around them so much, and despite the (diminishing) language barrier, they’re still absolutely hilarious. It doesn’t really seem like their sense of humor is the kind used as a defense mechanism, although they definitely go through enough to support that theory. But no, I think they’re really just that ignorantly blissful. They’re so strong, but not even deliberately so. Just strong in the way kids are, in a way that you couldn’t even call being strong. It’s just called life to them. They majority of them only have one parent–generally a mother–and a few don’t have any at all. Instead, they live with their older brothers, sisters, or some other relative. They’re of varying degrees of poor, and the fact that families here are incredibly large (having 5 to 8 siblings is a casual thing here) doesn’t do much to help it. I asked one of my newfound Ecuadorian friends (they shall be introduced later) why parents keep having kids when they clearly can hardly afford to live themselves, and he responded with one word: Catholicism. A lot of people don’t believe in contraception, and with that on top of the developing country population growth theory–definitely not the technical term for it–families are huge. The theory is based on the fact that people in undeveloped countries have a lot of kids to both work to sustain the family, and with the presumption that some kids will inevitably die from disease, famine, or some sort of conflict. Those in developed countries don’t have so many kids because they don’t need to, and moreover don’t have the time to. But in a developing country, healthcare is tremendously improved (relatively speaking), among other things, and kids are more likely to live because of the improved conditions. Despite this, people are still used to having so many kids, and it takes a while to phase that out of the culture, and therefore there is large population growth. So right now, Ecuador is developing. It’s a third world country, and while Cuenca is one of the richest cities in the country, there are still a ton of poor people here. Poor people with a ton of kids, and therefore few resources to help them out. And the rich people are mega wealthy here, but in the States they’d be pretty middle-income. It’s all relative.

Despite all of this, these kids are the seemingly happiest children I’ve ever met. But I’m hesitating to take the seemingly out of that sentence. I ask kids where they were the day before since they were absent, and they tell me they were selling goods in the market. I ask Josselina how she got such a horribly infected burn on her entire left foot, and she gets really shy and stops climbing all over me to instead sit in a chair quietly (she has since seen a doctor, gotten medicine, and looks so much better even days after. Whew.) Others–boys and girls alike, from ages 4 to 12 years old–will never let go of my hand once they get a hold of it or let me put them down when I pick them up because they crave loving attention that much. Or at least this is how the resident psychologist describes it, Marcello, one of the greatest men I’ve met in Ecuador thus far. So I say they’re happy and hilarious and so much fun to be around, but between all the lines you can see their pain. For many, the meal they eat at Aurora is the only meal they get to eat each day, which makes me worry about them on the weekends when Aurora is closed. They fill me with energy and life when I walk through the doors each day and their stories simultaneously break my heart. I was walking through the market with a few of the kids yesterday since we all got there a bit early–my favorites, if I were to play favorites– and we passed a man selling ice cream and I bought the five of them ice cream cones. It cost me $1.25, but they were all so excited they started hopping up and down and wouldn’t stop talking about it and thanking me all evening. I walk these five brothers, sisters, and cousins home most evenings, and the walk is one of my favorite parts. They’re clearly incredibly comfortable walking the streets at night alone, but I like being there nonetheless. It comforts me to know they’re getting home safe, and they always seem so excited to show off their city and where they live. Luchito, the director of Aurora, cautioned me against walking them home. He said they would get too comfortable with me, and when I left they wouldn’t know how to handle themselves. Yes, he said, the streets are dangerous, especially at night. Yes, four year old boys and girls shouldn’t be walking the streets without an adult, even if their ten year old brother who is more mature than most twenty year olds I know is right there with them. But they have no choice, because that’s life and that’s what they have to deal with. I argued with him as politely and coherently as I could that it wasn’t their only choice, at least not now. If he thought it was dangerous for them to walk home alone, and Aurora couldn’t afford to shuttle them, I would walk as many as I could. They’d be walking alone some other time, sure, but at least for that mile or so they would be safer. This was how I figured. It wasn’t too hard to be polite, either. I only know polite, neutral, and ultra-vulgar words and phrases in Spanish. It’s easy to avoid saying “vete a la verga” or “concha de tu madre” to a fifty some year old man who is clearly in love with each and every one of these kids (look those up yourself). Plus, I’m a white American with basically zero perspective, and I don’t want to impose myself in the way that leaves many foreigners hating Americans. My friend made some great points, though, when I mentioned this debacle to her:

“I know your first world ‘what the hell are these kids doing out by themselves at this hour in this kind of neighborhood’ thing is kicking in. And ya know, you’re right, it’s probably not extremely safe for them to walk home alone. However, they are very poor kids that are familiar with the neighborhood and the neighborhood is very familiar with them. They are not as much of a target as you would think. Plus, 5 year olds there are normally way beyond the maturity level of people our age here. Basically, be careful, you are way more of a target and make sure you don’t endanger the kids by doing that. You are so out of place there that you need to be able to work well with everyone before you start to swim against the current”

So that’s an excellent point. Luchito said the same thing out to me, but eventually figured that the benefits outweighed the costs in certain circumstances. Cuenca is a fairly safe city, especially compared to the rest of Ecuador, and even moreso the rest of South America. In all likelihood, the kids would be coming back the next day just fine. But, nonetheless, we agreed that if we got out late, and it was dark out, I would walk them home. It if was light, I wouldn’t. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m conflicted, because I have such different ways of looking at things, or at least I feel I do, and I’m told I do. I’m trying my best to help these kids as much as possible, but I don’t want to end up hurting them with my good intentions, ignorance, and naivety. I’m learning, though, and I’m trying my best to do as much as I can. Ricardo was right–humility really is the key to everything here. I just read this over, and it sounds so disgustingly cliche-first world idealist kid visits third-world country, and I would have scoffed at myself a month ago. Maybe not scoffed, but at least rolled my eyes and what comes off as a bit melodramatic. Maybe it is a bit melodramatic, but nonetheless, it’s much different when you see everything first hand. You don’t understand that there are hungry kids out there until you’re handing them their only meal of the day.

The kids are my favorite part of my day, hands down. I wish Aurora were open earlier, so I could spend more time there. But it’s not, so I’m looking for more opportunities to occupy the abundance of free time I have. It’s really great to have so much autonomy, and the time to just sit and relax and read some Hemingway is something I’ve been looking forward to since I opened my first book this last semester. But now that I’m finally here, I’ve found that I’ve been a bit lonely. I wasn’t expecting that. I really hate admitting it too, since I’m in Ecuador and I’m so excited to be here and this is an opportunity I’ve been dreaming about since early freshman year. I debated with my friends at four am in the Witte 3B den whether Thailand, Buenos Aires, or Morocco would be a better choice for this summer, and spoke on the phone with countless organizations about alternative breaks and volunteering/living abroad. I clearly decided on none, and chose to go solo to Cuenca, Ecuador. But it was pretty easy packing everything up, and the days walking up to my flight on May 28th were all pretty easy, and actually really exciting. That is, until I had to say goodbye to my roommates, my best friends, and of course my family. The goodbyes were a lot harder than I thought they would be. I mean, I’m coming back in September. Chill. But during my time  here when I’m not hanging out with Tere, Mark, or the other volunteers, I find myself twiddling my thumbs, feeling just a bit hollow without everybody I love and have grown so accustomed to having around. Don’t get me wrong. I love Cuenca, and I haven’t regretted my decision to come here for a second. Walking for 9 hours and however many miles around the city, to Turi (see background picture of this blog), and anywhere else I felt I should explore, though, would have been a bit nicer with somebody else. I’ve decided this is just the transition phase of moving anywhere alone, and the homesickness has really only been under the surface, barely noticeable beneath the excitement of being here. Though notable nonetheless. It probably would be a lot more difficult if I moved somewhere else in the States, since this is so exotic to me and if there’s nothing else to do I can walk into a bar and strike up a conversation with whomever happens to be sitting next to me in order to practice my Spanish and make friends (I have two now. Score.). Bars and coffee shops are perfect, because once I sit down next to somebody, I find that we immediately have something in common. You like beer? What? Me too! You like coffee? Let me tell you about my addiction. It’s like we’re already 80% Matt friends by the time I walk in the door. The fact that the language is different here has been wonderfully occupying, too, since I can spend a few hours watching Buscando Nemo, or drinking a Pilsner (the national beer) as I read through the regional and city newspapers in whatever place seems interesting as I pass by it. This is all, of course, besides the time I spend at Aurora. I’m going to be starting at an orphanage soon, too, in the mornings. That’s going to be interesting, because the munjas (nuns) who run it are apparently super unpleasant, and don’t really treat the kids well. I’m intrigued, and am looking forward to starting. I may hate it, but I don’t see myself leaving. In fact, the worse it is, the more likely I feel I am going to stay. Unless the nuns kick me out, which could very well happen if I yell at them for being mean to the kids. I hear they hit them. Munjas don’t have the greatest reputation here. I’m going to give them a chance, for reasons my mother very astutely pointed out, but my expectations are low.

But yeah, that’s how I’ve occupied myself lately. Attempting to go on a run to Turi–failing miserably, almost dying as I gasped for what little oxygen lingers in the mountains (I was just told it takes three months to fully acclimate. How convenient.), and deciding to walk there the next day–exploring, and befriending and subsequently going out for drinks with the young security guard at my building and the owner of the restaurant across from the street from Aurora, Rene and David (pronounced Dahveed). They’re both two of the nicest people I’ve met in my life, and have really interesting and different stories. Both are 27. Rene clearly comes from a lower-income family, is one of 8, and makes about 400 dollars a month working between 45 and 60 hours a week. Minimum wage in Ecuador, full-time, is something like 350 a month, or according to David 80 cents an hour if paid hourly. Rene’s trying really hard to learn English as to get a better job when he finishes his studies to become a computer engineer, and surprisingly expressed interest in joining the US military to get school paid for in the US. I don’t know where he heard of that idea, but I suppose it’s an option for him. As he says, though, he needs to learn English first. We’ve been swapping English and Spanish lessons, and are planning a trip to the Amazon in a few weeks. More on that to come.

David comes from a very wealthy family, but is probably one of the most down to earth, happiest guys I’ve ever met. He actually used to be one of Tere’s English students, but quit those studies to go to school to become a chef, and soon after open La Casa del Centro, his international food restaurant. He’s a phenomenal cook, has two little girls–Julliana turned 1 today, and Isabella turns five at the end of August–and his wife, Ela, has traveled all over Europe and lived in Boston for a few months when she was younger. I met the rest of his family today at his daughter’s birthday party at his restaurant, and they’re all wonderful. I haven’t found one Ecuadorian I haven’t liked. There’s bound to be one sooner or later, but I’m really feeling this so far. Ela’s great with languages. I was told David sucks–just abysmal–but Ela says that’s preferable because it gives her something to be better at, given his culinary prowess.  I’m ok with it. I prefer speaking Spanish, anyways. While I’m nowhere close to being a competent Spanish speaker, I can hold a full conversation about really anything. I find myself smiling like an idiot in the middle of conversations when I find myself understanding everything as if it were English, without translating it in my head. These moments are pretty infrequent still, but that makes them that much more exciting when they occur. Unless, of course, it happens when were talking about something serious, like poverty or something. It’s a little awkward then, and I have to explain why I start laughing after I’m told about the homeless children in Guayaquil or all of the Colombian refugees. That’s a little uncomfortable.

I have no idea what I’m going to be doing this next weekend, although I’ll probably go out with my volunteer friends again and their host families and see the crazy side of Cuenca that these English, Scottish, and Canadian kids on the gap year have been living since September. We went to a few clubs last Thursday, and if each weekend is half as eventful as the last one, I don’t know if I’m going to last. More on all of this to come. Until then, enjoy a few of the nearly hundred wonderful pictures taken (mostly) by the little girls who stole my camera. IMG_2130 IMG_2027 0601131807-01 Chico 0601131739-02 0601131800-00 IMG_2127 0604131730-03 0604131726-00 0604131727-01 IMG_2131 IMG_2180 IMG_2159 IMG_2094 IMG_2077 IMG_2021 IMG_1981 IMG_2064 IMG_2067 IMG_2089 IMG_2127 0604131730-07 IMG_2036