I’m not a big city girl. Have I mentioned that before? I’m clearly out of my comfort zone in places where it takes more than 10 minutes to escape to something that resembles countryside. But I think I have something to learn from cities, about how people live en masse. With a net increase of about 200,000 people on this planet every day, living in cities is becoming difficult to avoid. This year, it was time to give Quito another chance.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is the theme of the first in our series of student blog posts on about our trip to Ecuador. UNCO meteorology student, Emily Ireland, explores this idea as she writes about her experiences in the Amazon. You can find her post on our Earth & Atmospheric Science blog site.
The Amazon is certainly a physical challenge for me, but I always feel at home in a forest – whichever forest that might be. Cities, however, have a way of getting to me like fingernails dragging along a chalkboard. Maybe they don’t so much push the edges of my comfort zone as rub raw the nerves that line the edge of that comfort zone.
There are certainly some really BIG cities I’ve learned to love. San Francisco: While I haven’t left my heart there, it will always feel like a home base in some sense. Paris: So imaginative and creatively inspiring – I’m happy there for a few days. And Berlin: Berlin is a city I could live in for some time, with its big parks and shady boulevards, and quick trains that can whisk you away to the countryside at any time of the day.
And Quito? Quito was my first introduction to Ecuador back in February 2015. I spent a week here learning how to cross busy streets and sitting around in government buildings waiting to get various stickers, stamps, and signatures in my passport. Not to mention the day I spent at the US embassy for a mandatory security briefing that detailed the worst of the worst things that have ever happened to US citizens visiting Ecuador. (BTW – There are actually worse things that can happen to you right here in the USA. Have you heard about any recent mass shootings in Ecuador? No? Didn’t think so.)
My very sweet B&B hosts, worried for my safety daily, repeatedly hemmed and hawed when I mentioned I had to take my passport to another office ‘You shouldn’t carry your passport anywhere!’ They cautioned me never to go out after dark, unless I called a taxi ahead of time – and only if I took the right type of taxi. They warned me not to carry around more money than I needed for the day, and to only use a certain ATM at a certain bank at a certain time of the day. So, Quito, with its noisy dogs and traffic, and streets crowded with people, felt a bit oppressive. Of course, I did find some respite in the botanical gardens, and that’s what made me excited to be in Ecuador.
Ecuador was so new to me. And, overwhelmed as I was, I don’t think I really gave Quito a chance.
Living in Ecuador for six months, however, allowed something to work its way into my subconscious – an ease with the traffic and stray dogs and diesel fumes that I did not have during that first week in Quito – an ease that made me comfortable enough to go back there with 17 students in tow.
Using Quito as a base for multiple short trips turned out to be the most affordable way to do what we wanted to do on this group adventure. I couldn’t avoid the city. In fact, we ended up spending 5 of 11 nights there.
So what did I learn about Quito on this second encounter?
- The dry season meant that we had some lovely sunshine and views of the mountains. While it didn’t rain much on my last visit, the clouds always sat over the mountains like tufts of dark wool. That made it hard to get my bearings. On a clear day, the snow-capped top of Cotopaxi stands like a sentinel to the south of the city.
- Unless you’re in Plaza Foch, the nightclubbing center of Quito, the streets can be fairly quiet at night. We stayed in a place off of a main road, and I didn’t hear any dogs, chickens, or motorbikes. The sounds of those three things are characteristic of pretty much any place in Ecuador – city or no. So I was pleasantly surprised.
- Quito is colorful. From the blooming trees in Plaza de la Independencia to the billboards and graffiti art, and even the rainbow of ice cream flavors, or shades of espumilla (a creamy meringue desert sold by street vendors). The myriad of shades and colors in this city make it very photogenic.
- Quito is a lot more fun when you’re not schlepping around alone trying to get the appropriate stamps on your passport. Having a group of students in tow can actually make it a great experience.
I got to watch my students have their own novel experience of this place. Many of them seemed quite comfortable in Quito. Certainly they’re not all fans of big cities either (they all go to school in Greeley, CO, so what can you expect?), but they were certainly much more comfortable there than where we were going much later in the trip.
Watching my students have their first glimpses of Ecuador really highlighted Quito for me. In many ways, Quito, with its supermarkets, shopping malls, and great pizza places, is not so different from home. I remember the cries of surprise from the back of the bus as we drove through the dark city streets at 1 am on our way in from the airport and we passed a KFC.
We stayed in a hotel not far from where I had stayed on my first trip, in the Mariscal, or the ‘new city center’. This is where most tourists stay – particularly those on a budget. Our homey hostel, Hotel Otavalo Huasi, was only 5 minutes from a Supermaxi grocery story, and 10 minute walk to Plaza Foch, with loads of restaurants. After just a couple of nights coming and going from the city we fell into a routine – the students had their favorite places to eat, they knew where to find water, snacks, and chocolate in the supermarket, and which ATM might work best.
For an orientation to the city on our first day, we were swept up in a trolley tour (really, it was a bus that looked like a trolley). It felt more than a bit surreal as we teetered past all those government buildings I visited on my last trip to Quito, and on to more of the tourist venues, the Basilica, Plaza de la Independencia, about 5 different churches in central Quito, then up to the hill on the south end of the colonial city, El Panecillo, for a grand view of all of Quito. We wrapped up the day at Mitad del Mundo, the monument at the Equator.
Seeing the city from the vantage of a cultural lifeboat (or trolley, as the case may be), gave me a chance to reflect more on what I was seeing, rather than simply trying not to get bowled over by novelty. I suppose that’s one advantage of these faculty-led study abroad trips for students – students can dip their toes into new realms before jumping into a full cultural immersion. They have friends to hang on to as they test the waters in new places. Quito makes for a fairly easy dip into a new culture. Full immersion in a new culture is unforgettable, life-changing, and incredibly challenging. But that would come a bit later in this trip.
For me, that first day in Quito was about much more than giving the city another chance. It was about getting to know my students and learning a little bit about how they see the world. I was dipping my feet into ‘Millennial’ cultural. Stepping into this big city again with these students also brought back memories of my own first trip abroad, and my first trip to Ecuador, and a recognition of the novelty that pushes the edges of my comfort zone and makes travel a life-long passion. I was fully immersed in learning to lead this group and teach in a whole new way, and that was probably the greatest novelty for me on this trip. Quito was a perfect backdrop for this.
Really, you should read Emily’s post.