I flew into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, from Panama City the Saturday before last and immediately could feel I’d arrived somewhere new. The misty mountains ringed the airport and the cool, rainy air felt precariously thin. Quito is a city of 1.9 million people, perched in the Andes on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano, at an incredible elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters). It is the second highest capital city in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia. Previously I think the highest elevation I had ever reached outside an airplane was Denver (around 5,500 feet). Just standing at the baggage claim in Quito, my heart rate was over 120 beats per minute!
My prior travels in Latin America have been limited to Panama (in 2013) and Mexico (too many times to count since 1991), so I was really looking forward to this adventure.
[This is the first blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. More posts coming soon!]
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Spanish Department’s immersion program is offered (approximately) during weeks 14 and 15 of a 24-week course. Students must demonstrate a minimum 2/2 score in speaking and reading to be approved to participate. If you don’t participate, you just continue your normal class schedule at FSI.
Many FSI students who attend a Spanish language immersion program in either Quito or Mexico City choose to stay in student dorms or with a homestay family. At this particular point in my life, and given the security situation here was unstable only several weeks ago, a hotel was the best decision for me. (See Wikipedia’s page for the October 2019 Ecuadorian protests against austerity, in which 8 were killed and more than 1,300 injured.)
As I think I mentioned before, I chose Quito because serving in Mission Mexico starting next year I assume I will have plenty of opportunities to visit what I always knew as Mexico D.F. (Distrito Federal) but I now understand is referred to as CDMX. Several students went to their immersion in CDMX and five of us – H, S, J, D, and myself – came to Quito.
Although FSI facilitates your attendance in the immersion program through their connections with the overseas academies, helps you develop a study plan, and excuses you from FSI classes without charging you annual leave, the onus is on the students to arrange their lodging, airfare, and transport, as well as pay the academy directly for their courses and any fees. In short, what weekend day you arrive, what airline you fly, where you want to stay, and how much you spend is really your prerogative.
It isn’t a group field trip in any sense other than coming to some consensus on during which two weeks the immersion will occur, so if you need professional flexibility, make it happen.
I arrived, unpacked, ordered room service, and went to bed relatively early. Outside my room I heard fireworks in the sky as Quito carried on celebrating its December 6, 1534 (!!) foundation 24 hours later. Happy 485th birthday, Quito!
Around midnight that first night, there was some commotion outside my door as guests on my floor arrived back from an evening out. I woke up concerned; they sounded loud enough to be right in my room! I realized the noise was coming from the elevator lobby, and saw that my door was shut and securely locked. They quieted down soon after as they disappeared behind their own door, and I drifted back to sleep.
What seemed like five seconds later, my bed was shaking. I sat up with a start, half-expecting to see someone crawling across my king bed. My eyes strained in the darkness as my heart went into my throat and I reached my right arm back for the heavy metal lamp. Pausing, I heard the bathroom windows rattling. It’s an earthquake! I thought.
The bed shook for about 10 or 15 seconds as car alarms went off in the streets below. I waited to hear all my bottles start falling off the bathroom shelves, but since they didn’t, I stayed in bed. As a native Californian I have been in many dozens of earthquakes and can tell when they are small.
Relieved, I went back to sleep and the next morning when I checked the U.S. Geological Survey site, I saw that the terremoto (earthquake) had only registered a 4.5 on the Richter scale. It was still a pretty wild welcome to Quito!
I spent Sunday mostly resting, but went for a two hour walk around the neighborhood to see where the academy was located and find a grocery store in the giant El Jardín Mall. I also walked through the Parque Acuático, the Parque La Carolina, and the outskirts of the Jardín Botánico de Quito.
I had brought small bills and coins, because although Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar in early 2000, I’d heard that bills larger than $10 could be a pain to break. Ecuadorians also use those U.S. gold dollar coins you sometimes (still?) get as change from post office stamp vending machines – I haven’t seen a $1 bill here except for those my colleagues and I brought with us. Cashiers always look surprised to see them.
Things I noticed on my walk: Several armed security guards in booths at parks, posted up and looking tough outside gyms and upscale restaurants and cafes, and even standing on a sidewalk watching a team unloading a moving truck.
The park was filled with families and their little dogs, most off the leash. I saw a girl leaving a restaurant with takeout and being buzzed out of a locked gate. I saw a man help another man contain his two dogs who were about to either bite him in the leg or run into the street (or both). Taxis do one quick beep as they approach to see if you’re interested, like when I lived in the Balkans.
The big grocery store in the mall was so mobbed I felt somehow necessarily sedated as I navigated through it. People were calm, stood in line, and generally cooperated with one another and helped each other out. But it was absolutely packed and you could hardly move in any direction. I strolled through with no cart, in full robot mode. I noticed that a four pack of Venus razors is less than $4 here – I should have bought a bunch! I also noticed that the local beers that cost $4 in my hotel minibar only cost $1.50 on the economy! Not surprising I guess.
I didn’t have a local SIM card so I was navigating by a Google Map I had launched via hotel WiFi and then put into airplane mode. I got winded while walking pretty easily, so I walked slowly. I can’t say that I felt altitude sick per se those first few days (some of my colleagues brought medicine for it), but I did have a pressure headache that felt like an intermediate hangover and I drank a massive amount of water to try and stay ahead of it.
Classes at Academia Latinoamericana de Español
On the first day of class, I was a little nervous. Four hours per day of one-on-one intensive talking is a lot; at FSI at least we have a few classmates to share the load!
But I was looking forward to it, and arrived 10 minutes early bursting with words and coffee energy.
In a lot of ways, what I did with my instructor, G, was similar to what we do at FSI; I had homework, did worksheets, read and summarized articles, facilitated interviews, discussed news and current events, and prepared presentations. The main differences were that I had her all to myself, we took breaks every two hours instead of one, and we discussed a ton of grammar.
As I think I have mentioned, I am not really a fan of the FSI Spanish Department’s approach to teaching that doesn’t really deal with much grammar. I understand they only have 24 weeks to get us to a 3/3 in speaking and reading and there isn’t time to teach the way I learned in high school and college. But for me, grammar is my weakest area and while some people can kind of teach it to themselves, I don’t meet with a lot of success in that manner.
The other thing was that my instructor did not speak English at all, and thus the Spanish readings we did that I would normally summarize in English for my FSI instructor to assess my reading comprehension, in this case I summarized in Spanish as a conversation starter. I also had to look up unfamiliar words that I couldn’t figure out from her descriptions. But it was interesting to not rely at all on English.
Almost every day after class, we did either an organized activity with the academy or we struck out on our own, or sometimes both. There is so much to see in only two weeks! Quito was founded in the 1500s and incredibly, the entire city was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.
Quito is built over an ancient Incan city, and its historical center is full of very well-preserved 16th and 17th century churches, homes, and buildings. There are apparently city ordinances about preserving the appearance of buildings, and people decorate their balconies more or less the same to keep the look consistent.
I lit candles for my grandparents and my husband’s father in the Iglesia de El Sagrario, below.
We also visited a really incredible church (below) with more gold in one place than I think I’ve ever seen outside of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the inside, but you can see some pretty incredible pictures of it here.
La Mitad del Mundo
One of the things I really wanted to do while here was visit the “center of the world.” Obviously, Ecuador is on the equator; zero latitude falls about 22 miles north of Quito.
The La Mitad del Mundo site is actually a pretty developed place, with a monument, Intiñan Solar Museum, souvenirs and chocolate sales, replicas of ancient indigenous villages, explanations of local wildlife, and guided tours.
When we were standing on the actual zero latitude line, it was much harder to balance and walk heel-to-toe than it was to do the same thing a few feet in either direction from the line. It was also harder to keep someone from pushing your extended arms down. It was a very weird demonstration that we experienced, but couldn’t explain other than something about centrifugal forces.
Also, we watched water poured through a funnel swirl in opposite directions on either side of the line. I haven’t read all the data on how plausible that is, but I’m here to tell you that I definitely saw it. We all also took turns balancing an egg on the equator and have the certificates to prove it!
It felt really cool to visit the equator and have a foot in each hemisphere. It was a really odd experience and there was a lot more to see there than I think we were all expecting. Definitely worth the trip! On the way back to Quito, we stopped at a place that looked like the proverbial hole-in-the-wall, but as it turned out, it had some of the best handmade, artesanal ice cream in Ecuador!
Also during week 14, we visited the 19th century neo-Gothic Basílica del Voto Nacional, did some souvenir shopping at local markets, tried plenty of delicious local food, participated in a chiva (brightly-colored night fiesta buses common in Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama), and hiked Ecuador’s most dangerous volcano at Parque Nacional Cotopaxi (one of only 84 volcanoes in that region).
I’ll save those for my next post about the second half of Spanish week 14. ¡Viva la chiva!