Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ecuador y Peru

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Well, I’m writing - which means I’ve been traveling. Before I start talking about the trip, I should quickly write about the previous six months that I haven’t written anything.

Work at QuestBridge has been going really well. We were able to match over 200 students from all around the countries with full scholarships to our 20 partner colleges this year. We are hoping that we will see a similar increase (almost double) in admissions through regular decision as well for the other applicants. I’ve moved into a great apartment in Palo Alto about 2 miles away from work, so I can bike. I live with two roommates who I found on Craigslist, and we all get along great. Kacey is in her second year as a PhD student in psychology at Stanford. Priscilla went to Stanford and is now working for an economic litigation consulting firm in Menlo Park (about a mile past where I work and across the street from my friend from Pomona who works at their competitor). Over Thanksgiving, I bought a white BMW from Alan’s sister, and, after a quick unexpected trip to the mechanic, it made the trip back from Arizona just fine.

So, onto the trip. My aunt and uncle, Joe and Anya, invited me to come with them to Ecuador and Peru for 2 weeks. Fantastic! The timing couldn’t have been better either, because it was right before the week between Xmas and New Year’s which I got off from work anyway.

The trip started right after work on Friday. I rushed home from work to grab my bags (with clothes for summer in South America as well as winter in Maine and Tahoe later), got on the train, and got stuck on it for about two hours. We actually got off at one point, got on a different train for about 20 minutes, only for them to have us get back on the first train with all of the passengers from the second train as well. Not surprisingly, however, the plane was delayed as well, so I didn’t miss the first leg of the flight, SFO to LAX. I got to LAX at about 11pm, and found a comfortable place on the ground to sleep until my 6am flight to Miami. I don’t think sleeping there would have been too bad, as I can usually sleep through just about anything, but for some reason they felt like they should play a bunch of different renditions of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ really loudly. Needless to say, I slept really well on the cross-country flight. Miami to Quito went well, and I sat next to this very sweet lady originally from Ecuador who told me all about what I should do while there during the flight, and even gave me the numbers of her nieces and nephews to call to show me around once I got there.

Ecuador- For the first time in my life, there’s a guy waiting for me at the airport with my name on a sign. My Spanish is basically non-existent, but the driver talked to me anyway for 30 minutes straight to the hotel, which was easily the nicest hotel I’ve ever been to. Hotel Plaza Grande is located in none other than Plaza Grande, Quito’s old-town. It was well after dark when I arrived, but the view from the hotel was still beautiful, overlooking all of the lights of the houses on the hills surrounding the area. I spent the next day doing what I usually do when I arrive in a new city: ignore the guide book and walk until I’m completely lost. Quito is a huge city, and I couldn’t possibly walk the whole thing in a day, but the parts I was able to see were really beautiful. I poked my head in some really neat churches, where the influence of the native people could definitely be felt. There were a ton of squares, parks, and markets with people hanging out having a seemingly good time.

My uncle arrived that night. We went to the only restaurant I’ve ever been to where they had tobacco flavored soup. Of all of the things I’ve eaten in my life, however, I couldn’t actually bring myself to try it. We left early the next morning for Cuenca, the third largest and “Cultural Capital” of Ecuador. Cuenca was my favorite city of the trip, set in a very high valley in the mountains. There were four rivers that ran through the city, which join with each other and eventually become the Amazon river. The town is about 300,000 people, who all appeared to be very friendly. We stayed in this beautiful hotel in the middle of the city which used to be an old manor home called Mansion.

Cuenca is the first place where my uncle was giving a talk. It was really funny for me going around to this (and later) places with him because everyone assumed that I must be some sort of important person as well, but they just weren’t sure who I was. They would ask if I was an economist as well, and when I said no, they were simply at a loss as to why I was there. By the end of the trip I was answering that I will be an economist by the end of the trip, and they always thought that was funny. I learned a lot from my uncle on the trip, and I think everything that we was saying makes complete sense- people should do a better job listening to him. I’m not going to do him the injustice by trying to repeat or even summarize what he said, but basically the world would be a better place if people focus less on immediate monetary gains for the rich and more on sustainable long term gains for the people who actually need the money.

We spent our days in Cuenca touring around. One day was spent doing your typical tourist stuff: churches, museums, etc. There was one art museum which was pretty neat because (in addition to the art) it used to be a jail house for drunks, until they all escaped. Since then they’ve used it for a variety of purposes, now as an art museum, using one cell per artist. The other day we began by touring some of the factories which are housed in Cuenca. We went to a place where they make leather goods, a ceramic tile factory, recycled paper, and a Panama hat museum/factory. Panama hats are actually made in Cuenca, but are called Panama hats because they were shipped through Panama on the way to Europe, where they became famous at a World’s Fair in the late 1800s. The things you learn on a trip like this! We also did some great outdoorsy sightseeing as well. We traveled to an even higher elevation, close to where the mountains became snow capped, to this beautiful pond up in the mountains. We also went to a church that had a magnificent view of the city. The setting is truly great, and I hope that it doesn’t grow too much more, so as to keep the “small town” feel of the place.

We flew back to Quito where we were supposed to be greeted by Anya, but her plane had been rerouted to Columbia instead. She was, of course, rather unhappy with the whole situation, which they only succeeded at making worse by doing everything they could to make the situation the most inefficient possible. The rest of our stay in Ecuador was riddled with seemingly unlucky and/or unreasonable events, none of which had any effect whatsoever on our having a good time: Joe needed to get dental work done, there was a city employee holiday which closed a few museums, and there was a meeting scheduled in a town about 90 minutes away in order to allow us to visit this town famous for its market, yet we arrived too late for it. Luckily, however, Joe was able to survive with the tooth, other museums were open, and the was another market at the town for us to visit.

And we are off to Peru! Peru was more of a whirlwind. I don’t think we stayed more than a day at any one place. Sightseeing in Lima, flying to and sightseeing in Cuzco, train to Machu Picchu, visiting other Incan ruins on the way back to Cuzco, fly back to Lima and poke around a little bit more, and then fly back to the US. Anya’s friend Beth joined us in Peru, celebrating having just finished a book. Anya and I did a full day of sightseeing in Lima the first day, and I think we did pretty good considering the size of the city. Lima is huge, which is partly due to a huge part of the population moving to the city during the 80s when there were terrorists in the countryside. The first day was really nice out, which is unfortunately a fairly rare occurrence. Apparently, there is a thick fog that sits over the city most of the time, similar but worse to what we are accustomed to in San Francisco. But, we were able to go to some great museums and churches in, and we ate at the oldest deli in the city (country?) – delicious!

It was a fairly easy flight to Cuzco, but since we arrived fairly late in the day, we decided to go straight out and sight see rather than do the typical hour or two of rest that you are supposed to do in order to adjust to the altitude. Cuzco is another amazing city, both in its architecture and setting. Unfortunately, it has reached the point where enough of the population exists on tourism that some of them will really chase you down and bother you to buy things from them or go to their store. A great deal of the city still uses the foundations of the buildings left over from Incan times, which you can tell just by looking at the stones which are smooth and placed directly on top of one another without the use of mortar. We stayed at another amazing hotel here, which was a converted monastery, called nothing other than Monastereo. It was a really beautiful hotel but found ourselves slightly unimpressed when we noticed that the housekeepers were cleaning the “oil paintings” with Windex and a rag….

My uncle’s talk at the University of Cuzco that night was received like none other I have ever witnessed. Despite the use of one of the worst translators I have ever seen (and keep in mind I’ve lived in Mongolia), the students were awestruck by him and what he had to say (which was of course drastically shortened and simplified on the fly to compensate for the translator). After the speech/ceremony, they swarmed him, asking for photos and signatures. They were even asking me for signatures and pictures, which I found more than amusing. Just think – “Hey, you won’t believe what I got last night – the autograph of the nephew of the great economist Joe Stiglitz!” Apparently, last year’s economics major had adopted him as the “patron professor” for their class, and having him actually come to speak was more than they could ever have hoped for. The class along with a few professors took us out to dinner afterwards which was very nice of them.

The next morning, we arose bright and early to hop on the Hiram Bingham, which is the luxury train that goes to Machu Picchu. I really love trains, and being on one as classy as this one was a real treat for me. I’ll have to write more about my love of trains at some point, but as this post has gone on for 3 pages already (and not quite close to done yet), I’ll spare any readers from doing it here. The country that we went through was amazingly beautiful though, with steep mountains on both sides; everyone chose to stand in the viewing car rather than sitting at their tables. We stopped at the bottom, and hopped on a bus which was to take us to up the mountain to this extremely impressive spot.

When you get to Machu Picchu, you can immediately understand why the Incans chose to build their city there. We all agreed that while the ruins were beautiful, this place would have been worth traveling to even if there were no ruins there. But, the ruins were there, which made it even better, and it was such a fun day exploring them and imagining what life must have been like for these people who lived there, really, not all that long ago. For a people who had not invented the wheel, their irrigation and architectural feats are quite impressive.

We took a train the next morning about half-way back, and stopped at a village where people were still living in the original Incan huts. We also stopped in one of the huts to see how they lived and were greeted by about 100 guinea pigs (which are a not-so tasty delicacy of the area). There were also a lot of interesting things on the shrine, such as skulls of their ancestors, dried baby lamas, some strange dolls, and, of course, a picture of Jesus. From here we drove back, stopping at a great market and a llama/alpaca farm along the way.

The rest of the trip was mainly getting back at this point. A little time in Cuzco, flying to Lima, and then flying back to the US. I spent a few hours in New York before heading up to Maine for Christmas, where I hadn’t been in about 2 years at this point. I was in Tahoe for New Year’s, and now I’m finally back in Palo Alto. I left out a lot of really amazing things in this post, but with the length being what it is…. I guess I can just list some of them:

-meeting the president of Ecuador,
-going on a date to Burger King with Miss Cuenca,
-going clubbing with Columbian models,
-some amazing dinners with business and political leaders,
-my aunt being offered plastic surgery,
-running into my aunt’s friends and a girl from my high school,
-eating guinea pig, llama, and alpaca,
-etc., etc., etc.

If you have actually read through this far, than you can tell that it was an absolutely amazing vacation. I’ll sign off here with my typical, “I’ll try to write more than I have been,” but in all likelihood, you’ll hear from me next time I have the opportunity to travel.