Aconcagua 2014

another email

Today it’s official. I’ll head to Mendoza, Argentina in December to climb Aconcagua, number two of the Seven Summits, and I do plan to stop at two. I can’t think of a better way to ring in 2015, unless my brother came with me. That would be better. I’m still trying to convince other volunteers to go, but I suppose they have responsible plans for their Peace Corps resettlement funds. I, however, will live in my sister’s basement.

The Andes are a particularly good place to get ready for this: I live at 8,900ft with volcanoes Cotopaxi, Cayambe, and Chimborazo nearby to train on. Each of them giants in their own right at 18,000-20,000 ft. So, I will breathe deep and assemble my gear and mental fortitude. I have eight months to go starting… now.


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Eggs, Foam, Pigs Blood, Oh My!

Venice 1998
The first time I saw Carnival, I was nineteen and we were in Venice. For eight solid hours, I associated Carnival with all the panache of a masked Italian woman in a two-hundred-year-old ball gown standing stock-still in Piazza San Marco. That evening we boarded a train for Austria to see Villacher Fasching. In a few short hours, all that imagined class drained out of Carnival with a drunken man in a rented bunny suit passed out in ankle-deep trash on a cobblestone street. We did have a great time, if not a classy one.

As I now understand it, Carnival is usually about cutting loose before Lent, really cutting loose, in some cases. To be fair to Austria, Fat Tuesday in New Orleans makes Villacher Fasching look elegant by comparison.

Carnaval Ecuadorian StyleFor the last three weeks, kids here have been gearing up for Ecuador’s version of Carnival. In the most innocent circumstances, kids throw water balloons, buckets of water, and spray each other with cans of scented foam. This lasts for about two weeks. I think they just get bored sneaking up on their friends. About a week ago, they started to pull random pedestrians into the “game”. Sometimes, it’s a relatively agreeable water balloon trap, balloons tossed from over a wall, or from a car. Other times, it’s a less agreeable raw egg trap, maybe dropped from a balcony, for example. Ha, ha…

My “foolproof” method for dodging these traps is to look at the ground. If I see bits of shell and balloons, then I know to run. But, I always forget to look down, or I’ll look, see the evidence, and think, “Huh, someone must be playing Carnival around here.” By then, it’s too late. I have, though, managed to dodge the eggs.

This weekend, the real game begins. I’ve been lead to believe that when it comes to Carnival, my family likes to play very, very dirty. They laugh as they explain it to me. The game starts with water balloons, flour, and eggs. Then the gloves come off. They butcher a pig every year, and the leftovers are considered ammunition: blood, intestines, etc. After that, everything is fair game: dirt, soda, and motor oil. In the name of fun, it seems that nothing is off limits. Tonight my octogenarian host dad said he’s going to get me. I’m actually looking forward to it, pig blood and all. Hopefully, someone on the sidelines, if there are sidelines, will take a picture….

Pigs blood


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Dear A. Mel,

Azogues from La AbugaLast time I mentioned Cojitambo, I felt like I let you down. You know, when I took the bus home. You said, “There was a bus the whole time!? If I were you, I’d just leave that part out.”  I mean, I get what you were saying. It’s not like inclement weather stops the postman. So, today I set out to make things right with you, to get to the top of Cojtambo and walk back, not ride.

It all seemed a little too easy though. I’d already almost made it once before, and it was clear that only a really grueling hike would make it right. I found an ideal solution. In the photo above, Cojitambo is on the right, behind Azogues. This is the view from another mountain called “La Abuga”, after the 50Ft angel at the top. I got the idea that you might like to see a photo from the top of both, on the same day. I hope that this is true. Naturally, Lilia told me I was, “loca, loca.” But, she did come with me for the Cojitambo part.

People and Roosters and ChurchesHouses


….That was all the neat stuff we saw along the way. It took three hours to get to the top of Cojitambo. Over the ledge is something like certain death. If you look out, and slightly to the left, you can see La Abuga, the dark peak behind Azogues, and my next destination.

The view from Cojitambo

Getting closer. It was two hours to get back to the house, where I ate chicken and potatoes with Lilia before going the rest of the way. She advised me to take the road, and not to climb straight up it. I figured that was like taking the bus…cheating.

Closing in

La Abuga

Well, I finally made it to the top of both of them. I did not take the bus, but I did consider it at one point. I hope you like the pictures :>

12PM at Cojitambo

12PM Cojitambo

4PM at  La Abuga

4PM La Abuga


Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Ecuador, hiking, Peace corps, TEFL, travel, volunteer


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propagandaElections are on Sunday. We got an email from Safety and Security on Thursday to inform us that we are grounded to site until voting ends. I feel like a kid sent to bed without supper.

For the past month or so, it seems like everyone is part of a campaign. Overnight, giant posters of candidates popped up around town. My landlord hung Candidate A right outside my living-room window. It is one big head staring right in. I joked to my family that I think Mr. A is an attractive man. My 84-year-old host mom looked at me with something like contempt and said, “Erika, no es guapo para nada.” Sarcasm is woefully under-appreciated in Ecuador.

Peace Corps tells us time and again not to get involved, or seem to be involved with elections, even to avoid clothes that are the colors. This is easier to say than it is to do, the avoiding part. They’re everywhere. I walked out the door after work and ran into a rally. Quick like an assassin, the candidate kissed my cheek and tied propaganda onto my arm. I said, “I can’t vote.” She hugged me and said, “It doesn’t matter.”

Will Ferrel

Tomorrow is the day to vote. Ecuadorians age 16 and older can vote, and after 18 it’s obligatory. There is also something called a “Ley Seca” in effect this weekend, meaning no drinking at home, or in public, for 48 hours before the election. The penalty is a fine of half the minimum wage for a month, $150, and jail.

The blessing in this is that the campaign is finally over. I may not be able to leave, or drink, but the infernal parades of honking cars, and dodging enthusiastic people dressed in green, and red, and rainbow colors is finally over.  On Monday, I will drink to that.


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10 Bus Hours

Bus RideEven a micro-brewery full of Americans couldn’t ease the pain of the slaughter on the big screen last Sunday. Yes, there was even a big screen. After the game, I headed back to my site to pack clean clothes, feed the fish, put the plants in a 1/8 full bathtub, and catch a bus north to Quito for more training.

My seat is #14 on the isle, because it’s safer, or that’s what I’ve been told. I have taken this route countless times, and every time I endure the strobe light of my life flashing before my eyes for five hours from Cañar to Riobamaba. The driver passes trucks on blind curves in a way that makes me wonder whether he has a wife and children at home, or if his wife at home has just cheated on him. Conveniently, this particular stretch of road is always shrouded in white fluffy clouds. Beyond the fog, a drop-off. I’d hazard a guess about the height, but I’d exaggerate. I do know it’s blissfully straight down. There are cement crosses and painted hearts on the road to remind everyone of the stakes, but at full velocity those are just more white smudges outside the window. I passed the time relistening to hours of This American Life- especially, the last 3 minutes of “How I Got Into College”, and I tried to ignore my imminent death. It probably isn’t as bad as I like to imagine it.

On Superbowl Sunday another big event here was the eruption of Tungurahua. Some time in the 4th quarter our PCVL came out to tell us 200 people had been evacuated from Baños, pyroclastic flow, etc. and that we should have our face masks handy when we got home.

Our bus passed Tungurahua somewhere near Riobamaba. The atmosphere reminded me of a cross between a forest fire and a tornado. The sky was the same greenish-gray color. Everyone looked to see the volcano, but it was covered by a cloud of ash, rain, and lightening. My eyes stung. The streets were flooded. We saw a car getting washed away; The driver had already gotten out.

I got to Quito around 7PM. A trolley, a bus, and a taxi later, I arrived at the training center. I ate a sandwich alone in the kitchen, checked my email, and relistened to Radiolab until I fell asleep.


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Cojitambo Azogues
The past couple weeks here have been pretty mind-numbingly boring. I’ve been grounded to site having used up my free days early on in January. The most excitement I’ve had this week, other than work, was experiencing a sudden onset of vertigo only to realize that the house was really moving. But, it was just a mild tremor.

To occupy my free time I’ve been hiking around my site  and dragging my host sister with me whenever possible. Today I looked out the window and saw a church way up on a hill outside my town. It’s in the back of the photo at the left, but you can’t see the church just below the peak of Cojitambo.

I didn’t know how to get there, and Lilia wanted to drive to it, so I went alone. I started out around noon and figured I get lost and come back, find the way and come back, or not come back. Either way, it would be more exciting than any of my alternatives. Once I got beyond the first set of hills, I couldn’t see the peak, so I just kept following the road. There were lots of cows, stray dogs, llamas, corn fields, mud brick houses, a very long-haired donkey, and eucalyptus trees. I said “Buenas tardes” to everyone I saw mostly to be friendly, and maybe to create a trail of witnesses so that the police could easily find “the only gringa that had ever passed that way” when I didn’t make it home again.

Eventually I found the church, briefly looked in the door, then decided to climb Cojitambo. An indigenous woman in a pollera with a gigantic load of grass on her back passed by. She stared at me. I said, “Buenas tardes.” She replied, “Ya va a llover.” She was right. The sky was dark and I was going to have to wait it out.

The downpour started. I huddled next to an outcropping on the church. I put my pack cover over my legs and curled up against the wall. It rained and haled and rained. Everyone disappeared except two kids who were curious about the ball of goretex next to the church. They got very wet trying to see what I was.

I looked at my watch and thought I could still make it to the top if it stopped raining in an hour. I dozed off, woke up, watched the rain, and focused on how cold I thought I was, then I remembered the people who first climbed Mt. Everest wearing tweed jackets. I considered climbing to the top in the rain so I could properly suffer, but I decided against it.

The woman in the pollera passed by going the other direction towing five mangy sheep behind her. She looked over to see if I was still there. The rain didn’t seem to bother her.

It was 5PM and the downpour continued. I decided that the rain could have Cojitambo for today and I caught the bus back to my site. Yes… the bus was there the whole time.

Before I went home, I stopped by to see my host family. I told them where I’d been. My host sister said she wouldn’t forgive me for going alone. I apologized. Froilan, my 84-year-old host dad, told me he used to make that hike and beyond Cojitambo in an hour, and back then there wasn’t a road. I told him next time I went, I’d shoot for an hour.


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365 Down


365 days ago I was in Jamaica, NY in a bar drinking an eleven dollar margarita with my 23-year-old roommate. I thought I was saying goodbye to civilization as I knew it. Orientation in NY was a series of inspirational statements followed by what do you do if… role plays, and signing papers. Orienting us more to Peace Corps culture than to Ecuador. Finally, we were on the plane to Quito.

We arrived, but our luggage didn’t. We all gave our passports to someone who was going to stay and collect the luggage. I gave up a little free will when I handed my passport over to a stranger. A guard gave me a cup of water in a brown mug and told me all the places I should visit while I’m here. Then the 25 of us headed down the mountain to the training center, an unmarked compound surrounded with barbed wire topped walls and an armed guard. That night we slept in bunk beds, ladies in one room and the guys in the other. There wasn’t hot water, or a mirror in the bathroom. It felt like I’d just voluntarily signed up for prison.

…It’s gotten better since then. I didn’t count on that at the time, though. Actually, I expected it to get worse, mostly because of all the ads promising a certain amount of suffering.

With one year down, I can say that this has been a tremendous education and a privilege. I’m looking forward to another 15 months of teaching and learning.



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