The Incas

I am still a little sad that I missed out on my work’s study abroad trip to Peru last summer. They went to Macchu Pichu and saw the Nazca lines and all I did was try to get a job. Going to Ecuador this past summer was a bit of a consolation, but I really feel that I missed out on the true “Inca Experience”.


I mention this because I am currently reading a book called The Incas, which is a work of historical fiction by Daniel Peters. I picked it up last February at my local Friends of the Library book sale. It is enormous and I had never heard of it or the author before, but it was only 1 dollar, so I took it home with me and have been slowly plowing through it. I’m currently on page 610 with about a third of the book to go, so this clearly isn’t for the faint of heart. However, it isn’t exactly an anthropological treatise either – it is as much fiction as historical. I would say that this book is really about the characters and their experiences, with the historical Inca empire as the backdrop, permeating the entire story with its ambiance.

By ambiance, I mean all that stuff I missed out on when my colleagues went to Peru last summer. Most of the action so far in the book has taken place in what is now Peru, which is logical, since the capital of the Inca empire was Cuzco. I felt a little soothed out of my sadness, reading this book, because the author really imbues the story with details about ancient Peru. Not the same as being there, but still pretty awesome.

The book starts off very personal, focusing on a few families and their everyday lives in the Inca empire. But the first major historical event in the book is the Inca war/conquest of the Quitus, which happened around 1512 AD. If the tribe name sounds familiar, it’s because this is the group that was living around present-day Quito Ecuador – so they got around to a place I had visited after all! The Inca empire actually stretched into parts of modern Colombia and Chile, but the conquest of the Quitus was especially important because of their location.

The Inca civilization held Lake Titicaca (in the south of Peru) to be holy, as it was thought to be where the first Incas came from. Cuzco of course was very important as the empire’s capital. But Quito was also an important site – so important that it was considered a second capital of the empire. At first I thought this might have been so that the Inca ruling class could have a base from which to control the northern parts of the empire. This might have been the result, but the Incas had a sacred reason for conquering Quito.



Yep, the Equator! The Incas (and the Quitus, for that matter) were advanced scientists and astronomers, and they knew that there was something geographically special about the Equator – the place where the sun rose and set at exactly 6 every day. It was important for the Incas to hold this spot, so a-conquering they went. The Quitus didn’t put up a lot of resistance, so the city was taken mostly unscathed, but the Incas didn’t hold it for long. This wasn’t due to a rebellion, but rather the arrival of the Spanish. So when you go to Quito, you don’t see a lot of Inca influence.  But if you’d like to get a feel for this ancient civilization, I would recommend this book. I haven’t finished it yet (although I know how it ends), but it’s an interesting and engaging read.



What’s so special about Ecuador?

So, I guess I should talk about Edward Snowden, huh?

Ok, so I’m only tangentially going to talk about Edward Snowden. What I really want to talk about is, why Ecuador? Snowden makes the second person, after Julian Assange, that has sought refuge in Ecuador after leaking classified information to the press. What is there about Ecuador that makes it attractive to those seeking asylum? And what is there about Ecuador that makes them so eager to accept those seeking asylum?

I think the reason this question is so important is because we really don’t hear much about Ecuador in the news here in the US (well, until now). Typically there is a lot of news about Mexico, being our neighbor, or Venezuela, being so vehemently anti-American, or Spain, being in crisis. But you really have to dig to find news and information on Ecuador in the US press. The reality is quite interesting, although not sensational.


Ecuador has historically been an unstable country. A quick glance at a list of Ecuador’s presidents tells the story pretty clearly. Ecuador also suffers a slight crisis of identity. Ecuador has formed part of the Inca Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the independent nation of Gran Colombia before becoming its own country. It has lost territory to Peru and lost its own currency to dollarization in 2000.

Things started changing when the current president, Rafael Correa, was elected in 2007. His campaign was based on the idea of “la Patria” (the homeland), an idea which resonated with the Ecuadorean people, as he has now been elected 3 times, most recently in 2013. He has also made anti-imperialism a central tenet of his presidency, which involves harsh criticism of the United States. Despite what I am about to relate, Correa is ENORMOUSLY popular in Ecuador. My host family was very pro-Correa. Posters around Quito proclaimed “Finally we have a president. We have Correa!” and graffiti throughout the country promoted messages equating anti-Correa forces with terrorists.

There is a whole other blog post percolating that discusses why these things always seem to go hand in hand, but. Although Ecuador has an enormously popular president who has accomplished a lot in his two (now 3) terms . . . personal and especially press freedoms have been restricted in the country since his election. Interestingly enough, the most recent display of these restrictions is a law that could make WikiLeaks cables illegal to publish in the very country harboring their leaker. All is not sunshine and roses in the Republic of Ecuador, is what I’m trying to say.

So, to answer: why is Ecuador the mecca for leakers like Snowden and Assange? The answer is not because Ecuador is such a champion of press freedom, but merely because Ecuador is willing to take them in. And why is Ecuador so willing to take in leakers, despite their restrictive press laws? Mostly as a way to say “Up yours” to the US, to be honest. A bit hypocritical? Perhaps. But if you think of it as an illustration of the Ecuadorean government’s priorities it’s telling, yes?


The current state of affairs, as we know, is in limbo. Snowden is still in Russia, and Ecuador seemed to be eager to accept him as a refugee, as they were with Julian Assange. However, there has been some internal confusion, which the Wall Street Journal uncovered last week. It seems that although Ecuador wants to take this opportunity to give the US a metaphorical poke in the eye, they don’t want to go whole hog and do so against international law. Internally, many in the Ecuadorean government feel that Julian Assange is far too involved in this process. It remains to be seen how it will all shake out. Personally I think Snowden faces the same fate as Assange – safe in an Ecuadorean embassy somewhere, probably in Russia, but not actually in Ecuador.

El transporte

My coworker had invited me over to her parents’ house for lunch, and I was excited to meet her siblings and speak in Spanish all afternoon. I took the bus to her hometown and she picked me up at the station in her car. Her younger brother was in the passenger seat, and after introductions, we began chatting about – what else – life in Spain versus life in America. “Do you have a car at home, Sarah?” he asked me. “Yes,” I responded, “right now my parents are taking care of it.” “What kind of car is it? How big is it?” he asked. “Well, just average size I guess . . . about the size of this car, actually.” He turned around in his seat to stare at me, shocked. “What??? That’s all???” Confused, I qualified my statement, “Yeah, well, I’m single and I don’t have any kids, or pets, or any expansive hobbies . . . I don’t need a big car. Why are you staring at me like that?” I finished defensively. “I thought everyone in America had big cars, and they drove them everywhere, even across the street to the store, because gas prices there are so cheap that they don’t have to worry about having a car with good gas mileage.”


Foreign countries can be full of surprises. Even though you’re expecting it to be completely different, it’s always a revelation to discover that something that you took for granted as a universal occurrence – Driver’s Ed at 15 or 16 years of age, getting a car for your birthday or scrimping and saving to buy your first ever car, the thrill of independence when you can drive to school for the first time as a senior – turned out to be an experience particular to your time and location. Basic transportation, getting to and fro, is a whole different kettle of fish in most other countries.

In Mexico, buses were the most common way to get from here to there. When I was there (in 2005), a city bus trip was about 30 cents, which you gave to the bus driver as you got on. There were no bus stops – people just congregated on the sidewalk to flag down the bus as it passed by, and when you wanted to get off, you pushed the stop button or just shouted at the driver. Destinations were posted on the windshield. If there were set routes or times, I didn’t know them. Longer distances were also covered by bus, but by a much more sophisticated fleet of buses. These were Greyhound-type charter buses with bathrooms and air conditioning. They had fixed schedules and were more expensive (to the tune of $10, mind). You got an assigned seat, a place to put your luggage, and even juice and a snack as you boarded. In a country as small as Mexico, flying was reserved for international travel.

In Guatemala, city buses were very similar in terms of price and functioning, but city-to-city travel was often accomplished via “chicken bus”. Chicken buses are old American school buses which have gone to Central America to die. Some of them still have the lettering on the side stating to which county they used to belong; in Guatemala City I saw a bus from James City, Virginia, not far from where I lived at the time. Like local city buses, chicken buses that go from city to city are cheap and have no set schedule or route. You congregate on the side of the road and flag down a bus. Some chicken buses have destinations posted on the front windshield, and some are just painted a certain color to indicate the destination. Occasionally this painting will be in the pattern of the traditional clothing from the area where the bus is going. This makes it easy to tell a buses’ destination if you cannot read. Chicken buses also have the advantage of luggage storage – on the top of the bus. A porter puts your stuff up there, and when you advise the driver that you want to get off, the porter climbs out the window and onto the top of the bus while it is motion to find your bag. The bus stops, you get off, and the porter throws down your belongings, and off they go again. Flying again is reserved for international travel.

In Spain, city buses were much more tightly scheduled, often with stops and times available on the Internet. They were also more expensive, similar to city bus fares in America, so anywhere from 1 to 2 euros. Many bigger cities also had subways or light rails. Long distance buses similar to those used in Mexico were very popular, as were short-distance trains. There’s even a high speed line that goes from west to east, taking you from Sevilla to Barcelona in no time. Although the country is actually smaller than Mexico, cheap flights a la RyanAir were common to get from the south to the north, for example. And although, as my opening anecdote suggests, cars in Spain tended to be smaller, it was much more common for people to have cars, although I met many adults who had never even taken a driver’s ed course.

In Ecuador, especially in Quito, transportation is a problem. There are so many people in such a small space that if everyone had and drove cars, like in Spain, no one would be able to get anywhere. So Quito has come up with 2 very interesting solutions – pico y placa, and the bus lines. Pico y Placa is the name of a program that regulates who can drive when. “Pico” is short for “la hora pico”, which is rush hour. “Placa” is your license plate. So, depending on your license plate number, you are assigned a day of the week in which you cannot drive your car during rush hours. The idea is to cut down on the number of cars on the road. There are of course a lot of city buses in Quito, but they also have 3 bus lines that have dedicated lanes in the middle of the principal avenues. For example, the Ecovía line runs down the middle of the Avenida 6 de Diciembre, and no other cars or buses can drive in those lanes, which are separated from the rest of the road by curbs. There are little islands in the middle of the lanes at each stop, which you access by putting a quarter into the turnstile. City to city buses follow the Mexico/Spain model, and flights are used for international travel or to get to the Galapagos.


I can’t decide whether I prefer the transportation culture here in the US or that of Spain or Ecuador. It was certainly nice to spend an entire year not filling my car up with gas while I bused my way around the Iberian Peninsula. But I also like the freedom of my car. Thoughts?


How to go abroad

I’m attempting to bring some sort of discipline to my blogging. The problem is, I always, always, want to present something, if not perfect, then at least pretty dang close. But the truth is, if I never write, not only do I never write, I never get better at writing because I am not practicing. Thinking of these attempts as practice makes me more likely to actually post, so here goes.

After 2 semesters of hiatus, where I stayed not only in the same country, but in the same state within that country, I headed off for my first trip to South America. I got back from Ecuador about 2 weeks ago, which was a great experience. But I’d like to talk a little bit about what came just before we left. The trip was 5 students and one other faculty member and among our group were several people who had never traveled abroad before. This comes with its own brand of hilarity – one student brought a fancy skirt, and another brought a blowdryer and flat iron. Now, I honestly don’t remember how I packed when I went to Mexico, or Guatemala and Honduras, and when I went to Spain I was going to live, so the packing was different. I’m sure I packed some ridiculous stuff myself.

So I tried to approach packing for Ecuador as methodically as possible.

  • Step 1: I went out and bought 13 pairs of socks and 13 pairs of underwear. Boring, I know, but I really, really didn’t want to have to do laundry while abroad. I knew I wasn’t going to have either the time or the inclination.
  • Step 2: I assessed my toiletries and what I like to call my “portable pharmacy”. This is something you should do way more often than I do, because most of the medications I found were expired. Into the trashcan with them, and off to Target to pick up more Pepto Bismol, hydrocortizone cream, and toothpaste. I also bought Ziploc bags because I learned once that pressure changes do not just dissipate and you can end up with an entire bottle of body spray all over your clothes before you even get to your first hotel.
  • Step 3: I started thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong. This sounds slightly doomsday, but I like to think of something my aunt once said, which I have quoted in this blog before: “If you forget anything, this is America, you can just buy another one.” Overseas, it is not America, so you’d better bring it all. I bought: a cheap poncho, extra toilet paper, heavy duty bug spray, and granola bars.
  • Step 4: I packed! Amazingly, it all fit into my frame backpack the first time. I also filled up a tote bag that I got from a coworker on the Guatemala/Honduras trip. She is a librarian so the bag says “Libraries! Champions of Democracy!” but more importantly, it zips closed.

We got one free checked bag to go internationally, with a weight limit of 50 pounds. Our heaviest bag belonged to the student who packed all the gifts for the school we volunteered at – she clocked in right at 50 pounds. The lightest bag belonged to – me! 24.5 pounds, thank you very much. I did bring some things I didn’t use (like my flip flops and a pair of shorts), but overall I think I’m getting a handle on this travel thing.

The Middle of the World

After the auxiliares meeting in Raleigh, I was really jazzed up to go to Spain again. One of the resources we got at the meeting was a list of the summer courses for Spanish teachers in the US that are offered every year in Spain. And after 3 hours of reminiscing about España, I was chomping at the bit to go. Unfortunately, that particular bit of professional development is going to have to wait for a future summer, because my summer 2013 is already taken with another trip: Ecuador!


Yes, at the end of May I will be spending 13 days in Ecuador on a trip with my college. Our home base will be Quito, the capital, and the students and other faculty will be taking a week of Spanish classes at our host language school (I’m not sure what I will be doing just yet. Sitting in on an advanced class to observe the teaching styles, I think, but I’m hoping to be taking a history or literature class). On the 2 weekends that fall on our stay we’ll be travelling: to the Equator, to the market in Otovalo, to the cloud forest, and to the volcano Cotopaxi. I have never been to Ecuador, not even to South America, so I’m really stoked.


We’ve already started thinking about fundraising. We’ll be doing a lot of soda-selling and things, because the more money we raise, the less of a strain it will be on the students and the more they will want to come. I’ll be going regardless, although I can’t say it would be bad to have to accept some funds towards the journey!


I’ll leave you all with a little factoid. This will be my first overseas trip that does not involve exchanging money. Ecuador uses the US dollar for currency!