Happy 2014! ¡Feliz año nuevo!

Even without any of the crazy bridge jumping or whitewater rafting that it had to offer, Baños still thoroughly delighted me. I arrived to a light drizzle, a picturesque parque central and basilica and a healthy vegetarian Thai lunch. Plantas y Blanco, my hostel, was brightly decorated and clean with a rooftop terrace that faced the Basilica, a waterfall and the hillside. Although my street side room was quite loud, I slept like a baby the first night (and all of the nights, really) and woke up early to try out Café Ricooo Pan’s “best bread in town” and begin my hike on Sendero Bellavista. What I thought might be a lame nature walk turned into a muddy uphill death climb to the top of the hills beyond Baños. Along the trail, I met a lovely couple from Boston/Quebec and a documentary filmmaker from Yemen. Together, we climbed to the cross above the town (kind of symbolic in the way of the Hollywood sign or the holiday star in Boulder but obviously more religious because it’s Latin America) and then onto the small “settlement” of Runtun. After the descent and to reward myself for the killer quad workout, I decided it was about time to get acquainted with the local microbrewery, which did not disappoint. They had a delicious gingery saison and dog-themed décor; my favorite sign in the place said “Fleas Navidawg,” as in feliz navidad (Merry Christmas).
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Of course, not until after the hike, a shower, and a beer did I begin to think about a recent article that I saw about la Casa del Árbol (tree house) and a so-called swing at the end of the world. Well, silly me, this place was apparently on the same trail that I had just hiked. I remembered a turnoff and a sign about halfway up so I decided that the next day I would follow that sign to the tree house. Once again, I woke up early, this time to experience the thermal baths before they were overly crowded. Baños is famous for these thermal waters that are supposed to be blessed by the Virgin Mary, who was apparently once seen near a waterfall in town. The public pools were a real treat for one of the few gringas who arrived at 7am: so many families came to soak up the minerals before starting their days, as did all of the old local women with loose bathing suits and sagging breasts that somehow always managed to wander out of the not-so-restraining fabric. Fashion faux pas aside, the steaming hot pools generously soothed my aching body and when they became too hot, there were cold showers built into the hillside that directed siphoned water from the falls nearby; overall, a pleasant experience.
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Onto the hike: as it turns out, the tree house was not soon after the turnoff, but of course, without knowing any better, I went in that direction anyway. After a somewhat lonely hike to the top of another hill, I met a man who was headed to the tree house but in a self-proclaimed “extremely out of the way route”. Since I was already going in the wrong direction, I decided to follow him on what one can only label “the hike of death round two.” This man fortunately was not a serial killer leading me into the backwoods, but actually a former tour guide who knew all about the region. I think what amused me most about him was that as I was trying to keep up with him as he effortlessly sprinted up the mountain, he told me that I didn’t talk very much. Sorry sir, I was completely out of breath from the rapid ascent and had absolutely no extra air to expend on chatting.
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We finally approached the long-anticipated destination and it truly was a sight to take in: rolling hills in every direction, a tree house on a cliff and an attached rope swing with rather janky mechanics. In the tree house, I met some amazing travelers including my new friend Thomas, who was visiting a friend in Quito. He was with a good of friends from Kentucky that came to visit their old college friend who teaches at an international school here. He promised that I would love his friends, mostly because they are also mostly teachers, so I planned to meet up with them on New Year’s Eve back in Quito. The way down from the hike was mostly uneventful, besides the continuously burning thighs. I did actually get stung by a bee for the first time ever, though. It turns out my irrational fear of bees was just that – after a quick squeal and pulling off the bee and its stinger, I felt almost no pain.

The rest of the trip passed very quickly. I met up with my coworker Rizwana for my final and her first night in Baños. She sadly wasn’t that impressed with much of the town – I think she only liked that we chose to eat desert for dinner. She did mention that I probably liked Baños so much because I had just escaped from Riobamba. I suppose anything is better after Riobamba. However, if anyone decides to visit Ecuador, I still highly recommend Baños. That was the last town on my trip before returning to Quito on the 30th.

If you search NYE celebrations, you will find Ecuador’s among the list of strange and must see. On the 31st, Ecuadorians generally have large parties with families and burn homemade effigies in the streets. These vary from political or cartoon figures to store-bought nondescript dolls. Either way, a good excuse to start a bonfire in the streets while surrounded by firework shows. Safety isn’t really a top priority here:
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(effigies that are burned at midnight)

I joined my friend from Baños at his friend’s house in Quito and he did not disappoint – these Kentucky people (Kentuckians?) were crazy! I am now friends with Lauren, who teaches at Colegio Americano here in Quito, her roommates (a teacher and an environmental/GIS specialist) and some of her other teacher friends. One can never have too many teacher friends, I suppose! I also bonded well with two others, Ben and Kelsey, but they sadly returned to the States a few days ago. In the days following New Year’s, I was able to enjoy a lot of touristy activities with those two and even bought a hand-stitched, tribal design backpack with suede trim. Completely unnecessary but I am hoping it will get lots of use in the near future.
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(In Ecuador, men often dress as viudas on NYE and collect money for dancing in the streets. Sadly, our male friends only wore wigs and did not collect money)

Now, already two weeks into the New Year, I am back into full-on class mode. Along with my usual EF classes at Repsol, Agencia Nacional Postal, and Friday conversation, I have a couple of new private students who are endless bundles of entertainment. First, I teach Father Sebastian, as in, a person who is deeply committed to the Catholic Church. For a gut-wrenching 50 minutes every day, I feel as if someone is trying to pry open my soul. After I told him that I am not particularly religious, he made me a “promise.” He said that at the end of our classes, if I have not taught him English and if he has not taught me to love his faith, we will have failed. WOW! Looks like I have some work to do seeing as he moves to San Antonio, Texas in a couple of months. We’ll see how his end of the “bargain” plays out; although I must admit that I’m not really looking for new-found faith.

My second new student is in a whole other realm, he is six years old! I didn’t think anyone would ever knowingly leave me alone with a child for fear that I would lose it, make it cry, or somehow accidentally hurt it, but times are changing! Gustavo is a little angel (oh know, I’ve already started with religious references, Father S must be rubbing off!). He attends SEK international school here in Quito so he already has a basic level of English, and he loves to chat, mainly about which Marvel characters are his favorite, why Hulk is better than Iron Man, etc. Today was our first class and when I asked my coworker Zubin to borrow the crayons in his classroom, he gave me a dramatically long blank stare – why on earth would Ali need crayons? This is definitely a challenge that I hoped would fall into my hands one day, but all I’m saying is that I’m glad its just one little person and not a full classroom.
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(Celebrating January birthdays at EF – there is always an excuse to eat more cake!)

Coming up, I am beyond excited for my first visitors! On the 22nd of January, I will meet Katia at the airport to welcome her to Quito. She is a friend of a friend from Los Angeles and although I haven’t met her yet, she is the transporter of my Christmas gifts and I am forever grateful. Next, on the 6th of February, Brent is coming for a bit of an extended stay during which we will hopefully travel to Peru and Machu Picchu. Finally, on the 22nd of February, my parents arrive. I am thrilled to be sharing my new life with all of them and see how they adjust to a different culture. While Katia and Brent both speak a little bit of Spanish, I am excited to see how my father’s command of the language has shifted since he lived in Chile in his youth. My mother, thankfully, has been practicing her French, which I assume will be about as useful as my Aunt Bonnie speaking Chinese in Vietnam last year – at least there is a demonstrated effort.
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(A pitahaya – very available here and one of my favorite snacks)

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