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Monday, July 8, 2013

Wrapping up: Healthcare, Service and Fun

Two weeks goes by all too quickly, and I feel like there is so much I haven't done in Ecuador.  I have been so surprised by the number of cool places and adventures that are available here.  With the various climates, there is everything from surfing to mountain climbing to jungle tours... I will have to come back!

I did get the chance to go to a really cool town called Banos which is about 5 hours from Quito, and boy was that a trip.  I went with a couple people my age I met in Quito, one of whom owns a hostel and was a fantastic host.  My favorite part of traveling is getting to spend time with local people, and I always seem to get lucky and meet amazing locals on my trips.  We toured waterfalls, went on a scenic drive around the local, active volcano, went swimming in a river while it was pouring rain, ate great food and got a chance to enjoy the nightlife which was heavy with tourists.  The town reminded me of the very touristy areas in Thailand I visited last summer, but without the beaches and Australians.  The trip left me exhausted, but it wouldn't have felt like a full vacation without it, so I am glad I went.

I actually met David, the hostel owner, through the woman who runs the service program I am working through.  She has established multiple schools in a small town, Lumbisi, which is about 45 minutes from Quito.  The town is set up much like a Native American reservation back in the States and is totally separate from the majority of Ecuador.  This has led to significant neglect and poverty in the area, but Maria Teresa, the founder of the NGO, is doing her best to make a difference.  She is truly a magnificent person and I hope that she continues to have volunteers for many years to come.

The schools are pretty new, and I was surprised at how nice they were considering the town they are in.  And the children were so much fun!  I spent a couple days with them (4-5 year olds) which was exhausting but just as rewarding.  I would like to say I was volunteering and helping out so much, but, honestly, 85% of my time was spent playing games with the kids and not doing anything tangibly productive.  I will post some pictures of the little guys when I get back!

The main aspect of my travel here was the work in the hospital.  It was a great experience and was definitely eye-opening as I saw some things that were really tough to swallow.  I saw bone marrow biopsy kits being reused with only a rinsing under the sink and a couple cases where the necessary medication simply wasn't available, which is especially heartbreaking in the oncology patients.  There are private hospitals here which offer more, but the free hospital struggles to offer the necessary level of care.  The waiting room was massive, absolutely packed, and the doctors would see three patients at a time in their tiny offices.  It is tough to explain, but suffice to say that it wasn't the ideal situation.  I would love to volunteer and help as a physician someday, and I hope I get the chance to do so.

I am catching the midnight plane tonight,  but I will be back tomorrow!  I will have to do some late 4th of July celebrating and grab a beer, get sunburnt by the pool and enjoy some Kansas City bbq as soon as I get back.  As rotations start in a couple weeks, though, I am sure I will be wishing I was back in Ecuador playing hide-and-seek with 5 year olds.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Food, The Place, The Culture, The Politics

This is a long post, so I apologize in advance for that; however, it is broken up into four parts to make for easier reading.  I am having a blast here and I am going to do my best to enjoy my final week!  Enjoy:

The Food:
It is always tough to adjust to a new diet, but I ate something that made me sicker here than I have ever been before.  The nausea/vomiting only lasted for a half day at least, but I don’t know if my whole system will be functioning correctly at any point during my stay.  Between being sick and the small portions I expect to lose another 5 pounds on top of the 5-10 I lost studying for boards. 

While it is no fun to be sick, I have definitely had some good eats as well.  I have had beef tongue twice, which always sounds gross but I found to be quite good.  Also, as expected, the bread is fantastic.  Bread is one thing the majority of American just doesn´t do right, and the panerias (bread stores) have been a highlight of my trip here and when I was in Peru.  One major difference from Peru, however, is the lack of Pisco here in Ecuador which is served with nearly every meal in Lima.  In fact, no drinks are served with the meal at all until you are finished and then you get a glass.  It drives me absolutely crazy to be honest, but I am trying to get used to it.

I am debating between playing it safe and just going all out crazy with street food because I am generally starving and it looks and smells delicious.  I asking myself what was the worst that could happen and I realized it probably already had, so I will probably just go for it and have an update soon!

The Place:
Quito is seated on top of a giant hill and looks down on its suburbs which sprawl the surrounding valleys.  The low clouds and mountains in the background make for a beautiful view, one unlike any I have seen in the States at least.  Ecuador boasts mountains, beaches, famous islands (Galapagos), jungles and a vibrant capital – there is something here for everyone.

This weekend we visited  “El Mitad Del Mundo” which means the middle of the world.  It was fun to straddle the 0.0 latitude line and claim to be in both hemispheres at once, but the real excitement was the entertainment surrounding the monument.  Ecuadorian music and dancers entertained a couple hundred people and we were surrounded by vendors selling tantalizing snacks.  

The emcee of the whole deal was very entertaining and would pick out foreigners from the crowd to come on stage with him and dance while he made jokes about them which the foreigner would have no hope of understanding.  And wouldn´t you know it, I stick out like a sore thumb and was his next victim.  He had me dance with the Ecuadorian flag, wear traditional garb and a hat with an attached pony tail all to make me look completely ridiculous.  My host family captured the whole thing on video along with some pictures, so look forward to those soon.  I was completely embarrassed but I relish the story and I am glad I didn´t chicken out and refuse the invitation.

I would love to visit the jungles, relax in Galapagos, and climb one of the many scenic mountains, but two weeks is just not enough time to take full advantage of the country.  I will simply have to enjoy Quito and its Spanish architecture, massive cathedrals, packed buses and sometimes terrible traffic until I return.

The Culture:
For me, the most exciting part about travel is meeting the local people and doing my best to understand the local cultures.  I will never forget the hospitality Allison and I enjoyed in Thailand last summer and I will always have a home in Peru, Georgia and now Ecuador.  My host mom is absolutely wonderful.  I love how motherhood is so universal, because even though I can only understand about 60% of what is said, I know what she wants if for me to eat more, wear my coat more often and sit at the kitchen table to converse as much as possible. 

I don´t want to write a novel, so I will just run off a list of some cool notes I made about the culture I have experienced in Quito:  ancestors are very important and when we visited the cemetery there were fresh flowers everywhere and more visitors than I have ever seen at a cemetery in the States; I always pegged South America as being very religious, which is definitely true to an extent, however, I think it is more correct to identify the people as very spiritual; there is so much less shame here, which is tough to explain, but whether it is dancing in public, singing out loud or feeling ill, I thankfully haven´t felt as vulnerable as I sometimes do in the States; driving is crazy here and unless you are in the front you won´t have a seat belt; there are no casinos in Ecuador as of a couple years ago (a huge difference from Georgia to say the least), public transit is very important and very crowded, although much more difficult to navigate than I found either Tbilisi or Bangkok (I was lost for hours yesterday and had to flag a taxi to take me back home).

The Politics:
I am not well read at all on the topic of politics in Ecuador, but I will share what I have heard and the little bit I do know because I find it very interesting.  Also, there has been some recent stories about Ecuador which have made it to American headlines news : Snowden seeking asylum, an American high school graduate disappearing and a complicated lawsuit of Ecuador vs Chevron.  My only sources for most of this info is my host family, the doctor I am working with, and something I saw on Reddit the other day, so take this all with a grain of salt.

Anyways, Ecuador is probably the most socialist country I have ever been to, and it has been interesting to hear how people living here feel about it.  The doctor I work with really isn´t a fan of some aspects, but he said he tries to only concern himself with things he can change.  He works in one of the biggest public hospitals in Ecuador and will see about 50 patients in the clinic over a couple hours and is required to fill out detailed paperwork on them all.  When we asked if he got paid for each patient he saw, he said no.  When we asked what incentive there was for seeing more patients he said that going to jail would be the consequence for not doing so.  Take that for what it´s worth I guess.

Gasoline is only $2 a gallon here for the super stuff!  I thought I was reading per liter initially, but it really is only $2 a gallon.  My host dad said that it isn´t because they have oil here or have any special connections but because the government subsidizes it significantly.  He was very against this subsidy as he wished it would go to schools, roads or other things as people that could afford vehicles could afford gas on their own.  Everyone else would be able to rely on the public transit system which is already in place and effective.   He also laughed about the whole Snowden asylum thing because he felt that Ecuador only wanted to offer Asylum to show it has power and a role in the world political scene – a little kid puffing up his chest if you will. 

I am excited to learn more and I need to do some more research on the Ecuador-Chevron case where Chevron was found guilty of destroying precious land and now owes 18 billion dollars or something like that to the country.  They refused to pay and instead took Ecuador to court in NY to say that the decision was corrupt and the whole thing is bogged down there.  I don´t really know, but in the rankings that come out for corruption in government, Ecuador scored a 2.4/10 with 0 being the most corrupt, and 150th out of 184 countries for transparency in its government. 

One final interesting note is that the US Dollar is the currency used here, which is super handy for us American travelers!

I will try to update the blog again and try to post pictures when I get the chance.  It is difficult because the internet situation isn´t ideal and whatnot, but excuses, excuses… I will be home in a week!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I do believe it is time for an update!  I really haven´t had good computer/internet access, so I havent had to chance to write at all.  We have internet at the house where I am staying, but it stops working randomly and when it does work someone else needs to use it.  No matter, I brought a bunch of books and the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire to keep me entertained in my downtime.

I have not done much sightseeing or anything special to Ecuador yet, but I have been able to see and learn a ton in the hospital I am in.   I am working with a hematologist, Dr. Hidalgo, who is an incredible doctor and probably one of the most popular people in the hospital.  I am surprised he can get any work done because he has to stop every view second to say hello and exchange hugs and the traditional South American cheek kisses.  I am definitely luck to be with such a compassionate, patient doctor and I am excited to see how the next two weeks progress.

My Spanish isn´t terrible, but I wish I had taken more courses in college (more than just the one).  I understand probably about 60% of what is said which makes medical conversations difficult.  At least I can read Spanish well and I am familiar with the leukemias/lymphomas which comprise most of his cases.  All the other students leave around noon which leaves me with one-on-one tutoring until 3pm when he heads off to the university to teach classes.  Seriously, I don´t know how he does it, the guy´s day is booked from 4am until 8pm.

I am hoping to travel some this weekend and get to see more of Quito and Ecuador.  What I have seen of Quito is fabulous and I hope to post some pictures once I get the chance.  I haven´t been able to try much food either because everyone is very protective of me and says the food isn´t safe.  I will stick to their suggestions for a few days, but I think I will venture out and try the ceviche and street food soon.

I just got my first board score back and did really well, so I am going to go buy a beer and celebrate!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Well, I am off to Ecuador!

Edward Snowdon is stealing my thunder a bit, but I guess I should be used to that after Joran van der Sloot graced Peru whilst I was there.  Nevertheless, I am very excited about resuming world travel, especially to South America.  The promise of new foods, culture and people is always invigorating!  Furthermore, Unlike Thailand and Georgia, I have some working knowledge of the language which I am sure will come in handy.

I just finished my second year of medical school and the daunting board exams that came with it.  I can't think of a better way to escape the stress of medical school and board scores than to leave the country completely.  A family vacation in Colorado with the soon-to-be in-laws was fun, but it somehow left me more exhausted than I was before the trip.  I know travel abroad is taxing, however, I relish that moment when you land in a new country, look around the city and have no idea what is going on or where anything is.

As per usual, I am not exactly sure what I am getting myself into in Cumbaya, Ecuador.  I know that my host mother, Dr. Ulia, will be picking me up at the airport and that I will be seeing patients alongside her.  The program in Ecuador has a very broad outreach, so I feel like there is quite a bit of variation in what each volunteer could be doing. I am pretty sure, however,that I will be put to good use and will have the time of my life.

I will update the blog with pictures, notes on cuisine and some of what I have been doing when I get the chance.  I hope all is well with you guys back home!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Save The Best For Last- Railay Bay

Hey, Allison here. Steve has given me the honor of writing this post. We have been beach hopping the past couple days and ended here at Railay Bay, off the coast of southern Thailand. The island is incredibly beautiful and pretty small. It only takes about 10 minutes to walk across the whole thing. The weather has been less than ideal... it has rained on and off every day. There go my hopes of bringing back a tan. Or probably more realistically a pretty intense sunburn. So maybe the rain has been in my favor. On the plus side, the rainy season brings many less tourists to the islands, which has been very nice. Our days have consisted of alternating spending time outside, walking the beach, sampling Thai cuisine, watching bad movies on one of the 3 English stations, cave exploring, and a little swimming in the ocean. A few nights ago we went to a bar that advertised fire dancing and it turned out to be pretty cool. I don't think there are many locals that live on this islands, more that people come to live here to work. The same guy that was playing guitar and singing John Mayer was the emcee and main performer in the fire show. And we saw other fire people teaching rock climbing and doing carpentry work the next day. Multi-talented fellows.

On to the main event! We leave today to go back to Bangkok via an overnight bus and then fly out to go back home the following day. That meant that yesterday was our last full day here on the beach. We have been wanting to rent sea kayaks and explore the massive rock formations that aren't accessible by beach, but the weather has been less than cooperative. We waited all day for the weather to calm down so we could take them out. When it reached a point when the wind wasn't blow-you-over strong and we thought we stood a chance in the water, we strapped on our life jackets and took the two-seater out. I'll be honest. I thought I was going to die. I am not a strong swimmer. Once we were out for about 15 minutes the wind died down and the waves became significantly smaller, I started to feel more confident. We paddled around for awhile and Steve had the idea to land the kayak on a very small stretch of sand surrounding this giant rock jutting out of the water. The tides are crazy here. The difference between high and low tide is what feels like a football field. We knew from the night before that the beach existed, but at this time you could barely see it. I was hesitant, but Steve insisted so we landed the boat and sat down on the beach to enjoy the view. After about 20 minutes, we decided our kayaks were due back soon and it was about time to head back. As I got up to go back to the boat, he said my name and I turned around to find him on one knee with ring in hand. It all went by so fast. I managed to say yes. It started to rain harder, so we spent a little more time on the island and then headed back to shore. Needless to say, we are both extremely excited :)

I believe Steve is planning on one more post to sum up the trip. We will be back in a couple days and look forward to seeing everyone again!! Much love!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Friends and Seclusion- Phuket and Other Beaches

As much fun as Bangkok was, we were pretty excited to make our way down South and enjoy some beach time and island revelry.  Having a friend in Phuket to show us the ropes proved invaluable as we got to see much more than we would have otherwise.  It's funny how we can pick a country like Thailand and end up meeting with two friends to help us manage traveling around.  I feel like I have reached some sort of minor success to enjoy the hospitality of old and new friends, and I am excited to indulge that pride more in the future.  Perhaps when we attend World Cup 2014 in Brazil, we can further test the limits of our connections and mutual friends.

Phuket is Thailand's biggest island and attracts some serious tourism.  It is also the hub for further island exploration throughout the south.   This being said, you would think that transportation around the island would be just as easy as it was for the rest of the country.  We had grown accustomed to cheap taxis, red trucks that pick you up along their path for 60 cents or simply being able to walk places.  None of these things exist in Phuket due to the Taxi Mafia.  At first I thought this was a joke or an exaggeration founded in the ridiculous prices tuk-tuks and taxis charge, but it's actually a real thing.  A 10 minute ride that would cost about $1.50 in Bangkok is about $7-10 depending on your bargaining ability.  Efforts by the island have been made to establish more affordable transportation, but boats are sunk, taxi drivers are killed and city officials are on the mafia's payroll.  Crazy stuff, but I guess when you consider the mass tourism and a pure cash industry it isn't a total surprise.

Now that I have given sufficient background to the transportation situation I can more proudly explain how we beat the mafia's system: renting a motorcycle for $5 a day.  I had never ridden one before and traffic in other countries is always intimidating, but I am so glad we rented one.  It took me a while to feel safe, and even longer to feel safe with Allison as a passenger, but after a couple hours of getting around it was easily done.  I realize this is no major achievement for many of the readers, but I had a lot of fun doing it and highly suggest this method of transport in the future.  There is no way we could have visited the beautiful Rawai Beach, gone up to Big Buddha (seriously, a giant Buddha just up on a hill) and eaten at the different restaurants we did without the bike.  All for $5 a day!

It was great to meet up with Jason, who I taught with in Georgia.  He was a gracious host and was able to share his favorite spots with us since he has been here for about 9 months now.  I would like to elaborate briefly on people like Jason because it is a unique type of person that travels from country to country teaching English.  His roommate Tim is in Thailand for the world class rock climbing, his girlfriend is here because she had never been abroad before and wanted to travel before settling down in the States, some of his friends are musicians and travel the world posing as teachers so they can play their next gig and almost every other ex-pat has their own story.  These are the same type of people that go up to a ski lodge in Colorado and work for almost nothing so they can hit fresh powder every day.  I really value their free spirit and commitment to doing what they want to do.  Of course, there are many complaints a parent or grandparent would make towards such a lifestyle, but the freedom, the people and the passion these people all share justify the life choice.  I am jealous of them, easy as that.

Seeking further separation from tourism and society we went to Ko Phi Phi, an island about 2 hours away from Phuket.  Our Bungalow had a killer ocean view and a private beach to boot.  I was worried it would be too hot without AC, but since it is low season (rainy season) it was very manageable.  We fell asleep both nights to the repetitive lapping of waves just meters from our mosquito net-covered bed.  We arrived yesterday to Railay which is famous for its rock formations.  Expert climbers come from all over the world to conquer the sandstone cliffs, and it makes me wish I had trained all year to try one out myself.  I encourage you to google Railay, Thailand and see a couple pictures yourself, you will be jealous of us if you do.

We splurged a bit to stay at a nice resort with AC, a TV and hot water, but I must admit I appreciate modern amenities.  Life is great and we are sad to see our trip coming to an end.  We will try to spend as much time as possible on the beach over the next few days and take some good pictures to remember it by.  We miss everyone at home and are excited to tell more stories we we get back.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Family Time and Seafood- Back to Bangkok

We apologize for not keeping up with our 1 post every 3 day strategy, but we have been too busy, internet has been too scarce and we have simply been traveling a lot.  We are in good spirits as this is being written, but we had a stressful trip back to Bangkok from Angkor/Siem Reap/Cambodia and our journey from Bangkok to the south (Phuket, which is pronounced Poo-Ket) took about as long as our flight did from Chicago to Bangkok.

Summing up Cambodia and our final day at Angkor:  We watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat and explored the temple before the crowds overran it (pictures look good, coming soon I hope- it is hard to find an SD slot to upload).  Then we saw Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm which are the other two famous temples, the latter being the Tomb Raider one.  They were all incredible as expected, but the mass tourism about it all was overwhelming.  Tons and tons of Asian tourists littered every inch of Ta Prohm, more Nikons were in use at one time than I have ever seen before and little Cambodian children were relentless in their question "Lady, cold drink? Buy something?!"  Feeling a little exasperated, we called it an early afternoon and got some beers on the famous Siem Reap Pub Street.  Also, we had Vietnamese Pho and an Indian meal which were simply to die for.  It was sad to leave Cambodia because we knew we had only seen the most touristed area, but Bangkok loomed once again, and we were excited to finally get some beach time.

Having really found our footing in Bangkok, we found a neat little hostel near the mass transit systems and a giant, impressive mall (seriously, it is nicer than any mall I have seen in the States thus far.  I think we spent a total of around 10 hours there over the three day stay).  The highlight of our stay in Bangkok wasn't our shopping spree or bargain hostel, however, it was our time with Nat and her family (Nat is Torri Gray's friend from a high school exchange program).  We can't thank her or Torri enough for setting all of this up because our Thailand trip wouldn't have been the same without her.

Our first night we went out to the clubs with her and one of her friends.  The live band played popular Thai hits, so we couldn't sing along as many of the other frequenters were keen to do; however, that didn't stop Allison and me from dancing the night away and enjoying the rare American song.  It would be interesting to go to one of the clubs aimed at Westerners, but I definitely enjoyed our true Thai going out experience.  The experience did get us in trouble, though, because we came in late and I was loud -- much to the dismay of the up-to-now kind hostel owner.  We promptly changed hostels the next day to avoid the embarrassment of owning up to our shenanigans.

And now for one of our favorite days of the trip:  Our day with the Aroonmaharat family (Nat, her sister and parents).  A quick explanation of the family is simply a must.  Her dad is full of eccentricity, owning an expensive stingray collection among other items including a dragon fish, tiger pelts, samurai swords and ancient Buddha statues; the mother didn't speak any English, but it's amazing how Thai smiles, home cooking and a mom's arm on your shoulder can make you feel at home; her sister, Mild, was very shy and fun to be around; and Nat was a gracious host and an excellent translator.  We spent half the day admiring her father's collection (though Allison was a bit mortified by the tiger pelts: "This is the mom tiger, this is the son tiger" - insert proud smile and funny middle-aged Thai man), then we got a two-hour massage and then went out of the seafood meal of our lives.  It was a Smörgåsbord of crab, giant shrimp, catfish, mussels, soup, oysters, delectable sauces, fish cakes and a funny glass noodle dessert.  The meal was more than Allison and I ever would have expected from a host family we barely knew. I wish I could put into words how good it was and how grateful we were to share the meal with them.  It was a tough goodbye and we promised that we would stay with their family next time we come to Thailand.  I hope we keep that promise.