After 24 hours of travel we finally made it to Otavalo and were able to collapse in the hostel for the night. During travel my phone randomly shut down and ceased to work. I took it as a sign from the universe that I am supposed to enjoy m experience free from distraction caused by endlessly searching for wifi and just have a simpler time in the moment. I am honestly grateful this far into the trip that I do not have such easy access to the internet for those reasons and it makes it a fun challenge to scout out ways to update my blog!
We came into Otavalo at night so it was a surprise waking up the next morning when the sun was out. The first thing that really struck me was the natural beauty of the area. The town is nestled in the Andes so it is surrounded by mountains and volcano peaks. The day was spent exploring the town and attending team meetings to orient ourselves in Ecuador and test some of the equipment that we brought, such as cameras for camera traps. We went to the daily market and right away I noticed that the shopkeepers and stall attendants did not push to sell their goods as much I have seen in many other countries, they did not follow you down the streets with their products trying to bargain. But looking around the city, I also noticed that there did not seem to be the same degree of poverty that is usually linked to markets with such atmospheres. That being said, this association is based off of my personal experiences (a sole outsider’s observations and perspectives) so could potentially lack the understanding of cultural influences within the market and the actual degrees of poverty faced by the owners.
These first few days have been really exciting between trying new foods (I went from being vegetarian to eating blood soup) and fruits to hiking in the highlands and experiencing the craziness that is New Year’s Eve in Ecuador, which was probably the most memorable New Year celebration of my life. A few things about New Year: 1) people make an effigy of the old year (it could be based off of an important family event, a specific person, political leader, TV character, etc.) which they display in the streets with a note attached to them, starting around mid-day 2) guys dress up as the widow of the old year by usually wearing drag or masks and they dance in the streets to music that is blasting out of many of the buildings and they stop cars, by doing this, to ask for coins 3) At midnight everyone burns their effigy and there are many traditions such as eating 12 grapes (one for each month of the year) during the countdown and making a wish with each one, or wearing gold of red underwear for wealth or love in the new year, respectively. Walking through the streets right before midnight was a lot of fun because people would pull you into the street to dance with them. At midnight when everyone began to set their effigies on fire, we lit our dummy of Martin. The streets were quickly filled with dozens of small fires and smoke choked out he air. From the outside, it might have looked a lot like a warzone as firecrackers exploded and what appeared to be bodies burned in the streets. But in reality, it was a really family friendly event. There was no point during the night that I felt unsafe or threatened by the events around me (maybe excluding when one of the homemade firecrackers started shooting into the crowd as we walked by). I try to think of how a similar celebration would fare in the states and I feel that inevitably the police would get involved and that many people would use it as an excuse to go too far (excluding fire regulations) possibly because our sense of community/social structure id different, especially in urban areas.
The surrounding environment and its natural beauty is probably the thing that calls out to me the most on a personal and spiritual level. My team was lucky enough to get to visit the Paramo, which is the name of the highlands (elevation: 3500 plus meters). It is a really cool alpine ecosystem that is essentially a grassland type habitat with many types of grasses and a few shrubs that relies on cycles of burning. We spent the day hiking around the volcanic lakes that are nestled in the shadows of huge jagged peaks and it was a beautiful time appreciating the organisms and enjoying the views. I feel really lucky and grateful that I have the opportunity to be in such a lovely place and I really look forward to actually starting our work in Intag soon.