Ecuador Student Blogger Study Abroad

Getting to know Quito

two mean swinging on wings. Appearing to look over the edge of the mountain over Quito. Mountains are visible in front and clouds above

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Isaac Nelson is HECUA’s student blogger for Community Internships in Latin America in Ecuador this spring. He is a junior at St. Olaf College, majoring in Environmental Studies and Race and Ethnic Studies. Read on for his first post!

Hello HECUA world! My name is Isaac Nelson and I am spending this semester in Ecuador with the Community Internships in Latin America program. I am a junior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and my majors are Race and Ethnic Studies and Environmental Studies. As a first year in college, I knew I wanted to major in Environmental Studies because, growing up, I always loved backpacking in the mountains of Montana with my cousins and camping by Lake Superior with friends and family. I wanted to do something to protect all of these special places that I saw were under attack from extractive industries. Throughout my time at St. Olaf, I have not lost my passion for protecting the environment, but I have realized more and more that it is impossible to understand our society’s environmental problems without also understanding inequalities such as race, class and nationality that stem from legacies of slavery and colonization. My double major with Race and Ethnic Studies has helped me better understand these complexities and led me to a number of cool places.

Students standing should ot shoulder on a paved landing outside of La Capilla del Hombre.
The CILA 2020 cohort visiting La Capilla del Hombre, an art museum built by Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín, dedicated to the people of Latin America. Photo credit, Kate Herrera.

In my sophomore year, some classmates and I founded the Climate Justice Collective at St. Olaf which mobilizes students to resist Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline and runs a fossil fuel divestment campaign. Last summer I worked on an urban farm in Holland, Michigan that focuses on healing injustice and our relationship with the land. And finally, the intersection has led me here to Ecuador where I am studying social movements and indigenous rights, and working on a farm in Quito.

I’ve spent these first few weeks here in Ecuador getting to know the city of Quito. At first, it was a bit of a shock coming here- I’ve exchanged the cornfields and quiet snow-covered sidewalks of Northfield, Minnesota for the tropical flowers and busy streets of Quito. The buses have been one of the most exciting aspects of this transition. In Quito when you get on the bus, you pay 25 cents to the conductor who sits near the driver and then find your seat. Often during rush hours, the buses are packed like tins of sardines and there is only room to stand. Add in the vendors who walk through the buses selling everything from candy to headphones, and it can get a bit tight. Back home, I live in a suburb near Saint Paul that doesn’t have a great bus system, so I usually need to borrow my mom’s minivan when I need to get somewhere. Needless to say, that is pretty different from what it’s like in Quito. 

On our second day here, after being shown the route to the HECUA office only once, my classmate Josh and I got separated on the bus from Josh’s host father who was accompanying us to class. We found ourselves standing alone on a bus full of people with only a vague notion of how to get to class. Despite the challenging circumstances of navigating an unfamiliar city, Josh and I were confident that we could find our way.

We followed a route we thought we remembered, leaving the first bus and crossing the Avenida Patria in the midst of roaring taxis and giant blue buses who do not share Minnesota drivers’ courtesy for pedestrians. With a little bit of uncertainty, Josh and I climbed onto a second bus that we thought would deliver us to the HECUA office. At first, I did not recognize many landmarks, but then we turned onto the Avenida Cristobal Colon and things started to get more familiar. There was the bookstore that’s been open since 1927, and a little bit further was the steakhouse with a giant bull replica standing outside on the sidewalk. We knew we had finally arrived at our stop, because of the unmistakable two-story KFC located across the street, which we had noticed the day before. 

Elijah is seen from behind, biking down the street. There are white arches to the right and a tall white building in front.
Elijah biking through Quito’s historic center. Photo credit, Isaac Nelson.

We got off the bus and walked two more blocks to the HECUA office, arriving a little late, but safe and sound, and proud of ourselves for navigating Quito’s bus system by ourselves. For Josh and I, it was a lesson in trusting our instincts and staying calm even though we were a bit lost. Since then, riding the buses in Quito has become second nature and I am much more confident in my navigation skills. 

Other than getting lost on the buses, how else have I gotten to know the city? We’ve gone on a number of fun excursions with HECUA such as dancing in the Plaza Foch and a bike ride through Quito’s historic center with its beautiful Spanish architecture. The other day, we rode the Teleférico up the side of Pichincha, a volcano that overlooks Quito. The Teleférico is like a ski lift with little gondolas on a cable that gives you a breathtaking view of Quito as you glide over the little farms and forest that covers the side of the volcano. A man who rode up with us said that sometimes you could even see bears, but we didn’t get that lucky. 

Once at the top, it was much cooler and windier than down in the city. I walked over to read a sign and it said we were at an altitude of over 4,000 meters! That’s more than 13,000 feet! Back in the United States, we would have been trudging through snow at that altitude, but here in the middle of the world there were grasses and shrubs blowing in the wind and I only needed my windbreaker for some extra warmth. We hiked a path a little further up the mountain to a swing set that overlooked a steep drop off. I waited my turn, hopped on the swing and started pumping my legs to see how high I could go. The mountain dropped off beneath me and the city spread out as far as I could see in either direction; I felt like I was flying.

hiking on the top of mountain pichincha, overlooking the valley of Quito.
Hiking at Pichincha. Photo credit, Josh King-Nobles.
Isaac looks curiously at the chicken leg in his soup.
Isaac tries Aguja de Pollo. Photo credit, Alicia Picon.

I’ve also been getting to know Ecuador through the cooking of my host mother Alicia. She’s a great cook, and she’s made some great dishes for me like Aguado de Pollo (soup with chicken necks), Arroz con Menudos (rice with chicken heart, stomach and liver), and Montepillo (a common breakfast with corn and eggs). Mealtimes around here are filled with sayings like, “When we eat chicken in Ecuador, we eat everything but the feathers!” Alicia is always telling jokes, but since I am still working on my Spanish, she often has to repeat them more than once. She’ll make a point out of counting how many retellings it takes for me to understand her, which makes us laugh. After two weeks, I can already tell that I’m getting better!

This week I’ll be starting my internship at Granja Integral Pachamama and then going to Baños for Carnaval. After that, we are headed to Yasuní National Park in the Amazon Rainforest. I’ll be pretty busy, but I’m stoked to see where this journey takes me as I continue to get to know this beautiful country. Until next time!

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