The Slides of Saint Basil
As my first experience of Ecuador, the city of Loja proved to be pretty and interesting. It is fairly small, so over a couple of days I wandered a lot of the central area and sights. I visited the cathedral, which looked onto a small, leafy square, the main plaza of the city. Nearby, the city gate, which looks like a miniature version of the castle in the Disney logo, contained a small art gallery and had a tower which I climbed for a view across the city and its hilly outer edges. I also wandered around Parque Jipiro, a slightly surreal experience with its spattering of colourful buildings amid the playareas. A mock Chinese pagoda sat on the edge of a small lake, and ice cream was served inside. A building with the turrets and bright colours of a fairytale castle functioned as an information point. A copy of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow had a modification which I think the original should consider adding: slides swooping around its outer edges.
During my few days in Loja, I didn’t see a singly other gringo, maybe due to the season, or maybe the city is too far south for most tourists to consider a worthwhile visit. This meant I had the place, with its juice bars, small cafes and varied vegetarian options, all to myself to discover.
My New, Blue Home
After a few days, I moved on across the country to the coast, and the small seaside town of Montañita. It is famous for its surf and rasta/hippy influence, with a lot of gringoes and South American tourists settling for months on end, selling jewellery up at stalls lining the edge of the sand streets or touring the restaurants in the evening to busk.
I spent a couple of days relaxing, watching the quarter finals, and wandering the beach and town. I then moved in with a local family, the Clemente-Rosales, a homestay linked to the Montañita Spanish School. They live four small blocks away from the centre, far enough that the booming music and crowds that the weekend partying attract are not a disturbance. The shift in environment is noticeable, with children playing on the street, a cockerel which insists on crowing in the early hours of the morning, and much more basic, but typical, houses; the Clemente-Rosales’ has a tin roof which the concrete walls don’t reach, so all noises within the house, as well as those adjacent, are shared. However, the house is lovely with bright blue and turquoise walls, and I have my own, large room with a double bed. My new mama and papa, Melinda and Julio, have six children, five sons and one daughter, who range from 8-24 years in age, and provide both entertainment and ample extra Spanish practice. Until this weekend, Erik, a Swedish student, was also staying in the same family, and proved to be a great introduction to the town. He was also studying at the Spanish school which, last Monday, I began studying at.
Working On My Spanish Brain
Seeing as it has been more than a year since I finished my degree, the concentration required for three or four hours of studying a day has been pretty tiring. However, the teachers at the Montañita Spanish School are absolutely excellent, and by filing in the holes in my grammatical knowledge and chatting for several hours each day, the speaking skills which I have developed over the last four months are improving quickly and with more precision.
Between and after classes there is plenty of time for hanging out with the students, and the school organises enjoyable extra activities. The week began with a welcome meal, on Monday evening, for the new students, followed by a visit to cocktail alley, which is lined with stalls owed and run by locals who mix up all sorts of concoctions with fresh fruit and various alcohols. By Wednesday, we had progressed to a full blown Montañita night out, which kicked off with predrinks at the accommodation where most students stay, where Erik and I shared a bottle of something simply, and somewhat suspiciously, labelled ‘Latin Spirit’, bought at a small corner shop. By Saturday, my birthday, new group of friends and the weekend spirit here made for a great night out.
My birthday began with my present to myself. With a couple of new American friends from the school, Caroline and Katie, I set off early Saturday morning in a small boat headed for El Pelado, a small island so named ‘The Bald’ because it is simply a very large rock on which many pelicans roost. We anchored nearby, and after the usual faffing which scuba diving entails, to simply mimic what fish manage so easily, I was in the water and diving for my first time in South America. There wasn’t much coral but the fascinating marine life more than made up for this, with large vivid green or blue starfish, urchins with spins as long as my forearms and bright blue or purple centres, deflated mottled brown-and-white puffer fish and swordfish more than a metre long, flashing silver. On my second dive we saw an octopus and the rare treat of a tiny, brown seahorse. We swam slightly further from the rocks this time and into huge shoals of tiny fish which sprung away at the slightest wave of my hand.
Shortly after lunch we were cutting our way through the waves and back to the shore and towards my Ecuadorian family for my birthday dinner. My new mama made a vegetarian lasagne, and shortly afterwards a beautiful cake was revealed, which had been especially ordered and decorated with my name in swirly writing. The family sang me a long song, starting with a birthday song from their church, moving into the Spanish version of ‘Happy Birthday’ and ending with the English, all the while accompanied by a clapping rhythm. Unsurprisingly, I was incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness and the effort they made.
The day improved further when I headed into town and met a group of friends from the Spanish School. After a long hang out in cocktail alley, playing drinking games at our favourite stand, we headed to a local club with zero other gringoes and therefore full of locals who showed up our samba and salsa dancing and our stiff hips.
The end of the long night was finished with a quick wander through a local wedding party happening in the street outside my house, which continued until 10am the next morning, ending just in time to allow me a short nap before the World Cup final.
The atmosphere in town for the game was amazing, and even though there was a large Argentina following, there was enough of a German contingent to make for a cheerful atmosphere with the final result.
And this brings me to the start of a new week, and a shift in my timetable so that I have early morning lessons. However, my afternoon classes now take place on the roof with a view across the town and sea, and yesterday I saw a humpback whale leaping out of the water several times. Small details like this remind me I am living the dream. I have added a yoga session every evening to my daily routine, and tonight we begin the cycle again with another welcome meal for the new students.