Today marks a little more than one week since I arrived in Quito. Since last Saturday, life has been a whirlwind of training and getting acquainted with this beautiful Andean city. Life at 9,000 feet is different than back home beyond just the difference in altitude, though. Figuring out how to exist in and navigate around a place so foreign has been an engaging and time-consuming process, and I’m sure my learning will continue for many weeks as I discover my place here in Quito.
Many of you know me as an adventurous, enthusiastic individual. When I left Berkeley, one of my friends even told me that she would have to learn how to plan activities, since I wouldn’t be there to do it anymore for our friend group. I am generally the person who initiates things, from park picnics to room parties to camping trips. The friend who plans the outings, makes needed arrangements, and gets people moving. I think it’s fair to say I’m one of the more energetic individuals among my friends. Thus, it might be surprising to those who know me well that I spent the entirety of my first free day in Quito without stepping foot outside my host family’s apartment. Berkeley Elizabeth would typically take advantage of such a free day to do some serious exploring and merry-making. But Quito Elizabeth slept in, watched a silly amount of The Goodwife on Netflix, took a two hour nap, then watched Friends in Spanish and proceeded to go to bed around 10 pm.
So how is it that I spent my first day off doing absolutely nothing exciting? Upon a bit of reflection, I think that the reason lies in the fact that just surviving here in Quito takes an enormous amount of energy. I mean this in both a physical and a mental sense. Take, for example, the fact that every morning my sleep is disturbed by the brilliance of the sun that shines through my thin purple curtains starting around 5:45 am, far earlier than I usually get up. Then there’s the difficult breathing caused by the significant decrease in oxygen and the walking I do each day traversing the city’s hills. Berkeley Elizabeth used to walk 4-5 miles per day on average, but Quito Elizabeth maybe walks 2 and yet gets far more exhausted. On Thursday, I attempted to work out for the first time in the cardio room of my host family’s apartment complex. Berkeley Elizabeth could run 3-4 miles no problem. Quito Elizabeth could barely jog the length of a 3-minute song before her lungs felt fit to burst, and she ended up settling for speed walking up an incline. Food intake, too, is drastically different for me here. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, and dinner is generally somewhat meager. There is a 7-8 hour gap between lunch and dinner I rarely have snacks. Adjusting to different food schedules also affects my physical energy levels.
But perhaps even more taxing than the physical changes my body is adjusting to are the mental changes. Training itself can be quite exhausting. Generally, we sit in classes/sessions from 9 or 10 in the morning until 5 or 6 in the evening. I haven’t had such long days of learning since high school. And we aren’t just learning about how to teach English. We’re also learning about how to keep ourselves safe and healthy here in Ecuador. Hearing about all the hazards we might encounter here has the effect of raising my alertness to an all-time high. Aside from potentially impending natural disasters that we can do nothing about (like the eruption of the currently smoking nearby volcano Cotopaxi), there are innumerable smaller catastrophes that could befall us on a daily basis. Concern over the reality that bacteria from improperly prepared food or water can make us dreadfully sick has me very cautious about what I consume. The near inevitability of being pick-pocked or mugged has me more vigilant than I’ve ever been in my life. Every time I get on a bus or sit down at a restaurant, I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and protecting my backpack with my arms or legs. I am careful to only bring exactly what I need for each day, emptying my purse or backpack of all valuables that aren’t absolutely necessary. Making sure I get home before dusk each day requires thought and planning if I want to do anything after training aside from head directly home. Figuring out which buses will take me close to home when I can’t catch my normal bus is an adventure in and of itself–and I don’t have a smartphone to help me do it. All of these things, from what I eat, to how I get around, to protecting myself from robbery, are things that I never had to really think about before moving here. I knew what places in Berkeley were safe. I knew that I could take any bus from Bancroft Way to get to the train station. I knew which restaurants to eat at, and if for some reason I didn’t, I could always pull up yelp. Now, thinking about these things forms part of my daily reality, and it takes up a surprisingly big chunk of mental space and energy.
Finally, there’s the fact that I am alone in a country where I knew no one prior to my arrival a week ago. There are 24 other volunteers and two field staff members to get to know in additional to my host family of four and their extended family. While I am thrilled to be surrounded by such an incredible bunch of passionate Americans and my very sweet and caring host family, it is quite the task get to know so many people all at once. Add that to the fact that I’m using a foreign language with a huge amount of quiteñismos while attempting to learn about the culture and customs of Ecuadorians, and you have a recipe for exhaustion.
This past Saturday, our group went on a tour of the city, stopping by the beautiful views of the Panecillo, checking out a few churches, and exploring La Ronda and in general getting a feel for the city. When I was about ready to pass out around 2 pm right before our tour of the presidential palace, our assistant field director noticed and said, “About one week in is when the exhaustion hits. You all have been way over-stimulated and it’s no wonder you feel worn out”. I think he was totally right: it had been one week of constant stimulation, and it hit me. Hard. I made it through the tour and promptly fell asleep upon returning home, but that still wasn’t enough rest to restore my severely depleted energy reserves. Cue holing up in my room on my first free day, Sunday.
All in all, though, the exhaustion has been more than worth it. I’ve met some incredibly talented people from diverse backgrounds who I am lucky to have the chance to learn and work with. I’ve gotten to help celebrate my host brother’s birthday, meeting 20 of his relatives and getting up and dancing when the mariachi band came partway through the meal. I’ve tried pig intestines and enjoyed delicious freshly-made fruit juices every morning. I’ve learned and won two rounds of Quito’s card game, cuarenta. I’ve learned so many new words in Spanish already and I can’t wait to see how much I can progress in a year. I might be totally spent by 9 pm every day, but I am so excited to be here and continue to learn and grow. And I’m sure that soon enough, I’ll be back to my energetic and adventurous self–after I acclimate a bit more.