I LOVE CUENCA!!!
Not that I didn't love Quito, but the two are very, very different. Quito is so big and everything is so spread out that was very difficult for me to feel like I really knew the city. Cuenca on the other hand is smaller and quaint and I already feel like I know what I'm doing. This however, did not happen from the very beginning as you will soon find out.
I took an overnight bus from Quito to Cuenca and tried to sleep the entire way because I knew I'd have a long day ahead once I arrived. Tip for future travelers, Ecuador is VERY COLD in the middle of the night. Like around 35-40 degrees cold. So if you are on an overnight bus, take a hint from every single local person around you and bring a blanket. This would have been a perfect opportunity for me to use the alpaca blanket I bought in Otavalo, but alas, I had it packed away in my luggage under the bus and shivered my self in and out of sleep the whole trip.
I arrived in Cuenca and a friendly worker allowed me to use his phone to call my pick-up person to let her know I had arrived since I am too stubborn to rent an Ecuadorian phone. I was picked up no problem and swept away to my very incredible host family! We live just outside of the main city which means I have to take a bus into school and to the orphanage, but that's ok because it is very inexpensive (25 cents a trip) and I get to see the city and eavesdrop on the local conversation which is my favorite hobby. The Spanish here is really beautiful. It's a little quicker and more difficult to understand than the language in Quito, but I haven't had any problems. The locals have a very distinct rhythm to their speech which other people describe as "sing-song." To me, it doesn't sound like they're singing but it is definitely as notable as an Italian rhythm is.
This is the third time I've lived with a host family and the first time that I've been in a big house with big family instead of an apartment. My host mom has three daughters (age 11, 18, and 21) and one grandson who is two years old. The girls' dad comes to eat dinner with us some nights and is also so incredibly kind and welcoming. My house seriously looks like a set of a telenovela with a big winding staircase, people everywhere, and beautiful marble floors; its awesome!
After I got settled in Cuenca, I was picked up again for an orientation of the city. My coordinator Jessica showed me how to get into the city by bus and all of the notable markets, churches, and need-to-know places throughout the town. The city is surrounded by four rivers and its laid out on a grid pattern, so (now that I know it) it's fairly easy to orient myself.
After orientation, I went back to the school for a tour of the historical houses in Cuenca. Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage city because of a lot of the older buildings here, so it was really interesting to learn about that and also meet some people from the school. Cuenca is also the number one foreign destination for retired Americans, so many of the students at my school are older people. That's not so bad, but it does mean that I didn't make as many fast friends like I did in Quito.
After the tour, I was so proud of myself for finding the correct bus home, that I didn't realize it was going the wrong way!! I started to realize that the bus was taking longer than it should have, so I asked the bus driver when my stop was and he told me it would be another 50 minutes or so. I had taken the correct bus in the complete opposite direction!! What should have been a 10 minute trip turned into an hour and a half. But bright side - I know now to never do that again and I got a quick tour of the city for only 25 cents. To make things even funnier, just as I started to worry that my host mom would be worried that I was late for dinner - she got on the same bus I did with dinner ingredients in hand! It was such a coincidence and she made sure that I got off at the right stop to avoid any more confusion :)
After finally getting to sleep more than 8 hours, yesterday morning I got to start my volunteer work in the orphanage! It is a little bit outside of the city and the bus ride takes about 40 minutes. Since most of my correspondence before I came was with my school in Quito and not Cuenca, it seems like there was some miscommunication about what the orphanage is really all about. I was told that it was an orphanage for girls aged 0-18, but really its for boys and girls from 0-5. This is really no problem at all for me, I'm fine working with whatever age/gender, but I really only have donations for girls ages 8-18 maybe and a lot of school supplies. But no worries, there is another orphanage in town where I will bring the leftovers after I let Tadeo Torres (my orphanage) pick through everything that they can use!
The orphanage is run by two nuns, a few full time workers, a long term intern, and a handful of short term volunteers like me. It's split up into two sections, the babies and the older kids. Since I'm really the only volunteer that speaks Spanish all that well, I get to work with the older kids. They're from around 2 years old until 5, but we do have one 9 year old girl as well. Kid language is hard for me to understand in English, let alone Spanish, because I don't have a ton of experience working with little kids and they really just sound like they're making high pitched mumbling and screeching sounds rather than words. So its definitely a challenge, but I've found myself getting a little better each day at understanding what the heck they're talking about. Also, I have to be super quick and on my toes with my own Spanish, because if I think too long about what to say they'll just continue doing whatever it is that I'm trying to stop or run away or whatever, so its definitely helping my spoken Spanish as well.
The kids are super nice, cuddly, crazy, rambunctious, and everything else you would expect little kids to be. Each one cries about three times a day, and its basically my job to run around and make sure that they're not actually crying from pain when they run into each other on their bikes or fall off the swings combined, with a lot of forced nose blowing. I'm trying to play with each one a little bit every day and learn their names as quick as possible. It's tough though because there are about 23 of them and many are in and out of classes, speech therapy, social work, with a psychologist, and other random activities throughout the day, so I don't always see everyone while I'm there.
Today, we took a bus to a park that's right by my house and it was so much fun! The kids loved being able to play on the park equipment that they don't have at the orphanage, like the monkey bars. There are also a ton of stray dogs around the city and the kids were fascinated by this one that was passed out sleeping right near our area. It was all fine and calm until one of them (lightly) kicked the dog and it chased us around the entire park. It was all very dramatic.
Aside from that, the kids are super well behaved, especially when we left the orphanage. They all get in straight lines and hold hands whenever we leave or walk from the yard to the dining room or wherever. This morning, however, as soon as I got there, the kids ran into the laundry room where they are not allowed to try and sneak some TV time, thinking that I didn't know they couldn't be in there. Of course no one listened to me when I said to leave and that they would regret it, until I called over one of the nuns and they all ran out like the place was on fire! Muahahaha that's right kiddos, I'm in charge!
That's really all I can think of for right now!! This afternoon, I went on a tourist bus tour of the city which was awesome, but I'm still going though all of those pictures so I'll write about that later. Thank you all so much for reading my blog! I love doing this because it forces me to sit back and reflect on my day a little bit at a time, and it's also a great souvenir for me to remember what I've been up to, so I'm very grateful to have an audience. This trip has been so incredible because I feel like I'm making a lot of progress with my Spanish because I'm using it in so many new contexts, but also because I'm able to give back to this community in a very fun and tangible way. Thank you all for your love and support, it truly means the world to me! Hasta luego! :)