Monthly Archives: March 2012

Ecuador! Part Two

Looking up at the city of Quito from the valley underneath

To catch up with the first part of the Ecuador trip, click here.
After a jam-packed few days that included a wedding, pampering, and a road trip, things slowed down. This was mostly because I found myself stricken with the worst stomach bug I’ve ever caught. Monday’s plans were abandoned as I spent the day in various states of distress. I won’t go into detail, but I’ll just dish out one important thing that I learned from the fiasco: if you’re traveling in a new country, and you get a weird feeling about the food – just don’t risk it. No matter how good it smells. No matter how tasty it looks. No matter how cheap it is. No matter how many other people are eating it.

(In the US, my limited samplings of Ecuadorian food had included ceviche prepared by Xavier’s aunt, and a visit to an Ecuadorian restaurant in Charlotte, NC where the food was overwhelmingly Colombian. It seems like Ecuadorian food doesn’t get a lot of love outside of its own country. Once in Ecuador, I was excited to finally try the real stuff. In my excitement, I barely thought twice about stuffing myself with street food and stuff from casual roadside restaurants. Big mistake).

Anyway, by Tuesday afternoon I had somewhat recovered and was ready for limited action. The group of us made a little excursion to Mitad del Mundo, a monument and attraction at the equator. It’s only about thirty minutes from Cumbaya, the suburb of Quito where we were staying.

Looking down the path towards the equator momument

There were many little shops and attractions surrounding the monument. Although we explored an insectarium and some of the shops, the coolest thing by far was the model of Colonial Quito, put together by my friend Catae‘s father-in-law. I met Catae because she is married to Xavier’s best friend – and it was nice to meet her father-in-law and see the model of Quito that I’d heard so much about!

The photo doesn’t do it justice – it’s huge and amazing.

After saying hello, we actually approached the equator. There is a huge painted yellow line that lets you  know whether you’re in the north or south hemisphere.

After you get bored of the novelty of jumping from hemisphere to hemisphere, or standing in both hemispheres at once, you can explore the monument. First, you take an elevator to the top and look around. It was a cloudy and drizzly day, so much of the view was obstructed.

Next, you can explore the museum inside the building. There are artifacts and demonstrations of Ecuadorian life, particularly those of the Indians. My favorite artifact was a shrunken head, which I illegally photographed using flash.
After the museum, we had fun at the little site where you can observe the tangible effects of the equator. Apparently you weigh less at the equator, but when I jumped on the scale to find out, it turned out to be nonsense. Something slightly more rewarding was a little table set up directly on top of the equator, where you could balance an egg on a nail. Don’t ask me how this works, but it was pretty cool. (I will note that the table is splattered with crusty old egg from people who failed to manage the egg-balancing, though).
Afterwards, we got dinner at a small restaurant; everyone else got empanadas, but my still-tender stomach reeled at the thought of anything somewhat unfamiliar, and I could only tolerate french fries. So much for eating healthy!
The next day, we had plans to spend the afternoon at Xavier’s dad’s house. But since I was finally feeling better, Xavier and I took the morning to go exploring. We decided that we wanted to see the colonial city and El Panecillo, the giant statue of the Virgin that overlooks Quito. Finding the route up the mountain to El Panecillo was an adventure in itself, but we saw some pretty sights on the way.
You can see El Panecillo on top of the hill, to the right 
Street kitty
Winding narrow roads overlooking valleys full of homes

Alleyways 
A city built into a mountainside
Finally, after many sets of poor directions, we made it to the top. And eventually, the sun came out!

Colonial Quito 
The next day, we resumed our explorations with a little bit of an adventure. We had originally planned to go to the jungle, but due to time constraints, we decided it would be best to turn a two-day jungle excursion into a zip-lining day trip. As we drove out of Quito, signs of people quickly decreased and the vegetation turned dense and green. The road wound through mountains and jungle. It was immense and beautiful and photographs really don’t do it justice.

Once we reached Mindo, we stopped for a quick lunch and then it was time for ziplining. I’ve ziplined before and always felt that the experience was shorter than I would have liked. There’s so much anticipation! You go through the trouble to put on the gear, you clip into the line, you fly… it’s over in half a second. Well, this zip-lining took place over the course of 13 separate lines in the pouring rain. You could hardly open your eyes with the stinging rain, and the braking glove had no effect on the wet line. Between rides, we hiked through the woods to the next station, becoming more soaking wet. It was really a blast, but for the first time in my life I can say that I wasn’t disappointed when zip-lining was over.
Ziplining – photos stolen from Martha
By the end of the day, we were completely soaked to the bone and exhausted – but it was so much fun. After a couple of days being really sick, it was a relief to see more of Ecuador than its bathrooms.
We still had a couple of days left, so look out for that post shortly!
And I ask you, readers: what’s your best story of travel sickness?
All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted!
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Ecuador! Part One

It’s been a little while since my last post, because I was on vacation! The nine days we spent in Ecuador were amazing. Exploring a new country is always fun, but it was especially cool to see the place where my boyfriend grew up. Here’s what went down.

We arrived late on a Thursday night and spent the first couple of days hanging out with Xavier’s family. On Friday, we attended a family banquet held in honor of his cousin’s wedding. It was a really fun day, and very cool to meet everyone. We feasted on fanesca, a delicious soup that’s only made in the week prior to Easter. It’s made with twelve kinds of grains and beans. Served with plaintains and hard-boiled eggs, it’s incredibly rich. I could have consumed a gallon, but stuck to a single bowl as per everyone’s advice. Apparently it’s so rich it will make you sick. Once we were full, the family members picked up various musical instruments. Between toasts to the happy couple, everyone sang and danced for hours. This was incredibly different from any gathering my own family has ever had, and I loved it.

In between songs, a few of us managed to sneak onto the roof and check out the view of Quito.

Quito in the valley between mountains
Burglar protection

Many homes that I saw in Ecuador are protected from potential robbers by broken glass, fixed by concrete onto the exterior walls and gates. Others have barbed wire or electric fences, but those lack the visual intrigue that I found in the glass.

Come Saturday, it was time to primp: we had a wedding to attend! In preparation, four of us ladies spent the day getting our nails and hair done. It was fun to be pampered, even if the manicurist scoffed at my chewed-up fingernails and rock-toughened skin.

The wedding itself was another awesome experience. None of my close friends are married (although some are engaged – come on, guys, hurry up and plan so we can party!) and I haven’t been to many weddings, but this was definitely something special. The couple held their ceremony in a beautiful church located in colonial Quito: Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.

Interior of the church- via Google images
Although the ceremony was conducted mostly in Spanish, and being a cultural Jew/current atheist I had no idea when to stand up or make various hand gestures, it was very nice. There aren’t any photographs of the evening – we left the camera in the car in our rush to church (wow, “rush to church” is a word combination that I never anticipated finding its way to my blog). Even without photographic evidence, I can categorically state that the party was amazing. From church, the wedding party in its finery walked through the Calles de las Sietes Cruces to the reception hall, eliciting stares and attention from passersby.
Via Google Images
After we arrived, we enjoyed delicious food and tons of champagne before literally dancing the entire night away. Although I’m not much of a dancer, it was hard to resist the Latin beats. A group of dancers in full costume and makeup arrived to pass out feather boas and glittery accessories. It was really a blast. If I ever get married, I want a party in Quito just like that one. Que vivan los casados!
On Sunday morning, we woke up early and set out on a road trip to Ibarra, a town in northern Ecuador. I had really wanted to see it because Xavier had many fond memories of going there as a child. On the way, we made a few stops to snack, take in the scenery, and shop local markets. We stopped as we crossed over the equator, pausing to take a couple of photos at the simple monument.
Modest equator monument
One of the stops we made was in Otavalo, which hosts a beautiful outdoor market featuring tons of hand-crafted goods. You could buy any number of hand-crafted goods.
Outdoor market at Otavalo
Fabrics at Otavalo
Stuffed animals at Otavalo
We also stopped at San Antonio de Ibarra, a little town known for its woodworking. Although we saw some beautiful artwork there, my favorite aspect of the town was its beauty. Whether you looked down the streets or behind the buildings, gorgeous cloud-draped mountains framed the entire town.

Streets of San Antonio de Ibarra
Town square of San Antonio de Ibarra
After lots of wonderful meandering, we found our way to Ibarra. Xavier’s dad said that he thinks Ibarra is the most beautiful city in the world. With its cobblestone streets, Spanish architecture, and mountain-studded backdrop, I just might be inclined to agree with him.

A look down a street in Ibarra
Roofs of Ibarra
We also ate a lot of interesting foods on this day trip – a post is soon to follow about our edible adventures, and their aftermath.
All photos are mine unless otherwise noted!

Eating Well on a Budget

In my dream world, I’d eat at a different restaurant every day, just trying as many different foods as I can. Since that’s not happening anytime soon for both health and financial reasons, it’s a good thing I can cook. We’ve had some great meals on a budget, and I thought I’d share them for anyone else who is hoping to eat well without breaking the bank.

Pardon the shadow.

This is broccoli cheese soup, which I made in an attempt to be better than Panera Bread at everything. It was pretty good, full-flavored but light. The soup’s thick texture came from pureed broccoli, not cream or cornstarch. If you’ve never made this at home, I recommend it! It’s easy, and a much healthier alternative to something that most restaurants pump full of calories.

This is Philadelphia tomato pie, which was a hit both at home and with my coworkers when I brought in leftovers. I got the recipe from Serious Eats. Philadelphia tomato pie is one of those things that you can’t truly appreciate unless you taste it. It just sounds weird. Pizza-like, but thick and doughy crust? No gooey, stringy cheese? But try it, and you’ll be a convert.
This is pretty self-explanatory. If you know me at all, you’ll know that making the best possible pizza at home is something I’ve been working towards for years. I’ve made some tweaks to my dough recipe and cooking method, so I’m getting close. This pie features just tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, and proscuitto. It was awesome.
Here is an iPhone photo of last Sunday’s Asian-themed meal. We’ve got honey-soy lacquered duck, stir-fried asparagus, and citrus ginger rice. This was awesome. Duck is definitely my favorite protein, especially when you sear it so it’s medium rare and really juicy!
And here’s another iPhone photo of another Asian-themed Sunday supper. We’ve got spicy seared tuna, roasted Brussels sprouts, and some plain white rice (yes, we like rice a lot). This was also awesome. (And in the background is the pot and a leaf from the beautiful orchids that surprised me when I got home last week – just had to mention that).

You might be asking how I call these budget meals when they’ve got expensive protein. Well, yes, the duck and tuna were definitely the most costly parts of the dinner. Buying these at a grocery store and preparing them at home is a fraction of the cost of eating the same meal at a restaurant. We just eat more vegetables and enjoy smaller portions of meat.

As for the health factor? Pizza, admittedly, isn’t the healthiest choice… but in this case, it’s not so bad. My pies are exercises in moderation. The crust is thin, not heavy and bready. I use sparse amounts of toppings that add pops of flavor without overwhelming. The ‘worst’ part, the cheese, is lightly scattered: just a piece of the flavor puzzle, not the whole thing. This is not calorie bomb pizza. And just because I don’t have photos of my veggie pies on here doesn’t mean they don’t exist! Furthermore, the meals that we eat are generally very healthy. Even the broccoli-cheese soup that you saw above isn’t bad for you. The dish was 95% broccoli and plain chicken stock; the remaining five percent consists of flour and butter for the thickening roux, and a little bit of cheddar cheese. If you cook with whole, healthy ingredients, a little bit of fat for flavor goes a long way, and you’re still eating light!
Anyway, these are just some of the meals that we’ve been eating lately. Eating at home is a great way to stay on a budget and stay healthy. If you plan it right, you just might end up with better meals than what you’d get at a restaurant. Does anyone want recipes?

Worst blogger ever

Atlanta, dusk – my photo

So much for New Year’s resolutions, right? I started this blog to keep up with my writing and motivate myself to keep working out. Now it’s mid-March, two and a half months into 2012. Let’s do a little review:

– I wanted to write. I wrote a lot in January. In February, I got busy and stopped writing. March has been similarly barren thus far. Grade? Fail.

– Exercise. I wanted to work out at least four times a week. In January I faltered. In February, I ran a lot. Then I began experiencing stabbing pain in my ankles, not just during runs but all the time. I stopped running. But we did start rock climbing, and with that, attending an abs/core class at the gym. I can now climb a 60-foot grade 5.8 route with an incline. Not bad for a beginner. Grade? Pass.

– Learning. I wanted my Spanish to improve, my guitar playing to improve, to learn piano, to take more photographs, to apply to grad school. Well, it’s embarrassing to admit that I haven’t put much effort into any of that. Grade? Epic fail.

I could come up with any excuse in the book to explain how poorly I’ve been doing with my goals. But the truth is, it’s poor time management coupled with constant exhaustion. If we climb four times a week, then come home to prepare and eat dinner, I’m completely spent and will pass out on the couch by 11:30 at the latest. I must be awakened and dragged to bed, lest I spend all evening curled into a back-tweaking crescent shape against the angle of the couch. Also, we’ve been on a mission to eat at home as frequently as possible. There’s no excuse not to: I can cook, and it makes much more financial sense for us at the moment. But food preparation, and then cleaning the kitchen, takes more time and energy. It’s worth it, but between a full day at work, exercising, and then making dinner? There’s not much time for anything else.

Things are somewhat frustrating on the exercise front at the moment. I’ve been working out hard, putting on tons of muscle, and eating very carefully, but I’m stuck in that awkward stage that’s in between muscle addition and fat burning off. So the scale hasn’t changed a bit. My clothes aren’t fitting better yet. I’m trying not to be discouraged, but it’s hard to stay positive when I feel like my hard work hasn’t paid off. I am trying to focus on the fact that I feel stronger, better. And I know that muscle weighs more than fat, so the fact that the scale has stayed the same while my arms are jacked and a serious six-pack has taken up residence under my belly fat means that I have to have lost something. But it’s tough.

On a brighter note, climbing is awesome. I’ve been having so much fun! It’s so incredible to think about how far we’ve come in just a month. When we first set foot in Stone Summit, we were limited to the bouldering room. Bouldering is ropeless climbing, where the climber follows routes set along a 10-15 foot wall. It’s highly dependent on endurance and brute strength, and you spend a lot of time using your arms to hoist yourself up and do crazy moves across the wall. The routes are rated in difficulty from V0, which is basically a staircase set onto the wall, to much harder ones (V14, I think is the toughest). As the route difficulty increases, the holds are smaller, farther apart, harder to grasp, and set onto tricky slopes.

Where we started

At first, I could barely ascend a V0. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the route that held me back. My issue was mostly in the comfort level of the climb, and my fear of heights. When you’re scared of heights, leaving the ground in any capacity is a challenge!  But I kept at it, and eventually I was able to reach the top of the wall and scamper down quickly.

After a couple of weeks, Xavier and I took a belaying class so we could learn how to top-rope and climb on the larger walls in the gym. Ever since, we’ve been having a blast. This type of climbing requires more endurance than brute strength, so there are many more options for us. We started on the easy walls, just to get the feel for it. Now, we’ve progressed to some of the more challenging routes. As I climb, I’m realizing that I’m doing things that I couldn’t do last month – lift my entire body weight with one arm, for example. I feel much more comfortable on the wall, and am having a great time. The panic still sets in sometimes, like when I look down from 50 feet up and my arms are so tired that I can barely hang on. But I know that I’m perfectly safe with Xavier belaying me, and that helps me to make it up and reach that last hold. It’s a really cool feeling.

Where we climb now- well, not the upside-down parts yet.

The only problem I’m having with climbing is that my hands are becoming very tough and callused. It’s not exactly conducive to shaking hands, giving massages, or really touching anyone without hurting them. Fortunately, my boyfriend’s hands are the exact same way, so I think he understands.

Does anyone have a story to share about their own mental blocks while exercising?  How do you stay positive when your hard work has resulted in your jeans still feeling quite uncomfortable?

Rock and roll!

I climb like this monkey now!

All right, it’s official. I am terrible at blogging. While I started with a burst of confidence and inspiration, my eagerness to post has quickly fallen to the wayside as I accomplished some of the goals that I wanted to blog about (obviously not the writing one).

Great news, though. My goal to find a form of exercise that I love? Achieved. Rock climbing is awesome. In the days since I last posted about joining the gym, many things have happened. First, we’ve been climbing at least three times a week. Second, my fear of heights has rapidly diminished. I can ascend to the top of a 15-foot bouldering route, slap the top of the wall, and climb down. Admittedly, when I reach the top and look at the ground so far away, I am completely overcome with the impulse to get down as soon as possible. But I’m much more comfortable climbing than I’ve ever been before.

There are a few interesting classes at the gym, and we’ve made a habit of attending “Abs Class.” It’s held once a week, which is just about all I can handle. In 45 minutes, we are led through a combination of core strength building, yoga poses, and intense ab workouts. The sweat starts pouring about ten minutes in, and doesn’t stop. I love it! Even after two weeks’ worth of courses, my abs are approaching rock hard status. The only problem is that they’re hidden under a layer of Ben & Jerry’s and Antico pizzas that I couldn’t say no to. But they exist!

We were able to make the leap from bouldering to actual climbing this week, which was fun. At Stone Summit, you need to pass a safety test before you’re allowed to climb on the massive walls. We took a belaying class last week, learning about safety, knots, and accidental falls. The class was fun but there were some incidents. I was belaying for another student in the class, and as I lowered him to the ground, my hand got too close to the metal device that controls the rope. The feeling of the skin between thumb and index finger getting simultaneously sucked into a metal chamber and rope-burned is not one that I ever want to repeat. If not for Xavier and the instructor jumping on the rope and pulling it out as hard as they could, my hand would be pretty messed up.

Despite the adversity, we apparently performed quite well in the class, and were able to pass the belaying test last Sunday. So we’ve been climbing on the real rock walls all week. That has been pretty awesome, and strangely addictive. It’s also been a good reason why my blogging has dropped down so drastically: I’m exhausted all the time. After work, we’ll rush over to the gym, and climb for a couple of hours. By the end, my forearms are burning so badly that I can barely open up my laptop, much less type. Most nights, I fall asleep on the couch before making it to bed. But it’s been so much fun that I don’t mind.

In other news, I’m really excited because we are approaching the first spring in my adult life where I live in a house with a backyard and can plant a garden. The only limitation? It’s kind of a small backyard, the soil is rocky, and I’m going to be sticking to containers. Still, I am approaching this activity with extreme enthusiasm. My little seedlings have already begun germination in the guest room of our house. If all goes well, we will be feasting upon Padron peppers, jalapenos, heirloom tomatoes, grape tomatoes, and tons of herbs this summer. Baby steps, but for a first year, I’m going to take it slow.

This was a terrible update but I’m pretty excited to go climbing this afternoon, so it’s going to end here. Hope everyone is having a great weekend!