Monday, July 26, 2010

¿Dónde está Machala?

Okay, so I often get asked where exactly in Ecuador I'll be living. It's not exactly a country that most people know well, and it doesn't help that I'm going to be residing in a city that's quite off the beaten tourist path, as it were. Hence, I present a short study of Machala, Ecuador.

First of all, where is Machala located? It is in the far south coastal region of Ecuador, on the Gulf of Guayaquil, about 60 km from the border with Peru. The province in which it is situated is known as El Oro Province (yes, the gold province).
If you search for information on Machala almost anywhere, one particular distinction pervades: Machala's status as the "Banana Capital of the World." Take a look at the stickers on the bananas in your fridge. They may very well say "product of Ecuador." If they do, then it is highly likely that those bananas were produced somewhere in the region around Machala. Come October, Machala even hosts a beauty pageant searching for the World "Banana Queen." Seriously. Girls come from all over the world to compete and it is apparently quite the big deal. Coffee and cocoa are are also important, but less ubiquitous to Machala's identity.

Despite the banana lore, Machala is not really a city of tourists. Few make the trip so far south, and if they do, it is often only as an overnight en route to Peru. In addition, it is quite isolated. Ten hours from Quito by bus, it is closer to many Peruvian cities than other Ecuadorian cities. It's not a huge city either - I couldn't find a solid statistic but the population seems to be somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000. I think that's a good size, though. Growing up in Tillsonburg, I'm just glad that I get to live in an actual city instead of a small town.

I am so happy that I got placed in Machala. From what I have been told, it is quite the shocking cultural experience to be plunked down in a city where few speak English and foreigners rarely penetrate. I think it will be good to get an unadultered version of Ecuadorian culture, away from the beautiful colonial cathedrals maybe, but deep in the heartland of an incredible country.

P.S: 25 dias until I leave for Ecuador!


Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Visa Chronicles: Conclusion

Just a brief update to say that I officially have my Ecuadorian visa! I picked it up at the consulate this morning. That was the last "official" thing to take care of before my departure, so I guess now it's just a waiting game.

On a side note, I also went to a flag store in Kensington Market this morning and bought a giant Ecuadorian flag.

I'm flying down to California tomorrow evening and I'll be gone on vacation for 10 days. When I get back, there will only be 25 days until I depart for Ecuador! Life is exciting!


Friday, July 2, 2010

The Visa Chronicles

I need to learn to call places to make sure they will be open before I leave home.

Common sense should have told me that the Ecuadorian consulate in Toronto might possibly have been closed during the G20. But having checked their website and realizing that the building was outside of the exclusion zone and Ecuador wasn't part of the G20 anyway, I went ahead and drove the 2 hours into Toronto (3 actually, with road closures and traffic) without placing the all-important phone call. Good call, Maddy, good call. I arrived at the consulate building bright and early in the morning, documents in briefcase, briefcase in hand, only to be informed by a security guard that the Ecuadorian consulate was closed for the G20 summit.

Not my finest hour, I'll be first to admit. I am impossibly absent-minded and my talent with handling the more bureaucratic aspects of life is pretty limited.

That was the Friday before last. The next Wednesday I made the trip to Toronto for a second time (having called the day before just to be sure) and actually got my visa application submitted. Ecuador is one of the easier countries for which to obtain a visa (especially compared to Europe, from what I've heard), and my experience at the consulate definitely reflected this. I walked into the building (a very posh address on Bloor Street only about 100 metres from the Royal Ontario Museum), up the elevator, down the hall, and into a single office. There was a small waiting room with a few chairs and a giant flag and not much else. I walked up to the counter, told the lady at the desk that I needed to apply for a cultural exchange visa, handed over my guarantee forms, my passport, a police check, a doctor's certificate, some passport-sized photos, and the single-page application form which I had previously printed from the consulate's website. I paid my $80 USD (a trifle for a visa), collected my pick-up slip, and walked right out. That was the extent of the application process. It couldn't have taken more than 8 minutes in total.

By the time my elevator arrived at the ground floor, I realized something. The pick-up date for my visa was scheduled for July 15th. I am leaving for a family vacation in California on July 16th. Which wouldn't be a big deal, except that the consulate has possession of my passport while they process the visa. And I need my passport to get into the United States for my vacation. As long as they really do get my visa processed by the date they say, I'll be fine. My dad is driving me into Toronto on the 15th. I just hope that the Ecuadorian bureaucracy doesn't fail me now.

The whole applying-for-the-visa thing just makes this whole process seem so much more real. I mean, every hallmark (being accepted to the program, having my first orientation, finding out my host country, getting my guarantee forms, booking my plane ticket...) makes it seem just that much more real, but now it's truly getting down to the wire. I leave in only 7 weeks (!!!), and I've truly never been more excited about anything in my entire life, but of course I'm starting to become just ever-so-slightly nervous as well. I'm also really excited for my fellow outbounds to start departing though (I'm one of the last in my district to leave), so I can read about their adventures as I prepare for my own. This is such a crazy and unpredictable experience but I'm so glad that I have this opportunity. I'm preparing for lots of the unknown in the next few months, both pleasant and unpleasant, but for now I'm just going to enjoy the sense of anticipation and my last few weeks in Canada. Until next time!