Education in the West has increasingly become focused on memorization, standardized testing and perfect grades, with students primarily being judged on their ability to recite facts and ideas from textbooks, rather than thinking on their own and creating individual paths. This status quo has been preserved for as long as I can remember, but unfortunately it fails to teach and prepare the younger generation for the real world and the challenges that it brings.
In search of a new and enlightening educational approach, and with a determination to show my students cultural diversity and instill in them a new perspective of the world, I planned a 10-day trip to Quito – the marvelous and unmatched capital of Ecuador. While the parents were initially skeptical of what they called “an unorthodox approach” I assured them exploring the heritage, people and cuisine of Quito would be an unforgettable and empowering experience – and I was right.
For starters, Quito is situated in a unique location on the equator of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, literally making it the middle of the world and allowing visitors the mind-blowing experience of being located on both sides at the same time. The equatorial monument, Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (City of the Middle of the World), built in 1836, marks the place where a French mission determined the equatorial line back in the XVIII century, and the Sitio Intiñan Museum and its historical expositions further confirms Quito’s role as a city of cultural heritage.
In between visits to Quito’s vast array of museums and theatres, we took a one day trip to the Mashpi-Guaycuyacu- Saguangal water system and Archaeological Pachijal, an approximately 33 hector protected area of rainforest home to several endangered species and 6 different communities. The beauty of the area did not cease to amaze, and a small picnic by a gazebo created a sensation of tranquility and detachment from the rest of the world. It is so rare we find ourselves in nature and able appreciate what the world has to offer, while imagining and understanding the life of communities so different to our own. Quito in all its natural glory offers the opportunity to see and appreciate a new kind of magic, while bird watching and enjoying the serenity of nature.
The historic center of the city speaks for itself and its uniqueness, warmth, and people left the biggest impression on my students, who wondered down La Ronda, Quito’s ancient bohemian street, interacting with the craftsmen and musicians and immersing themselves in the local foods, purchasing everything from quesadillas to fine crafts made before their eyes. The friendly community, daily manner of business and the emphasis on culture and arts, varied differently from what we had been accustomed to back home, and provided a much-needed change in atmosphere that any visitor of Quito would simply be astounded by and grateful for.
Also located in the heart of the historic district, the Plaza Grande remains the epicenter of Quito’s historical achievements. Since the 16th century, the Plaza has remained the main stage for Quito’s legends and today it is characterized by the city’s Cathedral, Presidential Palace, Municipal Palace and Archbishop’s Palace, making it the prime location to embrace the history of the city. By staring up at the grandiose Independence Monument depicting a wounded lion – which symbolizes the Spanish troops - the country’s emblem, a condor destroying the chains of oppression, towered over by the roman goddess Libertas, holding a torch, one can get a real sense of Ecuador’s proud history. The Plaza and the delightful restaurants and coffee shops it has to offer, allowed us to sit and relax in the square and embrace the history of the city and to discuss our impressions of the middle of the world.
The trip to Quito provided the students with a much valued life lesson about the opportunities the world has to offer and how we should never fail to embrace a new culture different to our own. Thanks to Quito’s cultural heritage, its breathtaking rainforest and moorlands, its food and its kind people, we were able to experience a whole new and beautiful world, one which we could have never learned or understood from a textbook sitting in a classroom. The students came back bearing gifts of spices and lifetime stories, while their parents, suddenly aware of the change that has taken place in their children, have slowly begun planning their own trips to the Ecuadorian capital. For its part, Quito, which is currently a contender for a space on the New 7 Wonders Cities list, should have no trouble attracting new visitors each year, as its unique characteristics and beauty are similar to no other in the world. It is truly here that culture is lived.