Travel · Uncategorized

Finding the City of the Incas

No, that header photo above is not a stock image.

When I travel, I usually scour travel blogs and review sites online to learn as much as I can about a given destination before I arrive. The planning is half of the fun. Sometimes, seeing things in person can be disappointing compared to the fantasy you’ve created for yourself after years of movies, newspaper articles, and hearing stories about a certain “bucket list” destination. Like, what do you mean, the Mona Lisa is that small? I can’t even see if she’s smiling or not over the hoard of tourists! But.

But the views of Machu Picchu were absolutely not like that. That iconic shot you see above? It’s even more beautiful when you see the jungled mountain ridges surrounding it from every angle, like this –

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Matt and I decided to climb the 1,000+ steps to the ridge overlooking the citadel. This experience is where my expectation – wiping the sweat off my brow after being one of the first to arrive at the famed ruins, smiling as I took in the sunrise views – began to diverge from reality. In reality, I had spent the past two nights collapsing immediately in bed following our hikes, skipping dinner due to the overwhelming nausea and migraines I was experiencing, and nearly passing out when I attempted a shower.

Yet, I woke up at 3:30AM, strapped on my hiking boots, and insisted on finishing out the hike. We were one of the first people in line at the entrance (doors open at 5AM, and we got there early to hopefully be one of the first to ascend). So when I thought I would vomit, faint, and have my legs collapse all at once during each of those 1,000 steps, it felt like the entire population of Peruvian backpackers were passing us along the way. Matt should win an Oscar for his “I’m-not-annoyed” face when I asked to sit down and take a break approximately every other switchback.

I persisted. When we arrived at the top, we were the last ones to summit, and our guide looked surprised to see me on the stairs. No wonder – Matt had spent the night before attending the planning meeting on his own, and running all across Aguas Calientes in the rain to secure a morning bus ticket for me, just in case.

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Triumphant outside our favorite shady hideaway

Once we made it to the top, I had a second wind from the exhilaration of finally making it to the beautiful site, after all that hiking and dreaming for years past. We soaked it in and took photos of ourselves, sweaty, tired, and messy-haired from hiking after an early wake-up call. Not the Instagram-perfect photos I’d seen on social media before, but nonetheless perfectly representing the moment. After our guide gave us a rundown on the site and left us to explore on our own, Matt and I decided to split up. He went to explore the Sun Gate with a few other travelers from our group, I went to find a shady place for a quick nap, since I could feel my illness coming back on.

I woke up in the blazing sun of early morning, feeling dehydrated and weak. I slowly made my way back to the entrance – regretting every stair I descended, knowing I’d have to head back afterwards – in search of a water bottle. Unfortunately, my water-bottle excursion (which took nearly 45 minutes at my sick snail’s pace) coincided with Matt’s return to our rendezvous point. We eventually found one another, just as I was reaching a point of desperation. In my heightened state, that hour and a half of separation felt longer than the six months we had just spent apart.

We still had three hours left on our ticket after that, so we spent the rest of the time exploring the ruins at our own pace, happy to be reunited and exploring the ruins together. We eventually ran into and met up with our larger trekking group, who helped sneak us to the front of the bus line back down the mountain. To say goodbye to our Peruvian adventures, we shared huge pizzas and pisco sours at an extra-touristy restaurant. We managed to make it off the mountain just as the formerly cloudless sky erupted into a sudden rainforest downpour, covering everything in site with a thick fog. Despite my exhaustion that morning, if we had arrived any later, we likely wouldn’t have seen anything at all.

The rest of the photos speak for themselves, so I’ll share them below:

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Last looks before heading back to the bus
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Matt and our new Italian trekking buddy
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It looked so beautiful from every angle
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Aguas Calientes is somewhere down there
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Reconstructed homes – about 750 people once lived here
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Heading up to the Temple of the Sun
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Huayna Picchu
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Walking into the city itself

I hope you enjoyed my vacation photos and stories! I won’t be heading outside of Ecuador/the United States again until at least May, so until then, expect updates from my different projects here in Cuenca!

 

Berkeley · Peace Corps · site · Social Issues · Uncategorized

Help Make College a Reality!

I’m taking a quick break from my vacation recap posts to share a project that I’m currently working on and very excited about. You can find the Go Fund Me Page here.

As many of you know, being a campus ambassador was the highlight of my time as an undergraduate. I loved showing prospective students around UC Berkeley – inspiring hope that they, too, could attend the #1 public university in the world. Growing up in a rural area, as a high schooler I felt that Berkeley was out of reach, but thanks to amazing mentors like my AP English teacher, Ms. Frediani, I made it to Cal. Once I became an undergraduate, I shared that same enthusiasm and courage with those I encountered on my tours.

At my first site in Ecuador, I lived in El Chaco, a rural community in the Amazon that relied on cattle-farming, small businesses and a Chinese-controlled hydroelectric plant to get by. I worked regularly with high schoolers who were enthusiastic about attending university. But for the majority, they didn’t have college-graduate family members or role models to guide them through the expensive-sounding, scary process of living away from home for the first time in a culture that highly values family unity. Thus, they stayed home and started a family of their own at young ages, stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Now that I live in Cuenca, a major city with some of the best universities in the country, I have the opportunity to give 58 students from RPCV Dave Goucher’s former site and current home the opportunity teenagers in El Chaco didn’t have. We will visit four universities in my site. College visits aren’t the norm here – it’s not like Berkeley, where someone could call me or another Campus Ambassador up at the Visitor Center, and I would book their senior class for a visit – we had to go through rounds of paperwork, meetings with the university deans, and more just to make this possible.

For these 58 students, many of them will be leaving the jungle for the first time…despite Cuenca being only four hours away. The average family in San Juan Bosco lives on just $200/month, or less than $7 a day for a family of four. To put that in perspective, I make 2.5x that amount as a “poor” Peace Corps volunteer that provides only for herself.

Please help me share the life-changing opportunity – one that we took for granted at Berkeley, and in the United States – of discovering that college can be a reality for these students. Just $10 provides enough funds for a night in a hotel and breakfast the following day. To donate, you can find the Go Fund Me Page here.

Travel · Uncategorized

Salkan-trek

For my ongoing vacation photo journal, I wanted to share some highlights from the Salkantay 4 day trek to Machu Picchu Matt and I did during our time in Cusco. Hiking up to the “lost” Incan city of Machu Picchu has been a dream of mine ever since I first heard that was a possibility – probably in one of the National Geographic Kids magazines we used to read in elementary school.

This is my second to last vacation post – since Machu Picchu was such a major bucket list item for me, as it is for many people, I reserved it a blog post of it’s own – for my ongoing vacation recap, and then it’s back to the real world and hearing about the actual Peace Corps projects I’ve been working on! A few of them are really picking up steam this week, so I’m excited to report back on my results soon.

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Preparing to leave for the trek, still feeling confident

I bought the green Machu Picchu baseball camp before I left for the trip as inspiration to help me get through the walk. I wanted to “earn” the cap through my Fitbit-record-breaking-steps (if I owned a FitBit…) so I wore it every day as a reminder of what I was working towards. The trek totaled about 45 miles, which didn’t sound like much when we set out, but we quickly realized how much effort the altitude added on to that mile count.

Behind me is the group of German travelers I would go on to befriend during the long uphill journey to the Salktantay Pass – while Matt enjoyed his easy mule ride up to the top, his reward for chickening out.

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Heading towards the Salkantay Pass our second morning
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Matt suited up to head out on the trail

This trek was Matt and I’s first backpacking experience. Luckily for us, it wasn’t a “true” backpacking trip, and we had a good amount of creature comforts along the way. We were able to give 5 kilograms of items to be carried by mule to the next destination – our sleeping bags and a small amount of clothing, and little stands like the one behind Matt in this photo sold water every 4-5 hours along the way.

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Afternoon trek to Humantay Lake
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Humantay Lake beneath us, we witnessed small avalanches off the mountains in the background
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Lake Humantay
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Matt’s views from the mule up to the Salkantay Pass

The second day of the trek is the hardest day, when we woke up at 4:30AM to prepare ourselves to hike up to the Salkantay Pass. The pass is higher than any mountain in the continental United States at over 15,000 feet high. I had some pre-acclimatization thanks to living in Cuenca at an altitude of 8,400 feet at site. Matt, on the other hand, lives at sea level in San Francisco and struggled with headaches and breathing. He decided to take a mule up to the top, which left me to face the pass on my own.

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Triumphant at the peak of the pass

I made it to the top! The enthusiasm of three fit European guys who grew up climbing like mountain goats through the Alps helped me keep up the energy to make it to the summit. In our group of about 15, there were only three other girls to begin with, and I was the only one who managed to hike to the top.

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Our full tour group posing at the pass
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Once we arrived at the pass, the clouds rolled in and the weather took a turn for the worst
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We dodged pack mules all the way down into the cloud forest, where we would sleep that night

After we summited the pass, Matt was full of energy due to taking a break from hiking that morning, and my Alps friends didn’t seem to be able to tire from hiking. The five of us decided to race the pack mules down the other side of the mountain, and arrived at our lunch spot a full two and a half hours before the rest of our group. And we didn’t arrive a second too early – as soon as the lunch tents were in sight, the fog turned into a violent, cold, rainy downpour. We waited for the rest of our group to show up by playing briscola, a traditional Italian card game, and cuarenta, a game I introduced from Ecuador.

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A little calico far away from my calico, Mayu, at home in Cuenca
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Puppies at the hacienda

When we finally arrived at our second night of camping, we enjoyed beers, puppies and cats with good company. I was able to take the first hot shower of the trip before anyone else, thanks to being the first girl down the mountain. But as soon as I exited the shower, I started to feel violently ill, nauseous and weak, likely due to overexertion. I went to sleep at 4PM and didn’t get out of bed again until our 4:30AM wake-up call the next day.

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Cloud forest views on the third day of hiking

The third day was our final day before arriving at Machu Picchu, and it went through the cloud forests at a lower altitude. The sickness had stuck strong from the night before, and I didn’t take many photos this day. I was mostly concentrating on trying not to vomit or faint. Luckily, I somehow managed to complete both those goals. I was determined to stick it out for the entire hike, and when I considered bailing and taking the train for the last portion of the day, we missed the last train by just 5 minutes, and was forced to hike anyways.

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Celebratory and ready for the next day at base camp

Machu Picchu pictures are up next! Stay tuned.

 

Travel · Uncategorized

The Center of the Universe

According to Incan lore, their historical capital Cusco is the center of the universe. In the north, they also predicted that Quito was in the middle of the world. Since we now know that the equatorial line is just a few miles north of Quito, maybe they weren’t too far off about the role of Cusco, either.

Regardless, it was a city that took your breath away. Both because of the colonial architecture and its altitude – 3,399 m above sea level, a marked difference from the seaside capital of Lima we’d spent the past few days in. Since Cuenca stands at 2,560 m above sea level, my lungs had a distinct advantage over Matt’s San Francisco baseline, but we both struggled exploring the hilly historical city.

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Some of the rocks still used as foundations in the historical center are actually part of the original Incan structures

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My current Peace Corps site, Cuenca, is built upon the northern Incan stronghold of Tumebamba, with the ruins still visible at the Pumapongo museum just three blocks from my apartment. The Ruinas de Todos Santos, the other archaeological site, is even closer, and I pass by it every day on my commute to my counterpart organization.

Cusco’s mix of Incan history, beautiful colonial architecture, views of the Andean mountains in the background reminded me a lot of my new home in Cuenca. Although its clear that Cusco has experienced more wealth in the time, with grander cathedrals and larger ruins, I found myself missing my favorite Cuenca cobblestoned streets and looking forward to coming home and sharing stories with my Ecuadorian friends here.

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The church behind me, Santo Domingo, was built on top of the Incan Qurikancha or Temple of the Sun
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Overlooking the city from our Airbnb balcony
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Busy streets close to the main Plaza de las Armas square
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Matt overlooking Cusco after a steep hike to meet our tour agency
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Cheering on Cienciano Cusco’s soccer team
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Cusco’s beautiful soccer field

Matt and I picked up tickets to a local soccer team during our free afternoon acclimatising to the Cusco altitude. The next day, we would be heading out at 3:30AM for the start of our Salkantay Trek. They won handily (7-2), but it was fun to see their beautiful stadium in use and enjoy street food from local vendors.

Cusco’s official city flag is a seven layered rainbow, with their stadium seats reflecting that imagery. During our 3 hour walking tour of the historical center, our guide explained that the flag was adopted just before the LGBTQ+ movement in San Francisco adopted it themselves, although both decisions happened in the late 1970s. You can differentiate the Cusqueña flag from the Pride flag by its extra stripe – the Pride flag only sports six different colors.

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The main cathedral in Plaza de las Armas

Does something look familiar? The fountain that I’m sitting at was a gift from New York City, and is a sister fountain to the one in Central Park near the boathouse.

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Mosaic map of Cusco

After leaving Cusco, we headed out bright and early for our four day hike to Machu Picchu! The views were incredible throughout the entire journey, so stay tuned for those updated coming up next.

Travel · Uncategorized

Boarding in the Sand Dunes

We had a 2 night, 3 day getaway in an oasis in the middle of the desert, Huacachina. I had never been to a proper desert biome before, and was so excited to see the giant sand dunes with my own eyes. So with my best Indiana Joan outfit, Matt and I hopped on the bus from Lima and headed towards Ica. We had a hard time figuring out which of Peru’s many different bus companies was the best – unlike smaller Ecuador, I didn’t know exactly how to head to the nearest Terminal Terrestre and find my way to any corner of the country.

We settled on Cruz Del Sur, which was straight up first-class compared to my usual bumpy Ecuadorian rides along the Pan-American highway. They served us breakfast with coffee (it even had the option to have no sugar!) and Matt and I had our own private TV screens to enjoy movies in English or Spanish. I couldn’t believe it, and sent about 20 WhatsApp messages to all my fellow PCVs back in Cuenca.

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Hiking through the dunes at dusk our fist night in Huacachina
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These little things were the primary mode of transportation

These tiny little mototaxis were all. over. Ica. They were jerry-rigged motocycles turned into mini cars, which what looked to be questionable safety standards. Because Matt and I had a lot of luggage with us and were skeptical of one of these safely being able to carry us just 15 minutes from Ica to Huacachina, we opted to wait for a regular taxi to head into the oasis.

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The lights of Ica with the Huacachina oasis on the left

Matt and I hiked up the sand dune behind our hostel (aptly named Desert Nights) to enjoy our first evening in Huacachina. Because we had spent the afternoon going Pisco tasting to experience the typical liquor of Ecuador in the region where its grown, we were stumbling a bit on the long, sandy walk up.

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Enjoying the sunset from the top of the sand dune
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Sandboarding! The highlight we’d been waiting for.

The main event of any trip to Huacachina is the sandboarding. Think a blend of snowboarding (the shape of our sandboard) and sledding (because we were too afraid to stand up, and stuck to sitting or lying down positions).

For our full day there, we waited until the sun had started to go down, around 3PM, before heading out to meet our vehicle. There was six other tourists packed in with us, and we went dune-buggying up and down the giant dunes, strapped in with our seatbelts as tight as we could make them. It felt just like the real-life version of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Luckily, there was no giant ball trailing quickly behind us.

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Sitting on top of the buggies after a successful day in the desert.
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Relaxing poolside on a sunny morning

Desert Nights, the hostel we chose to stay at, was a glamping-style place with large white tents as our home for the stay. The pool also featured a swim-up bar that served everything from ice cream sundaes to nachos. We spent our morning relaxing there, which turned out to be a huge mistake – despite applying sunscreen, I had a deep sunburn with bright red legs and stomach for the rest of the trip.

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One of the other dunebuggys out on the reservation
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Matt at the Pisco Distillery

Pisco tasting was also fascinating. We had been wine tasting together in California’s Napa Valley, and knew the process of going from grape to wine, but we had no idea how similar pisco was to that process. Pisco Sours are the national drink of Peru (yet nearly impossible to find in Ecuador!) so we learned quite a bit about them throughout our two weeks there.

First, the grapes are grown and harvested just as if they were making wine out of them. Actually, you could even buy the pisco-grape wine! For my taste, it was far too sweet, and I preferred the liquor version. Once the wine was ready, it was boiled off, and the leftover vapor, as it cooled into liquid again, was the pisco they would bottle up to sell.

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One of the two distilleries we toured on our trip

After Lima and Huacachina, we flew up to Cusco! Stay tuned for photos from our high-altitude adventure hiking the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.

 

Travel · Uncategorized

Lima, Peru

Side note – happy election day, America! I hope anyone reading this on the day it’s published has already gone out and voted. I turned in my mail-in ballot a few weeks ago, and double-checked this morning to confirm it had been counted in my home county.

I’m excited to share photos from my trip to Peru with you all next! Like my previous posts, this will be photo-heavy, with some text for explanation. During our Peru trip, we visited Lima, Huacachina, Cusco and Machu Picchu. Because each of these locations was so stunning, I’m going to dedicate a short blog to all of the destinations. This trip was also my first reunion with my long-distance boyfriend, Matt, since I had been home on medical evacuation during the spring, so I was excited to spend quality time together when I wasn’t also focused on my recovery.

The highlight of the four days we spent in Lima was a dinner we shared with Matt’s great-aunt and her extended family. His grandmother was born in Lima, but Matt had never had the opportunity to visit his cousins in Peru previously. Having the opportunity to enjoy a homemade dinner at their apartment was an amazing opportunity to experience the culture of Peru and better understand the day-to-day life of a family there. Because not all of the family spoke Spanish, I also enjoyed the opportunity to practice the Spanish I’d learned in Ecuador with them and play the role as translator when Matt needed help.

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First serving at Maido

To celebrate our reunion, Matt and I splurged on the tasting menu at Maido, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant that serves a fusion of our two favorite cuisines, even though it was way out of my normal Peace-Corps-Volunteer stipend budget. Since I live dutifully to my stipend at site, I didn’t mind splurging a bit on my international vacation. Plus, the food was phenomenal; it was such a unique experience to dine at the top-ranked restaurant in Latin America.

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Ceviche almuerzo in the market outside of Miraflores

On the other side of the spectrum, Lima’s casual food scene also exceeded our expectations. This was the ceviche first course for our $3 almuerzo deal at the daily market near our Airbnb, complete with Tang served in personal-sized pitchers to drink.

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We stayed near the John F Kennedy “Cat Park” in Miraflores, where cat-spotting opportunities abound
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Parque del Amor in Miraflores
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Fittingly, our Airbnb was just two blocks away from the Malecon – overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Lima’s famous “love park”. The park’s style was inspired by Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Guell in Barcelona. Although I’ve never visited Barcelona, I instantly recognized the mosaic style.

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The gardens outside of Museo Larco

We spent our last day in Lima diving into Museo Larco. The museum showcases pre-Columbian Peruvian art, with hundreds of ceramics and metalwork on display. I got my nose pierced at my site here in Cuenca a few weeks ago with a small stud, and can’t imagine wearing the heavy-looking royal Incan jewelry pictured above.

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Views of the Malecon in Lima

 

Uncategorized

Midservice Training

In Ecuador at around the one-year mark of Peace Corps service, all of the volunteers from your training group return to Quito for a week-long conference. The goal of the conference is to present on your accomplishments over the past year, plan for the upcoming year, and share best-practices with your cohort or omnibus.

I created a video and this short Google Drive presentation that you all are welcome to view if interested! I’m attaching the text from the presentation below so that you all can see what I had planned throughout the past year:

Counterpart Organizations 2017-2018

GADM – Patronato: El Chaco, Aug 2018-March 2019

Organization: The Patronato provides social services and support for the rural Amazon canton

 

  • Club, Camp, and 4 Mini-Summits for GLOW/BRO
    • Four unique for high schoolers ages 13-17 at the high schools in El Chaco and Santa Rosa
    • Camp co-hosted with CCPD de Arosemena y Provincia de Pastaza
  • Large-scale electronic database through survey collection to understand the need of the poor, those with disabilities, catastrophic diseases, single mothers and pregnant teenagers
  • Grassroots Soccer with the local soccer clubs for youth
  • Community Garden with the elderly group

Hogar de Esperanza: Cuenca, May 2019-October 2019

Organization: Fundacion Hogar de Esperanza empowers and supports individuals who are vulnerability or in poverty due to illness. We provide programs and services that inspire hope in those facing these challenges.

  • Inpatient support for those living with HIV/AIDS and staying in our shelter
  • Medical service coordination for patients who live across Ecuador – from Santo Domingo to Loja, many travel to Cuenca for support
  • Grassroots Soccer in 3 local high schools in coordination with local TEFL volunteers and the University of Cuenca medical students
  • Implementation of an electronic medical record keeping system

FUPEC: Familias Unidas por los Enfermos de Cáncer: Cuenca, August 2019-Present

Organization: FUPEC promotes the integral development and assistance to patients suffering from cancer and their families by carrying a message of hope and faith.

  • 3 day staff retreat for 40 university volunteers on self-esteem, leadership, and planning for the future
  • “Life coaching”entrepreneurial cancer patients and their families to improve their lives and businesses using a psychosocial approach to health
  • Rainbow Days curriculum implementation with the children of cancer patients

Of course, as it always goes in Peace Corps, what you plan isn’t always what happens – the list here is a curated list of my plans that I developed with my counterparts based on the needs of the community. What we actually managed to successfully implement is only about half of the list above.

While in Quito, I also took advantage of the weekend to visit the Guayasamín museum in Quito. The museum, La Capilla del Hombre, is located in both his home (he passed away about 20 years ago) and in a giant presentation space located on the property. The space is “meant to document not only man’s cruelty to man but also the potential for greatness within humanity”. All of his work focuses on storytelling about human suffering, the indigenous and impoverished Ecuadorian experience, racism, political oppression and class division. I had seen his work previously – most notably in the Congress of Ecuador’s assembly room – so it was fascinating to get an intimate look into his life here.

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View of the Capilla del Hombre from his home
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A sculpture in his garden
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The giant murals located inside

The mural on the wall reads “I cried because I didn’t have shoes until I saw a boy that didn’t have feet.”