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Brandes Family Takes Cuenca

I know I say this every time, but how has it already been over a month since my last blog post? Volunteers say that the days in Peace Corps go by slowly, but the weeks go fast, and I can definitely relate to that. My last post shared the last of my photos from my trip to Brazil, and now I’ve already been to a new South American country – Peru! But I won’t get to that just yet.

When my taxi brought me back to my apartment – after a rough 32 hours in transit that brought me from Argentina to Paraguay to Chile to Guayaquil to Cuenca – my parents and brothers were already in Cuenca eagerly awaiting my return. They had arrived in Guayaquil two days prior, and rode up to Cuenca the day before at the much more reasonable time of 4PM, rather than the 4AM I did (only to wake up at 8AM to get back into the office on time that same day). For my brothers and dad, it was their first time leaving the country since an extended-family cruise to Mexico we took for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary a decade ago.

Due to the hassle of navigating five people who are a foot taller than the average Ecuadorian across the country on various forms of public transportation, we decided to focus on exploring Cuenca, my site, and the surrounding areas throughout their trip.

Taste testing a variety of traditional dishes on market day in Gualaceo 

The day after they arrived, it was the birthday of my favorite patient at Hogar de Esperanza! She has been with us since February, and made drastic improvements in her health since then – going from a near-comotose state, to bedridden or reliant on our help with a wheelchair, to smiling as she slowly makes her way across the room with a stabilizing walker. To celebrate these milestones, we decided to throw her a birthday party at Minka, the foundation’s newly opened restaurant.

My littlest brother, Noah, came over to help make her a birthday cake while the rest of the family went shopping at the market for any ingredients we had forgotten. She had so much fun stirring the batter with us and meeting my little brother. When we arrived at the party, there were tables filled with other Hogar de Esperanza supporters there to celebrate her turning 34 – a day that the doctors were unsure if she would ever reach not too long ago. Her favorite gift was a small stuffed animal, a cat that reminded her of a beloved pet she’d left behind when she moved to Cuenca.

Patients, volunteers and supporters gathering together to celebrate her birthday.

In the days that followed, I brought my parents around Azuay and the neighboring province of Cañar to learn about campo life, as living in rural Ecuador was such a formative part of my Peace Corps experience.

We visited Ingapirca in Cañar to see the largest Incan ruins discovered so far in Ecuador – the same spot where I celebrated their important festival, Inti Raymi, back in June. Later that weekend we went to Gualaceo, a market town known for their leather-making, and Chortaleg, a little village reknowned for their artisanal jewelry, particularly sterling silver.

My parents posing with a reconstructed Incan home
My brothers and I showing off our handmade Ecuadorian hats
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We were able to enjoy Ingapirca on a rare perfectly sunny day

Peace Corps volunteers in Ecuador love visiting Cuenca, because we’re known for having the best culinary scene in the country. In general, food in Ecuador is very plain and repetitive, and volunteers crave spice after a month or two spent in site. But right in the center of Cuenca, there’s reasonably priced ($4-8 per plate, expensive for Ecuador but worth the splurge after weeks of subpar $2 almuerzos) Thai, Korean, Italian, American and Mexican cuisine! Living in Cuenca, I feel so spoiled knowing I don’t have to eat a daily seco de pollo if I don’t want to, even if it means I need to watch my minimum-wage $12/day salary very carefully if I want to save up for trips out of site. So with that in mind, I was so surprised when my parents weren’t as excited about the fact that we could eat Thai food – something that was actually spicy!! – here in Cuenca, which is basically unheard of in the rest of the country. But they weren’t interested in any of these hidden gems, rather, they were looking to try Ecuadorian food each day they were here. Once I adjusted my surprise, we had a lot of fun scoping out street vendors or good almuerzo deals.

The rest of the time was spent in Cuenca, enjoying the colonial architecture and wide variety of museums. Cuenca is one of the cultural capitals of Ecuador, with so much to explore. For their final night in the city, I took them up to the community of Turi, perched on the edge of a steep hill overlooking the city for beautiful views as the sun set on their trip to Ecuador. Due to the clouds rolling in, we didn’t get to see a sunset, but we were able to enjoy the view and say our goodbyes to Cuenca.

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Cuenca at dusk from Turi
Travel · Uncategorized

Ilha Grande & São Paulo

After Rio de Janeiro, Mehek and I headed to Ilha Grande, followed by São Paulo. From the photos we’d seen, we were hoping for Ilha Grande to be the tropical paradise we craved after months trudging through the rainy South American summer. Unfortunately, it was just as much winter in Brazil, and we caught the two overcast, cloudy weekdays between the sunny weekends we heard about from other backpackers. Lucky for us, even cloudy days at the “Paradise Islands” are still incredible.

After one night on the island, we took an overnight bus to São Paulo, our final destination before returning to Buenos Aires for 24 hours – just enough time for Mehek to pack up our things, have one final salsa dancing night out, and for me to explore the Sunday San Telmo Market. We spent one night in São Paulo at the Ô de la Casa Hostel – and it even turned out to be free! Unfortunately, it was because the lock on our door was broken, causing it to be permanently locked after we checked in. We had to climb in and out through the decorative window that opened up to the hallway in order to grab our stuff. But Peace Corps has made me thrifty to a fault, so we were thrilled to get our $16 investment back for the small price of a little inconvenience. We even got a bonus free breakfast! Dry toast with a side of orange juice.

São Paulo is the largest city in Latin America, as you can see from the header photo above. I had seen a similar view once in Tokyo – the sea of high-rises in every direction, regardless of what side of the building you’re on – but at least in Tokyo it was bordered by ocean seas as well. Here, you could see nothing but buildings. We headed up to the roof of Plaza Italia, the third-tallest building in the city, to catch this view at dusk.

Mehek and I at the graffiti alley “Beco do Batman”
Pulling up to the first stop on our paradise islands day tour in Ilha Grande

The photo above is from the first island we visited after Ilha Grande during our all-day boat tour. The water was really this bright shade of turquoise! When we first pulled up, the island was absolutely deserted except for us.

Beco do Batman
Beco do Batman

Beco do Batman, or “Batman Alley”, was just a few blocks away from our hostel in the Vila Madalena neighborhood of São Paulo. If you’re ever in the city, I definitely recommend staying in this neighborhood. It reminded me of a more upscale version of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It was filled with street art, quirky shops, trendy restaurants and bars with customers spilling out and filling the sidewalk around them. It was about a ten minute walk to the Metro from our hostel, and the subway made it easy to navigate the largest city in Latin America.

Jumping off the dock during our island tour

Out of the eight or so people on our boat tour, I could only convince the solo traveling Irishman to run and jump off the dock with me. The others were too busy trying to conserve their body warmth for when would go snorkeling later on in the day. Side note – the snorkeling was incredible. There were colorful tropical fish completely surrounding us, just a hand’s reach away. But luckily, I had grown up swimming in the frigid snowmelt of Quincy, California. In the Sierra Nevadas, braving a “polar bear plunge” – early morning jump into freezing lakes or creeks – is a rite of passage. The Brazilian Atlantic was downright warm compared to that.

Another mural in Beco do Batman
We hiked out to this little private beach on Ilha Grande our first afternoon
Street art on Paulista Ave in São Paulo outside the MASP
São Paulo Cathedral
View from outside the village of Abraão, where we stayed on Ilha Grande
Shopkeeper outside his spice stall in the Mercado Municipal de São Paulo
Relaxing in the water for a quick break during a non-stop vacation

That’s it for my vacation pictures! Not pictured is an exhausting 32 hour trip getting home – it involved getting to the Buenos Aires airport around dinnertime, sleeping over in the Asuncion, Paraguay airport, waiting around at the Santiago airport Starbucks for another five hours, arriving in Guayaquil at almost midnight, and finally taking the bus home to Cuenca, making it to my bed by 4AM, nearly two days after I had left. And as soon as I woke up around 9AM the next morning, my entire family was in town! Both my parents and my two little brothers. For my next blog post, I’ll be talking about what we did on their trip.

Travel · Uncategorized

Rio de Janiero

When I arrived in Buenos Aires, Mehek was finishing up her last week of a summer internship. That meant that I had three days to explore on my own. I had booked a round trip flight to Buenos Aires when I had first planned the trip, since we didn’t know where we would spend our vacation. Our initial hope was to head to Patagonia – the stunning snow-capped mountains and cute penguins wobbling about – but the realities of winter on the tip of the continent, almost to Antartica, quickly shot down that idea. We’d also considered Mendoza, Argentina’s answer to the Napa Valley we had easy access to at Berkeley, Santiago, and Vilparaiso. But we were both craving warm sunshine.

Once we heard about Brazil’s new eVisa, where for a low price Americans could easily apply online and hear back about their visa status in just 5 days, we immediately picked Brazil. Initially, we had ruled it out due to the horror stories of friends spending weeks shuttling to and from the Brazilian embassy trying to get their paperwork in order. But this new visa made it possible, and we immediately planned out a weekend to visit our top destinations. Rio was the city I was most excited for on this trip, and it did not disappoint.

Mehek and I at the Selaron Steps in Lapa
In downtown Rio, I spotted this cart filled with abandoned books. Unfortunately, most of them were in Portuguese, which I can’t understand
Ipanema Beach, just blocks from our hostel

As soon as we arrived in Rio, despite having slept in the airport, we headed straight to Ipanema beach to enjoy the sunshine. Little did we know that that morning would be the sunniest of our entire trip, and our beachy getaway would be plagued by us cuddling up in sweaters. I only brought one light jacket for the trip, and wound up wearing it every single day.

Parque Lage in the shadows of Christ the Redeemer
Sunset from Ipanema, near our hostel
The realities of budget travel: Sleeping in Sao Paulo’s airport during our 8 hour DIY layover
View of Sugarloaf from Christ the Redeemer

Before visiting, I knew Rio was a stunning city. The steep forested hills contrasted against sprawling concrete jungle are iconic and unique. But Rio surpassed my expectations because it was such a vibrant city. Not only were the views, like this one from Christ the Redeemer, beautiful, but so were all the people and life on the streets. At nighttime, bar-goers spill out into the sidewalks and mingle with one another regardless of the night of the week. The outdoor block party we visited on Monday night at Pedra do Sal was more lively than any club I’d visited in San Francisco or Ecuador. It was filled with caipirinhas, samba dancers spinning around on the dance floor, and friendly men happy to teach a foreigner with two left feet how to join in.

I had also been heavily forewarned about the dangers of visiting Rio. When I first arrived, I felt paranoid and on edge about getting pick-pocketed. But Ecuador has its fair share of pick-pocketers as well, and by using the same strategies I do in Quito or Guayaquil, I didn’t feel like I was in any more danger than other large cities I’ve visited. I kept my cell phone tucked into my waistband, cash split between several inside pockets, and only took out my phone when necessary (like to remember which Metro stop to get off). So if you visit, be cautious, but don’t let fear stop you from coming!

We made it! The woman selling shuttle tickets to Christ the Redeemer in downtown Rio warned us not to expect much, that the statue was completely clouded over, but we got lucky and enjoyed a few glimpses of the monument.
Mehek made it a goal to enjoy fresh coconut juice every day of our trip, and for just $1.50 each, I was happy to oblige her.
Christ the Redeemer watching over Ipanema – view during the walk to our hostel from the nearby Metro stop
World map in Lapa

Its a popular project for Peace Corps volunteers to paint a world map mural in local schools to help teach them about the wide world outside of Ecuador, and help themselves feel situated on the map. Seeing this mural gave me inspiration for how I could do my own. Maybe highlight famous people from across the world, instead of the couples featured here?

I loved this giant mosaic featured at the top of the Selaron Steps.
Monkeys playing in Parque Lage, in downtown Rio de Janeiro
Some fruit from a farmer’s market outside of our hostel. The vendors were very generous with free samples!

Rio was just one of the three cities we visited in Brazil – stay tuned for stories and photos from llha Grande and Sao Paulo!


Travel · Uncategorized

Buenos Dias Desde Buenos Aires

A month has passed since my last entry, but I’ve been busy! I spent two weeks on vacation, splitting my time between in Buenos Aires, Argentina and three different cities in Brazil – we had maximum 3 nights in each spot, so the trip was a whirlwind. Still, I did my best to keep diligent diary entries, at least one for every destination, so that I could remember what I’d done. And of course, since it was a Mehek-Bella best friend trip, we took about a thousand photos for posterity. Because I want to highlight each of the destinations I visited, as well as my family’s recent trip to Ecuador, I’m going to schedule blog posts every other day for the upcoming week highlighting the five unique experiences in chronological order: Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Ihla Grande, Sao Paulo, and my family’s visit to Cuenca.

First up, Buenos Aires! This was the only city I visited in Argentina, but it was so diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging that I still didn’t scratch the surface in the 4 days I spent exploring.

El Ateneo, a bookstore set in a former grand theatre.

Because I hadn’t paid for a checked bag, unfortunately I didn’t have room to bring a book home with me, so all I bought was a postcard. Also, a quick shout out to Kindles! I didn’t like e-readers before I joined Peace Corps, but purchased one for the convenience of being able to carry around a hundred books at the size and weight of a Moleskin notebook. During the combined over 48 hours I spent on planes during this trip, I was able to finish three books on mine.

El Recoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron’s grave is located
These cute little pink cafes were all over downtown
The city was completely unlike what I’ve experienced in Ecuador

Even though I knew that I was going to a different country, and that Ecuador is just one tiny, northwestern corner of South America, I was still surprised by the diversity that I encountered in Argentina. It felt far more like my trip to France with my mother the spring before leaving for Peace Corps than any city I’d experienced in Ecuador. It was modern, cosmopolitan, and well-developed. But being able to see the Spanish I’d learned in Ecuador pay off was so worth it. The Argentine accent uses a “sha” sound where there’s a “ya” in Ecuador, which took a little getting used to. But besides that, being able to speak the language made me feel at ease and comfortable going solo in a country so far from home.

Casa Rosada, the Argentine president’s home
Puente de la Mujer, overlooking part of downtown in Puerto Madero. The shape of the bridge is supposed to reflect that of a woman dancing tango, but admittedly I can’t see the resemblance at all.

The night before this photo was taken, I went to get dinner with Nico, the exchange student who lived with my family when I was in high school. I remember how when he first arrived at my house, we could barely communicate with each other. By the end of his year in Quincy, we could have full conversations in English together, and became good friends. Six years later, we met up for dinner, and spent three hours catching up on what had happened in the time in between: but every bit of it was in Spanish. It was so cool to see how we had both grown since we’d met, and have someone appreciate just how much I’d learned. When his girlfriend, who had joined us for dinner, found out that I was going to be exploring the city alone the following day, she insisted on showing me around. She brought me to the popular Argentine coffee chain, Havanna, and we walked around Puerto Madero together in the afternoon.

Hanging around at the Congressional Plaza
The day before I arrived, Buenos Aires held a highly contentious vote over legalizing aboration. The measure failed, but there was still hundreds of individuals sporting the signature green bandana of the supporters across town.
At a cafe after touring Teatro Colon
The Obelisk in downtown
I loved exploring the winding streets of the San Telmo Sunday antique and craft market. All of the unique offerings reminded me of going to garage sales with my grandpa growing up, where he would try to find the perfect hidden treasure for his antique store.
I purchased a watercolor painting of two tango dancers from this artist in Bueno Aires’ San Telmo market
This pup was a fierce negotiator at Bueno Aires’ San Telmo market
La Boca industrial neighborhood in Buenos Aires, constructed with colorful shipping containers
Reunion with my brother from another mother, Nico

I hope you enjoyed these stories and photos from my experience in Argentina! Stay tuned for more from Brazil soon.



Peace Corps · Social Issues · Travel · Uncategorized

Chicas Liderando Nuestra Mundo

Earlier this month, I was able to return to the Amazonia for a week in order to help my two former sitemates host 40 local high school students (ages 12-16) for the inaugural Amazon GLOW Camp! GLOW stands for Girls Leading our World, and this camp also incorporated elements of the BRO, or Boys Respecting Others, curriculum. My thoughts leading up to the camp were a mix of excitement – I love working with teens! And it isn’t an opportunity I’ve been able to do much of here in Cuenca – and also disappointment, as the camp was originally designed to host my students from El Chaco, as well. But during the camp itself, all I felt was excitement mixed with nostalgia for EDGE Youth Leadership, the leadership camp I’ve worked with ever since attending myself as a sophomore in high school.

Daniel and Emily, the volunteers who brought their students to the camp, had done an amazing job prepping them over the past months for what would be an intensive five day experience. There was a wide range of ages present, but in my group it helped the older girls (14-16) act as mentors to the younger (12-13), leading by example with their confidence and willingness to participate.

Saying goodbyes during my final day with “Team Avengers”

I want to share the story of one of my students that stood out. My role as a camp counselor was to guide a group of 10 students through the scheduled events: sessions on gender or leadership, public speaking exercises, and fun afternoons spent playing games or going to the pool. At the beginning, my kids were excessively shy – glued to the cell phones that three of the older girls had brought with them (I quickly instated a no-cell-phone rule, although I admittedly didn’t always adhere to it myself). The youngest boy in my group, Tony*, started out travieso, or mischievous. He wouldn’t stay focused during the sessions; he would wander off or start playing tricks on the only other boy in the group, 13-year-old Jon*. The girls would get frustrated and tell them both off in their big-sister voices. It saved me the trouble of trying to discipline with the right balance of firmness and kindness in Spanish but promptly lead to the whole lot of them distracted and off-topic.

When Tony first arrived at camp, he attracted attention for his distinct scars: a tattoo-like half sleeve on his left arm, drifting past the sleeve of his shirt and across his chest. The kids initially asked incessantly about it: he got it at age five, he explained, when his dad was working with gasoline too close to the little boy. The scar embodied his tough-guy attitude: despite being less than five feet tall and 13 years old, he boasted stories of riding (and crashing) motorcycles. But by the end of the week, his persona completely transformed. Our last camp-wide activities was a dance contest against each of the teams. Despite his initial reluctance to participate, the grand finale of our team’s dance featured Tony in a solo move. As the music faded away, he launched into a front flip and somersault, nearly landing on camp-leader Emily’s lap. He removed the rose clutched between his front teeth with a flourish, and presented it to her with a grin.

Tony presenting to our team
A group picture with the girls of “Team Avengers”

A personal highlight of the camp was the opportunity to reflect back on my own leadership camp experience. I attended EDGE Youth Leadership in Menlo Park, California, when I was a sophomore in high school, newly 16 years old. The camp is designed to bring together a diverse bunch of students with leadership potential, each handpicked by their high school counselor or other leader. It mixes in around 150 students, and with just one representative from each high school, I showed up at Menlo College’s campus knowing no one. Considering my graduating class had just 42 students, this initially felt overwhelming. But EDGE’s activities worked exactly as designed: they brought me out of my shell, and brought me coming back for more as a volunteer, year after year. Over the following six years, I held roles ranging from camp counselor to senior director of mentorship. One of my favorite parts was watching new generations of students experience the same activities I had as a sophomore.

Coming to Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer, I knew that it meant giving up the opportunity to attend three Memorial Day weekend EDGE leadership conferences. But the perfect opportunity arose when camp leaders Daniel and Emily asked for help planning secondary activities during the camp. My mind immediately turned to EDGE activities like the Odyssey, Glassophobia, and Secret Support. How could I get them translated to Spanish? Would they be culturally appropriate for this rural Ecuadorian audience? I asked a former Executive Director from EDGE, Dan, if he could share some of the planning materials from EDGE with me and go to work adapting the material for our 40 students.

When it came time to execute the events, we had changed team-building games like the “Nuclear Reactor” to navigating hydroelectric power plants, reflecting a more relevant alternative power source. Glassophobia, or the fear of public speaking, became “Glosofobia”. Fellow camp counselors came up to me after we finished the activity to share that their camper, who was formerly terrified of speaking in front of the group, had confidently shared speeches in front of 20+ students. Although speaking in front of the class is a typical part of the school year in the United States, it is not part of the education system here. Instead, students focus their time on rote memorization and test-taking.

Reflecting back on that week, it was the perfect opportunity to blend my volunteer experiences in the US with my goals here in Ecuador. I’m looking for the opportunity to collaborate on more GLOW camps in the upcoming year!

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“GLOW” closing activity to symbolize the light from the camp they’ll carry with them into the community.
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Navigating the boa constrictor swamp during the Odyssey

*Students’ names changed for their privacy

Peace Corps · Travel · Uncategorized

Jungle Cruise

A few weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to head back to my old site, El Chaco, for a quick weekend! I needed to pick up some things that I’d left behind in my hurried return to the United States – spices that are crucial for adding variety to my Ecuadorian diet, my good frying pan, quality pillows, etc – and also wanted to spend some time reconnecting with my former host family and close friends from my site.

Walking in the door of my old home in El Chaco, I felt like I had never left the community. They welcomed with open arms despite the three months I had been away, setting a heaping plate of mote – a starchy corn mixed with diced vegetables and an eggy sauce – and cup of coffee in front of me after my 14 hour journey to their home. I had barely finished breakfast before they broke out the pink cane liquor homemade by the neighbors, inviting over our upstairs neighbors to toast to my good health and homecoming. The day was as rainy as always, so we weren’t able to head out to the finca in my family’s usual weekend tradition, but we teamed together to cheer on the Latin American teams for the World Cup. Because Ecuador didn’t have the good fortune to qualify for the competition this year, we have settled for cheering on the rest of South America, with enthusiasm dictated by geographic proximity to my host dad’s hometown: first Peru, then Colombia, and then Argentina gets an edge as a fellow Spanish-speaking country.

Later that day, I headed over to my best friend’s house, enjoying homemade empanadas with her, her family, and my fellow Patronato volunteer, Natalia from KOICA. They filled me in on all of the small-town gossip that I had missed in the intervening months, and promised to come down to Cuenca to visit me soon. Neither of them had ever been, and seeing as Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador and a UNESCO World Heritage site, I hope they take advantage of my empty spare bedroom (my readers, my friends and family back home, you all are welcome to come and visit me anytime as well for this perk!) and come see me soon.

Because I had my arm cast removed just two days before leaving for this trip, I was worried that I wouldn’t be strong enough to carry everything home. I had left more behind in Chaco than I’d realized: two large backpacks, a big box, and a microwave. With only one strong arm at my disposal, I would need some help. Luckily, my sitemate and Cuenca neighbor, Nicho, was visiting Tena, just 3-4 hours away from Chaco, that same weekend. I headed down to meet him on Sunday afternoon. He had never been to the Amazon before, so we met up with an RPCV and my former sitemate, Daniel, to show him around. You’ve likely seen some of my simple iPhone photos of the monkeys and other animals around Tena before, but this trip Nicho brought his DLSR camera with him, so I’m excited to share some high-quality shots of the canoe ride!

Walking through one of the rural villages
When full-grown, these guys are just half a foot tall
Heading out on our jungle cruise


These are one of the many unique and odd birds that live in the tree branches
Peace Corps · Travel · Uncategorized

Temple of the Sun

I realized I’m getting behind on my blog posts, and want to make sure I share all of my pictures of this gorgeous country and the diversity of adventures I’ve had here with you all, so I’ve scheduled several posts to be published throughout the week, sharing stories from celebrating Inti Raymi at Ingapirca, a jungle cruise through an Amazonian wildlife sanctuary, and joining in the Pride parade in Guayaquil with my fellow PCVs. Once I’m back on track, look forward to hearing about my upcoming Fourth of July BBQs from the Southern Hemisphere and travels back to Tena to help with the first-ever Oriente GLOW leadership camp!

Two weekends ago, three of my neighboring Peace Corps volunteers and I packed up our backpacks with every piece of warm clothing we own – when we volunteered to serve on the equator, we didn’t fully realize how chilly these Andean mountain towns would be. At 7AM on Saturday morning, we headed to Ingapirca, hoping to make it for the 9AM Inti Raymi opening ceremony. Luckily for us, ecuatime meant that the ceremony didn’t truly begin until nearly 11:30, giving us plenty of time to set up our campsite once we arrived at the ruins.

Ingapirca is the largest known Incan ruins in Ecuador; the main attraction is the a mostly-intact sun temple. Although the exact significance of the ruins is still unknown, the temple of the sun was built perfectly positioned so that, on the solstice, sunlight would fall through a center chamber and enter through the top of the temple. Unfortunately, most of the chamber has fallen down in the centuries since it was built, so we couldn’t see this mechanism in action.

We started out the day watching an ancient ceremony celebrating the four elements – water, earth, wind and fire – that did an eloquent job tying in the lessons of the past with contemporary needs: embracing diversity by building integrated mixed-race communities, protecting our earth from the damaging effects of climate change, and preserving indigenous traditions in the technology-driven world.

The Ingapirca Incan ruin complex
One of the dances, featuring the Amazonian Chonta festival tradition
Relaxing in front of the sun temple
Waiting for the opening ceremony to begin

As the day unfolded, we watched Ecuadorian dance performances, danced along to live bands, toured the Ingapirca ruins and hiked through the nearby countryside to see rock formations like “the Face of the Inca”. The most memorable moment was just before 7AM the night after camping. We had barely slept all night thanks to a rancorous band of drunken men who sang Ecuadorian classics like Whiskicito with their guitars, ukulele, harmonica, and self-styled drums from empty plastic water containers. When one of my fellow PCVs, Meg, and I gave up on trying to sleep around 6:30AM and headed down the hill in search of bathrooms and coffee. The stand that had been selling us 25 cent canelazos (a hot alcoholic beverage of aguardiente, panela, cinnamon and passion fruit) the night before had transformed into a breakfast coffee spot. We purchased four cups of coffee, which came in thin plastic cups, and headed up the hill to share with our friends. It was another volunteer, Laurel’s, 34th birthday that morning and we decided to plan a surprise she wouldn’t forget: recruiting the men who had been “serenading” us to sleep all night to surround our tent and sing Feliz Cumpleaños, or happy birthday, until she woke up.

At first, she was groggy-eyed and confused, but soon we were dancing with their entire group for nearly an hour, us drinking cups of coffee, and them still working on their aguardiente and Coca-Cola combination from the night before.

Happy campers
Our “campsite” – someone’s cow field – for the night
The birthday girl with her band of admirers