Today marks the end of first week living in my site. Thus far, everything – from my host family, the town, the work itself – has met and far exceeded my expectations.
One of my fears going into Peace Corps was the stories I had heard from RPCVs and other Peace Corps blogs about the long, boring days that they spent at site with little work to do in their communities. A previous Peace Corps Ecuador volunteer spent weeks perfecting the perfect high-altitude bagel recipe. While I do miss bagels (they were a daily part of my college diet), I’m happy to see that my town has an abundance of work for me to do in a variety of healthcare fields and thus far I feel like it’s not enough hours in the day to do it all. Coming from a busy college lifestyle of two majors and too many clubs, that’s just the way I like it.
What have I done thus far? Met dozens of new people (and promptly forgotten half their names, unfortunately), drafted informational surveys for teenagers, abuelitos, community leaders and vulnerable populations to prepare my community diagnostic, made a brief appearance on the local news, shadowed our social worker on house visits, gone door to door collecting disaster relief aid for Tena, created a Facebook and Instagram page promoting tourism in my town, and put together a video showcasing some of those tourist activities and slick drone footage that only capture a sliver of the beauty here. Check it out here.
My host family must think I’m the most extra American there is, because I have an American visitor coming this weekend for the second weekend in a row…and I’ve only been here for two weekends. (Karina, I’m so excited to see you this afternoon!) Last Saturday, I was able to play tour guide on my second day in my community when my friend from high school’s dad and little brother drove over from Quito. My friend, Adam, had himself started as a Peace Corps volunteer just earlier that week in Tonga as an English teacher, so I wasn’t able to see him on that trip. I pulled out all of the stops I knew at the time. I took them to a traditional Amazonian restaurant, where they let us go inside the kitchen to see how they prepared the roasted beetle larvae and tilapia smoked in wrapped leaves. They even had a large green parrot hanging out with them by the sink! None of that would pass American health and sanitation regulations, but it was also more entertaining than any American restaurant I’ve been to. Then, we braved an hour of driving in the heavy rain to see Cascada San Rafael (and later, Cascada de el Rio Malo). Luckily, it all paid off because the clouds parted just in time for us to see the thundering falls at the end of the hike. The locals warned us that the waterfall wouldn’t be particularly impressive, as large-scale hydropower plants had significantly reduced the amount of water running through the river, but it was nevertheless incredible.
My new room at site (and our momma cat)
Hiking along el Río Malo
Cascada San Rafael
Banana tree across the street from my house
Parrot helping prepare lunch at a local restaurant
Soccer has been a large part for me building a community here. It’s a huge part of Latin American culture, from kids playing in the parks to cheering on the national team. I joined a local women’s team on Monday. By Tuesday, I had been nominated their reina, told to pick out my best black skirt and prepare a speech about the importance of sports. It will the perfect way for me to televise a sneaky charla on exercise and social health to the entire country. I’ll be crowned with a Homecoming-style sash just before our first game. On Wednesday, I was playing a pickup game of soccer on a local court with my host family and various relatives and neighbors we picked up along the way until 10PM.
In between those fun moments, there’s been hard moments too. The nearby riverfront town of Tena experienced severe flooding last weekend, and many poor families living alongside the river had their homes washed away. Our town’s local government organized a large food and clothing drive for them, and I joined a group heading door to door asking for donations. Throughout the past two weeks, I’ve been following the news and it’s heartbreaking to see the storm damage from Texas and the Caribbean. By spending my time contributing to helping the people in Tena, I felt like I was able to help the relief effort in my own way. Moreover, it was incredible to see how generous the people of my community were. Even those who had very little were so rich in spirit and kindness. They shared rice, sugar or oatmeal, whatever they could.
And visits with our social worker have helped me begin to understand what living in poverty in rural Ecuador looks and feels like. Yesterday, we visited a family of six – including the mother, her early-20s son, and two daughters. Both of the daughters had gotten pregnant as young teenagers, and their respective daughters now shared the same twin sized beds they had grown up on with them. Here in Ecuador, abortion is illegal. The youngest became pregnant when she was only 12 years old – yet her boyfriend at the time was 22. Now, both girls are separated from their babies’ fathers. Minors are also unable to have a job in Ecuador (although child labor is common on the city streets in family businesses). As a result, all six of them subsist off of the brother’s salary. He earns la suelta basica, or minimum wage: around $350 monthly, which is about the same as what I receive as a Peace Corps volunteer. The stark difference is, of course, that I have free, comprehensive healthcare through Peace Corps and am free to spend my stipend splurging on occasional iced coffees in touristy Quito cafes or a $2-3 manicure, whereas theirs is carefully budgeted between the large family.
Through both the highs and the lows, this past week has made me believe that I will be able to make a home in this little Amazonian community, and I’m stubbornly hopeful that I’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of a few of its residents, too.
PS. Here’s a few photos from two trips I forgot to blog about – first, a girl’s weekend getaway with my host mother from Tumbaco to their finca near Mindo, and second, a trip to Otavalo in search of the perfect cozy llama wool blanket and one of my close Peace Corps friends, Mikayla.
Americanized coffee buzz in Otavalo
Indigenous art for sale in Otavalo
Picking mandarins and grapefruit at the finca
The most important room at the finca: the fiesta room!
Milking the cows to get the leche for our morning cafe con leche
Butterflies in Mindo