Here in Ecuador, the volunteers run El Clima, a quarterly newsletter where volunteers can share stories with the broader Peace Corps community and those back home. Each quarter has a theme, and for this round is “Home: What’s a stroll in your neighborhood at site like? Tell us about your backyard.” My take on the theme is transcribed below:
We’re in the intercambio zone where the formidable Andes mountain range meets the impenetrable Amazonian rainforest. The best way I can describe my site is: everything you want to experience in the Amazon without anything you’re afraid of. A beautiful jungle canopy, clouds clinging to lush mountain ranges, a rare glimpse of a dangling monkey, or exotic fruits? We’ve got it all. My host family grows and roasts fresh coffee in our backyard alongside guava, passion fruit, naranjilla, cacao, and avocados. The majority of Ecuadorians drink instant coffee with breakfast (and dinner too) so access to fresh coffee is a luxury. Unpleasant things like melting heat, humidity, giant bugs that crawl into your bedroom at night, or malaria? You won’t find that here. Admittedly, the active Volcán Reventador just 20 miles away spouts up ash plumes on an hourly basis. I can watch it from my roof if I like. But the locals reassure me it won’t do any harm.
Working for the Gestión Social en Gobierno Autónomo Descentralizado del Municipio (Or GADM, for short) I can experience different adventures the jungle offers and call it “work”. Two weeks ago my town helped host a 150 kilometer, three day bike ride. Alongside my coworkers, I spent the day handing out mandarin oranges and tuna fish sandwiches to the passing bikers. The area surrounding us was breathtaking; we stood near the base of the steaming Reventador and a nearby side road led to the Cascada de San Rafael – the tallest waterfall in the country at 430 feet. In college, I worked as a tour guide for UC Berkeley and I could recite “the Campanile stands at 307 feet tall, making it the third largest freestanding bell and clock tower in the world (and more importantly, 22 feet taller than Stanford’s tower)” in my sleep. Now I have a new landmark in my backyard to share with visitors: the San Rafael waterfall, approximately 1.5 Campaniles tall. A different day, my coworkers asked me to head out to the nearby Petroglifos de Linares to capture photos for an upcoming project. The exact significance is still unknown, but we know the unique carvings on the rocks belong to the indigenous Kichwa people but predate current Shuar communities in the area. My coworkers insist it was a former sacrificial site. The ancient stone carvings starkly contrasted against the buzzing drone overhead, capturing our trip for future marketing material.
Another perk is my counterpart’s side job. He leads whitewater rafting and kayaking trips on the weekends. If enough of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers agree to come visit, he’ll hook us up with a good deal. Each November the town hosts a weekend-long rafting festival in which everyone participates. Of course, participation ranges from rafting down the raging Rio Quijos or enjoying a cold Pilsner on the banks.
If none of that has convinced you that sites in the Oriente are the best, the food will. We have the requisite exotic fruits and rice dishes, of course, but the local specialty maito is my favorite. Maito is made with freshly-caught tilapia, slightly seasoned with salt, and usually served with yuca, guayusa tea and a small mixed-veggie salad. To prepare the fish, you wrap it in two layers of a large native, fire-resistant leaf and secure the wrappings with the stem to tie it like a Christmas present. Then you carefully lay the packages across a low burning fire to steam the fish. My host family has an outdoor fire pit at their finca for this purpose. Around 20 minutes later, the fish is ready. Just repurpose the leaves as a plate and eat it whole (eyes, skin and all). If tilapia isn’t adventurous enough for you, traditional restaurants also serve chontacuro, a type of beetle grub indigenous to the area. You can eat them wriggling and raw, but I prefer mine roasted over the fire alongside my maito.
Let me know next time you find yourself in the northern Amazon, and I’ll take you on all my favorite adventures in mi cantón.