Peace Corps · site · Travel · Uncategorized

Across the Country in Seven Days

My long-distance boyfriend, Matt, came to visit and ring in the new year with me. It was his first time ever in South America, and I was determined to show him as much of the country as possible during his trip. He was coming for just over two weeks, but I balanced out our itinerary so we could spend half of it just relaxing at my site, spending time in my typical routine – going to work, hosting clubs, running on forest service roads, shopping at the market and sharing dinner with my host family.

To kick off our travels, I picked out an Airbnb apartment inside a beautiful colonial building overlooking Ecuador’s famous basilica. The sites were gorgeous outside, but between with the rainy weather and catching up after seven months apart we spent most of our time cozied up inside playing cuarenta, Ecuador’s national card game and cooking together in the clean, modern kitchen (a heavenly sight for a campo volunteer like me). I love wandering through the winding streets of Quito’s Centro Historico, and had the opportunity to check out several new museums – my favorite being the Contemporary Art Museum of Quito, housed in the colonial hospital.

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From the back tower of Quito’s Basilica del Voto Nacional 
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Sitting on opposite sides of the equator in el Mitad del Mundo

Our next stop was Salinas, known across Ecuador for the country’s biggest New Year’s Eve celebration. As the clock neared midnight, the beach was packed full of Ecuadorian families dressed all in white – a tradition that helps start the new year on a clean slate – with fireworks and Frozen-style paper lanterns lighting the air, and music everywhere. When the clock struck midnight, huge bonfires filled with años viejos, piñata-like figures representing their favorite – or least favorite – images from the previous year were lit, sending sparks everywhere due to the fireworks mischievous revelers had snuck into the center of the pile. We spent New Year’s Day recovering with a traditional hangover breakfast of encobollado, or fish soup,  long hours spent relaxing and reading, and a long walk to the Western-most point of Ecuador, la Chocoletera, to take a dip in the warm ocean with the sunset surrounding us on an empty beach. It was a magical way to start off 2018.

January 2nd; however, was not so beautiful – the bus terminals were a disaster, with everyone heading home from the holidays. All the buses we wanted were sold out, so we made a game-time change to our itinerary, and thanks to the help of a friendly nun, were able to find a night bus heading towards Baños, a popular tourist town in the halfway point of Salinas and my site. We found ourself with an unexpected 12 hour “layover” in Guayaquil, which we spent strolling the malecon, exploring the revitalized neighborhood of Las Pinas, and checking out the dozens of iguanas lolling in the central city square. In Baños, we took a tour through their route of waterfalls and spent a few hours playing cuarenta in a cute coffeeshop.

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300+ Steps of Las Penas in Guayaquil
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Pailon del Diablo in Baños
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Iguanas in Guayaquil

When we did make it back to my site, it was just in time to welcome a group of other Peace Corps volunteers to my community, all of whom were also visiting me for the first time. We were hoping to tackle the rapids of the Amazon River with a long day of white water rafting, but the early winter rains meant that the river was moving too fast, and we would need a Plan B. Luckily for me, Plan B turned out to be an El Chaco activity that I’d always wanted to do but had not yet had the opportunity for – Cueva de los Tayos. The Tayo birds, or Oil Birds, have a different famous location in southern Ecuador, an expedition that requires several days of hiking into the deep cloud forest, and was once believed to hold exquisite golden treasures – think the Genie’s cave in Aladdin. The treasures were never found but you can watch a recent documentary about their search for them featuring Neil Armstrong. This cavern is smaller, but fascinating nevertheless. The two hour hike involved going down a deep cavern, fording the river and walking through a stream to arrive at a split in the mountain where the river had worn through over time, creating a walkable cave leading to through to the opposite side of the mountain. It was gorgeous, and when any of you come visit I’ll be sure to take you along the same trail.

After the weekend adventures, we started to settle back into my relaxed routine here in El Chaco. While I was work, Matt hung back with my kitten, Mayu, and read Pillars of the Earth, made lunch, or worked out. Having some semblance of a routine was the perfect way to end the trip, and spend some quality time together while giving him an insider’s look at my everyday Ecuadorian life.

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Walking across the river to get to the cave near my site
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A tribal dance ceremony in Misahualli
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I made friends with a baby monkey in Misahualli
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Cueva de los Tayos

And even better, I had the free time to play my entire way through Super Mario Odyssey on his Nintendo Switch.

Peace Corps · Travel · Uncategorized

(Not) Home for the Holidays

In my twenty-two years, this was the first where I spent Christmas away from my family. It’s hard to believe it was nearly a month ago now – the holiday season went by so quickly! After a week of town festivities before Christmas, a week of family festivities with my close Ecuadorian friend and her family, and two weeks exploring Ecuador and hanging out here at home with my boyfriend, I finally have the time to reflect on it all.

Christmas here was an interesting blend of commercialized traditions I recognized – like a night dedicated to each of the local children’s classes singing a different Christmas carol (all translated into Spanish, of course) and the bright colored string lights that were hung on the Main Street storefronts. But they had a distinctly Ecuadorian twist – the Christmas feast featured half a plate of rice alongside the turkey, and the kids all dressed up in full traditional, indigenous dresses and garb to sing their carols. On the Friday before Christmas for the local government’s celebration, we had a talent show where each of the departments competed against one another to show off their skills. We borrowed Otavalan-style indigenous clothing from the local dance studio to perform Whiskicito, Ecuador’s favorite party jam. It was super fun to spend the morning attempting (failing) the traditional dance moves with all of my coworkers, and try on the beautiful Ecuadorian skirts and blouses for the first time.

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My Korean co-volunteer from KOICA and I in our Christmas dance outfits

Another central custom here in Ecuador is giving the kids caramelos, or little candies and sweets, for Christmas. It’s like their Halloween. All of the tiendas show off big bags of mixed candies in their front windows, and the kids are wired on sugar all December long. When I was playing Doctor and Patient with a group of the neighborhood kids one day after work (picture me laying across the sidewalk, surrounded by one bossy seven-year-old and her posse of siblings and cousins, pretending to be pregnant with her blonde doll. It totally counts as reproductive health education), I was hand fed about about a dozen candies as my “medicine.” Another excellent teachable moment. The a good portion of the candy is given out through a partnership with a Chinese oil company that extracts crude oil from underneath the nearby Amazon rainforest, leading to significant environmental damage, and the local government. It definitely felt strange as a community health volunteer helping hand out the bags of candy to children in the indigenous community of Oyacachi, which was my shift to help.

For Christmas proper, I headed to Ambato with my close friend to spend the holidays with her extended family there. Her mom has seven siblings, each with children of their own, so it was exactly the packed, loud, loving Latino family I had imagined spending time with before coming to Ecuador. I brought a deck of Uno and regular cards to play with the kids, and they loved it. We spent hours going around in circles playing Uno and War throughout the entire weekend, especially with my self-declared new four-year-old best friend.

 

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Ecuadorian family photo
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Teaching my friend’s family how to make frosted Christmas cookies
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Christmas dinner with my coworkers – grilled turkey, rice and my now-famous apple pie

New Year’s Eve, on the other hand, was like no other holiday I’d experienced before. It was four days after my boyfriend, Matt, arrived in Ecuador – marking the first time I’d seen him after seven months apart! – and we were on the beach of Salinas, down on the southern end of the country.

The place was wild – all evening long, the beach was absolutely filled with people, usually with a Pilsner in hand, laughing with their family and enjoying the warm night air. Matt and I missed the memo to wear all-white, a Ecuadorian custom that helps you start your new year off fresh, and also didn’t bring our own año viejo. They’re giant paper-mache piñatas (sometimes filled with fireworks, so be careful!) that represent either something you hated about 2017, and want to say goodbye to, or something you loved, and want more of in the upcoming year. I’m not exactly sure how they can all be mixed together in the same bonfire, but Ecuadorians reassure me that it works. Every 100 yards or so along the beachfront, starting at midnight, was a bonfire about 20 feet tall filled with as many año viejos as they could stack on top of one another. Across the waterfront, everyone was lighting up huge fireworks and sending them out over the ocean.

Finally, in my favorite part, the skies were filled with floating lanterns, just like in the movie Tangled. For $2, Matt and I bought our own – only to remember that we didn’t have a lighter, or matches, or any idea how to light off one of the lanterns. Luckily, a friendly family helped us out along the waters’ edge, and we got to watch it drift off as it disappeared out over the ocean. With music and fireworks filling the air, and my first true New Year’s kiss, it was a night I won’t forget.

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Fireworks in the background with años viejos waiting to be burned in the foreground
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Watching the sunset on New Year’s before jumping in for a swim
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We had encebollado, or fish soup, an Ecuadorian hangover cure, on New Year’s morning

So here’s to 2018! I hope you all are as excited for the adventures this year will bring as I am.

site · Travel · Uncategorized

Volcano Soup

I adore the community that I was placed in to live for the next two years, and feel very lucky to be here… but that doesn’t mean I don’t also love traveling across Ecuador to explore new parts of the country and visit fellow Peace Corps Volunteers! Ecuador is a pretty small country – about the size of Colorado, and although roads in poor conditions, the towering Andes mountains and rained-out Amazon rainforest roadways can make it slow going in the bus, it’s still relatively easy to get around.

For such a small land mass, Ecuador has its hands full with volcanoes: 27 of them are potentially active, and there’s plenty more extinct ones as well. Some video footage of the volcano closest to my house – the Reventador, whose ash plumes I can watch lazily rise up to the sky from up on my roof – has recently made the rounds on ABC. Definitely check out the video footage, but before you do – don’t worry about me! Even though the video just went live today, it was actually filmed about two weeks ago, and doesn’t threaten my day to day livelihood here in my community (although I sometimes carry around an ash mask, just in case).

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Early December footage of the Reventador, about twenty miles away from my site

It’s pretty wild living next to such an active volcano, but I trust Peace Corps Ecuador’s Safety and Security team to quickly pull me out if there was ever any serious danger. And I definitely won’t be doing any hiking around the Reventador anytime soon.

But the other, extinct and less active volcanoes of Ecuador are fair game.

In the past month alone, I’ve spent time around Antisana, Cayambe, Cuicocha, Cotacachi, Imbabura and Sumaco. Last Thursday, I joined my coworkers on the three hour journey – which includes two hours on a very rocky dirt road – to the indigenous community in our canton, Oyacachi. Oyacachi is famous for its warm hot springs and beautiful wooden carvings, so I’m looking forward to a future trip back to relax in the pools and spending the night in the cozy wooden cabins (come visit me so we can do it together!). On the drive out, we stopped along the way to stretch our legs and enjoy the clear day’s view of the Antisana and Cayambe volcanoes.

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Enjoying the cool air of the highlands at about 8,000 feet in elevation with Antisana in the background.

Additionally, the weekend between my Reconnect training and the GLOW/BROW Camp Training, I had the chance to celebrate a belated Thanksgiving at my friend Mikayla’s site in Otavalo, along with fellow volunteers Daniel and Charli. We enjoyed a delicious Thanksgiving dinner prepared by another volunteer who has been taking cooking lessons in Ibarra in a beautiful art gallery. Then, we woke up early the next day, heading to Cotacachi so that I could pick out a beautiful handmade leather purse (they’re known for their leather artisanry in that city) and tackle the four hour hike surrounding the collapsed crater lake of Cuicocha. The name comes from the native language, Kichwa (which, by the way, I’m hoping to start classes for in the new year! I’ll be coming back to the States in 2019 with Kichwa and Spanish under my belt), and means “Guinea Pig Lake”. Guinea pigs are a popular delicacy in Ecuador, served for special occasions like birthdays, and the islands in the middle of the crater are rumored to look just like a guinea pig.

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Halfway through the hike around Cuicocha
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One of Otavalo’s many murals with Mikayla
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The hearth at the art gallery where we enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal

Finally, I want to show off a few photos of my adorable kitten, Mayu. She was born the day before I swore in as an official Peace Corps volunteer, and has grown into the perfect Peace Corps companion. She loves to spend as much time as possible napping on my lap, sleeping curled up next to me as I watch TV, read or head to bed, and best of all – catch and eat all the bugs that fly into my room!

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Adventure Kitty
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Cuddly Kitty
Peace Corps · site · Travel · Uncategorized

Feriados

This past week was filled with adventures that stretched all across Ecuador while also deepening a few of my friendships and understanding of the community right here in my site. To start off my week, I hitched a ride in el camioneta del Municipio with a few local kidney dialysis patients (they have to travel 4-6 hours roundtrip three days a week to get the medical attention they need, and the local government only provides transport for them one of those days) to Tena, shaving off my trip from three hours in the bus to just an hour and a half in a private pickup truck. I quickly switched to a second bus, headed towards Riobamba, for my cluster meeting. Peace Corps arranges these biannual meetings for groups of volunteers living in relatively the same area – my group includes all of the volunteers from the Amazonia, which is only seven in total, as well as a dozen volunteers living in the Central Sierra zone. I was especially excited for this trip because my closest friend from training, Charlie, would be in the same cluster as I am, even though we’re normally a 10 hour bus ride away from one another!

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Charli and I visiting a church in Riobamba
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Charli and I exploring the colonial district of Riobamba

The cluster meeting itself wasn’t much – just receiving our annual flu shot, safety reminders, and meeting the other volunteers in our area – but having the opportunity to be reunited with the volunteers from my training group and meet new TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteers who live nearby made all those hours in the bus worth it. We stayed in the historical district of Riobamba and explored all the colonial architecture, then celebrated Halloween together on the first day, then spent the second day feasting on a rare meal of Mexican food before heading back to our sites.

The second day, there was no way I could make the bus route all the way back to my community in one afternoon, so I stayed at the halfway point with a fellow volunteer near Tena the next night.

When we woke up the following day it was one of what feels like Ecuador’s weekly feriados or holidays/festivals. This one was called Dia de los Oscuros (Day of the Darkness) in my community, but is officially named Dia de los Difuntos (Day of the Deceased). To celebrate, we woke up early and headed to the iglesia for mass with Daniel’s host family. Their dog followed us there and it was hard for me to stifle my laughter watching this huge dog take a nap under the pews, go up to sniff the priest, and look for someone to pet him when everyone kneeled down to pray. But none of the locals seemed concerned, so it must be normal behavior in their pueblo of about 50-60 people.

Once the service ended, we were all given traditional colada morada – a traditional hot drink on this day made with black corn flour, panela, naranjilla, babaco, pineapple, blackberries and strawberries – with a side of wawas – Kichwa for baby, a bread roll formed and decorated in the shape of a baby, and stuffed with cheese.

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You can spot Brando, Daniel’s family’s dog, hanging out in the back looking for treats

I headed back to my site pretty quickly after that because we had our own festival to celebrate!

Friday and Saturday encompassed the annual River Festival, which I was especially excited for because it would be my first time out on the water here for white water rafting. Once I got there, I counted my lucky stars that I’d been doing Kayla Itsine’s BBG workout for the past few weeks, because the courses were hard! I’d signed up for the obstacle course, or gyncana, as well, but it used every reserve of strength I had just to finish it. After climbing up tire ladders, jumping off rocks into the water, swimming, running, army-crawling, we had to traverse a loose tightrope about 50 feet across the water. The entire time, I was 75% sure I was going to pass out. But with the sound of my entire town cheering me on ringing in my ears, I just barely made it across, collapsing in the sand on the other side.

Luckily, my rafting team faired much better. Even though we were the only team of 4 women and 2 men – the rest had the inverse – we finished the two day competition in a close second second place. As compensation, we won $100 to split among the team members (which worked out to a perfect $15 and one Pilsner each) and a handmade bamboo medal as a keepsake.

If I thought that after all of this, Sunday was going to be a day of rest, I was very much mistaken. I woke up early to head to the market and pick out the ingredients for a fresh apple pie I’d made plans with two of my friends to bake earlier this week. The pumpkin pie had been such a hit the week before, I wanted to give them a comprehensive understanding of my favorite fall desserts. Her family had lived in Spain during Ecuador’s economic downturn, so I also had the opportunity to try a delicious traditional Spanish meal for lunch before sharing our apple pie for dessert. In the middle of our afternoon, my counterpart texted Natalia and I – “Want to go kayaking?” Of course we did.

One quick change later, we found ourselves laughingly suited up in helmets, life jackets and thick kayaking “skirts” at the local pool. White water kayaking lesson number one: what to do when your kayak flips. For two full hours, we had three personal kayaking guides train us on how to turn a completely submerged kayak upside down with just our hips, arms, and the tip of a fellow kayak, a life jacket or our paddles. It was exhausting work, but I felt such a thrill of accomplishment when I managed to pop back up and breathe again.

All in all, I ended the week feeling so lucky to be placed with this community as my site and excited for the months to come.

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This obstacle course was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done
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Handmade medals by a local artist
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After three days of rafting, obstacle courses and kayaking, I was as tired as my little kitten
Peace Corps · Training · Travel · Uncategorized

Criss-Crossing the Country

Since my last blog entry, I’ve seen so much more of Ecuador: Puembo, Santo Domingo, Santa Elena, Guayaquil and better explored the capital I have been living in for the past two months, Quito. For a visual representations of my experiences, check out my most recent video from our Peace Corps Volunteer visit to the small coastal fishing village of Anconcito. From experimental learning at the Ministerio de Salud Publica’s sala de esperar to the furthest Western point in South America, I’ll share a brief anecdote from each of my major destinations.

Monteserrin, Ecuador

A fully-stocked private park – soccer fields, tennis courts, pull up bars and playground – has been a recent fixture in my after-training adventures. Living on the Ecuador, the sun rises and sets at a reliable 6:30PM. But couple that with an hour commute on either side at a 8-5 work schedule, I rarely see the light of day at home. This park has allowed me to keep up a regular workout schedule – have you ever tried to run laps at an altitude 10,000 feet? Let me tell you, my lungs are stronger than they’ve ever been. For my final day of lower intermediate Spanish class, our teacher, Pauly, took us girls to the park for a potluck picnic. It was so rewarding to see how much our Spanish had improved since our first day of class: we had initially struggled to give a thirty second elevator pitch about ourselves in Spanish, and now we could comfortably chit-chat and giggle over teaching our 40-year-old Spanish teacher how to use Tinder to get back into the dating scene.

Our Spanish class potluck picnic in the park 

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Puembo, Ecuador

I head to Puembo twice a week to practice teaching charlas in their Ministerio de Salud Publica sala de esperar for whoever is there to listen. Our days range from heading up an stretching class and nutrition lesson for 60 elderly Ecuadorians, teaching 20 pregnant teens and young women about HIV/AIDS before joining in to practice their birthing exercises, leading 140 high schoolers in an impromptu lesson by the soccer field, giving a lesson for 25 middle school teachers on the importance self-esteem. Although we prepare our topics in advance, we never know our audience or setting until we walk into the clinic and chat with our partner doctor. For this day, we walked into a public childcare center to teach 60 1-4 year-old children how to wash their hands. It seemed easy enough: we introduced a song they could sing as they washed their hands so they did it for long enough, and reminded them to always wash their hands. But things erupted in disaster when we led them out in groups of 5-6 to wash their hands: “AY CHI CHI”‘s rang through the air, as the faucet water was frigid (most Ecuadorians, like my host family, do not have hot water), some children attempted to wash their hair in the water, and others cupped their hands to drink (the water throughout Ecuador contains high levels of dangerous microbes, and shouldn’t be consumed without treatment). It was definitely a learning experience, but the kids seemed satisfied and entertained by the time they were all led back to their seats.

With some of the children after my hand-washing charla in the daycare

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Santo Domingo, Ecuador

That weekend, our host family headed three hours east to Santo Domingo, where the in-laws extended family lives. Our host family has 18 people living in the house (spread across 4 generations), and not everyone came with us, but we still had to pile into a school bus (One of my host family members is employed as a school bus driver, and appears to have free range to drive it wherever she likes outside of school hours) to get to Santo Domingo together. It was my little sister Sarahi’s fourth birthday, and in Ecuador that is a big deal. A girl’s fourth birthday is considered the Presentacion de la Hija, which is celebrated at Quinceanera -level heights. My modest Ecuadorian family took around 40 people to a Chuckee Cheese-style play place for the entire afternoon. Sarahi herself was dressed like a princess, and her parents and brother had matching outfits emblazoned with her favorite television characters. For our meals that weekend, we enjoyed feasts of fresh crab, shrimp and cuy (roasted guinea pig). After the “children’s” portion of the birthday party, the young adults – parents and grandparents, with the great-grandparents taking care of the children at home – closed down the local bar with the local favorite cerveza, Pilsner, and mojitos. I made it back to Quito just in time to hop in a taxi to Plaza Foch to meet up with one of my closest friends from college, Aubin, for the only 4 hour period her 4 day long trip to Quito would overlap with me being in town. After spending the past two months only talking to my friends and family over the internet, it was so refreshing to see her in person. The trip was far too short, but I loved hearing about the past five months she’d spent living in Santiago, Chile.

The birthday girl, Sarahi, at the children’s portion of her party

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Laughing with Aubin in her downtown Quito hostel

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Anconcito, Ecuador

The following week was the much-anticipated Peace Corps trainee visit to the coast. Over half of PCV in Ecuador are placed in the coastal region of Ecuador for their service, but nearly the entirety of our training takes place 10,000 feet above sea level, in Quito. Our excitement about the coast; however, was diminished when we discovered that only 2-3 of those sites were actually along the beach itself. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to discover that I had been randomly placed in the group of trainees that would be visiting a sleepy fisherman’s village of Anconcito along the ocean for our week-long visit. Check out the video above for more details from the trip. One anecdote I didn’t include in the video; however, is how up close and personal I have experienced the circle of life during my time in Ecuador. On Monday, when we arrived in Anconcito, our host family explained that they had two cats, one of whom was pregnant. They had a different relationship with their pet cats than I did with Georgie, my kittie back home, as they were more around for de-mousing and eating bugs. Other cats who wandered into their open front and back doors would be shooed away, but these two would be fed, although not pet. On the second evening, we came home to discover that the cat had given birth to four little kittens in the front yard. The mother wouldn’t let us go near her, and the little family was left outside overnight. My roommate, Hannah, and I heard a dog fight in the night, but didn’t think much of it. The incessant barking is normal in our host family’s neighborhood in Quito, as well. But in the morning, there were no kittens to be found, just a moping mother hanging around the house. My experience with my host family’s puppies has been similar: she gave birth to eight wiggling little things four weeks ago, but when I come home from my favorite coffee shop (Cafe Arte, where I’m currently writing this blog post) this evening, I will only have five great me from their doghouse. It’s heartbreaking to see, but a natural part of the world.

Fishermen returning from sea in Anconcito

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Playing with four of our puppies in the front “yard”

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Salinas, Ecuador

In Salinas, Hannah and I had the chance to shadow Charles, a TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language – volunteer, for two days. Unfortunately, I spent most of those days glued to my bed with food poisoning. However, I was able to make it out for an afternoon on Friday, where Charles took us on a walk behind the high school he was placed at. It was a former military school, and the base it resided on was also home to La Chocolatera, the furthest Western point of Ecuador. It’s known for it’s geographic location, ferocious waves and whale-spotting potential. We didn’t see any whales this time around, but we did enjoy staring out into the sea. It reminded me of my time driving along the Great Ocean Road with a kind Rotary member and his family in Australia.

Views from La Chocolatera

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Centro Historico & Downtown Quito, Ecuador

Finally, I had the opportunity this week to better explore the tourist attractions in my own backyard. I toured La Asamblea Nacional, Ecuador’s equivalent of Congress. In their main meeting room they have beautiful yet haunting murals done by Oswaldo Guayasamin, depicting great suffering and hope for a better future, underscoring the importance of the work these assemblymen do. On Sunday, I headed into Centro Historico with two friends and had my first real security scare. A block or two after we headed out of the Mercado Central, a man and his young son suddenly appeared from around the corner, yanking on my shoulder and attempting to snap the straps of my purse. My friends screamed, and I held tightly onto the purse straps I could reach. Spooked, the man ran away empty handed. He wouldn’t have gotten much – my purse only contained my headphones, keys, and a few replaceable cards, as I follow my host mom’s instructions to scatter my valuables in different pockets of my body – but the experience was still jarring. Despite the scare, we focused on enjoying the beautiful sights of impeccably-maintained colonial Quito. We enjoyed ice cream from a heladeria that’s specialized in it since 1858, looped the hiked all the narrow stairs to the top of Basílica del Voto Nacional’s belltower and spires for an incredible view of the city and wandered Plaza de la Independencia o Plaza Grande, where the President’s palace is situated.

View from the top of the spire, with a centered view of the El Panecillo y La Virgen de Quito

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Lounging in the belltower and looking to befriend Quasimoto 

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Peace Corps · Travel · Uncategorized

Experimental Learning and Escaping to Banos, Ecuador

I created a video of my experiences (featuring Despacito, a song you can’t go an hour without hearing in Ecuador) thus far! Check it out here.

This week, everyone in my Omnibus (cohort of incoming Ecuadorian Peace Corps trainees) began our experimental learning, a hands-on aspect of training that brings us into local health clinics to give thirty minute charlas, or presentations, in Spanish. Picture this: 10-15 people sitting on plastic patio chairs – they’re ubiquitous in Ecuador, used everywhere and available for purchase at a tienda for $1.99 – in a central waiting room at the Ministerio de Salud Publica (MSP). They’re primarily mothers with children, breastfeeding their babies or with hands nervously holding onto their bump. People are constantly streaming in and out of the three doctor’s offices, as well as the dentist’s, and the occasional stray dog wanders in as well. The only five Americans in el campo stream into the room, and share lessons on water sanitation, tooth brushing and hand washing for whoever is willing to listen. I was skeptical at first, but again impressed with Ecuadorian’s continuous kindness and generosity of spirit: they rose their hands to answer our questions and sang along to our silly songs – “Aserrin, aserran, mid manitos a lavar, con aguita y con jabon, muy bonitas quedaran”. In addition, the MSP in our host community, Puembo, offered to let us give presentations to their biweekly exercise club for local elderly individuals. About 40 members of the community, mostly women, gathered in a gymnasium for light exercise, stretching, and now our health promotion presentations, each week. The MSP had requested a Peace Corps volunteer of their own for the upcoming four years, so we’ll see if one of us is assigned to live here!

Thursday was my first charla. I nervously prepared my thirty minute presentation – I don’t think I’ve ever spoken in Spanish straight for such a long time before! I would start the session with some stretching to wake up the audience (and myself!), a “true or false” warm-up activity about the benefits of drinking water, a presentation on three easy ways to treat your water before consumption: boiling, chlorination and filtration, and a closing activity to assess what they’d learned. As I headed to Puembo to give my charla; however, the now-familiar rumblings of food poisoning began to rumble in my stomach. Most likely, someone else had prepared my food without following the water sanitation and hand-washing lessons we were about to present, because I was clearly coming down with – another! – viral gastrointestinal infection. About two-thirds of the way through my presentation, the symptoms began to escalate. I rushed through the charla, cutting out examples on the benefits and drawbacks of each water treatment strategy, and clamped my mouth shut tight when I finished the presentation. I answered their questions as quickly as I could, kissed a few goodbye, and rushed out of the gymnasium. Spotting a patch of grass outside the door, I vomited and tried to avoid eye contact with cars passing by. To the woman sitting next to me on the bus home: I’m so sorry you had to watch/listen to my retching for the entire forty-five minute ride home.

One thing is for sure: my presentations can only get better from here.

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My fellow volunteers and I visiting the Ministerio of Salud Publica at our host site

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The audience for my first charla

To celebrate finishing our first charla for experimental learning, one of my fellow Peace Corps Trainees, Amy, and I went with her host brother and his girlfriend to Baños, Ecuador – a city in the Sierra and on the edge of the Amazon, known for its hot springs, waterfalls and mountains – for a day over the weekend. I’m only allowed one night away from my host family during training, so I used it on Friday. We headed out of Quito right after training, and took the easy three hour direct bus to Banos from Quitumbe, Quito’s southern terminal. We’ll be right back there in a week, when we head south for our visit to the coast. I’ll be hosted by a Peace Corps volunteer in Santa Elena-Salinas, a beautiful beach town where one lucky Community Health volunteer gets to live for two years!

In Banos, Amy and I woke up early at our hostel to explore a bit of “downtown” – it’s a pretty small town – Banos while her host brother and his girlfriend slept in to enjoy their vacation. We found a market that hosted restaurant-style food stands, fruit, bread, and other snacks. We put together a breakfast of coffee, bananas, granadillas and a roll of bread for under $1.50! Ecuador uses the US dollar just like back home, which makes it easy to understand relative prices here. Produce and other locally grown goods, like rice, are cheap and widely available at fruterias or mercados, but imported goods can be wildly expensive. For example, I just visited the toy store to buy a deck of Uno cards for my little sister’s birthday present (she’s obsessed with the game, and we play with my cards all the time, so I want her to have it when I leave), and they were selling a Pictionary game for $80 USD!

Afterwards, we headed to Casa de Arbol for the famous “Swing at the End of the World”. Due to the drizzly weather, it felt like we were at the end of the world for a different reason: it dropped off into white nothingness. I hope to come back and visit on a clear day to see the stunning mountain vistas I know are on the other side of the fog! Next, we caught a ride back into town and headed back to the mercado for a traditional Ecuadorian lunch: chicken soup, rice, plantains, fried egg, ham, potatoes and a pinch-sized salad. We found a bus tour that would take us to Pailón del Diablo to walk across the canyon on a rickety bridge and stop at various other sites along the way. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let my photos do the rest of the talking…

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Rio Verde in Banos, Ecuador

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Swing at the End of the World at la Casa de Arbol

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Pailon de Diablo and the Steps Amy’s Host Family was Afraid to Visit

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This Bridge was Almost as Scary, Though

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Me, Walter, Kathy and my Fellow Peace Corps Trainee, Amy

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Rio Verde, Banos, Ecuador

Peace Corps · Training · Travel · Uncategorized

Recharged

I opened up my laptop to write this blog post this evening, and was startled to look at the battery indicator. 34%. With how busy the Peace Corps training schedule keeps me, I rarely use my laptop – I realized I haven’t charged it once since I left Seattle, a month ago. For contrast, I charged it twice a day when I was a student at UC Berkeley. So what’s been filling my time?

I haven’t written a blog post in about two weeks. During the beginning of that time, I developed my first bout of foreign illness. My fever crested at about 102.5F, and I was throwing up off and on throughout the week. My host mom and I suspect it was the ceviche I tried from an unknown restaurant the previous weekend in downtown Quito, near Casa de la Cultura, an Ecuadorian cultural museum with an extensive art market on Sundays. The art was stunning – a mix of traditional styles, local panoramic views and eccentric perspectives. It’s too early in my service to purchase anything now (I still don’t even know where my host community will be) but it definitely inspired me to create some art of my own. I brought a small “adult” coloring book of floral patterns, and my eight-year-old host brother adores it; we’ve been doing a lot of coloring lately. I also brought a set of watercolor papers designed to be used as postcards, so close family and friends, look for those in your mailboxes after a 6-8 week waiting period with the unreliable Ecuadorian post.

After wandering through the market, I headed to El TelefériQo with a friend. Despite commuting an hour into Quito every weekday to visit the training center, I hadn’t had much opportunity to see the city. The gondola ride starts at the edge of Quito’s city center and runs all the way up the east side of Pichincha Volcano – one of two major volcanos accessible from Quito, the other being Cotopaxi – to a lookout named Cruz Loma. With proof of my Ecuadorian work visa, I was able to snag the local’s price. But even with the discount, entry alone was about half my daily Peace Corps wage. Clearly, the place was a tourist trap – but it was exciting to hear English spoken around me by someone other than a Peace Corps volunteer for the first time in Ecuador. For fifty cents, one man had two alpacas tied to a post, and you could dress up as an “authentic” Ecuadorian with ponchos and cowboy hats alongside them. In typical Quito fashion, we were completely surrounded by clouds once we got to the top, and couldn’t see the view in any direction. It was a chilly “thinking of you” from San Francisco’s Karl the Fog. Still, I had an excellent time traipsing through a few of the trails near the top. According to my iPhone data, I walked around six miles that day throughout the city. A few days later, when I was at the peak of my fever, my phone recorded 18 steps total for the day.


View of Quito from the Gondola


Hiking at the Top 

The following weekend, I was feeling significantly better. That Sunday, my family took me to their farm. I live in a subdivided house, fairly typical of the tight-knit extended Ecuadorian families. In my apartment is the great-grandmother and her husband. She has two daughters, both of whom live in different apartments within the house with their husbands and a few of their children. One of their children lives in yet another apartment in the house, with her husband and her two children, an eight-year-old and a three-year-old who’ve become my closest Ecuadorian friends. Another branch of the family lives on this farm, where they have chickens, rabbits, a cow, 4 dogs, a cat (and three of her adorable kittens! I carried one around for the entirety of my visit), lemons, yuca, sugarcane, alfalfa, walnuts, avocados, and, the reason for our Dia de Los Padres visit, guinea pigs. We picked out a few of them for our Dia de Los Padres dinner feast.

The ambassador from the Untied States to Ecuador came to visit us at training that week. Ambassador Chapman is a lifetime diplomat – besides a seven year stint in commercial banking – and the embodies the epitome of Southern hospital. He eagerly invited us all to his weekend early Fourth of July celebration for fellow American ambassadors from nearby countries, embassy employees, dispatched military personnel and expats. I attended yesterday along with a dozen or so other Peace Corps trainees and volunteers, and wolfed down the American burgers they served.


Maddy and I at the Ambassador’s Official Residence for the Fourth of July Picnic


Meeting the US Ambassador to Ecuador

Week three of pre-service training also marked our first field trip as a cohort! We visited Otovalo, a predominantly indigenous community, and El Chota, a predominantly Afroecuadorian region of Ecuador. In Otovalo, we visited a local school, where we spoke with members of the indigenous community about their culture and history, learned a few words in Kichwa, and danced with them in honor of the summer solstice, or Initi Raymi. The Inti Raymi – translated to sun festival – is a religious ceremony traced back to the Inca Empire in honor of the sun god Inti. Following the school presentation, we traveled to los Cascadas de Peguche, a beautiful waterfall site near Otovalo. The sacred waterfall is part of Bosque Protector Cascada de Peguche, and is an indigenous cermonial site prominently utilized for purification ceremonies during Inti Raymi. Although we visited the day after the sun festival ended, a local spiritual leader recreated the purification baths and ritual for us, allowing anyone who was interested to participate, and explaining the meaning in Spanish as we went along. Afterwards, we visited the Otovalo market, one of the most significant markets in South America. We practiced our Spanish through haggling with the market vendors, and I was satisfied walking away with a new necklace and alpaca-wool scarf.

Participating in the Purification Bath


Offerings of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water for the Inti Raymi

We spent the evening with different host families in El Chota. That night, the women of El Chota invited us over to a rambunctious baile, where we listened and danced along to the disticnt Chota Valley bomba music, as well as obiquitous songs like Despacito (without Justin Bieber, of course). The women of El Chota have mastered an awe-inspiring form of dance, where they move more gracefully than I ever have, all the while with intricately decorated, full winebottles nestled atop their head. One woman, who looked to be in her early sixties, walked effortlessly through the fiesta with a full fruit basket balanced atop her head. At the end of the performance, she presented it as a gift to our boss. I came home from the trip with my ankles dotted with sandfly bites, another nasty bout of traveler’s sickness, a full-body coat of sweat from the Oriente-adjacent weather patterns, and more thoroughly in love with all of Ecuador than I was prior. With each new aspect or city I learn about, the more I admire Ecuador’s biodiversity and breadth of culture. I am eagerly looking forward to immersing myself in the sub-culture of my host community over the next two years, but I’ll need to visit my different omnibus friends from training over the weekends to have a chance to explore all the corners of this beautiful country.


My best friend Charli and I at her host family’s home


A mural reminiscent of the Let Girls Learn initiative started by Michelle Obama


Views from our Walking Tour of El Chota