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!

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

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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.

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The Ingapirca Incan ruin complex
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One of the dances, featuring the Amazonian Chonta festival tradition
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Relaxing in front of the sun temple
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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.

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Happy campers
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Our “campsite” – someone’s cow field – for the night
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The birthday girl with her band of admirers
Peace Corps · site · Travel · Uncategorized

Happy Anniversary!

Wow! This month one full year spent living in Ecuador.

Reflecting back on the 365+ days I’ve spent in Ecuador, it’s hard for me to come up with a coherent message. The year has been one of personal exploration and growth.

Unfortunately for me, I celebrated it with my first-ever emergency room visit. On my way to work two weeks ago, I tripped on the uneven cobblestone and fell directly on my left (writing!) arm. I tried to brush it off, heading to work and settling in with a bag of frozen peas at my desk, but the sharp pain drove me to calling Peace Corps’ 24 hour on-call doctor. He called the local private hospital (Ecuador’s socialist government provides free public hospital care, but it’s known for long waits and hit-or-miss care) and briefed them on my arrival. They gave me an x-ray and, due to the severe sprain, set me in the cast with instructions to return two weeks later for removal and a session of physical therapy. At the end of last week, I had it removed! With two hands at my disposal again, it’ll be easier for me to type, write, do basic work and household chores, so expect more frequent updates here.

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Santuario de La Virgen de Lourdes near Guaranda during their annual pilgramage or ‘peregrinacion’
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A donkey at work in rural Salinas de Guaranda

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The final steps on the pilgrimage to the sanctuary cave

This trip was special because it gave me the opportunity to visit one of my closest Peace Corps Volunteer friends, Charli, in her rural site of La Asuncion. She has been living in this little community of less than a thousand people for the past nine months, and I swear every single person who lives there knows her name and has nothing but good things to say about her! It was cool to see how integrated she was in the small community. On the weekends, the hub of the Asuncion social scene is a french fries and hamburgers food truck that parks itself in the center of the town square. The kids are usually playing in the concrete soccer field, with parents chatting and socializing with one another on the edges, and the young people all converge on the stools of the food truck to watch TV, eat fries and drink pajaro azul, the locally brewed cane liquor.

We also had the chance to go visit one of the other nearby volunteers, Roxie, at her site in Salinas de Guaranda. Salinas is a unique little city in the paramo near Chimborazo, because of the Italian missionaries that came in the 1980’s and made quite the difference in the community. Today, the town has over 20 different artisanal factories, making everything from essential oils to chocolate truffles. But what they’re most famous for is their varieties of cheese – one of the only places you can find something besides queso fresco in the country! I’ll need to come back for their annual cheese festival in October, where the main event is a group cheese roll, and the winner takers home a 50 lb wheel of cheese.

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We joined a nearby volunteer at her site in Sayausi on the outskirts of Cuenca
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Grinding corn and learning how to make humitas by hand

Evelin, one of my Cuenca sitemates, lives in one of the rural parroquias on the outskirts of the city of Cuenca (we’re the third largest city in Ecuador, but once you leave the city center, it quickly turns into smaller Andean communities rooted in agriculture. She has been helping her community develop an indigenous tourism circuit, where locals can share their heritage with urban school children and foreign tourists in an effort to preserve it despite the rapid modernization of Ecuador.

We were the cuy, or guinea pigs, of their new program, and went through it for the first time to help them work out the kinks and take photos and video footage to use for promotion when they launch the project in a few weeks.

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A few of the flower stands in Cuenca’s gorgeous flower market, located just off the main square
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My kitten, Mayu, is getting all grown up! I let her out on my patio for a sunny afternoon at home.
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A huge array of desserts and sweets took over Cuenca for Corpus Christi

 

Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

Home of Hope

At my new site in Cuenca, I’m working for the nonprofit foundation Hogar de Esperanza. I’ve been here two weeks so far. Two weeks doesn’t sound like a lot, but in that time I’ve:

  • Located the missing children of an HIV+ mother who has experienced memory loss due to trauma and has found herself on the opposite side of the country from her home
  • Presented on our organization’s work for nearly 100 Catholic leaders and congregants at a local church
  • Began a partnership with two local university students to create a sustainable source of dry goods for our food bank
  • Interviewed our current patients to learn more about their history and needs moving forward
  • Built a shared calendar system for us to manage doctor’s appointments, events and commitments across the organization
  • Designed our 2017 Annual Report and created a pamphlet educating about HIV and our organization for an open house in the center of town this Sunday
  • Visited three local nonprofits to learn more about their organization and how we could collaborate moving forward
  • Seen my boss be honored for his humanitarian service in front of the governor of our province, Azuay, and the expat community

Moving forward in the second half of my Peace Corps service, I can only see my responsibilities and activities continuing to grow. After the mañana pace of life in my previous site, the speed I’m experiencing here is leaving me a bit breathless (or maybe that’s just the 8,370 ft altitude). Nevertheless, I’m excited for the challenge.

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The rowdy fan section for Deportivo Cuenca, my new home team
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Sunset from the Turi lookout point over Cuenca
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Mayu is the perfect companion for my many sick days here in Ecuador

Besides, life in Cuenca is a lot more fun than the campo, too. Through another volunteer in the organization, I’ve been connected with soccer groups that play each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday after work. Although my soccer skills can’t compete with the locals who’ve been playing since birth, I created a network of friends through sports that extends outside of playing soccer. At least, all the way to watching soccer. We cheered on Deportivo Cuenca at the stadium – less than a ten minute walk from my new apartment! – despite heavy rain. The game coincided with Mother’s Day, and I scored a giveaway “Juntos para Celebrar con Mama” jersey featuring the Russian World Cup imagery.

This past weekend was my first birthday spent celebrating in Ecuador. In classic EcuaBella fashion, I spent most of my birthday and the weekend following vomiting and incredibly ill. Despite an entire year in Ecuador, my stomach still gives me regular food poisoning. Unfortunately, I had fun plans for hiking through Cajas National Park, one of my closest friends in Peace Corps had bussed 9 hours to come visit me, and I was about to sit down for a nice Italian birthday dinner with about a dozen volunteers when the vomiting hit.

At the time, I was very disappointed, but in retrospect that experienced exactly what my Peace Corps service has been like thus far: food poisoning, and unexpected setbacks.

Luckily, the night before my birthday, some of my new soccer teammates had insisted on taking me out so that I could start celebrating my birthday right at midnight. We went out to a local salsateca, where they surprised me at midnight by playing a salsa remix of “Happy Birthday” and having every guy in the club take a turn dancing with me for the duration of the song while everyone else surrounded me and clapped.

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Benefit fashion show supporting Mujeres con Exito, one of my counterpart’s partners
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Sunset from my apartment building
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The mural we made during our South Ecuador-wide cluster meeting
Travel · Uncategorized

Reverse Culture Shock

I spent the month of April back in the US reconnecting with my family after nearly a year abroad, but also slipping away for the weekends to see friends from other corners of America – from Seattle to Leavenworth to Portland to San Francisco and all the way to Boston.

While I was in Berkeley, I had the chance to sit down with my former Health Policy professor to discuss my experiences here in the Peace Corps. She served as an English teacher in Nepal in the 80s, and cited her experience there as the driving force for her to work in the health field. I took her class in the fall of my junior year of college. In one lecture, she shared a story about her experience returning from Peace Corps. After about a year in service, she flew home for a week to attend a wedding. She needed to buy new shampoo after she arrived, so she headed to the supermarket. But after a year in rural Nepal, where she would walk for several hours to get to the nearest shopping town, just to arrive in a small shop with one – maybe two – options for shampoo, the brightly-lit supermarket shocked her. Surrounded by the endless options, each promising ýour best hair ever! or blinding shine! she sunk down to her knees, overwhelmed. Eventually, she left without making a purchase.

Although Ecuador is a middle income country, considerably more developed than Nepal was over 30 years ago, the image of crying in front of an aisle of shampoo options resonated with me. Ecuador uses the US dollar, and after months of honing my bargaining skills to the last centavo, American prices were shocking. What do you mean, $4.50 for a latte? I could get 45 oranges for that price! Or at least 30 mangos. Or a romantic almuerzo lunch date for two.

I felt lucky to be able to spend such a significant amount of time at home, so that I could ease back into my normal routines. Normally, when I go on vacation, I go into a flurry of activity. When I was in France last spring, I would wake up for a sunrise run, try every new food I could, and wander ten miles around the city before collapsing in bed at the end of the night. Instead, on this trip I slept in late, tagged along with my little brother on his dog-walking duties, and went out to get my nails done with my grandma or Starbucks lattes with my grandpa. It was exactly what I needed to recharge. I returned with my passion reinvigorated for my second year of Peace Corps service, with the emotional resilience and cultural competency necessary for the individual HIV casework in my new role.

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Matt and I enjoyed the cherry blossoms in bloom just before a rare March Seattle hailstorm
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My family threw me an unbirthday party before I left, I will celebrate my real birthday this Friday in Ecuador

Although all of my trips to see my friends while I was home were fun – I tagged along on a sorority reunion weekend in Portland, and spent six days in the Bay Area seeing everyone I could – my favorite was the four days I spent with my closest friend, Mehek, in Boston. Because her two years at Harvard overlapped with my two years in Ecuador, I didn’t think I’d be able to visit her during that time. But, thanks to a cheap JetBlue deal, I found myself on a redeye to the East Coast on one of my last weekends in town.

The morning I arrived, I was on the “A Day in the Life of a Harvard MPP First-Year” tour. Our culminating stop was “Beers, Peers, and Careers” – a self-organized roundtable presentation where 3-5 students in the cohort could present on anything they liked. What does a random sampling of Harvard students present on?

  1. A kiwi goes abroad! A policy journey from New Zealand to England to the US.
  2. Talk your way into anything: How I raised millions of dollars for the charity I founded in undergrad and what Sheryl Sandburg taught me, a white male networking story.
  3. The wheels on the bike go round and round; Why I fell in love with bikeshares in Philly, and why you should too.

Spending the past year in Ecuador, I had been geographically isolated from my academic peers and forgotten how engaging I found the university atmosphere. I made new friends at the bars Mehek brought me to and joined them at IHOP until 3AM just so I could hear more about their stories and passions. Each student I met was driven to improve the policy world in their own niche community, and I wanted to learn everything about it. Ultimately, that weekend reaffirmed my desire to pursue a Master’s degree, and my commitment to diving into a GRE study guide so I could have a chance at an equally competitive, challenging program.

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Boston’s North End
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Mehek & I on Acorn Street
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Walking the Freedom Trail

Now that I’ve spent two full weeks in Cuenca, I’ll be sharing my experiences here in the upcoming week. Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, which has given me a drastically different experience with the culture and country than my original posting in a rural Amazonian town.

Here’s a few more highlights from Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Portland, and my 9 hour layover in Miami on the way home…

 

Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

A Fresh Start in Cuenca

Hey, blog. It’s been a while. Since January? When I first signed up for the Peace Corps, 27 months sounded like a dauntingly long period of time. But now it’s May all over again, the same month I left for Ecuador, nearly a year ago. As some of you know, I ran into some irreconcilable issues in my previous site. Living in the Oriente, I met some amazing people who impacted my time in Ecuador for the better: my good friend and adopted little sister, Jenni, my host family that embraced me like their own daughter, the little girls who greeted on my walk home from work and tirelessly searched the streets when my kitten went missing, and more…

But even though I’ve left my old site, I will still be living here in Ecuador for another year! With the ease of bus transportation in country, I’ll be able to go back and visit my friends for their fiestas in May and other occasions.

I moved to my new site, Cuenca, on Wednesday, and will report to my first day of work tomorrow! I will be working with the local nonprofit Fundación Hogar de Esperanza. The new foundation – they received their official nonprofit designation in Ecuador and the US last spring – is dedicated to improving the quality of life for those living with illness in Ecuador, with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS. I went in to meet the staff for the first time on Wednesday, and left with the assurance that I’ll hit the ground running: the job will push me, engage me, and move along at a fast pace. But I’m feeling up to the challenge.

On a personal note, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers and returned PCV’s who have stayed in the area have been incredibly welcoming. A Cuencana PCV who recently finished her service sold me all her belongings, so I already have all my furnishings, and I moved into an empty apartment in the regional volunteer leader’s building. Him, along with the volunteers in Azogues, have showed me all the important Cuenca locations: the best stand to get my veggies at the market, the Muay Thai studio where I can develop some boxing moves, the $2 cocktail happy hour bar, and the only spot in Ecuador to get delicious, authentic hashbrowns paired with a hot apple-passionfruit crumble. Unfortunately, that RPCV-owned cafe will be closing at the end of the month, so I’m going to need to get my pie fix filled this May.

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Mayu settling into our new apartment
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Typical street corner in Cuenca

In short, I am thrilled to be continuing my Peace Corps service here in Cuenca! This UNSESCO World Heritage site is filled with beautiful, historical architecture – I now live in one of the classic colonial homes, overlooking the bright white courtyard from my bedroom – and interesting events to attend or restaurants to sample. As I begin to integrate into the community, expect more stories from my work and life as a señorita Cuencana. 

But! Stay tuned for a few throwback blog posts, because in the months since my last post I have attended carnaval in the Amazonian capitol city, Tena, spent time at home with my family in Washington, visited the cherry blossoms in Portland with my sorority sisters, shadowed the Harvard graduate student life with my best friend, played in the snow in Leavenworth, and reminisced on my college years in Berkeley and San Francisco.

Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

Teenage Dreams (for a Better Future)

A big part of my work here is partnering with the local students – it’s a set up as Quincy Jr/Sr High School, which I attended, where the middle and high schoolers both share a campus. At the school I attended, we were all there together, from 8AM to 3PM, and the middle schoolers were separated into their own wing. Here, they split the campus – in the mornings the high schoolers meet from around 7:30-12:30, and in the afternoons the middle schoolers come in from 1:30-6:30. About three years ago, they introduced an IB program, and those graduates are the pride of El Chaco. These students spend an extra two hours each afternoon in school, and do homework all night long to keep up.

My work with them is threefold:

1. GLOW/BRO Curriculum in the Classroom and Clubs

GLOW/BRO, or Girls Leading Our World and Boys Respecting Others, is a worldwide Peace Corps initiative promoting gender equality, sexual education, and female empowerment. You can learn more about it at my blog post on the subject. Using Peace Corps resources, I created an 11-session program that covers a wide range of subjects, from healthy relationships, teen pregnancy and self-esteem. I’ll be implementing this program with three groups – two middle school clubs age 12-15, each once a week, and the IB high school students age 15-17, two days a week. As I’m starting work with the high schoolers first, I’m looking for ways to incorporate leadership opportunities with the younger set into our curriculum.

2. Youth Assembly 

Although this group is not yet fully fleshed out – they’re working to recruit representatives from each of the six rural communities in the county through a democratically-elected process – I’m very excited about their potential. The youth (ages 15-25) have organized a leadership council that advocates for their needs to the local government, and puts together projects that they care about for their peers. I’ve been attending their meetings, and am looking forward to cross-programming in the future!

3. Grassroots Soccer

After Christianity, Soccer is basically Ecuador’s national religion. Everyone knows how to play, and our small town has daily practices for children age 5-20. Using the Grassroots Soccer curriculum, I’m going to join in to coach practices for kids ages 13+. Only I won’t be teaching them how to score a goal, but rather setting a goal that they all learn about how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in their community. We’ll be playing different dinamicas each week, and tie back the activity to the theme and lesson of that day – such as the importance of using condoms and understanding sexual history as it ties to risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. By co-teaching with the coaches and local social workers, I hope to empower them to continue to run these trainings and activities in other cities in the county even after I leave. My town alone has 8 groups that I’ll be helping lead for the next three months, and there’s six different cities in the county I’m responsible for serving.

My work here extends beyond high school education, but I hope this helps y’all better understand what my day to day looks like.

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My middle schooler’s surprised me with a cake during our last club meeting
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Delicious produce at the high school’s recent Ecuadorian food showcase