Uncategorized · Peace Corps · site

Welcome to the Jungle

Here in Ecuador, the volunteers run El Climaa 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 “HomeWhat’s a stroll in your neighborhood at site like? Tell us about your backyard.” My take on the theme is transcribed below: 

San Rafael Waterfall with fellow PCV Mikayla and my KOICA coworker, Natalia

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.

The view from my roof, where I spent mornings doing yoga or afternoons doing BBG workouts
Hiking out to the petroglyphs – the carvings are located on the far rock on the right

 

Maito prepared at my host family’s farm 

Packing List · Peace Corps · site · Training · Uncategorized

Packing List for Peace Corps Ecuador

I spent a lot of time pre-departure agonizing over what to bring. How do you pack for two years abroad? What do I really need, what are my parents willing to store in their garage for me for an indefinite amount of time, and what am I willing to just throw away? Peace Corps provides a packing list, but I edited it quite a bit when fitting everything into my single 50 lb. suitcase, medium-sized duffle bag and 75 liter backpacking backpack. I’ve attached the Peace Corps’ provided list with my own recommendations added in below.

Caveat: Ecuador has three primary climate zones – coastal, where it is very hot and humid, mountainous, where it is temperate but can get very cold and varies widely throughout the day, and jungle, where it is usually hot, humid, and rainy – with two different seasons: rainy and dry. Coming to Ecuador, I had no idea where I would be placed, and had to pack for any of the three possibilities. I wound up in small-town temperate, rainy Amazonia, so my opinion on my things is skewed towards my use for the items in this climate. But even so, I’ll be visiting all the climates at one point or another during my service here.

Looking down at this list, it seems long, but I managed to fit it all in just one suitcase, backpack and duffle bag! There were other volunteers who brought two suitcases, but they definitely struggled with transportation every time they had to get to the airport, host families, or their site. You’ll likely be heading to site alone, and navigating several user-unfriendly buses to get there.

IMG_5051
What I thought I would wear…
IMG_6965
…What I actually wear

MEDICINE

The Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) will provide each trainee with an extensive First Aid kit and any other over-the-counter medication they need.

CLOTHING

  • One or two pairs of nice pants (black/gray/navy pants are more common than khakis)
    • I brought navy and black slacks and wore them regularly during training, where business-casual attire was strictly enforced, but haven’t touched them since my first week at site. In small towns, the dress code is fairly casual.
  • One to four pairs of jeans (long women’s jeans are impossible to find, also larger sizes for women are very difficult to find; skinny jeans are popular for young women)
    • True! Ecuadorian women tend to be very petite, and at 5’10” it’s nearly impossible for me to find clothes that fit here. Definitely glad I brought three pairs of dark wash (more professional) jeans with me, and I rotate through them regularly.
  • One or two 3-4 dress outfits for occasional formal meetings.
    • Ecuadorians love to celebrate, so I brought 3 different formal dresses with me, which I have worn for weddings, madrina competitions, meetings in hot-weather climate, and I wouldn’t mind having a few more dresses with me.
  • Three or more (I brought 6-7) short-sleeved shirts.
    • I almost exclusively wear sleeveless or short sleeved shirts layered with light sweaters and jackets as the weather changes throughout the day.
  • Two to four pairs of shorts (not too short, think mid-thigh or lower) and/or capris.
    • It’s not culturally appropriate for women to wear shorts, except on the coast or in the Amazon outside of work, so I rarely wear mine. In the Andes during training, I couldn’t work out in shorts, only leggings.
  • Three or more long-sleeved shirts.
    • Instead, pack lots of cardigans! It’ll provide more variety to your outfits and you can take them off if it’s hot in your office or during the middle of the day. I brought 2 turtlenecks and 1 sweater and haven’t worn any of them. I also brought 4 long sleeve shirts that I wore on rainy days in Quito.
  • One or two pairs of long underwear or other clothes to layer. Only one volunteer from my group is in a site sufficiently cold enough to merit long underwear, and she’s doing fine without a pair. Women can wear leggings under jeans if they’re cold as well.
  • 12 pairs of good-quality socks and underwear, including two or more pairs of heavy wool socks
    • Undergarments are very low quality here, so I’d recommend bringing more. My socks seem to be disappearing since I have had to hang them outside to dry.
  • Two or more sweatshirts, sweaters, or fleeces. Quito, where training and many Peace Corps meetings are, is chilly. I brought 3 cardigans, 1 fleece pullover (worn once), 1 crewneck sweatshirt, 1 jean jacket, 1 down vest (worn only a handful of times), and was much more likely to wear a tank top paired with a jacket for chilly mornings and warm lunchtimes than a long sleeved shirt for the day.
    • Quito can be chilly and is filled with pickpockets and petty theft, so while I was living there for training and when I go back for various meetings, I almost exclusively wear my jackets with inside pockets. I highly recommend this type of jacket to avoid getting your phone stolen on public transportation – an unfortunate experience many in my cohort had.
  • One warm jacket.
    • I brought a soft shell jacket, which I wore all the time in Quito and down jacket, which I’ve only worn once. I would have been fine with just the soft shell and a long sleeve or cardigan underneath. 
  • One waterproof jacket/windbreaker.
    • I brought two, since my family lives in Seattle and I had them both. It’s a nice luxury in the rainy season so I can switch off and have to not put on a damp jacket.
  • Athletic clothing for working out/playing sports.
    • Leggings are very popular here, and it’s culturally appropriate to wear them as pants. I brought three pairs and wear them all regularly as pants, workout clothes and pajamas. I also brought 3 pairs of workout shorts, which I can only wear as pajamas as it isn’t appropriate to wear them outside, and 4 workout tank tops, and two long sleeve workout shirts, all of which I wear regularly.
    • If you have ever played soccer, bring your cleats and shinguards! It’s a great way to integrate. I joined my office’s team and needed to buy these to play – it cost me $60 for both, which is more than my monthly $50 rent and dinner.
  • One or two bathing suits
  • One or two sun hats, visors, or caps with a bill
  • A modest watch
    • I forgot mine, and bought a cheap $10 gold watch during a trip to Salinas. I wish I had a leather band or other less conspicuous watch, though, because people keep asking me if it’s real.
  • Jewelry 
    • I only remembered to bring one statement necklace, a bracelet and large hoop earrings. I wish I had remembered my everyday earrings and other favorite jewelry that I used to wear in the US. On the bright side, it is cheap and easy to buy them here, so I’ve been collecting.
  • Pajamas! 
    • I forgot to bring any real pajamas, and wind up wearing my athletic clothing as pjs each night. I recently splurged on a pair of sweatpants to wear in the house, but wish I had just brought a favorite pair from home.

GENERAL CLOTHING WOMEN

  • Four or more bras
    • I brought two regular bras, two strapless, three sports bras,
  • One or two nice dresses or modest sundresses
    • I only brought one sundress, and have only worn it once. I might have more if I was placed on the coast. But I did bring 4 formal dresses with me and have worn all of them regularly. There’s a lot of fiestas here in Ecuador.
  • Six or more tank tops
    • I brought 4 workout tank tops and primarily sleeveless shirts (probably 6-8 compared to only 1-2 short sleeved shirts) because they don’t show your sweat as much. It’s important to only bring the type with thick straps (2-3 finger lengths, just like high school) because it isn’t culturally appropriate to wear the “spaghetti” strap style.
  • Skirts can be a great alternative to shorts, keep in mind that longer skirts are more acceptable.
    • I brought a maxi skirt and 2 knee length skirts and have only worn each one once. Again, maybe I would wear them on the coast, but I don’t like wearing skirts and have no need for them now.
  • Blazer or 3-4 cardigans
    • Again, cardigans and a short sleeve shirt are a much better option than long sleeved shirts. The weather is variable in all parts of Ecuador. I also brought one light-weight blazer that I’ve worn several times.

 

ELECTRONICS

Most electronics can be found in country, but the prices are usually about double what they cost in the United States.

  • Laptop (Highly recommended!) Internet cafés are usually available, but most resources are available digitally within PC Ecuador and official paperwork is usually filled out electronically. TEFL volunteers often give PowerPoint presentations and should definitely have a personal laptop.
    • Definitely bring a laptop if you have the means to. It will be difficult to get by without one, and you’ll likely be expected to do work on a personal computer if your office doesn’t have an extra one for you to use. Much of your work will be done on the computer, as well as the quarterly reports you need to turn into Peace Corps. Peace Corps will expect you to access their Sharepoint and emails regularly. I sold my MacBook Pro for a cheaper, used MacBook Air and am very happy with it here, although I wish I had brought a converter so I could use things like the projector at work.
  • Cheap unlocked non-smartphone (that takes SIM card) these can be found online in the States for $7 as opposed to in country for minimum $30. 
    • Peace Corps will give you the opportunity to buy a Nokia brick phone for $25 on your first day in Ecuador, but if you have an unlocked phone sitting around (old smartphone or simple phone), I would recommend bringing that instead.
  • Smart phone is useful to connect to Wi-Fi while traveling and to avoid taking laptops. If it is unlocked and uses a sim card, then it can also be uses as a personal phone (these are more likely to get stolen).
    • T-Mobil offers unlimited texting and 3G connection internet abroad with it’s T-Mobile 1 plan, and I have continued my plan here in Ecuador. It’s cheaper (albeit slower) than buying data here, and allows me to text my friends and family from home on both my MacBook and iPhone daily with my old number. It’s even fast enough to call people over my data on Facebook Messenger or Facetime, which is perfect for the weeks when my host family forgets to pay the wifi bill or I’m out of the house.
  • External Hard drive highly recommended for sharing movies, music and resources with other volunteers
    • They’re expensive, so I didn’t buy one. Instead we just use Google Drive and download things onto our computers. Every one of the volunteers in my group has access to internet either at work or at home.
  • Digital Camera
    • I brought an iPhone 6, and have exclusively used that for photos since I’ve been here, not touching my small silver camera once. Some other volunteers brought DSLRs, but almost never use them for fear of them getting stolen and not wanting to be perceived as wealthy.
  • MP3/4 player and good quality headphones
    • Personal preference – right now, I just use my phone for music when I’m running as I can stream Spotify premium (thanks to a family plan with the other volunteers, I pay just $2.50/month). But I’m going to ask for a used, basic clip-on iPod shuffle for Christmas because it rains 75% of the days here in the rainforest, and I don’t want to run with my phone in the rain.
  • Extra chargers for electronics (this mostly applies to any chargers that are not common/expensive and would be difficult to replace.)
    • I would say this only applies to MacBook chargers. I had a minor freakout when the prongs on my MacBook charger bent due to a kitten incident, but realized that I could swap out the prongs with those of my Apple USB block charger. It would have been very expensive to replace the entire charger in-country (and I didn’t bring an extra, because they’re expensive in the US too). When my iPhone charger broke, I was able to easily buy a new one for $8, and there is very cheap Android chargers here.
  • Small portable USB drive can be found in country but is convenient to bring one or two to training
    • Peace Corps gave us one on the first day, so I’ve never used mine.
  • Portable speaker can be found here but more expensive, recommended for TEFL volunteers to do listening activities.
    • I brought one because I had it, but don’t recommend buying one special unless you’re a huge music fan. You can just play it from your laptop speakers.

SHOES

It is difficult to find men’s shoe sizes over 10 and women’s shoe sizes over 8. Large cities have stores which might carry up to size 12 women’s and larger men’s sizes but prices can range from $30+.

  • Two pairs of tennis or running shoes.
    • I made the last minute choice to bring two pairs of shoes, and wear them both frequently. One is fashionable enough for everyday wear, and the other is worn exclusively for running and sports.
  • One or two pairs of comfortable dress shoes (flats recommended along with socks made for them. Can buy high heels or dressy sandals of all styles very easily in country).
    • I brought two pairs of flats and one pair of heels, all of which I wear regularly. The flats (Nordstrom Rack) are already starting to fall apart due to lots of walking on the dirt roads and poor quality sidewalks.
  • One or Two pairs of flip-flops (easy to find in country)
    • Buy these in Ecuador
  • One pair of sturdy sandals (Chacos, Teva, etc.). Don’t buy the cheap foam-style Tevas like I did, as I’ve already had to superglue mine together.
  • Hiking boots if you enjoy hiking (very expensive here)
  • Casual boots for day wear
    • Ones that you can wear as business casual-ish (think boots, dark jeans, and a blouse. That’s my typical workday outfit)
    • Preferably ones that will be fine in the rain, as most parts of Ecuador have a rainy season
  • Rain boots
    • Again, most parts of Ecuador have a rainy season, and you’ll be sad if your socks are puddles at work all day long.

MISCELLANEOUS: 

  • Backpack or day pack (very important for daily use or short trips)
    • I didn’t bring a normal sized backpack and I wish I did! It would have been better to bring that folded up small instead of the second duffle bag I packed instead (although that is also nice to have because the strap on my large duffle bag broke during the flight here). I use the mini backpack that came with my backpacking backpack, but it’s tough for 1 night weekends away and doesn’t fit my laptop or a full sized notebook well.
  • Hiking Backpack Medium/Large for weekend travel/vacations/hiking
    • I bought this one for half off with the Peace Corps discount and was able to sneak it through security as a carry on (while also having a huge side purse and carrying a full sized pillow) and check it for free at the gate on both my trip to staging and to country by not making eye contact with anyone as I was checking into my flight. I love that it has the mini backpack attached and that the rain cover can also be used as a duffle bag, so it’s like three bags in one.
  • Pocket knife or multi-tool (highly recommended and very useful)
    • I brought one but it turns out it’s illegal to carry a pocket knife in Ecuador so I rarely use it.
  • One shower towel (note: camping towels fold up small and dry quickly)
    • Towels are very low quality and scratchy here. I brought a cheap 4 year old towel from Target and that’s still nicer than the ones you can buy here
  • Sunglasses with UV protection (cheap sunglasses can be found in country but they are cheap and also very low quality)
    •  You can buy them in country, but I’ve had a hard time finding a pair I like because they’re all too small for my head or with weird patterns.
  • School supplies, i.e. white board markers, regular markers, cardstock, index cards, pens (especially for TEFL volunteers)
    • You can buy this all cheaply in-country, although the quality might be low. I haven’t been able to buy index cards here, though.
  • Purse(s)
    • Any purse you bring should be easy to secure well (zipper) to prevent theft. I brought a large shopper-bag style purse that was perfect for squeezing in last minute items at the airport and I use frequently for carrying my things to work. I also brought a tiny cross-body purse that just fits my phone, money and keys that I used to use for going out in the United States, and use it for day trips and going out when I’m not wearing a jacket with inside pockets. I wish I had a normal-sized purse (my go-to in the US would fit my wallet, phone, keys, and a book or light jacket) for day trips, but I’ll probably buy a handmade leather one here.
  • Foldable, reusable shopping bag
    • I brought a canvas tote bag for shopping at the market and other groceries, but I wish I had brought one of those little plastic ones that folds up into a small ball. It’s appalling how many plastic bags they give you at the tiendas here without concern for sustainability.
  • Games for classroom/English club activities i.e. Koosh ball, Bananagrams, travel versions of Scattergories, Pictionary 
    • My host siblings love Bananagrams and Uno! But you can also buy these at Juegaton in Quito, close to the training center, so I’d classify all this as optional
    • Decks of cards are easy and cheap to buy here.

RECOMMENDED IF YOU HAVE EXTRA SPACE/PERSONAL PREFERENCE:

PERSONAL HYGIENE AND TOILETRY ITEMS

Quality toiletries can be found easily in country. If you have any particular brand preferences, it’s recommended to bring a 12-month supply.

  • Contact lens solutions and extra cases and travel bottles (available in larger cities, but much more expensive than in the United States)
  • Tampons (expensive for a volunteer budget and difficult to find, except in main cities). An alternate option is a menstrual cup, and menstrual pads are available.
    • The OB-brand applicator-less tampons are accessible in every pharmacy (which almost every town has) at a reasonable price. They’re better for the environment, so you should use them anyways!
    • I have a menstrual cup, but it can be difficult to use in Ecuador’s public bathrooms with spotty access to toilet paper, soap, and even running water.
  • Makeup (U.S. brands are expensive here) Specific brand of perfume (Perfume is available here but name brands are expensive.)
    • If you have a different skin tone than the typical Ecuadorian, you’re unlikely to find your color of foundation or powder. The classic Maybelline Great Lash mascara, for example, is $19.95 here compared to $2.99 in the States.
  • Compact sleeping bag (recommended if you have space. Good quality is very expensive in country, cheap/decent sleeping bags can be found at some local sports stores in country)
    • I’ve never needed a sleeping bag and don’t foresee myself needing one. I just brought blankets from my bed when I went camping, and shared a bed with female volunteers when I’ve visited them, or crashed on the couch when visiting male volunteers.

 

MISCELLANEOUS:

  • Sheets (full size is recommended) and pillowcases (Available locally, but are low quality)
    • I thought that this was overrated, but brought a bottom sheet and two pillowcases anyways. I would love to also have a duvet cover or regular sheet, because the sheets here are so scratchy and low quality – even compared to the cheapest things they sell at Target, which is the quality of sheets that I’m used to at home
  • Pillow, especially if you have a favorite one! (Most provided pillows are not very comfortable.)
    • I’m not at Princess-and-the-pea-level, but whenever I’ve had to sleep on the Ecuadorian pillows, I find myself with serious neck problems in the morning. They’re made out of flat, pillow-shaped rocks. I brought a pillow with me last minute and am definitely glad I did. It was pretty easy to just carry in my hands on the plane and buses for transportation, and they didn’t count it as an extra carry-on.
  • Good quality water bottle (can be found in large cities but more expensive)
    • I brought a 1 liter Nalgene and 750ml Hydro Flask and almost exclusively use the Nalgene, the Hydro Flask is too heavy to take anywhere.
  • Unique spices ( e.g., Indian, pumpkin spice, chili powder) and hot sauces from the States if you plan to cook a lot (you can find most of the common spices in bigger cities)
    • Generic spices here are very cheap – I bought a bag of oregano, for example, for 35 cents last week – but hot sauces and ethnic spices are difficult to find. Ecuadorian food tends to be pretty bland.
  • Hair dryer (if used frequently in the States)
  • Hair straightener (if used frequently in the States)
  • Headlamp (very useful instead of a regular flashlight especially for reading at night or when power goes out for hands-free movement)
    • I brought this and only used it once when I went camping.
  • Decorations for room or apartment (e.g., posters, maps, and postcards of your hometown)
  • Equipment for hobbies, such as sewing patterns and musical instruments, and baking supplies. I wish I brought a sharp knife and measuring cups and spoons.
    • I brought lots of art supplies (acrylic and watercolors) and am glad I did, it was fairly expensive to buy more watercolor paper here when I needed it. I’m using cardboard for acrylic canvases because fabric ones are prohibitively expensive.
    • I also love using the French press I brought, although most volunteers won’t be lucky like me and have a host family who grows, roasts and grinds their own coffee. The vast majority of Ecuadorians drink instant coffee.
  • Favorite games, Frisbee, foam footballs, word games, card games etc.
    • You can buy a Frisbee for about $3 in Quito and decks of cards are cheap as well
  • Photos of family and friends (important to show host family and to decorate with)
    • I brought these, but I wish I had more! It’s nice to have on your wall, and it costs about $1 per 4×6 print here.
  • Small pocket calendar or daily planner (easy to find and not too expensive to buy here but may be convenient to have for planning)
    • You can just use your phone or print/buy a planner here.
  • Powdered drink packets such as: coffee, lemonade etc. (a nice treat and easy to pack if)
    • I brought these and haven’t touched them.
  • Small snacks such as: protein bars, trail mix, favorite candy, etc. (a nice treat but not necessary)
    • Only if you have extra space – you’ll eat these quickly.
  • Small gifts for host families (i.e. souvenir magnets, small toys for kids, or ingredients to make a traditional dish from home)
    • I brought a bunch of gummy candies from Costco, but they were heavy and many of them are available in Ecuador, so I wish I hadn’t.
  • Travel-size multi-outlet surge protector (helpful for keeping multiple electronics charged when there are limited outlets)
    • I wish I had brought this but I didn’t. Both host families I’ve lived with I’ve only had one outlet in my room. I did bring a extension cord, which comes in handy.

That’s it! With this I’ve been able to tackle all the weather situations Ecuador threw at me.

IMG_5556
Hot afternoon birthday party in Santo Domingo
IMG_5893
Chilly hike in Quilotoa
FullSizeRender.jpg-3
Temperate day at the San Rafael waterfall in El Chaco
Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

Volcanoes, Snakes, oh my!

Let me clarify –

There are also things in Ecuador that are very, very different than my old life in the United States. For example, over the weekend I was walking with my host brothers to the soccer field to practice for my Ecuadorian football debut on Thursday. On the way, we spotted a small dead garden snake on the side of the road. I pointed it out to ask if there were any larger snakes in the area. “Oh yeah! I spotted one at the finca once that was six feet long.” My host brother eagerly shared.

“The same finca where we camped last weekend? Where you left me alone in my own tent?”

“Don’t worry, they’re more scared of people than you are of them. Besides, back in Tena I found a ten foot long one.” My 19-year-old host brother, Angel, is a college student studying ecosystems in the Amazonian city of Tena about 2.5 hours away. Because we’re on the transition zone, the weather here is fairly temperate. Tena is more tropical with greater biodiversity of fruits, monkeys, and apparently, snakes. Regardless, I was not comforted by the promise that even bigger snakes means I shouldn’t worry at all. Future camping trips might not be in my future.

IMG_7368
Views of volcán Revantador on my walk home from work 

Another interesting aspect of my site is the Reventador Volcano, pictured from my walk home from work above. It’s an active volcano just 20 miles away from my house. On a clear day (which isn’t often, due to our rainforest climate) I can keep an eye on it in hopes of spotting an ash plume. The volcano has been actively erupting since July 2008, and spews ash on an hourly basis. If your daily commute doesn’t include a not-so-distant exploding volcano, let me assure you that it’s a beautiful sight to behold. I’d pick it over smokestacks from a neighboring factory any day.

Finally, preparing food is a much more involved process than I’m used to. Goodbye Tony’s Delta Sigma cooking (my mouth is salivating at just the memory of his tofu steaks, or tacos, or garlic bread…I’d even settle for his pork chop night, honestly), or even Crossroads. There’s no microwave or oven for me here.

IMG_7306
Last week’s market haul

Instead, I’m blessed with a cornucopia of fresh produce. At the market on Sunday, I picked up 8 green peppers, 5 papayas, 6 cloves of garlic, a box of cherry tomatoes, 24 bananas and a little mint plant (personal goal: learn to make Philz mint mojito lattes from scratch) for just $7. Even better, my host family grows and roasts their own coffee in our farm. I can see the coffee beans laid out on the roof to dry out of the corner of my eye now. If I want free-range chicken or eggs with lunch, I don’t need to look further than my own backyard.

My favorite Amazonian meal is their specialty, maito. I prepared it for the first time fully farm-to-table a few weeks ago. At my counterpart’s family farm, I helped his brother and mother pull a net through their tilapia pond to gather out a bucketful of perfectly-sized fish. They taught me how to kill and clean the fish next, methodically slicing them in half to replace the insides with salt. We picked out large, green leaves to fold the fish inside like a Christmas present. Instead of shining ribbon, we tied it all together with stalks. In the time all of that took the fire had died down to shimmering red embers. We carefully laid each package across the fire and left to collect cinnamon leaves for the tea.

IMG_7097
Typical maito plate

When it was cooked just right, we feasted.

Peace Corps · site · Uncategorized

High School, Part 2?

After hearing Matt and other friends talk about it for the past year, I finally binge-watched Stranger Things. If you haven’t seen it, the basic premise is this: a group of high school boys’ lives are turned upside down by the upside down, an alternate universe version of their small town where superpowers exist and the monsters have an appetite for local children. In this world, there are an infinite number of universes running alongside one another, and a small rip in the space-time continuum can bring two of them together.

The show parallels nicely with my initial impression of living here in Napo Province for a month. I joined the Peace Corps with visions of building a niche in my host community, sharing my knowledge of public health, and discovering a foreign corner of the world. I still hope to do all of those things in my town, but I’m finding that more things than not are making me feel right at home in this corner of the Amazon.

IMG_7226
Petroglyphs in my community from hundreds of years ago
IMG_7249
My new co-volunteer, Natalia, from South Korea’s 2-year international volunteer program
IMG_7277
After milking the cows, we delivered them to the local cheese factory for about 50 cents per liter

Proof that my site may be an alternate universe of my high school experience:

  1. Like every other moody high schooler, I occasionally found myself griping into my diary “I just feel like no one understands me!”. Back then, the boy drama or my parents’ curfew could be solved by simply ignoring my problems, and turning my nose into a gripping book to spend the rest of the evening reading in my cozy window seat. Once again, I feel like no one understands me. This time, I am fully confident than I’m right. Despite all my efforts, my Ecuadorian accent is still terrible and my coworkers occasionally revert to ignoring me when they decide I’m too hard to understand today. At the end of the long day, rather than practicing my Spanish, I find myself cozied up with one or four of my kittens and my Kindle to read.
  2. Surrounded by the beautiful mountains, in a little nook of a valley.
    IMG_7368
    The Revantador volcano, 20 miles away from my house and visible on a clear day, is active and spouts ash like this nearly once a day

    IMG_7385
    The view from my roof during morning yoga/kitten cuddling sessions
  3. While my town has the basics at little tiendas and the weekly market, if I want anything more exotic – like cheddar cheese, chocolate or salsa – I have to make the three hour trek to Cumbaya, a suburb of Quito. There, SuperMaxi (the Costco of Ecua-world) will fulfill every American craving for me (for a price). In Quincy, the only thing that prevented our monthly trips to Costco were the winter snowstorms. They built up obstacle courses of black ice and fallen branches, leaving us afraid to tackle the one road out of town, heading to Reno. Here the mountain road is almost exactly the same distance (67 v 72 miles) but takes at least twice as long, due to the poor road conditions.

    IMG_7306.jpg
    I bought 2 bags of spinach, 2 pounds of black beans, 24 bananas, 4 peaches, 3 papayas, 8 mini loaves of whole-wheat bread, and a bag of cherry tomatoes for less than $10 at the market
  4. On a camping trip last weekend, I had to pinch myself to remind me that yes, I’m really in Ecuador. First, we attempted to hike up one of El Chaco’s surrounding mountains for views of the valley. We walked two miles uphill, the “trail” just mud knee deep, surrounded by jungle on all other sides, until we couldn’t go any further. It was dark, and we were most definitely lost. It had been pouring rain since we’d started, likely soaking any electronics in my heavy backpack, my hands were covered in various cuts from the thorny bushes I’d held onto in order not to sled down in the mud, and there were more bugs than I’d like to think about. I was happy to turn back. Plan B: campout at the family farm. They have a cabin-style basic 2 room wooden house with a covered patio for when you need to cook over the fire in the rain. We brought marshmallows, hot dogs and a bottle of wine (an upgrade from high school, where all we had was Arizona iced teas). I brought a portable speaker, which meant I was in charge of the music. So I picked a favorite Spotify pre-made playlist, “Country Gold”, a perfect mirror to my go-to high school radio station, 92.1 FM JDX – the Sierra’s Best Country. Living in the transition zone between the Sierra and the Oriente (Amazon), this was probably the only American country music playing in the province. Doing my best to retell Quincy campfire stories (the Keddie murders, Oakland Camp legends) to the boys in Spanish, I could have been with Adam and Nico with Adam translating the meaning behind our various adventures to Nico when he first arrived from Argentina.
  5. Much to my surprise when I was offered this position, my boss – the country director – is Adam’s dad.

In the Stranger Things world, it’s possible for more than one universe to collide, bringing in an aspect or two of their world into yours.

Here in Ecuador, my alternative upside down would be the one in which I attended high school in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, just like my little brother is right now. The endless rain is just like that of the city where I was born. Seattle has a saying that they celebrate their rain festival 365 days a year. I thought I had the rain thing down. But the “rain” in Amazon rainforest is no joke. It can go from a sunny afternoon to an absolute downpour in 5 minutes flat., and it usually lines up perfectly for whenever I have to leave the office.

IMG_5218
The parade kicking off an annual Olympics style basketball, soccer and Ecua-volley tournament between four local government employees’ teams
IMG_7242
A grasshopper spotted in the local bamboo-arium, where they cultivate dozens of different types of bamboo
DSC00878
Monkeying around in Misahualli

PS.

What could make a place feel more like home than a visit from a best friend from home? Thanks Karina for braving 2-3 day bus rides on either side to make a pit stop in my little corner of the world on your way from Bogota, Colombia to Peru with me. I loved listening to you play Delta Sigma’s song (that you wrote yourself!) on the guitar for my entire host family, drinking moonshine shots my host mom insisted we have, visiting indigenous communities in Tena and avoiding getting our phones stolen by mischievous monkeys in Misahualli.

IMG_7218
Canoeing down the river with Karina
IMG_7213
Treehouse on the river in Misahualli
IMG_7201
Daniel’s host family brought us to the perfect hiking spot
IMG_7137
Morning view from my host family’s roof
Peace Corps · Uncategorized

Settling In

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

Peace Corps · Training · Uncategorized

Peace Corps Swear In!

On Tuesday, I graduated for the third time in as many months!

All 46 of the Peace Corps Trainees who came in with me in June swore in as official Peace Corps Volunteers at the United States official ambassador’s residence in a beautiful ceremony (that started on Ecuador Time, i.e., 50 minutes late. Luckily Berkeley Time, where everything starts 10 minutes later than you think it will, helped prepare me for this) with the Peace Corps staff, our current host families for training, and our new host families at site.

IMG_6145

Celebrating with the Peace Corps flag

Although we’re required to wear business casual to training daily, the emphasis tends to be on casual. Many of us don’t have hot water at our host families’ homes, so we don’t spend a lot of time with our appearance on a daily basis. It was so cute to see everyone dressed in their best outfits, chit-chatting with their host families – all of whom were fussing over their volunteers as if they were their true mothers, taking pictures, reapplying sunscreen and checking to make sure they’d eaten.

My current host mom had a stern talking to with my new host dad, reminiscent of when your dad meets your high school boyfriend for the first time. She explained all the important facets of my personality: I’m muy tranquila, don’t like to eat rice or meat, and require a cup of coffee with breakfast every day. Over dinner that evening, she reassured me that she approved, and felt comfortable letting me move to site. I loved my new host family in the Oriente, just as much as I love my doting current host family, so I was glad to hear she enjoyed meeting him as well.

But I won’t be moving to site quite yet – I still have two more weeks of Spanish tutoring to help get me up to speed. Since I was one of the few volunteers who hadn’t studied Spanish in college, I frequently found myself lost in long conversations with new Ecuadorians, and am glad to have the opportunity to sharpen my language skills (and much needed pronunciation coaching) in a 1-on-1 setting now. But the end of the month will be here before I know it, and I’ll be off to the Amazon!

IMG_6178

My host mom from training on the left, with my new host father on the left

IMG_6170

Saying goodbye to one of my closest friends from training, Charli, and enjoying a rare cup of non-instant coffee

Peace Corps · Training · Uncategorized

Home

This post is a week overdue, but in typical Ecuador fashion, I’ve been suffering from a bout of food poisoning since I got back – my sixth or seventh illness since I arrived in the beginning of June, I’ve lost count – and thus unable to motivate myself to do much more than marathon Gilmore Girls. I tell myself that it counts as studying when I put it in Spanish with English subtitles, but I find myself tuning out the voiceover the majority of the time.  For the big reveal, the Peace Corps Ecuador staff put together traditional musical and dance arrangements for each of the three main geographic regions of Ecuador: Oriente (Amazon), Sierra (Andes) y Costa (Self-Explanatory). Afterwards, we were called up one by one to receive an Ecuador woven bracelet and to announce our permanent site.

IMG_5886

Happy volunteers after we found out our sites

For me? I’ll be moving to a beautiful riverside town of about 8,000 in the intercambio region between the Amazon rainforest and Andes mountain range. I was thrilled, because I couldn’t imagine a better location for me. It has sweeping mountain views with every turn: bright green ranges thanks to the intermittent rain 3-4x per day. The population is just slightly larger than my hometown of Quincy, California, which means I have access to a weekly market, hourly buses to the capital city of Quito (about three hours away), daily free baileterapia classes, amazing dirt roads that double as running trails, but no Americanized distractions from my goal of integrating into the community such as movie theatres, supermarkets or McDonald’s (Which I’ve visited in Quito more frequently than I ever did in Berkeley).

Even more exciting, I was paired with a strong counterpart organization and leader. I will be working with the municipal government, which will provide me a larger latitude in the types of projects that I’ll be working on – the majority of the other volunteers are working with the local public clinics – and more resources to accomplish my goals. For the first three months, I’ll be primarily assisting their pre-existing projects to get an idea of how they are run before tackling my creating my own. The three weekly classes I assist with focus on parenting, domestic violence and alcohol/drug problems in the high school.  My counterpart leads the city’s tourism department, and on his free time leads kayaking and rafting classes at the river alongside our town.

Soccer field less than a block from my new house


Rainy walk to work 


My host family took me to visit Cascadia Mágica 

I visited the town last week, and unexpectedly found out I had the house to myself due to a family emergency. At first it was a bit of a shock – I didn’t know where the cat’s and dogs’ food was stored or how to care for the baby chickens, or collect eggs – but then the situation quickly turned around. Because the town didn’t want their newest member to be solita, they collectively took me in. On my first night, I had the opportunity to join my counterpart for dinner, where his mom taught me how to make cheese empanadas for dinner, and I met a doctor-in-training from Chile who finishing up his residency at the Centro de Salud while renting a room in my counterpart’s home. The second night, I watched movies with my host family’s sister’s teenage children while learning more about issues with drugs, alcohol and teenage pregnancy in the local high school from them. Afterwards, their family treated me to a cafecito – a typical dinner in my community is a carb, such as a humita with queso fresco or an empanada, possibly served with a fried egg, and always a cup of hot coffee. All ages are free to drink coffee before bed – from the just-over-one-year-old I met in Aconcito to elderly grandparents. It flies in the face of American traditions that say it’ll stunt your growth to drink coffee before you’re an adult, and that coffee after 3PM means you won’t be able to sleep that night. But in Ecuador, most families drink instant coffee mixed into hot water (even though Ecuador is a major exporter of high-quality coffee beans), which may have a lower caffeine content than the fresh stuff. On the final night, I joined my neighbor for a dinnertime cafecito and also ran a few errands around town with him as he met with a carpenter to order a new bed and headed to the other side of town to order more wire fencing.

The baileterapia teacher also took me in – she just moved to town less than a year ago, and remembers how hard it is to be new – giving me a walking tour of the town, buying me an Ecuadorian version of an otter pop on a warm afternoon, and having me attend children’s craft lessons and baileterapia classes with her. With all of this hospitality combined, I felt incredibly welcomed in my new community. The town is facing some important community health issues, and I can’t wait to work with them to tackle those while making friends, exploring the Amazon, and celebrating unique Ecuadorian festivals along the way. 

Eating traditional fried beatle larvae for lunch

The butterflies crawled onto our fingers 


Hiking out to Cascadia Mágica 

We have cacao, coffee and dozens of different fruits growing in our garden