So…how was it?

Next week I’ll be attending my Peace Corps ‘Close of Service’ conference, and in two months I’ll officially end my service and add an ‘R’ to my PCV title – Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I will say goodbye to my home of the last two years and start a new life and job in another place. I have started to feel the familiar anxiety that comes with big transitions…when I look into my future it’s an obscure vision, filled with huge question marks and the occasional panic attack. Much like when I left for Peace Corps almost exactly 2 years ago, I feel a constant range of emotions that change every 12 minutes, approximately. I am excited to move on to new opportunities, terrified about what the future holds, dreading saying goodbye and proud to have (almost) successfully completed my Peace Corps service. I think that’s why I felt the sudden need to revisit this blog after such a long time – transitions are scary and exciting, something that’s interesting to write (and read) about. Everything in the middle is just…life.

But speaking of life, I have been trying to prepare for the questions I know will be coming my way from friends, family, and acquaintances…”so, how was it?” “What was it like?” “What did you do?” I have been rehearsing answers to these inevitable questions in my head, trying to come up with a brief yet somewhat coherent elevator speech that somehow conveys my 2+ years living in coastal Ecuador. How can I possibly come up with a way to explain the blood, sweat (oh my god so much sweat), tears (a lot of those too), joy, frustration, confusion, pride, anger, and fun that has comprised my time here?

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I can tell short anecdotes that communicate various emotions and experiences to you, my audience, like the time a student left a cardboard box on my front porch with a giant iguana inside as a thank you for teaching English classes, or the time my counterpart carried me on his back over a flooded road because he didn’t want me to get sick from the water.

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I could tell you about holding community meetings where the parking lot was for horses, and seeing families of 4 plus family pets balancing precariously on a motorcycle speeding down the highway.

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I could explain the frustrations of not being able to hold classes indoors because chickens are harassing the students and pigeons are pooping on everyone’s heads, but not being able to take the kids outside because cows have taken over the schoolyard.

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I could describe the long nights spent in a pool of sweat when there is no electricity and the fan isn’t working, and the hundreds of bucket baths when there was no running water.

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I could mention the disappointment of having no one show up to the charla I spent hours planning, or the pride at seeing a group of moms work together all day to build a fence around the new garden at their kids’ school.

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I could tell you about the many births, deaths, baptisms, graduations, and birthday parties I’ve witnessed and attended, or show you the giant ring of keys I’ve somehow accumulated from the various offices, schools, and foundations I’ve worked in.

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I could show you pictures of my hikes in the Andes mountains, tubing down a river in the Amazon, and swimming in the pools of breathtaking waterfalls.

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I could tell you I’ve just killed my third laptop charger, my poor computer is struggling so hard to stay alive for me because it’s clogged with the thick layer of dust that covers everything here, and I don’t have one item of clothing that doesn’t have a hole in it because living here is just kind of hard on your things.

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I could explain how much it makes my day to hear little kids screaming “Tía Raquel” or “Señorita” at me when I walk down the street, or the weird sense of joy I get from standing outside and gossiping with neighbors.

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I could tell you about the time I broke down crying in front of a room full of teenagers, or about the time a little girl chased me down after class to list all of her life goals she didn’t have time to explain during her presentation.

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I could complain that all the websites I normally used have inexplicably switched to Spanish, but secretly I kind of like it. I could show you my bruises from trying to pretend I can keep up with Ecuadorian kids playing soccer on the beach (spoiler: I can’t).

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I could vent for hours about how frustrating it is that it takes 12 thousand years to get anything done because everyone takes 3 hour lunch breaks, but I’d be lying if I told you I won’t miss my afternoon naps.

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I could tell you about late nights closing down the karaoke bar belting out Spanish love ballads, pretending not to understand when old ladies ask me to marry their 45-year-old sons, and lounging on the beach for countless hours.

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I could tell you about the 9 (NINE!!) incredible friends and family members who have visited me here and shared unforgettable adventures in my adopted home.

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If you ask me how Peace Corps was I will undoubtedly pull out my phone and start showing you endless pictures of breathtaking sunsets that I watched over the Pacific Ocean a 3-minute walk from my apartment, and then I will force you to watch a progression of pictures of my dog, Luna, chasing crabs on the beach.

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The truth is, when you ask me how Peace Corps was, I don’t know what I will tell you. Peace Corps was simultaneously the most incredible adventure and the most difficult job I’ve ever had. Am I glad I did it? Hell yes.

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puro lodo

It’s been almost 5 months since I updated this blog. Whoops! Many apologies. I’d like to say that living my life got in the way of writing about it, but with the amount of “Almost Sunny” reruns I’ve been through in the past few months it’s clear I really have no excuse. It’s a little overwhelming to think about writing a blog post that covers everything I’ve done since December, so I’m going to provide some cliffs notes, lots of pictures, and a promise that I’ll TRY to do better in the future. So, here we go:

Puro Lodo

The last time I updated, I was waiting for the transition from the dry season to the rainy season. I was so looking forward to the rain wiping out the thick layer of dust that coated my lungs and somehow found its way into everything in my life – food, clothes, computer, etc…  Now, I’m counting down the days until the dry season is back. The grass is always greener, right? “Puro lodo” is basically San Vicente’s unofficial motto during the rainy season – “pure mud”. Because San Vicente has so few paved roads and very little infrastructure to handle rainfall, the streets turn into an impassable mud pit of doom every time it rains. This makes it difficult to carry out simple tasks like walking outdoors, but it does create a sense of camaraderie among San Vicenteans who yell out helpful advice to passersby from their second story windows – “Take a left here, you won’t be able to get down the next street!” or “BE CAREFULLLL that puddle is deeper than it looks!” In May, the rain will stop and the skies will cloud over, which will bring back the dust and provide some relief from the blazing sun. I’m not sure which season I like better, but a change will be nice.

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This is a picture of Luna and me traipsing through the San Vicente mud. The woman who took this picture posted it on facebook with the caption “Rachel and Luna, happy in the mud.” Fun fact: I was NOT happy when this picture was taken. I had just slugged calf-deep through the mud for the better part of 15 minutes trying to trap Luna, who was gleefully sprinting away from me every time I got within 2 meters of her. Happy in the mud, indeed. Which brings me to my next update –>

Luna Lobita Iler Good

I got a puppy! I actually got her in January, so this is kind of old news, but I needed an excuse to post adorable puppy pictures.

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In January I went to Cuenca, a beautiful city in the mountains in the southern part of the country, with some friends. Cuenca is very well developed and feels more European than Ecuadorian, and also houses what I think may be the only dog shelter in the country. We went just to see the dogs and maybe play with some puppies, but of course once one of the kids there put baby Luna into my arms there was no going back.

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She and her sisters had been found on the streets just a few days before and needed to be adopted. The vets predicted she was about 2 months old and, because they didn’t know who her parents were, had no idea what mix of breeds she was or how big she would grow. Her name is Luna Lobita, which technically means Moon Little Wolf. It sounds better in Spanish. She looked a lot like a wolf when she was a baby, hence “Lobita”. My wonderful PCV friend Jamie adopted her sister, and we spent the weekend in Cuenca rolling around in various parks with our tiny babies.

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…this one was in Bahia, one of the first few days she was home.

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…and this one is her in my kitchen, snuggled up next to her water.

Since then little Luna has brought me unimaginable amounts of happiness (my roommate, running partner, and cuddle companion), frustration (countless shoes, clothing, and MY COMPUTER CHARGER have become snacks), and vet bills (parasites, fleas, ticks, bronchitis)…but despite the setbacks, she’s my baby and I love her so much. I predicted her birthday is in November, which makes her about 6 months old now. And YES, definitely planning on bringing her back to the states with me!

Here are some more recent pictures…she has grown quite a bit since January.

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Road trip!!!

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…she eats sand.

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This is the most recent one. She now has one ear that sticks up and one that doesn’t, which I love and I hope it always stays that way.

Apartment

January brought a lot of changes – in addition to the puppy, after 9 months of living with host families, I finally moved into my own apartment! It was a transition going from living with families and constantly being surrounded by people to living alone, but I love being able to determine my own schedule, come and go as I please, and cook my own food!!! The food part is the best. I love vegetables.

My apartment would probably be considered relatively primitive by US standards, but I’ve learned to adapt. The best part is that it has running (cold, but RUNNING) water, which means I haven’t had to take a bucket bath since January. It’s an incredible feeling being able to shower, brush my teeth, and flush the toilet whenever I want without having to check the water barrels to see if we have any water to spare that day. The apartment also has large open portions where the ceiling doesn’t quite meet the wall, so in addition to Luna I have regular apartment-mates that vary from bats (they like to sleep hanging from my kitchen ceiling…), birds (they usually just fly around frantically and poop on my bed until they find an opening to escape from), geckos (I love these guys, they are cute and drive Luna crazy), and an impressive variety of insects ranging from spiders to mosquitoes to cockroaches to grasshoppers that take refuge on the ceiling above my bed and then fall on my face when I sleep. Asi es la vida!! I do love my apartment, but I have to admit I sometimes have fantasies about carpeted floors and air conditioning and not living in an insect sanctuary.

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I try to live by this motto. Some days are easier than others.

FUN STUFF

I’ve been so incredibly lucky to have had 5 friends visit me in the last few months. I have wonderful, incredible, beautiful, adventure-loving and world-traveling friends who used their vacation days and hard-earned money to visit my little corner on the equator, and I could not be more grateful. Melissa came during the holidays in December and made my first Christmas away from family not only NOT depressing, but SO MUCH FUN. Then, in mid-march, Victoria, Katie, Catherine, and Neema, all of whom I’ve known since my first year of college, came for an amazing and unforgettable 10 days. Life here can be rough sometimes, but having memories like these to fall back on during bad days makes such a difference. Here are some of my favorite pictures –>

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Melissa and I in Mindo, a cloud forest reserve a few hours away from Quito.

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In Quito!

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Neema, my first year college roommate, and I on the beach.

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Bonfire in Bahia!

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More beach-themed pictures 🙂

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UVA @ Mitad del Mundo

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More Mitad del Mundo

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Quilotoa, a beautiful crater lake near Latacunga and about 5 hours south of Quito. It was freezing cold but the views were incredible!

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We hiked down to the bottom of the lake and then took mules up because it was SO STEEP and also we were on a time crunch.

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MORE BEACH! sorry these pictures are all over the place. Organization was never my strong suit.

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On top of a mountain overlooking Quito.

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TURTLE!

Have I mentioned how lucky I am to have the greatest friends in the world? Because I am.

MORE FUN STUFF –> Carnaval

The beginning of March was Carnaval, which coincides with Mardi Gras in the states but lasts for about a week and is a really, really big deal in South America. The capital of Carnaval in Ecuador is Guaranda, which is a small town in the mountains a few hours south of Quito. Since this was my first carnaval in Ecuador, I figured I might as well celebrate it in its birthplace!

Carnaval in Ecuador is basically a 4-5 day celebration in which the streets are filled with massive parades and everyone wields giant cans of espuma (foam), silly string, dyed flour, eggs, and buckets of water to throw on anyone and everyone that crosses their path. We donned rain jackets and ponchos and armed ourselves with espuma and waterguns, but we were no match for the pros.

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It was a mess. It also didn’t help that it was freezing cold and pouring down rain the entire time. It was a lot of fun and I’m glad I went, but I think I’ll be spending next year’s carnaval on the coast where having buckets of water thrown on you does not cause immediate concern over hypothermia.

WORK STUFF

I need to write a separate entry on what I’m doing work-wise, because I want to provide details but this blog post is getting way too long. The schools have been on summer vacation from March-May, so I’ve been doing summer programs for kids and planning projects for when the schools are back in session. Over the past few months I’ve been offering 4 classes – recycled art, english for kids, english for adults, and recreation for kids.

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Beads made out of magazines and plastic bottles from my recycled art class.

The recreation classes were by far my favorite, as it was an opportunity for the kids to play sports, learn a little bit about the importance of physical activity and nutrition, and release some energy after being cooped up all day while their parents work. When my friends came to visit they brought frisbees and we taught Ultimate Frisbee, which no one here has ever heard of but it was SO MUCH FUN.

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We also did a variety of other sports and activities to get the kids up and active.

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Now that school is starting next week, it’s time to switch gears and get started on some more long term projects. This is what I’ve been working on:

Peer Health Educators Program

I’ve been coordinating with the local health center and the high school to get a group of kids between the ages of 12 and 18 who want to be peer health educators. I will spend 2-3 months training them at the health center on topics ranging from nutrition, hygiene, first aid, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS, and then they will learn to give their own charlas on these topics. Once they finish the training program, they’ll give charlas to their classmates at the high school, in the waiting room of the subcentro, and at health brigades in the rural communities. Their hours spent volunteering will count towards a community service hours they are required to complete before graduation.

Organic Gardens

This project has been in the works for MONTHS, but things move slowly here. We finally have all the forms in and have requested permission from all the right people (I think), so this should officially start next week. I am working with counterparts to begin an organic garden in a community center for older adults, and we will teach them how to maintain the garden and give cooking classes on healthy ways to use the vegetables and herbs from the garden. Once we complete this, we will begin working in a few of the elementary schools in San Vicente and (hopefully, eventually) move into the rural communities.

Red Cross

I’ve started plans with the Red Cross in San Vicente to work with other volunteers to give talks about reproductive health and HIV/AIDS in the high schools and in some of the rural communities surrounding San Vicente.

Grassroot Soccer

Grassroot Soccer (http://www.grassrootsoccer.org) is an international NGO that uses soccer and other sports to educate and mobilize communities to stop the spread of HIV. They mostly work in Africa but have started pilot programs in the Caribbean and Central/South America. They have never worked in Ecuador, but the organization wants to begin a pilot program here in partnership with the Peace Corps. I applied to participate in the pilot program, and was selected as one of the volunteers that will begin the program in their community. In the next few weeks I’ll attend a training program to learn more about Grassroot Soccer, how they operate, and the ways in which I can implement their programs in my community. I’m excited for this new step and only slightly overwhelmed by all the additional work it will entail 😉

To end, here are a few more pictures that I think sum up the last few months in San Vicente.

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“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

Every day continues to be an adventure. Two weeks from today marks marks one year in Ecuador. I’m happy to say I’m still enjoying the ride, unexpected twists and wild surprises included.

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almost famous

I have never enjoyed being the center of attention. I don’t like big groups of people, the idea of public speaking makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I really, really value my alone time. Almost every Peace Corps book, information packet, manual, and blog I read before becoming a volunteer mentioned the “fishbowl effect” – the feeling of exposure, lack of privacy, and being in full view of the people around you with nowhere to hide that often comes with being the new/different/exotic foreigner in a small town. I was (theoretically) trained extensively on this phenomenon and (hypothetically) prepared to live for two years as a sea creature in captivity, where my every action, movement, embarrassing dance move and questionable wardrobe choice would be documented, remembered forever, and recited back to me by a whole lot of people I don’t know. But despite the fact that I sort of knew what I was getting myself into, this introvert is having a hard time adjusting to living in a display case.

What I really want to do is –>

and –>

My town is just small enough that everyone who has lived here their whole life knows everyone else, but just big enough that I have no hope of knowing everyone in only two years. This means everyone knows who I am, but I don’t know who very many people are. As far as I know I’m the only American living here (although I do frequently see lost tourists wandering around in search of the popular beach towns nearby), which makes me interesting and exotic and a popular topic of gossip. It’s kind of how I imagine it would feel to be famous, except without the money and fancy cars and hanging out with Oprah. This means my comings and goings are noted with startling detail (“Raquel, where have you been?!? I haven’t seen you since two Tuesdays ago when you were crossing the bridge with your blue backpack wearing a black shirt and jeans”). Do an embarrassing interpretive dance to “jingle bells” in my English class? Everyone knows. Play hooky from work for an afternoon to read on the beach in the next town over? Duly noted. A few weeks ago I went to the capital city of my province, about 2.5 hours away, to hang out with another volunteer. The next day the man who runs the tienda next door to my house told me, “I saw you at the mall in Portoviejo yesterday! You were eating lunch with a girl with brown hair and you were wearing a green tshirt and you guys were sitting at that table talking for such a long time!” Last week I ran into a coworker of a friend in another town. I hadn’t seen her in months, but she asked me how my novio (boyfriend) was doing because she heard that I went to eat a sandwich with a guy THREE MONTHS AGO in San Vicente (NOT a novio, just a friend). I could go on and on, but you get the point. I’ve never gone out drinking in my town and I will never, ever go on a date with someone here (and no more sandwiches…) – if my daily jogs across the bridge make front page news, I can’t even imagine what would happen if I did something even mildly interesting.

This is how people look at me –>

To a certain degree it’s comforting – I know people are looking out for me, and it makes me feel safe and cared for. However, it also makes me feel a little paranoid. I want to establish myself as an upstanding and trustworthy member of my community, which is a daunting task when living in a culture I don’t totally understand and communicating in a language I am not completely comfortable with. I worry constantly that I’ve unknowingly committed some cultural faux-pas that I knew nothing about, and everyone is gossiping and laughing at me for accidentally looking a chicken in the eyes or walking on the left side of the street on Sunday (I made those things up, but you get the idea). While I’d love to take on the “I don’t care what you think, I’MMA BE ME” attitude, that wouldn’t fly here. I need to earn the respect of my community if I’m ever going be able to do my job effectively, and to earn respect I have no choice but to care, A LOT, what people think of me.

I miss my privacy and the feeling of being watched at all times is unsettling, at best. The only option is to suck it up, get used to living the life of a goldfish, avoid giving my town a reason to gossip, and try to keep my embarrassing dance moves to a minimum.

 

graciasgiving

Happy belated Thanksgiving and beginning of the holiday season! The giant mannequin Santas and festive baby Jesus figurines have started to pop up here in the markets and internet cafes, but it’s still hard to wrap my mind around the fact that Christmas is upon us when I live at the beach in a perpetual state of mid-July weather. Luckily I have a pretty good itunes collection of 90s-era boy band Christmas covers, so I’m pretty set when it comes to Christmas spirit.

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The last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. I had Reconnect conference the 18th-22nd of November, where my omnibus spent a week in Tumbaco reliving our training glory days. The conference marked 4 months in site, and served to “reconnect” the volunteers with each other and with Peace Corps staff to discuss what we’ve been doing in site, project ideas, accomplishments and setbacks, etc. etc. It was great to see my fellow volunteers, most of whom I haven’t seen since August, but the conference itself was long and tedious and reminded me how much I don’t miss sitting in a classroom in plastic chairs watching powerpoint presentations from 8-5 every day. I was in a strange state of déjà vu the entire time; I felt like I was back in training and my time in San Vicente had been a long, bizarre dream.

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Of course, being back in Tumbaco meant walking to and from the center every day and enjoying the beautiful mountains yet again, so that in and of itself was (almost) worth it.

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I actually left for reconnect a few days early to spend the weekend in Quito with a friend. My friend lived in Quito for 15 years, so we spent the weekend site seeing and eating sushi and doing cool things that I never knew existed when I was bumbling around during training with my volunteer friends.

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After Reconnect I went to a friend’s site, Salinas de Guaranda, to visit for the weekend. Her site could not possibly be more different from mine. It’s a tiny, tiny little town way up on top of a mountain, about 1000 meters higher than Quito. It has cobblestone streets and little cottages and specializes in producing cheese and chocolate (!!!) and looks like something straight out of a Disney movie. I actually couldn’t stop singing the “Little Town…” song from Beauty and the Beast the entire time I was there. The only setback is that because of the elevation, it is FREEZING, and heat in houses is not a thing here. We slept with a space heater, 8 blankets including an electric blanket, and many layers of clothing. The town is amazing and beautiful and belongs in a fairy tale, but I don’t think I could take the cold for longer than a weekend. I bought amazing handmade oregano cheese and chocolates to take back to my host family in San Vicente, but they did not survive the bus ride to the coast. When I got back to San Vicente and opened them up, they were a liquidy, smelly, disgusting mess that had all melted together into a hideous lumpy mass. I threw them away immediately, but my room and clothing still sort of smell like old cheese. I think there’s a reason the coast doesn’t have an abundance of cheese or chocolate.

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The week after reconnect was Thanksgiving week!! We planned a huge feast with a few volunteers from the area and Ecuadorian friends and coworkers, and held it at a huge house in Bahia that overlooks the ocean. An American friend who is living here for a few months used to be a chef in the states, so he took control of the menu and delegated tasks to the rest of us. We spent all day Wednesday and Thursday between the market and the kitchen, cooking and chopping and climbing up the massive hill to get to the house. The highlight was definitely the turkey – another volunteer bought it, alive, at a nearby farm, and on Wednesday we took it to the home of some Ecuadorian friends to be killed and prepared. I wasn’t looking forward to witnessing the turkey murder, but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. We’ve always gotten our thanksgiving turkeys wrapped in plastic at the supermarket – how cool is it to see the entire process that goes into preparing a turkey, from start to finish!?

I’ll provide a few pictures of the process, but I’ll leave out the more gory ones. They are available upon request if there’s not enough blood in these ones for you. By far the worst part was seeing the cat going to town on the decapitated turkey head…then having it hit my foot as the cat discarded it down a hill.

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…and the finished product! It was amazing. There were leftovers of everything but turkey.

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This was the kitchen where we prepared everything –>SAMSUNG

And these were the cute kids who entertained us…SAMSUNG SAMSUNG

After two long days of preparations, we sat down together to share our thanksgiving feast. It was about 18 people in total, mostly Ecuadorians. We all went around the table and listed things we are thankful for, which I’ve been doing with my family since before I can remember, but this was my first time doing it in Spanish. Our Ecuadorian guests thanked us for sharing this part of our culture with them, and it was incredible to share my first thanksgiving away from my family in such a special place with amazing people who have become my extended Ecua-family. It’s hard spending holidays away from family, but this was a perfect way to do it. SAMSUNG SAMSUNG

And this was the sunset in Bahia on Thanksgiving –>SAMSUNG

I have to admit, trying to get back into the swing of things in San Vicente after reconnect, traveling, and thanksgiving has been rough. The day I got back I found out my counterpart, the person who was supposed to be my supervisor and work partner for the next 2 years, has either quit or been fired, and has completely disappeared. The work plans and project schedules I wrote out with him are now completely useless, and I feel a bit like a lost soul as I try to locate someone else who is willing to help me plan my projects. That coupled with holiday-induced homesickness and a general inability to get anything accomplished (“It’s almost Christmas, why are you trying to do work?”) have left me feeling stir-crazy and in a bit of a funk. But I signed up for this job knowing it wouldn’t be easy, and even though I’ve let a few setbacks get me down, they definitely won’t keep me down. My best friend Melissa is coming to visit over Christmas (17 days and 8 hours, but who’s counting…), and I could not be more excited.

Until next time, happy Christmas caroling, peppermint-themed drink drinking, gingerbread cookie baking, and tacky sweater wearing 🙂

OH I almost forgot. I went to a cock fight last week. Sorry, PETA.SAMSUNG

paz y amor

Happy fall from the land of eternal summer! I hope you are all enjoying your pumpkin-spiced lattes, beautiful fall colors, and brisk weather. Autumn on the equator is a little bit different from what I am used to in Virginia, as we are moving into rainy season…which means every day it gets increasingly hotter, sunnier, and buggier. I know it sounds counterintuitive that rainy season and sunny season coincide, but they do. Between December and April/May it’s hot, sunny, and cloudless during the day, and then it rains in the evenings and nights. During the dry season, which is what it’s been since I arrived in Ecuador, it’s cloudy, humid, and “cold” (I can’t even count the number of people who have complained to me about how cold the nights are when they drop to 80 degrees), and it never, ever rains. So, as you all in the US get closer to winter with your frosty mornings and cinnamon-themed drinks and cute scarves, I’m quickly approaching the season of scorching heat, mudslides, and man-eating mosquitoes. At least I live on the beach!

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I’m only about a week away from my 6-month mark in Ecuador, and I cannot believe how quickly time is flying. I had a mini-freakout the other day when I realized I am almost 25% done with my service here and I haven’t even remotely figured out what I’m going to do afterwards. Ahhh!

This last month (sorryyyy I promise I’ll try to get better about writing) has been the busiest yet. I’ve been working in schools, continuing my English and theater classes, working with the municipio, and have just started planning some projects in the rural areas of San Vicente with the subcentro de salud (health center). I don’t have a ton of super interesting things to say about work, so I’ll just give some non-work-related life highlights –>

A few weeks ago I went with some friends to an event at a biological reserve in Bahia. I’m not sure what it was called exactly, but it was kind of a ceremony held by a shaman to help us get in touch with nature and become one with mother earth. We sat around a bonfire and he performed a series of rituals that he had learned from indigenous tribes in both Mexico and the amazon region of Ecuador. We stood as he spit herb water in our faces and brushed us from head to toe with eucalyptus leaves, shook maracas at us and walked around us individually playing a didgeridoo, and had us snort tobacco up our noses (I actually didn’t participate in that part after seeing the reactions of the people who did it before me…). Then we crawled, one by one, into a tiny little hut that had space to sit in a circle and a pit in the middle. There were about 13 people crammed into this tiny, dark space, and the shaman brought in rocks that had been sitting in the fire all day and were glowing bright orange. He put 7 rocks in the pit, one by one, and then closed the door of the hut. This is how I came to have my very first experience in a sweat lodge! The heat was unlike anything I have ever felt before. Within minutes I was drenched in sweat, from head to toe, and could barely breath because the heat was so oppressive. We spent about 45 minutes with the shaman shaking the maraca, singing and chanting, and going around the circle talking about our feelings and thanking the mother earth for various things. After that period they opened up the lodge to add 7 more rocks to the pit, making it even hotter and closing the door for another 45-minute session. There were to be 4 45-minute sessions, each time adding 7 more rocks. After the 2nd session ended and they opened the door to add more rocks, my three friends and I immediately crawled out without saying a word to one another or making any kind of group decision. We knew we had to get out of there. We sat outside in the breeze, still pouring sweat and literally wringing out the water from our clothes. It was an interesting experience but definitely one of those once-in-a-lifetime sort of things that makes for a good story but you never, never want to repeat it. The shaman told us the experience in the sweat lodge was supposed to be sort of a meditative time, an opportunity to clear our minds and expel the toxins in our bodies. For me, I was too busy panicking about my impending death by heatstroke to really appreciate the experience or “clear my mind.” I was so relieved when it was over. Nonetheless, I’m glad I tried something new…sort of.

I got to try something else completely new last week when I was asked to be a judge in the “Miss Culture World” pageant at a high school in Bahia…SUCH a strange and fun new experience. A volunteer friend of mine works at this high school, and they needed English-speakers to serve as judges for this pageant. There were 15 girls competing, and each was assigned a different country to represent. She had to come up with a speech about her country in English, and present her speech while wearing a home-made costume that represented her country. The girls put so much work into their speeches and costumes and it was so much fun to see what they had come up with. We judged based on their speeches and costumes and had a very official scoresheet to keep track of the numbers. There was a lot of choreographed dancing, singing, and parading around in the highest high heels I have EVER seen.IMG_2900

“Miss Culture World” judges. So official!

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Such a fun experience!

Speaking of things that are fun, I had some of my very favorite volunteers from all over the country come into town last weekend for my birthday. We had so much fun catching up, spending time on the beach, and cooking a giant spaghetti dinner. They were here Thursday-Sunday morning, and then I spent my birthday on Sunday with my host family in Salinas. They made a big lunch and a birthday cake and spent the day yelling “viva la cumpleañera!” to which everyone has to reply “viva!!!” (basically ‘long live the birthday girl!’).

I really can’t put into words how lucky I am to have such an incredible support system here, so far from home. My first 25 years have been filled with an endless amount of happiness, love, and unforgettable experiences – the next 25 have a lot to live up to 🙂

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paz y amor.

voy a reír, voy a bailar

I am finally starting to feel like I have a real life here in San Vicente, and I am no longer on a strange, confusing, extended vacation. I bought a bike last week and I can finally get around on my own without paying for taxis or trying to predict the nonexistent boat schedules. Freedom!! Sort of.

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I got it at a second-hand bike shop and it’s not in the best shape, but it moves AND they put a basket on it for free, so I really couldn’t ask for anything more. I was so excited to show it off to my host family, but when I proudly rolled it into the house my host dad took one look at it and immediately proclaimed, “it’s broken” (“está dañado”). Whoops. I asked what was wrong with it but unfortunately my technical Spanish bicycle vocabulary is subpar and I had no idea what he said. He promptly rolled it off to a bike shop nearby and brought it back to me the next day, telling me everything was fine now. Hurray! That day I took it across the bridge to Bahia, and when I was about a third of the way across the bridge I noticed things were feeling a bit bumpy. I looked down and realized the front tire was completely deflated…ruh roh. I got off and started wheeling it, planning to walk it the 5km to the bike shop in Bahia where I had bought it to ask them to fix it. After I had been walking for about 5 minutes, two guys wheeled up to me on their bikes holding a bike pump and asked if I wanted them to pump up my deflated tire. Of course! How nice of them! They stopped and pumped air into my tire, but it immediately deflated again, meaning there must have been a pretty big hole. I told them thanks for trying, but I’ll just take it to the bike shop in Bahia. One of the guys unzipped his backpack to reveal an entire bag chock full of bike accessories and equipment. Without saying anything they flipped my bike over, disassembled the tire to take out the inner tube, found the hole, and patched it up with their professional bike supplies. All right there on the side of the road, without saying a word. I asked if they worked at a bike shop and they said no, they were just taking their bikes on a trip for the weekend and had been fixing them up before leaving. I asked if I could pay them anything but they refused and rode off on their way. I think that’s the nicest thing complete strangers have ever done for me, and it put a smile on my face for the rest of the day. Random acts of kindness are the BEST acts of kindness.

I finally started my English classes last week, as well as theater classes with Samantha, a Youth and Families Volunteer who lives in Bahia. I didn’t want to teach English and I really just agreed to it as a way to get to know some of the kids and parents in my town, but I have to say I am loving it. I am teaching two classes split up by age (7-12 in one group, 13-18 in another) and I have about 45 kids in total. The best part is that it’s in the afternoons and it’s not affiliated with any of the schools, so I can make the classes fun and create my own curriculum…meaning we mostly just play games.

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I wasn’t really looking forward to these classes but they are starting to become the highlight of my weeks. Who would have guessed!??! I also went to my first Ecuadorian birthday party last week and had a blast eating tons of food, drinking beer, and dancing. Birthday parties are HUGE here – they hired a DJ and I’m pretty sure at least half the town came out to dance to reggaeton music very, very late into the night. The Ecuadorian way of drinking beer is different from the American way of drinking beer – the idea of everyone having their own bottle/can of beer is completely foreign. Pilsener comes in 24oz bottles and one person, usually the host of the party, walks around with a single glass and pours about half a glass for each person, one by one. When the host gives you the glass you drink it as fast as possible and return it so that he/she can refill it for the next person. I actually learned this tradition when I was with my host family in Tumbaco – for father’s day we went to a big family party and my host sister was in charge of filling the glass for everyone. I didn’t know about Ecuadorian beer drinking so when my host sister gave me a glass of beer I thanked her and started sipping on it slowly. She kept telling me to drink faster but I didn’t understand why so I continued sipping. She got so frustrated with me and basically yelled at me to drink the entire glass IMMEDIATELY. When I finished she took the glass and began filling it for other people…whoops! Lesson learned. Luckily this time around I knew how it was supposed to be done and I made sure to drink my glass as quickly as possible so as not to enrage anyone.

Here are some pictures from the party, all taken by a 5 year old 🙂

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With the exception of biking and birthday adventures, I’ve just been hanging out with my family on the shrimp farm and with friends in Bahia and trying to enjoy my time here as much as possible. Last weekend I went to San Clemente, a little beach town about half an hour outside of Bahia, and saw one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen.

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Next week I start working at one of the high schools in San Vicente – I’ll be working with 3 different age groups on themes ranging to self esteem, values and decision-making, drugs and alcohol, and sex ed. I’m excited and nervous to start working with high schoolers…most of my work thus far has been with younger kids. I’ll be working with them between now and January, so I hope they like me!

Ending this post with my current absolute favorite song. It’s really, really, popular here, but I don’t know if it’s well known in the states. It’s called “Vivir Mi Vida” by Marc Anthony.

Voy a reir, voy a bailar
vivir mi vida la la la la
voy a reir, voy a gozar
vivir mi vida la la la la

A veces llega la lluvia
para limpiar las heridas
a veces solo una gota
puede vencer la sequia

Y para que llorar, pa que
si duele una pena, se olvida
y para que sufrir, pa que
si así es la vida, hay que vivirla la la le

OR IN ENGLISH –>

I’m going to laugh, I’m going to dance
I’m going to live my life, la la la la
I’m going to laugh, I’m going to enjoy
live my life, la la la la

Sometimes the rain comes
to clean wounds
Sometimes just a drop
can overcome the drought

And why cry, for what?
If it hurts too much, forget it
And why suffer, for what?
If this is your life, you must live it

love it.

back to the mountains

I took my first trip out of my site last week, back to the Sierra and the beautiful mountains I’ve missed so much since being on the coast. I also got to see volunteers I haven’t seen since training, which was rejuvenating and refreshing and really, really great.

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We went to visit another volunteer in Ibarra, about 2 hours north of Quito and the capital of the province of Imbabura. We took short day trips to explore other towns nearby, including a few incredible lakes way up in the mountains.

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This is at Cuicocha, which means “guinea pig lake” in Kichwa. It’s named that because the islands in the middle of the lake looked like guinea pigs to the people who named it…always with food on the brain!

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This is an image from google because the lake was too huge to really capture with my dinky little camera. It was formed in the crater of a volcano and can’t support life because the water is highly alkaline.

Besides exploring lakes, we spent our time together catching up, trading stories, and eating a lot of really amazing food including pancakes and apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I also took hot showers the entire time I was there, which really made the 10-hour bus ride worth it. With the exception of the one night I stayed at a hotel with my parents in Quito, this was the first time I’ve had hot water AND running water AT THE SAME TIME. Incredible.

Besides this trip to Ibarra, I’ve been spending my time in San Vicente continuing to try to “integrate” and looking for project opportunities. Things are actually picking up a lot and it looks like I’m going to be very, very busy in the coming weeks. Saying “yes” to everything was a good idea at the beginning, but now I am running out of hours in the day to continue saying yes. I am helping to teach theater classes every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, and teaching my own English classes every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. On Wednesday mornings I give charlas at a kindergarten about simple health topics like hand-washing and tooth-brushing (the kids are 3-5 years old…I don’t know how much of the information they are internalizing but they are SO CUTE it’s really just an excuse to play games and run around with them). Starting next week I will be working with a high school in San Vicente to develop a curriculum that ranges from self esteem and decision-making to drug and alcohol abuse and sex ed. We will be splitting the kids into three age groups so I’ll have 3 lessons a week to teach. I’m also working with a nonprofit called Fundacion Futuro to organize a minga (community service project) for kids to pick up trash on the beach, then use the trash we find to make recycled art. We are also planning a “bingo day” fundraiser and a “dia de juegos” (game day) for the kids in San Vicente. I’m also working with the director of the women’s office at the municipio to organize a campaign called “Motherhood is a choice, not an obligation.” I also went to a 4-hour seminar last week on artificial insemination for cows and an all-day conference on plant-life in the Galapagos. Learn something new every day!!

…now that I’m writing everything down, I’m realizing I may have said “yes” to a little too much. Nevertheless, I’m excited to get involved in as much as I possibly can now, in hopes that I will discover what I’m really passionate about and find my niche here in San Vicente. We also have to spend time between now and November conducting “community assessment” interviews to get to know people in our town and find out what the most pressing needs are. In November, we have to give presentations to our communities on our findings and our project proposals for the next two years. Only a slightly daunting task…which is why I’ve been spending my time playing with kids and putting off these interviews. I’m an expert procrastinator, but I’ll get it done…eventually.

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These pictures were all taken at the ludotecas, the weekend activities Fundacion Futuro puts together for kids in San Vicente.

In conclusion…

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The hostel/bar in Bahia where we play trivia every week just got these two adorable baby kittens. SO CUTE IT HURTS.