It’s only been a week since I last posted but it has felt like a lifetime. My days have been so full I can’t believe I’ve only been in Ecuador a little over 2 weeks. It feels like AT LEAST 12. I guess I’ll just start from last Saturday when I last updated and try to only include the interesting things.
Last Saturday we went on a journey to the center of the earth! It took about 2.5 hours and 3 different buses each way, which would have been terrifying for the 6 gringas that went, but luckily the host dad of one of the girls came with us and made sure we didn’t get horribly lost. We spent the day being tourists and taking pictures straddling the equator with different parts of our bodies in the north and south hemispheres.
We also went to the top of a monument right on “el mitad del mundo” and the views were amazing!
After my day of being a camera-wielding tourist, I spent all day Sunday at my host mom’s parents’ house. We had lunch and then watched what felt like 8 hours of bullfighting videos and music videos to songs about Ecuador.
My week of training has been really intense…I guess the cushy “introduction” period has ended and now we actually have to learn things. We spent all of Wednesday in Quito at the main Peace Corps office and got to explore the city a little bit, which included eating a giant burger with guacamole for lunch. We also found out on Monday that on Friday we would have to present health-related “charlas” at an elementary school in a nearby town, so we spent a lot of the week preparing for those. Charlas are informal talks, kind of like mini-lectures, that volunteers give to different groups on a variety of topics. My partner and I had to give two 40-minute charlas to 1st and 2nd grade classes on the importance of dental hygiene, which was semi-terrifying because I don’t know much about the specifics of dental hygiene (brush your teeth after every meal? how do I stretch that for 40 minutes?) Also the entire thing had to be in Spanish, which is an adventure in and of itself.
I ended up creating Diana el diente sano and Diego el diente malo, and using strange voices and broken Spanish to explain why Carlos el cepillo (toothpaste) and Patty la pasta (toothpaste) work together to fight the plaque monster. I have no idea whether the kids got it but we have to give charlas pretty often during training so hopefully it will get less traumatizing each time.
On Thursday we were turned lose in a community nearby to practice using PACA tools. PACA stands for Participatory Analysis for Community Action (Peace Corps is super into acronyms). PACA is based off Peace Corps’ theory of development, which is that development projects are most effective when they are derived from and supported by the community. Peace Corps gives us a set of guidelines to use to interview community members about what their priorities are, what they perceive to be the biggest problems in their community, and what they would like to see changed. We then work with the community to come up with strategies to address their issues in a way that will use the resources they already have and be able to be sustained by the community after the volunteer has left. After a week and a half of training I have only a very basic grasp on the way we will be carrying out development projects in our communities, so it was kind of terrifying to be turned lose in a community we had never been to before to interview strangers on the streets about the social, economic, and health problems in their communities. Even though I hate talking to strangers, especially in Spanish, I got a lot out of the time I spent talking to people. PACA tools are used to find out what the community needs and how these needs can be addressed in a practical way. This exercise was the first time I’ve felt like I may actually be able to go into a community on my own at the end of training and help make a positive impact based on what people actually need.
After the long and emotionally draining week of training, I was excited to have a calm and relaxing weekend. Hah! Those don’t exist here in Ecuador. On Saturday morning I woke up early to go to a niece’s first communion at the Catholic church down the road. The church was so packed we couldn’t even get in the door, so we stood outside for the entire 2-hour service and craned our necks to sort of see the top of the priest’s head. After that we went to the baby shower of my host mom’s cousin in the nearby town of Cumbaya. During the six hours I was there we played a variety of games that I did not understand, including a banana eating contest, a drawing competition where we had to decorate tiny pieces of paper shaped like tshirts, and something related to measuring the mother’s stomach with toilet paper. We also had balloons tied to our wrists and then throughout the day people would try to pop them with pins. Each balloon had a tiny piece of paper inside with an embarrassing task written on it, and once your balloon was popped you had to do the task. My piece of paper ordered me to crawl around on the floor pretending to be a baby with a poopy diaper, so that was pretty horrifying. After the baby shower I went out with some fellow volunteers to a tiny karaoke bar that somehow turned into a dance club with a fog machine and strobe lights within 20 minutes of us getting there. It ended up being a fun night!
Today I spent the afternoon walking around town and eating ice cream with another volunteer friend, then I tried to get some homework done for the week. Around 5 as I was sitting in my room, my host mom came in and said “do you want to come watch?” I said, “watch what?” and she grabbed me and pulled me outside to the street. On the street there was a folding table set up with two candles and a giant picture of Jesus. She said we were waiting for the “procession” and pointed up the hill, where I could just make out a giant hoard of people walking towards us. Before I knew it, hundreds upon hundreds of people were filing down the street…at the front of the group people were holding banners with shiny images of crosses, and there were pickup trucks covered completely in flowers. The mass of people stopped by the table with the Jesus picture and a priest in the most ornate robes I’ve ever seen hopped off from the bed of the pickup truck. He grabbed a microphone and started saying prayers, then when he was finished a guy with a guitar started playing a song and everyone sung along. After a few minutes the priest got back onto the truck and the procession continued down the road, out of sight. My host mom explained that it was a Catholic tradition and had something to do with Corpus Christi, but I don’t know enough about Catholicism to make sense of that.
After the procession, my host sister asked if I wanted to go with her to “juegos.” Juegos means games, and I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but I said sure. So we picked up one of her friends (possibly a cousin) and headed to the center of town where the big supermarket is. Next to the supermarket one of those carnivals was set up, like the ones you see sometimes in the parking lots outside Walmart or Chucky Cheese. I am generally terrified of the makeshift rides at these “carnivals” but my host sister was really excited to go on the rides and I didn’t want her to think I was a boring old fogey!! The rides were scarier than I could have ever imagined – highlights included: #1 – one of those swingy ships you always see at amusement parks, but this one had giant cages everyone stands in together instead of seats, and #2 – a spinny ride where you sit on a bench with no restraints and are spun around and bounced up and down at warp speeds while holding on to the guard rail for dear life. Luckily I am still alive, just with a few bruised extremities from trying not to be flung from these so-called “juegos.”
It’s been a wild two weeks but I am so glad I’m here. I remember writing in my very first essay on the Peace Corps application that I wanted to have opportunities that would force me out of my comfort zone, because that is where the most fulfilling experiences always seem to happen. I can honestly say there hasn’t been a day here that I haven’t been unexpectedly ripped from my comfort zone and put into situations that have been awkward, embarrassing, and borderline SUPER WEIRD. There have been so many times I’ve wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and watch 18 reruns of The Office in a row, but I’m proud of myself for being able to appreciate all the crazy things this opportunity has to offer. I’m not sure how far I’ll get in saving the world, but I’m going to have some great stories to share while I try.
I’ll end with some random pictures that aren’t related to anything in particular.