Archive for June, 2011

Lesson(s) Learned

Never have a group of small humans looked so intimidating to me. I like kids… scratch that, I love kids. They are fun, open minded, and enjoy arts and crafts, so what’s not to like? Today, it was not that this group of kids looked particularly intimidating. They had smiles on their faces, not frowns. They looked energetic and ready to learn, not annoyed or disinterested. It’s not like they had fangs or something. What made this group so terrifying to me, one might ask? Well, this group of children happened to be my very first audience for my very first charla. A charla is essentially a community or group meeting, many times with an educational purpose. As a PCV, I will be giving many, many charlas throughout my service, on topics ranging from healthy cooking to prevention of HIV/AIDS. For this reason, it makes sense that we should practice giving charlas during training. It makes sense, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t scary as hell.

I consider myself a decent public speaker. As long as it is not a huge group, I don’t get particularly nervous, and I enjoyed facilitating discussions and trainings in college. So again, what made this activity so terrifying? Well, the whole thing was to be presented in Spanish. Shit. Once again, it makes sense. I obviously have to present in Spanish, since that is the language that is spoken and understood here. But, once again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary as hell.

Today’s charla was a lesson on the importance of washing your hands with soap and water. It may seem like a simple and well known concept to us, but that is not the case with everyone here. Many people believe that just rinsing your hands with water is sufficient, because they believe that if you cannot see anything (dirt) on your hands, they are clean. We know that this is untrue; germs and bacteria are invisible to us. In fact, here in Ecuador, the leading cause of illness in children is disease caused by unwashed hands. Obviously, the education level about this subject varies greatly within Ecuador. For example, here in Tumbaco (which is a major city) people for the most part understand this issue. My host family washes their hands with soap and water at the critical moments we are taught to: after using the bathroom, before eating, etc. But if you travel even an hour outside of these cities, that kind of information is not common. The same thing goes for other things, like brushing your teeth.

So, how did it go? This morning, we were split into groups of 5 and given some lesson plan ideas. We then had about 15 minutes to organize ourselves before heading to the school. When all of us (about 20 total) arrived, the children were playing in the school yard. Two staff members from the school called them to order, and our training supervisor, Bibi, gave them a quick introduction. She mentioned that we are new and that the students should be patient and help us learn, because we do not know a lot of Spanish and this was our first charla. The kids agreed. My group was assigned kids that looked to be between 8 and 10 years old. We headed to their corner of the school yard to start the session. At this point, I was still pretty nervous. We got the kids to sit in a circle, and sat down with them. We introduced ourselves, and then began with a song. The song was chosen for this charla because it is well known among children. Once we sang it with them, we taught them an “alternate” version that emphasizes cleanliness and hand washing. After repeating it a few times, we then discussed it with them. When should we wash our hands? Why do we wash our hands? How do we wash our hands? For how long? After discussing these questions and practicing how to wash our hands, that’s it, we were done! Since we had about 10 minutes left, we asked the kids if they wanted to teach the gringos a game… of course they did! That taught us a “cat and mouse” type game, which was a combination of tag and red rover. After a few rounds, they selected me to me the “mouse”, i.e. the person being chased. Thankfully, I made it through the round without tripping or hurting myself or others haha.

Although I was nervous about it, I am so glad that we had our first charla today. I think our training supervisor was very wise to plan this activity for today, as we will be conducting 5-6 more charlas on nutrition and hygiene next week during our health technical trip! We have more time to plan for those ones though, and now we know what to expect. Most importantly, with one charla under our belts, we now have a little more confidence in ourselves, and we are up for the challenges that next week will bring. Although our objective was to give a lesson in hand washing, we clearly learned a few things ourselves.

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Zuleta

This weekend we had the opportunity to attend a “cultural trip”. PC split us into three groups of twenty, and sent us to three different communities. My group had the good fortune of being assigned to Zuleta, which is a rural mountain community about four or five hours from Tumbaco by bus. I LOVED it.

Friday morning we met in the park at 6am, and took the first in a series of buses that would take us to Zuleta. It was a little crazy making sure 20 gringos got on the right public bus, but we managed. Three younger people from Zuleta met us as we boarded our second bus, and we learned that they would be our guides for the rest of our visit.

We arrived in Zuleta around 11:30 or so, and were greeted by a few women in the community. A main form of income in Zuleta for women is embroidering. It is all done by hand and has been passed down for many, many generations. The patterns are absolutely exquisite. They are extremely intricate, and we were told that one blouse can take 3 to 4 months working 4 to 6 hours a day to complete. I certainly do not have that much patience! The women also make hats, vests, sweaters, and other articles from Alpaca wool. They were extremely kind and even let a few of the volunteers try their hand at embroidering. It was great to talk to them about their culture and traditions. We also learned that there are no schools in which you can learn this kind of embroidering, and I don’t think anything is written down either. Everything is taught by the older generation.

After we finished talking to the women, we hiked up the mountain for about an hour, walking through farm property and observing all of the different homes. We then reached Zuleta’s community center, which was beautifully crafted from (mostly) Eucalyptus wood. They had prepared lunch for us there, and it was absolutely delicious; we even had fresh berry juice… yum. After lunch we walked to the “center” of town (I use that term very loosely) and then we hitched a ride way, way up the mountain to a farm. The view from there was stunning. You could turn 360 degrees and all you saw were mountains. We then were shown how to “till the land” and plant seeds. They were using cows and wooden sticks, and when it came time for a few volunteers to try, we basically got schooled. The owner of the farm planted four rows of seeds in the time it took a volunteer to plant one, so we were not that much help haha. When we left that farm, we headed to another home were we “learned” (read: saw, tried, and failed) how to ground corn for bread products, and we actually did get to make our own bread. Standing in the dim, warm room eating hot, fresh, handmade rolls as they came out of the firewood oven with the other volunteers is my favorite memory so far. It was so relaxing and fun.

Once we inhaled a few rolls, we walked back down to the community center for dinner, which was again delicious. Once dinner was over, we were treated to some traditional dancing by the children and teens of the town. They were awesome and you could tell that they had practiced quite a bit. By this time it was about 9:15, and we had started our day at 6am, so it was time to sleep! PC had arranged for us to stay in groups of four or five with families for the night, so they came to pick us up. After the 15 minute walk to our house, brushing our teeth, and changing into our PJs, we pretty much all passed out. By the way, it was FREEZING at night! I guess that is to be expected when you are way up in the mountains though.

Saturday morning we woke up at 6:45 and walked to the community center for breakfast. After breakfast, we walked about 35-40 minutes up the mountain to visit a “museum” which was actually just a man’s house. It was still really cool though; he collected lots of really old, really neat stuff from Zuleta in order to maintain their history, and he had it all on display. We spent the rest of the morning looking at his collection, touring the farm (they had horses, sheep, chickens, dogs, rabbits, and pigs that were WAIST HIGH), and just hanging out. They played some songs for us and sang, and they also gave us each a shot of puntas (for lack of a better description, I will call it Ecuadorian moonshine with sugar cane in it). They served us lunch there at about 11:30, and then we walked back down to catch the bus back. The air was chilly, the view was incredible, the people were warm, and the company was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience and we all couldn’t help but feel incredibly content. I don’t think any of us really wanted to take that bus back just yet.

Since last week

I feel like a ton has happened since I last wrote… probably because there are a million and one experiences packed into every day here.

On Friday, we did not simply have our normal training day. We actually split into three groups and we were able to visit 2 community health clinics and a “natural remedies” store. The purpose was to learn more about the healthcare system in Ecuador. Basically, what we learned is that although there are a ton of healthcare programs being implemented in Ecuador right now, about 40% of the population who needs it does not access them. This can be due to lack of knowledge about the programs, inability to access it, or lack of resources. So for instance, vaccines are free in Ecuador, and there is even some free healthcare. There are also tons of wellness programs for pregnant women and infants. But just because they exist does not mean that everyone can access them. Perhaps there is no health clinic in “Town A”. If there is no health clinic, there may be no one to inform them about these programs. That is one barrier. Let’s say however, that some women in the town do hear about the programs, but they must travel to a health clinic that may be an hour or two away. This is another barrier. Even if the women does have the money to take the public bus, and is able to miss an entire day of work in order to travel, there is no guarantee that she will be seen the first day she goes. In fact, the only people who probably will interact with the medical staff are those who start lining up around 4 or 5 am. This is due to a lack of resources. In a health center that serves thousands of people, there might only be 2 doctors and 3 nurses, with the doctors only working 4 hours a day and the nurses 6 hours a day, due to budget constraints. As you can see (and as we learned) healthcare here is a complicated issue that does not simply involve physical well being, but also social and economic aspects. However, from what I understand, it is continuing to improve a little bit at a time.

On Saturday, we met at 8am and boarded a bus to Puembo, a smaller town outside of Tumbaco. The goal was to practice some of the PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) tools. PACA tools are exercises that we will use to get to know the communities in our sites and help assess their needs. This can include asking people to draw a map of the community so you can observe what things are important to different groups of people, or interviewing people about their daily routines so that you know when everyone would be available for a meeting. On Saturday, my group was assigned to collect daily calendars of teenage boys in Puembo. I have to admit, I think we all felt a little awkward approaching people that we didn’t know, and I was nervous to use my Spanish with someone who was not a teacher or part of my host family. However, it went a lot better than I anticipated. We were able to interview four boys from ages 13-19, and learn about their daily routines. It was great practice. We also finally got our cell phones. Now THAT was an experience. The system here is a little confusing anyway because it is based on prepaid minutes, but you can only call certain companies, it is different to call a landline, promotional minutes expire quickly, etc. So when you combine that with the fact that you are communicating in a different language to people who want to sell you a more expensive phone because they assume you are a rich gringa, it can be a bit of a process. It all worked out of course; I now have my little Samsung.

On Saturday afternoon, my host mother showed me how to wash my clothes by hand, on the stone table that is often used here. It took me 3 full hours to wash about 1.5 weeks’ worth of clothes. I then had to hang everything up and let it dry overnight. My arms hurt just thinking about it. It did however, make me grateful for a few things in the U.S. : 1) hot (or even warm) water to wash my clothes in 2) A washing machine 3) a dryer 4) The fact that my family can afford a washer and dryer 5) The fact that I was born in a country where owning a washer and dryer are the norm. I also think I will be wearing things at least 2 or 3 times as long as they are not sweaty or stained…

On Sunday, my family took me to Peguche Waterfall and San Pablo Lake. It was absolutely stunning, and it was great to spend some quality time with my host mom and host sister. It was about a two hour drive to the lake, which was at the bottom of an extinct volcano. The waterfall was also incredible; my host sister took me through a crawl space behind the waterfall. In the evening, I was able to skype with my mom, and then a few friends. It was really nice to be able to talk to people from home. I have found that I think about home/family/friends, but I haven’t been homesick yet, which is awesome.

On Monday, the health group had our first cooking lesson. The idea behind these lessons is that when we get to our sites, we can teach people how to modify their traditional recipes in order to make them just a little bit healthier. For instance, on Monday we added spinach and broccoli to a lentil dish, cooked plantains with less oil, baked the tilapia instead of fried it, and made a fresh salad with lemon juice dressing. It was really fun to do something hands on, and I am really excited about learning more healthy adaptations to bring to my site. On Monday, we also found out that the first volunteer decided to return to the United States. Even though I knew this would happen (our staff told us that usually 2-4 people go home during training) it was still kind of surprising, and it jolts you a bit. The decision to ET (early terminate) is certainly a personal and difficult one, and I respect the volunteer for having the courage to do what they felt was best.

Tuesday was a pretty average day of training.

Today, we traveled by bus to the main PC office in Quito. It was nice to meet the rest of the staff, and we also had some more safety and security training, and well as transportation information and an info session on our living allowance, banking, and paperwork.

Today also marks two weeks since our staging in Philadelphia. I think to myself: Already two weeks! We’ve done so much! It went by so fast! The United States, graduation, packing, already seems like forever ago! But on the other hand… it has only been 2 weeks. I still have 9 more weeks of training before I move to my site!

My First Real Ecuadorian Adventure

Let me first preface this story with some important information that will help you understand the context of the situation:

1. We don’t have cell phones yet. PC is taking us to get them this Saturday.  (Sidenote: incoming calls from the U.S. will be free, so let me know if you want my number =))

2. Because we slept in the training center the first few days, didn’t have training on Sunday, and my host mom drove me to and from the training center on Monday, yesterday was my first time taking the public bus home.

3. Ecuadorian buses are VERY crowded. They also don’t stop completely… they kind of just slow down so you can get/on off. You know, like rolling a stop sign. There is a set bus route, but the stops are never quite the same, because they stop or drop off when people ask them too in addition to the regular stops.It can be overwhelming.

4. My Spanish is not great yet.

Does anyone see where this is going yet?

Yesterday morning, my host mom showed me where the bus stop is. She also wrote down the name of the stop near our house- El Centro del Descuento. I got on the bus approximately half a block from my house. I thought great, its really close so I won’t get lost. (In case you didn’t know, I have no sense of direction). I noted the video store and hair salon near the stop so I would have landmarks to indicate when I should get off the bus. However, in the afternoon, I started to doubt myself. Other bus stops had a sign that read PARADA but I remembered from the morning that my corner did not. Then a bunch of volunteers got off infront of a school in an area I kind of recognized, so I got off too. I, along with 2 other volunteers, found our way home from that stop with almost no issues. I mean, sure we walked around a block twice, but hey, we all got home. My host mom was a little worried though. Apparently when I wasn’t back right when I should have been, she went looking for me, and she even asked other volunteers that she saw on the street if they knew where I was. But, you know, all is well that ends well.

That isn’t the adventure.

This morning, my host mother reminded me that I should get of at Centro del Descuento this time. I shook my head, and said “si, si, entiendo”. But it turns out I did NOT understand. I figured that yesterday, I must have gotten off one stop early, so today I would just stay on the bus longer. WRONG. So, so wrong. It turns out, the stop I had used yesterday was the right one; I just didn’t walk the right way which is why my host mom got worried. So today, I stayed on for another stop, but this took me farther from my neigborhood, and the driver announced that the next stop was Quito… you know the capital thats like 50 minutes away from my house/training center in Tumbaco. So I got off at the last Tumbaco stop with another volunteer, and we started walking back in the direction the bus had came. By this time, its about 6pm, and it gets dark here around 6:30. We have been strongly encouraged not to be walking around at night, since it is dangerous, especially for female foreigners. Soon, the other volunteer and I started to recognize certain things, and we thought we knew where we were going. Wrong again. We walked down the wrong street. So we tried another one… now it is really getting dark. We tried to ask for directions and people were friendly, but we didn’t have an actual address to give them, so it didn’t help a lot.  Finally, the other volunteer realized that we are very close to her house, but even though she walked by my house yesterday, we of course managed to bypass it today. Essentially, I have no idea where I am, its getting dark, and I have no cell. Welp, there was no way in hell I was wandering around by myself, so I went to the other volunteer’s house, and her host mom tried to call my host mom, but no one picked up (they were out looking for me, as it is now 6:45 and training ends at 5). The other volunteer’s host mom graciously offered to drive me back to that general area so we can find my house, and sure enough, about a 4 minute drive later, we approached my garage door, where my host mom was anxiously pacing back and forth.

I was kind of proud of myself in the way I handled things. Sure, the darker it got and the less people I saw on the streets, the more I started to worry. But by no means did I panic. I didn’t cry, or freak out… I was slightly frustrated and mostly concerned about my safety purely bacause of the time of day. Had it been earlier in the afternoon, I probably would have just kept walking until I figured it out.

And so ends my first Ecuadorian adventure.

Differences

I just wanted to give you all a quick list of things that are different about my daily life here compared to what it was in the United States. Let me be clear though, I say my daily life because these things may not be true for Ecuadorians or even other volunteers. They are in no particular order.

1. My host family, like many, many other Ecuadorian people, always wear shoes in the house. This may seems small, but it is an adjustment for me. I hate wearing shoes. When it is warm out, I barely wear shoes outside, let alone inside!

2. There is not a whole lot of hot water available. We wash our dishes by hand with cold water, and if you want hot water for your shower, you have to use an electrical heating unit. It is by no means available for everyone.

3. I can’t fill my nalgene from the tap. The tap water here, generally speaking, is not the safest. So I have to drink bottled or purified water.

4. Time is much more fluid. No one is in a hurry really. A five minute break turns into 10 or 15 minutes. The bus driver pulls over mid route to get a drink from the tienda while everyone waits on the bus. When someone tells you it will take 20 minutes to get there. expect that it is more like 45.

5. I can’t go out after dark. Its just not a good idea to be walking around at night. Robberies or pick pocketing are frequent.

6. I can’t drive. Its against PC policy and I don’t have an international/Ecuadorian license.

7. I have not watched tv ONCE since I have been in this country. My host family has more than one tv in the house, but I am just busy all of the time.

8. Statistically, I am in the racial minority. I am easily recognizable and considered exotic.

Thats all I can think of right now, but obviously there are many many more!

First Few Days

Hola!

Welcome to my first blog post from Ecuador! It has been a crazy few days. Wednesday I arrived in the Philly airport around 11:15am, and headed to the hotel where myself and 61 other volunteers from all around the country had a brief orientation from noon until about 7:30pm. After that, I grabbed dinner, showered, and took a 2 hour
nap. Then it was time to check out of the hotel and board our buses to the JFK international airport. I should mention that I ended up becoming one of five group leaders for our trip to Ecuador. Since no staff travel with us, there were five volunteers including myself in charge of passports, plane tickets, buses, headcounts, communication, etc. The bus dropped us off at JFK around 4am, and we flew from JFK to Miami, Miami to Quito. Luckily for us, everything went smoothly and we arrived in Quito at 5:45pm local time (6:45pm EST). The PC staff was there to guide us through customs, imigracíon, etc and then we were
placed on yet another bus that took us from the Quito airport to our training center in Tumbaco (about an hour drive). We had dinner and quick introductions from the PC Ecuador staff, and then everyone pretty much passed out from a night and of travel.

Although we were not traveling anywhere on Friday, it was
still just as crazy. We spent the entire day in our training center. Our agenda went something like this: medical overview, individual medical questionnaires, immunizations (of which there were plenty), collection of our first PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) allowance, introduction and welcome from our country director, overview of personal safety from the U.S. Embassy, lunch, program meetings (in my case, community health), host family questionnaires, a skills inventory test, personal data forms, taking our photo for our PC ID card, written and oral language proficiency tests, and opening an Ecuadorian bank account. YIKES. But,
in between all of those things, it has been great getting to know the other
PCTs and PC staff. I find that everyone is incredibly interesting to talk to, and all of us come with completely different backgrounds: some have Spanish, some don’t, some have traveled their whole lives, and others have never left the country until now. It’s fascinating. There were also funny little things throughout the day. For instance, to open an Ecuadorian bank account, the signature on the form has to EXACTLY match the signature from our PC passports. Now, it should be noted that we were told to sign these passports back during the very busy registration process in the hotel in Philly. To say that none of our
signature were neat would be an understatement. The officers were very strict about this rule, and the whole thing was so absurd that it became a great source of humor. I was on the low end- it only took me 3 tries to sign my own name..but I am not exaggerating when I say that some volunteers climbed into the double digits trying to sign it “correctly”!

Saturday (today) was busy in the morning, and then a little
more relaxed in the afternoon. In the morning, we received our official (and well stocked) PC medical kit, and had an overview on the contents, including how to read a mercury thermometer. We also had an “Ecuadorian culture/host family preparation” session which reviewed strategies on how to communicate with your host families and what kind of situations to expect. This session actually consisted of the PC staff putting on little skits for us, with scenarios like how to tell your host family you don’t want any more food without offending them. It was funny, but also extremely accurate and useful. We then had an overview of our training schedule for the next 10 weeks, which
is well…. intense, but expected.

FINALLY, we met our host families at noon, and they took us home. My family is incredibly warm, kind, and patient. They don’t speak or understand any English whatsoever, but communicating with them is not as hard as I thought it would be. I understand much, much more Spanish than I expected to, and although it takes me about 5 minutes to form a simple sentence, my host family is patient and I have also
been using words a lot more than full sentences.  After my arrival, I helped my host mom cook lunch/dinner (vegetables in garlic and cilantro, rice, avocado, and chicken) and unpacked. Later in the afternoon, one of my “sisters” stopped by with her 3 kids. The oldest is 9 and loves Justin Bieber (yup) and there is also a 6 year old boy and 4 year old girl. My host mom told me that she is going to teach me
how to cook, wash my clothes by hand, and of course, speak Spanish. As she put it: “Mucho trabajo por tu y mi” or “A lot of work for you and me”.  Very true, Mamá, very true.

Monday we will start our official PST (pre-service training), which is a full schedule of Spanish classes, technical classes for our programs, safety sessions, and medical sessions. I already know a few things about my possible placement.  Our “class” of trainees, officially called OMN 106, will not have any assignments in the Amazon Basin, which means I will either be in the highlands or the coast. Further, the country director has decided that the areas of focus for our class will be three things: HIV/AIDS and sexual education, hygiene and water sanitation, and nutrition and food security. That means that these will be our
focus areas for training. Our program director said that we will learn how to teach safe sex lessons (in Spanish), things like how to emphasize to people how important it is to wash your hands, and my favorite: we will be learning how to plant/grow fruit and vegetable gardens, and also healthy cooking lessons! It should be fun, and I also know that it will be very challenging. Three weeks from now, we have a tech trip to a community, where we will be presenting lessons in Spanish to schools and community groups!

Tumbaco, our training city, is very beautiful. It is so green, and is surrounded by mountains. Our training center is also lovely. It
used to be a school, and it is extremely open, with lots of colorful landscaping. I haven’t really been homesick too much… sometimes at night I think about everyone and what I’ll be missing out on during the next two years, but it’s not overwhelming, and my excitement far outweighs anything else right now.

That’s it for now… sorry if this is a jumbled mess, but that
about how my brain is functioning right now!