Site Visit

Fair warning: this post is super long because it was a very eventful week. The dates listed below are excerpts from my journal, and at the bottom are my general impressions about the week.

7/14/11
Based on first impressions, I really really like my site. I feel like I got the best of both worlds. The community I will live in has about 500 houses. But, there are other smaller communities around me, and I am only a 40 minute bus ride from the province capital, Portoviejo. My work will be county-wide, so I could be traveling as far as two hours in a pickup truck to get to some communities. The organization I have been assigned to work with is “The Committee of Health Volunteers of 24 De Mayo” (24 de Mayo is the name of the county). They don’t have any funds of their own, and they don’t even really have an office. They work a lot with the doctors in the health center, and they receive some assistance from the municipality and PLAN international. Basically, the volunteers act as health promoters in the different communities. They focus quite a bit on nutrition for kids under 5 because there is a high prevalence of malnutrition in the county, especially for kids. Some of the activities include giving charlas on nutrition, weighing and measuring kids to see if they are malnourished, helping the doctors with health brigades like vaccines or dental checks, and more. It sounds like I will have a lot to do! I got to meet the current volunteer there- Jen. She will leave like 2 days before I arrive. I can tell she is really looking out for me, trying to fill me in on as much as possible. I really like the people here too. And although I am sure there will be disadvantages later, right now being the 3rd volunteer seem like an advantage in many ways. Everyone has an idea of what a volunteer is, and they are all really proud to have a volunteer living in their community, and they all want to talk to me and get to know me. In fact, there are already 3 families that want me to live with them! 2 families were approved by my program manager and I was assigned one of them, but the other family was still asking about it and even showed me the room. The 3rd family wants to rent me the current volunteer’s house after the 3 month requirement of living with my family ends. I will have a lot of options as to where I want to live after those 3 months, and it will be a delicate job of breaking the news to the families I choose not to rent from. Last, everyone was awaiting my arrival. People kept calling my counterpart and the current volunteer to see where I was. I met the 3 families that wanted me to live with them, and they are all very large extended families. I ate two dinners! In the family I’m assigned to live with, there are the parents, who are the people I actually live with. They are grandparents. Their kids and their spouses/families live in the houses immediately surrounding us, and we basically all share a yard, along with a few cows and a bunch of chickens. I guess the best way to describe it is a family compound. Everyone was there when I arrived, probably at least 15 people, and I kissed everyone on the cheek as is the custom. Then they ushered be into the living room along with the current volunteer and for the most part just stared at me. The funniest moment was probably when they were trying to pronounce my full name. Katrina is not super difficult for them, although they have a tendency to say “Katreen”. Lynn wasn’t too too hard either, but Organ was a bit difficult for them to say. Basically, it turned into a chorus of my name, with person after person repeating it and practicing it. I don’t think I have ever heard my name said that many times in a 10 minute period. It was pretty surreal.

7/15/11

Today I went into Portoviejo with Jen. She had to meet with a doctor briefly, and then she showed me where the post office, bank, internet café, and market were. Then we went to the mall, which will be pretty nice because there is a decent food court and a movie theater… the perfect place to decompress. This afternoon I also had a meeting with some of the main contacts I will be working with. There were two doctors who work at the health center, 2 health promoters with my committee, the president of Los TIllales, and one of the other volunteers in the organization who is very active and who also lives across the street from me. Basically it was to get to know each other a bit and they were discussing various projects as well. I also ended up going to an outdoor mass in the nearby town of Sucre. It was really pretty and the music was nice. It was to celebrate St. Carmen I think.

7/16
Today was on the slower side. It was not a work day so I spent a lot of time in my host family’s house. I hung out with the kids a lot… they are great people to practice Spanish with because they have more patience with you and use simpler vocabulary. I also did some of the community assessment tools we had to complete over the week, like asking people about their daily schedules or having them draw community maps. The neighbor who lives across the street tool me for a walk to see where one of two tiendas were in the town. Write now as I sit writing this there are 5 people just watching me write. It is a strange feeling to be perceived as so fascinating. Everyone is just SO interested in EVERYTHING that I do, from what utensil I eat to what time I shower to how I wear my hair. That night we also had a party for what would be my “sister-in-law”. A lot of people came over and my family killed a few chickens for the event. There was also a mariachi singer (who is a pastor during the day). I ate the really good food and danced a little bit with the kids. They also have a practice of giving speeches about the birthday person, and they asked me to say something! Again, the status and privilege I have blows my mind. The only other people who spoke were her parents and husband. One funny thing that I’ve noticed is whenever I say I don’t know how to do something, they just say “you will learn here”. I don’t know how to dance- “you will learn here”. I don’t know how to play soccer= “you will learn here”. I don’t know how to make that- “you will learn here”. And you know what? I probably will (wish me luck on the soccer thing, you all know I will need it).

7/17/11
Sunday. After breakfast (which consisted of beef soup, rice, plantains, and cheese) Jenny took me to the open air market in Sucre, about 20 minutes away. There is a Sunday market for material things like clothes and CDs, and there is also a food market (fish, meat, vegetables) that is open every day but things tend to be fresher on Sundays. The main mode of transportation besides the bus that runs to Portoviejo is pickup trucks. People drive up and down the road, and you pay like 20 cents to ride in the back of the truck. We walked around for quite awhile, and then went back to my family’s house for lunch. After lunch we went to the “grand opening” of a horse track. We sat on the truck in the parking lot instead of paying the entrance fee, which is what many people did. We were there for about two and a half hours and saw ONE race. That’s Ecuador for you I guess!

7/18/11
Today I went to the Centro De Salud (health center) in Sucre. There were tons of young moms with babies there… I wonder if there is a program there somewhere that I can develop? I also met the director and some of the staff as well as a health educator. The health educator made me laugh because he did something that I have seen people in the U.S. do as well. When he was told that I am new at Spanish, he talked really loud in simple words, like nearly yelling at me will somehow make me understand him better. How many times have you heard of someone in the U.S. doing this to person they perceive as not understanding English (whether they understand or not)? After the Centro, I had a meeting in the Volunteer Committee’s “office” which is really just a garage. The meeting was supposed to be to help me fill out my work plan for the first 3 months (which I have to turn into PC), but it turned into a bit of a debate. They talked about the effectiveness of past programs, the effectiveness and capacity of the volunteers on the committee, what my work priorities should be, etc. They mentioned something about whether I should be working in the colegio (high school) or not.

Jenny also had to remind them, quite strongly, of two important things: 1) That I should not be responsible for any major organizing/coordinating/managing of charlas or projects in my first 3 months in site. According to Peace Corps those first 3 months are meant to get to know the community and improve our language skills. We of course can do small projects if we want to, say community gardening or something, but I really shouldn’t be planning and giving charlas on say, family planning, when I do not have the contacts yet to call the necessary people for planning this or the Spanish skills to present it effectively. 2) I am allowed to have secondary projects that are not associated with the committee of volunteers, such as gardening, cooking classes, working with schools, whatever. Even though the committee members said that they understood these things, one part of the culture here is that people say yes even if they don’t completely mean yes. Therefore, I have my doubts as to whether both of these things will hold true.

There is something else very interesting I have noticed about the people I will be working with. Perhaps it is partially because I am the 3rd volunteer, part personality, part culture, part small town… I don’t know. But there seems to be a lot of politics (for lack of a better word) involving the status of having a volunteer. It seems that a great many people want ownership in working with the gringita. The committee appears a bit possessive. One example is their resistance to me having outside projects. This also goes back to the debate over where I should live. My counterpart wanted me in the other house because it was near her home, in the upper part of Los Tillales where many of the “power players” live. I live in the center part of Los Tillales. There are also the houses on the other side of the river, which in general are slightly poorer than where I live. Another example: Jenny started a children’s library for the community. Once a week she reads to them in Spanish, and they are allowed to borrow books. She asked me if I wanted her to move the books to my house when she leaves, and of course I said yes. Reading will improve my Spanish it is also a great way for me to get to know the kids where I live. This is a project that was entirely orchestrated and managed by Jenny; the committee had nothing to do with it. However, at the committee meeting, they were trying to convince Jenny that the books should stay in their neighborhood and they really did not want them moving to where I live, in the center of Los Tillales. All of this “regionalism” is extremely strange and kind of funny to me for one main reason: my house is maybe a 10 minute walk from my counterpart’s house in the other “neighborhood”.
I can see that these power dynamics will be a challenge for me in more ways than one. I am going to work very hard to get to know the entire community, including the houses on the other side of the river, and to work with as many people as possible. With that being said, it is a balancing act because I am assigned to work with my counterpart and organization. I am here to help empower them, and I don’t want to isolate them. So basically, I have to find a way to empower the organization while trying not to bolster the dynamics of privilege that are so obviously at play. It will be quite the balancing act, but I think I am up to the challenge.

7/19/11

This morning, Jenny picked me up and we went to the colegio in Sucre to give a charla on anemia. (Jenny was giving the charla, I was just there to introduce myself and observe). Jenny has been working with this particular group of high school students to educate them on the “Growing Strong and Healthy” program. The hope is that once they are trained in the program, they will be able to replicate the charlas in their own communities. It not only educates them on issues of nutrition and hygiene, but it also increases their self-esteem and public speaking skills while creating another channel of information for the communities to utilize. The kids were super friendly and asked me lots of questions. One girl even asked me if my eye color was natural or if I was wearing contacts (green/blue eyes are extremely rare here). I was slightly disappointed when my counterpart, Nelly did not show up like she said she would. The day before the charla, she said she would help Jenny out, but then she missed the whole charla and just met us after. When we asked why she missed it, she gave really vague answers like “If you only knew” then she said she forgot. Jenny said that basically, if Nelly doesn’t want to do something, she just won’t. This is another challenge I see in my future, but again is something I am willing to work with.

After the charla, we drove 45 minutes outside of the town to do a census for the Ministry of Public Health. This area is much more rural and isolated than where I live. We practically had to drive house to house, because there would be a cluster of 2-3 homes, then nothing, then another cluster way down the dirt road. All of this travel of course is in the back of a pickup truck, so when it started to downpour we had to stop and find shelter until it passed. The level of nutrition and hygiene is much lower than where I live. One family sticks out in my mind. The mom was 40 years old and was expecting her ninth child. Her husband currently does not have a job, but he is sometimes able to find work on a farm temporarily. Even though she should be getting pre-natal checkups, which are free, she has only seen a doctor 3 times in the 8 months of her pregnancy, and has not received all of the exams she is entitled to. She was quite skinny and did not look very well nourished. Her children were also pretty skinny, and had worn clothes and were not wearing shoes. These are mostly the kinds of families I will be working with, and I am really looking forward to getting to know them.

7/20
Today I head back to Tumbaco. The bus ride is about 9 hours to Quito. I am really looking forward to what everyone else has to say about their sites. My host family was adorable, saying that they would miss me a lot and they can’t wait for me to come back.

General Impressions
Overall, I love my site and I can’t wait to move there in about a month. I feel extremely blessed to be in the situation I am in. When I got back to training, I learned that one of the other health volunteers went home because she was unhappy with her site. There are other people who absolutely love their site, but not everyone. The vast majority are still in the middle, unsure. Excited, but not thrilled. Like I said, I feel really lucky.

There are, however, definitely things that are way different from my experiences in Tumbaco thus far and I wanted to share a couple with you. I can’t pinpoint why these difference exist; it could be the difference between rural and urban, coast and sierra, poor versus middle class, or a million other things.

One striking difference is the amount of attention I got as a white/American female. They warned us that this would happen, but besides a few whistles I hadn’t really experienced much. Perhaps it’s because in Tumbaco I am usually in a group of people, I don’t know. It can be a bit unnerving, but I’ve found the best coping mechanism is to just laugh it off. I’ll give you some examples. One young man that was in the group I was with asked me if I had a boyfriend in the United States. I said no. He said “men in the United States must be blind!” Another guy said he could get lost in my eyes for years. Of course there is the “you are so beautiful”. Yet another one offered to take me to Peru. This is my personal favorite: one guy said that if we got married we would have beautiful white children and that I should just live here forever and he could take me around on his motorcycle and I would be very happy. This is all especially hilarious to me because all I can think is I am sweaty, tired, not wearing any makeup, and have my hair bunched under a baseball cap. What the hell makes you interested in THAT.

Time is another difference. Again, they warned us about it but it hadn’t really affected me in Tumbaco. In my site, it seems like I can pretty much count on people being 30 minutes late. It just is not that important to be on time.

Language. People on the coast talk a lot faster, and the common phrases and words they use are different from the ones I have been learning in the Sierra. They also sometimes drop the letters at the end of words. All of this makes it harder to understand people in my site, but luckily if I ask them to slow down, they will and then I can usually figure out what they are saying.

Food. They eat a lot more meat than in the Sierra. Like, with every meal. I had beef with breakfast almost every morning. It is difficult for me, but once I move out in a few months I can cook for myself. They also eat more fish, which I am enjoying.

Creatures. I saw a lot of them, including spiders, a snake, bats, an iguana, rats, and of course tons of flying insects. As long as I don’t get bitten by anything, I think I will be ok!

Status/Privilege. My host family in Tumbaco has had volunteers before, and they treat me as a regular member of the family… I don’t feel special or privileged. However, in my site, as I touched on earlier, I feel like I am being given a lot of status. I feel very catered to, and it is extremely difficult for me because I know that my host family is just trying to make me happy. For example, during the week it was obvious that they were cooking special meals and eating around my schedule. My host mom also took my dirty clothes out of my room and washed them for me. This is something that I will have to work on when I get back; finding a balance of doing more things for myself and being treated like an actual member of the family without special privileges while managing not to offend or upset my host family, especially my host mom.

Visibility. I definitely feel the fishbowl effect here. I have had people watch me eat, watch me write, watch me watch TV, etc. When I walk down the street, everyone wants to talk to me because they know I am the new volunteer. I feel that this will definitely work to my advantage, but I also sense that it will get on my nerves at times.

Overall, I am pretty damn happy and this visit made me absolutely sure that I am supposed to be here. =)

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Janet Pencek on July 25, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Trina,

    Great blog! Good to hear more in depth details about the trip to your site. I find it funny that people there see the volunteers as an individual of “status”. I’m sure that the fascination with the new volunteer will gradually fade and you will settle in and not feel so self conscience about people watching you.
    It sounds like you will have many opportunities to work with and help the people in the area. It will be exciting to come visit you and see all the programs you are involved in.
    Keep up the good work and keep the blogs coming. Love you!

    Reply

  2. AH! I’m so excited for you to have gotten to visit your site! It sounds like the family with whom you will be staying is really welcoming, so I hope it proves to be a phenomenal experience… I know it will!!

    As I was reading your blog I noticed you would be working a lot with kids 5 and under…. Might I sense some sort of pen-pal/skype call (hah!) situation between my class and the kids you work with? Not sure how much time you spend in each town/ if you will have a lot of time with a specific group of kids, but if the opportunity arises it could be cool!

    ❤ you, miss you!

    Liz

    Reply

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