Archive for August, 2011

My First Week in Site!

Thursday-Arrival Day

Kris, Erin, and I had decided a day earlier to take the “Executive Bus” instead of the regular one. It is only a dollar or two more and there are several advantages to this: it has a bathroom on board, we wouldn’t have to drag all of our bags through a giant terminal, our luggage would be more secure once under the bus, it is air-conditioned, it is quieter because there are not venders getting on and off the bus to sell things, and it is faster because there are fewer stops. It was well worth the price jump. My host dad had purchased the tickets for us ahead of time, and we also arranged a taxi the night before. The taxi picked me up at 6:30am. I had a feeling that fitting 3 girls plus all of their luggage for the next two years into a taxi would be a tight squeeze, but it turned out to be more ridiculous than I imagined. I had my small backpack, my red hiking backpack, and my medium/large duffel bag. Erin and Kris both had a large square rolling suitcase, a hiking backpack, a small backpack, and another small purse/bag. All of us also had our giant maps of Ecuador rolled up. We ended up like this for the 40 minute ride: most of our luggage crammed into the trunk, the two big square suitcases in the backseat (taking up two seats), Erin squeezed into the backseat next to the suitcases, Kris sitting on top of Erin, and me in the front passenger seat with Erin’s big hiking backpack in my lap. Like I said, ridiculous. We got to the bus office in plenty of time. The bus ride was fine-nothing exciting. I slept a lot on the ride, and got antsy once we were an hour or so outside of Portoviejo. Because we got in about 45 minutes before we expected to, no one was there to pick me up yet, but I didn’t mind. I said goodbye to Erin and Kris when they left, and we agreed to meet up in Portoviejo soon. Marcela (my neighbor), and one of my host brothers picked me up. I finally got to the house at 6pm. Everyone was there to greet me of course. I showered, ate dinner, and unpacked. Jen (the previous volunteer) left me like 4 or 5 boxes of stuff: library books for the community library she ran out of her house, paperwork, manuals, and books for leisure reading. She also left me her fridge, which is awesome because if I had to buy one when I move into my own place, that would be about half of my settling in allowance right there. My counterpart, Nelly, called. I have a hard time understanding her on the phone because she speaks very quickly and her phone is kind of beat up so it crackles a lot. I did gather, however, that there was a meeting at 8:30 the next morning which she wanted me to attend.

Friday

Nelly thought I was meeting her at the Centro De Salud (health clinic) and I thought she was picking me up at my house. Oops. Marcela ended up going with me because I did not remember exactly where it was. The meeting was with some of the other volunteers of the committee I am working with. From what I could understand, they were reviewing who had received the full training for the “Growing Healthy and Strong” program they will begin soon and who had missed some sessions. They also chose dates for the two health promoters, Nelly and Cecilia, to visit their communities. After the meeting, we walked around Sucre (the “town” of my county), went to the Municipio (local government) and other errands. I was home in time for lunch. After lunch, I spent the afternoon going through all of the stuff Jen left. I also organized the library books on the shelf my host family gave me.

Saturday

I woke up around 8am. It is literally impossible to sleep in here, even with ear plugs. Around 11:30-12, some people (relatives?) from out of town dropped by. They were going to a popular waterfall and invited us to go so me and my host mom hopped in the back of the pick-up truck, which was already packed with people. It took us about an hour to get there. The waterfall was very pretty, and there were only a few other families there. The family who had invited us had brought a bunch of food for lunch, so we had a nice little picnic by the water. After lunch, everyone went swimming in the river/waterfall. Pretty much everyone here swims in their clothes, so it didn’t matter that I was in jeans and a soccer jersey; I jumped on in and it was really fun. It is pretty hot here, so it was nice and refreshing. I saw a gigantic frog. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was as big a grapefruit, or bigger. This goes along great with the enormous spider I saw two days later, which was about as big as my hand. It looks like they have all the same critters that we do, just supersized. All in all we were probably at the waterfall for four or five hours. When we got back around dinner time, I showered and then completely passed out. My host mom woke me up for dinner. I feel like I am always tired here. Jen said she felt the same way the first few months. She said she thinks it is due to the mental exhaustion from everything; new language, different culture, just the newness and adjustment of everything. I think it is probably a combination of that and also adjusting to the heat. Being tired all the time is quite annoying; it makes it hard to focus and if I nap I worry that my host family will think I am lazy.

Sunday

I Woke up early again and went through some more of Jen’s papers. I spent some time looking through the flashdrive she left for me, as well as the Peace Corps flashdrive we were all given. In the late afternoon, the cousins asked if I wanted to go for a ride, and a funny thing happened. The conversation went like this:

Cousin: Vamos abajo… quiere ir? (We are going down there, want to come?)
Me: A donde? (Where?)
Cousin: Abajo!
Me: Si, pero… a donde? (Yeah, but where?)
Cousin: No entiende? VA-MOS- A-BA-JO! (You don’t undertand? We are going down there!)
Me: Ok… (I surrender)

Here’s the thing: I understood perfectly what they were saying, but I was looking for a more specific destination, which I suppose was very “American” of me. In the U.S. if someone said “hey we are going down there, wanna come?” you would probably ask “where?” and you’d likely be met with a response like “Kate’s house” or “the park”. But here, that is just not an issue. People just go along for the ride, it doesn’t matter where you are going. It turns out we were just going to drop someone off at their house in the neighboring community. The lesson here: just go along for the ride. Probably not a bad philosophy for the next two years.

Monday

On Sunday, Nelly had said she would pick me up on our way to an 8:30 meeting, so I should be ready for 8am, and wait for her on my porch. At 8:29 she called me to tell me to walk to her house (in the opposite direction of where the meeting was). When I arrived to her home, she turned the T.V. on for me and told me she had to finish her laundry. I watched T.V. for 45 minutes, and about an hour after the meeting was supposed to start, we left her house. Welcome to rural Ecuador friends! Now, you all know me pretty well, so I imagine you are suspecting I was quite annoyed. To my surprise, and probably yours, the-girl-who-always-has-everything-exactly–scheduled-in-her-planner-and-is-always-at least-five-minutes-early was not frustrated or annoyed by this unstructured tardiness. After further reflection, I decided this was for a couple of reasons:

1) I having been expecting this, and have thus been mentally preparing for it for the last, oh, 4 or 5 months. 2) In order to be a happier person, I have been training myself not to react to little things like this that are out of my control. 3) I’ve got nothin’ but time here. 4) It’s a norm here, so it is not like I would be the only one showing up late. I am also showing up with my counterpart. Therefore, it does not negatively affect the impression people have of me.

Shocking I know! I imagine that some of you have your jaws drooping right now. Anyways, we got to the meeting and the director of the health clinic was saying something about the volunteers on the committee and the health promoters (Nelly and Cecilia) working more with the clinic, or some kind of restructuring of the system. I couldn’t understand everything, but whatever it was, it had Nelly in quite a tizzy. After the meeting, we did a lot of running around from office to office in Sucre. We ate lunch with the doctors from the clinic, and after lunch met up with Omar from PLAN International to go out into one of the rural communities. I got back to the house around 5pm, so it was a full day.

Tuesday

Senora Nelly was about 35 minutes late this morning, so I studied some Spanish vocabulary while I was waiting for her. I carry around a pocket notebook with me, and when I hear a word I don’t know, I try to figure out how to spell it so I can look it up. If I can find it, I write it down in my notebook with the English translation so I can memorize it later. Nelly and I met up with Cecilia, two of the doctors, and a group of high school students from Jen’s health education class. We all got into the pickup truck and headed out to one of the more rural communities. We went house to house with 3 different goals: one doctor was doing a simple census, the other doctor was looking for people with physical challenges so that she could document it, and us and the high school students were giving mini-charlas from the first session in the “Growing Healthy and Strong” program. We did that all day; I did not get home until close to 4pm. When I did come home though, I brought with me about a dozen oranges and a bunch of bananas. Everyone in the campo (i.e. rural areas) has food growing around them. Sometimes it is by accident and sometimes in purpose, but whatever the case, they have a ton of it. So everywhere we went, people would pick fruit off of the trees for us to take with us.

Wednesday

On Tuesday evening, my host mom told me she walks for 45 minutes every morning for exercise and she asked if I wanted to go with her. I said yes… why not right? That is when she told me that she walks at 5am. Joke’s on me! I got up at 4:53am and went walking with her, and I actually enjoyed it. Since I can’t sleep in anyway because the roosters start crowing around that time, I might as well keep doing it. So, guess who gets up at 5am every day now? Yup, that’s me. We had another meeting at the health clinic to discuss the change in the role of the volunteers and health promoters. The meeting ended with the doctors telling everyone they needed to submit their portfolios/resumes for evaluation. I was tired and not feeling well, and I could also tell that Nelly and Cecilia were going to be distracted by this all day, so we parted ways. I went home, napped, and hung out with my host mom a bit.

Thursday

My stomach was really not feeling well, so I called Nelly and told her I was staying home. I lounged around, read, hung out with my host mom. . This leads me to an observation I would like to share. In addition to just going for rides to wherever, people also just sit. They sit outside and watch the traffic go by. This is often over an extended period of time, say 45 minutes to an hour. Sometimes they talk, but often they don’t. They say hello to everyone who walks by, and sometimes they exchange gossip. I’ve done this a bit with my host mom, and also my host cousins, and I don’t mind it, but it is a challenge for me. When was last time you just sat, with no intention of doing anything, with no music or tv in the background, with no other distractions? It is pretty rare for us to do this in the U.S. I think, because we (or maybe more accurately, I) have the notion that we should be doing something all of the time. Even our methods of “relaxing” involve doing something: reading, watching tv, sports, etc. Now, imagine, me of all people sitting quietly and doing nothing for an extended period of time. Between this news, me not stressing over being late, and telling you about my new habit of waking up at 5am, I hope I haven’t given any of you a heart attack or something.

Friday

Even though I called Nelly and asked what she was doing today, she told me to just stay home to make sure I was fully recuperated, so I had another day off. In addition to talking my host mom out of a near panic attack after I told her I was meeting another volunteer in Portoviejo (the big city) on Saturday and writing this incredibly long blog post, I also wrote out a list of reasons I like not knowing or speaking Spanish well. This essentially was to make myself feel better about my Spanish, because I was a little frustrated about it. Funny enough, the two people I have the most trouble understanding are Nelly and my host mom… probably the two people I interact with the most. My host mom just has a really strong accent, and my counterpart speaks quickly and softly. This leaves me feeling not so great. So, I leave you now with my list; it’s short and sweet.

Things I Like About Not Knowing or Speaking Spanish Well:

1) When a conversation I am hearing gets awkward, or someone asks a question that I don’t want to deal with (like “Are you going to get an Ecuadorian boyfriend?”), I can just say I don’t understand what they are saying, even if I understand them perfectly.
2) If I can’t completely understand what someone is asking, I tend to just agree to do something or go somewhere (as long as I know the person! Duh.). This has worked out in my favor so far. I have gone to the waterfall, seen an iguana, walked across a bamboo bridge, and some other very cool things because of this.
3) I don’t have to worry about cursing at inappropriate times because I don’t know any bad words in Spanish!

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The End and The Beginning: Swearing-In

So, I have officially gone from PCT to PCV. Let the true PC experience begin!

The days since my last tech trip to Guayaquil have been a blur of presentations, evaluations, paperwork, baking, fiestas, quality time, packing, and probably so much more. I think the one thing I want to highlight is Family Appreciation Day. It was a BLAST! It was fun to see everyone with their families, and the family members were so happy to be there. We had games and face painting, then a potluck lunch, followed by a traditional Ecuadorian dance performance and an Ecuadorian/modern version of Romeo and Juliet put on by some of the other volunteers. It was just a plain old fun day.

Today was a good day too. Our swearing in ceremony was this morning, and it lasted about an hour and a half. There were speeches from our training director, the country director, and the Chair’d Affaires from the U.S. Embassy (the Ambassador was kicked out of Ecuador a few months ago by the President, so the Chair’d is in charge). There were also speeches from one representative from each program: health, youth and families, and TEFL. Then we took our oath as a group, and finally they called each of us to the stage to receive our certificates… like a graduation of sorts I suppose. There was a short reception afterwards, then I came home, ate lunch with my family, and packed a bit. Later in the afternoon, everyone went back to the training center for ice cream and kickball. After kickball, a bunch of volunteers grabbed a beer near the park.

I have a lot of feelings about today. Yes, I was so ready to swear in and be done with training so I could get to my site. I was fed up with have such a hectic schedule, lack of free time, and constantly being part of a gringo parade. And I guess swearing in today was like graduation not only in ceremony, but in the feelings it left me with too. When I graduated from Stonehill in May, I was sad to leave but ready to go, because I knew in my heart that it was time to move on, that I had made the most of it. I feel the same way about training. Yes, I am going to miss my fellow volunteers, the camaraderie among us, my host family, the safety net of the training staff, and the ability to simply speak English if I lack Spanish vocabulary. But do I want to go back to training? No. Because I am ready. Ready to integrate into my community, ready to go days on end without speaking English, ready to observe, to share, and to learn. Ready to be a humble, creative, and effective volunteer. So yes, I am feeling a little nostalgic, but I am also so excited for what’s next.

For Your Entertainment/Just Because

As a result of my impending loss of oh-so-convenient internet, I have been spending too much time on the computer lately, and it is rarely for good reason. When I got here in June I was pleasantly surprised to have internet, and I kept telling myself to remember that I probably wouldn’t have it in my site, but I am still a little bummed to be losing it. I know I will be doing lots of awesome things at my site, and I will adjust just fine to not having internet, but I think that aimlessly surfing is just my way of saying bye to it. So, for your entertainment and a little glimpse into my brain, I have included two lists for you. Go ahead and laugh, but please don’t judge… I judge myself enough for the both of us, thanks =).

Websites I have frequented too often lately (in no particular order):

1. Facebook (duh, this isn’t new)
2. Email (both gmail and my Stonehill account.) Sad I know. Which leads me too….
3. Stonehill’s Monday Morning Update/Stonehill Website in general (I’m just an interested alum, you know?)
4. HarborOne Online Banking (why do you keep checking your balance Katrina? It will NOT magically increase)
5. Google Translate (sometimes, my little dictionary just doesn’t have the word I’m looking for)
6. Wordpress (This is my 3rd post in 4 days… I think that says enough.)
7. PeaceCorpsJournals (A collection of PCV blogs from around the world. Awesome stuff.)
8. HappyHerbivore (I have been obsessively saving recipes to my computer for the coming months when I will have to cook for myself/will not have regular internet to google things)
9. Photobucket (Why do I take so many pictures, and why do they take so long to upload?)
10. CNN/BBC (I’m proud of this one)
11. People.com (…and super embarrassed of this one)
12. AmeriCorps (I know it’s a bit too early to be thinking about post-service stuffs, but I was just curious…)

And things I’ve googled (admittedly, more than once):

1. Grad School Programs (I know, I know. I’m crazy. See notes on #12)
2. My horoscope (Looking at just one website does not yield the results I want)
3. Prettiest beaches in Manabi (For my future vacations)
4. Gender and Development Activities
5. Sex Ed Activities
6. Handicraft Ideas
7. U.S. government regulations for bring pets into the U.S. from other countries (I want a puppy!)
8. Fundraising Ideas
9. Ways to prevent mosquito bites
10. Tips for traveling across South America (another post-service notion)

There you have it… I think this gives a pretty good idea of how my brain is functioning these days.

A Wonderful Moment

Even though I wrote to you all yesterday, something happened today that I wanted to share!

I THOUGHT IN SPANISH!

Up until now, when I am speaking Spanish, I am constantly thinking it in English and translating it in my head before I speak, but today that is not what happened. Today we had to present to our training officers and other health volunteers. The idea was to use the information we collected during tech trip, apply it to a fake community, come up with projects, and then propose/present those projects to “the community leaders of the town” aka our training officers. Nathan and I were proposing gender discussion classes for adults, gender and sex ed classes for teens, a community bank for women, technical/handicraft classes for sex workers, and research into the prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Infections in the community. I don’t know what happened; I got up there and just felt super on point. I barely looked at the notes I had written out, and when they asked questions I was able to immediately answer in Spanish. Sure, my grammar and pronunciation were probably not 100% correct, but I was so much more fluid in my speaking and I was actually making sense without having to think about every single word. Of course, this was a momentary thing (I have since reverted back to thinking in English) but it was a much needed boost of confidence that came at the perfect time.

Tech Trip #2: Guayaquil

This tech trip was shorter, and a bit more stressful. Even though it was Monday through Friday like the last one, this time we traveled to Guayaquil, which is a 9+ hour bus ride from Quito. This meant that Monday and Friday were purely travel days, so the real stuff happened on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Tuesday
Tuesday was one of the most stressful days of training for me, and I don’t think I am the only one who felt that way. Tuesday morning we walked to the PC office to receive training on Cuanto Sabes, which is a youth education program on HIV and AIDS. It is a 12 week program, and the idea is that you educate and train a group of 12 to 20 high school students on HIV/AIDS so that they then have the ability to educate their peers. It is a great program; effective because it involves self-esteem building for the group of leaders, peer education (which is always more effective), and sustainable because after you leave those kids will still have all of that knowledge. The problem was, the training for those who will be facilitating the Cuanto Sabes program is supposed to be 2 to 3 days, and we had 4 hours. The second problem was that after those 4 hours, we were supposed to plan a charla (presentation/education session) on what we had just heard. The charla was supposed to combine several concepts from different Cuanto Sabes lesson plans: what is HIV, what is AIDS, how are they different, transmission of HIV, and prevention… all in a 40 minute lesson plan. It was also supposed to be engaging and interactive, and of course, in Spanish. Also, we were going to an all boys high school. As you can imagine, this sounded extremely overwhelming to most of us and we were all a bit frazzled. Now add the fact that we had about 40 minutes to an hour to plan this charla and practice it in front of our facilitators, bosses, a current volunteer, and the man who had just trained us on it. YIKES. There was definitely a lot of tension in the group as we all began to plan our sessions. The practice runs did not go super well, either. At that point, it was decided to scrap the tourist stuff we were supposed to do that night. Instead, we went to dinner (pizza and beer, just what I needed, and easy to find considering how industrialized/westernized Guayaquil is) and then came back to the hotel to work some more on our charla. After making some more posters and figuring out who would facilitate what parts with my partner, I spent some time writing out and studying key vocabulary and Spanish phrases that I would need for the next morning. HIV and AIDS education is extremely important, and I did not want to screw it up.

Wednesday
Wednesday we left the hotel to make the 1.5 hour bus ride into the community where we would be working for the day. I felt better than I had the day before, but I was still not super confident that the charla would go well. Our first class was probably about 30-40 boys. The principal (?) introduced us, saying that we were a great resource for a very important topic, and they should ask any us any questions that they had. Ok, great, more pressure! Nathan and I started off by introducing ourselves. Then the first activity was to have them give us words associated with each word in VIH and SIDA (HIV/AIDS) that idea was to use simpler words to define HIV and AIDS and what they really mean. In the end, we end up with posters like this:

Virus Una vida microscopia (que ataca)
Inmuno  el sistema de defensas (y causa) Deficiencia debilidad, falta (que afecta)
Humanapersonas

So, we are able to explain that VIH is a small living thing that attacks the system of defenses and causes a failure in them, and it only affects people. We did the same thing for SIDA. After defining VIH and SIDA, we moved on to the differences between them. In order to teach the differences, we played True/False with them in teams, and they got pretty competitive. Next was transmission. Still in competitive teams, the kids had to tell us which methods actually transmitted VIH and which didn’t. The list included tears, sweat, blood, breast milk, semen, vaginal fluid, saliva, and mosquito bites. Most of the kids knew that blood, breast milk, semen, and vaginal fluid all have the potential to transmit VIH, but the rest got mixed answers. Probably the most debated was mosquito bites. We explained the mosquitoes do not carry VIH, and that since they extract human blood, not inject it, there is no way for someone to get VIH from a mosquito bite. An important fact that we relayed to them was that 98% of new cases of VIH in Ecuador are transmitted by unprotected sex. We then moved on to prevention, like abstinence, mutual fidelity after an VIH test, and condoms of course. We finished with a little review game; we had a paper ball, and each layer of paper had a question on it. Whoever caught the ball had to answer the review question. It went really well, and we felt that they definitely learned a few things… now I just hope they remember it. Overall, the kids were great. They were interactive and engaged, and they participated and asked questions. After that class, we gave the same charla two more times to other classrooms, and those also went pretty well. The charlas completely surpassed my expectations and I was thrilled.

After our charlas, lunch, and walking around the town/getting ice cream, we met briefly with the current volunteer living there. As always, it was great to hear a “firsthand account” of what it is really like living/working in Ecuador. She is also doing some really interesting stuff with sex workers in the area; she started a craft class for them as a way to build relationships and generate secondary income. This reminds me; if anyone has any craft suggestions, please let me know. There are a lot of really young moms in my site, and I am considering forming a women’s group with them if there isn’t something in place already. It would be great to have some craft ideas (like jewelry making) that they could make during the meetings!

After that session, we headed back to Guayaquil to eat dinner and work on our general sex education charlas for the next day.

Thursday
Thursday was the day for giving general sex education charlas, and Nathan and I’s topic was Sexually Transmitted Infections. Again, I was a little nervous about it. I had never given a presentation on anything remotely related to sex ed in English, let alone Spanish! First we had them split into teams and list as many STIs as they could think of, which turned out to be about 4. Next we went through a poster of the most common STIs and symptoms. After that, we played a game to show how easy it can be to transmit STIs. Each student gets a little piece of paper. One or two of the papers have Xs on them, one or two have Cs, one or two have As, and the rest are blank. We instruct the student with the A paper to refrain from participating in the game, and then ask the rest of the students to obtain three signatures from their classmates. After everyone has 3 names on their paper, we have them sit down. Then we ask the students with Xs to stand, and tell them that the Xs means they “have” an STI. Each name on their paper represents a person they had sex with. Now, we say “a C on your paper means you used a condom”. So if “Lucia” has an X, she reads the 3 names on her paper and they stand up. If the students on Lucia’s paper don’t have a C, they too have an STI, stand up, and read the names on their papers, and so on, until a large portion of the class is standing, representing that they have an STI. We then explain that the person with the A represents abstinence. This gives a great visual representation to how quickly STIs can spread through unprotected sex, and how abstinence or using a condom can prevent them. After the game, we talked a little more about transmission and also played the question ball review game from the day before. We gave two charlas; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They went pretty well, but the students were not as interactive as the boys from the day before… who knows why. We also spent some time with Tiffany, the current volunteer there, which again, was great.

The most frustrating part of this week for me was my presentation skills. In the U.S., I pride myself on being a good facilitator and a good presenter, on articulating myself well in front of people. But here, in Spanish, it is difficult. I do not like having long pauses while I scramble to think of a word, or having to read notes from a paper, or not being able to answer a question without stumbling over my words. And yes, I know my language skills will improve with time, but right now it is aggravating because what I want to do or say and what I can do or say based on my language level are two very different things.

My favorite part about this week was practicing non-formal education tools, which I think I will be using a lot over the next two years. Thinking of engaging activities is challenging, facilitating them is fun, and seeing people learn from them is rewarding. I can’t wait to see how I can use these skills in my site!

I guess that’s all for now… I have a bunch of final evaluations until Wednesday, family appreciation day Thursday, a long weekend, wrap-up on Monday and Tuesday, then… BAM! Swearing-In is Wednesday the 17th, and I’ll moving to my new home on the 18th =)