Follow my time volunteering in an elementary school in Tumbaco, Ecuador!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Can´t believe it´s over!

Well, my time here in Ecuador is coming to a close. I've had my big goodbye party with all of my friends, taught my final English classes (in front of all the students' parents!), given goodbye presents to my host family, reflected and evaluated my experience at my organization's final camp, and spent an awesome vacation with my friend Ellen at the beach. I can't believe time has flown by so fast--how can 6 months be gone already? I've learned so much during this trip and changed a lot, too. I've learned about life and who I am and what I want. I'm growing into the person I really want to be. In fact, I AM the person I want to be, with crazy and wonderful dreams and a future full of life. I'm so excited for what's to come yet sad at the same time to see this part come to an end. Ecuador has been awesome, an unforgettable memory, but there are a few things I will be GLAD to leave behind:

- the constant cat calls!
- the "choclo" (corn on the cob). It is completely tasteless. Can't wait to eat good old Indiana sweetcorn!
- having to buy water. Water will be free again!!
- washing my clothes three times and having them still not be clean
- having the responsibilities of a "real adult"--teaching full-time and being expected to do things maybe beyond my ability. I get to be a college student with only herself to think about!
- having my host mom as my boss. There were just major personality clashes.
- paying for internet
- milk in a bag. Who invented that? Because it's dumb. The milk goes everywhere every time you try to pour it. Hello milk cartons!

However, there are also things I will really, really miss:
- the mountains. Living in such a beautiful place really makes me wonder why I've been living in ugly Indiana for my whole life. Every single time I look outside and see the mountains, I am instantly happier.
- the fresh bread (almost) every day for breakfast. Yum!
- the easy-to-eat-on-the-go yogurt. You don't need a spoon!
- how cheap everything is. I get angry when an Ecuadorian lunch costs $3.
- the weather! Eternal spring! Although, when I return home, I believe it will actually be hotter in Indiana than here which will be kinda nice.
- public transportation. I will hate seeing my money disappear once again into the car gas tank.
- the faith aspect. I love seeing how deeply spiritual these people are and how their religion doesn't only show up in church but is the backbone for how they live their lives, and in a good way. It seems in the US we have a lot of fake religious people and seeing real religion here is refreshing
- the Spanish. Sometimes I'll start watching a movie and be completely surprised that the language I hear coming out of their mouths is English!
- the infinite amounts of fruit! Pineapple, banana, mango, papaya, chillimoya, watermelon!
- my awesome friends here. They've definitely been the best part of this trip, and I'm going to miss them so much. NYC 2011!!
- the exotic-ness and excitement of living in a foreign country. It's so easy to slip right back into a boring routine in a boring place because it's easy and well, you're happy enough. But even though it's scarier, harder, and a lot riskier, living your life as an adventure and fulfilling your crazy dreams, I've realized, is so much better. A book I just read (called The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein) quotes, "That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny." So why not? Do what you love, love what you do. And live your dreams, no matter what.

Monday, June 7, 2010


One and a half weeks left at my school. Four weeks until I leave Ecuador. Two and a half months until I go to college. Ahh! It's so surreal. Even after 5 months I continue to think, "I'm in ECUADOR! I can't believe it!!" And now, I find myself thinking, "Oh wow, I'm in Ecuador, and I'm only here for one month more! I still can't believe it!!" So I'm trying to make the most of my time left here--finishing up all the traveling I want to do, getting the kids ready for their exams, and even starting to think about how I'm going to pack all of my stuff back into those very small suitcases to come back home. I'm ready for home but at the same time I can't bear to think about leaving. It's just gone by too fast! But I'm excited about what's to come (summer at home, college, work, hopefully more travel) and Ecuador has just provided the spring board to jump into all of it.

I crossed two more places off my list of "Places to See," marking an end to my travels until my two weeks of vacation at the end. Cuenca, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its colonial-style streets and myriad of grand churches, was beautiful, and we managed to catch it on a gorgeously sunny weekend. Mostly we marveled at the churches, enjoyed feeling the wind in our hair as we walked along the river, browsed through an oddly assorted museum (which included a whole exhibit of shrunken heads), and were wowed by the biggest Incan ruins in Ecuador.

The other place: Mindo. I went last week with my school on a fieldtrip. There was lots of goofy singing on the bus which gave it a summer camp-like atmosphere, and my little devils turned into angels when they all fell asleep on the way back. We saw butterflies and hummingbirds and even took a dip in the river. That was definitely the best part: an entire school of kids stripped down to just their underpants splashing around in the river and screaming happily under the uncomfortable looks of their parents. (Did I really send my kid to this school??)

I also went this past weekend to two of Quito's best museums, Museo Nacional del Banco Central and Museo de Guayasamin. The former offered a large assortment of pots, jewelry, tools, and art from the first peoples of Ecuador and followed their evolution from native hunter-gatherers to being conquered by the Incan to then being conquered by the Spanish. The latter featured the works of the most famous painter in Ecuador, Oswaldo Guayasamin, who is a contemporary painter (dying only about 10 years ago in 1999) known for his attention given to the oppressed people in Latin America. The museum itself was quite grim, displaying only Guayasmin's most macabre pieces--paintings of crying women, dead children, skeletons, and death--but his style, despite being depressing, is amazing. I even bought two of his prints to hang in my dorm room next year =)

Other than those small trips, it's mostly just been a lot of last minute shopping, filling out forms and evaluations to wrap up my work and experience here, and getting ready for my upcoming two weeks of vacation! My awesome friend Ellen is coming to visit during those two weeks so I'm playing a fantastic trip to the beach for us and then a trip to the Amazon for myself. I'm so ready to be done with work--I can't wait for vacation!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Time is flying by...

Time flies by so fast here that I don´t realize how long it´s been since I wrote a blog! Sorry! I haven't been doing much traveling lately, since things have been getting busy with the school as the end of the year draws near, but that doesn't mean nothing's been happening. First off, we've celebrated several special occasions. A volunteer from Germany named Lara, who's been here since last August, had her birthday a few weeks ago and to celebrate we all danced the night away at a salsa bar with a rocking live band. Our salsa lessons have been paying off! Great fun. Then, we had one volunteer, Natalie, leave for her hometown in Sweden, her 3 month stay here having flown by. We threw her a party and said our goodbyes =[ We miss you, Natalie! Mio, a volunteer from Switzerland, also left. We miss you as well! I also attended a family lunch to celebrate the graduation of cousin Alex from "doctor school." Mountains of food were consumed, resulting in a house full of very sleepy and full people. For Mother's Day, we took our mom shopping (my host siblings and I) and spent the day in Quito together. Afterwards, we returned home and spent the rest of the evening cleaning. We were doing such intense cleaning (I mean, on our hands and knees scrubbing the floor to death type of thing) that my brother kept joking, Hey look at Leslie. She's like Cinderella! And other such nonsense. But the reason for all of the cleaning was that...we had another minga, or building party! My wonderful mom in the States helped me get the word out that my school needed funds for several projects, including building a new classroom, buying computers, and buying a concrete top to cover the dangerous well in our yard. And guess what! You all raised more than $1300!! We're hoping to finish the classroom this week, we bought the lid for the well so that our kids won't risk falling in, we repainted all of the classrooms, and we hope to have enough to buy one computer! THANK YOU EVERYONE!!

As for life in general, every day we are entertained by our baby bunny, Pascualita, who is turning out to be the strangest bunny ever, one who gobbles up bits of orange and bread and refuses to touch a single carrot. My host mom treats her like a new baby, giving Pascuala her first bath (she looked like a wet rat. Poor thing), feeding her anything to her heart's desire, talking a mountain of baby-talk to her, and fiercely defending her from my host sister, Chavela, who wants to eat her when she's big enough. But now that we have a pet bunny, my host mom swears that she will never eat a rabbit ever again.

At work, I've started giving private lessons to our two special needs girls, Talia and Xiomara. This has been a nice addition to break up the endless parade of English classes that I teach the rest of the week. It's very difficult, though, because I'm not quite sure how to get things through to the youngest, Xiomara. I hold up a red crayon, ask what color, and she says "Yellow!" (In Spanish. We haven't even started with English in the private lessons, though, in regular class, I've heard her say, in English, "My name is Xiomara!" which just makes me swell with pride. Hopefully, it will stick in her head.) So that's been interesting but great fun. Mostly we just play with dolls or read stories to help the girls gain confidence and independence.

This is the beginning of my fourth month here at the school, and I'm realizing some things. I understand now that this school is for special kids, not special in the same sense as Talia and Xiomara, but for kids of all different kinds. It's a truly "integrated" school as they call it. We have kids with major behavior problems, physical disabilities, issues at home, medical conditions, you name it. Some examples: I have a student who comes to school looking sad sometimes and when asked she tearfully says, "My grandfather doesn't love my mommy." Apparently, there were issues with her parents' marriage which resulted in major family drama. Our special needs girls also have been struggling with family issues, having recently discovered that their mom has cancer and their dad having recently returned after abandoning them. We have several kids who suffer from fits of anger that arise spontaneously and cause them to be escorted from class to calm down almost every day. And we have a girl who has a physical disability that causes her to walk funny which probably, untreated, is doing damage that will worsen her legs in the future. And also, there are two brothers whose parents have a horrible relationship; before their parents' divorce, the boys were forced to witness violent fights, once even involving a knife. Now, the eldest especially is prone to acting violent and only likes activities that involve hurting people or guns. All of this makes it really difficult for our kids to learn and behave appropriately. I compare my school to the schools of other volunteers and realize that my school is different. Not different in a bad way; it just makes teaching more of a challenge. But I'm getting used to that challenge, and finally I feel totally settled at the school.

And of course, I also had my 19th birthday last week! I had an absolutely wonderful day, despite it being the first birthday I've ever celebrated without my family. The kids at school made me birthday cards with help from the art teacher, and we made a pizza party with them all. Then it was off to a great salsa class, and when I returned home, I celebrated with my host family. We ate tons of junk food and they gave really sweet speeches and I blew out a candle they had stuck in a pizza. It was really chill and just fun.

To celebrate with my friends, we all went to Baños this weekend! It's a cute town tucked into the Andes mountains with lots of cool stuff to do like hiking, horseback riding, rafting, taking a dip in the thermal baths for which the town is named, and tons more. We ended up taking a nice hike in the afternoon and then celebrated in the evening with ice cream cake and candles. The next day we went rafting! So much fun! We floated for an hour and a half down the river, paddling away and trying not to get thrown out of the raft! (I failed, often.) Our guide let us jump in the water sometimes and made it all really fun. Overall, it was a really great birthday, and I'm so glad I got to spend it here in Ecuador! (And here's a shout out to my dear sister, Elise, who shares my birthday. Hope you had an awesome day as well, love!)

Besos a todos y que les vayan bien!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rainy season

April brings us the rainy season and our 3 month mark. While the rain pours down (always oh-so-conveniently beginning right after we've hung our laundry on the line to dry…), we volunteers rush to visit everywhere we possibly can as the realization that we're halfway done begins to terrify us. These days we watch beautifully sunny days turn into horrible downpours in just minutes and try to plan out the remainder of our trip here in Ecuador. In just a few days now, we'll have to say goodbye to one of our volunteers as she returns to Sweden… ahhh!

One day a few weeks ago, I had quite an adventure with the teachers from our sector. We didn't have school on Friday, because instead, we teachers went to a gorgeous hostel in a town called Puembo about 15 minutes away to spend the day relaxing, playing, and eating. The event was set up, I'm guessing, by the people in charge of the teachers as a way to show their appreciation. I was a bit skeptical about spending an entire day with a bunch of Spanish teachers much much older than myself but, I have to say, I couldn't have enjoyed myself more! The fun began when my host mom/boss shoved me into a game of futbol with the other teachers. It's been far too long since I've played soccer (3 years almost?), and it was the best fun running around with a bunch of like 40 to 60 year-year-olds kicking away at a soccer ball. Then there was the pool and sauna to enjoy followed by a fabulous three-course meal, complete with ice cream crepes at the end! Yum. It was great getting to know the other teachers--a bunch of us females would end up squished together in the hot tub chatting away and making fun of the atrocious karaoke just like old girlfriends. And of course, there was much picture-taking with screams of "Whiskey!" (instead of saying "Cheese!" they say "Whiskey!") with me shoved in between strangers only united by our common profession (my sorta profession). Great great fun.

The next day my school had a minga. This is like a construction party, complete with roofing, painting, beer-drinking, and a pitch-in lunch. Parents of the students and some of my volunteer friends all chipped in to build our new classroom and paint everything in sight. The classroom actually already has a room with walls and a crappy roof, so all we did, and all we had money for, was replace the roof. Meanwhile, the rest of us painted. It was great seeing everyone come together to lend a hand to build something that we really need. The school is expanding and to accommodate the growing number of kids, we need this classroom. Thanks to my awesome mom, there's a fundraiser going on to raise money for building more of the classroom. I can't wait to see it finished which I hope to see before I leave! Thanks to everyone who contributes!! It means so much!!

After the minga, a few of us decided to travel the 3-ish hours to visit "the farm." The farm is another VASE project. Currently five VASE volunteers live and work on this farm growing vegetables and raising a few animals. The trip there was interesting since our friend on the farm had gotten his phone recently stolen, unbeknownst to us. We were calling him frantically, trying to get directions to the farm, and ended up probably 5km away from where we were supposed to be. At night. In the rain. But the three of us hitched up our backpacks and started walking anyway, bouncing and laughing along singing Girl Scout camp songs which I taught them. Despite the circumstances, it was great fun. We finally arrived at the farm and drank hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire and watched movies all night long. The next day we got the tour, with our friend showing us the "dreaded" vegetable patch (he hates weeding) and happily pointing out all the animals they were going to eat next. It's a small farm but they grow tons of veggies and a few fruits, as well as raise cows, sheep, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, and guinea pigs (which they call "cuy" here). Overall, it was actually pretty cool.

April 15 was my host mom's birthday! The kids at the school made cards and brought food so we had a big party at the end of the day. Then, Chavela, Ernesto, and I made a "tres leches postre" (three milk cake) which was almost destroyed by the oven about as old as my 16-year-old host brother, but then was salvaged after we'd scraped off the burnt bottom and drenched it with the special milk sauce. An old friend of my host mom and her ex-husband (awkward!) had been invited so all six of us sat around the cozy kitchen table to celebrate. Speeches were made by all (even me, with my god-awful Spanish), multiple rounds of toasts were made (and I mean MULTIPLE), and plates upon plates of junk food were consumed. By the end, it had dissolved into the six of us slumped in our chairs making sleepy and somewhat drunken toasts glorifying in every way possible my host mom. And in only a few weeks after comes Ernesto's birthday! Oh gosh, and then mine!

One weekend we went to Rucu Pichincha, the active volcano looming over Quito. We took the TeleferiQo (a cable car) partway up the slope, and then Oskar and I climbed the remainder 2 hours to the summit while our other friends opted for horseback-riding up the steep path. The entire mountain was covered in a cloud blanket so we didn't get a spectacularly clear view, but it was so calm and peaceful with no sound reaching your ears but your own hard breathing and pounding heart. It was super great exercise, as you can imagine, and got especially difficult right towards the top where the ground was practically vertical and where it got a bit hard to breathe due to the altitude. I practically screamed for joy once we reached the top because my god, what a great feeling. Some other tourists shared their lunch with us, which was very nice of them, and then with tuna sandwiches and juice filling our stomachs, we tromped back downhill, this time with enough breath for singing camp songs and skipping merrily.

We also went to the Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow), this time when it was open. (We'd tried to go once before and managed to sneak into the main part, despite it being closed, where we stood in awe of the total silence and grandeur of the place. But then a priest came and told us to get out RIGHT NOW. Whoops.) This time we got to climb up the rickety ladders into the towers and saw some amazing views of Quito. The church is actually quite new, its construction starting in 1890, and despite looking like a traditional, super old cathedral, it incorporates some more modern elements. Mainly, gargoyles in the shapes of Ecuadorian animals--iguanas, ant eaters, owls, jaguars, turtles. No other cathedral in the world has turtle gargoyles, I bet! Super cool!

This month I've also decided that if I'm going to continue eating this awesome Ecuadorian food all the time, well I'm going to have to start working some of it off, too. So I've started going to this super great aerobics class that only costs $1 for the hour and is open to anyone who wants to come. The instructor is actually a dancer so mixed in with the normal aerobics are dance moves so at the same time I'm sorta learning some dance! And then, on top of that, once a week, I go to a group salsa class in the city. Sooooo much fun! I can't believe I've never tried it before! Great exercise and a total blast. We went dancing that weekend to try out our new moves and oh man, I love it!

And then…we celebrated my host brother's birthday on April 24! Some of their closest cousins came over, and we all hung out, ate pizza, made toasts, etc. Feliz cumple, Neto! Big 17!

We also have a new addition to the family! A baby!! Er… a baby rabbit! Her name's Pascuala (Pascua means Easter so it sorta means Easter bunny), and she showed up one day with one of the students as a belated birthday present for my host mom. She's the cutest little thing--we've been having great fun cuddling with her on the couch watching movies, feeding her bread (yes, she likes bread), and watching her hop around the garden. Sooo cute.

And to wrap up this entry, this past week we had our mid-term camp with our organization, VASE. All of us 6 month-ers (or less--one volunteer is leaving next week and another in a month and a half) traveled to a retreat center that looked a tad bit like a mental institution where we evaluated our past 3 months and made plans for the future. It was so great to reflect over how everything's been going and really organize our plans to improve everything for the future. It was especially helpful for me since I've been having some major problems in my project. In March, we were doing interviews and such for new teachers for the Pre-Kinder class, but now the school doesn't have enough money to actually hire one. Currently they only have enough money to pay for one extra teacher so instead, they hired my assistant English teacher, Lucy. Lucy is a really cool person and I love to complain and gossip with her but… she doesn't do anything really in the English classes. I'm still doing all of the lesson plans and controlling the class (or trying to) alone. And now, on top of that, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I don't have English, I'm basically in charge of Pre-Kinder as well since there's no teacher. It's too much work for a volunteer and my host mom/boss is having trouble realizing this. It's also still against VASE's rules--I can't take any position that an Ecuadorian could fill so I'm really not supposed to be teaching my own English classes either, let alone be with Pre-Kinder as their main teacher for 2 days a week. So we did an activity in the mid-term camp where we wrote a letter to our project boss letting him/her know our feelings and our future goals for our projects. So I'm hoping we can work something out after my host mom has really understood how things are going in my view. So we'll see.

It's so crazy, though. Only 2.5 months left. Where did April go???

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Adventures on the beach

Today I returned from a week on the beach! It was adventurous, as all of our trips usually end up being since we seem to find ourselves in some pretty sticky situations sometimes, but it was so great to relax by the sea for an entire week.

We started out in a quiet beach town called Puerto Lopez, a long 10 hours from Quito. Our ears were pounded the entire 10 hours by throbbing reggaetone music, but we managed to keep ourselves busy by either sleeping, talking to our neighbors, or teaching Ecuadorians how to do Sudoku. We arrived in Puerto Lopez at around 9pm and were actually met at the bus station by a guy from our hostel. Much to our surprise, rather than hopping into the normal, yellow taxi, we piled into this cart type thing pulled by a motorcycle--Puerto Lopez's very unique taxi service. For every curve in the road, we would hold tight to each other and grab our huge packs for fear somebody or something would go tumbling right off! Our motorcycle-taxi took us to a gorgeous hostel right on the beach, with grass-roofed, bamboo buildings, hammocks slung between trees, a beautiful, tropical courtyard, and a fabulous breakfast place included.

Puerto Lopez is a quiet coast town with two main roads, one following the beach and the other branching off to the center of town. The road along the beach is littered with bamboo stands selling cocktails and yummy milkshakes that are never big enough, and there are tents selling jewelry and dresses and seafood restaurants open to the humid air. Not many people travel to Puerto Lopez, who knows why because it's gorgeous, so we didn't have to beat the crowds or even share the beach with anyone really. Also, the coast is HOT. Humid, sticky, inescapable heat. Taking a cold shower at the end of a sweltering day on the beach, let me tell you, is the most refreshing thing in the entire world. We sometimes took two showers a day. Or three. And we noticed that on this trip to the coast (compared to our last trip to Manta), the sun was way stronger and the mosquitos were way more common. Even after loads of sunscreen, buckets of bug spray, and huge, draping mosquito nets at night, our skin still ended up looking way too similar to rough, red coral. Not good.

Our last day in Puerto Lopez, we went on a boat trip to what we thought was Isla de la Plata. They call this island "poor man's Galapagos" because it hosts many of the same varieties of wildlife but doesn't cost nearly as much. Turns out, the boat wasn't taking us to the isla at all, just around the islands close to the port in Puerto Lopez. It was a wonderful little journey, though. We took turns diving off the boat and going snorkeling or just swimming around. (Sadly, I still can't say I've been snorkeling, though, because my lack of contact lenses prevented me from seeing anything under the water. Someday, though.) We saw blue-footed boobies and tons of gawking pelicans, a taste of the wildlife on the isla. We even went fishing for our lunch! My friend Eva and I were horrible fisherwomen though.... the only thing we managed to catch was the ground. How sad. Then our awesome tour guide made fish ceviche for lunch. Ceviche is like a cold soap with lots of onions and peppers and sometimes tomatoes. We have it with shrimp all the time at home but this time it was with raw fish that we had caught and skinned (or watched our guide skin them anyway =) ) and then poured tons of lemon juice over them to "cook" the fish. Sooo delicious.

We decided to leave in the middle of the week for Montañita. The lack of people in Puerto Lopez was starting to get to some of our group members so we took the bus for an hour and a half south to the touristy town of Montañita. My awesome Ecuadorian guidebook (thanks Nana and Grandad!!) describes the town perfectly: "Crammed into the centre are straw-roofed, bamboo-walled hostels and pizzerias advertised by bright wooden signs, while tanned, chilled-out gringos lounge around in shorts and bikinis, and surfers stride up the streets with boards under arm." It has a very hippy-like feel to it, with lots of hemp bracelets, tattoos, little clothing, and dope. And chockfull of gringos. But overall, kinda a neat feel. We hopped off our bus and not even 5 minutes into our walk to our $9/night hostel, we were flagged down by another hostel with rooms for only $5/night. What luck! But, excuse my language, it was a pretty shit hostel, with lumpy mattresses, greasy sheets, a bathroom with a perpetually sandy floor, no toilet paper, and a ceiling open to the sky. (Neat feeling showering under the stars though!) However, it also had tons of very comfy hammocks and a cute kitten. And Nina the dog. It was the animals that made us stay, I think.

Then we hit the beach, and man oh man, the beach hit back. There is a very strong ripe tide that will suck you under in a second and waves that tumble you around and around like a washing machine. We had a few scary moments, and once, one of the surfer guys had to come rescue us! After that, we mostly stuck to the very shallow parts and let the surfers take the deeper waters. The rest of the week saw us sleeping for hours on the beach, eating extremely delicious (and expensive) food from our favorite cafe Hola Ola ("Hello Wave"--how clever), dancing around on the beach at night, and meeting all sorts of people from all over--Colombians, Peruvians, Kiwis, Irish, Israeli.... Pick a country and I bet you can find someone in Montan*ita from there.

That weekend, people began pouring into the town as fast as money was pouring out of our poor wallets, which is to say, extremely fast. The weekends there always fill up since there are music concerts, I believe, almost every weekend. But we found ourselves, by the weekend, with only around $15 each or so. Bad news. And unfortunately, it just got worse from there. We decided it would be good to book a bus ticket home before the hordes of people started doing the same thing, but alas, we were too late and all of the buses were full. So. Long story short, we took a bus at 5:30am Sunday morning to Santa Elena, a town further south on the coast with more buses, and from there took a 3 hour, wonderfully air-conditioned bus (air-conditioning in Ecuador??) to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. We bought tickets for a bus to Quito, missed that very bus when we got lost in the massive bus terminal (who knew there were buses on the third floor?!), and ended up stuck penniless in Guayaquil. See, we had had only enough money for the one ticket for each of us, so then we tried to just wait around for the next bus to Quito. After hopping on that bus, we were promptly kicked off because we had taken other people's seats. Whoops. Then we tried exchanging the tickets. Wouldn't happen. So. Picture if you can three very tired young people flopped on the floor of a bus station, one sprawled fast asleep on the dirty ground, the other two with heads flopping from exhaustion (no sleep the night before!) and gnawing on a loaf of stale French bread with barely $3 between them. That's how bad it was. My friend Eva called the bread our "Aladdin bread" because we felt like poor Aladdin on the street or something. Looking back, it was all pretty humorous. But it wouldn't have been if we hadn't been rescued by our friend from Guayaquil. She lent us some money, fed us some sandwiches, let us sleep in her bed for a few hours, took us on a mini tour of Guayaquil, and then took us back to catch our bus to Quito. So in the end, we had been traveling or in the process of traveling from 5:30am on Sunday to 10:30am Monday. 29 hours if I did the math correctly. It's always an adventure here in Ecuador! And now it's back to work!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Looong post

It's been over 2 months now, and oh boy, time is flying. I'm almost halfway through! Ahhh!

We are now on our fourth teacher for Pre-Kinder in 2.5 weeks. People keep showing up, teach for a few days, decide it's not for them, and leave. Four teachers in 2.5 weeks. It's ridiculous. I don't blame them, though. I only have to have one class with them; I can't imagine teaching them an entire day. With almost every kid either having attention problems, behavioral problems, speech problems, or mental problems, Pre-Kinder is certainly a handful.

I have to start creating the kids' exams, which start next Monday. This is harder than it sounds because of the aforementioned problem: we have so many different types of kids--and they all learn differently--and hence we have to have different types of exams. So while I have only three classes, I'll think I'll end up having to make at least six different exams. The methods of teaching and testing here at my school are so different from what I experienced in the States, and I wonder sometimes which actually works better. I remember my elementary school experience being lots of sitting at a desk, copying the alphabet from the overhead, and becoming increasingly less and less interesting as we watched our field trips and game playing disappear--it was never this wild, play-based style here at the school in which the kids learn solely through songs, games, art, and some writing. I wonder who actually learns more, or who actually retains the information longer, or who learns faster. What exactly IS the best way to teach the children?

We celebrated a great St. Patrick's Day on Wednesday. We found the sole Irish bar in the whole of Quito and joined the hordes of green gringos ready to celebrate their Irish (or pretend-Irish) heritage. Trying to explain to our Ecuadorian host families why we were celebrating was a challenge--why DO we all wear green? Who's St. Patrick anyway?--great fun, though.

Funny story about St. Patty's Day. The minute we stepped into the area called "Gringolandia" (Land of the Gringos), the first people we saw were from somewhere in the Middle East, not the expected mass of Irish or at least Americans. These guys were wearing long robes and turbans and had really long beards and wore not a tad of green. We all sorta looked at each other and said, "Well, they're certainly not Irish!" These not-Irish-looking people then tried to sell us special brownies which just made us crack up even more. Soo funny.

Now for some more observations:
- In almost all Ecuadorian schools, a uniform is required. Sometimes it's the plaid, private school look that you see in the States occasionally, but more likely the school uniform is actually a sweatsuit. The first time I saw a group of kids walking around in these sweatsuits, I just assumed they were on a sports team. But no, what Americans wear to the gym, Ecuadorians wear to high school.

- There are no hard cheeses here in Ecuador. Only soft, white cheese with strange tastes and an inability to melt EVER. No cheddar to be found, sadly.

- Not only does milk come in bags, but yogurt does too.

- Ecuadorians have this annoying habit of not telling you what's going on. You have to ask about EVERYthing. For example, I never am told the school schedule for the day, let alone for the week. So sometimes I get a surprise when there's like a birthday party for one of the kids or something that I didn't know about. My host family is the same way. I never get told when somebody has a late class or has to go to the doctor's. They just disappear and leave me wondering where they are.

- Wedding anniversaries are a big deal here. There's a pretty serious, Catholic church ceremony for 25 year and 50 year anniversaries. I went to this ceremony with my family to celebrate 30 years of marriage between the aunt and uncle of my host mother. It was a 45 minute ceremony with lots of Bible readings and prayers and even communion. Then everyone came to our house for a big lunch and cake and champagne. I got bitten by a trillion mosquitos during the lunch which was a bummer, but overall, it was really great.

- I'm gonna get kinda Spanish-nerdy here for a minute so you Spanish students reading will understand and probably nobody else will. Sorry. I'm still trying to figure it out but they seem to use "usted" and "tu" interchangeable here. (Both are forms of "you" but "usted" is used to be more polite, generally used with teachers, children to adults, the elderly, etc. and "tu" is used casually for friends.) But at the school here, I've found that the teachers sometimes use "usted" commands for the kids, saying "Vaya a jugar" etc. And some of the kids use "tu" forms for the teachers. I would've thought the kids would use "usted" with the teachers to be polite and the teachers would just be casual with the kids. Not the case. I even sometimes hear things like "Te vaya" where they mix "tu" and "usted." I don't get it.

- They love to cook with bananas here. At first I thought it was gross when I found a hot, cooked banana lying limply there on my plate, but now I just love it. They fry 'em, cook 'em, make little chips out of themÉ. Delicious.

- Nobody walks barefoot here. Not even at home. I always wear shoes at my house because the house is set up so that you have to walk outside to get to the other rooms, but when I spent the night at a friend's house and walked around barefoot, they kept asking if I wanted to borrow some sandals.

- Books are expensive. And when I say expensive, I mean that the prices are pretty much the same as in the States. And the selection of English books is pretty scattered and strange. Lots of porn books, only the seventh book in a series, and lots of Isabel Allende. We've started a book sharing thing between ourselves so we're managing to get enough to read. However, it's not exactly a fair exchange since I keep giving people my English books (the language we all know) and can't get any in return because I can't read Icelandic and Swedish (the only books they brought from their countries).

- Don't trust the signs. Many a times we have been tricked by the "We're open 24 hours" signs because they are NEVER open 24 hours.

- Ecuadorians find ANY reason to celebrate. They just like to party here, I guess. We've celebrated Carnaval, International Women's Day, every kid's birthday here at the school as well as the teachers', wedding anniversariesÉ the list goes on. We get a whole week off for Easter and got two days off for Carnaval. They just love to break out the alcohol and clear away the chairs for some salsa dancing. At the wedding anniversary, all the old folks were jamming' away to the salsa in the living room and singing, maybe a bit drunkenly, all of the classic, Ecuadorian love ballads. So funny.

- After high school, kids here don't move out like they usually do in the States. My 20 year old sister still lives at home, which is the norm here. She says it's not realistic to try to find your own apartment; it's just so much easier to live at home for free.

- I've talked with my host sister a lot about going to university here and how it differs from my country. In Ecuador, you have to choose a major/job upon entering, and you graduate in 4 years with a job title, with a few extra years added onto the normal four depending on how qualified your job is (doctor, lawyer, etc.) Many students wear full suits or at least dress up to go to class which is a big difference compared to US university attire: hoodies and sweatpants.

- There are two cell phone providers here: Movistar and Porta. "People with Porta don't have friends," my host sister likes tells me because everyone in Quito, for the most part, has Movistar. It's also kinda nifty because they have 3x1 or 2x1 days where if you give the store person $5 it will either be doubled or tripled, depending on the deal, and you get more cell phone minutes.

- People pee in the street quite often. Just saying.

- They don't like cats here. I've only seen two in the whole of Ecuador while on the other hand, I've seen hundreds of dogs. And they howl at night, my bedtime music. Makes me miss my kitties!

- They honk their car horns just for the sake of honking. Hence, constant honking all hours of the day.

- There are no Asians and no gay people. My friend and I saw six Asians at once in the park one day and nearly died of surprise. We just sat there on the swings and stared with our mouths hanging open. What a day.

- I'm realizing that there aren't direct translations from English into Spanish and vice versa a lot of the time. When I first got here, I tried to translate everything from English directly and just couldn't do it. It means that none of us really have a verbal personality like we might in our home countries (for example, I say "legit" and other such phrases). And the same is for Spanish. They have little expressions that just can't be translated very well. Like "chute" which is something like "that sucks" but not quite. It's interesting.

Now for more news.
I had a great weekend this past weekend. To start off the fun, during school on Friday, we made Easter eggs! (Thanks, Mom!) The kids just loved it. When I was telling the story about the Easter bunny and how we dye eggs, one of my students just kept whispering "Wow!" with eyes as big as saucers. So cute.

Then that evening, I had two volunteer friends over to my house, and we baked brownies! My oven is horrible, though, and doesn't really like to bake anything in general, always producing cakes and brownies with burnt bottoms. It was still good though--we ate it right out of the pan and devoured it in minutes! We also made good 'lo American Kraft Mac 'n cheese (which cost us a whole $2.43 per box compared to the $.99 it costs in the States!). My volunteer friends had never had Kraft mac 'n cheese and they loved it. We also shared it with my host brother and his cousin, but I don't think they liked it.... haha. Then we had a bit of a salsa dance party in the living room and blasted the music while pretending to know how to salsa. (My host brother is pretty good at it, actually!) We're starting salsa classes in April so hopefully we'll be improving soon!

On Saturday, we went to Mitad del Mundo, or the middle of the world. It was a bit lame, though. We had to travel for hours to get there from Tumbaco, and when we arrived, there wasn't much besides the red line that supposedly is the equator. (We walked 10 minutes up the road and visited another place that said IT was the middle of the word--"according to GPS!"--since we'd heard that the actual big monument and red line weren't actually the real thing.) So we took the mandatory picture to say we'd been there then got ice cream and peaced out.

That evening we met Olivia's sister and sister's boyfriend who'd just arrived from the States for a visit. Her dad had visited a few weeks before so it was fun getting to know all of them! Now the rest of us are dying to see people from home--so hey, if anyone is interested in coming to Ecuador, now is the time! Now till July 2, you get a free tour guide!

We started exams today so Basica had their English exam. And all but one got really good grades!! It's such a relief to know they've actually learned stuff. Yay!

Ciao for now =)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Sorry I haven't been writing lately but there hasn't been much to report. These past few weeks I've been pretty sick so I've just been laying low--going to work, sleeping a lot, staying at home.

I was walking home tonight, though, and I randomly looked up. And the sky was just filled with millions of brilliant stars. I couldn't get over how gorgeous it was. And there, right above my head, watching me walk home, was the familiar Orion constellation. The night was so clear that you could even see the three, generally indiscernible stars of his knife thing hanging from his belt. It made me happy. I also probably looked like a total idiot because I was weaving drunkenly down the road with my head glued to the sky. But whatever.

And now for some stories, the things that happened in between me being sick and me being sick again =)

First off, we went to our first soccer game! La Liga, the best team in Ecuador, totally smashed the team from Guayaquil, 5-0. We went to the game with a guy who had actually played on La Liga before he had to quit to go to university so that was really cool. Everyone here in Ecuador gets SO into these games, chanting, screaming, jumping around--it was fantastic. The players actually even got into a fight on the field (hello red card), and there was even a line of police separating the fans of the rival teams. They get so competitive here, and this is only the university level. So much excitement! But my god, the heat was unbearable. Screaming straight down at us and turning us into a row of burnt lobsters in 10 minutes. So we all looked like little old ladies with shawls thrown over our heads in an attempt to block that crazy sun. I have to go to more soccer games here, though. They're so fantastic.

And then I had a little adventure on the bus on the way home from Quito one day. I got on my usual bus, La Morita, like I always do to get home, but right at the corner where the bus should turn left to get to my house, it turned right instead. And I'm thinking, "Well, ok. Maybe this is a normal thing for a Monday afternoon at 4:30pm. Right?" So I stayed on the bus and watched a little old woman with a heavy bundle of who knows what hobble off at a stop further down the wrong way of the road, looking calm-as-can-be like this was a normal bus route. After minutes of long, winding, dusty Tumbaco roads, the bus finally stopped, and I found myself at a legit, rural farm in some tiny corner of Tumbaco. I was starting to freak out a little bit at this point, but there was one other guy on the bus who looked to be in the same position as I was so I held tight. I didn't really have a choice, to be honest, since I had absolutely no clue where we were. Ten minutes later, another La Morita bus came to this same tiny Tumbaco farm, picked us up, and dropped me off at my house. But on the way back, we passed yet another La Morita bus on the way to that same farm, so now I'm just completely befuddled as to how the bus system works. Special one-day offer: Monday afternoons at 4:30pm--to the farm!

On the other hand, I had a great time the other day being a mall rat with a friend of mine at the Tumbaco centro commercial. I've discovered that in the food court at the end of the mall, one entire wall is completely made of windows and hosts an excellent view. I now go there to sketch sometimes (something I didn't think I'd be doing at all during my time here in Ecuador. But I couldn't help it: one day, I just HAD to go out and buy some pastels and sketch something. Never felt that urge before.) So after I finished sipping my mango juice and making some sketches of that gorgeous view, my friend and I discovered a music store in the mall. As in musical instruments, not CDs. He knows guitar, and I know some piano so we just started rocking out (not together--we're not that good haha). It was so nice to touch a piano again, though. I've missed that.

I also went to the birthday party of my host siblings' 80-something-year-old grandfather. I literally walked in the front door of my house after coming from Quito, and my host brother nearly pushed me back out the door saying, "It's my abuelito's birthday. Wanna come?" Of course, how could I say no? So I left with him with only 5 cents in my pocket, forgetting that I had to pay for the bus. We ended up on the bus, emptied our pockets, and between the two of us, only had 35 cents. It was so pitiful. I had to ask this nice lady to give me some money.

But the party was great fun. I met a whole horde of people in some way relating to one another and ate a great meal at the table with the old folks. (I was a special guest so I actually got a seat at the table! How exciting!) By the end of the evening, I was chatting with an 8-year-old cousin who amused herself for quite awhile by asking me the English word for every single thing she could possibly see in the room: How do you say "candle" in English? Beard? Glass? Wine? My favorite was, "How do you say gringo in English? Hilarious because not only is the word "gringo" a bit impolite generally, but of course, there is no real English translation. So funny.

As for "normal," everyday occurrences, the teaching has been going well. We're getting ready for exams in a couple weeks so I have to decide what I want the kids to know by then. I made a fruit salad with the oldest kids to reinforce the names of the fruits (which was fun and yummy) and now we're moving onto vegetables. And we're still trudging along with the names of the family and things in the neighborhood with the other kids. It's so exciting when I see that the kids are actually learning things. The oldest kids especially are really good at their fruits now, and it makes me smile every time when one of the kids can remember the English word for something I've taught them. We had a bit of difficulty in Primero de Basica, though, in learning the difference between "tree" and "street." We took a walk in the neighborhood around the school to point out the doors, windows, houses, etc, and when I asked them the words for "tree" and "street," I noticed that the kids pronounced them as exactly the same word. It sounded something like "estree." It was very interesting for me just to realize that the pronunciation is actually very difficult for the kids. I didn't even think about that before. So now we're working on those two words which I want them to differentiate before the exam.

And as always, there's some new lunchtime experience to report. For example, I shelled shrimp for the first time the other day. (They eat lots of shrimp here which I didn't like before I came here. Now, my favorite lunch is a dish sorta like fried rice with shrimp but with Ecuadorian spices. Sooo yummy.) And everyday at lunch now, my host mother makes me eat straight ginger to "cure me of my cough." It is nasty as all get out, straight ginger. I'm never going to be able to eat ginger again.

And then this last weekend, I had a nice, quiet weekend at home. My host brother and I made a cake and watched movies one night, and on Sunday, my whole family went to the pool! Getting there was so sketchy though; we took a bus to Cumbaya, a town in between Tumbaco and Quito, and then we all walked down this random alley and climbed into a small, 12-seater bus that we somehow knew would go to this pool. So strange. But very common--it's the only way to get to the pool! The pool was actually more like a spa of sorts, with multiple saunas and hots tubs as well as the pool. We ended up spending 5 hours there--so great just to relax all day with my host family!

Then, this Monday, March 8, we celebrated International Women's Day at the school, which actually is pretty big here. My host mom bought a huge pizza (!!!) and flowers for all of the teachers, and the kids all made cute cards for their moms. And then my host brother came home from school carrying a rose for each of us women in the family. Soo cute.

As for upcoming travel plans, everyone here gets a week off for Easter, La Semana Santa (Holy Week), so I think we're planning another trip to the beach! Can't wait!