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Mis Hijas

This will be short and sweet. Well. It will be short. I promise to write again soon, but I am still reeling from the Spring Break groups that came to visit this month. However, as Rachel Cope put it in her blog, it is “the best kind of exhaustion”. Last week Rachel and I were in charge of our second spring break group of 10 girls: 9 hailing from UGA and 1, Carol!, from Whitman in Washington. The week leading up to their arrival as well as the week they were here were…insane, busy, revitalizing, stressful fun, tiring, exciting, and just great. These girls came in with such an excitement and readiness to be pushed out of their comfort zones, really putting themselves into our programs and lives. Rachel and I had so much fun carting them around Ambato, the Valley, Quito, and the Centro. We were quickly renamed Mama Nic and Mama Ray and were followed by our long line of ducks/children. Although I won’t here, because I’m tired, I honestly cannot say enough about how awesome these girls are. They brought me to tears multiple times during the week while reading their blogs, watching them interact in our programs, and hearing their feedback about their experiences here. They were very much the perfect tourists (treating the camionetas as rollercoasters and stores and photo booths) and that energy was such a refreshing change. It was neat to see them be excited about being in Ecuador whether it be standing up in the bus aisles for the first time, getting $.50 fresh-squeezed juice, or going to the bodega late at night to get their 2nd serving of ice cream that day. They made me realize how much I take for granted, 7 months in.

On their last day, we had a de-briefing talk to wrap up the week and take time to reflect on their experiences. It was awesome to see how open and honest they were about expectations, thoughts about development, and the moments that had stuck out to them during the week. As many of them teared-up over the thought of leaving the kids, Rachel and I almost completely lost it at the same of leaving them in 5 months. Even now. I can’t and won’t think about it. I have none of my daughters around to comfort me! We had a fabulous week. And I know I can speak for all when I say that. The Manna house misses them terribly. Jessie asked on one of their last days what I would do without them to which I responded that I would actually get work done…and while that is true and the catch-up work is trying to take its toll, I feel a renewed sense of purpose. One vol told Rach and I that she realized that this trip was less about what she could do for Ecuador than it was about what Ecuador would do for her. I feel similarly about our incredible group of girls. While we planned the schedule, trips, budget, etc for them…they actually gave me way more in return.

One of our lovely girls, Kelsey, made the following video with clips from their trip here. It’s awesome. But be prepared, it will make you miss them too!


Girl Talk

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. In all honesty, I was completely unaware of this day until just a couple of weeks ago, but am really supportive of and excited about its existence. I am currently living in a very machismo culture which is sometimes seen in very obvious ways and sometimes very subtly — the latter being far more scary. The lack of respect for women in this country is astounding. While some of Quito progresses in both economics and mentality, the disrespect remains. My Spanish professor shattered my idealism by telling me that even the liberals, the younger generations, and often the girls too, regard women as the lower sex. She told me about a recent Skype-date with her oldest daughter who is in the Netherlands for a year as a nanny during which she asked her daughter what were some of the things she was enjoying most and her daughter responded that she could “feel the equality between men and women” and that it was something she’d never really felt before. I found that both incredible and depressing: happy for this girl’s new experience and sad that she had to leave the country to experience it. But Ecuador and other developing countries are far from the only places where this mentality exists. How great then is it that there is this day, this international celebration?! Pretty great.

I will say that Ecuador has surprised me…with encouragement from the government, there seem to be celebrations popping up all over the place. The monument by our house is lined by women selling their crafts and goods, a march will be taking place in Quito tonight, I saw signs of a Carnival set-up, and there is a celebration in the Sangolquí plaza (I got the invite yesterday while at the Municipio paying our water bill!). All of the women I ran into this morning while working at one of our partners orgs were so excited to exchange Felíz Día‘s with a big smile. It’s incredible what simple recognition and appreciation can do.

I want to highlight one woman from our community who is quite a character: Rosario comes to at least 4 exercise classes a week, bringing her sisters when she can convince them. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, mess up during the Zumba songs, or let us know (typically in the form of grunts) how much we are challenging her. She takes care of her husband, father, grandchildren, and household, and still makes time to take care of her health, telling Heather that she is “addicted to working out”. Her mother dies this past summer and we didn’t see her for a few weeks; when she finally returned she informed us that their health and livelihood were important to her mother and that she would’ve wanted Rosario and her sisters to keep working out. She’s quirky and inspirational and a joy to have in our program. A tribute photo to her is below.

I am very, very lucky. I have grown up with some extremely strong women in my life who have shaped my thoughts, ideals, beliefs, and personality as well as teaching me how to grow and shape/adapt my own. My sisters and I all grew up to be very independent women (a thing I know my dad is very proud of but we’re not talking about the men right now!) and I couldn’t help but take this day to express my feminism, thanking and acknowledging all of us.

We Got Game

This past weekend celebrated we Carnaval. Carnaval dates way back to the times of the Greek gods, celebrating Bacchus (the Greek god of wine) through a time of debauchery and ritual celebrations. As the Roman Empire grew and expanded, so did they celebration of this holiday. It translated into Mardi Gras in France and other areas of Europe which then came over to America, specifically Louisiana, when they did. Throughout history it became aligned on the calendar with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. It’s kind of a free for all weekend of gluttony – with Fat Tuesday / Carnaval as the pinnacle – before giving it all up for Lent. I did not really know or find out the history of this holiday until celebrating it, spending one of our days off in Otavalo accompanied by Rachel, a great breakfast, and El Comercio (the main Ecuadorian newspaper).

While I can’t comment too much on how Carnaval was celebrated in days of old, I have a feeling that it has changed quite a bit…at least here in Ecuador. I learned early in this experience that Ecuadorians love to extend their celebrations as much as possible. For us this looks like lower attendance in classes before and after a ‘ferriado’, unending music all around, bands walking through the streets, and numerous events/parades at the monument by our house. But this time there was one more factor thrown into the mix. Ecuadorians don’t just celebrate Carnaval…they play Carnaval.

Materials needed for the game: Espuma (spray foam…similar to shaving cream but with a little better taste), Polvo (dyed powder in all different colors), Flour, Water, Water Balloons, Eggs, and running shoes.
: Attack. Anyone and everyone…from babies to elderly men in suit coats, no one was safe.
How to get Points
: Get the Gringos. Pay people back 3-fold for their attacks on you.  And pay the Gringos back 574893759-fold for their attacks on anyone.
How to Lose
: Be a Gringo.

Starting a week before the actually weekend of Carnaval I started to be scared to leave our house. I have never been so vigilant and aware of my surroundings during those weeks. We would cross streets prematurely, going back and forth between sidewalks to avoid suspicious looking jovenes and their groups of friends. Heather and I literally ran from little kids in the streets of Fajardo begging them not to throw their ammo…or at least throw it at the other one! I was met with the questions “¿Te gusta jugar Carnaval?” and “¿Jugemos Carnaval?” (Do you like to play Carnaval?) so many times that it started to automatically illicit a response of sprinting in the other direction.

But then. Heather, Rachel, and I decided to embrace the crazy, scary streets outside of our house on Saturday during the Sangolqui parade.  Armed with espuma and fear, we played. I made it about 20 seconds before people noticing how clean I was and was quickly carried into our neighbor’s compound where a bucket of water was waiting. Things simultaneously went up and down hill from there. On Sunday Rachel and I went to Amaguaña (a town nearby) for what was the 3rd most important celebration in Ecuador and where “todo el mundo” would be celebrating according to our neighbor Cesar. Todo el mundo was an understatement. No longer in our own neighbor, we were given no mercy. It wasn’t a game; it was war.  With nowhere to run and no one who didn’t notice how American we are, winning this game was a lost cause. We lasted about an hour and half before driven by the masses and a desire for espuma-free ears to head home. 4 showers later my skin was returned to its normal color and my hair was clean…well, más o menos.

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This Side

I going to start this post by admitting that I realize the way in which many of my posts relate back to the fact that things are just done differently here. While I have grown so much more accustomed to the way things work, or rather, don’t work, it’s also so interesting to realize how the way I was raised and the things that I am so used to at home affect the way I think things should go in this side of the world. Having my parents visit was really funny because when approached with problems or snags in our plans they would come up with a completely logic solution…but one that I had long since learned would never work here. They proved me wrong by finding duct tape at a local store, but (hate to break it you mom and dad) that ‘duct tape’ won’t even hold my paper gum ball machine to the white board. Even now as I sit here writing this I am singing along to the Bailoterapia (something along the lines of Zumba) music that blares, and I mean BLARES, from the studio across the street waking me up before 7am daily. The sound of the music is only overdone by the fireworks that are being set off in broad daylight having no impact expect a startlingly loud gunshot-type noise that makes me jump a few inches into the air. Every time. Without fail. I’m beginning to believe that Ecuadorians have way more patience than is ever taught in the states…and that maybe that is something I need to take away from my year abroad without noise ordinances.

But. In addition to memorizing the lines to every latino hip-hop song out there, I’ve also been thinking about things about my life in this side of the world that I love, but have already begun to take for granted.

1) Family Dinners. With the exception of Sunday nights, we take turns cooking — two people per night — for everyone in the house. It’s become routine, but is something that I really, really love. We all come back in from the Centro starving and finish our dinner in about 15-20 minutes. But the conversation and convivium between bites or waiting for the water to boil for tea after is something really great.
2) Opportunities, opportunities, opportunities. During my time at the Lipscomb Admissions office and interning for The Contributor I was often assigned/granted the most random tasks. Putting those two jobs on a resume is near impossible because there is just no way to sum up all of the skills I gained and experiences I had there. But I just found a job that will be more impossible. I can think of very few other jobs where I would get to spend the morning doing Agriculture projects with special needs children, the afternoon grant writing and lesson-planning, the later afternoon walking a race route as we plan a 5k and teaching an art class, and the evening putting the finishing touches on a promotional video and planning a benefit event. Sometimes it makes my head spin, but usually in a good way!
3) Tradsies, Kettlebell, Recipes, and the News. Taylor and I have this thing where we trade massages about oh 3-8 nights/week.  Heather and I invested in a Kettlebell together and do early morning workouts 3 times a week. Emily is my go-to source for great recipes…over half the emails I get from her is in regards to awesome food and sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get to sit in with her watching Top Chef. Rachel has gotten me into the habit of reading the news in the morning and on the rare occasion that neither of us have an early morning program, I make sure to bring down my computer, knowing she’ll have her iPhone as we make vague comments back and forth about what’s going on in the world…and with Whitney Houston. While living with so many roommates can sometimes be challenging, it’s things like these that I love and that would be impossible without being able to yell across the hall or down from the balcony (except to Charlie, who requires that you walk to his room to talk to him!).

Well, there are a lot of things I am loving about my experience here, but I’m thinking that I will have to continue that train of thought later…the list turned into a novel. Not surprising. I’m going to leave you not with pictures, but with the afore-mentioned promotional slide show I put together for the Ecuador site and is now on the MPI Ecuador page. So I guess I am leaving you with pictures…but timed ones, and to good music!

Still Alive…!

Well. To say “it’s been a while” would be quite an understatement. Between Christmas break, visitors, and just getting back into the swing of everything while picking up more responsibilities, it’s been hard to get back into keeping up with my blog writing. But I’m back. And will not be taking such a leave for quite some time. I don’t even think I could try to sum up the last 2 months. And, being one for the words, to do so would be laborious for everyone involved. But I will highlight a couple of events that have taken place during my absence from the world of blog posting:

1) I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I did not take the train, or stay in a hostel nearby, or leisurely walked to this oh so popular sanctuary; rather, I hauled my tired body and 25lb backpack through the beaten Inca Trail for 4 days, sleeping in tents at night, and rising before 6 every morning to walk to altitudes of 11,000 ft. It might have been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. We went with a group called InfoCuzco – 2 tour guides, a father and daughter from Brasil, a brother and sister from the states, 2 college guys from Mexico, and four of us. It was so incredible to meet and bond with people from different areas, and be able to speak their language. During the four-day hike we saw lots of different Incan Ruins and were able to hear SO much history about each place along the way. We decided to hear the history in Spanish – the language in which a lot of it happened – and had a Q&A  session with Heather after in case we missed anything! Hiking all that way to Machu Picchu made what is an already unbelievably incredible sight so much more worth it. I took over 700 pictures during our trip, but non of them could even come close to capturing something about which I asked myself at many times during the 4-days, “Is this even real?”

2) I had a taste of home! After 6 months away – the longest stretch of time that I have ever been away from my family – I was lucky enough to receive visits from the boyfriend and my parents! It was weird how quickly it didn’t feel weird to be having dinner with them and taking them around my home town.  My parents got to see some of my programs, hang out in the library, eat dinner with the Manna fam, and experience a little of what I’m doing down here. It’s a hard thing to explain, so I think they enjoyed seeing it as much as I enjoyed showing them!

3) We are planning a 5k. This is probably the biggest development of the New Year.  And part of what has been keeping me so busy. Me, Heather, and Rachel are starting to plan and coordinate Manna’s first (and hopefully annual) 5k race. We are doing this as a fundraiser as well as to bring awareness to the little and largely unknown town of Rumiloma while promoting a healthy lifestyle to the residents. It sounds a lot simpler than it actually has turned out to be. We are realizing that there is SO MUCH we could too and SO MANY places and people we can tap into. Now we are just going through the slightly harder part of taking that and narrowing it down to what we actually can do with our time, manpower, and resources. Add planning a benefit and coordinating a spring break group on top of that, 5 programs, and 3 org roles, and hopefully you can understand and forgive my hiatus from the blog sphere!

All in all, things are going SO well. Towards the end of last year I was telling my friend Sean that the excitement of the first 3 months of being in a completely new place and doing new things had kind of started to wear off and the day-to-day planning had the tendency to be mundane. Now, with all these new and exciting things going on, I had to tell him that things were quite the opposite. I have a feeling this half of the year is going to fly by, as the second half of most things usually do. Not sure how I feel about that exactly, but that ‘future’ talk is for another day.

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This Christmas

¡Felíz Navidad!

So it’s our last week of work here at the Manna house and everybody is getting ready for vacations. Which basically looks like LOTS of quarterly reports and meetings!! As much as we all love being here, I think we’re all excited for a little break. I, for one, am very much in a holiday sort of mood and have been showing this by frequently wearing a Santa hat around the house, playing Christmas music, and working close to our so wonderfully adorned tree. Christmas is going to look a lot different this year, but I’m excited to see exactly what that will be. In a couple of days I will be heading to Peru with 3 other PDs to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Piccu and then spend 3 days in Lima (where my mom was born! fun fact.). We get back to Quito on the 23rd and will all be in the house together for the remainder of the holiday. I’m already thinking about ideas for a big Christmas brunch (a Hamilton sister tradition) and how to con my not-so-holiday-crazy friends into doing fun things with me! Although I know I will be missing my family, I’m so so lucky and happy to have such incredible friends (the below pictured Heather and Rachel) to spend this time of the year with.

I love Christmas for many, many reasons, but the commercialism and consumerism that often takes over in America are not some of those reasons, and I’m really looking forward to a simple Christmas without those distractions. And I know Thanksgiving already passed, but I think this time of the year is also appropriate for reflecting on my faith and being so thankful for everything God has and is doing for me, through me, and in me. There are many times when I wonder how I could be doing the things I am doing without having his support and him to turn to. But I’m glad I don’t really have to think about that for too long!

So Merry, Merry Christmas. I miss you all!

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Walking in Sangolquí. (Home.)

I’m almost 5 months into this adventure. On one hand, I can’t believe it’s already December, but on the other hand, I do feel like I’ve been here a while and feel quite established and rooted where I am. At this point, Sangolquí feels very much like home, at least a home away from home (side note: Sangolquí is where we live, our Centro is in Rumiloma, a much more rural town about 3.5 miles away). Unfortunately very few of my fellow Sangolquians feel the same way.

Sangolquí is a suburb outside of Quito that is small enough and far enough away from touristy Quito to not be used to a constant stream of gringos; however, it is also big enough to where I will see new people everyday for the entire year I am here. I think to think of it as a Brentwood — in terms of size only! You can get to know your neighbors, the clerk at the local store you visit, etc, but it’s not the kind of place where everyone knows your name and story. This makes being completely comfortable here tough because while I feel like I am at home as I walk down the street, to the bus stop, or through the grocery store, I am constantly stared at as a stranger. On many days I am confronted by people who are surprised when I speak Spanish to them and bus drivers who make sure I know that the bus is not going to Quito. It’s an odd paradox, and even odder feeling as I try to feel at home in a place that constantly reminds me that I don’t belong.

Not all is pessimistic, there are definitely people who aren’t shocked to see us. The copy place across the streets always greets us warmly and probably does not go a day without seeing a PD, at the market our lady always gives us two mandarins for free to take for the road, few bodegas and restaurants out front know our faces quite well by know, and sometimes we see people from the Centro out in Sangolquí, which is always the best. Still, it’s hard to ignore the stares or surprised looks.

When we go into Quito I always feel so different from the tourists all around me, but I know that I look no different and am treated no different from any of them. In defense of my fragile state of feeling at home, I don’t hesitate to respond in Spanish to vendors in the market when they assume they have to use their broken English with me. Or correct them when they say something about my “vacation”. And I usually carry my censo, rather than my American license around. Oh the things we do for comfort and security.

Today I was hissed at and grabbed getting off the bus. Unfortunately, this isn’t that uncommon. And what made me the saddest about this event was that I recognized the guy who did it — he is one of the bus attendants for the bus we take to the Centro everyday and I probably see him about 3 days a week. People often ask why we don’t live right in the town where we work. While there are many reasons for this, which I may go into in a later post, I was so happy that we didn’t this afternoon as I couldn’t contain my disgust or keep on the “profe face” for this guy who was so forthrightly rude and demeaning — whew, the topic of machismo here will definitely have to go in a later post. In conclusion to a very scattered post, for all of Ecuador’s quirks, I love it here. I know I am where I am called to be; sometimes I just wish I could call that place home and really feel it too.