I write this at 10:20 pm in the Quito Mariscal-Sucre International Airport. My plane begins boarding at 10:42, so I don’t have much time. Even if I did, though, I don’t think there is anyway to sum up my experience or properly write a final blog post from here on the ground. I’m generally a person who is able to express myself in words, and I like a symbolic ending of a deep blog or journal post. But the truth is that this experience has been far too grand to even begin to put into words tonight or anytime soon. Rather, I think I will need to spend some serious time processing and mentally and emotionally unpacking everything.
I will say, though, that I never in a million years would have asked for a different country, time, or experience. Despite the challenges and difficulties that I faced, I was met with far more rewards and positive experiences that I will carry with me forever. From the people I met to the places I traveled, and from the things I learned and the growth I made (and everything in between!), it has surely been quite the ride. I want to thank you all for following me along on this journey and for your continual support from afar. Coming home after 10 months very much immersed in another country and culture will surely have its fair share of challenges, but I know I have a lot to look forward to and I feel more prepared than ever before with all I have gained and learned in this beautiful second country of mine.
Thank you all again, but most importantly thank you to Ecuador for the experience of a lifetime. See you soon!
July 31, 2016. Alaquez, Ecuador. Featuring tias (aunts) Mary and Tere and primas (cousins) Caro and Day.
Walk to the neighbor’s house in Jerusalem (as is named the neighborhood) and yell until she hears you from where she is washing her hair in the yard. When she comes out, hair soapy and wet, ask for hojas de chira (the leaves). Pick a healthy $2 worth from her garden.
Wash the leaves thoroughly with a hose. Watch for giant spiders. Smash the stems gently with a rock while washing.
Mix 1 pound of wheat flour and 1 pound of corn flour. Add a healthy (2 heaping spoonfuls) of “Royal” aka baking powder.
Put 10 eggs into a blender with a lot of sugar. Scoop some butter in there too. Lots of it. Like half a pound. Mix up nice and good then add to dry mix.
Add some mix. A mugful more or less so it’s not too runny. Eye it.
Add finely shredded queso fresco (the cheese they have here)– but only for quimbolitos with corn flower. Drop in some vanilla while you are at it.
Stir well. For the amount made here, one tia will have to hold the bowl with the other tia stirs. Mix is done when it falls in big clumps off the spoon.
Sprinkle a little cinnamon in there. As you wish.
Meantime, dry the leaves well. Take good care not to break them.
Put a giant pot with some water to boil on the stove.
Plop a spoonful of batter into the center of the leaf. Drop a raisin or three on top.
To fold the leaf: fold the two long sides in and then tuck the bottom and top under. Leave a lip loosely opened on top so that you can just see the batter. (Journal version of this includes a poorly drawn diagram of how to do this.)
*OPTIONAL* Take out a small bowl of batter and throw some coco powder in it. Add a small dollup to the top of a regular dollup to mix things up a bit.
Place quimbolitos on top of steam tray in boil pot. Stack a few levels, but don’t over do it or they won’t cook. Place lid firmly on top.
Cook the ‘litos for approximately 20 minutes from the time at which the water begins to boil. Don’t lift the lid!
After 20 minutes, life the lid and soak in the wonderful aromas that emerge. If they look fluffy and done, take out and enjoy! If not, well keep cooking them of course.
*OPTIONAL* Save a few on the side for Caro’s boyfriend, who sadly had to leave before the cooking festivities began.
Enjoy with coffee (preferably with milk) and family. And maybe some tears as you say goodbye tot this amazing Ecuadorian family of yours.
At this time next week, I will be at home in Wyoming. I hate to sound cliche, but I can hardly believe that I have just 6 days left of this 306-day adventure of mine. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of goodbyes, packing, and travels. My final week in the university was simply beautiful. Each of my 8 classes held some sort of goodbye for me, and each one was so meaningful and unique. There is no way to express my deep love and appreciation for my students and colleagues, so here are a few photos to give you a glimpse.
In addition to the wonderful people at the university, my last few days in La Mana were also spent running around saying goodbye to the kind ladies at the pharmacy who took care of me from day one (#tbt to the sprained ankle), the family at the laundromat who always made my clothes 100x cleaner than I could with my scrub brush on my balcony, and the kind family at the restaurant where I ate almost every day who made sure I was always well-fed. Add that to goodbyes to my family in La Mana and you could say my poor heart isn’t too happy with me right now. That being said, I couldn’t have asked for a better end to La Mana with a party featuring Liana and my nearest and dearest, and one final trip to the Seven Waterfalls.
I also had one more travel item to cross off my bucket list: see the whales in Puerto Lopez. Unfortunately, Puerto Lopez (like most of the coast) is right in the zone affected by the earthquakes (there have been more than 2,000 quakes, tremors, or aftershocks since the big one on April 16), so we were unable to travel there. Luckily, I was able to go to the town of Salinas (the farthest-west city in Ecuador) and catch a few whales there.
Yesterday I said goodbye to my home in La Mana and I am spending my final days in Latacunga with my Ecuadorian family and in Quito before hopping on a plane and heading home on Wednesday night. While I am definitely feeling ready to be home, I am also sad to be leaving my home here in Ecuador. Here’s to a great final few days!
For the past 9+ months, I am sure many of you have asked, “do you actually work?” Well, my friends, with just a few weeks left of this wild adventure of mine (and only a few days of classes left), I am here to tell you that yes, yes I do work. Quite a bit actually.
I spend 20 hours a week teaching. That might seem like just a part-time job until you consider that those are 2-hour class periods that meet between 7 am and 9 pm. And lucky for me, I have at least one of every time slot between that huge window… and it is all crammed into Tuesday- Thursday. That also doesn’t include all the time I spend outside of class lesson planning, grading, meeting with students, meeting with professors, or overall just thinking about my job. Some of my classes have a manageable 16 students, and another class has a sometimes overwhelming 41 students. Between working three days a week here, one day a week in the highlands, and traveling the rest of the time, you can say I am pretty pooped. But I wouldn’t have asked for it any other way.
One of my main reasons for applying for a Fulbright in Ecuador is that it is advertised as working with students who are training to be ESL teachers. In reality, I work with students who are taking English only for suficiencia, or as the foreign language requirement to graduate. Since English is the only language offered here, all students are required to take it for 3 semesters.
Needless to say, it was a struggle at first, as I felt like I was constantly working against the flow of trying to work with students who a) didn’t want to be in my class and b) were terrified of me. Understandable. Around the New Year, though, I saw a noticeable shift in all of my students, as after those first few rocky months we finally all figured it out and English suddenly became a fun and enjoyable challenge. And as for me, it doesn’t bother me one bit anymore that I am not working with the future ESL teachers I thought I would have.
This semester, I have worked mainly with the level 1 (first semester) students as well as with one level 2 course and one 3rd (and final) level class. I have loved being able to start from the beginning with these students and get them excited about learning another language from the start. I am only sad to know that I won’t be able to be with them through the end! Liana and I also host a conversation club two nights a week that is open to anyone in the community (not just the university) and is more of an informal, advanced setting to practice English.
I work at the Universidad Técnica de Cotopaxi, Extensión La Maná. The main campus is in Latacunga, 3 hours away on the other side of the mountains. The main campus, or la matriz, was founded 21 years ago, and the extension here in La Maná followed 12 years ago. There are approximately 1,000 students here at UTC- La Maná, and there are 8 carreras, or degrees, offered. The university is mainly housed in one large, 4-story building, but there is also another building (Block B), a cafeteria, a thatched-roof outdoor sitting area, and a seed freezer. There is also a mysterious Block C a bit of a distance from the campus, but I have never been there.
The university system in Ecuador has recently undergone major changes in the past decade, including a new accreditation system that shut down dozens of universities across the country, requiring all professors and faculty members to obtain a PhD (despite the fact that only one university offers PhDs in the entire country), and implementing a testing system for all students to determine where they will study and what major, or “career”, they will pursue. There are a lot of politics and complicated aspects of these sweeping reforms, but I won’t get into those now.
It is hard not to constantly compare my experience here at UTC with my experience at Bowdoin. At 222 years old, Bowdoin is clearly much older than UTC. There are approximately 1,800 students at Bowdoin, so not too many more than there are here. There are over 40 majors offered there compared to the 8 here. Bowdoin is a liberal arts college whereas UTC is a technical university. Bowdoin is private and UTC is public. 99% of Bowdoin professors have PhDs (and the remaining 1% are in the process of getting theirs) (#tourguidefacts). There are 2 PhDs here, and they are both from Cuba since most Ecuadorian university professors and faculty members are still in the process of getting their PhDs (mostly in other countries). Cheating or plagiarism at Bowdoin is a ticket for [almost] immediate suspension or expulsion from the campus, whereas here it is seen as “collaboration.” Creativity and independent thinking at Bowdoin is encouraged and fostered, whereas here the education system boils down to the teacher standing at the front of the class and the students copying it down.
It’s not to say that one system is better than the first. It is to say, however, that one of my greatest challenges here has been trying to look at things without the obstruction of my own reference point. For example, the reference point of copying others’ work that I have from the United States is that it is bad and should be punished, and independent thinking and personal motivation is celebrated and expected. Here, collaboration and sharing of everything is the culture. Does that mean my way is superior? Not at all. It just means it is different, and much of my time here has been spent trying to understand and respect those differences.
On a professional note, my time here has really been influential in my career as a teacher. I am grateful each and every day for all that I learned as a student at Bowdoin in the Education Department, as it made my ability to transition to this new environment that much easier. Despite the fact that I am in a different country, a different education system, and conducting classes in a language different than my own, I came equipped with the confidence and comfort at being in front of a classroom, and for that I am eternally grateful. (Big shout out and thank you to all at Riley House!) Next January, I will be returning to Maine to complete my Bowdoin Teacher Scholars– my teaching certification– and I know I will return feeling much more confident not only in my Spanish abilities (as I want to be a Spanish teacher), but also in my skills as a teacher.
In summary, my work experience here has been quite a whirlwind. I have an eclectic but great mix of colleagues, I have bad days and I have good day, and I have to work with the ever unpredictable system here (i.e. learning that classes are cancelled one day but only after I am at the university with lesson plans in hand). Somedays there are chickens strolling in the courtyard or cows and a tiny donkey chowing on the lush grass right outside the gate. On top of that, I have to teach in a language that is not my own. Since my students are just learning English, it is impossible to effectively conduct a class entirely in English, so I have to resort to Spanish more often than not. This has actually been a really positive experience, though, as my students and I have been able to learn another language together and share in that challenge.
I am currently in the midst of my final week here at UTC. Despite the fact that these past few weeks have been quite challenging and I am feeling ready to go home, I am also feeling a big pit of sadness at leaving my wonderful students here. Even when I am having my worst of days brought on by the daily struggle of living here, my students’ smiling faces, willingness to learn, and the positive relationships I have forged with all of them makes all that other stuff simply fade away. I have been completely overwhelmed at the love and kindness they have shown me this week with a series of beautiful despedida (goodbye) parties, and I know I will always remember these students and my year here at UTC La Maná. It is hard to believe that in exactly two weeks from today, I will be on a plane headed back to the US for the first time since last October. I will try to squeeze in a few blog posts by then, as I know these next few weeks are sure to be a roller coaster ride!
My favorite day is Friday. On Fridays, I wake up at 5:00 am, eat breakfast and pack my things. At 5:45, I leave my house and walk to the bus stop. Between 6:00 and 6:15, the Cotopaxi bus arrives and I get on it. I travel for almost 2 hours until I arrive in Apahua. I get off the bus in the early morning light and walk up a hill for 15 minutes. It is quiet and peaceful as I walk to the Juan Manuel Ayala School. I spend the morning teaching English to the students in 8th, 9th and 10th grades. During the break, the students teach me Kichwa and I eat soup with the other teachers. I love these days because they are so different from my normal routine in La Maná. At the end of the day, I walk back down the hill and catch a bus either back to La Maná or onto another destination for the weekend!
The paragraph above is one that I wrote as a writing example for my level 1 students, who had to write their own version of “My Favorite Day.” These past few months, Fridays truly have been my favorite days. As part of the Fulbright ETA grant, we are supposed to spend time each week doing some sort of side project in our communities, aside from our time teaching in the university. To be honest, the side project seems much more serious and obligatory during the application process. On the ground, it is often really difficult to find something and many former ETAs I talked to said they didn’t do much, if anything. Even if the challenge of living here is basically a side project in and of itself, I nonetheless made a vow to myself at the beginning of my grant term that I would find a meaningful project.
I began looking for a side project once I had two fully functional ankles again around December. In January, my tutor suggested that I go with his mother to the small, rural, indigenous school where she teaches in the highlands. After one morning there, I was hooked, and I went back every Friday until last Friday (except for vacations and other conflicts).
The Juan Manuel Ayala School is at the top of a hill on an unmarked dirt road near kilometer marker 70 on the highway between Latacunga and La Maná. (I learned to carefully count km markers to know when to tell the bus to stop and let me off.) It is a bilingual school, meaning the students learn in both Kichwa (the native language) and Spanish. In fact, all of the students speak Spanish as a second language. I ended up helping in the English courses, a required component of their education. My tutor’s mother is forced to teach English even though she doesn’t know it herself. Turns out the US Education system isn’t the only one that is extremely flawed. While I didn’t originally want to teach English on the side of teaching English, it ended up being a fantastic segue for me to be able to get to know the students, teachers, and this area of Ecuador.
The school goes up to 10th grade. From there, very few students continue onto the high school in the neighboring town. The majority finish their studies there, often already pregnant by the time they are 13, 14 or 15 years old. Many of the families in the area have large families of 8 kids or more. More kids, more hands to work on the farm. That also means more mouths to feed. Many of the students are malnourished and their parents work in Quito or other parts of Ecuador, so after school they have to go home to take care of the animals and their younger siblings. That doesn’t leave a lot of time or concern for things like homework.
As a gringa (foreigner), I most definitely stood out in this area. Wary of looking like the “white savior” there to help the “poor indigenous people,” I made sure to state that my purpose there was simply to learn and to understand. And that is exactly what I did. Little by little, the students, teachers, and other community members opened up to me and began to share more and more about their lives, culture, and language. I simply showed up on Fridays, helped with some classes, and absorbed as much as I could.
Since the students are in the midst of exams these few weeks and then on vacation, I sadly finished my time in Apahua the other week. It was a bittersweet ending. Upset about it being my final day, one student in 10th grade suggested that we go to the nearby caves. So, after school, I met up with him and a few others and we began walking up the dirt road above the school. I suddenly realized we had a following of about 20 students, ranging from the tiniest 3-year olds to the 15-year olds.
Not long after we started our walk up the dirt road hill, someone began yelling, “vienen toros! Vienen toros!” (“Bulls are coming! Bulls are coming!). So we all squealed and bailed off the side of the road and ran through a freshly-plowed plot of land just in time to see around 15 men on horseback running down the hill with 5 or 6 bulls between them on ropes. I asked what they were doing but didn’t get a straight answer from anyone, so we continued on our journey.
A few minutes later, someone yelled again, “Vienen más! Vienen más!” (More are coming! More are coming!). So we ran off the side of the road to see 5 or so more chagras (cowboys of the Ecuadorian highlands) coming down the hill on horseback. There were also two men carrying giant pipe-like horns (think of the one the guy plays in the Ricola throat drops ad), and they stopped every few meters to blow the horns. I had seen them earlier in the day when I first walked up the hill to the school. It was only later when we heard firework/gunshot-like sounds coming from various parts of the hills that I learned all the commotion was in preparation for the celebration of Corpus Christi. Also called Inti Raymi in the native tradition, Corpus Christi is an annual summer solstice celebration that combines indigenous and Catholic traditions.
The next few hours of the afternoon were spent romping around the highlands, exploring a cave, climbing up hills to get better views, taking absurd amounts of photos, and chatting away non-stop with the students as they excitedly shared all the knowledge they could think of with me. Students bit by bit started walking home until there were just 4 of us left, and I said goodbye to them one-by-one as I walked down the hill to the bus stop and they branched off to their respective homes.
I traveled home that day with a heart full of joy and a head full of knowledge but a stomach with a pit of sadness at the end of my time in Apahua. My time there was truly one of the greatest highlights of my experience here, and I am so grateful to have had it. In just 2 hours every Friday, I was in an entirely different world (geographically, demographically, and culturally). I learned more than I ever could have imagined and am so grateful to have had it. While I am sad to see it end, I know I have lots more adventures ahead of me before I head home in less than 6 weeks!
It is officially summer in La Mana, meaning that for the first time in the 8 months that I have lived here it is not unbearably hot. In fact, I might go far to say that sometimes it even feels…. cool. If you are also confused by that seeming paradox of it being summer and that meaning it’s cooler, you aren’t alone. At this point in the game, I have stopped trying to understand some things here. Either way, I have no complaints! There is often a light breeze that cools everything off and it feels awesome. I have been told that this weather lasts for a few months, so lucky for me (and everyone around me) I get to spend my last two months sweating significantly less than in the first eight months!
I know it has been a while since I have written, and I am a little behind on this earthquake update. I have been going nearly non-stop for the past few weeks between work and traveling every weekend. I just passed the 8-month mark a few days ago, which means I now have less than 2 months left in this beautiful country. Time is really flying now, and there is so much I have left to share!
To begin: earthquake update. Since the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador on April 16, the country has continued to struggle to rebuild and recover. Thousands of people are still without homes, water, or electricity as communities struggle to reconstruct major and minor infrastructures. Sales tax, which was at 12% has now increased to 14%, with the extra 2% going toward relief. At my local grocery store, you can “buy” cement blocks for 40 cents each to help rebuild homes in the affected areas. TVs are still displaying news (albeit less) of the affected zones as well as public service announcements about what to do in the event of an earthquake.
And on top of all that, on May 18 (just over a month after the initial quake), Ecuador was rattled not just once, but twice with earthquakes. Around 3 in the morning, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake hit the coast. I was, of course, asleep in bed when I woke up in a haze and felt the room moving. Thinking I was again being paranoid and still in a sleepy state, I wrote it off as the wind blowing really hard (?) and fell back asleep. In the morning, I woke up to a flurry of “are you ok?” messages, at which point I immediately knew that it was not just windy in my room last night. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep too well the next few nights worrying about sleeping through a major emergency.
Later that day (May 18), I was back in my bed resting between classes. Around 11 or 12, I started to get up in order to go to a science fair of sorts being hosted by the university before I had to get back to work. Just as I swung my legs over my bed and my feet touched the floor, earthquake number 2 of the day hit. This time, it was a 6.8 and lasted probably 30 seconds or more. While it wasn’t as strong as the first one in April, it was strong enough to make everything violently shake and make it difficult to walk on the moving floor. The rest of the day was spent internally very rattled (again). Classes were suspended for the afternoon, and there was an unmistakable sense of fear and uncertainty in the air.
While only one death was reported in these two earthquakes and only minimal damage was done, the psychological and emotional damage cannot be measured. In a country where the historic and life-changing earthquake in April is still fresh in everyone’s minds, more earthquakes and even more uncertainty are doing little to ease fears. As I have said before, however, Ecuador is one tough little cookie and it is persevering through it all. And I am doing much better as well with time and the comfort of friends and family as we navigate our constantly changing world together.