Sunday, September 21, 2008

peace corps 101

A week ago, I left Quito with Nathalie, the girl I know in the peace corps for a place called San Pedro Vicente Maldonado, where her friend Nate is living. The town was basically just one main street with not too much going on, but the people were all really nice and everyone knew Nate, obviously, as he was the only gringo in town. On Monday we went to the school where Nate teaches health education and helped him teach some classes to the 8th, 9th, and 10th graders on STDs. We talked about symptoms, the importance of safe sex, etc, ect. but it was cool because Nathalie and I got to be up at the front of the room teaching with him. The kids were all very receptive and asked lots of questions and it was really fun. Plus, often times the peace corps seems like a very untouchable organization, but teaching this class I realized that I have done lots of the same things these volunteers have done!

On Tuesday we went to visit a different peace corps volunteer in a town called Mindo about an hour away. She is also doing health education, but since she was giving a test the day we visited we didnt go to class with her. Instead we went ziplining through the jungle which was really really cool. We only stayed one day and night in Mindo before going back to Pedro Vicente with Nate where we stayed one more night.

Nathalie and Nate had been talking about a friend of theirs working on a tourism project with an indigenous commity, the Tsachalas, outside of a city called Santo Domingo a few hours away. They were telling me he lives basically in a hut, without running water really far removed from civilization. They thought it might be interesting for me to see the other side of the spectrum of how a peace corps volunteer lives and a different type of work. I only spent a day and a night with this guy, Clay, but it was really interesting meeting the family he lives with and seeing thier lives. The project is still really grass roots and the family still dresses in thier colorful skirts and the men have a particular haircut where the top is longer and dyed red with the juice of a local fruit. What this family is trying to do is very cool and its interesting becasue it is so grass roots, but they have a lot of work to do, I think, before tourists will come. They live very modestly- the entire 2 room house had about 6 peices of furniture in total- 3 beds, a table with a bench, and a stove. Plus, they still ahve no running water (we had to bathe in the river) and there are chickens running all around- meaning there is also chicken poop all around. But all this being said, Clay has made lots of progress working with the family, teaching them aspects of hygene they never knew before, as well as helping them set up the things that tourists would want to see and participate in if htey came to visit the Tsachula community.

After I left Santo Domingo and the Tsachula's, I went to a town called Montañita on the coast. It is like party central and full of tourists from all over ecuador, south america, and the world. The town has a rastafarian/hippie vibe like leave your inhibitions behind and enjoy life. It was fun, but seriously the partying was out of control- like music blaring all over town until 7am.. After one night i was like omg I have to get out of here!!!! Now I am in Cuenca, which is the 3rd biggest city in Ecuador, in the south in the mountains. It is very colonial and gorgeous. I am planning to stay a few days before going anywhere else. Thats all!!!!


Sunday, September 14, 2008

galapagos, ecuador

well it has been an extremely long time since I updated this thing, so here goes...

Since I got back from Esmereldas, I spent about a week in Quito looking for volunteer work or possibly a permanent job here after the mission trip in October... but to no avail.

Then last week my cousin Andrea came and we went to the Galapagos for 8 days. It was amazing! We spent the week on a boat sailing from island to island. We probably went to about 10 or 12 different islands and saw all kinds of crazy animals- everything from sea lions and seals to birds with blue feet, to huge iguanas and turtles (both land and sea). I even got to snorkle with the sea lions, turtles, and one day even some sting rays and a shark! The islands themselves were really interesting, all made out of volcanic rock and filled with (mostly dormant) volcanos. Some of them were filled with vegetation while others were totally bare and looked like the moon. The whole experience was really amazing.

I have spent the weekend back in Quito with Andrea, who just left last night and today I am going with my friend Adrienne´s friend who is in the peace corps to visit some of her friends who are doing health work in some smaller towns a few hours outside of Quito for 4 or 5 days. It should be very interesting. Thats all for now.

Hope everyone is doing well with new jobs and school and all. Its crazy how fast time is going by. I will be home in only 5 more weeks!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fundación Ecuadent

I have just returned to Quito after spending 4 days working with the Foundación Ecuadent- a nonprofit organization based out of Baltimore that runs medical and dental missions for impoverished persons all over Ecuador. The organization was founded by a woman named Tami who is Ecuadorian, but married to an American dentist and living in Baltimore. For more than 10 years she has been running mission trips to the poorest parts of Ecuador in order to provide free dental care, free hernia surgies, free food and clothes, and most recently malaria testing.
While in Esmereldas, on the northern coast of Ecuador, we worked in conjunction with the Ecuadorian Navy to provide two communities with free malaria testing, treatment, and education.

We spent the 4 days staying in a ¨suite¨ on the naval base in Esmereldas where we worked with several naval doctors, the navy hospital´s director, and several other naval officers. On Thursday we woke up very early and drove 2 hours to a town called Recinto Olmedo. This town had about 40 houses and was located on an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, built literally in swamp land (you can imagine the mosquitos!) In order to get to the town we had to drive 30 minutes of the main road, down a dirt road to the ¨road¨ (mostly a mud path) that led to the town itself. In order to get into the town we had to walk across a rotting plank bridge across a river leading into the ocean! The town maybe had about 200-300 people and they all lived in wooden houses made of sugarcane stalks which clearly had holes in which mosquitos could enter. All of the houses are built on stilts so they don´t flood during the rainy season and though they have tvs and electricity there is no running water, no plumbing, and not enough food to eat. Most of the children were very malnourished with big protruding bellies since the people of the town live on fried fresh fish (caught daily in their painted wooden boats) plaintains, and some rice if they are lucky. The town is too remote to have any kind of import/export system and they do not have the resourses to set one up- even if they did, a lot of change is needed to improve the cleanliness standards of the town before they could sell thier fish.

Anyway, we spent the day testing everyone who wanted to be tested for malaria (about 100 people). We also worked in conjunction with a doctor who they would talk to after having their malaria and diabetes tests where they could get free diagnoses and medicine if they were sick. The people in the town were all very nice and it was an especially interesting look at the way of life of such a remote, afroecuadorian town.

On Saturday we went to a second town, called 50 casas, on the outskirts of Esmereldas to do more malaria testing. This town has a larger population of about 5000 people but they have the higest insidence of malaria of any town in the province- due to 3 large standing water lagoons based within the town. Standing water breeds mosquitos who carry malaria, sneak in through the many cracks in the houses, and bite the people living there. This town, though slighty more urban, was also very poor. The children were running around all without shoes, in torn clothes mostly either too big or too small, some running around in only underwear. Many were also very malnourished, again with large bellies. There was also a high insidence of teenage mothers and spending a day in that town alerted us to the many different needs these people have: sexual education, clothes and shoes, dental care, bed nets for malaria, the list goes one. However, now that the foundation has established a connection I have no doubt that Tami will follow through supporting 50 casas in many areas of need.

On Saturday we completed about 200 malaria tests, distributed many pamplets, and the navy is planning to return to distribute bednets which have been held up in customs. All in all the mission was very eyeopening and very important in understanding the lives of many who are scraping to get by, both in rural and urban Ecuador. I would like to keep working with Ecuadent, even if it is only through clothing drives, or toy drives. I have complete faith that Tami will follow through and distribute everything to those who need it most.

Last night I returned to Quito where I am planning what to do next....
Keep in touch everyone!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

traveling through manabi

I have been traveling north along the coast of Ecuador the past few days in order to arrive in Esmereldas where I will be meeting this group to work on the malaria project. Needless to say, it has been a really intense and eye-opening journey through Manabi which is the poorest province in Ecuador.
I left Puerto Lopez fairly early on Monday morning for a place called Canoa, another small town on the coast known for lots of beach and really good surfing. I left Puerto Lopez, by coincidence, with a girl from England who I sort of knew. She was going to meet friends in Canoa and it was nice to have someone to travel with. The trip was much longer than I expected- probably due to the horrible condition of the roads which were neither paved nor dirt, but instead some awful combination of the two that was realllllly bumpy and forced us to go about 30mph the whole way... About 6 hours and 2 buses later we finally arrived in Canoa just in time to watch the sun set over the ocean and eat fresh seafood for dinner. (I have been living on fish ceviche- for $2.50 you can get a big bowl of it served with fried bananas and sometimes popcorn and its so good and really fresh!) We spent the night in this hostal right on the beach and when we woke up tons of people were surfing, drinking coconut water and hanging out on the beach. Canoa was super clean and basically completely opposite from Puerto Lopez, although for some reason I liked Puerto Lopez better- trash and all.
Unfortunately I had to leave Canoa fairly early on Tuesday to continue traveling up the coast. I left before 2, hoping that I could reach the beach town of Mompiche before it got dark since after an intense arrival at night in Tena I am skeptical to arrive anywhere alone at night. So I took one bus to a town called Pedernales where I had to switch buses. It took about 3 hours to get there and when i got off the bus to switch multiple people were like "omg white girl, why are you traveling alone, be careful etc." So, of course immediately I was thinking what have I gotten myself into!? The next bus went to another town called Chamanga, which is a spot on the map I have, but has no description- probably because no tourist has ever arrived there. The ride there was literally through nothing- no towns, nothing just dirt road surrounded by houses made of trees that absolutely could not have had indoor plumbing or running water. The houses are all built on stilts, im not sure why, and are completely square, as if they are just 1 big room . We also passed people bathing and washing clothes in a river- constant reminders of what life must be like in the northern part of the Manabi provice, a place without tourism to stimulate any kind of economy. Anyway, we arrived in Chamanga around 5pm and it was filled with people in the streets, buying food, playing soccer, talking, drinking, etc. I had to change buses again to another bus packed to the max with ecuadorians (as you travel up the coast the composition of the people changes, since the north coast is filled with afro ecuadorians, and I stood out so much as the only gringa on the bus- every time I looked up people were staring at me).
So I started talking to the guy next to me as the bus left who informed me that this bus wouldnt in fact enter Mompiche since it was too late at night and I would instead have to get out and walk 1-2 hours from where the bus dropped me off to the town, which he assured me is very nice. But then he was like you probably shouldnt do that since it will be dark and its not really safe for you to be walking alone... you think? obviously I was not about to do that. He encouraged me to stay on the bus further north until we reached Atacames, Ecuador´s most popular beach. I had no idea what to expect and as it became pitch black outside, I sort of began to panic- but it was way too late to turn back. When we finally arrived, like 730pm, the guy from the bus was nice enough to walk with me to where the tourist area was and point me in the direction of some hotels. Atacames is like Miami beach gone ecuadorian on steriods. It is filled with thatched huts blaring reggaetone all night, vendors selling food, drinks, artisan stuff, hair braids, seafood, etc on the streets, and the main strip is filled with restraunts and trashy stores. It was about the last place I wanted to be last night, espeically since I wasn´t mentally prepared. However, I made the best of it and felt better, and certainly calmer when I woke up this morning.
I had to be in Esmereldas around 1, or so I thought, to meet this group from Fundacion Ecuadent who is coming to do the malaria work. The bus ride from Atacames to Esmereldas took about an hour and when I finally got to the naval base, where we are staying, it turns out things have changed and they won´t be arriving until 4. So here I am, wandering the streets of Esmereldas, once again the only white person in sight waiting to meet up with this group. I am excited to get started working with them though, as the last few days have been lots of travels leading up to this point!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

la libertad

So, after a long busride over night (during which my ipod myteriously disappeared while I was listening to it!) I arrived in Puerto Lopez. At a first glance, it doesnt look like much- a run down town with falling down houses, "canals" filled with standing water and trash, dirt roads. Since we got here around 7:30 am and no one was up or walking around I was skeptical. However the "main strip" some restraunts, bars, fruit stands, and artisan shops is right on the beach and is very tourist friendly.
Since the doctor from La Libertad still hadn´t emailed me back on Monday morning, I decided to spend a day in Puerto Lopez before continuing on. While eating breakfast I met a really nice guy from England and ended up going on a boat ride with him to see humbolt whales. I didnt expect it to be much, but it was amazing! The whales migrate up from Antarctica for a few months every year to repopulate when the water there is too cold to survive. Puerto Lopez is one of the few places where you can see them.. they are huge. The females get up to 40 meters long.. about 4x as big as the 20 passenger boat I was on. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing beach volleyball and hanging out with some canadians and the dude that owns the hostel- a guy named Yadin. He was supernice and its awesome to go places and meet locals to really get a feel for what the town is like, the culture etc.
On Tuesday early afternoon I arrived in La Libertad, about 3 hours south of Puerto Lopez. I went to the clinic to meet the doctor, but it turns out she was returning from Quito later that day. So, I spent my first day there hanging out at the clinic, talking to the director about what kind of work I could do (mostly nutrition consultations- which in the US I am absolutely not qualified to do, but there I was one of the most qualified..) and waiting for the doctor. When I finally met her, she was so nice and really appologetic about having forgotten about me. I ended up staying in her house and spent a lot of time hanging out with her 13 year old son, Angel.
I spent 5 days in La libertad before deciding that although there is lots of work to be done there, it wasn´t the place for me to stay. Staying in the doctor´s house made me feel really clasutrophobic after being accustomed to absolute freedom and it was hard to meet anyone my own age. Plus, the work in the clinic is necessary, but it was frustrating to feel cooped up inside all day. However, this being said, the few days I was there were really interesting. La libertad is an "urban area" although not really a city because there is only a tiny center. However it has a population of about 90,000 and is mostly a conglomeration of dry dirt roads that all look the same and really rundown houses. One of the days I was there I went out with some students who are going house to house taking a census to measure the health discrepancies in the area the clinic serves. Some of the houses we went to weren´t even really houses- 1 room with dirt floors, at best they had cement siding and tin roofs, however alot shared their houses and small dirt yards with all sorts of animals from chickens (most popular) to pigs, ducks, etc. I also got to give a private consultation to an underweight child which was kind of cool- especially cool to see that my spanish is good enough to do something intelligent with.
Yesterday I left La Libertad, mostly because realizing that I could not devote a full time committment, I decided it was time to move on. It was a really hard decision to make because everyone there was really nice to me and there truly is a lot of work to do, but in the end, if I am not happy in the location there is no way for me to produce good outcomes in my work. Plus as I was there I really realized I want to be more involved working with the FDJE and diabetes outreach work and I would like to devote as much time as possible to that.
When I left La libertad I cam back to Puerto Lopez where I am now. It has been cloudy and not too warm, but something about this place is charming. I have made friends with a few of Yadin´s friends (locals) and today sat on the street with some of the artisaneas making bracelets to sell. It is an interesting look at a totally different lifestyle of people my age..
Tomorrow I plan to go to Canoa, another similar beach town for a day or two which is a good halfway point between here and Esmereldas, the beach town in the north where I will be working on the malaria project starting Wednesday. So things are not necessarily going as planned but are going well nonetheless!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Back in Quito, mo and I spent 3 days touring the city, doing all the touristy things I hadn´t had time to do yet. On Tuesday we went to the Mitad del Mundo, aka equator, which is about 25 minutes outside the city. There is a little village built up to support the tourism, a monument with a really cool museum of some Ecuadorian history and descriptions of all the different indigenous cultures that exist in Ecuador. There is also a big line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres and some places where you can do experiements like watch water flush in both directions, or balance an egg vertically (which my friend Carmen did successfully!)
We also walked around the old part of the city for a couple of hours. The old part is really cool because is so old and has such distinct Spanish influence in the arcitecture and during the day is crowded with tons of people wandering around, working, hanging out, etc. We went into some super old churches that are crazily ornate and then ate lunch in the middle of Plaza San Fransisco, the biggest plaza in the old part of the city.

On Thursday we rode the TeleferiQo, this kind of gondola thing that goes from Quito almost to the top of Ruku Pichinca, the smaller volcano that looms over the city. It takes you straight from like 2900 meters up to 4100 and you get to the top and can see for miles and miles and miles. Besides the huge drop in temperature at the top, it was really cool. We also wandered around the Parque Carolina, a huge park in the middle of the city and we went to the Museo Guyasamin. Guyasamin is this incredible Ecuadorian artist that painted these crazy sort of simple, sort of abstract depictions of the suffering of Ecuadorian life. His stuff is really cool and there are prints of it being sold all over the city, so it was especially cool to go to the museum and see all the originals and read the descriptions. If you´re interested, here is a link to some of his stuff:

Yesterday I went to a town called Otovalo which is about 2 hours north of here. They have a big indigenous/artisan market there. The market goes everyday, but on Saturdays it is out of control, filling the whole main plaza and every street surrounding the plaza for 2-3 blocks in each directions. It had everything from scarves and jewelry to carpets and embroidered sheets and tablecloths, to wood carvings and paintings, and more. Basically everything you could imagine. There were also vendors walking around selling all sorts of juices and traditional foods like pan de yuka (deep fried yuka bread), beans mixed with veggies in a bag, these typical half-popped popcorn kernels, roasted corn and bananas, etc. Plus, on the far edge of the plaza there was more of a food market where there were fully roasted boars waiting to be carved and sold, ground spices, veggies and fruits. It all seemed espeically exotic because nearly all the vendors were wearing full out indigenous dress and they all wanted to talk and convince you to buy thier stuff. Even though the market is super touristy and the Otovaleños are the most well off indigenous group, it was really cool to see the unique flavor of thier indigenous culture. Basically all of the things that were being sold are handmade and come from fairly local communities.

When I got sick of walking around the market I decided to go on a short hike up one of the hills surrounding Otovalo (its still in the Andes) to this tree called El Lechero, which is supposed to be a healing tree. The unpaved road wound up the hill almost 5km past really rundown houses, cows, sheep, pigs and goats grazing on the side of the road, children playing in the street and woman washing clothes outside or cleaning thier yards. At the top, past a grove of Eucaliptis trees all the vegetation cleared and gave way to this one lone, bare tree: El Lechero. Plus the top of the hill was so barren, without houses or people and had a great view. When I got to the top I was so glad I had taken the time to climb up there.

Today is Quito´s independence day, its 200th birthday. Last night they closed off all of the roads in the old part of the city and there were thousands of people walking around and different stages with different types of music playing in every plaza- everything from regaetone to indigenous, andina music. I went with some people I know from the hostal, a mix of Ecuadorians and other extranjeros and it was really fun. The old city looks crazy all lit up at night and with the fireworks and light shows and music all going on, it was really really fun.

Since Mo left on Thursday night and I have spent a lot of time trying to organize my schedule and figure out how I am going to do everything I want to do in the next couple of months. I have been in touch with Dra. Tamayo, the doctor in La Libertad on the coast and am going there to begin working tomorrow. I am taking an overnight bus tonight, which will take about 11 hours. I am not exactly sure what I will be doing when I get there, but she has said that I can do nutrition education for malnourished kids, working on an oral hygene campain, and I think just generally help out in the Centro Médico Municipal. I am really excited to start.

I also have been in touch with an organization based in Maryland through on of the directors of AYUDA. They are doing a mission trip for like 5 days on the northern coast trying to discover the distribution of the 2 most prevalent strains of malaria to figure out the best manners of treatment. I think that on Aug. 20 I will be going there for the duration to help out with everything from translation to setting up mosquito nets to administering tests... So these are the immediate plans, still a little unorganized and all left for the last minute in true Ecuafashion.. but I am excited all the same!

Thats all!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Banos to Tena

I spent the last 5 or so days doing a little traveling with my bro, who got here late Wed night, and my friend Meredith from the camp who stayed an extra week to chill!

On Thursday morning we left Quito for Banos, an Ecuadorian tourist destination in the Andes south of here. Situated on the side of a volcano, with multiple hot springs, it was super relaxing and really fun. Its a pretty small town, but due to its location there is tons to do and tons of people, both Ecuadorian and extranjero, always passing through, especially on the weekends. It took about 4 1/2 hours to get there in a bus even though geographically its not too far, so when we arrived we spent the rest of Thursday hanging out, exploring etc.

On Friday morning we woke up determined to hike at least part of the volcano. The actual volcano is huge and snow covered, but we wanted to hike up to this tiny town way up on the mountain called Runtún where we could get a better view. The whole hike took about 5 hours and was super intense and equally unbelievable. It began with a path that went basically straight up to the first lookout point, the highest part that you can see from the town of Banos which we originally thought we would never get to. Then the organized path turned into a grove cut out of the forest, which was more like jungle than normal forest due to the lower elevation and proximity to the jungle, that looked like it had been made by years of rain running down the mountain. The forest cover and plants were amazing and at intervals gave way to lookouts on parts of the mountain that families had cleared to farm. When we finally reached Runtún we weren't able to see the volcano because it was kind of rainy and we were literally surrounded by clouds, but it was worth it to wander through the tiny village of houses made of planks of wood, pastures of cows, and the occasional house with a radio blaring or family eating lunch. After a hike like that we decided we deserved to relax so we all got hot stone massages which only cost 20$! and then went to the hot springs on the edge of town that were literally fed by a waterfall coming down from the mountain.

On Saturday, wanting to continue to do every extreme thing we could think of, we rented bikes and rode about 20 miles farther down the mountains toward the jungle town of Puyo. The road passes at least 30 waterfalls and is incredible since it follows a river in the groove of the mountains. It was literally like riding on the side of a cliff for 2 hours. We stopped in a little town for a typical lunch when we got caught in a downpour and when it subsided continued riding to the biggest waterfalls of all. To get to them we had to hike down the cliff to basically the level of the river where there was a wooden bridge with a sign that said only 5 people at a time. I was positive we were going to fall into the river and die on the spot with the strength of the falls below us, but we survived and for an extra dollar we climbed up to right underneath/behind the waterfall.. incredible. From the falls we took a little cart/truck thing back to Banos where we had to ride in the back with all the bikes and just as we were arriving in Banos we looked up to see that the volcano had errupted a big cloud of smoke. Literally we hiked a volcano that errupted the next day!

Saturday night we took a bus from Banos to Puyo and then another bus to Tena, another small city on the edge of the jungle. Amazing as it may seem, the main road that connects these two eastern cities of ecuador is made out of dirt and nearly impossible to travel in the rainy months. We arrived in Tena around 11pm, super skeptical due to how run down it is and even more skeptical after we got into two separate taxis who informed us the hostal we were planning on staying in didnt actually exist. Luckily on a whim we had booked rooms at 2 hostals and the second one, a little outside the city center set back off several dirt roads turned out to be really nice. We woke up Sunday morning to a tiny city with thick forests and the Andean foothills in distance. We had planned on going whitewater rafting since Tena is the whitewater rafting capital of Ecuador, where the River Tena and River Napo meet, but since we hadnt made reservations and everything was closed becuase it was Sunday we decided we should chill a little. And by chill, we decided to go to these caves in a town a little north that turned out to be huge. We went in with a guide and wandered around in the mud and water and pitch black for about an hour before we emerged through a different exit deep in the jungle! If nothing else, it was a personal feat that I managed to remain calm for so long in the cave. When our guide started pointing out the different bugs and things that live inside though, I had had enough and decided we needed to get out of there!

Sunday night we went out to dinner at a family run pizza place where we were served by the cutest 12 year old boy, who went to the store to buy us wine when we ordered a bottle and they didnt have it. It began to pour and due to the fact that all the buildings have tin roofs, we spent the night sitting on the covered balcony of our hostel listening to the rain, talking and playing cards. On Monday we took an afternoon bus back to Quito, but before we left we spent the morning walking around this island turned park/zoo at the place where the 2 rivers meet seeing crazy plants and animals like monkeys, tucans, and yeah a few snakes... luckily they were all in cages! The bus ride back up to Quito took about 5 hours and was a nice combination of dirt and paved roads and truly the most beautiful ride of my life. In true South American fashion the bus stopped at a house/restraunt in the middle of the mountains so the passengers could eat dinner, before continuing to drive like maniacs on the tiny road full of switchback turns back to Quito.

I was really amazed by Tena. Banos was cool, but it was a tourist town. Tena, on the other hand, while it caters to tourists who want to go rafting or hire a guide and go into the jungle for a few days really was very poor and run down. While we were there I went to the Red Cross and asked about doing some volunteer work, to which they enthusiastically replied that whenever I come back I am more than welcome to work with them! I am really excited about going back, not just to work with the Red Cross but also to do some outreach work for the foundation. My friend Carmen was saying last night that the jungle has one of the highest rates of type 1 diabetes in Ecuador and remains unexplored territory for the foundation. We are trying to work out a time when we can go back and start working.

Mo and I have spent the last few days hanging out in Quito, but since this is getting very long, I will save that for another time. If you have been emailing me and I havent been answering... I promise to do it soon!!!! Hope all is well!