Saturday, March 22, 2014

Last Day in Ecuador

Today was the final day. It was a free day until the evening when we would do a group dinner like the first time. Everyone had a variety of plans for things to do around the city, and others wanted to take the day to relax and recoup from the craziness of the past two weeks. A group of us decided to take a taxi to the market in Quito and do some last minute gift shopping. It was time for the last round of bargaining and seeing how many more things we could somehow squeeze into our suitcases. It was an indoor market (sort of) with lots of little stalls underneath a plastic covering. There were rows and rows of stalls with things ranging from home goods, to piercing and tattoo stalls.
                We later ventured out to find some lunch and then took the bus with Jeff back to the hotel to help Omar do some food shopping for the group dinner that night. The bus ride was actually enjoyable and we had the opportunity to talk with a guy on the bus who was close to our age. Andrew had actually just finished applying for masters art programs in the United States, particularly New York. He was actually really wonderful to talk with and it was a general conversation that went both ways. He would talk to me in English and ask me to respond in Spanish. Apparently, my accent isn’t that bad. I think he was just being nice and appreciated the effort being made. He invited us to grab a drink that night, but unfortunately we were leaving that night. He even got off the bus and introduced himself to Jeff. Jeff had been sitting at the front of the bus and we had moved to the back; he had a very skeptical fatherly look on his face during the course of our interactions. Had we had more time though, we as a group probably would have gone out for a drink with him in the area.    
                Food shopping for the night was fun as we tried to have well balanced meals for 20 people and also make allowances for the vegetarians in the group. Lots of weird fruits were bought, empanadas, and all sorts of delicious things. (We did avoid potatoes though…most people were tired of all the potatoes from the village.) The meal was delicious, the conversation was great and it was sad to get ready to say good bye. I knew that I would without a doubt cry when we got to the airport and had to say good-bye to Omar and Juan Carlos.
                Sure enough, after a slightly car sickness inducing ride, we arrived at the airport for our 1:00am flight out of Quito. We said by to Juan Carlos first, which was sad enough, but sure enough, when Omar left after lots of hugs, I burst in to tears. I hate crying in public, a lot. Jess started crying to and next thing we know we hear, “Trip leaders, falling apart at the seams.” It was true enough though, it was our second time with this community and we were leaving and potentially not coming back for a long time.
                It was really hard to leave. Part of me knew it would be that hard, but the other part of me expected it to be easier since in total, I had spent three weeks there. I don’t know if it was still the honeymoon stage of travel, where everything is great, or if I really just wanted to spend that much time there.

                As if to rub it in, our 1:00am flight was delayed due to fog. We proceeded to sleep on the plane, or in the terminal waiting for the call that we would be able to take off. Of course, Jess, Jeff, Eric and I were of course thinking about the fiasco that happened last time. Where our flight was delayed, then just never ended up taking off so some people were in Ecuador for an additional two days. People were upset, but eventually we took off, made our flight to Boston and the New York group had rescheduled flights waiting for them at the Texas airport. The flights were smooth and uneventful from that point forward. We were officially back in the States and my second trip to Ecuador had come to an end.

Exhibit Night!!!

The morning was spent at the school again for the final time. They presented a bunch of performances for us about varying topics of peace and community. They were, of course, adorable to watch. They had clearly been working hard in the past week that we’d been gone. They dances, mimed, sang and performed puppet shows for us. After they set such a high standard, we had to follow up and do the plays/skits we had put together the first time we visited. They were rough, and didn’t compare to what they did before us but I think we all had a great time. After our skits, my group went to judge their art and pick the winners from each grade. All of their art was going to be displayed at the exhibit, but the winners would be displayed separate and they would win a prize. While we were judging the students put on a buffet for us and brought gifts and all sorts of food for us to enjoy. It was really hard to judge the kids art work because it was clear that all of them had invested a fair amount of time into each project. They would also walk by to see which paintings we were looking at to try and persuade us. They were definitely crafty…both in their art work and their attempts to bribe us with their cuteness. Each of us had a bias towards to children we specifically had worked with. Once we picked out top four, we enjoyed our variety of foods and then presented the winners. Everyone one was excited for their art to be in the exhibit, and the parents and families were all invited.

                When clean-up was done, we had to say our good-byes. Yet again, good-byes were difficult. We all loved our time at the school and were sad to leave. The kids and staff all gathered by the main gate to say good-bye and wave as the bus drove off. It was like something out of a movie.
                To life our spirits, we went to Omar’s house/the CEMPROC office to spray paint the walls. It was a brief outlet for creativity and expression in a safe space. There were the obligatory hearts, smiley faces, peace signs, etc. Omar, although good at everything, also proved to be fabulous at spray painting. He could do shading and bubble letters, meanwhile I was just happy when I could make a circle in one go. Once Omar’s wall was completely covered in a variety of colorful symbols, we left to get ready for the exhibit.

                A small group of us ventured off with Omar to first, get ice cream, and then hunt down gifts for the winners of the art contest. Luckily, at the mall, there was a toy store and we went on the hunt for educational but fun gifts for them. It was fun, but difficult to decide on what would work well for them. Most of us had never had to buy fun but educational gifts for girls before and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t something cheesy that the kids wouldn’t actually enjoy. After finally coming to the decision of some art projects for them.
                When then left for the exhibit to finish the rather last minute installation of the kids paintings. We didn’t have that many supplies at this point, a lot of them had been used for the installation of the photographs. So through a makeshift board, with whatever tape we could find, we were able to get everything set up right before the exhibit opened to the public.
                The night went pretty well, some of the kids showed up and some of the winners came as well. Javier (our bus driver from the first trip) and his wife came, along with Omar’s family and people from the Casa de la Danza community. It was pretty busy for the night and people also seemed to be really inspired by our photographs. It is a great feeling to know you did a good job of representing the community you were a part of when receiving confirmation from those very same people. For me, that was the ultimate goal. What if the community felt we did a poor job of representing their culture or country? The entire exhibit would have lost its purpose and story.

                I think it is safe to say that the final product was successful and all of our hard work paid off. The exhibit was received well and given the time crunch, it looked clean and put together. The photos were going to be left up in the exhibit space at Casa de la Danza for a bit longer after we left. The stories behind the photos were what made the entire thing worth it, to see those photos hanging on the wall and getting to share them with other people; it can’t get much better than that. 

RET and Exhibit Set-Up

There are no photos for this day's visit and the set up. It was a lot of running around, and not much opportunity for photo's...

Shockingly (not really though) the schedule changed. We started the exhibit set up in the morning, started printing things. There wasn’t much for me to do at that point as my project was to pick the art the kids at the school made. My group and I helped with a few small things but there were clearly a lot of strong opinions being thrown around so I opted to stay more out of the way. So, in order to help, we ventured down to a local bakery and bought a bunch of croissants for people to munch on. People seemed to appreciate this as it provided a nice break for students when things started to get frustrating.  The exhibit was clearly going to be a lot of work and we were very much running on a time crunch. Nerves were pretty frayed at this point.
                Our middle of the day break involved lunch (surprise, we’re ALWAYS eating basically) and then going to an organization called RET. They work specifically with refugees and their rights once they come into Ecuador. There were a large portion of Colombian refugees which were not welcomed into the community. This was initially supposed to be our second visit, but the first one had been canceled. Thus, our plans were changed when we got there and unfortunately, not much of a relationship could be built. It was a great organization and the support they give these young people is great. They give them an outlet, and we watched a short film they created about refugees and the challenges they face in Ecuador. It specifically examined the prejudices and stereotypes held against refugees and how to counteract them. It was the voice of the refugees, but at the same time was educating people about their misconceptions of refugees. It was moving and inspiring to see young people put together such a well-articulated film.  I wish we had been able to spend more time with them, but unfortunately we were swiftly running out of time and were able to only make the one visit.
                We went back for dinner and then ended up back at La Casa de la Danza to finish exhibition set-up. Stress was pretty high, so those of us who weren’t in the set-up team avoided the space, only helping when given specific tasks to do. They all clearly had a specific plan and system going so if we just came in, I’m sure it would have been more stressful to have us mess up the system. A small group of us ended up getting dance lessons from around the world, specifically from Omar. It was, again, a favorite of the entire trip. It was another cultural exchange to learn Spanish dances like the salsa, and we played American music to dance to as well. It was another event that wasn’t planned, it just happened naturally. It was, hysterical. Needless to say, many of us weren’t very good at dancing and Omar got a good laugh out of it. Asha also showed (taught would be inaccurate) an Ethiopian shoulder dance. It was by far, one of the most impressive dances I have seen in my life, and one I have no hopes of ever mastering.

                Although we all had fun, I think everyone was excited when the night was over. The tension in the instillation team was high by the end of it, but once it was up it was clear that the next day would be great. The photos looked great and the exhibit was going to go fabulously. 

Last Day in Pijal :(

Today was the sad sad day of leaving Pijal. Our day stared with making breakfast (at 5:45am) for our family. They had been so wonderful to us, we wanted to return the favor and that is why Asha and Katelyn went to the market the other day. We made French toast, eggs, chicken and tea. I know the chicken is a little weird, but they always seem to have such large, hearty breakfasts, we were concerned that there wasn’t going to be enough food! This meal also presented the perfect opportunity to show them how to use the maple syrup we brought from home. Overall, I think they liked the breakfast, but where unsure as to how to take it. It was so different then the rice and potatoes we had for breakfast every day before that.  Esteban really enjoyed the breakfast and the syrup…which isn’t surprising since he loves sweets. We were really happy that we were able to cook breakfast for them, to even in the smallest way, pay them back for all of the hospitality they had shown us. There was never a doubt that we were welcomed into the family in that house, as we wanted to show them in return, how much we appreciated it. Lucia enjoy it before she rushed off to the next town to pick something up. We had to get our bucket showers anyways; so we boiled our water and got ready to leave for the exhibit taking place.

After we were all showered, Lucia was waiting for us downstairs. The reason she had gone into town was to buy us each a handmade beaded bracelet. She even got one for Lauren, who had only been there a couple of days. She helped us wrap them in the right way and next thing we knew, the bus had arrived to take us and our luggage to the community center. Typical to the rest of the trip, we started late. It wouldn’t have been a day in Pijal if we had started on time. All the families and students gathered at Sumak Pacha, the program center, to watch a slide show and have us present the five photos we had chosen to from the stay in Pijal. We all went around and presented the photos and why they were important to us. In the end, our host families said something to us about us staying with them and why it was important. Of course, this started tears on both ends. The community fostered in such a short period of time, is unbelievable and touching. Saying good-bye, is always the hardest. This time was particularly difficult because two years ago, when I left I knew I would be doing everything I could to get back. I knew it was a possibility to go back. This time though, there are no guarantees.

We stopped first at a local store that houses these two lovely llamas....


                On our way back we stopped for lunch at the same place as last time, with the zip line. People were pretty exhausted at this point. 

The six days in the village were definitely energy consuming. I know as much as I had enjoyed it, I was definitely excited to be able to sleep in at the hotel. We did have to work on some photography projects once we were back at the hotel first. We would be setting up the exhibit the following day. It was a long night, but the work had to be done at some point. 

Volcanic Crater Lake

        Today was a quieter day, we did lots of more touristy things. We started out the day by going to Cuycocha Crater Lake, a volcanic crater lake. It was a fabulous day and the lake was absolutely beautiful. We took a boat out on to the water for a tour and to see the bubbles released by the volcano underneath.  We were able to either hike around or sit in the sun and enjoy the fabulous weather. After a delicious lunch, we headed back down to the town of Cotacachi, which is known for its leather goods. We of course did more shopping, as if we needed to.

                The final night was spent with our host families and at a campfire hosted by Omar and Juan Carlos. There was dancing and traditional music. It was a great way to end our time in Pijal. It was our last night with our host families, which was so incredibly sad. Most of us, where dreading leaving our families the next day and the inevitable tears that would be shed. Again, it was an impromptu gathering that was off schedule, and that’s what made it so great. It was the final gathering with the community we had spent so much time with; and it was again cohesive and natural. This closing night really made me appreciate how lucky I was to be able to spend more time in this community. The first time it was so short, compact and in some ways impersonal due to the shorter chunk of time. The people were just as welcoming the first time, but we never had the opportunity to get comfortable. This time we were able to get settled in and actually get to know the families and community we were living in. Even though my ability to speak Spanish was no better, my connections built with my host family were so strong. It in many ways, was like leaving a family. I know for a fact if I ever ended up back there, I would be welcomed in without any question.

Traditional Church Service and Empanadas!

Sorry for the delay of posting. It was a crazy month and then my laptop broke; so here I am, a month and a half after the last post!

Due to the craziness from the day before, Asha, Katelyn and I had been planning on sleeping in and taking the first chunk of day slowly. However, our host mom had a different idea and woke us up at around seven. We proceeded to hear her say “Saca la leche?”  She had woken us up so that we could help to milk the cows. We had asked to help milk the cows a few days before but hadn’t had the opportunity. This time, the cows were grazing in the pasture right outside of the house and it was prime time to do the milking. So, in the haze of being woken abruptly, we got ready to milk the cows. Talk about something you don’t typically experience at home.  The kicker was that she waited until seven to wake us up, typically you milk the cows around 5:00am. Thank goodness she realized we wouldn’t have been functioning people that early in the morning.
                We gathered the buckets and headed across the street to the cows. It started with her tying the cows back feet together so it couldn’t kick us while milking. She started showing us how to milk the cow (it’s harder than you might think) and gave us the smallest of the two pitchers to try and fill. We alternated and we struggled to fill it; she however was almost done filling the large bucket. Like I said, harder than you might think. When we finished, we took the fresh milk to the house to make hot chocolate. Let me tell you, It was the BEST hot chocolate I’ve ever had. It’s amazing, the difference in a product, when it’s not filled with all the chemicals and artificial crap we put in our foods here. All we had to do to make it safe to drink was boil it. That is one of the things I have loved most about my travels, is that the food is so fresh and natural. It just feels better to eat things that aren’t filled with things that aren’t naturally there. It’s just an interesting point of reflection to think about.

                Anyways, we also decided that we wanted to cook breakfast for our host family before we left and needed some ingredients that we couldn’t get at the local stores in Pijal. There was a market happening in San Pablo, a larger town a short bus ride away. So after a delicious breakfast of fruits and our freshly collected milk and hot chocolate. 

We decided to go and our host sister Cyntia brought us. We were walking down the hill, just at the end of the road to catch the bus when Omar called Cyntia looking for us. Lauren was being released from the clinic she had spent the night at and they were looking for someone to come and get her with Omar and Juan Carlos. Next thing we know, the bus is coming down the road and pulling over. I don’t know HOW they knew where we were, but they did. I opted to go and pick up Lauren, and Katelyn and Asha could continue to the market to get the things we needed as this was our last chance to do so. On the bus I struggled through conversation but between my rough Spanish, gesturing and Omar and Juan Carlos’ decent English, we were able to enjoy the bus ride. The ride was only about 40 minutes and we were at the clinic. It was one of the nicest clinics I had ever been in. Lauren had a private room and immediately she looked better then when we had seen her the day before. I helped her get dressed, pack her things and then headed down to pay. She got the dreaded stomach bacteria that can come from untreated water and/or food. Juan Carols had gone off to buy food for all of us since it was right around lunch time and hopefully Lauren had an appetite.
                Once we were on the bus and on our way back, the decision was made that Lauren would move into my homestay as it was at the bottom of the hill and closer to Jeff and Eric if something happened. Lauren was obviously stressed/overwhelmed/tired/etc. due to the excitement from the previous 24 hours. My host mom, Lucia, was incredibly welcoming and made sure Lauren got settled. She even got her own room so she could go to bed whenever she needed without having to worry about being disturbed. We ate some soup for lunch and then all of us headed up to a traditional mass that was taking place at Don Antonio’s. The mass was interesting as I have never been to a Catholic service before, and the entire thing was in Spanish. It was cool to participate in the service, as much as I could anyways. I couldn’t’ take the Eucharist as I’ve never been confirmed and am nowhere near being Catholic. There were some very different things that happened, including the blessing of a rooster statue (because the rooster represents the clock that the village runs on?) and also the blessing of a statue of baby Jesus. These apparently are not things that happen in a traditional service in the U.S, so it was interesting to see how the practicing Catholics responded to it.

                Immediately after there was a traditional medicine workshop that explained the use of a variety of plants in traditional treatment. They also gave an example of a traditional shaman treatment. When someone is ill, they will take a guinea pig and rub it over the person. They rub it over the person until the animal dies and then cut it open to see what is wrong/what caused the guinea pig to die. Once that is determined, they’ll know how to treat the person. If the animal doesn’t die, they’ll know that something isn’t seriously wrong. Now, they didn’t actually demonstrate to the extent of the animal dying, but gave a rough demonstration by rubbing the animal on a volunteer. Granted, this is something you would NEVER see in the U.S, and I can’t say I’m sorry this hasn’t and never will be used on me. However, these traditions come from somewhere and must have some source of validity to them. If it didn’t work, or seem to work, they wouldn’t continue doing it. Even if it’s a placebo effect, it doesn’t matter because it brings a positive sense of reassurance to the people receiving the treatment. Again, not sure if I would actively want to participate in it, but who am I to judge another persons’ culture that clearly, works for them.

                The last chunk of the day was probably one of my favorite moments in my time in Ecuador. Lauren had gone home early, but my host mom gave us money to go buy her a bunch of bananas as they were some of the only things she could eat. We were also going to be making empanadas that night, which Lauren couldn’t eat. The other three of us walked to the corner store and there was a group of drunk taxi drivers with whom I had very little patience. After promptly telling to them to move; we started getting ready to leave. Next thing we know, the bus come up the path with Omar and Juan Carlos. They told us that we should get on the bus with them, as well as our host brother and a few of his friends. We were of course, surprised that for the second time today, the bus had been able to find us without actually knowing where we were. As it turns out, when I had (jokingly?) said they should come make empanadas with us, they took me seriously. Omar and Juan Carlos had gone out to buy all the makings for empanadas with my host family that night. We learned how to make cheese and plantain ones, and I miserably failed at being able to fold the edges properly. There was singing, and wonderful food making. They were delicious in the end, and we ate most of them within the next day. 

                There are so many reasons why this is one of my favorite nights. One of them being that when Lauren came down, still very overwhelmed, the entire house was ready to comfort her. This was the first time my host family had met her and Lucia was so willing to take care of her. The sense of care overwhelmingly clear. Also, it was an unscheduled event. Everything on trips like this are scheduled; even earlier in the week when we had to talk/interview our families. This was one event that was totally spontaneous, and a cultural exchange with some of the most genuinely wonderful people I’ve ever met. There was no need to stumble through language exchanges. Everyone was just there making empanadas, listening to music, laughing and actually enjoying each other’s company. It felt like a home and a community, created by people from all walks of life. And, I got to learn how to make empanadas.