Expecting the Unexpected in Ecuador – Audrey Eaton

Before arriving in Ecuador, our director, María Luz, interviewed us and told us that in Ecuador, plans rarely go as one would expect, and that one must be prepared for the unanticipated. I had no idea how applicable this would be to my Ecuadorian adventure. My trip was both more fun and more difficult than I expected, the work was different than I expected, I met way more interesting people than I expected, and I learned way more than I expected. The entire  trip can be described as a surprising, fun, challenging, and wonderful experience.

We stayed in two difference locations, Cuenca, which is towards the south, and Riobamba, which is in the center of the country…

Cuenca:

Apparently Ecuadorians refer to Cuenca as the “Athens of Ecuador,” and after visiting, I can kind of see why. Cuenca is beautiful. Attractions include: four gorgeous rivers (one of which is baptized Catholic; yes, the river is baptized), a breathtaking cathedral, several interesting markets, two universities, and many museums. This city has one of the highest costs of living in all of Ecuador, so my host family arrangement was quite nice. The entire family lived on different floors of the same house, so even though I only lived with my host Mom on the second floor, her sons, daughters, and adorable grandchildren were always around to hang out with. My host Mom, Olga, made delicious a breakfast with fruit, yogurt, delicious coffee, and fresh bread every morning… Basically my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

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^Some pictures of us in la Fundación Amauta

IMG_0891  My Cuenca family!

While in Cuenca, we had planning meetings/training for our upcoming work in Riobamba and took Spanish classes at a school called the Fundación Amauta. Let me just talk about these Spanish classes for a minute. They were awesome. Essentially, classes consisted of our teachers walking us around the city of Cuenca, showing us cool sites, telling us cool facts, and buying us food. As ridiculous as that sounds, it was actually a perfect way to learn about the city and experience Cuencan culture. I got to eat traditional tamales and yummy baked goods, see Incan and Cañaris ruins, visit the University of Azuay, enter a cool church, shop for artesian products, and, most interestingly, experience a traditional “limpieza” ritual, where a little Cholita woman used herbs, mystery liquids, and an egg to rid me of my negative energy. (She spat on me too, but we won’t dwell on that.)

IMG_0886 Studiously having yogurt in Spanish class…

We had a day and a half of free time in Cuenca, and we used it to do some pretty fun stuff. Saturday afternoon/evening, we went to Piedra de Agua, which is a thermal bath spa. For $30, we got to sit in a steam room, take a clay bath, take a mud bath, and sit in natural thermal baths. And it was awesome. We all loved it. Especially Sean. (For those of you who don’t know Sean, that’s funny because he’s enormous and obsessed with working out.) Sunday, we spent the day hiking through Cajas National Park. It was beautiful! It made me appreciate just how boring the American midwest’s landscape really is… Our tour group included people from all over the world, including Switzerland, Germany, and Spain.

IMG_0853 Beautiful Cajas National Park!

I had the time of my life in Cuenca, and because it was so nice, adjusting to living there was easy. However, the situation quickly grew more difficult upon our arrival to Pulinguí, the next town where we would live:

Riobamba/Pulinguí:

Tuesday morning, we embarked on a six hour drive from Cuenca to Pulinguí, which is a town about half an hour outside the city of Riobamba. To put it mildly, I experienced some culture shock when I arrived in Pulinguí. All roads are dirt, and farm animals roam the streets. My host mom’s house included no furniture except for our two beds, the floor was cement, and there was no indoor bathroom (yes, I used an outhouse and took bucket showers for ten days). The house had no heat, but nights were rather chilly, so I spent each evening in baggy sweats warming myself under blankets. Although almost all residents speak Spanish, amongst themselves they prefer to speak Quechua. I should also probably mention that Ecuadorian food is quite different from our food. For example, a “salad” is a tiny serving of vegetables you get alongside your dinner. They eat very few fresh fruits and vegetables because, due to lack of sanitary water, they cannot easily clean them. Most fruits are consumed in the form of juice, and vegetables are consumed in soup. Suffice it to say I am sick of soup. They add a lot of salt and sugar to all of their foods. Fortunately my host mom, Paula, was a good cook, so my adjustment was not as rough as some of my friends’. Although I was a bit freaked out when I first arrived to Pulinguí, I became acclimated fairly quickly, and am very glad I had the experience of living there. At the risk of sounding extremely cliché, living in this community helped to improve my perspective on how I live here in the US. Although they have little, the people of Pulinguí build pleasant lives for themselves and are, on the whole, happy. I realized just how unnecessary many things I have are. Living in Pulinguí was not easy, but I am glad I did it.

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From left to right: my house (notice the furniture, or lack thereof), a picture of Pulinguí (notice the donkey in the street), and me with Paula, my host mom.

Most of our work occurred during our time in Pulinguí. We spent a lot of time helping with the Social Entrepreneur Corp’s MicroConsignment Model. You probably, and understandably, have no idea what this means. Neither did I. So let me explain. Instead of micro finance, this organization chooses to give products to entrepreneurs (mostly women, called “asesoras”) on consignment for them to sell. They believe that most of these women are not financially stable enough to assume the risk of a loan, so the items are given to the ladies to sell, but the organization maintains ownership and exercises a lot of control over inventory. The asesoras sell the items, which include seeds, water filters, eyeglasses, and solar products, return a portion of sales to the Social Entrepreneur Corps, and keep the rest for themselves. The hope is that, through running these businesses, the ladies will empower themselves, as well as help communities around them by offering them products that can improve people’s wellbeing. The sales are called “campaigns.” We did one campaign. Before the campaign, we traveled to the community of Manzano, about two hours from Pulinguí, and got permission from the community leader. We then did “marketing,” which normally consists of talking to people in the community about the upcoming campaign and hanging up posters. However, we saw almost no people in Manzano, so it was really a day of hiking through the Andes and hanging up posters in hopes that someone would see them. Based on how the marketing went, I was a little skeptical as to how the campaign would go, but it actually went quite well!  My job at the campaign was to stand out front and explain what we were selling to anyone who walked up. This was a little bit intimidating, because I really did not believe that any Ecuadorian would take a tiny blonde girl speaking Spanish seriously. But, luckily, people were very nice about me trying to talk to them. Although it was a smaller campaign, it was pretty successful, and each asesora pocketed about $25. This sounds like very little, but considering that a lunch in Ecuador costs about $2, and considering that we were only there for four hours, it’s actually a pretty significant amount of money for the asesora.

Another part of the work we did was simply travel to communities and ask them questions in order to evaluate whether or not the Social Entrepreneur Corps could host a campaign there later. We asked questions like, “When are people at home?”, “Is there a market in town?”, “What problems do you see in your community?”, and “What radio station do you listen to?” These questions helped us evaluate 1.) What the people need and 2.) How we might publicize a campaign.

The last thing we did was build a basic business plan for a shampoo business for the ladies of Pulinguí. One of our directors thought it would be a good idea for the ladies to make and sell shampoo in order to obtain funds for the town’s Women’s Association. We spent a morning chatting with the women, trying to gauge their interest and asking what support they might want from the Social Entrepreneur Corps. The women are really busy, but most of them, especially the younger ones, believe that developing their business skills is important. Based on the information we obtained from the ladies, we outlined what steps the next group of interns should take to help train and support the women in the start of their new business.

I cannot forget to mention one other cool thing we did: hiking up part of Chimborazo! Chimborazo is a dormant volcano and, although it is not the tallest peak in the world, it is the point on earth that is closest to the sun. We drove up to about 4800m above sea level (that’s around 3 miles above sea level, friends) and hiked up to about 5100 feet above sea level. Although the hike was short, it was really physically difficult due to the lack of oxygen. But it was beautiful! We traveled to a sacred lagoon. The local people are very connected to the spirit of Chimborazo, and they would make sacrifices and bathe in this spot in order to connect with these spirits. It was the highest altitude I’ve ever been at, and quite possibly the highest altitude I’ll ever be at; it was worth the difficult hike.

IMG_0971 Going up! This picture doesn’t really show just how steep it was…

Living in Pulinguí certainly provided some new experiences, such as: shearing sheep, riding in the back of many, many trucks (which I loved, by the way), learning Quechua and performing a song in Quechua at the goodbye party with my host mom, wearing traditional Pulinguian (I just created that adjective, but it works, right?) to the goodbye party (please look at the pictures to see just how good I looked; the women were fawning over me), and traveling to the train station where my host Mom works and sitting on a llama (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). I would be lying if I said that living in Pulinguí was not difficult at times. But as I explained, I am so glad to have had the experience, because it really has made me appreciate how much I have here in the US. And although seeing impact is essentially impossible in two and a half weeks, I do believe that the work our group did will help the next group of interns make a big impact. My time in little Pulinguí was definitely rewarding.

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From left to right: Singing in Quechua with Paula, sitting on a llama, and riding in the back of a pickup truck.

Baños

I would be remised if I did not talk about our trip to Baños, which is about two hours away from Riobamba. We had a Saturday off, so we spent Friday night and Saturday in this touristy-but-fun town. Friday night, we went out to dinner at a Swiss restaurant, which felt like luxury after having been in Pulinguí for four days. Normal showers and toilets also felt like luxury. Saturday, we went rafting. We had given David a hard time for a week and a half every time he suggested rafting, but I am so glad he convinced us to do it. First of all, it was raining, which added excellent dramatic effect. Secondly, the rapids were actually decently sized, which made for a good time. People actually fell out of the boats! But fear not, all remained unharmed. Saturday afternoon, we traveled to “La Casa del Árbol,” or “The Treehouse,” which is home to the famous “Swing at the Edge of the World.” Now, if you look at pictures of this swing, you think it’s at the edge of a giant cliff. It’s not. But it LOOKS like it is, which makes for some awesome pictures. So David, Daniel, and I happily swung and took Instagram-worthy pictures. All was well until some random man started pushing me and twisting me… I was not ok with the twisting, but I survived.

IMG_0921The Swing at the Edge of the World

Getting home from Baños was an adventure, to say the least. First of all, the bus we were on was packed and for the first thirty minutes four of us were crammed up front with the bus driver instead of seated with the rest of the passengers. Then, as we pulled out of the station, the bus driver backed into and destroyed a street vendor’s cart. Rather than stopping, the bus driver continued. (David later told us that he assumed this was “Ecuadorian tradition.”) Fast forward fifteen minutes and the police are pulling over the bus and our driver is sitting in the back of a police car for questioning. We were pretty positive he would be arrested, but he miraculously returned and drove us back to Riobamba. After a quality (read: not quality) KFC dinner, we tried to find a cab to take us back to Pulinguí. This was not as easy as you might think. In case I did not adequately convey this before, let me reiterate that Pulinguí is tiny, very country town. This means that cab drivers did not know where Pulinguí is. Finally we found a poor cab driver who would take the five loud Americans in his car. I am 99.9999% sure he had serious questions about why on earth five foreigners wanted to go to Pulinguí, but oh well. The road to Pulinguí is not paved, nor is it well lit, and let’s just say this poor driver was scared out of his mind. We weighed down his car so much that at one point, in order to get over a speed bump, we all had to get out of the car. I feel lucky that he did not stop the car and tell us all to get out and walk. But, after much trial and tribulation, we made it back to Pulinguí. All part of the experience, I suppose.

IMG_3045 Exciting selfie taken whilst our bus driver was being questioned. Noticed we are squeezed at the front of the bus.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. It was nothing like I expected, but the trip was even better than I expected. I learned so much, and I hope that the work I did there had some sort of impact, however miniscule. Thank you, SIBC, for giving me this opportunity. I will cherish these memories forever.

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