Observations from Ecuador: Sree Kancherla

Hi everyone! I’m Sree Kancherla, a freshman sharing my thoughts as I embark on a journey of social entrepreneurship, microconsignment, and cultural immersion in Ecuador with the Social Entrepreneurship Corps.

“Why is there a short, knife-wielding Ecuadorian woman climbing through our window?” – Sean, a fellow ND student

It was the beginning of our first day in Ecuador, and we had already encountered our first difficulty. The door to our room, which had been locked the night before, refused to open. After several unsuccessful solutions over the course of an hour (including the aforementioned knife-wielding woman), the door bolt was simply ripped out by the hostel owner.   Yet the morning served as an important introduction to the realities of life in Ecuador, where we’re told obstacles and setbacks are common.

As an intern with the Social Entrepreneur Corps, I stay in Cuenca, Ecuador for two weeks before traveling to Riobamba, a mountainous city in northern Ecuador. While there, I’ll be part of a group traveling out to rural communities for business consulting, product sales (eg affordable water filters, wood-burning stoves, glasses), and developing a more affordable water filter.

I’ve been living so far with the Ortegas, a nontraditional family in eastern Cuenca. I mean nontraditional in the Ecuadorian sense; my host family is comprised of Sandra, the working head of the family, her older daughter, her young (and extremely excitable) son, and her two nieces. Sandra’s nieces stay with her only because they were accepted into the University of Cuenca— a sharp distinction from other Ecuadorian families, where entire extended families live together in the same home.

Cuenca, a mountainous cultural hub and capital of Ecuador’s Azuay province, is remarkable both for its beauty and sizable American expatriate population (I’m told they’ve taken over an area now known as “Gringoland”). While here, I walk about 1.25 miles from the homestay to take classes nearly every day at the downtown Amauta School. In the mornings, we focus on development training; for example, we’ve studied relief work, the SEC development model (called “microconsignment”), and how to best communicate and work effectively. In the afternoons, I take a four-hour Spanish class designed to increase our language competency before our field work— a much-needed crash course after my time off from Spanish.

The city itself is wonderful; with colorful murals, old cobblestone streets, and interesting shops, I love to walk around. The restaurants have been surprisingly good as well; after getting comfortable with the streets here during the first week, I’ve gone out for lunch almost every day this week. The diversity of options was also surprising; so far, I’ve visited Ecuadorian, Mexican, Columbian, Italian, Austrian, and Chilean restaurants.

maurice's photo_PrincipalI pose with fellow interns in Principal, an agricultural community in the mountains. In Principal, we met women’s entrepreneurial group
that weaves crafts out of a type of local straw– such as Panama hats you might find in the US. Photo credit: Maurice McCaulley.

While in Principal, we sampled cuy (guinea pig), a special Ecuadorian delicacy.

Some takeaways from my time so far:

  • Typical Ecuadorian fare, while delicious, hasn’t been very healthy.
    The typical meal here is composed of rice, meat, and some kind of starch (either potatoes or a thick fried banana). In stark contrast to American meals, which often build up to a hearty dinner, the largest Ecuadorian meal is lunch. A typical Ecuadorian almuerzo includes thick soup, rice, beans, meat in gravy, and a small “salad” (usually simply composed of a single lettuce leaf and a single tomato slice, drenched in salt). One of the most common complaints from my fellow interns, however, is lack of variety; with few supplementary vegetables and unhealthy salads, we often don’t receive all our necessary vitamins. As a short-term visitor, I’ll soon be returning to healthier food in the States. But I wonder if there have been any studies on the Ecuadorian diet’s effect on people’s long-term health.
  • Superstitions and traditions are a large part of daily life.
    As a Spanish class activity, our group went to receive a “limpia traditional”, or ritual cleansing of the body, in the local market. Sandra had mentioned it was quite commonly done in her family; if a child had mal energía (“bad energy”), couldn’t focus, or had body aches, they were always taken to the ritual healers. Essentially, the limpia consists of three parts: rubbing of intensely aromatic herbs on the body, rubbing a hard-boiled egg over the body, and the healer spitting “purified water” (it smelled awful, like vinegar) over the recipient. I found the egg in particular quite interesting; according to tradition, the egg absorbs all of one’s bad energy and spirits, keeping only the good energy within.

maurice_limpiaThe curadera was quite insistent that I smelled the herbs. Photo credit: Maurice McCaulley.

  • Ecuador’s incredibly low cost of living could come at a price.
    As an Econ major, I’m intrigued by the differences in cost of living here versus the United States. Good local meals average about $2.50, with nice housing available for under $17,000. In contrast, a friend from Georgetown once remarked that he wouldn’t find a bottle of water for 2.50 in DC. However, I’ve heard that the local prices have increased irregularly with wage increases over the past few years, due in large part to Ecuador’s adoption of the American dollar as official currency. The idea makes sense; without its own central banking system to regulate the amount and value of currency, Ecuador is beholden to a United States Federal Reserve that makes policy decisions independent of Ecuadorian needs. Of note, with larger amounts of money traveling to Ecuador via American expatriates, sticky wages simply aren’t keeping up with increased demand and prices for goods.

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