El Abuga Ho

El/La Abuga

I knew the first time I saw her that, sooner or later, our relationship would probably get out of hand. La/El Abuga is a 100 ft aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary that sits on a hill above my town. I’ve asked people why El and La are both correct, but no one hazards a guess. Maybe it has to do with the baby Jesus in her arms. I visit El/La Abuga often. Sometimes Lucha asks me to pray for her and I do. On Friday, I brought some company with me.

School kids

Drawing the Abuga

From my house, it was 2:15 minutes round-trip a couple of months ago. I’ve shaved minutes off, first in the approach, then running down as soon as I get to the top. There’s a family that lives on the hill and I’ve gotten to know them better with each trip. I met a ten-year-old girl named Nadia who lives in a small, tin-roofed house right below the Virgin. She grabbed my hand one day as I went by, and I’m pretty sure we’re friends now. Today, I got there and back to my front door in 1:36. I wear a kilo weight on each foot and, when I’m not going for speed, a pack with rocks in it. If I miss a day, then I have to go twice to make it up. By November, I plan to go twice a day, regardless.

I climbed Cotopaxi at the end of August. It was incredibly windy, cold, and physically demanding. At 18,000 ft, we turned around. We jumped over a few crevasses and our guide thought it prudent to head down. I had no experience climbing glaciers, so I was surprised Peace Corps approved this one. In 77 days I’ll be on Aconcagua. Hence, I’m praying for Lucha more often than I did in July.


And that is my Rain Man training regimen leading up to December 18th.

One last thing, there’s another medal at the top.

El Abuga


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Term: Posh Corps

peace corps poster

Definition: Peace Corps site placements that lack the stereotypical hardships of service. Sites with: running water, electricity, internet, washers and dryers, indoor plumbing and/or hot water.

Among volunteers this term can be loaded, implying that a volunteer is not suffering enough to earn real PCV status. For this reason, I’d like to break apart this Peace Corps stereotype in light of what it means for the host nationals we intend to serve, PCVs, and people at home who may be unaware how the needs of the countries we serve reflect the type of work and lifestyle that volunteers will lead while they are abroad.

As a volunteer in a middle-class community of educated professionals, I count myself among those who are in “posh corps” placements. At times I’ve felt that I would let people at home down if they knew how much I wasn’t suffering in Ecuador, like Peace Corps seemed to promise that I would. Or that, frankly, my family would not support my being here if my placement were not “hard enough”. I signed up for worldwide service; yet here I am, working and enjoying some amenities common to the US, just like the population of teachers I work with. I am as guilty as anyone for believing my experience would be like the posters, something like a very rainy season on M*A*S*H with fewer martinis, and English teaching instead of surgery. It is nothing like I imagined, except for the teaching part. Also, there’s a lot more rum and zhumir here than gin. This may be a sign that recruitment propaganda is in need of an overhaul.

Needless to say, I was uneducated about Ecuador and the TEFL program. In itself an important reason to come, to expel provincial ideas about the world that I maintained unknowingly. Volunteers live at the level of the people in their community with the goal that they will integrate into that community allowing them to share their expertise with the host nationals who request them. In the countryside, they may have an outdoor toilet and they might live in the home with the family for their entire service. It all depends on how the people they work with live, and the cultural expectations of the community. On the other hand, I live in an apartment in a mid-sized city. I continue to eat with my Ecuadorian family, but I have the option to eat at home. I have hot water and a bath tub. On weekdays, I go to work in heels and a suit jacket, just like I did in the US.

Among PCVs, enduring hardship to serve comes in various forms and can be self-inflicted. There are volunteers who bathe in cold water though they have hot water available, or who do laundry by hand regardless of having access to a washing machine. The idea being that suffering is a requirement to be a dedicated volunteer. It’s worth reflecting on why the notion exists that hardship is part and parcel to sharing information with the people we live and work with. Without going too far into murky waters, it seems to be rooted in nostalgia for the 1960s and reflects a paternalistic ideal of the world beyond US borders. Though I worked with struggling communities in the US, I never once felt that I should hand wash my clothes or take a cold shower to better serve their needs. I ask, how would host nationals interpret this motivation to go abroad to endure hardship? If the shoe were on the other foot, how would I feel if someone came to visit me and decided to camp on my lawn because my house was nicer than they expected it to be?

In short or long, being a volunteer is about sharing skills and learning new skills from our communities. There are difficulties inherent to integrating and working abroad; we are people from distinct cultures, languages, and ideologies, and it’s work to build friendships and working relationships in spite of these differences. Yes, I’ve taken a few bucket baths when the water was out. I’ve done this at home in Colorado, too. Thankfully, the world is a different place than it was in the 1961 and the work we do has evolved according to the needs expressed by the countries who host volunteers. There isn’t a “posh corps” so much as there are volunteers who fulfill the requests for skills in a variety of communities, like we always have. The reality that we are serving in increasingly better off communities may just mean that soon we’ll be out of a job, like we hoped.


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The National Pastime

9th of October Market

At some point, you may have been lead to believe that soccer is the national pastime of South America. I can’t speak for the rest of the continent, but here in Ecuador the pastime, without a doubt, is food related: buying, cooking, eating, and discussing the resulting weight gain among loved-ones. In contrast to the US where, with the exception of important holidays, food is something of a nuisance and a distraction from more important business, like playing or working. At home in Colorado, I have eaten many a Little Juan burrito because that’s all I had time for. Here when I skip lunch, Lilia, sister #1, will tell me, “Taz, taz!” like the warning that a child is about to be spanked… She has also pinched me.

Since food plays a central role in relationships, it makes sense that care would be expressed in observations of each others’ waistlines, and how chins are growing or shrinking. Right now I am “hecho hueso”, or “thin as a bone”, but not a “calavera” or “skeleton”, because that would actually be an insult. I have the same chubby parts I’ve always had, but I’ve been gone for a week on a tech exchange and I missed lunch with my family a couple days after I got back. Last year I thought these observations about my body fat percentage would drive me mad, not realizing the comments were directly proportionate to the time I’d been away. My family would really like to see me content in Ecuador and gaining weight would be proof of that.

Lunch is the hub of the day in terms of family gathering. It is also the biggest meal. My sister gets up at 5AM to prepare lunch for five of us before going to work: soup, salad, chicken, and rice. This isn’t soup from a can; the soup usually requires shelling and soaking beans before cooking them. In exchange, I buy food, wash the dishes and help clean the kitchen. I suggested that we make meals to freeze and reheat for lunch during the week so that she can sleep longer, but she thinks the family wouldn’t like reheated food. It’s probably better that I fail in my attempt to export fast-food culture.

Besides lunch, coffee at 4PM and merienda at 8PM are times when a rotation of family will come to eat and visit. Since it’s a big family, everyone can’t be there at once. But, those who eat lunch elsewhere will come for an egg and rice for dinner, or a cup of black tea with lemon.

Azogues Market

This Friday we, three sisters and a niece, went to the market to buy fruits and vegetables. The purpose of going as a group is not to avoid three separate car trips to the market, but to do the shopping together. It might take longer: waiting for people to arrive, dropping people back off at home. Accepting this ‘inefficiency’ is a shift away from the ‘time is money’ reasoning that has governed my life. Here, time is not about money. Few Ecuadorians would eat a frozen burrito, alone, while standing up and working through lunch. It’s not logical to do that when the time to eat and prepare food is central to maintaining relationships, not a distraction from productivity.

After 19 months in Ecuador, this perspective of time is more logical, and less frustrating. I still have a few months to hone my eating and hanging out skills before I have to figure out how to export this pastime back to the US.


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Today was a good day. I usually have a good day when I meet with the weavers. We were supposed to renew our discussion about painting the shop next to the road. It has been nearly a year since our plans stalled, why I’m not sure. Today, though, we painted the shop.

Delfina Minchala guaman

But, I’m not just talking about painting the shop. That was great. What was really great were all the moments when I was reminded that this is what I came for. Having one in a day is nice- sometimes it’s a long parched week when I can’t exactly remember- it’s rare to have so many in one day. I slept badly last night, maybe I should always sleep badly. Maybe it’s made me intolerably sentimental…or normally sentimental. I haven’t made a list in awhile, so here goes:

1) Arrive to find Elvira in the shop. She has money and does not want to talk; She wants to go buy paint. I foolishly respond that I’m not dressed to paint, and we need to plan this out, then realize I’ve waited a year for this, and she’s wearing a brand new velvet embroidered skirt. We’re both committed. The paint splatters on my clothes will be fond mementos.

2) Doña Clementina is not interested in paint, but in buying straw to weave hats. I know what buying paint is like and Elvira is on a mission, so I go buy straw. We enter a house through a picket fence door and sit on very tiny stools in the entryway. A woman brings a large, four-foot-long bundle of smaller bundles of very straight, thin off-white straw. She saved the best, softest straw for Clementina. Clementina instructs me to touch the straw as she unfurls one piece. She says, “This is stiff.” Then she unfurls another straw for me to touch and says, “That is soft enough for a fine hat.” She’s one of few weavers who can make the finest hats. I pick out three long bundles for .20 a piece, so that she can teach me to weave tomorrow, not hats though, just tiny baskets with lids.

3) We get distracted by the weeds in the yard. Clementina and I use machetes to mow down the giant tree-like weeds that have grown in the last year. At the same time, I fend off those who are convinced this work will give me blisters and who want to take my machete. I tell them they are offending me and they laugh. I show them that I don’t have any blisters and they tell everyone.

4) We finally start painting: five women in velvet skirts and two in jeans. People driving by let off some good-humored whistles at us working. Elvira asks me if I’d like to wear a hat to keep the sun off of me. I say, “Yes,” and think, “I’ve come to the right place.” We have lunch in the spotless cafe across the road. 1.75$ for cow foot soup, beans and rice, and lemon water. France wins 2-0 against Nigeria. Elvira does not let me pay.

5) How can I describe this handshake? I can’t, so I’ll tell you. One of my favorite ladies, Delfina, arrives and I shake her hand and say her name. She smiles and shows her perfect dentures. She’s 79.5-years-old and I think she and my grandma would have been good friends. When we take a coffee break, I ask if there’s enough bread for me to take one and she says, “We all eat, or no one eats.” She’s a good one to have on my side.

And that is what happened today. We painted until the rain clouds came and thankfully they came right when we were finishing. Whether or not I’m sleep-deprived, I feel very fortunate to work and learn alongside these women.






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Things That Make You Well

Last June I was two months into site and feeling ill, so, naturally, I was preoccupied with things that made me sick: slightly raw guinea pig, lettuce, street food, etc. 382 days later, I’ll share what I’ve learned about things that can make you well, according to some Ecuadorians. For the record, my landlord emphatically disagrees with shamanism of any kind.


La Ortiga: This is a stinging nettle common to many areas of Ecuador. In my family this is used topically to cure many aliments: muscle pain, stomach ache, arthritis, mal aire, and head aches. That’s just a short list of cures. Ortiga can be consumed as tea or eaten like a vegetable. It’s high in iron. My host parents collect the weed from the side of the road and hit themselves in the affected area to relieve the pain. My host dad told my program manger they’d cured me with ortiga, but he was just pulling her leg. She requested that he use the “soft” ortiga on me.


Oregano: Far less exciting than the ortiga, oregano is commonly prescribed for indigestion, nausea, and stomach pain. This one is packed in tea bags and can be found in most stores.

frogLa Rana: This cure seems to be controversial. In my family, the frog is thought to cure very serious cases of mal ojo/ evil eye and serious illnesses that cannot be diagnosed. It is passed around the body of the patient and the frog will die, indicating that it has absorbed the sickness and the patient is cured. Froilan says that his wife, Lucha, was near death and their last resort was to take her to a shaman. The shaman passed the frog around her body; the frog died and Lucha recovered. I told this story to my landlord and he replied, “And who says the shaman didn’t just squeeze the frog?” Point and counterpoint. Ecuadorians disagree on this one. Shamanisim was prohibited, but is now tentatively allowed since practitioners consider it their cultural heritage.

Guinea Pig

El Cuy: Neither my landlord nor sister #1 believe in this one. Sister #1 will say that it is “brujearía”, or witchcraft. My landlord simply believes that all shaman are charlatans. Forgive me if you happen to be a shaman, those are his words. Some Kichwa families let their cuy roam free on the floor inside their houses because they are good luck, and/or protect the occupants from mal aire and mal ojo. Froilan, my host dad, agrees with the Kichwa belief that cuy can be used to cure. I’ve spoken to Ecuadorians who tell about cuy curing serious illnesses including cancer.


La papa: I thought I was paying attention when people mentioned natural cures, but somehow this one escaped me. In the last few weeks I’ve heard everyone from the snake oil salesman on the bus to my host mom talk about curing a headache with potato. The guy on the bus had this advice: “Ladies and gentleman, it’s easy to cure a headache. Now I will tell you how, free of charge. All you have to do to cure a headache is to make very thin slices of potato and place them on your temples.”


El Rojo: In some communities, the color red is seen as a protection from mal ojo and mal aire. More generally, it can be thought of as protection from negative energy. I spoke to a man from a Kichwa community in the Amazon and he defined it like this: “You can get mal aire if you shake hands with someone who has negative energy. It will cause a headache and vomiting. Until you are cured, and for three days after the treatment, you can only greet someone verbally, no kisses on the cheek or shaking hands.” People, pets, farm animals, and even objects like trucks will sometimes wear a red strip of cloth to protect them. I still don’t know the origin of this belief, and I’ll update this when I do find out. *This made for some interesting conversation with my teachers, so I’ll mention what they said this afternoon. Apparently, some people have more energy in their eyes and this is, according to one teacher, the reason that you need to protect things and people, especially babies, from their gaze. But, I still didn’t get the response I’d hoped for regarding why it should be red and not another color…

These are but a few of the most interesting cures I’ve learned about here in Ecuador. I’ve tried others that I didn’t mention like hugging trees to balance my energy, wearing eucalyptus leaves on my forehead and submitting to a burning newspaper being waved around my head to cure my headache. Ecuadorians who believe in this medicine do experience the health benefits, so I’ll keep trying. The tree hugging was surprisingly effective. Next up is the snake oil guy’s free potato cure.


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Starting with Resuse

paper bead instructions

Last week, a history teacher and I started a project to teach her 10th graders about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle. We made a trash timeline from garbage students found around the school and discussed some options they have to limit the waste they generate. I borrowed the trash timeline lesson from Right now, the kids still throw their garbage on the ground, so it would be a fine start if they’d just put it in the trash can. Here in Azogues there’s citywide recycling, but the school does not participate, yet.

In the second half of the class we made paper beads out of magazines. The students liked it, and other teachers wanted to teach it in their classes after seeing the bracelets and necklaces the kids made. The beads are finished with a coat of clear nail polish, so they are both pretty and durable. I’m excited to do this lesson with more teachers and students in the coming weeks. I hope that the students’ increased awareness of littering as a problem and a sense of responsibility for their waste might translate into a slightly cleaner school yard after recess. Ultimately, if they’re interested, I’d like to help them sell their jewelry to raise money for recycling bins, but we’ll have to see where the momentum takes us. Here are a few photos of their work.

making beads

paper beadspaper beads



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Dis’ n Dat


Lately, I’ve made a lot of pizza: for myself, with volunteers, and with Ecuadorians. No doubt this gives Ecuadorians the idea that all Americans survive on just pizza and bad wine. In my case, it’s mostly true. You can never go wrong with cheap red wine and a thin crust pizza. The one pictured above has real pepperoni on it thanks to my aunt.

Before coming to Ecuador I’d made pizza dough once in my life and it was not very good. Now I’ve made more than I can count, good ones this time. I’m the go-to person when my host family wants one. My neighbor commented about the smell of Italian food coming from my apartment, so I made her one. Yesterday I went to pay my rent and my landlord invited me to spend next Sunday with them making pizza in their stone oven, which I’m kind-of excited about. It cooks in eight minutes! I suppose I could do worse things with my free time than perfecting my thin crust technique. I should branch out, maybe, and try for a thick crust.

Since I’ve been eating lots of pizza, I’ve also been doing a lot of hiking. If I’m going to have thick thighs, I might as well have strong ones. I head up to the angel on the hill above my site when I have a few hours to kill. Last time I took two of my favorite kids with me. They did great and I gave them Pixie Sticks for getting to the top without complaining; I did expect a lot of whining, mostly because I was a whiner.

El Abuga

Apart from pizza and hiking, I’ve continued working with the Cañari weavers. Later this month we’ll head to a business conference in Guayaquil to promote their weaving, learn new skills relevant to business development, and hopefully find more buyers. This is not the work I expected to be doing a year into my service as a teacher trainer, or ever, but I love it all the same.Today I was part of a Panama hat assembly line. They ironed the hats and I trimmed the straw. Every couple hours we’d stop to eat a piece of fruit Elvira’s cousin brought from the Amazon. One delicious mango/squash fruit still had moss growing on it. At noon we went out for a 1.75$ lunch: soup, chicken, rice, juice, and popcorn. While we ate we talked about foods in different regions of Ecuador, and Ecuadorian foods that we don’t have in the US. It was the kind of exchange of work and learning I’d hoped for when I signed up to volunteer.

We have just eight months left until our close of service conference in January. At our mid-service conference in April, we read the letters we wrote to ourselves ten days after we arrived. I was surprised to have written down some relevant advice to think about going forward: “This experience is a gift, don’t let it escape you.”


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