Friday, October 12, 2007

El Volcan Corazon

I climbed a dormant volcano last Saturday with my friend Susan and about 25 other people from the South American Explorers Club. The summit of Volcan Corazon is at 4,790 meters (15, 715 ft) but we only made it to right below the summit. The final 200 meters is a rock scramble and it had started to hail and their were concerns about lightening so we had to turn back. The sun was out all morning (my arms got burned!) but the clouds and rain rolled in at about 1 PM.

The views on the way up were incredible!
We started out on roads that sloped upwards fairly gently... and then we started going basically straight up. We made our own path up through the grasslands and at times, it felt as if we were climbing up staircases. The altitude started to bother me- I was breathing really heavily and my legs felt like lead weights. But we kept climbing!
Who needs roads when you can make your own trail? Our first view of the summit.... and five minutes later it was gone. The clouds rolled in quickly and it started to hail.

Susan and me chillin at our end point, right below the rock scramble and about 200 meters below the summit.

I have a video of this point, complete with hail, which will go here (as soon as Susan gets back from the jungle and shows me how to upload it!)
Here´s our motley crew, scrambling to get the rain gear on, and the ¨view¨ looking towards the top :

The view looking downwards wasn´t much either, but it got prettier as we descended out of the clouds.

We finished the day with hot chocolate in the sweet little hostel at the trail head.... and then went out dancing in Quito to make our legs nice and sore. For more pics of the climb, click on the link labeled ¨Volcan Corazon¨ to the right.

Friday, September 21, 2007

New casa in Quito!

Two days before I left for Guayaquil to meet up with the Ohio State kids, I moved houses. No, I did not trash Suzy´s house as you all are thinking (!), she found out about an exchange student who was coming to stay with her for six months and her daughter is moving back into the house so there was no longer any room for me. Luckily, Ximena, my co-worker, had a room in her house that she shares with her two sisters, brother-in-law, mom, grandma and dog... so I moved in and am so much happier! Suzy´s house was amazing; very quiet and I had a lot of privacy but it was a little boring to be by myself all the time. Now I´m with a loud, noisy family and I'm not getting as much sleep as I was before, but I´m loving it!
Their house is near the Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) and is in a much more residential neighborhood, with little stores and cafes along the main street. The house is two stories and I live on the ground floor with Ximena and her sister Christina. Ximena´s mom and grandmother live above us and her sister, Maria Augosta, lives in an apartment connected to the house with her husband. There´s always someone around, especially since Christina´s boyfriend and Augosta´s husband are brothers and Augosta has a twin sister, Maria Lourdes, who is married to Suzy´s son and they have an adorably rambunctious little 2-year-old named Ramina. (All the family connections get a little complicated...)
Here´s our living room and my pretty pink princess bedroom:

My first weekend living there, Ximena, Christina, Christina´s boyfriend Rodrigo, and I went into the historical center to see an Andy Warhol exhibition. Here´s Ximena (left), me and Christina in the city center and with the classic soup can.
Rodrigo is the drummer in a local band, ¨Miss Goulash¨ that has had three gigs in the two weekends I´ve spent with them in Quito. One was part of a music festival in the Parque Carolina (close to my first homestay) and the other two were in local bars.
Rodi is on the left in the middle picture. They´ve been playing together for four years and he says its just a hobby for them, but I´ve been telling them they need to put out an album. They have gigs in Quito almost every weekend and they travel a lot.
Here´s Ximena and Christina and me with Claudia and Manola. Right after this pic was taken, an Ecuadorian guy came to our table and started speaking English to Claudia (the blonde, who is actually Colombian), thinking that she was the gringa!

The next morning, I got up bright and early and went walking in the park with Nancy (Ximena´s mom), Maria Augosta and her husband, Paul. The Parque Metropolitano is huge and most of it is natural forestland with hiking and biking trails throughout. Paul and Augosta rode their mountain bikes and Nancy and I walked and talked while Ramon ran back and forth between us. Nancy´s family has roots in Quito´s political history and a few branches are quite wealthy so she entertained me with the history and scandal from the last hundred years or so.
I´ve told them I´m going to try to go with them every Sunday morning (despite the late nights with Ximena!) and Im looking for a place to rent a mountain bike. I really can´t believe how lucky I´ve been in finding such great families to live with. I´ve heard so many horror stories about bad homestays and terrible roommates that I´m so glad to come home to a place where I´m called ¨hermanita¨ (little sister). Honestly, if anyone is reading this to get insight on volunteering abroad, I seriously suggest living with a family- I don´t think you can get the full experience any other way!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ohio State in Guayaquil

A lot can happen in two weeks! I´ve just returned from a two-week trip to Guayaquil with a group of 11 students from Ohio State and let me tell you, I´m tired! We had a whirlwind of a trip with a lot of high and low points. I think it´s safe to say that we faced a lot of challenges but we got through them as a team and everyone had a great time.

My adventure began in the morning of Tuesday, August 28 when I boarded a stinky, cramped bus for what should have been an 8-hour bus ride down the mountains into the coastal area and on to the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador´s second largest city. Although the scenery was beautiful, the ride was extended by more than two hours due to many stops along the way and an unexpected swing around the city when we entered. My highlight was talking with my seatmate, Oswaldo, a tiny little grandpa who drives a taxi in Guayaquil and has a son living in New York. We discussed Habitat, religion, politics and he even bought me lunch when we stopped in Santo Domingo- such a gentleman! He also told me about a friend of his who sounded like a perfect candidate for a Habitat house so I passed on the Guayaquil office information.

The scenery changed dramatically from the mountains to the coast and I was fascinated by the many wooden houses on stilts all along the highway, punctuated by banana plantations.

The group flew in a few hours after me at about 12:30 AM. I met them at the airport with Jose Bernardo, the local coordinator and Luis, the regional director. The kids were tired but happy to see us and begin their adventure!
We spent the next morning settling into the hotel and exploring the neighborhood. I had been told that Guayaquil, as compared to Quito, is ´the ugly sister that likes to party´ so I was expecting a much dirtier city, but the city center is actually quite beautiful. It has been spruced up in the last 10 years and there is a beautiful promenade along the River Guayas called the Malecon with gorgeous statues, monuments, restaurants and a long stretch of bricked path perfect for running (which I actually did- twice! with our amazing marathon runner Kara).
That afternoon, we visited the site with Bernardo and Alcides, the architect. It was literally a plot of dirt with some marks scratched in the ground to show where we would be laying the foundation. We had a lot of work ahead of us! The family, Rosa and Lider with their 3 children, also met with us that afternoon as we started digging into the tough earth and widening the trenches.

When we returned to the hotel, we found that they were experiencing a problem with the water pump and there was no running water. They assured us it would be fixed ´in 20 minutes´... all that night and into the morning. Since we desperately needed to take showers, we all trooped over to a local public pool and amused the locals by showering outside in groups- in our bathing suits of course! Obviously, we couldn´t go to the pool every night, so I spent all of Thursday searching with Bernardo for a new hotel. We moved everyone into a new hotel that night and found it much more comfortable, as well as having better food! By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, the group had finished assembling and erecting 8 columns of rebar and had poured cement in all the wall foundations.
After 3 days of hard work, we all piled into a bus and drove five hours into the mountains to the high-altitude, cold and foggy city of Cuenca. We spent Saturday exploring the Parque Nacional Cajas and a few small towns where we bought lots of souvenirs and some of us ate cuy (guinea pig)! The cold took us by surprise and most of us developed a case of the sniffles once we got back to hot Guayaquil but it was worth it to see such a different part of the country.

Sunday morning got off to a rocky start when Kristin´s wallet was stolen out of her bag as we were all eating breakfast in the hotel. Unfortunately, the wallet contained both her and Amy´s passports. With the help of our guides, Maria and Jorge, we canceled all her bank cards and went to the police station to file a report. This took less time than we expected so we were able to continue with our planned itinerary and we drove back to Guayaquil via the beautiful Incan ruins of Ingapirca. We walked around the ruins, bought ponchos and silly hats and had a great time!

The next five days went by pretty quickly as we finished pouring the cement columns, began building walls, navigated the frustrating and time-consuming process of getting two new passports, ran on the Malecon daily (Kara did at least!), explored more of Guayaquil (including iguana park) and ate empanadas with Bernardo (so good!). Fortunately no more major mishaps occured and we had a good time bonding with the family, the neighbors and Jaime (the maestro) on the site. Here are a couple fun pics:
By Friday afternoon, we had completed 9 walls and laid the cement floor. Jaime told us it would take his team four more days to complete and we said- we need to see pictures! Rosa and her parents cooked an amazing meal of shish kebabs for us and we spent a few hours playing with the kids, giving them presents, dancing, cheering them on as they broke the piñata we brought and just having a great time.
Bernardo, Alcides, Luis (the regional director), Daniel (the finances guy), and Edison (engineer) gave a few speeches and Rosa and Lider also gave a few emotional words. We really enjoyed spending time with the entire community and it was evident that they liked us as well. Lider emphasized what an important lesson it is for his children to see that you can improve your situation with hard work and the help of others. They were such an incredible family to meet and work with and they certainly deserve their own home to raise their three great kids.

The teams last day in Ecaudor was spent at the beach in a tiny little hippy town called Montañita which is famous for its big waves and an international surfing competition. Unfortunately, the wind was cold and only a few of us jumped in to fool around a bit but it was still a nice way to end the trip. Especially because we saw a pod of whales breaching and slapping their tails!

The majority of the team left that night at 1 AM. Alejandra was flying back to Colombia at 6 AM so she and I went back to the hotel for a short siesta... only to wake up at 7 realizing the alarm hadn´t gone off! Ale kept her cool and we were able to get her a seat on the afternoon flight. We spent the day hanging out in the office with Bernardo and Daniel and then I was able to also buy a flight back to Quito, meaning I arrived half an hour later as opposed to 8 hours... bliss! I took a final shot of Guayaquil from the plane before I returned to the city that is really beginning to feel like home.

*Wanna see more pics? Click on the link to the right labeled ´Ohio State´ for about 200 more. They´re worth it- I promise!*

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My first 2 brigadas in Tosagua

After having completed my first trip with not one but two brigadas to a Habitat build site, I´m hooked! I think it´s safe to say all 30-plus of us had a great time and I know that I can´t wait to go back to Tosagua!

The trip started when Daniel and I met with the brigada of 13 students and two staff advisers from Georgia Tech at the airport in Quito on Sunday, August 5. Their 7 AM flight from Miami had been delayed about 3 hours but they were all so excited to be in Ecuador that the lack of sleep didn´t really matter. They spent the day getting settled in the neighborhood of their hotel and I met up with them that night for an amazing bus, walking and horse-drawn carriage tour of the historical center of Quito. One of the girls on the trip, Valeria, was actually born and raised in Quito so her family met up with us and very generously treated us all to the tour! The center of Quito is beautiful and has been renovated recently with beautiful lighting that really shows off the colonial architecture.

The next day, we met at the airport for a short flight to Portoviejo, the capital city of the province of Manabi. I was nervous because there had been some mistake with the travel agency and we had been assured that my airline ticket would be at the airport on Sunday morning but it wasn´t. I thought I might not make it with the group (and I was the only coordinator escorting them because Daniel had been detained in the Quito office for the week) but, thankfully, two men from the agency met us at the airport and helped me get my ticket. Maria, the coordinator in the Tosagua office, met us at the Portoviejo airport and we all piled into two vans for the 2-hour ride to Tosagua. The countryside was beautiful and very different from the landscape surrounding Quito. The road we were on is in the process of being re-paved so there were multiple points where the asphalt would simply stop and our driver would have to maneuver a dirt track for about 50-200 yards until we were back on the pavement.

Our first glimpses of Tosagua confirmed that we were in completely new territory. The small city of about 20,000 people has few paved roads, few amenities and no tourism industry to speak of. I believe our hotel was one of the two in town; but what Tosagua lacks in luxury, it makes up in hospitality. We were immediately warmly welcomed by the hotel staff and were greeted with smiles and offers of free fruit in the marketplace. As novelties in town, we stood out wherever we went but I don´t believe any of us ever received anything less than friendly smiles; incessant ´Hola´s and Hello´s followed us wherever we went.

That evening, we met the other group who had started building that day and would be our companions for the next four days. They were a group of 11 high school students from different cities all over the US (including a New Yorker that I actually share a close friend with- such a small world!). They had been in Ecuador for almost a month and were participating in an educational tour of the country, ending with five days of service with Habitat. Their two leaders, Kate and Nyssa, had already been in Tosagua with a previous group for a week at the beginning of July so they were already familiarized with the site and the town. That night, the local affiliate office threw both groups a welcoming party complete with speeches from a few local officials, the executive director of Habitat and a dance party. The dance was not exactly traditional (and neither were the costumes!) but both groups joined in and most everyone had a good time. We began work at 8 AM the next day and the next four days became a challenging but happy routine. The construction site in Tosagua is a completely different kind of site for Habitat Ecuador and is a pilot project that they are hoping to replicate all over the country. When it is finished, it will be a community of 160 houses along with a meeting center, playground and a computer room where the families will be able to access the internet and children can do their homework. Habitat began building in Tosagua with individual families in 2003 and helped to construct almost 40 houses scattered throughout town. Yet, this did not engender the community that Habitat hoped to build, nor did it help families who did not already own their own land. In 2003, the Tosagua office received a large donation of land from the government and began making plans for the Las Palmas (Handprint) project. Each family who applied for a house was taken through a 2-month process during which they were expected to show proof of income, a need for housing, an ability to pay and a willingness to help build the houses in the community. Those families who were accepted will pay a monthly mortgage of about $45 for the next 7-8 years until they have paid off the price of their house and their plot of land. I was told by one of the future homeowners that this payment is lower than the average rent in town.

The days of building varied although a few constants remained the same. The two houses that the teams worked on were next to each other and were in the middle stages of development. Each team was able to build walls and see a lot of progress on each house. Since there were two large teams, it was difficult to always find exciting work for each person but the maestros and the construction supervisor, Gustavo, were great about making sure everyone was busy even if it meant doing boring but helpful work like moving supplies around the site. Besides the fun part of building walls, people were involved in cutting bricks with machetes or trowels to fit in difficult spots, pulling nails out of wood that could be used again as molds, sanding down and painting walls in the more finished houses, and, everyone´s favorite, mixing cement and sand to make mortar. Actually, making the mix was tough and really physically demanding but it was definitely a source of amusement, especially for the Georgia Tech kids. We all decided that mixing almost 300 pounds of materials with shovels was a ridiculous task but it seemed like the best way to prove our determination to help get those houses built!

There are too many great pictures of the build to include here but you can find them at:

One person who I absolutely have to mention and who I would say many of us counted as the best part of the trip was Lupe, a future homeowner. She came to visit the site and help out on the first day and then she began bringing two of her brothers and her three small boys along with homemade treats every day. She and her brother Gabriel showed up all the gringos in their strength and expertise with the tools that we were clumsily trying to use. She taught us all new words and gave a few people some very appropriate nicknames. By the end of the week, she had gotten so close to the Georgia Tech brigada that she invited us all to her sister´s house for a party and we also went with her family to an amazing concert/dance party on a day of celebration for Ecuador´s heroes of Independence (similar to Memorial Day in the States).

She is currently living with her father and kids in a cramped house while she is trying to get her high school degree. She is excited to move into her new house in Las Palmas in a few months, especially because a new nursing center is being built close by and she hopes to study there in a few years. Lupe´s spirit and determination impressed us all and, although I wish more families had been on-site to help out, her presence helped us make a real connection to the community and realize that our labor was about more than just bricks and mortar.

On the last night of work, the Tosagua office threw both teams a farewell party at the hotel. Maria and Gustavo gave speeches about how much they appreciated our help and both teams had a chance to present a taste of ´American culture´. The high school students presented some of the better known cheesy dance moves (like the sprinkler, the disco and the funky chicken) while the Georgia Tech kids sang their school´s song ¨Ramblin´ Wreck¨(whiskey featured prominently!) Much fun was had by all and Maria surprised everyone with certificates and framed photos of ourselves at the work site in handmade frames.

The high school team left early the next morning to go back to the mountains for a few days so I spent the weekend with the Georgia Tech crew. We spent Saturday morning visiting a local children´s foundation called Las Manos which was founded by Hugo Palacios, the former Habitat Executive Director. We had an amazing time playing with the kids and riding on top of a fire truck with them (see flickr account for pictures)! We also visited the original home of the Panama hat, Montecristi, and had a delicious seafood dinner at the beach in Manta.

On Sunday morning, Maria took us on a walking tour of a few of the houses that Habitat had helped to construct before they started the Las Palmas project. Many of the owners were at home and proudly welcomed us into their houses. The quality of the houses was plainly visible and the families all declared that they were quite happy with them.

Tosagua is a town of great spirit and I feel lucky to have spent a week there meeting the people and helping to construct such an important project that will remain long after I leave Ecuador. I am excited to see what will happen with the Las Palmas project and I hope to take Lupe up on her offer to visit her in her new home!