ISP, Week Two

NOTE: I wrote this on Sunday night, but then the internet stopped working, so that´s why the dates might seem a little weird!

Wow, it is very hard to believe that I am two weeks into my ISP, that I have one week left to complete my research, and that I have one little week to whip out this paper! But, I’ve got to have a little faith—I’m made it here so far!


I just spent a lovely, lovely weekend with my Mami; I’m so happy I had the opportunity to share a little bit of this experience with her, and so lucky to have such an awesome mother who is game for anything! This afternoon we spent with my family here in Chota, eating lunch, talking about everything, walking through the entire town… So wonderful to have someone else know this reality, which feels out of touch with my own reality, where I am a different person in a lot of ways. Now, she’s back in Ibarra (enjoy your next few days, Ma!), I’m back in my room getting all organized for this week to come, trying to figure things out!!


I have five short days ahead of me, but hopefully long days that will be full of many successes!


In general, the last two weeks I have spent in el Valle del Chota and its surrounding area have been enlightening, amazing, challenging, and exhausting. I have learned so much, an incredible amount.


It’s been enlightening in all the people I have talked with, the new culture I am engaging and navigating, and the comprehension of a history and current reality I never before had thought about. 


It’s been an amazing thing to conduct an interview with someone in Spanish, and realize that I understand everything, didn’t have to think about speaking or listening or translating the entire time. Things are finally coming together language wise, and it’s awesome! Also, I’m happy because that was one of my vague goals starting out here, and I feel that I can finally recognize that things are getting good! Woo hoo!!


It’s been challenging to never stop speaking Spanish, to not have a compañero/a to reflect with (until this weekend), to live in small town (pop. 1000), to be the only blue eyed person around, to deal with machismo in its various forms, to realize that my time here in Ecuador is quickly coming to an end.


It’s been exhausting for those same reasons, also for the dogs who like to bark late into the night, my relative inactivity, and the gripe (cold) I’ve had for the last week, that is finally going away! On the plus side, I got to learn about a lot of home remedies, including the application of tomate de árbol peel to the neck to relieve sore throats. And I got to drink a lot of aguitas (teas).


I’ve had many moments where I had to pinch myself (figuratively), realize how lucky I was to be in that moment—such as when I was witness to the ethnoeducation team presenting all of their work to the director of the Ministry of Education for their province, and how excited she was to help them move this forward into the future. Or be dancing cumbia with all the teachers of the high school at their día de maestro (Teacher’s Day) celebration last week. Too good. At least now they all know who I am… that gringa who was trying to dance.


It still is hard to synthesize this experience so far, to “translate” it for those back home—one of the reasons I’m so glad my mom could see it, participate in this. I think also because I still have so many ideas floating around in my head, as I still don’t exactly know how this paper is going to turn out, what it’s going to look like. As Leonore told us, we write everything down (everything!!), and at some point we stop writing it down, and then we write it into a paper that hopefully has ideas and makes sense.  So, hopefully by Friday my head will be a little more linear, not so nebulous… We’ll see.


Otherwise, I’m happy, healthy (finally), and finding small accomplishments every day—such as surviving very treacherous bus rides with crazy bus drivers and lots of large rocks that fall off the cliffs onto the side of the highway. Now I understand why so many women cross themselves repeatedly while riding the bus.   


Finally, I am comfortable here, I have a routine, some interviews lined up (or soon to be), a survey to give out, a workshop on intercultural-ness (la interculturalidad) to attend tomorrow, and some more English classes to teach, or at least attempt to teach.


It’s strange to look at the date and realize I’m coming home exactly one month from today. All of a sudden, time is playing more tricks on me. But, I’m going to try as hard as I can to engage the present moment, continue learning and exploring, and make the most of this last month away from home, this incredibly unique opportunity. And continue to thank all the people in this country that have made this possible, have been nothing but open, kind, and generous—as well as all the people from home without whose support I would not be here today. Gracias, gracias, gracias.


Con mucho amor,

Hash Brown

(or la Javi, o Javer, as I am often called here)  


La llegada en Chota


Saturday morning, 9 AM, I left my Quito homestay family, once again incredibly grateful for all they had done for me, especially my host mom Sandra, taking care of me when I was sick a few days before. I hopped into a taxi with my big red backpack, a little nervous about being that solo traveler with a big backpack, looking lost and confused at the multiple bus stations I would be traversing… Which of course happened, but it wasn’t nearly as scary as I imagined it. A life lesson that I never seem to learn.

On the bus to Ibarra, I sat by a very nice man, going to visit his family for Easter, who kept a conversation going for practically three hours of bus ride. It was great, a chance to practice my Spanish (as I feel that in Quito I spoke WAY too much English), and equally impressive that he never seemed to run out of things to say, or questions to ask me. We parted ways, wishing each other the best, and a happy Easter. The wonderful thing is that this one time conversation on the bus has not happened only one time, but happens often! People are very apt to start talking to me—once I’ve properly greeted them—and are very curious about who I am and what I’ve doing. I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining myself, and this somewhat confusing program, in Spanish. Especially here in Chota, where my blue eyes are the topic of many conversations, and if I wore sunglasses, I would stand out even more.

My arrival here was facilitated by my ISP advisor, Gualberto, who picked me up from the bus station in Ibarra and dropped me off at my next homestay family in the town of Chota, located in the Valle del Chota, made up of ~10 communities on the banks of the river Chota. Hilda, my host mom, greeted me at the door of their house, which sits up above the main street of the town, with a view of everything: the river, the Pan American highway, the church, the houses. I was promptly introduced to countless family members who were there for Semana Santa, Holy Week, many of whom live in Ibarra, children and grandchildren on my host parents.

As of now, and into the future I am sure, I have only the best to stay of the family Chalá Lara, their kindness, hospitality, wealth of knowledge, and excellent food. I may have eaten more vegetables in these last five days than in my entire time in Ecuador… OK, that’s probably an exaggeration, but you get the sentiment! I am a happy lady! Today’s lunch: Potatoes, squash in a peanut sauce, rice (of course), some type of legume (guadulos), and tomato. Plus, a banana smoothie. I certainly am not lacking in the food department. Or the drinks—so much delicious fruit juice! Also, on Sunday I had “cerveza con huevo,” beer with egg, which was exactly what you might think it was. Beer blended with egg! It was also strangely sweet, so I’m thinking it had some sugar in it, too. As with most things here. At that point, I was pretty thirsty, but I can’t say I would bring the tradition home with me. And it was at 11 AM.

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in Chota was the music… it never stopped! From one rooftop or another, and often multiple, there is music being blasted for the whole community, often into the night. Sometimes it is bomba, the music from the Valle del Chota, a mix of African rhythm and traditional Andean sounds. Or it’s reggaeton, bachatta, salsa, you name it! There truly is a soundtrack to living here, everything is done with music in the background, a little hip movement, a dance or two in all that one does.

Multiple people, in multiple contexts, have told me that “los negros llevan alegría en la sangre” —  black people carry happiness in their blood. That is a poor translation, as alegría seems to be more than happiness, but a way of living, living “full”, as they also say here. And that’s why they are always dancing, as Hilda said.

As my directors told me before I came here, it certainly does feel like another country, except for the language, religion, and certain traditions with food that, to me, now seem intrinsically related to Ecuador, such a copious amounts of rice, drinking super sweet coffee at night, and soup a precursor to lunch.

But there are, of course, things that are distinctly different, such as women carrying basket on their heads, a custom from Africa that has not been forgotten.

The reality is that I still have so much to learn. This first week, I am attempting to prioritize forming good relationships, establishing myself here, so that in the next few weeks I really can learn from people. So far, it’s been easy, as people are open, friendly, willing to talk! As I’ve already said a million times!

This past week, I’ve been going to the high school in the morning, talking with the teacher of ethnoeducation and attending his classes, and hopefully figuring out a way to help in english classes, which I think will start on Friday. Everything moves pretty slowly, in terms of making things happen, and I’m having a take more initiative than I thought I would– which is OK, but when they asked me what exactly I wanted to study on Monday, I was left a little speechless! Before we left, we were told that we should keep our topics very open ended, and write about what people wanted to talk about. But, I guess I have to have my goals too!

Here’s to three more weeks of hard work, and a visit from mi mami also! I’m so excited to share this country with someone from home.

More updates soon, I hope. With some successful interviews under my belt, I’m also hoping!

The wonderful thing is that I’m speaking so much Spanish, that writing this in English is a little difficult… my brain is confused! I’ve noticed lately that when I have a minute to rest, my brain doesn’t really thing, it just rests. No thoughts in English, nor in Spanish, I’m stuck in between! But, making lots of progress. I suppose not thinking is a good thing in this case!

Much love to all, from this land so willing to love and share.

**Unfortunately, my internet connection is such that I cannot upload photos, but I swear I have an excellent view from my room!

The coast, the end of Quito, the start of a new adventure

Well, it certainly has been a while since I’ve given the blog a good update, and it’s feeling like time for it! These last three and a half weeks in Quito and on the coast have been non-stop amazing, full to the brim, and certainly overwhelming to begin writing about… Where do I start?!

Quickly, about our classes in Quito, which take place in the building called El Experimento, or The Experiment in International Living. The lucky thing about that is that, other than having an amazing view of the city from our fourth floor classroom, the other SIT group also has classes there, so I’ve been able to reunite with wonderful friend Hannah! In some ways, it’s surreal to see someone from home so far away, but in other ways it feels completely normal. Either way, reunions are wonderful. But, back to the actual class part, which has been altogether amazing, too.

Here is part of the view from our classroom– but we’re a little farther away! That’s the virgin up on top of “el panecillo,” the little bread loaf.

Each day, we had two lectures/talks about different aspects of Ecuadorian society and culture. Some were more academic, with statistics and a power point presentation, and some were more simple, sharing a personal story, or a more tangential discussion of a subject that ended with few notes but a wonderful sentiment. Some sample topics: women in Ecuador, the different meanings of poverty, Afroecuadorian history, the plurinational state, GLBTQ movements, Indigenous peoples, etc. etc… In the end, whether I had gleaned much information from the lecture or not, I was so grateful for the opportunity to learn from these accomplished, intelligent, and wise Ecuadorians, that were so willing to share with us. It gave me a great appreciation for my years of Spanish class, and how much I have learned since coming here– otherwise, I would never have been able to learn from these men and women, never been able to access their worldview, their unique lens. Today, we had our last lecture, by an anthropologist working for the state department who represents los pueblos no contactos, the indigenous group in voluntary isolation. In Ecuador, there are two such groups, and his job is to fight for their rights, without ever actually coming into contact with them. But, he keeps track of oil companies, tourists, and other sorts that try to access their territory, and records signals or signs of these groups, the main ones being footprints and deaths of foreign people on their land… Tricky job, it seems. But, he was an amazing, dedicated man.

**Side note: my host abuela just walked into my room and gave me “quesito con choclo” which is corn on the cob and cheese– so good! Corn here is like nothing I’ve ever had before and it is fantaaaaastic. Especially with a little quesito…

Back to the story: two weeks ago, we had our last group excursion, this time to the coast of Ecuador. We were in the province of Manabí, close to Machalilla National Park, and arrived in the city of Manta via a ~45 minute airplane flight from Quito. Then, we ate lunch. Yum!!! The first of a few fishy meals– in the best way possible!

Then, we all climbed back onto the air conditioned bus, a little escape from the equatorial humidity and heat, and took off on the real adventure: our village homestays. Myself, Abbey, Lindsay were placed in the town of Puerto Cayo, and we were the second group to be dropped off… Luckily, our host mom was there to greet us, as her house was right off the center of town so she could see the bus coming, so we didn’t have to wander around looking like lost gringas… Which we did the next day, no worries.

Anyways, our host mom, María Eugenia, took us to her house, introduced us to her family (her mother, grandfather, husband, and two little girls… such a wonderful family!), and showed us our room, complete with some beautiful mosquito nets. I should have got the message and put on Detan (ecuadorian DEET) right away, but instead I ended up getting 30 bug bites on one foot my first day. I then learned my lesson, and applied the DEET with devotion. The house reminded me a lot of the house I stayed in Nicaragua, in that it was all open to the air, bucket showers, metal roofs that amplify the rain, large storage spaces of water, andddd a LOT of fried food! Thus is life in a hot, humid environment, it seems, and I have to say, I am pretty proud that I ate (almost) everything that was put in front of me those 5 days, including…

Pata de vaca!! Cow’s hoof!!!! That was perhaps the most interesting thing I ate that week, but definitely not the hardest to eat. Nope, I could sort of pretend that the cow’s hoof was a weird kind of chewy mushroom-eggplant thing, but I had a much harder time with the fried pieces of pig fat. I could recognize that it was a cultural difference, that I had been raised believing that the fatty parts of the animal were not for eating, that their texture was not meat per se, that one eats meat for protein, etc. Well, I ended up eating a lot of fat, straight fat, fried fat– for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can’t say that my stomach especially likes thinking about all of the meals that week, but I am, in the end, happy that I was able to experience the culture of the coast through a very important expression, food.

However, it did bring up some ethical dilemmas in my head… Not so much about eating animals, that I know I will not do when I return to “my” culture, my life at home as I know it, when I have control over my food. The dilemmas centered more around the sharing of food, the generous giving of food that María Eugenia performed every day. I felt guilty about the fact that I wasn’t enjoying the food she was giving me, that was obviously a norm and something delicious for them. I wanted to like what I was eating, I wanted to bond and share with the family over this essential part of life– but instead I had to chew and swallow as fast as I could, and smile and lie when we said que estuvo muy bueno”… that it was very good. It was hard for me to rationalize this barrier to sharing and enjoying culture with the disgust my stomach and tongue and mind felt at eating parts of animal I never would have touched otherwise, when I think I would have been very happy with fried plantains, eggs, or any other vegetarian fare she would have made me, that is also typical to that area. All in all, I am happy I ate everything I did, but it certainly was an experience that made me think and reflect on cultural differences, and my own personal ethics in terms of opening myself to these distinctions.

You might ask, what exactly did we do in those 5 days we spent in Puerto Cayo? That’s exactly what we were asked by our host family as we stepped off the bus, and Abbey, Lindsay and I glanced at each other with some doubt in our eyebrows, as we had no idea what we were going to be doing either! All we had been told was that we were there to conduct a “village study,” to observe, participate, and talk with the people of the town, through both informal conversations, and perhaps more formal interview. It was, essentially, a practice for our independent study project (ISP) that begins next week! It was comical in some ways, going to bed on our first night with no idea what we were doing the next day, but with some vague ideas to walk around the town, identify the school, health center, and stores, and maybe talk to a few people!

The days unfolded like a flip book for us, filled with images that still seem a bit unreal, but in all, make up this wonderful experience with their inevitability, facilitated by the openness and friendliness of everyone we encountered.

First, we made friends with the police, and they took us on a little trip in their police truck…

Here are the police and our host dad, Armando, having some fun on the bouncy bamboo bridge! This river was not the one we had been hoping to reach, but because of all the rain, we couldn’t pass through to the other side to continue on the road. Thankfully, there was a cool bridge to play on!

Abbey, Lindsay and I also took the girls to the beach one morning:

Puerto Cayo seemed to be on the brink of tourism, with some restaurants spotting the beach, and some bus loads of Ecuadorians coming in on the weekend. Still, the main economy is fishing, and it’s interesting to think how the development of tourism would change the character of this town, in which few of the men were working while we were there, as you cannot fish during the new moon. We saw groups of men sitting in hammocks, relaxing in the shade during the noon sun, while making fishing nets from hand. An uncle of our host mom owned a cevichería, where one makes ceviche — fish marinated/cooked in lime juice– which we ate for breakfast one morning, as you are meant to do.

One night, the police organized a game of soccer for us, including them and some other local teenagers. We played at 8 PM, probably for an hour or so, and it was one of my sweatiest times in my life, closely rivaled by the few times I went running in Nica. But, it was so much fun, I didn’t even notice that I was so sweaty!! Everyone was so open, so willing to accept the gringas in town for a few days, and couldn’t believe that we were leaving so soon! I also noticed that the boys/men were much more willing to pass the ball to the girls than in some coed games I have played back in the US… There was competition, but not so much that they wouldn’t give us the ball!!

We played on a small cement “cancha,” and later learned that we were playing “indor,” a version of soccer that is played with a small, heavier ball, and with a few different rules. You can see the cancha from this photo of Puerto Cayo:

Too beautiful!! I do love the coast: the fast talking, friendly people, the wonderful ocean, the plantains. Yes, for a few days, the heat, bugs, and meat were all worth it.

We all reunited between 3:00 and sunset at an hostería about one hour to the South, full of stories from our week, but also struggling to convey all that we had experienced and learned. It seemed that everyone had a unique, but amazing, experience. For me, it was a moment when I understood why I chose to study abroad, to leave my life behind for a little while. I was exposed to a whole new set of beliefs, of food choices, of recreation, and it was a beautiful way to learn, simply through people. I found my thoughts reeling back into my head, with no conjecture into the future or past, simply being in that moment because there was no where else to be. Perhaps it was the heat, that easily shuts down my brain– but it was a moment that I remember distinctly feeling so happy, so engaged, open for whatever was to come.

Now, I have to harness that feeling again, as I am about to start a new adventure, and by far the most challenging aspect of this study abroad experience… My ISP, independent study project! This involves three weeks of “research,” through interviews and observation, and then one week of writing a 30 page paper… in Spanish!! Ah!! But, I’m so excited, even though there’s a lot of unknown still, and I’m leaving in three days…

Here is what I do know, however: I am going to el Valle de Chota, in the North of Ecuador, a region populated by Afro-Ecuadorian communities whose history is different from the other Afro-Ecuadorian community on the coast, as those in Chota were enslaved by Jesuits in the 18th century, to work on sugarcane plantations. Now, there is a vibrant community, from which many of the Ecuadorian national soccer players come from, and an education systems that I will be lucky enough to work within… According to the 2008 constitution, “el pueblo afroecuatoriano” has the right to their own system of education, called ethnoeducation, incorporating their culture and history into a traditional form of education, one that was historically excluded minority voices and histories. So, I will be working in a high school, perhaps teaching english, and doing whatever else is needed, and brushing the surface of the ethnoeducation, and trying to study the impact it has had on these communities. Wow, it truly seems like a world away– but hopefully today I will find our where I’m living, what I’ll be doing, and when I’m going exactly. I’m so excited for this challenge, this entry into a whole different side of Ecuador!

It is going to be a big change from Quito, where I’ve been having so much fun exploring the city, eating delicious food, cooking food for myself, and been given a lot of independence. Not to mention our amazing classes. Here, I am comfortable, and it’s a little strange to know that in a couple days, I will be on that opposite spectrum, having few connections, immersed in a different culture, and trying to navigate what exactly I’ll be doing for the next month… Here’s to adventure, to the discovery of more, what I came to Ecuador to find!