Saturday, March 7, 2020

With tired bodies, full hearts, and teary eyes...

We woke up early to pack our belongings and load up the van. Before leaving, we said heartfelt goodbyes to the farm and the family, which created an emotional moment for everyone. Brandon, Lenin, Martha, and Lucia would be traveling with us throughout the day, so we still had some time with them. We stopped to grab a variety of breads in Los Bancos for breakfast. There was chocolate, pineapple, cheese filled, and plain bread options for us. We ate as we continued the two-hour drive to Quito.
Upon arrival, we went to el teleferico, which is a gondola lift ride to the top of the Pichincha Volcano. The carts held 6 people and the ride to the top last 18 minutes. The elevation in Quito was around 8,500 feet and the elevation at the top of the mountain was over 13,00o feet. Needless to say, the view truly took our breath away. We were able to see how big Quito is and clearly see how this landscape compares to the one we had seen throughout the week. We then rode back down the mountain and got lunch at a vegetarian restaurant.
It was rush hour in the city, so traffic was a reality for us. Without traffic, it can take up to two hours to travel from one end of Quito to the other. Many people have left the rural areas in search of opportunity in the city. However, poverty is present in the city as there is not enough work. Unlike in rural areas, the city does not have easy access to food from plants to sustain those struggling to afford food.
We arrive at the artisanal market to pick up some survivors. Of course, we bargained, as that is part of culture. We then got dropped off at some near by churches to see the outside of them. Each church seemed to have a legend attached to it. One church, for example, had several intentional unfinished details on it, as legend said that once the church was finished – that would be the end of the world. The architecture of the churches represented Ecuador in the fact that there were native animals on the outer walls of the building. We had a final, short reflection on the side yard of a church. The reflection focused on the community of the group and the last 11 months that have led us to have this experience. From there, we also had a chance to walk by the president’s house, although it is optional for them to stay in that house. The current president was not home, as he does not feel safe in Quito due to protests that occurred in October. Bibi told us that only one president has ever been assassinated in Ecuador. That president had been killed on their way to work one morning by someone with a machete. From a distance, we were able to see the Virgin of Quito statue, which depicts the mother of Jesus. The statue is meant to show her protection over the city.
We then headed to dinner. In order to prepare for the transition back home, we went to a burger restaurant. We enjoyed some burgers and fries, as we said some few toasts for our last meal with our Ecuador family. After eating, we drove an hour to the airport. We gathered our belongings and said goodbye to our talent, fearless bus driver who had transported us safely all week while listening to our nonstop singing and laughing. Inside, we hugged Martha, Lenin, Brandon, Lucia, and Bibi goodbye. We thanked them for an incredible week, and it was clear the feeling was mutual. We planned to skype, call, or visit them soon. As the reality set in that this would be the last time we see each other in person for at least a while, emotions were high and tears began to fall. Words cannot express the simultaneous gratitude and intense sadness felt in these final moments. The look in everyone’s eyes went beyond language barriers to express how much our new family would be missed.
We headed to the ticketing counter, Bibi and her family stayed to ensure we got our tickets smoothly. As we were wrapping up at the counter, we waved one final adios to them. It was a smooth process getting to our gate. Our flight departed at 12:45am, so it was a restful ride home. We made it through customs and security in Atlanta with ease. Finally, we landed in Pittsburgh and campus staff members drove us back to Erie.
Neither our group nor the family of Nido de Vida expected to gain so much from our experiences together. It is amazing the transformational experiences and love that can be found in unexpected places – like a small subsistence guinea pig farm in rural Ecuador. Our hearts are full as we return home, even though we left a part of them on the farm. 

Guinea Pigs & Good Time

Breakfast was wonderful as usual. We said our first goodbyes to the Venezuelan refugee couple who has made breakfast for us this week. Due to the Venezuelan crisis and their currency having no value, 4 million people have fled Venezuela in search of a better life. We then packed up at our hotel in Los Bancos for our overnight at Nido de Vida. Upon arrival, we got right to work heading back up the hill to put the final touches of paint on the school. Of course, no day of work in La Bolivarnese is complete without frequent breaks to admire the rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Once we were confident that the school looked like something we’d be happy to send our children to, we headed back down the hill for lunch. It did not include soup, but the spectacular homemade guacamole more than made up for it – and very likely spoiled us for life!

After lunch and a brief break, we got to work around Nido de Vida. Some of us didn’t get enough of shoveling and spreading rocks yesterday so volunteered to fill in some holes in the driveway. Two of our group members went to pull weeds in the greenhouse. The rest of us went to work with Dona Julia weeding the garden. Although weeds don’t necessarily look the same from Erie to Ecuador, the fun we have gardening with a grandmother certainly is. And, we only pulled out two plants that shouldn’t have been pulled! (And by we, I mean Justin.) The afternoon work was punctuated by a trip to see where the guinea pigs (cuyes) food is cut. Their diet of tall grass is cut down by machete and then heavy bundles are carried back to the farm. None of us realized that guinea pigs ate so much! (Their food intake is a good thing, though, as you’ll find out later.)

Late afternoon saw the long-awaited river swim. It’s the rainy season in Ecuador, so the river was high and the current fast. We took advantage of this by using the current as a natural water slide. We stayed until we got cold and our fingers shriveled up – it was heavenly, and hard to remember that it’s probably snowing in Erie. We returned to Nido de Vida just as the rain intensified, and were greeted by the unusual site of Don Fidel, Brandon, Lenon, Nancy, and Lucia putting up a large tarp or tent at the end of the porch. A few of us attempted to lend a hand while trying to figure out what was going to happen with it, but they made it clear we would soon find out.

Our questions about the tent were answered when our driver arrived with a van full of young people. For our final full night, our friends at Nido de Vida had arranged for a group of Fernando’s friends who are members of a local dance team to join us to demonstrate traditional Ecuadorian dances! The dance was scheduled for after dinner, but we had plenty to keep us busy in the meantime. One of the ways Nido de Vida supports itself is by raising tilapia, and that was on the menu for dinner tonight. We didn’t just eat the home-raised tilapia: we actually prepared it for a traditional Ecuadorian cooking method!

To cook fish Ecuadorian style, roast banana leaves over a fire until they toughen up. This will allow them to bend without breaking. Then, place the fish (with the skin, fins, and head still on) in the middle of the banana leaf and include whatever vegetables you like – we would recommend peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. Then fold the banana leaves over, tie it with the center of the stem, and set in on a grill over an open flame. Roast for 25 minutes, flipping once.

We found the best way to keep busy during the 25 minutes the fish was cooking: a pre-dinner dance! The young Ecuadorian dancers taught the group their favorite dances. In return, our group taught them the “Cotton Eyed Joe”. We worked up an appetite teaching those dances to our new Ecuadorian friends and learning some of the dances that are popular in Ecuador right now.

The fish that we prepared was delicious. The majority of our group tried the guinea pig as well – which was a fan favorite.  A regular guinea pig can be sold for around $10, while a cooked and prepared one can be $15 - the most expensive meal in Ecuador. The family only eats guinea pigs are special occasions, which we were honored by. 

After we were done eating, our new friends presented a couple of traditional Ecuadorian dances while wearing traditional garb. It was beautiful to watch, but we certainly would’ve paid more attention had we known that we were going to join them! We aren’t sure that we did any of the dances right, but we are sure that we had the time of our life trying. As Gita said, “dance is a universal language.” When the dancing was done, we got to celebrate our group member, Kyla’s 20th birthday by surprising her with cake and ice cream!

And then we had our reflection time and headed to our sleeping quarters. The girls got to sleep in “Dolly,” the newly built guest house named for Bibi’s grandmother, and share their good vibes. Justin slept on the second floor of the main house, while Kathleen and Sara are in nests with beautiful views on the third floor. While we don’t want to leave Nido de Vida and our wonderful new friends, we are excited to explore more in Quito tomorrow!

Author’s note: This post was written by your friendly neighborhood Gannon staff accompanier, Sara. I want you to know – and I speak for Kathleen as well – that the students on this trip are spectacular. If you had a hand in making them who they are today, you have much to be proud of.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Ecuador Cross-Fit

We started our day in our usual spot near the pool for breakfast at 7:30 this morning. We woke up early because we were informed the night before that we would be milking cows today. Before we could set off on our adventure at Don Domingo’s dairy farm, we did a short reflection. This entailed us using a ball of thread and throwing it to each other and discussing our culture and background. This activity showed us the connections that each of us have to each other despite coming from diverse backgrounds. After this, we loaded into the van to stop at Don Roman’s house in order to grab a block of the cane sugar that we helped create the pervious day. We took this block to Don Domingo’s house to use later in the day.
                When we arrived on the farm, there was no restroom. Many of our group members were desperate and therefore used the world as their restroom, as encouraged by Don Domingo. At this point, we were finally able to milk the cows. We eagerly watched Don Domingo and his grandchildren milk the cows with ease. It was then our turn to try. Each of us realized that this task was harder than it looked, and we started to struggle. Kathleen, who grew up on a farm, gave us some advice and we began to make progress in the milking procedure. Some of the group members were brave enough to drink some of the milk. Don Domingo milks 50 liters a day from 8 cows and sells it for $0.42 a liter – which is $21 a day. This is his only source of income and there are 10 people living in his home. We then ventured up to Don Domingo’s house and he started to tell us his story of establishing La Bolivarense. He informed us of the obstacles he faced in establishing his community when he first arrived in 1968. Don Domingo talked about how he had to travel a long distance with all of his belongings from southern Ecuador due to drought there. He began the journey north when he was 17 and had to cross raging rivers and wild jungles to do so. He explained the struggles of trying to find work and having to make the long trip between his newfound home and Santo Domingo. He and his neighbors helped each other build their homes and survive during the early stages of the town. His story was very eye-opening and makes us appreciate the ease that we have in everyday life back home.
From here, we put on our work boots and grabbed our tools for the day.  We began pick axing the pile of rocks, shoveling them into wheelbarrows, and moving them down the driveway in order to fill the holes leading up to the house. The path to La Bolivarense was extremely muddy with the numerous puddles. By filling in the holes, we were making the path easier for travel. We affectionately call our labor "Ecuador Cross-Fit" as it is a great workout. After our work, we took a break for lunch, but before this, we were shown how to make a paste similar to cream of wheat and here we used the cane sugar that we made at Don Roman’s house and the milk that we got earlier in the day. We used this paste as a spread on fresh rolls and enjoyed a snack before lunch. We took a short tour of the farm where we saw the many different animals present. Soleil finally got to hold a puppy and the entire trip was worth it. After the tour, Sripada and Tristin read a book in English to Don Domingo’s grandsons.

We were very warmly welcomed into the house for lunch. We enjoyed fried plantains, rice as usual, beans, a side salad, and chicken for those who wanted it. During lunch, we had many deep conversations about our morals and values. Lunch was a great time for all of us because we were able to connect with the Domingo family. The meal was amazing and very much needed after our hours of work, especially considering this is the hottest day we have encounter so far. The family invited us into their home despite the fact that we were covered in mud and sweat. It was integral to them to make us feel like important guests. We were delighted to be so warmly welcomed into such a positive atmosphere.

After we finished eating, we took a short break and got back to work. This time, we were covering the patio area with a thick layer of rocks. The purpose of this was to establish a path for cars and motorcycles to easily reach the house. We had to take a break from this task because it started raining heavily. We ran over to the patio and waited for the rain to calm down. While waiting, Gita taught and played hot hands with one of the grandsons. The other grandson enjoyed throwing water at Amy and Sripada. Some other group members were teaching the children words in English. Even though it was raining, we enjoyed playing with the kids and making the best out of the wait. After the rain cleared and the sun crept out, we got right back to it and quickly finished our work. At this point, we sadly had to leave the Domingo family. We said goodbye to everyone and thanked them for their kindness and generosity. We drove over to Nido de Vida and made ourselves at home. Some people played card games while the majority of us learned how to make empanadas from the family. We attempted to make them and even had some good turnouts. For dinner, we ate rice with salad, and of course, our empanadas. We also enjoyed a variety of flavors of ice cream. After dinner, we continued to relax and participated in a short activity where we made bracelets out of the yarn that we used in the morning reflection. After many hours of fun, we headed back to our hotel for quality reflection time. In the van, we continued the fun by singing along to our playlist and enjoying each other’s company.

For today’s reflection, we focused a lot on culture and our different experiences. We reflected on Ecuadorian culture and how it relates to our values. Many of us realized that even though we come from a multitude of backgrounds, we share similar core values and find importance in many of the same objects. We then had to use everyday items and tie it into our high, low, and lesson of the day. It was interesting to see how everyone was able to creatively relate their random object to their experiences throughout the day. Many of us shared the same lows, and that was getting burnt and getting bit by bugs. Many of us also had several highs of the day. It was very nice that we were all able to relate to each other on a more personal level.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We will not have access to Wi-Fi until Friday night in the Quito airport. Tonight, we are staying on the Nido de Vida farm. But do not worry, we will post blog updates when we get connected to Wi-Fi.