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March 4th 2008
Published: March 21st 2008
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Wow! I wish you could hear my new way of saying my friends in Muisne have taught me....its more of a Wooowwww. Its been a long time, kids! Speaking of long time, its taking forever to load the pictures, so those will have to wait. But I need to tell you about the absolutely amazing perspective-altering experiences I have been having in Ecuador!

I was lucky to have met Rebecca (Georgetown student from DC who was to become one of my best friends at the reserve) at my orientation in Quito the day before, so I met my travel buddy at 6am for our 12 hour bus journey to the coast. The town I was going to was on an island on the Pacific (seperated from the mainland by only a small river)called Muisne. We were picked up by a local boat driver at the end of the road and promptly dropped the middle of nowhere. The reserve is on 600 hectares of jungle and mangroves, and when we got off the bus there were two small shacks and a gaggle of chickens. Victor pointed to a group of buildings just beyond the square shrimp ponds, and said that was to be our new home! I dragged my heavy bag (which USED to be down to 12 kilos but now armed with a towel, black rubber boats, extra bug spray, work gloves, and more long pants, weighed about 17 kilos!) through the mud, way to tired and hungry to care! We got settled into our tree fort and as soon as we got comfortable, the power went out. No worries, the power goes out at 7pm´s sort of helpful, because then we know its time for dinner! Dinner every night was rice, beans and fried (insert anything here.) We also would have a strange juice made from whichever fruit was in adundance in the jungle that day....guaynabas, mangos, tomato arbol, maracuya....the list goes on! Of course my favorite days were the piña or limonada jugo days! Lucky for me, by the end of an 8 hour sweaty, mosquito bitten, labor intense sun-filled day, I was happy for absolutely anything they put our for dinner! Breakfast was a different story, I endured day after day of banana pancakes (i´ve never liked bananas, and now i´ll be very happy to never see a banana again!) although, they were not really pancakes. it was more like mashed up bananas deep fried! But I ate them everyday, since I knew I was in for labor intense mornings and no more food until noon!

My first day of volunteering reinforced the Congal Motto "Its always an adventure!" Which is actually a motto I´ve used many times in my life, but never fully understood until moving to the mangroves of Ecuador during the rainy season... so day one, the 5 girls were to go into town and help Vicente with a project at his house. Sounds simple enough. We left on the "road" to walk into town (see the one picture I was able to load) and I soon find out that not all mud is created equal! Its really difficult to tell the difference between mud, dirt, hard mud, and SINK To YOUR KNEE MUD! About every third step, you would sink a good foot into the mud and have to use the shovel you are carrying to lever yourself out of the sinking pit of mud and swamp water! It was a good laugh for about the first kilometer, but an hour later, still walking, sweating, being eaten alive by mosquitos and flies while trying to haul your boot out of the mud because you FOOT came out of the sink this time, but not your BOOT....I found myself asking already, How did I end up HERE!?!?! Once we finally got to the house, we were 5 girls, 2 shovels, and 1 bucket. And he was asking us to move the hill behind his house....8 feet to the left. Sparing you the details, it was obviously a fruitless project that was causing excessive erosion which was going to hurt, not help, his flooding situation. And it didn´t help our frustration to have 3 adult male Ecudorians just watching us sweat, dig through mud and garbage, and try to fill a small bucket with the sticky mud and move it 8 feet to the left....yeah! The next day, our project was just as frustrating. We went over to another island with even MORE mud and mosquitos, and with 7 people and only 1 machete, were told to harvest fruits for the volunteers! We spent the day in the hot sweaty sun picking papayas (look out for the ants and weird worms infesting them), pinapples, mangos, and guaynabas and then hauling them

Myhoko was trying to teach oragami to Carolina and I...I always made the huge ones, Carolina made the miniature ones, and Myhokos are the ones that actually look like the animal. ;)
in huge bags to the boat, then through the swamps back to our kitchens. After two days of projects like this, I had to ask, who was I helping here, and what is the point!?!? Sure this is a project in sustainability, but the only people we are sustaining are ourselves!

At least....the weekend had finally arrived. Our first weekend, the volunteer group took a trip to Monpiche, a very tiny village about a 25 minute boat ride (hour and a half by bus) that is surrounded by, you guessed it, jungle, but also has absolutely fantastic black sand beaches! We had an adventurous ride there (our boat having to baja over the huge ocean waves to get out of the river delta) and when we got there, we just jumped into the ocean and frollicked in the waves for hours! We spent the weekend eating coconuts, drinking Frontera (a $3 bottle of local liquor here in Ecuador) and eating shrimps and rice. the mosquitos and fleas were EVEN WORSE here and I woke up on Sunday morning with over 200 flea bits on the bottoms of my legs, ankles and feet. Still when I think about WHAT the HECK i shared my bed with that gives me goosebumps! Actually, a month later. you can still see the scars and remnants of those bites! AAAAHHHHH"!!

Luckily, while we were gone for the weekend, the volunteer coordinator had worked out some plans for the week and we were finally arranged to go into town and do some projects for the community. Things were looking up! I spent my first day in town at the day care, where the kids got a huge kick out of me dancing and doing some follow.the.leader yoga moves! We also went down to the beach and spent about 3 hours picking up plastic garbage along the tide lines...the garbage went on forever and ever! We were told that until a few years ago, there were signs on the buses that said, Please throw your garbage out the window, and obviously this is still done today! The people of this small village live in such a fertile, abudant area that they do not take care of their land or the earth in the ways that we see as respectful and sustainable. For example, would you like to plant a tree? All you have to do is slice off a branch of an already existing tree and stick it in the ground! Another tree will grow! Its amazing how fast things grow and rejuvanate here....except introduce plastic water bottles and excessive packaging to the mix of what used to only be organic waste. Now the areas that were once abudant mangroves and forests are full of trash and plastic as far as the eye can see! Only once in my week of working in town we were joined by local people interested in helping our cause. Most of the time they would lean back in their hammocks and watch us work with amusement. They don´t realize the long term effects of their new habits, and definitely are not educated on how to change them! (For example, the MANAGER of my reserve spent about 20 minutes trying to convice me that a plastic bottle is biodegradable and will turn into sand on their beach in about 3 years. I´m serious!)

Every day we had the option to go into the jungle with Vicente, or town with Kathy, and most of the time I choose to go with Kathy. We did awesome projects such as beach
In townIn townIn town

Posters for an election one year ago, and the famous canoe that our boatman "lost" when trying to find his oar and get us across the river....
clean up, planting trees along the boulevards, and doing different things at the day care like playing games or building fences. The only drawback was that if you went into town, inevitably we were the ones to haul back the groceries every night! We collected burlap bags full of lettuce, onions, fish, cheese, and would have to haul about 20-30lbs on our shoulders (and balance 4 dozen eggs) through the swamps back to the house! The worse part was that you could feel AND SEE those damn mosquitos all over you as you walked back, but without a free hand to swat them, all you could do is curse and itch later!

When we were in town we would eat lunch at a local home, and they would welcome us, sweaty and muddy, into their home of three rooms with beds on the floor, and table homemade from woods found on the island, and concrete walls and floors. There was no running water, and the toilet simply dumped into a hole in the bottom of the floor and into the "alley" of town. They ran a small store out of the front room selling soaps and toothpastes, and had milk delivered daily from the crazy man on the motorcycle who would carry the milk in two huge dirty gas cans strapped to the back of his bike. After eating lunch we would drag our plastic chairs out to the front of the house and watch the town go so many of the locals did every day. We always got a good kick out of the pigs roaming the streets caked in black mud and trying to scratch themselves on peoples front porch steps! There were always many kids playing in the dirt roads...usually they had made a fishing net and were practicing how to throw it with efficiency (by trying to capture people wallking by) or they had carved a small boat out of a piece of wood and dragged garbage or dirt around the blocks with their friends. If they were lucky they would find a discarded bike tire and use a stick to propel it quickly through the streets or race their friends to the corner. We asked Kathy why her daughter wasnt´in the day care, and she simply responded, She will learn more in the streets!

Wise woman, that Kathy. Oh what I learned in the streets! First, I learned that I harbor no secret machete skills. I actually suck at macheting...lucky for me Kathy was a BEAST and most of the time she would get so frustrated at me trying to weed wack with the large knife that she would just take it from my hands and do it herself! Also, I learned that fun can be found in anything, anywhere. Well, I kind of knew that, but did I think fun could be found waist deep in mangrove muck with my boots full of water, creepy crawly bugs and mud... and the sweat dripping down my forehead like a fire hydrant faucet? Not until this experience, I´m sure! I also learned that I can eat anything, if I put my mind to it! Runny over easy eggs, beet potato salad, and bananas, bananas, bananas. I learned that flooded streets and swamps are really actually quite fun if you have your big black rubber boots on. I learned that you can build anything from the raw materials at hand! We built a fence for the daycare (previously it was ant infested trees holding up barbed wire...super safe!) from the bamboo we cut and haulded from the jungle and using machetes and rope we made from tree vines. I learned that mosquitos are ASSHOLES. (excuse the language, but if you ever visit Ecuador, you will realize there is no other word for them!!!!) I learned that the kids in Ecuador are TOUGH as I repeatedly saw them crash into metal, slice open their heads, or fall 2 feet out of hammocks...and every time they get up, MAYBE brush off the dirt, and keep walking! I learned that Victor can drive that muddy crazy road with his eyes closed. And I learned that I never cease to be amused by funny Tshirts (I´m an Accelerated Reader and Too Hot to Handley - yes, Handley).

Most importantly, I learned that I´d much rather be dirty and smelly (and too hot to handley) then live in a big house with a fancy car in America. And of course, I´ve learned (I already knew this, but definitely it was reinforced) that the happiest people I´ve met have nothing, and are willing to give and share and give more then anyone else in the world! This only reinforces my decision to move to Belize this summer, as I remember that is where I first encountered this society of humble gratitude! I look forward to the mud and bugs if it means more community, kindness, and generosity! I cant wait to see what community projects I can become involved with....yes, even mangrove replanting if that´s what they need!

I moved on to the next reserve, La Hesperia, with a sense of loss of my new friends of Musine, but great anticipation of the new challenges it would offer! As I walked up the hill...for 10 minutes....20 minutes....30 minutes later....I was greeted with an overly enthusiastic team, and a new set of goals and projects that I was more than happy to embrace! Moooooove over dirt and era of cow milking and cheese production is here!


22nd March 2008

my t-shirt says: am i getting older or is the supermarket playing great music?
hello my adventurous one...........i love that you are spending your time with humble, grateful, poverty stricken people and have learned at an early age that the only thing that matters is what's in your heart. unfortunately, some people never learn that lesson. i am with you in those jungles, overcoming all the obstacles........... and you are with me, deep in my heart. i love you so much and are very proud of the woman you have become. keep up the good work, the world is a much better place with you in it.
22nd March 2008

Stephanie, your blog made me cry! : ) (in a good way!) thanks for sharing. Jen Hnatuk
22nd March 2008

oh yeah!
oh yeah! HAPPY EASTER!
25th March 2008

OK - it's about 4 day 'til I get on a plane headed for Lima to meet up with Wandke the Traveler, and I've also caught up on all the incredibly amazing adventures so far so of course I'm nearly out-of-my-mind excited to do FUN things (and get a break from work)! Wooo-hoooo!!!
28th March 2008

The American Dream where it all starts!
WOW!!! Your second to last paragraph scares me. You see I grew up and spent a decade in a smelly and dirty village and I am now so very fortunate (with a lot of hard work) to have a beautiful home and family here. This is my AMERICAN dream. This is why my family came! We tend to force our best effort on attempting to change others (in other lands) to our American likeness, while so much voluntary help is still desparately needed here. Don't forget about your PEEPS!!! Anyhow, if your giving it all up.....I'd love your beautiful home in Vegas. hehehehehe

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