Friday, April 27, 2012

Retreat! to Cotopaxi

This past weekend, Ecuador PDs and country director Darcy went on an overnight retreat to Cotopaxi National Park, high in the central Andes.  It was the third and final retreat that the team will take together, and it resulted in a productive discussion of Manna Ecuador’s programs, as well as a chance for PDs to relax in a hot tub and enjoy the views. 

We were fortunate to find an incredible and affordable hostel with great views of the mountains Cotopaxi, Sincholagua, and the Ilinizas.  Cotopaxi National Park, along with the Galapagos Islands, is one of Ecuador’s most celebrated parks, and draws visitors from all over the world to see the high páramos (mountain plains with distinctive vegetation), nevados (snow-covered mountains), and of course Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes.  This area is also known for its cold and often-rainy weather, and our first day did not disappoint in this respect.  However, we awoke the next morning to rare blue skies, and were treated to fantastic views of the mountains. 

As well as traveling, relaxing, and getting to know Ecuador as a country, our retreats also serve as an opportunity for us to evaluate our programs and discuss issues related to our community development work in the Chillos Valley.  Among the issues we discussed were how to be both disciplined and firm but also understanding with teens in our teen center, a recap on some of our newer programs, and amusing stories from this year.  We returned from the retreat relaxed, focused, and ready to make the most of our remaining three months. 

What is it about hot tubs that get the discussion juices flowing?!

The spectacular Cotopaxi, sitting high above the páramo at 19,340 ft.  "Cotopaxi" is Quichua for "Neck of the Moon."

From left to right, Rachel, Darcy, Taylor, Charlie, and Watkins, relaxing at the end of the day in the  mountain hostel.  

Our lovely lodging, with the Ilinizas peaks in the background.

Charlie, Emily, Nicole, Heather, and our fearless guides, out for a hike.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

English Party Turned Minga

This past Saturday was our last day of English classes for the third quarter. Since the celebration we had after our midterms was such a success we decided to have the adult English students over to the house after the final exam as well. Emily and Taylor’s nutrition students brought over ingredients and helped us with food preparations and we all had a great time hanging out, eating, and playing cards.

While sitting outside with some of the adults, talk turned to a little problem we were having at the Manna House. Our landlord hasn’t been pleased with the upkeep of our yard, specifically this one area behind the house where we dump our compost. During the rainy season the area has become severely overgrown to the point where we refer to it as “the jungle” and have been scared to go back there. He warned us that if the area wasn’t cleaned out ASAP he would send over his own gardener and it would cost us $200. We were planning on trying to take it on ourselves, when one of our students suggested we plan a minga. A minga is when members of the community come together to help out with a project when someone is in need. Well we were definitely in need of some help, and several of our Adult English students volunteered to get started right then and there. We insisted that they had come over for a celebration and didn’t need to spend the afternoon working, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Walter and Guillermo were professionals with a machete, and within a half hour they had annihilated the jungle. It was a much bigger task dragging all of the plant remains out of there, (while ignoring the smell of rotten eggs), but we had plenty of help doing it. It was amazing to me how willing and helpful everyone was. The mother of one of my students, a woman in her 50s, was one of the first to borrow rubber boots and climb right in there. Cleaning the jungle was something we had all been dreading but with all the help we managed to make a huge difference in just a few hours, and we actually had a lot of fun doing it. While we were outside working in the yard the women from Charlie’s class cleaned all of the plates and dishes from lunch.  They amazed us all by getting the burnt rice off the bottom of one of our pots (one that we thought we would have to throw away). I ended the day feeling exhausted, a little guilty, and incredibly appreciative of our community members and friends. 

Taking down the jungle 

Walter, proud of his work

Gaston flexing while everyone else works... typical 

Two of my beautiful English students, Estefania and Lucy 

Emily raking up the mess

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Día de la Tierra

This week, in preparation for Earth Day on Sunday, Nicole and I have been spreading the word on organic agriculture, the proper disposal of organic waste, and how to re-use recycleables. On Wednesday we took over Chaupitena’s weekly nutrition class to talk about organic food and how the way we treat the environment directly impacts our health. Laura from our partner org Fundación Añamisi came along to give her expertise on organic gardening in Ecuador. Laura and her husband Christian work with local agricultural producers to teach them sustainable and organic farming practices. They also help them to sell their organic produce in the valley and in Quito. It was extremely helpful for us to have Laura as a partner in this, plus she is great with kids.

On Friday we brought some Earth Day awareness to the library as well. Nicole printed out colorful posters honoring the day and promoting environmental awareness. We decided to show the movie Earth, a feature-length version of the documentary series Planet Earth, which follows the migration paths of four animal families as they deal with climate change. The kids were thrilled at the chance to enter the Teen Center, an area from which they are usually prohibited, and to watch a movie on the big projector screen, complete with popcorn. They were out of control while we were setting up the area, lining up at the door and asking every 2 minutes ¿Cuanto falta? How much longer until the movie? The movie however was a little slower than we anticipated, with a lot of educational narration and we quickly lost half our audience. Nicole and I were feeling a little disappointed until we snuggled up with some of the kids who stayed and realized that some of them were really into it. It broke my heart to see how excited Jonathan got when the ice started refreezing in the arctic “the papa bear is going to make it across!” The few kids who stayed throughout the whole movie to see what happened to the animals made it all worthwhile.

The Manna House will be spending Earth Day (Sunday, April 22) on a retreat in Cotopaxi National Park. Next week however, we will continue spreading awareness by taking over Emily and Charlie’s monthly PHC Radio Charla. This charla will be geared towards an older audience and will talk more about the production side of organic agriculture. Nicole has already been a guest on the monthly radio show, but this will be my first time. I will be sure let everyone know how it goes!

 Nicole, Laura and I teaching Chaupitena 7th graders about composting

Laura teaching about organic agriculture 

The library kids eating popcorn and waiting for the movie to start 

The dedicated few who stuck out the whole movie

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Oxford Microfinance Initiative

For the past two weeks MPI Ecuador has been hosting 3 Oxford University students who have been working exclusively with our Small Business Development program. Here is an update from Taylor on how things have progressed during their visit:

Since last October, the Small Business Development Program has eagerly anticipated working with Oxford University’s Oxford Microfinance Initiative. We’ve been working on the preparation for their arrival for months now and I cannot believe it’s all over!

The British came…they saw…and left with an incredible amount of information and insight into Rumiloma and its surrounding communities. We did field studies, visited lesser known parts of our surrounding communities, met with countless governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and exhausted ourselves in pursuit of the question: how can expand and improve our business program? Manna’s vision focuses on really getting to know what interests our communities, in order to execute the best possible programs suited for these communities. It’s nice to get back in touch with the community and really be able to ask them what they are looking for from us.

Our team of Oxford students consisted of three people…although ironically, only one member, Bhavin, was actually British. Vera hailed from Germany and spent a year in Riobamba, Ecuador, living with an Ecuadorian family from 2010-2011. Her insight into Ecuadorian culture and business practices was a huge help. Dennis is from Switzerland, he spent a year traveling all over South America, learning a good deal of Spanish and experiencing Latin American culture, but this was his first time working in Ecuador.

This opportunity to really focus on our business program, with the help of three knowledgeable business students was exactly what the program needed. We’re really hoping to invest our newfound knowledge into the Small Business Development program and see how we can expand and build upon what we’ve learned. We’re all very excited to see where it goes from here!

Bhavin (left), Dennis (center), and Vera (right) spent the past 2 weeks living and working with us here in Ecuador
Thank you to the OMI students for your insight and expertise!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Semana Santa

This past weekend we had 5 days off for Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week. Ecuador PDs split up for this holiday, traveling all over Ecuador and the US.

Our Country Director Darcy went to Guayaquil to visit friends (she spent a year living in Guayaquil before working with Manna).

Watkins’ mom was visiting for the week and they spent a night on Cotopaxi and then traveled to the Oriente, experiencing an extreme change in altitude and climate. They also got to witness some of the elaborate religious processions that took place in Quito on Friday.

Rachel was home in Chicago visiting family for her birthday and her niece’s (which both happened to fall during the holiday). Feliz Cumple Rachel!

Emily was lucky enough to spend a few days in the Galapagos with her mom and brother who are visiting. Her family is still in town so they have gotten to see and help out with some of our programs here as well.

Nicole, Charlie and I took a long bus ride to Cuenca for the weekend. We expected it to be a little more lively, but found that most of the city was shut down for Semana Santa proceedings. We still managed to have a great time walking around the city, sitting by the river, and drinking lots of coffee. Charlie got to try Fanesca, a typical dish in Ecuador during this time of the year, and Nicole and I managed to find plenty of suitable vegetarian options.

Taylor stayed in the Manna House to keep an eye on things and continue a work project that the Small Business Development program is working on with some Oxford University students who are currently staying with us (more on this soon!). She also got to try some homemade Fanesca, specially delivered by our friend Ivo.

We all had a lovely and much needed vacation and now we are ready to take on the end of the quarter, which will be very busy for us in Ecuador.

Nicole and I by the river in Cuenca

Cuenca, Ecuador

Holy Week procession

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bingo Bailable

This past weekend we had the honor of attending a fundraising event held by some former Cruz Roja friends of ours who are starting their own health foundation. The event was held right around the corner from the Manna House in a restaurant, which until a few days ago was nothing but an abandoned cement foundation. We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into since we’ve learned from experience that nothing here goes quite how we expect it to. The event however was exactly what the name suggests; danceable bingo. We played rounds of bingo with various kitchen appliances available as prizes, and in between rounds of bingo we danced. One thing (out of many) that I love about Latino culture is that they love to dance. Everyone at one time or another took to the dance floor, and some people never left it. I can’t imagine an event like this taking place in the US, never mind being such a success and such a fantastic time. We planned on stopping by for a little while just to show our support, but we ended up being among the last to leave. As the vecinos and the token gringos of our neighborhood, we were welcomed with open arms as our neighbors cheered us on and laughed kindly at our dance moves. The event left us tired and happy, wondering if we can somehow change the idea for our own Manna benefit coming in a few weeks.

The vecinas get taken to the dance floor

The brains of the operation

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

CASEVACs and Enemy Fire

One of the excellent things about being a part of Manna Project is the chance to fully get to know Ecuador, in all the diverse aspects of its society.  This past Tuesday, at the request of adult English student Guillermo Cuaspud, all seven PDs as well as country director Darcy Phillips helped administer a test for Ecuadorian soldiers in a United Nations Peacekeepers training program.  The experience afforded an opportunity to meet soldiers in the Army and see the inside of a military base.
The event last Tuesday was an English test for soldiers in a UN Peacekeepers training course.  The Peacekeepers training demands that they have a basic understanding of English, and Guillermo, who is program director Emily Samson’s advanced English student, asked that MPI participate in an assessment of the soldiers English ability, in order for the soldiers to hear and respond to commands dictated by native speakers. 
The assessment was divided into six sections, where each PD manned a table and asked the soldier a series of questions, ranging from “How do you spell your name?” and “What is your job?” to directing soldiers to pick up a walkie-talkie and request medical support. 
After the assessment was over, each of us were presented with a light blue hat with the UN Peacekeepers logo and Ecuadorian flag on the side.  It was a very interesting experience for each of us, and we hope that we played our part in preparing future UN Peacekeeper soldiers for their jobs. 

 Guillermo Cuaspud (left) explains the exercise to PD Nicole Hamilton

Emily Samson giving orders to toy soldiers while future UN peacekeeping soldiers practice their English

Team Manna and the Peacekeeper trainees posing after the exercise