You Know You’re In Ecuador When…

At about two months into our time in Ecuador, we’ve finally hit the sweet spot between being fresh arrivals and being more experienced residents. While we are by no means experts yet, we have certainly been able to discover many of this country’s secrets, surprises and differences from the United States. 
With input and many chuckles from the other Program Directors, I’ve compiled a list of signs to help confirm that you are in Ecuador (in case your plane ticket wasn’t evidence enough).  I hope it allows our friends and family back home to better understand Ecuadorian life and laugh with us at some of the funnier daily occurrences we encounter.

1.     Milk is sold in bags.  Seems trendy, until you try pouring it into your cereal.

2.     You can’t find any shoes larger than a women’s size 7.  ‘Tis the land of dainty feet.

3.     You never really need a watch because there are so many daily indicators of the time.  See the following list:

  • Roosters begin crowing at 3:00 AM (and usually continue on throughout the afternoon).
  • The gas truck comes around at 7:15 AM sharp (see number 7 for further details).
  • The Cotopaxi safety tones go off throughout town at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM (Cotopaxi is an active volcano).
  • It gets dark at exactly 6:30 PM every evening.
  • Even if you wanted to wear a watch, the country runs on Ecuadorian time (which according to my precise mathematical calculations means add 7 to 11 minutes to any proposed starting time).

4.    The standard paper size is 8.3x11.7.  Maybe you think this is trivial, but you don’t realize how accustomed you are to 8.5x11 until you don’t have it anymore!

5.     Hole punchers only have 2 holes.  See number 4 for rationale as to why this is noteworthy.

6.     You can rarely pay with a $20 bill.  Stores would almost rather you don’t pay when faced with giving $18 in change.

7.     Natural gas for kitchen stoves is sold on a truck that circulates the neighborhoods every morning at 7:15 AM sharp, playing a loud recording on endless repeat that literally translates to “the gas, the gas, the blue tanks of gas, the gas, to be delivered, the gas, the blue tanks of gas.” I wish I were kidding about this one.

8.     You can buy upwards of $20 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables for under $8. This is by far one of our favorite parts of Ecuador.  Who said eating healthy couldn’t be affordable??

9.     Your face can (and will) be shoved in a cake on your birthday.  I celebrated my 21st here on the day after I arrived.  I can attest to this one!

10.    Every restaurant has some derivative of the word “chicken” in its name. Super Pollo, Texas Chicken, The Chicken House, Pollo Campeón (champion)… I’ve seen them all.  And if you were curious, KFC is very popular here too.  Almost all the locations managed to get the name right, but one location in Quito believes the K stands for “Kennedy” instead of Kentucky, and spent a lot of money on its large signage.

11.    Everyone is terrified of the sun.  My host mom puts sunscreen on her kids for long car rides in case they fall asleep too close to the window.

12.    You see your fair share of animals, some with more pleasant fates than others:

  • You almost always pass a field of grazing cows or horses on your way somewhere.
  • There are adorable puppies walking around on every street.
  • Hornado, or a full roast pig on a large platter, is a delicacy in Ecuador and is often displayed in restaurant windows…leaving very little to the imagination (and even less innocence for a vegetarian like myself).
  • Guinea pigs (cuy) are also served up on platters or skewers here.  And no, these aren’t the tiny guys you took home for the weekend from your first grade classroom; these guys are big.  We’re talking major leagues here.

13.    Mothers have extremely creative ways of carrying children. Most children are tied in a cloth wrap to their mom’s backs, so that they are completely covered from the sun. To better appreciate the knot tying skills of Ecuadorian mothers who ride the buses, see number #14 for an explanation on the “safety” of the public transportation systems.

14.    You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  It’s remains a mystery to me as to why a country that’s so relaxed has such a rushed bus system, but it doesn’t seem to bother anyone else. Now I welcome the opportunity to hone my moving-vehicle-embarkation/disembarkation skills. It makes me feel like James Bond.

15.    All taxi drivers swerve to the sides of speed bumps to “avoid” them. I think this is an attempt at making the ride smoother, but in reality, half a car going over a speed bump is way bumpier than the full car going over a speed bump…

16.    Every corner store sells practically the same goods.  And quite a variety of those goods, may I add: everything from ice cream bars to empanadas to boxed wine.  Basically a one-stop-shop for your next party.

17.    The national pride is overwhelming.  Rightfully so. Ecuador is ever developing, naturally beautiful and so culturally and historically rich that there is a ton to be proud of.  Even small setbacks such as the fact none of Ecuador’s soccer teams have won in quite some time and its national beer (Pilsener) leaves little to be desired by the taste buds, aren’t enough to stop Ecuadorians from proudly rocking their jerseys and drinking Pilsener on game days… and every other day, really!

18.    Everything is a diminutive. One of our favorite phrases is: “Un favorcito, dame un vasito de aguito?” which literally translates to: a small/cute favor, can you give me a small/cute glass of small/cute water?

19.    The natural views of the mountains and Cotopaxi are stunning.  It’s like seeing Russia from your window, but better. 

20.    You always feel at home.  Everyone in Ecuador is so warm and willing to help; since arriving, we’ve never felt anything but supported and welcomed.  I can certainly say that our transition into life in Ecuador was so seamless because of the positivity of everyone around us, and we couldn’t be more grateful to be accepted so kindly into our community.

Want to experience Ecuador for yourself?

Gender Inequality in Ecuador: An Interview with Sociologist Sheyla Ibarra Dávila

Gender inequality is a very serious issue in Ecuador today that affects women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, including those who live in the communities Manna Project International (MPI) serves. At MPI Ecuador, we are very fortunate to have developed a strong relationship with Sheyla Ibarra Dávila, a resident of Sangolqui and also a sociologist who has closely studied the culture of machismo, gender violence, and the state of women's rights in Ecuador. Although Sheyla is busy pursuing her Master's degree in sociology and completing her thesis on International Development Cooperation in Ecuador, she always makes time to share her knowledge with Program Directors and help them to better understand the gender inequalities that exist in Ecuador. The following is an interview Sheyla that highlights some of her research and opinions on the subject. 

An Interview with Sheyla Ibarra Dávila

What interests you about sociology? 

I’ve always loved the social sciences and being able to work with people.  I’m a very curious person and ask questions almost everywhere I go.  Sociology is the perfect field for someone who wants to constantly be investigating, researching and learning.

Why is women’s studies your favorite subject of study?

Women’s Studies is incredible to me because women are involved in all aspects of life, but are not valued for it.  Although the patriarchal, nuclear family is valued very highly in Ecuadorian society, women are the sturdy, yet voiceless, backbone of every family.  Women are intelligent, nurturing, loving and strong individuals and should be recognized and appreciated way more than they are today.  I’m very interested in the cultural roots in the devaluing of such important members of our society.



Can you define machismo for those who are unfamiliar with the term?

Machismo is the exercise of power of man over women.  It can manifest in physical violence but also in attitude and psychological aggressions.  In Ecuador, 53% of women experience this psychological abuse from men, 33% experience physical abuse from men, and 22% experience sexual abuse. 

What is life like for the typical Ecuadorian woman?

As I mentioned, Ecuadorian society values the patriarchal, nuclear family with delineated gender roles.  In most families, women are not allowed to work and completely depend on their husbands financially.  Most men dictate what women can and cannot do, which tends to include the expectation that women should stay at home, tend to the housework and raise children. Even young women who receive an education usually leave their studies or jobs after marriage.  Furthermore, because home roles are not taken seriously, women who have outside jobs are given no extra help from their spouses in taking care of house duties.

Can you speak about gender violence in Ecuador?

Gender violence is a difficult subject because it is exacerbated by Ecuadorian cultural norms.  For example, 90% of Ecuadorian women who experience violence do not want to take action against their perpetrator because family problems are considered private matters. Some women are worried about what others will think if they come out with accusations against their partners, and others fear more abuse if they speak up.  [Most] Ecuadorian women are not taught to have dreams or be independent and because of this, are extremely unlikely to stand on their own in abusive situations.  It has been proven that there is a higher risk of violence for married women and that 45-60 years is the age category experiencing the most abuse because that is the age that women are considered to be most “useless” to society. The racial breakdown of women experiencing gender violence is also interesting: 59% of mestizo women, 76% of afro-Ecuadorian women and 77% of indigenous women experience some form of gender violence.

Has there been legislation passed to combat these problems?

Before the 1970s, women [in Ecuador] had almost no rights as individuals.  The 1970s and 1980s were filled with equal rights activism work, and in 1994 a law was enacted that allowed women to take legal action against abusive men.  In 2008, women were finally given equal civil, political, social and economic rights as men, including the rights to decide freely on their sexual and reproductive health decisions.  While huge amounts of money were put towards social programs to support the legislation, the fundamental problem of machismo is ultural problem.  Legislation can only do so much to break social limitations.

Do you feel the effects of machismo in the field of sociology?

Absolutely. It’s difficult enough that many people do not take sociology seriously because it is somewhat of an abstract science, and Ecuadorians like concrete concepts.  But on top of that, being a female in the field poses its own set of challenges.  Most female sociologists are encouraged to study “softer” subjects such as women, children and the elderly, rather than subjects like the environment or politics, which are typically male-dominated fields.  Women don’t have problems learning in the classroom, but when they finally leave the classroom to conduct investigations in communities, it is very common for people to not respect them or to prefer to talk to a male sociologist. For this reason, 99% of female sociologists do not practice applied sociology.

What do you feel are the solutions to the issues of machismo and gender violence?

That’s a great question.  First, I think it’s important to note that machismo is a widespread problem in Ecuador and doesn’t just exist in one region.  Gender violence occurs at about the same rate in large cities as it does in rural areas.  Secondly, machismo also exists at all stages of life: early on in schools, in family life and in the work place.  While we need to work with men young and old to change opinions and attitudes, we also need to convey to women that actions as large as physical violence and as small as catcalling cannot be naturalized.  Neither those actions, nor any in between, should be tolerated by women.

Sangolqui community member and sociologist, Sheyla

Sangolqui community member and sociologist, Sheyla

While the legislation of 2008 is a step in the right direction, machismo is truly a cultural problem.  I think we are all waiting for the younger generation to make a difference.  More and more young Ecuadorian women are receiving higher education and hold more progressive values than their family members. Seventy percent of uneducated women experience abuse, but this statistic drops to 50% among educated women. Although a 50% rate of abuse is still alarmingly high, it shows a trend of decreased abuse with education and instills hope for an even lower rate in the future. Finally, in today’s day and age, no country lives in its own bubble.  As Ecuador becomes more and more globalized, it will be inspired by the progressive ideas of women who are fighting against violence and machismo all over the world.  As stories and experiences are shared, women can be influenced to encourage major perspective changes to society and mold their reality into a safer and more equal one for all people.

Thank you, Sheyla!



Ecuador Team Retreat in Latacunga

Last weekend, MPI Ecuador’s team embarked on its first quarterly retreat of the year to the Cotopaxi Volcano in Latacunga.  Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second highest peak, standing at an impressive 19,347 feet.  We spent the weekend at the cozy Secret Garden Hostel and were treated to endless fireplace fires and warm banana bread (both of which were welcome; the altitude difference of the volcano made for a chillier weekend than we are used to)!  

Typically, Program Directors have retreats every three months and use the time to get to know each another, ourselves, and reflect on recent experiences and improve our teamwork skills. Our retreat was perfectly timed because it allowed us to get to know Carolyn, our new Country Director, much better (through a ton of silly rounds of charades)!

The weekend also gave us the opportunity to discuss our individual goals for our time with Manna Project, agree on our shared goals as a group, address conflict resolution skills and enjoy each other’s company in an environment completely different from the one in which we live.

This last part was probably the most impactful for us; at times we can get so caught up in scheduling, program planning, teaching at our community center and maintaining our house that we forget that outside our community of Sangolqui there are so many incredibly beautiful natural sights in Ecuador.  

Personally, the diversity in Ecuador’s geography was one of the many pulls that brought me here in the first place.  As the nature nut that I am, it always amazes me that one country can have the mountains, the coast, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands and only occupy the tiniest portion of South America.

It was breathtaking to wake up to a full view of Cotopaxi in the morning, especially because it is usually hidden by clouds for the majority of the day. Undoubtedly my favorite part of the retreat was that our hostel had no Wi-Fi (blasphemous, right??).  We were truly able to enjoy each other and our surroundings without being disturbed by texts or emails, which almost never happens today.

I think we were all grateful for the chance to step away from our packed days and escape to Cotopaxi. As a team of only five Program Directors, we work full schedules and juggle many programs throughout the week, but this much-needed break was exactly what we needed to relax and rejuvenate before the start of our English classes.


Want to join the team? Learn more here. Apply by October 1st.

An Interview with Ecuador Country Director Carolyn Engel

Welcome to the team, Carolyn! We are so happy to have you on board.  Can you tell us a little about your background and experience with nonprofits in South America?

Carolyn Engle, MPI Ecuador country director

Carolyn Engle, MPI Ecuador country director

I’m from Evansville, Indiana and went to Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts.  After graduating college, I moved to Trujillo, Peru and taught English there for a year.  I then moved to Olmué, Chile and worked on a farm as part of the World Organization of Organic Farming for a few months.  Shortly after I began working for The Experiment in International Living, leading high school study abroad trips to Spain and Peru.  I moved to back to the states to Washington to work on the sister farm of the farm I had worked on in Chile, before I realized that I really wanted to move back to South America. 

With that in mind, I came to Ecuador and lived in Palta Cocha, deep in the jungle.  I taught English and Spanish in a Kichwa community with an organization called Selva Kids. In addition to teaching languages, I also worked on community development projects, including a women’s jewelry cooperative. We were able to take the money earned from the jewelry cooperative to develop a community bank that gave out micro loans.  After my time with Selva Kids, I moved to Tena, Ecuador to work for Runa, a social enterprise that focuses on exporting Guayusa tea, an Amazonian tree leaf.  

At Runa, I managed fair trade certifications and relationships with farmers, as well as all of Runa’s volunteers, interns and investor visits. By 2014, I was ready to act on my long-time dream of starting my own business, so I opened my own restaurant, The Guayusa Lounge, in Tena.  

Through the Lounge, I hoped to create a culture shift in Tena, because at the time there was nothing like it in the community. I wanted an open and comfortable space for the expat community of Tena to hang out. We’ve had tango dancers and a bluegrass band perform, photographers hang their art, and travelers paint the walls.

It’s truly an international space, and I’m really happy I was able to follow through with it.  Now I’m starting a new chapter with Manna Project!

What aspects of your background have prepared you to lead the Ecuador team?

First of all, I really love Ecuador! I connect well with everyone I meet, which is why serving this community is right up my alley. I have a lot of experience with volunteers and interns and all the facets of international and intercultural exchange. Owning a restaurant has given me invaluable knowledge about managing a business in Ecuador and handling things like banking, permits, taxes, budgets and finances. I’ve spent a lot of time working with nonprofits in South America, and definitely understand the cultural aspects that come along with community development. Though my background is unique and varied, it has prepared me to lead an international team through the ins-and-outs of development work in Ecuador! 

What excites you about Manna Project? 

I was most interested in MPI’s community center in Sangolqui and its strong commitment to the community. I like that our community center is a mix of our own programs and those of partner organizations, serving community members of all ages. In the United States, we have centers such as the YMCA, but it’s very unique to find a center like this in Ecuador.

What visions do you have for the future of Manna Project Ecuador? 

I’d like to create more community engagement at our center and would love to see more older students and adults utilizing the space. I hope to hold events such as workshops, conferences, community meetings, and anything else that would strengthen the community in general. I’m also very passionate about E-GAP, our entrepreneurial program, because of my own experience in owning a business.

Tell us about your first few weeks on site

My first few weeks have been great! I’m thrilled to be working in nonprofits again, because I know that’s really where my heart lies. I’ve been learning a lot in a short amount of time, but I appreciate the good vibes from the Program Directors and am eager to develop more programs and improve our existing ones.  

Tell us some fun things about you!

To start, I have an obsession with big earrings. You’ll rarely ever see me without a pair on. Because of my time in Tena, I’ve also grown to love Amazonian river swimming and jungle hiking. Finally, I’m an avid horseback rider. I rode horses as a child, but picked it back up since moving back to Ecuador and it’s now one of my favorite hobbies. 

Welcome, Carolyn!

Top Takeaways for a Manna Project Program Director

Being a Manna Project Program Director and working with underserved communities in Ecuador has been such a challenging, yet rewarding and incredible experience. After finishing my time with Manna Project in Ecuador, there are infinite things that I have learned about myself, international development, Ecuador, and more. Here are some of my top takeaways from my experience with Manna Project:

8. Patience

Part of moving abroad to any country or region is adjusting to all the cultural differences that you might not be used to from home. One of those major cultural differences between the United States and countries in Latin America is the difference in punctuality and scheduling. Here a meeting that was scheduled for 9:30 might not start until 10:00, or a bus might be an hour late and no one would think twice about it. Living in Ecuador and adjusting to this change has made me much more patience, and I've even come to see the beauty in taking my time doing things that matter, and enjoying the day.

Beyond just patience with cultural differences like punctuality, I have also learned how to be more patience with myself and others. Adjusting to a new culture, a new language, and a new environment can be emotionally draining, and I've learned throughout that process to give myself the time and space I need to respond well to difficult situations.

7. Becoming a Leader

There are endless leadership opportunities that Program Directors have during their time with Manna Project. From leading programs solo or with a group of fellow Program Directors or short-term volunteers, to leading and developing new events and projects, there is no doubt that Program Directors will take away new leadership skills no matter what! One of the most meaningful leadership experiences for me has been leading short-term volunteer Spring Break groups. Before leading my first group I had never worked on budgets or managed short-term volunteers before, but my diving in headfirst I learned new skills and gained confidence in my own leadership abilities.

The Spring Break 2015 volunteers from Vanderbilt University that I led worked on various project during their time in Ecuador, including working on a mural at a local preschool.

The Spring Break 2015 volunteers from Vanderbilt University that I led worked on various project during their time in Ecuador, including working on a mural at a local preschool.

6. Meeting Like-Minded People

When incoming Program Directors gather in Miami in July for their orientation, they meet a group of strangers that are about to become their best friends and companions in their unique experience of living and volunteering abroad with Manna Project. It is an incredible feeling to be surrounded by like-minded people experiencing the same things as you: you will find in your fellow PDs support, encouragement, travel buddies, and life-long friends.

5. Travel, Travel, Travel!

Before coming to Ecuador I had already traveled a lot in Latin America, but spending a year living in Ecuador gave the chance to truly see everything the country has to offer. While I focused on traveling throughout Ecuador, other PDs use the opportunity to travel to places like Machu Picchu, Colombia, Patagonia, and other locations in Latin America that are unmissable. Ecuador and the rest of South America are so rich in beautiful beaches, soaring mountains, ancient ruins, and more, and using Ecuador as a home base for your travels is an incredible way to see it all.

One of South America's most beautiful sights, the Quilotoa Crater Lake in Ecuador! 

One of South America's most beautiful sights, the Quilotoa Crater Lake in Ecuador! 

4. Learning (or Mastering!) a New Language

Being immersed in Spanish during your time with Manna Project will help you grow leaps in bounds, whether you arrive on-site as a beginner or already knowing a lot of Spanish! That's not to say that it won't be challenging to become fluent- it requires a lot of hard work and dedication whether you are studying it in college or living abroad and using it every day. However, being able to speak Spanish daily and learn new words and phrases from your new friends will help you immensely! Your Spanish skills will help you develop relationships with community members, and is a skill you can take with you wherever you go after your time with Manna Project comes to an end.

3. Professional Development Opportunities

My time with Manna Project has helped me grow from being a recent college graduate into a confident young professional. Manna Project offers Program Directors the opportunity to get involved in organizational roles like grant research and writing, social media, volunteer recruitment, and much more. I am leaving Manna Project feeling confident that I have the skills to help me find an impactful job in the non-profit sector. Check out this video where I talk more about the professional development opportunity for Manna Project Program Directors.

2. Cross-Cultural Relationships

One of the most precious aspects of the Program Director experience is certainly the ability to work closely with community members and form meaningful relationships with them. The community members we work with are always so inviting to Program Directors and strive to make them feel welcomed in the community. Incoming Program Directors spend time in homestays when they first arrive on-site, and often become close with their homestay families for the rest of their time there. I will miss the MPI community members I have gotten to know while I have been in Ecuador, along with other friends I have made along the way. Having built so many relationships here has made my experience so much more meaningful, but it also makes leaving very bittersweet!

In Ecuador, locals celebrate the Carnival holiday by taking to the streets and "playing," spraying each other with water, throwing eggs, flour, and colored dies, and playing with small fire extinguisher-like canisters that spray foam everywhere!

In Ecuador, locals celebrate the Carnival holiday by taking to the streets and "playing," spraying each other with water, throwing eggs, flour, and colored dies, and playing with small fire extinguisher-like canisters that spray foam everywhere!

1. You'll Never Be the Same!

As corny as it may sound, your year in Ecuador or Nicaragua with Manna Project will stay with you forever. The experience of living abroad, the experience of working in community development, the experience of traveling and speaking a different language...they are all unique experiences that will change you forever. You will learn so much about yourself, others, and the world around you that you will never forget, and you will always have a different outlook on life because of it. To our incoming Program Directors and all those to come in the future...savor every minute of your experience! It will be one of the best, most impactful years of your life!