My Time at Hogar de la Madre

When I packed for my 3-month internship to Ecuador, I made sure to include my Bluetooth speaker. I pictured myself lying on the beach, laughing with my friends, and playing music to fit the day’s mood. Little did I know, this speaker would serve a totally different purpose. The first time I took the speaker out of my bag wasn’t for a weekend on the beach, or even an evening at home, it was to provide a little comfort to a girl who really needed it.

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Hogar de la Madre is a home for adolescent, single moms and their children. Right now, all of the moms are between 15 and 17 and, besides the two girls who are pregnant, they are each caring for a baby girl. The shelter is more like a small neighborhood than a home, with various buildings for different uses, including bunkrooms for the families, a separate kitchen just for eating, and a nursery full of cribs for when the mothers are busy. The home has a very unique atmosphere that felt impossible to understand after only a few visits. The entire place is run by two nuns but volunteers of all types are constantly coming in and out of the front gate. For example, recently a local elementary school came to bring boxes of food and to sing for the girls. I’ve only heard the place quiet twice: once during a prayer walk led by the nuns and once during a yoga class taught by a volunteer. Since the girls have a constantly changing schedule that includes cleaning rotations, doctors’ visits, and therapy sessions, their daughters spend a lot of time exploring their little world on their own. However, the girls are never far from their daughters and have trained their ears to recognize their own child’s cry from anywhere in the compound. It’s a careful balance within the home of caring for the needs of the girls and teaching them to care for the needs of their daughters. It’s also a heavy place sometimes-when the girls are having a tough day or their babies won’t stop crying. And whenever I’m there, I’m struck by how useful it would be to have a few more sets of eyes and hands.

Just like the girls, I have a different schedule every time I visit. I have spent time watching the babies, cleaning the kitchen, teaching English and even organizing CDs. The only thing I always make sure of is that I will get to spend some time just talking with the girls. One of the girls, Laura*, has opened up to me from the very beginning. She loves the music from the States and constantly watches Youtube to find new artists. Before arriving in Hogar de la Madre, she was a singer on buses and often tells me how she wishes she could leave to sing again. She has big dreams of becoming a Youtube star and moving to LA, where she (and her daughter) can meet her favorite singers: Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez. She sounds like the typical teenage girl and it wasn’t until last week that I found out more to her story.

She, like all of the girls in the home, is there for a reason. For some, it’s because the court ordered it, for some, because their parents ordered it. For Laura, it was a mix of the two. She was a successful bus singer at 16, able to make several hundred dollars a week-which would have been enough to begin a life for her and her daughter. Instead, she was spending the money on drugs. After having trouble with the law, her mother decided enough was enough and sought help. This help came in the form of Hogar de la Madre. Here, Laura has no access to use drugs and must rely on other people entirely to provide for her and her daughter, something she very much resents. She also still feels unlike the other girls. Although the others have accepted their home, she longs to be away from it. She spends most of her time thinking of how and when she will be able to leave.

Her frustration with her situation became the unexpected purpose for my Bluetooth speaker. Because the nuns prohibit the un-monitored use of electronics in the home, she can’t hear the latest music or watch the latest videos and it makes her feel isolated, something even I can understand. So one day, I decided to bring my speaker and we spent an hour listening to all her favorite artists. I could see her stress slipping away as she began to sing along. I really believe that for a few minutes she forgot how frustrated she was to be in a place she didn’t want to be in. The speaker has since been enjoyed by the other girls, too. Last week, they all got in trouble and we had to deep clean the kitchen and classroom areas. At first I expected everyone to be angry the whole time but when I turned on some music, the girls cleaned with smiles on their faces and a few even danced. Their happiness spread even to their daughters, who barely even cried that day.

I often wish that I could speak better Spanish and had more time to help with the hundreds of needs at Hogar de la Madre. There are so many things I want to tell them and so many ways I want to encourage them. From the moms who have a chance to rebuild, to their daughters who will surely have an easier life, there is so much potential inside those walls. It’s hard to fully foster that potential, though, with two 2-hour visits per week. So I think for me, with my limited time, the most valuable thing I can provide is a chance to feel like kids- to have some time to forget the hand that life has dealt them. Even though I can’t personally heal their past or provide them a completely secure future, I’m genuinely thankful to be the one who provides the music.

*Name has been changed. 


Jessica is a short term intern with Manna Project International-Ecuador. To learn more about our internship programs and work with organizations like Hogar de la Madre, check out the Ecuador Programs Page. 

Celebrating Carnaval in Ecuador

While Ecuadorians celebrate New Years, Easter, Independence Day, and Christmas, no holiday generates quite as much excitement, anticipation, silliness and overall hype as Carnaval. As a foreigner, I had absolutely no idea what to expect, in fact, I did not really even know what Carnaval was – and, boy, did I soon find out!

Historically, Catholics have celebrated Carnaval as a time to indulge in life’s pleasures before a period of solemnity, frugality and fasting in remembrance of Jesus’ suffering on the cross before his death. Therefore, countries around the world celebrate Carnaval with extravagant festivals, elaborate parades, lavish costumes and wild parties in order to “live it up,” so to speak, before the solemn period of Lent. For example, think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a masquerade festival in Venice or a flashy parade in Rio de Janeiro. While the Ecuadorian Carnaval l may find some roots in Catholicism, a large part of the festivities stem from ancient, indigenous traditions. To commemorate the end of the solar year, certain indigenous tribes would celebrate by throwing decorative flowers, cooking flour and perfumed water into the air. Over time, these indigenous customs were incorporated into the Ecuadorian Carnaval to create an experience unlike any other.

Nowadays, the indigenous practice of tossing up flowers, flour and water has transformed into an all out water war amongst friends, family and pretty much anyone you see on the street. But the battle doesn’t end with water. In some regions, as in Amaguaña, a farming community just outside of Quito, people douse each other with water, flour, foam, paint and even eggs! For many years, there were no rules about “playing Carnaval.” You could get completely soaked walking down the street, at work, on the bus, anywhere. However, in recent years, new regulations prevent people from playing Carnaval in buildings or on public transportation and from soaking strangers. In fact, to conserve water, local authorities encourage the people to use carioca, essentially shaving cream, instead of water (but, as with most laws, the further away you get from the city, the less the regulations are followed!)

Carnaval in Ecuador varies from city to city. One of the most famous Carnavals is in Guaranda, located in the Bolivar province, which is about four hours from Quito. People travel from all around the country to enjoy the colorful, lively parades of this Andean city. In Guaranda, one can experience the unique combination of indigenous and mestizo folk music, art and dance, drink the traditional “pájaro azul” liquor, and take part in one of the most fun street parties of the entire country. A different style of carnaval celebration takes place in Ambato, a nearby town in la Sierra. Here, the people call the celebration, “La Fiesta de las Flores y de las Frutas.” because the floats of the parade are exclusively decorated with flowers and fruit. On the coast, like in Esmeraldes, Carnaval displays the beauty of the Ecuador’s African American heritage. The parades, food, music, and dancing all reflect the country’s afro-indigenous customs and traditions.

In order to escape the cold of the sierra, we decided to travel to the small beach town of Montañita for our vacation. Little did we know, but what seemed like all of Ecuador was also vacationing in Montañita that weekend as well! Needless to say, the beaches were absolutely packed! For a good chunk of the weekend we squeezed our towels between our fellow beach goers, soaked up the sun and cooled off in the refreshing waves of the Pacific. In town, we found about every type of local and foreign cuisine that you can think of. Street venders sold tons of Ecuadorian food such as tortillas, menestras, pinchos, ceviche, sopas de mariscos, empanadas, juices and smoothies. 

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During the day, Montañita appeared to be a chill, little surf town on the coast, but, at night, it transformed altogether. The streets were packed with people of all ages buying food from vendors, shopping at the artisanal art stands, and, of course, playing Carnaval. The first night, we were completely unarmed and unprepared. Only one of us had carioca (the foam spray) and, as foreigners, we were even greater targets. So, not surprisingly, we all got completely soaked with water and carioca (luckily flour and paint are not as widely used on the coast). We learned our lesson that night and from then on came armed and ready for battle. Every night, we sprayed each other and random strangers on the beach, in the streets and even in the clubs. All in all it was a great, cultural experience. Plus, as a prankster at heart, I had so much fun sneak attacking people with carioca! All in all, it was a fun, relaxing weekend celebrating Carnaval at the beach in Ecuador!


To experience the fun of traveling in another country and learning about holidays and customs, apply to be a Program Director today! 

Judging an English Theatre Competition in Ecuador

Have you ever wanted to be Simon Cowell from American Idol? Or maybe you lean more Adam Levine from The Voice? Well fans, you’re in luck. I’m about to share with you the inner details of how it feels to be a judge in a real-life competition. How did I end up so lucky and famous you might ask? I speak English. That’s how.

Here in Ecuador, we work with a University called the Universidad de las Fuerzas Armadas, or ESPE for short. Each week, as Program Directors we assist in English classes, giving advice on pronunciation and how to study English. This relationship has been active for years and it is a fun way for Program Directors to make friends in the community that are of a similar age range. That being said, ESPE often asks us to help them with extracurricular activities, one of which recently was a theatre competition.

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Each English class from the three ESPE campuses across Ecuador worked for weeks on preparing a play to be presented at a country-wide competition. These plays were of childhood fairy-tales or stories, adapted in English. This activity helped students learn how to think creatively in another language, while also encouraging fun participation! After weeks of practicing, came the final competition! Seeing as though the volunteers at Manna are native English speakers, we were asked to participate as judges for the final competition. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was the only one able to attend- and boy was it an experience!

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I arrived on site and was greeted by the guards of the military base where it was being held. I was brought to the theatre, and escorted to the front row where I saw with the panel of two other judges- an English teacher from Quito and native Canadian, and an Ecuadorian actor. We were given padfolios with voting ballots and introduced formally to what we would be doing. After being given a grading cheat sheet, we sat and waited…and waited…and waited… for the plays to start. After the slight delay due to technical difficulties, the first play began. It was the tale of Beauty and the Beast, a fan favorite and household classic. The beast costume was phenomenal, and Belle (also known as simply Beauty in this rendition) truly let her voice be heard. Although this tale was certainly as old as time, there was no Emma Watson and therefore, was a slight letdown. Despite this, as judges we could clearly see how much work had been put into the execution of these plays. The backdrops, musical effects, and memorized lines (in English) were impressive and kept our attention!

As the night continued, I felt the pressure starting to mount- choosing first, second, and third places was not just a game! As a matter of fact, these kids really really cared about winning! With various intermissions from Professors singing their favorite karaoke jams (one even belted Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”), the battle of the plays continued.

While my favorite, a tale entitled “The White Falcon” took home the prize, I’d love to give honorable mention to “Scooby Doo and the Gang” who not only one-upped my incredible (not so humbly bragging) Daphne costume, but also used a REAL DOG to be Scooby doo! What a night it was!

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In conclusion, in a few short hours my childhood dream of playing Paula Abdul as a judge for American Idol came to fruition. I was able to support an incredibly important community group we work with, while also experiencing all of my favorite childhood stories- just slightly modified-and in broken English. Nonetheless, it was an experience I will remember forever, and the free ESPE Padfolio I was gifted helps!

 

 

 

If you want to have the opportunity to get involved with community partners, apply to be a Program Director today!

 

Culture Shock

Just like any new relationship, the wanderlust of travel will begin with its "honeymoon" phase. Stepping foot in uncharted territory, embracing change, tasting the culture... It's all so new! But after taking extended trips, it's common for the excitement to fade (the same timeline as the 6 month point in a relationship). The reality of the post-honeymoon phase makes it difficult to keep a fresh, positive mind from slipping downhill.

CULTURE SHOCK.

After sitting in with culture guru, Andy Gavilanes, his wisdom summarized culture shock into stages, allowing an easier reflective state before finding your inner "buddha" after returning from the trip of a lifetime.

1.) Honeymoon Phase - The initial excitement of something new.

2.) Culture Shock - Realizing unwanted realities. Effected emotions: short temper, complaining, crying, drugs and alcohol, anxiety.

3.) Acceptance of Position. 

4.) Humor Phase - Laughing at what once caused anger.

5.) Breaking the Routine - Unlocking your mind again. Taking a different way to work, saying yes to weekend excursions, being unafraid of getting back out and exploring.

6.) Awareness - Of yourself and being curious of others without judgment.

7.) Finding Your High - Time to fly.

SELF REFLECTION.

When traveling abroad (especially solo), taking the time to self-reflect and understand more about who you are and who you want to become is one of the most gratifying experiences you can walk away with.

edited by: Lauren Mee

Check out my blog as I travel through South America with nothing more than a backpack, portable recording studio and mission to give back. 

Mi Lindo Ecuador

As my time wraps up here in Ecuador, I figured it would only be fitting to go out with a final blog post to sum up my unforgettable 5 months.  I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have lived and served in this beautiful country for the time that I did, and I plan to take my friendships and memories with me throughout my life. Unfortunately, there are some parts that I won’t be able to take with me throughout my journeys.  For your reading pleasure, I’ve compiled a list of the things I’ll miss most about Ecuador as I move forward.

1.Getting called “Nenita”

In Spanish, nena is both the word for little girl and for a term of affection equatable to “baby.”  I usually introduce myself as Nena instead of Nayna because it’s much easier for all parties involved, and I love the look of surprise I always get when I do this.  What follows is typically a conversation involving the other person saying, “okay, but what is your real name??” When I tell them that that is, in fact, my real name they laugh and tell me that it will be very easy to remember.  Most of the time this is excellent because everyone knows my name, (and I mean everyone): families in the centro, my taxi drivers, the guy who owns the gym I go to, the students at ESPE university, the lady who threads my eyebrows, you name it!  I also feel somewhat famous because my name is in almost every song (think about how many songs in English have the word “baby”). Because everything in Spanish is a diminutive (see number 12), my name often gets converted to Nenita, which is just too cute to be true.  I’m not necessarily looking forward to returning back to the states and getting called plain ol’ Nayna.

2. Measuring the passage of time by growing crops

Rumiloma is a predominantly farming-based community, and our walks to the centro from the bus stop typically involve passing a few different fields with corn stalks.  Every month, we are able to gauge just how long we’ve been here by how tall the stalks grow.  The most recent time we walked together, the stalks were taller than Ayzsa!

3. Making the world your bus stop

This is an extremely convenient and courteous service that all bus drivers humor for their passengers.  Gone are the days of running for buses.  For more clarification on this topic, see my previous blog post about riding the buses of Ecuador.

4. Having the taxi company know exactly where you live

A few years ago, there was a PD named Emily, who must have been the first person to call the particular taxi company we use.  Since that fateful day years ago, our home in Sangolqui has been known as “La Casa de Emily.”  Now whenever we call for a taxi from our house, we only have to say “Buenos dias” and the operator immediately asks us the Spanish equivalent of “would you like a taxi to the House of Emily?” What’s even better, is that some of the taxi drivers tell us that they remember driving Emily around and ask how she’s doing now.  This might be the most fun part for me. Based on the day and how I’m feeling, Emily has completely different lives: sometimes she is married and lives in Ecuador with her children, sometimes she’s a high school teacher in the United States, sometimes she’s a famous actress in Hollywood, California,

5.  Seeing cute sleeping dogs everywhere

This is enough to make you smile no matter how bad your day is.  On that note, it’s also incredible that the dogs here are aware of traffic rules and know how and when to cross the street.  We almost never have to worry about dogs getting hit by cars because they follow jay-walking laws better than we do!

6. Knowing everyone when you walk down the street

It seems that at times here, everyone is related.  Everyone is someone’s cousin or brother-in-law. Nothing makes me happier than walking to and from the centro or around Sangolqui and being able to wave to and talk to so many families along the way.

7.  Always being greeted in a room

The culture of Ecuador is such that when you walk into a room, it’s polite to say hello to every single person in the room. Whether it’s a nod, a kiss, a handshake or a “buenos dias”, and whether or not you know everyone in the room, this is what you’re supposed to do (and it’s rude if you don’t!).  Large meetings are often interrupted by latecomers who have to greet everyone in attendance, but no one seems to mind.  I’ll have to remind myself upon returning to the US to 1) not say hello to everyone in every room that I enter and to 2) not get offended when strangers enter a room and don’t greet me.

8. The ability to book a Mariachi Band for any and all social gatherings

This needs almost no explanation. For me, it’s not really a party unless you have Mariachis.  I’ve been to at least 6 events with Mariachis in my time here (and have passed by dozens more) and have attended events where people are disappointed if there is no band. There’s something about trumpets, guitars, matching uniforms, dancing and giant sombreros that now makes parties with just DJs seem super boring!

9.  The availability of Manicho

If you didn’t know, Manicho is a usually $0.50 chocolate and peanut bar and is available on practically every street corner.  Ecuador has never failed to satisfy my chocolate cravings, and for that, I am forever grateful.  If you need more explanation about the magic of Manicho, refer to my previous blog post about the junk food of Ecuador.

10.  Nicknames

The five of us have gotten accustomed to the nicknames that the community uses to refer to us (either to our faces or when talking about us).  Instead of Nayna, Hunter, Ayzsa, Jimmy and Vincent, we are La Morenita (the brown one), La Blanquita (the white one), La Negrita (the black one), El Flaquito (the skinny one) and El Serio (the serious one), respectively.  After a few months, we found ourselves referring to each other by those names when talking to community members as well:

“Jimmy is teaching class today.”

“Jimmy? Who’s Jimmy?”

“El flaquito.”

“Ahhh, right, right.”

11.   The unimaginable variety of students’ track suit combinations

Almost all students from grade school to high school wear school uniforms. These students also have mandatory gym days in their schedules and on those days, they all wear matching track pants and jackets with their school colors. On these exercise days, the streets and buses look like giant adds for Sports Authority.

12.  Exaggerations when speaking Spanish

Everything in Spanish is a diminutive. Sopa (soup) is sopita, casa (house) is casita, dollar is dollarito, centavos (cents) are centavitos, agua (water) is aguita, hija (daughter) is hijita…the list is endless.  Everything is cute and little, even if logically it makes no sense (for example, ahora, the word for “now” is hardly ever spoken. Ahorita is said instead).  Conversely, when exaggerations in the opposite direction are desired, “issimo” can be added to basically any word: lindissimo, grandissimo, bastantissimo (really beautiful, really big, way more than enough, respectively).

13.  Everything about juice

It’s almost a crime to not take advantage of all the fruits/fruit juice of Ecuador, because they’re fresh, affordable and nonexistent in the states! I almost always order fruit juice when I’m out to eat, because fresh fruit juices in the US are so expensive.  Perhaps my favorite part about ordering a fruit juice is getting it para llevar (to go) because most of the time you are given your juice in a plastic bag tied at the top with a straw stuck inside. I always feel super cool struttin’ down the street with my plastic bag of pineapple juice.

14.  Food glorious food

Depending on the way you see it, $0.15 bread, $2.50 lunch plates and 5 for $1 apples can be a gift or a curse.  I, of course, see it as the former.  It’s certainly going to be a rude awakening when I return to the states and eat out for the first time.  On the wave of affordability, the most beautiful bouquets of flowers can also be bought here for just $1! This could be why all the couples here seem so happy… it’s so affordable for guys to apologize when they mess up!

15. Beautiful views, beautiful relationships

I’ve said this repeatedly, but as the nature fanatic that I am, Ecaudor never once disappointed me in providing magnificent sunsets, sunrises, night skies, rainbows, mountains, volcanoes, lakes and forests for me to see and climb and hike and swim. There is something so special and unbeatable about this natural beauty that no pictures can do it justice.

Undoubtedly the most difficult part of leaving a place you’ve called home for half a year is saying good-bye to the family and friends you’ve made.  I never imagined I’d be so warmly welcomed into our community and would form such strong bonds while here.  If nothing else, it’s all the more reason to come back and visit in the future.  I will never forget my time here and look forward to making new memories when I return.  Until next time, Ecuador!

See yourself living in Ecuador? Apply now to be a Program Director!