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.


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! 

The Scoop on Ecuadorian Junk Food

I’ll admit... this title is a bit misleading.  Most of the junk food that exists in Ecuador is the same junk food that exists in the United States.  What makes it Ecuadorian is the experience of choosing and buying it, AKA the ridiculously low price of it and the fact that it is (dangerously) available on practically every street corner. Lucky for you, you’ve got me to help you navigate through all your future guilty Ecuadorian junk food purchases.  Let’s dive in.

Pictured below is your typical corner store. There’s usually a fridge for ice cream, a fridge for drinks, racks for cookies, crackers and chips and shelves for the 18+ items (mainly boxed wine – which tastes like the box itself - and the occasional bottle of liquor). To avoid early onset diabetes (which is a serious impending doom many tourists face upon arrival because of the prevalence of such corner stores), I’ve detailed some do’s and don’ts, some price ranges and some tricks and tips to help you out.

Perhaps what makes junk food purchases the most difficult here is that nutrition facts are fairly nonexistent.  Some products contain nutrition facts, but the majority of them just have labels in red, yellow or green that tell you that a product is alto, medio or bajo (high, medium or low) in sal, grasa or azucar (salt, fat, sugar).  Kiss your concrete numbers good bye; Ecuador only gives you a rough idea of how much damage you’re doing to your arteries.  I know it’s hard, but you’re going to have to exercise all the self-control you promised yourself you’d have…from all your New Years’ Resolutions combined.

Ice cream:

Topsy Bars

Your typical vanilla ice cream and chocolate shell.  Particularly dangerous because it can be finished in about 5 bites and only costs $0.30… which naturally begs the question… why not just buy two?  Sixty cents and 10 bites? That math totally adds up.


These are a splurge. Think designer ice cream bars.  Comes in either coffee-chocolate or strawberry.  I have yet to hear praise for the strawberry bar, so if it’s a treat yo’self day and you’re willing to drop the $1.25, pick the former.

Bon ice

These might single-handedly be fueling the energy of the youth of Ecuador. $0.15 ice pops.  All flavors… and practically all you can eat because of the price. Perfect for if you need a lil’ somethin’ somethin’ that’s cold.

Topsy Cones

One-buck-chuck’s. Fairly fancy: cone with ice cream and chocolate syrup, sometimes with M&Ms on top. Sometimes get soggy in the packaging and never truly fills me up. Not sure about the calories, but I tend to think it’s more economical to get two of the Topsy Bars instead… and still have change to spare!



Usual suspects are available.  250mL bottles all the way up to the 2L bad boys.  You can feel less guilty and quench your caffeine cravings all for $0.50!


Hardly ever more than $0.50, unless you’re in a particularly touristy area.  No excuse not to hydrate.


Carbonated water.  When you ask for water it’s important to specify “sin gas” or “con gas.” Don’t forget that detail!

Manzana Soda

(Apple Soda).  Step awayyyy from the bottle.  It’s a horrendous combination of sugar and DayQuil and food coloring.  They love it here. I guarantee you won’t.


Energy drink.  Also tastes like liquid candy.  Far better flavor than Manzana, though.  Chances are, if you need the energy that badly, you’ll endure the sugar overload.



Ritz are available, as are Salticas (think Ecuadorian Ritz knock-off).  Prices are usually about the same…Salticas are slightly healthier (smaller in size, less buttery).  Of all the snacks to buy at a tienda, I recommend staying away from crackers.  You will inevitably come down with a stomach bug in your time here and end up on a strict cracker diet.  Best not to get sick of them before they’re all you eat for a week straight.


Rather dangerous because they are only $0.50.  Almost never Doubled Stuffed, so in my humble Oreo connoisseur opinion, no sense in bothering with plain old Oreos, even if they are only fifty cents.

Chips Ahoy

Hard to come by! If you see them, don’t think twice! Buy them!!

Amor Wafers 

Never a bad choice.  You can have your pick from vanilla, chocolate, lime and strawberry.  Solid impulse-buy.


Banana chips. Probably one of the best purchases you could make from a tienda. They come in personal bags as well as family size bags.  Be prepared for the addiction. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Picante (or spicy) chifles are the move if you want a little more zest in your life.  

Yucca Chips

Stay away from these. They are merely a constant disappointment when compared to the magic of chifles.


Essentially cheese doodles.  Stable party snack.  Great to munch on on long bus rides.  Majority of the time we only buy them because we like saying “K-Chitos.”


Comes in small packages (think Danimals) or bigger containers with granola or cookies on top. Great idea if you’re in a hurry and want to pretend you’re being healthy.  Just be warned that these containers come with a plastic spoon (a VERY TINY plastic spoon), so it will certainly take you longer than you’d like to finish this yogurt.



$0.50 chocolate and peanut bars.  Life-changing. Ecuadorians like to hold them in their hands for a while until they melt and then eat them like Go-Gurt. I prefer my chocolate bars solid, but if you’re feeling adventurous, I say go for it. As if a $0.50 chocolate bar wasn’t problematic enough, Manicho also comes in King Size boxes with at least 10 bars in them, for about $2.  Self-control, people.

Lollipops (Chupetes)

Another $0.15 purchase.  Generally only available in flavors like cherry and grape. Unless you’re a lollipop addict, need to use up the 15 pennies you have lying around or have a small child to please, you can generally stay away from chupetes.

Kit-Kats and M&Ms

They exist, but taste different.  If you’re really missing chocolate from home, buy it, but chances are you’ll be slightly disappointed.  Stick to Manicho.


If you’re lucky (or unlucky depending on how you see it) many tiendas double as panaderias, or bakeries. It is nearly impossible to walk by a panaderia and not stop in to make a quick, guilty purchase after being unwillingly subjected to the heavenly scent of the sweet, fresh bread.  What’s worse, almost every piece of bread costs a mere $0.30.  Better start lovin’ your love handles.  Below is a quick list of the usual carbolicious teases you’ll encounter:

Standard rolls

Come in white or wheat.  Always soft and warm.  Sometimes come in other shapes (braids, buns, etc.)  

Pineapple or guava bread

More like a pastry (on the flakier side). Has a sweet yellow filling (can be pineapple or guava).  Both are delicious… if you’ve got allergies to either one, make sure you ask before just blindly grabbing something!

Cheese bread

These are usually called empanadas (even though they look like your standard roll).  They come with sugar on top, which is an incredible combination with the salty cheese. This is highly recommended!!


Flakey, buttery, soft and warm.  There is really no better combination of adjectives.  Croissants are obviously delicious, but for the sense of practicality, I’d avoid staying away from them because there’s no neat way to eat a croissant.  If you grab one to eat on the bus, only 50% of it will end up in your stomach… the other 50% will end up on your stomach.

Chocolate bread

This is a bit of a disappointment.  It always looks better than it tastes.  I’m not sure what it is about the chocolate that’s used for this bread… but it usually lets me down.

Corn muffins

It’s not very often that you see these, so if you do stumble upon it, by all means BUY IT AND EAT IT!

Consider spending some time in Ecuador to try these tasty treats yourself! Learn more about Manna Project's volunteer opportunities on with our upcoming online info session on Monday, November 21st at 8PM EST. Join the Info Session here: 

Seventy-Two Memorable Hours in Colombia

One of the many perks of being a Program Director is being able to travel around and outside of Ecuador on our off days.  I fully took advantage of this during the holiday weekend of Guayaquil’s Independence by traveling to Colombia.  As both a history and current events buff, I knew Colombia would make an interesting trip because of its recent developments in finalizing a peace deal with its long-time civil war opponent Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

It would not have been possible to truly see the beauty of Bogotá and the areas surrounding it without the help of hostel owner, Lili.  While I was there, she was also hosting study abroad students from Mexico and a backpacker from Finland.  Lili showed complete Colombian hospitality with the added bonus of helping me practice my conversational Spanish and pronunciation.

                                                        Vincent and Lili

                                                        Vincent and Lili

Early on my first morning, I left the city and traveled north to Zipaquirá to visit Catedral de Sal. Yes, you read that right: an underground salt cathedral in a cave. After a tour of the cathedral, I walked around the historic center and enjoyed some true Colombian arepas.

On my second day, I traveled just an hour outside Bogotá to a town called Choachí, which holds the tallest waterfall in Colombia (La Chorrera).  It stands at 590 meters (1935 feet) and is such a beautiful sight to behold.  Lili brought some of the other hostel guests on a day trip of hiking and swimming.  La Chorrera was one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve seen, and I was so surprised that I didn’t see more tourists along the hike coming to visit such a natural wonder.

Of course, a trip to Colombia wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Historic Center.  This was an area I was looking forward to seeing, not only because of its history but also because of the high attention it's been given during Colombia’s recent political developments.  We made our way through museums, some of Bogotá’s first restaurants, oldest universities and colonial-era government buildings. Perhaps most interesting was passing the peaceful campers protesting in Bolívar Square.

Despite only spending three days in Colombia, I was quickly able to realize how warm-hearted Colombians are and how deep of a history Colombia has. I will always be grateful to Lili for making my trip unforgettable, and I hope to return as soon as I can.  

See yourself spending a weekend in Colombia? Apply now! 

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!

Apply today to be a Program Director in Ecuador or Nicaragua!