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! 

A Beginner’s Guide to Riding the Bus in Ecuador

The bus is definitely the most widely used form of public transportation in Ecuador. What’s it like to ride the buses of Ecuador? Fantastic question. Wonder no longer, I have the inside scoop for you.  What follows is an in-depth breakdown of what to expect on a bus ride, from embarkation to disembarkation, including the key characters you’ll encounter along your journey.

Let’s start with getting on the bus. Most bus routes have established bus stops, but know that you can pretty much make any spot on the street your own personal bus stop.  Here, we “hail” buses the same way we hail cabs: raise your hand out in the street, and the bus driver will know to stop.  I use the term “stop” lightly because the buses of Ecuador never truly stop.  You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  While we’re on the subject, allow me to introduce you to your first character in the comedy of errors that is your bus ride: The Driver.

The Driver

His main responsibilities include driving the bus and opening the front and back doors. Usually, he is good about doing the latter because there are buttons passengers can press to alert him to open the door.  Sometimes though, passengers just yell “Gracias!” to get his attention, and he eventually opens the door.  The driver is also (apparently) responsible for never truly stopping, for speeding up right before speed bumps and for cutting every turn REALLY close, especially when passing other buses.

At night, most of the buses have unnecessarily flashy colorful lights on the outside and inside (which I assume is controlled by the driver), and on long bus rides, many buses play movies with obnoxiously loud volume (which I also assume is controlled by the driver… who probably just selfishly wants to hear what’s happening).  You will have almost no contact with the driver along your Ecuadorian Bus Journey, but I figured he was worth mentioning in case you had any curiosity about who the man behind the wheel was.

In reality, the driver is merely a figurehead.  The true person running the show is our next character, The Ayudante.

The Ayudante

The driver’s right-hand man.  Responsible for collecting the bus fare (or pasajes) from every passenger (an extremely difficult job if you remember that they have to walk on a moving (and often really crowded) bus with a handful of coins to collect fare and give change.  Of course, the ayudante (the Spanish word for helper) expertly holds two stacks of coins in his palm and folds either a $20 bill or a $10 and keeps it weaved in his fingers.  Ayudantes are usually seen repping their respective buses by wearing polos with the bus name embroidered on them.  Although I’ve been using the pronoun “he”, every now and then you will be pleasantly surprised by a female ayudante (who usually accessorizes her uniform with a jacket and fanny pack).


Other responsibilities of the ayudante include wiping off the fog from the windshield and doors of the bus, yelling to the driver when he should stop/can keep driving and yelling at passengers to get on or off the bus.  Upon waving a bus down, the first person to hop off the bus will be the ayudante who will say the following, repeating phrases in rapid fire Spanish: “Suba! Suba! Suba! Siga no mas!”, which both essentially mean “climb up/get on.”  This is always particularly comical to me because this is partially what makes the Ecuadorian bus experience seem like such a rushed affair.  Of course I’m going to get on the bus! What else did you think I was going to do?? Sit here and ponder whether or not to get on?? Just give me a second, gosh!

It is, of course, worth mentioning that despite the average height of this country being well under 5’6”, the stairs on the buses are HUGE steps, making it quite impossible to “suba” as quickly as the ayudantes order you to.  It is also worth mentioning that the ayudantes are responsible for grabbing toddlers that are trying to get on and off the bus and helping them.  None of the parents seem to mind that a total stranger is grabbing their children and helping them on or off a vehicle that is still moving, so I guess it is a welcomed service.

So you’ve ascended the stairs. You grab onto the handlebars attached to the ceiling while the bus wildly swings left and right.  If you’re unlucky, the bus is packed and you’re crammed against some of the characters I’m about to mention.  If you have things in your hand, you simultaneously juggle them while finding your change to give the ayudante when he or she circles around and asks for it. If you’re lucky, the bus is not too crowded and you’re able to stumble to your seat and more comfortably look for your pasaje in your wallet.  The main question is- where do you sit?

The front is not ideal for a variety of reasons.  If you are claustrophobic, it can seem crowded in the front when people are waiting to get off.  If you are a nervous person, you probably don’t want to see how close the driver always comes to almost hitting other buses. If you are an impatient person, you don’t want to be directly behind the driver’s seat because there is usually a wall there that blocks your view.  Finally, if you are an easily frustrated person, you probably don’t want to read the signs that encourage you to wear your seat belt (because there aren’t any) or the signs that discourage you from getting on or off a moving bus (because you have no choice in this matter).  So the front is out.

The back is also not ideal for a variety of reasons.  To start, it’s treacherous to walk on a moving Ecuadorian bus.  Unless you’re an ayudante, you should try to minimize your time spent walking in the aisle. Next, in the same way the front gets crowded, the back does as well because there’s a back door.  At times, the driver forgets to close the back door so you will often be subjected to the elements (rain and wind). Finally, the back of the bus is the least smooth ride out of all the seating options.

This leaves us to pull a Goldilocks and sit right in the middle. This gives you the vantage point you need, the space you want and the perfect amount of life or death time spent walking in the aisle.

Now you’re sitting in your seat. Different buses have different seat cushions and window decoration combos. (Trust me, you’ll KNOW if your bus is a fancy new one with leather seats, or if it’s been in circulation for a while and needs a tune up.) You pay the ayudante and now have time to people-watch until you have to get up and get off.  Who’s around you?

The Sleeping Old Guy 

Does exactly as his name suggests. No surprise there. Usually is wearing a felt fedora and a sweater vest.  Generally not problematic unless he stops leaning against the window and starts leaning on your shoulder in his sleep.  I mean, who wants to push a sleeping old guy off their shoulder? It just seems cruel.

The Lady with the Huge Sacks Stuff

This lady doesn’t usually sit, because of her huge bags (of vegetables, of blankets, of fruits, of plants).  If she’s an older woman, most people will help her out with carrying her things and offer her their seat. This woman is usually harmless, unless in her huge bags she has other contents, bringing me to our next character…

The Lady with the Live Chickens

Oh yes, she exists. You don’t know what’s in the bags until they move… or make noise…or both.

The Guy with the Adorably Small Animals

One of my favorite frequent flyers.  Bonus points if the guy is cute.  Typically carries tiny puppies, but sometimes these guys also have little kittens.

The Students

These troublemakers come in waves based on the time of day.  If school just let out or is about to start, prepare yourself for an influx of students in matching uniforms popping gum, laughing and listening to music. They’re generally mellower in the morning before school.  But if you’re on the bus in the afternoon, forget it.

The Salesperson

Can be any age and any gender.  Typically gets on the bus from the front entrance and gives a schpeel on what they’re selling and why.  Merchandise ranges from fruit to candy to gum to pencils to highlighters to homemade ice cream. After the schpeel, the salesperson will walk up and down the aisles offering his products to the passengers. At times, the passengers take the products, and when the salesperson returns they either pay him for it or just give it back.

The Entertainer

My personal favorite.  Has a boombox and sings or raps over music.  At times brings a guitar.  After the performance, he walks down the aisle to collect donations from passengers.

Finally, thanks to the ayudante (who yells every single stop as you approach it) you realize your stop is the next one.  If you’re sitting in the aisle seat, it’s easy to get up.  If you’re sitting in the window seat you essentially climb over the person in the aisle seat (because they usually don’t get up for you).  I didn’t specifically profile this person, but I’d call them The Jerk if I were going to make such a profile. The Jerk is the umbrella term for anyone who sits in the aisle seat and won’t simply move into the window seat for you to sit next to them. Conversely, this person does not get up when you need to leave, either.

Anyways, you’re almost there. You climb over The Jerk and stumble into the aisle.  You keep stumbling down the stairs and hop off the bus that’s still moving.  Pro tip: walk off the bus with your right foot so that the bus doesn’t catch it while it’s moving forward.

And there you have it.  You just survived your first trip (and every succeeding trip because they are all the same) on an Ecuadorian bus.  Although this was a painstaking amount of detail, for further explanation, check out this video I’ve spliced together for your viewing pleasure.  

Lost In Translation

Mishaps in Communication

No trip to a foreign country is complete without its fair share of language blunders and miscommunications.  If you’re an MPI Program Director living in Ecuador for an extended period of time, there is even more time to adequately embarrass yourself.  Although we have all taken Spanish classes in school, the Spanish language has still managed to confuse, tongue-twist and humiliate us in ways we just had to share.

We have swallowed our pride to form this list of false cognates (Spanish words that sound/look like English words but have different meanings) that we have either used ourselves or felt the need to warn other English speakers about. The list is organized in categories of increasing embarrassment, so if you’re going to pay attention to any particular section, it should probably be the last one!

Food Faux Pas:

·      Atún: This means tuna. Don’t forget it.

·      Aceituna: This means olives. No clue who made that decision!

·      Sano:  This means healthy. So don’t get worried when it sounds like people are talking about the mental health of vegetables (sane).

·      Limón: Lime. Lemons don’t really exist in Ecuador, which I guess makes this a bit easier.  However, I have heard a lemon referred to as a lima before, which makes my head spin.

·      Sopa: This means soup.  Soap is jabón. This will prevent you from asking your hotel for Campbell’s to clean yourself off in the shower.

You’ve Just Gotta Laugh at These:

·      Bombero: Fireman. The good guys. Don’t panic when you hear this word. Okay, maybe you should panic a little…and probably evacuate your house… but for fire reasons, not for explosives.

·      Codo:  Elbow. You’ll never get the Wi-Fi code if you use this word to ask for it.

·      Bizarro: Brave or valiant.

·      Bizarre: Strange or weird.  Get these straight when trying to explain to your friends about a cute guy you recently met.

·      Constipado: Congested. Relax - the people around you aren’t trying to open up to you about their personal digestive issues; they just have colds.

·      Carpeta: Folder. Usually only a problem if you are a teacher, an employee in a paper store or a person trying to redecorate your home.

·      Vaso: Glass. You’ll be disappointed at the size of the vase they give you for your flowers if this is what you ask for.

·      Librería: Bookstore. (Library is biblioteca). Usually only problematic if you had been expecting to check out a book for free and get to the counter and are asked to pay.

·      Soportar: To tolerate. If someone says this about their opinions of your ideas, just know that it doesn’t mean they’re passionately jumping on the bandwagon.

Now That’s Just Cruel:

·      Billón: A trillion.

·      Mil: A thousand. Don’t even get me started about these.

·      Colegio: High School.

·      Bachillerato: High School Diploma. Yup, I’m sure there are many people in this country who think I am less educated than I actually am.

·      Estrechar: To reduce; narrow.

·      Estirar: To stretch. Told ya these were cruel.

These May Cause Some Problems:

·      Condescender: To consent to; to comply.  You should probably start taking notes now.

·      Delito: Crime. Not as delightful as we’d expected.

·      Fabrica: Factory.  If you go into a store asking for some of this, you may get way more than you had asked for…

·      Éxito: Success. In case of an emergency, although yes, you’d probably want success, I think what you’re really looking for is the salida.

·      Caliente: Hot… as in attractive. If it’s a hot day, say tengo calor. You’ll sound way more humble.

·      Discusión: Argument. I may suggest making flash cards at this point.

·      Grosería: Vulgarity; bad word. Don’t ask for this. It won’t make you many friends.  Ask instead for la tienda or el mercado.

You REALLY Don’t Want to Mess These Up:

·      Introducir: To insert. If you want to introduce your male friend to a girl, use presentar. This will keep you from getting slapped.

·      Embarazada: Pregnant. You’ll be way more embarrassed if you mess this up than you were at whatever caused you to use the false cognate in the first place.

·      Molestar: To annoy; to bother. Don’t call the police if you hear two young kids using this word. He probably just pulled her hair or took her toy.

·      Nudo: Knot.  Imagine the possibilities of messing this one up…

·      Excitado: Sexually aroused.  If you’re just excited to see your friends or family or to start your new job, use emocionado. This will save you a lot of strange looks.

We hope you have enjoyed reading some of our most embarrassing misuses of language here in may want to study up if you plan to visit!






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!