Cuba, Ecuador, Exploring, Travel

collecting houses

A traveler is a dreamer. A traveler rejects their comfort zone and longs for something different, for immersion in the unknown, for the chance to walk in the shoes of another.

In Cuba we talked about the possibility of one day owning a home there. We dreamed of finding the perfect spot, close to the malecón and the bustle of downtown, but also near friends and family. As we walked around Havana I started pointing out any house or apartment building that called my attention. “There is it, that’s our house!” I collected dozens of houses all around the city, and now in Ecuador as well, everywhere I go.

I’ve created so many lives for myself this way. Lives in which I’m living in the crumbling but majestic ruins of Old Havana, ones where I’m a campesina in the Andes mountains tending herds, lives in which I live in sprawling estates along the coast, fenced in by palm trees.

Meet my houses:

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Ecuador, The Brain Food Series

The Brain Food Series: Amor & Exile

True Stories of love across America’s Borders. Its a book that I found tucked away in the bookshelves of the Manna Project volunteer house, and I just finished reading it for the third time. Before moving to Ecuador I had never really thought about U.S. Immigration policy that much, even though I was living in New York City surrounded by new immigrants and had friends whose parents and other relatives were undocumented. I was studying Spanish and Latin American Studies in college, and for me that meant just Latin America– I wasn’t as interested in Latino populations in the United States. It wasn’t until I moved to Ecuador that I began to learn that such a simple distinction between Latin American issues and Latino issues isn’t so easy any more… they’re becoming more intertwined by the day.

Amor & Exile starts out slowly, with the authors setting a background of the history of Latin American immigration to the United States, moving through WWII and the Bracero program to NAFTA and the mass exodus from rural northern Mexico to the U.S. border states. The chapters then begin to alternate between the book’s two authors, an immigration law expert and a woman whose life has been impacted in every way by the immigration laws of our nation. They weave together their knowledge and experiences to show multiple perspectives of the issue: the big picture, and the individual, human side, which proves to be the most intriguing aspect of the book. Nicole Salgado’s heart-warming story of falling in love with her husband Marguerito turns heart-wrenching as she pulls back the complex layers of his story to reveal the impact that his undocumented crossing into America would later have on their marriage. Faced with a mandatory ten-year ban that would force them to self-exile from the US in hopes that a decade later he could finally get a visa to live legally in his wife’s nation, they moved to his hometown in Mexico, becoming victims of deeply flawed and unjust immigration system in the process.

Nicole was forced to choose between her marraige and her country, a decision that millions of spouses of undocumented immigrants in the United States are often forced to make, to heart-wrentching, life-changing consequences.

I’ve never felt personally closer to this issue of immigration in the United States, even though I’m living my life thousands of miles away in Ecuador. Its not uncommon to meet Ecuadorians that have connections to the United States through family and friends that have immigrated to California, Chicago, or New York. A lot of them express their desires to visit their families in the States, but the prohibitive U.S. visa process only lets the richest Ecuadorians do so. Many  are trapped in limbo, as they can’t visit their relatives, and their undocumented relatives can’t visit them. It breaks my heart that due to the flaws in our immigration system, turned every election cycle into an unfulfilled promise, a bargaining chip to try to win the Latino vote, families are ripped apart, many in ways that will never have remedy.

In the age of Donald Trump and senseless, fear-motivated reactions to immigrants from a certain region, with a certain skin color, what we need are more stories like Nicole’s, more stories that I hear from Ecuadorians all the time. We need to see the human side of this issue. Our country has always believed in the sacred institution of the family, but when it comes down to living out this value, we seem to have a problem when that family speaks a different language than us, or was born in a different place. Instead of building walls we need to build bridges, we need to build understanding and compassion.

By 2050, 1 in every 3 Americans will be Latino. Did you know that? The United States is entering its greatest demographic shift ever… EVER. Its so common in the face of what we don’t know, or don’t understand, to respond with fear. But it is much more worthwhile to respond with compassion and empathy and love.

Choose love.

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Ecuador, Exploring

C & C

Chloe Gbai is the coolest human…you should meet her. No really, you should. Shes making her own major at NYU thats this cool combination of documentary film and social and cultural analysis, and I’m hoping she’ll invite me to be her date to the Oscars one day. She’s also an awesome, caring person that likes to talk about important things with me in fields in South America. Even though we only spoke Spanish to eachother for the first time last week, I appreciate that our friendship is woven in with Latin America, as well as eating good food, Jesus, and New York City. Last February I went to Buenos Aires to hang with her for a two weeks [research grant for my thesis? or extended vacation to hang out with Chlo? to this day I am still uncertain…], so this time she came to me, spending her spring break last week with me in Ecuador. She came right on the heals of two insane, tumultous weeks of spring break volunteers invading our home, so it was more than perfect timing to escape from Sangolqui with her and spend time in some of my favorite places in Ecuador.

It started in Otavalo, an indigenous town in the north of the country known for its insanely awesome market with all the awesome thing that you could ever want to own from Ecuador. Even thought it was my fourth time going to Otavalo [and likely won’t be my last…] I still managed to find something else I just couldn’t live without, and ended up buying a table cloth and a table runner for an apartment I don’t yet have…classic. Chloe took home the most ubiquitiously Ecuadorian object that there ever was– a cozy alpaca blanket with a llama-printed design. After spending our money on these most requisite of objects we headed to the volcanic crater lake of Cuicocha and hiked for a bit along the rim before heading back to Quito.

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Next stop was the cloud forest of Mindo, where we spent time wandering and exploring the town in the pouring rain, eating pizza, and sleeping under mosquito nets.It was my second time in Mindo, and going back with Chloe made me fall in love with it all over again– two hours on a bus from Quito and you’re down the side of the mountain in a special little crevice of forest surrounded by hummingbirds and beautiful nature. The highlight was definitely ziplining– it was so amazing to be soaring high above the forest, even if I was praying the entire time under my breath and probably creeping out the guides.

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Chloe’s time in Ecuador ended very unceremoniously with a very Ecuadorian occurrence– we both got food poisoning. It sucked, but I am thankful that it was only just for the last few hours of her time here.

It was really sad to see her go–I don’t think you all understand the level of my girl-crush on this awesome human–and I don’t like not living near her any more. Why can’t all the people that I love just move to one awesome place together? Until that happens [fingers crossed] adventures in Ecuador will have to do. Miss you already, Chlo!

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Ecuador

nod and smile

My Spanish is getting so much better here– better than its ever been, and I’m loving it. When I first arrived here over six months ago Manna Project paid for me and the rest of the new Program Directors to have 40 hours of Spanish school to help us build a stronger foundation. I was a bit annoyed  after learning and re-learning Spanish grammar all the way from middle school up until I was a stressed, over-caffeinated college student to have to sit through forty hours more of classes… but surprise, surprise, it was wonderful. My Spanish teacher Ivan and I mostly talked about music, watched Ecuadorian movies about hitchhiking and unrequited love, and covered the stray grammar point and vocabulary word that had fallen through the cracks of learning Spanish in academia in the States.

Six months of daily use has done wonders, and my Spanish has never been nearly this good. My classes with Ivan are over, but I have a new Spanish teacher now…my ever-patient boyfriend José, who doesn’t laugh at me when I butcher the pronunciation of things, and knows how to poke just the right amount of fun at me to make me feel comfortable rather than discourged. He likes teaching me curse words in Spanish while reminding me never to say them and points out how sing-songy and romantic my Spanish is becoming from talking with him all the time. He’s giving me the time and space to realize that showing my personality isn’t necessarily dependant on the English language anymore.

But there are definitely times that I have to resort to the nod and smile technique. José is from Cuba, which has a historically difficult accent to understand… he kindof swallows the end of words sometimes without realizing how hard it is for me to understand him like that. At this point he definitely knows when I’m glossing over words I haven’t heard before, and he’s stopped letting me get away with things like that now and helping me learn the things I still don’t know.

There are some moments like that that can be totally frusterating.. not knowing simple words like “cranberries” at the grocery store, or not knowing how to explain to someone how much I missed them while I was at home for three weeks for Christmas, or accidentally saying the word bitch instead of t-shirt because they is just a one syllable difference. Then there are those other moments when I feel like I will just never be able to feel at home in Spanish… or here. When bus drivers assume that I am a tourist and tell me in cobbled-together English that they’re not headed to downtown Quito, to tourist central… yeah dude, I know, I’m just trying to go to the grocery store to grab some milk and cereal from breakfast tomorrow. Man, it’s hard sometimes. I’m fluent now, and I feel confident saying that, but it’s still hard. Gringa Latina isn’t an easy concept to understand, or to live.

When I told my family and friends that I was dating José, I think more than anything they were most surprised that we communicate only in Spanish. Yes… only in Spanish. They know how to say things like hola and dónde está el baño, but the rest is mostly jibberish to them. I don’t think they can wrap their heads around the idea that to me it isn’t jibberish anymore. Every day I am untangling the bits of Spanish that are still jibberish to me; I am growing more comfortable expressing even the most confusing, exciting, lovely emotions in Spanish.

Nod and smile, fake it ’til you make it. I’m giving it time and all the patience I can muster, and its turning in to something really beautiful.

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Ecuador

a mellow return

Its been unseasonably lovely in the Valley these past few days: bright sun and warm, dry air that is uncharacteristic of the rainy season. Today in an attempt to break up the monotony of working on a presentation I’ll be giving on Tuesday morning I laid in the sunlight that was bathing the porch and bleaching the clothes on the line. Just when I thought I had gotten used to the rhythm of the rainy season–the mild, grey mornings and the 2 pm downpours–Ecuador decides to try something different for a change.

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Its a little paradoxical to be back here after 3 weeks in the States…a mixture of culture shock and  feeling home all at once in a way that I didn’t really think was possible. Early Monday morning after a late arrival the night before, José and I walked around the historic district in Quito, and I was really thrown off guard by how Ecuador everything was; in 3 weeks a part of me had forgotten what it’s like here. What it’s like to be entirely bathed in Spanish [including José’s breathlessly quick Cuban accent], to pay twelve cents for a roll for breakfast, to walk through the bustling streets framed by brightly-colored Spanish colonial buildings. I asked him to speak a little more slowly for me, and with a few less cubanismos, and we found some quiet church steps to rest on while my brain recalibrated to its Ecuador setting. When I got back to the Manna house in the Valley we tried to figure out if this feeling is reverse culture shock, or reverse reverse culture shock, as if putting a name on it makes it easier to shuttle quickly between different worlds.

For as long as I was gone and for as shocking as it was in the first few moments I was back, coming back to Ecuador feels like coming home. I even called it home–that emotional and semi-sacred label–few times without thinking while I was back in the States, referring to this crazy house on the corner of Francisco Clerk and Dario Figueroa and to this amazing life I’m building here. I am settling back in here well; it feels as if I’ve returned back to my Ecuadorian normal without missing a beat.

On Wednesday night José and I thought we were going to church, but instead found ourselves at a church member’s housewarming party across the Valley. Nearly the whole congregation was packed into their new living room, couches and coffee tables pushed aside and guests overflowing into the kitchen. As I looked around at the sea of faces of people that I am getting to know well, I was at first filled with that sense of fear and lack of belonging that cultural barriers dig into us; “how could I ever get to know these people or consider them my church family, I am an outsider here and always will be,” I heard Fear whispering in my ear. It wasn’t until the end of the night, when we were piling into the back of the pastor’s pickup truck that I was able to fully shake that feeling. As six of us squeezed into the truck bed, the rest of our new friends gathered around us as we waited to take off, talking and laughing under the street lights and the full moon. As we pulled out of the driveway, the family waved goodbye and reminded that we are always welcome back–that the doors will always be open to us. As we headed home we glided down the dark streets of Sangolqui past spots I know well, and memories of the past five months melded with hopes and dreams for the next seven. The night air was chilly, and José put his arm around me and held my hand for the first time in front of our church friends; like a good amigo Javier started giving him shit about it and didn’t quit until I started poking fun back at him. In the face of Fear, in the face of cultural pushback, I am reminded of a beautiful Truth– that I have felt at home here and over the next seven months [or more…] I will feel even more at home every day.

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Ecuador, Exploring, Travel

pics from up north

Almost a month later and I’m still in awe of our trip to the Northern Highlands of Ecuador… an amazing long weekend in Otavalo and El Angel that was definitely one of my favorite trips that I’ve taken in Ecuador so far. Right now I’m supposed to be planning my last English class of the semester for my students, but instead I’m looking through my pictures and day-dreaming about all our adventures. Enjoy these pictures!

motor boats in volcano crater lakes

motor boats in volcano crater lakes

my friend Squid (Sydney)

my friend Squid (Sydney) and I at Laguna Cuicocha… a volcano crater lake

lovely churches in small-town Ecuador

lovely churches in small-town Ecuador

El Angel Ecological Reserve... one of the most magical places I've ever been

El Angel Ecological Reserve… one of the most magical places I’ve ever been

frailejones...special cacti that only grow in the Reserve

rolling clouds and frailejones…these are special, ancient cacti that only grow in the Reserve

Polylepsis forest

Polylepsis forest

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Ecuador, Food

foodfoodfood

In the past month or so, Manna Project Ecuador has been on a great push to create a cookbook of Ecuadorian foods that we will use to fundraise this holiday season. My wonderful roommate Amelia has been incredibly generous and hardworking in spearheading this project, and in the past few weeks we been eating all Ecuadorian food all the time to prepare the cookbook. Heres some pictures of our recent efforts and all the wonderful food we’ve been enjoying!

Making corn and bean empanadas!

Making corn and bean empanadas!

Tortilla Completa-- the most traditional Ecuadorian meal. Complete with meat, llapingachos [cheesy potatoes], a fried egg, beets, salad, and avocado

Tortilla Completa– the most traditional Ecuadorian meal. Complete with meat, llapingachos [cheesy potatoes], a fried egg, beets, salad, and avocado

Colada Morada-- we made this delicious drink one day with our English students. It includes many different kinds of fruit including blackberries, pineapple, strawberries, and babaco, as well as brown sugar and purple corn flour for color!

Colada Morada– we made this delicious drink one day with our English students. It includes many different kinds of fruit including blackberries, pineapple, strawberries, and babaco, as well as brown sugar and purple corn flour for color!

 

Guaguas de Pan. These accompany the Colada Morada to serve as the traditional Día de los Difuntos [Day of the Dead] treat of Ecuador.

Guaguas de Pan– these delicious bread babies filled with jam accompany the Colada Morada to serve as the traditional Día de los Difuntos [Day of the Dead] treat in Ecuador. Traditionally on this holiday, Ecuadorians will take the Colada Morada and Guaguas de Pan to the cemetery and ‘share’ them with their deceased loved ones.

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