Que te vaya bien // May you go well

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Several months back, I proclaimed that “the thought of leaving this land pains me.” Although that sentiment hasn’t changed at all, the time has come where I must say goodbye to Ecuador, the country that has changed everything. It’s the first country that I’ve inhabited for a bit where I actually feel I might like to settle down here, in some far away future. Saying goodbye seems surreal, and as I have bid farewell to my friends, my family, my places, the question has arisen: what will I miss the most? What is it that I love the most about this Ecuador? Those who are from here, who have lived here, or who have visited here, may understand that there’s something special and magical about it, that you can’t really feel until you are really here. It’s hard to put into words, but since I’ve been pondering this for some time now – eight months actually – I will do my best to explain it. In attempt to organize these musings, I’ve crafted a two-part ode, a continuación

*~*~Ode to Riobamba *~*~

In the morning, as I get ready, the bus passes in front of my bedroom window and for a split second I can peer into the locals’ lives and wonder where they are going, where they are coming from.

In the evening, I pass by Agua Potable and arrive to the soccer fields at la Ciudadela Politecnica. It’s there where I have the best view of Chambo, my absolute favorite view in Riobamba and something that I marvel at as if I were seeing it for the first time always, whether it be a tiny glimpse in the background while passing through the city center’s streets or as I get closer, approaching home or the Mercado Mayorista.

It’s there, in front of Abastos Anita, where I see my favorite street dog, always curled up and sleeping in the same spot or nearby it. Crossing la calle Madrid and almost arriving home, is another familiar canine face, intently keeping guard in front of his territory, marked by a spray paint mural of a motorcycle and the dog himself at the motorcycle stop next door. Sometimes down the street there is a wook doggy, with the biggest dreadlocked coat, roaming in the same area but always looking homeless.

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On a lucky day, you can get a glimpse (or even a complete view, depending on the month) of Taita Chimborazo.

On a luckier day, Mama Tungurahua hovers silently, a cone-shaped monster, sometimes spitting ash, sometimes snow-capped.

On an even luckier day, El Altar allows himself to be seen – the most breathtaking view in Riobamba and my favorite of all the peaks.

On the luckiest day, the sky is completely despejado, and you can see all of the mountains. This has happened maybe three times in the six months that I lived permanently in Riobamba. And it always seems to happen when I am close enough to make it to the Parque 21 de Abril, one of the higher spots in the city, to enjoy the sunset and appreciate Riobamba in its full glory.

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What does Riobamba mean to me? Haphazardly discovering a new BLESS mural, looking at the replicated-yet-oh-so-human eyes and becoming more and more intrigued by the mystery artist. Riding bikes through the streets at midnight with Wellington and racing the dogs or stopping for tres leches on the way home. The sunsets, the unbelievably marvelous sunsets, and watching them from the seat of my bicycle or from my bedroom window. Strapping my laundry bag on my back with my sarong, embodying the indigenous’ baby or goods carrying method as best as possible, and returning to the lavanderia later on to october-2016-002discover that Alejandra has found yet another way to spell my name (Chelseea, Chelsi, Chelsee, Chealse, etc.). The fact that I can return to Rio after a couple weeks on the road, walk into a bakery with my huge backpack on and they will still call me “veci.” The simple act of a morning run to the corner store, still in my PJs, to pick up anything that’s missing for my breakfast. Arriving at Winchy’s yoga class months after the last one I attended, and still feeling like part of his community, staying afterwards to share an aguita de jengibre or to record my farewell video. Riding down the steep hill to the Parque Ecológico, having coffee by the river, journaling on the lookout deck, or enjoying a lazy afternoon on the lawn, accompanied by a black dog who we named Blanca.

Riobamba, it wasn’t love at first sight – but you slowly crept up on me and showed me your beauty in silence. Además de ser matagalpina, ya soy parte riobambeña también. Gracias por compartir tus calles, tu mágica, y tu gente conmigo.

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*~*~Ode to Ecuador*~*~

I’m fresh on a bus, my head against the comfortable seat and staring in wonder towards the green rolling hills that look as if you could just melt into them, spotted with cabulla cactus plants or palm trees. White clouds hovering in the blue sky and casting shadows over the patchwork quilted valleys: this view reduces me to tears. I smile with awe and reverence at the red rock slated along the road that carries me through this beloved Sierra.

Even throughout eight months I always lived in wonder, even without conscious effort to approach things with beginner’s mind, it was impossible for me to get used to the beautiful views; I was eternally astonished, frequently exclaiming profound oohs and ahhs, deep exhales that would often startle my travel companion.

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What is it about Ecuador?

It’s the typical views in the country: cows, sheep, horses, children playing, clothes hanging on a clothesline, women working the fields in their brightly colored shawls and skirts, fires burning in the middle of nowhere.

It’s the typical views in the city: signs for sanduches and burguers, dogs on roofs, car alarms sounding the same 12-part melody that every vehicle in the country must sing, each person you pass on the street eating an ice cream cone (even cars stopping traffic to pick up a drive-by treat), classic Volkswagen bugs parked on the streets, Ecuador’s white with black license plate painted on the sides of truck beds in addition to the placard on the back end.

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It’s the customs. People walk into a restaurant and wish “buen provecho” to everyone that’s eating, no matter if you’ve ever seen that person before in your life. They say they are going to “tomar café,” which means to drink coffee – oh no it doesn’t, apparently it just means to drink whatever is available and eat something with it (bread, always bread). Everyone greets everyone, and I mean everyone. Greeting happens with a kiss on a cheek, and nothing will stop it from happening, you even have to bend down if someone is sitting down. See a group of friends walking down the street? Stop, give them a hello kiss on the cheek – each and every one, even if you don’t know them, – chat for 30 seconds, then give everyone a goodbye kiss on the cheek and continue on with your day. The man next to me on the bus crosses his heart in the father-son-holy-spirit-cross every five minutes as we pass loads of churches.

It’s the phrases. Siga no mas, chévere, deme trayendo, verás, saying but at the end of a sentence, and many more. If you want to know more about these words and their meanings, you only have to wait 30 years for me to finish my in-progress dictionary of different Spanish vocabulary and dialects from each Latin American country, collected through my own explorations.

In its own category, it’s the intonations of Ecuadorian speech and the way they say “mm hmm” or “uh-uh,” implying a “yes” in what I, as a North American, would typically understand as “no.”

It’s the food. Humitas, soups, quinoa everythang, pancito, chochos con tostado, so many potatoes, more pancito, coladas galore, quimbolito, bolon, empanadas de verde, tortillas de maíz, tortillas de trigo, ceviche de chochos, empanadas de viento, morocho, jugo de mora, and much more.

It’s the contrasts. One day you can be on a bus in the Sierra, rolling through fog covered mountains with cold air entering through the window – and the next day it’s warm air, through tropical high trees with birds circling above: same country, stark differences. Even throughout the same region it feels different; a written description doesn’t do justice to the green rolling hills of the south, which have a different feel than in the central Sierra. Either my favorite or my least favorite part is that the beautiful, tranquil landscapes are normally complemented by screaming sounds of violence in movies they show on the bus.

Perhaps what I will miss most are the random, unexpected occurrences of daily life. Arriving to the bus station, looking for a taxi and being told that we can’t be accommodated in the van because there are loads of tomatoes under the carpet in the trunk and our suitcases will squish them. Walking down the street and being hustled to purchase a set of mini plastic table and chairs. Heading over to the corner store, conversing with the shopkeeps and accepting their offer to try a new fruit I’ve never seen before called obos – they even gave me some salt to add. Maybe the best thing about this is that it’s not only in Ecuador where these random, amusing things occur – it seems to be a recurring theme throughout life in Latin America.

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Ecuador – or what I prefer to refer to as EcuAMOR – is magical, beautiful, wonder-full, incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to love every where I’ve lived, but this was different – a week in Ecuador, and it just felt good, it felt right. Before I get carried in rambling more about its beauty, me voy a despedir, it’s time to say goodbye. Ecuador, gracias por invitarme hace más de un año, gracias por compartir tu belleza conmigo, e igual, tu gente… estoy eternamente agradecida por haberte descubierto, y un día, regresaré.

And so, another Latin country has woven its threads among the strings of my heart – this time, even tighter than before. I hope this may have been the beginning of what will be a long love affair, that I will return to this soil time and time again, and that it will welcome me with arms as wide open as it has my first time.

chao ~ chels

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La vida mochilera // Backpacker life

I once had an article published that proclaimed my firm stance against backpacking and the likelihood that I would never do it. Well, the time has come for me to rescind that statement.

Being a backpacker is an amazing and humbling experience. Reasons why: the sheer freedom of carrying all of your (current) earthly possessions on your back, confirmation what it is (and how much) that you really need to survive, the somewhat meditative repetition of unpacking and repacking every few days – mostly in the same way, but always a bit different – the excitement of always glimpsing unseen territory, and perhaps most of all, the instant camaraderie and buzzing intrigue of constantly meeting new, amazing people who come from many different corners of the world but are connected by one same love of travel, among whom one can instantly connect, probably on a deeper and faster level than you could with a stranger in your own land or city.

 

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There’s a simple satisfaction that comes when everything works out perfectly: you can get your bag from the checked luggage station, have a vegetable soup and buy snacks, buy your bus ticket, make it through the vestibule and put your bag in the storage under the bus, all in time just to have it pull away as soon as you sit down. Obviously it doesn’t always happen this way either, and you must surrender to the ever-present lessons in having patience and going with the flow.

You become oddly used to sleeping among strangers, and going through the motions of arriving, getting settled, leaving again – learning the bare minimum of things you need for personal care, and the bare minimum of time you need to be connected to the internet.

Bus rides are the most inspiring, zooming along curves of the Pan-American, a road I’ve ridden many a time – but now I’m farther south, its familiar and brand new at the same time. In one 4-hour bus ride you can see three different rainbows – my days are filled with wonder. Every day is so new and different. One morning I am playing in a swimming pool with a bearded Scot, the next day I’m hiking in a national park and laughing over Indian food with girlfriends from the U.S. and Israel.

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There are so many lessons along the way – backpacking is challenging, it’s not like a vacation as many people may assume. My biggest teaching from this trip was a lesson of privilege and gratitude; I found myself without my smartphone for almost the whole time and was forced to contemplate what’s really important in this life, to remember the moment without snapping a photo. I am so grateful for everything that I possess, and even more grateful for having had my phone stolen, as it taught me to be present and really make the most of the moment, the day at my feet.

Even better is going backpacking in the same country you’ve been living in for half a year. I’d loved it for just as long, but now I was seeing it in a new and different way, through tourists’ eyes.

I was able to find nuances in new cities, learning that in Loja you pay the public bus when you get off not on, and the taxi minimum charge is different. I had hit a lot of destinations on the tourist track, but there, it was refreshing to stop and get to know a new city where I returned to being the only blond person around.

And not only did I go from living to traveling in the same country, I also went from exploring Ecuadorian culture to many others, through meeting so many international folks – conversing with Brits, Scots and Australians at the same table and arguing about the correct way to say jelly (it’s jam).

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Ever-present is the reminder that everything intertwines in the school of life. When visiting the house and museum of Oswaldo Guayasamin, a revered Ecuadorian painter, I could appreciate the references to other historical figures, and not just because I had read about them in a book. I’d been to Neruda’s house in Chile, I’d befriended Nicaraguans who fought against Somoza in the revolution.

Sometimes I have to keep my mouth shut when I meet someone who’s been in the country for weeks or months and doesn’t know what chochos are. And the typical backpacker conversation becomes more complicated, in response to “what’s your route” or “how long have you been traveling for?,” I can’t simply say “three months, coming from Peru and heading to Colombia.”

Instead it’s more like, “Oh, I’ve actually been here for six and a half months, but I haven’t been traveling the whole time, I was living in Riobamba for a while and now I am traveling around and my route is really complicated, I keep going back and forth between the same places.” And let me tell you, this is not a question-answer dance that happens just every so often but rather about five times a day. It goes a little something like this…

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with Global Glimpse, it’s a program based in the U.S. that brings groups of high school students down here for three-week educational and leadership programs.”

5 minutes later:

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with Global Glimpse, it’s a program based in the U.S. that brings groups of high school students down here for three-week educational and leadership programs.”

10 minutes later:

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with Global Glimpse, it’s a program based in the U.S. that brings groups of high school students down here for three-week educational and leadership programs.”

1 hour later:

“That’s cool! What is your job?”

“I was working with a high school exchange program.”

These conversations can get old and tiring, and sometimes you just don’t feel like talking to anyone. However, one of my biggest takeaways from this particular backpacking stint has been the breaking of the stereotype that conversations and friendships can never go deeper than that. Yes, sometimes you’re only staying in a place for one or two nights and don’t have the chance to connect with someone on a deeper level. But three nights with same group, and you feel like you’ve known them for years – or one long conversation to discover that you have so much in common with someone, and several hours after meeting it may feel like you’ve been traveling with them for weeks.

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Here’s a glimpse of my crazy route (within Ecuador only, excluding day trips as well as bus transfers), and a small taste of some of the new destinations that I visited and have not yet mentioned on my blog (it’s in shorthand, just what sticks out to me about each place).

Riobamba -> Quito -> Canoa -> Puerto Lopez -> Quito -> Secret Garden Cotopaxi -> Quito -> Mindo -> Quito -> Loja -> Vilcabamba -> Cuenca -> Guamote -> Riobamba -> Quito -> Secret Garden Cotopaxi -> Riobamba -> Latacunga -> Isinlivi -> Chugchilán -> Quilotoa -> Latacunga -> Riobamba -> Baños -> Puyo -> Tena -> Papallacta -> Quito -> Riobamba -> Cuenca -> Quito ❤

  • Canoa // a laidback beach town, devastated by the earthquake but strong in its rebuilding efforts, delicious seafood, morning walks on the beach, the ugliest sunburn I’ve ever had, picking up huge sacks’ worth of trash to earn free cocktails.
  • Puerto Lopez // fishing town, cabanas on the beach, construction, delicious Italian dinners, whale watching – calm, peaceful, humbling – Isla de la Plata, snorkeling, walking, seeing birds, rainy days.
  • Secret Garden Cotopaxi // serene, tranquil – a place where I set foot onto grounds and I am automatically at peace. The most beautiful place I have had luxury of spending time in. There are no words – it’s the kind of place you want to keep secret. A chorus of frogs sings you into meditation as you muse over the perfect, green hills, round like women’s breasts.
  • Mindo // sleepy town next to a cloud forest. Birds, butterflies, river – flowers, hummingbirds, quinoa burgers, biking to a waterfall, solo explorations. Napping on a rainy afternoon.
  • Loja // where I would love to live if not Riobamba. Hilly, trees, laidback, coffee, pretty city with an authentic feel, music and culture, a river.
  • Vilcabamba // a magical place, and not just because everybody thinks so – deserty feel, more so than rest of Sierra – valley of longevity, beautiful hills that don’t seem real – health, spa, yoga, pool, beautiful humans.
  • Cajas National Park // peaks and valleys, long rock faces, cloudy and gray but beautiful, magic Polylepis forest, reminds me of Ireland, mystical and magical, traverse up-down, lakes and squishy paramo.
  • Quilotoa loop // walking walking walking through valleys, a turquoise house on the hill, crossing rivers and fields with horses, passing so many fields of purple chochos (a beautiful, elusive plant, my first time seeing so many), interacting with locals (walking away to the sound of them repeating my name over and over, trying to pronounce it right), breathtaking, indescribable beauty.
  • Puyo // somewhat of a concrete jungle within the actual jungle, yet a good hub for day trips deeper into the Amazon, beautiful river walk in the city, a visit to the breathtaking mirador Indichuris.
  • Tena // beautiful Amazonic city, river stroll. being immersed in flowers, beautiful butterflies and birds. Hammock above the trees.
  • Papallacta // hot springs in Andean foothills, used as a respite from a long bus ride to Quito.

This was my first real backpacking stint of more than two weeks, but of course I did it a bit unconventionally. Luckily, I still had my home to return to in Riobamba, that provided not only a refuge for me to return to for a few days and re-charge every once in a while, but also a place to keep some of my stuff. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to return to Riobamba for the first time after several weeks on the road, to return to my neighborhood and the home I’d held for six months previous. Having Quito as a sort of home base for my travels as well as receiving my visitors was also amazing – I stayed at the family-owned hostel where we had stayed with our students. They were so welcoming and I always felt at home when I stepped in the door, a simple feeling that is hard to find when you’re on the backpacker trail and always visiting new places. In my explorations of Quito throughout that time, I also really got to learn my way around much more than I had before; I revisited new places but also got to see new things (as well as find new favorite places to always return to and devour their chocho hummus).

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Another unconventional adventure was when I went straight from backpacker life to the most culturally immersed I have ever been, a weekend in the home of the indigenous family where I was made godmother of their youngest child. It was a humbling experience, and made me realize that you can still have culture shock even after seven months living in that culture as a foreigner. It kept me on my toes, and confirmed for me that although I’ve discovered why people go backpacking, you must live in a country and develop relationships to find a deep, authentic connection within it. I am so grateful to have had such a unique experience and to have created strong ties with the people of Ecuador, and maybe this is even more apparent to me after having had that stuck right in the middle of my time as a tourist.

So, my ideas and travel philosophy have changed a bit – how beautiful is that? It’s a great reminder to keep an open mind and open heart to new experiences, surrendering to life and being open to something that serves me now even if it didn’t serve me before. As always, it’s in my Libra nature to find a balance in everything, and I plan to do just that from here on out: discover a beautiful balance between nomad-ing and being stable, and exploring countries in more ways than one.

chao ~ chels

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El fin del camino // The end of the road

This has been brewing within me for six months – as I’m in the midst of concluding a six-month journey, that for which I came to Ecuador in the first place. Actually, my Global Glimpse journey has lasted much longer, and as I look back upon it all, I reminisce on preparing for my first interview, in a hostel in León, Nicaragua, putting more dedication and determination into manifesting that opportunity than anything before (for those of you who know me, you know that’s saying a lot). The rest is history, and first stage of my beautiful experience with GG is detailed here (if you have no idea what Global Glimpse is, you could start here). Although some parts of my time in Nicaragua were very similar, most of my experience with GG in Ecuador has been completely different (and even more wonderful); the conclusion of this six-month period begs a new summary, a new reflection of this job that is so much more than just a job.

My original motive for coming to Ecuador was threefold; I had my main goals set – 1. Assist in the growth of the program here in its second year (create new activities and build new relationships). 2. Continue learning and growing even more, personally and professionally. 3. Take advantage of another chance to connect with my students, work on blurring the line between “Site Manager” and friend, really get to know them. Oh, and the chance to work and live in a beautiful, magical country that was new to me didn’t sound all too bad either.

It’s worth mentioning that I’ve had a new position here in Ecuador – last year as a Program Coordinator I worked with a partner for the whole six months and designed everything together. Here in Riobamba, I am one of two Site Managers – we worked independently for the first two months to each design our own completely unique program, then were joined by our Program Coordinators to help us carry out said program. I am lucky enough that my partner Jose is my perfect complement and stays completely calm when I am freaking out that we are not on schedule or organizing our materials room like a madwoman.

For me, working on the ground with GG is the perfect realization in what I want in a job – a mix between administrative and field work. Every day is different – one day, I might be in the office all day, working on my hourly detail itinerary, designing activities, or reviewing student health information; the next, I am in my “campo” clothes, crossing rivers and learning about crops in the countryside of Ecuador – or surprising myself at my ability to tell the bus driver exactly where to let us off so we can begin the twenty minute walk past fields of quinoa to the rural school we will be visiting with the students. Although the preparation period was all in anticipation of the “real” work, and carrying out the program with our students, I still loved our months in the office – riding my bike along the river to get there, being with our whole team every day (the team here in Ecuador is much smaller than in Nica as the program is brand-new), sharing snacks in our Snack Challenge, the five of us piling in one taxi to head to a meeting or lunch, walking up the hill to visit the same comedor for lunch over and over again, playing soccer or Ecua-volley after lunch, filming our takes for the GG music video, taking yoga breaks together, and of course doing the actual work.

No matter what your title or position, this job is testing in so many different ways. As Site Manager, it was nothing but a challenge to start working immediately after arriving in-country and design a brand-program in a city where I barely knew anyone or anything. Luckily, I did have the support of Fernanda, a native Riobambeña who saved my life in more than one way throughout my transition here. Also luckily, I had our country director Héctor, who pushed me to be independent and figure things out on my own. So I did what I do best as a Libra – found a balance. Somehow, I met new people, made my own connections and developed new relationships – and my program turned into a perfect mix of activities with partners that I had met through Fernanda or that they used last year, and those that I created from the ground up, which hopefully will turn into long-lasting relationships in the future. Let me tell you, it was not easy, and I think one of the things that helped me the most was blurring, or maybe even erasing, the line between my work and social life. Several people were those whom I had met on the weekends, throughout my own personal exploration of Riobamba and its culture. Like Victoria, the indigenous woman who invited me to her home and who eventually showed the same welcoming hospitality to my Glimpsers, some of whom said she was the most inspiring person they had met or that visiting her house was the most impactful activity for them. Maybe this is another secret to designing a successful itinerary – trusting your gut and utilizing the contacts with whom you personally feel good about. Plus, the amazing thing about it is that those relationships become deeper and more meaningful – and they’re not work relationships anymore; they become your friends and family.

Although there were days when I’d walk into the office feeling satisfied and accomplished, my Mary Janes dusty after a morning’s independent exploration of potential contacts and places to visit, not every meeting was inspiring or positive. Yes, there were let downs, like finding out after a million meetings with a new contact that we wouldn’t be able to work together after all. But once we had a meeting that shook me to my very soul and forced me to question my own identity, my roots, my home culture, and left me feeling discouraged and defeated with tears rolling down my face on a bus. Although we have been lucky to find those people who are accustomed to working with foreigners, who are excited and open to having exchanges with other cultures, especially from the U.S. – not everyone is, and there are some people who are closed-minded, with pre-conceived notions based off of previous negative experiences or political influences.  It can be very complicated working with some communities, or even in the city, as the people often see a gringo and automatically associate us with dollar signs – ineffective and unsustainable development practices have left them used to foreigners coming in and simply giving them money or goods, then leaving. This adds a complex layer to our work at Global Glimpse, as we are not only here to provide a life-changing experience for an underserved population of U.S. high school students, but also to create lasting, sustainable relationships with the community and support them in a beneficial way. The “gringo = $$” complex also adds another layer that we need to break through when we explain to the community members that the students come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, a lot of them don’t have the resources to pay for their trip – yet they are putting money from their own pockets into the fund they contribute to their Community Action Project (CAP), a student-designed project intended to affect sustainable change in their host community.

So, what is this “program” that I poured my heart and soul (and hours) into designing for three consecutive groups of diverse young leaders? It is two and a half weeks chock-full of inspiring and meaningful activities in and around Riobamba, Ecuador, all meant to encourage contemplation of one guiding, life-changing question: “How can I think and act as a responsible global citizen?” In addition to the standard GG themes and intended takeaways, my own program has several distinct themes: learning from the Indigenous culture and evaluating our own relationship with nature, awareness of caring for the environment, and the importance and opportunities for international education. Each activity was chosen or designed specifically with those intentions, the idea was that everything flows and fits together – nothing is random. In fact, I even created my own “road map,” detailing these connections and my “why” for everything that I’d designed, to be laminated (along with my beloved letter from one of last year’s students) and carried around with me all summer, always reminding me of my “fuel” for why I do what I do.

The program has many components: academic seminars (oops, I mean “mental warm-ups”) to provide the students with background information about the eight academic themes – history, culture, education, politics, indigenous worldview, poverty, aid and development, and global business – each of which is accompanied by an activity that allows the students to reflect more on that theme. These include a walking tour of Riobamba, a typical folkloric dance class at the local neighborhood park, a visit to an indigenous cultural center to participate in Inti Raymi, the summer solstice celebration (and the most important indigenous celebration of the year) – complete with a Pamba Mesa, a large and beautiful gathering of food provided by Pacha Mama (mother Earth, or Pachi Mami as my Chicago Glimpsers would grow to call it) that we devoured with our hands, a visit to Victoria’s house to learn how she lives off the land, creating amazing textiles using machines built with her husband’s hands and natural dyes from the plants around her house, a visit to a rural indigenous school to see a day in the life in their classrooms, guest speakers from Fulbright and the Peace Corps who shared their experiences living and teaching abroad, guest speakers from an indigenous involvement group, a politics activity designed by yours truly to reflect on the importance of being involved in our own community and our country’s political landscape, a visit to a local high school that serves low-income students to share the day with them, a speech from my roommate Wellington on the complexities of rural development projects, and a visit to Isabel’s family’s home where they grow their own organic food and where we met the origin of the very plants that nourished them on a daily basis. Some of these activities we repeated with every group, some were unique to a specific group. Not only all of this, but we also had two fun days during which we visited natural areas and desirable tourist destinations like Pailon del Diablo (“the Devil’s Cauldron”), a magnificent waterfall near Baños, as well as the mighty Chimborazo that towers over Riobamba, a destination that in itself requires a blog post dedicated solely to it (you can probably expect that sometime soon). We had two reality challenges: Living Like a Local – when we visited an incredible man named Cesar’s home and farm and learned what it’s like to produce almost all your own food, and the students questioned their definition of poverty – and Working Like a Local – where we spent a day working on farms, in communities, or with the “Canasta Comunitaria,” a local organization’s effort to promote food sovereignty and connect local producers with local consumers. The students also participated in several community service components: giving English classes to locals of any age, and discovering, designing and delivering the previously mentioned CAP, a service project for which we partnered with three amazing local organizations – Escuela Carlos Garbay, a special education school that runs a farm to teach their students basic life skills, Comunidad PUSUCA, a community about an hour from Riobamba, and Casa de la Mujer, a growing organization that supports local women who suffer from domestic violence and other inequalities. Además, we packed in Nightly Meetings every evening (daily reflections about the day and preparation for the next day), Program Seminars throughout the trip (information sessions regarding cultural differences and important preparations for following days/components), Daily Leadership Meetings (afternoon meetings to prepare the next day’s student leader of the day, El Lider del Dia) and Self Reflections (student-led group discussions after important themes or experiences). Oh yeah, and we even had time to eat three amazingly delicious meals a day: breakfast at Café del Tren, a block away from the hostel and run by an amazingly sweet couple named Carmen/Carmita and don Carlos, who makes me laugh with everything he says/does; lunch and dinner at Roma Santa, a restaurant several blocks from our hostel and run by an incredible woman named Isabel who provided us with unbelievably delicious and diverse meals, made with fresh and organic ingredients.

And ALL of this was compacted into a detailed, to-the-minute 17-day itinerary that was similar yet different for each of the three groups. So, now can you understand why it took us 3.5 months to prepare for the students’ arrival?

This is everything that I could have told you about two months ago – before the students arrived. The program was designed, the materials were ready (poster papers for our seminars, articles for mental warm-ups, sign-up and sign-out sheets, accounting materials, the list goes on and on), I had gotten my artistic urges out of my system (painting the ELDD’s hat, our airport welcome sign, and making name signs for their doors), and we were as physically, emotionally, and mentally ready as one can be before heading into a new season in an environment where there will always be something you are not prepared for (even after hours of mental health and behavioral scenario training). We would be receiving a group of 21 from Chicago, and two groups – of 18 and 14 – from New York.

But what could I have not expected, what could I have not told you at that point? How I would come to know the lyrics to “Work” by Rihanna after hearing it a million times (and, I guiltily admit, even on my own accord). How we would have dance parties after dinner. How incredibly bright and talented our students are, and how they would make things their own by adding a new rhythm to the Unity Clap or create a unique introduction ritual for the next ELDD. How our third group’s flight would be delayed for over 24 hours, demanding us to re-arrange our itinerary on the fly. How incredibly helpful and dedicated our partners and providers would turn out to be – Juanito, our trusty bus driver, whose life motto when replying to the question “How are you?” is “muy bien, excelente, y cada dia major” (very good, excellent, and better everyday), who is the calmest man in the world at the onset of a flat tire situation, who involved himself in our program so much more than expected, running errands and helping to set up our off-site meals, helping the students immensely with their CAP, and participating in almost all of our activities; Isabel, our main food provider, who went above and beyond in providing appropriate meals depending on our day’s activities and ensuring that every dietary restriction was taken care of, who provided us with something different so often that Jose and I barely repeated a meal throughout the whole season; Byron, our one-time driver for a trip to Quito, who suddenly came to our rescue in a stroke of luck when public transportation failed us.

I have to admit, there were days when I would continuously go back and forth each ten minutes between loving and hating my job. It’s hard to describe how many things there are going on at once and how a seemingly minute situation can make you – almost – lose your cool. Another thing I worked on this year, emotional intelligence! However, all of those little things that may cause me to be challenged in one moment are made up for, times 100, in all the other moments, so rewarding they cause me to question, how could I possibly be doing anything else? Despite the long hours – we’re talking 16 hour days when you pretty much go back and forth between bed and work – and minimal days off or personal time, this crazy thing happens where the energy comes out of I don’t even know where, and although you arrive home from an exhausting day and have only 7 hours to sleep until you have to get up and go do it again, you still can’t sleep out of excitement for tomorrow, for seeing their smiling faces greet you again, for the activities or reflections or experiences in general to succeed beyond your expectations. I experienced the same feeling last year, and in those very first days of this season I recognized that specific energy that came from within. That, of course, could not possibly begin to exist without COFFEE.

And, of course, my energy was always reflected by that of the group – spiked by the excitement of their arriving and seeing Ecuador and Riobamba for the first time, low if the group was tired or bored, and sad when they were leaving and saying goodbye to the place and the relationships that impacted them just as they had me. It was incredibly rewarding to see that – of course, I had chosen to work with all of these people for a reason. But to see them impact the students just as much really gave me a special satisfaction, just as it was when seeing everything I had thought out and planned for come into fruition. Not just the activities happening, but to hear the students’ reflections, to see them getting it and grasping the intended takeaways, to see the spark igniting in them, that which led me on this very path of promoting and facilitating international education experiences. Ah, que emoción!

Going through the motions is always interesting, and there were certainly moments during the first group where we’d think, “how are we going to do this twice more?” Well, the answer is, you just do. And although repeating the same activities over again seems like it might be redundant, it’s really not. Some things are the same, but every day is different, every group is different, and the group’s personality characterizes each experience in a different way. This year I have often been contemplating the idea of beginner’s mind, approaching every experience as if I were seeing or doing something for the first time, which is also helpful when repeating activities. But sometimes it’s hard not to get excited when you’re surrounded by people who are all experiencing something so new and different to them for the first time, especially when you are accompanied by someone who has never seen a snow-capped mountain before! Plus, when it’s your last work visit to Chimborazo and it’s looking mighty and majestic as ever, it’s sort of impossible not to freak out with excitement, even far surpassing the students’ own wonder. And of course it is surreal how the time flies, how one day you can be on the way to the airport watching Shrek 4 in Spanish, in anticipation of picking up your first group – and before you know it, you are watching Shrek 4 in Spanish again, on the way to the airport to drop off your last group, having made many more trips between Quito and Riobamba, always marveling at the window’s reflection of the lush, green, quilted countryside.

Everything that I’ve detailed gives me a great pride, for I’m always passionate about achieving what I set out to do. I’ve accomplished my original goals, created a new program and learned a lot about working with people. We even had articles written about us in the local newspaper! But the one thing I am the most proud of is having impacted at least one or some of these youth, tomorrow’s leaders, who are full of energy, talent, dreams and endless potential. And having that special feeling of them shouting to me as I leave the hostel for the night, “Goodnight Chelsea, we love you Chelsea!” is the greatest reward I could take away from all of this hard work. We do it for the students, it’s always for the students – that’s the core drive of the entire organization. But in the end, the impact is just as big on us; we learn from them and the experience, grow as human beings and professionals, get to share fun moments and develop deep relationships with each other, the students, the amazing educators that chaperone them, and, almost just as impactful for me – if not more – with the incredible local people that help us make it all possible and provide these authentic, meaningful cultural experiences. And, if we’re lucky, we get to make an impact on them too – make someone’s dreams come true and revive an entire organization, or help bring a family back together just by bringing our groups to their home to share a few hours. These are the impacts we have made that we couldn’t have even imagined were possible at the beginning; these are the impacts that I will remember in the future, just as I’ll remember my students’ smiling faces and the gratitude they’ve shown for our efforts towards their conversion into global citizens.

During the Glimpers’ last reflection, they create journey maps as a way to summarize their experience with GG and begin to be able to articulate its inspiration and impact. This season I’ve been able to create my own journey maps as well, an activity which either brings me to tears or leaves me speechless at the thought of attempting to summarize it all in one drawing, in only 15 minutes. I suppose this blog post in itself is a greater version of my own Global Glimpse journey map, since it’s completely impossible for me to choose only five most memorable moments, only one lesson I have learned about leadership or about myself, only one most inspiring person with whom I’ve crossed paths along the way. I remember my first night as a GG staff member in Nicaragua, surrounded by 17 incredible people who all had similar passions and were all bilingual like me, and I thought to myself, “this job is going to be perfect for me.” Since then, I have learned so much. I have made the transition from relying on my partner in making big decisions and guiding me into me being that person and guidance for someone else. I have crossed hemispheres. I have grown into myself and figured out who I’m supposed to be and the career path on which I’m meant to be. I have allowed my experiences to mold me into the person I am today, just as I intend for my Spanish accent to be molded depending on where in Latin America I might be. I have learned that I can create things for myself, anything I want to be or do is just one manifestation away. I have had the chance to create something really big, and to weave what’s important to me into that, leave my own footprints on a path that someone else might follow. I have made my own family and created a reason to come back here some day. And, I have learned that work can be a lifestyle – the people I’ve met and the friendships I’ve made, especially with my colleagues, are true friendships, friendships that I will forever value, and hopefully, continue to cultivate.

And so, my work with Global Glimpse is coming to an end – for now. It’s a bit surreal to acknowledge, as throughout the past year and a half, I have come to live and breathe Global Glimpse; I feel like this organization, this work, is a part of me. Of course, the journey is not over, and I will carry with me the skills and lessons I have learned through GG far into the future. And maybe one day, there will be an incredibly perfect opportunity for me to do it all over again.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”

chao~chels

Vamos de una // Let’s do it

Ecuador can be described as nothing less than magical. The sun casting its rays on green rolling hills, patches of land, wisps of foggy clouds hanging in the fresh cool air. One breath in, and I am grounded. The Sierra is all I know, yet the landscape is still diverse as such. It is almost quinoa harvesting season, and the patches of red and orange foliage are absolutely breathtaking in contrast against the green land. Not to mention I’ve seen more rainbows in the past three months than ever before in this life!

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I am grateful to be living abroad. There are frustrating moments, claro que sí, por ejemplo when asking the bus cobrador for the wifi password and receiving a mumbled jumble of letters and numbers in return before he quickly walks away. After my third attempt I gave up and accepted that I’m not meant to have wifi on the bus (so now I’m writing this). I think I’ve mentioned before that staring out the window of a bus towards unseen territory is one of my greatest joys, and something by which I can measure my life – the different places I’ve sat by the window, headphones in, contemplating what is. Even trips I’ve made before become a novelty as I challenge myself to find my stop without asking someone for help. The buses here are much more comfortable than those in Nicaragua, and instead of having someone’s ponytail in your face the main disturbance consists of the worst movies ever made playing loudly, and men giving 20-minute speeches about cream made from worms that will cure any ailment you need or passionate and inspiring discourses about their delicious chocolate bars for sale. And instead of women knocking you in the head with their tub full of very unsanitary bowls of fried chicken, they offer you delicious warm banana cake and coconut ice cream after a frustrating 15-minute parada that I could have taken advantage of to hop off and use the bathroom but had no idea we would be stopped for so long. I often find it annoying when the vendors hand out their product or give you a sample but I’ve realized it’s a very good strategy when it comes to sesame caramel covered peanuts. Life in Latin America should be experienced by all!

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Three months I’ve been in Ecuador already, and the thought of stepping off this land pains me. I am grateful that I have more time, that I don’t have to leave right as I’ve become more or less fully adjusted to the pace of life and culture here. My routine is established, and I truly love it. Waking up early to run to the nearby park, climb the bleachers and marvel at the surrounding mountains and the sunrise. Preparing chochos con tostado in a clever way so that the corn won’t get soggy before snack time. Biking through the park and stopping by the river to have coffee and listen to the birds’ morning song. Experimenting with how many different ways I can cook my go-to dish. Chatting with the neighbors and avoiding eye contact with the dog that lives down the street. Watching Game of Thrones, I mean Juego de Tronos, on the extra mattress with my roommate. I am even making my own kombucha now which is the most exciting!

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It’s an interesting concept for me to ponder, the thought of me being “more or less fully adjusted to a culture.” Through my experience in the education abroad field, it’s said (and I experienced the same) that a semester, or 4-5 months abroad, gives you just enough time to adjust to your host culture – and by the time you are accustomed to living there, it’s time to go home. But is it possible for us to even fully adjust or mesh with a culture, I mean, ever? Through conversations with my friend Monica who’s been living in Nicaragua for over a year now, we both agree that it’s not really. This idea of culture is so incredibly vast, there are so many customs and norms that you couldn’t possibly fathom would be different somewhere else – and that are bound to be unnoticed or unlearned until that very moment that you happen to find yourself in a certain situation. Sure, there are things you get used to instantly, but there are also nuances deep below sea level, lurking within the classic iceberg used to reference this thing called culture – that may only show themselves once in a blue moon. And no matter how accustomed we are to laughing at things or understanding that everywhere is different, they may still surprise you. It’s just like learning a language – no matter how “fluent” I consider myself to be in Spanish, I acknowledge that it is a lifelong study and I am constantly learning new words and having conversations about random nuances.

June 054I’ve also wondered if having an expiration date on one’s time abroad makes a difference in how much you are able to appreciate your time and enjoy the moment. When I went to Nicaragua, I had no set plans and although I planned to stay six months to a year, it was undetermined. Coming to Ecuador has been a slightly different experience – at the beginning when people asked how long I was staying I said I had no idea, after my six-month contract with work. And I liked the sound of it – but as things develop it looks as if I will be here through the fall only. Noticing myself and my reactions, and accepting the reality, I think “chuta, I better make the most of it!” Knowing there is an end to it all forces me to consider reality in another way. But shouldn’t we live every day, and every experience, as if it does have an expiration date?

My life and routines are about to change drastically as the time when my students arrive is finally here, after months of intense preparations and slaving over my beloved itineraries in Excel. Por eso, I’ve been making the most of my free time and I’ve had so many chances to wear my hiking boots lately! Not only have I donned my boots with frequency (okay that is a total literal Spanish translation, I mean frequently), but I’ve been able to explore places close to me and the most breathtaking vistas that are literally in my backyard. One of my favorite things about Riobamba has always been the gorgeous rolling hills surrounding the city, and the rare days when the chilly air blows the clouds away and we are left astonished at the views of Chimborazo, Tungurahua, El Altar – my favorite of the various mountains and volcanoes that tower over us. But to have the chances to “meterme” inside that beautiful countryside, instead of revering it with awestruck eyes from within the concrete streets and bus smog, has been wonderfully refreshing. One Saturday we visited a park and took a hike in a gorgeous area that we literally walked to from the city center. The next day I took a solo-trip to a nearby community where we’ll be visiting with our students; I spent the day making tortillas, chatting with the dear women about our oh-so-different life experiences, and honoring the beautiful valley beside us. It was an interesting day because I caught a late bus on my way there, and found myself in a nearby town where buses to the next were scarce – and no one was willing to help me. In that moment I felt the most alone that I have since I’ve been in Ecuador, and almost in tears with disappointment and feeling self-conscious of my blatant blond head and backpack. I took a deep breath and began wandering into town, winding up the road to find my perfect spot to wait the hour and a half for the next bus. There I drank my tea, journaled and enjoyed the peaceful quiet of a Sunday morning, saludando the passersby and smiling in the sunrain. It turned out to be the highlight of my day – maybe even the whole week – and begged me to reflect on the importance of my attitude; everything is a reflection of my own take on it. Patience has never been my thing, but it’s a constant practice and something that can turn an untimely situation into a truly beautiful hour of your day.

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Spontaneity – another theme of living abroad. As I practice the ability to be spontaneous, I’m slowly letting go of my old habits to always stick to the ideas in my head about how something will go or my plans for the rest of the weekend. So that when I’m invited to go camping after I’ve just come back from a day of rock-climbing and I still have hours of computer work to finish a deadline, there’s only a slight hesitation – and it doesn’t stick. I’m practicing how to say “de una,” which means absolutely – but in a “yes let’s do it right now” sort of way. By the way, my first time rock-climbing was amazing. Such a physical and mental challenge, I never knew how many muscles I have in my hands – and such a high (literally) to make it all the way to the top of the rock face, just me, my body and the abuelo rock (in the indigenous culture here the rocks are considered grandfathers, teachers) and to look out over the beautiful countryside, the warm sun setting on the afternoon and taita Chimborazo letting himself be seen so clearly. My roommate is a great teacher in spontaneity, as his life mantra might be “no hagamos planes”, let’s not make plans, and one day I might come home from a Saturday afternoon of work and he might invite me to go on a bike ride and then all of a sudden we’ve crossed two streets behind our house and we are in the countryside, rolling alongside the pink brush, the wind on our backs and my favorite paisaje and the clouds turning colors with the sunset and the cows mooing, the campesinos nodding to us as they pass on their horses, the cool air and the scents of the fields confirming that I’m exactly where I need to be, that this may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.

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How can it be that each of the cities I’ve spent time in abroad just keep getting better and better? I miss them all, but at the same time I feel grateful that I have landed here for right now. Bilbao, Valparaiso, Matagalpa, Riobamba. These are the cities that have my heart. They’re all different in their own ways and I love them each for a different reason. But there is a common characteristic: mountains. And though I love each of their countries as well, I’ve gotta say – there is something just so special about Ecuador.

chao~chels

p.s. If anyone would like to send me mail, I would love you even more than I already do, and you can send it to my dad’s house before he leaves to visit me in the beginning of July (let me know if you don’t have the address). Gracias friends!

p.p.s. A disclaimer that this may be my last blog post for a while, as I’m getting into the super busy part of my work season! Thank you for your patience 😉

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Ya, mi veci // Neighbor, neighbor

For me, one of the best things about living in Latin American countries has always been the convenience of things, and I love that it is perfectly acceptable to devour a chicken kabob walking around the block while waiting for your laundry to be finished, and being able to walk one block to pick up my daily guineos (bananas) or another missing ingredient for breakfast before work. I’ve started making friends in my neighborhood, and it’s a nice feeling to be recognized as part of the community, as I wave to Gladys and Elias at the corner panaderia from my bike on the way home or as I set off on my morning run to the nearby park. Now I can actually only buy eggs or bread there if I have time to have a fifteen minute conversation with them. The family across the street has started to warm up as well, and lately I find several of the kids (there are 7 total) hanging on the gate outside my house waiting to talk to me or potentially be invited inside, I’m not really sure which. Being accepted in the neighborhood means everyone has started calling me “veci,” short for vecina which means neighbor (pronounced beh-see). It is a common salutation here and some use it more than others, but walking into a shop and having someone shout “veci!” to me or the girl across the street saying “Buenos dias veci,” confirms my integration and makes me feel much less like the only foreigner in the neighborhood. Even the street dogs are part of the hood, they flock together and I always see the same dogs on my street or even throughout parts of my route on the way to the office. The best stress relief after a long day of work has been a lesson from Wellington on how to use the newly fixed gears on my bike, with the neighborhood children at his “skirts,” culminating in my trying out a hill a few blocks away and all of the dogs barking and cheering me on.

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One day, I was greeted down the street from my house by one of my partners through Global Glimpse, an indigenous man who lives not too far from me. I joined him and his three daughters to walk for a few blocks, and he told me his daughters want to learn English, when am I free? I averted this by suggesting they attend the free classes my students will be giving and politely said goodbye. Then I found myself feeling guilty, should I have invited them inside? This is just one example of something that I struggle with: finding the balance between truly engaging with the community and also respecting my own time. Just because English is my native language, should I be expected to spend my time giving free classes to everyone that wants to learn it? Although I want to have authentic experiences and connect with the people, I just can’t promise that to everyone. My job is time-demanding enough, and it’s not the type of job that ends strictly at 5pm every day – on the weekends I have often spent several hours here and there attending different meetings or events in order to connect more with our partners and learn more about their work. I realize that the more time I put into these relationships, the more I’ll get out of it – and I am dedicated to that. I also acknowledge that a lot of the relationships I am developing through my job do not have to be so black-and-white. I love the fact that on a Saturday I have received calls from several different indigenous women wanting to know where I was and what I was doing. I love visiting Victoria at the market, or going to the campo on a Sunday to help Charrito and Fanny make tortillas (which really means me burning the tortillas and singeing my arm hair). But at some point, I do have to draw the line and respect my personal life and the need for my own time. I realize that part of this is cultural and I’m learning more and more that once you become friendly with someone here, you are expected to keep in touch and spend time with them. After desayunando at a comedor twice it was a while before I returned, and when I did, the woman said “Where have you been? Why haven’t you visited? I thought you had left the country.” It has been sort of a shock for me to comprehend that meeting someone once or twice instantly implies a commitment. But knowing this now, I understand to be careful with my commitments and telling someone I will come when they say “vendrás.”

April 2016 027.JPGOverall I think this is a general aspect of cultural differences between Ecuador and the U.S: everyone is just way friendlier, and friendships are more automatic. Every time you see someone or say goodbye you ALWAYS “saludar” with a kiss on the cheek (even if you have never met the person), and when eating a meal in a public place it’s not uncommon to have about five strangers tell you “buen provecho.”  It makes our U.S. tendencies feel very awkward, even through conversations with my roommate we have joked that in the States we put everything in the refrigerator, even relationships. Another recurring theme in recent conversations is the vast difference with regards to family – most people live with their family until they get married, and find it odd that we estadounidenses leave the house so early. Although I’d like to think I have a super close relationship with my family, you can note the difference in the general way of life, that down here family is generally valued more. Of course, we have the advantage that we become independent at an earlier age and this permits us to grow into ourselves and be less dependent on our parents – but that we must sacrifice that ride-or-die mentality is a shame. Once again, I feel that finding a balance is important: for me, that means doing my thing, living where I want to live, traveling the world in my 20s and learning from other cultures, but maintaining close contact with my family and truly valuing the limited time that I can spend by their side.

So far on this blog I’ve mostly been keeping time chronologically. It’s sort of hard to write about the last few weeks, because they’ve been all over the place and the energy has been very different. My first inclination is to write about the earthquake in Ecuador assuming that all of my readers are even aware of it – surely you have to be by now – but I am also wary of making assumptions as I’ve realized that not everybody found out right away (or maybe even at all). Which in itself has much to contemplate – for it’s an event that has affected all aspects of life here: so many lives have completely changed, and although

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Exploring quinoa fields

there was no one affected in the area where I live, much has changed here as well. For the first several weeks the general vibes were very low, even as I watched mothers walk their children to school I could feel it. People have begun to return to normal life (at least where I am), but it continues to permeate news stories and daily conversations. I am aware of this because I live in Ecuador; however, I am fairly certain that if I were currently living in the States, I may have very well forgotten about it by now. This natural disaster, as many, is not something that just goes away after the media slows its cover; it is a life-shaking event that will take its toll for years to come. My experience with it has been interesting, and difficult, as I feel that there’s not much I can do to help. Yet it begs me to ponder how common it must be; daily we are hearing news about horrible things that happen in other countries of our world, but ever so often our response is to spend one day lamenting, “oh, that’s a shame,” posting a picture on social media, and moving on with life as we know it. But at the same time – how can we truly feel empathetic if we have no idea what it must feel like? If it truly doesn’t change anything for us personally? I am guilty of this as well, and even living among the anguish, I will admit that after an email cry for donations to my friends and family, my life has proceeded on as planned, despite the weird energy surrounding me. It has caused me guilt, as those close to me had nearly dropped everything to lend their time and helping hands, while I carried on going to the office like any normal day. However, many people’s jobs require them to be involved in relief efforts, while my program is carrying on – my students are still arriving the same day in June, and I must be ready. So, I guess once again the answer lies in a common theme of this life: finding balance. Between being informed and aware of what’s going on around us (near and far), doing what we can to acknowledge and contribute, but also finding a way and recognizing the need to seguir adelante, keep on keeping on. Another ever reminder that the calendar pages will turn no matter what, it’s how we fill them that matters.

 

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Laguna Quilotoa

Weeks later, and life has gone on, and I’ve even had the chance to find new and undiscovered corners of the world. A wonderful surprise visit from my stepsister Kelsey entailed exploring all the coffee shops of Riobamba, attempting to unite our skills in the kitchen, drinking wine and a grand adventure with a huge bag of snacks. We visited Lake Quilotoa (where I crossed off my 5th Central Sierra “must-see” from my guidebook!), an absolutely breathtaking lagoon with clear turquoise waters among rolling hills. Our loop around the crater will not be detailed here, let’s just say it was the epitome of an adventure. After a chilly night that required us to buy new pants because all of our clothes were soaked, we made our way back to Riobamba with a pit stop in Salinas de Guaranda, a small town that thrives on cooperatives that export different products, the most delicious photos april 2016 012.JPGof which being chocolate and cheese (we sampled lots, as well as llama meat). Several weekends later Fer and I traveled to Cuenca, a most beautiful and charming city in the southern Sierra where I used the phrase “que lindo!” the most times in the shortest period of time, ever. “Que lindo” means “that’s so cute/beautiful” or maybe even “oh my god, that’s soo cute!” and it was in reference to literally everything in Cuenca – the details of the city, its coffee shops and restaurants, flower markets, cobblestone streets reminiscent of Europe, its preserved colonial architecture, or the excitement of finding an art supplies shop. We had a wonderful time visiting for several days and it is certainly on my to-do list to return.

Even weeks have passed since I began writing this post, and things have been super busy with work as we had two weeks of training and a first aid course which was nothing but fun. I now have more compatriot friends here in Riobamba, and whether it’s been laughing over burritos and margaritas or strolling through fields of cilantro and chamomile, it’s been amazing to have people to relate with after two months of being one

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Strong women post first aid training

of few U.S. citizens in my city. It’s also allowed me to extend my musings about the differences in cultures at a deeper level, and we are always conversing about the funny things in English or Spanish. I am continuing to learn more things about the Spanish language and it will never cease to amaze me how different one language can be depending on where in the world you are. I would blog about such nuances, but it would require all the time that I do not have. My intention is for my accent and vocabulary to flow with my surroundings, and it seems to be a goal I am achieving because I’ve been told that I am losing my Nicaraguan accent (which also makes me sad). If I am wearing my indigenous-evoked outfit, I’d like to think my hair is the only thing stopping someone from believing I’m actually Ecuadorian (not sure how likely this actually is). And of course, there are bad days where I feel like I’m learning Spanish for the first time.

 

Another thing I’ve been contemplating through conversations with new friends is the
importance of making the most of your circumstances. When living abroad you must adapt to what you have, if the place you are renting doesn’t have a coffee maker, “ni modo” (this is one of my favorite sayings in Spanish which basically means no way out). I feel lucky to have integrated easily into the culture here and easily adapted to my new life – yet it’s also
pics May 2016 035.JPGbeen a lesson. When I started with Global Glimpse in Nicaragua, I had already lived there for months, I’d visited Matagalpa, and I knew that was exactly where I wanted to be. Yet on my first day in Riobamba, I had already committed to living here for six months – without knowing if I would like it or not. Luckily, me cae super bien, and instead of adjusting to cold showers I’ve had to adjust to using a super nice induction stove that requires certain types of pots and pans only. And certainly, if this environment wasn’t so “agradable” for me, I would stick with it and make the most of it. But I feel like it is a very important lesson to be aware of: it doesn’t matter what circumstances surround you. What matters is how you react to and regard those circumstances.

 

Life is so crazy – how one moment you can be in DSW, agonizing over which black flats to pack as your professional shoes, and the next, you are sitting in front of the cathedral in Riobamba, watching a live music performance, and your Ecuadorian friend touches that very shoe you once finally chose, turning to you and murmuring “bonitos zapatos.”

Learning, growing, flowing.

chao~chels

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Un día normal // A normal day

I’ve been here for over a month and a half now; how the time flies! Living abroad again feels right; and although day by day I am pushed beyond my comfort zone, I have established a comfortable routine and think I’m doing a pretty good job with work/life balance. Some days are always better than others – frustrating days are inevitable as a foreigner; and sometimes I do feel lonely, but that passes quickly when ten minutes later I am being whirled around my kitchen in a salsa dance between tragitos of watermelon liquor.

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Fer y yo con nuestras bicis en dia de oficina 🙂

On a normal day you may see me running after the bus while trying not to spill my coffee, attempting to converse with employees about what size shower curtain I need, carrying my laundry at the movie theater, or biking with my dorky purse/backpack combination complete with my helmet pushed back too far on my head, frantically looking for pinchos (meat kabobs you find on the street), clumsily stopping to ask a women what she has and awkwardly saying “thanks but no thanks” when I find out that it’s tripa which I’m pretty sure is cow intestines. Some mornings I stop at Olga’s for breakfast, a woman who has a comedor a few blocks down from my house to chat with her and drink either super weak or instant coffee and try whatever typical breakfast she has to serve me that day. Often on my bike ride home I am almost stopped in awe at the sheer beauty of the green rolling hills beyond the city, framed by layers of wispy clouds, and sometimes even graced with a rainbow, so stunning it almost doesn’t look real – I almost want to compare it to a beautiful painting. Running errands is much more fun on my bike, too – stopping here and there to pick up various necessities: $7.14 at Camari for oats, granola, plantain flour, a kiwi, a most delicious cookie and a face mask, $1.65 at the fruit stand for a few bananas, avocado and a splurge on grapes (they are twice as expensive here as in Nicaragua), $0.20 at the panaderia for a roll of wheat bread where I allow myself to inquire about the desserts but not to purchase, $0.80 at the spot on the corner near my house for eggs, where the woman kindly asks if I live down the street and what I’m doing here (we’ve since become friends and I can never remember her daughter’s name, Zalome?), then $0.30 at the store one street down for baking powder so I can perfect my pancake recipe in the book that Fercita gifted to Hector and me, “Un mundo de comida con los ingredientes del Ecuador.” Slowly but surely I am cooking more, and becoming better at it! I also went an entire month without shopping at the supermarket where you can find foreign products – is it a coincidence that that’s how long it took me to run out of the snacks  I had packed from the States? In all seriousness, the experience of shopping there after having only purchased from local markets and mom’n’pop shops was eye-opening and really made me consider my role as a conscious consumer, intending to purchase only what I really need to from larger corporations (like almond milk, corn tortillas and Nutella). I find that living abroad informs my habits in a much more conscious way, using only the amount of water I truly need and reducing my use of paper and plastic, always reutilizing when possible. It helps that my roommate is also dedicated to this effort and the first rule of our house is that food is never wasted (he also taught me how to wash dishes without using so much water).

In the evenings I am usually busy learning how to cook soup with Fer, chatting with

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market life!

Wellington in hammocks over tea and incense, or taking the bus back into town for evening power yoga. The first night I went to class happened to be the indigenous New Year, and we celebrated by practicing Chakana hugs and sipping ginger lime juice with excess amounts of sugar. One night I attended Jueves de Pedal, a weekly event where every Thursday a group of 40-80 people get together and bike a pre-determined route for 2.5 hours. It was probably the most time I have ever spent on a bicycle but I did love it, not only for the exercise but for the sense of community, the ability to demand respect from cars, and the chance to have a quiet moment riding along an unlit dirt road next to a field of corn under the starlit night sky, the city twinkling below us. For not only did we bike in the city but up into the hills, along the train tracks, and all of a sudden the first time I’ve ever biked on unpaved terrain was in the dark, with a very weak headlamp, trying not to get passed up by the rest of the group. But despite my lack of proper gear, it was challenging in a very good way and I now understand why some of my friends are enthralled with mountain biking.

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Chimborazo

The past few weeks I have been traveling a bit less on the weekends and getting to know Riobamba and its outskirts better. Sometimes I have had weekend work visits, but how does it feel like work when an indigenous woman is teaching me how to knit? There’s nothing better than biking to the nearby open-air market on a Saturday morning, navigating the aisles full of fresh goods , and returning home with a basket full of diverse fruits and veggies and a tummy full of maduro asado, especially after spending only $5. I also got to visit Chimborazo for the first time when I helped out with a mountain biking event called Chimborazo Extremo. At least I’d like to think I helped out, even though I couldn’t answer any of the questions people asked me, and the altitude made me slur my words so much that I could barely properly congratulate the participants with their medals as they crossed the finish line. Either way, it was a beautiful day and I can’t wait to go back to Chimbo!

One Sunday I found myself on a hour-long bus ride to Ambato, to meet up with a woman whom I’d only just met for five minutes the day before – what was I getting myself into? But I was comforted immediately as I got off the bus and there she was, waiting for me with a welcoming smile. Victoria paid for my bus passage to her community, telling me about her visits to Arizona, the vegetables and blackberry juice she enjoyed there, that she’s been to Denver, Colorado, that her husband has been working in the U. S. for three years so that their children can go to college. We picked corn together and fed the cuys and pigs and cooked an elaborate Sunday lunch and then she dressed me in their typical clothing. I felt more blessed with every touch, these are the components of the outfits I so admire on passersby. She wraps a belt around my waist, it’s handwoven and costs $150, she tells me. How is it that I’ve gained so much trust already, that after a short conversation and interest in where they live, all of sudden I get to visit their home, share a meal and don such special clothing for a party? That she goes out of her way to cook for me before we visit the parties because she knows my foreign stomach may not handle the food they will serve us? Well, I drank the soup at both parties anyway, for it would be rude to decline it.

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Before I knew it we were at an indigenous wedding ceremony, complete with stray dogs, declining a second shot of beer and gifting our soup to the old woman next to us, waiting for the live music to start. When it did, all began to dance in a circle, smiling and laughing and changing directions with no apparent rhyme or rhythm. I tried to make myself invisible, a bit of an impossible feat as I was surely the only foreigner within a 50-mile radius. Despite my efforts, I was pulled into the dance, dressed as them but still ever-conscious of my hair color, my skin color, my clumsy feet. The epitome of being pushed beyond my comfort zone. Yet they were welcoming, and smiled back at me as I danced my own dance among them. When I tired, Victoria took my hand as if I were her own daughter, a smile that reassured me I had no reason to feel uncomfortable. What a unique experience to have, one that floods my memory with color and culminates in walking back along the dirt road during sunset, Tungurahua and Chimborazo towering over us, trying to learn how to say “buenas tardes” in Kichwa.

Hours after that first bus ride, I boarded a new one, assuring Victoria that I could find my way back on my own, as she commanded the bus ayudante to help me get off at the Paso Lateral, wearing the new alpaca hat that she gifted me and almost drawn to weep at how utterly supported and protected I felt in that foreign land on which I had stepped for the first time in my life.

I’m super grateful to have these authentic experiences as part of my normal life here. It amazes me how kind a stranger can be, and at how quickly that person can become so familiar, as if you’ve known them for years of your life. For me, this is accentuated in life abroad – not only because the majority of people in Latin America are so warm, but also because when you meet someone when traveling, you automatically have so much in common with them. And it’s not uncommon that when you meet a fellow estadounidense, minutes later she’s buying your coffee and you are making plans to hang out and saying “see you soon!”

Just another grand thing about living abroad!

chao~chels

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Todo es obsequio // Everything is a gift

Since my last blog, I’ve been to quite literally some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

First came Baños, regarded as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country – but it wasn’t always like that, and it doesn’t have that exploited feeling. There are a lot of hostels and foreign-owned restaurants, but it’s also a weekend getaway for Ecuadorians and people travel there for religious purposes. Since it’s only about an hour and a half from Riobamba, it is a perfect place to spend a weekend and take a break from weeks where a lot of my days are spent without even seeing another blond person. (This is something I love by the way, despite the fact that I receive a lot of stares and sometimes feel like a fish out of water).

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Within 48 hours, I had learned my way around the small town center, tried the famous juice and candy made with pure cane sugar, been in jaw-dropping awe at the sheer beauty of “La Ruta de las Cascadas,” or Waterfall Route, where the highway curves through a deep green canyon graced with waterfalls every 5 minutes, tried Ecuadorian empanadas, bought artesanías that I didn’t (entirely) need, soaked to complete bliss in the natural hot springs from the volcano Tungurahua, salsa-danced with Fernandita, indulged in gelato and crepes and vegetarian dishes, chatted with Brits over mediocre craft beer, and treated myself to a massage and an excruciatingly painful facial.

Oh yeah, did I mention the original purpose of this trip was for my job? I took advantage of an extended weekend, but the first intention was to evaluate several attractions as a place to bring our students. And this was indeed the highlight – visiting Pailon del Diablo, a strong waterfall that you can walk behind and soak yourself to the bones if you so choose. Standing so close to the waterfall is the epitome of feeling grounded ~ it’s as if the whole world around you is exploding, yet your roots are completely stable. Not sure if I’ve mentioned lately that I love my job!

photos March 2016 047Traveling on the weekends is a fun happy medium, because I get to participate in “backpacker culture” without the extra baggage (literally) of being always on the road and living out of a backpack for months on end. It’s so nice to do that for a few days and then return to a place I can call home in the same foreign country. Meeting people and hearing them talk about where they’ve been and where they’re going, from Mexico to Argentina in a mere 6 months’ time, just reaffirms for me the importance of slow travel and my tendency to get to know one country at a time. It’s not a checklist in my book; I have my entire life to see all the other countries in Latin America. That is, of course, assuming that I will live past tomorrow. And if I don’t, I will be content having seen what I’ve seen until now, immersing myself in the culture and learning the ins and outs of each one, without sacrificing certain things or places (and having had more authentic experiences).

The following weekend came my magical voyage to Secret Garden Cotopaxi, a hostel constructed on its own in the middle of an incredibly beautiful valley surrounded by various mountains, culminating with Cotopaxi itself. Cotopaxi, another elusive volcano, a perfectly rounded snow-topped, cone-shaped glory that only allows itself to be seen in sacred moments when you probably don’t have your camera on you. This is one of those places where you step out of a vehicle and you are automatically at peace, surrounded by a secret-feeling tranquility that induces immediate gratitude and awe. Plus there is an organized snack time every day and endless banana cake at all hours, how can you go wrong? There I escaped from technology and society for the weekend, lost my Kindle-reading virginity, ate more food than I would like to recount, played with alpacas, and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I can remember.

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We hiked to a waterfall on the first afternoon, complete with sliding down a muddy wall on my butt and crossing the river on the rocks only to submerge my leg enough for the water to fill one of my rubber boots. Then came the chance to climb a waterfall. I was almost lame and backed out but Kaitlin would never let me do that, “face your fears,” she whispered. And it was nothing.

A night drinking wine in the hot tub under the full moon and bright stars with new friends preceded the next day’s hike to Mount Pasachoa, at 4200 meters, the shortest mountain of the valley’s circumference but possibly the tallest altitude I have reached in this life (I’m a bit ashamed to relent that I am a Coloradoan who has yet to summit a 14er). Also I’ll let you do the meters-feet conversion because I am unable, more shame. Anyway though, it was SO beautiful and amazing; my legs were grateful for an ascent, my lungs for the reminder that breathing is not always so easy.

The higher we got, the less circulation in my hands, breathwork more important. And all of a sudden I was on top of the world, astounded by the Avatar-like 360 views, over there is Quito – one month ago that day I descended from the sky through moonlit clouds into that very valley.

Surreality.

Mint tea, sandwiches, and banana cake.

A condor flies by.

“Everything is a gift,” Antoine proclaims. What an incredible daily mantra, one that I have repeated in my head since that moment, it speckles my days with appreciation.

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The next moment, we are flying down the mountain, running, with the utmost concentration and the biggest smiles on our faces.

The next, I am strolling along the flat plains, trying to remember the complete lyrics to Little Hands; freedom and bliss. How could it get better than this?

The next day I rode a horse, that’s how. I am always wary of touristic horseback riding photos March 2016 053opportunities; often it entails nose-to-butt trail walking and the horses aren’t maintained well. That was not so here, Capulli and me, we were galloping together through open fields, a vast landscape shadowed by Cotopaxi and the mountain I had summited just 24 hours earlier. One moment through rocky plains, then we were crossing a river, then all of a sudden we were in a field of pines that smelled like home. The sun shining through the clouds, the wind in my hair and his mane, the epitome of freedom.

The entire weekend was so special, almost the kind that I don’t blog about, but I felt you all need a glimpse of the beauty that is Ecuador.

It’s always such a trip to spend some intimate time with nature and then return to civilization and air pollution within an hour’s time. That was one of those places where as I’m driving away I feel as if I left something behind. I suppose when I feel that it means there is a piece of my heart in that corner of the world.

I will be back, without a doubt.

chao~chels

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