The committee for the betterment of Estero, which we helped to found, recently invited us to an evening of dinner, dancing and beer. This was a forum for the leaders of the town to say goodbye to us. After dining on some delicious ceviche we carried the case of beers they had purchased to the dance club and started a wonderful evening of dancing.
After leaving the restaurant, we did not have a bottle opener for the beers. This posed a problem as everyone wanted to enjoy the beer but no one wanted to open it with their teeth in typical Estero de Platano style. Knowing that the town president is a cigarette smoker, I asked him if I could borrow his lighter. Using a trick I learned in college, I opened the beer with the lighter. Everyone was impressed and wanted to learn how to do it.
In a lot of ways, this small act was representative of everything we did in Estero. The idea of the Minerva Fellowship is to contextualize and apply the knowledge and skills of the fellows in order to solve problems for the people they serve. In this case, the lighter trick was my skill and I was able to apply it to open the beer. The best part, is that this skill stays in the community.
While this is not a poverty fighting intervention, it certainly could help the people of Estero to protect their teeth. It represents the kind of sustainable development for which the Minerva Fellowship strives. The goal is to help people to utilize their own resources to reach their own goals.
As I helped to facilitate the opening of the beer bottles, I realized that over the 9 months I was here, in addition to the large projects discussed in this blog, I left behind small lessons that I have learned during my life. From talking to youths about the importance of saving their money, to bantering with the older generation about micro-business opportunities, I think that the majority of the impact I made in Estero was short off-the-cuff, but meaningful conversations with friends.
During dinner, the evening of the going away party, we were asked to speak. Of course, I failed to realize that a speech would be requested and didn’t plan anything. The people of Estero were asking me to make an impromptu speech in Spanish. It was going to be one of the last impressions I left on the town. Weirdly, I didn’t feel nervous or scared. Maybe this is because I was surrounded by friends, or that my Spanish skills had improved significantly throughout the year. Importantly, at this moment of challenge, I realized that I learned a lot from the people of Estero this year. My speech focused on this realization.
I thanked them profusely for showing me that happiness is completely independent of the resources at hand. I thanked them for demonstrating that material goods are not a life necessity. I thanked them for opening their village and teaching a simpler way of life. I thanked for teaching me the importance and virtue of patience. I thanked them for being patient with my Spanish skills and correcting me when I misspoke. Most importantly, I thanked them for caring for me as if I was one of their own, for opening their homes, their hearts, and their minds.
While the dinner was organized to thank us for the help we gave the town, I realized that I am taking a lot away from the experience. Without the openness and beauty of the people of Estero, I could never have had this amazing experience. I am forever indebted to them and they will always hold an important place in my heart.
In addition to the people of Estero, I would like to thank Sarah and Alagra, my two team mates in Estero. We worked hand in hand to complete projects, vent about missing home, and enjoy this wonderful part of the world.
I am grateful to the Yanapuma Foundation for helping us enter the community and building the infrastructure in Estero such as home stays. In addition to their helpfulness, they were able to teach us skills in self-reliance and the importance of organization.
A warm thank you is due to Professor Hal Fried, Dean Thomas McEvoy and all other Union administrators and professors that contribute to the Minerva Fellow program. Without their vision and hard work the Minerva Fellow program would have never existed. I truly appreciate their guidance and support during my time in Ecuador.
My parents and wonderful girlfriend provided me with amazing emotional support. They also came to visit which provided an opportunity to give people a first-hand experience of Estero. They were also great travel companions. A big thank you to them.
I also want to thank Mr. Michael Rapaport and the other donors to the Minerva Fellows program that made these experiences possible. They are truly making a difference in the world and in the lives of Union graduates.
I will always remember the people of Estero and the knowledge they have given me. I am sure that it will help me immensely in the future. Most importantly however, I hope that the things our team has accomplished in Estero, lead to new paths out of poverty. I hope the people realize it is their path, that we merely helped them to clear the brush and make the trail accessible.
Yesterday, we finished our summer school program. It didn’t quite go as we had hoped. I wrote in my last post that the program would feature formal academic lessons as well as practical items. The practical items were to include town beautification projects. From my perspective, this program was hugely ineffective and, frankly, a failure. However, a very intelligent and experienced employee from Yanapuma has shown me that because the bad frequently outweighs the good in development work, it is important to count and focus on the good. In that spirit, I will start with what we accomplished with the program.
In terms of town beautification we built two trash cans out of bamboo and painted signs that encouraged people to use them. The students participated in a town minga (work party) where we cleaned the beach and planted 35 trees.
Academically, we taught the students about the order of operations, writing a story/summary/report and reading comprehension. For the order of operations, we used a pneumonic and a skit to demonstrate the pneumonic. By proxy, we taught them about using a pneumonic to study. We hope this helps them to succeed with basic math and science where they do not score very high in school.
We had them write a story over a three class period. They started with the beginning; setting and character development. The second class featured the middle; the climax. The third class focused on a conclusion. In addition to helping them with writing skills, we hope that this also helped them with reading comprehension, we explained that almost all texts have a beginning, a middle and an end and that they can understand more if they focus on these parts when they read. The students low comprehension levels really surprised us when we arrived in Estero. The past fellows worked to raise some money for some wonderful short story books to help combat this problem. We utilized these to read stories and made the students write short summaries of the stories. Although the summaries frequently had nothing to do with the story (they didn’t comprehend the story), we had meaningful discussions afterward where we explained the premise of the story and the meaning. Hopefully, we were able to help the students to raise their comprehension. Being able to read efficiently is perhaps, the most important skill that is taught in school.
The above seems to demonstrate a successful program. I should highlight some of the frustrations we had with the program. After inviting every high school student in Estero to attend the classes, we ended up with a group of about 5 students that attended regularly; not all in one day, class had an average of 3 students each day. This is a bit troubling because there are 12 scholarship students who are contractually obligated to attend our classes.
Part of the frustration with development work is that non-governmental organizations are typically run by people who have a good heart but their abilities in the business setting of organizing and running programs is lacking (Fellow Fellow, Ian, sent this interesting TED talk about this topic). Alas, attendance has always been a problem amongst the scholarship students because they have never had any consequences from the sponsoring foundation for breaking the contract. The students, knowing that there would be no resulting action from ill-attendance, didn’t attend our classes and we we frequently found ourselves waiting in the library for students to come to class; many days class did not happen. We discussed this with Yanapuma after about two months in Estero, but they were unable to provide us with any carrots or sticks, and so most of our educational programming for the scholarship students was poorly attended.
Part of our programming was to have the students raise money for the town beautification projects. They made a plan to raffle beer (a typical fundraiser) during Carnaval (a time when many tourists visit Estero). We told them that we would provide the seed money to purchase the beer. We bought a total of 6 cases (2 per day for the 3 day weekend). We made a sign-up sheet for the students to come and sell raffle tickets. Not a single student showed up to sell tickets and we were left with the bill. Luckily we were able to raffle a couple of cases with the help of some kids we rounded up. We sold the rest of the cases to one of stores in town and broke even on the project. We had hoped that this program would help teach responsibility, it instead demonstrated the lack of responsibility that exists in Estero de Platáno.
A lack of responsibility may read like a negative to our western eyes, but it is part of the culture of poverty that exists here. Responsibility implies looking to the future and doing something, usually not pleasurable, to better the future. In the impoverished lives of Estero de Platáno, the future is extremely uncertain. Making a sacrifice today for a better tomorrow does not have the same logic that it does for people in the developed world. In Estero, it is logical to drink away your paycheck or buy a television with the first three hundred dollars you save. Pleasure today is much more important because tomorrow may not exist. In the developed world, most of our day-to-day risks have been minimized so we count on having a tomorrow. In Estero this is not the case. One of the most popular occupations in Estero is fishing. The fishermen face death everyday in very small boats, far away from shore and huge waves; did I mention the pirates? Tomorrow just isn’t worth the sacrifice.
This is of course not the case for all people in Estero, but it is the prevailing life view. I think this is why our program failed. Although the students should be able to count on tomorrow, they haven’t learned responsibility from anyone. They didn’t see the point of attending class as opposed to hanging out with their friends.
This responsibility theme has been common during our time and makes working in Estero and I imagine in any development setting quite difficult. We just need to keep looking for the silver lining. Things do not always work, but when they do it is one of the best feelings in the world. For me, the silver lining of this story is the tree planting. In the beginning of March we planted 18 coconut trees and 15 guayacan trees. The guayacan is a beautiful hard wood tree (the densest wood that exists), endemic to this region. It is almost extinct due to logging. The trees were planted in the center of the village and over the years will make Estero much more green and beautiful. We had collaboration by way of labor from about 30 people (probably a record in Estero) for the tree planting. It is something we have been working on since November. After the people we have met here are long gone and poverty in Estero has been eradicated, I hope the trees live on, a testament to the impoverished past and responsibility for the future.
The following is a guest post from my beautiful girlfriend. She wrote this in response to her visit to Estero and our week and half long visit.
In January, I visited Aaron for nine magnificent days. I had been anticipating this day since about July 3rd (when Aaron left). Let me tell you, it was worth it. Ecuador is an amazing country, and spending this time with my boyfriend/best friend is even better.
The trip can be divided into three parts: Estero, the Northern Highlands and Quito. Upon flying into Quito (where Aaron greeted me flowers) we traveled by bus to Atacames, one of the largest cities in the province of Esmeraldas. On the bus Ecuadorians surrounded us. Ecuador, as Aaron has mentioned in previous blog posts, has a booming middle class; many of these people travel to the coast on the weekend. Upon arriving to Atacames in the wee hours Aaron directed us to a street vendor who sold a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast called “Encebollado de pescado” (http://laylita.com/recetas/2008/02/16/encebollado-de-pescado).
In Estero, Aaron and I stayed in a house that was located on a hill which had a view of both the town and the ocean. After getting settled in we began to explore the town. Exploring Estero could take minutes, as the main attraction is the concrete “futbol” field that is steps from the beach. The center of town is surrounded almost entirely by houses. Some of these houses have been converted into small “comedors” (restaurants) or “tiendas” (stores). But Estero isn’t defined by attractions; Estero is defined by its people. We spent the afternoon talking to many community members. Estero, in some ways, felt close to home. My grandparents are dairy farmers in Vermont, and they have a very slow and methodical way about them. I enter into another world when I stop by their house for a visit. My iPhone is put on silent, and I am consumed by conversation as they rock back and forth in their rocking chairs near the woodstove. Times spent at my grandparents are strikingly similar to the slow moving beach mentality of Estero. The people are very welcoming and seemingly happy with their lives despite their poverty. It is infectious. As we walked throughout Estero I never asked what the time was, or thought about what I was going to do next. In some ways this was very refreshing. In other ways, I think this is a struggle that Aaron, Alagra and Sarah have to confront daily.
A quote by Lao Tzu defines the Minerva Fellowship, “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘we have done this ourselves.” Estero is a whole world in and of itself. It is different than any other place I have gone. I can only imagine the struggle that Aaron, Alagra and Sarah have had to face in terms of ‘starting with what they know.’ They have had the task of understanding this community and way of life; a way of life that in some ways is so different from our own. Not to say one is better than the other… They are just different. The challenge Aaron, Alagra and Sarah face is understanding the people of Estero, and how their history has brought them to this point in their lives. Understanding the people will allow Aaron and his colleagues to move the community forward in a way that will be sustainable.
Over the past six months whenever I spoke with Aaron on the phone or skype I had a difficult time understanding what he did on a day to day basis. His most common response would be that he had helped this person or that person with a project, or had hung out and talked with people in town. To anyone reading this blog, Aaron’s response would seem like an unproductive day. However, what I have learned after visiting Aaron is that a portion of the fellowship is giving up part of your identity and expectations in order to become a member of the community. Aaron has had the challenge of becoming a community member in Estero. Seeing Aaron in Estero, however, was magical. He can claim, with every ounce of pride that he is from Estero de Platano. He has gained the trust of the people. He has worked side by side with them. He has taught their children. He has gone fishing with them. He has drank beer with them. It was amazing to see Aaron adapt to a new way of life and a new community. While walking around town people would yell out “Aaron! Aaron! Venga! (come)”… The children would follow us, craving his and my attention. It was an amazing opportunity to see Aaron’s new home, a place that will always welcome him with open arms; a place that has helped defined Aaron. Although Aaron and his teammates may struggle to see what they have accomplished, they have gained the trust of the community.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, it never has and it never will. Change takes time, sweat, and frustration. I can only look at Aaron, Alagra and Sarah with admiration. They have accepted the challenge of moving to a remote location in Ecuador where they don’t (or didn’t!) speak the language. A place where thinking about the future and entrepreneurial endeavors is unheard of. They have sweat, from both hard work and the ungodly heat, and they have definitely been frustrated, probably on a daily basis; However, they have begun to understand the people. Ultimately, what Aaron, Alagra and Sarah want for the people is inconsequential, because this isn’t their land, nor is it their lifelong home. Their task is helping the people move forward in a positive and sustainable way. The day will come when there are no longer volunteers living and working in Estero. Every day Aaron, Alagra and Sarah have to plan their actions with the understanding that one day they will leave; the projects that they start must be able to go on without them. It is a difficult task. Not inserting your thoughts or hands too much, but also making yourself useful. It is both an art and a science. Estero is a magical place, one that I will never forget.
After spending three days in Estero, Aaron and I traveled by rental car to the Northern Highlands where we spent time in Cotacachi and Otavalo. We stayed at the beautiful Hacienda San Isidro, a 17th century working farm. Our trip north allowed me to check a few things off my bucket list. Here are a few highlights: hiking in the Andes Mountains (we hiked a 14,000 ft mountain), exploring the biggest artisan market in South America, exploring a rose farm… Aaron and I concluded our travels in Quito where we stayed with some of Aaron’s new friends Ana Maria and Francisco. In Quito some highlights included visiting “el panecillo,” looking (and buying) art in one of the parks, visiting the Guayasamin museum, exploring the old city and la Ronda, and tasting some ethnic Ecuadorian cuisine. Please check out Aaron’s photo album titled (Anna’s visit to Ecuador) for pictures from our trip!
The school schedule on the Ecuadorian coast (it is different further inland) starts in June and ends in January. The students are currently in between grades and have some time off. We decided to have a summer school type program for the students. The idea was to give them something productive to do during the time off, as many of them complain of boredom.
The program features both traditional and experiential education. Sarah really wanted to design formal classes to aid them in weak areas: language and mathematics. I really wanted to shy away from formal education and do something experiential. We decided to do a little bit of each. We will incorporate daily academic drills into each class and occasionally have formal classes. The students are also organizing a community project and paseo (like a field trip, but not necessarily educational). They will be raising a fund for a community project that they design. Half of the fundraising proceeds will go to the community project and the other half will go to the paseo. In order to attend the paseo, they will need to have at least 75% attendance at classes. We will help them to use the class time to plan the fundraisers and the community projects. The fundraisers require practicing math skills and public speaking, as they sell things to tourists and look for collaborations. The community project will hopefully create a sense of ownership and leadership in the village. We will augment these skills with formal classes and academic drills.
The first drill that we did was a writing drill that I remember from high school. We started class by telling students that we aren’t collecting or grading any of the work that we do in the classes. The drill was to write for 7 minutes without stopping. We gave them a prompt (describe the characteristics of an ideal friend) and encouraged them to write during the entire drill. Just as I remembered from high school, the drill was difficult. This drill does not focus on mechanics, thought organization or any of the formal writing skills. The drill practices pure writing: idea generation and communication. We had each student share a few things from what they wrote. We encouraged them to read what they wrote later so that they can maybe have some internalization of the more formal writing skills.
After the drill, we introduced the program for the summer. We explained the community project and the paseo and started to brainstorm fundraiser and project ideas. The students decided to do fundraisers during carnaval (this weekend) and to build more benches and trash cans for the beach area of the town. The first round of benches and trash cans was a project of the fellows that came to Estero before us. I think it is a sign that their project was a good idea because the students want to expand upon it.
I am excited to see how this program works. We are certainly taking a risk by implying that they will raise enough money for a paseo. The beauty of the risk is that it is as much theirs as ours. While we want to be able to deliver a paseo with the money they raise, the quality of the paseo is dependent on how much effort they put into raising money. If they only raise a little bit or money, we will probably go on a day trip that is close to Estero (maybe to the public pool 2 hours away). If they raise a lot of money we could potentially go on an overnight trip to a more exotic location (Quito, Cuenca, the Amazon). I hope that this program functions to teach the students a bit of ownership over the future of Estero. If we fail, we have still incorporated formal education into the program, so the time will not be a complete waste.
Like much of Ecuador, Estero is a very humid place. The heat from living on the equator and the rain that frequents the area make for a very tropical climate. This tropical climate tends to ruin certain things. With more water in the air, amongst other things, metal rusts and food spoils more quickly than in the United States. In addition to these difficulties, matches which play a prominent role in the lives of the people of Estero de Plátano, are extremely difficult to light. Everyone in Estero cooks on a gas stove and lights the stoves with matches. The matches after a bit of time become “cold.” That is what the people call them, really, they have become wet from the humidity in the air. My friend “Galerita” is a self-proclaimed expert on lighting “cold” matches. He gave me a lesson in my house one day while we were cooking lunch:
Notice that he needed to strike the match multiple times in a downward fashion. The matches are made of wax; at a certain point the head will break off and the match will be useless.
Another important feature of this video is the language. The Spanish speakers out there will understand that this is far from textbook Spanish. The Ecuadorian coastal dialect is indeed a special type of español.
Roughly he is saying that people learn how to light matches from their fathers. If someone does not learn from a young age, they won’t know how to do it.
The rainy season has finally arrived in Estero De Plátano. Normally it starts in late December. This year it didn’t start until mid January. The people here call the rainy season winter. Unlike the northern winter, winter in Estero is actually hotter and more humid than summertime. Comparing seasons is difficult. After all, Estero, being really close to the equator, only has two seasons per year.
The rains are torrential and tend to come at night and in the mornings, no thunder and lightning, just heavy rain. The afternoons are really muggy and hot. I have surprisingly grown accustomed to the climate and it does not bother me. The problem that the rainy season brings is rain water management. About three years ago the road in Estero was paved. During this project, pipes were placed under the road in strategic places to move the rain water to the sea.
I imagine this system worked well in the past. Currently, erosion has taken a toll and the pipes sit much higher than the ground they are supposed to be draining. The result is large puddles that collect after the rains. This becomes a breeding ground for mosquitos, which carry all sorts of fun parasites.
To combat this problem and to beautify the village, we are working on a small reforestation campaign. We have a small garden where we are growing orange, lemon, almond, papaya, grapefruit, clementine and palm trees. The goal is to plant these trees around the village to help soak up the water from the rains more quickly. The fruit, shade and beauty of the trees will be nice for villagers and tourists.
Planting trees in Estero is not an easy proposition. I bought little plant bags to fill with dirt in the nearest market town (45 minutes on a bus) and recruited some of my friends and other town members to help acquire soil for the bags. We walked about a half an hour to a spot where we could collect good soil from a finca. In Spanish, Finca translates to farm. In Estero, the term finca refers to a plot of uncleared land in the jungle where people grow crops. The soil was under a few very large guayaba (Ecuadorian fruit) trees. In fact, the soil was partly made up of decomposed leaves and fruit from these trees. We used the blades of our machetes to sweep the leaves off the surface so that the soil beneath was accessible. We used our hands to fill the empty rice sacks we brought with soil. When we had filled the sacks, we put them on our shoulders and carried them to the location of our garden. They were heavy.
In the little bags, we put seeds that I had collected and saplings that people had donated. The plants are now hanging out in the garden. When they are a bit larger, we will gather dirt again and plant them around the village.
The New Year’s tradition in Estero De Plátano and in much of Ecaudor is to burn a doll that represents the old year. The doll is dressed with tokens from the past year and the idea is to burn it so that one can enter the new year without baggage. The dolls are burned at midnight. Much like a phoenix, from the ashes of the past, the people of Estero start anew.
This year, Estero had a small competition between 3 dolls (constructed by 3 different families). The town president read a will and testament that each of the families contributed to the event on behalf of the dolls who were about to be killed. The wills recapped the events of the past year and made a variety of jokes at the expense of community members. After the reading of the wills and the crowning of the winning doll, the dolls were burned.
After the burning of the dolls, the people go home for dinner. The party follows immediately. Drinking, dancing and general New Years revelry ensues. Unfortunately, this year the electricity went out at about 1:00 AM. The festivities quickly halted.
Check out the video of the burning of the old year:
The event was quite interesting and enjoyable. There was a spirit in the air of deep community bonds that one does not experience in larger towns and cities. Everyone hugged, kissed and shook hands and said “feliz año.” I am happy to have had the opportunity to share this tradition with the people of Estero. It was truly a magical night and a great way to start 2013.
We opened the computer center on Monday. Suffice to say, it has been quite popular. We held a town meeting on Saturday evening to discuss the schedule and costs of the center. While the computers have been donated, the electricity to run them and the maintenance fees have not been guaranteed by Yanapuma. While Yanapuma will almost certainly contribute to these costs, we wanted the community to also contribute financially to create ownership of the center, both so that people use the center and so that they take care of the center.
The town meeting started with a discussion of the use of the center, why it is here and what is to be gained from learning computing skills. We then segued into talking about a class schedule. We had already decided to hold open computing hours during the same hours that we open the library for free hours (every week day, 3-6). We used to have two people in the library, now we have one in the computer center and one in the library. These free hours are available for people to work on any sort of project or practice their computer skills. We told the people who gathered for the meeting that we would be offering six classes a week. Every Sunday, a list of the times and classes offered will be posted outside the center. We wanted to consult to see what times were best. The feedback we received indicated that we should offer a variety of classes during the week, some in the morning, afternoon and evening. We should have known that this would be the response, especially because I have already blogged about Estero only having three times a day, but community involvement is important.
We had difficulties communicating the idea of sign-up sheets. People wanted to sign up for a block of classes, for example, Tuesday at 7 PM for a series of weeks. We thought about going with this model, but decided before the meeting that this would limit the amount of people we can help. Primarily, this puts a cap on the amount of people that can take classes for a period of time. With our system people can take class one and then move onto class two on their own time. We can work with different people each week. We were also worried about what would happen if people that can’t read and write sign up for a block of classes (illiteracy is very common amongst the adults of Estero). While we don’t want to tell people that they cannot learn how to use a computer, without literacy it is hard to gain benefits from the computing resources available at the center. We were also concerned about illiterate people holding back the pace of the classes for everyone else. We figured that with our system, someone who is illiterate will realize quickly that using a computer implies literacy and stop signing up for classes.
The concept of scheduling and signing up for classes seems to be a difficult and foreign concept for the people of Estero. People only think about today and tomorrow, we are now asking them to think ahead and plan a time to attend a computer class. I think this is a push in a positive direction. As people start to plan ahead for computer classes, they will start to plan more of their week. Hopefully this will start to shift people’s gaze a bit toward the future. We have had a few sign ups but most of the people just wander in during class time and look for an empty seat. This is ok too, as long as there are spaces available. We have 4 working computers at the moment. They are old and break quite frequently, so we are not sure how many we will have by the end of the week. For a class we have two people per computer. This allows us to maximize the amount of people who participate and at the same time make sure that everyone can use the computer for the classes. Because few people sign up for classes, the sign-ups have become more of a reservation system. Those that have signed up have first priority for a seat at a computer. I think that as the classes grow in popularity this will change.
After talking about scheduling, we moved to talking about costs of the computer center. We thought that maybe paying per hour or per use was an acceptable way to charge. We didn’t want to be responsible for money or worse, collecting money that is owed. We mentioned this at the meeting. It is not our job to walk around and collect people’s debts. It is not good for our image in the town, nor is it a necessary activity for us to complete. The people decided that the best way to charge would be for everyone who uses the center to pay a dollar a month. I am not sure if this will cover all of the costs, but at least people are collaborating. When someone enters the center they need to sign-in (this is for Yanapuma’s record keeping), next to the sign-ins we keep a book with the records of who has paid and who hasn’t. If it is your first usage of the month, you need to pay a dollar. You are then covered for one month of usage. This system will work somewhat well. We are a bit bummed that the record keeping has fallen to us, but we do not plan on hunting down the dollars of people who haven’t paid.
So far the center has been inundated with children. For the mothers of the village, our 3:00-6:00 open computing hours, has created a $1/month babysitting program. This is ok, it provides a nice service to the hardest working members of the community: the mothers. The other benefit is that Sarah downloaded a bunch of typing games from the internet and installed them to the computers. The children use the typing games and are learning to recognize letters on the keyboard and some of the older ones are even learning how to type properly. This is a great way for us to sneak in some education in the afternoon hours. I am going to look for some Spanish language PC games next time I am at the internet cafe. If anyone has any suggestions please email me (email@example.com).
So finally, after more than three months of working on the project, the community computer center is finally opened and running. The people at Yanapuma were surprised that it took us so long and I am sure that many readers of this blog are equally curious. The construction and opening of the center took a long time because we waited for community support every step of the way. Before simply placing the computers in the library, we decided to ask the town at a meeting if there was a place that was more secure or better for the center. People said that the library was not safe because donated computers have been stolen from there before. They suggested a building in the center of the town that was not being used. The owner lives in Guayaquil, we waited for his brother to get in touch with him about using the building. Following the contact, we organized a town minga (work party), to clean the room and remove the lumber that was stored inside. After the room was cleaned, we solicited wood for tables and benches. People grow trees for lumber on their farms. About half of the wood for the center was provided by the community. This was a great expense for some of the farmers who usually sell the wood for a profit. The rest of the wood was purchased by Yanapuma. Construction of the tables, benches, locking systems and electricity was all done by the community with our facilitation. We could have gone to the lumber store and bought all the supplies, hired someone in town to do the construction and completed the whole project in under a week. We opted for a longer process to try and create some community bonding, involvement, and ownership. So far so good, the center is up and running and the people seem to be really excited to learn about and use the computers.
My parents came to Ecuador for a visit on November 5th. They arrived on November 4th in the evening and travelled through the night to get to Estero De Platano at 7:00 AM in the morning. They enjoyed visiting Estero and seeing where I am living. We walked around the village and visited various families with whom I am close. We visited the women of the Women’s group, that was a necessity. They would have felt slighted had I not brought my parents to visit them. Additionally, my mom brought reading glasses from the states to give to the women. They are always complaining that they cannot see well enough to read. The women really appreciated the glasses. Perhaps this will help them to be more efficient.
There was a slight issue with food in Estero. I did not request non-seafood items from the restaurants before my parents arrived and they only had seafood to serve. This is typical in Estero, there are not many restaurants and they cater to a very small market. They tend to not keep a lot of stock. My mother, unbeknownst to me, does not eat seafood and so we needed to find another solution. My parents took a nap after lunch the first day and I went in search of a chicken. I bought a whole live chicken from Sonia, a member of the women’s group who is very full of energy and life. She handed me the live chicken by the feet. I carried it to the restaurant where we would be eating our next few meals so that the chef could prepare it. Of course, before that I made a brief stop at the hotel so that my parents could see the chicken. Chicken does not get any fresher or cleaner than that. Literally two or three hours passed between when the chicken was killed and when it was eaten.
The chicken was grilled, but slowly. The woman who cooked it, butchered it with a machete. One of the techniques for cooking chicken in Estero, is to smash the bones with a machete before cooking it. While the chicken was slow cooking on the grill, the bone marrow melted into the meat and gave it a really wonderful flavor, which added to the already fresh flavor of free range, chemical free chicken.
After spending two days in Estero, we headed to Atacames to buy bus tickets and travel to Quito. We took an overnight bus to Quito and spent the day in Atacames. Atacames is more of a party town with many Ecuadorian tourists. We were there on a Wednesday and so the beach was dead. We had a lot of time to kill. We arrived at around 10:00 AM and the bus did not leave until 10:30 PM. We had breakfast in Atacames of encebollados. A typical breakfast dish, encebollados is a soup made primarily from yuca (potato like root vegetable), fish and onions. It is served with plantain chips and lime. It is truly a wonderful meal. In Atacames we also went to the fish market to see all the different types of seafood that was for sale. My parents and I are always interested in visiting the supermarkets and markets to see where the locals do their shopping. Cultural insights can always be gleaned.
After riding in the bus overnight, we arrived in Quito at 5:00 in the morning. We took a taxi down to the historic district, to look for a hotel. We ended up in a nice boutique hotel called La Casona De La Ronda. This hotel is located on a street called La Ronda. La Ronda is a pedestrian street in Quito that is famous for its maintained and restored colonial architecture. La Ronda is also famous for a hot alcoholic beverage called canelazo. Canelazo is made from fruit juice, cinnamon and aguardiente (alcohol distilled from sugar cane). We of course tried some and it was quite delicious. Later in the day we went to a food market in Quito and in the fish section we discovered that much of the fish comes from the province of Esmeraldas. It is quite possible that the fish we saw in the market in Atacames, the day before, was transported to Quito and available for purchase in the market we were visiting.
After one night in Quito, we took a taxi to Otavalo (location of South America’s largest artisan market) and Cotacachi (near Otavalo and famous for leather goods). We arrived on a Friday and Saturday is the big market day. We found lodging and woke up really early on Saturday to see the livestock market. Guinea pigs, ducks, chickens, cows, bulls, horses, pigs, llamas and many more animals were for sale by owner. Using the term market implies a sort of organization to the event. This is really misleading. The “market” is just a field where farmers bring their livestock to sell. Buyers walk around looking at animals and owners seek out a spot with lots of traffic. From there we walked down to the main artisan market. It was really interesting to see all the different wares. People travel from all over Ecuador to sell during this market. Any handicraft that one can buy in Ecuador can be bought on Saturday in Otavalo. All of the streets around the main plaza in town are shut down to cars and vendors set up tables with all sorts of goodies. After we were finished perusing the market, we caught a taxi back to Quito.
The next few days, we did some sight seeing in Quito. We met a local artist on Sunday and visited his studio on Monday. We ended up purchasing a couple of pieces from him. Monday was my birthday and it was nice to have my parents around. Tuesday morning my parents left for the Galapagos. I didn’t go because I did not want to take that much time away from Estero. I had already visited the Galapagos with my brothers and didn’t need to go a second time.
Spending a week with my parents during my time in Ecuador was really nice. Great memories were made and although, travel in Ecuador is not the easiest in terms of logistics, everyone had a wonderful time. I added a photo album entitled Visit from Mom and Dad to the photos section. Be sure to check it out. As with any of the photos on this site, if you want a high resolution version email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and mention which picture you are interested in and I will send it to you.
My parents flew home on Thanksgiving and enjoyed their time in the Galapagos. I travelled back to Estero on Friday night after waiting three days in Quito for a computer for the computer center to be repaired. I made it back to Estero in time for the town meeting Saturday evening to announce the opening of the computer center and figure out a class schedule.
Arriving back in Estero was surprisingly accompanied by a really warm feeling. Upon descending from the ranchera (sort of like a bus), an older man with whom I am friendly, gave me a big smile and said (in spanish), “Welcome back, how were your travels?” It was a really nice greeting and made me feel good to be back in Estero. I never would have thought I would have this feeling for Estero after only being here for about 4 months. I feel very strongly about this place and miss it when I leave. I hope that in the future I will have the resources to return and visit. It will be interesting to see how the projects we started developed and see how the high school and elementary school students we are teaching have grown.
Jorge, affectionately known as Payaso (clown), was born in Esmeraldas but currently lives in Estero De Platano (about 2 hours away). Esmeraldas is the largest city in the province of Esmeraldas and has a quite large oil refinery. Payaso is the same age as Alagra, Sarah and I. In the past he has volunteered with the children in Estero after school. He lives here because he likes to surf and enjoys the tranquil lifestyle. He has lived here for more than three years. He has many good insights about the culture of the area and specifically the way of life in Estero.
One day Payaso and I were talking about a conundrum that I am constantly puzzling over. The topic is the poverty of Estero. I don’t understand the poverty that exists in this place. It seems that every person in the community has a piece of farmland that is extremely abundant. There is a huge amount of agriculture and people grow a good portion of the food that they eat. Esmeraldas is known as the green province. Fish, octopus, crabs, lobster, clams and other sorts of seafood are also abundant and mostly close to shore. Some of these items fetch a good amount of money of the market; octopus sells for $3.00/pound, in Estero (it is caught a short walk from the beach). The tourism industry is booming in Estero with Sunday being the big day, but many people visit on Friday and Saturday as well. The conundrum confronts these seemingly conflicting ideas, the abundance of the land mixed with the poverty of the people.
Although food seems to be plentiful, poverty still exists. I am not naive, there are certainly hungry people in Estero, but most people in the village have problems with being overweight, rather than malnourished. The poverty of Estero is more complex than a shortage of necessities. Payaso shared with me a cultural insight that has helped me to understand this conundrum. He said that the people in Estero are accustomed to living rather than producing. When it comes time to plant, he said, they plant enough for their family, even though the farm is much larger. When a person goes octopus hunting, they bring enough for their families to eat, rather than working a little bit longer to get an extra pound or so to sell. Payaso described this way of life very succinctly. He said that people of Estero live, but do not produce. The amazing thing about Estero, is that this subsistence lifestyle provides almost everything that a person needs in life. This lifestyle does not provide however, for healthcare, education, or pleasurable things. It is only enough to live.
Of course, producing the surplus is the hard part. Payaso thinks it is part of the culture. People only work as hard as they need to get by and live a very quiet and tranquil life other than that. I think this is for the most part true in Estero. What is lacking from this summation of the local attitude toward work is that people here desire more. They want things. Some want education for their children. Others can’t afford to take an ailing loved one to a good doctor (in Esmeraldas, ~$4.00/person each way and a 2 hour journey). Many people want DirectTV, electricity, water in their house (rather than a spigot outside), a sit down toilet (instead of one that doesn’t have a seat), a shower (that doesn’t require buckets) and a fridge. These are all luxuries in Estero that only a few can afford.
The reason that people in Estero live a subsistence lifestyle rather than produce a surplus is not simply because they do not want to. It is because there is not enough knowledge about how to create the surplus. Obviously, this is a key goal for Minerva Fellows. We are here to bridge the education gap. One of our goals is to leave the people of Estero a few new tools for gaining money.
Education is the first step. The school system does not encourage any amount of creative thinking. The students very frequently will have homework to copy letters, words, paragraphs, questions and answers, from their textbook to their notebook. This creates a sort of mindset that I am sure overtime has become entrenched in the culture. I see this problem in the Women’s Group. Very few of the women can think outside of the box to create new projects or products. I am working on giving them a formula for presenting new money making ideas at meetings that hopefully will get the wheels turning. We are combating this lack of creativity by having art supplies available in the library that children can use whenever they would like. We also have transformed our English classes with the primary school students into English/Art classes. These are great things for the youth of Estero, but this doesn’t address the problem for many years.
I am currently thinking about ways to become more knowledgable about the industries of Estero. I know that there are stores, fishing boats, agriculture, small restaurants, tourism and artistry. Almost everyone in Estero lives by some combination of these things. I would like to learn about the impediments in each of these industries that are stopping people at subsistence rather than surplus. I think it is partly a cultural mindset, and partly a question of ability. The question of ability, we are here to try and improve. The cultural mindset, so long as it perpetuates poverty, will need shift slightly in the process. Over time, I hope that it does.