first week and saraguro

It’s been more a little more than two weeks since I first came to Ecuador.  Part of me wonders how time has gone by so fast, but the other (more rational) part has an answer: lesson planning.

I climbed the equivalent of three flights of stairs to get this picture-- that's just a part of living in such a mountainous area.

I climbed the equivalent of three flights of stairs to get this picture– that’s just a part of living in such a mountainous area.

Last week was when I met my students for the first time, but I wasn’t teaching classes.  My mentor teacher, who has been working at Penn State for quite a few years, took the lead; meanwhile, my co-teacher and I helped out.  This week, though, we’re on our own.  We’re being observed on some days, but it’s up to us to plan and perform.

The hardest part about planning is that we’re essentially making the content of the class as we go.  For example, a math teacher is given a guide of what she has to teach and when she has to teach it.  One of her main goals might be to work on how to teach, right?  But my co-teacher and I have to do the what, the when, and the how on our own.

We do have a general guideline– by the end of July, our students will have created a sort of memoir, whether in a written or video form.  There’s just this huge gap between point A and B that we need to do a lot of work on (with help, of course).

That’s just one thing that has been keeping me busy.  Even though making lesson plans is a lot of work, my group still finds a lot of time to have fun.  Plus, we still have weekend excursions that take us to incredible parts of this beautiful country.

A shrine I found in one of the markets.

A shrine I found in one of the markets.

In our downtime, we can walk around the historic part of Cuenca.  It’s not too far from the university– just cross the river, climb up a few (hundred) steps, and you’re there.  There’s a panadería on almost every corner, so you can almost always smell freshly baked bread, and there are tons of shops.

Close to the university is also a large market that sells all types of vegetables and fruits you can think of.  They offer traditional cleansing ritaul here: for three dollars, an old, wise woman will hit you with a bundle of herbs in order to find and dispel any bad energy from your body.  (I’m not sure if a description would do this justice.  It’s something you have to see. )

And did you know that one of Ecuador’s main sources of income is flowers?  There’s a beautiful flower market in the middle of the city, where you can buy a bouquet for only five dollars.  Very close to that is a cathedral- they’re everywhere, actually- where you can buy honey, jam, or drinks made by nuns.   All in all, it’s interesting to explore.

There are rows and rows of stands like this is the market.

There are rows and rows of stands like this is the market.

The city also has a lot of fun and free activities.  A few nights ago, nine of us teachers-in-training went to a free dance class.  I can now confidently say that I salsa better than you.  Maybe.  There are also free zumba classes in the morning, but they unfortunately conflict with my Spanish lessons.

And speaking of Spanish, I’m progressing more than I thought I would.  With a bit of pantomiming and some help from a dictionary app on my iPod, I can now talk to shop vendors, taxi drivers, and my host family.  It’s often frustrating– I can’t tell you how many miscommunications have happened.  And here’s some free advice to you: if you’re using a language in a foreign country, don’t just nod and say “yes.”  If you don’t understand something, speak up.  If not, you might be agreeing to go on a night-time car ride five miles outside of the city.  You might have just consented to buy a portion of cuy, or guinea pig.  You also might be telling your housekeeper that you like getting drunk.  Learn from me, okay?  They’re avoidable mistakes.

Not that it’s all frustrating.  After every conversation, however filled with mishaps it was, I’m always proud of the progress I’ve made.

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Only positive vibes in Saraguro! We participated in a ceremony, led by two elders, to cleanse ourselves of negative energy so we could share our positive feelings with each other.

One of the places I got to practice my Spanish was in Saraguro.  A long time ago, in the United States, tribes of indigenous people roamed around.  They had their cultures and languages that were very different from the Europeans, right?  The same thing happened in Ecuador.  There were a lot of indigenous tribes in Ecuador, before they were conquered by the Incas, and later by the Spanish.  And in way that there are still Native American people and sanctuaries in the US, there are still indigenous people and sanctuaries in Ecuador.

Saraguro is a canton (or a sub-division) of Ecuador.  It’s located high in the mountains and is a two or three hour drive from Cuenca.  While we were there, we did a ton of things.  We saw the process of making wool textiles: how the wool comes from the sheep, how the wool is turned into thread and dyed, and how it’s woven on a loom.

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We also got a tour of the type of house used by the Saraguro, all the while getting insight into their culture and thinking from a member of the Saraguro people.

One of the most interesting things about Saraguro is how it’s embracing, and even depending, on outsiders.  Even though it’s an indigenous community, they want to share their culture with the modern world.  Because of this, the group has started something they call “Community Tourism.”  Basically, they invite outsiders to come into their village, their homes and their lives.  The Saraguro get to share the things that make them unique and tourists are able to experience indigenous life in deeply personal way.  In addition, the Saraguro have a plan for sharing any money they make from this project, meaning that the entire town is getting some form of monetary support.

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Our lovely guide.

Tomorrow, I teach my last lesson of the week.  I have class on Friday, but around two in the afternoon, I’m off again to another part of Ecuador!  We’re visiting a “cloud forest,” where we’ll hike and learn a bit about sustainability and biodiversity in Latin America.  I’m sure I’ll have some fantastic pictures coming up soon.

To my friends and family– I miss you all.  I’m thinking of you lots and hope you’ve doing well.  I’ll post again soon.

hey there, Cuenca

The rocks were slick with water.  I stepped forward and slipped, using the mossy ledge on the left to keep my balance while reaching for a wildly swinging rope on my right– the only thing that kept me away from the river.  With wet sneakers, I continued up the narrow ledge, gingerly stepping from rock to rock, under vines and branches, until I reached a slightly more stable part of the trail.

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We climbed up and up– the altitude was tiring, but the scenery was invigorating.  Also, there’s something about having only a thin rope separating you from a rapid waters that keeps you awake.

The Andean mountains are a bit chilly in the morning, but the longer and higher I climbed, the hotter I became.  At some point, I started focusing on the flowers, the river, and my footing more than my labored breathing.  We passed cows and llamas, saw hummingbirds high in the trees, and eventually made a loop back to the main building.

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We came here to Termas Papallacta, a spa and hot spring, after visiting our second school in Quito.  Before that, on June 29, we travelled to a small compound that housed about 900 young students.  I sat in a class, taught 8-years olds how to sing “Old MacDonald,” and was then whisked away to explore Quito’s more historic buildings.

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The day after, we went to another school.  After conferencing with the principal, we played with the kids during the last ten minutes of recess.  Giving us each a bag of chips, our trip director encouraged us to share, saying that it would be a great way to get them to interact with us.

She wasn’t wrong– within three seconds of opening my bag, a huge group of youngsters crowded around me, eagerly reaching out their hands.  While passing out snacks, I made my way over to the playground, and eventually ended up on the seesaw.  I wasn’t the only adult who was willing to have a little fun, and soon enough there was another group of young children fighting to be the one to play with us.

The recess bell rang, sounding more like a bomb-warning siren than anything else, and the kids reluctantly ran off.  Two by two, my classmates and I were placed in rooms to work with the students.  My partner and I stayed with chatty five- and six-year olds.  Gradually, they came to us, wanting help with the sums they were practicing and full of questions about our lives in the United States.

In Ecuador, being punctual is not as strict as it is in the United States, and true to Ecuadorian spirit, my partner and I were almost fifteen minutes late to our next meeting– but only because the children were sad to see us go.  As we walked to the front of the class to say goodbye, they crowded around us, wrapping their arms around our knees and thanking us for our help.

Eventually, we made our way out of the class and onto a bus that would take us to Papallacta.  We napped and conversed for about an hour, finding ourselves surrounded by massive mountains and new vegetation, before finally arriving at the hot spring.  It seemed like the only thing around us were a river and the mountains; other than that, we were beautifully isolated in the Andes.

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Our time there was short.  After one fantastic night and part of the next day, we had to leave for the airport.  On the 31st of July, we would fly to Cuenca and meet our host families.

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I won’t write about my family just yet– but I will say that they’re absolutely fantastic, as is the city.  Classes have been keeping me extremely busy, but it helps that we’re starting to settle into a routine.  Soon, I’ll write all about my family, my classes in Cuenca, and our weekend excursions!