Things I’ve Learned In Ecuador: #14 Expect (and Accept) the Unexpected
So, as many of my readers may already know, I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer and have been at home in the United States since late June. This will unfortunately be my last blog post as my time learning and living in Ecuador has come to an end, after a spectacular and unforgettable 20 months. It was an incredible journey and one that ended much too soon. I’ve been thinking about this blog post for about 2 months now but not until now have I felt ready enough to type out all my thoughts and emotions and really say goodbye to that life changing experience that was Peace Corps. Here goes… and forgive me if I’m not 100 percent forthcoming with all the details of my sudden departure from Ecuador.
About 5 months ago, I first noticed something was up. I found a weird lump above my left collarbone and thought to myself, “hmm, that’s odd” but not much else. As a person that is somewhat terrified of doctors and ignores all bumps, lumps, coughs, colds and any other kind of illnesses until I cannot procrastinate anymore and finally realize my health is kinda, sorta important, I just shrugged it off as a knot due to my terrible Ecua-mattress. A month or so later, it was still there. Still not going away. It was probably time to tell someone about this. I happened to be in Quito for a meeting so I wandered over to the medical office and showed them. That’s when that terrifying moment that I dreaded happened and they took it really seriously. They didn’t just tell me to wait a while and it’ll all be better in time as I’d hoped, but instead sent me for a series of MRIs and blood work and then made the decision to medically evacuate me to the United States.
I cried and was frustrated and wasn’t happy with the medevac at first. It was really hard knowing I had absolutely no control over the situation but eventually came to my senses and realized my health comes before anything else. I sucked it up, made the trip back to my site, and started packing up. Peace Corps requires you to pack up all your most important stuff and write lists of what you’d want done with all of your things in case you don’t come back. Since I was determined to be back to Ecuador in a week or two, I didn’t really take it seriously. I sorta said goodbye to people but mostly just said, “Hey, I’m off to the States for a bit. See ya soon!”
I arrived home at the end of June and that’s when all the fun started. I’ve had some MRIs, a few CAT scans, and more blood work than my queasy self can handle. Turns out, I was a medical enigma in need of a consultation with Dr. House and nobody knew what was up. After many appointments and a quick visit to the OR, we were still guessing. My doctor even starting calling me Problem Child. More and more time went by and I was inching ever closer my 45 day medevac time limit. See, lovely Peace Corps only allows you 45 days to get better and go back to country. If any more time than that is needed, you’re what they call medically separated. You’re still considered an RPCV and everything, but you can’t go back unless you apply to reinstate aka paperwork, bureaucracy and more paperwork.
So a few days before my August 11 deadline, they figured out that I’d been really sick with mono a few months back and thought maybe my collarbone mass was related. We figured all was well and my immune system was just going crazy in Ecualand. All the plans were in motion for my return to Ecuador a day or two before my 45 day deadline. Then, I went for a last minute follow up and my doctor wasn’t too happy. The swelling hadn’t gone down and he was worried. I went back for yet another wonderful MRI and then everything changed. The mass had grown and we still didn’t know what it was aka no more Peace Corps for me. I was medically separated on August 11, 2013 after 20 months of service.
I can’t even begin to describe the intense roller coaster ride of emotions that I was going through at that time. Sorry Peace Corps, I know you trained us on these things but being hit so suddenly with something like that when I was all ready to go back and finish up my last 6 months was devastating and something I’m still coming to terms with.
Luckily or unluckily, however you want to look at it, my sister and I had already had her trip to Ecuador planned long before I was medevaced. I seriously looked into reinstating (aka applying and doing all the paperwork to return to Ecuador) as long as I could get my medical stuff figured out but in the end my doctors decided it was time to get real with me and told me that wasn’t going to be a possibility. After that, we questioned what to do and thought about cancelling, but eventually my doctors gave us the go ahead to take our trip to Ecuador! It was strange getting on the plane with my personal passport instead of my Peace Corps one and being in country as a tourist rather than a volunteer, but we had a spectacular time and spent 12 amazing days in Quito, Otavalo, my site in Esmeraldas, and THE GALAPAGOS!
The trip was exactly what I need to get some closure, say goodbye to my community and the wonderful volunteer friends I made, and tie up all the loose ends of finishing my Peace Corps service. It’s just over a month later and I’m doing really well. My amazing surgeon here in Scranton got me appointments and referrals at the University of Pennsylvania so I’ve had some of the best doctors and surgeons in the nation. After another surgery and a few days in the hospital, the mass is finally removed and I am well on my way to recovery. With some downtime to heal and some physical therapy to get my arm back into tip top shape, I’ll be back to my old self in no time! Without going into too much detail, IT WAS NOT CANCER! Woo! I am not dying. I am okay, I swear! I feel tired and sore a lot and I had a big bandage I had to wear for a month or so (I looked very Quasimodo-esque), but my spirits are high and I am thankful every day that I live in a country with amazing doctors and hospitals and that I have access to them.
My time in Ecuador was something immensely special to me, a period in my life of immeasurable personal growth, and something I will always cherish. It’s unfortunate that it came to an end the way it did and it makes me sad to think about it too much, but my 20 months in Ecuador would’ve been a waste if I let myself dwell on things I can’t control. As for the future, I’m taking things one day at a time, staying thankful for all the amazing and supportive people I’ve had by my side through all of this, and counting my blessings.
Te amo, Ecuador. Nunca te voy a olvidar.
Your Ecuadorian Fruit Education
Lesson #6: Claudias
Claudias are another of my favorite fruits here in Ecuador. They’re also sometimes called reina claudias and are sweet and tiny yellow plums. You can buy about 15 for $1 and you never know what you’ll get. Some are tarter and almost sour while others are wonderfully sweet. They’re so tiny that the make the perfect snack, especially when on the go, and I usually eat 2 or 3 at a time. There are also purple claudias like we have in the States but they’re rarer where I live and most that I see are imported but these claudias amarillas are local and delicious.
Things I’ve Learned In Ecuador: #13 You’re Nobody Until Somebody Paints Your Nails
I rarely - if ever - got manicures or pedicures in the United States. I’m a terrible nail-biter so manicures were a waste of money and I didn’t really see the need for a pedicure when I was perfectly able of doing the job myself – fo free! That all changed when I came to Ecuador. Manicures and pedicures are a way of life here, especially on the coast. It seriously seems like there must be a nail art class in every elementary school because all the women I know love painting nails and do an amazing job. Some women just do it for fun, but a lot of women have their own small mani/pedi businesses. When I walk around my small community of a few thousand people, I can spot about a dozen little mani/pedi salons and that’s not even counting all of the women that probably do it from their homes.
My first pedicure experience in Ecuador was when I first arrived to my site and my host mom asked me if I liked to paint my nails. She could see my bright teal polish, so she must’ve known when she asked that the answer was yes. That night, she asked if she could paint my nails. I was a little confused by this but agreed. A half an hour later when my toenails were sparkling with a fresh pedicure and tiny little flowers delicately painted on, I understood that nail painting was different here. I began to take notice of the other women in the community. It was rare to see someone’s toenails painted without an intricate design also present. Plain painted toenails were out for sure. I quickly realized that you weren’t fully dressed and looking good unless you had a freshly painted pedicure.
For integration reasons (and laziness… and vanity), I began to get pedicures like the rest of the coastal women. At $2 a pedicure, or $2.50 for a house call, you absolutely couldn’t go wrong. All pedicures include the norms of a foot soak, nail clipping and filing, painting and the obligatory design painted on. Some even include an exfoliating foot scrub with sugar! I also learned some really great nail-painting tips that I’ll put on Pinterest ya mísmo. Although I do paint my nails myself a lot of the time, I’ve learned that nothing beats a $2 pedi in Ecuador.
Your Ecuadorian Fruit Education
Lesson #5: Mango de Chupar
Mangos de chupar (or sucking mangos as we would perhaps say in English?) are my favorite kind of mango here in Ecuador. Just writing this right now is making my mouth water since, unfortunately, it’s no longer mango season. Even though they’re still around, they’re definitely not being sold from every street corner like they were in January. Mangos de chupar are about the size of an apple and are smaller than mangos sold in the U.S., but they’re much more flavorful. You can buy about 10 to 15 for a dollar during mango season and they’re delicious. You don’t eat them like you would eat a regular sized mango though. They’re called mangos de chupar because… well, you suck ‘em!
First you squish and squeeze the mango in your hand a bit to soften it up. Then you take a knife and cut a little slice off the top where you suck the juice and fruit from. It sounds strange and the first time I saw someone eating one I had to do a double-take because I couldn’t believe someone was sucking a mango, but it’s actually a pretty great fruit eating method. It’s much less messy and you don’t have to deal with terribly sticky mango hands and… it’s just more fun! Mangos de chupar are definitely the number one fruit that I’ll miss when it comes time to say goodbye to Ecuador next year.
Photos from Quito’s Botanical Gardens which includes greenhouses of orchids and a carnivorous plant room. Another item crossed off of my bucket list!
Your Ecuadorian Fruit Education
Lesson #4: Mangostino
Mangostinos (or mangosteen in English) was a fun find that I bought at an organic market in the sierra while there for a Peace Corps conference. They were selling them 4 for a dollar and after a free sample, I couldn’t resist. Mangostinos are another tropical fruit but they aren’t very popular here in Ecuador and I’ve only seen them for sale that one time. Some online research tells me that they’re more popular in Colombia where the tree’s been introduced from Southeast Asia. Sorry to all those in the good old U.S.A. though, mangostinos can fetch up to $8 a pound in specialty stores in NYC. ¡Que caro!
When mangostinos are ripe, the outer part of the fruit is easily pried open to reveal the inner edible fruit. The inner purplish, reddish rind is inedible and you can only eat the white fruit inside that tastes absolutely delicious! It’s sweet but also a little tangy and citrusy and very juicy with a texture similar to a peach. You can make syrup or jam from mangostinos but they’re so yummy I’d choose eating it plain instead of spending time cooking and adding sugar to this already sweet fruit. It’s honestly like a desert and I’d take a mangostino over a piece of cake any day!
Photos from my group’s mid-service conference. We were there celebrating completing one year in our sites, showcasing our work from the past year and talking about plans for year numero dos. Dani, Justin and I (who make up the tiny cluster in the province of Esmeraldas) decided to dress like coastal folks… thus the skin-tight white leggings and sexy kitty shirt. Dani and I also displayed some of the recycled coin purses and other art from recycled materials that we’ve made. I made the platter completely from recycled magazines! It was great to see everyone from our group and what they’ve been up to for the past year. We all left re-energized for year two!
Your Ecuadorian Fruit Education
Lesson #3: Maracuyá
Maracuyá or passion fruit is another of my favorite fruits in Ecuador and one that I’ve recently begun buying often. Before moving to Ecuador, I knew passion fruit only as one of the many fruits listed in store bought tropical fruit drinks. The fresh version is much, much better. MUCH BETTER.
Maracuyás are usually pretty sour and my favorite way to eat them is blended into a jugo (juice) or batido (smoothie). Ripe maracuyás are about the size of an apple or orange and are very yellow. To touch, they feel almost hollow and give easily to gentle pressure on its thick waxy skin. When you open them up, they are extremely fragrant and smell absolutely delicious. The insides are similar to taxo and have many little black seeds surrounded by the yellowy, orangey gelatinous fruit.
You can scoop out the seeds and eat them raw but, like I said, they can be pretty sour so I put mine in the blender and mixed it up with some water and sugar. You can buy 4 for about 50 cents or so and enjoy real tropical fruit juice anytime! It’s especially good mixed with piña and papaya.
Please support my Peace Corps project
Hello everyone… amigos, familia y desconocidos también!
First of all, I want to thank everyone that’s kept up with my Peace Corps journey by reading this blog. My time in Ecuador has been incredible so far and I’m so happy I get to share it here. To everyone who has kept in touch and supported me, I thank you so much. Muchísimas gracias, you have no idea what your packages, letters, emails, generosity and kind words of support have meant to me.
I am writing this because I want to call on your support once again. I have been working at the local high school in my town and our school year starts again soon in May. I’ve been planning some projects, the most ambitious being a school-wide recycling competition with a goal of collecting and selling 1,000 plastic bottles. Trash and littering is a huge problem in my community and I also want to support this competition with recycling and waste management education during classes and after-school recycling projects.
We’re also planning on putting some recycling bins around the community and brightening up the school by painting a large world map mural. Your contribution would go towards making these plans a reality and helping to beautify my small coastal community. I would appreciate anything you are able to give. Once again, thank you so much and please contact me if you have any questions.
Things I’ve Learned In Ecuador: #12 Don’t Always Count on Beginner’s Luck
About two weeks ago I went fishing in another PCV’s site about forty minutes away. Catching my own fish and then preparing and eating it was one of the things on my Ecuador bucket list so when he asked if I wanted to join him for a day of fishing, I automatically said yes.
I travelled to Muisne in the morning and was instantly disappointed when I saw how cloudy and gloomy it was during the bus ride. Not a good sign for any perspective fisherman. But I arrived to Muisne, got a traditional fisherman’s breakfast of encebollado (onion and fish soup) and met up with Justin.
After meeting up with Justin’s Ecuadorian friend that was going to take us out on the boat and an extra niño that was invited along the way, we hopped into the church’s lancha that we were renting for the day and set out to buy some bait in the pouring rain. Unfortunately neither of us had brought a rain jacket and the rain was coming down pretty hard as we sped along in the boat so we resorted to wrapping a dirty plastic tarp around ourselves to try and stay dry. Improvisation at its best.
We then made it to the home of the people we were buying our bait from. After our Ecuadorian guides spent about 15 minutes yelling outside the house for the owners, the family finally arrived by boat to sell us our bait… live shrimp! I have been fishing before with my Dad in the States but we never used live shrimp as bait, and even when we used live earth worms, I usually left the job of putting them on the hook to him. But I wanted to do everything myself this time around. I would hook my own bait, catch my own fish, unhook it and then prepare it and eat it. It was a lofty goal for basically a beginner fisherwoman, but I was determined. After getting our bait, we finally set out in the lancha for the mouth of the river with the mangroves nearby. The day was finally becoming sunny and I hoped for some beginner’s luck.
Catching the shrimp to use them as bait was possibly more difficult than catching a fish. Those things sure can move! But I did always eventually catch one, sometimes with the help of our Ecuadorian niño guide. After that all that was left to do was lower your line and wait for a bite. At first I was using Justin’s fishing rod that he brought from home but got nervous about breaking it after he lost the top of it in the water. The mangroves are not the easiest place to fish, as we soon discovered, and we lost at least 10 hooks and weights to the roots and branches lurking in the water. I also got my line caught on the anchor of the boat no less than three times. Oops!
I decided to forego the rod and instead try fishing like an Ecuadorian and only use nylon. The Ecuadorians we were with were convinced that fishing rods were useless and that you can only feel a bite when using only the fishing line. Justin and I had to disagree and both thought that a rod made fishing a lot easier, at least on your hands when reeling something in, but I kept these thoughts to myself and decided to do things the Ecuadorian way.
Fishing with the rod, I hadn’t caught anything but a little while after starting to use only the nylon I caught a small pargo (aka a red porgy in English according to trusty old Wikipedia). Unfortunately, I would have no beginner’s luck and it would be the only fish I’d catch that day but I was thrilled. At least I’d caught something besides the anchor! The rest of the day I spent attempting to catch another fish, accidentally tangling up my fishing line and enjoying the water and sunny day.
Justin and the two Ecuadorians we were with had more luck than I did and they ended up catching some pargos and a róbalo (seabass) or two. They also caught two poisonous puffer fish or pez globo during the day which were really cool. I asked our Ecuadorian friend what would happen if you touched its poisonous spikes and he motioned death and said you’d go straight to the hospital. Since I wasn’t even sure where the nearest reliable hospital was, I made sure not to get too close.
After we were sufficiently sunburnt and all fished-out, we headed back to Justin’s to prepare our catch since the Ecuadorians were nice enough to share and regalar some of their catch with us. Justin taught me to descale, cut the head off, and clean the guts out of the fish I caught. It was a very proud moment for me. I didn’t actually fillet any fish, that’ll be a goal for next time, but later that week I cooked my fish in a nice lime herb marinade and enjoyed every bite. There’s not enough that can be said for knowing exactly where your food came from. ¡Delicioso!