07 4 / 2014

Recently, I had to ask my parents for some money.  My mother proceeded by asking me why I needed some, asking if Union had factord in all my expenses.  I have a fellowship from Union College, where they paid for my flights, my living expenses, traveling to and from Quito, etc., and yes, for the most part they had factored and paid me for everything.  What Union did not factor in, however, was the fact that sometimes things happen when living in a third world country, or anywhere.  When Mirna (the girl I wrote about a few blogs ago) got sick and her family didn´t have any money to help her, and was just allowing her condition to grow worse and worse, I couldn´t help but step in and help.  I spent a few hundred dollars helping her and her family.  I helped with her hospital expenses but also to take care of her family at home.  While her and her mother were gone, they left Mirna´s two younger brothers, her father ( a drunk who didn´t work or help with anything in the house) and her daughter and three younger sisters (4 little girls all under the age 12).  If I didn´t help while Mirna was hospitaized (she has been back now and was doing better, but unfortunately is relapsing), the little girls would have unjustly suffered. 

Union also didn´t factor in mothers begging me for money or borrowing money they could not return because of thir faulty and unreliable husbands.  A few months ago, my co-madre (mother of my godson) and her sister-in-law asked me for some money for school supplies for their daughters and promised that when their husbands came the following week, they would pay me back.  The sister-in-law´s husband paid me as soon as he got to town.  However, when my co-madre´s husband arrived, he drank the whole day and then beat her that night and left the next morning.  I did not feel it was my place to have her ask him for money.  And when my current host mom, a mother of six with a husband who cheats, driks, and refuses to support her, often comes to me crying and asking for a little extra money, it is so difficult for me to say no.  Although I don´t have much money, I also don´t have children I need to worry about.

When high schoolers ask me for money because they need some extra to get to school, or to pay for graduation supplies, or work on projects for class on the internet, it is difficult for me to turn thm down.  And I don´t.  I am here to support furthering education, and when these youth want to learn and succeed in school, but their families can´t afford the extra expenses, how can I say no?

And another huge thing that Union did not factor in is the unfortunate event of getting robbed.  Luckily I have never been pick-pocketed or put in danger, but I have had a lot of money stolen.  While I was living at my old house, I did not have a lock on my door.  I kept all my money hidden away, but with so many people always in the house (about 15 people live there, with many always coming and going), people often saw when I took some money out and where I put it back.  At first I noticed some money was missing, but not wanting to assume the worst, I assumed I must have spent it without realizing.  When this happened a few more times it became more obvious.  I then started keeping less money in the house and keeping track of exactly what I had.  When I was officially sure it was stolen and not spent by me, I told my host mom.  When I lost even more money the same day, her husband put locks on my door.  I had a few hundred dollars stolen from me over the time, and I still don´t know who it was.  What saddens me most about this is that if whoever had taken my money had simply asked, I most likely would have given it to them.  But being robbed in a town where I feel so comfortable really put me out of ease.  These people make me feel so at home and like one of their own, but this incident made me feel like such an outsider, like some people only see me for the money that I have.  Luckily since then, I have had nothing stolen, but it does leave me short some money in the end.  I budgeted well, as did Union when paying me in July, but these cases could not be factored into the fellowship.  Unfortunately this is life.  Although people can still be very happy with very little money, in this day and age, in both developed and developing countries alike, we all need money to live. 

02 4 / 2014

When I first arrived in Estero, I came to think that women run this town and their families.  In many ways this is true.  They raise the children and grandchildren, attend meetings for the school, do the cooking, wash the family´s clothes and dishes, and some even work in the fincas (farm/ rain forest land where many familes have platanos, cows, pigs, and more), or go out finding pulpo and camaron (octopus and shrimp— very popular here for ceviches, a popular coastal dish) for their families to eat.  They are always busy and work extremely hard. 

After living here for a longer period of time, however, it becomes a lot more apparent that the men actually have complete control.  The men are the ones who´s jobs make the money (most men leave town and find jobs in bigger cities while sending money back home).  While women often work harder and raise their families, they are often completely reliant on their ¨husbands¨(nobody legally gets married here— when a girl gets pregnant, the father of this baby usually becomes the ¨husband¨).  This financial reliance means that if the man cheats on his wife, or is a drunk, or beats her or her children (which happens way too often in such a small town), the wife has no option but to stay with him.  I am trying to change that, but it is extremely difficult in such a poor town that is so isolated with very little job opportunities.  My closest friend´s husband hit her a couple months ago because he thought she was cheating while he was away working in Guayaquil.  At first she kicked him out and sent him to his parents in another town, but she quickly took him back realizing she needed his income to support their three children.  Her mother, my old host-mother, recently told me that her husband used to drink too much too often and used to beat her.  She kicked him out and fortunately he stopped drinking immediately, came home, and has never hit her since. 

Before I moved into my new host family´s home, my new host mother came to me crying one night.  She told me how her husband has a new girlfriend and is a drunk, but is too afraid to leave him.  She was working in a local comedor (small restaurant) but was fired because she needed to take time off one day to take care of her sick son.  She has six kids and has no way other than her husband to earn money for them.  This is when and why I offered to live there.  We pay the host families money to live and eat at their home, and this was my way of helping her make some of her own money that she can use on herself and her children to help better their lives.  Obviously it is only temporary, but I am hoping to give her the confidence that she doesn´t need her husband. 

There is also a women´s entrepreneurial group that was created to help the women come together and make money for themselves.  Although the idea is wonderful, there are many issues within the group.  There is a lack of trust in the president, but nobody else wants the responsobility.  They cook for tourists most weekends, but only get paid $5 or $10 when each works, and because they work in small groups, each person only works once every couple months or so.  Andrew and I have spent a lot of time working with them and attending their meetings, but the more we do this, the more they rely on volunteers. They are slowly learning to be more reliant on each other and themselves, and hopefully this will better the group. 

It is definietly hard being a woman here, but for the most part, the women are very strong and wonderful, I just wish they were a little more independent from the men.

I will end this quote by Charlotte Bronte about women who can and should be independent, especially with the circumastances listed above.  ¨I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will¨

17 3 / 2014

Some photos of the Grupo de Jovenes organizing the books in the Biblioteca, as well as the wall I painted that lists all their goals and desires for their community of Estero

17 3 / 2014

On Friday, my host sister, who is also a becado, graduated from high school! This is extremely exciting news for her family and the town.  She is the only graduate this year from Estero at her colegio, and is also the only becado to graduate this year.  Her hard work has finally paid off.  I am constantly impressed by this girl, as she works hard every day in school, waking up early and arriving home late after a few hours of travelling to and from school.  When she is home, she helps her mother with the cooking and taking care of her younger siblings. Since we arrived, I have noticed the impact and persuasion she has on her friends and on the town.  Not only is she smart, but she has such a confidence and esteem in her, that I myself sometimes envy.  She continuously takes charge and is often the one to initiate events and activities for the becados.
At the end of this month, she will take her exams to go to university. Not only is it rare to find someone here who has graduated from high school, it is even rarer to find someone who wants to and has the grades to go to university.  We are currently trying to figure out a feesible means of paying for this university, after her exams are finished.  The university in Esmereldas has free tution, but she will still need to figure out a living situation as well as pay for books and exams. 

I see so much potential in this young woman´s life, and I know she can go so far. Her character and enthusiasm are evident to all, and her hard work is paying off.  She is a great example for the town, the other becados, as well as her five siblings, three of whom are under age ten.  She is a prime example of how Estero is developing and advancing for the better.  Best of luck to this recent, beautiful graduate!

26 2 / 2014

As anybody who´s talked to me or has read my blog since I got to Estero knows that the kids here are a special breed.  They are always playing, dancing in the street, climbing trees, swimming in the river, and curious about everything.  My senior thesis at Union was about children throughout the world and how no matter their circumstances, they are all so similar.  Kids want to play, draw, dance and run around.  As an artist, I wanted to teach art classes in the school to bring about the creative and curious sides to all these energetic and lovable children.  I have been teaching art here for about 7 months now and the kids all love it.  I teach the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders each once a week.  With the younger kids, I work mostly using colors, shapes, and numbers, as the majority of these students do not yet know the differences.  I have done projects such as ¨connect the dots¨, ¨color by number¨and other exercises.  Some days I simply read them a story and then have them draw the images they can imagine and interpret from the story.  We work on drawing animals using only shapes or figures, and drawing certain animals or foods with the colors that most identify them.  Las week they worked in partners to draw portraits of each other.  Whenever they use their imagination and creativity, the pictures always come out unique and beautiful.  For Valentine´s Day, I cut out pink hearts from construction paper and had them make cards for someone whom they love.  I then taught them how to make flowers out of pipe cleaners so that they could give colorful flowers and a card to someone. 

I personally think that having art in one´s life allows for an expansion of that person´s creativity, self-expression, and inflence on that person´s work or career.  When people use their creative and visual sides of their brains, more often they are able to create new ideas and perspectives for their current lives and projects.  It is important to have some type of art in everyone´s life, but especially in a child.  It allows for them to learn in different ways as well as to expand their imagination and natural curiosity.  Each week the children become more active and interested in their own creations.


26 2 / 2014

A couple weeks ago we had a meeting with the Padres de la Escuela (parents of the school) and the teachers to discuss a myriad of issues.  The first that was brought up (a reason why Andrew and I had asked for the meeting) was from one of the parents concerning the assistencia (attendance) of the teachers at the school.  The teachers often miss a couple days of school every week, or will often let their students out of class very early so that they themselves can go home earlier.  When a teacher does not show up to school, the students are simply sent home.  The fact that students are missing class a couple times a week is detrimental to their ability to learn and retain information.  Kids have a basic right to learn, and these teachers are not giving them this right.

The fellows from last year had told me that the parents had brought up the assistencia at a meeting last year.  But because nobody had any written evidence of their absences, the teachers lied and denied it all.  This year, when Andrew and I decided to have a meeting with the parents and the teachers, I decided to start taking attendance on my own.  By the time we actually had the meeting, I had about a month´s worth of their attendance.  Within that month, there were only two times that all four teachers were present.  When we brought this up in the meeting, we made it clear that the concern was only about the students.  We did not want to cause a fight or invite blame, just to come up with a solution for this problem.  This is not a problem for the parents or the teachers, it is about the students and their rights to a basic education.

Unfortunately, when the teachers rarely show up, or simply write things on the board for the students to copy (while they play music at their desk or take naps), the students fail to receive their basic level of education.  There are far too many students of all ages and grades who cannot read at all.

When the topic of their assistencia was brought up, the teachers were livid.  Anytime a teacher spoke, the parents all listened giving them respect.  When a parent, or Andrew or I spoke, we were constantly interrupted by the teachers, yelling and screaming extremely rude things at everyone.  They were very disrespectful to everyone involved, and refused to help resolve anything.  They were appalled that we would take attendance and made crude remarks about certain parents. 

As there was no solution made during this meeting, Andrew and I have thus decided to skip having another meeting with the teachers, and just go straight to the district.  We are writing an oficio (an official letter of concern) for the district and will go with one or two parents to try and come up with a solution for the upcoming school year.  These kids deserve someone to fight for them.  They deserve an education.

22 2 / 2014

We have exactly 2 months left here in Estero before returning to the US.  One of the main things we´re trying to do with our last couple of months is to inspire the people here that they can do so much on their own.  A couple of months ago, Andrew and I were told that we might be the last fellows here in Estero.  We recently found out that there will be 2 more next year, but we want to ensure the people here that they can do so much without the help of fellows or volunteers.  There will not always be volunteers here, and our hope is to get these wonderful people to rely less on the help from people like us.  Many people here, such as the Women´s Group, rely dependently on the fellows here and we are trying to simply ease that reliance.  In doing so, we are workling hard with the Grupo de Jovenes (the youth group).  This is the first generation of youth that the town has seen, who are mostly all in high school.  They attend school in towns outside of Estero and aside from getting a higher education, they are also able to meet and learn from people who come from bigger towns.  We are thus working on helping this group really become strong leaders in a myriad of projects for this town (such as getting cell phone service).

The problems that are prevalent in Estero derive from the fact that it is so small, isolated, and often forgotten by the government and the world around it.  There are so many towns all over the country and throughout the world that just go unnoticed. It is not their fault, but it definitely leaves the people without much confidence or esteem.  

The people in this town are not lazy or stupid.  In fact they are some of the most hardworking people I have ever met.  There is just a lack of opportunity and conviction.  When they are constantly forgotten or passed over, it ensues a lack of drive in the people.  The teachers don´t want to come to school everyday and often leave early, not allowing these children to learn to their fullest capacity.  There also aren´t many jobs available.  Currently, there is no running water (for the past month or so) and most days there´s no electricity.  People want to work, they want a better education for themselves and their children, it is just extremely difficult when the government seems to forget about them and they lose their confidence to ammend these problems themselves.

The Grupo de Jovenes, however, has a lot more esteem.  Their potential is incredible.  They have a higher education, as well as the knowledge that there is so much they can do themsleves to help better the lives of the people of their town.  They still fear that they can´t do certain things alone and without the aid of volunteers, but they can.  My goal for the rest of my fellowship is to help create leaders within the people of the town, especially from the Grupo de Jovenes.  We recently painted the inside of the biblioteca (the library where we often meet), and on one of the walls I painted a mural with a book filled with everything this group wants for the future of Estero (I will post a picture soon).  Their potential is enormous, and the people of the town will only grow their own confidence if they see their own members of their own community as leaders, not just fellows.  I am eager to see how these young, creative, and inspiring teens work together to better the community of Estero.

¨Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.¨ -Margaret Mead

22 2 / 2014

La Madrina

A couple of months ago, I was asked to be the ¨madrina¨(godmother) to a good friend´s (and my previous host sister) son.  (This is the same baby who´s fourth word was my name.  His name is Patricio (but everyone calls him Umaña, and turns 2 in May).  I was so flattered because this family has really taken me in as one of their own and this was such a great way to show it. 

Since I arrived in Estero, Jenni (Umaña´s mother) has been one of my best girl friends in the town.  When she asked me to be the madrina to her youngest child, the only answer I had was: ¨Claro que si!¨(of course!).  Growing up in a Jewish household, I have never been to a Baptism, yet alone a church service.  Jenni and I attended (the father is currently not in the picture and there is no padrino) charlas (lessons) in the church every Sunday night for the few weeks leading up to the ceremony.  The service took place in the middle of January and was held as a baptism for a few children, as well as the first communion for some older kids.  It was a nice ceromony (one of the only I´ve ever seen even being held in town), with most of the town in attendance, and that night we all went out dancing to celebrate.

Being able to be a madrina or godmother to a boy in this town only makes this place even more special and important to me.  He is one of the most precious boys you could ever meet and I cannot wait to continue being in his life and having him in mine.

22 1 / 2014

In the small town of Estero, there is only one primary school.  It is located on the wáter and is within walking distance for all in the town.  There are about 150 students and 4 teachers, all which was written about in a previous post.  Often times, the teachers simply do not show up to school.  The kids dress up in the uniforms and are turned away about twice a week.  It is not noted or pressed when a teacher only shows up to school 3 times a week.  This is very difficult for the children who want to learn and continue their education.

Last night, we had a meeting with the Becados and in the meeting Andrew and I decided to discuss some rumors that are floating around the town.  According to many people, there will no longer be a primary school (Viña del Mar) for the upcoming schoolyear.  We asked the becados to see if they knew anything or had heard anything about this.  They had and told us it was already confirmed that there wont be a school here.  I talked to a few more people who also heard this.   Unfortunately, if there is no school here, the kids will be sent to a school in Gallera or Tonchigue (towns 30 minutes to an hour away— on the ranchero which is a public bus that rarely or never comes on time).  They will also have to pay for the bus passes everyday— something that most families cannot afford.  People will simply stop going to school.  This is a huge problem, because people (every person) deserves the right to an education. 

Andrew and I went to speak with the Director of the school this morning and she was unsure if anything was confirmed or not.  We then went to the district to talk to the board of education.  When we first met with a woman at the district, she asked us when we were returning to our country.  We told her we leave in 3 months.  She then asked us why it was our concern, if we won´t even be here when the school is shut down.  If we´re not here, we need not worry about the people of Estero.  This really upset me, as I am not here just to help the people for the moment.  I want to help better their lives for the future.  My heart and my work here does not leave when I leave.  I still plan on helping this town after I return to the US, as well as continuing to work with the people to better their future through education and hardwork. 

Luckily she came back and told us that for now, there will still be a school in Estero next year, but things might change in the near future.  We will continue to make sure that the school will continue to exist, and if it does not, we have some backup ideas.  If the children need to go to school in Gallera or Tonchigue, we will work to ensure that there are buses that will come solely to take the children to school (and at reliable times for free paid by the government). 

One of the problems in the town is that many people lack confidence.  This town is often forgotten in the scheme of Ecuador.  Education in this country is extremely important and pushed, but only in certain parts of the country.  Many towns on the coast of Ecuador are often forgotten, and thus when mistreated, the people here feel there is nothing they can do.  They are often pushed down, and Andrew and I are here to bring them back up.  They are all people and deserve the same basic necessities as everyone else.  Basic education is one of those. 

Here is another quote from Dr Paul Farmer (I recently finished the biography of Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder— which I recommend to all): ¨Clean wáter and health care and school and food and tin roofs and cement floors, all of these things should constitute a set of basics that people must have as birthrights.¨ None of us are better than another, and thus none of us deserve any less than another.  These basics are the rights of everyone.

¨The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you¨ B.B. King 

05 1 / 2014

This post was written a few weeks ago, in the middle of December.  Because of my limited and infrequent access, I was unable to post this until now.  At the end of the post I will share an update.

This week was a really tough week for me in Estero.  I am witnessing the poverty here as a much more serious issue than I have before.  A family I am very close with is currently going through a very serious medical drama.  The daughter who is exactly my age has fallen extremely ill and has been in the hospital all week.  I spent the last week with her traveling from hospital to hospital (and sleeping in the waiting rooms) with her and her mom as her illness gains more and more complications.  The problem is that the illness isn´t new.  She´s been sick for a while, I just didn´t realize how sick.  Nobody did.  About 3 months ago, her mother went to help take care of her and her 2 year old daughter.  Because they didn´t have much money (this is one of the poorest families I´ve seen here), she didn´t take her to the hospital, afraid that they couldn´t afford the medications.  The two (and the baby) came back to Estero while I was on vacation with my family.  When her brother (a close friend of mine) asked me for some money to buy her random meds, I decided to see if there was anything else I could to.  I went to their house to see her, and was shaken with what I saw.  I found her on her hammock, barely able to breathe, skeletal looking, and swollen in random áreas of her body.  I do not want to go into more of her medical business, but it was not good.  I got her to the hospital as soon as I could the next morning (the closest hospital is about 1.5 hours away), and have been helping to pay for the medical care with the little money I have.  Luckily, hospital stays are free in Ecuador, but the medications and basic essentials needed in the hospital cost money (drinking wáter, cups, adult diapers, shampoo and soap, etc.).  I left at the end of the week to go home shower and get sleep, and was to return the next day, when her mother called me telling me further complications happened and she was being sent to Quito.  I decided not to go to Quito because I am still needed in this town, but her mother has my phone and I have been in contact with her since. 

The problem here is that the family didn´t want to or couldn´t help her when she needed it because they couldn´t afford it.  This is one of the poorest families in the town and it is extremely difficult to watch a girl dying when it could have so easily been prevented.  Another problem is the lack of formal education and proper medical care in this part of Ecuador.  The parents didn´t realize that doctors and hospitals could actually help her, because there has never really been medical care in or near the town.  

Often times people without education and proper healthcare are not aware of the importance of good doctors and good medicine.  As Doctor Paul Farmer (a renowned doctor in Haití and other extremely poor parts of the world) puts it:  ¨And when someone is very sick and people are used to seeing them die with the same symptoms and you give them meds and they rapidly recover, people think.  And then they start talking.¨   

***An update, as this was written in mid-Decemeber:  She is still in the hospital in Quito and has recently come out of her coma.  She was breathing through a machine, but according to her mother is now able to breathe on her (as of a few days ago).  She still has tubes down her throat and cannot yet talk, but understands when spoke to.  I am in constant contact with her mom throughout all of this as she still has my phone (nobody in the family can afford/ has a phone of their own).  Her condition is very serious and the doctors still do not know when/ if she will be allowed to leave the hospital.  Her name is Mirna, please keep her in your thoughts.

Sorry for a sad post, this is just one of the conditions that comes with living and working in an extremely impoverished part of the developing world.