Monday, April 30, 2007

First of many Ecuador updates

On January 11th, 2007 I was one of five volunteers from MPI who boarded a plane to Quito, Ecuador for eleven days to conduct a MPI site feasibility study. The goal? Eventually start a new Manna site in Ecuador.

I’d never been to South America before, and was taken aback at how beautiful it was to fly into Quito, the capital city (where MPI will have its new site). Quito, long and narrow, is literally sandwiched between the green, Andes Mountains. It’s absolutely gorgeous. So landing in Quito is like this: you see beautiful mountains, huge volcano, beautiful mountains, beautiful mountains and then out of no where, there’s gigantic city that’s about twenty times as long as it is wide. Needless to say, it’s easy to start dreaming of hiking Cotopaxi and Pichincha (two huge, dormant volcanoes close to Quito), considering that from the center of the city all you have to do is look up to see their ominous, snow covered peaks.

Quito is divided into northern and southern parts by a majestic statue of the Virgin Mary called “El Panecillo” and is two miles high (the subsequent lack of oxygen meant we were often out of breath while exploring the hilly, cobblestone streets of Old Quito). Women walk around in traditional Incan attire of felt hats, knit shawls, and babies strapped to their backs with colorful, hand-embroidered material. Northern Quito boasts modern buildings, clean streets and an impressive infrastructure that helps business flourish. Southern Quito, on the other hand, is less developed and, generally speaking, is home to greater poverty than its northern counterpart. The dichotomy between resource-rich Northern Quito and resource-poor Southern Quito is striking, and part of the reason why we chose Quito as the next Manna site: the division means a) access to resources and b) communities of real need all in the same geographical proximity.

The itinerary for our trip was jam-packed meeting with several non-profit organizations, hospitals, a microfinance company, friends of friends who lived in Ecuador, etc. The hope was to (1) begin networking and develop connections in Ecuador (2) find a community where we could work and (3) find a partner organization, through which we’d be introduced to the community and learn more about the area where we’d serve. The days were full and wonderfully exhausting. I personally found solace in the brief hot-water showers at Casa Victoria (a huge treat because we don’t have hot water in Nicaragua at the Manna house) and the occasional cup of coffee from Café Oro, which is seriously the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.

If you’re interested in the details of the trip, click here (LINK TO FEASIBILITY REPORT). Otherwise, here are the “take home points” from our eleven days in Quito:
1. We found several potential sites. Our favorites are a place called “Santa Isabel,” a quiet, little town about 25 minutes south of Quito and “San Roque,” which is an urban site in the heart of Old Quito.
2. The boys from the trip will basically eat anything (including hot chilies that will make you cry and guinea pig. Yes, guinea pig, which happens to be quite common in Ecuador. They say it tastes like chicken).
3. We connected with several organizations and people in Quito. The really exciting one that seems to fit best with our needs as a partner organization is a small, Ecuadorian non-profit called UBECI. They connect international volunteers with service opportunities in Santa Isabel and Quito and are looking to expand the programs they already run (which is where MPI comes in).
4. We’re going to be able to start a new Manna site in Ecuador. We’ll begin in early September, 2007 (woo hoo!).

So what are we up to now? After finalizing our Ecuador team in early April (it will be an amazing group of 10), we’re now busy solidifying partnerships in Ecuador. We’re working on getting our Visas, continuing to network with our contacts in Quito, researching Spanish schools, getting in shape to hike Cotopoxi and fundraising, fundraising, fundraising. And I’m counting down the days when I can get my hands on some more Café Oro coffee. On behalf of the MPI Ecuador team, we’re pumped, and we look forward to keeping you updated on our progress.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Los Sapos, Honduras

Copán is a quiet little town nestled in the northern part of Honduras. White adobe buildings with red-tile roofs line the cobblestone streets. Men wear white cowboy hats, children splash around in a wide, clear river at the base of the pueblo, and a cool breeze often blows through the Copán valley, a lush, peaceful land filled with archaeological footprints of the ancient Maya civilization.

My favorite part of the pueblo, however, was Los Sapos- nestled on the mountainside over looking the valley, it is a ruin…
of two huge toads.

We had just been to the Copán Ruinas the day before to see beautiful stone sculpture after beautiful stone sculpture: ornately carved mosaics, buildings with thousands of steps and sacrificial Mayan temples.

So you can imagine my delight when the next day we hiked 45 minutes up the valley to see different ruins of two large, ancient, carved-out-of-rock toads standing foot to foot.

Apparently, in Maya tradition the toad is a symbol of fertility. Historically, Mayan women would travel to Los Sapos to give birth, believing in the birthing and fertility powers of the toads. Little stone toads (replicas of Los Sapos) are sold in all the markets in Copán, many which are given as gifts to pregnant women to bless their labor.

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up with an obstetrician father and a nurse midwife mother, but I was particularly drawn to this toad legend of fertility. To me it’s just beautiful that this ancient site was the birthing place for Mayan women. And that fact that two frogs represent it is just, well, awesome.

Before leaving Copán I bought a tiny stone toad for 10 lempiras to give to my mom for her nurse-midwifery practice. Who knows if the ancient legend is true, but I’d like to think her patients might benefit in some way from the centuries-old, magic, Mayan birthing powers of Los Sapos.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I survived Volcán Pacaya

You know that game called “lava” that most everyone used to play as a kid? It’s the one where you swing and climb and play on a jungle gym, but you can’t touch the ground because it’s molten, hot lava- and if you touch it, you die? Well I played that game (except in real life) on Volcán Pacaya in Guatemala. We jumped, and skipped and ran on solid lava rocks- underneath which, lay real, red-hot lava. It was seriously a childhood dream.

Here’s how the story goes:

It was day five in our road trip adventure around Central America and we had just spent one day in beautiful Antigua, Guatemala. Colorful, Spanish-colonial buildings, ancient cathedrals, horse-drawn carriages, women walking around in traditional Mayan dress called traje, vendors selling mangoes and pineapples on the street, bright flowers spilling over high walls guarding beautiful, Latin homes and street after cobblestone street of fountains, parks and courtyards. Antigua is charming, don’t get me wrong, but I could only stroll down the streets of the tiny town for so long… the surrounding volcanoes, beautiful and green and huge, were so close and tempting. I couldn't wait to hike.

That afternoon I went to a bar/ café with Hilary to get some café con leche, when this British guy walks in with this huge grin on his face, flushed, clearly having just been on a hike. He sits down next to me, introduces himself and after ordering a cold beer (Gallo to be exact… the local Guatemalan beer) says, “I don’t know what you’re into, but if you want to experience the biggest rush of your life, go hike Volcán Pacaya.” And that’s all he needed to say. After downing my coffee and paying five quetzals (about 60 cents), I signed myself up to hike the volcano the next day.

The hike started out at the base of the volcano, where bunches of locals advertise the “taxi natural” (horses that will walk you up the majority of the mountain), to which we said no gracias. Actually getting to the lava takes a good 45 minutes. Hilary, Tracy and I hiked with three travelers from Ireland. The six of us basically ran up the mountain- sweating and breathing hard at 8400 ft. We couldn’t wait to see the lava. Our guide at one point, noticing our faces flushed from exertion, said, “corazón boom boom, como el volcán” which means, “the heart goes boom boom, like the volcano.”

The windy, dirt trail surrounded by trees and greenery eventually gave way to crumbling, sharp, black lava rock. Every step up in the lava rock would slide about two steps back- plus, the altitude was so high that we were basically walking in a cloud. I couldn’t see five feet in front of me it was so misty, which gave the hike an eerie, mysterious feel. The further we walked on the unstable lava rock, the warmer it got. I would occasionally get a gust of hot, dry air that meant we were close to the lava.

And then the guide, a good 50 feet in front of us yells “¡miren la lengua!” referring to a “tongue” of lava that glowed through the clouds- a narrow, bright orange stream of lava flowed down the volcano. The closer we got to la lengua, the more it felt like we were in a sauna. I’d look down, and directly under the rock I was standing on would be moving, real lava. One of the Irish guys we were walking with yelped at one point- the hot lava rock had burned a hole through the sole of his tennis shoe! We were able to hike up dangerously close to the lava- walking eight feet away from the lava wasn’t the smartest idea in retrospect, but it was really incredible (like the Irish guy said who burned a hole in his shoe, “live young and free! We’re only here once!” famous last words, right?).

The guide repeatedly said to be careful, that lava can change its path suddenly and unpredictably. I kept thinking to myself “shouldn’t we have signed some sort of liability waiver before coming on this hike??” As it turns out, the answer was a loud YES, because at one point, this huge ball of lava came loose and almost rolled over several tourists who were taking pictures- but they’re all ok. Fortunately, they got lucky and the lava ball didn’t roll all the way to where they were standing. (Afterward, everyone looked at each other and laughed semi-hysterically… some because they were scared to tears, others because of the sheer exhilaration of dodging a lava ball. How cool is it to say you dodged a lava ball??)

We took some pictures pretending like we were falling into the lava and stuff, sat in silence staring at the molten rock and pondered life for a little while, and then hiked all the way back down the mountain (in the dark). After the sunset, the lava glowed a ghostly red-orange, a striking contrast to the black of the night. After making it home, we kissed the solid, cool ground, showed digital pictures to other fellow travelers in the hostel and proceeded to revel in the afterglow of living our childhood dream of literally, playing over lava.