Through The Lens: Guayaquil, Ecuador

A quick look at Guayaquil’s downtown area and Guasmo Sur neighbourhood.

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

48 hours later: lessons learned from moving abroad

I’ve done a lot in the last 48 hours, including moving 6,000 miles from England to Ecuador, setting a microwave on fire, and attending an 87-year-old woman’s birthday party.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned somewhere between leaving my house in England and writing this post in Ecuador:

#1. Travelling gets harder as you get older

Until last week, solo travelling was an absolute piece of cake, which mostly involved a much more youthful version of me waltzing off into several beautiful (but ultimately commitment-free) sunsets. This week, solo travel means moving across continents with two pieces of checked baggage to last you for two years, and leaving your significant other behind in a move you may live to regret for the rest of your life.

I suppose the older you get, the more roots you put down, and the harder it is to let go.

I also got really upset saying goodbye to my parents before leaving, which can only mean I’m emotionally unstable growing up. My response? Well, I’m not sure I should be giving away advice this good for free but … I watched a lot of sad films on the plane and just cried a bit. You heard it here first, folks!

#2. American Airlines wants you to suffer

I flew London to Miami to Guayaquil, and American Airlines told me I’d have to ‘pick up my bag at customs in Miami and re-check it to Guayaquil’.

What does this actually mean? It means that when your plane lands an hour behind schedule, you have to sprint through a multi-terminal airport devoid of any useful signage, frantically race to your baggage carousel and pay $5 for the privilege of using a trolley to ferry your suitcases about 200m down the hall to another, slightly smaller baggage carousel.

Are American Airlines incompetent, or are they just trolling me? Answers on the back of a postcard …

#3. Some things never change …

… like Guayaquil Airport, for example. It has not changed one iota, and that is a beautiful thing because it means I know exactly where to go, what to do, and how to get through immigration in the shortest possible time.

I also met a sales rep from a chocolate company who was travelling to Guayaquil for a cacao conference. (How do I get that job?!) He asked for some Ecua-tips, so I told him it was the end of humpback season in Puerto López. He didn’t seem to know there were whales in Ecuador – why does nobody seem to know that there are whales in Ecuador?

#4. Surprise! You suck at Spanish again

One month away has played havoc with my listening, accent and vocab. (On the bright side, I did get told that my accent is pretty guayaco last night, but I think my apartment manager was just being sweet.)

In July, after two months of solid immersion, I got pretty used to not having to try when speaking Spanish. That privilege has definitely left the building.

#5. A single Reese’s peanut butter cup is not enough breakfast to sustain you after 24 hours of transatlantic travel

Breaking news! Warn your loved ones!

#6. Access to drinking water is the greatest privilege known to man

Wasn’t sure if the tap water was safe to drink in the apartment and I still don’t own a saucepan, so I filled a mug with water and put it in the microwave for seven minutes. Thing is, it already had the teabag in, and when flammable materials like string and paper get very, very hot …

You can probably take it from there.

#7. Flatmates are horror stories waiting to be written

After 24 hours in the apartment, I’d met a grand total of zero flatmates, and started to wonder if anyone else actually lived here. This evening, I decided to bite the bullet and knock on a few doors to introduce myself.

Door #1 opened to reveal a fully naked guy who seemed to only remember he was fully naked when it was too late, and made a half-hearted attempt to hide behind the door while letting his head peek out at an awkward right-angle.

“Hi, I’m Sanchia, I just moved in here and I wanted to introduce myself!”
“Uh, hi.”
“Nice to meet you. I’ve got the room next door.”
“Okay. Is there a problem?”
“No, I just wanted to introduce-”
*door slams in my face*

Okay then.

#8. Community is everything

So I took all those positive, peppy life lessons and went to see my Ecuadorian host family, the people that looked after me while I was volunteering in Flor de Bastión from May to July this year. And as usual, they made me feel like I was just a long-lost older sister who had finally returned to the family. Mirka told me about her first week at university, I took Dalila to school, and then Zoila took me and Jonas to her mother-in-law’s 87th birthday party, where we had caldo de gallina (chicken soup but made with hen meat, which has a slightly tougher texture), pasta salad with rice, and cake and jelly.

And suddenly, everything was perfect.

Photo credit: deathtothestockphoto.com

12 goals to make the most of my Ecuadorian experience

In exactly three weeks, you’re moving halfway across the world. You have two years, and no plans. What do you do with all that time?

I’ve always been an overachiever. It’s not that I’m particularly smart or gifted or capable, just that I have a really, really deep-rooted fear of achieving nothing. In my worst nightmares, I look back over my life and realise that I’ve wasted all my time just getting through another day, without having actually made the effort to improve myself or the world in any meaningful way.

Thankfully that’s not the reality yet and I’m pretty determined to keep it that way! With that in mind, here are 12 things I’d love to attempt, if not achieve, during my first 12 months living in Guayaquil.

Language

1. Speak Spanish like a true guayaquileña

After 120 hours of tuition and ninth months in Spanish-speaking South America, I’m capable in Spanish, and was even mistaken for Peruvian once. Once! But being conversationally fluent isn’t enough – I want the same freedom in Spanish as I currently have in English. I want to be able to talk about classical music and modern feminism and why Port Salut is the king of cheeses, without breaking a sweat or having to search for a word. And most of all, I want that sentence to come out of my mouth like I’d spent my whole childhood growing up in Guayaquil. Impossible task? Don’t care, let’s give it a go!

2. Turn “I used to speak French” into “I speak French”

I feel like an idiot for letting it get this far. I used to be pretty damn reasonable in Parisian French and even waitressed in l’Hexagone for a while, but now it takes me hours to string together the simplest of sentences. The most frustrating part is that I can still understand and read French as well as I ever could, which means it’s all still in there somewhere! I just have to get my act together and actually practise. I know this is a weird one, because I’ll be thousands of miles away from native French speakers, but not being in a francophone country is not a good enough excuse anymore. Allons-y!

Travel

3. Spot turtles in the Galápagos

With a smaller paycheque and a longer visa allowance comes … more domestic travel! Ecuador may be small but it has cheap public transport and incredible biodiversity, so I’d be an idiot to miss out on a visit to the world-famous Galápagos Islands. Besides, Charles Darwin is pretty much the only connection between England and Ecuador, so really it would be culturally ignorant of me not to go … right? Right? Sigh. I have no idea how I’m going to afford it, but in my mind’s eye I’ll be turning 24 on white sands and palo santo leaves, watching miniature sea turtles as they hatch from their eggs and scurry towards the sapphire-blue waters.

4. Watch wild condors in the Andes

Don’t mess with these beasts! Condors are regal, graceful, and much, much bigger than you – in fact, they’re the second biggest bird in the world, after the albatross. Native to South America, you can usually find them on the flag, crest or coat of arms of any Andean nation, and with good reason – thanks to their intimidating size, they generally represent health, strength and power. I got the fright of my life when I first strolled into a condor aviary in Quito (should any bird ever be quite that large?) but warmed to these incredible creatures after a visit to an animal sanctuary in Peru’s Sacred Valley. It’s one thing to see birds flying around in enclosures, but it would be an honour and a privilege to see them in their natural habitat, doing their condor thing.

5. Eat encocado in Esmeraldas

… and because I’m incapable of making a list that doesn’t include food, here’s goal number five! Encocado (which literally translates as “coconutted”) is pretty close to my idea of gastronomic perfection – traditionally an incredibly aromatic fish or prawn dish cooked in a flavour-rich base of coconut milk and fresh spices. Please excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard. And where does this heavenly dish come from? Esmeraldas, the Ecuadorian coastal province famous for pristine beaches, laid-back lifestyles and heavy Colombian cultural influences. Eat, sleep, salsa, repeat …

Culture

6. Learn to dance bachata

Okay, maybe my vision of dancing salsa on a beach somewhere in rural northern Ecuador is a little farfetched. But learning bachata isn’t – in fact, pretty much all Ecuadorians seem to be able to dance basic bachata, and if they say they can’t, they’re lying! Or at least, their dance standards are a hell of a lot higher than mine, which is probably the most likely explanation. This style of music and dance took a little getting used to, but after nine months of Romeo Santos songs blaring from car radios I’m officially hooked. It’s romantic, it’s impressive and most of all it’s a unique part of Latin American culture. I’m not scared I’m not scared I’m not scared I can do this.

7. Learn to cook seco de pollo

What’s that I hear you say? Food-related items made it onto my list twice in the space of three items? Hush now, let’s focus on the matter at hand: the traditional coastal dish of seco de pollo. This universal favourite keeps natives and travellers alike coming back for more; I was once asked to describe it to a Guayaquil newbie, and without a second’s hesitation I told her that it tastes like “warmth and love”. And it’s true – if you don’t believe me, try it for yourself!

Study

8. Educate myself about international development

It’s one thing to be interested in a topic, but it’s quite another to dedicate your life to it. While I’m still deciding whether this is the career for me, I’m so grateful to be able to volunteer with The Starfish Foundation and gain a small insight into international development projects in action. However, practical experience is not enough – I’d like to educate myself about the things I’m seeing. Thank goodness for online long-distance study; from October, I’ll be taking a Masters-level module from London’s Institute of Education (now a part of my alma mater, UCL) and getting a brief introduction to the issues surrounding development work from an academic perspective.

9. Apply for my Masters degree

On that topic, I’m thinking of going back to university in a couple of years’ time and getting my Masters degree. I know I want to study education and international development in some form, but at this point the options seem limitless; there are literally hundreds of courses, all of which promise some unique academic insight or exclusive career opportunity or world-class teaching that the other courses lack. While I’m sifting through the possibilities, I’m also debating the idea of studying abroad, that is to say, outside the UK. If anyone has any advice, opinions or suggestions about this, please do get in touch – I need all the help I can get!

Work

10. Expand my experience in development work

Leaving school and working full-time before starting university was the best decision I ever made. It gave me amazing work experience, a solid grounding in the real world, and the wild-eyed determination to exploit my time as a student to the absolute limit – so there was no way I was ever going straight from an undergraduate degree to a Masters degree! The next two years in Ecuador should give me more than enough time to add valuable real-life experience to all that textbook learning, and hopefully make me a better student and citizen when I eventually decide to go back to university. Plus, development work as a career is all about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, not what or where you studied.

11. Teach a new specialty

Teaching English is such a rush, but while I love the variety and depth of General English classes, I’m also dying for a new challenge within English teaching. In January I taught my first ever English for Specific Purposes (ESP) course, a one-week intensive programme of medical English for students from a plastic surgery clinic in southern Spain … and I loved every second of it! I’ve already spoken to my future boss about this, but I really do hope I get the chance to work with some exam preparation or technical English classes during my two years in Guayaquil. Not only is there a strong sense of motivation within the class, but as a teacher I get the chance to really push my knowledge of my own languages – it’s every linguist’s dream job!

Personal

12. Go on a real date

Maybe this one is silly and irrelevant and highly inappropriate given that I just got out of a five-year relationship. But I’m 23, and this is the first time in my adult life that I’ve not been tied to someone else. And because of all that, I’ve actually never been on a real date, and I’m writing it down because I think it’s probably okay to want to have that experience. Is that okay? It’s not that I want to meet someone – heaven knows I’m not looking for any kind of relationship in the foreseeable future – it’s just that I feel like everyone else has gotten to do it, and I haven’t, and it looks fun, and seeing as everything else about my life is totally weird and inappropriate anyway, why not?

Do you have any goals for the rest of the year? How about for 2016? Share them with me in the comments, and maybe we can help each other achieve them!

260º West | Teaching English & Getting Educated in Ecuador

7 things I love about Guayaquil

1. Community is everything here.

I’m not really an emotional person. There’s a reason why I studied maths at university – I like it when the answer is either right or wrong. For that reason, I find it incredibly, unbelievably difficult to empathise with most people. People are not made of clearly defined rules – they’re a terrifying jumble of thoughts, feelings and emotions, most of which I’m not very good at processing.

This is why I was so surprised at how quickly I became attached to the community of Flor de Bastión in Guayaquil. As much as I’d have liked to chalk it down to just the thrill of travelling or volunteering, it wasn’t even close to my first time living in a developing country, staying with a host family or serving the community. The real reason was that every single person I met took a genuine interest in me – my obsessions, hopes, dreams, fears, pet hates, ambitions, opinions – everything about me.

And just like that, without even realising it, I had been totally accepted into a community halfway across the world.

2. It’s South America’s best-kept foodie secret.

Oh god. Anyone who knows me knows that my relationship with food comes before absolutely everything. My dad’s family own a restaurant on the west coast of India, and he basically taught me to cook before I could walk. I would say that the way to my heart is through my stomach, except I’m pretty sure that I have a second stomach in place of where my heart should be. It’s the only explanation.

Anyway, the point is, I’ve had the privilege of tasting a lot of different food in a lot of different countries – but Guayaquil is the only port city that came up with encebollado. Imagine lazy Sunday mornings slurping an aromatic broth of rare tuna flakes simmered in a rich base of tomato, coriander and yuca, served with a light smattering of banana chips and a mouth-watering hit of lime juice on top.

Well played, Guayaquil. Well played.

3. Equatorial nights like Equatorial days.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m from India. I have Indian skin and Indian hair, which means that any time the temperature drops below 20°C my skin literally starts to turn grey from the cold, and any time the humidity is less than 50%, the air is so dry that no amount of Frizz Ease in the world will get my hair back to a state considered acceptable by western society.

Guayaquil, weather-wise, is basically my Indian hometown without my extended family; the climate is almost identical. And that suits me and my body just fine.

4. The west coast > everything else.

Have you ever taken a bus out of the sprawling city centre, past the endless banana plantations of Guayas, and followed the majestic Pacific Ocean up along the coastal path of Ecuador, humpback whales breaching in the distance, untouched beaches as far as the eye can see?

I rest my case.

5. Guayaquil speaks Spanish better than you.

My first week in Guayaquil, I remember wondering what the hell everyone was saying. My second week, I remember thinking that I still didn’t know what anyone was saying, but my goodness what an incredibly expressive, gorgeous, melodic accent they were saying it in.

Spanish is sexy; that’s a fact. But it’s just so much better with a Pacific-Coast accent.

6. It has a gloriously bad reputation.

When you tell people that you live in Guayaquil, they look at you with a mixture of fear and sympathy. Holy crap why would anyone live there traffic noise pollution muggings gang violence absolutely no peace and quiet whatsoever poor girl clearly has no idea what she’s got herself into. Then they offer you the palatable alternatives of Quito and Cuenca, serene colonial cities tucked away in the tranquility of the Andes, all cool breezes and cool attitudes.

Thanks, but no thanks – I like my cities with a little life in them, please. And maybe it’s the Indian in me, but I never could sleep in a city that goes quiet after dark.

7. The airport is literally. Right. There.

As a serial traveller, my ultimate pet hate is landing at an airport located so far outside the city centre that you feel you might as well have booked a holiday to a different city. I’m looking at you, London Southend.

Guayaquil has no such issues. The airport is only ever half an hour away from anywhere. Let’s all just take a moment of silence to recognise superior urban planning here.

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What’s your idea of a perfect city? What factors make you fall in love with a new place? Let me know in the comments below …

260º West | Teaching English & Getting Educated in Ecuador

A day in the life: volunteering in Ecuador

This post was originally published to The Starfish Foundation blog.

5.15am

I shuffle around in bed trying to silence my alarm clock before it wakes the rest of the house. Get up, get washed and dressed, bread and honey for breakfast and some strong, sweet coffee to wake me up. I eat with Nancy, a fellow volunteer, and our host mother, Filadelfia. Charge our volunteer phones. Out the door.

6.15am

“It’s chilly today,” we say to each other. It’s 24ºC (75ºF). The bus pulls up, Nancy and I give the driver 25 cents each and hang on for dear life. People going to work, children going to school.

6.50am

We pull in to the bus station and hurry across the platform to the next Metrovía. Only three stops on the express service, packed like sardines in a tin can. We disembark when the exotic Iglesia Victoria gardens slide into view.

7.10am

We cross the street and the number 49 arrives after a couple of minutes. 25 cents to the bus driver, take a seat on the empty bus. We navigate the busy city centre, the bus filling up rapidly as we take turn after turn. Men selling coconut water, boiled sweets and apples get on and off again.

7.30am

The bus reaches the motorway, the breeze whips through our hair, huge green hills and the dusty air lays a soft coffee-coloured haze over everything we see. Newly built roads and bridges and parks, with a message from the Mayor: “esto es tuyo – cuídalo”. This is yours – take care of it.

7.50am

We hop off the bus and catch an auto rickshaw hasta bloque 15 por favor. It’s 31°C (88ºF). Up the dirt road, down the hill, across the rope bridge over the sludgy stream, two houses up and three to the left. No street signs in Flor de Bastión.

8.10am

At the Foundation building, we greet the educadores with a kiss on the cheek and take a seat. Just two of us this week; the other volunteer is giving guitar lessons to the local children in the suburb where we all live. I help Joselyn with her algebra homework, and as usual Mirka has a thousand and one intelligent questions about yesterday’s English lesson at school.

9.30am

I teach this week’s English lesson at the Foundation using World Food Day as our theme. The kids pore over images of exotic dishes from around the world. Does tagine come from Morocco or Egypt? And what ingredients go into a bowl of ramen?

10am

The kids go home to get ready for school. We are taken in by the Rodríguez family, close friends of Starfish who volunteer to look after us until the afternoon, solely out of the kindness of their hearts. The entire house is the size of my parents’ living room. We talk to Señora Leonela about her sewing business, look through family photos and play with little Ashley and Emily. The sun shines through the newspaper glued over the wooden slats that form the walls. The mango tree outside is beginning to bear fruit.

12.30pm

Lunch is a steaming bowl of soup, followed by marinated chicken on a bed of rice. Mugs of freshly squeezed orange juice sit on the table. I know they are pulling out all the stops for us. As we eat, Kiara and Michelle arrive home from school, where they have been since 7am that morning. We’ll see them again at the Foundation in the afternoon.

2.30pm

We say muchísimas gracias and chao, and return to the Foundation. It’s one large room with a dirt playing field outside. Inside, the walls are covered in photos of community service days, visits from American board members, the kids with their families, the kids working with volunteers, the kids playing pelota. One wall is covered in colourful handprints, our way of christening this beautiful new space.

3pm

The students who had school in the morning arrive for the Foundation’s afternoon refuerzo session. This cohort is older and has a larger percentage of becados – pupils who receive academic scholarships from Starfish in return for consistently high grades, regular attendance at the Foundation’s monthly meetings and good behaviour. Cristhian greets me in English and Pamela asks me about my life in London; as usual they are impeccably presented, witty, smiling, inquisitive, bursting at the seams with youth and ambition.

4.30pm

The English lesson goes down well, to say the least. We are writing about our favourite foods, and the usual suspects surface: encebollado, arroz con pollo, ceviche. Then we write about the foods we’ve never eaten that we’d like to try, and the list is more varied: American deep-dish pizza, Japanese sushi, Indian curry, Greek salad, Mexican tacos, Italian lasagne. For a second I imagine winning the lottery and taking the entire group to Europe for a food tour.

5.30pm

We’ve overrun by half an hour. The tables have been cleared but Argenis is crouching on the floor, leaning his paper against a chair and asking me about forming the conditional mood in English. I wish for 25 hours in the day or at least enough time to give all the Starfish scholars the private lessons they deserve.

6pm

Jenn has given us a lift all the way to the bridge but we’re late because we’ve stopped to buy chocolate coconut cake the size of our fists for 30 cents each. On the bus back I daydream about a future in which the Starfish students achieve their dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers, of travelling the world, of supporting their families on the journey out of poverty. Today was one more step along that road.

7pm

We race past the softly lit river as dusk begins to fall. Overhead, two huge flags fly proudly in the evening breeze: red, blue and yellow for this diverse and captivating country, and blanco y celeste for this city, beautiful beyond words.

7.30pm

We’re back in Guasmo. I rearrange my English lesson for use the next day, then try and fail miserably not to fall asleep.

9.30pm

Filadelphia wakes me for dinner. It’s seco de pollo and I can’t eat it quickly enough. Must write that recipe down somewhere. We chat to Leo about his day; our other ñaños are working. I write a quick Facebook message to my family and friends, check my emails, brainstorm ideas for next week’s English lesson.

10.30pm

I set my alarm for 7.45am; we’ll be volunteering here in Guasmo tomorrow morning. Buenas noches.