260º West | Teaching, travelling and volunteering in Ecuador

10 things I miss about England

Before you read this post, why not read 7 things I love about Guayaquil or my love letter to Guayaquil, Ecuador?

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Of course I knew I would miss certain things about the UK when I left. I was totally mentally prepared for eight long months sin steaming cups of Twinings Lady Grey, really good medium-rare melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak, and oversize jars of Skippy’s extra crunchy peanut butter.

But there were so many things I didn’t even realise I was missing until I flew back for a quick visit last week – things that you force yourself to adapt to, without even thinking about it.

So here, in no particular order, are the things that I really, really miss about England’s green and pleasant lands:

10. Real news

… And by this I mean actual factual current events, reported in a way that is calm, unbiased and allows the viewer to make their own judgements. Having grown up in England, this was something I always took totally for granted, and it drives me crazy to have to get my daily news from male presenters screaming hysterically at the television and only reporting half the facts, interspersed with the female presenters dancing salsa in high heels and bodycon dresses. There’s a time and a place for that, and it’s not the 7am news cycle. However, I can’t say Ecuador is the only country guilty of favouring sensationalised stories over the type of reporting we’re used to in the UK – thank goodness for the BBC World service!

9. Personal safety

It has been such a huge relief to be able to use my iPhone here in the UK – whether that’s out in public, at night or in the city centre – without the constant worry of getting mugged. Although it may sound like I’m being overly cautious, I’m still not quite over the memory of a knife against my stomach while being robbed two months ago, and my flatmate has had two high-end phones stolen in Guayaquil in the space of just a few months. Lock your doors and windows, kids!

8. Public transport

I know it’s nothing compared to Switzerland and Japan, but I’d forgotten how reliable, safe and comfortable the London Underground and National Rail trains are here. Let alone that fact that we actually have trains. There’s a schedule, there’s a set route network, and there’s even an app to plan your journey! What more could you ask for? (Well, there is one thing: slightly cheaper fares? But that’s a post for another time.)

7. Shopping

Hole in your sock? You can solve that with £1 and 5 minutes in Primark. Need an external hard drive to back up your laptop? One click on Amazon, delivered to your door tomorrow. Not to mention how good England is at high street clothes! MY BANK ACCOUNT IS SO HEALTHY WITHOUT YOU BUT I LOVE YOU LONGTIME ENGLISH SHOPPING

6. To cook or not to cook

As much as I adore cooking, sometimes there just isn’t time in the day, and I find myself opening the freezer longing for a ready meal, or a jar of curry paste, or a tin of coconut milk and some fresh spices, or even just a bottle of name-brand Malibu to wash the cravings away. I know it’s a lazy habit, but a lifetime of conditioning has made me this way. And to all those single women who cook fresh every day and still find time to work, go out and maintain some semblance of being a fully functioning adult, I salute you! Teach me your ways!

5. Life in plastic

Using contactless cards to pay for things is the future; RIP cash-based societies – but I can put up with this for the time being since I know how differently things work in third-world economies. On a related note, I also really like being able to hand over a twenty-pound note to pay for something and not getting laughed out of the shop. Compare this with the eternal struggle of trying to find change in Ecuador, and the glare you get from the taxi driver when the fare is $2 and you hand over a fiver – now, that’s just crossing a line, clearly!

4. A woman’s worth

In the UK, women are not expected to wear skintight clothing all the literal time, and that is the best. thing. ever. I am sick and tired of people telling me my clothes don’t fit because they include a little breathing room. I’m sorrynotsorry that I don’t live in spray-on shorts and skintight strap tops, but that’s just not my style. Some of my skirts are flared, not pencil-cut. Some of my dresses are like a big tablecloth with a hole cut in for your head to poke through. No, you can’t see the shape of my body, and that doesn’t make me any less of a woman. Okay? Okay.

3. International travel

I know how ironic this is seeing as I’m living abroad, but I really miss travel! Or to put it differently, how easy and cheap it is to go abroad when you live in England. Thanks to Ryanair, £50 and a couple of days off work will get you a balmy weekend in Spain or a sightseeing city break in Italy. You wanna know how much it costs to fly from Guayaquil to Lima, the closest foreign capital? Four hundred dollars (£250). No joke. And that’s not even counting expenses while you’re actually there!

2. Healthcare

The NHS is the pinnacle of British civilisation. I’m serious. We have an incredible healthcare service and I never fully appreciated it until I had to undergo private healthcare in Ecuador. Not only did the doctor ask me all sorts of uncomfortable personal questions and try to sell me a spare room in her house during the appointment, she also recommended that I do a very expensive series of scans which the NHS later advised me were totally irrelevant to my situation. Profits and healthcare shouldn’t mix!

1. Friends and family

Being with people who really knew you when you were younger is such a privilege. Flying back home for a friend’s wedding meant I had a golden opportunity to catch up with all the people that mean the most to me here. It’s been fantastic to see everyone and the goodbyes have been somewhat emotional (there’s never enough time!) but I know we’ll make it through – we always do.

 

So, what do you miss when you go away from home? Do you agree with my list, or have I missed out something vital? Let me know in the comments below!

And in the interests of fair and balanced reporting (see point #1), next week I’ll be publishing a list of all the things I don’t miss about England – stay tuned!

 

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260º West | Teaching English & Getting Educated in Ecuador

A love letter to Guayaquil, Ecuador

I’m counting September 9th as my one-year Guayaquil anniversary, even though I’ve only actually spent six of the last twelve months here. Thing is, I’m already head-over-heels for this city, despite the fact that it has a face only a mother someone clinically insane could love.

But first, a little background.

The school I currently work for has recently undergone a big rebranding and has joined what is probably the most recognisable private ELT chain in the world. Because of this, they’re hiring new teachers like there’s no tomorrow; I’m just one of a whole pack of newbies being brought in to meet the presumably massive increase in demand.

One of those fellow newbie teachers, who I met at 6.30am on Tuesday morning, had unceremoniously informed me by 6.45am that same morning that he wasn’t planning to stick around. He wasn’t just going to leave the school, he was going to leave Guayaquil. And he wasn’t just going to leave Guayaquil, he was going to leave teaching.

This guy had committed years to working in similar environments in other countries, but Guayaquil was the place that ended it for him. It was the straw that finally broke that highly experienced camel’s back; the drop that spilled a cup already overflowing with culture shock; the long, rusty, crooked nail in the coffin of ELT.

You’ll forgive me if I find this absolutely hilarious. The whole thing. I really, truly do. And the reason it’s so funny isn’t that I think he’s crazy for not liking Guayaquil after his first week here; actually, I kind of see where he’s coming from.

You see, after just six months of living here, I’ve heard the complete list of one million and one reasons to hate this town. I’ve listened to people complain about everything from the noise and the traffic and the pollution to the unequal provision of public services to the corruption that may or may not be seeping through all levels of government to the oddly designed state education system.

If I thought about it for long enough, I’d probably agree with at least some of these opinions – but you see, love is blind, and Guayaquil and I are still in the honeymoon phase. And so even the things that I don’t like about this city, I love.

Take yesterday, for example: a frankly exhausting day spent teaching, volunteering, and running all over the city on public buses that – let’s be honest – operate so dangerously they’d be wildly illegal anywhere in the global north. As a treat, I bought myself $3 of roast chicken just before I got on the #114 bus back home.

There was no glass in the windows of the bus, the chicken juice had begun to seep out of the bag I was carrying it in, and the man next to me was balancing a live tortoise in the crook of his arm. Still, none of this mattered because I managed to get a seat during rush hour – and so at least the chicken juice was dripping gently down my thigh instead of swinging against my side and staining my Starfish Foundation t-shirt.

And as the bus driver raced down the motorway with absolutely no regard for the lives of anyone either on or around the vehicle, I thought to myself what a lovely thing it was to be on the road with the wind in your hair and your face and your heart while the sun is setting smoky violet over another beautifully imperfect day in Guayaquil.

(By the way, the chicken was delicious.)

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.

Visa blues

It was somewhere between printing off 14 pages of bank statements and handing over £153 in cash that I began to resent the universe for leading me to Ecuador. Had I made the more sensible, normal, convenient choice of Spain, I’d be spending this time and money catching up with friends before I left and […]

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!