I am sitting on the airplane flying over the Pacific Ocean. In 2 hours I will be in the Unites States for the first time in 9 months. I have a lot of different thoughts going through my mind right now. A few of them are: “I cannot believe my time in Ecuador is already over.” “I am so excited to see me friends and family but so sad to leave my life in Ecuador.” “I wonder if I’ll remember how to drive a car.” “I can’t wait to reunite with starbucks coffee.” “It’s going to be so strange to talk to in English all the time again.”
Today’s departure was strange. First of all, you would think the last day in Ecuador would be time for some more reflection or at least a time to mentally say goodbye and a time to get a little closure. Unfortunately, for both Alex and I, we woke up on the wrong side of the bed for some reason. Well I shouldn’t exactly say ‘for some reason.’ We obviously were not jumping up and down, screaming and smiling about leaving Ecuador. It is bittersweet. But the day had a rough start. We had no hot water in the hotel we were staying in for the third day in a row. Ice cold showers in Quito are not the greatest thing to wake up to. And our American Airlines experience pretty much just put us over the edge. We were already checked in and we just had to do our bag drop. Without any line at all, we somehow managed to stand at the counter for 40 minutes as they told me my luggage would cost $248 because I had three pieces of small luggage to check instead of just one big one, which would have been free. They charged Alex an extra fee as well for his second bag. Not only did they charge us rediculous amounts of money but they didn’t have any luggage tags left, nor were they able to print out our own receipts for these outrageos charges. It’s a bit hard to explain, but you can imagine when you are already in a sensitive mood, these types of senarios just set you off a bit. I was a bit shocked when I caught myself uncharactaristically yelling over my shoulder in Spanish, “this is the worst check in experience I have ever had and I will never fly with you every again! That is a promise.”
Since being here, I have really calmed down. Not that I was crazy before, but at home you can really get wrapped up doing ten things at once, and feeling overwhelmed sometimes just happens. Life in Ecuador, in my opinion, is much more relaxed. Especially in Estero, there was no need to be overly stressed or worried about anything. We made our own deadlines and goals and worked at our own pace. So today, being the departure day, I sort of had a feeling I wouldn’t be in a great mood. But I guess I wasn’t expecting to be so quick-tempered, and irritable. I think it’s a mix of things but really mostly nerves and a combination of events that were making me so vulnerable. Another thing to add to the emotional roller coster was that we also had two friends from Estero come meet us in Quito after our Peru trip to send us off for real. This time, saying goodbye might have actually been harder than my goodbye to all of Estero. It was sort of like these two represented the whole town of Estero and before when we actually left Estero, because we still had our trip to Peru, and a few days in Quito, it wasn’t as…dramatic. Today, we said goodbye to Quito, to Estero again and to the Sevilla family (our friend from College’s family who lives in Quito and has practically taken us in.) It was really hard for me today. Leaving all of those things behind is one of the hardest things I have ever done. In fact I still don’t know if it has SUNK IN that I am really going to be sleeping in Needham, Massachusetts tonight.
The positive is this. I still have some SINK IN time. The 3 hour layover in Miami and the 3 hour flight to Boston will hopefully help. I usually can adapt well to change. I have amazing friends and family waiting for me. I am excited to just chill on my couch for an entire day. But I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous for the future and my ‘next step’. Or that I feel completely ready to come back. Or that I didn’t leave a part of me in Estero de Platano. But as I have mentioned before, the fellowship was just the beginning of my lifelong relationships with the people and the places in Ecuador. And as cheesy as it sounds, I shouldn’t get too sad about leaving. I should be happy that this experience happened. I would never have heard of Estero de Platano nor met these people if it werent for this fellowship. My relationships will continue as will the work we have done. The next part of my journey will continue at Union College sharing my knowledge with the next Estero de Platano Minerva Fellows and helping to prepare them for the best 9 months of their lives. After that, who knows.
Now, I am on my flight from Miami to Boston. In just 1 hour I will be in Logan Airport. After just a few hours, I am feeling much better. Actually, the culture shock has surprising already begun. In Miami it just felt different already. The whole method of the airport was not the same, much more chaotic. People were running through the airport, arguing with airline workers and just genuinely less friendly. I never noticed this before about U.S airports but I guess it took 9 months of being out of the U.S to realize. It was unfamiliar hearing people speak in English (of course some Spanish too) and it was even odd to see many blonde and blue-eyed people.
We had about 45 minutes to kill so we decided to find a place to eat. We settled on this sports bar to have a beer and a quick bite. After a few minutes of getting our barrings, Alex realized that we ate at the exact same bar exactly 9 months and 2 days ago on our way to Quito for the first time. Talk about Déjà vu. We couldn’t believe that without realizing it we had chosen the same restaurant and the same exact seats. It really did feel just like yesterday that we were heading to Ecuador to start the fellowship, waiting in Miami, apprehensive and eager to arrive in Latin America. It was so fitting to start at that sports bar and finish there today while enjoying our first American beers and chatting about what we’ve lived through.
So as I am blabbering on, trying to make sense of my day, my thoughts, my future and my feelings, I think I will just end by saying thank you for reading and following my journey these past 9 months. Although the fellowship is finished, and maybe even my blog, this for sure won’t be my last incredible, absolutely life changing experience. Just as one chapter ends, a whole other one begins, so I think I will just conclude this post with a ‘to be continued’ in the life of Shelby Cutter. No period, question mark or exclamation but a dot dot dot…
As I am writing this, I am on a flight from Cusco, Peru back to Quito, Ecuador. We just had a trip of a lifetime, doing the 4-day 3 night trek on the Inca Trail and finished at the Machu Picchu ruins. What an incredible experience! We planned this trip knowing that it would be extremely difficult to just leave Estero and fly back to the U.S a day later. We knew we needed some time. Time to transition, to reflect and to distract ourselves a bit. And it’s a really good thing that we did this, because distracted we were. We saw over 10 Incan ruins in a span of 7 days. We learned about the history of the Andean people and followed in their footsteps for 4 days on the Inca trail. We had a lot of time to think, to reflect on our time here in Latin America, specifically in Estero. There was nothing there to sidetrack us from our own thoughts, our goal of reaching Machu Picchu and completing the 27 mile hike. This trek really was special and important for us at the end of our 9 month journey. Peru and Ecuador are very similar in terms of their beauty and biodiverse topographies. On this trip we were able to really take in and appreciate the beauty of the mountains and connect to nature and to the incredible landscapes here in South America.
Leaving Estero was probably one of the harder things I’ve ever had to do. Last Monday we left Estero mid-day. It was such a strange fe eling because for over a year and a half, I knew that April 20th 2012 would be my return date. I think I cried about it for the first time around New Years this year. I remember thinking “oh my god, I only have three and half months left.” Three and a half months is a long time. I went abroad to Spain for a whole trimester and that was three and a half months. But for some reason, it just seemed so short in the moment. It really hit me early on that April 20th would come and I would be leaving Ecuador. But for some strange reason, the week leading up to my departure from Estero, everyday just felt like any other day. Everyone in the town knew exactly when we were leaving and wouldn’t let me forget just how many days I had left in Estero. Even 24 hours before, my mind knew I was leaving that community but it just didn’t really sink in. The night before I left Estero, one of the girls that I had been living with (Mariana, 11 years old) said, “why don’t you just stay? If you love it so much, like you say you do, why don’t you just stay? You can live with us forever, you’ll be my older sister. Please don’t go. If you go, you will never come back, just like all the other foreigners.” Explaining to kids, even 11 year olds why you can’t stay is extremely challenging. Its heartbreaing to tell them that you too have a family and a whole other life that you just cant abandon. Its hard to think about how the young ones, the 4 and 5 year olds that chase me, call my name, give me big hugs probably won’t remember us when they’re older. Its hard to think that the ones that will remember us, the 10-18 year olds believe that they probably will never see us again. But I made a promise to myself the night before I left. I was thinking about all these things, about how other volunteers from Peace Corps and other organizations have come and have never returned, not even for a short visit. I decided the night before that I owe it to the people to return one day, even if it is a short visit. To return and to surprise them and prove them wrong. To show them, by returning, that they mean the world to me and that they have changed my life.
Most people in Estero say and really do think that they will never see me again. That, was the most saddening part of the goodbyes. The day before I left, I spent the entire day walking from house to say goodbye, to give out my contact information, fotos, and most of my clothes as gifts. While I knew, (because I made a promise to myself) that I will return one day, the families really truly believed that there would be no more Shelby in their lives. That I will leave and become distracted by everything that I have back in Boston and New York and that I will just….forget. The tears were not tears of see you later, but of farewell forever. THAT was the toughest thing. As a volunteer, you don’t want to make promises to people. It isn’t fair to anyone to declare that within 6 months, a year, or two years that I will be back. Who knows what will happen. I will go to Union in May but then I need a job. Maybe I will travel more, maybe I will work in California or New York city. Who knows? I don’t. The day I left one of my friends, one of the scholarship students, 16 year old girl Jira, handed me a note and told me to read it once I had landed in Peru. She wrote, “Te me ensenado muchisimo. No es adios para siempre. Yo se que un dia voy a verte de nuevo. Una siempre nesecita tener esperanza.“ —-“You have tauaght me so much. It isn’t goodbye forever. I know that one day I will see you again. One always needs to have hope.”
This makes me smile. Although I left Estero, sobbing and disheartened, it makes me happy to think that maybe there are some people in Estero that have hope that our lives will cross paths again. I’ve never had to say goodbye to people that wouldn’t just be a phone call away (no cell service). Or send a quick email that says I miss you (no internet). Communication and “staying in touch” will not be easy. But Jira’s letter really makes me always want to remember how I feel at this very moment. It motivates me to return one day to see my favorite little kids all grown up or to see if any of the scholarship students have gone off to study in University. Marianas comment made me sad. It’s hard to explain to kids that even though you might want something desperately, or be completely determined to do something, that sometimes there are other factors holding you back or delaying you. At the end of the day, although I never promised to the people that I would come back, I made a promise to myself. I am not sure I was ready to leave. I’m not sure there would ever be a time where I was really ready to leave. Work-wise we have done a lot but theres always more you can do and new experiences that can inspire new ideas. Nevertheless, our 9 months was up and it was time to leave.
After all the tears and the goodbyes, we had an airport experience I will never forget. Our farewell was out of a movie. We had close friends and families come to the airport and send us off. We had a delay so we waited outside, drank our last celabratory beers together and when we went on the airplane, we were exchanging waves, and blowing us kisses to everyone outside. They waited until we took off and then drove back to Estero. I will never forget that day. What an incredible memory of my last day. It finally hit me when I was at the airport. Yes it had hit me around New Years, but really, looking out that airplane window and seeing all those people I love, it hit me. I would not just go back to Quito for a few days, or go to Peru for a week and return to Estero. It was the last time I left Estero…for now. But I really am hopeful that it wasn’t my last time there.
I have no regrets about the last 9 months. Workwise I feel proud. Sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit, but after the week in Peru, after a period of reflection I really know that we did great work and put in 100% effort in everything that we did. I feel incredible fortunate to have had this experience and to have made long lasting relationships that I will carry with me forever.
A Scholarship Conflict
A good amount of my time the past month was dedicated to choosing the next scholarship students. One of our jobs was to interview and ultimately elect the two new scholarship students in Quingue (20 minutes up the road) who will work with the next fellows. With a representative from Yanapuma, we spent a whole day in Quingue interviewing 7 candidates and ended up choosing two excellent kids who have a ton of potential.
In Estero, this past year, out of the 11 scholarship students, one boy, Angel, mid-year, moved out of Estero therefore no longer making him eligible for the Estero scholarship. And unfortunately, another scholarship student, Erika, ran off with her boyfriend right after school finished for the long vacation. Because of this, we told Angel that his scholarship was terminated because living in another town violates the rules of the scholarship because he cant really work with the volunteers if hes never in Estero. Unfortunately, Angel’s step father really didnt understand and stormed out of the meeting. There was something that he just wasn’t getting about every student having the same responsibilities and rules. If Angel is living out of Estero, while the rest here have to participate in activities and classes, he would be exempt and exused and that is not fair. Alex and I afterwards felt a little down just because we really love Angel as a person and student but it’s too bad that the relationship had to end in such a dramatic way due to his step fathers reaction. But also as we look in retrospect at our time here, we are surprised that more of these heated arguments or disagreements didnt take place more often due to the cultural differences and lack of education and experience with these sorts of things. But actually we rarely experienced hostility and usually conversations were calm and friendly. This was a bit of a first.
Because of Angel’s situation, there would be one open scholarship in Estero. But as for Erika, things got more complicated. When the Yanapuma representative came to help us choose the new scholarhip student, 15 year old Erika came back to Estero to plead for her scholarship and tell us that although she is living with her husband now in Atacames, she really wants to continue her studies and contune receiving money from Yanapuma. So, in the meeting with all her fellow scholarship students, their parents, us and the new candidates, she plead her case. I am not even sure myself how it happened but we wanted to hear her peers opinions on how she ran off and got married in January and that now she wants a second chance with Yanapuma. Not only did we want to hear their opinions but really we wanted the group to decide by vote because after all, we are leaving and this program is for them. We went around the room asking each parent and student what they thought. Of course, we should have known, that everyone would say, “well she deserves a second chance. If she’s here she must care about her studies.” So that´s what happened. Even the candidates to receive a scholarship voted that she should get another chance, even though that meant for them there would be only on open spot and not two.
I am not usually one to say that there´s a right and wrong answer to things. But this was something I felt really strongly about. What kind of message are we sending to the rest of the scholarship students if we continue giving her the scholarship? I mean that we would basically be saying that any one of them, at 14, 15, 16 years old, can go get married, move away from their family, move out of Estero, but still receive full support from the Foundation. I made a little speech to the kids about how I see so much potential in them and they are so young and have so much life to live and things to learn before getting married, having children etc. Maybe that would make them think about their answers.
I figured out pretty quickly that Erika´s peers and friends wouldn’t say in front of her face that she shouldn’t get the scholarship, so we asked Erika and her Father to step outside for a few minutes. We tried the same method again. We went around the room asking people, should Erika´s scholarship continue? Just like the last time, people didn´t want to be the ones to say, no way. I caught on pretty quickly, again, that we would have to do an anonymous voting. I guess I just really couldn’t believe that every person in the room actually believed deep down that she should get a second chance. So, we passed around a little slip of paper and had everyone write down either YES, she continues her scholarship, or NO, and her scholarship will go to another student. We tallied the votes, and it was SO CLOSE. But thankfully, there were 14 NO´s and 11 YES´s.
This was a really interesting experience for us. We saw first hand that people wouldn’t speak their true opinions in front of others. Confrontation is rare in Estero. When people have issues or disagree with someone else, they do not confront the person and resolve the problem but instead gossip or talk about the situation to their family. This is a perfect example of that. In front of Erika and her father, no one wanted to say that what she did, was not a good decision. When she left the room, still, no one wanted to say anything because they knew that Erika would find out from someone else in the room that they said NO. Finally, anonymous voting showed that the majority of the people in the room had their minds in the right place and just didn’t want to say it out loud. I still cant believe 11 people believed that she should still get the scholarship but at the same time, I am not that surprised. Teen marriages and pregnancies are far too common here. The most unfortuanate part is that we have working really hard and closely with the scholarship students trying to provide a better future for them and showing them that they really can be anyone or do anything they want to do. Erika´s leaving is really not the behavior we look for in a scholarship student. The last thing we want to do is terminate anyone´s scholarship. I reflect on it thinking…should we have just decided ourselves from the beginning? But I think we made a great lesson out of the experience and I think it made the people really think and put themselves in Erika and her parents´ position. I´m just glad at the end of the day, the people of Estero made the correct decision for the future of the scholarship program.
We elected two new boys for the program (now 7 girls 4 boys) who are already SUPER involved and EXCITED!!
Ecuadorian NGO´s Helping or Hurting?
The Womens Group have begun constructing their restaurant. Since they formed about 2 years ago, they have been cooking every weekend and holiday under open-sided tents with a portable kitchen and materials that they set up by the beach. Well now, they have enough money to start actually constructing their own building.
I really am torn in how I feel about this. First of all, the reason they have enough money is because they work closely with an NGO called Onu Mujer which is a UN based organization that promotes equality and gender empowerment for women. Well, what they have done, is given the womens group thousands of dollars in grants to further develop their association. They have given this money literally without asking one question nor really giving them any follow-up responsibilities or requirements. When they do come, they turn a blind eye to the problems and continue discussing the next step and the next opportunity for grant-giving. This, we have decided, really does more harm then good. The women, as well as the artesans group seem to be dependent on these NGO´s. Of course! What better gift is there than pure cash! If these grants were loans, it would really be benefecial for the people. They would continue to learn how to be $ responsible and save their money little by for repayment.Yanapuma´s latest newsletter writes…
What we have come to realize is that the community has
become mal-accustomed to receiving projects from outside
organizations, and that although the supposed aims of these
projects have been to improve their ability to organize and
develop for themselves, they have only succeeded in creating
a dependency culture among members of the various
social groups. While we cannot stop other organizations from awarding projects to Estero de Plátano, we are aware of the negative
effects that these can end up having when there is insufficient
follow through and control on the part of the funders.
So, I am not happy that Onu Mujer has given this grant for the restuarant. However, it is nice to see the women all working-each one is responsible for bringing materials from their fincas-and excited about having a concrete restaurant soon. This is something that they have wanted from the start. I am also concerned a little bit in how they will organize themselves and rotate work schedules. Running a restuarant is a bit different than just setting up stands by the beach on weekends but we shall see! I have faith!
The people will say ‘We have done this ourselves’
For the past 8 months our concern for the future of Estero has grown dramatically. We have witnessed with our very own eyes the changes that are happening and the dangers of being on the fast track of development. Every weekend we see new faces in Estero and each one of these new faces threatens this peaceful fishing village. We are walking a fine line between wanting to welcome development and tourism but also deep down wanting to kick these strangers out of there when the sun goes down.
The underlying issue here is not to stop development. We can’t do much to slow down development and the right type of development really is a good thing. The isssue is that the people of Estero are not ready for it. They are not prepared for what is coming to them. We have tried for 8 months now to get people to realize that if they do not take control and participate in the advancements, many changes will happen that they won’t be happy with. Outsiders will buy up the land, put in their giant beachfront hotels and restuarants and Estero will become a party destination, very much like Atacames. Moreover, we have tried to show the people that they all share similar concerns. Every native to Estero loves the tranquility of the town and the fact that 5 out of 7 days a week there is nobody here but the natives of the community. We have tried to unite them in their fears and work together to try to prevent unwanted change.
Until now, we really hadn’t had much luck. Well finally, after the last four- day party, carnaval, where hundreds of people came to Estero for vacation, the President of the community approached us. He told us that he is nerovus for the future of Estero and that he talked to a tourist who told him that in the next few years the town will look completely different. This was HUGE that Nevil (President) came to us and expressed his desire to do something. We told Nevil that we too share his concerns and would be happy to help him organize a community meeting. The goal of this meeting would be to unify the community and establish a committee on tourism and development within Estero de Plantano.
Just in time, last week, two Yanapuma interns from Germany arrived. Alina and Sol will be staying in Estero for 4 months (until the next Minverva Fellows arrive). But rather than coming as a community-wide volunteer (like Alex and me), to fufill their University requirements they will be specifically working on tourism and hopefully completing a tourism plan for Estero at the end of their time here. Last Friday, Alina, Sol, Nevil and I walked door to door around Estero, letting everyone know about the meeting we would have the next day.
Saturday, we held the meeting at 6pm. About 35 people came to the meeting which is a fairly good turnout for us. I introduced the two new volunteers and explained that because their specialty is in tourism, the people really need to take advantage of this support. I addressed several things that we have noticed. For example, the need for a lifeguard during these big holidays, and the need for a systematic way to deal with parking and charging cars. Right now, there are two men from the community who direct the cars to a random space and then pocket the money that they charge. Estero’s land is public property so if the town agrees to charge the cars, that money should be placed in a community fund, kept with a treasurer, and then used for something to benefit the whole community. People were fairly responsive to these ideas and seemed to be in agreement with almost all of the ideas we proposed. However, when it came time to elect committee members, nobody wanted to step up.
This, of course didn’t surprise me. I expected that nobody would want to be the one(s) with specific responsibilities. So rather than creating a committee where each individual has a role, we decided that better we make teams of people assigned to a specific category. For example, we decided to make three teams; Limpieza (cleanliness group), Desarollo (development) and Seguridad y Pagamiento (Security and Payment). Slowly but surely people began to volunteer once we explained what each group’s work entails. The cleanliness group will be responsible for organize community-wide cleanups for both the beach and the town, before and after every weekend or holiday. The development group is responsible for things such as making sure each hotel and restaurant has signs to indicate its function. Also, the development group will hopefully be advertising activity packages to tourists with some sort of flyer showing that one could take a trip to the waterfall or do a boatride. People in the community should take advantage and serve as guides to do various small trips within and near Estero. Lastly, the security and payment group will be responsible for finding lifeguards, the parking situation, and some have even said bringing in police officers to moniter the crowds during big holidays.
So, overall it was a successful meeting. Next Saturday, the teams will meet together to start planning exactly what we will do for Semana Santa (April 6). I am extremely pleased with how the meeting turned out because I think just getting everyone together to address this growing issue in and of itself is a success. The best part about this was that it didn´t come from us. Yes, we have had these feelings for months, but we knew we couldn’t push our concerns onto others and force them to care about it. They must care about it. This committee on tourism was the idea of someone from the community. Someone approached us for help. It iss the community members who care, organized, committed, and dedicated 2 hours of their Saturday night to discuss this topic. I just sat back and took direction from the people. This is what the fellowship is about.
Go to the people
Live with them
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build with what they have,
But with the best leaders
When the work is done,
The task accomplished,
The people will say
“We have done this ourselves”
My Strange Way of Telling Time
Time has gone by way too fast for my liking. I remember thinking to myelf before I left that 9 months is a really long time. “It’s almost a year!” my friends would say. I would tell people that asked me what my plans were, that I was “moving” to Ecuador because in my head 9 months didn’t sound so temporary. Well thats all funny to me now. It’s true that 9 months is ¾ of a year and that I did move myself and about ¾ of my wardrobe to Ecuador. But now, I have just over a month before I move myself (with ¼ of the wardrobe I came with) back to Needham, Massachusetts and then back to Union College.
Before we left, in the spring of last year, all 9 of us Minerva Fellows had our series of immunitzations for all sorts of things, Dengeye, Yellow Fever, Rabies…the list goes on. Well our location required us to take Malaria pills the entire time that we have been here. One pill for every single day that we have been here. That’s, 278 pills. 278 days of Ecuador living. Every morning at breakfast time, I open my big container of Malaria pills and I am reminded of just how much time we have left. Before, when the containter was even halfway full, it still atleast looked full. Full of many more days of swimming in the Pacific, of working in the jungle of never speaking English and of dancing salsa by the beach. Now, today, as the pills keep vanishing before my eyes, so are the days here in Estero. I only see 37 days in my malaria-pill containter and it saddens me. Estero has completely and honestly become my home away from home. Never have I felt so “at home” in a place that wasn’t actually home. But the only option I really have is to look at my malaria-pill container still a little bit full rather than a lot a bit empty. I have to stay positive and embrace each day I have left here. I have to disregard my fears about the next step and my unknown future. I should think about how happy I will be to see my family and my friends back home. I have to be proud of what I have accomplished and learn from the things I wanted to accomplish but didn’t. Most of all, I have to be ecsatic (and I am) about my overrall experience and celebrate that I had such a great one. On April 20th my strange way of telling time will show me that I don’t have any anymore days left in Ecuador and although I wish time would stand still, reality is setting in and I am starting to accept it.