Tajah Schroff
2005-06 Outbound to Ecuador

Hometown: Orange Park, Florida
School: Orange Park High School
Sponsor: Orange Park Sunrise Rotary Club
Host: Latacunga Rotary Club, District 4400, Ecuador

July 6 "Pre-Departure" Journal

“Oh! Do not attack me with your watch! A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.”  — Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

44 days. 44 days is all that is left before I leave for Ecuador on Aug. 19th. It seems as though the day that I will say goodbye to my life here will never come. I want to be on the plane now, waving to the life I once knew. But at the same time, I still have so much to do before I depart. I’ve made the list of things yet to be done a thousand times by now, making sure that I am not forgetting anything, and my lists grow endlessly.

44 days seems like an eternity . . . until I think of everything I have to do. I finally have my paperwork together, and sometime in the next couple weeks I’ll be making the trip to Miami to meet with the consulate from Ecuador in order to get my Visa. My birthday will be here on the 14th, and the welcome home dinner is on the 21st. Right after that I’ll be flying up to Wisconsin to say goodbye to my grandparents and all my relatives. By the time I get back I will have only 18 days to pack, prepare and say goodbye to all my friends and family in Florida….

It’s crazy to think that all this began when Ken Weiss gave a presentation at my high school. I knew that I would be graduating soon, and that I would do something after high school, but I had never been quite able to put my finger on what. From the day that Ken gave his presentation, I knew that this program was meant for me, and that I was meant for this program. And, to my surprise, my mom supported me 100%.

The application process and the interviews were grueling, and for a brief period I doubted that anybody had made it through . . . maybe they just weren’t going to send anybody this year. And then my acceptance letter came. I had been selected, and I was going to my first choice country: Ecuador! Twenty of us made it out of who knows how many applicants, and I feel honored to be given this opportunity. Since that day in January, it’s been a whirlwind of orientation weekends, frustrating activities, jumbled languages, and new friends.

My graduation came and went and only one thing has been on my mind. Ecuador. I have already come to have an appreciation for Ecuador. I have talked to exchange students who’ve already gone and returned, people who live there, and members of my community who were raised there. I’ve spent countless hours reading and learning about Ecuador. It seems as though the travel bug has bitten me, and I haven’t even left yet. . .

My home in Ecuador will be quite different from my home here. I am a Florida girl born and raised. I only own two pairs of non-flip-flop shoes (apparently they don’t wear flip-flops in the Andes), and I own two light-weight jackets. I have no sweaters, no long sleeve shirts, nothing that would even protect me from a slight chill (shopping is a big part of my list). I have never seen mountains. There aren’t even hills where I live. I never thought that out of all the things that I will experience during my exchange year, I am most excited by the fact that all of my new memories will be created in front of a dramatic backdrop of mountains and volcanoes.

44 days. 44 days. And tomorrow it will only be 43. As a whole it seems so long, but as each day passes, I have no sound comprehension of time.

And to be honest, I’m scared.

How do you prepare yourself mentally for something of which you have no idea what to expect? My mom acts as though I’m never leaving, and my friends act as though I’m already gone. I find myself taking on household projects that have no significance. I’ve re-painted my bathroom twice. I’ve hung shelves, re-arranged, re-modeled, and re-decorated. It’s as though part of me won’t be ready to accept that I’m leaving until once I’m already gone.

A lot has changed between my family and I, and the same with my friends and I. So as I prepare to leave, I am leaving so much more behind than my country. I am leaving any sense of reality as I know it, I am leaving friendships that I thought would last forever, and I am leaving the remnants of my family behind. So I will be starting a new life twice, once in Ecuador upon my arrival and the other in my return to my home country. It is a very sad feeling knowing that I am not saying goodbye for only a year, but rather for a lifetime…

MOST IMPORTANTLY: I need to take the opportunity to thank Al and everybody involved in this program. It is an amazingthing to be able to experience, and without their hard work and dedication it wouldn’t be possible. They truly are changing the world one exchange at a time. Thank you!!

I also want to thank my Aunt Chris and Uncle Kerry. They have supported me from day 1, and without their continual encouragement and love, I would not be preparing to make a journey that will change my life. I love you both very much, and am eternally grateful for all you’ve done for me.

September 4 Journal

Hola to all. Things here in Latacunga are simply amazing. I arrived late on Friday night, Aug 19th, and my host family was waiting with flowers and balloons. The flight from Miami to Quito was relatively easy, and all of us exchangers stuck together….but one thing made a lasting impression on me. While passing through customs, we had to wait in line to hand our documents over to the customs agent. There was a quaint little sign asking us to please wait behind the line. And, consequently, there was a bright yellow line painted on the floor….and it dawned upon some of us that crossing that line meant crossing into a world completely and totally different and unfamiliar to us. The sign might have well said ``No english beyond this point´´ Of course, this was expected, but to have such a concrete manifestation of such an abstract idea blew my mind…

It was a two hour drive from Quito to Latacunga, and the view was amazing. I’m from Florida, where everything is flat, flat, and more flat. I was awed to see lights shining from all levels of the horizon. It looked like a painting. Luckily, I understood everything that was said to me, so it wasn’t a quiet or awkward ride.

I got the grand tour of the house upon arrival, and man o man, it’s huge. I got lost a little at first, as there are many different levels. I have my own bedroom and I share a bathroom with my sister, Sophia (14 - but her birthday is July 4th, how cool is that?). My host brother, Eduardo, or Llallo as we call him, is adorable. The entire family likes sports a lot, so I do a lot of that. There’s a game room in the house that has a pool table, ping pong table, poker table, and a mini gym. My backyard is a tennis court. The view from my balcony is amazing. Silhouettes of mountains grace every horizon. My host mom and dad are very nice, and they do everything they can to make me feel at home. The maid is also very nice, and helps me to understand how to use things. It’s cold, a little colder than I expected, but the weather is insane. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s raining, it’s sunny, it’s everything at once and nothing at all. It’s very hard to dress for. But I love it all the same. At night, it can be deathly cold, and no central heating. My parents here bought me a space heater, bless their hearts.

Ecuador is so...honest. It doesn’t try to hide its problems like the states do. You see poverty here, you see the people on the streets and the little huts tucked here and there in the foothills. And it’s beautiful. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the way things are.

And it’s the little things that I have fallen in love with…

…like how I know I’m so much closer to the sky (2800 meters closer), but it still seems so much farther away. Though at times, I swear if I was a little taller, I could touch the clouds. The stars are infinite. At night I have a hard time discerning where the streetlights in the mountains end and where the sky and stars begin. Days pass by in perfect increments of time. Twelve hours of illuminating daylight, and twelve hours of impenetrable darkness.

…like how people here honk at everything. They honk to say hello, goodbye, how have you been? They honk to say excuse me, they honk when they pass, they honk when being passed. They honk at literally everything. I was very confused at first, coming from a country where you usually only honk out of anger. I appreciate it now. People here drive, for the most part, insanely. No one wears seatbelts, which never ceases to amaze me. The little white lines mean nothing. Oncoming traffic means nothing. Passing is a very common occurrence, often five cars passing at a time. It resembles a game of leap frog. A lot of the time is spent going down one way roads the wrong way, or passing in the left hand lane, while other traffic is passing in the right hand lane. It seems very dangerous, but I have yet to see a wreck or an angry driver.

…like how everything is so cheap. Things are a fourth or a fifth of the prices that I am used to paying. Ice cream cones, 30¢, taxi rides to anywhere in the city, $1. I get $55 from Rotary every month, and I have a feeling that it will be more than plenty.

…like how the graffiti isn’t just mindless tagging or the rivalry among gangs. It’s meaningful, often poetic. Like, "there is no more meaningful struggle of life than the struggle of life", "what is love if not given truly", or my favorite so far "Ecuador is, for better or for worse"

…like how there are signs along the roadway that state the mission of the national police "educating to save lives", "working for an accident free Ecuador" and "Here for your protection". And it’s true. There are armed guards at many places in the city, and you get the feeling that they really are there for your protection, unlike the soldiers in the US who seem intimidating with their guns. One even tipped off my mom the other day that a traffic officer was issuing tickets for people illegally parked…

…it’s the beautiful statues that are at many intersections. Mama Negra, and others. I don’t know the significance of all of them, but they are beautiful pieces of art. I sometimes forget that this is the 3rd poorest country in the western hemisphere….

I have already been to a Rotary meeting here, and it’s a lot different than my club in Florida. Here they meet at night, for one, and they always meet in the house of a Rotarian. My first host father was the president for the past two years, and now is the vice president. One uncle is the chairman, Al's counterpart, and another is the treasurer. I really like the Rotarians, they are all very sweet people, and most are very young. And yes, Florence, I did meet Carlos Donoso, and he says hi. Carlos Donoso embodies all of what Rotary is trying to accomplish. He really struck me as an amazing person, and was very easy to talk to, in Spanish of course.

I keep English to an absolute minimum here. No one in my family speaks English, but my brother knows random phrases (mostly bad - or just plain awkward) that he blurts out over lunch. A couple people in the city speak to me in English, but I always answer back in Spanish until they get the hint. I understand everything said to me as long as its not said super fast, which at times kills me. I can answer back, but it’s a lot harder. I talk as often as possible, and I can usually get my meaning across. My cousin Sebastian is very sweet in the sense that he loves explaining things to me and asking questions. He talks slowly, so I love him all the more.

School, which starts in two days, will be very different. It starts at 7, and for me ends at five till 3. It’s a Catholic school. The uniform is very much so that of a Catholic school girl. Black shoes, blue knee socks, blue pleated skirt, baby blue sweater. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, white tennis shoes, aqua track paints, white tee shirt, and aqua track jacket. I’ll be studying the equivalent of twelfth grade general studies. I’m sad that I won’t be taking chemistry, but I know that I will learn a lot more of the language this way.

(Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep this short, but I know that I am going to be so busy for the next month or two, so I might as well write a lot now)

I’ve already met one of my classmates, Mauricio. He’s a ``super-chevere´´ guy, and has helped me a lot so far. He has taught me a lot of Quechua words (the indigenous language), and when I found out that my Grandma back home was in the hospital, he forced me to watch Camaramania (the Ecuadorian equivalent of America’s Funniest Home Videos) in order to lift my spirits.

Also, there’s a member of Rotex that lives just a couple a streets away. Her name is Belén, and I really appreciate all that she does for me. If I’m having a problem or if I just need someone to talk to, I know that she’ll be there for me. It’s all about resources.

There are two other exchange students here in my city, and both will go to my school. The first, Ashley (16) is from Reading, PA. She’s crazy in the sense that she has a ton of energy, but we get along really well. The other, Eric (16) is from Gibson, Canada. Need I say more? -just kidding. He’s into a lot of outdoor sports, so hopefully we’ll all be able to climb Mt Cotopaxi (world’s highest active volcano). Ashley is going to be in the grade below me, but Eric will be in the same grade. Neither spoke nor understood Spanish all that well upon arrival, but both are learning very very quickly. And I think that it’s safe to say that we have all lost at least part of our English (I would be screwed without spellchecker and dictionary) It’s like that guy between time zones, I’m out of language. I speak neither Spanish nor English without pause and hesitation.

The food is amazing. I even like the things that I didn’t like to eat back home (clams and shrimp). Breakfast usually consists of hot milk or coffee and bread. Lunch is the main meal, and is usually eaten anywhere between 2 and three. It always starts with soup of some kind. The second course is meat, rice, and usually a potato dish. Very few vegetables are eaten here. For desert, fruit or cake. Lunch is always served wish fresh juice. Our maid is an amazing cook, and I really want to learn how to prepare a lot of the dishes. Dinner is small, and eaten late (8 or 9) It’s usually bread, if anything. The other night, I had a hamburger from a street vendor. It seriously was the best hamburger that I have ever had. No joke. Every house has their own version of ají, a tomato based condiment that can be anywhere from mild to really freaking hot. It has onions, herbs, and other stuff in it. Every restaurant has it as well. I love it, the hotter the better. So far there has been only one dish that I haven’t liked. Animal skin done in a lovely peanut sauce. It was like rubber. No me gustó, no me gustó.

I’ve been to Quito and Ambato so far. I loved them both. I bought my first chimba in a mall in Quito. A chimba is a knock-off. Definitely bought an adidas jacket, except that the symbol is backwards and the stripes on the sleeves are too close together. Oh well. It’s warm. Quito is a huge freaking city, but I only spent a day there, so I’ll write more about it when I know more of it.

Today was a very exciting day for Ecuador. The soccer team of the country won today against Bolivia. The game took place in Bolivia, but seeing it on TV there seemed to be many more Ecuadorian fans in the stadium that those from Bolivia. There was a lot of celebration immediately following the game. Eric and I, along with many of my cousins and friends, drove through the streets honking (more than usual) at people wearing the yellow jerseys. There are actually caravans of people who do this and honk at other caravans. Everybody wore yellow and waved the Ecuadorian flag out of car windows. It was very interesting, and a lot of fun. Pictures soon, I promise.

I feel very much at home here. There are differences, and of course I miss the people back home. But this is my home, for the next year at least. It’s only been just over two weeks, but I no longer feel like a stranger. I still get stared at whenever I go anywhere, but I’ve even gotten accustomed to that. Time is flying. And all I can do is live every moment that I can.

Chao

Tajah

PS Love to my Mom, Aunt Chris, Uncle Kerry. Hugs, Kisses, and Best Wishes to Busha and Papa, and all my Wisconsin family. Congrats to Ryan and Jenny on their Marriage. Love to Einstein. Good luck to Sean and Allen with college. Love and everything else to the best friends a girl could have, Jarrod and Kanwal. Man, oh man, I miss you guys. Love to my exchange student homies half a world away. And love to anyone I forgot. Oh, and love to Al and all the rest of Rotary!!!!

PPS Thanks to my mom for letting me go, my aunt and uncle for making it possible, and Rotary for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

December 23 Journal

So yeah. You know. These are pretty much the only English phrases that I can still use correctly. Which I guess is alright, but when it comes to writing a LONG overdue Rotary journal, it just doesn’t seem sufficient. Actually, I had been debating when would be an appropriate time to write my second journal. Then, it happened. By some twist of fate, my maid made a very delicious lunch that consisted of barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes, and cole slaw. And for dessert, apple pie. It was the worst apple pie of my life, the crust had to be at least an inch thick…needless to say, I ate three slices…

…and with more determination than anyone has ever known, I sat down to write my journal. And that was two and a half months ago…

Busy is a word that you don’t fully understand the meaning of until you’ve been an exchange student. Or God, because I am positive they take the same amount of effort. There is always someone more to spend time with, something else to do, somewhere else to see. Sanity is an illusion. But this is a good thing. When you know your days are numbered, you tend to appreciate a full schedule.

So, here is where the apologies come in. This journal is about three months late, and I owe it to my fellow exchangers, my dear district 6970, and currently applying exchange students to keep them updated on my ever so interesting life south of the border (you know, the equator). Sorry guys, it will get better, I promise. Also, due to my lapse in writing, WAY too much stuff has happened to write about it all, so some things might be lost forever. Furthermore, my English is on a downhill slide. More like an avalanche, so this is actually being written with the aid of the kind university English students whose class I teach. Fun Fun. Sincerest apologies. Either way, here goes nothing…

TIME:
I have been in Ecuador four months. I have been in Ecuador four months. It still sounds weird to me, it doesn’t seem like four months have gone by. I have absolutely NO sense of time. Rotary ruined that one for me. All I know is that the days seem slow and the weeks seem like they are at hyper speed. One third of my exchange year is gone, and I can't get it back. I cherish every day, and treat it as if were my last, because I know in just seven short months, it will be.

OTHER EXCHANGERS:
There are three Rotary exchangers here in my city. Me, Eric (Canada) and Ashley (Pennsylvania) There were about eight kids from AFS, but very sadly two decided to leave early. Vilde (Norway) and Joanie (California). They will be missed. All us Rotary inbounds are in the same school, along with an AFS-er from Germany, named Jessica. I love her to death. Same with Ash and Eric, we all get along really great, which makes it so much easier.

SCHOOL:
School started way back in September, and I am a proud student at a very prominent Catholic high school in my city. It's got about a thousand students total, ranging from fourth to twelfth grade. I was in the social science track, but after a series of horrible events due to their inherent aptitude for delinquency, resulting in the erasure of our school motto, I switched to the chemistry track. I absolutely love my class mates, though I might just be one of the tallest girls. They are some of the sweetest people I have met. The teachers are good, when they some to class, which is I guess regularly compared to how it was in my previous course. If they don’t come, there is always soccer and volley to be played. I am still getting used to the pleated skirt and sweater, especially cuz it just doesn’t seem to keep me warm here in the Andes mountains. You know… it's definitely a different experience, like in chemistry class when they shake acids using there hands to cover the opening of flasks, etc. I might just die in a freak accident, but they tell me it hasn’t happened yet and that I shouldn’t worry. Laugh out loud.

EDUCATION:
Very different from school, as it is practically non-existent in most of the schools here. It's a different level than I am used to, and sometimes I have to force myself to understand that this country is in a very different economic position than I am used to… it’s a continuous struggle. I go to my classes, for the most part, but it's really hard to apply myself in some classes that seem to me to be on a 7th grade level, especially when I have already graduated. But I do my best, and help out with other classes if nothing else…

ROTARY:
I know that I am not here to complain, I am here to observe and learn. But from my observations, I am left with nostalgia for how Rotary works back home. Even for the most urgent matters, the response is ‘don’t worry about it.’ Which has made legalizing our visas, paying for trips, pretty much everything and anything, about ten times more difficult than it should be. Monthly allowance is given, kind of. It's never on time and you lose track of what month you’re getting it for. Here’s an example of the binds I have gotten in: The thing I was supposed to do within thirty days of my arrival was finally done in November, every deadline has been horribly missed, my chairman was the brother of my first host dad, the club was composed mostly of members of my first host family, and my counselor quit Rotary two months ago without telling me, and I still don’t have a replacement. I would give anything for an Ecuadorian version of Al Kalter. I miss the detailed planning, the care and consideration. Inbounds to 6970 have the good life.

ROTARY BINGO:
Very interesting event a couple months back. Exactly like it sounds, it was a bingo hosted by Rotary. I wound up dancing salsa with drunk Rotarians and swing with Ashley until six in the morning. But it's made up for by the fact that I won a microwave. I know you’re jealous.

HOST FAMILY ISSUES: (host family number one)
I am always someone to tell the truth. If something is amazing, I say it's amazing. If something is god-awful-horrible, unless you directly need to know, I will sugar-coat it ever so slightly and say that it and I have our differences, to save the face of the other party. With that being said, my first host family and I had some very very drastic differences in thinking, which led to a very severe clashing of personality, which led to very severe things to happen, which led to me not being the happiest camper for the first three months of my exchange. Which led to me requesting a change of host family back in October, and after two months of waiting, I have finally switched.

FAMILY NUMBER TWO:
As unhappy and as miserable as I was in my first host family is made up for by the family I am in now. Their last name is Paz (peace in Spanish), and I would not be lying if I said they are the most wonderful people in the world. I showed up the eighth of December with my two suitcases, a bag just for shoes, my backpack, and a microwave. I know I am a heavy packer, but it was ridiculous. This family accepted me into their house without even knowing my name or anything about me. Which automatically gives them five cool points. We had café shortly after I arrived. They bought me peanut butter, creamy (only us from Latacunga know what a treat it is). Another five points. My bed had a down comforter, meaning I didn’t die of cold the first night, ten more points. I got home from school my second day, my brothers had made me brownies. Ten thousand cool points. And it has been like that since the very first day.

My parents, Diego and Anita, are in a class all by themselves. They are some of the most cultured, most understanding, most compassionate people I have ever met. My two older brothers, both former exchange students, live and study in Honduras. But they are here on vacation. My sister, who is my age, lives and studies in Quito but is also here for the holidays. The entire family pretty much speaks English, which makes it easy, not because I speak English with them, but because I can ask them the most random words and they can tell me. We live on a farm, which is pretty cool. I drove a tractor, without crashing into anything, complete with the get up of a sombrero and overalls. It had to look hilarious. I also milked a cow. I help out with a lot of stuff, when I can, and I adore spending time with my brothers and dad. It's different for me, because back home I didn’t have a father figure, and it's so great to have one here. I get in dirt wars with my brothers, we play around a lot. My sister is such a sweetheart, so we get along really well too. I’ve taken a couple spills on the motorcycle, but nothing serious yet. I love them, and I really do feel like part of the family. I am happier than I have been in a very long while. This time of they year is supposedly the most difficult for exchange students due to the holidays etc. But it has wound up being the best. Words cannot express how at home I feel here. It sucks that I have to change again early January, but I already know the next family. They’re not Paz, but they are very nice, so I am sure I'll be alright….

ROTARY TRIPS:
The first trip we had was to the coast and after about ten hours of traveling we finally got there. It was absolutely gorgeous, very different from Florida though. It was insane being with all 104 exchange students, from all around the world. We had a talent show, the Canadians sang anti American songs (very funny and well done), the Taiwanese kid did a rap, and us USA-ers did the hokey pokey. All fifty-something of us. It was a lot of fun. We didn’t do too much cultural stuff, but it was really nice spending time with everyone…

The second trip was about a week ago. It was really great. This time we went to the northern part of the country. We saw the churches in Quito, some awesome lakes, etc. We went to one city named Otovalo, which is the main tourist city, for good reason. In this city, the indigenous weavings and craftware are sold. In good faith I can say that us exchangers helped the economy of Ecuador in insane amounts. My favorite part of the trip was when we went to the equator itself. Of course I fell (I am famous for falling), but the interesting part was that water doesn't swirl down a drain, it just drops straight down. Also, we are all very weak bastards on the equator. Here’s an example. Make your hand into the ok sign, and have someone try to pull apart your thumb and index finger. They can’t, can they? When you are standing right on the equator, they can with almost no effort. It is insane. It was a really fun trip, but it makes me sad to realize that the year is almost half over. The friendships with other exchangers are so strong it's unbelievable. Even the annoying people you love more than life itself. It's one of the beauties of the exchange life.

PRESIDENT:
So Nov 11th, the independence day of my city, Latacunga, wound up being a very interesting day. I’ll start from the beginning. After a huge parade, Ashley and I went back to my house to get ready for a session with her mom (kind of like deputy mayor but more important). In my hurry to get dressed, I accidentally decapitated a statue of the virgin Mary, shhh, don’t tell anyone, but I super glued it back together. We got dropped off a couple blocks from the Municipio, and we walked the rest on foot. We noticed two guards standing on the street, and as they always bother us, and as we were very well dressed, we took the very long way around them in order to avoid their harassment. We went way out of our way to do it, and they were ticked off, but we were very proud of ourselves, having avoided the unavoidable. So we kept walking, very smugly, very indescribably proud, and as soon as we turned the corner we found ourselves face to face with, oh I don’t know, about a hundred more armed guards. We froze, needless to say, but pushed our way through and entered the building. We were escorted up to the main room and seated. The presidential session soon began. Afterwards, we were ushered into a room by Ashley’s mom, and a couple seconds later, the president entered. I was introduced, and we proceeded to talk. He asked me where I was from, I said Florida, he asked what city, I said Jacksonville. He then asked, to my surprise how the Super Bowl went, and whether or not that little restaurant on such and such street was till open. It dawned on me, that I was talking to the President of the Republic of Ecuador, and he knew my city, furthermore, he knew it well, and named a really great restaurant. It was insane. I then ate hot wings with him, and had a coke. It was sheer insanity. Absolutely insane. And, his English is perfect. Whadya know. Here’s the great part. He is a Rotarian, and I definitely gave him a Rotary card and district 6970 pin. Beat that.

THANKSGIVING:
This is an interesting one. For school, Ashley and I did a Thanksgiving Day presentation that involved two very hilarious costumes of a Pilgrim and a Native American. And a skit, where Ashley rowed with a broom from the old world to the new world. It turned out quite nice, actually, and the school really enjoyed it. The problem was after the presentation, we had no clothes to change into to, and proceeded to walk through town in full costume. No taxis would dare pick us up. After breakfast, still in costume, we went to Eric’s house, changed, and headed to Salcedo, a town twenty minutes south of here. We volunteered at the orphanage there for a couple hours, and afterwards, as we couldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving due to above mentioned family differences, we went on an ice cream eating spree, which is what Salcedo is known for. Eric ate ten, Ashley and I ate nine each, at an average speed of one every ten minutes. It was good, until after the fourth one, when we started getting ice cream sick. I think I puked for about a week, and wound up having an intestinal infection. Fun Fun. Happy Thanksgiving!

CHRISTMAS:
Not only am I spending Christmas with an amazing family, my mom sent me my Christmas stocking and I also got a whole bunch of little presents from family and friends. Nothing makes an exchange students day more than a letter or package, so I’m high as a kite. Merry Christmas to everyone back home!

RESOLUTIONS:
I figure I should at least make some, or maybe just some tiny little goals for the new year:
 - I will not pass up a single opportunity to try a new food or enjoy the amazing bread they have here
 - I will not gain weight, I will not gain weight
 - I will play soccer and dance salsa as often as possible
 - I will not fall and injure my knee again
 - I will not pass up these amazing prices
 - I will not spend more money than necessary
 - I will start writing more Rotary journals
 - I will start writing more Rotary journals

REFLECTIONS AND HOME:
Home is still a really hard concept for me to deal with. I have only been here four months, and I already feel like I have been here all my life. There is the Floridian in me, the American in me that I know will always be there, but at the same time, there’s the Ecuadorian part of me that grows every time I wake up to this beautiful country. Before I came here, I had nightmares about leaving home, and I still do, but my concept of home has changed. This is my home now. The states will always be there, but when is going to be the next time I get to be here, like it is right now? I am so blessed to have this opportunity. I will know the Amazon rain forest and the Galapagos before my year is through. I know two languages (I would say at about the same level, if not better in Spanish than English). I dread the day that I leave, but I don’t waste time thinking about that now.

When people ask me where I am from, I no longer say that I'm from the states. Without hesitation, I reply ‘Latacunga’. They don’t always believe me, but for the most part they do. This is my country, my city. I know these people, I know these streets. I know the ins, the outs, the rhythm of life. Being adapted means the following:
 - I no longer mistake the garbage truck music for the ice cream music back in Florida
 - I know where the loose stones are in the main side walks, and no longer fall, and if I do, I know the appropriate swear words
 - I have learned not to ask what I’m eating until well after. I have come to like snails, beetles, and cow intestine.
 - I have my favorite restaurants, songs, dishes. I know what I like and what I am not so fond of.
 - I have given up hope for real Columbian coffee and settled for Nescafe.
 - I am no longer the first to show up at places, due to the famous Hora Ecuatoriana, I know to show up about an hour late for everything
 - I have gotten used to street vendors and door to door salesman. It topped the cake when I saw a guy selling computer chairs door to door…
 - I have learned to bargain EVERYTHING, and I am good at it. I will have problems when I get home, I can picture it now, ill be at a McDonalds drive through, arguing about the dollar menu.
 - I am no longer terrified by the driving here. Its still insane, but I feel safe, and I no longer have the urge to wear a seat belt or hold on for dear life
 - I have seen some insane protests, and I know how tear gas tastes and smells. It's not fun
 - I have had my share of sicknesses and trips to the doctor. And I have fallen in about every place imaginable.
 - I have learned to deal with seeing incredibly poor people everywhere. It still breaks my heart, but I have accepted the fact that there is nothing I can do.
 - I have eaten rice, every day, sometimes more than once a day, since august 19th, and there is no end in sight.
 - I have gotten used to the fact that even though it’s really freaking cold, I will burn severely without sunscreen. I am used to freezing cold, rain, wind, horrible sun, and sometimes hail, all in one day. And, I have learned how to dress for it.
 - The post office knows us, and we can all pick up each others mail.
 - Ashley and I are experts at switching plates, bargaining prices, and achieving the impossible with our silly missions…
 - I have given up with my name. Said Tajah, it is really close to talla, which means size. And said Ta-Ha, it means slice. I cannot win, and I realize this.
 - I can roll my r’s!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

FUTURE EXCHANGERS:
Man, has it been a year since I filled out that horrible horrible application? A year since that painful interview that reduced some to tears? Yes, yes it has. Here’s to the future outbounds of 6970. I wish you guys the best of luck, and I hope you brush up on the hokey pokey. You never know when you’ll need it. This will be the most amazing experience of your life, think hard about where you want to go and if you can handle the most blissful times of your life along with the most difficult and painful. A year without home is not easy, and an exchange year is not for everyone. But if you are brave, open minded, and ready to take a ride on an emotional rollercoaster, I look forward to seeing you all at the Welcome Home Dinner. Please feel free to email me or whatever, Al has my information.

SHOUTOUTS:
I want to give a shout out to my fellow exchangers from 6970, I hope you are all having a great year and I can’t wait to see you all in seven months or so. Especially Christian, because my English is so bad I wont be able to talk with anyone else.

Love to Eric and Ashley, adding sarcasm to the Spanish language one failed joke at a time. Love to my mom, I miss you so much, but you have always raised me to be independent, and you’ve done a hell of a job. To my family in Florida and Wisconsin, my cousin’s new wife, Jenni, and my other cousin’s new baby, Sam. Love to Chris and Kerry, my financial and emotional backbone, and a whole bunch of friends. Woo and Jarrod, you guys are always in my thoughts. Love to my amazing Rotary club back home, to 6970, and to Al Kalter, The Man (in both hemispheres).

January 26 Journal

PREWARNING: This is the most awkwardly flowing thing I have ever written. Chalk it up to the fact that it’s late, chalk it up to the fact that English has hit rock bottom and is digging, chalk it up to whichever reason suits you best, just please o please don’t blame me…

So here is to that resolution of mine, writing more Rotary journals. There is so much to update on, so much to write about, like recounting long gone histories that in actuality only occurred in the last month. But being on an exchange year completely distorts your perception of time, and therefore into the archives of jumbled memories I go.

When I last wrote I was still the adoring daughter of the Paz family, happy and in love with life in general, anticipating the holidays, Christmas, new years. And all was good.

Christmas came and went, with only a *touch* of homesickness. Christmas is pretty much celebrated the same here as there, the main difference being that the stress is placed on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Either way, I spent it surrounded by family, which consequently means friends, and I felt so much at home because they tried so hard to include me in everything, and make sure I had a great time, and I did. The hardest part was returning to the farm late on Christmas day and opening presents my mom and relatives had sent from home. It was almost as if seeing all the things they sent to me brought a part of them here, and I couldn’t tell if I was crying from happiness or sadness, either way my host family was great, and all was good.

New Year’s came, as it tends to do after Christmas, and once again, we grouped as a family in Quito. We bought crazy amounts of homemade fireworks from little stands on the street. The traditions here are very different, but I plan on taking (some of) them home with me. The really great tradition about new years, besides all the guys dressed as female widows dancing in the streets collecting money from passing cars, is that everyone builds a doll of themselves, life size, and at midnight you set it ablaze to signify the passing of the old year and the old you. It’s very symbolic to watch all the events of the old year burning away. After the festivities, driving to their house in Quito, you could see little piles of burning rubble, remnants of once-were dolls, smoldering in the darkness. The piles burned and the widows danced away.

The morning after new years I awoke to my family calling my name. I walked to the window and looked out, only to see them already in the pool, fully dressed in their pjs, waiting for me to wake my lazy butt up and join them. And so I did. It’s an odd feeling to be in a hot water pool in close to freezing weather, in your pjs. I wish I had pictures. We must have stayed in the pool a good while, we ate lunch there and got out thoroughly pruned. Fun Fun.

Sometime between Christmas and new years we went fishing. Twice, because the first attempt the car broke down around six in the morning, so we went back home, fixed the car, and tried again the next morning, with an even earlier start, around four thirty. I left the house fully prepared for the cold with two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, a sweatshirt, a jacket, a coat, hat, gloves, and a scarf. I might have had two pairs of undergarments on, it was just that amazingly cold. The lake is two hours up in the mountains, and the early rise was worth the while to see the sun rising over the city. Absolutely gorgeous. We fished for a good six hours or so, and I caught a decent sized rainbow trout. I'm not much of a fisher, so I was proud. And that was my fishing adventure.

As quickly as the holidays came, they went, leaving me with the harsh truth that on the second of January, I would switch again, to yet another host family, my third for the year, and surely not my last. The day I left, my mom cooked my trout for me for lunch. That’s love. I went for my last motorcycle ride with Alejandro, went to take some pictures of the baby cows, and that was it. My stuff packed, my chairman in my driveway, and me choking out goodbyes to a family that I fell head over heels in love with. I cried so hard when I left, it feels like your heart breaking in a thousand pieces, saying goodbye. I can honestly say that that was one of the hardest things that I have done in my life so far. Which is completely irrational, because they live 15 minutes away and I can visit whenever I want. That thought comforted me none, and it still felt like a part of my soul was being taken away, I couldn’t speak, let alone breathe. Just choke on words that I hadn’t prepared myself to say. I still don’t know how I managed to leave.

My new host family is really great. They aren’t Paz, but they are wonderful in their own way. My mom Jessy is the vice-mayor, so I go to a lot of functions and whatnot with her. My dad Mario is a civil engineer, but took the year off to help with the exchange students. It’s such a role reversal, the mom working, and the dad playing the part of a frantic house wife. Quite funny. I have two siblings, an 11 year old sister Mariuxi, and a 14 year old brother David. I love them both, but I get along with them in very different aspects. They are all very nice people, and though I miss the farm life, it’s nice living back in the city. A few days after the switch, I had to say goodbye to my Paz brother, Alejandro, who was heading back to the university life in Honduras. I already had a broken heart from leaving the family, but saying goodbye to him was even harder because I honestly don’t know when or if I’ll ever see him again. Once again I choked out the words that I have come to hate….and to make it worse, Francisco Paz is leaving at the end of this month to study in Argentina for a bit, meaning yet another difficult goodbye. I can’t think of that yet, I just can’t. It is all just an early reminder that in six short months, I will be saying my own goodbyes, and I will be the one leaving everything behind. And it will be so hard, knowing I won’t be just 15 minutes away from the family I love, but rather a continent apart. Knowing that I might not see most of these people ever again in my life. I can’t imagine it, and I don’t want to…not yet.

School seems to be something that occupies my time between 7 in the morning and two in the afternoon. Some classes are decent, but for the most part I feel like it is a giant waste of my time. Luckily I have Eric in my class as well. Misery always loves company…just kidding. We do what we can in the classes that allow it, and when there truly is nothing to do, it’s independent study. I work on my chemistry, the language, he works on music and the like. Some days the classes are great, other days it’s an extremely long study hall. Either way, I am always learning and working on the language, which is really all that can be asked for.

Things that require planning here are unbelievably unorganized. Which is so frustrating when I am trying to pay for trips and see what’s required and everything that is the life of an exchange student. Monthly allowance that’s given once a month, on time, would be a blessing. We get no warning for anything. For example, someone just called me tonight to let me know that there’s a mandatory meeting tomorrow. It’s not that I mind the meetings, but when it involves canceling plans with my favorite uncle to go get my favorite food, I am not a happy camper. But, not everything in this world is equal, and not everyone has the planning, organization, and consideration, that my beloved Al Kalter has back stateside. And I guess sometimes I have to force myself to realize that.

On a happier note, I baked cookies today for Anita Paz’s birthday. Very fun adjusting the recipe for the difference in ingredients, and the altitude, and converting everything to the metric system. You know. But seriously, it was a lot of fun as I really do like baking and the sort. It reminds me of home. And you guys will never believe where I eventually found baking soda…of course not in the stores, but rather in the pharmacy. Cool, huh? I thought so…the cookies turned out well, and I just got home from the Paz house. She liked them, and that’s the important part. Happy Birthday!

PS. We have no school this week woot woot

Monday morning I woke up with the most terrible urge to go to Ambato, a city about forty minutes south of here. I took a shower, got dressed, and asked my dad if I could go. He said no, and I was left there with an odd look on my face, as he hasn’t said no before. He noticed something was wrong, and explained himself. Apparently, you know, like if it was any other event, on any given day, the transit system was on strike, and almost every major highway was blocked with buses on strike, effectively paralyzing movement between any two given cities, and transportation in the entire country. It was so odd how he said it, kind of like oh, look, a strike, a complete and utter gridlock of the road systems, who wants lemonade? I watched the news, as there wasn’t much else to do. These strike things get violent in some parts, complete with police brutality, gang activity, and gas bombs. Luckily not in my quiet little Latacunga, but definitely in Quito and the larger cities. Because the roads were blocked, many people were on foot, some walking more than eight hours to get to a destination. I wasn’t sure what to think, it’s just such a different attitude. It’s like, hey guys, we really want this, let’s freeze the entire country for an indefinite amount of time. But, I woke up Tuesday morning with the same terrible urge to go to Ambato, and lo and behold, the strike had ended and life was back to normal. I guess these things happen…

The Rotary fifteen has come, and gone, and come again, and is in the process of leaving for good. I'm actually lighter than I was when I left, but not as slim as I would like. It’s the battle of the exchange student I guess.

Not too much else has been going on lately. I have oodles (have I used that word in the past five months?- I think not) of reflective thoughts and whatnot. But English is a struggle, with the grammar and the spelling, and the use of only one side of exclamation points and question marks. Much better if I head off to bed, share those thoughts on another night (also keeping up that resolution!) when I can think more clearly. Hey, at least the monotonous updating is done and out of the way, right, right? I hope so. And here is where I leave you all. Right after this point. Here.

Lots of love from Ecuador

Tajah

Here’s a quick mention to the up and coming outbounds of 06-07… did you guys make it alive through the interviews? I hope so, for your sake. Maybe they weren’t as nerve shaking as ours, but knowing Al, they were worse. Some were reduced to tears. You guys should be finding out soon who made it and where you are going if my memory isn't wrong. Are you reading all of our journals faithfully? You should be, with the exception of mine, they seem to be of much higher quality than those of last year, full of more insight and advice. Just as we learned a lot from the people before us, you guys are going to learn a lot from us as well. And because we just happen to be spread out halfway around the darn globe right now, our journals are the memoirs that we leave to you. I wish you all the best of luck, and look forward to meeting you all at the Welcome Home Dinner in July!

February 12 Journal

PRE-NOTE: I actually did write this during half time, or at least I started it, but due to my famous ability to procrastinate, it's being sent a week later. But hey, a journal is a journal.

WARNING: highly unorganized thoughts ahead, proceed with caution

Has there ever been a more fitting time for an exchange student from the states to write a Rotary journal? I think not!! Can anyone say HALFFFF-TIIIIMMMMMEEEEE!!!!

I can only wish that touchdown would translate into gooooooooooal in Spanish. It would make me happy. Indeed. But, alas, no such luck.

So, now, in the almost exact middle of my exchange year, in the middle of the most important American football game of the year, I sit here in front of the computer typing my thoughts away. Which I guess isn’t the best time to pour your heart and soul out, you know, while Mick Jagger is doing the same thing on the world’s most televised event….but I guess you win some and you lose some…

Looking back a year, I had just finished those brutal district interviews, didn’t know if I’d be accepted into the program or not, and Al still seemed like a grumpy old man to me. And since then, so much has happened as you know, and Al is now somewhat similar to Santa Claus in my mind. A round jolly man with his sack full of exchanges and wise words, which get distributed right around Christmas. He no longer seems old, nor grumpy, but rather one of the kindest, most young at heart people I have ever met. My fellow exchangers know exactly what I mean.. But, thinking a year ahead is seemingly impossible. I assume I’ll be in college, unless my English has deteriorated to the point that no respectful university would accept me (typing this is painful and slow). Wouldn’t it be amazing to know where you’d be in the years to come, how your life would develop? I think that it would be, but it's so much more interesting when things are hazy shades of gray.

Let’s see if you can picture this, how I am right now, at this moment in time. . I just had café with my father, mint tea and empanadas, and we talked a good hour or so about life. I'm upstairs, typing, occasionally glancing hopefully out the window, Jessy should be home earlier tonight than last night, and I haven’t seen her all week (explanation later). A friend just called me, one of those people whose very voice fills the room with sunlight. And I’m listening to Frank Sinatra, the other love of my life. I am happy, so very happy. I waltzed up the stairs when Claudia called, but I decided typing was a little more important, and knowing my good graces with gravity, a little less hazardous as well. And here I am, racking my brain for words and phrases in English that only spell checker can bring back to life, singing along with songs I haven’t heard in months, but still know every note. It’s a wonderful feeling. Just thought I’d share.

Time is still flying by, insanely too fast. Especially now that I know when I will get home. 8:15 Friday night, July 21st. I knew it would be around that time. But assigning an actual day, an actual minute makes everything so final and official. It’s a deadline, the flat line of my year. It seemed like so much more time when I’d say, oh I’ll go home sometime this summer, but now there is no doubt about it. Damn Americans and their infernal planning.

As a general rule of thumb I hadn’t spoken English for my first couple months here. Only when talking to people back home, or the occasional conversation with Eric or Ashley when Spanish didn’t quite suffice (which it oftentimes doesn’t). However, with the Paz family, though I didn’t speak English much, when I did, I realized how very different I am in the two languages, how different my brothers were when they spoke English. I have no earthly idea why it is like it is, but it gives me motivation to learn as many languages as possible. You really can’t understand a person until you can communicate with them in their mother tongue. It breaks my heart to know that most of the world speaks English (or dreams of it) because I can’t help but wonder how much culture has already been lost or continues to be lost. Just something to think about I guess….

Maybe it’s the realization, the settling in that this is home. I have felt like that for a while now though. This is my home here in this city. I know these streets, I have my friends, my favorite restaurants, things that I like to do and things that I don’t. I can identify the strange noises in the night. I no longer mistake the damn garbage truck and its misleading music for an ice cream truck. I know the bus routes, I know the general rhythm of life. But I think that it’s the realization that it’s home, but by no means is it permanent. In five months, it will all be over, all be gone, like some dream that I don’t want to wake up from yet. I have so many things to look forward to in the coming months. The trip to the Amazon rain forest, to the Galapagos, the visits of friends or family (maybe), and my birthday. But I also realize that with each thing I look forward to, time has to pass for it to come, meaning one less day that I will be here in Ecuador. Which was alright when I first got here, because a year seemed like an infinitely long amount of time, but now that my year is half gone, each second counts. Sometimes I fill with panic, knowing my days are numbered. It’s insane how quickly time goes by, some moments I feel guilty for sleeping, for blinking, because its one more second I can’t get back. I despise waiting in lines, but that’s not new. And the ‘hora ecuatoriana’ doesn’t help at all. Pretty much, it means that when someone tells you that they will be somewhere at 3, you go there at 4, and still wait half an hour for them to show up, on a good day. There have been times that I’ll be two hours late, and still the first one to arrive. It’s kind of entertaining at times, but when I feel like time is slipping away from me anyway, it doesn’t help……..

You know you’re truly an exchange student when every moment that passes by seems to float before your eyes like a series of snapshots and self portraits. Every thing you do, everywhere you go, you can imagine showing the pictures to your family and Rotary club, explaining every sheer second of your year. But even more than this, every instant seems to find a way into your heart, every single second becomes one more part of who you are, of the person who you have become, and continue to become. And it’s not fair how quickly it all fades away…days are spent absorbing sights and sounds, not because they are new and exciting like they were the first part of your year, but rather because your heart can’t bear the thought of forgetting them. Driving with my family, I dare not take my eyes off of the mountains, fearing that if I do, even to blink, they might disappear.

Now that I am plunging rapidly into the second half of my year, everything has doubled in importance. Every food, every flower, every friend, seems so much more significant. I enjoy every second of every day, but there is that tiny little voice in my heart that whispers, in five months it’s over. And it’s true, I know it, but that does not mean that I have to accept it yet. Hell, I have five months to do that (even as I type these words I know how quickly five months will pass)…to contemplate that my life here is only a temporary part, not meant to last. A learning experience, full of friends and family and adventures. I plan to put that dreadful part off until the last possible second, figuring it better to pretend that it will never end than to face the cold hard truth that it will, and way too soon for my comfort.

But even so, I know better. That little voice grows louder every day, warning me, threatening me with what might be the end of the best year of my life. That doesn’t stop me from living life to the fullest, appreciating everything that is my life here. But with every hug from a family member, every outing with friends, every kind word or encouragement, I create a new voice, one that says that even though my time here will end, my impact here never will. I might be gone, but I am damn sure taking a part of the heart of every person that I have met here with me when I go, and I’m leaving behind a million parts of my own.

One thing that I truly admire about Ecuadorians is their wisdom, and honesty. I would say that almost all of the upper class society, though they may not all be intelligent (there are stupid people in every society of the world), they are very very wise. They know how to look back over their lives, and they appreciate criticism of what they have done wrong, and never pride themselves excessively on what they have done right. From what I’ve seen, the general opinion is, God means for me to do right, so if I do, it’s me being won over by fate. But I must really be stupid to make a mistake, and there are things that I am obviously meant to learn from it. They have such a unique view on the world, on youth, on how things should be and how the will be. They understand so many things that only the few and far between understand back home. It’s a wonderful outlook on life, though a touch too religious for my personal taste, but the foundations stay the same regardless. And they are some of the most honest people I have met in my life. Though it takes them forever to get to it, they always do. It’s that type of deal where they will call to ask a favor but first spend ten minutes asking about your day and your family. And it’s genuine concern, which makes it so much more pleasant. These are some of the things that I want to take home with me, there are so many beautiful aspects about their culture. Sometimes I wonder why the country is so poor, why it has so many problems. But the simple truth is that because so many of the people are so far below the poverty line, they never get an education, they never advance, because there is no economy, there are no jobs, there is no money. There are hardly opportunities for the rich people, let alone the people that have been living day to day for generations, people who don’t know if they will have enough food to eat today, let alone tomorrow, but continue to have eight or nine kids so they can help with work, they can help beg on the streets. It’s a very sad reality, but true nonetheless. And when the population is so split like it is, it doesn’t matter how many wise people there are, it doesn’t matter what revolutions start, it will never change. It can’t. Unless some tremendous disaster happened and all of the population was wiped out, things will never change. And even if that did happen (knock on wood), society would more than likely re-develop exactly as it is now, if not worse, because it’s habit, it’s tradition, it’s all these people have ever known. I am not sure how I will handle living at my next host family this spring, one of their maids is only 10 years old, and has already been with them two years. Can you imagine? She is a real sweetheart, a very mature little girl, but still. Ten years old with more work experience than a lot of kids my age.

Something that really struck me when I first got here was how cheap things were, on average one third of the cost that I am used to. But then I realized that the salary is proportional as well. Rich people are still rich, of course, often times filthily so. But if you’re not rich, you’re pretty much screwed. A very extremely well paid maid that lives at the house, works everyday, from sun up to sundown, does all the cleaning, laundry, cooking, might make 150 to 200 a month. Maybe, if they are very very very lucky. And that’s considered a very good job. Taxi drivers make a killing, and they are among the rich people. But the poor people, the really poor people, might make 10 to 40 a month. That’s it. I cant believe it sometimes. It’s just sad. But there isn’t anything that I can do, you know? I have seen so many little kids begging for money, so many people missing limbs, dragging themselves through the streets, bloody, and it kills me to think that they make more money like that than if they were healthy. My old host mom was telling me that she had tried so many times when she was younger to help get legless people prosthesis or even a wheelchair, finding funding and a willing hospital to donate, but every time the people refused because they make so much more money without a leg, with no arms. It’s a horrible reality when being handicapped is often consider lucky and an economic benefit. It’s things like this that break my heart. Which brings me to my next paragraph

So as unorganized as my host Rotary Club seems to be, I have recently learned that they sponsor one event every year, that is one of the most amazingly organized and wonderful things that I have ever seen in my life. Project C.H.A.N.G.E. (children’s health and nutrition goals through education). Each February, the Latacunga Rotary Club serves as the sponsors for Project Change, a group of doctors that comes mostly from the states, but originating from around the world. These doctors come to the small town of Salcedo, about twenty minutes south of my precious Latacunga, to perform free plastic surgery to men women and children. They operate on anything from cleft lips to scars, free of charge.

I had known that the doctors would be coming since the first week that I was here in Ecuador. I was told way back then that it was essential to know the body parts and to speak good Spanish by the time February rolled around. And of course, by the time they got here, Super Bowl Sunday, my Spanish and body part vocabulary was more than sufficient. Woot for being bilingual!!

I arrived at the hospital early Sunday morning, only to be greeted by a crowd of about two hundred people waiting outside. A member of Rotary was standing in the bed of a pick up truck, screaming things about groups, order, and patience to the crowd through the megaphone. As many times as I heard the phrase please divide into groups, the less organized the crowd seemed to become. Luckily for me, another Rotary member saved me and escorted me to the other side of the fence, away from the crowd and close to the hospital. The doctors arrived, a seeming stream of white that separated the crowd with their bags and belongings. I thought to myself, ‘that will never be enough supplies’……little did I know that semi truck was filled front to back with box upon box of medical supplies, stuffed animals, and clothing. The first part of the morning, after unloading the boxes from the truck, was shuffled between getting to know some of the doctors, helping to translate between doctor and patient, and sorting drugs. A seemingly easy job until I realized that there were several large boxes filled to the brims with random medicine, tiny little bottles of hell, as I like to call them. But either way, by the end of Sunday night I had organized and sorted all the drugs by type and expiration date, had them put into little slide out drawers, alphabetically of course. Those of you who know me, know how neurotic I am about organization once I get into the swing of things. But sometime between the morning and evening, I found a way to get a piece of glass from a broken bottle jammed in my thumb. Not being fond of glass pieces under my skin, and surrounded by doctors in a hospital, I decided to ask one to remove the glass. Big mistake. The person I asked didn’t really want to, and recommended another doctor to do it for me, the ‘splinter expert´ apparently. So I found a new pair of pick-ups, and headed in search of the doctor. I realized with growing dread that he was in the main room interviewing potential patients. Can you imagine how awful I felt as I made my way through the waiting crowd, some without ears, some with horrible burn scars, others with worse conditions yet, with nothing more than a mere sliver in my hand? I felt, as irrational as I knew it was, like a prissy over-privileged white girl. Although I knew it was important to remove quickly (not knowing which medicine bottle had broken), I felt like such an awful person, squeezing my way to the front of the ever growing line to the front. I know it’s stupid, but just a thought, I guess. I got out of the hospital late Sunday night, and sat down to watch the half time (where this journal originally started)

Monday morning, bright and early I was back in the hospital, organizing other things, and about midday I headed into the operating room. I was able to talk to patients while they were waiting, explain to them what exactly was going on, and help keep the non-sedated ones calm during surgery. I had always wanted to be a doctor when I was a little girl, but in the back of my mind I had always figured that the blood would bother me. But, luck be had, it didn’t. Tuesday and Wednesday passed the same, an early rise, and a late end, often times not getting home till ten or eleven at night. Very tiring work, but it didn’t bother me a bit, I was happy to do it. Thursday morning I went with two of the doctors to the orphanage to donate some toys and clothing. And the rest of Thursday and Friday I passed much like the beginning of the week, bringing drugs and supplies back and forth, talking to patients, setting up IV’s, and assisting in the operating room and recovery room. All in all the doctors performed an amazing 92 procedures in five days, with only three operating rooms, three nurses, and a team of plastic surgeons. I saw so many surgeries, and learned so many things during this past week. I saw tumors removed, noses and ears reconstructed, everything imaginable. I was fine with the surgeries themselves, but seeing some of the patients broke my heart. Like a young boy that they have been operating on for nearly ten years, when he was six his parents sent him out to get gas with a candle, and he tripped and fell, and now has full body burns. Apparently it was so bad that his chin got burned onto his chest. Another young boy was doused in gasoline by his classmates and then they set him on fire. I cannot believe the cruelty in this world, sometimes. But at the same time, the fact that there are doctors that are willing to volunteer their time and money to such a worthwhile cause is absolutely amazing. I guess it’s just another balance in life. Some of the patients were the most incredible people, smiling and cheerful. My favorite, a ten year old named Jonathan. I have never met a cooler little kid. I think the most interesting surgery that I saw was an ear reconstruction. What they do is draw a stencil of the shape of ear they need, remove just this shape from the rib area, and insert it in the ear area. Lots of blood, but it was really cool seeing the doctors carve the ear shape from a chunk of cartilage. I never would have imagined that’s how it would be done…..the miracles of modern medicine I suppose. The week went by insanely fast, and I got to know a lot of the doctors really well, some from Bermuda, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Missouri, California, New York, and my favorite, the one from Scotland that lives in Bermuda. It was a crazy week, I saw and learned unbelievable amounts of things.

Its such an amazing thing that there are projects like this in the world, and such an awarding experience to take part in one. A huge thanks to Project C.H.A.N.G.E. on behalf of my countries (both the states and Ecuador) and of course my Rotary Club of Latacunga, District 4400!!!!!!!!!!!

There seemed to be more that I wanted to write about, but the crooning of old blue eyes has distracted me from any logical thought procession. I apologize. I really ought to go now, but I will write again soon I promise. Tuesday I leave for the Amazon…I have plenty of bug spray, no worries.

Con Amor

Taj

PS….Here are some random shout outs: Lots of love to my mom, you're still the best, the world over; To my aunt and uncle who fund all of my crazy adventures here and always offer unconditional support and love; To my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in Wisconsin, lots of love; To Woo, the most amazing and beautiful girl I have ever met; To my wonderful sponsor club back home; To my chairman and my counselor, enjoy my random letters and treat the next class of outbounds as well as you have treated us; Lots of love to the most amazing boyfriend in the world, Broderick, complete with cordial cherries and puzzles in time for Valentine’s; To Jarrod, you crazy artist you…will my room be filled with sculptures when I get back?; and while I’m at it, I might as well send a little love out to Harvard and Duke University…I’m looking forward to the interviews; Love to my brother Justice, wherever in the world you may be, and I hope you cause an international incident first, I would hate to take your claim…lol; To my friends and teachers from high school, know that I love you and haven’t forgotten; To Donna, the chem papers finally got here, thanks a bunch hun….and lots of love to anyone who actually takes the time to read this darn journal..

PPS….TO THE UP AND COMING OUTBOUNDS: Congrats! You made it, you proved yourself worthy of this exchange year. You don’t know how jealous I am, you have an entire year in front of you, and we only have less than half of ours left…Are you being good children and starting to study your new country, culture, and language. You better….There’s no excuse not to, you guys have the best resources in the world. Write to us whenever you want, and we will answer, occasionally in English! Congrats again, and enjoy the orientation meetings to come (don’t dare be late, I made that mistake - flat tire and bad directions). Lateness is not tolerated, be warned. Other than that, live up the Florida life and start preparing for your year!!!

March 30 Journal

I would like to start off by saying that this journal is a TON longer than I though it would ever be, but due to an excess of time on my hands (which will be explained near the end) you guys will just have to deal. Or you can just skip this month, I’m fine with either one. But I’m warning you right now…this may be the longest journal ever!!!

OK, update…I’m still typing, its more of a novel, be warned!!!!!

Man oh man. I am not sure that I am entirely comfortable with how fast time flies. It’s March, whether I want it to be or not.

OK, so last time I wrote, I had helped with the surgeons that came, and was completely hyped to go on my trip to the Amazon. I had originally planned to write the very day I got back, BUT things never seem to work out like that.

THE TRIP: So, Valentine’s Day Ashley and I caught a bus to Quito around six in the morning. Once in Quito, we met up with the kids from Riobamba at the bus terminal and cabbed our way to the national airport. Where, we got food. I don’t think anyone knows how to eat like exchange students do…but it was good. Overpriced, but good. Around ten, the other members of the group started showing up. Which was a surprise because the web page said that we would be a group of eight. And in Rotary, eight obviously means twenty three. So we all waited in the airport, catching up on everything that has happened in the past couple months, and welcoming the two new inbounds from Brazil, Fabio and Gabriella. It’s amazing how good of friends you become with other exchange students, even if you’ve only spent a total of three weeks with them. It’s a bond that words can’t describe. Jade and Jessica wound up being in my group, of which I was very excited. They are the two coolest girls this side of the equator, I swear it.

So, around noon, the eleven o’clock flight left (la hora ecuatoriana no tiene un reloj). We all boarded the plane, not quite knowing what to expect. It was a short flight, only about thirty minutes or so, marked perfectly by Jessica’s odd hand clapping thing. We landed in Coca. (This is your cue to pull out a map so you have an idea of what I’m talking about…) As soon as we stepped off the plane (we all got roses - it was Valentine’s day) it hit. It felt like Florida, but hotter if that’s possible. It was so damn hot. Like that type of heat where suicide starts to seem like a good idea. We gathered our bags, melting, but mainly just stripping any expendable clothing. Since I’m from the mountains, I had a lot to shed. We piled the bags into the back of a pickup, and climbed into the bus. It was originally planned to make the trip by canoe, but due to the late flight, the bus seemed more practical. It was like sitting in an oven from hell. Thankfully, hell’s ovens have windows…

After about twenty minutes we made a pit stop at a hotel. We, of course, thought that it might be our hotel. Which was completely ok with us, the water slide was a welcoming sight. But alas, it wasn’t so. Most of us wound up changing clothes into cooler things. It was just my luck that sock-wise all I have are school socks, meaning blue knee socks, and an abundance of long cold-weather toe socks that my loving family sent me for x-mas. Nothing like the shorts and rolled down knee socks look to start off a trip. We played with the monkeys for a while, way too friendly. Mike got peed on. All the roses got attacked and eaten. Good fun. We piled back into the bus, still dying from the heat. I sat next to Jessica, which if you remember, is one of the coolest girls this side of the equator.

We got some of the saddest lunches I have ever seen. Bananas and sandwiches that consisted of well, bread and bananas. But that’s ok. Just the bus ride itself was so gorgeous. It’s such a different landscape and general feel than the mountains. Coca is a huge city, mostly known for its oil drilling. Nothing like some nice clean oil drilling in the middle of the Amazon Rain Forest. It breaks my heart.

The bus ride was two hours long, where we got to know our guide Hector, and basically just chatted the entire time. We arrived somewhere along the Napo river, where the bus let us off. Randomly, on the shore, off of some ‘road’. All the luggage was put in a canoe, and we waited for it to make its return trip. Thirty minutes later, we ourselves were making our way to Yachana Lodge. The canoe ride was really nice, seeing the river bordered by those crazy walls of green trees. Breathtaking.

We arrived at the lodge, gathered our stuff and were shown to our rooms. Our side of the lodge had a camp feel, as we were divided up into three rooms with multiple bunk beds in each one. I got the top bunk, Ashley got the bottom. She figured heat rises, I figured I would rather sleep next to the screen window. My logic definitely kicked her logics butt.

We had dinner, and walked around to get more of a feel of the lodge. I met the owner and founder. A really great guy, very interesting with a more compassionate heart that most people I have met in my life. I’ll write more about the lodge and high school in a little bit.

Dinner was good. Soup, rice, some type of meat. The diet never really changes much. Ever. I hope that Melanie likes rice…

After dinner, we caught a couple hours of sleep, then had a small party. Lots of card games, etc etc. No Rotary supervision, which was nice. It doesn’t mean we broke rules or anything*, but it was a more free feeling, as the past two trips had been crazily structured. It was nice just hanging out and doing our thing.

The next morning I woke up, took a shower (no hot water-prolly better that way anyway), and we all went to breakfast. Where we were issued knee high rubber work boots, and told the day’s agenda. The first item for the day: hard physical labor. That’s not necessarily what you want to hear your first day on a trip, but our opinion changed with time. So we all donned those damn rubber boots that I have come to hate with a passion, and met outside on the patio hut thing, still very early in the morning. Keep in mind that this lodge is right on the Napo river, in the heart of the Amazon. Just setting the scene.

So, with Hector leading, we began our walk to Yachana high school. Remember, I’ll write more about it in a little bit. The first part of the walk was nice, it was still ungodly hot, but that’s one of those things you just learn to accept. We walked through the small pueblo of Mondaña, with a population of less than 100. Then we navigated the path, the log bridges, the random stairs, and all those type things. Twenty minutes later, Hector told us we were close to the high school. And then we found ourselves at the bottom of a staircase, all made from logs imbedded into the dirt. All 102 of them. Stairs and I never quite get along (more of a gravity thing than anything), but due to my super lung capacity from living at 10,000 feet, they weren’t an issue. We stopped midway, as Hector showed us some ants, explaining that they could be used as stitches if you get injured in the wild. And then he demonstrated their pinching ability by placing one of Jade’s nose, who demonstrated her dislike for ants by doing something similar to the world famous pee-dance, attempting to pull the ant off. Hector was right, they have an incredibly strong ability to pinch and hold on. Poor Jade.

So we dropped by the high school, picked up some tools and made our way to a clearing/field nearby. By clearing/field, I mean a hectare of land that used to be a corn field but had grown over a little with grasses, plants, and still had tree trunks sprawled all over it. Ten students from the high school were waiting with even more tools. We were divided up into groups of two or three, and paired with a student. I got paired with Jade, still bleeding slightly from the ant. A student came over, introduced himself as Jhony, and handed us machetes.

There’s nothing quite like physical labor. And handing exchange students sharp tools may not be the best idea in the world.

Our job? Clear the field. All of it. Every square inch of that hectare. Jade, Jhony, and I got to cutting down all the plants with the machetes, hacking away. Jade and I agreed it was blasphemous, as both of us have quite a love for nature. But some things are how they are. So, in the middle of the Amazon, with people from all over the world, in the blazing sun, we worked and worked and worked. Time seemed to stand still, due to the heat. Within minutes we were all drenched with sweat. Puddles formed in the bottom of the boots (black rubber up to your knees is not ideal for keeping cool) While we cut brush and plants, others had heavy metal rakes, raking the dried corn stalks and freshly demolished plants into giant piles. So, what do we have to do? Yes, that’s right, set the piles on fire. So now, we are not only working crazy hard in the blistering sun, we are working next to giant piles of burning brush. Not fun. Jhony and I talked a long while, and though it may be from heat stroke, it felt like I was talking to an old friend. It was a really great feeling, and as crazy as it sounds, I felt very much so at home. We worked until the afternoon, and between us we cleared about half the field that day. Some of the locals brought a giant pot of chicha for us to try. It’s yucca beer. It was good. You know, white, bitter and slightly chunky. Yummy.

We headed back to the lodge, on the way stopping to watch a dance performance in Mondaña. It was really interesting seeing the traditional dances from the east, as they differ tremendously from the ones from the coast and mountains. Each region very distinct. The costumes were great, most of them consisting of strategically placed palm leaves. Pictures will come, I promise.

We got to the lodge, took showers (cold water becoming more and more of a blessing), changed, and napped until lunch. People back in Florida understand how much energy the sun can take out of you, even from just sunning at the beach. Imagine hours of labor…Lunch was good, soup, rice, meat, potatoes. And an endless supply of lemonade (in Ecuador, this means limeade), that looked more like water than anything, but was crazy tasty.

After lunch we napped a little more. No one knows how to sleep like exchange students do. At three we met with Hector, again with the damn rubber boots. (I have never hated something so much in my life-though I began to love my knee socks even more). We headed on a jungle walk. Abel, a student from the high school that we lovingly called jungle boy just because, well, that’s what the shirt said. It was a very apt name, well-deserved. People with such knowledge at such a young age never cease to amaze me.

We started heading deep into the Amazon, and the further we got, the more of an uphill climb it was. That’s a very common misconception, I think. We all learn about the rainforest in school, about the canopy, all that type stuff. But somehow, in all the illustrations, its perfectly flat. That’s false advertising, buddies. Stairs began to show up, much like the ones we climbed to get to the high school, all built from logs. My legs ached, after the first couple hundred, but I pushed on, with my super crazy awesome lung capacity. One of the first things we saw was a red and blue poisonous dart frog. To me, the entire thing just made such an impression on me. I was walking around in the Amazon, something I’d only ever seen in books before, seeing animals that make their way onto discovery shows, things you hear and read about, and see pictures of, but even with all that, it all seems so unreal, so far away, so intangible. But, seeing these things in person, smelling the smells, feeling the heat, changed everything. It makes it so real, so crazy beautiful that words in any language will never be able to convey the true meaning. I will never find a way to express how much I fell in love, how amazing it was. So, you’ll have to take my word, and try to understand the emotion behind it…

What really stole my heart were the trees, those crazy trees that seemed to reach the sky, stretching up infinitely, blocking the sun, blocking the blue of the sky except for tiny little patches peeping through. One of the thoughts that I couldn’t get out of my head, and still can’t was ‘I could live here forever, and never lose my lust for life…but can I leave, and still keep it, this passion that I feel now??’. I don’t think I have my answer yet, but I fear the worst.

We stopped along the way to have a tree climbing contest. I didn’t bother, gravity and I are at eternal odds. But it was fun seeing the guys shed the boots and climb this tiny little trunk that wound up being a lot stronger than I thought possible. They all struggled, and I could see their muscles shaking from the exertion. Benner won. Then after all the guys had gone, and some girls (we were less willing to shed the boots, oddly enough), Hector looped the vine he had been holding for quite some time, forming a small circle. He shed his sandals, put his feet in the loop, and using it to grip onto the tree, effortlessly made his way up to the top. Damn jungle tricks. Keep in mind that Hector must be in his forties and is a round little man…you know its just not right when he beats a group of teenagers at the peak of their physical condition.

Hector taught us about the countless usages of the different plants and trees. Most of them being medical. He talked about how the drug companies had caught on to the secrets hidden in the forest, and in order to find new usages had begun exploiting the forest, exploiting local knowledge, destroying the habitat of thousands of species of animals and plants. At this point, I couldn’t decide which broke my heart more. The oil companies, drilling and destroying for energy purposes, or the drug companies, destroying in the name of the ‘greater good’. Bullshit. Hector said something that really impacted me. ‘If there is a cure for cancer, I am sure it is here, somewhere. We all share the responsibility of protecting the rainforest, so it can be found.’

More stairs followed. Interrupted by downhill slopes, which though a blessing to leg muscles in reality only meant that more stairs would soon follow. I lost count of the stairs, but we eventually wound up at this little hut thing on the edge of a cliff, way high up, looking over the river and the canopy of other sections of the jungle. We arrived just in time to watch the sun go down. Beautiful.

We headed back to the lodge. No party, just some hardcore sleepage.

So, here’s the deal. I can try to wrack my brain remembering what we did which day, etc etc, or I can do what I do best, and write it in conveniently random bulleted form….hmmm…what ever shall I do? ITS BULLLETT TIIIMMEEE!!!!!!!!!!!

-The field story: Over the next few days, we continued working on the field, always in the morning after breakfast till just about lunch time. We spent another day doing the raking and hacking thing. Jade and I kept working with Jhony (who I now know is one of the coolest guys this side of the equator), switching between hacking and raking. Both caused crazy amounts of blisters. At the end of the second day of field work, we had finished. It was clear, spotted only with burnt patches of black and the tree trunks that the machetes did nothing against. So on the third day of work we cut up all of the trunks into smaller sections, and rolled, hauled, and pushed them to one corner of the field. Which doesn’t sound bad in theory, but in reality is exhausting work. Especially when its not like nice smooth tree trunks, but old crooked ones that have become infested with ants, spiders, and/or beetles. There’s no way quite like hauling logs around without gloves to get hurt. I gave Jade what she swears is the coolest scar of her life by dropping a log while we were carrying it, having been attacked by ants. Mmm…fun stuff. That was some of the most exhausting work I’ve done in my life. We got nasty dirty, and we all got our share of bites, cuts, and scrapes. It was absolutely amazing how quickly we cleared that land, even though it took a lot of hard work, it was so worth it to look and see it cleared. The next time we went to work, we planted the entire thing with rice. I don’t know if any of you have ever planted rice, but it involves poking shallow holes in the ground about eight inches apart in rows, also about eight inches apart. The hole poking is the easy part, you just use a pointy stick and walk along poking holes. Or, you can double time it, and use tow sticks, poking holes on either side of you. The bad part is the filling of the holes. This is what I got stuck doing. You have to put about four or five grains of rice in each hole. Let me repeat. You have to put about four or five grains of rice IN EACH AND EVERY HOLE. Do you know how many holes there are in a hectare of a rice field? Yeah, I thought not. Even that doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that to place the rice, you walk permanently bent over at the waist, carefully putting the rice in the holes. Try doing that for three hours or more. You get dizzy, just following the rows of holes without standing up or looking around. But what a feeling of accomplishment when we realized that in the course of a week, we had cleared a lot of land, and planted the entire thing of rice. It somehow made all the work, the bites, the sore muscles and injuries completely and totally worth it. The fact that the students helped made it so much more meaningful, like we were contributing to their community, because even after we left, we all know that they will reap the harvest in the months to come. Good times.

-One of the days, after working in the field, we took a break by shucking dried corn. Have you ever shucked dried corn? I thought not. As I shucked, others beat the kernels off the cob. The image of Eric whacking away with a pole with be forever burned in my mind.

-One of the days of work on the way to the field, we made a short detour to help the high school students pluck some chickens. You know. A normal everyday detour, to pluck us some chickens. Though I lived on a farm for a good while, I hadn’t had the opportunity to pluck a chicken yet. I wouldn’t say that it was a un-agreeable experience, but I doubt that I’ll ever wake up with a craving to repeat it…

-The kind people of Mondaña invited us over one of the nights to a music competition that they were holding. Hector sang some amazing ballads. Eric was invited to play, and on his sad little guitar with one string missing, he played Hotel California. It wasn’t his best performance, but as usual, he sounded amazing. The traditional music from the east is very different from that of the sierra, so I think that it was a great opportunity that we all got to experience it, in living color.

-The tubing adventure: We were informed that we should all put our bathing suits on and head to the canoe. We complied, of course, some less willing than others to done a suit (the Rotary fifteen has become more like the Rotary twenty-five for some of us), but eventually we all made it there. We piled into the canoe, and headed a good hour or two up stream. The view from the river is absolutely amazing. The narrow shores are covered with round gray rocks, and lined with walls of green, broken up in random little places by waterfalls. It’s amazingly beautiful. They pulled up to the shore, and we all piled out. We unloaded eight inter tubes, shed our outer clothing, tightened the life jackets, and waded into the water. It was shallow, for all of a good ten seconds. And then the current swept us away, and we were floating down the Napo river. Some had the tubes, playing king of the hill and what not, but most of us were more than content to just float and observe the beauty of it. If you haven’t ever been tubing, it’s a very relaxing experience, with no effort at all, you make amazing time, and are free to float along with the current. There was only one rapid part of the river that we encountered, and we made a mad dash to keep to the right, slower side of the river. Swimming against the current is pretty freaking hard, let me tell you. But Hector is a great guide and kept us all a safe distance from the rapids and the rocks. At one point, the river got to be only about two feet deep, so we had to float on our backs, still swimming to keep to the right. It was just so peaceful, but alas, it only lasted about forty five minutes, and we had floated ourselves right back to the lodge.

-We also had the opportunity to meet the local medicine man, Domingo, which is very different from a shaman as we were told. The main difference is that shamans use chemical substances, while medicine men do not. The whole group of us took our seats in the hut, and Hector gave us a small lecture about having an open mind to other cultures, that not everything from our culture is 100% right, and that other cultures, as odd as some aspects may seem, have their merit as well. I think that we all felt that it was pretty much unnecessary for our group, as to be here we are obviously more open minded than most people, but we also recognized that there are, without a doubt, people out there who would say ‘medicine man-what a load of crock’ So, we paid attention, and Hector gave another introduction speech, explaining the role of the medicine man in a society, his duties and responsibilities, his training, etc etc. Domingo then introduced himself, a man of seemingly thirty years or so, but actually fifty, with eleven children. He seemed very wise, and very intelligent. After the formalities were over, Domingo lit the fire in the middle of the hut, and rolled a couple of cigar-type things from tobacco leaves. One by one, we took our seat on the chair in the middle, and Domingo performed the traditional cleansing ritual on us, brushing us with a small bunch of leaves, and blowing smoke down our backs and around our faces. About halfway through the ritual, he walks outside, blows a stream of smoke towards the sky, and with a swooshing sound, shakes the leaves as if he were ridding them of the bad energy he brushed off of us. He repeated the ritual, each time with a new bunch of leaves. The purpose of the ritual is to free you from any negative thoughts, and rejuvenate the spirit. And although I do happen to be a believer in western medicine, I also believe in the power of faith. It was all very interesting, and I think that people like Domingo deserve a lot more credit than they’re given

-Right after the cleansing ritual, jungle boy taught us how to throw a spear and blow darts through a very long blow gun, explaining different methods of hunting. After a couple tries, I really did get the hang of it. But I have to say that if I was the hunter for my village, they would all more than likely starve to death. But I can sure spear a papaya like nobody’s business.

-We took a walk through the woods, in the opposite direction of the high school. On the way, we saw the world’s smallest monkey. Eventually, after random log bridges and stairs (always with the random log stairs), we arrived at a large hut type thing. There, an indigenous lady taught us basket weaving and pottery. I failed at both. Which isn’t entirely my fault. One of the monkeys from the lodge had followed us on our way, and each time I would get a strip woven through, it would defiantly pull it back out, taunting me. I don’t think people realize how smart monkeys are. And then it stole my earrings. Damn monkeys.

-The first couple days on the trip it was hot and steamy, with a blistering sun like you can’t imagine. And I began to wonder ‘why is this called a rain forest?’ Well, close to the end of my stay, the skies opened up and showed me how it got its name. I got trapped midway between lodge and high school, and nearly got swept off my feet by the torrent of water that came down. It rained harder than I have ever seen in my life, and never ended, two days of rain like that. Yes folks, a rain forest indeed.

-This is completely irrelevant to my exchange year, but over the course of my stay at Yachana lodge, I have come to hate rubber boots with more of a passion than I have ever hated anything in my life. They cause blisters, cuts, and all sorts of ungodly discomforts. It got to the point that we began to arrive late to some activities during the trip, just out of dread of donning the boots again. That is all.

-Victor, from Denmark, is the funniest guy alive. That is all.

-Realizing our quickly diminishing supply of socks, Eric and I washed clothes, by hand. Fun stuff. My socks were Irish Spring fresh.

So, I guess I hadn’t realized how absolutely much I love this Rotary program until on the flight back from Coca to Quito, I wound up sitting next to a high school teacher from New York that had brought her Spanish class on a trip to Ecuador. I somehow found myself bragging about the program, surprising myself with how passionately I talked about how much of a great opportunity it is. Of course I gave her my Rotary card, and told her how to get someone to come to their school to give a presentation about the program…

-I had my first Taco Bell in six months when Jade and I went to the mall after our plane landed in Quito. It was disappointing, but still deserves a small mention in the journal. I <3 hot sauce

Here’s that information about Yachana Lodge etc. that I promised. It’s worth the read, I swear. But if you don’t want to, skip through till you see END.

Here’s the background. Yachana Lodge was constructed in 1995 by FUNEDESIN (the Foundation for Integrated Education and Development) to help the world better understand the rainforest and its inhabitants. It was constructed on the banks of the Napo river, deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Since then, Yachana lodge has generated over 2.2 million dollars that have been reinvested in the region. The lodge invests 100% of its profits in FUNEDESIN’s conservation, poverty reduction, education, and healthcare projects.

Yachana means “a place of learning” in Quichua (the indigenous language of Ecuador).The goal of the lodge is to find solutions to the problems of realistic life in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the ideals of forest conservation. They sponsor many conservation projects, including the 3,600 acres of Protected Forest and environmental education efforts. Their poverty reduction, income generation, and agricultural assistance programs complement their conservation projects by promoting sustainable living and providing viable economic alternatives to logging, cattle ranching, and the raising of illicit crops. It was named by Lonely Planet Travel Guide as “the best true example of eco-tourism in Ecuador”

The mission of FUNEDESIN (in short) is to “find sustainable solutions that will contribute to reversing the spiral of impoverishment and environmental degradation that is ravaging the people and tropical forests of the Ecuadorian Amazon.”

A few of the most important accomplishments of FUNEDESIN are: - The founding of Yachana High School: In October of 2005, FUNEDESIN opened the Yachana High School to benefit high school-age indigenous and mestizo students who live in remote rural communities in Ecuador’s Amazon region. It is absolutely free. It is a non-traditional technical school, which promotes the conservation of the Amazon through teaching sustainable use of natural resources, providing professional skills to improve employability, and mentoring management of student-run micro-enterprises. Subjects include eco-tourism, sustainable agriculture, forest and wildlife management, and environmentally sustainable micro-enterprises. The students learn by being actively involved in all aspects of FUNEDESIN’s ongoing development and eco-tourism projects. Students are split into two groups, each group living at the school for 21 days, then switching. This allows students not only to be present at the high school 365 days of the year, but also to be able to help with family businesses/farms on their off schedule.

-The establishment of the Mondaña Medical Clinic in 1997, which offers the only full-time healthcare to 8,000 Quichua indigenous and mestizos living along the Upper Napo River

-Created Yachana Gourmet, an ecologically conscious company that has established a stable cacao market by annually buying tons of organically grown cacao directly from small-scale growers.

-Constructed 17 micro-credit programs, known as village banks, which allow farmers to increase and improve their production, cover health and education expenses, and open their own micro-enterprise.

-Constructed 21 schools in impoverished communities throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon.

-Purchased and conserved over 3,700 acres of rainforest…

Here are some random statistics that make me sad, but I think should be known: Health in the rural areas of the Napo Province: -the infant mortality rate in 70 per 1,000 live births (in the states it’s 6.3) -more than 95% of the inhabitants suffer from intestinal parasites -1 in 4 children under the age of 5 suffer life-threatening diarrhea every two weeks -only 32.9% of children receive all necessary immunizations before the age of one -there is no potable water or electricity in most of the communities Education -30% of elementary school children in the Amazon region do not finish 6th grade -only 5% finish secondary schooling -15,000 elementary schools in Ecuador have NO source of potable water*

-random fact: The Executive Director of FUNEDESIN and Yachana Lodge is Douglas McKeekin. END YACHANA STUFF

So, I got back from the jungle, complete with over 300 bug bites, halfway freaked out because I had just hit my six month mark, but mostly extremely motivated to make my best of the time I had left, live every day to the fullest, and not waste even a single moment. And of course, the day after I got back I got really freaking sick. Like vomiting, every two minutes running to the bathroom, fever and chills, crying from pain type of sick. The next week was a feverish haze of pills and questions and doctor visits, followed by a Saturday where I felt better, and went with my mom to a mass in Pujilí (a tiny little town close to here). Little did I know, in this city everyone dresses up to go to the mass. Even the horses are dressed up, all in costumes from the Mama Negra. It was very interesting, to say the least. Saturday night came, and I was back to bathroom running, vomiting, fever, and extreme abdominal pain…to the point of screaming and crying, again. More hazy memories of a trip to the doctor, and more pills.

Sunday we left early in the morning for Ambato, a city about forty minutes south of Latacunga. Traffic was insane, and it took us two hours to make the drive. Why? Carnival, and Ambato is one of the three hotspots to go in Ecuador. We got there, I saw a bit of the parade. It was amazing, countries from all over the world represented, traditional music and dances, beautiful costumes. It was amazing, but somehow didn’t seem to merit the month leading up to it that I had spent dodging water balloons and arriving home from school with egg, flour and/or shaving cream in my hair. Crazy Ecuadorians.

We went back to my grandparents house after that, where I proceeded to stay the next three days in bed, still with horrible abdominal pain, nausea, and an inability to keep anything except Gatorade and the occasional saltine down. Finally, Wednesday we returned to Latacunga. I still felt amazingly awful and so weak I could barely get out of bed, and hadn’t eaten solid food in a week and a half.

So they took me to the doctor, yet again, where he prescribed more medication, and ordered some tests. The prognosis? A severe intestinal infection and parasites. That’s not what you want to hear, ever. Parasites. Bleh. So, I was put on even more medication, for any imaginable symptom. I had already been extremely ill for just over two weeks, and the medication was not making me feel better. So, not thinking clearly, I did the thing that Rotary tells you not to do, and I called home. Which was both good and bad. The bad thing was my mother got very worried, as she hadn’t known about the situation until this point, and my aunt also became extremely worried. But, due to her concern, I was put in the hospital, put on the correct medication, received the proper treatment, and got better rapidly. And I am proud to say that I am 100% parasite free. Wooo!!!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Al Kalter for his support, my chairman this side of the equator Renato Lanas, and of course Julio Gutierrez, head of Rotary YE here in Ecuador. All three of them helped me a ton through the entire process, and helped keep families both here and there calm and reassured. Thank you all so much!

I also have to make a quick thank you to my amazing host family that kept me sane through everything, especially my host mother who loves me more than anything in this world, and who I love even more, if that’s possible.

OK, so in order to make this journal as short as possible at this point in my writing, I’ll cut it off here. But I warn you, there’s another half…including stuff about Baños, all the crazy strikes that have been going on, the continuing TLC debate, Quito trips, and just random reflections. And as I’m leaving for Galapagos tomorrow, it will also cover that. Sorry again for the sheer length of it. It won’t happen again.

Lots of love Taj

PS, I just wanted to make a few quick shout outs…happy birthday to my brother Justice and Jarrod, lots of love to Stephen <3, a ton of love to my aunt, my uncle, and my mom. Of course, to my fellow exchangers and this fall’s outbound group (congrats - how’s the language going? are you keeping in contact with us of us who are in your countries??) To Sean and Triscuit, and most importantly my dog. Oh yeah, also to Al Kalter and my amazing Rotary Club of Orange Park Sunrise!!!

April 24 Journal

OK, so here’s yet another journal. This will be short and sweet. I promise.

WARNING: broken English ahead!

Part two from the other one: Right after getting better after my bout with parasites, my mom decided we should take a vacation. So we made the two hour drive to what is my favorite city in the entire world…..Baños!! (not ``bathrooms´´ for those of you who know Spanish but aren’t familiar with Ecuador). I fell in love right away (I talk as though I haven’t used this phrase to describe every experience this part year…). The city is situated right next to the active volcano Tunguragua…southeast of my city, Latacunga. The climate is moderately hot, which is the type of weather that I have been pining for since I first left Florida to come to the Andes Mountains. It’s a very popular tourist city, though it keeps the small city charm.

My wonderful host mother, wanting to make up for my two weeks sick, decided we would do everything possible on the trip. And she kept her word. One of the first things we did was rent four-wheelers with my brother and tour around the city on our own. Then a tour of the numerous waterfalls, all of which were breathtakingly gorgeous. At night we took a tour of the city on Chiva (double-decker bus), which took us to a beautiful lookout point on the side of the mountain. I don’t think riding a bus has ever been so much fun!! (my brother and I rode on top like crazy people). The next morning we went white water rafting, and after that, we rented horses and just saw some more of the city (we actually did a lot more, but for the sake of keeping it short, I’m not going to go into detail).

That trip with my mom and host brother was my first time to Baños, but has not been my last. Because it’s only about three hours away and the bus there only costs $2 maximum, I have been more than three times since then. And it continues to be my favorite city in all of Ecuador.

We got back to Lata late on a Sunday night, already with plans to travel to Quito the following morning, as my mom needed to do some work at the University, and I just happen to like Quito quite a bit.

Unfortunately, like any time that I have plans to do something, a strike happens. So that Monday at twelve in the morning, the indigenous people declared a strike, blocking all major highways in five provinces here in the sierra. Which is fine for bigger cities, like Quito, but in the smaller cities you begin to run out of food after a while, as the farms are usually located outside of the city, and no food supply can enter. The strike of Monday was started because the government promised money for certain projects over two years ago, but never gave it (I assume it has to do with the drastic changes in presidents, but you know…). Another strike started that Tuesday, against the TLC (free trade with the states), which really didn’t change much, just made the protests a touch more violent. Wednesday morning the mayors of some of the cities here in Cotopaxi took a helicopter to Quito and declared a hunger strike to show that they can complete their goals without help from any indigenous people. Thursday there were protests against the TLC, mainly from dignitaries and the sort, and most of our Rotary Club marched as well. I’m not sure which one ended, and which one was only temporarily suspended, but both were called off for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (I used the opportunity to visit friends in Quito), which thankfully allowed food supply back into the city, and some people who had been caught between cities etc. to get where they needed to be. The tourists that had been trapped in Lata were very happy indeed to be able to get out finally.

One restarted the following Monday at midnight. No one knew exactly what they wanted, whether it was about the money or the TLC, but it got pretty violent. Any cars that passed in the roads had their tires slashed, and the Pan-American highway was blocked with burning tires and crowds of very angry people. Finally Thursday afternoon it ended, after nearly two weeks of indigenous strikes and no transportation.

Gotta love those crazy Ecuadorian strikes.

That was a while ago, but even today there continues to be protest marches against the TLC, mostly university students, sometimes the indigenous population, other times the upper class. Eventually everyone seems to join in. I’m not really quite sure how I feel about it. All of the marches and the like are directed towards convincing the government not to sign the TLC, the signing of which would lead to free trade between Ecuador and the states. But a good number of the marches have a quite violent undertone, more of a hatred for Americans and what they represent on a global scale than the actual agreement itself. So that leaves me pretending to be either Ecuadorian or German, whichever happens to be more believable at the moment. It’s not that my safety is ever in danger, as it’s a very tranquil city, but it’s always better not to test the limit of tolerance. Especially that of angry strangers. You know.

After the strikes ended I think I made a good three or four trips to Quito to a) spend time with my most wonderful host mother that I sometimes swear I adore more than life itself, b) to bask in the big city life that I was once so accustomed to, but now translates into me gawking in awe at racial diversity and pharmacies that are big enough to walk into…and c) spending time with Jade, one of my very best friends here in Ecuador, which consequently means having an amazing time and eating a ton of shawarma´s. I <3 Jade!

Even though I’d love to write more about my adventures in Quito…I’m keeping my promise…short and sweet. On to Galapagos!

So, on March 31st all the kids from the sierra and the people closer to Quito than Guayaquil met in the airport. And even though it’s the national airport of the capital city, its not nearly big enough for exchange students…especially keeping in mind how much we pack. It is always such an emotional rush to see everyone…I don’t think anyone truly knows the meaning of the word emotional rush like an exchange student. Airports are not meant for this type of gathering…I’ll tell you that right now. Luggage heaped in a giant pile, crying people hugging each other, running towards one another…to anyone else I’m sure we look like lunatics.

The flight was delayed a good two hours (after all this IS Ecuador…it wouldn’t be right if anything happened at the scheduled time…it would break some unwritten law - hell might freeze over or something equally un-natural). Luckily it was only a 32 minute flight into Guayaquil. Flying in was quite impressive. The coast is in its rainy season right now, and I kid you not when I saw the entire thing seemed to be covered in water from the view of the plane….the ground was just shiny….rivers blended into everything else. We got off the plane, and not only was it as hot as blazes, it was so humid it felt like I was breathing in pure water. Crazy stuff. We did the strip down to the least amount of clothes necessary routine, and entered the airport, where we met up with the other half of the exchangers. Another emotional frenzy.

Then we all boarded onto the plane, and a short hour and 45 minutes later, about 100 teenagers from around the world set foot on the famous Galapagos Islands for the first, and most likely last, time of their lives. As amazing and impressive as that looks in writing…it was more like a ``hey, were in Galapagos dudes…sweet´´ type of deal. Having already shedded extra clothing…we had nothing much to do except continue talking. In a short amount of time we had paid our entrance into the islands (as the entire thing is one giant national park), and gathered our luggage. It was pretty cool, one of the first things I noticed was a giant iguana just kind of chilling in the baggage area. Very Galapagos.

We then took a bus ride, a ferry ride, and another bus ride to the hotel on Santa Cruz Island. As we arrived late afternoon that first day, the only thing that we had time to do was go to the Charles Darwin national park. You know, where they keep all the giant tortoises for safe keeping. Lol, but we did see some really huge tortoises, some up to 140 years old, over four feet in length. Meaning that they were there when Charles Darwin was. Which is pretty amazing if you ask me. However, I am positive that I learned more about tortoises than I would ever want to know in my life.

That night we ate dinner, and just walked around the island. Two things struck me at once. No graffiti whatsoever. And all the vehicles seemed to be white trucks. The first was just weird, because every city in Ecuador that I know of is pretty much full of graffiti, and well, what type of place has only white trucks. It wasn’t until later that I found out that both the taxis and the police use white trucks, and because of the abundance of police, no graffiti. Sweetness.

The next morning we all woke up god awful early and ate breakfast, divided into six groups, and headed out to do our respective activities for the day. My group headed to Tortuga Bay. It was quite a walk, but well worth it. The sand on the beach was pure white with a texture similar to that of flour. The water was blue blue, and mostly clear. The first beach we visited was La Playa Brava, literally, the angry beach. At first we were limited to only taking photos, but when we went to the second beach the tide was too low to go swimming, and therefore we swam at the angry beach. Angry indeed. I have never seen waves so big (except for Florida during hurricane season). I got thoroughly roughed up by the waves and the current, and gave up to sunning a little bit. Which, looking back, I shouldn’t have done without a full body suit because I got burned burned burned, even with spf 75 sun block that I put on like it was going out of style. It was gorgeous. We headed back to the hotel for lunch, and then afterwards we went lava walking, and learned a whole bunch of history about the islands and how they were formed. End day two

Day three. You couldn’t pry me out of bed with a crow bar, being burnt and exhausted form the sun. I didn’t go to breakfast, but afterwards I finally got up long enough to be coerced into going cliff diving with the group. We took a short bus ride, then walked quite a ways, climbing rocks until we eventually wound up at the cliffs. In between the cliffs was a pool of crystal clear water that had filtered in from the ocean. It was so clear you could see the rocks way down at the bottom. Meaning it made it that much more scary when we climbed to various points on the wall of the cliff and dived into the water. A very big adrenaline rush, and the cold water felt great for the burn. After scaring ourselves silly for a sufficient amount of time, we took a bus ride to the coast and got onto a smallish boat. We were issued snorkeling gear, and much like you always see on TV, we dropped off backwards into the ocean. The first place we snorkeled was on the shore of a small rock island, we didn’t see too much as the water was deep, but we did see a bunch a schools of fish and an giant manta ray hiding in a hole. Fun stuff. We spent a bit of time there, then headed to another rock island, were the snorkeling was, in simple terms FREAKING WONDERFUL. Jade and I got caught up looking at a school of rainbow fish, then a blow fish, and then a giant manta ray feeding on the bottom. In the middle of this, a shark swam up, and while we were warily watching it, we got the bejeezus scared out of us by a rogue sea lion that dived right in front of us. The rest of the day was spent trying to catch photos of the amazing marine wildlife, and once again at night we toured the island.

Day four…We took an incredibly long bus ride, then got on a larger boat than the day before, heading off to Seymour island. The guide took us onto the island, showing us the different species of birds, including the all so famous blue-footed boobies. It was very interesting to see the mating dance, and how they incubate the eggs. We also saw more land iguanas, and my favorite, the Fragata birds. They have these huge red sacs on their necks that they inflate to attract females. Interesting. It kind of looks like a heart when its inflated and their beak is down. Hmmm. I liked the random sea lions just lazing about. They smell bad, really bad, just warning you. Like awful bad. Ok moving on. Once again we were issued snorkel gear. We hit the SNORKELING JACKPOT. We seriously were swimming alongside of a good 15 sea lions or so. It’s so funny how curios they are, they swim right up to your face, and then dive down. It seemed like they were playing with us. It was a photographer’s dream, all these sea lions in clear water doing flips, playing with each other. One I found was particularly peculiar. I was adjusting the mask above water and I noticed a pair of sea lion feet just poking out of the water. I looked down below the surface and there was the little baby sea lion just chilling upside down, staring right back at me. I seized the opportunity, took the picture, and the second the button clicked, the little dude did a crazy flip and swam away, like he had been waiting for someone to take a picture of him. How odd. At night we had a buffet style dinner, ate our selves silly, and packed.

Day five. We left very early in the morning en route back to the airport. On the way we stopped to see Los Gemelos ``the twins´´, two very large craters caused by seismic activity. Very cool indeed. After that we got to the airport, loaded on the plane, that of course took off late, and flew into Guayaquil where we said the first round of our messy goodbyes. Then to Quito, where round number two took place. The goodbyes are always hard, but get harder with every trip that we go one, reminding us that our days our numbered. A lot of people broke down saying goodbye to Eric, who won’t be on the last trip, therefore meaning he was saying his final goodbye’s to most people. It didn’t bother me too much, he lives in my city. It was kind of like ``bye dude, see you tomorrow´´. And that was my Galapagos trip.

What else?

A day after getting back from Galapagos, we found out that we would be switching host families the next day. Gotta love my Rotary Club and their talent for giving us a little warning... So, after breaking the news to my family, bawling like a baby, and procrastinating till five in the morning by talking with my host parents, I began the long process of packing.

I just couldn’t make myself start. Every time I would go to fold a shirt or bring out the suitcases, I would just cry, realizing that the next time I would pack would be my last. My host mom was more upset than I was, angry at the Rotary Club for making us change a month earlier then expected, angry that they didn’t let us know until a day before the change, heartbroken that I was leaving the house, just upset with the world.

My host brother and sister cried a lot when I told them that I was leaving, but like always my host dad was the rational voice of the family, explaining that in life, not everything goes how you would want it to, and although I would be missed by that family, I would be equally welcomed in the next family. So, with these words of wisdom, we made it a family project to pack my bags, talking about all the good times we have shared over the past three months, telling jokes, mutually comforting one another. We all passed out in my room, waking up the next afternoon. My mom headed to work, my brother and sister to the last couple hours of school, leaving me in a blank room with nothing to show for my past three months except two packed suitcases and two carry on bags, and my backpack full of books. As Eric was the next one to come to the house, I kindly left a Canada flag on the wall, and knowing his odd hunger attacks in the middle of the night, I left a drawer full of crackers and cookies and the like. It was the least that I could do. I also kindly put pink sheets on the bed, but I'm pretty sure my host dad changed those before Eric got there. Darn it.

The rest of the day passed by with a melancholy feel, waiting the hour when my chairman would come to the house, I would choke back tears, saying my goodbyes, or better yet, my see you later’s, and I would be whisked away to my next house. My chairman said he’d be there at four, meaning that at ten till seven he showed up. And that’s how it went. We chatted with my chairman for a long while, waiting for my mom to get home, and I choked out my goodbye’s, crying ridiculously hard for someone moving only ten minutes away, but it felt so much like the real goodbye that I know I'll be saying in a few short months. And just like that, I was off to my next house.

Luckily, I already new the family, all except my host brother who returned from his exchange to the states early. But it is always awkward arriving at a new house with all your belongings and being like `here I am, there you are, this is my house now….´.

So, around eight at night, I arrived at the house. It was raining outside, which had some kind of poetic justice to it. My chairman drug my luggage inside, made polite conversation and high tailed it out of there. His wife is pregnant and the baby is due anytime, so I don’t blame him one bit. I spent a little time getting to know my host mom and host brother and sister, waiting for my dad and other brother to arrive home. It went nice, we went over the first night questions, and then we all headed to bed.

My new family is really sweet. I have a dad, Byron, mom Nancy, little brother, Nico (6), little sister, María de los Ángeles (12), and older brother Byca (18). My dad is the owner and founder of one of the biggest hardware store chains here in Ecuador, meaning my parents are unbelievably loaded. The house is only two years old, three stories, a yard and tennis court. It has like six or seven bedrooms, an equal number of bathrooms, and random other living rooms, dining rooms, entertaining rooms. You know. It’s a little further from the main part of the city than I'd like, but still within walking distance. My host brother automatically made me feel right at home, inviting me to go out with him and his friends, joining a kickboxing class with me, stuff like that. My little brother and sister drag me out of bed to play in the morning if I don’t get up early enough for them. My host parents are really intelligent and understanding people. I wish I saw more of them, but I don’t because they work every day from eight in the morning till eight at night, coming home for lunch of course.

I thought it might be kind of awkward entering an already full family, but it wasn’t like that at all. I guess the only thing that bothers me is that even though I’ve already been there for almost three weeks, my room has no furniture, only a bed and a nightstand, meaning I am still living out of suitcases. I’m not quite sure what the deal with that is, but I’m getting used to it at least.

Easter came and was oddly disappointing. We went to my grandmothers and ate rabbit. I wasn’t sure how to go about eating it with my hands, so I looked to my aunt as an example. Bad idea. Right when I looked over, my aunt was busy sucking the brains out of the skull. Yummy. The day was spent sharing stories, drinking beer, and playing ecuavolly with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. It was a lot of fun, but didn’t feel like Easter. You win some and you lose some. It’s not like I knew how to explain what chocolate bunnies and colored eggs have to do with Easter either….lol

My recent adventures have been, as usual, going to Quito to visit Jade. It’s always a lot of fun, but the bigness of Quito never ceases to amaze me. It’s so dangerous at times, at least compared to my tranquil Latacunga. It shocks me the amount of crime sometimes, but part of being an exchange student is knowing how to judge situations and how to avoid the bad ones. So I’ve been lucky so far. A lot of other exchangers haven’t been. It comes down to knowing your surroundings, expecting the unexpected, and hanging out with the right crowd. While in Quito, I hit my eight month mark, meaning I only had three months left. Crazy stuff.

English is a continuing battle. I feel like I should start practicing, or something, before I get home otherwise I'll get the same odd looks from people back in the states that I got from people here when I first arrived. Oh well. Um, no school today, so I headed to Volcán Libro, a great little bookstore slash café that I have been going to religiously since September. The owner, Lalo, is a really great guy and a close friend, and we often find ourselves talking about great poets and authors from around the world, about politics. Today we got started up on something about the TLC (free trade with the states) which is by far, the biggest political issue in Ecuador right now. Side note: I have noticed that you can always tell what the big political issues are by the graffiti that covers every square inch of this country. Things about the TLC is plastered everywhere!. Anyway, we get to talking, and next thing I know we are doing a radio talk show about it. I’m not quite sure how I got suckered into it, but I was so proud after I had finished. The radio show guy mistook me as someone from Cuenca (city in Ecuador), and I didn’t disagree. Fun stuff.

It astounds me that I have less than three months left. That’s a matter of weeks, not months. And it absolutely kills me that Eric, my best guy friend here in Ecuador, is leaving to go back to Canada the fourth of May. That’s a matter of days. He is one of the most genuine people that I have ever met in my life, and will be greatly missed. But, that’s the way life is. Things end, things change. And the entire reason that he’s leaving early, is to go climb the seven summits of the world. So I suppose it’s a worthy cause. Crazy Canadians.

So, considering that I only have eighty something days left!!!!!!!!!!!!! this is where I leave you guys.

Con Amor

Taj

PS: lots of love to everyone stateside and good luck to all the outbounds!!!!

May 19 Journal

OK….so here’s the deal guys. I have pretty much no time to write, but the next month of my time is going to be chock full of Ecuador fun, so if I don’t update my Rotary journal this very instant, it is entirely possible that I will never actually get around to it. So, here goes nothing.

When I wrote the last time, I had just gotten back from Galapagos and switched host families. Man, I have A LOT of updating to do. Damn me and my infernal procrastinating. And my English sucks. Fun fun. Here we go.

Ok, so the 25th of April I headed to the Paz house, to spend time with my old host brother Francisco who came back from Argentina a little bit early. It was so amazing to spend time with the family, and it was a complete and total surprise that Fran was there because when I said goodbye to him the last time, I thought it would be forever. Or at least longer than five months. But I am by no means complaining. It's always a weird feeling, going back to an old host family to visit. To me it feels much like I imagine going back to Florida will feel like. An old sense of familiarity, but you can’t quite remember where they keep the spoons. You know. Anyway, I stayed until late that night, catching up with the family and just generally having a good time.

Early the next morning I headed back to the Paz family, as they had invited me to come and help plant artichokes. It was one of the best `homecomings´ that I could ask for. I miss working on the farm with my host parents, fixing the tractors with my host siblings. So, working side by side with them planting artichokes was the perfect way for me to spend time with them. Between my host dad, Fran, me, and the workers, we planted about 8000 artichoke plants. Of course I got completely and totally covered with mud and dirt, my back hurt from being bent over for hours, and I was dead exhausted when we finished. The absolute perfect day. And I say that with utmost sincerity.

The next thing I knew is that it was the 28 of April, and I was crying my goodbyes once again to Francisco at some god-awful early hora of the morning. It didn’t seem real. My old host father and I waited until well after his flight had left to leave the airport. I just kept expecting that he’d come walking back out, say it was a joke. But of course that never happened. I cried on the way to my dad dropping me off, while I tried to remember where Jade lived. I didn’t remember, wound up having breakfast with my Paz host dad and sister, and then we found Jade’s house, a good two hours later than when I told her I'd be there. Oh well. It is Ecuador, these things are ok.

After that, I spent time with family and friends in Lata. Mostly Eric. We bought some fabric and what not and got him a guitar case sown. We found the only wooden light post in all of Latacunga, it reeked of dog urine, but we were both so surprised that we hadn’t noticed before that I took a picture. In fact, I think I took a picture of everything we did those couple days, wanting to document to my fullest capacity his last days in Ecuador, and more importantly, his last days with me. I helped him pack, because I am the master packer. He gave me a lot of stuff, Canada paraphernalia, clothes, random books and movies. He wound up having one suitcase, two guitars, a backpack, and a churango to take home with him. Fun stuff.

He left early to get to Quito and do the last minute things that he had to do. So it wasn’t until the 3rd of May that Ashley and I made our way to Quito in bus. It was a very solemn ride, neither of us said very much. I stayed at Jade’s house that night, like whenever I am in Quito. At four the next morning Jade and I took a cab to the airport, where we met up with all the other people that had traveled from all over Ecuador to say goodbye to Eric. You know, because in all honesty, he is the coolest guy ever.

Most of us started crying as soon as we saw him there. Others managed to hold out until right before he left. But, for the most part, I bawled from the second I saw him there with his luggage. He didn’t actually leave until around six thirty, so we each said our goodbyes over and over again. He signed his Canada handkerchief and gave it to me. ``Tajah, taj, size/slice. Whatever. Anyway you’re way too cool and smart to hang out with a hippie like me. I love you and I always will. Maybe you’ll see me again, for being too cool. Kick those engineer’s a**es. I love you. Tu Eric.´´

I have said some really hard goodbyes this year. I have made it through things that I never thought that I could have before. I have done amazing things, difficult things. I have grown and matured a lot. But when he left, I wasn’t sure if I would ever stop crying. And it was a long time before I finally could, and even then, the only way I could make myself stop was by reminding myself that he would never want me to cry over a `hippie´ like him. That as soon as reality set in for him, that he would be doing his own crying, and he would need someone to be strong for him. So, eventually I stopped. But I’m going to go ahead and say it:

Eric, I miss you, I love you, you’re one of a kind, and things aren’t the same without you here.

I never had thought that the day would come. But it did, and it passed. And now its some foggy memory, like a bad dream. Saying goodbye to someone who has been your best friend for a year, who has been by your side for the good and the bad is never easy, and it never will be.

I stayed a couple more days with Jade in Quito. One of the nights I went to a reggae concert (Alma Rasta) with some very good friends of mine, and thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite Eric’s absence. Afterwards, somehow, I met the friends of a friend, who all just so happened to be street performers, jugglers, flame-swallowers, that type of deal thing. They truly are some of the most genuine people I have ever met in my life, and I had a great time talking with them.

It was so interesting to me, like it always is, how people can find their niche in a society like the one of Ecuador. There are no jobs, so they make their own. They find some talent or passion and that is how they earn money to live, to eat. I always wonder, how do people decide what they are going to do for a living? Do they wake up one day and be like: I’m going to be a juggler when I grow up. Or, I am going to sell gum to win my bread. It's so different from how things in the states are, where everyone pretty much goes to school, most go to college, and the majority of people get normal jobs working for some company or another somewhere. But I suppose that different societies force people to develop differently.

Before, I’m not really sure how I felt about street performers. It’s different, because here I live with the richest of the rich who tend to look down on the poor. But at the same time, no matter how prejudiced they may be, no matter how much they might influence my thinking on the world, no one can change MY views, MY sense of what is right and wrong, good and bad in the world. Yeah, sure, the little things might change, but my core feelings, my core judgments can never be altered. Because, in reality, that is who I am. I was brought up to never discriminate based on color, creed, religion, or anything like that, but rather to judge people by the character of their heart, of who they truly are, not what society has made them to be.

And although, in this society of mine that I live in Ecuador, I was more out of place than ever…a white girl from the upper class with natives from a lower social class, with people of the street, talking and laughing into the night…although that may be unheard of here, I have never felt more comfortable with a group of people. Have never admired a group of individuals so much. Have never felt more respect for someone. And it reminded me of who I truly am inside. And it was a good feeling. And, I swear to god, Carlos, if I ever have the opportunity, I will buy you that accordion.

After getting back to Lata, life was pretty normal. My host family is really sweet, but after five weeks of not having furniture, of my host parents not getting home till almost nine at night every night, of five weeks of spending time alone in the house with the maids or with friends, I was very very frustrated with my living situation. I think it would have been different if any member of the family was ever home. But between my parents and brothers working, my other siblings’ school, violin lessons, tennis lessons, karate, they are literally never home. And although being with friends and outside of the house is ok, I would get so depressed just going home to a continually empty house, to a room with no furniture and no curtain. This isn’t how an exchange student should spend their last bit of time in their host country. It’s a horrible feeling, and it was made worse by the fact that in spite of me attempting to talk with my host parents or chairman about it, nothing worked. My parents were never home till late, meaning we would eat dinner and they would head to bed, and my chairman’s wife just gave birth to a baby boy, so his time is tied up between two kids and work. The talk that I had planned down to the very last words never happened despite the attempts I made. And each day, I felt a little worse and worse, more in despair.

So, I got to thinking. I was determined to get myself out of the funk that I was in. And staying out of the house as much as possible was not an option. I had to do something that would make me feel ok with being at home. I decided that the only true thing that I had control over was the furniture and curtain thing. It wasn’t like I could change my parents or siblings schedules, so it was the furniture thing that I decided to dwell on for a bit. I think it’s a very universal subject, that when people have a little place to call their own, to put their stuff, they can adapt to any environment. At least it’s true for the states and Ecuador, and that’s what matters in my personal situation.

I was appalled that my family hadn’t provided anything for me after a month and a half of being in the house. And even more than that, they had made some sarcastic comments like ´oh, what beautiful furniture you have´, things like that. But any time I asked about it, they said that the furniture would get there the next day. I mean, I understood that their son had come home early from exchange and that they had to put me in the room where the maids had been. I thought about it for a long time to see if it was me who wasn’t adapting to the situation, maybe if it was my American culture not understanding the Ecuadorian culture. But when you are in a house where everyone has their own TV, own stereo, own walk-in closet, own everything, where even the maids have furniture and other commodities, it doesn’t seem to be part of the culture to put the exchange student in a bare room. I made sure that I had a right to be upset, that I wasn’t crossing some cultural line by being upset. And I wasn’t. I was right. It wasn’t fair to me to make me live like that. I would have been fine if they had at least explained to me what was going on, that they understood that it wasn’t ok, but rather they seemed to be mocking my situation. So I had no idea what to do

In this culture, what you would normally do is wait for someone to come build the furniture. And in Ecuador, these things can evidently take a while. But that was obviously not doing anything but make me feel miserable in my own house, so I decided to think outside of the box. I figured if I couldn’t solve the problem with this culture, I would solve it with another culture, and I started thinking what I would do if I was back at home. And it struck me. Back home, I would never wait for someone to do something for me, I would do it myself. So that’s what I did.

Ashley and I went to the local supermarket, asked for some empty cardboard boxes, and I made myself furniture. Something to store my school stuff and books in, something for shoes, and something for clothes. It wasn’t much, just a couple of little things that would make me feel like the house I was living in was my home. I decorated them with wrapping paper left over from Christmas, and lined everything with tissue paper. And in my opinion, they looked really nice. So it wasn’t like I was bringing dirty cardboard boxes into the house, but rather some really spiffy furniture. I was very proud, very happy. I hung a blanket that I had over the window, having been more than fed up with not having a window covering on a window that overlooks not only what might be the brightest street light in the world, but also the driveway, the maid’s room, and the side yard. And all was good.

My host dad commented about it, he thought it was a clever idea. My host mom was not happy by any standards. That night, she took the measurements of the room, made a single phone call, and the very next day, I had real furniture in the room. Which was fine by me, though it really really made me wonder what had taken so long in the first place. She made me take my blanket down, saying it made the room too dark. Which was the point, I can’t sleep with a light shining in through the window. But whatever. The morning when the workers came to install the furniture, I went to Quito for Jade’s old host families Grandma’s birthday party, because, when I spent time there, the grandma and I got along super well, and she invited me to come to the party. So I went.

I got back in the afternoon, only to find twenty dollars and a ring missing, my stuff an absolute mess in the closet. Like clothes and lotions had been put in the same drawer, shampoo and books. Everything was a mess, and I had to go through and clean all of my stuff. Some is ruined, some is gone. Not a fun thing to come home to. I politely confronted my parents about it, they pretty much blamed me. The conversation escalated to the point where they told me that the only reason I was in the house was because of a personal favor to my chairman, that they would prefer not to have any exchange students in the house, this that and the other thing. They were not nice, at all, and I felt even worse than before. And on top of that, when I mentioned the furniture deal, they said that it shouldn’t be an issue, that it is my responsibility to adapt to wherever I am, not them to me. Which is true, and I understand that. But some things are over the line. There are bare minimums in any culture that should be complied with.

The next day was mother’s day. They didn’t invite me to breakfast; I said good morning and was met with silence. When we left to go to my grandma’s house, they sent the maid to my window to tell me they were leaving. They were all outside in the car, and the house was already all locked up and the alarm set. And that’s how two days passed. They never said one word to me, no matter what I said to them, what questions I asked. I would come home from school, and the maid would not serve me lunch unless I asked. Which is not normal, because my place at the table is usually set and the food waiting for me. I would get home to an empty kitchen, nothing on the table, no food in sight. So, once again I felt even worse than before.

In fact, my parents didn’t talk to me until I called my chairman over to mediate. My host mom pretty much yelled at me, my chairman took her side, meanwhile my host dad apologized to me, and defended me from both of them. My chairman brought up that I hadn’t been to school in a couple days, and my mom yelled at me over that. Meanwhile, my dad brought up the fact that the inspector from school had told me not to come to school that week, because classes were almost over and everyone was taking exams. It just got uglier and uglier, my mom being in reality very petty, and my dad being more realistic and keeping my mom’s story to what really happened. A horrible night overall. Nothing was solved, and everyone went to bed in a bad mood.

Went to school the next day to check with the inspector, he told me once again that even though it was really nice to see me, that I didn’t need to be there. So yeah.

One of those nights I talked to my parents. I waited until they got home, had eaten, and somehow intercepted them before they went to bed. As politely and as diplomatically as I could, I explained to them absolutely everything. I apologized for the incident of the other night, even though I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I told them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I talked and talked. I reminded them that even though their son is home, it doesn’t mean that I’m not here. That it’s not fair to me to spend so much time alone. That it makes it difficult that they aren’t home, that they live far away from everything, that they only have a laptop in the house that they take to work with them everyday. That it will just be harder in the weeks to come because they have family arriving, I have things to do, I have my Rotary trip, the day after I get back from the trip my dad and my older brother are going to the world cup in Germany, meaning my mom will be working even more. That my last month here in the country will be spent completely alone. That that isn’t how I had hoped to spend my last little bit of time. I talked for a long time, and they agreed with me. They understood what I was going through, and agreed that their house is not a good house for me to be in. SO that made me feel at least a little better. That after two months of not being understood of feeling alone, that someone finally understood me.

I talked with my chairman, after hunting him down over a period of days, about the possibility of me switching families. He didn’t seem keen on the idea. I insisted, and so did my host family, and there have been more than a couple times when he said he would call me or come to my house to talk that he just hasn’t called or shown up. I understand that he is very busy and that he has a life outside of Rotary, but at this point in my year when I am pressed for time, I expect more from my chairman. And it's not like they ever issued me a new counselor after mine quit back in October. So. Once, again, am I stuck between a rock and a hard place. Right now, I face the option of hoping for another host family soon and only spending at most three weeks with them, or which is what’s going to more than likely happen, spending my last month in Ecuador alone.

But, this year is about adapting, and even though it royally sucks, I am stronger than that, and I have gotten to the point where I am ok with being alone in a house, being without family. It is not ideal, but the way I figure it, it will make the transition to back home easier. So, like usual, there’s a silver lining to every cloud.

So that’s that deal. I am sorry to write so much, but hey, people home should know what’s going on this side of the world.

What else is new? The times that I have gone to school, my classmates are overwhelmed to see me, and the inspector usually pulls me out of class to talk to him, to do whatever, and more than often tells me to `go out and enjoy the country my last month rather than sitting in school´.

Here is some exciting news. The American doctors are here again. There are only three of the same guys as last time, but they were my favorite three, so all is well. It’s a much bigger group this time, literally five tons of supplies, and the doctors are spread out between two hospitals. I have no idea how many procedures that they will do, but only a handful of them speak Spanish, so my help is very welcomed and needed. Plus, due to the last time I helped with the doctors, I have a much better comprehension of medical equipment and knowledge. They arrived this morning, and since then we have been unpacking and sorting, and doing consults. We finished early today, giving me the time to write this journal, but the surgeries start at 8 tomorrow morning, and they will be super busy until the 28th when they leave. Corey, a really amazing nurse tech whatever from California, who was also on the last trip, definitely brought me like ten pounds of gummy bears. <3

So, I'll be busy with the doctors until the 28th. From the 28th of this month until June 4th I will be on my Rotary trip to the south. June fifth my host brother and dad leave. And my flight home is the 23rd of June. It breaks my heart that I only have a month left. It breaks my heart even more, because I had had a date in mid July confirmed and ready, but due to the time frame that my university gives me, I have no other choice but to come home a little early. But it feels like someone just stole a month away from me. Man, today is my nine month mark, and I only have just over a month left. Time flies.

So that’s why I decided to update today, because I will be crazy busy until the day that I leave. Crazy crazy stuff.

So, rather than waste more time here typing away like a maniac, this is where I leave you all. Lots of love to everyone

Taj

PS. <3