Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Ecuador.
Amy Woodruff – Age 25
Where are you from?
I grew up in Seattle, WA.
What country and program do you serve in?
I’m serving in Ecuador, in the Youth Development sector (known in country as Youth & Families). Our program goals include life skills for young people and building capacity for organizations that work with young people.
I live in a very rural region called Intag, one of Ecuador’s two megabiodiverse areas. A century’s worth of change has come to the area in the last two decades, with more and better roads, and phone service and electricity reaching even the most isolated farms, along with internet and television. One of the biggest challenges we face in the region is how to rapidly adjust to modern ways of life without losing local culture and traditions. I wish I could have seen Intag before these changes came. We have cloud forest, bursting with orchids, hills and valleys laced with rivers, and hundreds of species of butterflies and birds. Recently a new species of frog was discovered in the area, the first known vertebrate to quickly change the texture of its skin.
Locals work primarily in farming, a lot of cash crops like sugar cane, naranjilla (makes delicious juice!), and awesome organic coffee. A European NGO that worked in the region for over a decade tried to develop tourism and local brands of coffee, beans, and milk products. Their goal was to give people more economic security as an alternative to opening up the area to mining. Locals have led opposition to a copper mine for 20+ years but feeding one’s family now will always take precedence over the future of the forest. Intag has some tourism but not as much as the region deserves. So if you’re coming through Ecuador, get in touch and I can give you some tips on the best spots to visit. The hot springs are not to be missed!
My counterpart, Casa Palabra y Pueblo, is a library/internet cafe/producer of local radio that is really enthusiastic about alternative education so I work a lot on learning through play with elementary-age kids. A typical day can be lesson planning, teaching, supporting other volunteers that work at CPP, or working on other projects for my counterpart. I just finished a summer camp for kids during their long vacation for the rainy season, we have a ‘Ludoteca’, a space with toys that we open up twice a week, and when school starts up again we’ll start a club that incorporates reading, writing, and acting.
I also try to branch out in order to get my ‘fix’ on a couple of pet issues that my counterpart doesn’t focus on. For example I am really passionate about working with adolescents on developing healthy relationship skills, so I am working with the government-run health clinic to start a youth group in the community. We have a couple young women that come three times a week to do crafts or learn an American recipe. Eventually we want to incorporate topics like self esteem and gender roles. My ‘reach’ goal is to help my counterpart organization open a café that serves Intag coffee and food made with local ingredients. It would be a space for young people to hang out, an opportunity for them to gain work experience that translates to city life, and a source of income for the foundation. I love the goals of my program but it can be hard sometimes because things like improved confidence are so hard to measure, sometimes I’m not sure what I’ve accomplished with my projects.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
Ecuador has a reputation for being one of the ‘posh corps’ countries, where volunteers have it easier, at least in the material sense. Our volunteers aren’t hauling water or hoping for a cloudless day to charge their kindle, all of us have running water and electricity. Many of us (not I!) even have wi-fi at home. In our defense, I want to say that the hardest parts of Peace Corps have nothing to do with hauling water. Being in a new culture and a new place, going through challenges without being able to lean on friends in your weakest moments, watching lives go on without you back home– these things are hard even when you can take a hot shower at the end of the day to unwind.
PC Ecuador requires that volunteers live with a family for the first 6 months to help with integration, but I have found that I feel so much more integrated now that I’m living on my own. Of course part of that is just that I have been here for a while, but I feel freer without a host family watching my every move (even if that watching and judging comes along with love), and less anxious about going out into the community.
At my host family’s place, I had a small bedroom with room enough for a twin bed, a sort of bookshelf that I used to store my things, and enough floor space to put down a yoga mat, though sometimes I’d bump my bed or the walls when I did fancier poses. The family didn’t have hot water until I splurged ($20) on one of the electric death trap shower head/water heaters that are ubiquitous here in Ecuador. I guess cold showers were a challenge but I struggled much more with the animal life in my town– my host family’s poorly trained dog that followed me to work every day and tried to chew up the computer cables, and most of all the cockroaches that came to visit me from the kitchen next door. One of the lower points in my service was being woken up by a cockroach running across my face in the middle of the night.
My community doesn’t have any apartments or homes I could have rented, so once I hit the 6 month mark I got my independence in a roundabout sort of way. I’m renting a little cabin meant for tourists and my landlord let me set up a separate room in his house as a kitchen. Making a bedroom into a kitchen takes a little creativity, but the home has a piedra de lavar, the outdoor sink where the family washes their clothes, so I take my plates out there to wash. Since I moved out I have been significantly happier, and to be honest the biggest challenge here is equipping a foodie kitchen on a peace corps budget. You would be surprised what you can cook in a toaster oven!
Food is very important to me. I’m a vegetarian and a passionate cook. For my first six months in country (three in training, three at site) I committed to eating primarily Ecuadorian food with my host families, but ultimately I was pretty unhappy. Switching to cooking my own food was part of coming into my own in my community. Food shopping gave me a way to start conversations with people I hadn’t talked to before. I have shared cookies with so many friends, and my host mom has tried things like pesto, kombucha, curry, and egg salad because we shared kitchen time. And I still eat Ecuadorian food when we go out to eat as a work team, or when I visit my host family. I’m enjoying cooking with so many CHEAP fresh fruits and vegetables, though I wish real butter weren’t a two-hour bus ride away. I buy brown rice in the city, and eat a lot of rice and beans, eggs, and vegetables. I have accumulated quite the collection of spices so I like to incorporate flavors I miss from back home, like curry or rosemary. Yesterday I made lavender honey bread.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
Most volunteers have a bad case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), the same feeling any normal person experiences when they look at the carefully curated Facebook page of someone who appears to be having a way better life than they are having. As PCVs we are stepping outside of our old lives for two years and it’s hard to feel like things will be ‘okay’ without us there to look after them, and scary to imagine trying to fit back in to places and relationships when we finish our service and return a pretty different person. Dealing with those feelings has been the hardest part of my service for me. I’ve been serving for nine months now, and it has gotten a little easier with time, but I still often wish I could be back home.
Even with all the frustrations I’ve had (or maybe because of them), the most rewarding thing is when I get a project started. PCVs don’t come with money, they don’t have particularly strong community support until they build it themselves, and the idea of “Cuerpo de Paz” doesn’t carry the same weight in Ecuador that “Peace Corps” does in the States. We’re told as trainees to lower our expectations and be happy with little successes, but I don’t even think of them as little anymore. I know how much work it took to get 8 young people (a notoriously apathetic group in my community) to show up to a meeting, so even if we did invite 40, I am thrilled that the meeting happened at all. When two people come to an event even though the rainy season is doing its worst outside, that is a success. I don’t qualify it.
“Don’t have any expectations” is one of the most-repeated pieces of advice we get as volunteers. Of course I had expectations, I just tried to tell myself I didn’t. I think “trampled on” is a pretty good way to describe my expectations now. From the moment I got to staging (a day late, Alaska fog kept me home a bit longer than expected) I have had to shift my expectations of my fellow volunteers, the program, the country, and myself. It’s kept me on my toes.
Machismo is alive and well in Ecuador, it has made the social side of things pretty hard for me. Women my age don’t approach me to start conversations, but men are happy to. It’s hard to say why women don’t want to talk to me– jealousy, a sense of superiority, simply being busy with household tasks, but I can say for sure why the men do want to talk to me. As in many countries, American women have a reputation here for being ‘easy’. It’s hard, when I want so badly to make friends in my community, to put up a wall towards men who are being friendly to me. I have tried to open up to some of the more upstanding young men, but socializing is hard too. Friendships between Ecuadorian women and men are rare and there aren’t spaces for men and women to hang out. Men mostly drink, smoke and play Ecuador’s version of volleyball when they spend time together, all activities that I’m shut off from. I think male volunteers have it a lot easier, because they can join in these things without losing respect in the community– in fact, it can help them gain respect. I am tired of being seen as incomplete because I don’t have a man (or because a man doesn’t have me), and I’m tired of people telling me I have to find one, or vying to fill that role.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I wanted to live in another place and get to know it deeply, I wanted to challenge myself and do something to help other people. I still appreciate the challenge, though sometimes that’s hard to do in my lowest moments. I feel like I am helping other people, at least a bit, though I am frequently frustrated by how hard it is to get anything at all started. I’m glad I am getting to know this new place but I had deeper roots than I realized back home. The other day my coworkers joked that I wouldn’t want to leave after two years, and they weren’t going to let me go when I finished my service. Without thinking, I said that when I went home, I would go with a smile. What I said was a little hurtful, I think, but it’s true. I will miss this beautiful place and the people I have grown close to, but I already have my beautiful place, and it’s not here.
I most was surprised by how little I wanted to ‘jump into’ the culture here. Part of it was missing home, and clinging to any time that I could control to feel familiar. Part of it was frustration with the culture, and not really understanding so much of what was going on around me. My Spanish is great, but interpreting social situations goes far beyond speaking the language. And more than anything, I think I felt restrained by the expectations of this culture. At my best, I am generous, wild, open, and sarcastic. I worried that these parts of myself would be misunderstood or taken advantage of by the community, and so I hid them away. Feeling like I had to put on an act to go out my front door made me want to stay home and practice guitar or read a book or binge-watch Game of Thrones.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
This is a hard question for me. As I said, I sometimes question how much of a difference I’m really making in my work, but my work is just 1/3 of Peace Corps’ goals. Am I doing enough to share my version of American culture with people here? Am I sharing Ecuadorian culture with people back home? These things have value too. I feel like I am growing as a person because of the challenges I’m facing here. I think Peace Corps in general is a valuable program worth continuing but I want to qualify my ‘yes’. When I consider the technical support we give, I wonder at what point we should expect a country to find those skills among its own people. Ecuador is developed enough to educate Ecuadorians who can work with kids, or teach health practices in rural areas. If our job as PCVs is truly to ‘work ourselves out of a job’, then we should be able to be honest about when we’ve succeeded. Peace Corps has an amazing 50-year legacy in Ecuador but I don’t think it should continue here indefinitely.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
If you’re thinking about applying, talk to RPCVs, talk to recruiters, and ask rude questions. I don’t mean that you should be a jerk, but this is two years of your life you’re talking about, and you shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and see if you can thrive in the setting you’re headed to. People who want to help others sometimes have a hard time saying no, but make sure you really do want to say yes to Peace Corps before you take the plunge.
I know some people have specific career goals or regional interests, but dare to put your faith in Peace Corps and tell them you will go anywhere and do anything. They found me a perfect match in my counterpart organization. Remember, if you tell Peace Corps what you want, you are choosing your idea of what that country might be like. You could be wrong.
As you get ready for staging, my biggest piece of advice would be don’t pack so much. Remember that host country nationals show up in country naked (and tiny, and helpless) and they manage to dress themselves just fine. Pick up your packed bags (yes, ALL of them) and try to walk around for a minute or two. Exhausted already? Leave some stuff at home.
Make sure to give yourself a break, I worked right up until the day before I left for staging, and I wish I had taken more time to enjoy the company of my family and friends. Drink good beer, eat your favorite foods, and don’t worry about what you can’t control.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Alaska, where I lived after college, has become my home, and the biggest part of my post Peace Corps plans are just “whatever works to keep me in AK.” That might mean going back to school for a teaching degree, but I think I’ll want to take a little time off before jumping into another exhausting two year commitment. I have a huge list of adventures to do, things I miss, and people I want to see, so I intend to give myself time to do that first. A friend fishes commercially in the summer, so I might join him, and then do a road trip to catch up with all the people I haven’t seen in two years. But my COS (Close of Service, when I finish up, pack up, and ship out) is still over a year away, so the plans keep changing.