Saturday, September 27

Photos from Bua

Our homestay house -- on the right, the family house -- built by a government grant about a year ago, with one central room, two small bedrooms, and an add-on wooden kitchen in the back built by the family. On the left, the guest ¨casita¨, or little house, that Noah and I share, that they built earlier this summer to house relatives for Andy´s baptism.

The construction site at the school -- in the foreground, the bases for the six eco toilets (with two chambers each so that one can lay fallow half the time). The hired skilled workers did most of this concrete brick laying -- the TBB group mostly worked to dig the trenches in the background, haul dirt, and do other various projects around the school like redoing sinks.

Me with my host-brother, Andy (on the right) and a neighborhood kid.

Some kids at the elementary school where we´ve been working on toilet building.

Evening sunset over a game of volleyball at the local tienda.

Friday, September 26

New Constitution Rally

We had an exciting trip the other day. On Monday morning (22nd), the group all reported to the school, ready to keep digging trenches for the project. Someone mentioned that they had watched the morning news with their family and learned that Rafael Correa, Ecuador´s president, would be speaking that day in Santo Domingo, the nearest city to Bua. His administration has been promoting the new constitution, which is being voted on this Sunday (28th). We jokingly agreed that we should all go to the rally, and Sandy and Robin agreed, so we actually all hopped in the back of a cattle truck and headed for Santo Domingo.

The rally was in a giant open-air pavillion, and since we got there a couple of hours early, we had legit seats within the first fifteen rows or so. Eventually the entire place was completely full, mostly with older interest groups or field trips from local high schools. Some local government officials spoke and awarded micro-financing checks to certain individuals, and then Correa came out. The crowd loved him. He gave a very compelling speech about the unique aspects of the constitution, which, if approved by citizens, would replace the previous one from 1998.

The constitution seems to be pretty liberal -- calling for health care for all, education, allowing abortion, preserving culture, favoring local business rather than foreign investment, protecting oil reserves. I have learned from my host family that it is an obligation for all citizens to vote -- they have to recieve a slip of paper confirming that they voted in order to pay taxes and avoid a fine. In fact, this whole weekend, Friday through Sunday, is a nation-wide dry weekend: alcohol cannot be served so that everyone is in fit shape to vote! It seems that there is a lot of support for the constitution, and my host father predicts that it will pass.

At one point in the middle of his speech, Correa saw the large group of foreigners in the crowd, directed his attention to TBB, and said, in English, welcome, and that now was a time of change and revolution. We had woken up that morning expecting to manhandle piles of dirt, and instead we were quite literally personally addressed by the president of Ecuador... no big deal.

Afterwards, we were approached by many curious people. One of them is a lawyer for the district government here in Santo Domingo, and she was interested in our volunteer work in Bua, so she came out later in the week to see the project -- raising awareness, and perhaps funds, for YanaPuma and for the school.

Saturday, September 20

Bua, Ecuador

We´ve been at Bua for a couple days now. We arrived on Tuesday and settled in with our homestay families: Noah and I are staying with Rafael (27), his wife Diana (23), and their son Andres (7). They are members of the TsaChila nationality, a group of Ecuadorians who live in seven remaining communities. The TsaChila all speak Spanish in addition to their native langauge, Tsa Fiki.

We live, conveniently, right across from the elementary school where we work everyday. At the school, we are working with Yanapuma and a group of volunteers from Engineers without Borders to construct six ecotoilets. The school´s current sanitary system was designed to accomodate 75 students when it was built ten years ago, but now, because the school´s principle has worked so hard to attract students from neighboring villages, the school has more than 250 students. The nearest city, Santo Domingo, doesn´t have the capacity to clean out septic tanks, so once they´re full, they´re simply abandoned. Thus the school has serious issues with contamination and overflow.

Ideally, the toilets will be able to accomodate the school´s increased population and will be eco-friendly: in addition to safetly containing waste, it will ultimately produce a useable and nutrient-rich soil. So far we´ve helped to dig trenches and lay pipes. Hired skilled workers are the ones who do most of the concrete laying, and so far the engineers have had to modify their original design. We have been able to observe some of the difficulties in implementing development in a rural community like Bua: firstly, communication. There are several different groups of volunteers here, Thinking Beyond Borders, Engineers without Borders , funneled here through Yanapuma, and these different groups have to work in conjunction with the community, the school itself, and the skilled workers. Secondly, we´ve seen how designs created in the USA cannot necessarily be implemented in other places: the engineers made sure to ask if Ecuadorian cement blocks had holes in them, but they didn´t realize that the holes don´t go all the way through, so we can´t thread riebar through them. Thirdly, the community itself sometimes doesn´t understand the intent of those volunteering. When Yanapuma intially came to the village, they learned that no map of the community existed, and when they tried to make one, the community reared back because they thought the information would be fed to the government to make them pay taxes.

Back at our homestays, we often bathe in the river, help to do dishes, play marbles with Andres ... I´ve learned some really interesting bits about the TsaChila culture through speaking with my host mother. She came from one of the other seven TsaChila communities and seems to miss her own family a lot. She explained to me that the TsaChilas √§ren´t allowed to marry white people¨ -- I actually got to look through a TsaChila ¨rule book¨ type pamplet in the living room, and it had rules like you must marry within the nationality, what types of roles women should play (cook, clean, and raise children), and the customary clothing (for men, black and white striped skirts, for women, very brightly striped skirts). The men also have a tradition of dying their hair red with berries that grow here.

It´s really exciting to be in Ecuador at this time. In a week or so, the country will vote on whether or not to implement a new constitution. Their constitution changes pretty regularly, I think about twenty times in the past couple decades. My homestay family was shocked that our USA constitution ´hasn´t been changed in more than two hundred years! Correas, the current president, is proposing a fairly liberal constitution that would allow abortion, is vague on gay marriage, and, some hope, would equalize socioeconomic conditions.

Something else that struck me about being in Ecuador is that they use as thier national currency the US dollar. They dollarized about eight years ago due to hyperinflation and have used the dollar ever since.

We certainly don´t have internet in the village, so right now the group is on a day trip to Santo Domingo, a hyper-industrial, kind of grimy little city about forty minutes from Bua by cattle truck. Tomorrow is Sunday so we won´t be working but spending the day with our homestay families.

Monday, September 15


Yesterday we flew into Quito -- apparently the most difficult airport to land at because of the runways and the altitude.  We're at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, nearly two miles.  

Today we met with our in-country host organization, called Yanapuma.  It's an NGO based in Quito that has been around for about 2 years and does various projects around the country promoting sustainable development and cultural preservation.  Tomorrow we'll be beginning our month-long homestay in a TsaChila village called Bua, about forty minutes outside of a town called Santo Domingo.  We'll be living with families there, building eco toilets at the elementary school.  

Saturday, September 13

The group after hiking down to a waterfall.

Introductory Post & Orientation in Costa Rica

Hello everyone!

I should have posted an introductory post before I left, but between packing and that strenuous life-guarding job, I never got the chance, so let me say a little bit about the program.

I graduated from Winsor in June, and I’ll be going to Columbia in the fall of 2009, and in the mean time, I’m taking a gap year with a program called Thinking Beyond Borders. I actually never planned to take a year off, but in April, my college counselor mentioned that there would be a gap year fair at Nobles, and so I decided to stop by one weekend. While I was there, I discovered and fell in love with TBB.

This is the first year that they’re running the program, but it seems to be incredibly well run so far. There are sixteen students and three leaders: Sandy & Robin (who are married) and Nina. We’ll be spending the next eight months together, traveling the world and studying global development issues.

The basic structure of the program focuses on five main countries, and in each one we focus on a different issue: Ecuador (clean water), China (public education), Vietnam (the environment), India (sustainable agriculture), and South Africa (public health). In each main country, we do an individual homestay and work directly with a local NGO (non-governmental organization) that specializes in our focus. In between each of the main countries, we have an enrichment week, essentially a vacation week to decompress and process and come back together as a group, so those trips will include hiking Machu Pichu in Peru, going to Angkor Wat, scuba-diving in Thailand, seeing the Taj Mahal in India, and going to a National Park in South Africa. After all that, we come and spend six more weeks together in the United States, drawing connections between everything we’ve seen. We’ll be meeting with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and small NGOs in New York City and Washington DC.

I’ll explain more about the program as I go, but that’s good for now.

The trip began on September 4th, when the group met in Houston and flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, for a ten-day orientation. We spent the time in a small costal town called Playa Uvita, which is on the Pacific, south side of the country. We lived at a small co-op owned hostel type place, on an unpaved road with few local shops. We were a half hour walk from the beach, so many of the mornings some of us would wake up early to catch the high tide and surf, which I’ve never done before, but began to get the hang of.

Early morning surfing -- catching the high tide at 5:00 AM (Zach & Noah)

We spent the week having group discussions (rules, safety, curriculum) and doing outdoor activities. Highlights included kayaking in a mangrove grove, hiking to a waterfall, taking a boat trip to an island, going on a nighttime beach hunt to help preserve turtle eggs from poachers, and seeing a local soccer tournament.

We discussed our summer reading – Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, and The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. The group opinions differed about each book, but I would recommend them both. Ishmael, or its sequel My Ishmael, is a quick read with a heavy message about the nature of human society. The End of Poverty is a very well written, easily accessible book written by an economist who pioneered the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

We’re back in San Jose now for the night before our flight to Quito, Ecuador. From there, we’ll drive about four hours to our site.

The group is great so far; everyone is really getting along and seems to be having a great time. I’m really excited to start our first main country and hopefully remember my Spanish!