Sunday, July 27, 2014

Love the Life You Live

So much has happened since I last wrote! Time is flying by. I will try to give you an update...

With our host family from training in Tumbaco
In June Eric's mom, aunt, cousin, and a friend came to visit us. They were only here for a week and they flew into Quito so we decided to spend some time up north instead of coming to our site. It was a good time. We spent some time in Quito and 2 days in and around Otavalo where the 3rd largest artisan market in South America is located.

During their visit we began to realize how integrated we were into Ecuadorian culture and lifestyle. There were things that we don't even think about any more that were really different for his family. For example, you can't throw toilet paper in the toilet here (you throw it in the trash), which is something that was difficult for them to grasp, but we don't think twice about it now.

In the Basilica church in Quito
Another thing that we have grown accustomed to is walking. I don't know if it's because we are cheap or like to walk, but we walked A LOT. I only know this because our visitors mentioned it. ;) In our town we don't have buses so we are used to walking a good amount in one day and maybe it seems frivolous to take a taxi when we are able to walk in a short amount of time. Being in Quito it was necessary to take taxis at times because it is much larger. Along with that, we were careful not to get ripped off by taxi drivers, vendors, etc. In the moment it seems like it is only $.50 or $1 and maybe it's not a big deal. Really the money doesn't matter, it's the fact that we don't want to send the image that we are gringos to be taken advantage of. We should be charged the same price as everyone else and the service giver should have the respect to do so.

A little rain on the double-decker bus. Good thing they brought their rain jackets.
We also have gotten used to getting what you get. In the US we are used to making special orders (without onion, extra cheese, lots of ice, etc.). We have really gotten used to eating what's given to us. In the beginning it was difficult to make special requests and we weren't really sure if it was culturally acceptable. When we usually eat in a local restaurant where they have 3 choices for lunch it is not polite or possible to ask for something else as it is made in bulk and ahead of time. In bigger restaurants it is of course different, but not a type of place we frequent. The most notable of these changes in food is with ice. In the US we loved our drinks to be cold, but here we had to quickly get used to room temperature juice and water. Ice is harder to find, and if you do find it, you may not want it because it's probably made with tap water.
A little fun on the bus tour of Quito

All in all, we had a good time with family. They were able to buy some souvenirs, visit some tourist sites, and see our beautiful Ecuador.

Happy Birthday to Me!
A beach in Bahia and Eva's first time at the beach. She was afraid of the water :(
but she loved running around on the beach.
I passed yet another birthday here in Ecuador. This year we spent the week in the coast on the beach! The beach is far from our house (6-10 hours in bus) so we haven't had the time to visit yet. On my actual birthday we went to Los Frailes, a beach near Puerto Lopez. It is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador (on the mainland, these beaches don't compare to what we saw in the Galapagos). I have to say, though it was overcast and a little rainy at times, the beach was beautiful. The waves were also gigantic! We had to be very careful when we went swimming because they would throw you around. Being a Great Lakes kid, I still am not used to the salt water, but on the plus side the water is warm and you don't have to wait for a "big wave day" to enjoy the waves.

The walk to Los Frailes in Puerto Lopez
Some friends playing frisbee at Los Frailes beach
On the fourth of July we took a tour of Isla de la Plata. We went on a little boat for about an hour to the island which is also known as the "Poor Man's Galapagos" named for the many birds there. I have to say there weren't many birds at all! The guide told us that the mating season was much earlier this year then many of the birds left and no one knows why. There are some ideas that they sensed something was off this year because of "El Nino" which causes steep temperature changes and large rip tides. After the hike on the island and on the way back to the mainland we participated in the whale watching part of the tour. Since on the way to the island I only felt moderately sick and I thought I would be distracted by the beautiful humpbacks, I decided not to take anything for motion sickness. BIG MISTAKE! To my dismay we didn't see many whales; hardly any at first which ruined my whale distraction plan. Then there came a point where the motion sickness got SO bad I didn't know what to do. "Mind over matter," I told myself. That worked for a while. Then we stopped to see some whales. As soon as we stopped everyone looked to the other side of the boat and said, "Woooooaaaahh" as I vomited out the other side. On the bright side no one was staring at me and I felt better after. Luckily the whales came up again and I was able to see them. Wonderful creatures.
Emily and Pamela on the boat to Isla de la Plata

Travel, Travel, Travel, and Travel Some More
A challenge we are facing right now is how much we are out of site. Those two trips that you just read about were each a week long and with only a week of work in between. Peace Corps also has us traveling to do trainings and English Camps with the Embassy. Then we have more trainings and workshops to give teachers in Quito and Cuenca. This makes it difficult to have consistency in our site work with our teachers which we have found is CRUCIAL in making any progress. In these next months it will continue to be a challenge we will need to overcome.

Luckily Eric didn't get sick and was able to take pictures...
We have been reflecting on how lucky we are to have this experience. There have been many days recently where we look at each other and say, "What an amazing life we lead." It is truly great. Even through all of the tough times and cultural differences we still feel incredibly lucky to have this experience.

Thank you for all of your prayers, love and support.

Much love

"Live the life you love, love the life you live."
-Bob Marley

You can see how close the whales get to some boats
 in this picture. We weren't as lucky, but still pretty close!

Friday, May 2, 2014

One and One

Eric and I just celebrated one year in site in April, meaning we have one year left in Ecuador!

Time seems to fly by and stand still all at the same time. It's crazy to think that we now have less than a year left, but when we are in site it seems like time stands still. I think this is partly due to the weather being the same all the time. It is always spring time here! Sorry to brag, I know my family and friends in Michigan are probably jealous after the winter they had (is it over yet?). Sometimes I have thoughts like, "oh yeah, it's insert season here (spring,summer, fall, or winter) at home." Very strange.

Anyway, here is an update on things in Ecuador...

In March we visited some friends who were COS'ing (Close Of Service) in Loja. We discovered an organization called Cielo Animal that rescues animals. I learned that many of the dogs that are rescued are females because the culture of spay and neutering is much different here almost non existent. Cielo Animal rescues animals from the streets and finds foster homes around the city to house the animals until they can be adopted. Much different than in the States where there is fostering AND a building for the organization. We ended up adopting a puppy named Eva. She is the sweetest puppy and we are very happy to have her.
A picture at home of Eva

Machu Picchu
A couple of weeks ago Eric and I met some friends in Machu Picchu. We had an amazing time there! It was nice to see some familiar faces and catch up a little, while also marveling the Inca ruins. The ruins are truly amazing but I was surprised how "touristy" the surrounding cities are. Cuzco economically depends on tourism, but it seems to take the personality out of a city that caters so much to foreigners. Despite this, we had a great time! Some of the highlights were: sunrise at Machu Picchu, dance shows, hidden cafes with great food, and of course spending time with our friends!
Bright and early at the entrance to Machu Pichu to catch the sun peak over the mountains. 
Something else that I didn't think about until we got there was how much walking it would be! I'm not exactly sure how the Incans built and lived so high up in the mountains so many years ago and not to mention how Hiram Bingham made the trek with the natives when he first discovered Machu Picchu. I definitely felt the altitude when hiking and had to take it slowly. It was more difficult than I thought considering you have to hike a good bit upward to visit any of the ruins. Even though it was challenging, the views were worth it.
The sun rising above the ruins. 

The whole group hiking Machu Pichu Mountain. You can see the ruins above my head on the left. 
To celebrate finishing one year of service and to talk and plan for the second year, Peace Corps has a mid-service conference. It was nice to spend time with the other volunteers from our omnibus and talk about our challenges and successes in the last year. I am still in disbelief that one year has passed. We have been making plans for everything we want to do in the next year and it hardly seems like enough time.

Emily with other volunteers outside at the Training Center in Tumbaco at the Mid-Service conference.
On May 5th we start another school year in the high schools. One last school year before we COS and go home in March. Woah...

The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
-C.S. Lewis

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Alternative Service Experience

When Em and I found out we would be going to Ecuador for Peace Corps service, we thought a great way to way to stay connected and give back to our Alma Mater would be to have an Alternative Spring Break. For me this seemed to be a long shot since we did not know what community, city, or even the type of project we would be working on when we got to Ecuador. However, as Em reminded me it was not so much of a long shot that it would not work. 
Long Shot Project

As many of you know I worked with APPS, a student ran programming board, while I was at Appalachian State University. APPS is housed under the same department that runs community service, Service-learning, and Alternative Spring Breaks (now called Alternative Service Experience). I made a lot of good connections and some very good friends in that department. Anyway long story short, in May of 2013 we got a call from our good friend Selena who worked as the Assistant Director for Community Service. She put us in contact with two very special student leaders, Jake and Annie. Jake and Annie had signed on to be the leaders of a Peru trip that did not work out. They were, however, extremely upbeat and contagiously hopeful about the new possibilities of an Ecuador Trip. Needless to say they made Em and I more excited and gave us the kick we needed to get the ball rolling here in Ecuador. 

Jake and Annie presenting books for the English Library
Having worked along side ASE Grad students and Em and I both being Student Affairs Professionals we understood the importance of letting this be a student led trip. We hoped to achieve this goal by giving students the option to choose everything along the way. A fellow volunteer, Kat, came to help us with the camp as well. However, we were merely facilitators of the trip and happy to take a backseat to see what kind of success the students could have. We continued to work with Jake and Annie along with Heather Jo (Selena replacement) and Terence (the faculty liaison) to come up with the project ideas.
Em & Me
Emily and Kat 

After all the options were laid out Jake and Annie thought it best to do a three day camp with either elementary or high school students. We combined this with the our goal of teaching English and what we came up with was an English Camp with a morning session for 6-11 year olds and an afternoon session for 12-18 year olds. We had over 300 students and over 200 students complete the three day course. All the classes we planned and taught by the App Students. Each night, we held a meeting to talk about classroom concerns, planning, and teaching tips. Em, Kat and I gave feedback on the classes and tried to give suggestions that would improve classroom success. We were really surprised at how receptive the App students were to our suggestions and how they applied them in the class the next day. These App students worked in a classroom with students of multiple levels of English for 8 hours a day and had a great time doing it. It is tough to stay energetic the whole day but they seemed to have no problem! We could not be more proud of the success they accomplished.

"Oh My God!!! I can't believe you missed that question!!!"
Lining Students up for groups

I informed App students that one of the main goals of the camp should be to increase the confidence of the Pinas students. After the photo shoot and autograph session on the last day, Em and I received many phone calls and personal thank yous from students, parents and even teachers. All explained how much the students loved the camp and wished that it wouldn't end. A few students that we had never heard talk in class expressed their joy and said they could not wait to learn more English. The App Students ended their service part of the trip with a school wide clean up at the local Elementary for special need kids in collaboration with the Pinas Cuerpo de Bomberos. This would normally be done by busy parents of students, but even they would not have been able to accomplish all that was done the App students.
All the Elementary Students (120!)

Chris and Annie working a reading assignment

It was not all work however. The next day we spent a relaxing day at Jambeli, an island beach off the shore of Machala. After a long day of swimming, seafood, and a city tour, it was time for the App students to pack up and head back to Guayaquil where they caught a 6:30 am flight to North Carolina. What a wonderful, fast-paced experience it was for both the App students and the Pinas students. For Em, Kat, and I it was a highlight of our service. Below you can meet the App Students and see some photos from the service week.

APP State IASE 2014

Sarah and Lucas leading a question game
Chris and Annie teaching students about animals
Dillon and Lauren

Jack and Jake or is it Jake and I'm sure it's the first one

Sara and Rachel playing charades 

Maria and Kelsey teaching some game where you have touch people in weird position!?

Lunch at our Five Star Restaurant... only $3.00

Many students held Q&As to allow students to use their English and exchange cultural information

The last day felt like the red carpet for the App Students with photos and autographs 

This little girl said she was getting everyone's name for Face (aka Facebook)
Patrick and Megan taken a selfie with their Class

Getting ready for ice cream at THE SODA BAR
Oh the selfies...over 100 selfies taken with and without kids

Soda Bar

The App Students did a book drive to help increase the collection of English books at the High Schools

Cleaning the school for special needs students

Getting the special needs school organized

waiting for that morning coffee in our kitchen
Thanks for everything, all love from Pinas 

“You are what you do, not what you say you'll do.” 
― C.G. Jung

“I'm inspired by the people I meet in my travels--hearing their stories, seeing the hardships they overcome, their fundamental optimism and decency. I'm inspired by the love people have for their children. And I'm inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man.” 
― Barack Obama

Eric Ez Aiken

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Poem of Sorts

Em and I just returned from, dare I say the most wonderful place in Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands. I can't experience what a wonderful, eventful, and jaw-dropping trip this was. It wonderful because we had a very knowledgeable guide, service oriented crew, and a respectful and fun group of fellow travelers. There are so many things that you cannot plan and a travel agency will try to promise you but it is truly out of their control. We tried to go to the Galapagos two others times in the past and both times the trip failed. With this trip we felt truly blessed. It was eventful because we snorkeled everyday and most days twice. We swam with thousands of tropical reef fish, sea turtles, sea lions, sharks, and even penguins. We walked the beaches, in-lands, and ports of seven of the most famous islands. It was jaw-dropping to me for three reasons the rare endemic species, the distance at which you were allowed to interact with the animals, and the sheer number of animals that we were able to see. For example, before going my only hope was to see AT LEAST one sea turtle... at a distant... with my glasses on. By the fourth day in the islands not only had I seen sea turtle nest, 10-12 sea turtles swimming under and around our panga, but I also swam with approximately 6-8 of them.

Emily and I took videos and she made the short video. It doesn't nearly capture the magnitude of what we saw but once you see it i do believe you will understand more of why this was such a magical trip. Further down you will find a poem of sorts that I wrote summing up our trip. It's not the best poem but covers the trip in its fullness.

For whatever reason the quality is so-so. Enjoy anyway until we can fix it!

Galapagos Existence

We went by bus and by taxi.
We arrived by plane and stayed in a boat.
We snorkeled and hiked in the day
But at night we traveled.
Sunrise brought us new islands, new things to explore
Sunset brought us stars, stories, and if luck some sleep

We tried to be rocked by the waves but
Sometimes the waves rocked us out of sleep.
We were 12 and became 15
Without the crew but you have to have crew so
We were 22.

We did not touch, we did not disrupt, but we did take
Pictures and videos
We have the memories to keep
We did not litter, we did not pollute, but we did leave
Better people
We conserved ourselves

The animals wild and unafraid
Showed no malice, kept no distant, and wanted for nothing
They posed for photos like a model poses
Not with a smile but rather with an air of self awareness and attitude
They knew we were watching and so they flaunted their beauty.

The plants seeming unaware were indeed hyper-aware and 
Did not flaunt
They do not need to
They showed themselves as the most important life form.
They, being the original endemic species and the givers of life.

Born of Fire, Air, and Water
Adapted over time
Conserved for the blink of human

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Between the Boredom

It’s funny if you were to ask me in person, “So what have you and Emily been doing?” My reflex response would be “Nothing in the house, bored.” However, as I try to write this blog I realize that a lot has happened. Don’t get me wrong we have spent many days being bored but this blog post is meant to capture what has happened between the bored and when it was compiled it really surprised me how much we have been living.

We have not written a blog since November and I have not actively contributed since July to our devoted 13 followers (we are sorry for that). This is because of many reasons/excuses which I won’t waste time list (as I had planned to). Ok so let’s move right into it. The important thing is that I am back and ready to update, celebrate, rant and highlight our experience thus far.


For those of you following my personal goal challenges, I am only one goal behind and I have had to modify others. I am currently trying to read more over the next three months and thanks to friends and family I am loaded with good things to read. After losing 30 something pounds in 3 months, the medical office here asked me to cut back working out to 2-3 times a week instead of everyday. I have cut it back a lot, but I hope to be on track to start P90X in July. As of January 3rd I finished my first mural and am looking for other projects. The only personal goal that I started and not completed is writing a novel in 3 months. I started with a too big of a goal and too many ideas, so I am reassessing how to go about it.

For those interested in our Peace Corps projects. We have had a lot of success with one or two individuals but over struggle to see the progress we have made. We are currently reassessing what we need to do to make our last year the most fruitful. We are still learning the education system here and constantly searching for a way to put into practice our methodology while keeping it in line with the culture that exists.

For those interested in our travel, we have done a lot of short weekend trips. We have made the most of the southern highlights including but not limited to Loja, Cuenca, Vilcabamba, and Podacarpus National Park. We are always traveling by bus so that usually takes two days of our trip. That being said I love the constancy and multitude of the public transportation in this country. We can get anywhere by bus with a little planning and patience. We have had many failed attempts to go to the Galapagos but we currently have a more secure plan for February and we are making plans to see Machu Picchu in April.

If you would like to know more about of house see our video Posted in November. We celebrated our one year in country last week with a small group of volunteers. Everyone had a great time. We also had our first Ecuadorian visitor two weeks ago which made us feel more integrated.

 Click here to read Celebration and Rants


  Ø  Em’s Birthday- We had dinner with our Ecuadorian friends the Morales’
  Ø  2nd Anniversary
  Ø  Worked hard to find our space in the schools, community, and host family
  Ø  and I found this video...
  Ø  Spanish started to feel good
  Ø  Tried to find a balance between work and personal time
  Ø  Had a reconnect conference with the people in our group and the counterparts we work with
  Ø  Had Cuy for the first time (Pssst cuy is guinea pig)
  Ø  1st failed attempt to go to the Galapagos. Spent the a long weekend in Cuenca with great friends
  Ø  More Training in Tumbaco
  Ø  We completed a successful weekly training on the TOEFL Test, but...
  Ø  Balance was thrown off, other side projects start failing because of inconsistent meeting times or lack or interest
  Ø  Moved into a new apartment
  Ø  Felt the kindness of the people of Pinas: everyone was willing to help us move in and get things we needed
  Ø  Lots of eating out because we had no fridge or stove
  Ø  The start of two weeks of festivals in our town including the 50th anniversary of my school
  Ø  2nd failed attempt at the Galapagos
  Ø  We got internet in our apartment
  Ø  Em’s Sister and brother-in-law came to visit for two weeks. It was a good time.
  Ø  Had Thanksgiving with other Volunteers
  Ø  Went to rested in Loja, swam in a Podacarpus National Park, and Hiked in Vilcabamba
  Ø  Good month for catching up with friends and family
  Ø  Christmas with Morales Family
  Ø  Spent New Year’s in Vilcabamba with volunteer friends

             Eric Aiken

     "Blogs are whatever we make them. Defining ‘Blog’ is a fool’s errand.”
        -Michael Conniff
     “Don’t focus on having a great blog. Focus on producing a blog that’s great for your readers.”
        -Brian Clark

 Christmas fireworks

 Christmas fireworks
 Christmas fireworks in the park
 Pretty sunset in Vilcabamba
 Vilcabamba for New Year's
   Ecuadorian dolls to be burned in the New Year. It symbolizes letting go of all the bad things that happened in the last year.