Amigos

Through the duration of my project in Tena, I had the privilege of receiving the input and assistance of two brilliant individuals, Abigail Hindson and Kyle Hess.

Abigail Hindson is a third-year student at Lawrence University studying anthropology, but I first met Abigail three years ago in this same beautiful plot of jungle while we were Global Citizen Year Fellows. Abigail’s experience in Ecuador proved invaluable in setting up the Canvas pages with instructors at the Unidad Educativa Bilingüe Pano (UEBP), as she was able to pull from personal experiences within the context of the local culture to give thoughtful insight. Per her recommendations, we were able to work separately with a few key instructors who showed heightened interest in order to develop a core group of leaders that would sustain the project past our time in country. Additionally, her prior experiences with education in the region helped to organize class segments into portions that could be effectively converted into online modules.

In contrast, Kyle Hess is one of my classmates at UCLA, and this trip was his first experience in Ecuador. Having Kyle with me was largely helpful because he was able to view things from a fresh perspective. It was often easier for him to point out obvious improvements that had been overlooked. For example, he was able to help with some crucial translations that were forgotten in our assumption of local understanding.

With their varied backgrounds and in-field experiences, Abigail and Kyle proved to be key ingredients in sharing digital literacy tools with UEBP. Above all, they demonstrated that working among “amigos” always makes the process easier.

Into the Heat

In Napo, life starts around four or five a.m. The locals understand that it’s easier to get moving earlier in the day while temperatures are still cool and before the morning mist dissipates. In these refreshing mornings, people often try to get a headstart on their activities, setting a foundation for the day before the sun emerges and drives up the temperature. This can mean anything from getting the kids fed, dressed, and ready for school to milking the cows and leading them out to graze—anything that helps prepare for the oncoming heat.

This model of life is exactly how my work at the Unidad Educativa Bilingüe Pano (UEBP) has transpired. The Excel workshops I completed with the teachers at the school acted almost as a diagnostic test in which both parties could understand how the other works. And it was these workshops that laid the foundation for the real work—setting up an online education platform through Canvas by Instructure.

Canvas by Instructure is an open-source learning platform that allows instructors to upload and manage course material that students can access anywhere with an Internet connection. Launching a digital education initiative in a rural area with connectivity challenges might seem counterintuitive, but in actuality, it is absolutely imperative.

For the first time, teachers have a way to share unlimited online resources with students as well as provide students with crucial tools that may be too expensive to purchase in print. Additionally, working with an online education platform affords students the opportunity to participate in today’s digitized world despite their rural background and hone key technological skills in addition to social media sites, such as working with Google documents and accessing online articles.

Canvas encourages digital literacy at both the student level and the instructor level, and I have been especially impressed by the level of engagement, interest, and dedication from instructors at UEBP who are working to set up their course pages. It is their passion—their willingness to work through the heat of the day—that gives me confidence in the success of this project.

Digital Literacy in a Digital Age

Here in Ecuador, I work in the community of Pano at an institution called the Unidad Educativa Bilingüe de Pano. I’ve developed some amazing relationships with the educators here—Edmundo, Juan, Rocio, German. They are all extremely passionate about what they do, and constantly seeking innovative ways to improve the institution as a whole. I arrived with the intention of completing a digital literacy project, but what I quickly discovered is that digital literacy has a very malleable definition.

When I first met with the director of the institution, Edmundo, the first thing we discussed was what digital literacy would look like for the school. One of the biggest lessons for me here has been how different digital literacy can look in a variety of contexts. For example, I am not a Photoshop wizard nor am I a closet hacker, but I do know how to open Microsoft Excel and perform some basic functions. Many of the computer steps that are second nature to university students in the States are a whole different level of literacy for communities here. However, it is even more fascinating to pair the limited digital aptitude of the community here with their increasing accessibility to computers and the online world via internet cafes. While they may have more opportunities to access the Internet, many of the individuals here monopolize their time online on one website: Facebook.

As useful as Facebook can be in connecting us in an age of globalization, I think that most would agree that Facebook literacy is not digital literacy.

My goal here with this project is to help the educators at Unidad Educativa Bilingüe de Pano learn how to utilize the computer as a tool to further academic capabilities and endeavors. I am working with the teachers and faculty of the institution in order to set up an online platform that can be used as a “virtual classroom,” a platform very similar to Moodle. However, with the exception of a select few, the majority of educators in Pano are on the older side, which means that they did not grow up in this current age of technology. Furthermore, they faced the added challenge of growing up in a rural part of Ecuador where access to technology is even more limited.

The time I’ve spent in this country as well as my growing passion for sustainable development and education initiatives has led me to approach the project much differently than I would have my first time in Ecuador.

I spent my first day at the school simply meeting with Edmundo, my amazing counterpart who is just as passionate about social innovation and sustainable development as I am. He wants only the best for his school, and jumps at any opportunity for cross-cultural collaboration. Edmundo introduced me to all of the teachers at the school and gave me a tour of the facilities. We sat down and talked about what the school needs, what I can offer, and how we can best move forward in forging this partnership. As much as I want to help, at the end of the day, I’m still a 21-year-old American student who hasn’t even finished my undergraduate degree yet. It’s a little presumptuous and potentially rude to assume that I know more about education than teachers who have been working in the field for over 30 years.

Fortunately, we all got a chance to sit down and share ideas, taking a few of the ideas I came with and building them up based on their needs to create a project that will hopefully last long beyond my short time here.

While I spent the first few days getting acquainted with the school and the faculty, we quickly jumped into our first full week by holding Microsoft Excel workshops. Especially at the end of an academic year, the teachers are often tasked with making reports on student progress, which includes using Excel formulas to calculate averages and subsequently making graphs of the results to act as a visual aid.

Juan teaching a Microsoft Excel workshop on formulas.
Juan teaching a Microsoft Excel workshop on formulas.

These Excel workshops acted as a buffer period as I learned about the capabilities of my students, the facilities available at the school, the connectivity issues present when working in a rural area of the Amazon, and how to work with the flow of information. During this time, two of the younger teachers—Rocio and Juan—also emerged as amazing partners. Being part of the younger generation, they also have a higher level of basic digital literacy and stepped up to help me with the workshops. It was inspiring to see individuals from the area come forward to take a leadership role in their communities. By the end of the week, I felt like I was simply observing and providing moral support. I would go over the lesson plan for the day with Rocio and Juan, and they would get right to work helping to run class the minute the students entered the room. As we move on to the next phase, I’m excited to see Rocio and Juan, among others, spearheading the progress.

To me, this is what successful development looks like—engaging with local partners to bridge ideas that can empower communities. Successful development means that while I return home, the information stays and continues to grow in a way that this community can continue to access, cultivate, and utilize.

The 9 to 5

More like the 12 to 3. Or actually, the 8 to 3. Or the 6:30 to 9? Regardless of the exact hours, my project is off the ground and has finally fallen into a comfortable routine.

I set my alarm for 7:15am, but every day, I wake up with the rhythm of the town instead, which is already bustling around 6:30am. I wake up, stretch the sleep out of my body, and wrap myself up in a scarf before dodging raindrops on my way down to the kitchen. Here, I help my host sisters prepare breakfast for the kids and then grab a few bites myself before getting ready to leave.

I normally try to catch the bus by 8:00am so I can sit at my favorite café in town for a few hours before heading to work. These mornings are the perfect setting for me to catch up on news, emails, and other happenings while collecting my thoughts for the day. I often use this time to plan the day’s lessons and make sure all my materials are prepared. I head out around 11:00am to the other side of town to catch a Centinela del Tena bus out to a small community called Pano.

If I catch the 11:30am bus from Tena to Pano, I’m at the Unidad Educativa Bilingüe de Pano by 12:00pm. The teachers at the school in Pano are normally just finishing up their summer school classes at this point, and we take about 30 minutes to get set up and get started. We are pretty much wrapped up by 3:00pm, just in time to catch another bus back to Tena in order to eat a very delayed lunch. After eating and wrapping up some notes on the day, I’m normally back at the house by 5:00pm, just in time to funnel the kids into the shower and off to dinner. By 9:00pm, I’m ready for bed to recharge and do it all over again the next day. (And yes, you read that correctly. 9:00pm. We are night owls down here!)

A day in the jungle life isn’t too glamorous, but it’s beautifully simple and I love it. 

The Sky is Glowing

It’s been raining almost nonstop for the past week. In addition to the rain, we also had an earthquake last night which is pretty rare in this area.

As a Southern California native, I really do believe I start to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) after as little as two days without blue skies and sunshine. But today, on my first day of work, I woke up to a sky on fire. Everything was glowing.

It was the perfect start to a new project, a new trip, a new experience. And best of all, it definitely shook off any onset of SAD.

To me, the glowing sky mirrored the smoldering excitement I felt at having the opportunity to work in Ecuador again. However, this excitement was not overbearing, but simply glowing with a clear sense of purpose.

The first time I came to Ecuador, I had these grand ideas that I was going to change the world. Because clearly as a naïve, inexperienced 18-year-old, I had the power to change the entire social dynamic of a country I knew nothing about.

Now, three years later, I still have a lot to learn, but coming back to Tena feels like home. When I arrived for the very first time, I was determined to immerse myself fully in the culture. I jumped at any opportunity that presented itself, and I fell in love with the country here as well as its people.

However, the second time I returned for a visit, I had a utopianized view of what it would be like. I had missed my experiences here so much that I was convinced that coming back would be like stepping back in time. When I realized that things had obviously changed, it was unsettling and I didn’t know how to feel.

Nevertheless, this time around, I feel properly equipped to be here again by combining my last two experiences in Ecuador. I’ve reached an equilibrium between my life in the States and my life in the jungle, and especially this morning, with a glowing sky, it truly feels like home. 

Putting Things in Perspective

After four days of feigning patience and understanding, I finally broke down. In the tiny Avianca office of the Quito airport, I looked at the secretary with incredulity.

Pero no está aquí, cierto?! But it’s not here, right?!”

On my flight from Los Angeles to Quito, the airline had left my luggage in my connection in El Salvador. “It’ll be here by tomorrow!” they continued to reassure me. Yet tomorrow would come and go with no bag in sight.

I had a schedule to stick to, people to meet, rides arranged. I was in tears that morning, staring at the Avianca secretary. After waiting for almost a week, my bag had finally made it to Ecuador, but somehow the bag had apparently been sent on a delivery trip to a beach town four hours away from where I was.

At a complete loss for what to do, I called the friend who was planning on giving me a ride to Tena. “Just go! Forget about your bag and remember why you came here. This will be a good opportunity to clear your head, you know?”

Thankful for the reminder, I jumped into his truck and headed down to the rainforest. Once I arrived in Tena, I was able to reunite with my original host family. In three years, there have been a number of changes.

All the kids are growing up. Babies are now walking and talking. I now see some señoritas instead of niñas. But even with all the changes, some things stay the same.

I easily fell into the routine of running to the bathroom in between thunderstorms, accepting my losing battle with the mosquitoes, chasing dogs out of the kitchen, yelling at the kids to go to bed, and waking up before the sun. Along with this routine came the comfort and familiarity of laughing and talking with my sisters until late into the night.

My first night back in Tena, I stayed up late with one of my older sisters. She had also just returned from a trip that day. She looked exhausted, but still wanted to chat with me. “Cuéntame, fill me in,” I prompted. We were laying on her bed, staring out the window at the sky full of stars when she began updating me on her life—the good and the bad.

And she began to tell me everything. From the diagnosis of ovarian cancer late last year to the monthly four hour bus trips to a different town for chemotherapy. From the decisions between food and medicine to the sleepless nights spent rushing to the hospital. Nevertheless, through everything, her tone remained so positive, so confident that God would take care of her.

As I continued to listen, the issue of my lost bag started to diminish smaller and smaller into the background. Her humble words reminded me of how blessed I really am.

Even with the luggage fiasco, I met a kind university student on the plane who delivered me safely to a dear friend’s home in Quito. This friend adopted me into her family, clothed me, housed me, and fed me all while making it her personal mission to track down my bag. Another friend drove me the four hours from Quito to Tena and in Tena, I had an entire neighborhood waiting to welcome me home.

Slowly, the lost bag started to appear as more of a blessing than an issue as my conversation with my sister gave me a very needed reality check.

Oh, and the best part? After I left the airport in tears and arrived in Tena, I got a call saying that my bag had arrived. Así es la vida—but hey, that’s life. 

Journeys

It’s absolutely fascinating how the same journey can look so drastically different.

I’m on my way back to Ecuador for the third time, and it finally doesn’t seem like some scary unknown nor does it feel like a utopianized homefront. Instead, it just feels comfortably exciting.

I’m not out of my element; I have an idea of what to expect. Nevertheless, at the same time, I still have those pre-adventure jitters.

I have no idea what this journey holds, but I’m excited to find out!

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