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Monday, March 30, 2009

Hey there,

How is everyone doing? Well we have been back in Ecuador for over a week now and as usual, time is flying by. My last week was a bit sad because it was Aaron´s last week in Ecuador. Despite the fact that we have become pretty good friends and he is a great guy to work with, he was also the only other dude at this project at the time, so to watch him leave really sucked for a multiple of reasons.

Other than that though, the week was fantastic. Dom Williams and his wife Doreen (GVI Directors of the projects in Central and South America) were here for the week. They were here to say hi to all the volunteers and to check out all of the projects. It was great to have them here. Besides the fact that they are great people, it was also nice to hear their opinion on how Nic and I are doing as interns. Happy to report we weren´t fired. Both Dom and Doreen seemed happy with our efforts to date and were very encouraging for both Nicole and I. And who is kidding who, it always is nice to hear that someone thinks you are doing a good job.

We did not make it up to school on Monday last week because the roads where washed out due to a huge rain storm. At first I was very shocked that we couldn´t make it to school because there was no longer a road to travel on and then I thought that this was Ecuador´s version of a snow storm back home. I am sure the kids here pray for rain storms and landslides like I used to pray for snowstorms. The rest of the week we made it up to the school with no problems. Friday was a really fun day because Friday the government teacher had a course to attend, so it was just the kids, the volunteers and myself. I don´t know who was more excited that the teacher wasn´t at school on Friday, the kids or me. Friday consisited of Phys. Ed, a nature walk, an early recess (that lasted a little long) and Art. I mean what kid wouldn´t love a day like that. The nature walk was pretty cool. We walked up and down mountains and took in some pretty amazing scenery and just in case you are wondering, we had the whole school playing the "Soupi" game on our walk. Like I said, a great week.

Our week ended with an adventure. A bigger adenture than we bargained for but an adventure nonetheless. Nicole, Erin (another volunteer) and myself decided that this was the weekend to summit Mt. Imbabura. We set out at 5 am on Sunday morning and we were all pumped for the day ahead of us. After an hour and a half drive to our starting point we started climbing around 6 45 am and we were told that we should summit in about 5 hours.
At the start our guide seemed like a guy who knew what he was doing. Well that feeling quickly changed and our real adventure began shortly after we all realized that our guide had no idea what he was doing or where he was taking us. The climb up seemed a little sketchy and looking back now it was probably way more dangerous than it should have been. On two occassions we scaled two very steep sections of the mountain (that we all thought we shouldn´t be doing without protective equipment) and then once we made it up those sections we noticed a path that was clearly the route we should have taken. Our guide told us that there were many routes that people take and that was just one of them. That´s fine, I mean we made it up and it was a huge adrenaline rush, so maybe we were getting the really good tour...
Well, we summited almost exactly four hours after we started and it was amazing. There was only one problem, we didn´t have our lunch with us. We didn´t have our lunch with us because the other guide carrying our lunch couldn´t make it to the top. No problem, we will just head down and when we meet him, we will eat. Well, apparently our guides didn´t exchange information on where the other would be and we went the wrong route (becomes a theme for the day) and didn´t end up where our lunch was. Well after some more dangerous (and unneccessary) climbing we made it to our lunch and a good lunch it was. After lunch (and giving our ´guides´ time to catch their breath we procedded to head back down to the location we had just left. Again, these guys weren´t much for planning.
So, we have eaten and now we are ready to make our descent. Great because our guide knows a short cut. Nicole pointed out to him the path that we could see that looked to be the one that heads down the mountain, you know the one that other people use. "Yep, that´s just one route, trust me, I know where I am going". Perfect, you have been a great guide to date, so what´s not to trust. Well, after getting us lost three or four more times and taking us down "paths" just to tell us that we have to return up the mountian to start again, we finally made it into a forest. We couldn´t see where we were headed as we were socked in with clouds but just knew we needed to head in the general downward direction.
I almost forgot to mention, that we had to constantly wait for our guide as he was climbing down backwards on all fours, probably should have tipped us off to how experienced this guy was. He also ran out of water and asked us for ours, that´s right, our guide was getting water from us. So, trying to be nice we gave him our water bottle so he could have a drink. Well, I should have mentioned that we might need some more water ourselves, but I didn´t metion that and that is why it is my fault that he procceded to drink the rest of our water. Keep in mind we have now been on the mountain for about 3 hours more than we expected to be and we were nowhere near getting off yet. But who needs water, right... Well the forest was a blast. It started to rain and hail (yeah hail) and the "path" we were on was pretty much a water slide. I fell about 15 times and used some pretty colorful language, my dad would be proud. Well after 4 and half hours of walking through a forest and just as it started to get dark we came out of the forest and onto a farmers field. We could see a town and only had about another 3 miles to go to reach civilization. Our 6 -7 hour climb turned into a 13 hour adventure. I am glad to say that we made it down in one piece, just really dirty and a little thirsty. Anyways, we were both really tired this morning.

keep it real,


Friday, March 20, 2009

Pura Vida!

From Pacific…. to Atlantic!

The sweet taste of success, in this case in the form of champagne, was enjoyed in the surf on Wednesday when we arrived at the Caribbean coast by way of sea kayak where the Pacuare River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Having never kayaked together before it took some time, some patience, and one exercise in how-to-flip a kayak to get the hang of it… Lucky for us we had lots of time to practice as the 40km journey, which had us pushing off from the shore before 6am to beat the heat, took us a respectable five and a half hours.

The week leading up to this finale involved more biking, trekking, and three days of white water rafting. After one last itty bitty crossing on foot, we traded in hiking boots and creeks for paddles and rivers and set out white water rafting on the Pejibaye River.

Following one last mountain bike ride (and just when my butt was nicely worn in too) and having passed the test on the Class 2-3 rapids of the Pejibaye River, we were cleared to tackle the class 3-4 rapids of the ’mighty’ Pacuare River.

The Pacuare River journey took us through rainforest spotted with waterfalls and swimming holes where we stopped to take advantage of our surroundings!

We spent two nights and one full day exploring the banks of the Pacuare River at a riverside camp nestled between the sounds of the rainforest and the hum of the river. It was a beautiful, peaceful setting which could accommodate sixty people but we had the place to ourselves! Lots of quality hammock time was spent here… some quality thinking time… and some quality exploring!

From here, we headed back into the Pacuare and made it through the remaining rapids with only one rescue from a class 4 rapid required… If you ask Troy, he’ll say I pushed him but I didn’t, honest!

Sea kayaking was the final leg of our journey and our shoulders and backs, which had been largely ignored up to this point, were tested. I took the front seat and Troy took the back. I was reminded more than a few times that the person in the backseat possesses all of the control in a kayak so………..while Troy labored to keep the kayak going straight, I took the opportunity to take photographs of him, us, and my favorite, the monkeys!

It was extremely exciting and satisfying to first hear the sounds of, and then see the ocean! More than happy to beach our kayak, we celebrated our almost 300km traveled and relished the sense of accomplishment :).

It is extremely satisfying to have completed this physical challenge with Troy. It was great knowing that Troy had my back, even if sometimes that meant he was pushing me up a hill... Turns out that the mountains, hills, dirt trails, creeks and rivers of Costa Rica have nothing on us and we leave here asking one question, “Hey Costa Rica, is that all you got?!”

Post Script:
Hey guys this is Troy and I just wanted to add a few of my own words to this blog about our amazing coast to coast trip in Costa Rica. Just a word of advice, if anyone wants to find out how strong their relationship with their spouse and/or loved one really is, I suggest you kayak with said person for 40km together. Because let me tell you if one of you doesn’t end up dead by the end of it you have nothing to worry about, you gonna make it.

Post Script2:
This is Nicole and I suddenly feel the need to defend myself. I would liken kayaking to hooking up a trailer with your spouse, or backing into a boat launch. It usually starts out ugly but eventually, once the kinks are worked out, it turns out just fine. In this case working out the kinks just meant that I should sit and be quiet while we weaved from side to side across the river. Best not to offer advice...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My butt hurts.

My butt hurts. Unfortunately, apparently owning my own mountain came complete with a really sore butt. Not the kind of tailbone hurt like when you fall and land on your butt, and not the kind of butt cheek hurt like when you’ve been snapped with a towel. This is the bike seat hurt where 'tenderness' develops where the pressure from the bike seat cuts off all circulation to the general area. Even with padded bike shorts (though I only brought my wimpy spandex as packing room was an issue), it has clearly been a long time since I sat on a bike seat and my butt was angry. So much so that at one point I had to confirm with Troy that it was normal for my butt to actually be numb...

That said, the first three days of our trip have been amazing! We have an awesome guide, Jairo, who is not only guiding us on our journey but is pretty much our own private spanish tutor for the duration of our trip. I can now say "my butt hurts in spanish".
So far we have been hiking and biking on a combination of gravel roads, 4x4 trails, and pavement. LOTS of uphill but also mixed with downhill sections. We never believe them when they tell us it will take hours to go like 12 km but it does because of all the up, down, and around, and switching back and forth... Our route has taken us through lots of little communities that are well off the beaten path and it has been neat that way, seeing mostly only locals on our travels. Our surroundings have included mountains and beautiful valleys, views from the continental divide, lush jungle, rich pastures, and dark green forests of coffee.

This is us right before we headed out from the Pacific coast. All smiles :)
The first day was biking in the hot, hot sun followed by hiking in the pouring down rain!

We stopped along the way to enjoy the vistas and have lunch and were even joined by some locals along the way. We camped overnight in the peaceful valley of Naranjillo, an adorable little pueblo of about six houses.

The sun was back out in full force when we headed out bright and early on Day 2. Seriously, sweating-standing-still hot.
We began by trekking 13km, including an infamous 3km climb up 'cemetary hill', and finished off the day on our bikes in the village of Santa Maria. Many refreshments were in order this day ranging from head dunking in rivers to consuming coca colas purchased from a 77 year old man (who incidentally has 17 kids and couldn't remember how many grandkids) in a tiny tienda on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere...

We spent the night at some rustic cabins and rested up to prepare for the following day which was promised to be one of the longest. We stayed in the aptly named 'Matthew McCaunaughey' suite. Apparently he stayed in the very same shortly after his breakup from Penelope Cruz...as i understand it based on the tellings of the owner who i think is still reeling from his presence in her kitchen two years ago... On day 3, what was promised to be the hardest, steepest climb of the adventure did not disappoint. The 14km uphill stretch to the Continental Divide, brought us to an altitude of 2330m, the highest peak of our journey.

This was particularly challenging for me, but they make the granny gear for a reason and I took full advantage. More than a few times I felt the twitch of my right thumb as it migrated over to the gear shifter, seeking, hoping, for another easier gear. But to no avail. So proud when I got to the top, I wanted to scream and shout but simply dismounting and walking seemed to stretch my capacity at the time so I opted for a big hug from Troy, a hearty breakfast, and this Day 3 photo.

The rest of the day was satisfying, though not easy, and involved more than a few hills (as per Troy's previous post...), a few thrills and a few spills...,

A river crossing and a river rescue of sorts...

And two very happy Day 3 finishers...

We spent our rest day today in the beautiful Orosi Valley, doing just that. Resting.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

She owns the mountain!!!

Nicole has no idea that I am doing this and I will probably get in crap but oh well. We have just finished our third day of our coast to coast trip and it has truly been amazing. Pictures and more stories will follow in up coming blogs but this blog is simply to brag about my wife.

Our first two days were full of biking and hiking. We biked a total of 4 hours in our first 2 days and hiked a total of 8 hours. And most of this hiking and biking has been climbing, so needless to say they were not easy days. So after 2 hard days like we had I knew today was going to be a tough one because today was 58km of mostly uphill biking and the conditions were less then perfect. We started the day at 7am with a 14km climb up a mountain that took just over an hour and half. After a short rest and a short downhill period, we started heading back up hill. We biked for another 2 hours before we stopped for a snack. After the short rest we were off again, tackling more hills and climbing more mountains and this is when we had the biggest challenge of the day. Another climb but this climb was steeper and harder than anyone we had done today so far and remeber we have been on our bikes for about 4 hours at this point already. Well a long story short, Nicole owned the mountain, so much so, I suggested that she pack it up and take it home because it is now hers. I mean she owned it! I was so proud of her and so pumped up, it was awesome to see. We finished the day with another (you guessed it), climb up to our hotel with a total of just under 6 hours with our butts on a bike seat. It was an awesome day and does anyone know how much it would be to send a mountain home. Talk to you soon and remember, keep it real.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

And so a new adventure begins...

So, currently on leave from Ecuador for two weeks, we have arrived in Costa Rica!

The following exerpt is what caught our attention months ago and ultimately what has lured us to Costa Rica :
"The challenge: to traverse a small Central American country solely by muscle power. This trip is for the truly adventurous. From the Pacific coast to the Atlantic shores of Costa Rica, we bike, hike and raft in one adventure-filled expedition. From the picturesque cliffs and beaches of Manuel Antonio, we go on to challenge the Continental Divide, a barrier that has held man back for thousands of years. As we cross to the Talamanca and Central Mountain ranges, we pass through some of the most diverse terrain in the world. Finally, having conquered many of nature's greatest challenges, we drift peacefully to the Atlantic shores, humbled by our deliverance. For the physically fit and the insanely energetic, it is the trip of a lifetime."

Trip Highlights are promised to include mountain biking across the Continental Divide and whitewater rafting from the Pacuare River to the Caribbean Sea. While I am tired just thinking about it, I am also super pumped! So, with map in hand we have set out to cross Costa Rica...

This morning, having arrived in San Jose Costa Rica yesterday, we boarded a tiny, ten passenger plane in San Jose and bounced and jostled our way , stomachs turned upside down and inside out, to the tiny fishing village of Quepos on the Pacific Coast.

We spent the day soaking up the sunshine that Costa Rica is promising and visited the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park. We will leave from here, ready or not, at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Little Bear

I am currently working in Muenala (when ala). I have been there for 3 weeks now and it has been amazing. I am working with a great bunch of people, Aaron from Colorado (the broncos fan), Katherine from Chicago and Zoe from London (sorry no photo). We have made a good team together and we all bring different strengths to the school.

Everyday we all board a bus around 7am and drive about 45 minutes up into the Andes. Once we reach the point where vehciles can no longer travel we get out and hike the remaining 30 minutes. The walk is a great way to wake up and it is truly some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever scene. My office is a couple mountains, rolling hills and a volcano or two. Not bad, I guess.

We have 35 kids in our school (from eleven families) ranging from grade 1 to grade 7. We, GVI, just began supporting this community when I arrived three weeks ago and it was exciting to meet with the community and the teacher beforehand to determine our role and establish what our goals will be here. The school is government funded ( I use the word funded loosely) and has one teacher, Fanny, to teach all seven grades. Before our arrival her tasks were simply to lesson plan for seven grades, teach each grade their lesson and make sure all the kids in the school are receiving the attention they need to ensure they are being successfrul at school. So she didn't have much to do... With us there now, Fanny now focuses on grades 6 and 7 as myself and the other volunteers do our best to take care of grades 1 through 5.

The kids have been awesome and the entire communtiy has been very accepting of myself and the other volunteers. On our walk to the school if we pass someone from the community, they come shake our hands and tell us that they are at our service and then thank us for helping their children. It is very humbling and I still haven't figured out how to respond to someone when they say they are at my service. In the best spanish I can muster I always say "your welcome" and then thank them for letting me be a part of their communtiy. It is very cool to know that I am part of the new foundation that is being put in place in Muenala.

As an intern I don´t have my own class to teach. I make sure the volunteers have everything they need, ensure the food program is running and that we have enough food, make sure there are enough supplies at the school, help the volunteers lesson plan and float from class to class to assist the volunteers with their classes. I enjoy the extra workload and it makes the days fly by. There are 2 buildings in Meunala, one class for grades 3, 5, 6 and 7 and the second one for grades 1 and 4 (Currently no one in grade 2). We also have a couple of cows and a horse (not to mention a ton of crap...) in the school yard. You know, your typical elementary playground.

As with Guatemala, the kids are easily the best part of this program. All the kids in this school are very affectionate, have tons of energy and are very well behaved. They are always eager to tell you about their family and always asking questions about mine. Recess is more of the same with wrestling, dog piles and royal rumbles but I have added skipping with the girls, an intense form of gymnastics which involves a "spring board and a landing pad" and ball tag into my daily routine. Again, we have only been here for three weeks but I already know that it is going to be tough to leave here.

I wish I could describe the setting of where the school is because it is truly amazing (I put up some pictures but they won't do it justice.) A couple of times a week we take the kids for a hike so they can show us where they live and show us the beauty of their country. The kids enjoy this (mostly because they get out of class) and are very proud to show us where they live. Just yesterday we took the kids for a hike and just sat on the side of a mountain, talked and looked out at the valleys, mountains, river and rolling hills. I could have stayed there all day.

The best part of my day is the walk home and not because it is the end of the day but because on the walk home I get to hang out with Raimy. Raimy is a young boy from the school who is seven years old and about 2 and a half feet tall. Everyday I throw Raimy on my shoulders and we walk and talk (in spanish) all the way back to his house. He tells me about his family (3 of his siblings are in the school) and about his dads work. We talk about me being a firefighter and how that is what he is going to do when he grows up. He asks questions about Nicole and doesn't understand why we don't have any kids yet. Simply put, it is a great way to end a day. I know they say you shouldn't have favorites but this kid is my favorite. Besides the fact that he tells me that I am his best friend everyday or that he is stupid cute, the kid is gritty. Raimy reminds me of Rudy. He is 2 foot nothing, weighs about 35 pounds (seriously 35 pounds) and is half the size of most of the kids in the school but someone forgot to tell him. We have nicknamed him "Poco Oso" which I believe means little bear. Mi gusto mucho Poco Oso.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A day worthy of new white shoes

Last Friday, we attended Flag Day (Dia de la Bandera) with our respective seventh grade classes. The Larcacunga seventh graders, along with seven other schools, were hosted by a community called Tangali while the Muenala seventh graders, along with five other schools were hosted by another GVI sponsored community called Huayrapungo.

Dia de la Bandera is to recognize the achievements of the seventh graders. The ceremony involves presenting the seventh grade classes at a marching and flag bearing ceremony. The students have been practicing for the past few weeks, getting their steps and turns and salutes just right. The top academic student in the class earns the privilege of carrying the National flag for their school. A second and a third student also march with the flag bearer and the remaining students in the class participate in the marching and flag salutation.

Myself and two other volunteers were picked up bright and early on Friday morning and, along with the five seventh graders, their moms, a couple siblings, and two teachers, we rode in the back of a pickup truck up to Tangali. Upon arrival, the moms broke out brand new white shoes for the boys and the girls were primped and prepped. It was great to see all the pride that went into the festivities.

This is the seventh grade class from Larcacunga. Meet Marcos, Tarquino, Jose, Norma, and Anahi.
Though we have barely just met, I couldn’t help but feel so proud of the students as they took the floor. This was clearly an important event for them and we were honored to be welcomed at such an important day.