Guest Post: Ecuador!

One of my delightful fans, Alyssa, leads a very interesting life.  She left the comfort and familiarity of her home and country, and moved to a far-flung coastal village in Ecuador to help people less fortunate than herself…and she’s had many adventures along the way.  I originally began interacting with Alyssa when she commented on my blog posts about the ethics of eating meat and the subsequent follow up, and her comment sparked a completely separate post where I featured an essay she wrote about watching a chicken being killed in Ecuador for dinner. So Alyssa’s history with my blog goes back quite a ways.

I am fortunate to know many incredible people who do amazing, selfless work all over the world.

These are my dear friends Lucian and Adrienne.  They, too, lived in Ecuador for a while, helping mountain villages develop clean water supplies.  Adrienne and I both went to ACU, and she and Lucian are irreplaceable fixtures at my fall dinner party, and in my camp at Burning Man each year.  They come back to the US for these events, stay awhile to make some money, then get a ticket to another place halfway around the world to go back and start helping people again.  This year they return from Thailand and Cambodia to be a part of Burning Man, and I can’t wait to hear all about their advertures!

This is my dear friend Debbie.  She’s like a second mom to me.  Debbie decided, after her son Justin (one of my dearest friends in the world) graduated from college, that it was time to break out of her suburban existence as a teacher at an affluent high school.  She went to an international teaching organization and send, “Send me where you need me.”  They asked her what country she’d like to live in, and she said, “Send me where you need me.”  And she promptly found herself in Egypt.  And, for awhile, she was dead certain she had made a terrible, terrible mistake.  But a decade later, after working with amazing kids and helping jumpstart a charity that encourages underprivileged women and single mothers to become entrepreneurs in a male-centric culture, when she comes back to the US to visit each summer, she tells me she can’t wait to get back abroad.  “People in the US don’t understand what they have.  And they talk so loud all the time, but they talk about nothing.”  During the Egyptian revolution, Debbie was moved to Shanghai to begin teaching there, and you can see her here taking a big jump for joy on the Great Wall of China.  Debbie is one of those people who transformed everything about her life at a time when many folks start planning in earnest for retirement.  And the single most common comment on her Facebook photos is, “I wanna be like you when I grow up.”

This is my buddy Jon.  When Jon told me he was moving to China to teach, but had never been farther from home than Arkansas, I was excited and nervous for him.  Upon landing in Wuhan (a city of 4.5 million…small by Chinese standards), Jon was ushered to a local restaurant by his hosts.  As he stepped across the threshold, something slimy jumped out of a bucket by the door and started squirming on his feet.  It was an eel, and the restaurant owner began jabbering excitedly about this good omen.  Jon’s hosts translated and informed him that the eel had chosen him, and it would be taken back to the kitchen and cooked for him.  Jon had a rough time adapting to culture and cuisine in China.  And that was, what, 15 years ago, Jon?  After a decade in China, Jon moved to Korea to teach there, and he’s about to return to the US for a year to further his education.  He’s in for some brutal culture shock, but I’ll be there to help.

As a travel writer, I have many, many dear friends all over the world, and most of them are doing incredible, selfless work for others.  But this blog post today is about Alyssa, who’s going to share some amazing things with you about her experiences in Ecuador, including a delicious recipe for ice cream that doesn’t require an ice cream maker!  Enjoy this glimpse into the world of someone who left everything she new and was comfortable with, to make other people’s lives better.  Thanks, Alyssa!

…  Alyssa’s Guest Blog about her experiences in Ecuador …

I suppose I should start with why I’m here.  I found Ben’s blog, as I imagine many of you did, during his stint on MasterChef.  And I have followed it the two years since because it is witty and warm and chock full of rustic recipes.  I also stayed because I see eye-to-eye with Ben on a lot of matters: namely, that we should all strive to live a full, rich, wide-open life with integrity and that food is a wonderful way to connect with people.  So I reached out to him, thinking that this might be a wonderful opportunity to reach a community who might be interested in my own adventures with food – and water.

You see, I help run a non-profit called Water Ecuador, which works in rural coastal Ecuador to build and maintain clean water centers.  Getting to our headquarters in a town called Muisne, can feel as though you are going to the end of the earth.  After a day on a plane to Quito, you board a bus that makes its way down through the breezy windy mountain roads, through dense cloud forests and pastoral fields, and finally to the coastal city of Esmeraldas, a 7-hour journey.  Then you switch to another smaller bus, for another 2 hours bumping your way through tiny villages along Ecuador’s ragged coastline.  And finally – a quick boat ride to the other side of the river, and you have arrived.

Water Ecuador started its work in Muisnein 2007, when Alex, our founder, was volunteering at the regional hospital on the island, realized that too many kids were severely ill with diarrhea due to dirty water, and decided to do something about it.  Since then, we have built 6 water centers in the area. Here is how we work: we fundraise in the US to build water centers that purify available water sources, like river water, with high-quality water purification technology,and then we sell the water for a third to a half of the market price ($.25-$.75 per 20-liter jug, instead of the usual $1.50 charged in stores,with even more discounted options available for those who cannot afford even that).  Basically, we sell the water at cost– just enough to pay the local water center manager and cover the cost of system maintenance so that the centers are sustainable.  We also run several educational initiatives to teach people about how important clean water is.

All in all, we supply more than 2000 people every day with clean, inexpensive water – which means fewer sick kids and more money for families to spend on other essentials.

Before I came to Muisne, I had never lived without running water, in a home with a cement floor lacking glass in the windows to keep pests out at night.  But despite my love of American conveniences, I soon realized that I, like everyone else in the town, am just fine without.  And what Muisne lacks in first world technology, it more than makes up for in amazing, inspirational people and vibrant culture.  The community has been so willing to welcome me, a gringa, into their homes and lives, to share their stories and to share what they have.

One of my favorite ways to get to know people has been to cook with them (using Water Ecuador water, of course).  Everyone has to eat.  The people in Muisne eat simple food, but it is wonderful.  Nearly everything on the table was killed, picked, or foraged down the road.  And the food is just wonderful – pan de yucca (a bread made with tapioca starch and fresh cheese), and pescado encocado (fish in a coconut sauce), and just about every variation of plantain or banana cooked every possible way.  Some of the recipes are complicated or rely on regional ingredients, but one of my favorites this year was a simple helado (ice cream) that we made for a birthday celebration.  Heriberto, the organization’s Ecuadorian President, and his wife Egnis, insisted that we make it – and it was just delicious, easy, and didn’t require an ice cream machine.  Little Felipe, age 20 months, enjoyed it quite a bit.

Helado de Heriberto

Making it again at home (left)…and if you doubt it was good, just look at Felipe’s face (right)!

2 c heavy whipping cream (if you don’t like it too creamy, I’m told you can substitute about a half cup of whipping cream for milk, but I haven’t tried it this way so beware)
seeds from 1 vanilla bean (or substitute 2 tsp of your favorite extract – vanilla, almond)
3/4 c sweetened condensed milk

optional add-ins:

3 tbsp cocoa powder and 1 c chocolate chips
¼ c strained fruit puree
1/3 c peanut butter

Whip the cream and vanilla (in a mixer, blender – which is what we used in Ecuador, or by hand), until medium peaks form – the more you whip, the airier and more mousse-like the end product.
Add in sweetened condensed milk and whip until combined.
Add in any add-ins.
Freeze for 4 hours or until firm…if you can wait that long.

We had a great time celebrating that night – there were people from the US, Ecuador, Australia, Ireland, and Germany, but really, none of the cultural or language differences mattered.  Whenever I look back at the pictures, I always remember Mother Theresa’s statement: “The problem with the world is that we draw the circles of our family too small.”  The world water crisis is full of big, scary, impersonal, and overwhelming numbers – like that 3.4 million people die each year from water and sanitation-related diseases or that 32 million people in Latin America lack access to purified water.  But when we approach these challenges with empathy and compassion, when those people are not faceless, faraway strangers, everything changes.

Even when I am back home in the US, when I think of the water crisis, I think about little Felipe, and how I would do anything to keep him healthy, of the people who laughed with me in the kitchen as we fried plantains and grilled fish, of all of the mothers and fathers who have told me of their stories and the struggles they face everyday in keeping their kids clean and healthy, of the teenagers who shared their hopes to go to a university or start a business.  And then the hard work seems worth it, and every small step matters.

If you read this post and want to learn more about Water Ecuador, we would absolutely love your support in any way – whether you like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, join our email list (we promise we never share your info!),make a financial contribution, or want to volunteer some time.  Feel free to email me at abilinski@waterecuador.org if you have any questions or want to learn more.  And even if you have no interest in water, consider finding another way you can draw the circle of your family a little bit larger.  You may just like what you find.

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