Welcome to Ecuador: A high energy study abroad trip

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Our 17-person study abroad group began our journey through Ecuador in Guayaquil, the country’s largest and most populated city that was blanketed in heat and humidity. Our Georgia State Public Relations for Nonprofits class jetted off to begin our 15-day stay with the goal of assisting Non Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) by applying what we’ve learned in our PR classes to a real-world setting.

“Agua, agua, agua!”

If we weren’t in our air conditioned hotel rooms, we were out in about devouring empanadas or other typical foods like pollo con arroz (chicken and rice).  On our free day we explored the crowded city admiring the murals painted on the buildings, hearing street vendors selling cold water, shouting, “Agua, agua, agua, veinticinco! Agua, agua, agua!”

We visited Barrios Las Peñas (the neighborhood of stairs) which consisted of 444 steps of bliss or torture depending on what kind physical shape you were in. Along the stairs were bars, restaurants, and tiny markets. Behind these establishments lived citizens of Guayaquil.

Every couple of steps we saw police officers guarding the alleyways. Still not sure if it was for their safety or ours. The day we stopped by one of the restaurants happened to also be the day Ecuador’s futbol team was playing a match, so energies were crazy high. The owner brought out huge cups of cervezas (beer) for everyone followed by a home cooked meal of either pollo con arroz or chuleta con arroz (pork chops and rice). Literally one of the best meals I’ve ever had and all for $5.

Preparing for the unexpected

Work in Guayaquil was different for all of us. We chose from among five NGOs. I chose Fundación Ecuador. The purpose of the foundation is to coordinate programs that teach skills, such as home repairs, the English language, drug abuse treatment for adolescents and natural disaster planning.

In the middle of our work week we experienced a tremor from an earthquake that hit the small town of Mompiche, about 280 miles from Guayaquil. Guayaquil had just recovered from an earthquake that happened a month earlier, the worst to hit the country in decades. The previous quake collapsed a bridge in the city and left rubble in the streets. Having never experienced anything like that, fear rippled through all of us. We quickly evacuated the building and waited for things to calm down. When we returned back into the foundation building, we all just sat in disbelief.

While working in the NGOs, we provided strategies to the foundation’s director that could help them reach the community of Guayaquil. We also made suggestions on what they should change on their website and social media and created a campaign for their program Bachilar Digital.

One with Ecuador’s nature

In our second week in Ecuador, our group took a 50 minute flight to Cuenca, a city near the mountains and about 9,000 feet above sea level.

After getting settled in, a small group of us took a taxi up to Parque Nacional El Cajas, a national park known for their lagunas and roaming llamas. When the taxi stopped we assumed we were where we needed to be, but we were actually 10 kilometers away.

As we got out, we met three Americans who were lost and extremely happy to see a taxi. Fortunately for them they were going to the same place as us. After 30 seconds of getting everyone’s names, the seven of us were piled up in the back of a four person cab. When we finally arrived to the correct location, the views were breathtaking. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We spent four hours hiking the trails and taking in every wisp of beauty.

Giving back to those who deserve it

The second NGO I got the pleasure of working with was Fundación Mundo Nuevo, which has a school for students with disabilities from ages 15 to 40. The students are able to express themselves through artwork, music, theatre and sports. They’re also taught everyday skills like how to make a bed or brush their teeth in order to gain independence.

We suggested plans for funding, changes to their social media and overall communication ideas for those living with disabilities in Cuenca to know the benefits they could be receiving from Fundación Nuevo Mundo.

This trip was everything and more, from breaking the language barrier to experiencing an entirely new culture who literally gives kisses every time you say hello and goodbye. The work we were able to do with the NGOs was most important. As students we were able to gain hands on experience while also benefiting those who truly deserve it.