Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 15, 2024

"Toughest job you’ll ever love"

Nearly 50 years ago, I was living in Ecuador, a beautiful Latin American country with the Pacific coast on the west, the Andean mountains in the middle, and the jungle on the east. I had just completed college and I wanted to "change the world." Peace Corps seemed like a way I could help others while learning about another culture.

I had taken three semesters of college Spanish - just enough to get me into trouble. But after living with a family in Quito, the capital city, and taking a six-week Spanish-immersion course, my language skills improved dramatically.

After training, I went to Salinas to work with another volunteer in a rural development program. It was on the Santa Elena Peninsula, which projects far into the Pacific Ocean. What a dream for this girl who grew up in land-locked Kansas!

But it wasn't all idyllic. Our drinking water came from trucks that pumped water out of whatever pond or river was nearby. We had to boil it if we didn't want to get sick with intestinal parasites. We added iodine tablets to the water we washed our vegetables and fruits in for the same reason. We cooked on a two-burner gas stove, which became an oven when we added a metal "box" on top.

We showered in cold water, and we hand-washed our clothes in it as well.

I still have faint scars from the time two dogs bit me on my left leg.

This was long before the advent of the internet and social media, and phone calls were prohibitively expensive. Communicating with loved ones at home meant writing letters and waiting two to three weeks for their responses.

Our group of volunteers worked in several small towns. Getting to them involved riding rickety buses or hitching rides with farmers lucky enough to have pickup trucks. Whatever mode of transportation we took was usually packed to the gills with people, chickens, and other assorted cargo.

In one community, we helped residents plant a garden and build an oven, and taught them how to use the oven for baking bread.

In San Vicente de Loja, farmers used sharpened poles to make holes in the ground for seeds. They dropped one or two corn kernels into each from tin cans slung over their shoulders or tied around their waists with ropes. They told us how a tractor would improve their productivity, not just in planting corn, but in raising soybeans. I asked my mother if one of the groups she belonged to would be willing to provide money for a down payment. It came as a money order, which I then gave to the community. The tractor helped with farming, and provided a means of transportation from their isolated village to a main road. I'm not sure where they found fuel.

In another village, several of us taught women how to make patterns to sew their own clothes and embellish them with embroidery. After, we gave them certificates saying they had successfully completed the course and we organized a fashion show so they could model their new clothing. We asked children to participate as well, and the whole town showed up.

Radio was an important way of reaching rural communities because there were no local newspapers. A project I initiated with the Ministry of Public Health created public service announcements with the theme, "Reflexions para una Vida Mejor" - Reflections for a Better Life. Together with ministry officials, I wrote and delivered short radio messages geared to rural women. The messages included information I gleaned from books and ministry pamphlets about eating healthy diets, maintaining personal hygiene, protecting their children’s health, and caring for themselves during pregnancy.

In addition, I taught basic English to schoolchildren at an elementary school in Santa Rosa.

Even with these projects, I found that I had a lot of free time to read, to meet people, to contemplate life, and to travel to different parts of the country. I enjoyed shopping at the bustling open-air markets, filled with colorful vegetables and fruits, fresh fish and meats, baskets, and other wares.

And I loved interacting with Ecuadorians. They were generous, interesting, and endlessly curious about this tall, fair-skinned "gringita" from the U.S.

"Oh, do you know my relatives in Miami (or New York or Los Angeles)?" they'd ask. When I said I was from Kansas, they nodded knowingly and said, "Ah, Dodge City ... Matt Dillon." "Are you rich?" "Do you live in a big house?" They had developed some stereotypes about North Americans just as we tend to do the same about people from other countries.

I felt like I was in a fish bowl, which at times amused me and at others, was disconcerting. Whenever I wanted to take a quiet walk along the beach, I was usually followed by youngsters who thought I must be lonely and wanted company.

This recent "journey" to Ecuador was prompted earlier this month when I opened a storage box containing photos, letters, newspaper articles, and postcards related to my Peace Corps service. Opening the box brought back memories I had long forgotten.

The timing was appropriate as March 1 was the anniversary of the founding of Peace Corps. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the agency.

I'm only one of the 240,000 volunteers who have served. I hope I made a positive difference. I know it made a big difference in my life.

The agency's slogan used to be "the toughest job you'll ever love." It was tough at times, but it was worth it. Why else would I continue to tell my Peace Corps story?

Top (l-r): Fresh seafood from the nearby ocean; fresh fruit from the nearby market; two of my associates build an oven with "local supervision;" teaching how to bake bread using the new oven. Bottom (l-r): planting corn with sticks; "new" tractor with money raised. One of the things I forgot was included in my note on the back of the photo. I wrote one of the children had peed on my foot as the picture was taken; filling a water truck from the pond at the right; one of the students I taught elementary English to; top is one of the buses and the bottom is the fashion show.

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