The vultures strut around the beach in the morning with their black wings outstretched, bobbing their wrinkled, grey faces. They’re big. They’re the size of terriers, and there are so many of them, digging in the trash, scaring off street dogs, sitting menacingly on the telephone wires. I wrinkle my nose in disgust.
“I know vultures play an important part in the ecosystem,” I say to Nick, my friend and co-worker. “But god they’re gross.”
A vulture near us tears into a plastic bag, revealing thick cuts of fat from the butcher next door. A flock of birds descends and the street dogs come running. Suddenly there is bird squawking and dog snarling and bits of meat flying through the air.
“Welcome to paradise.” He says, taking a sip of Nescafé.
Nick and I are both interns working on an emergency response program. This morning, we are where we always are: Doña Veronica’s, a tiny cabaña restaurant that feeds our staff every day. In the mornings we sit and stare at the ocean, drinking instant coffee and eating hard boiled eggs.
We’re here because on April 16th, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through the coastal provinces of Ecuador, killing over 600 people, injuring 230,000 and rendering 170,000 homeless. It devastated an area that was already one of the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. Many of those affected didn’t have proper roads or sanitation or electricity before the earthquake, so the disaster laid bare a heavily underserved population with needs that extended far beyond reconstruction.
Our office is a three-minute walk from Doña Veronica’s, in an old house with air conditioning on the bottom floor, and a subtropical climate on the second floor. Nick and I work on the second floor. Staff sits hunched around plastic tables, typing furiously on their computers, slurping black coffee so thick a spoon could stand up in it. Maps of the province are taped to the wall, mock-ups of our shelter and latrine designs sit on the old kitchen counter. It is our base camp. The coffee machine and the printer never stop humming. People are always coming in and out, tracking in mud from the field, running up and down the stairs, and someone is always frantically looking for someone else. Emergency response is different. The needs are more immediate, more urgent. For staff here, this is not a 9-5. This program is their life.
So the program has become my life. There is so much to learn: the history of the province, the culture, the details of the disaster, the immediate response, the organizations that responded. We are the last NGO still in the area.
Not only do staff work long hours together, we also live together, in small wooden cabañas fifty feet from the ocean. We eat all of our meals together. It is like summer camp for very stressed, chain-smoking adults.
One night I suggested to Nick and Anais, our program manager, that we have a bonfire. They glanced at each other. “No, I don’t think we can do that,” Anais said slowly. “The only people who have bonfires here are narcotraffickers signaling a drug drop off.”
We didn’t have a bonfire.
As many coworkers keep repeating to me, “There is no such thing as a perfect emergency response.” We’ve faced our own set of challenges. The rains have gone on unseasonably long, we can’t reach some of our communities because of flooding. A few families still live in the temporary shelters from last May using emergency tarps and eucalyptus to construct homes. Funding for emergency programs in Latin America is scarce. Staff has been working 13 hours a day since last summer. We work in the most active subduction zone in the world. We have a team WhatsApp group and we get notifications of earthquakes regularly. To signal we are safe, we have to send an emoji of a person with their hand raised.
The stress gets to us. For example: because I am a 28-year-old-woman with pride and dignity, I spend at least part of every day pretending to be a vulture. I stick out my arms at demented angles and hop down the street. I think this is hilarious. The program manager thinks this is hilarious. We’re all very tired.
But the work is satisfying. I’m in front of my computer for hours every day, but I’m also out in communities. I ride in dirt covered pick-ups to communities that the government doesn’t even visit, crossing rivers in canoes to evaluate the program. I meet new people and capture their opinions and ideas to better inform our future programming. I use appreciate inquiry to lead focus groups.
It those days, when I return from community visits covered in mud and sweat and (always) sunburned, with a half eaten cacao in my backpack and ten pages of barely legible notes, that I am satisfied. I am satisfied with my decision to spend my last semester of graduate school as an intern. The last six months I’ve been stumbling through La Paz, and Quito, and now Tonchigüe, learning about development and this career path I’ve chosen. Grad school gave me a base. Information, books, mentors, a cohort of intelligent, ass-kicking social justice warriors. This experience pushed me out of the comfortable bubble of grad school. Here I’ve seen a slice of development reality: the ethical pitfalls, the enormous need, how hard everyone in my organization works to help the most vulnerable people. It is overwhelming. It is exhilarating.