The Cost of Living

People in Ecuador are always asking me how much things cost in the U.S. Some things are infinitely cheaper in Ecuador (food) while others are infinitely more expensive (technology). I thought I’d give a rundown even though most people in the States have never asked me. :) Actually this is more of a record for me so that once I’m back in the U.S. I can remember that I lived on $10/day for two years. Also, that the price we pay for fruits and vegetables in the U.S. is absurd! Keep in mind I live a small town of 3,000 people-ish in the Andes region, cities are obviously more expensive and I’ve heard the coast is more expensive. And some prices are approximate or a rough estimate. So without further adieu:

Food

1 liter of milk (carton) = $1.40

1 liter of milk (bag) = $0.80

loaf of whole grain bread = $2.30

bag of bakery bread (6-7 pieces) = $1

bag of bakery empanadas (5 pieces) = $1

bottle of water = $0.40 – $0.50

whole plucked chicken with innards = $14

1 egg = $0.12 (you can actually buy just 1 egg at a time at the small corner stores!)

cubeta of eggs (30 eggs) = $2.60 on market day in Saquisilí…normally about $3

almuerzo (lunch including soup, rice, usually chicken, small salad, & fresh fruit juice) = $1.50 – $2.50

avocados (4/5) = $1 (seasonal)

“fancy” meal in Quito or Cuenca (decent cheeseburger, deli sandwich, “foreigner” food) = $5-$10 (this is out of my budget about 99% of the time)

McDonald’s burger combo = $5 – $6

Transportation

gallon of gasoline = $1.50 – $2 (remember those days Americans??)

bus fare (30 mins.) = $0.30

bus fare (1 hour) = $1

taxi to most places in Latacunga (nearby city) = $1

taxi to most places in Cuenca (expensive city) = $2

taxi from Latacunga to Saquisilí (20 mins.) = $4 – $5

trolley (mass transit) in Quito = $0.25/ride

flight from Guayaquil to Quito (45 min.) = $50 – $60

Random

construction worker = $10/day

contract teacher = $500 – $600/month

tenured teacher with 30 years of experience = $1100/month

mayor of Latacunga = $6,000/month

my salary including rent = $388.75/month

rent = $70/month

my actual salary = $318.75/month ($10.63/day)

postage to the U.S. for a letter = $2

hair trim = $3

salon hair cut = $7 – $10

dozen roses = $3

copies at a cyber cafe = $0.02/page

printing at a cyber cafe = $0.08/page

internet at a cyber cafe = $0.60/hour

There you have it. I’m anticipating some serious sticker shock when I get back!

Two Years…The Sticky Note Version

Earlier this week, my fellow group of OMN 107 Volunteers had our Close of Service (COS) Conference in Tumbaco. I have been shamelessly counting down to this period of my service for no less than a year because I knew it marked the beginning of the end. It was a final 2.5 days for our group to come together to reflect on our service, think about the next steps, and most importantly start the process of saying goodbye. Like so many experiences, the idea that it won’t last forever is what gives us the urgency and the strength to push through the hard times. When the beginning of the end comes, you suddenly gain a whole new perspective on the life you’ve created and the amazingness of the place you’ve been living. You realize that you actually ARE leaving the experience, things will never be the same, you have to say goodbye to people and places (some forever), and that the experience has left an indelible mark on your heart and mind.

It all hit me like a ton of bricks. I was suddenly stressed about the amount of paperwork I have to complete before my COS date, March 7 by the way, and realized that the process of leaving might actually be more paperwork than leaving two years ago…and that is SAYING something. I have forgotten through my transition into work life in Ecuador how incredibly intense the work environment is in the U.S. compared to the hours I spend at school just hanging out and talking. And I have to get health insurance? WHAT? On top of getting a small reality check on life in the U.S., I had to come to terms with the fact that it was the last time our group would be together. We get each other on a completely different level, we’re bonded…not much else to say.

On the first day of COS, they asked each of us to write sticky notes on big posters for the new group of Volunteers who will be arriving next week (if any 111ers find this, enjoy your last few days in the U.S.!). I tried to boil everything down to a few words that would fit on a sticky note but each thing I wrote is loaded with memories, tears, excitement, and at the core, deep appreciation for it all. I remember reading the same notes from older volunteers when I first arrived and being overwhelmed and not fully understanding them at the time. It all makes sense now.

What’s the coolest thing you will take with you?

- An appreciation for a beautiful culture and way of life, the ability to speak Spanish

What was the funniest thing that happened?

- An older male teacher whispered “you smell fantastic!” in my ear in English before we marched in the Mama Negra parade in Latacunga

(“Robbery attempt via dog poop” was a close second but Liz beat me to it)

What has been your biggest success?

- Getting my teachers to plan their own English lessons using pop songs

What has been the biggest learning moment?

- Cafecito (this is the countless hours I have spent at school drinking coffee/tea with the teachers and not doing actual work but learning incredible amounts about their lives and culture and the 1-2 hours EVERY SINGLE night drinking tea with my host family…cafecito is the core of life here)

What do you want to forget?

- the occasional feelings of defeat

What advice would you give to the new group in one line?

- spend more time at cafecito than doing actual work, you’ll get more actual work done. BE BOLD!

What will you miss the most?

- the free-flowiness of life

2013: An Acrostic

I know 2014 is underway and I’m a few days late but I’ve been off the grid for the last week and am just now catching my breath. I could write enough to bore the most interested person on all the craziness I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of this year. Frankly I’m too lazy to even attempt to give justice in words to the life changing revelations, lessons, and experiences of the year. I’ll leave that for cocktail parties of the future. Instead, I’ll leave you with my contribution to this year’s family Christmas letter, a tradition that probably makes my sisters and I seem like old ladies but I fully believe Christmas letters should be embraced by the younger generations. We went a little non-traditional this year but sometimes its best to be short and sweet.

Celebrated the independence of her Ecuadorian hometown by marching in a parade, complete with sword and captain uniform in November

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Attended Andrea’s graduation from Texas A&M in May

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Ticked Machu Picchu off her bucket list with her best friend from college in July

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Helped her English teachers apply for a grant for an audiovisual room at their Ecuadorian high school in March

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Enjoyed the views from the snow cap of a local volcano in June1003099_4743702080780_1894470168_n

Refined her guinea pig eating skills

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Invented numerous unintelligible “Spanish” words485586_4676111711063_920295471_n

Never realized how much of a Midwesterner she was at heart

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Excitedly awaits 2014 and the end of her Peace Corps service

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May your 2014 be full of life changing revelations, lessons, and experiences!

 

 

 

Food For Thought: Progress

One of the things Peace Corps has given me is time to think…endlessly! Sometimes I think about mundane things like what kind of juice my host mom will surprise me with in the mornings (a small thing that I am so incredibly grateful for) and sometimes bigger things like progress and what that actually even means. Lately I’ve been thinking about just.

Today was the last day of school before a 10-day break for vacation. Naturally, there was a big lunch planned for the teachers by the Teacher’s Association. Since my host mom is the acting vice president, she made sure I was cordially invited. Everyone (about 60 teachers) was treated to chugchucaras, the local typical dish, which consists of fried pork, potatoes, boiled hominy, toasted corn, and plantains. The money for the meal was provided by a raffle that the Association had organized earlier in the week. At the end, all the teachers received a bag of Christmas candy and their savings for the year from the community bank fund.

I realized how little I actually knew about what the Association does and the general finances of the school, so I grilled my host mom at tea tonight. She explained how all the money gets raised for the various fiestas and programs throughout the year and how the Association has a community bank to earn money. Essentially, in the past in all Ecuadorian public schools, the paychecks for the staff were received in a lump sum from the Ministry of Education by the colectoría. The colectora, basically the school accountant, was in charge of distributing the paychecks to the teachers. Each month, the teachers would designate a certain amount of their paycheck to go into the community bank, which was managed by the Association. When a teacher needed a loan throughout the year, they would take money from the general fund and pay it back with interest, thus making money for the Association and the benefit of the school in general.

However, because of a new law, the teachers will now receive their paychecks directly from the Ministry of Education district office. This means there won’t be a need for a colectora and the community bank managed by the Association will be prohibited, which means less money for things like Christmas lunches and dance contests at the school. I could see the sadness on my host mom’s face as she lamented over explaining to me how things were in the past, how grand and elaborate the festivities used to be at the school, how much things have changed in her 30-year career as a public school teacher in this system. I can see from her point of view how much something as small as not having a community bank at the school changes so much.

And you have to remember as a reader in the States how important things like camaraderie and celebrations are in this culture, how your personal relationships speak far more about you as a person than your professional accomplishments, and how important something like sharing a meal or a dance with your colleagues is. For someone looking at the world through this lens, losing something like a Christmas lunch or the opportunity for a dance contest is a huge loss.

Then there’s the other point of view, the side I tend to agree with more as an American. The side that says that elaborate lunches and dance contests during school hours are not appropriate, normally the lunches start at 12:30 or 1 and classes are officially scheduled until 1 or 1:40 for some students. This means the students normally miss one or two hours of class time. And we’re not just talking about a lunch once or twice a year, we’re talking for every major/minor holiday…Day of the Dead (Nov. 2), Christmas (last Friday and today…this was the SECOND Christmas lunch at school), Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, School Festivities (1 week), Father’s Day, National Teacher’s Day, and many more that I’m forgetting.

There’s the argument that time/money spent on those activities should be dedicated to educational purposes for the students. After nearly 2 years, it is still shocking to me to see the amount of money and time that get put into parades, parties, costumes, etc. and the amount of classes that get cancelled for these activities.

There’s the argument that it’s better and more secure for the teachers to receive their paychecks directly from the Ministry. I’ve heard complaints from teachers that at times, they haven’t received their paychecks on time, sometimes waiting weeks. I’ve heard that the auditor for the colectora sometimes doesn’t show up. I want to believe that these problems will be eradicated or at least less likely under the new system but time will tell. And honestly, as a foreigner, who am I to say that the changes in the system are for the best and should be done in the name of “development” and “progess.”

There you have it, my daily mental struggle.

Market Madness: Noni

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited by my host mom to the family cabins in Esmeraldas, almost to the Colombian border, on the beach for yet another 3-day weekend. I thought the Sierra region (the Andes Mountains, where I live) had a diverse, exotic selection of fruit but when we arrived at the cabins, there were 3 trees on the property alone that I had never seen before. One of them is the noni. I knew it was exotic because even my host mom didn’t know what to do with it. After walking around Atacames and asking all the ladies at the numerous juice and smoothie stands how to prepare the juice, we finally decided to bring a few back to the Sierra and do some good ol’ googling.

Appearance: To me, it looks like a giant worm, like the ones they eat in the Amazon here. It’s about the size of a grapefruit but longer and skinner. Inside, it looks similar to a guanábana or chirimoya with large black seeds surrounded by the white fruit.

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DSC02287Preparation: It took some internet sleuthing but basically you cut the fruit open and blend it with other citrus fruits like passion fruit, oranges, or kiwi. Blend it on a low setting so as not to break the black seeds (this gives it a really funky taste) and then strain into a pitcher.

 

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Taste: It has a very mild taste, almost unnoticeable. My host mom mixed it with kiwi and that’s how the juice ended up tasting. I assume that it takes on the flavor of the fruit it’s mixed with. (The internet said that most people drink the juice for the health benefits, which are varied and extensive, and not for the taste.)

Cost: Luckily, our’s were free thanks to a giant tree on the property but I found a 32 oz. bottle of the juice online for $30. I’d say we got a pretty good deal.

If you find yourself in southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, or apparently the coast of Ecuador, or Colombia (I’m assuming), look for a noni tree, whip up some juice, and take advantage of all the health benefits it has to offer.DSC02253DSC02256Here’s a look at the other 2 trees on the property. Even the Ecuadorians weren’t sure what they were. The red ones had a coconut-like shell that we had to crack with a rock. The fruit inside was very small and kind of woody in texture. The second one is supposedly a type of almond, at least that’s what they kept telling me but it doesn’t look like any almost I’ve ever seen. Drop me a comment if you recognize them!

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A Day in the Life…

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve updated here. Honestly I haven’t felt too motivated to share what’s been happening but I have to remember that everyday here truly is an adventure…even if it seems completely mundane to me. As my time winds down, I plan to fill my readers (if there are any left) in on all the cultural nuances and other interesting tidbits I’ve picked up throughout my time in Ecuador. Let me know if you’re dying to know about anything in specific.

I thought I’d post about today since I feel as though, in terms of work, its one of the most successful and complete days I’ve had. Keep in mind that my idea of a success has drastically changed as I’ve adapted and well, its taken me a year and half to build up to the point of actually having a semi-full day of work where people actually come to the things planned and things happen as I envision them in my head. That being said, I’m still in Ecuador which means little to no consistency in terms of scheduling. Next Tuesday could very well and probably will end up a complete disaster. “Vamos a ver” as they say in this corner of the world.

6 am – Wake Up

Because I live in a concrete igloo, I keep myself wrapped in my fleece airline blanket while I get ready. I look at my clothes and decide if I want to be “fancy” and wear my one pair of black slacks instead of my rapidly approaching unacceptable-to-leave-the-house-in jeans. I look out my window to see if the local volcano is covered in clouds or if its going to be a sunny day to determine whether full on scarf, gloves, and fleece coat are necessary or a simple cardigan will do. I NEVER leave the house without at least one extra layer. I gather the books/materials I will need for the day…a mix of high school English textbooks, TOEFL books, sign in sheets, flashcards, etc.

6:45 am – Juice Time

I head outside and downstairs into the kitchen where my host mom is finishing up the Ecuadorian morning ritual of blending a mix of fruit, sugar, water, and milk to form a small whiskey glass of deliciousness. We chit chat a few minutes over juice and bread.

7 am – Leave for School

7:05 am – Arrive at School/Saludos

I walk through the school gates prepared to say “Buenos días” and kiss about 74935874 people (more like 15-20 people) on the cheek in the following 5 minutes. Round 1 happens between the front gate and the teacher’s lounge (about 5-7 male teachers and various staff). Round 2 is inside the teacher’s lounge where on a daily basis, no less than 10 female teachers are putting on mascara, curling their hair, etc. in the last five minutes before the bell rings for first hour. I walk to the back wall where the teacher’s lockers are and lock up my load of books for the day.

7:10 am – 1st hour Bell

I start searching for my first hour teacher if I haven’t already greeted them.

7:15 am – Walk to First Hour…today with the segundos (juniors in the U.S.)

7:20 am – Enter Classroom/Greet Students

Upon any teacher/authority figure entering an Ecuadorian classroom, the students automatically stand up next to their desk. I would love to see if there’s any variation for the non-English classes but the standard procedure for English class is as follows:

Teacher: “Good morning students.”

Students (in unison): “Good morning teacher.”

Teacher: “How are you today?”

Students: “Very well, thank you. And you?”

Teacher: “Very well, thank you. Sit down.

Students: “Thank you teacher.”

Despite my attempts at introducing, “How’s it going?” “What’s up?” or “I’m fine,” ANY variation from the above is completely not understood and will get you looks of utter shock and confusion.

7:25 am – 1st hour actually starts

I hang out, meandering through the desks while the teacher talks unless I have a specific activity planned. When the students are assigned to do something, I continue meandering, trying to gauge the amount of copying happening and what the students really need help with. I’ve learned to pick my battles.

7:50 am – 1st hour ends/2nd hour begins

7:55 am – Individual TOEFL Prep…today it was a review of 20 Campus Vocab. words for the Listening section and practice with skimming and scanning for the Reading section

8:30 am – 2nd hour ends/3rd hour begins (see above)

9:10 am – 3rd hour ends/4th hour begins

The first three hours have been with the same teacher either in class with the segundos or working on TOEFL. Now I’m on to the terceros (seniors) for an hour of Catherine-centered conversation in English because that’s what the teacher wants. I try to get the too-cool-for-school terceros talking by making a fool of myself. I proceed to explain random things like Indie music, how many years American high schools are and the fact that Americans only have one last name. This last bit was completely shocking for everyone present, including the English teacher. Yay for cultural awareness!

9:50 am – Recreo (break time) begins

Depending on how social I’m feeling, I hang out on the patio and attempt some Spanish small talk with random teachers/students as we bake in the Ecuadorian sun for 30 minutes. More than likely, I leave school to pick up some bread or run home for a bit.

10:20 am – Recreo ends/5th hour begins

Freeeedom! I do some last minute TOEFL or English club planning over a cup of hot tea in the teacher’s lounge. I also get a visit from the mail lady in town to deliver a package from Peace Corps HQ in Quito, a postcard, and a lovely letter from my hermana. I will never again live in a place with mail service that includes a personal phone call or a personal visit to my place of work. She knows WAYYYYY too much about me and where I am/what I do.

11 am – Individual TOEFL Prep (6th hour)

A different teacher but more campus vocabulary. I attempt to explain what a dean and grading curve are as well as the semantic differences between career, major, and degree in Spanish and English. Fuuuuuun.

11:40 am – 6th hours ends/7th hours begins

Run home for a quick snack and to buy candy for the English club.

12:20 pm – 7th hour ends/English club for decimos (9th grade) begins

I try to rally students while the decimo teacher bribes them to come. I end up with 8…again my idea of success has changed drastically. We play a name game, a spelling game, and vowel bingo. I reward the winners with candy, hoping they’ll come back next week for more.

1 pm – English club ends

Lunchhhhhh!

2:30 pm – English club for bachilleratos (10th-12th grade) begins (see above)

3:10 pm – English club ends

Run home to grab materials for private English class

4 pm – Private English class with 3 kids in town at their house

We have a basic conversation about what they did today, how to pronounce the -ed ending for the past tense, and walk around town writing down new vocabulary words. We greet all the neighbors as we pass by and talk about the difference between a door and a gate and the fact that there is way too much trash in the street. I am “paid,” despite my insistence on not paying me, in tea, bread, eggs for breakfast tomorrow, and a ride home in an actual car.

6:45 pm – Arrive home

Throw my bags on the ground immediately upon entering my room and fall into bed.

7:45 pm – Cafecito (tea time with the host family) 

I wrap up in my trusty fleece airline blanket once again to go sit in the kitchen downstairs for the nightly ritual of fresh herbal tea and talk about the day. But tonight, with the extra flare of a blackberry cheesecake I made last night. This is the 3rd cup of tea for the day and I am DONE with Spanish and small talk until tomorrow morning when I will greet the 74935874 people I greet on a daily basis.

8:30 pm – Back upstairs/shower time

So that’s a peek at what I did today. Again, most days aren’t nearly this exciting so don’t be thinking I’m explaining Indie music and dean’s lists on a daily basis.

Market Madness: Achotillos

This fruit is one of the sweetest and juiciest I’ve come across. It’s only available for a few months of the year, from about February to April. I can always tell what fruit is in season by the fruit peels found scattered along the sidewalks in town. Achotillos have a particularly interesting peel.

Appearance: small and red, it looks like a strawberry that has grown thorns

Taste: sweet and very juicy, be careful not to bite into the woody pit!

Cost: I got about 7 for $.50, that was including the yapa so around $.10/piece

How to Eat: make a slit in the red skin and peel it away from the white slimy fruit. pop the whole thing in your mouth, eat the white slimy part, and spit the woody pit out.

Enjoy!

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Market Madness: The Guanábana

The guanábana is one of my favorite fruits in Ecuador, mostly because it’s so much fun to say. It is very delicate, so be careful not to smoosh it with your other market purchases. Guanábanas are from the same family as the chirimoya and grow in clumps of 2 or 3 on large trees.

Appearance: Large (about the size of a papaya), with a dark green bumpy skin similar to a chirimoya. Inside is a soft white fruit with large black seeds.

Taste: Not quite as sweet and creamy as a chirimoya although the fruit has a soft and light taste.

Cost: Guanábanas are some of the most expensive fruit at the markets. Depending on the size, they range from $4-$8 for a single fruit. (Point of reference: a basic lunch in a my town is $1.50)

Preparation: Cut the fruit in half, scoop it out from the skin and remove the seeds. Guanábana is best made into juice (be sure to strain it before pouring it from the blender into your cup) or as ice cream.

If you’re willing to splurge on this unique, tasty fruit at the markets throughout Central and South America, you won’t be disappointed!

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We love our whiskey glasses in Ecuador.

Something Sustainable…Can You Help Us Out?

Our job as Peace Corps Volunteers is to create a sustainable project in the 2 years we are in each community so that when the time comes to leave, the groundwork of the volunteer serves the community for years to come. That can mean anything from organizing a yearly summer camp to helping community members create a small business that will provide them with future income. For TEFL Volunteers that means leaving our schools and teachers with teaching materials, new ideas for the classroom, and a greater confidence in the English language.

When I first arrived at site I did what almost every Peace Corps Volunteer does, I talked to anyone who would listen about the community, its history, and what it saw as the greatest needs. The overwhelming response from the English teachers and school authorities was that they would like to create some sort of English/audiovisual laboratory that would serve the needs of the students as well as other community members. That was almost exactly one year ago. Peace Corps work is slow.

Since about mid-March, the English teachers and I have been working diligently to fill out a 60-page grant application that will hopefully make this dream a reality for the community. But like so many things, we need lots of help. That’s where you lovely readers come in. The community is committed to providing 25% of the total cost of the project. The other 75% of the funding comes from donors. The project plan includes trainings for the English teachers on using music, film, and internet in the classroom. They will also be trained on the operation and maintenance of the new technological equipment. Our main goal as TEFL Volunteers is to help our teachers “see outside the book” if you will. I think this would be a great opportunity for the teachers and of course the students to see that English is so much more than completing grammar exercises out of a book.

If you’re interested at all in helping out with this project ($1 goes a VERY long way in Ecuador…keep that mind :)), leave me a comment or a quick facebook message with your name and e-mail address and I’ll get you more details on how to help us out. I’ve included a brief project summary written by my teachers and polished up by yours truly.

“We live in a small community in which the majority of the population works in commerce and agriculture. Taking into account that our community has had little governmental support to improve the local living conditions and is also a local center for tourism, we consider it extremely important to create an English laboratory in our school. We believe that if our school community has access to a fun, attractive, and dynamic way of learning English, they will be motivated to develop communicative and cognitive English skills. Furthermore, this laboratory will provide our community with the resources necessary to communicate with the mostly English-speaking tourists who visit our town and give us the ability to improve our local commerce and economy. The English and technological skills our community will gain will facilitate enrollment in public and private universities, military and police academies, and will give our students the ability to travel to foreign countries without the burden of communication difficulties. This English laboratory will serve as a door to the outside world.

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Market Madness: Taxo

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For this week’s market madness, I bring you the taxo, also known as a banana passion fruit. However, I highly doubt that anyone knows what a banana passion fruit is either. Not to worry, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about this little gem found nearly year-round in markets throughout the Andes region.

Appearance: About 4-5 inches in length, the skin is yellow like a banana. Inside hundreds of small seeds can be found covered in a slimy dark orange fruit (similar to a passion fruit or last week’s granadilla)

Taste: Taxos have a tart, acidic taste that makes you pucker just a bit. I recommend eating taxo in the form of juice or ice cream and with lots of sugar. The seeds inside make the fruit a bit tedious to eat raw.

Cost: 3-4/50¢

Preparation: Scoop out the fruit and seeds from the skin, discard the skin.

Juice:

1. For one glass of juice, prepare 3 taxos, 1 cup of milk or water, and 1 tbsp of sugar.

2. In a blender, mix everything.

3. When well mixed, use a strainer to separate the seeds from the juice.

5. Pour into your favorite whiskey glass (just to really show your Ecuadorian-ness).

4. Buen provecho!

Depending on how sour/sweet you like your juice, you can add more/less sugar. If prepared with milk, its best not to leave it set for too long as the taxo is acidic and it will start to separate from the milk.

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