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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Two Years Later...

My Ecuador Girls

My roommates :)

Me and 3 of my best friends, all of whom I met on the trip

Sometimes I forget that I've been gone from Ecuador two full years, 730 days, approximately 17520 hours. But who's counting?

I was right: Ecuador burrows deep into your skin and wedges itself permanently in your soul. It has a piece of my heart and probably always will.

Two years later, I'm able to see the downfalls of the country: the unstable politics, its socioeconomic status, its need for social reform. But I also see its surreal beauty--always its beauty. It's still the most magical, wonderful, gut-wrenchingly beautiful place I've ever seen.

I was blessed with the opportunity to visit England and Ireland this year (no, the wunderlust hasn't subsided--I doubt if it ever will) but didn't find the connection I had with Ecuador. Was it amazing? Yes. Was it awe-inspiring? Yes. But it wasn't alive like Ecuador. It didn't breathe passion and mystery and raw splendor like Ecuador.

Sometimes, I think people become frustrated with my many references to Ecuador. Fortunately, I lived with three of my travel buddies last year and have remained close with many of my classmates from the Seminar, so there is never a shortage of people to muse about its draw.

Antonia is engaged to an Ecuadorian. Ashley and Katy are teaching in Spain. Nate is in Argentina. Emily is in Washington. Caitlin is in Georgia. Jenny is getting her PhD. Some of us are finishing degrees, some of us are in the real world, some of us are trying explore the wide world as much as possible. None of us are in the same place anymore. Sometimes that's sad to me. I remember the magical nights sleeping under the stars, or talking by candle light, or dancing to some reggaeton until the sun literally came up, or getting deliciously lost in some corner of Cuenca.

Wasn't it just yesterday that I took the house keys from around my neck and gave them back to Mama Isa? They lay on the table between us, my constant companions, a sure sign that this wasn't going to be my home for much longer.

Sometimes it feels like a dream, slipping away even though I desperately try to hold on to it as I wake up. There are so many things I miss Mama Isa and hot bread and... well, you know. Sometimes I want that back so bad it physically hurts, like my breath is being drawn from my chest. I dream about it--often in Spanish, though more and more in my dreams, I am often struggling to find the right words to speak with my host mom.

I was able to channel my energy into working at the Study Abroad office at school. That way I could talk about my experiences AND get paid! I pushed the Seminar in Ecuador '11 trip hard--marketing, speaking to potential students, talking to them in order prepare them for the wonder that is South America's gem. I sincerely hope they had an experience like our group did.

Things that this trip gave me:

-Self-Confidence and "Chillness":
I was very shy the first year of college. I didn't talk to many people. I wasn't involved in any extra-curricular activities. I did A+ work and saw that as my number 1 goal in life. I was highly anxious about getting that letter grade and developed an anxiety disorder. Ecuador was going to challenge me in ways I couldn't anticipate for. Traveling is always done by the skin of your teeth, to some extent. You'll never be able to prepare for it 100%. I realized that I didn't need to depend on my parents and my best friends at home to help me through tough times. I made decisions--and mistakes--entirely on my own and realized that I was actually capable of taking care of myself! I also took a B on my final Spanish grade, largely due to the last-minute trip to the coast. That was okay. Experiencing the country was a genuine learning experience, not the studying which would yield an A. My anxiety lessened drastically after the trip and I was able to tackle it! I'm more active in school, am far more outgoing, and am not afraid to try new things!

-A Broader Understanding of My Place in the World:
What do you know? I'm not the center of the universe! Americans aren't even the top of the food chain! I'm only a wee molecule of what makes the earth go around. Seeing people of all sorts of socioeconomic stratifications made me realize just how fortunate I was to have food on my plate, a roof over my head, and a great education. When I got back, Fair Trade became a passion so people in other countries weren't exploited for their resources and work.

-The Knowledge that I Can Rough It:
No electricity? No meat? No hot water? No car? No cell phone? No internet? I can deal with that! I'm a lot more capable than I ever thought! I loved living three months without first-world conveniences.

-Life-Long Friendships:
I lived with three of my best friends from the trip and saw many of the other people I'd gotten close with regularly. I won't speak to all of the trip participants for the rest of my life, but there were some real gems I know I want in my life forever.

-An Appreciation for My Family:
They supported me through this adventure, listened to me cry when I was homesick for a country I wasn't born in, and looked at ALL of my pictures (all 5,000 of them!).

(written a year after we returned)

"I never want to be without these people." Through a champagne-sparkled gaze, Ashley says what I feel.
Nate's in the center inventing dance moves to house music. Adam's in the corner taking pictures. Shannon's dancing like no one is watching. Natalie is taking a page from the "Peanuts" gang dance, shrugging her shoulders to the beat. Everyone is touching, sweating, teasing, laughing, being, loving.
Barely any of us are part of the same social cliques. Some of us are extraordinarily privileged and others are taking out loans as fast as possible. There are Biology majors, Sociology majors, Psychology majors, Spanish majors, English majors, Computer Science majors, graduates. There are Buddhists, Protestants, Atheists, Agnostics, Apathetics. There are timids, boisterouses, awkwards, barbies, comics, braves, sympathics. Nothing predicts what happens when we are together because it defies all logic.
Maybe it's because we were thrown into classes together every day for 4 months, or because we spent 3 months as aliens in a foreign country. Or because we spent 6 hours riding on buses through vomit-inducing mountain rides and 10 hour boat/chiva/canoe/bus trips and 10 hour flights and 8 kilometer hikes in misery together. Or because we got called "baby shampoo," "white b*tch," "sexy," "princessa," "bonita," every day.Or because we experienced panic attacks, screaming, crying, homesickness, anger, hope, happiness, frustration, joy, wonder, and love together. Or because we had dirty hair and 3-day-old sweat stains on our clothes. Or because we stared in wonder at the same world around us.
Or maybe just because we realized that nothing is so different that it could keep us from being a family.

Home: A Foreign Land

"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land."
-Gilbert K. Chesterson

The first time I saw many friends and family members after I had come back from my three months abroad in South America, they often said, "I bet you’re so glad to be back in America with all the things you didn’t have abroad.”

I looked them all right in the eye and said, "I disagree."

Yes, I missed my family—quite terribly. I missed my friends. I missed endless hot water and being clean all the time and eating peanut butter. But you know what? I know what I can live without and what I need to live. I need my family. I need the people who understand me best. I don't need electricity, hot water, indoor plumbing, a refrigerator full of food I don’t eat before its expiration date, a closet full of clothes I barely wear, twenty purses, and all the ridiculous excess of American culture that I didn’t think twice about before I left.

I just spent ten weeks traveling what felt like every last inch of Ecuador, a Colorado-sized country in the north-west corner of South America.
I saw shooting stars and the Southern Cross over our boat in the Galapagos. I swam with sea lions, sea turtles, and sharks, and was close enough to touch whales and feel their spray. I heard baby sea lions suckling and heard masked boobies calling for their mates. I touched sea cucumbers in their tidal pools, urchins on their rocks, and eagle rays as they slicked past my legs. I hiked up volcanoes, snorkeled in underwater caves, and walked across miles of pristine beaches.

I woke up every morning in our home city of Cuenca to see the Andes pink and misty and walked past them every day. I passed the same soldier every day on the street as Antonia (another student on the trip) and I recounted the previous night on our way downtown to the Spanish school. I followed my nose down the street every day during class break to find the freshest bread and buy it for 10 cents. I laughed with my host mother and was teased by my host uncle. I taught them English words (and the Italian command for "EAT!") and they taught me to speak Spanish less like a gringa, a white girl. I learned the importance of family by watching my host mother take care of her ailing grandmother and by seeing the love and sacrifice it takes to support each other. I saw the strength of women rise above a culture bogged down by machismo.
I had adventures every weekend with my friends, both American and Ecuadorian. I got into clubs for free because we came so often and we liked to smile. I danced salsa without self-consciousness and loved it. I ended up by the Tomebamba River for late-night conversations—deliriously happy.

I ate guinea pig and chicken foot soup and fruits I never dreamed could exist, with spikes and goo and seeds which looked like fish eggs. I discovered a taste for the national beer. I ate lunch for $1.50: soup, rice, dessert, juice, cilantro, and all. I discovered my limits.
I conquered my fear of heights from observation towers overlooking the Amazon jungle. I saw the same frogs that are in zoos in their natural habitat. I saw the scariest spiders in the world and refrained from smushing them. I hiked the jungle for hours a day and went back for more.

I bargained away my life in Otavalo and met the most talented and creative artists I've ever seen. I found gourds carved like owls, jade necklaces like leaves, feathers painted with volcanoes at night, shrunken heads, jewelry shaped like tortoises, silver filagree so fine I was afraid I'd break it, and bottomless bags in which to carry it all. I saw artistry as old as the hills and pagan rituals long practiced by even the Catholics themselves. I loved in that city.

I let myself remain an open book to twenty-six strangers. I found that with every secret I let unfold from my clenched fists, I was healed a little bit more. Instead of humiliation, I found support. I laughed until I cried and cried until someone fed me Nutella. I left twenty-six friends richer.

I climbed mountains. I saw nature at its purest. I met the kindest people who welcomed me into their home with open arms and called me their daughter. I felt more understanding of myself and my own culture than I ever have in the last twenty years. I experienced things I'll never be able to replicate in a million years. And that’s why I have to disagree that America has so much more to offer. I only found who I am only when I took the risk to leave it.

I think it turned out okay.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Clases de Espanol

Midterm presentations for Dia de los Difuntos (below), Miss Cuenca contest (above), etc.

Playing games in our Spanish class

Final presentations (in the addition that was build during our time there!)

Learning Spanish by using Chippendale playing cards: "El hombre tiene un grande...erm...brazo."

If you couldn't tell for my writing already, Spanish has been a serious challenge for me. I've always been so proficient at English my whole life, I thought that maybe I'd have the same knack for picking up Spanish. I mean, I didn't have too hard of a time with Latin (even if it is a dead language) and since Latin was the base for the Romance languages, I thought I'd be on the way to an A at Amauta!


It's the end of the semester and it's abundantly clear that I will not be receiving an A in Spanish. It's pretty clear I will be lucky to receive even a B. For me, Little Miss Goodie-Straight-A-Two-Shoes, that's a pretty depressing thought. But am I going into convulsions and conniptions over it? Am I having panic attacks and crying fits? Nope. I even went to the coast instead of studying harder for the final exam.

What in the world has come over me?

This trip has done many things for me, but one of them is definitely to mellow me out as far as grades go. An A is just an A. A B is just a B. Heck, as long as I don't fail outright, it really won't matter next year, let alone ten years from now. I really won't remember writing perfect grammatical sentences in response to Lagrimas de Angeles, potentially the most depressing book in the Spanish language (about street children who are drugged and essentially pimped out to sell gum and candy). I WILL remember sitting at the kitchen table with Mama Isa pointing to random things in the room and repeating the name in Spanish. I WILL remember getting lost once in a cab because I couldn't give directions well and never, ever making the same mistake twice. I WILL remember using Chippendale playing cards to compare men in Spanish. I WILL remember that you never, ever say "Estoy excitamente!" and think that you're saying you're looking forward to an event, or say "Tengo huevos" and think you're just saying you have eggs.

That's authentic education, isn't it?

Amauta is a cozy building that provides couches, computers, snacks, sanity, and even an over-nighter if necessary. Narcissa and Myra and the other teachers are so friendly, so helpful when we're lost and confused, so helpful with cultural connections and English when we're lost. Many a fun hour has been spent here (though the least fun were definitely my hours struggling with Spanish) and I will miss it to be sure.

I can now proudly say that I speak with great fluency...




Playing games

Our Spanish class with Profesora Isabel

Me and Mama Isa

Amauta threw a goodbye party for us on one of our last days. All of the host parents, teachers, and students were invited to the countryside home (in El Valle) of Dr. Melampy's host family. The house is seriously gorgeous. I have never been to Dr. Melampy's host home in Cuenca proper but if this is what their "country" home looks like, I imagine it's pretty damn big. We had a big lunch and danced for a while with our host families and teachers.

A lot of families in Cuenca have maids. I don't mind not having one in my own home but I wonder how Mama Isa can clean the entire, massive place by herself. I help where I can but she always shoos me away after a little bit. This family probably has like 3 for each home.

It's bittersweet coming to the end of this amazing journey and the whole time there was this nagging twist in my stomach that makes me realize how torn I am. On one hand, the machismo and the rare but obvious anti-American sentiments are getting really old.

On the other hand, I am in love with this city and this country--head over heels, topsy-turvy, punch-drunk, irrevocably in love with it.

Maybe it's...

the flowers in colors that Crayola couldn't come up with,

the grime of a city that's alive which turns my snot black,

the blue-plum mountains cradling the city,

the taxis and buses and cars that whiz by and break-neck speed and make you play frogger--even when you've got the right of way to cross the street,

the four rivers that tuck in the narrow streets and Old World buildings,

the cobble-stone avenues,

the warm aroma of bread,

the stray dogs,

the now-familiar faces,

the peace of the walk Antonia and I share--often in solicitous silence--to school,

the way ketchup is pink and too sweet,

the way my host mother hugs me after a long day,

the way my host uncle teases me for developing a taste for the national beer,

the way everything shuts down for a soccer game,

the way Ecuadorians have no personal bubble and draw you in for an embrace and a kiss,

the rhythm of salsa and Pitbull that reverberate equally,

the rhythm of the city, buzzing, teeming, vibrating with life,

the clear mornings, the brief rain, the hot afternoons, and the Southern cross in the night sky,

the rice that is serve with everything,

the thrill of eating things you never quite know the origins of,

the way it doesn't even matter,

the fruits in shapes you didn't know could exist in nature,

the sound of the Tomebamba at night,

the way Cuencanas dress to the nines to run out to get a loaf of bread,

the blues, yellows, peaches, reds, oranges, and purples that defy America's ever-present beige decorating scheme,

the keys I hung around my neck for safe keeping that open the squeaky, stubborn, gate at 4 AM,

the car alarms that have fallen into a predictable song: honkhonkhonkhon, WEEoohWEEoohWEEooh, waaaaAAAHwaaaaHHHwaaaAHH, ER-ER-ER-ER, pyewpyewpyewpyew,

the way the hike to school uphill gets easier ever day,

the $1.50 I pay for almuerzo (lunch) and the 25 cent beer,

the things I probably won't remember tomorrow morning,

the ease with which I can give taxi drivers directions to where I want to go,

the undeniable value of family,

or maybe it's just the way it feels like home.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

December 10: A Fairy Tale Plea to the Professors

Date: December 10, 2009

Weather: The same as it was fifteen minutes ago: I still want to be picnicking by the Tomebamba and enjoying the city

Once upon a time, there was a young American girl in a charming South American city. For months, she enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets and buying the fresh bread that tickled her nose and made her want to bury herself in the piles of it in the panederias.

Her family in this charming little city was of the kindest, gentlest type. Her grandfather bought her ice cream on Sundays and her grandmother called the American her little baby and blessed her before she left every morning. Her mother brought her shoe shopping and peanut butter shopping and bought her delicious chocolate cakes every few days, and her uncle liked to tease her about her love of books and wine.

Every few weeks in the charming little village, the young American girl was whisked from her home, and taken a hundred miles away, where she inspected lichens and talked with crazy, burned-out hippies. She dearly loved this adventurous lifestyle, where she saw the most incredible things she'd every seen.

However, this fairytale has a dilemma, as every decent fairytale is expected to have. The young American girl was being forced by the wicked princes of the land she was visiting to write a book about her adventures by the last day of her journey. The young girl despaired for days. While she would have written about her adventures with the utmost willingness at another time, she was far more concerned with living the adventures at hand and resented deeply being locked away in a tower to finish the book. Her heart ached to be with her family, to eat more bread, to have more adventures. That wretched book prevented her from doing that.

She knew that the book would be wonderful, that it made sense to write it, that the princes would be extremely pleased if she finished it on time. Yet... the rivers and the cobblestone streets called to her. So she decided to do one thing—her only option. She decided to forgo the book and have her own adventures and enjoy life as it came to her.

The princes were dismayed and very upset. But then, in a wink and a flash, a benevolent shaman came to them with a magical potion which showed them the error of their ways until they begged the young American girl for forgiveness for hampering her education and her experiences in the charming land. She accepted their apologies, had wonderful adventures, and went back to her country fulfilled by experience and filled with bread.

And she lived happily ever after.

December 10: Exploring the city a few more times

Date: December 10, 2009

Weather: Sunny, lovely, the perfect weather for walking through the city and enjoying it

My mother loves her job. She's a math professor at a local college and loves it. I'm forever finding scribbled math equations on napkins and scraps of paper, not to mention the piles of notebooks filled with them.

The problem with her job is that, while trying to pay for the three-story house, she's forced to pay 20% in taxes. She feels secure in her job but hate that so much is being taken from her paycheck.

The school receives Correa's little “gifts,” the cheap books that don't prepare the students well enough for her class. Also, she just got her Master's degree on Friday and isn't receiving much of a benefit from it.

December 9: A heart-to-heart with Mama Isa

December 9, 2009

Location: Cuenca

Weather: Nice

It took me over a month to figure out where my host dad has been. One day, the day after Trevor and my 9 month anniversary, I came home from a telephone cabina sobbing my eyes out on Antonia's shoulder, who had the job of explaining to my mother why I was at my wit's end and unable to keep it together.

“Don't cry,” my mom told me. “Men aren't worth it. Don't cry.”

The next day, she asked me if I was better and pulled out a pile of photo albums to show me her past. She showed me her husband who has been gone for six months and who won't return her phone calls or talk to her in over two months. They were only married for six years and had several unsuccessful pregnancies. No wonder she seems like she's dying to become a mother. Her husband is off cavorting around the Oriente while she is stuck at home paying bills and worrying about making ends meet in their enormous house.

It's unfair to my mother to be stuck in the position of having to stay faithful and keep the house running simply because she has a womb. She told me that her husband is stupid and they can't get a divorce (thank you, Catholicism), but she can't do what she wants, either. Gender injustice strikes hardest in marriages, I think. It isn't the catcalls on the streets or the expectation that women are the ones who must cook, clean, and take care of everyone. It's in the marriages held together only by a piece of paper and the disapproving eye of the church.

My mom has to work, take care of her mother, watch her nephew every day, and be a proper woman. She has none of the freedom of a married woman but all of the responsibilities, despite Vincente's absence.

“What do I do with all of his clothes?” She asked, showing me the closets full of suits and shoes and hats.

“Burn it,” I told her.

She laughed and agreed that it was a brilliant idea. “Men are stupid. With the exceptions of Manuel.”