Its been a while since I’ve written anything on this poor, abandoned blog of mine. I know why, too. Its because I’ve gotten very used to living in Ecuador, and after a while I started feeling like my life in Ecuador wasn’t special or out of the ordinary, and it certainly wasn’t blog-worthy… it was just my normal, average life! As soon as I got an apartment I started doing normal-person things like looking on [the Ecuadorian version of] Craigslist for couches and bookshelves, paying rent every month to my ancient landlady, and balancing my non-profit salaried budget. And my “life in Ecuador” just became normal life.
Well, I’m back, and as my time winds down in Ecuador I’m reminded more and more that there is something special about every day I spend here, as average and normal as gray Wednesday afternoons here may seem to me. I want to keep documenting my time here, and as I prepare within the next six months to one year to make my transition back to the States, I think it’ll be an interesting process for you all to join me on.
I’m not going to update you on all the details about my life since I last wrote in, but just know a lot has changed and also a lot has stayed the same. Heres just a few details:
I’ve got a LOT of ideas for new blogs, so the next few days I’m going to try to work on quite a few to get myself back in the swing of blogging and reflecting on my time in Ecuador. Topics include everything from my favorite budget-friendly recipes to US immigration law to changes in the community I live in here in Ecuador, so stay tuned!
Guess what…I have an apartment here now! I have a brand-new lease through the end of August 2016, a tie of permanence here beyond just Manna and church and my community. The keys are in my hands and now I can start dreaming about the next year and a half of my life making my morning coffee in the kitchen and having friends over and all of the good time I’ll have there.
A year ago I never could have dreamed I would be at this place in my life, signing a lease for an apartment in Ecuador, settling into a slice of permanence for a while in this country thats so far away from what I knew but now what I know so well. But I’m so so happy about it, and I can’t wait to settle in and make my apartment my own…and continue to enjoy this country for another year.
I took a video of the place, which I immediately sent to my mom, of course, but heres a picture of the main room to ease your curiosity.
Oh, and the stellar view from the roof, of course, featuring a view of the mountains and the Sangolqui Church. Don’t worry, I’m already planning on buying deck chairs to bring up to the roof with me.
Tomorrow is my 8 month anniversary in Ecuador, and I’m really surprised by how fast it crept up on me. I originally signed up for 13 months here, and its crazy to think that I only have 5 more of those months to enjoy before I start my second contract with Manna– 5 more months of hanging out with my amazing group of PDs, 5 more months of living in the Manna house, 5 more months of one of the best experiences of my life.
Excuse my creeping nostalgia, I have a feeling that its going to be popping up a lot more as time keeps passing so rapidly. But on to what I really wanted to address…
I get the impression that some people think all I do here is have cool adventures and hike mountains and work with impoverished kids and change lives…. while I do things like that sometimes [or, hope to!] after 8 months I am definitely settling in to a life here. I do normal things like go grocery shopping, hunting for coffee in downtown Sangolqui, and going on dates at the mall. A recent weekend included babysitting my pastor’s kids, going to the movies, wandering around parks in Quito, and eating the Ecuadorian equivalent of dirty water dogs at the end of a late night. Life here is pretty normal– its just my life now, not My Life in Ecuador. I think thats why I have been struggling recently with thinking of cool things to write about on my blog, or interesting things to say. Things that at first were enchanting, wildly different, or astonishing about Ecuador are now becoming the normal that I am used to.I don’t want to sound like I am just taking for granted all of the things that I am blessed with here, because I really don’t think thats the case, though it may seem like it. Last week one of the Vanderbilt volunteers asked me if I’ve gotten used to all the natural beauty of this country, especially the soaring mountains and snow-capped volcanos, and I had to admit that I kind of have. It sounds a little tragic, but I think its normal, and even good. It means I’m settling in, it means I’m looking at this place as home now, rather than foreign. I can’t walk outside my front door ever day and gasp and marvel at the different colors of green on the mountainside, just like after a while when I was in New York I couldn’t be awestruck every time I caught a glimpse of the Empire State Building. Now that doesn’t mean I no longer have those special moments where I catch a glimpse of Cotopaxi while I’m on the bus home from Quito and thank God for the beauty of his creation. It just means that I am learning to embrace the immense beauty all around me, and let it become the landscape of my every day.
This weekend I spent an inordinately long amount of time at the telephone and internet companies at the mall trying to figure out if I could get internet in an apartment that I found and that I really loved. After multiple trips to all the stores of all of Ecuador’s major internet providers, I finally realized that it would be impossible, and I had to tell the owner that I couldn’t sign for the apartment. Not that exciting or uplifting of a weekend by any means, but as I sat at the coffee shop in the mall with José afterwards I realized that there was something kid of special about that anyways. Spending time with him doing normal life things, and enjoying my time in this country, is so beautiful and prescious to me, even when it doesn’t mean being a tourist or doing something crazy and adventurous and new.
I’m settling in to month number 9 here, but thank God I still have 17 more to go. Theres something quite beautiful about the extraordinary becoming something we get to experience on a daily basis.
This week has been crazy, exhausting, and wonderful all at the same time. On top of the ten Manna PDs that normally live in our house, this week we’ve been hosting two week-long spring break groups, bringing the grand total of individuals using our space to thirty one. So yeah, its been busy around here. But despite the absolute insanity that comes with thirty one people trying to make breakfast and dinner at the same time, its actually been really enjoyable having extra hands at work on our programs, and we’ve been able to have a lot of special activities and events that we normally don’t have the capacity to do.
I’m one of the leaders of the group from Vanderbilt this week so I’m responsible for helping organize their activities and events for Manna’s first ever Literacy Week, something that I hope will become an annual thing. We’re having storytelling and reading hour with our library regulars, turning a spare room in our library into an adult reading room, and this morning we had a spelling bee at a local middle school, Chaupitena. It has taken over a month to organize the spelling bee, including a handful of meetings on Monday (a weekend day for Manna), but today it proved to all be worth it when we saw the final product of our efforts.
We arrived at the school bright and early thinking we’d have to set up the chairs and microphones quickly and get everything in order only to find that the teachers had already set everything up and brought their students out into the school courtyard to watch their classmates participate. As the competition started we first recited the national anthem, and then the teachers and administrators that had worked with us to coordinate the competition took the microphone to make speeches. They thanked us for all of our efforts and initiative to organize the event, reminding us that our efforts aren’t just helping the students at Chaupitena with their spelling, but with their self-confidence and their desire to learn and grow it general. The teachers even got emotional when they were talking about how much they appreciated our efforts, and told us to seguir, seguir, seguir with our efforts and with our desire to work with them.
It was really touching to hear, and was one of those special moments where you remember why you chose to come here and the impact that you make even when you don’t realize it; the hearts that you can touch. I am constantly reminded that you can’t work seeking that thanks alone; that often in development work thanks are few and far between. But man does it touch my heart to hear the thanks when it does come.
After a rousing forty five minutes of competition, judged by Manna’s Country Director Fred and Virginia’s Ecuadorian boyfriend Lucho, we had our winner, Alison, and our second place champion Nicol. They were so excited, and their friends and classmates were excited as well. We gave them trophies and books, and Alison won 3 free months of classes with Manna Project as well.
Tomorrow we’re off to paint a literacy-themed mural at a kindergarden at Fajardo, close to our community center. Its been a long, busy week, but a productive one; it makes me so happy to be in Ecuador and so excited to see how the projects and relationships that we’ve developed this week will lead to even more impact in the future.
Big news, friends. I’M STAYING.
I’ve decided to take a leap of faith and finally settle on a idea thats been blooming in the back of my mind since September… I’ve decided to extend my contract with Manna for another year, which means I’m committing to the Valle de los Chillos and Manna Project International until August of next year. Part of me never really doubted that when I made the decision midway through my senior year of college to come to South America I would be staying for more than a year– everything I’ve lived since age 18 has pointed to something like this– but to make this decision still feels like a leap of faith and still feels like venturing into the unknown.
There arethings I don’t like about Manna sometimes, and there have certainly been moments of great frusteration. Its been a struggle working with an organization with limited funds, its been a struggle working with people with vastly different personalities, its been a struggle working on such a vast array of projects that I have had minimal prior experience with. But at the end of the day I go to bed every night happy, because I love it all despite its flaws. I love being here, I love serving people, I love striving to try to make something better for the sake of people that deserve the best.
Everything seems to have fallen into place to make this happen for me, and every minute I feel more and more affirmed in my decision. I desire to be even more a part of the community; I want to gain even more valuable experience in the non-profit sector; I have someone here that I love and I have really high hopes for what the future of our relationship holds; I want to become even better at Spanish. Haa.. I know I don’t have to justify my decision to anyone, but somehow it feels like I still do. It feels like I have to check off all the right boxes in a list of reasons in my mind to make this decision an acceptable one, or else I am doing something to myself that is somehow wrong, somehow misinformed and misguided, even foolish.
Do you want to know what led me to make this decision, really, after so much time contemplating it? On Wednesday after teaching English at church, I decided to spend some free time in the center of Sangolquí, eating ice cream in front of the big Catholic Church and people watching. The weather was nice and the shadows were growing longer as the sun was setting over the colonial buildings in the plaza. I sat on the church steps with my ice cream and prayed and observed the people– a mother playing hide and seek with her little girl, two brothers kicking a soccer ball around, teenagers leaving school in their pressed uniforms and tight black shoes. In the sea of Ecuadorian faces, I somehow felt a deep, piercing sense of home, a sense of belonging even in a place so far from what I spent more than two decades of my life knowing. “This is right, this feels right. I AM STAYING” I scribbled into my journal. Because it does, it feels right. For all of the reasons that I have to stay– and there are so, so many– the overwhelming sense of peace in making this decision is what is most important to me. In the past when I have sought God’s guidance in decision making, I have often waited for some sort of sign or for his audible direction, but sometimes God speaks in other ways too. To Elijah he spoke in a small, still voice; with me, he guided me in peace that surpasses all understanding.
The last seven months in Ecuador have been some of the hardest and some of the best. Whatever may come, I am so thrilled for the next eighteen (yeah, EIGHTEEN) months as well. I can’t wait to see what they hold.
If you’re thinking about Carnaval in South America, you’re probably thinking about Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro– scantily-clad woman in beaded, sparkly tropical costumes, parades, and some of the world’s best parties. While I’m sure that’s probably an accurate picture of Brazil’s Carnaval, Ecuador has its own, wildly different traditions. Carnaval started for me as it starts for most people in Ecuador: with an ambush. Two weeks ago José and I were walking innocently enough from the grocery store to my house, when out of nowhere a white pickup truck pulled up alongside us and dumped a massive pot of [freezing!!] water all over me. Yup, I’d been Carnaval-ed.
Or so I thought. As I learned this weekend, Carnaval in Ecuador is MUCH more than just being innoncently drenched with water on the sidewalk. Its about festively covering [i.e. attacking] your neighbor in foam, dye, paint, eggs, and water, obviously. On Sunday after church José and I went to Amaguaña, a town 20 minutes away from Sangolqui, ready for a full-on Carnaval battle. When we got off the bus in Amaguaña we immediately purchased cariocas— large canisters filled with foam– for what we thought would be self-defense purposes. The bus, filled to the brim with would-be Carnaval revelers dropped us off on the side of the highway because the traffic into town was so bad trying to get into town to playful assault their fellow citizens with Carnaval.
At the entrance to the main road into town we met up with all of our friends from church, which resulted in an immediate assault of foams and dye from all sides. Friends are the worst, my friend Steve commented as he inspected the damage and pointed out a patch of blue dye in the back of my hair that probably wasn’t going to come out later. Oh well, it’s Carnaval, it happens.
Our initial idea of cariocas for self-defense crumbled as we realized how freakishly fun it is to foam random strangers and avoid them foaming you back. Less than an hour later we already had to buy more cariocas to continue playing; we ended up roaming the streets of Amaguaña for the next four hours pushing through the masses gathering in the streets. Highlights included when a group of guys decided they were going to target the defenseless gringa and swarmed around me, rubbing black, purple, and red paint all over my face. Later some of the paint came off when someone ambushed us from behind a garage door and sprayed us with a garden hose; the culprit came running after us the initial attack and smashed an egg on José’s head– a “sympathy egg,” he explained.
After few hours of wandering around all of Amaguaña with the sole intention of engaging unknown Ecuadorians in battle, we decided to take in the free concerts at the festival and eat some street food before heading home after an exhausting day of playing Carnaval . My clothes are permanently stained and the tile on the shower floor probably is still a little black from all the paint on my face and in my hair, but it was absolutely worth it. Through the abushes of foam and water I was reminded of some of the characteristics that I love about the people of this country….their sense of community that surpasses just their family and friends and extends to all those around them. Where else where it would be socially exceptable to foam a stranger or smash an egg on their head? Its an act of closeness, an expression of a sort of community that I could never imagine finding in the United States, and in a most unexpected way I was touched to be reminded of it while staring down the barrel of some Ecuadorian’s carioca.