it is not down in any map; true places never are

After 4 months of living in Ecuador I think it’s safe to say the “honeymoon phase” has officially ended and real life has begun to sink in. I’m still so excited to see and experience everything this amazing country has to offer, but I’m also starting to have a real life and real responsibilities here. This means I can no longer play hooky from work for entire afternoons to read on the beach, and last weekend I turned down a beach camping trip to do some work with a nonprofit organization that holds activities for kids from the poorest neighborhoods of San Vicente. Having a real job to do and putting on my responsible grownup disguise is not quite as glamorous as jet-setting around the country and eating ceviche until it comes out of my eyeballs, but I guess it had to happen at some point.

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, so instead of writing a play-by-play of every meeting and event and game of “shark” and “hot lava” and “go fish” I’ve played in the past 3 weeks, I’m going to write about some of the most important lessons I’ve learned here thus far. I still have 23 months to go and many more lessons to learn…this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

1. It’s possible to get used to pretty much anything.

No bucket bath for a week because there’s no water? No problem! Heaping piles of white rice for 3 meals a day? Bring it on. The other day someone handed me a knife and a fork to cut meat with and I felt so confused and awkward holding a utensil in each hand. We only ever use spoons here, for everything. Trying to cut chicken with a knife felt unnatural and all I wanted was my familiar spoon back. I feel like a bad person if I greet or say goodbye to someone without kissing them on the cheek. People who aren’t from the coast have told me I need to enunciate my words more clearly and stop dropping the second half of most of my words. Meanwhile, people from the coast are beginning to understand me better. Humans have an amazing ability to adapt to change, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly it’s happening here. One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get used to here — the cheese. There is one kind, and it doesn’t melt no matter how hard you try, and it squeaks when you try to chew it. It’s truly horrible.

2. Independence is overrated.

I’ve never felt less independent in my life than I do here. Part of it is because the culture here is very collective while the culture in the US is extremely individualistic. I never realized how deeply ingrained this sense of individualism was until I came to Ecuador. US culture emphasizes the sense of “I”…meaning personal achievements, individual goals, initiative, and a strong sense of independence. Relying or being dependent on others is generally seen as shameful, and people are encouraged to rely on themselves for success and fulfillment. In Ecuador, it’s the complete opposite. The goals and interests of the family and the community are more important than those of the individual. Working with others and cooperating as a community is the norm, and everyone supports one another. People very rarely move away from their families to pursue educational or professional opportunities, because being near family is more important than money or professional success. Children generally live with their families until they are married, and only attend University if there is one nearby (there are definitely exceptions; this is the norm). As an American living in Ecuador, I struggle with this difference in cultures every day. I began my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer by drawing out detailed action plans and schedules for what I was going to accomplish and what MY projects were going to be. I had an image in mind of what MY service would look like over the next 2 years. I realize now that no one really cares what I can do…they care about what their community can do, together. My own goals and visions and action plans don’t mean anything here. As an outsider here, I need to become a part of this community and accomplish goals with them, not for them. I can’t do anything by myself, and my individualistic, American brain is still struggling with that.

3. Nothing means what you think it means.

I live pretty much in a constant state of having no idea what is going on. People are always asking me to go places with them, but they never explain where they want me to go or why they want me to go there. Usually I’ll be at home or at the municipio, and my host mom or counterpart will come to me and say “vamos!” (let’s go!). I’ll ask silly questions like where we are going or why we are going there or what I should bring with me, and the answer is almost always “arriba” (up), “adelante” (forward), or “alli” (there). I’ve learned that “arriba” usually means either to Salinas to visit my host mom’s family or to the shrimp farms, and the rest of the words could literally mean anything. I usually just put on comfortable shoes and follow along blindly. It’s also impossible to learn peoples’ names here. I’m convinced no one even knows each others names because they call each other pretty much exclusively “mijo/mija,” “amor,” “man,” “niña/niño,” and “ñaño/ñaña” (my son/daughter, love, man, girl/boy, and the kichwa words for brother/sister). They almost never have the actual relationship that what they are calling each other would suggest. It’s very confusing.

I feel like this most of the time:

4. Have patience, empathy, and a sense of humor. These things are mandatory.

I almost threw a temper tantrum last week when I was brought to a classroom to meet a teacher and then left alone for 2 hours with 15 three year olds to give a “charla” about hand washing. I almost lost my cool when a doctor sat me down to give me a lesson about HIV/AIDS and got almost all of the facts completely wrong. I get frustrated sometimes when meetings start two and a half hours late, and it’s not fun when coworkers try to trick me into going on dates with their creepy 47-year old uncles because I’m 24 and not married and they are very, very concerned that I’m going to die alone. These moments are frustrating, but I would literally lose my mind if I let every little thing get to me. I am learning to laugh at myself, stop taking setbacks too seriously, and always carry a book for when things don’t go as planned.

Basically, I feel like this a lot:

….and then I remind myself:

5. Never turn down an opportunity, even if you don’t think it will benefit you. Even if you really, really don’t want to do it.

I’m still working on this one. It’s really, really hard for me to enthusiastically agree to go to a 4-hour city council meeting with my host mom at 7pm after a long day of work. It’s also difficult and painful to volunteer to run around on a basketball court or soccer field for many, many hours with teenagers who somehow NEVER GET TIRED. One hundred times out of one hundred, I would rather curl up in bed and watch 96 episodes of “Always Sunny” than put myself in an awkward situation that usually involves some kind of physical or emotional pain. However, it always seems to be the opportunities I most reluctantly agree to participate in that turn out to be the most rewarding. Going to the basketball court with my host brother led me to meet the mom of one of his friends, who works for an international NGO called Caritas Internationalis that provides humanitarian assistance to the poorest parts of San Vicente. She invited me to their meetings and I’m going to start working with them soon to give nutrition and hygiene charlas to parents and families in a few of the most marginalized neighborhoods of San Vicente. Conducting interviews with employees of the municipio outside my office led me to agree to start teaching English classes to kids after school through the Office of Education and Culture. I’m also going to be working with another volunteer to teach theater classes to kids, which is definitely something I never saw myself doing. While English and theater are somewhat outside my realm of “expertise” as a health volunteer, I agreed because it will be a great way to get to know the kids in San Vicente and start to really become a part of my community. I’ve also been spending my Sundays working with a nonprofit called “Fundacion Futuro,” which does activities with kids from the poorest neighborhoods in San Vicente on the weekends to keep them from doing drugs and becoming involved in gangs. I found out about it from one of the girls I met through playing basketball, whose mom runs the organization. Amazing opportunities come from the most unexpected places, and I never would have known that if I had let myself hide like I wanted to.

…like this:

“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” – Dumbledore. Obviously.

And finally — I haven’t been great about taking pictures lately, but here are a few!

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Roasted pig jaw, complete with the teeth and plenty of hair still attached. YUM!

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Photoshoot with my host brother…clearly my best friend in this town.

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Got to try cacao for the first time! This is where chocolate comes from. The white encasing is sweet and the bitter cacao beans are inside. I ate pretty much this entire thing…SO GOOD. I was driving to a rural community with someone from my office and said I had never tried cacao…he stopped the truck in the middle of the road, got his machete from the backseat, and chopped one out of a tree for me.

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VAMOS ECUADOR!!! Watching the Ecuador vs. Colombia game in Bahia. They lost, but we got a free drink for wearing our Ecuador jerseys. You win some, you lose some.

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