Take Aways

I officially have a few days left in this beautiful country and I do not know where the time flew off to.  I mean it was just here like five months ago, but it has slipped away without my full awareness of it going.  I have been in contact with my closest friends from home a lot lately and they are all counting down the days to when I come back to the States, reminding me just how close it is.  I keep getting asked if I am ready to come back home and what I will be most excited to see or do and I am overwhelmed by these questions.  Of course there are things I miss and am ready to get back to, but there are some things that I have grown very accustomed to in this country that will be really strange to leave and things that I have learned here that I want to impact my life and never forget.

Saying Goodbye to Quito

To start with the little things:  I will miss the cheap public transportation system of this country, the simplicity of making choices, and overall less consumption and wastefulness of the lifestyle.  In general, you go into a restaurant and you can straight up tell the waitress that you want “almuerzo” (lunch) and they bring you a three course meal that is already pre-chosen for the day.  We eat soup, seco (rice, salad, and some kind of protein), juice, and postre (dessert) of some various kinds.  I like that I don’t have to mull over the options that a menu presents, but I can just go in and eat whatever is put perfectly portioned in front of me, all for about $2.  Also, the majority of my showers in this country have been cold – evidence to me that electricity and much water has not been wasted on my bath. Rarely do you have carryout as an option in a restaurant, so I am not carrying out a bag full of plastic when I eat a meal outside of home.  We don’t have dryers much in this country, so clothes are just hung outside to dry in the wind and sun.  These are just little examples of things that I have come to really appreciate about this country that I’ll certainly miss when I return to the States where I tend to stress over the multitudes of decisions I have everyday and the amount of resources that are wasted because of my actions as well.

I have grown very close to my host family in Quito, who up to this point I haven’t talked much about.  I lived with my family on the third floor of our apartment building in a neighborhood in a northeast sector of the city.  My family consists of my 60-something year old host mom (never worked up the guts to ask just how old she is) and my 26 year-old host brother.  Our apartment had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room – just big enough for the three of us to live comfortably together.

My Family

My host mom is one of the sweetest and most generous women I know who made me feel right at home the moment I first stepped into her door.  She is a very conservative Catholic woman who attends bible study and prayer circle every Tuesday and Thursday and mass on Sunday morning.  She taught me how to pray in Spanish and she was always so patient with me as I sought to express myself more and more deeply in Spanish as the semester went on and as we got to know each other.  She lost her husband 7 years ago to cancer and she talks about him everyday as if he were just gone on a long vacation and was just as present now as he always had been. She tends to her 82 year-old sister-in-law as she does her son – spending time with her everyday, having her over for every meal and escorting her on all of her errands.  She is also the typical Latina who loves to try and fix me up with all of her son’s friends or any cute single young man that she happens to come across.  She loves to watch the Bachelorette (in Spanish, of course), explaining everything as it happens with her own commentary.  She is a fantastic cook and loves to serve her food to anyone who comes to the apartment in a second or third helping when they’ve wolfed down the first.  I did not know it would be possible to feel so close to and at home with people so quickly in a foreign culture, but she did a fantastic job of making me feel like her own daughter.  I’m going to miss hearing her sweet voice call me “mija” (“my child”) and passing long afternoons chit-chatting together.

My host brother, José, is a funny guy who I became pretty close with as well.  He is an aspiring rapper who wants to move to Los Angeles one day to pursue fame and the American Dream.  He and I loved to watch movies together, so many nights were spent going out to buy Ecuadorian junk food and coming back to the house to enjoy American classics voiced over in Spanish.  He and I also had a routine of going out to the park beside our apartment building and sparring late at night. He is into mixed martial arts and I did a little karate in my day, so our matches made for pretty interesting fights that always ended up with us rolling on the ground laughing.  On the weekends he would take me out with his friends to clubs for long nights of dancing, and I just felt like a part of the crew.  His friends would take turns dancing with me, each teaching me some new step or trick to the different dances they do here.  This was one of my absolute favorite parts of the semester because dance is such a distinctly cultural thing that I got a lot of experience in and with Ecuadorians who are pretty fantastic dancers.  One of the most fun things for me this semester was riding around Quito on the back of José’s motorcycle as he showed me different parts of the city or as we ran errands. It was a thrill swerving in and out of traffic in the big city and being able to see the beautiful mountains on either side of the valley while wind was rushing in our faces.

When important seasons or experiences of my life are over, I like to do this little thing called “take aways.”  One of my spiritual mentors, Wofford’s RUF Campus Minister, introduced me to this exercise and I have adopted it as a primary method for reflecting on and learning from my experiences. My Ecuador “take aways” are things that impacted me that I want to take back to the States and integrate into my life there. There are little things that José did that stand out to me as “take aways.”  For one, he was always bringing me home little gifts of things that he knew I liked just for no reason.  He would bring me home chocolate, burritos, or little trinkets that reminded him of jokes we had.  These things made me feel so special because he would go out of his way to pick them up while he was thinking of me, and that is a way that I want to make other people feel.  This is not only something that José did but many Ecuadorians that I became friends with along the way did as well. Generosity is a part of this culture and can generally be experienced by anyone who an Ecuadorian person interacts with. Another thing that José would do is challenge me to take advantage of the situation that I am in to grow as much as possible.  Even though he speaks pretty good English, he always made me speak Spanish and watch movies in Spanish with him in order to get better.  When we were in clubs dancing, he always made sure I was dancing in order that I was having a great time and learning how to dance their way.  Each day that I had free time, he always wanted to take me to places around the city so that I could experience all that the city has to offer.  These are just a few examples of one of the things that I appreciated most about him – that he always was pushing me to grow. I want to be that type of friend, parent, sister, daughter, classmate, etc.  I want people to feel challenged by me to grow, to experience the richness of life and appreciate the uniqueness of each situation because it is such a short time we have in our different seasons of life to do so.

Another important “take away” from my Ecuador season is an appropriate pridefulness.  I believe that I touched on this concept in my first and second posts but my thoughts on it have expanded over the last few months into an important “take away.” Ecuadorians have a pure desire for visitors to appreciate and love their country as much as they do and they have pride in their country because of its beauty and its people. They do not derive the value of their country by comparing it to other countries but rather, they see its unique and inherent worth.  I believe that this is something that I can learn from as a US American. Because it is how I grew up thinking about the United States, I think that it is great because it is the best country in the world where we have the most freedom, the most diverse people, the most this, the greatest that. This is actually something that someone here in Ecuador pointed out to me and I was a bit ashamed. I should take a lesson from the Ecuadorians on the proper way to value my country – for its inherent good qualities and not for its greatness compared to other countries.  Every country has things to be proud of, but I think it is wrong to be proud by comparison.

I think that I will continue to learn from this experience as time passes, especially after I return to the States.  I never want to forget the inherent value of Ecuador and these important truths that I have come to understand. I want them to change my life starting with my perspective and worldview.  I believe that this change is already well in the works but as with any important experience like this, I don’t want to limit its impact to only the Jillian that lives in Ecuador, in the experience.  Let the “take aways” keep coming!

Ecuador, forever in my heart

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Home is Where the Heart is

Happy Belated Thanksgiving from Ecuador!  I think that spending my first one away from home and family and in a country that doesn’t celebrate the holiday was one of the greatest lessons in thanksgiving that I have ever had.  I spent the majority of the day meditating on the things that I am thankful for because I didn’t have the normal hustle and bustle of family activities to be a part of like usual.

and I DID eat Thanksgiving dinner!

I realized that all the things I was thinking about came back to this one all-encompassing thing that I am thankful for more than anything:  home.  I’ve spent a lot of time and many conversations –in English and Spanish – this semester talking about my home.  I live at Wofford College in a dorm for the majority of the year but when I am not there I live with my mom in Irmo, South Carolina.  The weather at home is pretty good with hot summers and cool winters, as they should be in my opinion. This is the general description that I would always give to people when they asked where my home is and what it is like.  It wasn’t until Thanksgiving night that I thought about it deeply and realized that home is so much more than location and weather.

It just so happens that the hostel where I am staying this month for my Independent Study Project in Vilcabamba is owned by an American couple from Washington state.  They decided to have a Thanksgiving feast for their guests and the American expats living in the area.  All of the tables of the hostel’s dining area were pulled together in a long line and we all sat around it to feast together.  I sat across from a young Ecuadorian couple and beside a Swiss-American guy, Jasper, who was my age.  My conversation went back and forth between Spanish and English as I explained to the Ecuadorians what this holiday looks like for Americans over in the States and asked questions about what Thanksgiving looks like for this guy of mixed heritage who has spent the majority of his life living in Switzerland with one US American parent.  It was fascinating dinner conversation – definitely my most unique Thanksgiving discourse – between so many people of different cultural backgrounds.  I asked Jasper where he considers his home to be, as he has lived in both the US and Switzerland, and it took him a moment of hesitation to give me an answer.  He said most genuinely “home is where the heart is.”  He didn’t answer me with a particular place, which I thought was most interesting, but rather with anecdotes from both Switzerland and the US that all involved the people he loves most, his family. This conversation was impactful for me as I realized that more of what home really is to me is much of the same.

What makes home, home, is the people who are there, without a doubt.  My house in Irmo, South Carolina is home because my mom is always there when I arrive.  She is the person who loves me more than anyone else on this planet and it is her love and sweet hugs that keep me coming back.  What makes Irmo my hometown is the fact that most of the rest of my family and many friends live in or around there and in a matter of minutes I can be where they are to pass time conversing, or just being together.  Wofford College is another home because my best friends in the world live there with me, as do my fantastic teachers and life mentors.  Home for me doesn’t only exist in the United States, however.  I found a home back on the farm in Mindo, with my host family in Quito and among many of the other students in my program.  I even found a home in the dining room of the hostel with Jasper by the end of the evening.  Home is in those places where there are people that you enjoy and love and where you just feel comfortable.

I believe that this semester in Ecuador has extended my capacity to feel at home as my people skills and my ability to love people who are really different from me have improved a lot.  I feel most comfortable and at home in the south in the US where people are like me but I see so much growth in myself for the fact that I am also able to find home in other countries around the world where people are not like me.  My heart is more open to loving people, no matter who they are, and as a result I am more able to feel at home wherever I go.

So, this Thanksgiving I am most thankful for home, those special places where there are people with pieces of my heart, and I am thankful to Wofford for giving me this opportunity to learn such a meaningful truth about people and life.

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The Plight of Pachamama

“The Ecuadorian Amazon is home to everything that seems like it shouldn’t exist: scarlet macaws that look like flying rainbows, morpho butterflies with tiny crystal scales that reflect iridescent blue in bright light, frogs disguised as dead leaves, black caimans that poke their regal, bumpy heads out of the water banks, and fireflies that glow in the rainforest nights. A monkey threw a piece of fruit at me, a butterfly licked sweat off my arm, and the forest engulfed me with secrets older than the ice age. But all this life from the canopy trees to the pink river dolphin to the little metallic beetle is fragile, and the propaganda and natural gas fires from the petroleum industry seem too horrific to be real. People are getting cancer from petroleum-coated streams while their chocolate plants are diseased and subject to market rates that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and lack of access to heath, health care, education, and political rights. Cultural sovereignty for indigenous communities is being slashed and burned like forests making way for palm oil plantations, as if coexisting with such an intense ecosystem for centuries did not merit the dignity of upholding land rights and sovereignty. People should not have to rely on foreign students like me buying bracelets and beautifully woven plates to survive when they used to rely and thrive on the forest that amazed me in my short visit.”

The Ecuadorian Amazon in all its glory!

A Tiny Wonder

Beautiful Creatures

These powerful words written by one of my friends that is studying with me describe more perfectly (and concisely) than I could what has been on my mind since taking an excursion to the Ecuadorian Amazon.  Before I explain more of what I mean, I would like to share one more little anecdote of only my own to further develop for you the beauty of this part of the world because I can’t just leave it there.

It was the last night that I was going to spend in the Tiputini Biological Research Station, a pristine and remote location that is only accessible by canoe on the Tiputini River, part of the headwater system that leads to the Amazon River.  The air was humid and warm, much like a South Carolina summer night, except that you could hear the sounds of tropical birds and the constant dripping of water trapped in the natural vases of rainforest bromeliads.  The sky, from what little of it I could see outside the laboratory through the treetops, was clear and radiant with the light of millions of stars.  When it was time to retire for the night, I couldn’t have been less ready.  I wanted to stay out there all night bathing in the sounds, smells and feeling of the rainforest.

Another of my good friends from my class and I were in complete agreement over this, so we decided to do exactly what we wanted…stay out there all night.  We both had hammocks and sleeping bags, all we needed to experience the nocturnal Amazon.  We hiked for about 20 minutes in the forest to a particular Ceiba tree that we had watched birds from early that morning.  This was the perfect spot to spend a night in the rainforest.  We climbed all 60 meters of that tree and hung our hammocks in the uppermost branches of it.  From where we were swinging, we could see over the treetops of the rest of the surrounding forest for miles and miles, probably as far as Brazil I betcha.  This was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced, hands down.  I know I said that about all of the scenes I recounted in my last post, but that was before I came to the Amazon.

Hanging there in that tree, we watched a lightning storm miles off in the distance for hours.  We discussed the amazement we felt and imagined the travels of every ray of lightning that departed from the clouds and reached the earth – moving too quickly, I think, to properly take in the beauty of the journey.  However, in this moment, I felt like a friend to that lightning storm.  We were connected by a simultaneous existence in this place, only moving in opposite directions to reach the destination. I imagine being added to a list of hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people who decided that they were friends with the lightning.  I am willing to wager, though, that I am one of the first light-skinned friends of the Amazonian lightning.

Storm Rolling In

I pictured the countless indigenous South Americans who have sat in trees in the middle of a night, befriending lighting from a distance as I did.  I wondered what they did when the lightning got close.  Was his company too much to handle?  Did he become an enemy or just that friend who is harsh sometimes, but that you still want to spend time with because the good times are really good?  I’m not sure if I had enough time to ponder this one before my dear friend approached me.  He invited his other friend, rain, for company, and he yelled with thunder for a while, before he was ready to move on to spend time with other companions.  I knew that it was nothing personal; he’s just like that.  I decided not to hold it against him and that we will still be friends.  I couldn’t let him ruin such a perfect last night in the rainforest.

Calm Morning After the Storm

It may seem crazy to you that I could imagine the lightning as a real, interactive being like a human friend, but I’m not the first and only one.  The Ecuadorian government went so far as to grant rights to Nature back in 2008 in Article 71 of their constitution:  “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”  It was the first country to grant rights to anything besides human beings, as if Nature too needed protection by law because it is important, interactive, and beautiful.  When I learned this, I was thrilled and grew even more in appreciation of this place I am in.  Unfortunately, there is an error in the law that keeps this amendment from being fully effective.

ssshhhh…

The Ecuadorian government sees people’s land being only that which can be seen from the ground, up.  What exists below the topsoil layer that is seen does not belong to the landowner, but to the Ecuadorian government.  On these grounds the government has entered property and drilled for oil because oil only exists underground, therefore it is not the property of the inhabitants of the earth above it.  Because of this, the government continues to drill for oil believing that the law justifies their actions.  Fortunately for them they only experience the benefits of drilling for oil:  economic gain and good relations with oil-demanding nations.  The negative consequences all fall upon the citizens of the rainforest who are living on top of this precious commodity.  Oil drilling sites require the construction of roads for infrastructure, which has opened up the Amazon for further development and we all know that development means deforestation.  Not to mention the cancer rate, miscarriages, and birth defects of this region of Ecuador exceed the national average by several times – results of one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the world.  The list of the repercussions that these Amazonians are experiencing continues on and on; this is only the surface of the issue.

Petroleum Drilling Site

While visiting the Amazon, we were given the chance to see for ourselves some of the effects of the oil exploitation on inhabitants of this region.  I felt like I was re-living my experience of watching the documentary “Crude,” but in real life.  This documentary about the Chevron-Texaco oil-drilling crisis in Ecuador was one of the main reasons that I decided to spend time studying in this country as an Environmental Studies major because it is issues like this that we will be dealing with in our future. To experience it first hand changes your perspective on it.  We stumbled upon a family farm across the road from a waste pool that had leaked and traveled downhill to this family’s land.  My boots got stuck in the petroleum-saturated earth and I got something of a headache from the stench of the crude.  Their land was covered with shriveled cacao fruits and coffee plants, the remnants of what used to be the family’s livelihood.

The Farm We Came Across

Real Faces of Real Children Affected by the Disaster

Another Real Face

Petroleum, Anyone?

My heart really began to ache hard for these people the longer we conversed with them because I realized the gravity of their situation.  The family has no product or trade by which to make money and, without money, the family cannot move homes and get out of their waste pool of a farm.  This family could quite possibly be stuck there forever and die off one by one of cancer or some other disease caused by their contaminated drinking water and food.  I found myself wanting to give them every bit of money I had to empower them to leave, but that was just one family in the midst of thousands that are dealing with this same issue.  It is going to take the force of an army or a ton of other people with the same compassion in their hearts to make a change for the sake of these people.

The Faces of Indigenous Ecuador, the Most Vulnerable Ones

I will never forget this trip to the Amazon for a number of reasons.  I experienced so many thrills and so much beauty, unlike anything else I have seen on this planet, but I also experienced some of the deepest sadness I’ve ever experienced in my life as well.  It was an emotional week and one that I believe has changed my worldview. Every issue, especially those that involve many different countries, is way more complicated that it ever appears to be at first glance.  There are so many stakeholders within this issue, that any solutions will inevitable hurt someone.  Heck, we as car-driving, plastic-using US citizens are stakeholders who rarely think about the implications that our frivolous joy-rides around town might have for the indigenous tribes of the Ecuadorian Amazon.  I’m so guilty of this, I’ll be the first to admit, but I won’t leave this country without thinking twice about how my lifestyle affects others – even if they are on the other side of the world.  It seems that I’ve had that realization over and over this semester, and it may sound cliché, but I sincerely will not be able to leave this country that experiences so many of the consequences without having a new perspective on my lifestyle.  If it takes reliving my time with the campesino family or my magical night in the canopy of the Ecuadorian rainforest then I will a thousand times over so that I never forget or take for granted its pristine worth and beauty that I so mindlessly destroyed before.

Natural Beauty

 

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“Ama la Vida”

Well, it has definitely been a while since I last posted thoughts and reflections and now I have some new ones to share.  It has been a while because I have been very busy with the due dates of lots of work approaching and with a bunch of traveling and activities.  Let me tell you: if I could have one wish from a genie in a bottle, it would be for more hours in the day.  With these hours I still couldn’t possibly share and explain everything that has been on my mind from the multitude of experiences that I’ve had since last time. However, I do want to share a couple of things that tie into a greater theme that I’ve been mulling over.

Right after my last post, my classmates and I traveled to the Ecuadorian páramo (highlands) to Parque Nacional Antisana, a national park that is at 4,100 meters of altitude or almost 13,500 feet for those of you US Americans who can’t conceptualize in meters (don’t worry, I still can’t after 3 months in this country).  We spent 3 days there studying the highland ecosystem, which is much like winter in the deserts in the west of the United States.  It was very windy with low-lying, grassy vegetation, and tall mountains surrounding the snow-covered Antisana Volcano, Ecuador’s 4th tallest.

Volcán Antisana, 4th tallest volcano in Ecuador

On our second day in the páramo, our professors gave us a mostly free morning to go exploring on our own in order to have a personally intimate experience with the ecosystem, more or less.  Two friends and I decided to take off on a hike up one of the mountains in order to catch a good view of the area.  The trek was probably one of the most difficult hikes I have ever done because of the altitude, the grasses that cover this already steep mountain are waist high, super dense and there is no trail that leads people up because it is very little (maybe not at all) traveled.  It took the three of us two or three treacherous hours to reach the rock face that lead to the very top.  I wanted to catch an even better view so I bouldered up the rock face and climbed the rest of the way to the top of the mountain.  The view of the rest of the area was absolutely breath taking and completely worth the climb to the top.  When it was time to descend from the mountaintop, we took the easy way…rolling and tumbling all the way down!  We were like children screaming and laughing as we toppled from one patch of tall grass to the next.  By the time we reached the bottom, we were covered from hair to wool socks in grass and leaves that I still find to this day in my things.  I felt like a little girl again, completely occupied and entertained by the simplest of pleasures – such a raw and perfect moment!

View of the Ecuadorian Páramo

Another view of the Ecuadorian Páramo

Adventure Buddies!

I don’t know if you have ever experienced in your life being completely pleasantly overwhelmed by a place and a moment, but this was the first of a series of moments like this that I have had in the last weeks.  This is something that I don’t experience often, though I wish I did, and it is unforgettable when I do.  I won’t even do the experience justice by trying to explain it, but am going to try because I want you to experience it vicariously.  In these moments I feel completely full – full of immense satisfaction, elation, freedom, appreciation and amazement.  I believe that in these moments, I am being the most rightly affected that I can be by the creation surrounding me.  All I could do in those moments was praise God over and over for His creativity and love for me that He would give me this moment to experience a taste of His Glory, His character.  I know for a fact that I experienced a glimpse of my Creator here because the whole thing felt supernatural and unexplainable.  I don’t think that you can experience such pure and intense joy like this without the presence of a good and loving God, at least I never did before I knew Him.  What a blessed moment, but that wasn’t it…

There passed two weeks time before we were off again on excursion to the world famous Galápagos Islands!  This is what I had been waiting for and was SO excited about all semester up to that point.  I knew that we would have a great time and learn a lot but I did not realize what an awesome spiritual experience I would have!  The day we arrived to the islands my group boarded the boat that we would live on for half the week and set sail for our journey of island hopping.  After settling in for a bit, I went exploring the boat and climbed up to the very top of the vessel to the roof where I found a few solitary moments to take in what was going on.  I was cruising over the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, passing islands left and right under the strong equatorial sun and through fresh, salty air that clung to my skin and hair. I felt like a maritime explorer, seeing the world for the first time, totally free of all stresses, anticipating an approaching adventure.  What?!  Was this really happening to me?!  I tell you no lie, friend, I was on top of the world.  I felt like I could just fly away in my ecstasy, like what I was experiencing was not real, yet I felt the most alive that I have ever felt.

Sailing Away in the BEAUTIFUL Galápagos Islands

Our captain stopped the boat at Isla Lobos de San Cristóbal, an island full of sea lions and tons of other wildlife.  We anchored and hopped in pangas (little boats) to ride to our snorkel spot close to the shore.  I was geared up for adventure at this point, adrenaline pumping through my veins about to carry me into the other world under the sea.  As soon as we arrived, I hopped right out of the panga and into the icy (yeah, it was really cold) depth swimming with creatures of all shapes and sizes.  It amazes me every time I snorkel just how different a world it is in the oceans.  All organisms are completely different from anything you see on land and it can be thrillingly terrifying!  My heart was racing from a combination of being submerged in the cold water and swimming with creatures I only see in pictures and movies.  I was seeing species in real life that only exist in this part of the world, around these islands!  I was diving and swimming within arm’s reach of sharks and rays, testing my nerves and my lungs to get the perfect photo and a great look into the eyes of the ocean’s top predators.  I swam in and out of tunnels created by lava flow in the crust, imagining that we were the first ones to see this part of the world and we were the first humans that these sea creatures had ever encountered. To think about these days of snorkeling makes my heart race again with excitement.  I loved being able to explore this other facet of our planet and once again see the creativity of our Creator in a whole new way!

Under the Sea

Swim, Swim, Swim, Swim, SHARK!

Tortuga Stalking

My New Pal

Ok, one more story and then I’ll stop.  I’m telling you though, the frequency with which I have these experiences normally is small compared to these months, so I have to enjoy and recount them.  I think my favorite spirit-filled moment occurred after my group arrived to Isla Isabela, the biggest island of the Galápagos archipelago.  We stayed for the rest of our visit in this small, eclectic town called Puerto Villamil with Ecuadorian families who live there.  We had snorkeling and hikes in the mornings during these days, but the afternoons we generally had free to experience Galápagos Island culture aka hang out on the beach, play volleyball and surf with locals.  One of my good friends in the program is from southern California and is a skilled surfer, so she apprenticed me in the way of the waves.  We spent long afternoons in the surf, becoming one with the swells and paddling and paddling and did I say paddling (?) to catch those swells in just the right moment as they crested.  As I got the hang of the sport and got good enough to ride the waves all the way out, I began to imagine a life as a beach bum on the Galápagos Islands (as if that would ever be my life).  Life would consist of watching the surf for hours in a day, coming to an intimate knowledge of the cycle of tides and a good sense of the water’s movement and projected path.  I would know every good surf spot on the entire stretch of beach on which the town lies.  My imagination ran away so far that I could feel all the way to my soul the satisfaction of being carried away flying with the troop of white water.  I think that surfing is really good for the soul because it requires one to have a pretty deep understanding of the motion of the ocean and a good instinct to be successful.  I think that this is one example of the way humans were meant to relate to their natural environment – with understanding and instinct on how to react and act with it.

Galápagos sunset after a good surf

As a whole nowadays we have such little understanding of our natural world and therefore we are detached from it and are apathetic to what happens to it.  I am an Environmental Studies major and I will fully admit my detachment from it many times but my experiences this semester in this beautiful country are showing me how much I miss out on.  I lose out on such incredible spiritual experiences that grip me to my soul and shake my worldview for the better.  While this semester in Ecuador has been really challenging to my whole being, it has been spiritually strengthening for me in ways that I am not used to.  God has revealed Himself to me in ways outside of how I normally experience Him, so I have been moved into deeper adoration of Him and appreciation of His creation because of how it reveals to me His character.  I think that Ecuador’s national motto, “Ama la Vida,” about sums up these last few months for me and my spiritual being.  It means “Love Life” essentially, and I am surely doing that by the grace of a great God.

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Gringa Problems

Now that I have been in Ecuador for almost 2 months, I think that I have had enough time to recognize and analyze some major cultural differences between the United States and Latin America.  There were some differences that I knew to expect, but others that I did not expect, and as a result have been frustrated by, to be perfectly honest.  The family I lived with on the farm in Mindo began to somewhat prepare me verbally for some of the things I would experience back in the city, but I definitely did not experience as many cultural differences there as I have since returning to Quito.

On September 1st I returned to the capital, Quito, to begin my program of studies.  The first week was orientation to the academics of the program and the culture of the country that we would be living in until December.  We had a lovely woman give us an interactive lecture about Ecuadorian lifestyle, and specifically living an Ecuadorian lifestyle as a gringo.  (For anyone who doesn’t know, the term “gringo” is used to describe anyone with light skin, obviously of European descent.  It is not a derogatory word as I was tempted to think, but just the thing that they call us and can actually be endearing when in the form of “gringito” or “gringuita.”)  This lecture was very helpful to me and thought provoking, so I wanted to share it with you all because it has affected the lens through which I see, learn and experience this culture.

The one and only, Quito, Ecuador

First, I want to share a couple of key phrases that the lecturer told us to always remember about Ecuadorian culture:

1.    People here tell you what they think you want to hear.

I was not particularly thrilled to hear that this is the case in Ecuador.  I am the type of person is very much a fan of honesty and I have a deep appreciation for blunt people who tell things like they are.  This is something that you generally do not find here in Ecuador – I have experienced this to be generally true, no matter who I am talking to.  Men will tell gringas what they want to hear in order to try and “get lucky” with them.  Venders will tell buyers that their products were hand-made by indigenous people in the Amazon, when really from a cheap fabricator in the city.  Whatever it is, I generally hear what people think that I want to hear, and that is frustrating at times.

2.    If I find myself for a split second trying to convince myself that everything is ok, it’s not.

Honestly, this scared the daylights out of me.  This applies to many contexts and situations, but it can never be a good thing.  If I am trying to convince myself that I am not sick to my stomach from the water that I drank from the tap yesterday but I still feel like I want to throw up, I am probably sick from the water.  If I am trying to convince myself that the man on the trolley that keeps making eye contact with me and is inching closer to me while I look away is just a normal bus-riding citizen like me, then I may be about to get robbed of my things or worse.  (Thank God that neither of these things have happened to me, but they are examples of what this means.)  I think that it was helpful to have this tid-bit of advice because I believe that it can really keep me out of bad situations.  If I am ever trying to rationalize a situation that I am in and convince myself that all is well, after knowing all of the potential dangers to gringas, I know that I should try my best to remove myself from it.  This has served me well when making decisions about what food to consume, buses to take, what parts of the city to visit or not in the evenings, and who to surround myself with in rougher areas and times of day.  I’ve been safe and healthy so far…

Now I want to share some “gringo stereotypes” that this lady made us aware of during orientation and how this has affected my experiences and interpretation of them:

1.    Gringos are rich.

Well, this was news to me.  I would have never called myself “Moneybags,” but greedy Ecuadorians do.  My eyes have been opened to the disparity between our two countries and it is huge.  Everything here is so cheap according to our US American standard, so relatively speaking it does seem like I have a lot of money.  This makes me, and all others like me with gringo appearance an immediate target for pickpocketing and mugging.  My host mother asks me every time I leave the house how much money I have with me and is always warning me to never carry more than $10 and my cell phone.  This is immensely frustrating to me, not because I am overly attached to my possessions, but because I constantly have to be on the lookout for people who want to make an easy buck.  This has made me so much more grateful for my homeland, a society that thrives on honesty, where thievery is really looked down upon and severely punished relative to Ecuador.  I miss the freedom of not having to worry about my possessions being swiped from under my nose if I take my eyes off of them for a minute.

2.    Gringos are loud.

As much as I dislike this one, it is true.  You put four or more of us together walking down the street, and you would think we were walking with megaphones at times.  I definitely find myself guilty of being the loud gringa with no regard to how that makes me stand out in this culture, and I dislike this when I realize it.  Awareness of this stereotype has helped me to be much more mindful of the things that I say and weighing the importance of them before I speak.  Also, I have been much more mindful of the amount of noise that I make in my regular living habits like preparing food, going to the bathroom and listening to music.  I live in a very quiet household with just a host mom and 25-year-old brother so this is an especially important stereotype to fight in order to be a good family member to Ecuadorians.

3.    Gringas are easy.

Thanks Hollywood.  This might be my least favorite of the stereotypes because it affects me everyday of my life here in a very shameful way.  I cannot get on a bus or walk down the street without receiving stares and the frequent whistle for having light skin and I can honestly say that I despise this.  I don’t appreciate this kind of attention at all and I am not happy that I am automatically pegged as easy and quick to go to bed because of movies that come from my own country.  In a sense this makes me feel betrayed by my homeland and shows that many movie producers either aren’t aware of or don’t care what kind of message they are sending to the world about our country.  Hollywood has a lot of power over the rest of the world, and I am experiencing a personal glimpse of this here in Ecuador.

Speaking of Gringas…

4.    Gringos are naïve.

I know that it is the truth but I don’t like to think this about myself.  I think that I am much less naïve than when I first arrived to Ecuador since I am aware of the dangers that I could face, but I still have a lot to learn about the world and Ecuador.  I find myself learning more and more everyday, which is exciting but humbling because I know I will still be naïve to an extent.  My host brother told me the other day that one of his first impressions of me when he first met me is that I am naïve and inexperienced, that he could see it in my eyes.  I appreciated his honesty (as I do like honest people), but I have to admit that I was a little disheartened by it.  I thought that I was pretty sophisticated for having traveled alone and lived in Ecuador for a month already and also having traveled to other Latin American countries in the past.  He later clarified that he meant that he could tell I was very pure and trusting of people (language barrier problems). My brother had a pretty accurate first impression in that I have not really experienced many horrible things in this world to make me lose all faith in people and their potential to do good.  This can be a bad thing in a country such as this one where the police are corrupt and you cannot really trust in them to protect you.  However, I think it is probably a good thing to humbly embrace that this stereotype is generally true one way or another and seek to be more culturally aware no matter where you are.

So there you have some of the things that have been on my mind during these last three weeks of life in the city of Quito.  The grander take home message that I have from thinking through these things and evaluating the truth and falsity within them, is that stereotypes need not be a crutch and blindly accepted.  I have met so many people from all over the world since coming to this country and if I had been navigating conversation based off of preconceived notions about them, I would have missed out on some great relationships and thought provoking conversation.  Each and every person is so different and is to be valued for their individuality, not so much for a generalization about the culture from which they come.  Also I have been learning how to not be frustrated and so resentful of the stereotypes that others may hold about me because they don’t know any better.  Rather, my energy is way better focused on fighting the negative stereotypes and gently showing others how to open their minds to my individuality and cultural differences.  My relationships with Ecuadorians, US Americans from other regions, Germans, English, Swiss, and many other types of people have been greatly enriched by efforts in this way and I would encourage people from all walks of life, no matter their nationality or place of residence, to work towards the same.  It definitely sweetens one of the sweetest parts of life, relationships with other people.

Ecuadorians

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No Impact Woman

Hello again from Ecuador! I have already been here for a month, and I cannot believe it.  These last weeks have passed very quickly and I am very excited for you to know what I have been up to!

For the entire month of August, I have lived a pretty much “no impact” lifestyle.  Let me tell you, it is something totally different from the way we live in the United States.  I have been living and working on an organic farm in the cloud forest, 2 hours northwest of Quito, the capital, and about 40 minutes from even the closest town, Mindo.

A Chilly Morning’s View of the Cloud Forest

The day after I flew into Ecuador, I hopped on a bus and rode it from Quito to Mindo, where I was supposed to meet the couple that owns the farm.  I had found their farm from WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) Ecuador and e-mailed them about two months ago to ask if I could come work for about a month before my study abroad program starts and they agreed!  I met them around noon at a restaurant called “Pauly.”  I did not expect the couple that came to pick me up.  The man, Ingo, is a 40-year-old, 6’9’’ tall German ex-millionaire with a beard halfway down his chest and his wife, Genny, is a slender, beautiful, light-skinned Ecuadorian woman.  They brought their precious two-year-old daughter, Laia, with them.  We had a relaxed lunch at Pauly’s, visited one of their friends in Mindo, walked around in some of the shops, went to look for a male cat at the animal shelter so that they could have kittens with one of their female cats, and stopped by a neighbor’s farm to help him shell some coffee.  All in all, it took about 4 or 5 hours – indicative of the Ecuadorians’ sense of time.

As a side note, their sense of time is one of my favorite things about Ecuadorian culture so far.  I very much do not belong in the developed western world for my sense of time.  I am the type of person who is late for many of the things that I have to do because I get so caught up in the things that I do or the people that I am with, that I quite honestly just lose track of the time.  I believe that I fit in much better here in Ecuador because the people here are just like that.  Genny and Ingo love to go where the wind blows them and invest quickly in wherever that is, so a trip to Mindo generally takes all day for them.  I love it!  (Also, we would have ciestas after lunch each day, which consisted of about an hour and a half of readingor sleeping in the hammocks.) Don’t get me wrong, I also like productivity and appreciate hard work very much, but I think that for me, this slower way of life allows me to enjoy it much more.

Anyway, back to my “no impact” life this month…  When we finally get to the house, I am very excited because they had been telling me all day what their farm is like and why they decided to live this way.  Both of them lived extravagant adult lives, Ingo in Germany and Genny in France and then Spain.  They met in Barcelona about 5 years ago and as they decided to get serious with one another and get married, they sold everything that they had and moved to Ecuador with their daughter, Laia, and Genny’s other two daughters, Emily and Elisa.  They were tired of living so far from their natural environment and tired of living consciously wasteful lives.  In the last 4 years they created, outgrew and moved from a small farm in the suburbs of Quito, to their home now that I have been living in.  With the help of many other WWOOFers like me in the past year, they have grown this finca (Spanish word for the type of farm that they have) from a totally wild piece of property with a single story home with two rooms to a two story home with two greenhouses, lots of crops, bees, and tons of animals!  They use a compost toilet, cook the food straight from their land over fire in the outdoor kitchen, have a gas powered warm-water shower, running water from a natural spring source, and electricity that comes from solar panels on the roof of the house.  With all of this, they only produce one bag of trash every two weeks!  It is actually a pretty sophisticated self-sustainable farm, but I know that it has taken a lot of work to get it to this point.

Farm House

La Finca

There is no typical day on the farm because I did something different everyday.  However, each day started at 6:30 am with feeding the animals.  I first fed the pigs all of the organic waste/compost from the day before plus their regular food and gave them water.  From there, I would make two bottles of warm milk for the baby sheep, collect a container of fish food for the two ponds full of tilapia, fill a bucket with sweet corn for all 80-ish chickens and grab a strand of rope to fight off the angry and macho goat, Marcus, to go down the hill to feed all those animals.  After all of the animals were fed, I would do an egg hunt to look around for any fresh eggs that the chickens may have laid overnight and then head back up to the house for breakfast.  The rest of the day’s activities would be a mystery to me until around 5:00 pm when I would have to feed the animals again to finish off the work day.

Marcus, my Arch Nemesis

Llamas!

Preparing for some chicken stew!

There have been days that I have spent many hours with Ingo in our bulky white bee-suits (complete with the mesh hat and all) at the beehives checking to make sure that all the bees are working well, that the hive is healthy and listening to him explain all of the ins and outs of beekeeping.  We introduced new queens to the hives to strengthen them and the hives accepted the new queens!  Also, in my last night on the farm, Ingo and I harvested the honey from the hives and they gave me a jar of it!  I got to witness the entire process of beekeeping and I learned very much about the value of bees to the environment and to human health too.  I think I would really like to have bees of my own some day!

Another day, Ingo and I went to a neighbor’s property to check on some bees that we put there because he has a lot of land and tons of flowers that the bees can get pollen from.  After checking the bees, he and I went to the bottom of the property with machetes and chopped down about 20 bamboo trees and stripped them of the branches in order to use them for building.  That was such a cool experience because it is what the Ecuadorian farmers do to get their building materials.  It was so primitive, but it worked!  We got only what materials we needed and we did not leave a mess in our wake.  Needless to say, after all that machete work I slept really well that night!

Another great project that I had the opportunity to do was make the signs for their new store.  The day that the couple picked me up in Mindo, they signed the contract for a two-year lease of a store on the main road.  They are planning to open the second week of October and it will be a store with nice handicrafts and a café in the back.  We have had a lot of fun designing the signs and coming up with ideas of things to sell in the store.  Ingo will sell his chicken eggs, vegetables, Genny’s DELICIOUS bread, bee honey and more.  Ingo left making the signs to me, so I got to use my jigsaw and painting skills to make them.

Signs for Mindo’s newest store

Another type of highlight experience of this month was going into town with the family about once a week.  I would have one day a week off and would ride into Mindo in the roof rack of the family’s Montero and walk around and relax in a café.  One day in particular of going into town was actually an extra day of the week that we got to go.  Therefore, I had to work still.  My work that day, however, was just walking the dogs around town on leashes.  Ingo and Genny have two GIGANTIC Great Danes named Dozer (as in bulldozer) and Tank (as in the weapon used by the army).  They pretty much live up to their names – at a little less than a year old, they are taller than me when they stand ontheir hind legs.  Anyway, this day was a Sunday, a weekend day when many of the rich Ecuadorian tourists from Quito come to Mindo.  You would think that these people had never seen a dog before.  They gawked from their fancy cars in the streets and hung out of their windows with cameras to catch a snapshot of these dogs the size of small horses.  I was stopped over and over again for pictures and conversations with countless strangers about Tank and Dozer.  You bet I learned a lot of Spanish vocabulary about dogs from this particular visit to Mindo!  The poor dogs were stir crazy from being constrained by the leashes all day so as soon as we got out of town, the dogs ran the rest of the way behind the Montero up the mountain to the finca!

Riding on top of the Montero

Dozer

Tank

I learned from this trip and many others into town that the Ecuadorian people are so friendly and open.  No matter how affluent or not they are, they welcome you into their home or shop and usually give you a cup of coffee or a fresh juice with some little snack over a nice conversation. It is much like living in the south of the United States where everyone says hello, nods or waves on streets and in shops.  It has made me feel very at home, even in a land as far away from my real home as Ecuador.  Plus, they have been very patient with me as I stumble through my Spanish to communicate what I want to say.  I really have appreciated this very much about the culture here.

Genny, Ingo and their daughters have also been a big help in making me feel welcome to this country and informing me of many of the Ecuadorian customs.  I have asked them countless numbers of questions about everything from Spanish words to Ecuadorian politics.  I think they like it though, and have really been open with me about family business, their pasts, and allow me to use anything in the house that is theirs.  By about halfway through the month, the family really began to trust me and would leave me at the finca alone some days when theyneeded to do lots of things in town.  They left me at home alone for four days in my third week there in order to do some business down in Cuenca, in the south of Ecuador, and in Quito.  I couldn’t believe that they trusted me so much after such a short time with them, but it shows just how close you can get to people by living with them for a few weeks.  It is making me excited about my homestay family that I will live with in Quito starting in September.  I am sure that I will become very close with them and learn much more about the Ecuadorian way of life in the city too.

So that was a little bit about my “no impact” life this past month.  I was really inspired by Genny and Ingo in the sacrifices that they made from their old lives in order to live this new one that is much more environmentally aware and responsible – the way that it is supposed to be.  I learned a lot about organic farming and self-sustainability and I would really like to implement much of what I learned when I get back into the States and am preparing to establish my own life after college.  I don’t think that it necessarily means that I have to move to Ecuador – it can be done right on US soil – but it surely does take sacrifice of many western conveniences.  However, I think that it is entirely worth it to steward our resources well because there are billions of other people that have to use them too.  I don’t know of anyone who puts it better than one of my favorite bands, Jenny & Tyler, in one of their songs, “There is plenty on this earth to suit our needs, but there will never ever be enough to satisfy our greed.” It is cool that there are people in this country that are working models of what it looks like to live right at your means, taking from the land only what they need, and who are spreading the word so that Ecuador doesn’t have to take such difficult measures to develop this way of life, but rather, it can happen naturally.  I have been greatly encouraged by this time in Ecuador so far!

Cloud Forest

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Thoughts on Centrality

Wellllll, today is the day that I leave the States and arrive in Ecuador, the nation in the center of our globe.  It seems a little absurd that this is the first time that I am really sitting down to analyze my anticipations and thoughts about my upcoming adventure.  My summer has been nothing short of a whirlwind, spent on the coast in Myrtle Beach, working full time at a little tex-mex restaurant and in a great community of about 90 college students together growing in our faith and learning to live it on the college campus.  All along I knew that I wouldn’t be returning to Wofford’s campus for a while, but I enjoyed most every minute of my summer and it was very pivotal for my faith and walk with Jesus Christ.  In many ways, it has changed my perspective and anticipations about my semester in Ecuador, which I will explain…

I just mentioned that Ecuador is a nation in the center of the globe.  The equator runs right through the middle of the “República del Ecuador,” which translates to the “Republic of the Equator.”  It sounds like this little country (roughly the size of Colorado) has laid claim on being the center of the universe and you better not tell them anything different!  To be quite honest, before this summer this was my view of myself in being in the country in the center of the universe, the point around which all other life revolves:  ”I, Jillian, am studying abroad in Ecuador in the fall, I will have all of these adventures in the world-famous Amazon Rainforest and the Galápagos Islands, I will find myself on the tropical soil and I may never come back because I will discover that it is my true and predestined homeland…” I imagined all of these glorious adventures that I would find abroad and I would come back to campus a changed person – wise, cultured and worthy of admiration.  In the last two months, however, my attitude has been radically changed, my anticipations made realistic, my heart made much more humble, my thoughts decentralized from myself and re-centralized on something Greater in this experience.  Studying abroad in Ecuador is the experience of a lifetime and I am in a state of disbelief that it is actually happening now.  It seemed so abstract, mysterious and glamorous before.  I expect that this experience will change me – in ways I anticipate and in ways that I cannot even expect.  All of this is outside of myself – this opportunity and its effects on me – and that’s humbling for sure.

I believe that I will learn much about people.  I will be meeting all new people from the moment I step off of the plane.  I know not a soul in Ecuador currently or any of the students in my program that I will be studying with.  I will also learn a lot about myself in relation to others.  I know that I will have to become good at asking people questions about themselves, good at listening to their responses to learn about them, and good at trying to understand and have compassion on others.

I have always been an adventurous person, curious about new things and accepting of change.  This experience will be nothing but adventure, new things and constant changes and I fully embrace these facts.  I welcome the ways that I will be different because of the unique ones I will experience in Ecuador.

In thinking about the relationships I will make and experiences I will have alone, I become overwhelmed.  I think the anticipation of the unknown has really humbled me because my mind cannot help but create the worst of scenarios for me to face.  I pray that I do not face danger but I cannot be certain that I won’t.  I have learned to face the reality of that possibility and trust that the God who I love is working for my good in all things I face.  That fact alone gives me peace amidst my other overwhelming emotions.  I could not do this on my own and I am glad that my heart has been made humble enough to realize that.  This world does not revolve around me and the effects of the sin in the world do not magically avoid me always.  I think that it will do me much good while I am in this country in the center of the globe to constantly remind myself of this fact.

Right now, my mindset is to take every day…shoot, every HOUR, one at a time.  By the grace of God, I am equipped with enough Spanish and enough faith to take on this experience.  He will grow me and stretch me in ways that are working towards His glory, and I am excited to see them unfold!

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