I didn’t visit many of the typical tourist sites but after almost 14 days of living the GCY experience, I feel that I’ve really been to Ecuador. On arrival, I was greeted as a real celebrity; I was Abigail’s mom! I experienced the sense of “family,” and the deep affection and loyalty that develops in GCY fellows, along with a feeling of solidarity and friendship that will last a lifetime. I also experienced, along with Abigail, the tremendous generosity and warmth of the Ecuadorian people, as we were welcomed into the homes of GCY fellows’ host families and the home of relatives of Abigail’s host family.
The first part of my trip took me along narrow curving roads up and down and through the cloud forest to reach tiny Apuela, where Abigail and I visited GCY fellow, Maddie Campbell. In Apuela, I admired the fortitude and patience that it must take to be a GCY fellow and to adapt to living a good twenty-five minute walk from a town that is itself quite far off the beaten track. I appreciated the advantages, too, as I absorbed the immense quiet of the steep mountain valley, broken only by the sound of the wild rushing stream, a few neighbors’ barking dogs and the rather insistent rooster who started crowing at about 3:30 a.m. Lying awake in the night, I sensed the loneliness that a GCY fellow might feel living in the country, with only a single parent host mother, her thirteen year old daughter, and her almost deaf elderly mother for company. The next day Maddie’s quiet but welcoming indigenous host mom proudly shared how the members of the local cooperative she belongs to grow and harvest their coffee, using organic and environmentally sensitive methods. In Apuela, Maddie showed us some of the thousands of young coffee seedlings that she and other volunteers had helped to prepare for future planting and we were able to peek into the laboratory where she helps to grow cultures and run experiments that work toward promoting healthier growth for co-operative members’ coffee trees. A special comment of Maddie’s showed the type of insights that GCY fellows gain from quietly observing their surroundings; it seemed to her that the Ecuadorians are much more creative and resourceful in coming up with solutions for problems because of the fact that they have fewer resources to work with.
In Ibarra, Abigail and I stayed with Lydia Crush’s host family, where we got to see how a 12-year old in Ecuador celebrates her birthday; it was a family affair, with aunts and uncles and cousins of all ages, and I was able to gain some insights into Ecuadorian politics, education reform and family life. I also learned that Ecuadorian teenagers seem to have as much math homework as American teens do!
In Atuntaqui, Abigail and I stayed with a nephew of her host dad and got a glimpse of what life is like for a working family with young children. We heard of the challenges of running a small family business (handling everything from designing to producing to marketing a line of clothing for young girls). I felt the energy of this enterprising young couple, filled with optimism for the future of their children and eager to exchange and share impressions of life with guests from another country.
In Otavalo we met fellow Stephanie Dunning and learned how two of her host siblings have to go to “distance” school on the weekend, because they work all week. Traveling from Quito to the highlands and back I watched with admiration how Abigail and the other GCY fellows maneuvered the challenges of urban and inter-urban transport, knowing which taxis to take and how much to pay to go where, knowing how to not overpay, when and where to get off buses and how to get the driver to pay attention to you, all in a language that they were just beginning to master. I was impressed!
Arriving in Tena, the place that Abigail has called home these several months was a very special moment. I count it a great privilege to have been a part of her life there for one short week, to stay with and get to know her host family, to travel back and forth across the river in the gondola in order to spend time at her apprenticeship site, the Parque Amazónico, and to watch her teach English both at a local school and to local rafting and tour guides. A real highlight for me was attending Spanish class with Abigail and other GCY fellows at the home of their teacher and his family, where everyone participated in making “empanadas de queso” (cheese) and “emborrajados de maduro” (ripe plantain fritters) from scratch. “¡Qué ricos!” (Mmm, delicious!)
My visit to Ecuador also allowed me to film regional varieties of Ecuadorian Spanish for my phonetics classes at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and connect with language teachers at universities and public schools. A highlight was organizing a Skype conversation between kindergarteners and first graders at the elementary school that Abigail had attended in La Crosse and two of the primary school classes at the Centro de Educación Básica Simón Bolívar in Tena where she teaches English. The children in La Crosse and Tena were able to sing to each other, exchange greetings in Spanish and English, and show each other some of what they have been learning to do in the others’ language. In the words of Michele Klug, one of the teachers from La Crosse, “it was a really thrilling experience”. I also delivered drawings and short letters from La Crosse students to Tena and carried back with me drawings and cards written in English and Spanish by students at Simón Bolívar School. After seeing images of the school in Tena and watching videos I’d made of the students there, the La Crosse children answered the letters from Tena last week and I have mailed this second round of exchanges that Abigail hopes to deliver before students in Ecuador go on vacation at the end of March. What an amazing way to help make learning another language real to these children!
I spent my last day in Ecuador giving two workshops, arranged by Alexandra Anda, the Education Liaison from the American Embassy, one in Quitumbe for teachers of English in grades kindergarten through high school and another for university instructors of required English courses at the Universidad Central in Quito. It was a much-appreciated opportunity to share ideas and to learn from other dedicated language teachers.
I must say, however, that nothing was quite so satisfying as realizing the effect that Ecuador is having on Abigail and other GCY fellows and coming to understand on a deeper level how this is part of a circle of giving and taking, sharing and learning. GCY fellows are certainly giving much to the communities in which they work, but they are also learning from their experiences much that they will teach and share with us when they come back.
This was part of my experience in Ecuador, too, a circle of giving and receiving. What I had learned about teaching languages to children by volunteering to teach Spanish at Abigail’s elementary school I was able to incorporate into a DVD to help train future elementary world language teachers. Abigail in turn has been able to use some of the ideas from my DVD and what she learned from studying Spanish with me, to teach English to Spanish-speaking children, who are now connecting with students at her old elementary school in La Crosse.
Something else I learned in Ecuador might touch a chord with other GCY parents. My last night in Tena after attending a Korean New Year’s Party, Abigail and I got home late and didn’t have a flashlight. In the pitch dark, I ended up stepping or slipping into almost every puddle between the highway and Abigail’s house. As I washed my wet and muddy sandals, I was complaining a lot and feeling irritable about the mess I’d made of my sandals, until finally Abigail brought me back to my senses with a very matter of fact: “Mom, it’s just a little mud.” And I was able to laugh, turning another full circle, as I understood how much our fellows have grown this year and how they will be able to remind us about what is really important in life.
Thank you, GCY, for the life lessons that our sons and daughters are learning. I feel honored to have had this glimpse into the GCY experience and very grateful for the vision and effort that have made this life changing program a reality.