10 Things I Have Learned in Ecuador

Maddi Schink - Ecuador


February 13, 2019

It’s hard to believe but my time in Ecuador is coming to an end. As of the beginning of February, I have officially been living in Ecuador for five months. The weeks at times flew by, while others crept by at an agonizingly slow rate. Luckily, I learned pretty early on to take this experience one day at a time. Not only did it help me live in the moment, but it also helped me escape the overwhelming realization that I had made the decision to go and live away from my family, friends, culture, customs, and comfort zone for a looooong time.

However, recently this concept of time has scared me for a different reason. I notice the “vamos a extrañarte (we’re going to miss you)” comments from my host grandma, Carmen. I don’t have to scroll quite as far on my calendar to see April 5, the day we leave Ecuador. The reminder emails from Global Citizen Year to arrange our travel plans home have become more urgent. The number of weeks left can suddenly be noted on my hands.

I would be lying to myself if I said I wasn’t more than a little excited to have “only two more months” sprinkled throughout my conversations with other Fellows. This year has many times left me feeling as if I got more than I bargained for. I’ve been frustrated, sad, confused, angry, annoyed, disappointed, and pushed to what I thought would be my breaking point. But at the same time, this mention of time leaves me frantic. I find myself flipping through my journal to read my original goals for my gap year, making plans for the remaining weekends, writing lists of things I still have yet to do, see, try, accomplish. Anticipation is high, not only to be reunited with the people and things I have been missing, but also for the sense of longing I will have for the people and things I have connected with in Ecuador that will no longer be in my life come May.

Despite all of the challenges I have faced during my time in Ecuador, the realization that my time here is finite reminds me that time is running out for not only the bad moments but also the good ones. A premature nostalgia often washes over me while sharing a laugh with another Fellow, racing my little host sister to the bus stop in the mornings, running to the top of the mountain in Gallo Rumi, eating at my favorite café in Cuenca after Spanish class, and fending off the teasing of my coworkers during coffee breaks.

I can already confidently say that the struggle this year has brought has been more than worth it because I will be walking away with lifelong connections, a strengthened sense of global awareness and a newfound confidence in myself. If there is anything that I have learned this year it is that 1. I value good friendships, 2. Solving problems is always more complicated than it seems with cultural, social and economic factors, and 3. It turns out I can handle far more than I originally thought I was equipped to deal with.

The self-reflection that has come hand in hand with the countdown of my time in Ecuador has both lifted me up and weighed me down. My desire to check off boxes has brought feelings of disappointment in myself as I realize that I might not accomplish all that I set out to last August. Comparisons run through my head, bringing more and more doubt that I did my gap year right. I spent most of January obsessed with this idea and caught up with should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve. It wasn’t until this week that I realized that I get to determine what it means to do my gap year right, no one else.

These past months in Ecuador are so much more than check marks. I may not have had the same opportunities as other Fellows during my year, but that’s okay because my experience is a culmination of irreplaceable moments that belong to me and make up my own Global Citizen Year. And that’s what’s right.

Did I go into this year with the slightly unrealistic expectation to be fluent in Spanish at the end? Yep. Am I actually going to be fluent? Definitely not. Will other Fellows have improved more than me in their Spanish abilities? Probably. But is all of that okay? Finally, I can genuinely say yes. Why? Because I am pretty darn proud of the progress I have made with my abilities, and it was with my Spanish skills that I was able to successfully travel all around Ecuador, make jokes with my host family, write a report at work, and converse with Ecuadorians on the bus. And to me, that is enough.

In the spirit of appreciation for this unique journey I have been on, I made a list of 10 things that I have done or learned this year that I am grateful for and am going to celebrate as successes of my Global Citizen Year. I hope to remind myself of these positive outcomes and add to the list as I soak up my final weeks in Ecuador.

1. Language Learning. Okay, so I definitely won’t be fluent at the end of this year, BUT I have made a lot of progress in both my skills and confidence. I started the year feeling so discouraged by a particularly tricky Cañar accent, but over time with all-Spanish playlists, challenging myself to initiate conversation, and grammar workbooks, my efforts paid off. I was able to translate and successfully lead my mom through Ecuador when she came to visit in December so that was a huge milestone for me!

2. Growth in adaptability. This year has definitely thrown me a lot of curve balls. I have learned the importance of being able to take what comes my way and make the best of it. The biggest example I can think of is being able to recover from a negative experience with my first apprenticeship and go on to lay down the foundation for a new one at a different company. Things did not always go smoothly during my gap year but it was how I approached the challenges I faced and my attitude that allowed me to continue to thrive.

3. Friendships. From the other Fellows to my coworkers and my host family, I have developed connections with people in Ecuador that I already know will last a lifetime. These friendships have taught me so much about how I want to treat people and be treated, how kindness and laughter can transcend any cultural and language barriers, and what it means to be human in a world where it seems people are losing touch with their humanity. These friendships have carried me through some of the most trying periods of my gap year and have made enduring some of my lowest of the lows well worth it.

4. Knowledge on environmental issues and projects in Ecuador. Through my apprenticeship and other self-initiated research, I have had the chance to analyze environmental challenges, specifically related to waste management, and the associated social, economic and cultural factors. Being involved in this multidimensional approach to addressing problems has helped me develop a new perspective on creating sustainable solutions. I hope to carry these methods into the future as I aim to positively contribute back to society.

5. Adventure. Independent travel and other opportunities to explore Ecuador have allowed me to develop my sense of adventure and love for the natural world. Ecuador is hands down the most beautiful place I have ever been, and through my time here I have discovered a renewed sense of appreciation for nature, as well as a sense of responsibility as a global citizen to care for it. I know I will be leaving Ecuador with an insatiable “travel bug,” smart travel tools, and an intensified curiosity to continue to discover the world around me.

6. Responsibility for my health. This is the first time in my life that I truly did what is commonly referred to as “adulting.” As part of this process I realized that I, and only I, had the power to maintain my physical and mental health during my time in Ecuador. Maybe my diet here in Ecuador wasn’t what I was used to or preferred, but I was able to advocate for myself, teach my host family about vegetarian diets, and integrate my own personal health habits of exercise and yoga to maintain a lifestyle I wanted. I am proud of myself for maintaining the levels of mental and physical health that were important to me.

7. Independence. My time in Ecuador has improved my confidence in my own resourcefulness and ability to independently solve problems. Often times I have been in situations where I am the only one able to determine the outcome and through trial and error, I have been able to fine-tune my personal judgement. Now more than ever I feel empowered, capable and trusting in myself.

8. Balance of living in the moment and big picture thinking. I have by no means mastered this quite yet, however, I realized early on in this experience when I needed to take things one step at a time and when I needed to escape the present moment to instead focus on the larger goals and tasks at hand. I’ve had moments here in Ecuador I simply couldn’t get enough, while others have been times of struggle in which I needed to remove myself from the current situation to remind myself of the purpose of my nine-month Global Citizen Year journey.

9. Womanhood. My Global Citizen Year has provided ample time for me to reflect on being a woman and I have come to develop a global perspective on the difficulties that women face according to the cultures and societies that surround them. Exploring the gender roles deeply ingrained in Ecuador has at times been frustrating and saddening, but I have identified many parallels between the treatment of women in Ecuador and in my own country. This has only further opened my eyes to my responsibility as a woman to take any opportunity I can to challenge oppressive systems and support women wherever I go. I am also lucky to say that this year has brought many amazing women into my life and they inspire me with their strength, kindness and wisdom.

10. A second home. After this year, Ecuador will always have a very special place in my heart, and I can easily say that I have found a home that I will return to throughout my life. I have fallen in love with the beauty and diversity of this country in terms of the land, the culture, and the people, and I will forever be appreciative of the opportunities Ecuador gave me during my Global Citizen Year. It had been a place of great learning and growth through success and failure, laughter and tears, adventure and boredom, and a self-discovery unlike anything else prior in my life.

¡Viva Ecuador!

Con amor,

Maddi

Please enjoy this video of some friends and I traveling around the northern part of Ecuador in January!

Below is the link to my YouTube channel with some more videos from the past few months. Also, please check out my Global Citizen Year Fundraising Page! I am trying to raise $2,500 by the beginning of April for the Global Citizen Year Scholarship Fund so that other students can afford a gap year. Any donation would be greatly appreciated! Have a great day! 🙂

Fundraising Page Link: donate.globalcitizenyear.org/fundraiser/1444591

YouTube Channel Link: www.youtube.com/channel/UClgbnahbuM85zJaqL23ybXA

Maddi Schink