All in the Mindset

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui - Ecuador


December 31, 2018

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve written my last blog post, but finally,
here I am. I know you’ve all been waiting for this! So much has happened
since the last time I’ve published that I don’t really know where to start.
At first, I just couldn’t find inspiration- so much was happening in my
life and within my own self that I simply could not keep up enough to write
it all into one post. I attempted multiple times with different styles of
writing, but finally I decided to give it a break, and wait until the
inspiration came to me. Finally, I feel ready, though lucky for me my
computer broke down so I have to use my host sister’s, where half the keys
don’t work and I have to google “copy and paste quotation marks” along with
most other symbols and numbers I need. Yes, I just went to google and typed
that in to be able to write that sentence.

If I had to sum up this past few months I would boil it down to mental
health, because that, more than anything else, decides your experiences in
life. As my friend Kate from the Netherlands like to say about most
everything she does: “it’s all mind shit.” I’m going to be honest, taking a
gap year with Global Citizen Year is damn hard. When I first got here, I
felt relieved and cleansed. I have time. I’m somewhere new where the only
actual requirements are that I go to my apprenticeship and weekly spanish
class. I have the freedom to choose how much I put myself out there, which
relationships I have, what I get involved in, and how much I dedicate
myself. These are decisions that rarely in life do I feel we have the
complete opportunity to make. I’m the only one who can really hold myself
accountable for my experience in Ecuador, and that is something
extraordinarily powerful, and at the same time, quite scary.

Before arriving to Ecuador, I would say I had good mental health. I’ve
never been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness, and I have always
been able to find healthy outlets for when I feel stressed or lonely.
During high school, much of the negativity in my life came from things like
homework and the occasional drama, but I also had my favorite coffee shop
to study at, my favorite trails to walk on, my best friends to see at any
time, and always, always, my family. Once you leave your home, all of that
changes. I know people experience this in college, too, but I think moving
to a different continent and living life in another language and with a new
family heightens it a lot.

It is true that people leave this program for various reasons. A few have
left because they didn’t like the limited amount of freedom we have. We are
in a time in our lives where we want to have the liberty to travel and
figure stuff out on our own. As young women coming from the United States,
many of us expected to be able to take weekend trips to go hiking, go out
at night dancing, and simply have the ability to be in control of the
decisions we make. Many of us were surprised when host parents set rules
that we couldn’t leave the house after 6pm, or couldn’t visit the hub city
15 minutes away because it’s deemed to be “too dangerous” for a young woman
to visit. Of course regulations come with being part of a program, but
there are certain obstacles that have nothing to do with the program and
more to do with the differing culture and mindsets the families may have,
which can be hard to maneuver.

The other people who have left the program voluntarily have left because of
mental health problems. All of the fellows have hit some lows while here,
we’ve felt lonely and isolated and stuck. Most of us have found our ways to
stay active and involved, and we always find safety and happiness in each
other. Truly, I will always be able to think about some of my happiest
moments in life to the times I am with the other fellows. However, we all
have different experiences and need varying levels of support, and if you
come into the program with mental health problems already, the experience
can be especially tough.

My time in Ecuador can be split into different parts, starting with the
beginning stage, which I spent adjusting to my surroundings, family, and
apprenticeship. My first month I spent a decent amount of time with other
fellows, as we visited local festivals or tried out different restaurants
in Cuenca. The rest of my time was spent with my family. Mentally, I felt
good. I was excited for the newness of my life here, and was quickly
developing good relationships with everyone in my family, from siblings to
cousins to aunts and uncles. Overall I felt I had a strong community
surrounding me, one that cared about me and that I was safe with.

The next part of my life in Ecuador is when October rolls around. At this
point I feel well adjusted, and it’s time for me to get a routine going. I
go to my apprenticeship every morning and come back in time for lunch. The
first few weeks I spent the afternoon in my room, as everyone else was also
either in their room or at work, but I enjoyed this time to myself because
I could sleep, write, or call back home. I ate dinner with my family, and
by 8pm headed out the door to bailoterapia with my host brother, Pedro, who
was insistent on accompanying me to the gym where he would spend the hour
talking with a cousin whose mother was also at bailoterapia. At this time I
also discovered La Academia Municipal, the cultural center of the town that
offers dance, art, kichwa, and music lessons. I was excited because this
meant I could perhaps continue practicing the piano, but was greatly
disappointed when I went to try it out and found the piano was tilted
backwards so I had to basically stand to practice, and I couldn’t even hear
myself because the music playing in the rooms next to me seeped through the
walls.

At first, I was happy with this schedule. I had time to myself, time with
my family, and time to exercise. After some time though, I craved more. I
needed to do something social, where I could meet people my age who I could
practice my spanish with, as I felt I wasn’t developing enough with my host
family or at my apprenticeship. My dreams eventually came true mid-October,
when my Venezuelan bailoterapia instructor was joined by his brother, who
approached me after class saying he was opening a dance academy and wanted
me to join.

This initiates the next era of my time in Ecuador. I started as the only
girl in the dance academy, and the boys, excited about having a girl-
especially a foreign one- join their class, had no issue conversing and
joking around with me. I loved the dance style (mostly hip hop) and
eventually Mafe, and then another fellow, Maddi, joined the class, along
with another girl from the town. Together, we practiced every day from 6-8pm,
and afterwards I went to bailoterapia from 8-9pm. Our dance group started
going out on weekends to dance some more, this time at discotecas where
there wasn’t set choreography, and I started to pick up on Ecuadorian and
Venezuelan slang. I felt like I was a part of something, and something I
truly loved. We have had multiple performances, and our routines continue
to get more complex and interesting. We are now on break, but when the new
year starts more people will join and we will incorporate different styles
of dance, which I’m excited for.

This era leads into the most recent one, one where I felt out of place and
unhappy. I wasn’t spending as much time with my host family because when we
were all in the house after school, everyone shut themselves in their
rooms, and by the time dinner rolled around, I had to go to dance class.
They oftentimes wanted to make plans on the weekend and so I wouldn’t make
plans with other fellows, but many times when the weekend came, the plans
fell through and we just spent the day at home.

The dance academy became a somewhat toxic environment. I realized that the
boys, though good people that admired me and could make me laugh all day
long, were extremely immature. Most of their conversations revolved around
their exes or women, and they all developed serious crushes on me and the
other girls, that in some ways could be seen as cute, but in other ways was
overwhelming and unhealthy. I wasn’t practicing my spanish to discuss
things that mattered to me, and drama began to form. Part of this stems
from the fact that I and one of the boys in the academy were developing a
sort of relationship, but instead of being relaxed and fun, it was
confusing and, I think, manipulative. Though I loved dancing and cared
about everyone in the dance group, I realized I had lost my confidence. I
felt low and boring when I was around them. They would make jokes and
converse in Spanish and it often went over my head, or I would zone out, or
I just felt like I couldn’t contribute. I felt like lame company, though I
couldn’t understand why.

On top of this all, the beautiful relationships I had built with my family
were drifting away. They started to make backhanded comments and acted in
petty ways. I felt wrong when I entered the house, though I wasn’t sure why
they were acting so differently towards me. One day, when my team leader
came over to my house for a monthly meeting, my host parents began to
express how they felt. To be frank, none of the “issues” they had made much
sense. My team leader and I continuously tried to figure out resolutions to
make things better, but my host parents didn’t seem interested. In the end,
my team leader and I realized that my parents were trying to find small
issues to cover up what they were really upset about: they felt I had
replaced them with the dance academy, and they had heard I was dating a
Venezuelan.

I tried to be clear with them, explaining that the dance academy was just as
important to me as they were, but they didn’t seem to understand. For them,
if I prioritized one, say because I had a performance, it meant I cared
about it more than them. The thing is, my host siblings aren’t involved in
activities. When they come home from school they spend the rest of the day
at home and only my host brother leaves to go to soccer practice. I
realized my host parents weren’t used to having a daughter who was as
active as I, and neither was the rest of the town, who had seen me in the
streets and had asked my host mom why I was out of the house so often.
Instead of understanding that my experience in Ecuador includes getting
involved in other activities and doing what I need to feel healthy and
happy, they felt offended and abandoned because they thought I didn’t want
to be with them.

The other part of the equation is their racism towards Venezuelans. Though
kind people, I have discovered that they, and most of my town, do not trust
Venezuelan immigrants and think they’re bad company. The town saw me
spending time with a Venezuelan in my dance group, and the rumor spread
that we were dating, which my parents seem to disapprove of.

By the end of the meeting, I felt hurt and betrayed. I had done nothing
wrong, and yet my family was turning against me instead of simply just
communicating. I left the house crying with my team leader, but he
reassured me that my parents would get over their sentiments and understand
that I was just doing what was best for me, and that I still cared about
them. This situation, mixed with the broken relationship I had with the boy
I was talking to, and the frustration with the people in my dance academy,
made me feel alone and suffocated. I knew I needed to get out of this funk,
leave my town and family for a while, take some time to be with people I
enjoyed, and become in touch with myself again.

Lucky for me, we had a regional retreat a few days after this meeting,
which leads into the period I am currently in. Regional retreats are when
all the fellows, team leaders, and supervisors in southern Ecuador get
together for a few days to have discussions, presentations, and just relax
and talk about how we’re doing. This time we went to the coast to spend
some time on the beach of Puerto Lopez, and I immediately felt myself
regaining my happiness. I engaged in discussions of all sorts and was
laughing constantly. At the end of the trip, a part of me dreaded the
return, but a part of me also felt ready to start again. As Mafe and I sat
on the bus ride home together, she said “you know, I love seeing you at
retreats, because I can tell you’re so genuinely happy. I felt like I lost
you for some time, and I’m so glad to see you’re glowing again.” A few days
after returning home I was to leave again for my independent travel trip,
which was good because I knew I wasn’t prepared to settle back home again.

My independent travel was basically a repeat of how I felt at the regional
retreat. I was surrounded by amazing fellows who were willing to explore
Ecuador in the most authentic way possible: hiking with our bags on our
backs and camping in the mountains. We each pitched in money to purchase
snacks, hitchicked in the back of camionetas, climbed mountains, and sang
around fireplaces, while also dealing with stomach issues along the way- a
huge part of the Ecuadorian experience. Fellows from southern and northern
Ecuador reunited, and though we had only known each other for a few days
back in September, we connected as if we were longtime friends. By the time
the trip ended, I was ready to start my new year. The dance academy felt
distant and I had completely cut off the boy I had previously been talking
to. I had seen more of Ecuador, created relationships with friends from all
around the world, and felt like my refreshed, strong, and confident self.

I returned home just in time for Christmas, which was very different to how
I celebrate back home and caused me to feel quite homesick. However, it is
also apparent that my relationship with my family is better than ever
before. My host sister has said multiple times she wishes I could come back
in June for her Quinceañera, my host brother plays with my hair and
snuggles his face into my curls, my little host sister begs to paint my
nails and make popcorn together, and my oldest host sister’s friends tell
me she says I feel like a true sister to her. My host mother cares for me
with adoration and kindness, and my host father seems to enjoy bringing me
on trips to visit his father en el campo, which I also love. My family even
asks me more questions about my trips and family, which they didn’t really
do even when I first arrived. I have come to realize that the reason they
were so harsh during our meeting is because of how much they care about me,
and they felt conflicted because they didn’t understand why I spent so much
time out of the house. I think we all needed some time apart to reflect on
what we wanted from each other, and hopefully our relationship continues to
grow and fill us with happiness as a family.

When break ends, I will return to my old routine, but with some changes. I
will only have dance class 3 days a week since we’re splitting into groups,
so the other days I’m going to go on runs or bike rides around my town to
discover new places and get some exercise on my own. Ever since I arrive
I’ve wanted to run, but one, the altitude is crazy high and it took me a long
time to adjust, and two, during the day the sun is too bright and
dangerous, and during the evening it becomes completely dark and cold.
After climbing Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, though, two of the mountains with
the highest elevations in the world, I feel ready to take on some easy
jogs. I’ve decided I’m going to run when the sun goes down so that I can
experience the beautiful view without the danger of the sun, and that way I
can be back home in time for dinner, which I can share with my family
again. I am also considering joining a contemporary dance class with Mafe
(I do absolutely everything with her), one that only older girls are a part
of so that I can possibly become friends with them instead of spending so
much time with the childish boys from my dance academy.

Mentally, I’m ready to start my life in Ecuador again. I know myself enough
to know when I need to get out, and I have amazing people to surround
myself with. I am also ready to return to work. When I was on my
independent travel, I found myself missing my students. I’m excited to see
their joyful faces and feel the rush of being in front of the class, making
jokes and inventing games on the spot that will keep them engaged. Right
before leaving for the retreat I felt like I had finally figured out what
kind of teacher and supporter I wanted to be for my students, and we were
able to be productive in terms of academics, but also in terms of
developing relationships with each other and in-classroom behavior. I plan
to make a separate blog post solely about my apprenticeship experience
soon. 🙂

I want to be honest with you all because my social media doesn’t show the
ups and downs of my mental and emotional states. When people ask me how I’m
doing or if I like my host family, it’s hard to reply with a simple text
message. There are so many complexities and emotions that mold into this
gap year, but no matter how low it may seem like things are going, I am
also aware of the fact that the experience I’m having is necessary and
beautiful, and that as much as I’ve felt alone or doubtful, I’ve also felt
more in tune with myself than ever before. I’ve found how to form
relationships in difficult situations, and I’ve been able to discover
myself over and over again, finding new ways to feel secure and happy each
day. This year has not been easy, and it’s going to continue that way, but
right now, in this moment, I feel strong, I feel loved, and I feel ready to
live this bold and enriching life.

All of my host siblings from left to right:

Paola, 15, the responsible and unproblematic one. Many times I feel like
she runs the house. She’s the smartest student in her grade, cooks dinner
when Balbina isn’t home, and is usually the only one I feel I can really
talk to about social and political things.

Francheska, 9, the sweet but crazy one. As much as she fills the house with
her laughter and fun experiments (usually involving slime), she also fills
the house with her screaming and crying. She is easy to spend time with,
happy making pancakes or playing cards, and is usually the one I have
accompany me when I run errands around town.

Agata, 14, the sister I’ve taken the longest amount of time to form a
relationship with, but who I’m slowly figuring out how to approach . She
can have an attitude, but usually I find when I sit her down to talk in a
calm and mature manner, she responds well and seems to respect me.

Pedro, 10, as sweet and gentle as he can be, he can also have a mean
spirit, usually coming out in the form of making fun of his younger sister,
Francheska. The one who loves to follow me to bailoterapia and even wants
to start going on bike rides with me, he from the beginning has been one of
the most affectionate with me. However, he refuses to help around the house
unless he’s helping his father, so that’s something the sisters and I are
trying to change.

Pedro, acting like he doesn’t want to take a picture but of course he does.

Francheska and Balbina (my host mom) the queens of the house.

The view from my bike ride when the sun goes down and turns the clouds that
hover around the mountains pink.

More pictures to come soon!

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui