blog post

Oumaima Rhalem - Ecuador


January 2, 2018

(very) rough draft of my reflections so far

Who are not, but could be.

Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.

Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.

Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.

Who don’t have culture, but folklore.

Who are not human beings, but human resources.

Who do not have faces, but arms.

Who do not have names, but numbers.

Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.

The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.

Eduardo Galeano

I apologise in advance for this unstructured flow of thoughts. Perhaps it would have made more sense if I had written a blogpost earlier and not tried to sum up four months of experiences in one hour 🙂

Four months in Ecuador have shown me how easily you can adapt to a new lifestyle, a new language, a different landscape, different food habits, and different family dynamics. Now, I have to remind myself daily that I should not take  the views of volcanoes Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Cayambe from the rooftop of our house for granted – especially since I come from one of the flattest countries in the world (and most definitely right now that w as  their summits are beautifully covered with snow!).

Out of nowhere during dinner on Monday – humitas and Colombian coffee, one of my all time favourites – I  realised how comfortable I was starting to feel in Spanish. I am nowhere near fluent, nor am I always able to produce sentences that make sense to native speakers, but I’m starting to understand nearly all the dinner table conversations, and the language is starting to feel familiar. Loud reggaeton music in buses are not a long stream of unknown words anymore. I’ve even had moments where I’ve had to use Google Translate – not because I didn't know how to say a word in Spanish, but because I’d forgot the translation of a Spanish word in Dutch while messaging family back home.

Learning a different language is an interesting thing . While it is motivating and exciting to notice that I am improving and that my family can understand me better, being misunderstood – or more importantly, not being able to fully express myself – continues to be one of the most difficult challenges of this year. It reminds me of my first months at UWC when my vocabulary in English was  poor and I answered almost everything with, "Yes, I'm good" or, "That’s so nice!" For that reason I don’t feel like I can truly be myself in Spanish yet. and It makes connecting to people much more of a challenge (as if cultural differences were not enough).

For now I'll just keep it to, "Estoy bien, gracias.", "Me gusta mucho." and "Muchas gracias." – or maybe even "Dios le pague." if I'm feeling confident.

Four months in Ecuador have, in many ways, also been what I would have expected them to be. Expectations such as from the experiences that GCY promotes on their website, that you see in the Facebook albums of friends taking gap years, or what you expect when you think of living in Ecuador and all its bio- and cultural diversity. I’ve swum in waterfalls. Hiked on volcanoes (although have yet to reach the summit). Eaten more street food than physically possible without getting parasites. I have taken salsa classes, baked dutch apple pies for my host family, bargained at local markets, have had to explain numerous times that the Netherlands is not in the U.S.,and that being Muslim means more than just not eating pork.

But these four months have brought even many more unexpected experiences that might even be more valuable. Not that swimming in waterfalls has not brought me immense insights into myself and my place in society (haha sarcasm… another thing I fail to express in Spanish). Some of the most meaningful times of these past four months have been discussing social issues with my host family – even though we might often strongly disagree – especially when it comes to topics where my family's more conservative and my liberal views clash. I’ve learned to let go of my instant impulse to always debate and challenge, and rather except their views on the world, society and religion as a culmination of life experiences that are simply different from mine.

The most meaningful moments have been the uncomfortable ones. The moments I did not know how to go about my privilege, like when an extended family member asked me how much the houses back home cost  or how many countries I've traveled to. Here I am, a Western person from one of the most developed countries in the world, turning their everyday life into another "authentic" experience I will be able to share with my family back home through blog posts and can write about in my journal on how much they enriched my personal development. I know it's not what I intended this year to be, but it feels like it is.

More uncomfortable moments: (co)teaching English. I cannot block out the thought that my head that I am an unexperienced, unqualified teacher with no skills that has come here to attempt to teach English, but fails utterly because I cannot manage a class of 40 loud children. The feeling of Western superiority doesn’t fade away. Voluntourism has been something I have been strongly against, especially when a volunteer's lack of skills can damage others (in this case, the 40 loud children).

Four months in Ecuador have shown me how easily you can adapt to a new lifestyle, but four months have also shown me how difficult it is to try to grasp and make assumptions of a new culture. Even if you are immersed in it, you are still an outsider. I still catch myself thinking from a Western, ethnocentric point of view when assessing certain cultural topics. It's difficult to make sense  and fairly judge aspects especially ones such as women's rights, indigenous culture, religion, etc. As cringingly cliché as it may sound, the more I learn about Ecuador the more I realize I know so little, and that its extremely difficult to let go of stereotypes even if you live inside the culture.

Meanwhile, I am still trying to make sense of my place here,. While it might just take  all 7 months or maybe slightly more, I’m learning from this experience every day. Thanks for reading!!

Oumaima

Oumaima Rhalem