Four months ago, I said goodbye to my family and friends with tears running down my cheeks. I walked away from the traditional high school-to-college track and I walked away from the comforts of home in search of adventure in Ecuador. When I got on the plane, I expected to trek through the rainforest, live in a small hut with a tin roof, be covered in bug bites and have to deal with giant moths and spiders. I expected to be constantly surrounded by lush, green beauty and wildlife. I expected to take bucket baths, or frigid showers at the very least. I expected eat fresh fruit from the branch and walk around on dirt roads. I expected to be lulled to sleep by the calm sounds of a river and be woken by cows and roosters. I expected that my favorite place would be alone on a trail. I expected to live a life of adventure and vibrancy and color.
I did not expect to live in a small city, with malls and gyms and big, fancy churches, or in a house made of cement. I did not expect to take hot showers. I did not expect to work in an office, or walk around on paved roads. I did not expect to be shocked by how little greenery and plant life there is, or that my family would find flies and spiders more bothersome than I do. I did not expect that I would go to yoga classes, or farmers markets. I did not expect that I would encounter a great deal of women who talk about weight loss, or who regularly dye their hair and get their nails done. I didn’t expect to go to sleep among the chorus of dogs barking and cars backfiring, or to wake up to the sound of my host mother singing loudly along with the radio. I didn’t expect that my favorite place would be the fresh fruit and veggie markets, surrounded by women selling everything from papaya, to avocado to freshly ground peanut butter. I did not expect to live a life that sometimes feels so normal, and other times feels so absolutely frustrating.
In short, I expected the single story. I expected what many people do when they think about Ecuador or Latin America in general-bright colors, lush greenery, waterfalls, and poverty. Obviously those things exist, and I have experienced them first hand. I swam in a waterfall surrounded by gorgeous jungle green, I camped in a beautiful active volcano, I milked a goat and I have visited communities that have no access to water. But I have also met people who only shop at big supermarkets, who buy $80 jeans, and who would much rather spend time at the movies than on a farm. What I have learned about the single story is not that it is untrue, but it is limited. There is never one story of any place or culture. Ecuador has as many stories as any other country- there are some men who blatantly stare and whistle at me on the streets, and others that treat me with the utmost respect. There are people who don’t know other planets exist in space, and there are people who are informed about world politics and current events. There are poor people and there are rich people. There are straight people and gay people, and people who would prefer not to be in a relationship and people who cheat on their spouses and people who demand equality and people who think marriage should be between one man and one woman.
There are also people who believe one single story of the United States. I have been asked many times why everyone in the United States is obese. One man I talked to insisted that everyone in the US eats hamburgers, hotdogs, and french-fries, despite my explaining that this isn’t true. I became frustrated by the amount of people who made similar comments to me, especially because I have experienced a great deal of individuals who consume a heavy amount of oil and rice, and little fresh produce. I began to feel defensive, and angry that so many people see my country in such a skewed fashion. When I expressed this frustration to a family member when he, too, asked me why everyone in the states is fat, he told me that most everyone in Ecuador eats the traditional plates of pollo seco (rice and chicken), or ceviche, and he just assumed that every family in the US would have similar diets as well.
It’s easy to believe a single story, because we are simply unaware that any other exists. It is hard to overcome cultural biases and frustrations to see clearly, which is something I am still struggling with (I can’t tell you how tired I am of eating rice). Maybe we will never be able to fully stray from the single story, or to see other cultures and countries clearly, but as Maya Angelou once said, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become