Experiences that Stretch Boundaries and Open Possibilities

Jensine Raihan - Ecuador


March 5, 2017

The other day, my friend Antoinette and I entered our utmost delight with choclos, which are roasted corn in the cobs dressed in shredded cheese glued together with mayonnaise. The shop is a woman-run restaurant that specializes and only offers the best empanadas in all of Ecuador. She has grown to be a very familial, comfortable part of my routine in Ecuador. I get to be embraced with her warm-hearted and comforting smile every week. “Vienen con choclos!” She cried smilingly.
“Claro!” I giggled. At that moment, I swear to God, I felt like a kid in her favorite place with a lollipop. We ordered our empanadas de morocho and proceeded to find a seat in the all-too-familiar restaurant that I’ve brought todo el mundo to, including one day when I requesting to have a 1-1 Spanish class there. This is all thanks to my host mom in Quito, who was like, “What have you even been doing in Ibarra if you don’t go to this restaurant???” when she realized I was not aware of this wonderful delicacy despite just being across the street from it every week.

 

 

There’s so much joy here, but that’s not necessarily what’s new to me—it’s the joy without the paranoia and seemingly endless exhaustion that came hand in hand for me before. Exhaustion of waking up before the sun rises, commuting for an hour, enduring hours of being talked at—struggling to stay awake, going to work and juggling complicated, sometimes non-communicative, sometimes fulfilling, sometimes exasperating, hopeless relationships, commuting for another hour, coming home and studying and doing homework for as long as I can keep my eyes open, catching a couple of hours of sleep and repeat.
Exhaustion of always having to play an expected role. Here, nobody tells me I cannot wear this because it’ll be too obvious that I am a woman with boobs or because too much of my skin is exposed to the thirst of men. Nobody tells me I cannot go to a late night concert because I am a girl or I cannot have sex or flirt with boys or like girls because that’s inappropriate and I should be a proper, decent Muslim girl. Nobody tells me how to live, or rather not to live. Here, I can live. I can just be. I don’t have a role to play here. I don’t have expectations to be a good student or a good Muslim or a good role model, here, I just am and that’s enough. Before, I have always had to perform—or pretend to perform to please the people who believe that’s the only way the world can go round: with people performing. I don’t know if that belief doesn’t exist here or it just doesn’t apply to me because I’m an extranjera or I decided it did not apply to me here, but whatever it is—I do not perform here and from that liberation is where my joy stems from. Here, I decided I am free and do not accept the things that would suggest otherwise, because I have little hope that I will enjoy such liberation when my feet touch the ground of the rushed, grey city I know as home.
Perhaps it is this hopeless pessimism that things will remain exactly the same despite my life taking a sharp turn and pushing what I thought I knew of the world and life beyond its previous boundaries that is compelling me to find another escape as soon as I return. Or maybe, it is this newfound thirst to continue to know life differently than I have known for the past 18 years with the exception of the past few months. Truthfully, I cannot deny that at some level—I want to continue escaping the life I knew back home. I have become infatuated with not living each day struggling superficially, but rather struggling to learn and grow and become even more curious of the things around me. At home I struggled with people’s expectations, here, I struggle with what I thought I knew of the world and what’s possible. Such struggles are so much more fulfilling to overcome; it’s not an endless cycle but something I can build on. Is my pessimism well-founded, or is it just that? Pessimism? Perhaps life will be different when I return and I won’t really know until I live it full of heart and soul and trust. Perhaps. Vamos a ver.
My mom and younger brother and sister are coming to spend time with me here in Ecuador. I cannot wait to show them my world here and for us to spend time together. My family has never once since my parents’ divorce more than a decade ago and the economic fallout that followed after been on vacation. We don’t go to parties. Eid celebrations, that are the only two celebrations in the Islamic calendar, compose of going to the masjid for prayer and then sleeping at home after eating my mom’s Eid meal and deserts. Thus, I don’t know what to expect out of this trip and so naturally I am filled with excitement and nervousness. We will be spending time together just to be spending time together, experiencing traveling together—something we’ve never done before, but maybe the same authoritative, not-to-be-disputed expectations that I always nonetheless try to exhaustingly dispute will come with being with my mom again. I love my mom—my heart both fills and breaks simultaneously for her. Not so long ago she told me, “Too much fun is not good.” This comes from someone who’s life consists of waking up, getting her children off to school, working, coming home and then doing some more of taking care of children, and repeat 24/7. Never once have I seen my mom take a break. She doesn’t go out with friends and the only time she participates in any form of amusement, it is for her children. She believes that those who suffer in this world will find heaven in the hereafter. That those who find pleasure in this world are denied entrance to heaven and people must endure life and trust that their pleasure is waiting for them after death. For me, as someone who isn’t sure about the existence of anything after death, this is a true tragedy because if there’s anyone in this world more deserving of perfect joy, it is my mother
I know she loves me and wants the best for me, it is just difficult for me to reconcile with her when we have such different views of the world and life due to structurally different perspectives: hers being religiously- and economically-driven and mine being secularly- and liberation-driven. This fight—regarding my life choices and desires: wearing low-cut shirts instead of scarves or traveling instead of staying home or being a community organizer instead of a doctor—has lasted years and its a fight I’ve partially given up on and partially continue hoping that she will eventually understand.
 Being in Ecuador has provided me with a much-needed break from all of that but despite this I desperately miss my family, friends, and co-liberation workers back home and so life goes on with dialectics.
As I get closer to my plane ticket back to the United States, Ecuador feels more and more like a home and it is as if the sooner I have to go, the more I am finding possibilities for me to learn and grow. The first person I saw as I was entering my house, after coming back from a few days in Ecuador’s jungle, was my 10-year old host sister, Sisa, and so I said, “Te extraño!” and she jumped into my arms crying incredibly sweetly, “Yo tambien!”

 

 

Another day, just when I was climbing my way home from the city I saw Luna, our dog, looking towards my direction waiting a few feet below our house. When she caught sight of me she immediately got up, wagging her tail, and within a blink of an eye had her paws on me, tongue stuck out, eyes begging to be adored—so I obliged, because she was waiting for me to come home.
Another time, when I returned home after a few days away, I bumped into my host mom and younger sister and proceeded to give them both hugs, as I have not seen them in quite some time. However, as we began to embrace each other—Luna also came up behind my host sister, placing two of her paws around our group, joining the embrace as well.
I never expected to feel at home or as part of a family. My family has hosted many people before me, so they’ve grown accustomed to people coming and going. With so many people passing through, it’s hard forming strong emotional bonds when you know they, in just a matter of time, will board a plane going back to their old life. But sometime between September and now, things have become to feel more comfortable and familiar, and I’ve been feeling like I am really a part of something. It took some time for me to feel this way but amongst all of the chaos, havoc, and violence around the world–and particularly back home, I’m in awe that in a world with such evil and selfishness, at the same time, can be a world with people so generous, so willing to share their lives and affections. Although my host family and I come from such different backgrounds, it only took dinner table conversations and time together, when we learned about what we each care about and what makes each of us laugh, to form the caring relationship we do have.
I remember being completely fulfilled as I was picking avocados with my host mom in our backyard. Well, she would do the picking while I helped identify the avocados from the leaves and catch them as she’d release them. I balanced the caught avocados on tree branches to create a mirage of avocados and demonstrated my colección to my host dad when he inquired whether I was picking nature’s butter. My host mom, however, was quick to out me on my inability to coher avocados.
My host mom, Dolores Mami, is one of the most intelligent, delightful, hard-working person I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Whenever I ask where my dried clothes are, she never fails to respond with, “Se robó!” and then proceed to hysterically laugh as if it’s the most hilarious thing ever.
Growing up, she did not speak any Spanish. But over the past decade or so, as volunteers would come and go year by year, she’d learn the language with her interactions with them. Now, she’s fluent.
Moreover, my host dad, Sebas Papi is one of the most charismatic, social, amiable person you could meet. He literally knows everyone. When I told him I was going to a workshop with a lineup of influential indigenous people in the region he literally was like, “Nosotros somos amigos!” and made me promise that I would mention him to them.
I’ve never had an apparent, obvious father figure in my life. Sure, I had people who I looked up to in a similar way, but they were my teachers or my mentors, not actually my father. Here, I explicitly have a father figure. I remember, in the beginning, trying to find any possible fault I could because my experience with my own father and the experiences my friends have with their fathers were not necessarily positive, healthy, or supportive relationships. So, of course Sebas Papi would be the same. How can I expect anything more? God, was I wrong. For the first time in 18 years, I have a father who truly cares about me and is truly supportive of me. He cares for his daughters and wants the best for them. For my younger, 10-year old sister he wants her to finish university and be fluent in English so she can have the world of opportunities he did not get. Hearing that, well, it was never anything I’ve ever had and so, for me, I was so incredibly happy for my host sisters who are so lucky to have Sebas Papi as their father and it made me feel really special that I get to know someone like him and his relationships with his daughters.
I also feel special to know my host niece–Suri. If there’s one thing I know I want to be since I’ve come here it’s to be someone with as much soul as Suri. Suri is 4 and has as much affection as sass and it is such a heart-warming, delightful mix.
One evening I asked, “Que te gustas mas? Hablando en Español o en Kichwa o los dos?”
“Los dos.”
Her dad responds, “Pero que sobre Inglés?”
Suri cries, “Ella dijo Español o Kichwa, no Inglés! Escucha! Tú no escuchas!”
I burst into laughter and so does my host dad, but she goes on continuing to scold her dad about how he should try listening more.
I love Suri. I love how much soul she has and I love her tight hugs. I love how she embraces being Suri with open arms, not afraid to be loud or funny or to flirt. I’m sad that I won’t be able to see her grow and that if I come back a few years later she probably won’t remember me as much as how I will always know how much she’s moved me.

 

 

I’ve been consistently struck by the people I’ve met here. When I went to the Amazon, I was really moved by the people I came across. The family that hosted us had so much soul. They are developing an eco-tourism site in the cusp of the Amazon rainforest in hopes of preserving not only the diversity of the forest but also their own indigenous Kichwa culture. Each of my interactions with the members of the family were bewildering. I cannot put my words into how I know when someone is full of soul, but that’s the only way I can describe how I felt in my interactions with the people I met there. They had access to and knowledge about a part of the world, I—and so many people I know, could never even grasp to understand. And yet, they were so welcoming and eager to show us a part of their world despite our clumsy falls and inability to do basic things—like lighting a goddamn cooking fire. I was touched by the amount of knowledge they had—from the boy who was about the same age as my younger 12-year old brother to his parents who were responsible for founding the project—and their passion for preserving their home and culture and their humble generosity in being so completely and exceedingly hospitable towards us. Throughout the trip, I was overcome with an incredibly warm feeling.

 

 

Now that I only have a month left in my community, I’m constantly thinking about how much I’ve gotten used to things here that were downright absurd to me when I first arrived, and the things I’m going to miss here. My community is not a stranger to noise pollution despite it being el campo. Last night, for instance, my community had music blasting throughout the night robbing everyone of their sleep so that everyone knew that we won a futbol game. But loud music isn’t only on special occasions but a daily routine. Every morning at around 6 in the morning, my host uncle and aunt never forget to put the music on full blast to wake themselves up for a long day—and the rest of the community as well. It’s a collective alarm clock. Nevertheless, I never cease to futilely attempt to put myself back to sleep until I eventually give up. Everyday. There’s also the potato and gas trucks that play each of their own tunes, while the potato truck adds, “bueno papas” to its tunes for individuality.
All jokes aside, I’m going to miss being so close to the sky that I really do feel like I can touch the poofy, big, angelically white clouds. Here, when we are lucky with a clear sky in the evening, we are graced by a blanket of stars and the magnificently black, deep silhouette of the Imbabura volcano complimented by the glistening 45 meter deep San Pablo lake. It’s a truly breathtaking view—nothing like I’ve ever seen before. And it’s something I get to see on a regular basis—well that is, until April. Going back to a crowded, large but cramped city like New York will be so odd after living with so much space—two houses, a balcony, fields upon fields beyond what the eye can see.

 

 

I’m going to miss the people here. I am going to miss the community here—a community that is so invested in each other’s success. Here,  the Kichwa indigenous communities have a tradition of doing “mingas,” which is when a community comes together to collaborate in finishing a task or a community project. This can be anything from harvesting plants to building a community space or even helping out a neighbor in their construction of a new house. Coming from an individualistic “everyone for themselves” culture in the States, it’s really refreshing to be in a type of community that will support and contribute in support of each other and the collective whole.

 

Being here—has opened my eyes to new possibilities, not only for my life but also for another world. Before, I would never imagine my life outside the city I’ve grown up in. It was just so easy to limit myself to what I know, it was harder to take a chance and look beyond, but I feel like I can do that more easily now given this experience. A working-class, single-parent household, Muslim city girl living in a Kichwa- and Spanish-speaking Andean indigenous community with an indigenous family in rural el campo opens up possibilities of the world we can live in. Imagine if everyone can live lives that are radically different from what they’ve grown up in, with people that are so radically different from them. What kind of a world would we be able to live in? If communities can develop a system without dependency on the state to build schools, an economy, educational spaces, and lives collectively—then why can’t others? Imagine a world in which people collectively are invested in the success of each other and the whole? What kind of a world would we be able to live in?
I’m so enormously grateful for this experience—to just learn, constantly. Not having any other expectation for myself except to learn. It provides me with the perspective that experiences can be so different between traveling and going to another country to live there. Living in another country or in a place that is very different from what you may be accustomed to allows for learning lessons that are truly unparalleled.

 

 

 

Jensine Raihan