Since returning to the States from Ecuador, countless people have been curious about what my life has been for the past eight months. In the first few weeks of returning, everything that I had grown up with, and had always felt like home, were suddenly completely foreign to me. My body was in Berkeley, but my heart and mind were in Ecuador. I didn’t know how to process my experience abroad, let alone how to share it with others. I feared that nothing I said could do it any justice. Every inquiry about my year would get a response of a big smile, and some positive adjectives. If prompted for more information, I would manage to list the facts. “I lived in the mountains with a host family. I was a volunteer English teacher at an elementary school. I went with a gap year program that united me with fellows from all over the world.” Barely grasping what I had done while away, the dry facts were all I could confidently tell. Besides, this description would usually feel sufficient to the inquirer. It just didn’t feel like the whole truth to me.
Sure, I did live in the mountains with a host family, but if I could tell you what’s really on my mind, I would say that I lived in Azogues, a city in the Southern Sierra Provincia of Cañar. Despite the misconception that Ecuador is primarily rural and people lead a more simple lifestyle than that of the US, Azogues was more of a bustling city than my hometown of Berkeley, California. We didn’t actually live in the mountains, but in a valley between a giant mountain range. Two of these mountains held specific importance to me and many people living there: Abuga and Cojitambo. They are two prominent mountains visible from the City of Azogues, miles apart, with a well known church in between the two. One of them has a giant virgin statue that protects the city. I worked at the base of the other, Cojitambo, every day. And to call the family I stayed with merely “hosts” does them a great disservice. The Toledo Tenezaca family truly made my experience in Ecuador. They showed me what it means to be selfless by willing sharing their lives with a complete stranger, and continued to care for me everyday. We ate every meal together, I would hang with them every day at their family business, run errands with them, and pick up my host siblings after school. They were patient and generous and treated me as a second daughter.
Yes, I did volunteer everyday as an English teacher. But I don’t bring up how overwhelming it is to teach solo, feeling so under qualified and the months it took before I felt comfortable leading a classroom. How in public schools in Ecuador, English class is a mandated subject for every grade level, but many schools don’t have the means to hire an English teacher. I don’t say how all the struggle and frustration of working in a school that’s underfunded and understaffed feels worth it when my students would learn a new English word and feel so proud of themselves. Or when my students found out I loved to draw and began begging me to draw them pictures. My last month working, every recess they would surround me, asking me to draw them Dragon Ball Z animated characters. I probably drew hundreds of Goku’s by the end.
And when I mention my friends from GCY, many of whom I consider family, it is true that they are from all over the globe. I couldn’t begin to describe the lessons I’ve learned from my cohort, and how much they have shaped my worldview. Coming from the Bay Area, many states feel like a country away in terms of cultural differences. And yet, we somehow could all bond together in this mutual understanding of such a rare experience. Pieces of my heart are now scattered through the Midwest, East Coast, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and more.
I continue to battle with refraining from telling my full story and a simultaneous yearning to share everything I can with anyone who will listen. For the GCY Capstone Project, and as I close out this chapter of my life, I made some paintings of Ecuador. They are meant to represent true moments and everyday parts of my life there. These pieces visualize memories of my year even when I don’t have the words to.
Thank you to everyone who took part in this journey in whatever form, whether you donated to my fundraising campaign, kept in touch throughout the year, were alongside me through it all, or even just quietly noticed my social media posts.
Thank you for listening as I articulate continue to my stories, and recount the infinite memories I have of beautiful, incredible Ecuador.
This is the bus I took to work everyday. Behind it is the mountain Cojitambo.
Azogues, the City where I stayed, is in a valley. The rooftops on the houses and buildings are shades of intense orange. The mountain Abuga with the statue at its peak is visible from anywhere in the City.
This is the church in the center of Azogues. Every city, town, or community, I visited in Ecuador, big or small, had a church in their center square.
This one is dedicated to the global cohort and the unique bond we share.