Finding a Balance

Peter Saudek - Ecuador


January 28, 2011

When I arrived in Ibarra and began my apprenticeship, the first month and a half I felt like I had very little “to do,” no structure in my days. Needless to say, I spent lots of time feeling unproductive and useless. Three months later, I’m teaching English classes six days a week, working in the mobile classroom three days a week, and heading the Casa de la Juventud, Ibarra’s youth group, which I am working with others to re-establish. I did not think getting myself into a position to be able to provide meaningful service would be such an arduous process. It took months of observation and communication to develop an actual schedule for my apprenticeship, and to realize that there are an unlimited number of things that can be done to help out the community, the youth, and the organizations that I work with on a daily basis. At this point I have to pace myself in terms of how much time I dedicate to my work so that I don’t over extend myself in the process. I am learning this quickly – in the last two weeks I have had little time to myself. Especially as self-reflection and taking time to step back to see the “big picture” is such an important part of this experience and also crucial to shaping the way I go about my daily life here, finding that balance is critical.

Finding that balance is also a key aspect of “development.” I have come to realize that the friendships and personal connections I have made since I’ve been here are far more valuable and lasting than any tangible project I could put together in the seven months that I’m in Ecuador, both for the people here, and for me. Many of the Ecuadorians I have met have told me about the uncomfortable dynamic that they have experienced from interacting with other international volunteers or other international aid programs that come here with the mis-guided notion of wanting to ‘help this impoverished country develop.’ The more time I spend in my community, the more I see that my peers are not so interested in what kind of “development” I can bring, but rather in the time I can give to being, simply, a community member, nothing more and nothing less.

The most valuable thing I feel I can do is consistently interact with the people here, no matter what the activity, event or job entails. For example, when I am invited to a folkloric indigenous dance class, I always try to go to it, no matter if they laugh at me as I attempt to carry out the physical movements I’ve never seen before. If I go out to eat with a group from the community and everyone’s eating cow-blood soup, then I’ll do all I can to get it down, too. A big part of this experience has been reminding myself, “hey, you gotta loose yourself in all of this and let go sometimes.” Through my enthusiasm to be a part of their lives, my peers have developed more than anything an acceptance for my being here, but also a gradual appreciation. You might think that of course people would have their arms open and be delighted to receive someone who wanted to come experience their culture and also provide service in their country. I certainly thought so. But then there’s Pride and being reluctant to accept assistance from a foreigner. Fairly often I’m faced with resentment by people who don’t want another white person here helping out or even participating.

I am finding that the key to having a worthwhile experience here in Ecuador is reaching a balance between working for the development of my community and simply spending time with the people here. In doing so, listening to them and all that they have to say, laughing with them, and engaging in an exchange of ideas and thoughts that becomes more and more meaningful. Thus, the term “development” can be interpreted in a number of different ways.  There are the physical and visible aspects of development, for example, painting a mural or building a house. Then there are the intangible aspects, like the trustworthy friendships and personal connections you build with one another, that right now seem to be the most important and needed types of “development” in this community.

I handle my apprenticeship positions each day knowing that this is a year of service and that us Fellows can bring a lot to the table, but keeping in mind that it’s not about the number of people who learn the basics of English, or how many children learn to type their names into a computer, or the number of times our youth group meets per month. Rather, it’s the daily exchange that builds a network of trust, awareness and respect among two cultures that are apparently different but can both benefit from one another.

Peter Saudek