As a Global Citizen Year Fellow, the holidays are tough. At a time when you normally expect to be surrounded by family, friends, and the holiday spirit, it can be a little disconcerting to experience different customs in a different country surrounded by different faces. Throughout my life I have become used to certain traditions and being away during the holidays for the first time has been incredibly difficult and emotional. These challenges never quite let up, but the holiday season did end up giving me the opportunity to connect with my host family and Fellow cohort in ways I hadn’t been able to before.
What I refer to as the “quadruple whammy”(my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years) brought back a whole new round of homesickness that I thought I had left after my first few weeks here. My birthday came first and really hit me the hardest. Every year my grandfather and I celebrate together because we share the same birthday. I never realized how special sharing my birthday with him was until this year when I wasn’t able to come home. Although I did celebrate by going to the beach with the Fellows in my region, I sort of felt glum the entire day and couldn’t shake my mood. However, the highlight of the day came when I returned from the beach and was surprised by my host family who bought me a cake and prepared a special birthday meal for me. And following Ecuadorian tradition, my host family smashed my face into the cake after I blew out the candles! It was awesome to experience this new tradition and to see that my host family tried to make it a special day for me.
Thanksgiving soon followed a few days later and was met with similar amounts of homesickness. It was yet another stinging reminder of how far away from home I am and how much I miss my family. However, since Ecuador doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I was able to get together with a bunch of other Fellows during one of our training seminars and celebrate with them. We each brought something to make for our Thanksgiving meal, said what we were thankful for, and had an awesome time. I somehow pulled off a pecan pie, but since we couldn’t find any pecans I had to substitute with walnuts, which still tasted pretty good! Having American food was amazing, but what was better was being able to find support and empathy and create a tighter bond with the other Fellows.
Christmas was surprisingly not a big deal in my town at all. During the weeks leading up to Christmas I expected it to be the biggest holiday of the year due to the high percentage of Roman Catholics in Ecuador and the role of religion in Latin American culture. But when Christmas Day came, Pedro Vicente Maldonado was a ghost town and my host family didn’t celebrate or go to church. I was completely shocked by this and a little let down. There was no holiday spirit. Thankfully, my mom visited me the week before and brought Christmas gifts for my host family and me (along with some peppermint bark, which was a life saver!) so I was able to introduce them to the U.S. tradition of giving gifts. She brought a Barbie for my host sister, walkie-talkies for my host brother, and a binky and baby clothes for my host parents who are expecting a baby any day now! In Ecuador, at least with my family, they don’t give many gifts and the tradition on Christmas is to give lots of candy and “dulces”, so it was great to be able to share my traditions for a change.
New Years was a big deal in my town. They really went all out, with a DJ, dancing, partying until 8am, and much more. My favorite was Año Viejo, which is when each family makes a doll out of old clothes and scraps and then burns it at midnight. It symbolizes starting the New Year off fresh and burning all of the bad things that happened in the past year. At midnight everyone began burning their dolls and it almost looked like the town was set ablaze! New Years was definitely the easiest holiday to get through because I think I was finally able to control the homesickness and enjoy the experience. I realized that this was a rare chance to celebrate a holiday in another country and that I should take advantage of the opportunity. Fourth time’s the charm!
The holidays represented a big turning point in my Global Citizen Year. Not only am I now more than halfway through my six months here in Pedro Vicente Maldonado, but I now feel much more a part of my host family too. Through my struggles with homesickness, I found support in my Fellow cohort and my host family who both helped me celebrate my own traditions and introduced me to new ones. Getting my face smashed into my birthday cake and burning life-size dolls with my entire town were incredible experiences that allowed me to dive into Ecuadorian culture. Likewise, making a Thanksgiving feast with my Fellow cohort and sharing Christmas traditions with my host family gave me the chance to celebrate and share U.S. culture. With the holidays now fully behind me, I’m beginning to find home here in Ecuador.