I am on the final flight of the day from Atlanta to Quito. No matter how many times I tell myself I’m going to spend the next seven months in Ecuador it’s still surreal. When I boarded the plane I quickly realized my skin and hair are lighter than most of the people’s on this flight. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m not an Ecuadorian. For the first time in my life I feel I stand out as a minority. Time to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, right?
The past two and a half weeks of the U.S. Training Institute have forced me to continue to step out of my comfort zone. Two days of Outward Bound had me climbing away my fear of heights, as we balanced on wires of high ropes courses that felt like miles up in the air.
The most eye opening experience of the two weeks was our “five dollar day in San Francisco,” in which the theme of the day was empathy. To empathize with those who have an income of five dollars per day or lower, we were given five dollars and the task to gather stories from those around San Francisco who live day to day with next to nothing. Honestly, the thought of approaching someone who is homeless and living on the street was at first daunting. After going back and forth about how to start up a conversation, I had to tell myself that we’re all just people, and that we can all connect in some way regardless of our backgrounds. The first couple of people I tried to sit down with shouted some expletives my way and were not pleased with my presence. I moved on, and was fortunate to come across a man named Emmett, who has been living homeless in San Francisco for over ten years. He was very open and seemed as curious about my life as I was about his. Emmett fought in the Vietnam War, completed two tours, and when he came back he said his options were scarce. Coincidentally, I talked to two other men who had also fought in wars for the U.S., and now they have almost nothing. It really bothered me that they were willing to die for the U.S. and now they have no place to sleep. They had serious resentment toward the government, and from the way they told their stories I can understand why. The most rewarding part of the day was seeing some people’s faces light up out of excitement to have someone listen to every word they wanted to say. The most difficult part was returning to my comfortable quarters at night, and thinking of these courteous, bright guys who I enjoyed talking with and who would sleep in a park that night. Overall, far more people rejected my attempt to talk with them than welcomed me. At times it hit me when walking through some of the run-down areas that I was so foreign to all of the people living there in the way I was dressed, and the way I walked and talked. Even more foreign to most of the people staying in that area was the idea of me approaching them to try to talk to them. As much as I wished it didn’t, at times it felt like we were from different worlds.
In the last week of the training we were quite fortunate to hear former Senator, Harris Wofford, speak at our celebratory dinner. He helped create the Peace Corps with John F. Kennedy, was senator of Pennsylvania, and now works with Obama regularly. To hear him speak about the history he’s encountered and also had an impact on was inspiring beyond words.
The training has me prepared to go “into the field,” as many have put it. With an overflow of words of wisdom from a number of speakers, and also a blend of realism added to our idealistic minds of saving the world, I feel there’s a common sense of readiness among the fellows.
I will go to Ecuador to learn, observe, and hopefully exchange ideas with those who I connect with, but only after I have learned from them.
As Abby told all of the fellows on the last night of the training, “some people might tell you the next seven months will go by in a flash, and you’ll be back before you know it. But for all of you, infinity starts tomorrow.” One hour and fifteen minutes until this plane lands, or until infinity begins.