The last time I was here in Pijal I watched a puppy die, was chased by ferocious dogs and had the pleasure of eating intestine soup at 7 in the morning. I experienced extreme frustration, boredom and loneliness. The highlight of most of my days was getting to walk with my host mother to move the cows from one field to the other, even though that made me feel like just another one of the cows. The highlight of my week: I went to a funeral.
Needless to say, I dreaded returning. That was only for a week. This is for 6 months! I know I asked for this (something I am constantly reminding myself), but my dread doesn’t stem from my lack of hot water or internet. The absence of the wonderful amenities I’ve enjoyed my entire life certainly makes it a more difficult adjustment, but I wanted the genuine (or as close as I can get to it) experience of life as an Indigenous Ecuadorian. Neither is my dread produced by my obvious uselessness. Mostly. I’d be lying if I said my inability to communicate effectively and help my host family around the house isn’t a little frustrating. And my apprenticeship, which is assisting the community tourism organization “Sumak Pacha” and teaching English in a local elementary school, was essentially nonexistent because of my limited Spanish skills and the ambiguity of my position. Now all of that, while difficult, I expected, and was therefore able to cope with.
What I did not expect was to feel so alone, especially considering my experience in Quito where my host family was so inviting and welcoming. My host family in Pijal is different: kind, but shy. And that coupled with having nothing to do results in an amplified sense of utter aloneness. I did not do this program because I expected to have an immense impact on my community. The idea that I, an American teenager with two weeks’ worth of Spanish and no work experience, am going to come and immediately start making a huge difference is simply unrealistic, not to mention arrogant. I did this because I want to understand a culture radically different than my own. I want to connect with people I would never meet in the United States. I want to learn. I want to grow. And yes of course I want to help. But I can’t do that until I’ve acquired the skills and understanding necessary, and I know, ultimately, that my surroundings will have an infinitely greater effect on me then I will have on my surroundings. I came here expecting and desiring to communicate, but now I realize that that is going to be a much greater challenge than I expected. For example, one day I was walking (I just needed to escape my room) and I met a man moving his cows. I decided that I would be completely out of character and absurdly gregarious just to force someone to communicate with me. I said hello, told him my name, where I live, where I’m from, that I’m learning Spanish, where I’m working, and shook his hand. He said “Bien” and walked off. When your sole goal is to communicate, to connect and to build relationships and you can’t it is frustrating. Trust me.
Well I can’t end my post like that. One evening I was returning from Otovallo (it’s the largest city near me and also contains one of the largest textile markets in South America. Pijal isn’t a city or really even a town. It’s more of a congregation of houses, dirt roads and fields on the side of a mountain. You can see some pictures here in my video.) One evening I happened to take the wrong bus to go home. When I got off at the “Pijal” stop I knew I had made a mistake. After walking around for about 15 minutes in the dark and experiencing a range of emotions – joy when I thought I recognized the outline of a ridge and despair when I realized that the 6 other ridges around me looked exactly the same – I decided to ask for help. And thank God I did. I learned I was in Pijal Alto, which is about an hour walk from my home, and I was offered a car ride to my house. When I got home my mother seemed really upset and was very happy that I was home. I learned that, despite their reservation, my family did actually care about me. To them I did matter. And that makes a huge difference after days of believing the opposite.