Life in El Juncal is definitely different. Here I am, an ambitious, overeager, slightly awkward white girl trying to assimilate into a tight-knit, laid back Afro-Ecuadorean community. The drive down from Ibarra, the city about an hour out, was truly incredible. I stared out with window with naïve awe, as I soaked up the beauty and foreign-ness of the vast hills and valleys. El Juncal is a tiny town nestled into a green valley, surrounded by breathtaking mountains.
Every day I think about how lucky I am in my placement. My family is a bit unconventional, but I love them nonetheless. My mom, Olga, is a 32-year-old community powerhouse. She has two children, works at her mother’s meat and veggie store in town, volunteers at the local community center, runs a women’s group and youth group, helps out at the church, and goes to school in Ibarra all day every Saturday to earn her high school degree. On top of it all, she has a killer sense of humor and makes me feel like I’m actually at home. Her bellowing cackle fills the house whenever I accidentally say I’m pregnant (note: embarasada does not mean embarrassed…) or when I make a lame joke about my glowing white skin. My host dad, Favio, is Italian, so we’re the only two white people for miles. I don’t see him too much because he travels a lot for work, but the moments I’ve shared with him have been nothing but positive. My second day here in Juncal he took it upon himself to show me all the important places in the community, and politely explained to everyone that though we are both white, we are not, in fact, related. When he’s home, both Spanish and Italian are thrown around all over the place, mixed in with my confused tongue slips in English – it’s a lot. I also have a fifteen-year-old host sister, Anahi, who I’m still working on getting close to. Olga warned me that she doesn’t talk much, but I’m determined to break past the teenage angst and make a real friend. I often catch glimpses of her true self when she’s singing along to Daddy Yankee in her room, or when she laughs at my dumb sense of humor. Then there’s Mikela, the obvious queen bee of the household. Two years old, moody, fierce, and playful. I generally wake up to either her screams of anger, or screams of laughter. Depends on the day.
I still have yet to actually start work. This means that my days here are pretty unpredictable, and exciting. Last night I went to the youth group meeting here in Juncal, nervous about actually socializing with people my own age. I’ve also helped my mom with her English homework, peeled beans while holding a conversation about differences in societal norms, bucket bathed in the backyard, watched a group of twenty middle-aged women joyfully play a kids’ name game, danced with eighty year olds, and conversed with complete strangers. As I walk down the unpaved, dusty streets of Juncal, I’m greeted by everyone with a warm smile and an enthusiastic “buenas tardes.” Nothing warms my heart more than hearing the five-year-olds I befriended on my first day here scream “Libby! LIBBY!” as I walk by them day to day. As much as I love Evanston and will always feel at home there, the sense of community I feel here is greater than anything else I’ve experienced.
Don’t worry, I will actually have a job and be productive starting this week! I’ll be teaching English at the elementary school, teaching a computer class to women in the community, starting an after school homework program for kids, working with an old folks group, and teaching English to a group of adults. As you can see, it’s a lot. I’m both excited and nervous to actually get myself out there and get these projects underway. I’ve had a bit too much down time, where my thoughts get to me and I start missing friends, family, and my fellow fellows. I sometimes log onto Facebook and see pictures of friends at college parties, football games, and coffee shops. In all reality, it’s weird thinking that life back in the States is essentially the same, while my world has been turned upside down. Culture shock is real, but I know there’s no place I’d rather be than right here.