Spending three weeks in Quito getting to know my country cohort was a much-needed introduction to the Ecuadorian lifestyle. We received excessive security briefings about how not to get mugged, pick pocketed, and even kidnapped, then despite our language barrier and little knowledge of the public transportation system, were let loose to enjoy everything the city had to offer. We played soccer in Parque Carolina near our language school, and visited the presidential palace in the historic district. We practiced haggling in the fresh fruit market and went dancing in the discotecas. A few times we even ventured outside the city, climbing to the top of the 15,700-foot volcano Pichincha and visiting the equatorial line. Perhaps my most moving experience during orientation was when I attended High Holiday services for Rosh Hashanah at a beautiful synagogue with the rest of the interested fellows. Though we had to present our passports and pass through a metal detector between armed guards to enter the building, once inside, we were welcomed as members of the Jewish community. The service was in a different language, and in a foreign country, but the connection we all shared transcended both. It gave me the support I needed to feel prepared to leave my fellow GCY Fellows and travel to my permanent home stay. In what was otherwise a completely new environment, I had found a connection to my home.
The contrast between the capital city and my new home stay could not have been more striking. Nestled between the two enormous mountains Imbabura and Cotacachi, Otavalo is a small city about half the size of Chapel Hill. It is best known for hosting the largest open-air market in South America, which is hugely popular among tourists and is full of indigenous artisan items that come from the many small pueblos that surround the city. I normally walk everywhere, as it takes about 45 minutes to get from one end to the other, but occasionally, I will take taxis for a dollar. If I need to venture to the nearby communities or Ibarra (a a larger city to the north, known for its delicious ice cream), buses cost between 25 and 45 cents. Otavalo is scenic, tranquil, and slow paced, but on the heels of my over stimulating weeks in Quito’s bustle, I was now bored. I felt isolated, physically and socially, as I was away from my group of Americans, had trouble communicating, and had no other friends. At the end of the first week we had a training seminar for four days, where our regional group of 8 fellows met at a farm in the mountains above Ibarra. Through our discussions there, I realized that I needed to more actively pursue the things that I enjoy in order to improve my experience.
In order to get past the language barrier, boredom and recurrent bouts of food poisoning, I stopped eating only rice and potatoes, bought a cheap guitar, and also headed to the nearby basketball courts. I was playing pick up outside one afternoon when a group of teenagers approached me and asked if I wanted to train in the nearby Colliseo (gym) with them and their coach. I was a little shocked and thought I had misunderstood, since I had not played organized basketball since 7th grade (unless we count 2013 Rec League Champs!). Though initially I was only invited because I am ‘tall’, relative to the smaller locals, and American, I now go every other day to play with the group, which includes my 15-year-old host brother Pablo. I spend most of my time when I am not volunteering either with the host family or traveling in the beautiful Imbabura province. I have gone to hot springs in the mountains, lakes, and waterfalls and to Quito for the World Cup Qualifying match, where Ecuador won and qualified. Vamos Ecuatorianos! While at first the days were quiet and lethargic and time lumbered forward, suddenly we are a third of the way through.