A Little More Perspective

Sarai Patterson - Ecuador


December 30, 2013

It has been almost four months since I stood in line at airport security, trying not to cry as I waved goodbye to my family. Four months since I last saw my mom. Four months since I stood on hot red desert dirt—and I still have yet to post a single thing on this blog! No, it’s not merely out of laziness or procrastination that I have neglected my multitudes of adoring blog followers (yes, I say that facetiously). In fact, in the past three months I have written more consistently and prolifically than ever in my life, including scrapping no less than five blog posts that I wrote to completion before deciding suddenly that I hated them and would never show them to anyone. It’s just that nothing ever felt completely right or honest, and it wasn’t until very recently—when I saw a fantastic Ted Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story”—that I realized why.

You see, whenever I talk about my experience to anyone back in the States, the response I get is usually interest in how different my life is here, questions about all the weird stuff I’ve seen and eaten, and admiration for how brave I am, how I must be having the time of my life and doing so much good. There’s nothing wrong with these responses—I probably would have the same reaction—but they’re just a bit ill-informed and overly simplified.

It’s true that I initially signed up for Global Citizen Year with the intention of leaving for a year of service to my fellow man, but now that I’m here I find myself embarrassed and a little defensive every time I am introduced to people as a Volunteer. Just the title of it seems to radiate the impression that I am just another foreigner here to fix the indigenous people’s problems and teach them how to live like smart Americans in our “developed” world—out of nothing but the goodness of my heart. After which of course I’ll go back to my cushy life in the States. It feels so arrogant, so condescending, and out of unwillingness to create such a dynamic, I usually just tell people I’m a student.

In reality, the Kichwa people never asked for our help. They don’t need us to tell them what their problems are. It’s such a rich and beautiful culture that functions perfectly well on its own, and apart from insulting their Ecuadorian pride, too often this “White Messiah” volunteerism is poorly thought out and does more damage than good. I have seen the failed projects firsthand, the misplaced tourist attractions fallen into disrepair and unused structures that the previous volunteers didn’t have to see fall apart because they’d already left.

That’s not to say that I don’t want to help where I can because of course I do. I love my community, I love all three of my apprenticeships, and I feel so happy and fulfilled after a day of successful teaching or after helping to complete a project with the environmental organization I work with. On the other hand, sometimes I feel useless, selfish, and guilty. I feel like I should be making such a bigger impact but don’t know how to, and it’s so complicated and ambiguous in my mind that sometimes it’s hard to summon up the motivation to even try.

As for all the weird stuff I’ve seen, sure, I’ve seen some weird stuff. I’ve also seen some normal stuff. When I talk to friends and family back in the States, I feel so much pressure to relate my experience in a certain way without including all the different aspects, and I usually just fulfill those preconceptions about the Amazon that everyone seems to have. I tell about eating snails and intestines and bathing in waterfalls and playing with monkeys.  I tell about the raw ruggedness of living in a tiny wooden house and washing my clothes in the river every day, but I usually don’t include the modern details of my life that do exist in ways quite similar to the US. That would make it less interesting, right? People don’t want to hear about that.

The truth is that after my host parents chop down plantains and sugar cane with machetes and catch carachama fish in the river with their bare hands, they relax and watch TV. The people in my oh-so-exotic little village aren’t completely isolated from the rest of the world; they have names like Jessica and Jonathan, and they listen to Justin Bieber along with their traditional Kichwa music. They worry about and care for each other, and they fight and gossip about each other. They make the same jokes as we do, even if it’s in a different language. They talk about politics, religion, and silly high school crushes, and they love their children fiercely. In short, they are no different from you or me.

I don’t want to perpetuate a single story, a single perspective, of the place where I live or the people I live with. I have such deep respect and admiration for the Kichwa culture, for the unconditional generosity I see everywhere and the strength that exists in the face of poverty and severe marginalization from society. There are a lot of cultural customs and quirks that I love, some that I don’t understand and a few that absolutely annoy me to no end. My days here are beautiful, frustrating, educational, depressing, joyful, and uncomfortable. And if there is one thing I am truly sure of, it’s that life never consists of one single perspective, and there are no easy answers.

Sarai Patterson