My Everyday Life in Ecuador

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui - Ecuador


October 21, 2018

Sorry this is so long but I want you guys to know what my everyday life looks like in Ecuador! I am not building houses, providing poor children with toilet paper, or going on touristic excursions every weekend– I am living the life as an average, middle class Ecuadorian, and it is important for me that this experience is the one portrayed to you all, in all of its gore and glory. 🙂

 

Morning

 

I feel as though I am in a deep sleep, though I am conscious of the fact that my alarm will go off any minute. Only the first alarm, though, as I have one set up for 6:15, 6:20, and 6:30. Sure enough, right as my alarm goes off, my host mother, Balbina, screams “APUREN!”– “Hurry up!” Immediately, feet scramble down the stairs and my host siblings argue over whose hair will be styled first, as Balbina brushes and styles everyone’s hair before school each morning.

I groggily step out of my room and all eyes turn to me. “Buenos días, Bihotza, leche fría?” Balbina asks me just as the milk lady knocks on our door. Balbina knows I like to eat my cereal and granola with milk, whereas everyone else pours their Corn Flakes into strawberry yogurt.

Soon the cousins start streaming in, serving themselves breakfast as their parents hurry after them with backpacks and hair brushes ready. Throughout all of this Balbina continues screaming “APUREN!”, until finally the children hop into my host father’s bus, and we head off to school.

 

Apprenticeship

 

When I arrive to my apprenticeship, an Indigenous school called Quilloac, I make my way to the space I share with a few other teachers. When I enter, I am cheerfully greeted by Monica, Mercedes, Matilde, and Myra, some English teachers who chat away as they hurriedly apply their makeup before classes begin. I always look forward to the open periods I share with these women and the conversations/gossip we’ll share.

I teach throughout the day, starting at 7:30am until 1:30pm. I teach all ages, from first grade tol the last year of high school, though sometimes during my open periods I head over to the pre-school where I entertain the children for an hour as they practice their Kichwa (the Indigenous language) and Spanish. We haven’t moved on to English just yet.

Teaching is a blessing. It is exhilarating and satisfying and constantly a learning experience. It is also exhausting and disappointing in many ways. From the moment I step into the classroom, all the students stand up and say “Good morning, Teacher”. I have come to realize that many of them don’t know what this means, since they continue to say it throughout the day even when I remind them that by after recess they need to say “Good afternoon,” instead. Even so, I am impressed by how the students make sure to greet me and every other adult with a shake of the hand or kiss on the cheek whenever they enter a room.

Pre-schoolers building blocks with the various styles of hats they insist on wearing

When I teach elementary school, I love to stand outside of the classroom and watch as the students scramble in, each one reaching out their hand to shake mine or embracing me with little hugs, reaching over each other’s heads to grab my legs. The amount of energy and connection the students have with their teachers pushes them to participate in class in a way I never did when I was their age. When I ask who wants to write the English word they just learned on the board, I receive an overwhelming wave of “Yo, profe! Yo yo yo!” The children jump out of their seats and run up to me every time, waving their hands as they beg. Half of the time, the student has no idea what they’re writing or how to do so, and yet they confidently throw themselves into the task of presenting what they do (or don’t) know to the entire class.

As much as I appreciate the enthusiasm and excitement for English (many children tell me English is their favorite subject), the in-classroom behavior shocks me. When I ask the students to raise their hand if they have something to say, they do so while continuing to scream, so that no one is heard. Many of them pound on their desks while I’m try to teach, and move about the classroom, whether it’s to talk to a friend, steal their notebook, or hit them over the head. Either the teachers have little control, or the behavior is normalized, but little by little I have been experimenting with different ways to grasp the their attention and ensure that the students who truly want to learn get the chance.

I don’t teach with the same teacher throughout the day, and so the way I interact with each classroom changes drastically. Some teachers don’t know any English, and are in fact biology teachers or history teachers who were just assigned the task of teaching English because there isn’t anyone else to do the job. In these cases, I teach the class, and I thoroughly enjoy it. I have the freedom to do as I please, and the time to invent exercises and make sure every student finishes the class with a general understanding. The same can’t necessarily be said for older classes, where the teachers are more advanced in English (though they still make many mistakes) and are pressured to cover material from the textbooks. In these cases, the material is complicated, and often times unnecessary, with some students keeping up, but many falling behind. Witnessing this is frustrating, and though I can find ways that would allow us to go more in depth and grasp a better understanding, either the teachers, or time, doesn’t allow it, and I often see students leaving the classroom uninterested or frustrated.

During recess, Mafe (the other Global Citizen Year Fellow teaching with me)  and I go outside and join the students. Everyone has 40 minutes of recess every day, including high schoolers, which is especially important since the school doesn’t offer sports teams. When I first arrived, I wasn’t sure what my role with the other teachers and students was, so I stayed in the teachers room to eat lunch. Though I am the age of the high schoolers, I am also their teacher. But, even though I am their teacher and know the most English, I am also not the actual teacher. After pondering this enigma of authority and place in the school, I decided to put myself out there with the students and make friends with whomever I could. Now a days, flocks of children swarm Mafe and me during recess, pleading for us to join them in their volleyball or soccer games, and we happily accept.

 

By the end of the day, Mafe and I go to the school store and buy choco-bananas (chocolate covered bananas)– our little treats. In the past we took the local bus or caught a ride with a teacher back into downtown Cañar, but recently Mafe and I met a group of boys who walk to the center of Cañar together, and so now we join them. Sadly, most Quilloac students either live on the outskirts of Cañar, or in other towns, so it’s hard to continue spending time together once school ends.

 

After School

By the time I get home, my host siblings and cousins are already seated at the table eating lunch. Lunch always consists of a bowl of soup and then a plate of rice with whatever else is made that day, typically potatoes and pieces of corn. I can’t eat so much white rice, so I have been trying to find ways to substitute. I am still surprised at how no one else seems to mind eating so much of one thing every day, especially when it’s not very healthy, but I also realize I have been exposed to much more variety and health education than they.

After lunch I help my host siblings and cousins with English homework, and soon, everyone retreats to their rooms to finish homework, watch TV, or nap. This is where everyone remains until dinner time, except for my 10 year old host brother, Pedro, who has soccer practice. I appreciate this time because it is when I can call home, nap, write, or go out and venture on my own, but the slowww paced life here has been hard to adjust to. I find myself wanting to nap constantly. Back home, my naps were 20-40 min– quick and refreshing– if I even took any. Here, I set my alarm for 30 minutes and simply cannot wake up until another hour or more has passed. I think part of it is the difference in altitude (10,400ft), and food, but it’s also that my body has always been on the go, always had a million things to do at once, that now that I don’t have that it collapses. It’s interesting, because though I don’t miss having homework, I miss the grind of having something to do, hence why I find myself turning to my blog so often.

 

When I first arrived to Cañar, I was uncertain about whether or not I would enjoy living here. It’s a sleepy, tranquilo town that has some of the largest emigration in all of Ecuador, and people have usually lived here their whole lives and simply never left. It’s high in altitude (10,400ft), so it gets cold– cold enough to wear a winter jacket to the dinner table because there are no heaters or fireplaces. It is also dry and dusty– no lakes or rivers or trees– and though there are many schools, I rarely see teenagers in the streets. (the most teenagers I see out and about are the ones with children.) There are no soccer or volleyball teams for women, though there are plenty for men. “Women just aren’t interested,” is what I’ve been told, but what kind of bs is that? How can we know what women are interested in if they aren’t given the chance to try it? Also, women are interested, because there are groups of women who get together to play even though they aren’t an official team that competes. Maybe I’ll join one of these groups, or maybe I’ll force my way onto a men’s team, haha. All in all, the first few weeks in Cañar consisted of a lot of “so what should I do with myself now?”

 

Luckily, my host family introduced me to bailoterapía, basically extreme Zumba that goes on every night at a local gym. Though Mafe and I are the only girls under the age of 30 who attend, it’s some of the best exercise I’ve ever gotten, and I always come home with a high rippling through me and sweat pouring over my body. Through this, I was introduced to two Venezuelan dance teachers who lead bailoterapía and their own dance academy. Dancing is one of the only things I have always naturally been able to do, and have done ever since I could. It has always been a craving, an empty void, but I just never had the chance to pursue it. Never would I have thought that I would be able to spend each day doing just that, in Ecuador, with Venezuelan teachers, but I am so glad I can.

We all are exhausted from the hour of dancing we just did, but here are all of the hot babes from bailoterapĂ­a

I have surprised myself with my craving to carry on the piano. Last year, I took a big break and decided to focus on sight reading. By the end of the year I felt a pleasant and easy going connection to the piano, but a large part of me missed the intense pieces, the moments of glory and complications, and I wondered how I would continue this relationship in Ecuador. Cañar has something called La Academia Municipal, basically a cultural center. It offers arts classes, Kichwa classes, dance classes, and music lessons, and after talking with the piano teacher I have been granted access to the piano every day to practice whatever music I like. I have decided to pursue some classical pieces I have always been drawn to but never got the chance to learn, along with Ecuadorian music.

 

Throughout the afternoon family members come in and out of the house. By dinner time aunts and uncles and cousins are eating whatever is available, and throughout the evening they use each other’s cars to go to singing rehearsal at church, to buy tights a cousin desperately needs for school the next day, or to run whatever other errands are needed. They stay until late at night every night, but by 9 I have usually slipped into bed to read a book or watch a movie on netflix, grateful for the time to decompose and be by myself.

 

Fridays and the weekends

 

Fridays I don’t go to my apprenticeship. Instead, I go to Cuenca– the hub city 2 hours away– for Spanish class. For the 3 hours we have class, the teacher, another fellow, and I discuss what’s going on in our lives and in the world, along with learning grammar. This time is important for me, since even though I feel comfortable with my family, we have yet to engage in complex or intense topics. Little by little conversations have been opening up, but I am hesitant to go full out, so Spanish classes are a good time for me to practice expressing what I believe and feel in Spanish with people who can correct my mistakes.

 

Afterwards, my two good friends, Nati and Mafe, and I go to lunch. We try to mix up where we go, especially since it’s the only day we don’t have to eat rice and potatoes, but we have made a loyalty to a little restaurant where a friendly Venezuelan with a great playlist works. Every weekend there’s some kind of event going on in Cuenca that we try to attend. A few weekends ago we went to a $7 production of a Venezuelan circus, which was absolutely amazing and in the U.S. would easily cost over $20. Yesterday we saw an Ecuadorian film called Verano No Miente, where the director and the actors actually spoke to us afterwards. To be honest, the film was pretty bad, but it was a cool experience to have the creators be so close.

Celebrated my birthday with a Pampamesa and some ziplining/swinging in Turi, Ecuador

I am lucky that my host family likes to get out on the weekends, and has a way of transportation. The problem with Ecuador, especially in smaller towns, is that the last bus leaves at 8pm or earlier, and taxis stop at 10pm, so if you ever want to go to a movie or show or club, you have to find a way to sleep where you are or walk home. For this reason, many people don’t have the luxury of traveling very far, but since my host father owns a bus, my family can go on weekend trips. Along with getting out of Cañar, my host mom and uncle go on long walks every Sunday morning before going to church. So far I haven’t joined (I need my sleep), but I have gone with them later in the day to see the beautiful views. Apparently going on long walks is a common activity for people in Cañar.

 

My real family, the one back in the U.S., is very active. We love to go on walks and drive out to museums or towns or rivers. When we have the means, we go out for dinner or to a show. This kind of family bonding, and the initiative taken to get out and explore our surroundings, is something I didn’t even think about before coming to my host family, but is something I am beyond grateful for. I can appreciate Cañar in all it’s calm and quiet when I have the ability to get out and see more of Ecuador, and though I do this every weekend with other fellows, it is exciting to have a host family that has places they love to go together and want to show me as well.

 

Fellows are constantly in communication, and we see each other as often as possible even though many of us live multiple hours away from each other. Because of this, we are able to compare and contrast our experiences. Each of us have problems we’re dealing with, some more intense than others, but each of us have also found beautiful ways to be happy. When I talk with my host parents about what other fellows are going through, they always ask me “y usted está contenta, Bihotza?” I can tell in their eyes they badly want me to be– from the way my host father chases me down the street on my way to the bus station to tell me he can drive me to school, to how my host mother knows to give me only a little bit of rice and how she proudly introduces me as her oldest daughter to her friends, to how my siblings ask me where I’m going and if they can join whenever I leave the house– my host family does their best to make me feel at home, and no matter what the situation is, no matter how different and difficult it all is, my answer is always “Sí, estoy muy contenta.”

And it’s true. Somehow, for some reason, I feel extremely mentally stable. I feel in tune with myself, I feel confident, and I feel light, drifting through this easy-going life I have acquired. Of course I miss my family– it is a constant wish to kiss my brother’s cheeks, to crawl into bed with my sister to watch a movie, to talk for hours and hours with my parents about every little thing because they will always be my main confidants– but I am not beaten down or restrained by homesickness. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t feel more, but then I think, I feel plenty, just in a different way than I am used to. No longer am I weighed down by the pressure and stress of upcoming tests, I am not surrounded in drama, and there are no strings attached to anyone or anything. I am truly my own person here, and little by little I am getting to know my own feelings– recognizing them and learning how to cope with them– as such.

My friends and I celebrating at a festival in Cumbe, Ecuador

Bihotza James-Lejarcegui