I am writing this while swinging on a hammock that hangs on the balcony in front of my room. The trees and plants contain the house, they grow around the walls of it. It’s what one would picture when one thinks, “garden house.” In the distance are mountains–they are a constant sight, surrounding you in the Andes. The mountains serve as a constant reminder of how insignificant and small I am and how grand the world really is. During clear evenings, the stars blanket the sky. I find myself craning my neck constantly during those evenings attempting to make up for the 18-years I have been robbed of starry skies in New York City’s ever busy city lights. Cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs graze the fields while dogs persistently attempt to enter houses despite the numerous times multiple people cry, “Sal!” A little up the mountain are rows of raspberries, tree tomatoes, pumpkins, and corn. I will be living in this small rural agricultural town known as, “Tocagón,”–20 minutes away from Otavalo–for the next 6 months. This is home now.
When I first arrived, however, I had a very different reaction to this place. I got to Tocagón on a Saturday afternoon in late September. I woke up the next morning to find the bathroom muddy and that the toilet didn’t flush and the sink had no water. In my broken Spanish I attempted to ask my host sister, 18, how I should brush my teeth, “¿Cómo?” motioning with my toothbrush. She pointed outside and as I went towards that direction I saw a bin of water, a well, and a small container I assumed was to take and use the water. When my sister left I proceeded to take the water from the bin, brush my teeth, and then spit everything out into the well. I later found out that I was not supposed to spit it out into the well but instead onto the floor. The person who notified me was a 6-year old girl when she gasped and shook her head as she witnessed me brushing my teeth.
The first time I took a shower the water was so cold that each droplet left a red blister where it landed on my skin. For meals my host mother instructed me to go to the, “otro casa.” It was the house that was being constructed across the street and there was at least 50 people helping construct it. Every meal was with these 50 other people. I entered the “otro casa”–it was dimly lit with only a small bulb providing light in the midst of black smoke coming from the open fire used to cook and keep warm. As I made my way to my seat I was handed a bowl of soup. The remainder of the meal was me smiling and eating. The people there were speaking in Kichwa, the indigenous language of the people conquered by the Incas, and I didn’t understand a word and felt too shy to try and engage.
Being really uncomfortable due to the alternative way my host family has access to water and being too shy to figure out how to manage my Spanish in a way to actively communicate, especially with so many people around me–I was left feeling very lonely. I so badly wanted to go back to Quito where I showered with hot water everyday, had access to Wi-Fi, had siblings that understood and spoke English, was more familiar with the familial unit, and had a variety of food. I remember painfully reminiscing my last morning with my host mom and brother. My brother made me pancakes or in his words “a gringo breakfast,” as a last moment of comfort before I go to leave my comfort zone. This was also the first time I drastically missed my mother, brother, and sister back home. I spent a couple of nights sobbing not being able to completely cope with the circumstances I was in. As I am reflecting on my initial reactions to this serene, small rural town I can’t help but cringe. The level of culture shock I got feels alarming and uncalled for. Here I was–a supposed champion for the working-class and I felt like I just couldn’t live here but needed to go back to Quito or New York where I would have more of a comfortable, familiar life. One of the most formative things I have learned here so far is how drastically different working-class is between a rural town in a Global Southern country and a large urban city in the States. The access, concerns, values, and communities are different. I was not prepared to experience that level of difference and that seriously took away from my ability to fully appreciate and take in the beauty, culture, and love in this place.
When I was growing up I longed to live in a house surrounded by vines and greens in which I grew all the vegetables and fruits I ate and raised the cows and chickens that would end up on my plate. I wanted to live in a place where I could see the stars. I wasn’t reminded of these dreams I had until I got over my initial culture shock. Right now, I am in a place that was the dreams of my childhood. It really is quite something to wake up every morning to see the Imbabura mountain that is framed by my window and to come across a dozen of random animals on my way to work.
In my brief time here I am reminded of the quote by Amy Chua, “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.” Coming to a new country–in which I do not know the language, the people, the cultural norms, or really anything and leaving everything I know–my friends, family, work, the things I care about–thousands of miles behind is one of the most difficult things I have done. For me, however, I have the reassurance that this is temporary and that I can talk and be with people who understand my experiences because they are doing the same thing and come from a background very similar to me. I have a roof over my head and get meals 3 times a day. Guaranteed. Immigrants migrate to new countries permanently and they don’t do it with a structured program and are often not with other people. They don’t necessarily have the same things I take for granted. This experience has really given me a deeper understanding (really just a scratch on the surface) of the extreme courage possessed by migrants and the extreme sadness that is borders.
This past month I have also gained a more rooted appreciation and love for my mother, brother, and sister back in New York City. I found it quite startling how true it is that distance makes the heart grow fonder because for me the root cause of that is how much I took my family for granted before. It has only been a little more than a month and I have already discovered so many dark, uglier things about my character–things that really make my insides turn.
I am still trying to figure my way out of the nasty habit so many people from Western countries have of needingto be doing something important and significant. As I was scrolling through social media my first week in Tocagón I came across articles about the largest prison strike in history in the States, the countless number of people shot and killed by the police, the Islamophobic attacks in my hometown in Queens, and one of the largest indigenous protests in the history of the States. Here I was–just hanging out in Ecuador–while EVERYTHING was happening in the States. In my mind, I could be out in the streets protesting and organizing against the social injustices back home that I am deeply familiar with. I could be continuing my work around gender justice in working-class Desi communities. Instead, I was in Ecuador not really being of use to anyone.
Taking a step back I realize two things: (1) that I have this tendency of being uncomfortable when I am learning slowly and painfully and want to just dosomething instead and (2) coming out of this having seen, worked with, and built with people so completely different from me is one of the most valuable things I could be doing with my time. I truly believe the things I learn here–from just being in a different country with different people who speak a different language and have different cultures and values–will be integral to my work in social justice once I come back to New York.
Ecuador - 2017
Jensine Raihan is passionate about fighting for justice, equality, and liberation for all oppressed communities regardless of race, class, ethnic background, immigrant status, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. She has been involved in multiple community-based organizations that have been working to build the collective power of the most marginalized communities so they can fight for justice. She has been involved in Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) for the past three years in which she has fought for gender justice, racial and immigrant justice, civil rights, and educational justice. Jensine has and will continue to devote her life to her community so she can help support leaders within her own community to come together, strategize, and fight for a world in which all people are liberated. Her goals for the year are to become fluent in Spanish so she can come back to New York City and be involved in the immigrant justice movement both within the South Asian community and the Latin American community. As well as to form important relationships with people in Ecuador who have been involved in social movements so she can learn from progressive organizations there and bring it back to her work in the United States.