So far, this has been a year full of learning, laughter, and love. I’ve learned not only concrete life skills I know I’ll carry with me long after this program ends, but so much about myself and this wonderful world around me. I’ve laughed for hours on end with my host family at my cousin’s spot on impressions of every member of the family (including the resident gringa), and learned to laugh at myself, and life, even under the most difficult of circumstances. I’ve loved, and been loved.
I find myself sitting on my bed, computer neatly propped up on my knees, struggling to write this post. How can I put into words all that I’ve learned these past five months and how much I’ve changed? When I get into conversations with my fellow Fellows who are experiencing much the same things as I, we literally cannot stop talking about all the amazing things we are doing and learning. As much as I love talking about my new life and passions here, I can’t seem to verbalize it in one compact blog post. Bear with me as I try to convey the revelations, epiphanies, and changes I’ve gone through this past year.
One of the most elemental and important things I think I’ve learned so far is that culture cannot be wrong. This may sound obvious, but it is so easy to go into a new place with a critical, though unintentional, eye. When I first got here in September, I thought it was ridiculous and extremely unsafe how kids meandered through the streets and played unsupervised long after dark. My babysitter/camp counselor instincts immediately kicked in, and I felt like I had to intervene. I fought back the urge to console the crying girl and pull two boys off each other, as no one around me seemed to pay any attention to it. I soon realized that in Juncal, this is the norm. This literally happens every night – everyone out on the street talking, playing, living life. Things like this just seem to make sense to me now. It’s not wrong that a five-year-old here leaves the house alone to find a group to play with, nor is it wrong that parents in Evanston contract a babysitter if they leave the house for under an hour. I’ve realized this about so many different things here. Just because I come from a “developed” nation, and Ecuador is “underdeveloped,” doesn’t mean I should try to institute my methods here or claim that my way of life is right. There are positives and negatives to any society, and being here has made me painfully aware of the pitfalls of my own culture. No pasa nada, my host mom always tells me. It loosely translates to “nothing’s going to happen,” which I apply so often to incidents in my own life. She’s made me realize not only that life is safe within the community, but that it’ simply not worth it to get worked up about the little things. Bus won’t come for another hour? Nothing you can do about it. No pasa nada. Burnt the entire pot of rice? No pasa nada. Her nonchalant attitude and ability to laugh it off have made me lead a much more tranquila life, something I’m so thankful for.
Immersing myself in this new culture has also changed my views on formalized education. Don’t worry, I’ll still be setting foot on campus in the fall, but with a new perspective I think will only help me gain more from the experience. My host mom never graduated high school. In the States, this would be severely looked down upon. However, Olga is an incredible community leader. She heads up the youth group, women’s group, volunteers at the church, and co-owns a successful fruit and vegetable store in town. Does she need a degree to tell her she’s able to do any of this? Going to college is rare here, but that doesn’t mean that any resident of Juncal lives a less-full life than the valedictorian of Harvard. On the other side of things, I also have begun to truly appreciate the education I’ve been so fortunate to receive. In my town, the majority of kids grow up hoping to become a big time soccer player. The little 1,500-person community is actually famous across Ecuador for producing world-renowned players. As comes with this intense focus on sports, education is largely thrown by the wayside. I’ve noted in my English classes and homework program that the widely accepted mentality is “if I can’t do it, which I can’t, then I’ll just copy it or get someone else to do it.” Kids actually get confused when I tell them that they cannot copy from their friend, and that they themselves are capable of completing the assignment. I try so hard to foster the ideas of self-sufficiency and basic problem-solving skills, things that are taught in our education system that this one unfortunately lacks. I’m so grateful to be able to think outside the box and analyze a situation, something that simply isn’t expected out of kids at our local school.
So as you can see, I see both the value, and in some cases, unimportance of formalized education. I now find learning outside the classroom so immensely important as I tackle this bridge year. The most pivotal lessons I’m learning are ones about myself. My priorities have shifted from caring about how many likes I got on my Facebook profile picture, to how I can inspire kids while simultaneously learning from them. I reflect upon my life only a year ago and think about how much I have changed. I don’t want to discredit the life I lived before, since I was simply a product of my generation. But now I find that I am so confident in who I am and what I want to do, and none of it has to do with how much make up I put on or what extra-curriculars will get me into the best college. I’m happy, and that’s that. I’m doing things I love and that I feel give me meaning, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. Obviously life can still be hard and stressful, but by living and working here I am becoming so independent and capable. I love the kids, I love being out in the community, and I love not caring when the last time I washed my hair was. I remember going into this year worried about how I might change. Would I still have the same interests when I got back? Would I still have my friends? Would I be weird?? I know now that yes, I am changing. And sure, I may be odd. And though change may be scary, it’s not bad.
I’d say it’s fairly evident how much I’m learning from living here in Juncal. But on top of that, I’m learning so much from the amazing group of Fellows I’m lucky enough to be a part of. We are a unique melting pot of all walks of life, and I’m being exposed to so many new views I never even knew existed. One person is passionate about the effects of global warming, the other on sustainable agriculture, and another on government foreign policy. I’ve surely superficially scratched the surface of each of these topics at some point during my schooling, but to encounter fierce passions on each is more than opening my eyes. Our Global Citizen Year staff also should not go without mentioning. I’m surrounded by incredible role models who have started their own non-profits, traveled the world, and lived astounding lives, who want to impart their vast knowledge unto us. Every six to eight weeks we have a Training Seminar, equipped with various sessions about what we can draw from this experience, how our governments interact, social enterprise, and other interesting topics. Contrary to popular belief, this year is not one devoid of any academic stimulation! These sessions provoke us to think and discuss, and are accompanied by presentations, books, and projects we have to complete throughout the year. I’m in awe of the people I’m surrounded with and learn so much from them, an incredible bonus to the experience I’m already having.
Of course, this year hasn’t just been full of happy smiles every day. I’ve been through a number of challenges that have certainly tested my limits. I remember sitting on my new bed the first night I arrived, and feeling a gaping emptiness creep up my throat. Away from family, friends, and any other comfort I used to enjoy. I’m the only white girl in my community, and certainly the only American. Forcing myself to express myself in a language that isn’t my own has proven to be about ten times more difficult than I previously anticipated, so frequently struggling to string together enough words to complete a coherent sentence. Not to mention my dwindling English skills, resulting in my usage of “bringed,” “runned,” or the horrid spelling that exists in my journal (ie: defininitely…). I was always used to being a competent student, giving myself to every assignment or activity and reaping the rewards. Not being able to be that here tore me apart on the inside for a while. At first, I found myself constantly trying to prove myself as an intelligent volunteer, ready for anything that could possibly be thrown at me and eager to tackle any and all challenges. It was extremely frustrating that in my mind, I was viewed as less than. I can’t wash clothes by hand, I can’t play soccer, I can’t understand slang, I can’t peel potatoes perfectly, and I can’t dance. But I’m learning. I’m laughed at all the time for my incompetence, and it doesn’t bother me – anymore, that is. Something I’ve realized, and still working on embracing, is that it’s okay to be bad at things. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to not always know the answers. There’s not a simple 1+1=2 answer to every challenge, and I can now fully appreciate the incredible support system I have around me.
So here I am, now lying spread-eagled out on my bed (trusty jar of peanut butter by my side), having a hard time stopping my fingers from moving. I truly could go on for pages and pages about any one of the topics I touched upon in this post. I feel aware of so much more than before – who I want to be, my impact on this community and planet, and how I can be better. It scares me that I only have two months left here… I’ve gotten so comfortable where I am, but know I have to push myself even more to keep growing and gaining. I can’t wait to keep learning, laughing, and loving.