Stories (and Lessons) from My First Few Weeks in Ecuador!

I can’t believe that it has been about a month since I have left the United States to spend a year in Ecuador, living with a host family, learning Spanish, and working with a local organization in my new community. After leaving Pennsylvania, I spent a week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, for Global Launch. Throughout this week, I was able to meet the other amazing fellows, and I was also given the valuable opportunity to attend lectures by many inspirational speakers with various global perspectives. By the end of that week, I had learned an immense amount about the world around me, and I was more excited than ever to fly off to a new country halfway across the globe. My first week in Ecuador was also jam-packed. I got to spend the week exploring the vibrant cities of Quito and Ibarra while acclimating to life in a foreign country (i.e. cold showers, remembering to not flush toilet paper down the toilet, and a whole lot of starch in my diet).

After these first two weeks, it was finally time for me to move in with my host family! I am currently living in the town of San Vicente in the northern part of the Imbabura region of Ecuador with the Farinangos, a Kichwa family of five. (The Kichwa people are the dominant indigenous group in Ecuador.) My host father’s name is Armando, and he is an artisan. Currently, he is building a gallery in the nearby town of Cotacachi in order to sell his wooden sculptures, paintings, and other works of art. In addition to his artwork, Armando enjoys playing the instruments of indigenous people from around South America and working to grow a large variety of plants in his garden. My host mother’s name is Matilde, and she helped to organize the first association of Kichwa people with careers in medicine in Imbabura. In her free time, Matilde also enjoys cooking and spending as much time as possible with her family. Furthermore, I have two host brothers, Andrés and Bryan. Andrés is an architect, and Bryan is in culinary school. Both brothers enjoy listening to music, exercising, and hanging out with their friends. Lastly, my host grandmother’s name is Natividad. At first glance, she can seem kind of quiet, but as you get to know her, she becomes quite the comedian, cracking jokes left and right. Additionally, she enjoys taking walks, sewing, and watching television. I adore my host family so much, and they have been extremely kind and welcoming. I am so grateful for all of the effort they have put into helping me feel like I am truly a member of the family, and I can’t wait for all of the fun experiences we will enjoy together over the next seven months.

My host family and I on our first day together! I don’t know where Bryan is in this photo 🙁


My host family and I saying goodbye to Andrés. Matilde is taking the photo!

As I was trying to write my first blog, I kept struggling to figure out the right format to properly share the plethora of things that have happened to me during my first few weeks in Ecuador. Nevertheless, I think I have finally come to a conclusion. I hope that through these short anecdotes, you will get a small glimpse into what my new life is like, as well as everything that I am learning.

Day One Jitters (and Mild Panic Attacks):

My first day with my host family was slightly overwhelming to say the least. I walked into my host family’s house expecting to see five individuals and was instead greeted by about fifteen. To my surprise, it was Armando’s birthday, and the entire extended family was having a party to celebrate this, as well as my arrival. I was immediately bombarded by rapid fire Spanish, little of which I was able to comprehend. The next thing I knew, I was getting whisked around the house for a tour. Now, I digress from the story to share a little tidbit about Ecuador. The average male height in Ecuador is only five feet and four inches, so me, standing at five foot nine inches, am considered tall for the first time in my life. However, since the people of Ecuador are on the shorter side, so are the ceilings. Now, back to the story. As I was climbing the stairs to the second level of the house, I did not realize that the ceiling was so low. Subsequently, I smashed my head into the cement ceiling, nearly plummeting down the staircase. I rubbed the newly forming lump on the top of my head and thought to myself, “Well this is just great…I just arrived to my host family, I can’t understand anything that is going on, and now I gave myself a concussion!” After the tour of the house, I was ushered towards the dance floor, where I attempted to keep a beat as the room spun and my head throbbed. Finally, I was able to sit down to listen to some speeches prepared by the family. I thought I was in the clear. (I was not.) Suddenly, in my dazed state, I recognized the sound of my name. I looked up to realize that my host uncle was trying to get me to give a speech. I don’t love public speaking as is, let alone in another language. As I stood up to speak, my palms began to sweat and my heart beat rapidly. Let’s just say the speech went about as well as you would expect, considering my only knowledge of Spanish comes from an American high school classroom where we barely speak the language. When my speech ended at last, I returned to my chair exhausted and began to panic a little. Everything was so unknown to me, and I began to simultaneously miss home and wonder what the hell I was doing in Ecuador. I think that some of the young girls at the party sensed my uneasiness and invited me to play Jenga. Upon seeing this game from my childhood, I was instantly soothed, and as we played and laughed, I began to relax. This simple tower of wooden blocks reminded me of the comforts of home, and helped me to recall my reasons for coming to Ecuador in the first place. For the rest of the afternoon, I was able to sit back and enjoy the blur that was my first day with the Farinangos.

Lesson: The cure for homesickness is finding little things in your everyday life that remind you of home and your roots. This allows you to realize that home is never truly that far away. You will also never lose sight of your “why”.

The Magic Flute:

I brought my flute with me to Ecuador on a whim. I didn’t really know how I was going to use it, but I knew that I didn’t want to go a year without playing the instrument that has played such an important role in my life. For as long as I can remember, I have loved music, and I knew that I wanted to express this passion during my gap year. Little did I know that my host father would enjoy playing the instruments of indigenous groups from across South America. I mentioned that I had brought my flute with me, and one day later, Armando asked me to play it for him. For the next hour, we exchanged songs – me on my flute and my host father on various other wind instruments. While slightly unhygienic (Armando kept grabbing my flute to play and asking me to try the indigenous instruments), this interaction was one of the first times that I really began to feel like I was a part of the family. While my oral Spanish skills were not yet up to par, we were able to communicate through music. During my year in Ecuador, I have made it a goal of mine to learn how to play at least a few of these indigenous instruments!

Lesson: Music is a universal language that unites us all. Use music, as well as other universal languages, to help build relationships when your verbal language skills fail.

A Thousand Fish Eyes and a Thousand People on the Bus:

I have two stories for this one! My second day with my host family, I got to go to the market in Ibarra. As we walked into the bustling, open-air structure, I was suddenly met with the stares of thousands of dead fish. And while their glassy eyes were unsettling, the pungent, salty smell was even more unbearable. My senses were completely overwhelmed, and I began to panic a little. However, instead of freaking out, I tried to change my point of focus. Instead of fixating on the dead fish or whole pigs, I observed the numerous varieties of exotic fruits, the colorful, tribal textiles that decorated the booths, and the diverse set of people hurrying through the market. By shifting my perspective, I was able to calm myself down and appreciate this cultural experience.

The second story began as I boarded a bus back to my hometown one night from Ibarra. It was around 6:30 P.M., so I was on one of the last buses passing through San Vicente. Therefore, the bus was packed! Compared to the U.S., the bubble of personal space is much smaller in Ecuador. As I stood in the back of the bus, unable to find a seat, I was quickly surrounding by a crowd of people so tight, that I was unable to move. When they say a bus is full in Ecuador, it means that it is really full, as in no more people can physically fit. Now, I’m not claustrophobic, but as I clutched my backpack, I felt a wave of anxiety rush through my body. I felt like I couldn’t breathe with so many people around me. Again, I realized that I needed to distract myself and shift my focus. I began to fixate on the slight breeze entering the bus through the open back door and the lights of Ibarra flashing by me in a colorful blur. As I began to relax, I had one of those moments where I was like, “ Wow…I’m really in Ecuador, and this is amazing!”

Lesson: Don’t let culture shock…well…shock you. Instead, learn to embrace chaos, and to appreciate the world around you rather than getting overwhelmed.

Lost in Ecuador:

Now, I know I already talked about the bus system in Ecuador, but I think it warrants a little more space in my blog, considering it is the form of transportation that I use daily. Basically, I live and die by the Ecuadorian bus system. It’s a huge part of my life here! Anyways, after a long day of exploring Ibarra with my friends, I reached the bus stop to go home. I knew that I needed to get on the blue bus that said San Antonio and Santa Isabel. However, I did not realize that a blue bus saying only San Antonio was different and would not pass by my house. After getting on the San Antonio bus, I kind of zoned out because I was exhausted from my busy day. This was a mistake. I jolted out of my daze to see the bus speeding past the road where we should have turned to go to my house. I quickly realized that I had gotten on the wrong bus. Yet, I didn’t panic because I assumed that the bus would simply return back to Ibarra, and then I would be able to get on the correct bus. I was very wrong. Another fun fact about Ecuador: the buses do not follow a cycle. Instead, their routes go in one direction to all stops, and then end. I soon found myself alone on the bus in the middle of nowhere with the bus driver yelling at me to get off because it was the end of the line. As I exited the bus, I found myself in a pretty rural part of the Imbabura volcano, more than an hour walk away from my house. While my instinct was to panic, I knew that I needed to stay calm. First, I asked the bus driver for some advice about how I should get back to my house, and he told me that another bus would be leaving in about ten minutes. Luckily, while I was waiting for this bus, I spotted a yellow taxi driving towards me. I waved this taxi down like a person stranded on an island waves down a rescue plane overhead. The driver probably thought I was crazy. Nevertheless, he stopped for me even though there was already a woman in the car. He said that he was passing through San Antonio, the larger town near my house, and the woman in the taxi was kind enough to let me join her. As I got in the cab, the driver said, “You’re not from around here, are you? I can tell from your accent.” I chuckled to myself as I explained where I was from while thinking, “I’m sure it was my accent that gave me away, not the fact that I am lost in the middle of nowhere in Ecuador.” I got dropped off in the town square of San Antonio and then made the half an hour walk uphill to my house. When I got home, I was both tired and proud. I got myself home safely, and vowed to tame the monster that is the Ecuadorian bus system.

Lesson: Don’t panic! Take a deep breathe, assess your situation, and come up with a plan of action. (Also, the Ecuadorian bus system is super confusing.)

Saying Goodbye (but Looking Forward to New Hellos):

As I previously mentioned, my host brother, Andrés, is an architect. I have loved getting to know him during family events, and he has been so kind to me since I have arrived. He always asks me if I am doing well, and he continuously tries to talk to me even when I struggle to find the correct words in Spanish. Unfortunately, this past week, he left to go to Barcelona, Spain for a year to finish his studies, so I will not see him again. I do not think I realized how close we had gotten until he left. Even though we only knew each other for a few weeks, I felt like I had lost an actual brother. Nevertheless, my sadness proved to me that I could successfully develop strong relationships in Ecuador. While my relationship with Andrés may be coming to an end for now, I look forward to making connections with interesting individuals throughout my gap year. Also, I am excited to reconnect with Andrés through social media and possibly face to face later in life!

Lesson: You are capable of quickly developing deep relationships with people who may seem very different. (They probably aren’t that different.) Get out of your own head, and go talk to people! Even if you speak in broken Spanish, you can still make connections.

Finding My Inner Peace:

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Kichwa ritual with my host parents. The ceremony was for the Coya Raymi, which is the solstice on September 21st. From my research, I have gathered that this cleansing ritual is used to honor the moon and Pachamama (the mother and goddess of Earth and time in the Kichwa culture), bringing fertility to both women and the harvest. Therefore, I believe that this event has some parallels to the Harvest Moon in the U.S. While I had some difficulty understanding what was being said prior to the ceremony, the actual ritual was like a meditation and required no speaking. We all gathered in a circle inside of a cement, dome-shaped hut. We were told to close our eyes and relax, as the two leaders of the ritual lit candles, sprayed calming, scented mists, and played soothing indigenous instruments. My favorite instrument had a deep, guttural tone that made the ground beneath me vibrate. During the ritual, which lasted for about two hours, I zoned out and tried to focus on my inner thoughts and feelings. While I am not sure if I truly connected fully with the intended purpose of the ceremony, I did achieve a high level of inner peace. I am incredibly thankful for this unique, cultural experience, and I look forward to learning more about Kichwa traditions in the future.

Lesson: This one’s for me! During the Coya Raymi ceremony, I felt completely at peace. I think this is related to my current contentedness with where I am in my life and with the decisions that I have made. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what is next, and I don’t really have specific goals to work towards. I’m not studying to get an A in a class or trying to embellish my resume in order to get accepted into college. Instead, I get to do what I want to do. I finally feel free. As I look back upon myself in high school, I know that this sense of the unknown would have sent me into an endless spiral of stress and anxiety. However, I now find peace and liberation in my new world of endless opportunity. As I continue my journey of self-growth in Ecuador, I look forward to seeing what crazy adventures this magical country has in store for me. While I am more unsure about my future than I have ever been in my life, I am also more excited for what is to come than I have ever been, and that in itself is a remarkable thing.

Here are some more photos from my first few weeks in Ecuador!

My cohort and I with our sick matching bracelets! A big thanks to our team leader, Annie!

My friends and I at the top of El Panecillo, a volcanic hill overlooking the entire city of Quito.

My cohort and I eating at a restaurant in Yahuarcocha.

Me learning how to make Químbolitos, an Ecuadorian cake-like pastry cooked inside of a banana leaf. Yum!

My cohort’s mascot, Fernando Locro Cuy, enjoying the beautiful views of the Andes.