The Good, The Bad, The Beautiful

Maddy Gibson - Ecuador


May 21, 2019

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*My experience has been complex, unique, and in no way a full representation of Ecuador, South America, or Latino culture as a whole.<3

“How was it?”

“What is Ecuador like?”

“Are you glad you went?”

“Was it fun?”

The answer I will most likely give will be something along the lines of: “It was incredible!” Which is true. I will give an overview of the Almeida-Sandoval Family and start gushing about how much love and respect I have for them. I’ll tell you about my home and neighborhood, and my place in it all. Maybe you’ll ask about my job, and I’ll tell you about my role as an English Co-Teacher in the Unidad Educativa Milenio Yachay in the town of Urcuquí. I’ll tell you the names of my favorite students and a funny anecdote if there is time. I’m sure I’ll mention language learning, and the journey I’ve had with Spanish. You’ll say: “Say something in Spanish” and I’ll respond with some Ecuadorian slang that has little meaning outside of the country’s borders. I will then go on to tell you about Ecuador as a whole, which is an impossible task. I’ll comment on the beautiful landscape, the rich cultures, and the amazing bus system. I will tell you about the astounding beauty of this place so close to my heart.

I will be scared to tell a tale of anything but overwhelming positivity, in fear of painting Ecuador in a negative light. Words hold a lot of power and I want everyone to love this beautiful country as much as I do. So, there are things I won’t tell you. I won’t mention the incredible isolation I have felt this year, especially during the first months. I won’t talk about the terrifying near-death-experiences I had in cars. I will breeze over the deep longing for home and familiarity that kept me up at nights. I’ll skip the part of language learning that involves being mocked on the streets and renders you unable to communicate/advocate for yourself at home. I won’t go into the pain I felt when switching home-stays and the struggle that ensued with feelings of betrayal, ungratefulness, and guilt. I’ll joke about the various bouts of food poisoning I had, but I won’t explain how terrible it is to be sick in a (loving and caring) household that can’t take care of you in the way you need. I will avoid the topic of strongly rooted racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia that I witnessed throughout my experience and the harsh reality that oppression is alive and well, all over the world. I might joke about the many boyfriends, fiances, and husbands I made up to ward off creepy men, but I won’t tell you about the daily harassment that I eventually normalized and the assaults that left me with fear and distrust.  I won’t want to talk about this because none of it is Ecuador-specific. So, to avoid the chance of miscommunication, I just won’t mention it at all.

          There’s another part of my experience that I likely won’t mention. The details, the little moments, the memories that made this year what it was. Even if you ask, I won’t be able to find the words to encompass this experience.  So, I wrote out as much of it as I could. It’s a lot, don’t feel obligated to read it all.

First, some acquired skills. In the last 8 months, I have learned how to play chess, eat an entire fish, jump off a moving bus, and light a gas stove without screaming. I can sing four different versions of Felíz Cumpleaños, de-escalate dog fights, and properly package plant saplings for transportation. Every single day I journaled and I showered in numbingly cold water. I hailed cabs, controlled rooms of 40 eight-year-olds, and kept our pet rabbit from killing the guinea pigs we were breeding. I’ve gotten ridiculously good at washing clothes by hand, sleeping three people comfortably in a twin bed, and packing up the entirety of my belongings in under an hour. Additional skills include de-molding clothing and spotting constellations.

Next, a shout out to some important people. During my time in Ecuador I gained three new siblings, the wonderful Samy, Danny, and Vero. These kids were my closest companions this year and I honestly don’t think I would have lasted the duration of the program if it hadn’t been for them. My host parents, Leticia Sandoval and Jaime Almeida, are two of the most inspiring, kind hearted, bad ass people I have ever met. Neither has been handed anything but they have worked hard and built a beautiful life for their family. They are incredible parents, gifted farmers, and wholesome people. I love these two more than I will ever be able to explain. In addition to immediate family, I gained extended family members who I adore. I have more aunts and uncles than I can count on my fingers and too many cousins to keep straight. While I don’t completely understand how everyone is related, their friendly smiles and welcoming spirits made me feel right at home. I had the honor to assist strong resilient teachers who have given their lives to the success of their students. I built beautiful friendships with inspiring individuals who climb volcanoes with me, laugh with me until we cry, who have carried me through the challenging times and who have sat with me during the mundane. Friends who I’ve only known for 8 months, but who I can’t imagine life without.

          While in Ecuador, I swam in the warm waves of the Pacific under pink skies, chilly tributaries to the Amazon river, and scalding natural hot springs in a dramatic canyon. I went days feasting on only fresh mangos and granadillas, rich claudias and perfect pitahayas. I traveled by bus, train, zip line, plane, and my favorite, the bed of a camioneta. I was blessed by a Shaman and stargazed in the hillsides of Cañar. I slept in a hammock for a month and a half. I ran from caimans, anacondas, cockroaches, and a man dressed as the devil. I got lost in cornfields and bus terminals. I fell asleep to the sound of wild alpacas galloping around my tent and I fell asleep to reggaeton so loud it shook my bed (my lullaby). I met Pachamama at the base of waterfalls and at the peaks of volcanoes. I drew enough muñecas and princesas with Samy to cover all the walls in the Almeida home. I was temporarily blinded by foam at a festival. I nearly drowned when 30 children pelted me with buckets of water. I danced, everywhere. Roofs, discotecas, classrooms, buses, mountain tops, dance floors. I found friendship in a volcano. I got so close to rainbows that I could almost taste them. I road tripped on the Pan-American Highway. I ate a meal harvested from a rain forest and one cooked in the earth of Imbabura. I saw fireflies for the first time and experienced wild monkeys swinging in the trees above me for the first time. I (night) hiked in the Amazon Rain Forest, around two crater lakes, through fincas and cloud forests, and across mountain ridges. I visited the beautiful Pailón del Diablo, Taxopamba, Timbuyacu, and Peguche waterfalls. I absorbed the beauty of a cloud forest from above the canopy and wove belts with Kichwa Feminist/Environmentalist women below.

          I saw the most incredible sunrises and sunsets (seriously, and Andean sky can’t be beat). I visited the biggest cathedral and the biggest artisanal market in South America. I saw streets covered in fire during Año Viejo. I saw the colors of Imbabura change as the sunlight spreads across her in the morning.

          I felt pain. From bug bites, three-inch-long splinters in the bottom of me feet, and sunburns that only the equatorial sun can deliver. I felt love from a new family. I felt the beat of music that is playing way too loudly. I felt the curiosity that comes when exploring a new language. I felt confidence and joy when new understanding clicks in said language. I felt the crisp refreshing 5 am Imbabura air and the familiar bumps and curves of the bus ride to Urcuquí. I felt the utter magic of living in the shadow of a friendly, hermosa volcano. I felt the constant, rewarding challenge of navigating a rich culture that began to feel a little less unfamiliar.

         

          I apologize if my answer to your “How was Ecuador?” is vague and unsatisfying. The truth is, I will never be able to encapsulate my experience in any number of words, let alone a few phrases. That being said, I do appreciate you asking and I hope that this gives a glimpse of what my eight months looked like.(:

(this picture was taken at the summit of Rucu Pichincha, a volcano outside of Quito!)

Maddy Gibson