The People I Meet

Emery Harwell - Ecuador


December 31, 2015

When I was applying to college last year, I remember UNC Chapel Hill had a prompt about micro-moments of human connection.  Bummer that this isn’t a prompt this year, because damn could I write a good essay.

My time in Ecuador is a non-stop learning experience.  A lot of my learning is done on my own, by observing, asking questions.  But a lot too, has to do with my exchanges with the people I’ve met.  Of course, I learn from my fellow fellows and my host family pretty much every day, and this blog is not to discredit their influence.  Rather, it is to acknowledge the brief yet impactful conversations and interactions I’ve had with people who I’ll probably never see again.

On a day trip to the beach back in October, an afternoon storm threatened to inflict water damage on the camera and cellphone that had already been exposed to too much sand.  I collected my things, strewn across the beach, and walked over to a restaurant-cabana where an old man was serving beer and seafood.  I asked if I could leave my stuff under his roof.  He obliged, and offered me a seat.  Now this guy only had about five teeth left, and his Spanish was pretty tough to understand, but he appeared very eager to talk so I did my best to listen.  In about five minutes I learned that this man, Amable, has over 20 children with five different women.  Over two thirds of them lived in Canada and the US.  He said he runs his little seafood shack with his youngest son, who he is afraid will follow his other siblings to North America.  I am not endorsing Amable’s life choices, but in that short conversation, through my then quite broken Spanish, we are able to talk about a father’s love for his children.  Our connection was not limited by a lack of flowery speech.  We had an understanding.

Earlier this year me and some other Azuay fellows were fortunate enough to meet some Peace Corps volunteers living around Cuenca.  In our afternoon spent together, I was able to just listen to their experiences.  It was amazing.  They had so much insight and advice to give.  As this was only a couple weeks into my time here, their wisdom was even more valuable.

Another interaction with a foreigner in Ecuador gave me some insight to the early days of my community.  Walking home from teaching English club one afternoon I saw a bunch of reporters unloading off of a bus.  This isn’t exactly a normal sighting down here in Pamar Chacrin so I went to check it out.  I spy a gringo!  I introduced myself and asked what was going on.  About ten years ago, the UN did some work in my community to help set up the irrigation system that now connects the entire farming co-op.  A couple of UN representatives were there with local reporters to check up on the progress.  I had a short conversation with one of the UN officials, a young, enthusiastic, reddish-blonde guy from Belgium who had been living in Ecuador for about two years.  We were both so excited to be speaking English, and connected on the gawking stares we receive daily.

Looking back, these short interactions seem kind of boring, and I’m sitting here wondering why exactly I’ve been wanting to write a blog about them for so long.  My last four months have been crazy.  Despite a myriad of other more grandiose experiences, my small interactions with these people have stuck with me, and I think I’ve finally figured it out.  Each of the people I could somehow relate to.  I was able to address my identity as somewhat of a stranger.  My identity as son and brother far away from my family.  My identity as a tall blonde white dude.  As I met most of these people early in my Global Citizen Year, they have become lessons that I continue to turn back to when I’m feeling conflicted about my purpose, or who I am here.  So for me, these micro-moments have become something of a reality check.  Through the excitement and emotion and chaos of this year it is calming and reassuring to remember the purely human connections I’ve had.

Emery Harwell