Sometimes I look around and I can’t believe where I am. When I first moved to Zuleta, a small indigenous community in the Andes Mountains, I experienced a shock like nothing I had felt before. I couldn’t imagine how I could live for six more months with a shower that consisted of heating up water on the stove, pouring it into a bucket, and then using a bowl scoop the water over my head, all the while standing in a bathroom chilled by the morning mountain air.
To be honest, the first few days were filled with thoughts about how I could leave to go back home despite the beauty of my town and the kindness of my family. That first week combating homesickness and loneliness in a new place was undoubtedly one of the hardest internal challenges I’ve ever experienced.
As I sit here now in the teacher’s lounge of the high school where I’m teaching English, surrounded by laughing and joking coworkers, I am so thankful I pushed through the first few hard days because now I can’t imagine leaving. I feel so blessed to be given the opportunity to be here and challenge myself in ways I never have before. I think the real turning point from fear and sadness to excitement and joy was when I began to feel like a true member of my family.
It began the night of Día de las Mercedes, a religious indigenous celebration in Ecuador, when my family and I traveled in the back of a pick-up truck to a neighboring town where the party was taking place. Surrounding the church was a crowd of people packed close together dancing to the Sanjuanito rhythm of the outdoor band and honoring Lady Mercedes. Occasional fireworks flew into the cloudy night sky until the main event began, los castillos, towering wooden structures with spinning firework-like parts. The whole thing lit up from bottom to top and threw sparks into the crowd. I have to say, it probably wouldn’t have been allowed in the States given how many times people got hit with stray sparks, but it was a wild experience nonetheless. As everyone stood and watched the structure light up, it started to rain. And then, it really started to rain. My family and I ran up the hill to a little overhang to use as protection until our ride came. Unfortunately, the truck we came in wasn’t planning on returning for another hour and a half so we waited, our coats and ponchos soaked completely through, under the ledge for one of my cousins to hitch us a ride back to our town.
When we got the signal that a car would take us, all of ten of us – my mom, brother, sisters, many cousins and me – ran hand-in-hand up the muddy hill laughing as we tried not to slip back down to the cattle car that awaited us at the top. We scrambled into the back of the truck with some other people from our town and drove off in the pouring rain. Being inexperienced in the back of a pickup truck, I squatted down next to my four year old brother for fear of flying out of the car on a sudden bump. As we drove the half hour drive back to Zuleta in the freezing rain, my hands went numb holding the side of the truck. Then, when I thought I was going to completely freeze over, my mom wrapped the ends of her poncho over my brother and me. I don’t know if it was just the poncho or the overwhelming feeling of appreciation and love I felt but I was instantly warmed.
Being taken under my mom’s wing, literally and metaphorically, has made such an incredible difference in my time here. Now, having lived with my family for a month, I feel completely at home with them. Their endless generosity, care, and love are the greatest gifts I have received and have made living here an unforgettable experience.