Universality is a word I have truly connected to throughout this experience in Ecuador. As I boarded the plane to my new life back in August, I dreamed of making new friends and blending in easily into my Ecuadorian family but I never even imagined how deep the connections could be. While I feel at home in my life in Zuleta with my adoring family, the process getting to this point wasn’t easy. It was, however, the hardest moments in my time here that made me the most aware of our interconnectedness despite our endless list of differences.
How could an American, 19 year old, confused girl be anything like an indigenous, catholic, Ecuadorian family? This was my mentality during my first week in Zuleta when all of the differences between us were all I could see in my whirlwind of loneliness being separated from everything I had ever known. Despite the instant warmness I felt from my mother the first nights in my new home, the language barrier and my longing for my friends and family in the States made it difficult to appreciate. The question of how to get past all of our differences and become the family I had envisioned on the plane, was all I could think of. The night my mom found me crying in my room, however, changed everything. She sat down beside me on the bed and asked if I was missing my family at home. When I replied yes between heavy sobs, she grabbed me and held me close and began to cry too. She told me it was okay if I wanted to go back to them and that she would understand but would miss me. This wonderful woman, who had only known me for a few days, most of which were spent sick or crying, would miss me and could feel such a deep compassion as to cry for me. I couldn’t believe it. I had never felt such a feeling of adoration and appreciation so instantly. Hearing the unified sobs, my oldest sister then opened the curtain to my room and didn’t even have to ask. She gave me a look of empathy and joined the hugging, sobbing mass on the bed. I will never forget that moment. It was my first glance at what an important role my mother and family would play in my new life in Ecuador and my first understanding that while yes, there are inevitable differences between us, it is a deeper human connection that bonds us all.
While it was within the first weeks in Zuleta that I understood that I could develop a connection with my family over the coming months, it took a little longer to feel that way at work. In the beginning months, the inability to understand all of their jokes and questions made bonding with my coworkers and students a challenge. I went back into my shell and didn’t feel like the confident, fun person I thought of myself to be. I began to realize that a timid volunteer was the way they were starting to see me. Once I had a little more time in the high school and made a few Spanish speaking friends to boost my confidence, I decided I needed to speak up more in the teachers’ lounge and make myself known as more than the quiet American. It was through my inaction that I was shutting myself out from an opportunity to make new friends and connect with a different group of people the way I had with my family. Sure enough, once I put some strength in my voice and joined in the laughter, I immediately gained people I could rely on and even one who I’ve become so close to that I now call Tia. Until reflecting upon it, I hadn’t realized how drastically my actions or inactions could affect the connects I make or even determine my experience here in Ecuador.
Understanding the meaning of universality for myself has changed the way I see everyday people in my life. I have learned that the people you least expect can become your closest friends and even your family. As my time here in Ecuador comes to an end, I plan to use my remaining time to strengthen my relationships with those who have also looked beyond our differences and chosen to be my friend in return. I want to continue to seek out friendships because I have learned that everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s friendship, especially in a place so far from home, is a valuable gift. When I return back to the States, I aim to bring this newfound understanding of interconnectedness with me wherever I go. I know when entering college I will be faced with hundreds of new faces every day and it could be tempting to tire of making connections with people beyond the typical small talk. I want to challenge myself to take interest in everyone’s’ real stories and build connections with those who seem the most different from myself. I also want to take the experience I had with my mother and sister and make sure I show compassion for everyone because you never know how far the simplest act of empathy can go. For me, it made all the difference between wanting more than anything to leave Ecuador to not being able to imagine going home. Ecuador, my family, and my community have taught me so much about myself and the human capacity to connect no matter what the circumstances may be. In a recent book I read, The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, the author reflects on a moment of interconnectedness when she writes about the surviving widows of the genocide. One widow says, “We listen to one another and look into one another’s eyes and we see suffering. It is that suffering that binds us. It is that suffering that reminds us that we are all human” (Novogratz 176). Any truly deep human emotion has the capacity of binding us as a species. Whether it is suffering, love, loneliness, or pure happiness, everyone can relate to these feelings. These are the ways I connected with my family and community in Zuleta, Ecuador. Understanding this will help me succeed in the future as a citizen of the world because I will never see a random person as just another person passing by, I will know them as a human and I will have the desire to know them as an individual.