Weekend Update with John Spence

*** As you’re reading this, know that it was written at the beginning of October – the  beginning of my time in my community and a difficult transition period best described as a whirlwind of emotions. You’re reading it two months after the fact because of my incompetencies operating this website.


It’s not the tarantulas or the omnipresent threat of an eruptive anal sphincter or even the two inch long fever-inducing ants prone to violence that scare me the most about life in the Amazon. It’s the middle school girls. While I’ve had packs of girls do their whole giggle routine when I walked by before, usually it’s because I stumble or smell weird or look a little funny. But here in Puerto Napo, Ecuador, it’s shameless we’re-checking-you-out laughter. Who knew middle school girls could make a high school graduate blush so hard? Now don’t get me wrong; nine times out of ten I’m the kind of guy who pulls the flirtatious giggle from some girls, rounds the corner out of sight, and triumphantly fist pumps. In my current scenario, however, it’s just uncomfortable.

First of all, I’m all of these girls’ teacher, so any sort of unprofessional interaction could land me in big trouble with my school. Second, Global Citizen Year, the program I’m here with, did their best to scare us out of any intra-community relationships. And, boy, their horror stories about potential irate Ecuadorian fathers, expected engagements, and close calls with pregnancy sure as heck left me phobic of any flirtation. Then there’s the whole bit about most of the girls being middle schoolers or underclassmen that presents another creepy damper on any triumphant fist pumping. I can’t even take it as a compliment because I can honestly say that I currently look more genuinely strange than I ever have before. After getting a haircut so spectacularly terrible in a girls’ mall bathroom in Quito from one of my friends that I had to shave my head the next day and after making the commitment to not shaving my face for the seven and a half months that I’m in Ecuador, my head hair and my facial hair are the same unfortunate length. I look like I draped a tiny furry animal around my head. In other words, they just giggle because I’m foreign and exotically white.

Despite the roving packs of insatiable tweenage girls and their predatory giggles, I’ve still had plenty to fist bump about over the past two months. Starting the moment I got off my plane in San Francisco, my life has been packed with plenty of other intimidating challenges that I’ve handled more or less passably well. From Nashville to the California Redwoods, from the Redwoods to Stanford, from Stanford to Quito, Ecuador, and from Quito to the Ecuadorian Amazon, my life has been a blur since August 20th. As someone who went to the same school for 13 years surrounded by an incredible community of friends, family and teachers, I haven’t had any tangible inclination to even introduce myself to a new person in what seems like forever. So stepping off that plane and walking up to ninety-five new peers with the mandate of not just meeting but making a good impression on all of them, I was a little intimidated. Give credit to Global Citizen Year, though, for pushing me out of my comfort zone.

That seems to be a major motif of my experience so far – pushing myself and facing challenges that I usually wouldn’t. Although I say “pushing myself,” really all the credit should go to Global Citizen Year and their program design. First they brought us to Pre-Departure Training, the week in California split between the Redwoods and Stanford where they masterfully wove together team challenges with peer-to-peer coaching, fascinating lectures with group meals, and unstructured free time with constant reflection. The result – for me at least – was shipping off to Ecuador not only feeling prepared to immerse myself in a new culture and make the most of my year, but feeling like despite all odds I had made a plethora of new friends. Major challenge number one, try to branch out and not be such a recluse, was in the bag.

Major challenge number two during Global Citizen Year’s in-country portion of the training proved to be much more of a stretch for me. While throwing myself into a group of ninety plus new Americans my age with the objective “make friends” was intimidating, inserting myself into an Ecuadorian family with the goal “assimilate” was borderline terrifying. On top of that, this time around I didn’t have Global Citizen Year filling my schedule with bonding activities that catalyzed new relationships with my new family. Now it was mostly my responsibility to foster a connection with these total strangers who took me into their home for three weeks. Lucky for me, both of my parents were total sweethearts. They were about the same age as my real parents and had two daughters who were already adults living elsewhere. Both were geniuses; my dad had a Ph.D., and my mom, two masters, and it seemed like their favorite hobbies were going to as many malls as they could in a day and watching Ecuador’s Got Talent while sipping on tea. That slow life suited me just fine, and it allowed me to gradually dip myself into their lives at a pace comfortable for me. Not to mention, my mom also made me three delicious home cooked meals a day which went a long, long – really just such a long – way towards making me the happiest camper this side of the equator. And even though connecting with this family was wholly on me, Global Citizen Year still helped facilitate that very gradual pace by structuring busy weekdays filled with hours of Spanish and culture classes that helped punctuate all my Ecuadorian time with some much needed American peer time. Overall, the three plus weeks of in-country training were a great experience. Not only did I continue to bond with the other kids in the program, but I managed to befriend a very caring older Ecuadorian couple. Now I can comfortably say that I have good buds from Seattle, Chapel Hill, San Francisco, D.C., Cape Cod and even Quito among myriad other cities. By the time I shipped off to my tiny town in the Amazon, I even got the I-love-you text from my host parents in Quito. Through the first month of the program, I tackled both of my biggest challenges with a consistent (albeit sometimes forced) smile, and I felt super prepared to face my next big test – spending the next six and a half months working as teacher and living with an Ecuadorian family in a town of a thousand people in the Amazon rainforest.

When I got on the bus to leave Quito, go down the mountains, and enter my community, sure, I knew it was going to be very difficult. We had, after all, spent what seemed like days talking about resilience, receiving coaching on culture shock, and just watching videos about coping with bad days over the course of the past month. Clearly this challenge would be the hardest: Global Citizen Year was removing itself as completely as safely possible from the equation, so there would be no more bonding activities, no more structured days, just me and my new town living life. Yet despite all that, I was on cloud nine I was so excited. Everything about my placement seemed perfect: working as a full time high school teacher is the dream job; I get to work in agriculture too after school, so my job is also physically exhausting; my family is mestizo rather than indigenous, so I can really work on the Spanish; and on top of all that it’s blisteringly hot in the Amazon which I love. Driving down out of the Andes, I kept trying to tell myself that, yeah sure things were awesome, and I felt super prepared, but things were also inevitably going to be very very difficult. If meeting 90 new Americans my age was a challenge, and becoming close with two older Ecuadorians for three weeks was difficult, then immersing and assimilating into an entire community of Ecuadorians for over half a year had to be downright hard. Pfft… I had no idea. This challenge, major challenge number three, makes challenges one and two look like the English homework I assign – in other words, mind numbingly easy. Life here is just so drastically different from anything I’ve ever experienced before. Pile on top of that the fact that no one here speaks any semblance of English and I didn’t know a single soul before I got here, and you’ve officially pushed me well beyond what were my limits. As with anytime life pushes you so far and so hard, at times it’s too much, and overwhelmed, I sink into the pitifully comforting thoughts of you all at home. The permanent smile I mentioned earlier that I’ve done my best to keep plastered across my face has even faltered at moments. But it’s hard for me to express how incredible all these difficulties and drastic differences that keep me living in a state permanently beyond my comfort zone are, how incredible it is to constantly push my limits.

First there’s my family. Or maybe I should say my herd. Technically I only live with two elderly parents again, but those parents have three grown kids all with their own families living next door, across the street, and down the street. Of all those houses and families, ours seems to be the gathering place of preference. In other words, our house shakes from the collective noise and movement of what seems like thirty adults and little kids on a daily basis. Big, big change of pace from the past two years of only-childhood and the preceding years with a single reserved sister. Every Sunday my thundering herd musters to go to a pool or one of countless local rivers to cool off a little bit. Except it’s not just my family here in my tiny town of Puerto Napo mustering. My herd musters from all over – other cities, other provinces – and if we decide to colonize a pool for the day, you better believe that our family and our family alone will fill that place to capacity. I could go on to depict the eclectic cast of characters that run rampant through the house every day, but I’ll save that, maybe for another blog, in the interest of not asking you to read a novel.

When I’m not with my family, I’m working at the equivalent of a local high school and upper middle school. Teaching English to a separate but at times overlapping eclectic cast has proven simultaneously profoundly motivating and deeply discouraging. Attempting to coral a class of 30 fourteen year olds into putting a modicum of effort into their education has made me, someone who struggles greatly with anger, question whether teaching is in fact the profession for me after all. But at the same time, knowing the potential of every kid I teach and seeing them scratch at its surface makes me want to dedicate all my time to helping them unlock it even further. A disappointing truth is that even though I chose to take this year outside of traditional school to try and earn an education in social change, in helping someone other than myself, I’m going to do very little to “help” Puerto Napo. In reality, I’ll be on the receiving end of the vast majority of help as this community and its people mold me into a more understanding, more realistic, hopefully better person, more prepared to help those around me in the future. But, if a place exists for me to potentially return the favor and do some sort of good for people who I will owe so much, it is this school. It’s just a matter of hard work and time put in – dedication – and hopefully I’ll be able to make some sort of difference for someone. Well, it would also most certainly help if I could speak a lick of passable Spanish (I have the most deep seated appreciation for the ever beautiful trio of Profe Prater, Melchior, and McRae. It is entirely thanks to them that I haven’t gotten myself killed yet.). Just give it some time. I’ll get there. Eventually.

Again, I could go on for days trying to depict my wild and crazy new life in the jungle for you. But writing this has already taken two days, and it’s overdue because my computer crashed in a blaze of devastating glory, so I’m going to wrap it up here. I did my best to give an overview of my time here and left off a lot of highlights in the process. Maybe next time, I’ll give a day by day look at my typical week. I don’t know. It’ll probably be about whatever strikes my fancy when I put pen to paper if you couldn’t tell by the rambling nature of this post. If there’s something specific you want to hear about, let me know in the comments, shoot me an email – john.spence4@outlook.com, facebook message me, or skype me – john.spence4. I’d truly truly love to hear from you, but I have to warn you; my internet access and even more so my webcam access is scarce and typically brief. It might take me a minute to respond.

Stay classy Nashville and every other city you’re reading from. Much love from the southern hemisphere.