Let me tell you.
Let me tell you how the sun never failed to rise at 6 AM and descend behind the Andes mountains precisely twelve hours after. About the incredible view of the sunset from the small, wooden table outside of the restaurant. How I watched it almost every day, captivated by the color while sipping warm coffee and eating fresh bread from the bakery next door. About the spontaneous dance parties that frequently happened with my first host family, speaker bumping Reggaeton as we twirled each other around and around in the restaurant kitchen.
Let me tell you how for four months, I would wake up every morning to the sound of dogs yapping on the street and children running through the house getting ready for school. Sometimes I would wake up to the pigeons skidding on my windowsill, or, to a loud knock on my door, followed by a too-sweet-to-turn-down request to go rollerblading at 7 AM. And to the last two months, waking up while the hens squawked outside my room as my second host mom tossed feed into their pens.
Let me tell you about all the people who entered my life eight months ago. Let me tell you about the many families who cared for and loved me, about the friends who danced with and held and embraced me.
Let me tell you about the feeling of home that I found in so many places this year. In sweeping fields full of cows. In the comfy couches at our Spanish school. In Aya's room. On the tan porch of my second host family's house, where I'd sit for hours in a reading chair, writing and admiring the mountains. While riding the line 14 bus and listening to music as the road dipped in and out of the colorful valleys to the city. In the kitchens of my friend's houses, eating hard-boiled eggs and bread with hot chocolate for breakfast and receiving endless hugs from host sisters.
Let me tell you about Santa Ana and how close-knit it is as a community. Where neighbors know your name, your family, and always look out for each other. Where community soccer matches happen every weekend and nearly the whole community shows up to watch and support. Where my best friend Aya and I spent many Sunday afternoons with our families, sitting on the sun-drenched benches watching the tournaments and catching up with each other. Where, to my second host mom's displeasure, we shared many orders of salchipapas right before dinnertime.
Let me tell you all about Tepal. How I moved to this small, beautiful sub-community nestled up the hill from Santa Ana in mid-January and fell in love with the wholesome green mountains, the choirs of chirping birds (especially the hummingbirds feasting on flower beds on the porch), and the neighbors. How my second host mom's family lived on the same street, all within a five-minute walk from us, and I got to see them almost every single day. How we shared lots of lunches at her mom's house, how my host grandma filled my heart with warm, grandmotherly love, how we went on walks down the single winding road in Tepal now and then on weekends.
Let me tell you about transforming the restaurant kitchen into a makeshift empanada laboratory during the two-week paro in October, about sweet potato cake with my second host mom on a lazy February afternoon, and about spontaneously buying apples from the nearby tienda and baking apple crisp with freshly-whipped cream in Aya's kitchen on Sunday evenings.
Let me tell you about long walks to the top of Tepal with Andrea while talking about our lives and dreams as teenage girls do on the way up. How we met through the high school I interned at and became neighbors and good friends when I moved to my second host family placement. How we danced together past sunset, until our feet were wet from the water fights and foam cans, during Carnaval in our community. And to the joy that I felt while dancing in a circle with my family. The love that was so strong when surrounded by the people who so graciously let me into their lives.
Let me tell you about riding into the valley in the bed of an uncle's pickup truck for a party after sundown. Sharing a corner with Aya on our way down as a gentle wind twirled our hair and we marveled together at the wonders of our lives. Staying out until midnight watching Aya's host family members perform their dance right before the New Year and listening to cackling firecrackers pop over and over again a short distance away.
Or about drawing with watercolor pencils with four-year-old Pamela on the porch while listening to "Tutu" on repeat and sharing my earbuds as we colored. Preparing mac and cheese for my cousins to try, them walking to the stove shortly after and dishing spoon after spoon into their bowl. Let me tell you about every type of juice that I tried and a different soup each day for lunch, with popcorn and moté always available on the counter.
And about sitting down at the kitchen table for family dinners every single evening with my second host family. How I'd shred pieces of lettuce for the salad with my host mom or sit on the bench telling her all about my day until everything was prepared and ready. How sometimes, we would wait for my host dad to return from work while other times he had meetings, so we shared dinner, just the two of us. Or, about how during February, my parents took care of a few older, extended family members so at the table sat two host parents, two aunts, and my host grandma. How we always had rice, meat, and vegetables for dinner. Let me tell you that I tried meat for the first time in my life in Ecuador and learned to like it. And how, more often than not, the vegetables were harvested from my host mom's garden, just a short walk from the house. Let me tell you about how I began to cherish our family dinners together and how I learned to finish my plate at every meal.
Let me tell you about my friends. Let me tell you about trips to our favorite park in Cuenca, weekends spent at each other's houses and on our families' farms, and weeks spent together at the beach and in Otavalo during independent travel. Let me tell you about squeezing six fellows into one bed, endless laughter over coffee at cafes after work, and seeing each other after a long, exhausting week and instantly feeling a little better. Let me tell you how brilliant and complex and kind they are. Let me tell you how much I love them.
And let me tell you about my last 48 hours. About the unexpected and abrupt end to my life in Ecuador. Let me tell you how hard it was to say goodbye. Packing all of my belongings with my second host mom on Friday night and realizing how I fell in love with my family. With my community. With how Suco, my host dog, bolted down the driveway to greet me when I got home in the afternoons. With the peaceful, mile-long walk down the mountain that I took almost every day to visit Aya. With the twinkling Cuenca skyline that I watched every night from the window as my host parents and I did the dishes together. Let me tell you about the tears as I hugged my parents one last time and boarded the bus to the airport. About how my mom whispered into my ear as we said goodbye, "All good things have to come to an end."
I left Ecuador a few weeks earlier than expected due to the current global situation, and it has been five days since I got back to my home and my family in New Jersey. Part of me had been ready to be home since my work ended in mid-February, and yet another part of me was not ready to leave the home that I found in Santa Ana this year. I do not know if I ever would have been fully ready to leave, just like I didn't feel ready to part with the people and places that I loved in New Jersey eight months ago. And yet, I left. And already, part of me wants to relive. The long walk up and down the mountain, the laughter after dinner in the living room, the endless stream of folklórica music in my host mom's kitchen. And, per my Grandpa's wife's advice, I am letting myself relive it for now: by scrolling through snapshots from the year, watching videos of parties and dance circles, cherishing memories and writing a lot down. Trying to make sense of what the past eight months meant to me now that they are over.
And I don't quite know yet, but there is so much I want to remember. So many people I want to keep in my heart. So many mountains I would like to return to a little bit later on. So many moments and stories that I want to share. Let me tell you.