Where I’m At

Emery Harwell - Ecuador


March 21, 2016

I haven’t been keeping up with this blog nearly as much as I intended to, and for that I apologize.  I’ve hit my required amount for Global Citizen Year, and it would be pretty easy to just kinda drop off on these little updates.  However, I do feel the responsibility to let all of y’all know how I’m doing, considering you have all supported me on this journey of mine.

In an attempt to let y’all know just “Where I’m At”, this blog is a big ol’ mix of notebook-scribbles and off-hand-thoughts that I’ve never expanded into full blogs. Here it goes.

I love my host family.  I’ve made great bonds with my host brothers, who remind me of my own brother and cousins back home.  I also really love my host mom; I’ve always had a great relationship with my real mom back home (hi mom!) and getting placed with a host family whose matriarch is equally as compassionate and caring has been a huge blessing.  Watching her tend to animals and fields, cook dinner, clean the house, wash clothes, and do an assortment of other things with two babies strapped to her back has been one of the most inspiring aspects of my new life.  She courageously tends to large tracts of land and runs a household of five children with just about zero help from her husband.  She takes care of me when I’m sick and worries over me as she does with her own children.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to say goodbye, even as that day rapidly approaches.

Here in Ecuador I’ve had plenty of time for self-reflection.  I’ve determined that nearly all of the learning we do in life must be self-driven.  You can attend the best university, read hundreds of books, live and experience different cultures, but if you don’t reflect on the potency and potential of the information you’re surrounded by then you are wasting time.  A quote that my team leader talks a lot about comes from Confucius: “Learning without reflection is a waste.  Reflection without learning is dangerous.” This quote has stuck with me, and I hope it will continue to because it is a good reminder to not blindly drive through life (for me, specifically, the next four years of college) without stopping to reflect on WHY you’re studying what you are, and WHY all of your life experiences are so important.

Something I’ve been struggling with recently is the realization of my privilege.  No one wants to admit they have it, and even if you are brave enough to admit it, it is unlikely you’ll choose to use your privilege responsibly.  Privilege is tricky because it usually goes unnoticed, and when it does come up, it can be uncomfortable.  I’ve felt that uncomfortable feeling this year.  Back at ICO in Quito we did a “Privilege Walk” where basic questions were asked and everyone took a step forward or backwards based on varying characteristics of your own identity and upbringing.  As a white, middle-class, Christian, cis-gendered, heterosexual, American male, I was at the front of the pack.  I was embarrassed.  I wasn’t necessarily shocked, because deep down I knew I had grown up with a lot of privilege, but the exercise brought privilege to the front of my mind going into my sixth month immersion.  Living in Ecuador has shown me my privilege as an American; I can so easily travel to nearly any country in the world, with my little golden ticket that is a U.S. passport.  I’ve seen my privilege as a white person (and I’m not even living in a predominantly white country); I am not subjected to rude remarks on the street and I am not the punchline of racist jokes.  My privilege as a male is evident when I am not cat-called, or expected to clean and cook, or subjected to the often hidden yet powerful culture of machismo.  Identifying as Christian has prevented my host family and community from being openly upset about my religion, and protected me from the attempted conversion that some of my fellow Fellows have experienced.  And of course as a cis-gendered heteroseuxual man, I don’t have to worry about there being almost ZERO support and awareness about the LGBTQ+ community in Ecuador.  That is a whole-lot of privilege, and is definitely not something I’m done thinking about.  Luckily, I’ve been blessed with ANOTHER privilege, and that is being surrounded by intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people, all willing to share their own stories, which has helped me in figuring out my own story.  Shout out to the Ecuador cohort and team leaders (specifically my Azuay cohort, of course).

Another theme that often wanders into my mind is that of strong women.  I thought about this even more the other day on International Women’s Day because the women of Ecuador, especially those in the southern provinces where male emigration is much more common, are truly spectacular.  I’ve seen it in the work ethic and compassion that is shared by my mother, her five sisters, and their mother.  You can explain their strength in a physical way, in the way they labor in the fields and care for their children and animals, but I see it differently.  There is the same glimmer in every woman’s eye.  They know they could be abandoned by their husbands and that their sons could leave at anytime to attempt El Camino to the US.  It is a knowing look that accepts they alone must be responsible for themselves and their children and the wellbeing of their neighbors and community too.  This isn’t to say that the women here are solemn and dedicated solely to their labor, on the contrary, the most joyful and genuine smiles come from the women as they joke with each other, or tend to their young children (who they always have strapped to their back in an over-sized scarf called a chalina).  The women here don’t just trudge through their days as could be expected of someone who has lost loved ones and is still expected to be the backbone of their home and community.  I see them go about their farm work with pride, and raise their children with pride.  It’s quite difficult for me to put in words.  I’m not sure if I’ve truly explained myself well here, but if there is one thing I want to hit home is that I have observed the women of southern Ecuador to be truly inspirational in their perseverance, respect for others, and no-complaints attitude.

Now thanks to Newton’s third law we all know every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  This appears to be present in the character of southern Ecuadorian men.  I don’t want to say there is a theme of “weak men”, but cheating on your wife, alcoholism, and general abusiveness are not what I would call strong character traits.  It has been difficult for me to understand the different family dynamic here.  It has been one of my biggest culture shocks.  A man can cheat on his wife and the whole village could know, but act none the wiser.  When a relationship becomes violent and a woman is in danger she may have all the support of her family and community, but this support is not enough to drive the man out of the house.  It has been frustrating to see how abusive relationships perpetuate themselves.  A woman, wanting the best for her five children will stay in a bad relationship, because her spouse earns enough money to give her children the best life she thinks possible.  Again, I am reluctant to call men who act like this weak, but it is true that there is a social structure of machismo here that allows them to get away with just about anything.  

On a lighter note though, the weather!  I simply cannot complain.  Nearly every new person I talk to marvels at the fact that (yes!) there are four different seasons back in North Carolina!  They joke back and say, “We have four seasons too… just all in one day!”  Sometimes it’s true.  Dewy mornings remind me of North Carolina springs that often drift into sweltering summer like mid-days.  This lasts but a couple of hours though, before the day fades into a cool autumn afternoon and often crisp winter-like nights.  The days usually are between 65 and 75 degrees, and there is no humidity.  El Niño was supposed to come this year, and as we’ve recently been receiving some intense storms my brother remarked that perhaps it just came a little late.  Whatever the case the rain has been complimentary to my somewhat dreary outlook on having to leave Ecuador so soon.

Something that I don’t know that much about, but has become very interesting to me over the past six months is Ecuadorean politics.  I didn’t know much about the political climate coming in, and what little information I did have was actually somewhat biased against the current administration of Rafael Correa.  Now I won’t say I’ve done a 180 flip and am now a total Correista, but thanks to some extra reading and research presentations done by some other Fellows, I’ve actually gotten so see some of the good that Correa’s administration has done.  There is heavy focus on the improvement of the healthcare and education systems – Correa increased their funding by nearly 50%.  Correa has distanced himself from Western politics and severed most ties with the US, which for South American countries who are somewhat economically and politically stable appears to me to be a good idea.  Correa still is often the center of controversial conversation, as he has amended the constitution to a point where he can run without term limits.  This leads one to wonder if Ecuador could easily collapse into a dictatorship.  I’m definitely not done learning when it comes to the politics here, and I encourage anyone interested to do some reading themselves.

To close this collage of various topics I want to talk about how immensely important family and community are here.  I recently had my program exit interview with my team leader, and upon recommending my community for future Fellows, I took the time to understand why my community has been so accepting.  And it’s because they have always been.  Family is important to them, yes, but that doesn’t mean anyone with a different last name is gonna get the boot!  Here everyone in the community cares about every last neighbor.  I was welcomed here into Pamar Chacrin because it is in my community’s nature to do so.  The other night my aunt was showing me some picture albums that had photos from about fifteen years ago.  It was amazing to see my host mom and her sister and brothers and neighbors and such before most of them had kids.  I recognized one face, but I couldn’t tell where I knew it from.  Turns out he sells morocho and tortillas at the market my family works at on weekends.  He was in the same high school class as my cousin.  Connections like that, how everyone stays somehow in touch, and has roots that go way back, make me feel so secure here.  My family is always making sure we’ve got pictures together, for them to add to the albums.  With my time in Ecuador coming to a close I am definitely missing my family in the US, but I know I’m going to miss my family here in Ecuador just as much when I go.

Thanks for reading all of this, it’s been a quite therapeutic to go back over some of these topics I’ve never gotten to flesh out fully, as some of them stretch back to my early days here.  Although I’ll be home in a little over a month I very much welcome emails or Facebook messages or Twitter DMs if any of y’all ever want to talk about bridge years or Ecuador or life or anything!  This will most likely be my last blog until I get back to the US (look at me, setting reasonable goals for myself) but stay tuned until then!

Emery Harwell