“Why are you in Ecuador?”

Violet Carrillo - Ecuador

October 14, 2015

This is the question I’ve been asked everyday for the past two months by many people (including myself,) so I thought I may as well answer it publicly. At least, I will with the answer I have right now, as the reason I am here may change at a later point in time. A sense of finality, I have found, is something often searched for but rarely truly achieved. 
I have organized this explanation in the way I have thought about the answer, so I will begin with the complicated answer, the long story if you will, but if your curiosity is only slight as to why I decided to live in Ecuador’s Andean countryside for this academic year, then I suggest you skip to the end of this. I promise that I’ll never find out. 
In full honesty, I did not really know why I came to Ecuador until very recently. I did not know why I wanted to come when applying to Global Citizen Year, receiving my acceptance package to the country, or explaining to friends and family that I was taking a bridge year between high school and university. I didn’t even know when I went through the program's Pre-Departure Training and In Country Orientation. Only these few weeks, while in my homestay for this year, have I figured out why I’m here. 
A couple days ago, my host mother, host aunt, and I sat at the handmade wooden table in my home’s kitchen: my host aunt weaving a Panama hat by the light of the bare-yet-fly-covered lightbulb while I spoke with as much hand movement as this semi-Spanish speaker has at her disposal. Often taking large English words and Spanish-ifying them in the hope that it made sense, I recounted my entire life story to my host mother for over two hours, only leaving out everything that had to do with going to school in Hong Kong. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that you are more than just a United World College student when you have been classified as only that for about two months now. 
I told my host mother about my parents’ backgrounds, one having grown up in Northeast Ohio and one having grown up in the West Bank, about how they met, what they did, how many different schools I had been to, how my mother died, why I loved to read, and just about everything else that I could get across in Spanish to give some indication of whom exactly she had just welcomed into her home for a year. Eventually, inevitably, the conversation turned to what I want to do in the future, and why I had decided to come to Ecuador in the first place. 

Maybe it was the entire story of my existence that I had just recounted, or maybe it was the insane amount of thinking time I have been given recently, but it was in that moment that I was able to answer that question in a way that felt honest for the first time. 
If you know anything about my life, you know how insanely lucky I am as a person. As far as the lottery of birth is involved, I won in every way you could, raised bilingually to loving parents who value my education above all else. I always had every resource available to me, from clean water to endless books, and on top of all this, I am one of the very few Palestinians with a passport from the United States. 
I have always been aware of how lucky I am, and have wanted to in some way lessen the massive inequality between myself and those who didn’t win the lottery of birth like me. As I know the entire world isn’t tangible to “save,” I have long decided to return to my home community of Palestine and try to alleviate inequality in one of the most unjust places in the world. I would love to lessen the gender expectations of the culture, increase awareness for the environment, improve the governmental sectors, and above all, abolish the violence between the Palestinians and Israelis through any means possible. 
Though I am an insane idealist, insane to have made it through UWC while retaining my idealism, I am not as naive as I can come across to be. I know that the world is the way it is through systems of greed and corruption that twist perceptions and wealth distribution. By next year, 1% of the world’s population will have half of the world’s wealth, and if anything is in need of changing, it is the various systems in place that have resulted in this. Bear in mind that this speaks nothing of inequality in terms of gender, race, nationality, or any other category you can place a human being in other than economic standing. (Quick aside: if you are interested in any reading about these systems, Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins is a good place to start.)
I’ve seen the results of systems like this in various forms in the many places I’ve been lucky to go to and, now, be from. The fight for environmental preservation in Ecuador, the accepted sexual harassment in the West Bank, the rampant gun violence in the United States, the blatant racism against the Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong; to me all of these things speak of systems and mindsets that are outdated, unfocused, and/or exist to serve the few, the one percent already owning half of the world’s wealth. 

Most likely, my family and I place very close to this one percent, proven alone by the fact that both of my parents went to university and I plan on doing the same. My parents have worked hard battling this inequality, bringing doctors from around the world to treat sick and injured children in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria for free, and have taught me a lot about both responsibility and turning frustration into motivation. 
I find that I have the responsibility, with my unique position and luck, to try to fix the systems that result in these children not being able to be treated by Palestinian doctors, or the systems that resulted in their pain in the first place, whether it be the violent Israeli occupation or a lack of safe access to electricity. But to do anything, to try to fix anything, I will need to be much more than I am now. 

By much more, I mean much more of everything. Much more educated; for the moment I am considering majoring in something along the lines of Public Policy Analysis for my undergraduate, though this is tentative for a number of reasons. Much more confident; I could never change anything if I do not believe that I can. Much more aware; as the author of the Blue Sweater, Jacqueline Novogratz, put it: “More than any academic subject, judgement, empathy, focus, patience, and courage should be studied and cultivated.” Much more, well, alive; this is by far the most difficult thing to become more of. 
I have been living in the rural countryside of Ecuador for almost a month now, and the concept I’ve been having the most trouble understanding is the idea of what it means to have a meaningful life. I wonder this daily: when I watch my grandmother milk the cows at dawn as she had done her whole life, when I watch the widespread alcoholism consume some citizens of my community, when I watch my mother take hours to make bread that could have been bought for a few cents down the street, when I myself spend hours picking garbage out of half-rotted compost that will soon be sifted through anyway. A fellow in my region told a story of his host grandmother that perfectly captured my confusion, in which he would watch her, an old and fragile Ecuadorian woman, untie a pig in their yard and spend all day chasing it and trying to tie it back up. He would also see her catch up with the pig sometimes, look around to make sure nobody was watching, slap the pig, shrug her shoulders, and start chasing after it again. I simply cannot see the satisfaction in this, but I hope that after my time here, I will at least be able to understand the meaning she sees, and that most people here seem to receive from the collection of small happy moments that comprise their lives. 
If I had never come here, I may have never been confronted with such an obvious and important question. What would be the point of spending my life trying to better the lives of others, when I do not even understand the basic concept of what a life means? And for the moment, that is the largest reason that I am in Ecuador: to take everything I can learn here back home with me, and to confront more questions like this one that I don’t even know exist yet. Palestine is falling deeper into violence as I write this, and though I am full of concern for my family and closest friends there, for the moment there is absolutely nothing I can do but grow as a person to the point that I can change the system that resulted in this horrible situation. Archimedes once said “Give me a firm point on which to stand and I will move the earth,” and I intend on one day doing exactly that. 
So, finally, the short answer: why am I in Ecuador? I’m here to learn about the world (not just the touristic and privileged parts of it), to learn about life and meaning (and how you may not need one), and most of all to learn about me, because, after preparation and observation and listening and absorbing, once I have been completely saturated, I must one day be ready to move the earth itself, no matter how many people think it cannot be done.  

Violet Carrillo