This year marks a return to an emphasis on practicing gratitude in my life – I have so much to be thankful for right now, and it is all because of my just-over 100 days in Ecuador and the certain way it has altered the way I view the world.
Why am I grateful?
I am grateful for my family here and the families that have welcomed me into their lives. On the day of my arrival to my host family, my mom got home in the evening, and upon finding an unfamiliar 17-year-old girl from the United States in her house, she embraced me with a big hug and called me her Mija, meaning "my daughter" as we met. She is a very active woman, waking up with the sun every morning to take care of her cows before a long day of cooking and serving almuerzo at the locale across the street. With so much on her plate – a family and community to take care of, a business to run, and commitments to a women's association – I sometimes feel that my presence is a weight that she shouldn't have to carry. And yet, my mom emphasizes that she can take care of me, too, and has taken me in as her own for seven months.
But it isn't just my mom who is looking out for me. Living here, I have been adopted and cared for by the families of my friends, as well. Monica, the host mom of my friend Aya, keeps the door to her house open all day, and it serves as a physical and metaphorical reminder of her generosity. She calls me her "Mija" too, as do the parents of all of my friends. The sentiment of "Mija" represents the hospitality and feeling of community that I experience daily. I am grateful for the feeling of family that I have been privileged enough to feel since my first day here.
I am grateful for my family. While I am thousands of miles away from my family in the United States, I feel their support in so many ways – through facetime calls, hidden cards in my suitcase, the sharing of small moments that are happening back home. The full trust my parents had in me when I chose to move to another country instead of going straight to college motivates me to continue to learn about myself and experience the world through a new lens this year. Thoughtful emails from my inspirational grandparents inspire me to continue to show up for people, connect with others, and do my best at my work placement. I am grateful for a family who continues to cheer me on, three months into my journey.
I am grateful for my sister. I wouldn't be telling the full truth if I didn't express how much I miss dancing through the grocery store aisles and cruising to music together, or the complete effortlessness of spending a weekend in each other's company. But in spite of the physical space that currently separates us, we have never been closer. My time away from home has inevitably changed the way that we view our relationship, but I feel more grateful than ever for the roles we play in each other's lives. Del's role in my life now is one of positive influence and encouragement: she is a constant cheerleader, my biggest supporter, and she knows just how to listen when I call her on WhatsApp while crying in a public space. As much as I will miss a Christmas morning together, making crepes and enjoying crumb cake in our pajamas this year, I am grateful for how our time apart has allowed me to appreciate my sister in a new light.
I am grateful for my education. The importance of education is emphasized as a state responsibility here, but great disparities in terms of quality and access persist, notably in rural communities versus urban ones. The difference is often visibly evident as well; in terms of infrastructure, the public Colegio right outside of Cuenca is astoundingly more structurally sound than the Colegio where I work. Apprenticing at a local high school in semi-rural Ecuador for the past three months has shown me some of the challenges that students here face while getting an education. Inconsistent teaching is an issue – when teachers unexpectedly do not show, sometimes for weeks at a time, students do not get to have class, and hours of valuable time for learning sees no progress. The school serves students from communities near and far – some have to wake up hours before the sun does to arrive at school by 7:05 AM. After school, many students return home to take care of younger siblings, work at the family's business, fulfill other family responsibilities. Having an enlightened perspective on education reminds me of how grateful I am for the one that I received – for the teachers that supported me and the resources and opportunities that were accessible to me. It also serves as a reminder of the disparities in the education system back in the United States as many parallels can be drawn in terms of who has access to quality education and who does not.
I am grateful for the kindness that I feel here daily. It manifests in so many aspects of life – in small smiles and conversations with students, soup after school at Monica's house, acceptance into new families, and invitations to try new foods and traditions. In the way that the people in Bella Union will ALWAYS make room for me on the bench while waiting for the bus, the greetings I receive from people I have never met on my walk to school, the way I feel safe when I walk around my community, and in the sweet thoughtfulness of others.
And I am grateful for the time and space to grow in an entirely different context than what I have always known. One of my favorite teachers shared a quote years ago that I will never forget, and it reads: "To understand life is to understand yourself, and that is both the beginning and the end of education." More than anything, my time here so far has been one of growth and self-discovery. I am more attuned to my weaknesses. I practice patience daily. I am asking questions, questioning my values: What does it mean to show up for a family? How can I practice compassion for both the people in my life and for myself? What am I sensitive to? What makes me happy and what makes me sad? I have discovered the beauty of saying yes – good and unexpected things almost always result – and I have also learned the importance of a return to the comfort zone now and then. I am so grateful that the past three months of my life have allowed me to understand myself in new ways.
And for all of the above and many reasons more, I am grateful!