I remember back in April, when I was first accepted into this program, dreaming of this part of the journey. The time when I’d have my final first. My last first day. The end of initial newness, unfamiliar introductions, constant irregularity—in a word, the end of discomfort. What I found instead was the hardest first day of them all. My first day in my actual community, the capital of the Napo province, Tena, left me completely immersed, a sole satellite removed from all the typical comforts, friends, and luxuries of Huntington Beach, California, and even the luxuries of Quito. This first day, I had never felt more alone in my life.
No matter how kind or welcoming or hospitable any host is, it’s hard to try to insert yourself into another family’s already established routine, or to get to know new people well when it takes you about two minutes to figure out how to say a sentence correctly. I distinctly remember wishing that my first day in Tena could also be my last day, and as I continued to host this pity party, one of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever received came to mind: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” I used to chant this mantra all the time whenever a friend was going through a hard time, but I think my first day in Tena is when I finally learned the true meaning of that phrase. Comforts and luxuries are marvelous, but how many of you living with comforts and luxuries are bored? Discomfort and obstacles are the times when we grow the most, the times that test our attitudes and push us to find an inner strength, an inner resilience.
Before leaving for Ecuador, my program manager said to me in a conversation we had at training in Stanford, “I can’t wait for you guys to struggle. And you know why? Because the brain is a muscle, so when you struggle, when you’re having a hard time, during those times of difficulty, it’s like exercise for your brain, it keeps your mind healthy, it pushes you to be better.“ And obviously, I don’t want to and I don’t think anyone should live in a constant state of discomfort or struggle, but I do agree that exercising the emotional parts of your brain from time to time is healthy.
That first day, I remember thinking—what did I get myself into? And that’s when I realized that this kind of frustratingly difficult, sorrowfully homesick, uncomfortably awkward day was exactly what I had signed up for. I signed up for a year of first days, and the multitude of priceless experiences and knowledge they bring. Struggling through what I thought was my last first day made me realize that some of my proudest moments in the past weeks have been from first days—navigating the public transportation system in Quito on my own, ordering my first ice cream in Spanish and actually getting exactly what I ordered, bartering for the native price instead of the “gringo” price, realizing that as inarticulate as I may be, I had finally learned enough Spanish to actually hold a meaningful conversation—and with this attitude, I set out to let my new family show me many more firsts.
My family itself is a first.
-Here in Tena, I live in a house with 14 other people. This is not including the countless other relatives that live in neighboring houses or the ones that do everything but sleep at our house. My family in the States consists of 4 people, including me.
-My house here has 1 toilet and 1 shower in the backyard for all 15 people. I still have yet to hear 1 fight over the use of these facilities.
-Out of the 14 people I live with, 8 of them are adults. Out of the 8 adults, 2 of them have steady jobs. Yet at dinner or other meals, food is never in short supply. In fact, I’m always faced with the “problem” have having too much food, especially as my family is determined to transform me into a true “gordita.”
-This family of 14 has 1 farm. From this farm, I have tasted a new never-before-seen fruit every single day for the past 8 days. When I finally got to visit the farm, what I found was 1 makeshift shack in the middle of endless jungle paradise. Their “farm” is the jungle.
-On this farm, the family cultivates almost everything they need to survive and doesn’t feel the need to attempt to grow more food for a profit. The only plant they sell is cacao. It can take up to 15 days to harvest, process, and prepare a few pounds of cacao. 1 pound of cacao sells for USD $1. How much do your gourmet chocolates cost?
-After working at the farm, the family normally freshens up by either taking an actual bath or just going for a swim in the river. Or should I say rivers? In 3 days, the kids managed to show me 3 different rivers, each one subsequently more beautiful than the last, and according to them, there are still about 7 more local havens that they want to show me.
-In the second river, I took a mud bath with “lodo,” a natural mud material that is excellent for your skin. In the United States, an Amazonian mud bath normally costs around USD $85.
-After 8 days here, I think I have accumulated about 32 mosquito bites.
-In Tena, there are 6 primary schools, but the city only needs 3 high schools. Almost every other night after dinner, I have an English class full of eager, intelligent, bright students ranging from ages 8 to 57. My class contains all 14 members of my family. This also means that in addition to my actual Spanish professors, I have 14 teachers that patiently and willingly show me how to cook dinner, wash my clothes with a rock, or say something correctly in both Kichwa and Spanish.
From 1 week in Tena, I’ve learned that sharing and laughter are key to happiness. I’ve learned that whether related by blood or simply by kindness, family is family. I’ve learned the true splendor of simplicity. I’ve learned that what at first seems like complete despondency is often the portal to the most important lessons. And I’ve learned that I will never have a last first day. So now I simply look forward to my next one, which will probably be tomorrow, because I know that each new first day will bring its own unique challenges and exhilaration.
So now. Overall. Life in Tena—better, worse, or simply just beautifully different from life in the US? I’ll let you do the math.