About a month ago, I returned unexpectedly to the United States due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I have contemplated really even posting this at all, to be honest. To formulate the words and feelings of this whole experience is hard for everyone right now, whether or not you’ve been thrown back into the United States or never left at all. But, here we are. My intentions for this post aren’t about me and my sad feelings. This is about the pain and suffering of our world, of our most vulnerable communities.
So much uncertainty, so much to wrap your head and heart around. So many heartbreaking ends and goodbyes. So many missed opportunities. So many losses. So much death.
To say that things have changed since my last blog are an understatement. The last time I posted, we were wrapping up our Christmas season, just starting hosting our retreat groups, and finally getting in the swing of things. There was so much promise and excitement for our months to come. Turning points in sight. Getting involved in new things. Mustering up the courage to try something different, visit someone we don’t know as well, take on more.
In the beginning of February, we volunteers had our six month retreat at the beach in Playas, where we got to digest our lives a little deeper. To reflect on the things that just didn’t make sense. To try and wrap our heads around the struggles we see everyday, how we could better accompany, where we can find hope when things just seem, well, overall shitty no matter how you put it. And boy, were the early months of 2020 difficult for me.
With school vacation, and therefore limited work, I was feeling quite purposeless. Relationships grew stronger, which means life got more real, deeper, heavier. I struggled to find any hope in anything. I felt that no matter what I do, my friends and neighbors will still be living in poverty, not be able to have the same opportunities I have. They will live with illnesses and health challenges. They will miss out on going to college in the States. They will have dreams unfulfilled. They will worry about the next meal on the table. They will live with the fact that the tanqueros, water trucks, will just stop coming sometimes. Some will continue to be up to knees in mud. And as I reflected on these challenges that felt debilitating to witness, not even fully experiencing them myself, I sought out support to try and find some peace in my head. And the answer, essentially, that I discovered was that despite all of these challenges...well, my neighbors and friends just keep living. And they do so with pride and resilience and openness and vulnerability and love. And faith that is so overwhelming it’s hard to even express.
Little did I know that so, so much would change...and all my personal understanding and challenges would seem so minuscule as I sit here on my laptop in Connecticut. Each and every one of us probably has their list of how their life was altered by COVID19 and what they have lost because of it. This is how it’s been for me.
It all started with a beautiful visit with my parents. I am beyond fortunate to have had them visit and see a little bit of my home in Ecuador, meeting some very important people to me and also just spending quality time together. It’s something I know we will all cherish and remember forever. And with their visit, thanks to the accessibility of my Dad’s phone, I got filled in a little bit on the upcoming pandemic and how it was progressing. And all of a sudden it became a conversation not just with family, but with neighbors, community partners, our directors. And it all happened so quickly. We volunteers don’t have internet access at our homes, so we go to Internet cafes where we pay to use the computers. Basically, time there is limited and we are quite selective with how we use our time-- to get in touch with family and friends, look up activities or research for work, etc. I honestly admit that my research on worldly events was quite limited in my attempt to stay present to where I was. The consequence to this was an overwhelming naivety to the gravity of this situation.
All of a sudden, our time as volunteers was flipped on its side. Our month of March, anticipating almost a full month of retreat groups, was emptied. Groups cancelled. Family visits cancelled. Our own personal traveling trips cancelled. It was overall stressful and unexpected, but we always found the brightside. More time with neighbors and friends. More time for our own community to bond. An opportunity to accompany more through these unprecedented times. The last thing we ever expected was to return home.
On March 17th, our directors made the decision to pull us from Ecuador and for us to return to the United States. We were on the last flight out of Guayaquil to the States. The Ecuadorian borders were going to close, and it was for our best safety to return home... to avoid the illness itself on a fragile health care system and to avoid the food scarcity that comes with a global pandemic in developing countries, just to name a few reasons. I will never doubt that it was the right decision, but it completely and utterly shattered my heart. And I was completely blindsided, in denial that this was ever an option. Little did I know, numerous volunteer programs all over the world were also pulling their volunteers. We were nowhere alone in this completely shocking revelation. That after almost 8 months, we would be returning home to self-quarantine and the unknown.
After taking some time to gather ourselves, my community and I began our trek around Arbolito to get to those we could and inform them that we would be taking a leave of absence. We had one afternoon to say “hasta pronto,” not knowing when the next time would actually be. We didn’t get to everyone. But we promised our return as soon as we possibly could.
And now at home we remain, in the comfort of heat and blankets and food and a roof to protect us. In the comfort of my own room, where I can retreat and hide and reflect on whatever the hell is going on. And we stay connected through our Whatsapp and Zoom calls. And I finally have internet access to reconnect with friends and family. And I’ve definitely had to cook a lot less. And I have my loving parents and sisters to listen and support me, even when I don’t know what I need to be supported. I am so endlessly blessed. And I should be grateful to be home, to be safe, to be with my loved ones who give me everything I need. But it doesn’t quite take away the feeling that I am not supposed to be here right now. This is not what is supposed to be happening. There was so much more to feel, to love, to witness, to accompany, to learn. And it is just not fair. A common sentiment felt all around the world right now.
It’s been quite the transition in understanding how to “be”, right now, quite ironically since we spent the last 8 months trying to “be” with our neighbors every single day. There is no easy way to accompany when you are thousands of miles away. Especially, as our city of Guayaquil is the epicenter of COVID19 in South America. The Ecuadorian government has estimated that over 14,000 people have died in the Guayas province alone (which includes Guayaquil and Duran). It is in absolute, complete, disbelieving shambles as we speak. With dead bodies lining the street, not being removed for days. Cremated in the streets. For people living in homes with their deceased loved ones because no one will come pick them up. With bodies being lost in the system, unidentified. Families losing the remains of whom they love. A strict curfew that many adhere to, but others simply cannot because they need to work to survive. With tiendas closed and food prices gorged and sparse. And with a completely collapsed system that cannot manage the magnitude to how quickly this disease is spreading. And just endless waiting. Waiting for help. Waiting for answers. Waiting. And death. Too much death.
And I sit here, waking up every morning in my comfort, privileged way of dealing with COVID19, trying to grapple with the fact that I was able to escape all the pain and suffering that is going on in Ecuador. That I could just jump on a plane. While so many cannot. And as I grapple with the guilt, I also remain scared for my own family and friends’ health with the idea that our lives could just so quickly change at any second. A humbling, immensely painful fact that I have never really had to think about in my life.
With seemingly a new piece of bad news arriving every week, it has become extremely difficult to manage to cope with what is going on in the surrounding area of Guayaquil, in Ecuador, in our own country, and around the world. Again, a common sentiment I think many are facing right now. I am not the type of person to admit that “brighter days” are coming and maybe that makes me a pessimist. But the reality is, well, this pandemic will change all of us, forever. And sitting in that, leaning into it, pondering it, meditating or praying over that….maybe that will provide some real answers. Maybe it will create more questions.
Right now, the futures of so many are on the line. Loved ones, providers of families, have passed. One of Rostro de Cristo’s longtime partners, a foundation that provides an incredible education to children from the barrios of Guayaquil, has just announced they will be closing due to economical struggle. And so it continues. The hundreds of families who just lost one of the most precious things in their life: access to a quality education. An education that these parents fought for their children. It is heartbreaking.
So where do we find the hope in this?
The community of volunteers and our staff decided to do a Living Stations of the Cross this past Good Friday via Zoom… definitely a virtual first for all of us. And as we reflected on the current events of the world, particularly the suffering of Guayaquil and Duran, while simultaneously reflecting on Jesus’s death, it was strikingly easy to see the overwhelming similarities. And now more than ever, I see the Rostro de Cristo in my neighbors, who despite the sickness and death and loss and fear going on, they remain true to themselves, their family, and God. There are times of doubt. But love and faith and trust always overcome.
There are absolutely no words sufficient to express just how strong the people of Ecuador are. That through this mess of our world, they sacrifice and lend a helping hand and remain faithful. And I can and will try to use the resilience they have taught me to work to find “brighter days.” That will be no easy task. But more than ever, may we find love and faith and trust in each other…. that God has provided us with the doctors, nurses, scientists, researchers, pharmacists, nursing assistants, grocers, farmers, public safety officers, custodial staff, competent and just leaders to fight this and end this. That we, as global citizens, protect ourselves and others by staying at home, al quedarnos en casa….something much more easily done for some than others. That we take care of our mental, physical, and spiritual health. That we check in on each other. And that we just try to do our very best right now, whatever that might mean to you.
Right now, across the world, COVID19 is affecting everyone. But it is important to recognize that marginalized groups are affected significantly more, in Ecuador and also in the United States. In the US, COVID19 targets communities of color. This is systemic. Let us do more than recognize that...let us take action. One of the first steps in taking action is the voting booth. It’s life or death.
I have so many HEROS right now who are doing sacred and holy work and FIGHTING THIS! My mom, my sister, endless family and friends. Even if I wanted to visit local friends, I couldn’t...because they’re all out there fighting this disease, playing some part through healthcare, education, and food accessibility. WOW. How lucky am I to be surrounded (metaphorically for the most part, of course) by so many HEROS? They deserve much more than a pat on the back, and I hope that something bigger than that can come to fruition.
As for my resilient neighbors and friends in Ecuador, I am counting down the days until we meet again. May that time come soon, but safely. May love permeate through borders. A través este sufrimiento, estoy llorando con ustedes, como también lo hace nuestro Dios. Los quiero muchisimo.
Con paz, amor, y bendiciones de salud,
Hi everyone! Happy New Year!
I can´t believe we´re already almost in FEBRUARY!
I´m really not sure how to explain how I am feeling up to this point with the fact that half of my volunteer year is almost up. A small part of me feels a sigh of relief that it´s half way over, and in six short months, I will be reunited with family and friends and the comforts of home like good coffee and air conditioning. The majority of my being, however, is aching in the fact that time is flying and that I feel like I have so much more to learn, so much more to experience, so much more to see, so much more to love. Time is a funny, difficult, exhausting concept.
The holidays in Ecuador were definitely different than at home, but within these differences have come beautiful new experiences spent with new loved ones. Like with every culture, Christmas and New Years were celebrated in Ecuador with their own unique flavor.
Beginning in November, the four of us began preparing for our debut roles in the parish´s Christmas Pageant. Ashley, Maddie and I headlined as the Three Kings, guided by Sophie, the star of Bethlehem. After numerous Christmas parties, last minute shopping, Christmas movie marathons, and caroling across town, Christmas Eve finally arrived. Channeling our inner divas, we all nailed our parts (an overwhelming whole two short scenes). We ended our night by feasting like the true kings we were, so kindly invited to midnight dinner at one of our neighbor´s house. Christmas Day was a time of relaxation with our Rostro familia, as we Arbolito vols traveled to the fellow volunteer house in Monte Sinai. There, we had ourselves a Christmas celebration we will always hold close to our hearts.
Within the week leading up to New Year’s Eve, family members and loved ones arrived to visit other volunteers. And with this, came a whole other Christmas, with letters and presents from those we love back home trying to share a little bit of Christmas with us. My family sent a shoebox full of little gifts and trinkets to remind me of home. And although it was probably the lightest Christmas I´ve had, it was by far the most sentimental. Our little tree in Arbolito was not overflowing with physical gifts, but it was overflowing in gifts of love, thoughtfulness, and togetherness—from people we loved near and far.
Following Christmas, those with visitors voyaged off to different parts of Ecuador to enjoy another side to the beauties of this country. My community mate Sophie and I decided to go to the beach. We settled on Puerto Lopez, a beach in the province of Manabi, close to Isla de la Plata, better known as the Poor Man´s Galapagos (perfect for a volunteer´s budget!). It was there where we got to see dozens of the Blue Footed Boobies, giant sea turtles, and endless, beautiful views. We hiked around the island, snorkeled in the Pacific, and applied more sunscreen than you could ever imagine. We also went to Las Frailes, a white sand beach part of Ecuador´s Machalilla National Park. It was the perfect getaway to relax and gift ourselves something special for the holidays. We returned back to Arbolito just in time to celebrate New Year´s Eve with our neighbors and community mates.
The country of Ecuador has a tradition of celebrating the New Year by forgetting the past, none other than by burning it away. Created with old newspapers, Años Viejos are paper mached dolls that are created and sold every year to burn out the old and bring in the new. These dolls, some ranging from just over a foot tall to others over six feet, are loaded up with firecrackers, and at the stroke of midnight, set aflame. The streets lit up in flames, fireworks blanketing the sky, so much so that you could barely hear anything other than pop pop pop. It was unforgettable. And with the burning of the old year, the new year began with lots of hugs, grapes, and dancing until dawn.
At the turn of the new year, with the end to the holidays, our lives didn´t settle. We Arbolito volunteers welcomed our first retreat group of the year with none other than my alma mater, St. Joseph´s University. It was during this time that we got to share our way of life here in Arbolito. The group got to visit all of our worksites and meet our neighbors, learning more about our ministry of presence by listening to life stories and encountering Rostro de Cristo in a way that is much harder to see in our busy lives back in the States. It was a joy to welcome a little piece of home to my new home, to be rejuvenated by new insights and perspectives, and to be humbled by our amazing neighbors, friends, and worksites who so graciously share their lives with our visitors. As always, the Hawks set the bar high for our remaining groups to come in the second half of the year.
Now, the busyness of the holidays has finally settled, and we have begun to adjust back to our normal schedules—whatever normal is in Ecuador, I´m still trying to figure out. With the temperatures climbing (we´ve been hitting the 90s with over 75% humidity lately), and the rainy season beginning, the shift in our year has begun…and not just due to the cambio del clima, the change of season. The second half our year comes with new challenges and experiences. For many, New Year Resolutions have begun, with the hopes of improving oneself and having a better year than the last. For me, though, I think I´d rather avoid trying to change anything I´ve learned in the past six months while in Ecuador.
In 2020, I want to hold on to the new habits, new grievances, new struggles. I want to hold onto the moments where I completely messed up and wanted to hide away in my room, but didn´t. I want to hold on the times I felt awkward and uncomfortable approaching a neighbor´s house, but knocked on their door anyways. I want to embrace the times where I cried with a neighbor about the injustice she faces every day, and how helpless I feel not being able to do anything to put a stop to them. I want to continue to laugh with my community mates about the never-ending sweat marks and sunburn and messy hair. Or the Spanish words I totally butcher. I want to bask in these failures and moments of weakness and absorb every second of them. Because I wouldn´t change any of them in a second for what they have granted me. Peace. Humility. Grace. Acceptance. Strength.
Just about a week ago, after Saint Joe´s left for Philadelphia, we all woke up to sad news that one of our guard dogs, Wookie, had passed away after over a decade of service to our foundation. With the help from one of our guards, we dug a hole nearby the property. All four of us carried him to his grave where he could finally be at peace, blanketed in flowers, his favorite pan, and the fur of his companion. After almost six months of accompanying our beloved neighbors through poverty, loss, addiction, everyday life, etc., a slap of reality hit me. Some may read this and think that to feel so much weight at the loss of a pet, compared to so many other incomparable struggles, sounds ridiculous. The thing is, after a certain amount of time, you grow a numbness to it all. And the question really comes down to, how much has this world grown numb to? How much injustice, pain, suffering do we accept as normal or acceptable or even deserving? But with this loss of Wookie, we all really felt. And with that, truly feeling has been more present for me. It´s heavy. But it´s real. And I´m holding on to that.
Sending love and grace to everyone,
Since the last time I´ve posted, my life in Ecuador has become much fuller-- full of new experiences, deeper relationships, higher altitudes, greater challenges, small victories and a hell of a lot to be thankful for. As we approach Thanksgiving, I am reminded in every laugh and every tear of how beautiful this life is—and how we should celebrate and give thanks, not just at the end of November every year, but every day, every minute.
I am thankful to be in Ecuador. No matter how many tough days, I am so endlessly thankful to be here.
I am thankful for my opportunity to learn. Every single day. More specifically, at the beginning of November, we went on our first retreat where we learned more about Ecuadorian history and culture. I am thankful for the opportunity to take a step away from work, to be able to reflect and process my first quarter of the year. We spent the first half of our retreat in the mountains of San Clemente, about two hours north of Quito. I am thankful for the beauty of those mountains. We stayed with an Indigenous family, who taught us their traditions, their practices, their spirituality. We walked through their trails, learning about the medicinal plants they use to heal. We learned about the deeply rooted discrimination and racism against the Indigenous people of Ecuador, of the Andes, of South America. We were invited to participate in a sacred ritual called Temazcal, an Andean sweat lodge, to connect to the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire. As each volcanic rock was added to the tent, we cleansed our bodies of toxins and appreciated Mother Earth for all that She has given us. It was out of this world. The next three days of retreat, we spent time in Quito, learning more about current events in Ecuador like the paro and how these recent events are all much bigger than just a removed subsidy. I am thankful for these new perspectives in a different setting to try to get a better grasp on all that occurred. On a lighter note, I am also especially thankful for this change of temperature. I´ve never thought I´d miss blankets that much.
I am thankful for my safety. I am thankful to sleep with a roof over my head, where I know that I am not in harm´s way. I am thankful for our guards, who protect us all day, every day, and treat us as family. I am thankful for our two ¨guard¨dogs, who despite their title, shower me with love and wagging tails. I am thankful for those who look out for us, like our neighbors who checked in with us during the paro when the future was so unknown.
I am thankful for my health. I am thankful for my eyes, my ears, my arms, my legs, my hands, my fingers. I am thankful for my taste-buds. I am thankful for my access to healthcare. I am thankful for the fact that even if any of us volunteers were to get seriously ill in Ecuador, we are able to pay to see the doctor or even return to the States if necessary. I am thankful for my beating heart.
I am thankful for Semillitas and the community of Una Sola Fuerza. I am thankful for los niños y las niñas, even when they don´t listen to instructions or have to be separated after a big argument. I am thankful for every book read and times-table memorized. Just recently, we´ve been practicing our yoga. With every inhala and exhala, I am thankful. I am thankful for the hugs, screams, giggles, and strength that they give me every day.
I am thankful for the barrio of Arbolito, filled with so many amazing, faithful neighbors who share their lives with us volunteers, as we share ours with them. I am thankful for the Bingo fundraisers selling endless banana bread, for the loud music that constantly fills the streets, for the tiendas that sell us fresh fruit and vegetables, for the birthday parties, for the running children who literally jump into our arms as we arrive home, and for the holas at every corner. For weekends at the beach with our new friends, for our Sunday-after-mass lunches, for the crochet lessons, for just random mornings where we lose track of time and run out the door so we´re not late to work.
I am thankful for my community, for my three fellow Arbolito sisters that put up with me every day. For the eternal support-- emotional, spiritual, physical. For our laughs, tears, movie binges, late night discussions, words of encouragement and reassurance. For the space to share our thoughts and opinions, to vent our frustrations, to process our challenges, to cry when we need to cry, to dance when we need to dance. For the most simplest of things that bring us so much joy. I am thankful for our fellow volunteers in Monte Sinai, who understand more than anyone else. We always know that our time spent together means that we can let our hair down, do something ¨risky,¨ and always have an extra shoulder to lean on when we embark on adventures together.
I am thankful for access to clean drinking water and three meals a day. I am thankful for running water to wash my hands and shower. I am thankful for electricity (especially to power our fans).
I am thankful for my acceptance in a country, a culture that is not my own. That I am granted the patience from neighbors and community partners as I improve my language skills. That I am welcomed with open arms, hugs, meals, and a place to feel home. That despite the historical pain and colonization and extortion that carries in the color of my skin, I am loved.
I am thankful for my family and friends back home, constantly supporting me from afar through letters, playlists, prayers, phone calls and more. I´m not sure what I could have ever done to have so many special people in my life. And although I won´t be sitting around the usual table this year, I sure have a lot to be thankful for.
Sending love, paz, and gratitude to all celebrating the holiday this week. May we all find a little bit of thanksgiving in our everyday lives.
Within just a couple of weeks, we´ll be at our 3-month mark of life in Ecuador (¿¡time!?!?!). You may be wondering why it´s taking me so long to get to a second blog post. The answer is, well, while writing this I just got interrupted by a loud ¡A VER! from the kids next door. So, foursquare, pelota, and life in general sometimes get in the way. I wouldn´t want it any other way.
La vida in Ecuador has taken time and adjustment, but I have slowly started to feel more and more at home within my neighborhood, Arbolito and my worksite in Una Sola Fuerza. An important part of my life here is always being ready for something to change. I am constantly on my toes ready to adapt to whatever new bus schedules, work changes, or new guests have entered our lives. Since the last time I´ve posted, I´ve been able to do a lot more exploring, learning, and connecting.
My day begins literally whenever I want it to. I have been gifted the ability in Ecuador to slow down, away from the fast-paced, go go go mentality I so regularly lived in the States. Through this, I´ve been able to focus on what really matters. Because class in Una Sola Fuerza doesn´t typically begin until about 2:30, I have all morning to get a little extra sleep, move my body and practice my jump roping, and most importantly visit neighbors. A huge part of Rostro de Cristo´s mission is our ministry of presence. We choose to be rather than to do, to work towards living in solidarity with our neighbors through a simple lifestyle. I am not here in Ecuador to fix or solve anything, but rather to create mutual relationships and provide extra support as a human to the daily highs and lows of the community.
Around 1:00pm, I put on my Rostro de Cristo t-shirt, load up on bug spray and sunscreen, and board the bus for my one hour (más o menos) journey to Una Sola Fuerza for work. As the niños y niñas arrive, we gather our materials and begin instruction. One of the goals of La Fundación Vida Digna is to get the kids up to their grade level. We have primarily been working on reading, as many are still practicing their vowels and phenomes. A chorus of ´´MA ME MI MO MU´´ can be heard from miles away as we work on our enunciation and confidence in our ability to recognize letters. I´ve never studied how to teach, but through the struggles of instruction, I am beginning to understand that any little progress is important and should be celebrated (even when that little progress takes time). The niños y niñas are so bright and capable, and their desire to learn is inspiring. After instruction, we have Recreo where we get to play, run around, and release some of our energy. The seesaw has been an area of excitement lately. The kids love to pile on one side in order to ´´win´´ by pushing their side the ground. One day, it ended up being the classic boys versus girls battle. The girls used all their might to get their side of the seesaw on the ground, as we yelled´´¡Mujeres fuertes!´´ y ´´¡Si se puede!´´ With a little bit of my help, the girls pushed their side to the ground in victory. It was a moment of laughter and awe that remains one of my favorite moments at Semillitas. Between 5:30-6:00pm, our day comes to close with hugs goodbye as I make my way to the bus stop. My ride back to Arbolito comes with exhaustion and heavy eyes, but I always force myself to watch the sunsets. With bright orange suns and pink clouds, being close to the equator has its perks. Nothing can compare.
Besides my work schedule at Semillitas, I´ve been able to do a lot more in my free time here in Ecua. We´ve done some hiking and swimming at Siete Cascadas (Seven Waterfalls) in Naranjal, checked off the tourist attractions of Guayaquil like Las Peñas and Iguana Park, gone to a wedding, rescued a cat out of our mango tree (she now has a home with our Jefe), *tried* to master more Ecuadorian cuisine, celebrated a lot of birthdays in the neighborhood, and grown in community with my fellow volunteers. There´s been a couple of joyrides on our guard´s bike, some nasty soccer wounds, lots of siestas in our hammocks, dance parties, and few sunburns along the way. There have been some painful moments, lonely moments, feelings of uselessness. We´ve had to say goodbye to new friends we thought we had more time with. I have never gotten more hugs in my life than I have in the past 2.5 months. My Spanish gets a little better every day. My community mate Sophie has a new Spanish catch phrase every week. I laugh myself to tears regularly. My Vida en Ecuador is weird, awkward, hilarious, troubling, refreshing, joyful, challenging, life-giving, confusing, welcoming, ¡CALOR¡, sweaty, and loving. And it is full of the graces of God.
A Note on Current Events in Ecuador
A couple of weekends ago, we volunteers of Arbolito visited our fellow Rostro de Cristo Volunteers in the community of Monte Sinai, about 45 minutes away from our home. It was such a great opportunity to spend time together with the six other volunteers and get to know the neighbors that mean so much to them. Monte Sinai gets its name from literally being surrounded by montañas. A staple to the neighborhood is a giant cross that sits on a large hill that overlooks more mountains. It can be seen from miles away. As a part of our visit, the eleven of us decided to hike the hill to the cross. Led by a Sinai neighbor, we ventured through the tall, dry brush in the sweltering sun, dodging prickly branches and shrubs. Our Sinai neighbor brought along her young daughters, and eventually the brush began cutting up one of the little girl´s little legs, so my community mate Maddie lifted her on to her back. Maddie hiked in front of me, wiping sweat from her forehead and adjusting the small child on her back every few steps. And at the sight of this, I felt something inside of me. The image of a woman carrying her child to the cross, struggling through scorching heat, the child slipping as a result, with the hopes of reaching somewhere safe, somewhere that might guarantee rest, somewhere the child could play. After a while, Maddie and I switched and the little girl jumped on my back to give Maddie a rest. My breathing picked up and sweat dripped into my eyes as the little girl clasped her hands around my neck. It was a hard, tiring hike to the top of that hill to reach that cross. And in those last 20 minutes where Maddie and I carried that little child, I could only imagine the struggle of voyaging miles and miles, across countries, over mountains, in the sweltering heat, with a child on your back. I can only imagine how much struggle one must endure to decide to make that voyage. I can only imagine how much strength, courage, and love one must have for that child. I can only imagine.
After a beautiful visit to the other half of our Rostro de Cristo familia, the Arbs volunteers made our way home. And Arbolito welcomed us home with open arms. Consequently, the next day was recognized by the Church as World Day for Migrants and Refugees.
Some background on Ecuador: in general, there are large populations of Colombian and Venezuelan migrants and refugees. There is also significant internal immigration to the outskirts of large cities (see first post: invasion communities, i.e. Arbolito, Una Sola Fuerza, Monte Sinai). On August 26, 2019, Ecuador joined neighboring developing Latin American countries in requiring visas for Venezuelan refugees fleeing violence and hunger. We have seen the effects of migration on a daily basis on our bus rides to and from work as Venezuelan refugees sell caramelos, trying to establish themselves, as well as the impact on close neighbors who also have family fleeing violence. Our experience as foreign volunteers comes nowhere close to the actual, firsthand experience. But on this World Day for Migrants and Refugees, my community reflected on this subject and how our United States origins affect the matter.
I never quite learned in my education an in-depth explanation on the United States impact on Latin America. To those interested, I strongly recommend the book Harvest of Empire for a comprehensive, but relatively compacted, breakdown of our country´s history in Latin America. Open Veins of Latin America is another much longer, but very useful resource in understanding our history.
Some of you may also be aware of another political situation in Ecuador. Just last week, Presidente Moreno removed a subsidy on gas in the country. This subsidy was originally established because Ecuador cultivated and filtered its own oil. However, by removing it, gas prices skyrocketed. A gallon of gasoline went from just over $1.00 to $2.25—prices you might see in the United States. This decision affects everyone— rich, poor, the few in between—and was a huge betrayal to Ecuadorian citizens. As a result, transportation companies (taxis, buses, public transportation) have gone on strike. Many people, including myself and community mates, have not been able to get to work. Protests and marches have been pulled together all over the country. Some have grown dangerous and violent; many have stayed peaceful. Some bridges and streets around Guayaquil have been closed. Many Ecuadorians are calling for peace—but also justice. All eleven volunteers of Rostro de Cristo in both Arbolito and Monte Sinai are perfectly safe in our communities. Most tiendas are partially closed or have limited produce, but for the most part, we have been given this time to spend with each other and our neighbors.
Right now, as a foreigner in Ecuador, I am here not to judge. Ecuador is not some dangerous, third-world country to be afraid of. Right now, people are hurt and betrayed and seeking justice and fairness—so that they can feed their families, live life comfortably and survive. Right now, as a foreigner in Ecuador, I am here to listen to my Ecuadorian friends and to learn from them. If you would like to read more information on the situation in Ecuador, attached are some links that give more comprehensive details.
Indigenous-Led Anti-Austerity Protests Shut Down Quito Forcing Ecuadorian Government to Move Capital
Ecuador’s President Moves Seat of Government to Escape Protests
Ecuador unrest: Protesters raise heat on defiant Moreno
Paz y amor,
Hola a todos!!!
It has been exactly 47 days of life in Ecuador, and to say it has already been an adventure is an understatement. The past 47 days have come with challenge, excitement, exhaustion, growth and plenty of laughs.
Our journey to Guayaquil started out with exhilarating excitement…waving goodbye to our 10-day orientation in Boston´s peak heat and saying hello to our new home for a year. We boarded our flight to Miami with the bittersweet feeling of leaving behind all that we love for a new home on the other side of the world. As our flight approached Miami, thunderstorms overtook the skies and we made a detour to Palm Beach. After sitting on the tarmac for about an hour in Palm Beach, we finally took flight back to Miami. My fellow volunteers and I were frantically trying to figure out the gate of our connecting flight to Guayaquil, and luckily, it was right next to where we would be landing. We ran off our flight, carry-ons thrashing, watching our plane to Guayaquil in the distance…we were so close, but not close enough. We missed the boarding time by only a couple of minutes. For the next five hours, we would sit in line to rebook our flight to Ecuador. By midnight, we were hungry and tired, but ready to board another flight at 2:30am through another airline that would take us to Colombia and then finally Ecuador. We approached the check-in desk to confirm our seats to find out that we had been rebooked as standby seats. This meant we were not guaranteed seats. At this moment, we were all hoping and praying that there would be enough open seats for all 11 of us. We went through security—for the second time—and to our new gate. We all sat there anxiously waiting to see who would get on the flight. Finally, towards the end, 7 of the 11 of us had boarded. When I finally heard my name called to board, I jumped out of my seat to scan my ticket. I walked through the hallway to the airplane, stepped onto the airplane with a smile from ear to ear—I finally was on my way to Ecuador! However, in one more step, my fate changed. “Pasajera, pasajera!” I heard the flight attendant call… the woman who´s seat I was taking had arrived in the last minute to board and there was no longer an open seat for me. I felt my chest collapse as I had to slowly walk back to the gate, exit the terminal, and find another plan---all at 3:00 in the morning. Myself and the remaining three other volunteers who didn’t make the cut collapsed on the ground to call the airline one more time to rebook. After sitting on the phone for hours, we lugged our carry-on items to the customer service desk where we could finally book us new flights for the following day to Guayaquil. My new flight was scheduled for 4:30 the following afternoon. At this point, we were nearing 6am without any sleep and we were all ready to crash. After a quick snooze in the airport, and a few hours rest in a hotel, we were finally boarding the plane to Ecuador. By 9:30pm, a full 24 hours later than expected, I stepped foot on Ecuadorian soil. With a loving welcome from the volunteers, I had finally made it.
For the next year, I will be living with four other volunteers in the community of Arbolito. The remaining six volunteers live in another community about one hour away called Monte Sinai. Each community will strive to grow in relationship with their neighbors, those at their worksites, and within their home.
Our first few days in Arbolito, the volunteers from the previous year graciously opened up their home and hearts to us as we met their beloved neighbors, shadowed them at their worksites, and learned more about Arbolito and Ecuador. Arbolito is a community in the city of Duran, which neighbors the largest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil. A vast majority of Duran was originally founded as individual invasion communities. Invasion communities were founded in Duran 20-30 years ago by groups of families who settled in vacant land in order to live closer to the city. Many times people will migrate from rural areas to invasion communities because of the opportunities the city offers. Those who move into invasion communities, however, do not have legal rights to their land (even though many times they are led to believe they do). Consequently, there is a lack of government acknowledgement of these communities that are home to thousands. As a result, access to legal electricity, running water, education, and social services are either nonexistent or limited. Arbolito has existed for about 25 years, but has just been recognized by the city government in the past 5 to 10 years. It has become much more developed over the past few years, especially in comparison to other neighboring invasion communities where myself and fellow volunteers work. Roads were paved in the past couple of years, and in fact just these past couple of weeks, sidewalks were painted. That being said, the community is still growing and organizing to create more opportunity and allocate more resources. No paved road or sidewalk tells the whole story. People still survive day by day, some more easily than others, some struggling to feed all mouths at the table or to buy poma water (clean drinking water). Some things go beyond the surface.
After a few days of shadowing, we began our first retreat of the year. We traveled to the west coast of Ecuador to a beach town called Santa Elena. Here, we were able to digest what we had experience at our first few days in Ecuador, relax a little, and most importantly discern where we felt most called to serve for the next year as a community. It was also a great opportunity to explore more of Ecuador. We got to try our first coco helados, see breathtaking views, swim in the Pacific, and drive through endless banana farms.
After our discernment retreat, my community and I decided that I would work at an after-school program called Semillitas (Little Seeds) in an invasion community called Una Sola Fuerza. Una Sola Fuerza is a much younger invasion community than Arbolito, which means it is far less developed and still growing to gain legality and have consistent, available resources. The streets of Una Sola Fuerza are comprised of cane houses and dirt roads, as well as laughing and playing children and the most beautiful sunsets I´ve ever seen in my life. I am working for a small foundation called Una Vida Digna, run by two Ecuadorian Sisters who have committed their lives to do whatever the community may need from them.
Thus far, my time in Una Sola Fuerza has challenged me in many different ways. The language barrier never seems to go away, but poco a poco, after about a month and a half, my Spanish is already improving. There was nothing more overwhelming than my first journey to Semillitas by myself. My ruta takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, with one bus transfer and plentiful time to people watch and gaze out the window as Duran passes by with no iPhone to distract me. I also leave during the peak heat of the day, thus enduring the blazing sol, crossing my fingers that I´ll get a seat on the bus on the opposite side of the burning rays. Let me tell you—the sun at the equator knows how to really roast ya! The first few days and weeks at Semillitas were an adjustment, picking up new phrases to talk with the children and trying to find my place. The kids at Semillitas range from about 7 years old to 15. Right now, we have about ten children in the program who arrive every afternoon, ready to learn. Hermana Fanny, one of the founders of Una Vida Digna, provides instruction for the children. Right now, our focus is learning phenomes, practicing our handwriting, and developing reading skills. Every day is different, with new joys and obstacles, and I´m finally starting to find my sense of belonging. I´ve been able to meet some parents of the children and learn more about the community of Una Sola Fuerza, and I´m even more eager to learn more.
Just last week, I boarded my bus home after a long, hard day. As the bus drove away, about four of the students say to me on their walk home. “Estefania! Estefania!”, they yelled, frantically waving their hands and running towards the dust clouds behind the bus. I jumped up out of my seat, frantically waving back as if I hadn´t just seen them 10 minutes prior. And in this moment, I had the overwhelming feeling of what this is all about. This is it. I am so thankful to be here.
Thanks so much for checking in! More updates from Ecua to follow! Can´t wait to share more!
Paz y abrazos,
Today marks my last full day at home in Connecticut. Tomorrow, myself and the 10 other volunteers will finally meet face to face as we begin orientation at Emmanuel College in Boston. I am so excited to start this experience in a city I am so familiar with-- from the history trips in elementary school, to past service experiences throughout high school, to the regular visits with family, Boston has always provided me a place of fun, comfortability, and a piece of home.
I have been so fortunate and blessed to have such great support leading up to this moment. This past weekend, my family threw a going away party where I got to spend one last day with some of the most important people in my life--all in one place! It was both heartwarming and reassuring that I'll have so many cheerleaders for me back home. I've been soaking up all the love and thoughtfulness that so many have shared. From the Ecuadorian traditional dish "Seco de Pollo" that my mom ordered especially for me, to the the "Come y Bebe" Ecuadorian fruit salad made by Chef Emily, I have been so impressed with the support of my loved ones who are joining in with me at immersing myself in a new culture-- even if its still in the States!
The next 10 days in Boston before we leave for Ecuador are going to be full of ups and downs, goodbyes and hellos, tears and laughter, uncertainty and joy. I will be honest-- I am nervous to start something new and different, but I am also ecstatic about the endless opportunities that lay ahead. I look forward to sharing my journey.
Thank you for reading!! Catch me next time on the ~cyber~ in Ecua!
Me llamo Steph! I am a 2019-2020 volunteer for Rostro de Cristo, a Catholic volunteer program serving in los barrios of Guayaquil, Ecuador. This blog will provide a glimpse into my adventures in Ecuador. I'm so glad you're here!!