Ecuador presented to me a new life that was about me finding me, about me exploring others, about me learning and living apart from the old person I was that lived in the U.S. And Ecuador wasn’t about me. It was about the people of Ecuador and I just had the opportunity to have a window seat. That was humbling—to forget about my “troubles” and live a new, fresh life. I saw how others worked and functioned, and one day I truly felt how big the world is and I loved that I was seeing it right up close.
This experience shook my world upside down—but in the best ways possible. I learned how to function 3,000 miles away; I could speak to people that I’ve never met in a language that I didn’t know very well. The colors of the cities and countryside highlighted this new culture and lifestyle and offered great new perspectives. I had countless experiences that shaped me as a person (like having a sister or not using a cell phone daily). Everything accumulated into a study abroad that was truly what I had hoped for.
In Quito, the capital, I took pictures when we first arrived in March. I snapped a shot of a woman on the side of the street selling vegetables—her city surroundings and clothing seemed to scream “National Geographic” at me. But then she made an angry motion and yelled something at the bus, at me. Realization sunk in and I understood that my touristy picture taking shouldn’t intrude on someone else’s life; who am I to point a camera at a person because their way of life is different than mine—like they are on display? This was a lesson I learned that I carried with me throughout my trip.
Interestingly, I had some time away from what makes the U.S. great: the technology. My fellow OU students and I could just be us—a cell phone didn’t have to dictate our plans, friends, jokes or life. It was just people at their barest—sans a device. As a freshman in high school, around the boom of cell phones as Christmas gifts and when they were becoming a “necessity,” I was very against having one and didn’t buy one until graduation so as to not feel like I was being tracked. I got this feeling of freedom back while in South America.
As my mother says, people feel that they need constant input. We don’t need others to validate our existence through continuous texts, calls and by having an Internet connection at all times. So my experience with the people in my group—all young adults that grew up during this technology phase—was heightened because we weren’t participating in outside conversations: we were just with each other in Ecuador, together. We were all on the same playing field. At the beach, no one could Facebook chat their girlfriend or send an email to their mom. It was just us in the moment actually enjoying where we were, taking in the people that were in front of us, not those that were miles away.
Functioning—because it is possible without a cell phone attached to your ear—was easy. Ecuador wouldn’t have been as vibrant, fun, packed with adventures if we had had to function while bringing our problems from home, carrying them in our pockets. This immersion, true immersion, was once in a lifetime because not many times does a U.S. citizen get to drop their cell phones, computers and virtual life off and not have to pick it up for a few months.
Adaptation is a challenge in itself. But for me, a person who has suffered with OCD and obsessive hand-washing, Ecuador made me strong. I had to get over not having toilet paper (it wasn’t common in public restrooms); I had to move past the “luxury” of clean toilet seats, wasteful paper towels and the ideal of having such a sterile environment. To experience this non-perfect faction of life made me feel more comfortable with myself—more independent, even if it was independence from soap.
I looked at U.S. life in contrast to Ecuador in this way because it made me reevaluate how many things our society has—the abundance and over-usage we maintain—and why it isn’t necessary when I lived and experienced that it doesn’t have to be (and things will be fine).
On another note, my Spanish was terrible, and I’ve studied it for three and a half years. My nerves were through the roof when I stepped off my English-speaking tour bus and into the halls of my school. (Spanish hit me but I got back up.) But the fact that ten weeks later I had had a relationship with my host family, no matter if I had to ask to have things repeated or had to use my hands to demonstrate what I meant, shows me that people aren’t so different and can communicate even without the most crucial background of communication—language.
Ecuador challenged me in the coolest, most difficult way possible in this sense. It took from me my English and substituted this following, smooth language that I grew to love and now miss as I am amongst English speakers daily.
As an only child I experience a new thing: I had three host siblings. Ecuador gave me my childhood—with sisters and a brother this time. How many countries can let you relive something “un-re-liveable?” It was one of my favorite parts of my trip—a second chance to do homework and hangout with siblings.
Feeling at home somewhere else was another important thing I gained while studying abroad. I endeared (and endear still) my host family and that aspect of experiencing a culture first-hand. When I realized I was going home I didn’t know what to do. But now I can use my experiences with my host family to reflect on the friends and people in my life in the U.S.; my trip made me stronger and more independent now that I’m back in the States.
And I went back, as all things must come to an end. I’m in the States, lacking fresh bread stores, my other family, the new language I adore and the friends that I made. But I also gained so much and now I can see many things with a new perspective. I’m different but strong, and am a new me. And Ecuador is still there—just a plane ticket away.
There is so much more that I learned, like how the indigenous culture is a subset to the Ecuadorian city life and how Quicha, another language other than Spanish, is present in day-to-day life. I learned about dancing and how important it is to society. I learned about men from a machismo culture and how I felt about myself as a woman and my rights, or lack of them.
I learned about living with friends and seeing them through ups and downs. I saw mountains everyday and remembered how small am I but how I can still have a voice. I bought bread in another language and went swimming in the ocean; I appreciate every day and every little experience and live “in the now.” This understanding and appreciation of all aspects of existence has made me a new advocate for life in general; I can’t wait to keep living it. And Ecuador helped.