Peace like a River: Learning to Dream

Thank you to everyone who supported me along this journey and followed my blog. Here is my last post. I hope through following my blog, you all have also been able to redefine some of those imaginary lines in your own lives. Here goes:

If you asked me exactly why I chose to do my study abroad in Ecuador, I would be lying if I gave a profound answer. Truth be told, it just worked out that way.  I had a check-list of requirements I needed to meet in order to fulfill my degree plan, and before you know it, check, check and check…SIT Ecuador: Culture and Development it was! I am embarrassed to say that before I got into the program, I knew very little about Ecuador. I thought I might be able to get my tan on, sport fun summer dresses and go salsa dancing every night. Maybe if I was staying in the coast the whole time.But I was in Quito, and it’s cold there. Remember, it is over 9000 ft elevation.

So I just kind of jumped into this trip tabula raza style. I didn’t know any historical information about Ecuador, current political situations or typical food dishes. What I did know: be respectful, learn with an open heart and open mind, it is important to try new foods and wear my backpack in front of me on the bus. With this limited knowledge, I arrived in Ecuador on January 22, 2013, and three and a half months later I left Ecuador with a wealth of experiences, new perspectives and some quirky new habits.

Adjusting to Ecuador was not nearly as hard as it has been to adjust back to the U.S. Coming home to my family was both comforting and confusing. Going to visit college was a colossal mind bomb.  I’ve been home a little over a week now, and I still have trouble remembering that I can flush the toilet paper down the commode. I’ve included the Latino pop radio on my preset stations. And I miss rice. Every day that I was in Ecuador, I cursed that mound of enriched white starch which found its way into every lunch. I swore, I would never eat rice again when I left Ecuador… I had rice for lunch today.

All silliness aside, and  I’ve been told I am a pretty silly person, without a doubt, the most important thing I may have taken away from Ecuador is this: You are only poor if you cannot dream. This Ecuadorian Indigenous proverb literally refers to one’s capacity to dream. On that, I’d like to say I remembered almost every dream I had in Ecuador, but in the U.S I am a poor poor soul who wakes up with the start of an alarm and no recollection of my dreams.  And so this summer, I’ve taken a vow to try to remember my dreams, and consequently have more relaxing mornings.

Figuratively speaking, this proverb takes on a whole new meaning. Dreams can be hopes, aspirations or goals. And I don’t mean only goals like, “I want to go to Harvard” or “I dream of finding the cure for cancer,” but they can be dreams like “I hope we have a good harvest this season” or “I dream of owning my own home one day.”

No dream is too big or too small, as long as you believe you can do it, and poverty…well what exactly is that anyway? In some worlds it is a sort of measurement of material wealth , and in others it is the quality of your life and state of your soul. So Ecuador, thank you for teaching me how to dream, both literally and figuratively. I am richer for it.



She Speaks!

I used to pretend I could speak Spanish. I remember being five or six years old, listening to Spanish radio with my dad in the car and imitating what I heard. It didn’t matter how often my dad told me that I was not speaking Spanish, I believed I was right. I was a six year old fluent speaker.And then one day, he gave me my first Spanish book. Azul…blue. Verde…green. ect ect ect. My world changed.

In seventh grade, I started taking Spanish classes and continued through high school. I read short stories, novels, practiced my verb tenses and was overall a good student. I totally thought I knew Spanish. I went to college and got my minor in Spanish. I dreamed of maybe one day being Mrs. Enrique Iglesias.  

Then I came to Ecuador. And I had a very harsh realization…I did not know Spanish. I mean sure, I could read it and write long  college essays, but speaking it fluently , well shoot, that was another ball game altogether. My first week of Spanish classes here were tough; I cried twice. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t speak Spanish and it was frustrating. Honestly, I had idealized my proficiency and while I had heard that language was culture, I had not internalized it.

What do I mean when I say language is culture–that could be a whole book itself, but here are some examples. In the U.S, I would say  “ I dropped the ball” or “I broke the glass”;however, in Spanish it’s “The ball dropped itself” or “The glass broke itself.” Not my fault at all. It is the objects fault. It makes sense then, that I couldn’t speak Spanish as well I thought, because I had never really lived in another culture or country. Speaking a language fluently is more than just reading and writing and memorizing verb tenses, it means actually immersing yourself in the culture.

Three and half months later, I think I got it. I think I can speak Spanish. I mean, I’ve only been trying for the last 16 years of my life. Language learning was hard here in Ecuador, but also a transformational experience. Frequently, I found myself completely brain dead around 9pm. On weekends, I would take “English” breaks and seek out the company of my fellow study abroad companions. Now, I want to speak Spanish all the time.

I spent the last month working intensely on my independent study project over the rose industry in Ecuador. I had three weeks of intense interviews and participant observation, wrote a 37 page paper in Spanish, and gave a 20 minute presentation Spanish. More than that, I have gained an intense appreciation for what language means to cultures and societies. I had  to live a language to learn it. As I prepare for my return to the U.S, one of the biggest fears I have is losing my proficiency. So I’ll have to practice…which means I’ll have to go out of my way to find opportunities to speak Spanish, and thus my life will be different when I come back home.

Today, all twenty two students in my program and I finished our presentations. It seems surreal. We’ve all improved and grown in different ways, but one thing I know we all realize now: Google translate just doesn’t cut it, because directly translating words or ideas from English to Spanish or visa versa fails to relay the culture behind the words.

Gringa Loca

Gringa loca, gringa loca, gringa loca, fuiste tú la que se quiso casar

 Crazy gringa, crazy gringa, crazy gringa, You wanted to get married

The first time I heard heard the term “gringa loca”  in Ecuador, my dear friend and I were getting ready enter the gym with her host family. She paused and said in a loud voice “I have a big problem!!!” “What, is everything o.k.? What’s going on?” Her host mother and I frantically asked, both our minds immediately jumping to something very drastic. My friend sadly pointed to her flip flops…she had forgotten her shoes. “Ayyyy, gringa loca,” smiled her host mom. Every night after that, when we would jam-out in the car on the way to the gym and try to express ourselves in our brain-tired spanish we were met with smiles and “gringas locas.”

This term has followed me throughout Ecuador. I can’t escape it. Both my host families embraced this term of endearment. When lunch is really good, and I do a little happy dance…gringa loca. It’s a beautiful day, and I want to go on a walk…gringa loca. Freaking out when I get ground coffee instead of instant, subjecting my families to country music jam sessions, trying and failing to hang my hammock in the yard, asking for water instead of coca-cola…all of these actions merit the smile and “gringa loca” move.

Gringa loca, gringa loca, gringa loca, cuantos veces por ti  me quise matar

Crazy gringa, crazy gringa, crazy gringa, How many times you’ve made me want to kill myself

Or how about the time I went to Cochasqui (check out the last post for that adventure) and the bus of post 50 year old senior citizens started a latin dance party on the bus. The classic “Gringa Loca” came up on the que, and there I was, the only gringa on the bus. Clearly, I was meant to dance to this song.

Once again, Hector Napolitano’s hit song  found its way into my life this past weekend. As my host brother and I sat at the dinner table planning our Saturday night, which I decided would clearly include dancing, someone stealthily pulled out their I-phone and played “gringa loca”. The entire table erupted in laughter, including me.

Gringa loca, gringa loca, gringa loca, me tiraste encima los de inmigración

Crazy gringa, crazy gringa, crazy gringa, You through me on top of immigration

The thing is, I could choose to be upset about being labeled “gringa loca”, but what would that do? It is said with the utmost affection. “Gordito” (little fatty) and “Flacito” (little skinny) are also terms of affection. What might upset me in the U.S. does not even phase me here.  People here just call it as it is. That means, what are everyday actions and thoughts to me in the U.S. always merit a smile and “gringa loca” comment here.  And I’ve learned to embrace it, because it means embracing who  I am. Hi my name is Sarah and I am a gringa loca. Peace like a river.

And I Thought We Were Doing Yoga.

^^I’d be delighted if you’d listen to some Andean music while you read this^^

I awoke at 6 a.m. wondering how bad it would be if I just “slept” through my alarm. It would be so easy. All I had to do was turn my phone off, roll back over and pull the covers over my head. I imagined my host mom coming in my room, saying “pobrecita” and letting me remain in dreamful bliss. But I didn’t do that. I had already paid the $22 to go on an all day yoga excursion to celebrate the equinox with my host mom and her morning workout group. Given that I can buy a complete lunch for $2 or less in Quito, $22 was a good portion of my travel fund. With the consolation that I could sleep on the bus, I woke up, put on my yoga pants and went down to greet the day.

I conveniently positioned myself in the back of the bus so I could sprawl out for our two and a half hour bus trip. Just as I had reached that peaceful place where dreams and reality start to mix, I was awoken by a shrill whistle and exceptionally cheery voice. “Buenos Dias a todos. Vamos a saludar nuestro dia hermoso!” (Good morning everyone. We’re going to greet our beautiful day.” And so I joined this group of early-bird senior citizens as we greeted the sky, the sun, the earth,my head, my heart and my neighbor. So much for a nap, but I still had the final relaxation portion of yoga to look forward to…if this had actually been a yoga workshop.

I’m not really sure how the miscommunication happened. I mean there is the  language barrier thing, but I had sincerely thought I’d moved past the whole “Oh-that’s-what-you-meant-whoops” stage. However, when we got off the bus, I found myself at Cochasqui, a site of ancient ruins in the Pichincha province in Ecuador. There, we went on a tour of the ruins and pyramids. I was pleasantly surprised with this twist of events. I hadn’t planned on being able to get to see many ruins. More, before this trip I had know idea where Cochasqui was or its significance.

After our hiking tour of the ruins, my ears tuned into the rhythmic beating of drums. I found the source of the music; a large Indigenous celebration was taking place. The entire backside of one of the largest pyramids was covered with hundreds of people: mestizo families from Quito, other foreign travelers and numerous Indigenous communities. We were all there to celebrate and witness the equinox, which, as I soon found out, was the start of the Andean New Year. January 1st, what’s that? March is where it’s at. The date changes, depending on when the equinox is. The fact that the Andean New Year changes depending on the solar system reveals the intimate knowledge and dependency that these communities have with the world and the universe.

As the celebration continued, my host-mom and her morning workout crew began to join in with the traditional Andean dancing which was taking place. I was ushered to join in. I pulled out my pony tail and tried to follow the music as I danced alongside my mestizo family and the Indigenous community. They all told me I danced very well, but I don’t know if they were just being nice or not. In the middle of dancing, I saw a group of young Ecuadorian boys passing around the volleyball.  Normally, I would have been hesitant to join, but as this day was full of spontaneity, I just jumped in and played. That is, until we were told by a community elder that this was a community celebration and not a volleyball game. Whoops. I think it’s safe to say, I felt quite embarrassed.

We left the New Years celebration, and I was in a happy-tired phase. The grogginess of the morning had departed, and instead had been replaced by that peaceful weariness which occurs only after a beautifully active and surprising day. And this is my life in Ecuador. I have learned to stop asking too many questions and let things just kind of fall into place. Here, nothing ever happens as planned, but the events that do unfold are always significantly better than anything I could have planned for myself.



Truth be told


Last week, I spent four beautiful days living with a family in the small fishing village of Los Ciriales on the coast of Ecuador. In those four days, I gained yet another host mother and father, three host sisters and two host brothers. We all knew that I would be leaving in four days, that this set up was temporary. If anything, the time limit encouraged me to work harder to develop relationships with the family. I threw myself into family life: cleaning, cooking, playing soccer, drawing with the kids, going to the beach, running errands, watching soap operas, ect. Through all of these activities, I only glimpsed what it would be like to really be part of the family. At the end of the four days, I packed up my bag, reunited with my program and headed back to Quito.

And that’s the thing with study abroad, I’m always just passing through. By the time I leave Ecuador, I will have lived with three different families and visited 6 provinces, more than many Ecuadorians can say. I will leave with three Ecuadorian mothers, two fathers, eight sisters and four brothers. To put this in perspective, in the U.S.  I am an only child. So I’ve had some adjusting to do.

With each family, I go through a period of adjustment. While working on getting to know the new family and their customs, drama, habits and rules, I also have to process my experiences with the last family. I am in a constant phase of transition.  Still, the benefits of living with three families are immense. While there are overarching cultural norms, each family has its own culture and ways of responding to the pressures of society. If I had lived with just one family, I would gain only one perspective. I have had the fortune of experience.

For this I am thankful, but it has also made me realize that while traveling is one of the ultimate freedoms and privileges, I don’t want to travel my whole life. As a kid and teenager, I dreamed of a career full of traveling to different countries. I was going to be a women of the world. While I still want to travel, I definitely have a much deeper appreciation for those loyal souls who really belong somewhere. I want a place to call home. No mom, I’m not homesick, promise. I just appreciate home more. I had to go through that “I’m twenty years old and I do what I want, the world is my play pen” phase to actually develop a true appreciation of what it means to belong somewhere. Typical.

So why am I just now coming to these revelations? Honestly, because the coast was one of the most wonderful and difficult experiences I have had here. I wish I could ethically write about everything I witnessed, but I didn’t get consent and that’s not cool (ever watch Harriet the Spy? Consent is very important). But the point is, it was hard. I saw a lot that challenged my previous notions of comfort, poverty and happiness. I got a glimpse, and then I had to leave. There was so many things I wanted to do and talk about with the people who lived in Los Ciriales, but it wasn’t my place. Why? Because even though I was part of a family, I was only passing through. And yes, that was frustrating because I was forced to admit that on this trip, as much I’d like to think I can do things to “help” people here, I am ultimately the one who receives the most benefits. Thank you Ecuador.



Where’s the Soup?

Lunch. During elementary school, it was where I learned the art of trading. In middle school, it was kind of awkward and filled with thoughts like, “Where should I sit?” and “Does this PB&J sandwich make me look too juvenile? Maybe I should graduate to tuna.” High school marked a time where I thought I was on top of the world. Lunch was a time to plan pranks, fantasize about college and make sassy commentary in regards to the seafood salad. At college, I made great friends with George Foreman. He and I meet every day for a crammed 20 minute lunch date. But let me tell you about lunch in Ecuador: It is a marathon.

First, there is the soup. I’m not lying when I say I have not tried the same soup twice during my trip here. They have it all: quinoa, spinach, tomato, chicken feet, fried pig blood (actually really good), potato with whatever vegetable you want to add, ect ect ect. If Campbell’s soup company came to Ecuador, they could seriously revamp their recipes.

Next, comes the main dish. It varies but generally consists of a vegetable medley, a protein and either rice, potatoes, yucca or some form of banana. Sometimes all the starches are featured in one plate. Some families serve bread as well. The bread here is absolutely delicious, and there is a panderia (breadstore) on every block. When I walk  to school in the morning, the smell of fresh baked bread follows me. Given all the starches here, it should come as no surprise that  I’ve decided those low-carb diets that seem to be so popular have absolutely no value.

Then comes dessert, which is usually fruit. After,a nap. Obviously.

While I absolutely love the food in Ecuador, last week I got a little nostalgic for some some Texas home-cooking. For some reason, I decided to tell my host family that yes, I adore the food here, but they just had to try my grandmother Nell’s recipes. And of course, this led to me volunteering to make lunch on Sunday. The Menu: Chicken and Dumplings, Mama’s Salad, Cornbread and Banana Pudding, also known as “Sarah’s last meal in the U.S.A.”

Mind you, I had never made any of these things by myself before. Right. The last time I made Chicken and Dumplings, was two years ago with my grandmother. Still, I was determined to really show my host family what southern style food was all about. Food is part of culture, and I wanted to share part of my culture in the U.S. with my Ecuadorian family.

As I began explaining the menu, my host grandmother questioned, “But where is the soup? You aren’t going to make soup?” I had to explain that where I live, people tend to eat soup as lunch and not as a precursor to a beautiful meal. This was just the beginning of my adventure with trying to recreate family recipes in Quito.

Try explaining what Cool Whip is in Spanish. It’s really hard. “Artificial deliciousness that goes straight to you hips,” just didn’t seem like an appropriate description at the time. Instead I struggled with, “Well it’s kind of like ice cream, but not really. And kind of like milk. But it’s not milk either. And it’s cold. And sweet. And you put in on top of desserts, but it’s not icing.” Conclusion: there isn’t Cool Whip in Quito, but luckily I know how to use Google and figured out how to make something similar.

Then there was the whole issue of trying to adjust to the metric system, because all my recipes are in U.S. Customary units. I vaguely remembered learning the basic conversions sometime in elementary school, but I am pretty sure I was more interested in coloring at that point in my life. So I didn’t really measure anything. I resorted to the method of my ancestors: a pinch of salt, a glass of milk, a spoonful of butter, a handful of sugar and a big old prayer.

After three long hours of cooking, I admired my handy work and hoped for the best. I knew I would love the meal, but I had no idea how my host family would react. Drum roll…SUCCESS. They even got seconds! So thank you to my host family for letting me commandeer the kitchen for the afternoon as I worked to prepare of a taste of Texas in Quito.  Because this cultural exchange goes both ways.

The Things They Didn’t Tell Me

I highly encourage listening to this song while reading this post:

Strangers Like Me: Phil Collins

Who is they? Magazines, textbooks, Disney movies, the movies in general, my parents, program guides…basically the multitude of sources which have inundated me with seemingly useful information. Keyword: seemingly. What don’t they tell me? Well I’m sure a lot of things. After a little over a month in Ecuador, I am positive there is a whole world out there that I thought I knew about, but now I am learning I knew nothing. Last week, specifically, I learned there was a lot of information I was missing about the rain forest. My SIT group and I spent a glorious five nights in the rain forest at a hostel. I thought I was so prepped for the trip;I triple checked my packing list. Oh yes, I was ready for the Amazon. The moment had finally come: Sarah and the Amazon were going to meet. I arrived eager, excited and in awe of the beauty which surrounded me. Within moments of my arrival, I discovered there was a lot I didn’t know. Here are a few of the realities of last week:

It is impossible to look like Jane in the rain forest.
Remember the Disney movie Tarzan? If you haven’t seen it, Tarzan falls in love with a lovely lady, Jane. She manages to look immaculate the entire movie and navigates the jungle barefoot while sporting in a beautiful yellow dress. Impossible. If you walk barefoot through the jungle, you are making yourself a welcome feast to numerous types of insects. Long pants, boots, a light long sleeve shirt and bug repellent are the appropriate uniform. Thus, all preconceived notions of channeling my inner Vogue in the jungle have been shattered. You see the rain forest is so beautiful, that no human can possibly ever compete. And the forest likes to remind you that you are only human. Human beauty is fleeting, temporary and temperamental (ever heard of a bad hair day). But the rain forest’s beauty is enduring and resilient. It is the type of beauty that invokes a silent respect.

Sarah means corn in Kichwa.
I grew up knowing that my name, Sarah, means noble lady. And it does. In English. However, as I stood in the circle of young children at a local school and introduced myself I was met with stifled laughter. All I said was,“Hello, I am Sarah”, or “Hello I am Corn”. In Kichwa, “Sarah” (without the “h”) means corn. The rain forest is home to several indigenous communities, and today, most children learn both their native language and Spanish. In this particular region in the province of Napo, Kichwa is one of the native languages. My group and I had gone to the school to receive some basic Kichwa lessons with the children. Later we played soccer with the kids, and I overheard some of the young girls behind me saying “ She’s tall like corn. Her hair is blonde like corn. Her jacket is yellow like corn. Corn.” I laughed with them, relishing in the new significance of my name.

Chocolate grows on trees.
Despite what the wrappers may say, chocolate does not come from Switzerland, Belgium or any other artisan, food producing European nation. And it definitely does not come from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chocolate comes from tropical regions in the global south and grows on trees. While I  kind of already knew this, I hadn’t really internalized this until I actually saw a cacao tree. Chocolate has a fascinating history in Ecuador, and at one point Ecuador produced and exported the world’s largest quantity of chocolate. After World  War II, things changed. World dynamics shifted, and the banana came to dominate the agro-export industry in Ecuador. Still, chocolate and the cacao plant maintain a special place in Ecuador and the industry is starting to carve a niche in the artisan market.

I left the rain forest much more aware of myself and the way my life in the U.S. is connected to the Amazon. Every day, I went to bed with a busy mind, my gears turning trying to piece together the significance of all my experiences. I think that’s why people don’t tell you everything. Because they can’t. Because sometimes you just have to figure it out for yourself and connect your own dots.