The Unwritten Ecuador Packing List

by Elizabeth Kenneally

  1. An unquenchable love for rice and reggaeton. You will eat rice at least twice a day and Mi Gente will be playing in the background. It’s inevitable. 
  1. Your favorite American food. Be it pancake mix, chocolate chips, or peanut butter, I guarantee that even if they have it here it will be different and very expensive. Not much here has made me cry but the birthday PB&J from Audrey definitely makes the list. But don’t worry – in moments of weakness, there are still places where you can order nutella waffles in English.
  1. Patience and flexibility. The need for these is indirectly linked to your Spanish level. The less Spanish you understand, the more you must be able to adapt to spontaneous trips to visit abuelos or amigos. No matter how fluent you think you are, you won’t know what is going on most of the time and that’s okay!
  1. A willingness to be laughed at and corrected by small children. Or children of any age. It may be humiliating and annoying, but they are the best teachers. My four year old host sister made me re-read a picture book to her until I pronounced everything right, and now I can accurately recount the name of any small insect under the sun. 
  1. Very strong chapstick. 8,200 feet is no joke.
  1. Very strong sunscreen. 8,200 feet is no joke. 
  1. A flexible definition of success. This experience has definitely taught me to appreciate the small victories: finding my bus stop without getting lost, Spanish conversations where the other person doesn’t immediately ask where I’m from, scheduling and leading a meeting at work, refilling my bus card, and catching on video the time my four year old host sister told me she loved me. 
  1. All of your loose change! You can get a whole lot of pan with just a few dollars in coins. 
  1. A large and indestructible journal. Mine is my most treasured possession because it contains almost all of my memories from my trip so far, but most of the pages have fallen out at some point or another. A good notebook is well worth the investment. 
  1. ¡Un mapa! I lost my iPhone, so my poor ripped and re-taped map is my lifeline and I literally don’t know where I would be without it. 
  1. An appreciation for both words and silence. Since living and working in a foreign language, I am constantly thinking about what to say. I conjugate verbs on the bus in anticipation of every possible interaction during the day, and I frequently write useful words and phrases on my hand to remember. Because of this, any opportunity for silence is incredibly welcome. I am typically chatty and prefer conversation to silence, but here, even casual dinnertime gossip takes enormous amounts of concentration. Moments of comfortable silence can offer a much needed respite that I don’t think I previously understood. 
  1. A sense of humor. You absolutely cannot take yourself too seriously in a country where you understand none of what is going on the majority of the time. As our beloved in-country staff would say, laugh so you don’t cry! 

In Defense of Traveling Alone

by John Lazur

My day to day life isn’t a constant battle anymore: I’m officially one month into my bridge year. I’ve settled in with my host family, and I’ve started working full-time at my internship. It isn’t that my life comes easily at this point, but I have reached a point where I want to push myself a little bit further to see where it takes me. So, a couple weeks ago, I threw myself into an uncomfortable situation: traveling to Matagalpa alone.

The rest of the group planned to go up Thursday morning, but I opted to go a night early. Part of me didn’t want to wake up at 3:30 AM to catch the 4 o’clock bus, and another part of me looked forward to trying it alone. I wanted to show myself that I could manage a bus ride with my Spanish skills, and see what that experience would be like. People have always told me, “Growth happens when you’re uncomfortable,” what better opportunity than traveling alone?

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Guinea Pigs are Food, not Friends

by Max Whaley

On Sunday, I ate a guinea pig

And I liked it.

Last week, my host father told me we were going to have cuy (aka those hefty, big-eyed rat pets) on Sunday for my sister’s birthday and that I could invite a couple friends over to join in the feast. Here in Ecuador, cuy is a local delicacy and beloved among many Ecuadorians (in a slightly different way than guinea pigs are beloved in the United States)I was skeptical though; I had seen people preparing (impaling them on poles 3 inches in diameter and spinning them over hot coals) cuy on the street, and I cannot say that it made my mouth water. However, I was willing to try it. When the day came, my family pulled out the portly ratrotators and ungently lowered the animals onto the pointy ends. My friends and I had the honorable duty of spinning the poles, while my host sister painted the cuy with a mystery sauce, literally using a paintbrush. We spun and spun, until someone told us they were done being spunMy host father slid the four small crisped corpses from the pole, chopped them into pieces, and served them to us. When I first got my portion, my only utensil was a spoon, just like at every meal in my house (my only explanation for this is that they eat a lot of soup), so I poked and prodded at the flesh for about 5 minutes until I realized it was hopeless. Cuy does not have that much meat on it to begin with, and the meat that is to be had has to be earned. The only way to eat it is to rip the meat apart with your hands and sometimes teeth, when your hands aren’t sharp enough to do the job

There is something different about eating something entirely with your hands, especially when that something is a small animal. It feels more primal, more vicious, but also more real. In a weird way, I felt more connected to the animal I was eating than if it had been filleted into neat identical, breaded pieces and I had sliced it up with a fork and knife. In the United States, we are experts at disconnecting ourselves as much as possible from our food. Our meat comes in the form of hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken nuggets; very rarely does it resemble anything close to a once living breathing animal. It was refreshing to experience food in this new for me, yet very old way.

 I had never eaten an animal smaller than a small chicken before, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but imagine a very juicy and salty big rat, and you are basically there. The small slivers of meat I was able to tear off from the body seemed to melt on my tongue like a snowflake does when you bring it inside to show people. also had chicken and salad and potatoes and obviously rice to go with it, and it was one of the best meals I’ve had in Ecuador.

Another strange aspect of Sunday was how I approached the meal. On the one hand, I was having my friends over to my house for the first time to meet my family. That’s the mindset I went into it with. I introduced them to my host parents and siblings, I showed them my room, and we played basketball in my backyard. Later however, as I was sitting there with my friends eating those small creatures, I realized that, yes, I have known my host family for about 3 weeks longer than my friends, but that’s barely anything. We are just three gringos eating guinea pigs with these nice Ecuadorian people, who, without the 1+4 program, I probably never would have come within 100 miles of. It was a pretty surreal moment. I realized how much I already feel like a part of the family even though I’ve only been here a few weeks. And also how strange and special this experience is, to be taken in by and live with some random family for nine months in a completely unfamiliar place. And to think that they signed up for this without even knowing my name? What if I was annoying and insufferable? What if I am? What a risky undertaking. It is a pretty crazy situation, and I am so grateful to be a part of it. 

The painting of the guinea pigs.

Meat on the left is chicken, meat on the right is not chicken.

A cuy pen at the urban farm that I work at. Cuddling is not encouraged.

Trip Reflection Sandwich

by Nadia Rosales

This is a story about a jungle, some buses, ugly men, my absolute resolve to have the worst time possible, and a bus stop.

This is a story about learning to expect nothing; expect with an open heart, mind, and hands.

This weekend, I took my first out-of-city trip with the other León kids to Macizo de Peñas Blancas. We first learned of the nature reserve from our in-country staff, Luis. It was hard not to be enamored by the picture painted: a sprawling jungle full of Nicaragua’s native flora and fauna, a hike to the top of a waterfall for amazing views, and hiking through a river! It sounded like the perfect plan, and really, how could it go wrong?

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Dear Class of 2018

by Trevor Hall

I was stuck under an endless rainy cloud, with no idea of the intentions for my education.

In high school, I was rarely learning lessons applicable to my future. I was memorizing information, not retaining it. I felt like I learned more about how to study the structure of the standardized mess rather than the proper why I study…
Because of this learning environment, I began to lose purpose for education.
Instead of learning for the sake of learning, I began to focus heavily on the results–the grades, the score. I became obsessed with perfection and in the midst of time packing up and moving away, I seemed to lose all direction.

And after spending hundreds of hours crafting essays of perfection, taking entrance tests that the system deems to measure “college readiness,” and obtaining the spotless transcript, I chose to step back and take a risk on the bridge year.

That spontaneous decision led me here today; to a foreign country where I don’t even know the language. Yet, I would rather be in another country that I know nothing about than to continue through a system that depletes my love for learning.

In Brazil, I learn new things every day. Every hour sometimes. And although I may not be learning how to memorize the oxidation reagents of carbonyl or the formula for solids of revolution, I’m learning equally as impressive things. I’ve learned how to communicate without words, how other nationalities perceive America, the importance and perplexity of language, how to make a metaphor for the bridge year literally out of anything, why it’s essential to understand various cultures, and how to keep calm with clever, but malicious, Capuchin monkeys.

So this is for you, class of 2018, and the generations that follow you. If you are entering the college application process, listen closely: you are not alone in this daunting process. Every other class before you has embarked on the same journey. So, if you’re anything like me and find yourself constantly frustrated with the system or you wish to divert the path of normality, maybe consider taking time to travel to a place you never thought you would. Take time to meet new people, expand your horizons, learn a new language, and develop a fresh lens.

I know the decisions you are about to make are going to be hard ones, but those are the most fun. I regret nothing about my decision, even if I had to choose between where I should be and where I wanted to be.

Yeah, Brazil is a crazy mess for me and I am constantly confused; however, I am developing more and more direction each day. I’ve only been in Brazil for a month now and I have already recognized that this eight month journey is a test like no other.
A test that shreds your expectations in a beneficial way.
A test that gives you a dose of life readiness, which is way more measurable than college readiness.
And the first question for you is not why take a bridge year, but why not?