by Elizabeth Kenneally

When my parents came to visit me during la Semana Santa, one of the only plans I made beforehand was to take them to a market. Markets in Cuenca aren’t just places to see pretty arrays of fruit and buy 5 avocados for a dollar; they are perhaps some of the best equalizers in the city. I see all types of people on buses, but those with more money don’t take them and prefer to drive. There are lots of different people at the mall, but those with less money don’t shop there. But everyone needs fruit, vegetables, and meat. You can see men in suits waiting with small, stooped ethnic Cuencan women alongside young children going shopping for their families. It’s the best place to go to really get a flavor for the culture and see people going about their daily lives. 
Ranging from a few stalls to what seems like the size of my hometown, markets in Cuenca are scattered across the city. Some, like the Mercado 10 de Agosto and the Mercado 3 de Noviembre are open every day, always bustling with excited vendors and hurried shoppers. These markets have multiple stories: one is filled with different cuts of meat and entire animals, one with every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable as well as a section with plants and herbs, one that sells food ready to eat, and often a section for clothing. Most markets also have “la limpia,” a ceremony involving patting you down with plants and rubbing you with an egg that is meant to cleanse you of bad energies. It’s a very popular tradition and is captured in this video.
The culture in Cuenca is very friendly and familiar, where people call each other veci (neighbor), mi corazón (my heart) and mijo / mija (my son / daughter). That’s probably why my host family and I continue to buy fruit from the same little old lady each week even though better prices for the same food are potentially available two feet to the left. Because of this, the only person who agreed to let me film her was the lady making hornado (a typical Ecuadorian dish with mote (hominy), roast pig, cascarita (crispy pig skin), potatoes, and salad) because she already knew me. Así es. 

Why I Love Praying Before Meals

by Henry Baer-Benson

When I first sat down to eat with my family my host mom told me, slowly and clearly, that in their family they pray before every meal. “Is that ok?” she asked. “Si si si si si” (yes yes yes yes yes), I cleverly responded. I had never prayed before eating anywhere outside of my grandparents’ house before, and I was excited to take part in this ritual and feel like part of the family. After a week, however, the novelty had worn off and I began to realize that I was truly a stranger in this house. The moments before meals punctuated my day with feelings of doubt and guilt. For fifteen seconds, as I watched my family close their eyes and lower their heads, I felt like an outsider. I wanted to participate, I wanted to be a part of the family, but I couldn’t. It felt wrong for me to do so. If I closed my eyes to join them, I felt like an imposter. I understood words they were saying, but I couldn’t share their prayer.

Fortunately, like all things bridge year, time was my savior. After a month it was comfortable. I still didn’t feel involved. Sometimes, I admit, I was bored, but I was only disinterested instead of disconnected. I was happy to be present for these ritual parts of my family’s day. As the year went on I noticed them less and less. It became habitual, and by April it was not only comfortable, but comforting. Eating meals as a family is an integral part of Ecuadorian culture. We sit down together for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We eat and talk and joke and learn. And we always begin with a prayer. It’s become a natural part of the process such that when my host mom isn’t home and we don’t take those 15 seconds, I feel less engaged with my family and less focused on the meal. 

I’ve periodically found comfort in other rituals as well. For the first half of the year the Maxes and I would go out to eat at least once a week, for a while my host siblings and I would watch a show before going to bed, and I try to call my family on Sundays. But none of these rituals have been as consistent as prayer before we eat. In her TED Talk, Baya Voce says that “connection isn’t created by the things we go get. Connection is created by the things we go back to.” I’ve realized that I look forward to praying before meals as a moment of decompression after a long, confusing day. A pathway back to the present, where I can laugh and share and connect with my family. After so many months of repetition, “Señor Jesús te damos gracias…” has become my singing bowl.

Part Two

by Elizabeth Kenneally

I am lucky enough to have been given a second chance. 

At the beginning of this semester, I switched host families and my office was completely reshuffled. I went through three bosses in a week. And it was hard. It was hard to come back with no sense of normalcy, no pre-established comfort zone. Nothing was familiar and I had to do that beginning transition phase all over again. But it was a blessing. 

The second semester, I now understand fully how hard it was the first time. Now I am searching out opportunities, conversations, and experiences. I come home filled with excitement for all of the possibilities that are open to me. First semester, I didn’t seek that much out, and I thought it was because I was lazy or afraid. But I wasn’t. I understand now that I just did not have the bandwidth to do more and more and more. Simply having a lunchtime conversation in Spanish was overwhelming and difficult- why would I continue to search for additional overwhelming and difficult ways to occupy my time? I would even go to bed between 8:30 and 9 because I was too exhausted to even read. And I blamed myself for not “getting the most out of my experience.” But the truth is, I couldn’t do any more than I was doing. That’s what the second semester is for. 

The second semester, I am now emotional over the idea of leaving. I don’t know what’s different this specific semester. But all of a sudden I can feel how much I will miss Cuenca. I have finally become part of this community. My new host family are pretty close to convincing me to stay forever. My job, although often slow, is now filled with people to talk to. I love Cuenca. I love my host family. I even love my internship some of the time. It will be so much harder to leave Cuenca than it ever was to leave home. 

What I really mean to say is stick it out. It’s not all fun quirky cultural experiences. It’s exhausting and difficult. But it’s so incredibly worth it. Never for a second have I regretted this year and I don’t think I ever will. 

Cast of Characters: Cuenca

by Audrey Carver

Geovanny: (project supervisor, co-founder of Catega Kocinare) Tall, kind, and fatherly. 6’1”, balding, green eyes. 48 years old. Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, Geovany spent his youth traveling, eating, and finding whatever odd jobs came his way. Never one for planning, he floated through South America, Central America, and the United States before deciding to follow his passion: food. He got a culinary degree, married his beautiful wife, and together they started Catega Kocinare in Cuenca. He has helped me every day of my job to adjust. He gave me a studio space, comfortable space, knowledge of how to cook, and gentle teasing. I will miss him sorely. 

Marcela: (co-founder of Catega Kocinare) 5’2” , 45 years old, and always wearing stilettos.There is nothing that this woman cannot handle. Lawyer, professor, government official, mother of three, business-owner, and the only force keeping Geovanny’s head out of the clouds. Having overcome a brain tumor, she is now trying to make the most out of every day, and teach her daughters to approach life with the same ferocity. She says that she always has to work 3x as hard as the men in her field, since she is given 2x less respect. A force to be reckoned with. She is always willing to drive me home after a long day. 

Betzy: (host mother) 5’2”, 38 years old. Brown hair, brown eyes, kind but sassy smile. The epitome of independence. Once divorced and twice abandoned, single mother of two boys, Betzy refuses to rely on men. The kindest, most no-nonsense, and thoughtful person that I have encountered here, she works to teach kids music all day and then comes home to her own. She loves to sleep in, and wanted to be a professional singer. She and her boys sold their car to get US visas, and visit whenever they can. She hopes for them both to study in the states. She makes banana bread once a week because it is my favorite and always has a cup of hot tea waiting for me when I get home. 

Santy:(co-worker) 5’9”, 28 years old. Not afraid to talk about his personal life. Loves his mother more than anything, except salchipapas. Proudly and openly gay, which has caused him a lot of difficulty socially, and in trying to find employment. He has been working at Kocinare as long as Geovanny has, and makes the best patacones I have ever tasted. We have the same birthday. He refers to me as “Mi Audri-ay querida” which is sometimes the best part of my day. 

Isai: (host brother) 4’5” , 6 years old. Loves french fries and beans, can eat 5 bananas in one sitting, and spends most of his time roller skating. Wants to be either a dog or Spiderman when he grows up. He stuffs his pockets with the free cookies from his school, and brings them to me every day because he knows that they are my favorite snack. 

Mateo: (host brother) 4’9”, 12 years old. Hates math with a burning fury, wants to be a soccer player. Will eat my rice if I eat his salad when his mother isn’t looking at the dinner table. Loves to play Minecraft. He defended me against the neighbor who said that I did not know Spanish, and checked on me every 10 minutes when I had the flu. 

David: (friend) 5’8”, 20 years old. Peruvian, but busked his way to Cuenca playing the guitar. Currently makes a living drawing portraits on the street. Secretly loves listening to Adele, wants to either become a stock broker (after watching Wolf of Wall Street), or own a fondue restaurant in Switzerland. Loves to cook. Hates to talk politics. He drew a picture of me as a gesture of friendship my first month here, and has explained latin culture when I was lost. 

These people and their acts of kindness and companionship piece together the interactions of my daily life in Cuenca. The characters are diverse, but their support is consistent, and I will miss them all dearly when my time here comes to a close. 

Cabin in the Campo

by Max Whaley

This weekend, a couple 1+4 participants, my host brother, his friend and I traveled to San Fernando (a small town 2 hours outside of Cuenca) to stay in an empty house his friends own. It was super fun, and also a little terrifying. The house was straight out of some horror movie that should be filmed there and called Cabin in the Campo. At first glance in the daylight it looks fine, just a bit isolated. 

But as you can see in this second picture it can be pretty ominous looking.

We played poker and told scary stories in Spanish. Much of the night was spent making up stories about all of the terrible things that had happened in the house in the past. We spent the night all huddled onto the one mattress in the house, bumping the floor occasionally and pretending like we didn’t, to scare everyone else. 
During the poker game, fellow participant Henry noticed the shadows of fellow participant Maxwell’s luscious curls had spelled a word on his forehead. It’s funny now, but at the time a not so small part of my brain was thinking, the ghosts are telling us to leave we need to leave what are we doing here in this scary house who even owns this house why are we here this is exactly how horror movies start- 
  While the scary stories were told in Spanish, and we were surrounded by vast fields of cows instead of woods, I realized that this had been such a familiar cabin in the woods trip. My host brother’s stories involved cursed rosaries instead of men with hooks for hands, but other than that, I could imagine having a very similar trip with friends back home. When I came here, I expected to be having a million new life changing experiences all the time. And while I have done a lot of exciting new things, it has surprised me  how familiar many of my experiences are. I’ve missed heading down to my favorite pizza place with my friends back home, but grabbing some late night pizza with my host brother when neither of us really want rice for dinner has turned out to be a fairly normal occurrence. From going to stay at a scary empty cabin, and proceeding to scare each other as much as possible, to complaining endlessly about our respective governments over dinner, there seem to be some universally human experiences that you will find in places as different as California and Ecuador