Disfrutar La Vida, Paso a Paso

by Christopher, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I laid on my bed in the humid hostel room as the dry bed sheets stuck onto my sweaty back. The whole room reeked of body odor from the day-old damp bathing suits hanging on the towel rack in the bathroom and some hidden in plastic bags. Two of my friends came back from their beach run with their sandy feat and were laughing in unison as the white floors became muddy. I was getting frustrated by these small annoyances, so I silently slipped out of the cramped hostel room while the four of my friends applied their sunscreen. I started walking on the Olón Beach to escape all the chaos and to let my mind breathe. Ten minutes into the walk, I closed my eyes and started walking, something that I do sometimes in my neighborhood in Tokyo out of boredom when I’m walking home from various places, but I often fail to walk even a block without opening my eyes out of a fear of hitting a pole or running into a bush. It’s a kind of test for me to see how straight and far I can walk before I become afraid of running into something. But on this beach, I was free. I checked the view before I closed my eyes again, and no one was present for a mile or two. However, the moment I closed my eyes, the liberating feeling that I enjoyed just moments ago was overtaken by fear. I felt blind, and I didn’t know where I was going.

Fear clouded my mind momentarily, but as I continued to walk, it was replaced by a sense of thrill for this challenge. I began to think about the physical senses that I could use to guide me toward the other side of the beach. So after I took a few deep breaths, I tuned into the sensations of my body. The warm and soft wave wrapped my ankle, and I felt the moisture in the sand; I was somewhat close to the water, and I was going in the right direction. A few minutes later, I realized that the waves weren’t hitting my ankles anymore; however, my feet were still feeling the moist sand. So I took a few diagonal steps to the left: one, two, three, four. My toes felt the lukewarm baby waves wading back into the ocean.

I eventually had to reopen my eyes after what seemed like hours, but realized that I probably only walked for half a mile. It was interesting how different the experience was to complete one mile while closing my eyes from a normal walk, because during my blind walk, every step mattered. The same mile contained steps with a totally different purpose and beauty to it. As I continued the walk towards the other side of the beach, I thought about this metaphor. I didn’t know far the end of the beach was and I couldn’t see if there were any obstacles in my path, but I learned to cherish the beautiful moment-by-moment sensations of the baby waves brushing my ankles, the warm and moist sand, and the rustling sound of the waves going back home. Just like on this blind walk on the Olón beach, my future is full of unknowns and sometimes my mind gets clouded by the sense of fear and the lack of direction. However, deriving anxiety from the future–something that I cannot fully predict or control—and letting it influence my present situation is pointless. Focusing on the one step ahead of me—no matter how blurry life may seem—will give me the strength and the courage to achieve it. So enjoy life, step by step. Disfrutar la vida, paso a paso.

Lessons from Toddlers

by Luke, Tufts 1+4 Participant

A dirty diaper falls and squishes against my pant leg as I catch it on the way down. Screams pierce through the already chaotic din, demanding attention. A bowl soars through the air, its contents scattering across the floor. It’s just another day at the centro infantil, a daycare center for toddlers.

As part of my internship at Fundación Crea tu Espacio, I work at two different centro infantiles in Cuenca. The Fundación has partnerships with these centro infantiles in part because they serve some families from migrant populations. When I first learned that I would be working with toddlers, I imagined bouncing them on my lap, softly singing them to sleep, watching smiles light up their faces, and playing elaborate games of hide-and-go seek. Obviously, I had little past experience with child care, envisioning an idealistic experience like this. Very soon, I was met with a much more genuine reality.

My first few times at the centros infantiles, I only remember feeling exhausted. Riding the bus back home, snot crusted on my shirt, falling asleep and awakening abruptly every few minutes, I questioned, “How did the teachers do it five days a week, eight hours per day?” I was only there for two days a week, five hours per day and afterwards I always felt like my body had been punched repeatedly and then put through the spin cycle of the washer. So much of me wanted to throw in the towel, to focus on other projects at the Fundación; however, I decided to give it a chance, to see what would become of it.

As the weeks went on, it began to get easier. In no way did I feel any less worn out at the end of each day, but at least I felt more comfortable in the environment. But this new comfort did not come without my fair share of mistakes. One time, I threw a ball way too hard in the playground and watched as it collided with a baby’s head, sending him tumbling to the ground. Another, I was too slow in helping a toddler get to the bathroom and suddenly there was a puddle spreading quickly across the floor. These moments were frustrating, but they also served as platforms for growth and opportunities to learn from the teacher. And, of course, I still make mistakes. But it has gotten easier.

And as the initial stress and fear of failure wore off, I noticed that I was learning a lot—not just tangible skills from the teachers (changing a diaper or feeding methods) but also life lessons from the toddlers themselves. I remember witnessing the playground escapades: the micro-alliances that were formed and immediately forgotten, the wild adventures embarked upon, and the emotions being adopted and shed in the blink of an eye. I felt an overwhelming sense of wonder for these little human beings. There was much to learn from them.

I watched as one boy jumped up and then face-planted in the grass, feeling the soft ground against his skin. He laughed with joy and proceeded to complete this ritual over and over and over again. Two other girls, scolded by the teacher for fighting, were set on a low rock wall to take a break. Within seconds, their grumpy demeanors were replaced with outright fascination as they examined a flower growing in a pot near them. Another boy brought several rocks up to the top of the slide and, with little gasps of amazement, watched as gravity worked wonders to bring them back to the ground, ceasing to be bored even after it was his fifth time.

I found myself feeling envious of these kids, who managed to find joy in these simple things in life. They were all engrossed in the present moment, invested in their own narratives, oblivious to the wants of others. Moreover, they were responsive to their own needs. When they were tired, they slept. When hungry, they cried. When they needed to use the bathroom, they vocalized that (or cried!). I thought of all the times in my life when I had neglected to pay attention to my own needs—especially in high school—getting insufficient sleep or rushing out the door without taking time to eat.

And yes, I know that life is not as simple when we grow up. But I think that I could learn a lot from these toddlers about being more in touch with myself, living presently, and appreciating the little things.

At the centro infantiles, I am blessed to witness the valuable lessons that younglings teach. From the teachers, I have learned how much time and effort and energy it takes to support children. They are real-life superheroes. Watching them in action has made me realize that a lot went into raising me. I can only say thank you from the bottom of my heart to all those who changed my diapers and fed me and sang me to sleep and held me when I cried and read me books; thank you to all those who loved and challenged and changed me. You are my superheroes.

Delicious pitahaya

Bus Chat

By Abigail, Tufts 1+4 Participant

My hands struggle to remain steady as they carefully transcribe each character into my notebook. My feet, propped up on the metal rail in front of me, try to keep balance as the bus races down the hill, turning sharply and stopping every few seconds to open the door and let more people in. In both ears sings the soft and silky voice of Yoon Mirae — Korean R&B — in an only somewhat successful attempt to block out all the noise around me — the constant swishing of the folding doors, open, shut; the subdued hum of men and women coming back home from work or shopping; the excited shouts of grinning schoolchildren just getting out of school.

My eyes lose their light-source temporarily, a shadow hovering over my paper. One of those students has sat next to me, and is leaning over to see what it is that I am doing. “¿Eso es inglés?” — is that English? — she asks curiously, staring at the Chinese characters on the page.“No,” I begin to explain in Spanish, removing my headphones and placing them in my pocket. “This is Mandarin Chinese. It’s a language that uses characters rather than an alphabet.” She looks up at me, fascinated and perhaps a bit confused. As we continue conversing, I explain to her that I take Mandarin classes in the city center, where I’m heading now, and she tells me about herself — her age, grade level, and school she goes to. She still looks interested in the strokes I’ve written, so I ask her if she’d like to learn a bit of something. “Yes!” she exclaims excitedly. So I turn the pages until I get to where I wrote down the numbers and begin teaching. “Uno” is “yī”, “dos” is “èr”, and so on. She repeats after me, seeming to soak it in. Then her stop comes up and her siblings, who were standing nearby, call her to get off. She bids me farewell Ecuadorian-style — never “goodbye” but rather “see you later” — as she demounts the bus.

That singular, brief interaction was one of the most memorable experiences of my bridge year. At that moment, just as the little girl got off, I realized what a modern interaction that was — me, a native English speaker, listening to Korean music, speaking in Spanish to an Ecuadorian schoolgirl about the Mandarin Chinese language. This is one of the best examples of cultural globalization that I have personally been a part of. 500 hundred years ago, or even 100 years ago, such an interaction simply would not have been possible. Technology has made it possible to listen to music in practically any language, schools and exchange programs make it possible for foreigners like me to spend some time in Cuenca not just as a tourist, and people’s increasing curiosity of cultures and countries far from their own make it possible to study a wide variety of languages. To be a part of such a complex intercultural exchange, even when it seems to be something as simple as teaching an Ecuadorian schoolgirl  some Mandarin numbers, filled me with a sense of thankfulness for the beautiful, diverse, and ever increasingly connected world we live in today.

A Collision of Worlds

by Luke, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Abuelita Carmen and I

The moment had finally arrived. Abuelita Carmen, Julian, Emilio, and I looked out onto the single, empty landing strip—waiting, waiting, waiting. After four months I was about to see my family from the States face-to-face again. Would they recognize me? Would they notice how I had changed? How had they changed? We had spent this time away pursuing our individual adventures, crafting our own narratives. What would it mean to be reunited again?

I was ripped out of my thoughts by the sudden appearance of a plane (THEIR PLANE!) landing. Emotions overwhelmed me—a sudden wave that tightened my chest and brought tears to my eyes. The plane came to a stop after taxiing off the runway, and a stairway was placed to connect the door of the plane to the tarmac. Suitcases were being unloaded—waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, passengers started to disembark. Not them. . .not them. . .and suddenly I spotted my younger brother and then my mom and dad and older brother. Four human beings who to anyone else were just strangers going down the stairs to the tarmac but to me were the four people who had raised me, challenged me, encouraged me, made me laugh and cry and scream and dream.

The first few days with my family were overwhelming. There were moments where I felt as if nothing had changed and then moments where I felt like a complete stranger. For me, it seemed like there was this collision between the person that I had become and the person that my family knew me as.

Family from the States, at Parque de la Madre

I tried to give my family a taste of what life was like for me in Cuenca. This is my host family, the people who show me so much love and patience every day. This is my room, where I have solo dance parties, moonwalking (unsuccessfully!) across the floor, music blasting through my headphones after a long day. This is where I buy the BEST CHOCOLATE CROISSANTS I HAVE EVER TASTED. This is where I hang my clothes to dry. This is where I catch the bus in the morning. This is the market where I discover delicious new fruit. This is Fundación Crea Tu Espacio where I work. On and on and on.

But my description of these places and people does not tell the full story nor does it embody all of the emotions and mistakes and memories that complete the picture. There is an impossible gap to fill, nuances that can not be explained that will forever be known only by me.

On New Years Eve, we celebrated with both of my families. My host family prepared nothing short of a feast, putting hours into making the ham and aji and llapingachos. The food was delicious, and we all went for seconds and thirds under the approving eye of Abuelita. After dinner, we welcomed the new year with a muñeca burning to ash in the street and fireworks exploding in the sky. I remember the feeling of gratitude—for my families, for the ability to live in this beautiful moment, and for having this experience of a bridge year.

I would love to say that my time with my family was filled with only positive moments. But that is not the case. I would be sharing an incomplete story, one that does not accurately portray the complexity of our time spent together.

There were moments that were frustrating and awkward. We went to a fancy restaurant with Abuelita Carmen, sharing a lavish meal together. My host family and I never went to restaurants. When I glanced at Abuelita and saw the look of hesitation and unease etched into her face, discomfort bloomed in my chest. I had been oblivious as to how this experience would make Abuelita feel. I realized how often I had been to restaurants in my life, not even thinking twice about how lucky we were to have that ability. I found myself ruminating on this thought so much that it prevented me from being fully present during the meal.

Confronted with a situation like this, I realized how in the past I never really checked my privilege; I was so comfortable in the environment I had been raised that I neglected to think critically about what that meant. I felt embarrassed and ashamed and confused. It was difficult for me to accept how blind I had been to the differences between my families. Remaining ignorant about these differences did not make them nonexistent. Going to this dinner demonstrated to me a powerful lesson about life, a lesson that I am still learning and will forever be learning.

In the past, it has been hard for me to be honest when dealing with difficult emotions and to ask questions that elicit these difficult emotions. This bridge year has taught me that an abbreviated version of a story that only highlights the happy moments is a disservice that impedes true, deep learning. If anything, I hope to move more mindfully through this world, remembering to check my privilege often and keeping in mind how this privilege has facilitated my life journey.


The Pizza

by Christopher, Tufts 1+4 Participant

As Christmas of my bridge year approached, I wasn’t in the Christmas spirit at all. For the first time, I wasn’t going to be with my family on Christmas. I briefly fantasized that my family would surprise me with a Christmas visit, but I knew that wasn’t really going to happen: they were on the other side of the world, in Japan. During Christmas Eve festivities, I went with my host family to a relative’s house for a big gathering. I didn’t feel festive. I felt very stressed. My heart beat in a weird way. All the cordial greetings and the Spanish conversations didn’t satisfy me. I really wanted to go home.

On Christmas morning, instead of going to another large family gathering, I said that I wasn’t feeling well. I really wasn’t. But this wasn’t the flu or a cold or food poisoning. I felt so anxious, so alone. I stayed in my room for the entire day and my host family for some reason locked the house from the outside, so I couldn’t leave for a walk. I was stuck. It’s interesting to me, looking back, that in the time of most loneliness, I chose to stay by myself. I didn’t go with my host family. I rolled around in my bed, opened my computer and then shut it and took a nap, and paced around the house. At one point, I just felt like a mouse stuck in side a cage. I started crying. Why couldn’t I be with my real family? Why can’t I be with them, eating Sushi, playing with the dog, or opening presents? Leading up to the Christmas festivities in Cuenca, I tried to have a really positive mindset, suppressing what I really felt. And my real emotions just came out. It felt good. It felt so good. I was sad but I wasn’t faking what I really felt.

As dinner came around, I sluggishly walked down to the dinner table. At that point, I was just tired of crying. I was so happy to see my host family after they came back from the family gathering at around 6pm. They brought one box of pizza for the four of us, and my host mom served me slices of Hawaiian and another mixed pizza. I took a bite out of the first slice, and I was overcome with a sensation of gratitude. My heartbeat was feeling off, I was lonely for the whole day, and the seemingly normal pizza tasted like the best food I’d had in a while. Every piece of pineapple, every piece of ham, and every ingredient seemed like nuggets of joy to me. We savored every slice of the pizza, swallowing it with the yellow Ecuadorian “Cola.” The warm ambiance that I felt with having loving company around a box of pizza seemed to warm up my very cold and lonely day.

The moment I returned my mind back to Cuenca, Ecuador instead of Tokyo, Japan, it seemed like everything was improving. Yes, I was stuck; however, there was a lesson to be learned here. If I went to college, where I have two siblings in the same city, and would have been in an environment where I can go back to Japan for Christmas, I would have relied on external pleasures like fancy food or family members to take my mind off for the time being. However, this year, I was forced to lean towards myself. There wasn’t anyone else, literally. I was stuck in the house for Christmas. So I learned to be real with my emotions and listen to what I am really feeling inside of me.  I accepted the raw emotions as it is. These are the moments when I appreciate that I came to Ecuador.

A Silver Lining in Feeling Stupider

By Kaylee, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I don’t think I quite thought through the omnipresence of language in everyday life until I faced the language barrier in Ecuador. Even though English is technically my second language, by the time I was 5 it surpassed my level of Chinese proficiency (which on the other hand has only deteriorated since [Sorry Dad, you were right]). Since being a toddler whose best and possibly only English word was “cookie,” I’ve been able to take my basic, daily communication in the US for granted.

It was couple weeks into my internship at Casa de La Diabetes, a foundation that supports people with diabetes by providing access to education, and cheaper insulin, supplies, and medical care. I understood immediately that my supervisor was asking me to run an errand at the municipal office downtown, but every single other detail was lost in the rapid-fire Spanish. Which floor? Who? Which permit? Leave what? Ask for what? I ventured to confirm what I thought I understood in a hesitant voice, knowing I was wrong and feeling awkward and useless; my supervisor responded by giving me a questioning look and repeating each step so.much.slower.

Here, every sentence with my supervisor or the patients felt like a crowded minefield of grammatical and vocabulary errors, and I was plowing through with a tractor and setting off as many mines as humanly possible. Numbers. Boom. Names I don’t know how to spell. Boom. Talking on the phone. Biggest boom. (A patient hung up on me on my second day because I didn’t understand what they were saying.)

I couldn’t just stop communicating with my supervisors or with the patients I was supposed to help, whereas in more casual conversations I could just step back and be quiet. I had to keep speaking Spanish and making mistakes as part of my work, so eventually I got more comfortable in accepting those inevitable various mistakes. I was a newbie, a rookie, a neophyte—not only in language but also in working with people with diabetes—and I hadn’t ventured into such unfamiliar territory, alone, since I don’t know when. This was a reminder to be patient with myself and to be willing to be the clueless beginner, since everyone has to begin somewhere to get where they want to be. And with being more comfortable with failure, it’s less intimidating to approach the possible minefields.

An example of full-fledged failure: I bombed one of my favorite jokes with my uncle and cousins the other week when we were around the dining table and they demanded that I share a chiste. Here it goes, pre-translated: “I was at a bus stop with a friend the other day. She told me I didn’t understand the meaning of ironic, which was ironic since we were at a bus stop.”

It was fair to say: The timing was off. The translation was not perfect. I had to explain the joke. It’s not that great of a joke to begin with since I usually have to explain it even in English. My family and I laughed at the attempt. It was also fair to say: I’m glad I shared it anyways.

Me walking into my metaphorical minefield, this time without my tractor. Oh wait no it’s a gnarly forest in Cajas National Park.