The Wonders of Walking by Yourself

by Stephanie, Tufts 1+4 Participant
There is a bridge that I cross four times a day to go to work that always makes me smile when I walk over it. In front of me, I can see the city of Cuenca spanning in every direction, beautiful mountains lining the horizon in the distance, and a sky that seems so close to the ground that I can almost touch it. This sight is paired with the sounds of rushing water from the Tomebamba river flowing beneath my feet and of cars accelerating to catch the green light ahead of me. Even the smells of truck fumes that constantly fill my nose cannot detract from this walk.

When my host mother first drove the route with me, I remember thinking, “well there goes 80 valuable minutes of my day wasted”. The walk seemed like an inconvenience to me, nothing more. Two months ago, little did I know that this walk, the introspective thinking time it gave me, the chances to experience the new sights, sounds, and smells of Cuenca, would almost always be the best part of my day.
At home in Austin, Texas, I was constantly moving. I had school everyday, homework to do, activities every evening, and seemingly no free time. Or when I did have free time, I wasted it on activities that I knew were not productive, like watching TV and re-reading my favorite books. I never took the time to appreciate the place where I was living or the activities in which I was lucky enough to participate. Activities like robotics, Girl Scouts, and Taekwondo filled my time and served as creative and physical outlets to relieve stress and mature.

I loved my life in the US. It helped me grow into the person I am today. But in Cuenca, I am learning to appreciate a different pace and a different culture. I am learning that success can be defined differently than just the next rung on the ladder. Before now, I never truly thought about how my high school activities provided me valuable life experiences or how they were building me into the person I am today.

These past two months in Ecuador, I have felt more relaxed than I have since high school began. For the first time ever, I have actually devoted time to thinking about what I want for my future, not just what college I want to attend. For the first time in a long time, I have noticed the people and places around me and have taken the time to appreciate all they provide me. For the first time, I feel as though I am aware of the kind of life I want to live after my gap year is over, a life full of adventure and freedom.

I learned all of these positive things about myself and my surroundings during my commutes to and from work. These small pockets of free time that are actually being used to think about the future to come. I think this is why I smile when I cross the bridge. I see the city, the mountains, the sky, and the river, hear their sounds and smell their smells, and I realize all over again how lucky I am to be here and how free I am to make my own future. 

Papas

Audrey and her papas

by Audrey, Tufts 1+4 Participant

“You need to speak slowly to Audrey please, she is not stupid, only learning Spanish. We are very proud of her.” This note, scribbled in Spanish, was given to me by my host father after my first day of work. I had arrived to his house in tears, frustrated that I could not understand my boss. Milton Serrano had dropped everything to help me, writing a note for me to give to mi jefe. For the first time, I felt the ‘father’ part of my host family.

My dad is one of the most important people in my life. From him I get my height, my stubbornness, and my sweet tooth. He taught me how to ride a bike, cook creme brulee, and use a chainsaw by the time I was 9 years old. He has always given me rides home no matter how late. When I was young, he would play fairy tea party with me, braid my hair, pack my lunches, and he walked me home from school every day. Upon deciding to move to Ecuador and live with a host family, I knew that my host father would have big shoes to fill (size 13, in fact), and I was nervous that my standards would be too high. The idea of calling anyone else “papa” made me cringe, and I figured that an assigned father would pale in comparison to my real one.

However on the first day I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in room full of host mothers, Milton Serrano had come to pick me up. Standing just below my collarbone at 5’5, he insisted on riding the bus with me every day to school so that I would not get lost, and riding the bus to accompany me back. He explained to me, slowly and with the aid of a battered English dictionary, not to go home with strangers and not to cross the street when there is traffic. I later found out that he (a carpenter by trade) had hand-built my bed specifically to be long enough for me, something that my father (also a carpenter) had done for me at home. And when I stayed late at a concert, he was there to pick me up on the curb, my real father’s voice echoing “always call for a ride” in my head.

Nobody could ever replace my dad, but I am realizing that nobody has to. The families that I find in my life can have more than 4 people, all playing different roles. With the odd, adorable bonding of Milton Serrano, I am learning that nobody needs to “replace” anybody, that I only need to make room in my heart for more families. My host dad rushed to help me on my first day of work, wanting to solve my problems just as my real dad would. As their similarities pile up, I am accepting a new family, and all because of a short Ecuadorian man in a blue fleece onesie.

The Unwritten Ecuador Packing List

by Elizabeth, Tufts 1+4 Participant

  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! 

The Big “Cuyeast” and Soccer Challenge

by Max, Tufts 1+4 Participant

It was like I was at home again. Today felt oddly similar to a laid-back Sunday with my American family. I relaxed in the morning, enjoyed a delicious barbecue lunch, and played some sports in the evening. This sense of familiarity made the day even better.

11:00 AM:
        After a nice breakfast of eggs and bread with my host brother, Jhonatan, I spent the rest of the morning in my room. I caught up a little bit on news from the U.S., wanting to do something both productive and comforting in my alone time. I needed that time away after a busy and tiring Saturday, which was spent with the other Ecuador fellows in our first AMIGOS (in-country organization) workshop.

3:00 PM:
        In the afternoon, I headed to Max Whaley’s (another fellow) host family’s house for some cuyes (guinea pigs). No, it was not to play around with them as if they were pets. Instead, they were the main part of our cookout. When Max’s host dad called us to the grill to cook, each of the three of us lingot a chance to spin the spit and then enjoy some cuyes. I felt really torn while I was churning the guinea pig in circles. Although the smell of it was really rich and savory, especially after Max’s host mom applied some special sauce, it looked as if I was roasting a rat. Then, my growling stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten in five hours, and I knew I had to keep spinning away. Even though I had already tasted it once before since I arrived in Ecuador, I was still a little hesitant to eat what is seemingly a pet to me. Pet or not, I was reminded again of why I should eat the cuy: I’m a big-time meat eater. Also, once I took my first bite, it didn’t matter to me that I might have been eating a pet. Most importantly, my teeth happily gnawed through some crispy and flavorful flesh. Despite my discomfort in situations like this, I enjoy these constant opportunities that push me out of my comfort zone and get me to try new things that I usually end up liking. Max’s host family generously offered me a country delicacy. The least I could do was accepted their cultural offering with an open mouth.

6:30 PM:
        As I have grown up with ice hockey and track as my main sports, I have never considered myself to be much of a soccer player. So, when I played with Henry and his host brother at a park called Plaza del Arte near their apartment, I had to do the best job of pretending I was. Without a lot of natural soccer talent, I used some of my hockey senses to make smart plays with the ball. Playing with them felt similar to my experience speaking Spanish during the bridge year so far. While my foot would roll off of the ball and my ankles would nearly break every time I touched the ball, the others dribbled, passed, and shot perfectly in whatever direction and speed without any problem. To make matters worse, the embarrassment I felt from my countless mistakes while we were playing made me just as embarrassed to try to explain myself in Spanish to my teammate. I got the baby treatment while I was playing with my teammate who kept giving me the softest, easiest to handle passes possible, which I desperately needed. I soon realized these kiddy passes are the only way I’m going to develop my soccer skills. Just like with Spanish, when someone speaks a little bit slower than normal to me, it lets me pick up words here and there and ultimately helps my Spanish skills improve.

While I am sure I will not be playing like Messi any time soon, I am glad I had some quality competition to force me to play my best. Also, with Henry saying he wants to play once every weekend, I will have plenty of opportunities to improve. My language skills are undergoing the same training except that it is daily, beginning once I step outside my room into the Spanish-speaking world.

Guinea Pigs are Food, not Friends

by Max W., Tufts 1+4 Participant

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.