All The Little Things

By Luke, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Coming from a small town in western Massachusetts and transitioning to the bustling city of Cuenca was overwhelming. Here I was—plunged into this foreign space in a new home, with people I had just met, speaking a language I was still learning.

Sitting down on my bed that first night, I felt entirely helpless and alone. Riding the bus for the first time, I panicked that I would wind up completely lost. Saying “no puedo entender” in seemingly every conversation I had, I worried about being able to communicate effectively. In this transitory period I felt lost. Luckily, as time went on, beautiful little moments began to shape my experience.

I remember first meeting two of my host siblings. They crashed into my life, and their light, laughter, and love collided violently with my sorry emotions. Graciously, they welcomed me in, asking question after question and, in turn, sharing stories of their own. Excitedly, they introduced me to the park in front of the house. Energetic, shouting “¡mira, Lucas, mira!” they demonstrated their parkour moves on the playground equipment, navigating each difficult task with ease. They encouraged me to try it out myself; so, clumsily, I attempted to mirror their movements. I soon learned that I was not able to contort my lanky limbs in the ways that their nine and ten year old bodies easily could. Later, they shared with me Pipas, sunflower seeds, sharp with lemon flavor. “Phew, phew, phew,” as they showed me the proper method for spitting out the shells.

I remember having spontaneous singing sessions—“Recuéardame” on repeat—with me chiming in every few words. When this got to be repetitive, we moved on to “Cuán Lejos Voy” from Moana and “Believer” by Imagine Dragons. After a while we hopped up, saying, “bailemos, saltemos,” our bodies wiggling in time with the music.

I remember boarding the bus, everyone squished together in one big jumble and witnessing the incomparable energy that emanates from the people, each with their own unique story. Indelible in my mind is the memory of that woman, face turned away from the man by her side, baby in her lap, with tears streaming down her face, her body rigid against the seat of the bus. What was her narrative?

I remember the pijamada we had, my four host siblings sprawled out on the couch in my room, their whispers piercing the nighttime silence every few seconds. The youngest, crying, pulled me out of bed and told me that she missed her mom, who is working in the United States. They asked for a song and, unknowing of any Spanish ones, I softly rendered a similar version to one that my parents sang to me as a kid.

I was slowly, reassuringly finding a rhythm. I realized that I had come into the experience with all of these expectations which were not being immediately met. I anticipated creating lasting bonds with my host family, navigating the city with ease, and becoming more comfortable with my Spanish skills. I came to understand that by focusing on these expectations, I was ignoring all of those little moments, each saturated with emotion and meaning, that were the stepping stones along the way.

All of these moments carry so much meaning. It is the unconditional love of my host mom, the light that streams through the curtain in the morning, the saludos that I share with my host siblings. It is cafecito and pan, joyful laughter and sudden tears, movies in Spanish and Bruja the lovable cat. It is all of this and so much more that create the beautiful jigsaw puzzle that defines my experience here.

I Think I Just Met God and She’s an Elderly, Ecuadorian Woman

By Darby, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Surrounded by churches and cathedrals, blue domed, white trim, ornate gold detailing, pastel colored statues of the saints, in Cuenca you can’t help but think of God. Whoever or whatever that may be. A man? A woman? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t think I ever have been. I know what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been told. But I don’t know what I believe.

I was baptized as a Christian before I could speak or even think and a confirmed Catholic since 2014. However, in recent years I’ve been distancing myself from the Church and its potentially dangerous rhetoric regarding the rights of women and those who identify as LGBTQ+. Arriving in Cuenca reminded me why I felt called to Catholicism in the first place.

It was our first day here. A Monday. A few of us decided to leave the hostel to get some fresh air when we stumbled across the many churches, essentially one on every corner, that Cuenca has to offer. But we only actually stepped foot inside the last church we saw, Santuario Mariano del Carmen de la Asunción. It’s situated in La Plaza de las Flores, across the street and overshadowed by La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción.

On that slow and hazy Monday morning, as I was kneeling below the pew, I could hear the faint sound of the parishioners singing, praising. Maybe it was a choir? I was very far back in the church, not wanting to disturb what was happening before my eyes, almost like a museum exhibit or ballet performance, taking it all in as quietly as possible. I could feel the the powerful, looming notes and phrases bouncing, vibrating, echoing off the walls. I made the sign of the cross, the father, the son, the holy spirit and prayed.

I prayed mostly for myself, as selfish as that seems. The exact opposite of what God calls us, encourages us to do. And as much as I hate to admit it, I needed help and I didn’t know who else to ask. Since landing in Quito, my first time out of the United States, I felt like my world had been turned upside down and I couldn’t get a grip. I prayed for the ability to make it through the next second, minute, hour, day, week, month. To have patience with myself and with others. To have courage and be kind.

Right as I said, “Amen,” under my breath, an elderly woman approached me. She gingerly reached out her hand to me, sliding it softly against the wooden church bench. Still kneeling, in her short stature, she was eye level with me. I was hesitant to embrace her. Possibly a larger metaphor for my apprehension about living in a foreign city, miles away from all I’ve ever known.

Her hands were wrinkled and peppered with age spots. Signs of her life lived. She wore a gold ring, a plain wedding band of sorts. And she had something covering her hair. A short black veil? She said something to me in Spanish that I couldn’t fully grasp the meaning of, but be assured that I was hanging onto every word. She was beaming with a maternal pride. I knew she was glad I was here. It was the first time I felt welcomed in Cuenca.

It was our religion, albeit varying in degrees of commitment and devotion, that united us. The motion of my kneeling, praying, signing the cross, it said more to her than I could ever convey in a sentence, let alone in Spanish. Maybe it’s by the grace of God, my strength and determination, or sheer luck. Who knows? All I know is that so far my prayers have been answered. And that is the most comforting fact of all. That someone or something is listening and for the first time in a long time, I am being heard.

A New Perspective on Tampons and Tacos

By Olivia, Tufts 1+4 Participant

It was a Tuesday afternoon, and I was not in a great mood when Señorita Charrito, a woman who cooks and cleans at my work, approached me. I was waiting for the kids to finish eating so we could continue with the many hours left in our day, and I was less than enthused. But a less than enthused facial expression would never phase Charrito. She grabbed my bag that I had tucked under my arm and began rummaging through it – something she likes to do when she’s bored. As she was pulling items out and messing around with them – my headphones, chap stick, a headband – she came across a loose tampon. 

She stopped, examined it for a minute, and then asked me what it was. Not knowing the word for tampon (which I now know is just tampón), I attempted to describe in Spanish what a tampon is used for. It was more graphic than I would have wanted because the most helpful words I knew how to say were “hole” and “blood”. Once she understood what I was saying, she unwrapped the tampon and proceeded to examine and play with it. It wasn’t long before we were joined by one of the educators, Veronica, and several of the kids. Suddenly I was giving a full lesson, placing the tampon in a glass of water to show how it expands. Charrito and Veronica were fascinated. They told me they had heard of a tampon but had never seen one before. While I laughed to myself at the thought of a tampon lesson in this environment, Charrito and Veronica were marveling at the idea of this modern approach to women’s hygiene. They had a million questions: does it hurt, how long does it last, does it ever fall out or get stuck? When the kids finished eating and it was time to move on to our afternoon workshops, Charrito and Veronica handed back the wet tampon and the empty applicator as if they were returning a diamond necklace I had leant to them, and they thanked me for teaching them about it.

​The next day when I arrived home for lunch with my host family, I was ecstatic to hear we were having tacos. Juanita, my host family’s house keeper, joined us for lunch as she always does on the days she works. I finished my soup before everyone else and thus moved on to making my taco. But as I began piling on the beans and guac and cheese, I noticed Juanita was watching very intensely from her seat beside me. I didn’t think too much of it and continued creating my perfect taco, but it was hard not to notice the look of total confusion mixed with a tinge of fear in Juanita’s eyes. 

When they all finished their soup, my host mom and host sister began putting together their own tacos, but Juanita sat quietly at the table with her hands in her lap, again watching closely. Finally, my host sister looked up at Juanita and asked “Quieres que te ayude?” (do you want me to help you?). She nodded, and my host sister walked her through step by step how to put together a taco. As it turns out, Juanita had never had a taco – it’s not as common to eat foreign cuisine in Ecuador as it is in America. Her face lit up with her first bite. She couldn’t believe how good it tasted. Just like Charrito and Veronica with the tampon, she had a million questions about where and how tacos are eaten and how much they cost. We enjoyed the rest of the meal discussing our favorite taco ingredients.

Tampons and tacos: two mundane things in my life. And suddenly they’re entirely different for me. I never would have looked at a tampon as a treasure and tacos as strange or difficult to assemble. Yes, I’ve been educated on the disparities of feminine hygiene around the globe, but education is different than experiencing it first-hand. And yes, I know that in many countries it’s not as common to eat the traditional food of other countries especially for less wealthy families, but it’s still shocking to see that a taco can be a foreign concept. Signing up for my gap year, I was eager to experience a whole new perspective on the world, but for the past 6 or 7 months I haven’t revisited this idea much. And though I’m sure when I get home I’ll realize all the ways in which my view of the world has changed, for now I’m left with a new perspective on tacos and tampons.

A Thank you Note to my Family

By Zach, Tufts 1+4 Participant

As I’ve been approaching my last month here in Ecuador, something that’s constantly been on my mind has been gratitude and how I can thank the people who have played a role in making my gap year as positive as it has been. When I think about the people who I am thankful for here, my mind immediately jumps to my incredible host family. My family here has been a massive part of my time here and before I leave, I certainly plan on showing them how thankful I am for them. One of the ways which I planned on doing so was to write them a note which they could hold on to. Of course, that letter would be in Spanish— and despite the fact that my Spanish has immensely improved this year, I do feel like I can express myself much better in English. That being said, I wanted to write my host family a letter in English, and despite the fact that they wouldn’t read it, it would be a lot more honest and expressive than that which I will write in Spanish.

To the Galans:

The only proper way to start this letter is to say thank you. To thank each of you for being so kind and loving to me this past year.When I first saw the family description that was listed for the Galan family, I was honestly a little worried. I saw that your family was described as being an elderly couple who lived a quiet life outside of the city. And of course, I was excited to get to meet you guys, but it’s just not necessarily what I was expecting. I grew up with two brothers in a loud house. I was used to sharing a room with my little brother and doing everything together. The prospect of living with a much quieter family would be a new experience for me.

I’m sure that you guys could understand my surprise once you had brought me home and I met all nine of you plus your three dogs. I was ecstatic.

When I first got here, I must have been much more boring than I am now. My Spanish was pretty poor which definitely affected how much fun I was with you guys. I remember sitting through our Sunday night dinners being completely lost. I remember taking car rides with Mary and just nodding to the stories that she told me— although I couldn’t understand exactly what you were saying, I really appreciated you making the effort to try to include me.

And perhaps because of that, I feel like part of this letter should come with an apology. Even now, I still feel sorry that despite my hardest efforts, I simply cannot communicate with you guys in a way where we all completely understand each other perfectly. There will always be little words, pieces of slang, or jokes that I just won’t get. When I’m not paying total attention to you when you’re speaking I struggle to follow what you guys say. And that’s incredibly frustrating, even though I’ve been here for a year, I feel like if I spoke Spanish perfectly, we would all be so much closer. My inability to speak Spanish fluently inevitably comes with a level of insincerity on my part. There were times— especially when I first got here— that my Spanish would not allow me to keep up a conversation with any of you. But rather than sit in silence, you would tell me stories or try to fill the space with some speaking that I wouldn’t really understand.And I would just smile and do my best to play it off as if I understood what you were saying. And of course this was just a lie, but in my position, it’s so much better to at least pretend to know what’s going on rather than just sitting at the dinner table noticeably clueless. Ultimately, I’m sorry for not being able to understand you guys in the ways that I wish I could.

But it’s honestly incredible to me how far we’ve come since September. Time has flown. I was just driving home from Amauta with you guys. We were just in Gualaceo having fights with the bubble toys or in Turi spinning upside down in a massive swing. Now Angie is pregnant and having her baby shower next week, Paúl has his own tattoo studio, and despite my constant jokes that I can’t speak Spanish, I actually speak the language pretty well.

I’m just so grateful for you guys welcoming me as much as you did. You made me into your family when you didn’t have to— it would have been so much easier for you to just brush me aside as being an exchange student who was just staying in the house for a year. But instead of that, you made me into an uncle, a brother, and a son. I wasn’t just the gringo living on the 3rd floor, I was the family that you had living upstairs. Welcoming me into your family like that was a choice that each of you made, and I will forever feel grateful for the acceptance that you extended to me.

It’s impossible to sum up this incredible year into a letter, but the laughter and memories are something that you don’t need a piece of paper to remember. Rather, the letter is to thank you all for the packed lunches, late night drives, and spontaneous empanada trips. Words will never be able to describe the gratefulness that I feel towards you all. Please keep in touch, come visit, and let me know if I can ever do anything for you to repay the love and compassion that you have all shown me.

Much love,

Zach


Foam and Fire

by Kamil, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Carnival

What a word. Crowds of cheering people packing the streets like sardines. Fireworks. Massive parade floats, marching dance ensembles, and city wide warfare.

Everyone carries a bottle of “Carioca,” ranging from a humble 300mL in a few easily concealable inches, to behemoth bottles that carry over a liter. What is “Carioca”?

Carioca is scented foam. It doesn’t stain and it’s somewhat non-toxic. People sneak attack each other with water, flour, and foam. Others form groups and prowl the streets looking for unwitting victims or other groups to challenge. It’s harmless fun, although some people go quite wild.

In my home base of Cuenca, people wore helmets. Some had ear plugs, others surgical masks covering their mouth. You will get foam in your eyes, ears, and mouth, sometimes even with some protective gear. I wore a bandana over my mouth and ears, which was quickly rendered quite useless as mounds of foam piled up and I began to appear more like Santa Claus or the Abominable Snowman than a recognizable regular person.

Mind you, there’s plenty of celebrations unique to every country. Certainly, Carnival is more international than other Ecuadorian holidays, such as their new year’s’ traditions.

For that, the trick is make effigies out of wood and old clothes, representing the past year, and burn them to make room for the new year to start fresh and cleansed. 

For the truly entrepreneurial, each neighborhood has judges and contest prizes. The biggest enter regional contests and compete with each other in public areas to the background of fireworks and concerts.

But everyone makes them. Each family burns their own representation of the old year, with some rubbish shirts, pants with holes, and torn shoes that would otherwise be discarded. At midnight sharp, the neighborhoods are alight with bonfires in front of every house, family sharing a good time together, and more than a few people running and bonfires and cheering family reunions. People dance a bit, wish each other best of luck in the year to come, and some take turns jumping over the bonfire to be reborn from the ashes of the past year. The experience cleanses.

Holidays mark the special divisions of our otherwise mundane year. Days, weeks, months are vital to our routine and systemic society, but don’t capture constant awe, nor offer a seductive allure. Celebrations are a reset button. When you participate in the emotional highs and everyday annoyances of a people, you get a better insight into their culture. It’s something romantic to reminisce over, and remember for the rest of our lives. Nothing quite stands out like the biggest holiday celebrations in the memory, or lack of celebration in those days.

Whatever happens, I’ll sorely miss all the traditions and celebrations I’ve encountered here in Ecuador. I’d likely take some back with me, but struggle with my family and local community that considers such actions utterly different and incomprehensible. Why would you throw flour at people and burn old clothes? 

Why cut down a pine tree to put in your house and dedicate a day to eating turkey?

A grand part of it all is the unity of a culture in everyone celebrating it together – a spirit enveloping the community so to speak.

It’s holiday celebrations that bond families together, and maintain them. I can’t help wondering where I’ll be next year, as my host family celebrates various Ecuadorian holidays and I’ll have a regular work or school day. I wonder what they think of me celebrating various Polish and American traditions that they don’t understand very well. Certainly I offer to explain and share, but my goal is to learn something here instead of pushing my culture on others and assuming I can teach anyone anything.

Goodbyes are bittersweet at best, and some of the hardest things to do at worst, but our shared family reunions and holiday celebrations will highlight all my experiences and memories, as well as provide a thread of unity and shared piece of culture I can relate with others I meet during my future travels.

I hope I find little ways to celebrate the culture I’ve grown accustomed to, and fell in love with.

A Whole Bucket of Fun

by Arlyss, Tufts 1+4 Participant

My family warned me time and time again. Sophia, my nine-year-old host sister, is quite the Carnavalera—meaning she loves to play Carnaval. I knew this entailed getting each other soaked and spraying foam, but boy was I not prepared.

This year on the Sunday of Carnaval, it was also my host cousin’s 13th birthday, so it was a double celebration, with lots of family at her house. In the early afternoon my sister and young cousin called me out into the storage area of the house. This was the room that connected to outside so it was acceptable to get soaked. Of course I went to to play, but after half an hour of pouring buckets of freezing water on each other, I was ready to warm up.

I went inside and everybody wanted me not to change into dry clothes. “If you change, they’re just going to get you wet again.” I thought there was no way, I’ll just choose not to go outside again. Little did I realize, it wasn’t my choice to make.

As I enjoyed my dry clothes, slowly I saw adults get roped into going outside one by one, and once you’re wet it’s your job to make sure everybody is, too. I fought to stay dry but eventually I was pulled off the banister, one adult holding my legs and another carrying me by the arms. I was carried outside with multiple buckets of water waiting for me. Everybody laughed as they saw me struggle in vain and I had to laugh as I saw the massive pot of ice cold water waiting for me.

This is Carnaval. This is having a host family. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know everybody there or that I didn’t want to be wet, I was going to be included in the fun either way, and it was so much fun.

My host family and friends part way through some outdoor Carnaval activities

As each person came back in the house completely wet, the furniture in the house was cleared to the edges of the room. Someone put on music, and the dancing began. Dripping wet we danced around the living room, every now and then being pulled outside and getting sprayed down with the hose, just to make sure we weren’t getting too dry.

It was one of those moments where I really felt a part of Ecuador; I really am a part of this family. This is my family, this is their holiday, and dancing the cold away was how we were going to celebrate. Everybody was laughing and running around, trying to avoid the wrath of the hose, foam, and buckets of water, but enjoying watching others be caught and laughing when they themselves had their turn, only then returning inside to change the music and keep the dancing going.

To finish it all off, we came inside to sing happy birthday to my cousin. All shivering from the cold, sitting in the scattered furniture, we ate birthday cake and talked over the fun of the day. And, after all, what good day doesn’t end with some cake?