My 1+4 Story: Henry Baer-Benson

By Henry, Tufts 1+4 Participant

“I love the weather Cuenca. It’s sunny in the morning, rainy in the afternoon and cloudy in the evening. My only qualm, as a Minnesotan, is that it seldom dips below 55 degrees. Winter is my favorite season and the thought of going an entire year without touching snow is not a happy one. However, several weeks ago, I was in Quito with Stephanie and Maxito and we decided to climb one of the surrounding mountains. As we neared the summit, we came across a bluff that cast a small patch of shadow on the ground below and at its base was the largest snow bank I’ve seen all year.”

I’m Not in Texas Anymore

by Stephanie, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I have had more adventures in the last few weeks in Ecuador than in the last few years of my life. I have been to the mountains, the beach, and the rain forest. I have driven across water, over mountains, and on highways with nothing between me and the horizon. Waterfalls as tall as skyscrapers rain down on trails that I have hiked. And cities bigger than my hometown have spanned in front of me. Sometimes the sky is bright blue, other times it is gray and storming. At dusk, the sun paints rainbows in the sky using every color imaginable. During the night, millions of stars light up the black nothingness. But, without a doubt, the most amazing sight I have seen is the Andes mountain range.

I spent my entire childhood in Texas, a state known for its flatness. Starting in Austin, I can drive about six hours in every direction without reaching a single hill or mountain. Flat is a norm for me. But here in Ecuador, I am constantly surrounded by the most amazing mountain range on Earth, the Andes. Every time I see these huge, jagged pieces of rock, I cannot stop a smile from creeping on my face. It is a smile of pure wonder and amazement. These majestic pieces of Earth are so contradictory to the sights of my hometown. I feel lucky to witness these magnificent views every day. And the best place to look at these mountains uninterrupted by cities and towns is in Cajas National Park, about a 45 minute drive outside of Cuenca. I have driven through this park about 6 times, and each time has been more incredible than the last.

My last trip through Cajas this past Friday, on the way home from our trip to get student visas in Manta, was by far the best view yet. It had been a long day. I was running on four hours of sleep and we were five hours into the seven hour car ride home. I wanted nothing more than to put my head down, turn on my music, and imagine how great it would feel to lay down in my bed. Then we drove through the layer of clouds that had been blocking the mountain tops and my jaw physically dropped. An explosion of light and vivid views woke my mind from its slumber. The sun was slowly descending behind the angular mountain tops, leaving an array of colors in its wake. Each time the road would bend, the trees would disappear leaving only the layer of clouds we had just escaped from, stretching as far as my eye could see. The Andes beauty and strength in this moment was unparalleled.

I have always dreamed of a grand adventure, and my idea of this adventure has changed drastically over the years. But none of those dreams can compare to the reality of Cajas National Park, especially during a sunset. I feel invincible whenever I drive this road, like I can really make my dreams a reality. Then I realize, this feeling is true because I am living my grand dream of adventure here in Ecuador.

Tough Love

by Elizabeth, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Rafaela, my host sister, is four years old, blind and a drama queen. In the beginning, I assumed that she would be the most difficult to bond with because much of my early integration involved me silently listening to conversations and simply being present. Since she couldn’t see me sitting there, none of this meant much to her. But we have managed to connect in other arguably more important ways. Her world revolves around sound and touch, so the color of my hair and the brand name on my clothes means much less to her than it does to the rest of Ecuador. In Rafaela’s world, I am just a nebulous physical presence with a foreign sounding voice that sometimes makes weird smelling food. But for some reason, we get along.

If it’s been more than an hour since I’ve talked to her, she will repeatedly shout my name at the top of her lungs. If I don’t answer, she will ask the nearest person where I am and what I’m doing with slowly increasing volume until someone inevitably breaks down and responds. Sometimes, she tells me that she is “in love with the sound of my voice.” Other times, she tells me that I talk like a gringa and should learn Spanish already. Multiple times she has asked me why I’m from the United States and not from Ecuador. My follow-up question of why she’s from Ecuador and not the United States caused her somewhat of an existential crisis resulting in an extended period of silence, but I think that is when I truly earned her respect.

She is one of the most eager learners and teachers I have ever met. Right now, she is learning how to open doors herself. This involves a few minutes of banging her hands on the wall until she finds the doorknob and flings herself into the room, often completely naked and usually before 6 in the morning. She walks to my bed with arms outstretched, feels to make sure I’m in it and then leaves. It’s part of our morning routine. An unexpected side effect of this experimentation with my doorknob recently resulted in her locking us both out of my bedroom and my neighbor having to come and break down the door. Just another day in the life.

Learning English is also one of her current projects. We can spend hours together with her asking me how to say random words in English (“jug” and “cool” are her favorites). And while other people worry about hurting my feelings, she is the only one I can truly count on to correct my pronunciation and help me learn. She will randomly call on me to read to her from whatever book her hands land on and then ruthlessly mock the way I say each word until it is up to her standards. Her tough love has been the best Spanish teacher I could have hoped for.

I have never been an older sibling; even all of my extended family was older than me. Because of this, I am incredibly fortunate to be in this house with this little girl. She has taught me so much about dragonflies and percussion and shamelessly playing the recorder at full volume no matter who is sleeping and how to always get what you want (pro tip- just scream until they give it to you out of desperation). Although the barrier of age and language is too great right now for me to express this in a way she can understand, I really do love her. And maybe one day someone can read this to her in English and she can remember that weird interim family member that taught her how to say “jug” and “cool” and didn’t kill her when she banged on the walls at five in the morning.

Patience, Persistence, and Maní

by Chastidy, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Last week I asked my host mom and her cuñado how to say peanut in Spanish. Not knowing very much English, they tilted their heads in confusion. Attempting to get my questions across, I grabbed a piece of paper and pen. “Color café.. con líneas,” I said as I drew out a peanut. I then motioned my hands as if I was breaking a peanut open repeatedly. Finally, my mom’s cuñado said, “Ahhh, un almendra!” No, not an almond. I then resorted to just googling a picture of a peanut, which I probably should’ve just done in the beginning.

For a brief moment I was reminded of home. Holding conversations with my own parents often looked like a game of charades, with puzzled faces and fleeting moments where we thought we were on the same page. Growing up with deaf parents was trying at times because my fluency in American Sign Language wasn’t the best. However, in moments of frustration and confusion, I learned to navigate around not knowing specific words, figuring out different ways to get my message across. Now, being thousands of miles away from home in a country with a different language, I’m noticing the patience and persistence I developed from my home life, an experience that at times felt isolating from that of my peers. I think about my parents everyday, and I am ultimately extremely grateful. What seemed to be a struggle growing up has helped me tackle on this new journey, and figure out the word for peanut – maní.


by Max, Tufts 1+4 Participant

A midnight start and a 9 PM finish. I don’t think I’ve ever had a busier and more relaxing day at the same time.

I eagerly accepted the opportunity to go to Guayaquil, a city about three hours from Cuenca, for a farm food and artisan craft fair. Farmers from all around Ecuador came and sold the staples from their regions. For example, since plantains are a big part of the Ecuadorian jungle food culture, inhabitants of that area had many on display, fixed to their original branches. Our AMIGOS supervisors tell us to take advantage of every work opportunity or trip possible, so I was trying to follow that advice. However, I truly knew very little about the trip going into it, which made it part interesting, part scary. While the fair ended up being a unique experience, I knew the day would be long and hot. Sure enough, I was right about it all.

I thought I’d only be going to the fair with the colleague who invited me. Yet, it turned out that seemingly every farm lady in Cuenca made the trip. This made me think that it wasn’t just a cultural trip; I started to think that for these women, it was an opportunity to share their lives and work on the farm. At the fair, these women displayed the food from their farms, and I was impressed with what I saw. Most striking to me was the artistic way of showing off their products. For example, the Cuencan farm ladies made some really complicated geometric figure that was composed of the food and artisan items native to the city. I mostly stayed back and watched them make the elaborate structure because I didn’t want to mess it up.
We arrived at the site at the crack of dawn, unloading the bins of food and bringing them to our fair stand. What inspired me to keep pushing on was the energy shown by the Cuencan farm women. They easily hauled cardboard boxes overflowing with fruits and vegetables of all colors from the storage section of our bus to our display area. They did so while wearing sweat-inducing traditional skirts. This image of these ladies putting in so much effort gave me the motivation to help them out. I also really wanted to explore the fairgrounds to see what the farmers from other cities had on display, but unfortunately I was just absolutely wiped out.

Fitting to the theme of the day, my favorite part of the fair was trying different types of local food. For breakfast, I had a cheese-filled tortilla. It was whole-wheat, too! Although I could still see the smoke rising from it, I let my tongue pay the price and devoured the tortilla. Usually I’m a big breakfast eater, but with only 50 cents, I was satisfied for the morning with just one tortilla from heaven. My lunch was also tasty and had an interesting Chinese flavor. I had what was almost like fried rice with chicken and pork. Whether it was actually fried rice or not, I’ve found it fascinating how some dishes here have similarities with those from different countries, especially since this is a nation where I had heard there’s not much food diversity.

While the length of the day and heat could’ve made me regret going to this fair, I understood I had to make the most of the day. My bridge year has taught me that if you go into a situation with a bad attitude, you won’t enjoy yourself. Instead, if you’re upbeat and want to get involved, you’ll really appreciate even the mundane moments. Ultimately, this gap year is like a scrapbook that demands to be filled with days at a hot farm fair in Guayaquil.

The Fight for Cajas

by Jennifer, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Recently, my host family and I visited Cajas National Park, about an hour outside of Cuenca. As I stepped out of our car, relieved to finally stretch my cramping limbs, I was swept away by the view. Rugged hills dappled deep blue and muddy green by low lying clouds stretched to the horizon. Driven by an urge to lose myself in endless sky, I began walking. From time to time, I climbed rocky outcroppings and gazed into the distance, leaving my worries far below.

The fields were so dense with tufts of native flowers it was hard not to step on them. The wildflowers were brilliant spots of color on a dull canvas, hidden behind rocks and between thickets of grass, peering out at me as I passed. They fascinated me, and I carefully stooped to examine crimson spikes, golden buds, and violet petals.

Later, I wandered off by myself into a forest. The color gradient of bark, verdant fern fronds bursting from the ground, and a grasshopper blending with dewy leaves caught my attention. Raindrops splattered on my head as I ducked under branches and stepped over logs. My tennis shoes sank into peat and became soaked, but I didn’t mind. Alone in the silence, damp and smelling of pine, I felt at peace.

Ecuador was the first country in the world to recognize Rights of Nature in its constitution. Article 71 says, “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Rights of Nature comes from Sumac Kawsay, or Buen Vivir, the worldview of the Quechua people.

I was disappointed but not surprised to learn the national government of Ecuador has been gold mining outside of Cajas for years. Gold mining threatens to disrupt the park’s delicate ecological balance and contaminate Cuenca’s drinking water. The national government has little respect for their progressive constitution and the ideals of their people.

The municipal government of Cuenca has protested fiercely against gold mining. In a September resolution, the Consejo Municipal pleaded with Ecuador’s new president, Lenin Moreno, to protect Cajas: “[The national government] should eliminate and, from now on, expressly prohibit metallic mining activities in water sources, moorlands, wetlands and cloud forests, and high Andean forests . . . and declaring these areas intangible.” But protests haven’t swayed the national government. They pursue their economic ends regardless of the consequences.

I volunteer with the Municipal Department of Culture in the office of International Projects, and I wrote a letter to several international organizations asking for support in our fight for Cajas. The only way to check the power of the national government is to ally with those more powerful.

This is my first time tackling a problem with politics. It can be frustrating sitting at a desk and waiting for the gears of bureaucracy to grind, but mundane work becomes fulfilling when I remember how I felt in Cajas, feet firmly planted, breathing the chill mountain air and squinting against the sun. After experiencing the park’s wild, beautiful majesty I feel compelled to save it.