When I first saw the dirt house, I was horrified. And the no shower situation? I had a terrible cold for a week after taking a bucket bath in freezing, mountain weather. Not to mention my hair didn’t dry afterward for a full 24 hours.
I suffered a superiority complex before my trip to Ecuador last summer with the Amigos de las Americas program. It wasn’t that I thought I was above the people, but my naive self initially couldn’t see past the differences in lifestyles. I’ll admit I wasn’t excited about eating potatoes for every meal, having no access to Snapchat, drinking water tainted with bleach.
But I signed up for the program because I wanted to experience a different culture. What once was thought of as a sacrifice of my time with friends, missing valuable pool and tanning time and family trips, became the most life-changing weeks of my life — life-changing enough that I couldn’t resist returning.
However, before the experience, I really didn’t think I would ever return to my community in Ecuador. It seemed more like something I would do for six weeks, learn a some spanish, and never return; especially not to eat my host mom’s special potato soup, and not as soon as spring break like I did.
Now, two trips to Ecuador later, I realized how wrong I was about everything – the different lifestyle, the mountain isolation and the idea of returning back. Living without all of distractions of the Johnson Country bubble gave the 150-person community time for the truly important things in life – each other – without the thinking of Kardashian drama or finding the perfect prom dress.
Over the summer, I grew to love my 20-year-old host mom, Jessica, and her two toddler sons, Kevin and Alex. We ate together, played together and went everywhere together – unlike my family dinners that happen maybe twice a week back home. We sang songs in the traditional Kichwa language and Jessica taught me how to peel a potato with a knife in less than ten seconds. When it was finally August 10, I didn’t want to leave the quiet, isolated community.
Through these new revelations, I realized that there was a mutual exchange of giving and learning between my community and me. In the end, the community welcomed me and acted as if I was a member, never being frustrated when I couldn’t understand their questions or had to stop to search through my pocket-sized Spanish to English dictionary.
With the stress of the International Baccalaureate program, Nationals season in dance and upcoming tryouts and testing, I desperately needed to return to my happy place – in the Andes.
Last December, I finally convinced my parents that my brother Denny and I would be perfectly capable of traveling to Ecuador alone for spring break. I missed my host family, the 6 a.m. wake-up call with the rising sun and playing World Cup, a soccer game, at the school.
When I arrived in March, I realized that I had made lifelong connections in the community. I went to the school and everyone ran out of class to greet me, begging me to show them pictures of me at homecoming and watch the videos of my newest Drill Team dances. My host mom welcomed me with open arms and my two toddler host brothers came running and clung to my legs.
Once again, I was simply living with a host family, partaking in daily life like milking cows, moving the sheep and harvesting vegetables – all activities that I cherished the first time I went.
To them, I am a friend with a willingness to try new things — like speaking Kichwa — while being laughed at. I taught them a few new games and songs revolving around topics like environmental sustainability, leadership and gender equality.
Leaving after the summer, I didn’t really understand what I had accomplished and how many people truly consider me their friend. I didn’t even know if I would go back. Leaving after spring break, however, I know that I will return, if only to play a game of soccer with the kids and try to beat Jessica at peeling potatoes.