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My Month in Ecuador (thank you Vandy!)

Posted by on Sunday, November 8, 2015 in Culture, Nature, Service, Study Abroad, Summer.

This summer I went to Ecuador for a month, thanks to a program in Vandy’s OACS (Office of Active Citizenship and Service). We just a reunion dinner to share our experiences with the other groups (there was also South Africa, Morocco and London) and I was asked to speak on behalf of my group, or “cohort”. The following was my speech (sorry it’s so long-I had a lot to say!):

***OR watch this video of the experience (I worked very hard on it, please watch!) OACS Ecuador 2015 Trip***

When people ask me how my trip to Ecuador was, I sum it up as the most challenging and most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. Then, if they have more time, I explain. My service site was teaching English to the students of the Amable Arauz school in Conocoto, Ecuador, about an hour south of Quito. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m majoring in Elementary Education and Spanish. So, my placement really couldn’t have been more ideal. And it really taught me more than I could have asked for. If I wanted to be a tourist in Quito and get to take some pictures with cute kids, I wouldn’t have chosen this trip. It’s a good thing that wasn’t was I was looking for…

Right from the start, David (the other Vandy student who was at the school with me until Scott joined later on) and I were thrown in head first. We were immediately given the responsibility of teaching English to a class of 40 Spanish-speaking kids. We were terrified! And I at least have a background in teaching and classroom experience. David really stepped up. He learned quickly and worked hard. Really hard. We woke up at 6 every morning, took two separate public buses to the school, and got home around 5. But oh, was it worth it. The kids, especially the younger ones (we as the English teachers travelled around all day and worked with all grades), loved learning. And they especially loved learning about America. During recess-both the students’ and our favorite time of the day-David and Scott would play soccer with some of the kids and I would play tag or family with others. One day, a girl told me in Spanish that I look like a girl from a movie. I realized she was not referencing my movie star good looks, but rather the fact that she had only seen people who look like me, Americans, in movies. It was one of the many touching moments that reminded me how important it was to be there. Even if they didn’t remember every vocab word, we were exposing them to a culture most had only heard about.

Me falling in love with the kids of Conocoto!

It was hard. But when we made a breakthrough with the children, I swear there’s nothing like that feeling (except maybe when we made it to the bottom of Cotopaxi-yes, the bottom not the top, that story will come later). One of those breakthroughs came when David and I were teaching a class of 10th graders together. We were going over some vocabulary words from a reading. I tell ya, you don’t realize how hard the English language is until you try to teach it. How would you describe the word “floating”? I decided to try by using an example. I say to the seemingly unengaged group of teenagers, “To float. For example, when you put a pencil in water, it floats!” One boy raises his hand and I got so excited. He says, “teacher, pencils don’t float”. Everyone laughed. I laughed too! That’s something important I learned throughout this experience: laugh at yourself. “That’s true”, I respond, “but now you know what floating means, don’t you?” He smiled back.

On the last day of school, I brought my guitar in and David, Scott and I played and sang for the kids. It was the best goodbye we could have imagined. My favorite part was at the end of our performance when we’d sit with the guitar and have the children come up and strum it while we used vocab like “guitar”, “song”, and “strings”. The magic in their eyes again showed us why we were there, and reminded us to continue looking for the magic of the world, too.

Me breezing down Quilatoa; look at that gorgeous crater lake!

Ecuador was filled with magic, and we got to experience it during our weekend excursions. First, we went to the Amazon Rain Forest, where we all came back with the knowledge of how to make chocolate from cacao beans, a major crush on our guide Favio, and I was lucky enough to come back with a fever and about 100 bug bites. Luckily, the fever broke and David wrote a killer rap to make me feel better, We went hiking down the crater lake of Quilatoa in absolute beautiful weather. The hiking up part, however, tested all of our physical abilities. Neevi almost blacked out, but boyscout David and fearless Paxton led the pack upward and we all made it back safely. The pride we felt was only matched the next day after we survived the volcanic adventure of Cotopaxi.

Standing at about 20,000 feet, the hike itself up Cotopaxi wasn’t that bad. What made it-I don’t want to say miserable, so let’s just say difficult-was the fact that we were in the midst of a freezing hail storm. Were any of us prepared with any winter gear whatsoever? Ha. Again, we stuck together and supported each other, and we made it. The real treat was that we were able to go a shorter way down the volcano, and quickly saw the bus. That whole hike is a little hazy to me, but I do recall saying something along the lines of  “I have never felt more alive” when we got to the bottom. Filled with this new life, we looked back up at what we had conquered. Proud is an understatement.

We could've paid to ride a horse back up Quilatoa. I wish we did!

We also went to Mindo, a tourist destination where we zip lined through the rain forest. From the 13 zip lines to the sometimes-compromising positions we assumed on the saddle, it was fun and exhilarating. And in the pouring rain. Who doesn’t want added danger to an extreme sport? We took it with stride and enjoyed every second. We had time for a few other tourist activities, like exploring Mitdad Del Mundo which proved to be a sick photo op at the exact equator of the world-how many people can say they’ve been there? We also took a walking tour of Quito, and it was awesome learning so much about the history of this beautiful place we were staying in. Safe to say we all fell in love with Quito, although for me it took getting used to the public transportation first.

I wouldn’t feel satisfied with this description of our program without quickly mentioning two more things: the food and the people involved. The food was absolutely amazing and I miss it so much. Somehow we were able to start every meal with soup, eat delicious rice and countless different forms of potatoes and still lose weight there. I credit the hills. As David put perfectly, we now know what people when the talk about walking uphill both ways.  All of our host families were the most hospitable, helpful, genuinely sweet humans we could have asked for.

This program taught me more than I could have asked for. It’s okay to laugh at yourself. It’s also okay to ask for help when you need it, and to admit when you’re struggling. You will get the hang of it if you persevere, and the little moments make it all worth it. Lauren, thank you for all that you’ve done to organize this and to put together this cohort for which I am immensely lucky to now have in my life. I will continue telling everyone I know about what I did this summer, no matter how tired they are of hearing it. I can’t help but reflect out loud on that momentous month. As far as the cohort, I can’t wait to see where all of our lives take us. Y’all continue to impress me and it’s been truly, truly an honor going on this journey with you. And I know that each of us is just getting started. Thank you.

To say we got "close" with the people we went with is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I love these people.

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