We got an extra day this February, so no wonder it felt long and strange in some ways! We celebrated birthdays and other special occasions (what else is new?!), welcomed a retreat group, played Carnaval, and spent a lot of time cleaning out our house after it flooded. And Bad Bunny dropped a new album before the month ended… blessings left and right!
The school year on the coast of Ecuador ends at the end of January, so the beginning of February is always marked with graduation celebrations. We were able to celebrate Viviana’s kindergarten graduation with her family right before the month got even busier. We got to play games and hear the little speech she gave at the ceremony about the important things she’d learned that year, such as numbers, vowels, and most importantly, friendship!
At the beginning of February, 2 of our Ecuadorian “moms” celebrated birthdays. First, we were able to celebrate Juana’s birthday with a surprise party thrown by her neighbors with our help. Still to this day I’m not sure if she found out about the party beforehand and just pretended to be surprised, but either way, it was so fun to see her come home to the decorations, cake, and neighbors and friends surrounding her to yell “surprise!” After months of being cared for by Juana, we volunteers loved to finally be able to celebrate her. But, of course, she still insisted on cooking for everyone else… at her own birthday party! Victoria’s parents were in town for the party, so I think she wanted to be able to cook for them herself. What a gem! Juana’s older 4 daughters have been visiting their aunt in Esmeraldas since school let out, so she has been feeling a little lonely… yet another reason why all of us wanted to make sure we celebrated well for her special day. At the end of the party, after most people had left, Juana pulled us all aside and thanked us for everything. She said that although she was sad her daughters weren’t able to be there for her birthday for the first time, she thinks of us as her children, and even gave each one of us girls a name of one of her older daughters for different personality reasons. Even though we were joking about this, it was an honor to be referred to as Juana’s daughter.
Just a couple of days later, we celebrated Monica’s birthday with banana bread (a classic gringo treat that our Ecuadorian neighbors love… we think!) and laughter- we always laugh a lot with Monica! Her warm hugs and wisdom sustain us as volunteers and we are so grateful to have her in our lives!
Midway through February, I was the volunteer leader in charge of the second retreat (immersion) group we have welcomed into the Monte Sinaí community during our time as volunteers. This group came from St. John’s Prep, an all-boys high school outside of Boston. Going into this year, although I was excited to welcome in university groups, I was a bit hesitant about the trips from high school groups- especially all-male groups! I was unsure how, as a leader, I could accurately convey my experience of life here in Monte Sinaí and make sure these kids didn’t go home with false assumptions or oversimplified cliches about poverty or injustice in Ecuador. To say the least, I was stressed out going into the week.
However, thanks to the energy and eagerness to learn expressed by the 11 boys themselves, the intentionality put in by the group’s staff leaders from the school, and the help of my community who supported me and helped me to process throughout the week, I came out of this experienced energized and with a renewed passion for the work of “being” that I do here as a volunteer. This is not to say that I don’t still have lingering questions about the ethics of short-term immersion experiences, especially in the Global South. But I do see the value in planting seeds in young minds about service and justice, and in trusting this retreat group process for now, while I’m involved in it, and analyzing later, when I have more experience and perspective. So, although I’m still processing this experience, I can confidently say that the boys I had the privilege of leading, as well as making me laugh so hard, taught me much more than I thought about wonder and awe in new encounters.
Another special moment of this past month happened right after I dropped the group off at the airport after their week ended. The 6 of us volunteers had planned on visiting our neighbor, Diana, at the comedor her mom, Fani, works at, to wish her well for her fifteenth birthday. We knew Fani had been trying to find a way to pay for a quinceañera for her daughter, but hadn’t heard an update, so we assumed there wasn’t going to be any sort of celebration, at least not on her birthday itself. Well, when we showed up, we soon found out we were wrong! Just that day, Fani had secured the money and had planned to have the quinceañera at the comedor itself, which has an event space next door. Showing up to sing happy birthday to a neighbor at 10pm, right after we drop off a retreat group and are completely exhausted, only to unexpectedly find ourselves at a quinceañera, is probably the most typical thing to happen to us volunteers during our time here- we had to laugh! In seriousness, though, that evening was one of those times when I felt so alive and like I was in the right place. I may have been tired, it may have been super late, but we had the honor of getting to listen to our neighbor Fani and her sons speak so honestly and beautifully about how proud they are of their daughter/sister, and of dancing and eating with this family as they celebrated such a special milestone. I am so blessed to be in this place!
After the craziness of preparing for and welcoming in the retreat group, we got to celebrate Carnaval, the few days of celebration before Ash Wednesday. I don’t know what I expected coming into this… it wasn’t celebrated in Argentina when I lived there, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be like St. Louis Mardi Gras either! So, little context going in. Carnaval in city centers in Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil consists of parades with elaborate costumes and dancing. In Ecuador, at least on the coast and away from downtown, Carnaval consists of people throwing water, paint, mud, eggs, flour, and anything else you could think of at each other! Sometimes people play really dirty and throw old food or other gross things. We volunteers played after mass with our friends outside the church, and then with different neighbors around our area. A rotten egg was probably the worst thing that got thrown at me… so not too bad! We also all got thrown into these big mud puddles with standing water that’s been collecting for a few months now… so in reality, that stuff is probably worse than the rotten egg! Each night, scrubbing the mud, paint, and God only knows whatever else off of our bodies took forever, but we have so many funny memories from those few days that it was so worth it.
I guess the last thing that happened of note in February was that our house flooded during a huge rainstorm while we were out at Ash Wednesday mass! The buses stopped running that night during the storm, so we got home partially in a tricimoto (kind of a small motorized car… I honestly don’t know how else to describe it!) and partially walking through thigh-high waters. Although the mess was a pain to deal with, since our house is concrete and not cane, like many of our neighbors, it didn’t suffer lasting damage.
Thanks for reading… until next month! Stay healthy, friends!