January has come and gone oh so quickly… but throughout those weeks, it brought a stomach parasite for me, the glorious mango season, Dan’s parents for a visit, the rain, the mud, the bugs, the 6-month mark of living here in Ecuador, and a retreat on the beach on which to reflect about everything that this month has been! Specifically, I have been reflecting a lot on the concept and practice of hope (esperanza) and its importance in the greater community of Monte Sinaí.
Something I’ve been grappling with throughout my six months here in Ecuador is how to balance holding the pain and struggle of our neighbors here with holding all the joy that I encounter every day here. Going into this volunteer experience, a fear I had was that the injustices I encountered would be so intense that I would become hopeless. And, sometimes, the pain I witness here is a lot to handle. This past month, a teenager, Cesar, from the sector of Promesa de Dios, where I work, died in a motorcycle accident, leaving his whole community reeling in shock and grief. We volunteers were visiting Mari and her family in Promesa the same day that Cesar died, and you could just feel the weight of what had happened in the air. Although I know what it’s like to lose someone in a freak accident, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to already be struggling with poverty, lack of access to basic services, and insufficient education and healthcare systems, and then lose a young person to an accident. A 14-year-old neighbor of ours recently came down with dengue, a mosquito-borne disease. I visited this family when she recently had contracted the disease, and seeing her in so much pain, and knowing how difficult it would be for her mother to have to take off work to bring her to the hospital, and the fear that was so present in the family’s eyes, was difficult to witness. The exhaustion and difficulty of life here can seem overwhelming.
But, todavía, hay esperanza (there is still hope). This phrase was painted on the wall of the house in which we stayed in San Clemente at our 3-month retreat in November, and has stuck with my volunteer community since. How can I have the audacity to talk about hope when there is so much brokenness in Monte Sinai?
How can I have the audacity NOT to have hope, when my neighbors do? One of the most beautiful experiences of this past month for me was the first birthday party of Lia, our neighbor Juana’s daughter. After Lia was born last January 19, she fell into a coma for almost a month. Juana and her family struggled greatly during this time. When Lia finally came out of the coma, there was a rainbow visible outside the hospital- even though it hadn’t rained that day. Juana now sees the arcoiris (rainbow) as a sign of hope and of God’s promise to keep her family safe. Lia has continued to struggle with her health throughout her first year of life, and so her first birthday was a big deal for her family and friends! Juana planned an arcoiris-themed party, and throughout the craziness of kids’ games, food, dancing, and our volunteer rendition of “Un Año” by Sebastian Yatra with lyrics about Lia’s lucha, the poignancy of the reason behind the celebration was tangible. Towards the end of the party, Juana told us that Lia’s 1-year test results came back positive and that her growth should be healthy and normal from here on out. Through tears, she said, “ya no hay miedo” (there isn’t fear anymore). By that point, all of us were crying!
So, again, I ask, how can I NOT have hope? Lia’s party was a big milestone, but I have also encountered so much joy and hope in small moments throughout January. I have encountered it in an afternoon pushing my little neighbors Maria and Solimar around in a wheelbarrow, and in one evening with Liseth making homemade hair dye out of charcoal powder and aloe and laughing as we attempt to dye her hair and her neighbor’s hair, and another evening with her singing English worship songs, which I’ve never really been into before but now have a special place in my heart for them because of my friendship with Liseth. I have found it in Monica’s strong-willed dedication to her faith and to her family, no matter what. I have found it in Gloria’s sense of humor that remains despite the fact that her new house is still not done being built, even though the rain has started. I came to Ecuador almost bracing myself for the struggle I would encounter. What I did not expect was to be so filled with joy. Not a fleeting or superficial happiness that ignores or sugarcoats or puts a “positive spin” on injustice, or that depends on physical circumstances. Rather a joy that recognizes the reality of pain and the suffering, but also recognizes the truth that suffering does not negate these people’s dignity. A joy that springs from the hope that makes my neighbors here keep moving, keep working, keep laughing, and keep loving each and every day.
Below are some photos of some different experiences and moments from this month not yet mentioned!
Feliz Navidad y prospero año nuevo! Going into 2020, I feel grateful for the gifts I received in 2019, including the opportunity to live in Ecuador, and excited for all that the new year has to offer in terms of growth and learning in relationship with others here. So, my reflections on the festive month of December!
A day early in December that stays in my mind and heart as specifically meaningful was Julian’s First Communion party. Julian is the twelve-year-old stepson of our guard, Manuel. Manuel started to build a new, bigger house for his family several months ago- before we even arrived here. Here in Sinai, houses mean more than just the structure- they symbolize how hard people work here to create better lives for their families. Recently, Manuel finished building the house, and planned a party with his wife, Mariela, to welcome in their friends and family to celebrate the First Communion, the housewarming, and Julian’s birthday! We volunteers were so honored to be present for such a special occasion for the family, and in the words Manuel and Mariela shared with all of us at the party, it was evident that they were so proud of their family and so grateful to be surrounded by a strong support system.
On December 12, a few of us went to mass for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with Madre Elizabeth, a sister who works at San Felipe, the Catholic school in our neighborhood. Our community mate Isabel’s family is from Mexico, so it was an important day for her. Although the church we went to was more traditional than the one we’re used to in our neighborhood, it was so beautiful to see the people’s devotion to la Virgen Maria, as patron of Latin America. That evening sticks out to me as a special moment because it was a time for us to support our community member, grow in spirituality alongside the people of Ecuador, and spend time with a friend here (Madre Elizabeth) who brings so much energy and light to our experience.
And now, onto some more festivities that made my month so joyful! The next week, we had our Rostro de Cristo Christmas party, with us volunteers, staff, guards, and their families. The night consisted of dinner, sharing of gratitude for our staff, dancing, and performances from each volunteer community. The Arbolito volunteers shared a rendition of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” in Spanish with changed lyrics, as well as a parody version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” We Sinai volunteers performed a skit playfully imitating our guards, and a choreographed dance of “Dura” by Daddy Yankee (yes, video footage exists!). That night, it really felt like we were one big family… different ages, nationalities, and backgrounds, but all coming together in celebration.
Aaand, the party continues (I now understand why a neighbor told me at the beginning of my time here that Ecuadorians are always celebrating)! The next day, Owen and I headed out to Realidad de Dios for the Christmas party my office had helped to plan with the parents of the community for the kids. I can’t explain exactly why, but I just felt so free that morning as we set up and celebrated with the kids. After all the ups and downs of figuring out the dynamics of my job position throughout the past five months, I think it just felt like a moment of clarity, of realizing why I love doing what I do here, because all I was doing was being. I wasn’t too worried about the logistics of the party, because that had already been planned, or keeping the attention of the kids, because we were having fun. It was a morning of simply enjoying the company of the kids that Owen and I have had the privilege of getting to know and loving over the past few months. I guess that’s the magic of Christmas at work!
Before I get into the festivities of Christmas itself, I want to talk a little bit about an unexpected gift I received this past month- being invited to sing in the choir at church! My community mates can tell you… I’ve been saying since August that I wanted to join the church choir. I’ve always loved singing but never have taken the leap to do anything organized about it. But, at our Rostro Christmas party, after our song and dance performance, I made a joke to Ricardo, who sings and plays the guitar at church and was a guest at the party, that we’re ready now to be part of the choir. He responded by asking if I was free to practice before mass this coming Sunday. And that’s how I signed up for church choir! That Sunday, Victoria, who was also intrigued, and I headed over to mass early and practiced the songs for that day’s liturgy. It was so much fun, and was a cool way for us to feel more connected to the church community (especially to the young people who are in charge of music there) and to the liturgy itself. And, since we joined on the Sunday before Christmas, we were invited to sing at Christmas mass! Nerve-wracking! Only slightly, since the choir at our parish is pretty low-key. Victoria and I practiced and sang bilingual renditions of “Silent Night” and “The Little Drummer Boy” with Ricardo and Scarlet, as well as several other traditional Christmas carols in Spanish. Since then, we have sung at every mass and are planning on visiting a church in the southern end of Guayaquil soon to perform with the choir. A surprise joy from this month!
After Christmas mass came another one of my favorite nights of the month. We volunteers went to our neighbor Juana’s for Christmas Eve dinner, which is always served after midnight here. To have been invited to celebrate Christmas dinner along with Juana’s immediate family was such an honor and a blessing… and so much fun, as it always is with her family! As we danced the night away in the street outside her house, as fireworks went off in the distance, I felt another amazing sense of liberation. There was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be in that moment than right there in those dusty streets, laughing and salsa-ing with people who have made my experience in Ecuador so meaningful.
The next day, the six of us volunteers made a Christmas brunch together, and then prepared for our guests (the Arbolito volunteers, Jess and Caro, the two second-year Rostro vols, and Henry, the former retreat group coordinator who is back in South American traveling) to arrive for Christmas dinner. Although I think most of us had our own hesitations about spending Christmas away from home, that day spent together reminded us that we have our own little family here. And, it was cool to be able to plan and create our own Christmas meal and white elephant gift exchange together, not planned by relatives or staff, just us. Since we don’t see the Arbs volunteers very often, it’s always so nice to catch up and share quality time together.
The next day, the six of us Sinai volunteers headed to Baños, a gorgeous town bordering the mountain region and the Amazon region of Ecuador, for a few days. We hiked, biked, rafted, ziplined, ate good chocolate and drank good coffee, and survived sharing one hostel room with the six of us! Being able to see more of Ecuador’s breathtaking countryside on the bus ride and during our time in Baños was so rejuvenating, and I’m grateful that our community was fortunate enough to have time off to travel together.
But wait, the party isn’t over yet! New Year’s (fin de ano) in Ecuador is a crazy time. We spent the año viejo (New Year’s Eve, before midnight) at our friend Lida’s house with her wonderful family, and burned a viejo (basically a big cardboard figure filled with explosives) outside her house at midnight, as fireworks went off all around us (I literally have never seen more fireworks at one time in my entire life!). After midnight, we ate turkey, pork, and relleno (basically stuffing, but it’s sweet), and danced for a while before heading back to our immediate neighborhood to greet our neighbors for the New Year. Everyone was still outside at that point, eating, drinking, and setting off fireworks, which was really fun to see. By this point, loud music and fireworks have been pretty much a constant from Christmas Eve through New Year’s, so we were used to falling asleep to the noise… and, we were exhausted from our trip and from the fin de año festivities!
So, if you’ve read to this point, you probably have gotten the impression that all I did this month was party! And, in some senses, you would be right. I have loved how much people here love Christmas and fin de año, and it’s been amazing to see that the same people here in Sinai who work so hard and struggle daily with systemic poverty and oppression, know how to celebrate harder than anyone I know. This balance between la lucha and la celebración has been a joy to witness, and something that I’ve loved to see throughout my whole time here in Ecuador, not just during the Christmas and New Year’s season.
Happy belated Thanksgiving, everyone! November was not as unpredictable as October, but it was every bit as eventful. Let’s get started!
As I mentioned at the end of last month’s blog post, we started off the month with a retreat marking our three month mark as volunteers up in the sierra (mountain) region of Ecuador. We flew into Quito, and then drove a couple of hours north to a small indigenous community called San Clemente outside the city of Ibarra. By the time we got there, it was already dark, and so we didn’t see what the surrounding area looked like until the next day. That first early morning, it was absolutely breathtaking- tall, blue mountains, a volcano, bright clouds, lush greenery, and a cool, crisp breeze- fall weather I’d been missing since living on the coast! Being able to sit outside in the peace and quiet after being used to such a busy, loud, fast-paced life felt healing. So, this place where we stayed was the property of a man named Manuel and his wife, Laura. They have a bunch of cabins they keep up for travelers who want a more culturally immersive travel experience. Throughout our time in San Clemente, Manuel and Laura opened their home and arms to us, leading sessions where they taught us about their Andean culture and spirituality. I was struck by their closeness to nature and nature’s connection to their spirituality. For example, traditional indigenous Andean holidays are aligned with the harvest routine, and rooted in celebrating the Earth how she provides for them. He gave us a tour of the grounds of his property, which included lots of medicinal plants that they use for all sorts of different ailments. A few volunteers actually didn’t feel well during the retreat, and so Manuel made different teas for them made from different plants based on the symptoms they told him about! I was also moved as well by their culture’s way of talking about life and death as a spiral going clockwise, with life flowing into death as just another phase in the cycle, not as an ending. Manuel explained that because of this belief, he is not afraid to die. Dream interpretation is also an important part of Andean culture and spirituality, and we spent time during the retreat talking about our recent dreams and what they could mean.
One morning while in San Clemente, Manuel took some time to talk to us about how his community experienced the paro last month, and to ask us how we experienced it in Guayaquil and Duran. He was incredibly open and honest about how difficult it was for them to witness so many of their people being targeted by the police and military. He told us that the issues of the paro didn’t just arise out of nowhere last month, and that the way indigenous Ecuadorians were treated was part of a long history of mistreatment by the government. Manuel’s father was a slave, because indigenous people in Ecuador were considered to be property along with the haciendas that wealthy families had owned since colonial times. Land reform didn’t come until the 1960s, when indigenous folks were finally legally free. So, Manuel explained how important it is for him to be able to own land now and to be able to share it and share his culture with foreigners. His openness to share who he is and where he comes from in such a vulnerable, hospitable way was absolutely beautiful. This openness went so far that he invited all of us to take part in a ceremony called temazcal, which is a traditional sweat lodge ceremony. They only do this ceremony a few times a year, in accordance with special holidays, but he decided to invite us to partake because he knew and trusted Manny, our program director, from previous visits. Temazcal consisted of us all working together to build a large fire, keeping in mind the four basic elements of fire, wind, water, and earth. Then, he heated up volcanic rocks in the fire as the rest of us entered a round, wooden shelter covered with a tarp. Manuel then transferred the hot volcanic rocks to the center of the shelter, in different quantities according to different numbers that occur in the calendar or in nature (ex. 13 for the number of months in their calendar; 9 for the gestation period for humans). Throughout this process, we sang together and breather in and out in unison. It was one of the most unique, beautiful, and unifying experiences I’ve ever had- it’s honestly so difficult to describe! The purpose of Temazcal is to rid your body of toxins, both physical and spiritual. As we sat around in a circle, sweating and sweating and sweating, it was almost as if we could feel the bad stuff leaving our bodies. It was an incredibly powerful and spiritual experience that I am so grateful to have been invited to take part in.
After we left the serenity of San Clemente, we headed to the busyness of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. Jim, a former Rostro volunteer, and his Quiteña wife, Chelsea, led us around the city for a couple of days on a tour based in the colonial and post-colonial history of the city, in a way that paid respect to the narrative that isn’t always told about postcolonial regions- the narrative of the indigenous people and what was lost when the conquistadores took over.
As much of a busy “retreat” as it was, it was really special to be able to spend quality time as volunteers together outside of our normal day-to-day. I don’t remember the last time I laughed so much with a group of people as during our van rides in Quito or at the dinner table every night!
During retreat, our director, Michele, who visited us from the United States, gave us a “needs inventory” to look over and reflect on. Some of the needs listed were “to know and be known” and “to understand and be understood.” These ideas have been a bit tricky to think about during my time here in Ecuador, because with a language and cultural barrier, it can be really, really difficult to know and understand another, and to feel known and understood by that person in return. However, this past month, after returning from retreat, I was able to name someone here in Sinaí that I do feel known by. A couple of weeks ago, my community mate Isabel led a spirituality night in which she asked us to reflect on the idea of place/space. We were to draw a place that in which we have felt truly like ourselves, and connected to God. Immediately, I thought of the garden area behind Mari’s house. Refresher: Mari lives in Promesa de Dios, one of the sectors of Sinaí that Hogar de Cristo accompanies, and is the mother of Ronald, who is involved with a lot of our programming at Hogar, specifically our environmental initiatives. All of us volunteers know Mari and her family, but I have been blessed to know her in a more intimate way because I get to see her for work. Sometimes I go to her house to confirm a meeting time, or to meet with Ronald about something work related, and then I stay for awhile to spend time with the two of them and with Viviana, Mari and Javier’s adorable and spunky 5-year-old daughter. Mari refers to me as her amiga extranjera (foreign friend), and always tells me we have confianza (trust), so it’s okay if I see her kitchen while it’s messy or see clothes hanging out to dry in the garden. As I reflected during that spirituality night, I drew all the different fruit trees and plants Mari and her family have cultivated- mangoes, papayas, avocados, and cotton, as well as different kinds of flowers. Each time I visit, Mari urges me to taste something new from the garden, or Viviana tugs on my hand to show me a pretty flower, or Ronald spooks me with a dead grasshopper and then makes me hold it for a photo… it’s always something new! I drew the compost pile Ronald is developing, and Viviana’s toys nestled among the plants. I remembered one of the first times our community visited Mari’s home, when her husband, Javier, climbed up the mango tree and threw down verde (green/not ripe) mangoes for us to try with salt. Other times I’ve visited with Mari, we’ve talked about faith, and I’ve been amazed by her unending trust in God, even when she or Javier have struggled with her health or with finances. I have also been able to share with her that I lost my brother when I was younger, because she, too, lost a sibling as a child. Mari knows me in such a way that I feel so incredibly loved and cared for. As I shared what I had been reflecting on with my community, I couldn’t help but beam with joy. As November brought the season of thankfulness, I feel so much gratitude for Mari and her beautiful family, who always welcome me into their home with open arms and hearts.
Speaking of Thanksgiving, I did get to celebrate this year even though I was not at home in the States! Last week the Monte Sinaí volunteers welcomed our first retreat group, a group of 12 high school juniors and seniors and their 2 faculty leaders from St. John Paul II High School in Massachusetts. Although I personally was not a volunteer leader for the group, I was able to spend time with them in the evenings and was impressed by the students’ willingness and openness to immerse themselves in this community and learn from our neighbors and worksite partners. So, by the end of the week, when we celebrated a multicultural Thanksgiving as a large group of over 50 (volunteers from both communities and the two volunteers from last year who have returned for a second year with Rostro, the retreat group, Rostro staff, a few of their partners/spouses, some friends of the Foundation, and Fr. Jim, our founder), I felt as if my cup was overflowing with gratitude for this program that has given me so much over these past few months. Jessie, a former Rostro volunteer who was still living and working in a community close to Arbolito, the other volunteer neighborhood, gave a beautiful toast/reflection in which she highlighted the importance of our two cultures, North American and Ecuadorian, coming together to break bread and share in community. The power and strength of this community was evident as we danced the night away after apple pie and pineapple pie (we are on the coast, after all!), sharing laughter and a mixture of good and bad dance moves. As we waved the retreat group off to the airport, almost all of them cried, which showed us volunteers how affected they had been by their week in Monte Sinaí. The power and strength of this community clearly touched them all as well!
As I begin a new month here in Monte Sinaí, the call to go deeper is sticking with me. Last week, I accompanied the youth theater group with which my office works to Santa Elena, a beach town, where they performed their play at a school. Later, we took advantage of where we were and went to the beach for a few hours. That day, I had been feeling a bit discouraged and overwhelmed about the fact that I work with so many different groups of kids and teenagers that it’s difficult to feel like I’m developing relationships with all of them. So, I was a bit subdued throughout the day, unsure if the kids trusted me yet. But, towards the end of our time at the beach, the teenagers started playing a game of cogida (tag) in the water. I hadn’t wanted to put my bathing suit on in the tiny port-a-potty that was available for changing at the beach, so I’d just gone into the water up to my waist in shorts. But, the kids asked if I wanted to play with them, telling me repeatedly, “mójate mas, métete mas!” (get more wet, get in more!) I finally agreed, and ended up completely soaked, of course. Those moments of playfulness with the kids reminded me that even when I get inside my head about wishing I could do things differently or wondering if I’m not doing my job the best that I can, the people I encounter in Monte Sinaí are constantly still beckoning to me not to worry, to get completely into the water. That day has stayed with me as a reminder to leave my worries behind and just get in and go deeper, even when it’s uncomfortable or I’m not sure how it’ll turn out. At four months in, as Owen reminded us during a recent spirituality night, now is the time to stop holding back in relationships here for fear of getting hurt. So, going into December, I’m holding that challenge in my heart and daring myself to go deeper.
October, you have been long, confusing, frustrating,
exhausting, enlightening, and joy-filled!
I’ll start out by writing about the political and economic
situation that consumed the majority of time, energy, worry, and conversation
for Ecuadorians at the beginning of October.
On the evening of October 2, president Lenin Moreno cancelled a
government subsidy on gasoline (petrol) that had been in effect for thirty
years as a part of austerity measures suggested by the IMF, whom Ecuador owes a
large amount of money. This came as a surprise decision to most Ecuadorians, so
at the moment this was announced, no one really knew what the repercussions
would be, other than the fact that gas prices would increase significantly.
Transportation workers (bus and taxi drivers) called for a strike, and the
government cancelled school across the entire country for the next day and
indefinitely from then forward because of the lack of transportation but also
in preparation for more predicted widespread strikes and social unrest. Over the next 11 days, public transportation
was either nonexistant or sporadic (and had increased its rate from $0.30 to
$0.40), and manifestations against Moreno’s decision and in favor of an economy
that prioritizes the poor and indigenous of Ecuador occurred all over the
country. Additionally, vandalism and
looting became widespread in Monte Sinai and other areas outside of the city
centers by people taking advantage of the chaos and of the police being distracted
by the main protests downtown (not connected to the protests by indigenous
groups fighting for their rights).
During this period, there was a tangible sense of fear in my
neighborhood among its residents: fear of how rising gas prices would affect
their families, fear of the violence of the situation coming close to their
homes, and fear of the unknown, since this situation was unprecedented in
recent history in Ecuador. The press
here is unreliable since it is partially controlled by the government, so most
people I know in Ecuador get their news from social media. Videos of the
violence perpetrated by police officers against protestors, mainly indigenous,
circulated widely on FaceBook and Instagram, and struck not only fear but also
a palpable sadness on the part of many of my indigenous neighbors and
friends. One day during the paro (strike), unable to go to work due
to the situation, I sat with a neighbor, Carolina, who owns a tienda (store) a couple of blocks from
our house. She and her family are proud of their indigenous roots in the Sierra
region of Ecuador. As she showed me
graphic pictures of the violence in Quito, she broke down and sobbed, seeing
her people attacked in such a brutal way. She also spoke of being economically
affected by the situation, because since gas prices went up, food prices went
up as well. Her daily trips to the markets to buy produce before dawn had
become increasingly stressful, as many food items from the Sierra region were
also scarce. Also during this time of
confusion, my community member Victoria and I went to spend time with a girl
whose lives behind our house, since she didn’t have school. Her mother, Fani, sat with us and shared with
us how worried she was about the increase of food and transportation
prices. She told us (which I’ve
translated and paraphrased to the best of my ability), “the government
makes decisions about the economy, and prices go up, and the poor can’t
eat.” Then, although Victoria and I had tried to leave before lunch so
that we wouldn’t burden her, served us lunch, hugged us like we were her own
children, and told us that we are always welcome in her home. Weeks later, I’m
still struggling to process the largeness and significance of the generosity
Fani showed to us in the midst of an incredibly stressful moment for herself
and her family.
Like I mentioned, on October 13, Moreno compromised with the
indigenous leaders, leading to the reinstatement of the gas subsidy and the end
to the protests. However, the situation
has not completely worked itself out, as Moreno still has to deal with
Ecuador’s debt, and there is still tension between indigenous leaders and him.
I realize that I was not able to share every detail of this incredibly
complicated political and economic situation, which is based in economic issues
that existed before Moreno took office.
I chose to share what I heard my neighbors, who are often the most
invisible and unheard members of society here, shared with me from their lived
experiences. They are strong and
resilient and powerful and courageous, and I feel humbled and grateful to have
the opportunity to walk with them along these dusty roads throughout this short
A few days after things calmed down, Fr. Jim, the founder of
Rostro de Cristo, visited the two volunteer communities. In the one-on-one conversation I had with
him, he asked me how I think I can “make a difference” this year. To be honest, my first reaction to this
question was to cringe. That expression, to me, is hackneyed and vaguely white
savior-y. I responded that I’m not here to make a difference, that I’m here to
“be” and not to “do.” He smiled at me, and said, “I
disagree.” He then went on to make the argument that my being here, as a
white, educated, wealthy person, sitting and looking people in the eye and
listening to them, when I could be anywhere else, makes a difference. I’m still gnawing on this claim, as someone
who is still not sure what my presence in Latin America as a privileged
volunteer means. But I think there’s something really wise in what Fr. Jim told
me, and I think if I am really buying into Rostro’s mission, and really buying
into the power of presence, he makes a really important and radical point.
My job at Proyecto Misión has been a bit all over the place
this month due to the paro. But, we are moving forward with our
environmental education programming as best we can given the
circumstances! My community member Owen
and I led a hike on a trail surrounding the Papagayo Forest, a
government-protected dry forest on the outskirts of Monte Sinai, for kids in
the community of Realidad de Dios. Since this season is so dry, and trash
burning is so common, the area has witnessed lots of accidental fires recently. It’s so beautiful and calm out there, and
despite the heat, we loved being able to just be in nature and be attentive to
the different sounds, smells, and sights of the forest. We also had a minga in the community of Promesa de Dios, which my supervisor,
Cecibel and I had planned with Ronald, the leader of the environmental youth
club I mentioned in an earlier blog. The term “minga” comes from
indigenous traditions in the Andean region of South America, and refers to an
action or project done together by a community, such as a neighborhood cleanup.
About 15 kids from the neighborhood showed up, and we cleaned up a cancha (field) where we’re hoping to do
some reforestation in the next few weeks before the rainy season comes. The kids involved in our programs are really
excited by this concept, which is really cool to see.
As I’ve been doing this work, I’ve been reflecting a lot
about what it means for me to be an American citizen working in environmental
education in the Global South. There
have been times when I’ve felt as if I’m being hypocritical, planning and
holding events and activities to encourage kids and teenagers to live in an
environmentally friendly way, when my own country’s government is backtracking
on environmental protection legislation, and my own country’s citizens
(including myself) have a higher per capita carbon footprint than most other
countries in the world. I expressed this
to Cecibel, naming that it felt wrong to ask people who statistically didn’t
really create the problem of climate change.
She understood where I was coming from, but assured me that with this
global crisis, we all have to work together.
It still feels icky to be an American sometimes as I do this work, but
I’m feeling gratified to be surrounded by a people that generally are more
invested in environmental protection than the general public in the U.S. is in
many ways. Since we are so close to the
burning Amazon, and with the health problems and pollution that dust and trash
burning in Monte Sinai create, it’s almost impossible to ignore the reality of
climate change here. So, I’m realizing
that anything I plan has to come from and integrate what I learn from the
people I encounter here in Monte Sinai, and how they already live sustainably-
how they savvily reuse and recycle materials for their households; how they
raise their own crops and animals in naturally organic ways, bringing their
knowledge and experience from the campo
to the ciudad; how they prefer
natural healing remedies to artificial medicines. Not to mention how central Pacha Mama (Mother
Earth) is to indigenous traditions here. In so many ways, we have more to learn about
environmentalism from people living in poverty in South America than they could
learn from anything we do in the North.
As you can see, the issue of environmental education and my role in it
here is still a back-and-forth, ambiguous struggle, as most things I’m
experiencing here are!
I realize I haven’t shared too much about my community
members in these blogs so far! This month, we grew stronger together due to
having to process the paro together and having to figure out how best to
support one another and our greater Monte Sinai community during that difficult
time, especially since we weren’t able to work.
When my 23rd birthday fell in the middle of everything, all five of them
stepped up and made me feel so loved and supported- they sang to me at
midnight, which reminded me of my days as a Micah at SLU (and I hadn’t even
shared the birthday singing tradition with them- weird!), they bought me a
chocolate cake (Victoria decided to get it ahead of time, without even knowing
the stores would be all shut down the next day- also weird!), and they ate with
me at a really tasty restaurant in our neighborhood. They are all such unique and wonderful
people: Maggie would adopt all the stray animals we’ve seen here in an instant
if she could, and is also known to make spontaneous purchases on her bus ride
home, from Christian worship mix CDs to coconut ice cream; Owen is an incredible
pen pal (has probably written 5,000 letters since we’ve been here!) and never
leaves the house without his Latin American Spanish phrasebook, with which he
practices perfecting his pronunciation of things he could say to the
rambunctious kids at the refuerzo escolar (after-school program) at which he
works; Isabel is quiet in most matters except when it comes to talking about
Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, or planning any type of adventurous and
outdoorsy outing, and can salsa like nobody’s business (especially to her
beloved Selena’s music!); Victoria can usually be found challenging herself by
running along a hilly, dusty, rocky path near our house, or speed-reading Harry
Potter in Spanish (as well as lots of other books)- that is, when she’s not
applying for scholarships for the top-ranked graduate program in social work
that she deferred her acceptance to for a year in order to live here; and Dan
has a crepe recipe that is to die for and loves delving into his Jewish faith
and sharing Jewish traditions and spirituality with us whenever he can. Whether
we’re bringing out our competitive spirits with Minute-To-Win-It games during
community night, gasping over dramatic moments of Jane the Virgin, which we
watched on DVD until our TV broke :(, dressing up for Halloween and walking
around the neighborhood doing reverse trick-or-treating, or sharing moments of
gratitude during nightly prayer together, there is never a dull moment with
this community of Monte Sinai volunteers.
We’ve found that community living is quite difficult, but none of us
could imagine experiencing a volunteer year without one another!
October was quite a month, and this blog was all over the
place! All of us volunteers and the program staff are headed to Quito this week
for a retreat to mark our 3-month mark, which happened recently. Please pray for us as we decompress after a
busy few months, spend intentional time with one another, and get to know
another part of this beautiful country!
to believe it’s already been another whole month and I’m sitting down to write
a blog post again, but aquí estoy!
September was a month filled with deeper moments with neighbors, feeling
more confident at work, and growing closer in community with my fellow
volunteers. I’ll share a handful of moments in which I felt profound connection
to this place and the beautiful people with whom I am sharing life here.
week into the month, my community attended a birthday party for the mother of
one of our close by neighbors here in Sinai. Everyone in attendance (minus the
six of us gringos) was a relative, and since the cumpleañera (Aura, the woman
whose birthday it was) has four kids who each have several children of their
own, it was a pretty big party! Seeing all the aunts, uncles, and cousins
reminded me of my own big family, whom I love and miss dearly. We were
immediately served a typical chicken and rice lunch, which we ate alongside the
grandchildren who we have come to know over our time living in Sinai. After
lunch, the dancing began! Although none of the six of us volunteers is
especially talented in this area, we all have learned the steps to salsa,
bachata, merengue, and cumbia since being here and have all come to love this
part of any Ecuadorian party. The nieces and grandchildren with whom we danced
both laughed with us and had extreme patience with our moves, which we
appreciated! After a while, it was time to sing to Aura and cut the cake. As we
began to sing, one of her daughters brought out a picture of Aura’s late
husband, who had only died within the last couple of years. During the next
several minutes, I experienced a wave of mixed emotions as I watched Aura’s
face and the faces of her family. The grief on her face was palpable and I was
struck with sadness as I remembered my own grandparents and how hard it was for
my Grandma Leous and my Grandpa Murphy to live without their spouses after
their deaths. I was also filled with a solemn joy to witness the support and
love the family had for their mother, grandmother, aunt, and sister, evident in
the affection and cariño they showed with their affection and presence. I feel
undeserving but blessed that we volunteers were invited to be present for such
an intimate moment of unconditional love.
cumpleaños, the month of September also brought a 22nd birthday celebration for
my lovely community member, Isabel! Our neighbor, Juana, who is close to all of
us but specifically to Isabel and Owen because they work at the after-school
program that her daughters attend, offered to cook pollo (chicken) con
Coca-Cola for the special day. When we got to her house for dinner, Juana and
her five daughters (well, the four of them that can walk and talk!) presented
Isabel with a large bedsheet that they had decorated with their handprints and
with painted messages for her. I noticed some tears in the room, and the mutual
love between Juana’s family and Isabel was so clear and beautiful to see.
this month, I was given a bit more responsibility, as my direct supervisor was
out of town for about a week and a half, leaving me in charge of the home
visits she typically makes and a handful of the youth programs she runs. This
was really exciting to me, and I was able to visit two of our communities by
myself several times this month. The neighbors and I are starting to get to
know one another better, and I have loved the opportunities my job has given me
to be able to spend time with the families of kids with whom we work. Mary, the
mother of the kid who started the environmental group in Promesa de Dios, told
me that I should feel at home in her house, which I was honored by, given that
I had only been working at Hogar for about a month when she said this. On a recent visit in Realidad de Dios I was able
to sit down with the community leader, Hermelinda, and talk with her about how
she’s seen her community change and grow over the years. She opened up about
her own family’s struggles in a way that she had not yet done before. She is
usually so busy that I hadn’t been able to spend time with her like this
before. That day, I was so grateful for her vulnerability with me. I’ve noted
that trust builds slowly but surely in community work, and I am looking forward
to seeing how these relationships continue to grow throughout the year.
My job is
also teaching me that the work of accompaniment is abstract and difficult and
many times comes in the form of quiet, attentive presence. A few weeks ago I was with my supervisor in
the community of Promesa de Dios, inviting neighbors to a few different
workshops Hogar was hosting. We arrived
at the house of a girl who works with us, and her grandmother opened the gate
and invited us in. Her house, made of cane and wood, was in pretty dire
condition. It was very small; one room
for herself and for the four grandchildren she was raising on her own. Many floorboards were rotted out, and the
stilts keeping the house raised to prevent water damage during rainy season
were in precarious condition. The woman also informed us that the electricity
had been shut off because she hadn’t been able to pay the bill. She told us of the fall she had recently had
and about the pains she was experiencing in her bones. But, at seventy-six
years old, she still had to work physically taxing jobs to support herself and
her grandchildren. The legalization process for her land was moving slowly, and
so she pleaded with my supervisor to please speak with those in the housing
department at Hogar to see if they could help to fix her home. Although there
were concrete actions my office could take to alleviate this situation, in that
moment, I, as a volunteer seeing the desperation in her eyes as she spoke to
us, felt extremely helpless. She, as many others I have encountered, has been
failed by government and social systems time and time again. All I really could
do in that moment was look her in the eyes, listen as attentively as possible
(despite the language barrier), and give her a strong hug as we left. Looking
back, this was one of the most difficult visits I have made during my time
here. I haven’t fully figured out my role in witnessing the pain and struggle
of those I have encountered here in Monte Sinai, but I’m starting to come to
terms with my limits as a volunteer. It’s something that I will undoubtedly
continue to grapple with throughout my time here.
weekend, we were able to welcome the Rostro volunteers from Arbolito into our
home for an overnight visit. We showed them around the neighborhood and
introduced them to a handful of neighbors, which was a really special
experience for all of us. As we ate dinner together, we went around and shared
some highs and lows of the past month.
Although we definitely have different volunteer experiences based on
whether we’re in Sinai or Arbolito, it was beautiful to hear so many overlaps
in the struggles and joys we all have encountered over the past month, whether
they be difficulties reaching kids at after-school programs or the feeling of
being loved by our neighbors. For each of us, this past month has been filled
with moments that assure us, as we hear in our parish’s song version of the Our
Father, that God is not “un Dios que
se queda en su cielo” (a God that stays in heaven). God is here,
walking the streets of Monte Sinai and Arbolito, gracing each one of us one
Ecuadorian encounter at a time.
If you’re reading this, then you must be somewhat curious about my decision to move to Guayaquil, Ecuador for a year to be a volunteer with Rostro de Cristo, and interested in keeping up with my journey throughout these next several months. ¡Bienvenidos/as! Although this experience has already become quite difficult to explain in words, I will do my best to update this blog monthly so that all of you can have some semblance of what I am up to.
To start off, Rostro de Cristo is a Catholic volunteer and retreat program that, in its mission, invites participants from the United States to:
Be in relationship with the Ecuadorian people and reflect on the face of Christ in their joys and struggles.
Support the Ecuadorian people in their work to meet basic human needs and achieve a justice rooted in Gospel values in their developing communities.
Lead a simple lifestyle, build an intentional Christian community, and immerse in the local culture and reality with respect and humility.
(from the Rostro de Cristo website).
Participants include us yearlong volunteers as well as high school and college students who visit our two volunteer communities for weeklong retreats (immersion experiences) throughout the year.
Accompaniment and mutuality are two words that are essential to Rostro’s mission, and part of the reason I was drawn to this program in the first place. The idea of accompaniment, or walking with, rather than doing for, is something that is core to how I think about doing service and social justice work as a privileged person from the United States. Rostro volunteers are expected to arrive in their communities of Monte Sinaí and Arbolito with a sense of humility and awareness that we are not trying to “fix” or “save” anyone or any community. For this reason, Rostro’s model is to send volunteers to work with schools and agencies that have already been established in Ecuador, rather than starting programs ourselves. The idea of mutuality is similar, and refers to the idea that we and the Ecuadorian people we encounter are building relationships together and growing together, rather than one group giving and the other benefiting.
I live in Monte Sinaí, an invasion community on the outskirts of Guayaquil (I’ll explain what that is later!), with five other volunteers from the United States. Victoria, Maggie, Dan, Owen, and Isabel are a huge source of strength and support for me as I experience the challenges of acclimating to an entirely different culture than what I am used to. We eat dinner together and pray together five nights a week, which gives us a chance to debrief our long days apart from one another, laugh together, and stay grounded in faith together. We also have an intentional spirituality night and community night each week, which have been crucial in getting to know one another and in learning from one another’s experiences of God. In following Rostro’s pillar of Simplicity, we don’t have WiFi in our house, and have little technology to distract us from being truly present to one another. It’s so liberating! Each one of my community members brings in such a unique perspective and experience, and I have come to love them like a family. I would not be able to do this year without them!
So, back to Sinaí. It’s referred to as an invasion community because until its settlement, it was an undeveloped area of land (mainly forest and agricultural area) to which people from all over Ecuador migrated for the economic opportunities offered by Guayaquil that were not offered by more rural areas of Ecuador. So, my neighbors here are from all over- there is a large Afro-Ecuadorian community from Esmeraldas, the northernmost province of Ecuador, as well as a large indigenous population from the Andean Sierra regions (many of whom speak both Quichua/Kichwa and Spanish), not to mention many others from Manabí and other provinces. The internal migrants moved onto the land without legal titles from the government, and so for the beginning of Sinaí’s history, it lacked public services such as water and electricity. Although now there is a municipal presence in Sinaí to some extent, residents in more remote sectors (Sinaí has 38 in total) still struggle to receive these services. The majority of roads aren’t paved, and so dirt roads cause some long-term breathing problems for residents. The trash collection system is also inconsistent, so burning of trash is a common way people deal with the issue here. The city bus system does function in Sinaí, however, which is Sinaí’s main source of transportation. The area has grown tremendously in the past twenty-thirty years or so, and if Sinaí was recognized as a separate city from Guayaquil, it would be the third largest in Ecuador. Mount Sinaí also has the largest concentration of extreme poverty in Ecuador.
Although some Sinaí residents have gone through the process of legalizing their land, most still do not yet have legal rights to their land, which leaves them in danger of being removed from the land by armed military personnel. Because of this reality, many (especially in the more remote sectors of Sinaí) live in cane homes that are easy to take down and move them to other areas- until the next removal process. The cycle then continues, as there isn’t a long-term plan in place to provide people with stable housing or a more expedited legalization process. Overall, there is a pattern of government officials placing Sinaí’s access to basic human needs on the back burner. As someone who is passionate about migrant rights in the United States, it has been interesting for me to compare this “back burner” treatment of internal migrants with similar patterns of lack of access to decent public services in U.S. cities for immigrants and other marginalized populations (see: Flint, Michigan).
So, onto what I am up to on a daily basis here in Monte Sinaí! As volunteers, we work part-time jobs at local organizations in the area. I work at Hogar de Cristo, which is a nonprofit organization run by the Jesuits that started in Chile during the 20th century and has a presence in several South American countries. Hogar in Sinaí is focused on access to housing and economic solidarity via microloans, but offers several other social services, including healthcare, the only shelter for women fleeing domestic violence in all of Ecuador (!) and youth programming.
I work for Proyecto Misión, the community organizing office at Hogar, which is something I’ve never really done before! The office’s main goal is working with community leaders from Sinaí to advocate for legalization of people’s lands. The area of the office that I work with plans and provides programming for kids and youth in a few different remote sectors of Sinaí, called Realidad de Dios, Promesa de Dios, Voluntad de Dios, and Los Juanes. There is a high rate of drug use among youth in Sinaí, and so Proyecto Misión seeks to work with young leaders to foment a new, healthier youth culture. It is clear that youth drug use is a symptom of structural poverty and the lack of opportunities available for young people to succeed. I wanted to make sure to note this in my blog as drug use is sometimes linked to a lack of moral judgment, which I believe is a misguided understanding of a complex situation. Right now, I am leading English classes in Realidad de Dios, which is something the community had been asking for, because although English is taught in almost all schools here, many school teachers don’t speak English and aren’t able to provide the assistance students need to succeed. The classes are also a good way to bring the community together. This week I plan on integrating environmental themes into the class, since the kids’ parents are involved in some community initiatives to start composting and preserving green space in the neighborhood, as Realidad de Dios borders the Bosque (forest) Papagayo, much of which has been damaged in recent years.
The other initiative I’m working with through Misión is related- it’s a youth-led environmental preservation and activism group in the sector of Promesa de Dios. A seventeen-year-old resident of Promesa, Ronald, is passionate about environmentalism and wanted to take a stand against the environmental degradation in Sinaí, and so he created this group, called “Eco-Community.” The group seeks to focus on reforestation (a timely issue in the Americas!). My role will be to go to the group’s meetings and serve as the point person from Hogar to connect the group to resources and materials from the office. Eco-Community is entirely youth- and community-led, and so I truly only wish to be a support for whatever the kids need, rather than a leader. I am new to all of this still, and am really looking forward to experiencing more of what these strong, motivated, smart leaders from within Sinaí are working on to lift up their own communities!
As volunteers, our other main role is to visit neighbors in the community for several hours each week. Neighbor visits have already become the highlight of my volunteer experience, even though it’s only been a month! Our neighborhood is filled to the brim with compassionate, welcoming, faith-filled, hardworking, genuine people. Every day I hear pase no mas (pass no more/come in) from another neighbor inviting me into their home or small business. One day a couple other volunteers and I might visit Luz Maria in her DVD store, where she will practice her pronunciation of English words, teach us some (extremely difficult!) words in Quichua, and then her husband, Jaime, will ask us what we think of the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and then show us the cuy (guinea pig) that he is raising to grill soon. Another day we might visit Gloria, an older woman who is extremely honest about her struggles living in a wheelchair, and listen to her talk about her experience with faith and what she thinks Jesus’s message is, as she and Raul, her twenty-four-year old son with special needs tenderly and lovingly care for one another. And, of course, we will blow bubbles with Raul, one of his favorite activities! Another day, we might go as a group over to Juana’s house for a meal with her five beautiful, funny, caring daughters, and listen to music and talk about our families. One of the most beautiful things about living in Monte Sinaí is that each day is an opportunity for a new moment of raw connection with a neighbor that might come from a completely different continent and background from us, but who wants to invite us into their home, their space, their life. And we seek to invite them into our lives in return. As I sit here typing these words, I struggle to find the right ones to describe the incredible (and undeserved) hospitality I have received and will continue to receive during my time in Ecuador. Estoy llena de alegría y gratitud!
Thanks so much for reading this first installment of my blog! Stay tuned throughout the year for more stories of the struggles and joys I will inevitably continue to experience as I live in this lively, love-filled place!