With an abundance of anxiety and beaming excitement I found myself hundreds of miles in the air, hundreds of miles from Philadelphia, and hundreds of miles closer to my first cultural immersion experience in Ecuador. Including myself, there were 10 of us on this journey. As we prepared to land our group leader shared, “You have had months to prepare, and will have a lifetime to reflect, but only this moment to live it.”
So many thoughts crowded my mind as the wheels connected with the runway. I began to journal right before we landed, asking God to lead and guide me through this experience, blessing me with the ability to have an open mind. As we landed in the Guayaquil, Ecuador, we were met with cheerful smiles and open arms from the Rostro de Cristo volunteers. Rostro de Cristo is a lay Catholic volunteer program with two locations in the country of Ecuador. The goal of the program is to be with the people in the communities rather than doing for them. Their mission is to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ together with the people. Along with living in the community, the volunteers work with various ministries and worksites throughout the area. With the volunteers as our guides we would be exploring our surroundings and learning about the lives of their neighbors for the next week.
We landed around 8:30pm. Making our way to Arbolito, the neighborhood where we would be staying, the volunteers shared that there is a tradition of retreat groups to be silent during the van ride to the compound and fully take in the foreign surroundings. Leaving the airport, colorful lively murals and monumental statues ushered us into the country. As you cross the bridge from Guayaquil to the city of Duran, you can immediately notice the difference of wealth that only a bridge separates. Driving down the main road we saw many natives sitting outside of storefronts, walking and talking down the street with a genuine sense of contentment. There were very few street or address signs, and stray dogs roaming everywhere. Getting deeper into Arbolito, the paved roads began to turn to dirt and it became clear that the neighborhood was poverty stricken.
When we arrived at the compound where we would be staying, the volunteers shared with us the structure of our retreat experience and background knowledge of the neighborhood. Arbolito has a population of about 12,000, the majority of whom migrated from Guayaquil or other provinces. Even though the community has made huge progress since it was first developed, it still has a long way to go. The neighborhood was once referred to as an "invasion community," in which plots of land would be sold illegally, giving people a new place to build their lives and homes for cheap. It is since recognized by the government. The country of Ecuador uses American dollars as their currency, but there is still one Ecuadorian coin in the monetary system.
To fully understand the culture and lifestyle in Arbolito, we would be living under $2/day. We had bread and bananas for breakfast, light meals for lunch, and richer meals for dinner. Most of our meals included bread and rice as they are among the cheapest things to purchase. We took daily trips to the market for fresh food to prepare for the meals and all participated in the meal prep and clean up. My favorite dinner meal while there was Empanada Soup made with a light tomato broth, cooked empanadas and a variety of vegetables.
If you can afford the eighty cents it costs to fill up your water tank from a truck that comes around once a week, the tank lasts you all week to use for drinking, cleaning, cooking and bathing. Most of the neighborhood relies heavily on it. We were told to only use the faucet water for bathing and purified filter water for cooking, drinking, and brushing our teeth. Since we were foreign to the water, the bacteria in it could make us sick so the purified water was always available to us.
Our rooms were very simple bunk bed dormitory style with mosquito nets covering the beds to protect us at night. They warned us that the bathroom system is very different than what were used to in America. Military-style 2 minute showers were necessary to cut down on wasting water, and the water was rather cold most of the time. Since the plumbing is weak, we could not flush toilet paper down the toilet and would have to dispose of it in a trash bin. They also imposed the funny rule: "If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down."
Our passports, phones and money were taken and put into a safe and would be returned to us at the end of the week. This would allow us to completely separate from the world that we left back home and take in the world we were now visiting. They urged us to focus on being instead of doing—being part of the culture, being present in the moment and being open to everything this week would bring us. Having to experience all of these things in the first night was a bit of challenge for me but I managed to stay calm and focused on this new experience I was now fully immersed in.
The next morning I woke up energized, optimistic and excited about what the day would bring. After breakfast, we went to our first family visit. The family shared the story of their journey to Arbolito and how things have changed since they first arrived. When they arrived in Arbolito, there was nothing, and they have seen the community grow and expand over time. The husband and wife built their home themselves and have raised five children in it.
Over the week, we visited a lot of neighbors and they all were so open to share their personal life stories with us. A common theme that we heard in some of stories was about domestic violence. Domestic violence serves as a big issue within the area and it affects the families and how the women view themselves. Men are oftentimes the breadwinner and play the dominant role within the family unit. This negatively impacts the women and their self esteem, leaving them to feel "less than" and undeserving.
Two other neighbors that we visited, Sister Fanny and Sister Gladys, run and operate both a nutrition pharmacy and a sewing co-op in a neighboring community called Una Sola Fuerza. The sewing co-op is a place where woman can come and learn to sew and make clothes, creating a way for them to provide for themselves and have a job that is rewarding. Additionally, Sister Gladys leads self-esteem and self-love classes, teaching the women that they are valuable and to have confidence within themselves. Sister Gladys shared that the women in the neighborhoods often compare themselves to American women, thinking that American women are more beautiful. This visit really impacted me because it goes to show that low self-esteem holds the same weight in other places around the world just as it does in America.
We also visited after-school programs, which provide children with a safe and positive place to do homework and play. Every day, the children are given a drink of water, a piece of bread and a vitamin. Following, they have time to do their homework and study while recess usually consists of a game of soccer. The kids ranged from 1st to 9th grade and they were all so excited to meet and spend time with us. We helped with homework as much as possible but the language barrier created some difficulty. Everyone understands a good game of soccer, though. Of course, the kids were better at it than us, but it was a great time. They all possessed an indescribable sense of joy and it was contagious. Watching the kids run around with huge smiles and infectious laughs, I couldn’t help but think of the huge culture shock foreigners must have when they come to the United States. Here we were in a dirt lot playing a simple game of soccer, and there was more contentment and gratification than I’d ever seen in my 20 years of living in the United States.
While the US can be materialistic and too fast paced, here it was the opposite. The honest truth was, though, at some points I missed home. I missed the comfort and ease that it provided. Compared to the natives here, we grew up in a rather lavish lifestyle, it’s what we’re inevitably used to. So can you blame us for the lifestyle we were born in? No, but you can blame us for not taking the steps to help society after learning about the inequity that a lot of people in the world face.
My favorite neighbor visit was to the home of a man named Don Oscar. He asked us challenging questions that sparked an amazing conversation within the group. Don Oscar wanted to know our thoughts about the President and the political system in the US. We talked about the NRA and the militarization of the police in our country. He then concluded the conversation by asking us what we were searching for on our trip to Ecuador. After some time to think I answered with: I wanted a break from the clutter and noise of everyday life. I came searching for genuine and peaceful experiences that I could always reflect back on, and that’s exactly what I found.
Every night, the group ended with a reflection period, allowing us to discuss the experiences that we had during the day. We started off by journaling about something we were grateful for and something that challenged us throughout the day. Each night, our group leader, Chelsea, would have a different topic to discuss that fed into what we were experiencing and feeling. We ended with a prayer and something that we hoped tomorrow would bring us. During the week, you could see the transformation in the group and we began to grow closer and learn more about one another. The first night dinner was rather silent, but by the end there wasn’t a single dull moment. As we learned about the new place we were in, we found out more about ourselves and each other. Not having distractions from phones or T.V. really allowed us time to connect on a more personal level than I could have ever imagined. During our free time, we played card and board games, read, and took the time to get to know one another better.
On our last day in Ecuador, we went to the city of Guayaquil to have a change in pace and do some touristy things. Our first stop was at the Guayaquil Metropolitan Cathedral which is located in the center of the city. Directly across from the cathedral was an Iguana Park, which was covered in freely roaming iguanas. I’m not big on reptiles, so after getting over my fear and exploring the park we continued exploring the city more and ended up at the bottom of Las Penas. Las Penas was the first neighborhood in Guayaquil with 444 stairs running through the middle of it, leading to an amazing view at the top. The group took on the challenge and climbed the stairs in no time. At the top was the most spectacular view I’d ever seen, you could see the whole city and more.
The topic for one of the last reflections was solidarity and what that means to us. To me, solidarity means that as people, we have to work together to understand one another and the different cultures that we represent. Thus allowing us to advocate for one another and work in a unified way.
I think that every college student should be required to participate in a cultural immersion trip at least once. On my trip to Ecuador, I got a better sense of what it means to be a person.
“We need people, we don’t need doctors, lawyers, singers, dancers, or nurses, we need people.” - Anonymous.
Oftentimes, we get too focused in what we can do to best serve others that we forget that sometimes the best way serve is to just be. Being in the moment, learning about other people and places, and thriving in that is how we become better people.