As a child, I grew up in a farming town of about 15-20,000 people. For years, I dreamt of leaving my small town and exploring the world. Living in a big city, learning more about new people and places, and having greater opportunities available seemed like the ultimate lifestyle. This isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate some of the aspects that living in a small town afforded me–such as the ability to bike alone with friends when I was 10 years old, the chance to play in my aunt’s apricot orchard and on the farm equipment when the adults weren’t around, and feeling safe in my community–but it is to say that I had decided that more permanently, I would want to live in an exciting, multi-cultural, metropolitan city.
Fast forward to this past fall, when I had the opportunity to do just that. January marks my fourth month of living in Quito, the capital of a South American nation. It is by far the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. My first couple months here, I felt like I was constantly running around: working, adjusting to life in Quito, learning how to teach, making mistakes, and developing a daily routine. In short, I was working to find my footing here. It is no small process to pick up your life and move to a foreign country and specifically a big city; I imagine I will continue making adjustments and learning throughout the rest of my time here. I am so grateful for the opportunity to continually be discovering new things and experiences this year.
For the past 3 or so weeks, I’ve been on vacation. It was much needed, and one of my best friends from home arrived shortly after I finished work. Though she was only here about a week, we had a blast. I took her to some of my favorite places like restaurants in Quito and rivers in Tena, and we explored some new ones together as well. We went canyoning, sampled traditional Ecuadorian foods, jumped off a bridge, white water rafted in the jungle, swam in a beautiful lagoon, ziplined through the forest, practiced some salsa dancing, and most importantly, had time to catch up on each other’s lives. I had almost forgotten how wonderful it is to be with someone who knows you better than you know yourself. Having a friend who I had spent time with almost daily throughout my last 2 years of college come see my life here and have the brief opportunity to be together again meant the world to me.
Lori’s visit was like the peak of a period of high happiness for me here–for a solid few weeks I felt totally content. I had finished and survived my first 8-week teaching cycle. I was working out on a regular schedule and had gotten involved in a volunteering project. Holidays were approaching, and with it celebrations with friends. I was feeling comfortable and settled in my relationships here and getting excited about the decision some friends and I had made to get an apartment together in February. For a while, I wondered if the loneliness I had felt occasionally throughout my time here had dissipated completely.
But then the intense week with my best friend came to an end. Many other friends were not in Quito or were busy with visitors. I had a couple days of downtime, and I realized I hadn’t had quiet in my life for a long time. During these couple of days, Lori’s leaving made me remember how much I loved my friends back home and how special it is to be surrounded by a community of people who love you and have known you for years. It is like coming home to a warm fire at the end of a long day: comforting, relaxing, and safe. It feels like home. And the the more time that passes without this feeling, the more accustomed you become to living without it.
Reflecting upon this, I felt the pangs of loneliness resurfacing. Coming straight out of college, which is perhaps one of the times of the greatest feeling of community we experience during life, and before that from a small town community where I knew many people, it hit me just how challenging it can be to feel a sense of belonging in a massive city as a foreigner. To give you an idea, Quito has a population of over 2.5 million people.If I don’t plan to meet up with people, I won’t see anyone I know all day when I’m not at work. While there is the benefit of being able to be more or less invisible in the city, it comes at the cost of not feeling as connected.
At the beginning of January, I bussed back to the jungle by myself to hang out with a local friend. Being around people who have deep connections with those around them served as another reminder to me that this is something I still lack living here. Though I certainly have friends, there is a particular sense of community that I witnessed in Tena that I just can’t seem to find in Quito. While I was in Tena (population about 30,000) with my friend, I was in awe of how many people he knew and greeted every day. We couldn’t walk more than a couple blocks without him seeing a cousin, grandpa, sister-in-law, other relatives, coworkers, or friends. When we went out for drinks one night earlier in my stay, it started out as thee of us heading to Araña. We got there, and two guys that my friend knew were already there, so we joined them. Throughout the course of the night, we ended up growing to a group of 10 people around one small white plastic table at a waterfront bar. I bet that had we stayed there later, the group only would have grown.
It’s not just knowing everyone, either. The sense of community there was different from community back home too. One example of this is evident merely in the way my friends from Tena ordered beer at the bars we visited. They always ordered 2-3 beers for a group of people, and split them, pouring it into small glasses for each person. Each person definitely ends up consuming an entire beer or two, but they never just order their own from the start. It’s almost as though there is something special in the act of sharing beers together. In the States, this is rare. Almost always, each person orders their own individual drinks. People don’t pass around glasses from a communal drink. Another day in Tena when I was walking by myself from a tienda back to my hostel while munching on some M&Ms, my friend’s best friend saw me and called me into a cafe to sit with him and his friends who were hanging out together. I joined in and chatted for a good 45 minutes with them, and couldn’t recall a single experience like this happening in Quito. In those moments, I felt a taste of what life could be like living in a smaller town in Ecuador, and experienced a strong yearning for the feeling of community that living in a place like Tena would provide me. A sense of loneliness and longing for a feeling of connectedness and belonging overcame me on my last night there. I didn’t want to come back to Quito.
Beautiful Tena and surrounding areas. Can you blame me for wanting to stay?
Which is why when I received my invitation to serve with the Peace Corps in Mozambique while I was in Tena, my feelings were even more complicated than they might have otherwise been. I had just returned from an awesome camping trip in the jungle with my local friends who had literally carved us a campsite out of the jungle using machetes. We had swum in pristine river water, seen some colorful birds, sat around the fire chatting, played some serious games of cuarenta, and done some hiking through gorgeous primary jungle. On the one hand, I am incredibly excited at the prospect of teaching English with the Peace Corps, as being a Peace Corps Volunteer has been a goal of mine for literally years. I didn’t even think about not accepting my invitation. On the other hand, I had been getting accustomed to the idea of staying in Ecuador another year, maybe moving to Baños or Tena–somewhere smaller and closer to nature than Quito. I had begun to imagine developing closer friendships with people here, making a life for myself, and working on developing the sense of real community that I realized was lacking in my Ecuador experience.
Now, I will be picking up and moving yet again, to yet another new continent, with a different language and different cultures. I feel both a sense of unreal excitement and profound sadness: excitement at the adventure and service and unknown things to be discovered that await me in Africa, and sadness at the thought of leaving behind the places I have grown to love and the budding relationships I am forging here in Ecuador. While I have known it for a while, the price of moving on to new experiences in far away countries is not small. It is the loss or fading of current relationships and the loss of the potential to develop deeper roots with these people and places. It is knowing that you will feel deep loneliness and you won’t have your support system there to help you through it. On the other hand, the rewards of such a move aren’t small either. I know this from how much I am enjoying living and learning in Ecuador. I remember how scared I was to leave my friends and family back during the summer. Now, I can’t imagine not having left.
At the beginning of August, I will leave Ecuador. On August 30, I will leave for Mozambique. I think my initial reaction to my Peace Corps invitation best sums up my current feelings: crying and smiling through my tears. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bird falling out of a nest too early. It is both painful and liberating. But as my friend told me, Estás aprendiendo volar.
You’re learning how to fly.