In a few weeks, I will reach my exact half-way point of my service in Ecuador. As with so many other periods in life, it has simultaneously flown by and felt like so much more than a few months. Many of us, I would say, are in or recently out of what we call a mid-service slump. Last weekend, we had our Mid-Service Conference with WorldTeach. Basically, we woke up really early on Saturday morning, took a bus to Mindo (a tiny town in the cloud forest about 2 hours outside of Quito), and spent the next 36 hours reflecting with our cohort members and doing some brushing up on our teaching skills.
I had already been realizing this prior to the conference, but being at Mid-Service definitely high lighted the fact that I’ve been feeling kind of meh for the past couple weeks. January was not an easy month. In fact, I would say that it was the toughest month I’ve experienced thus far in Ecuador. The reasons behind this are numerous. Here’s a brief break-down.
For those of you who vacation (most everybody, right?), you probably understand what I mean by the term post-vacation blues. It’s that feeling you get of crashing back to reality after a particularly enjoyable week or two vacation period. For me, it was closer to three weeks of vacationing: a camping trip at a wildlife preserve followed by my best friend’s visit followed by a week galavanting around the jungle. When I came back, I had a brief day or two to rest and then it was back to teaching. While I enjoy teaching (more on this later!), actually quite a bit, lesson planning every morning is a sharp change from exploring some beautiful new or beloved areas in Ecuador. This cycle has been easier in the sense that I’m teaching one of the same levels I taught my first cycle, but I have still had a lot of work to do in terms of improving my teaching style. To think about how I can make teaching affirmative agreement exciting is not quite as wonderful as canyoning down 30-foot waterfalls. Duh.
The Stress of Moving
This past Friday, I moved into my first ever apartment. Towards the end of my time with my host family, I felt increasingly anxious and ready to leave. I felt bad about not having fulfilled their original expectations for hosting a volunteer (they wanted me to teach them English, I wanted down time after work), and I was also just ready to live on my own for the very first time. Having spent 4 years in college dorms and 4 months with a host family, I was beyond stoked to live by my own rules. To have people over whenever I wanted. To have more than just a bedroom to host people in. To experiment with cooking and learning how to take care of myself. While all these aspects of solo living are exciting, the stress of actually moving is huge. First, we had to hunt for apartments, using just Spanish, which was tricky in and of itself. Lauren and I spent a whole weekend racing around looking at different apartments, weighing location, size, safety, proximity to parks, and price. When we finally found a place, there was still a lot of business to attend to. Even though we moved in last week, there are many problems with our apartment that we are in the process of dealing with. For example, we don’t have furniture in our living room, and it was supposed to have arrived a week ago. Our shower heat in the master bedroom (mine and Lauren’s) is not the greatest, meaning that we take freezing cold or blisteringly hot showers. There are some broken drawers that need repairing and not nearly enough storage space for our relatively small amount of belongings. We also had to arrange selling our parking spaces, getting new keys, installing internet, learning how to take the buses from our new place, and figuring out how to pay our bills. Etc etc. It’s a lot. No wonder they say moving is the second most stressful event in a person’s life.
The Shiny Newness of Quito Wearing Off
While there was an initial period where I felt like I was getting to know Quito and I wasn’t surprised anymore by the aspects that had originally shocked me, this phase represented the complete ending of all-the-time excitement about being in Ecuador. Which, to be honest, isn’t a bad thing. On the one hand, I am actually grateful for this, because it means like I finally feel like I live here, and am not just a prolonged tourist. That is something I’ve always wanted: to make a home for myself in another country. On the other hand, it means that I have to expend much more energy to get those new experiences that I want and need; just walking down the street doesn’t do it for me anymore. And I’ve realized it is supremely difficult to force yourself to get up and search for a new experience when you feel a bit apathetic and you’re somewhat broke.
Getting Robbed and Money Worries
I already wrote a whole post about this (please see Safety and Fear), so I won’t go into it too much. Basically, the experience made me jumpier than I was before and has me shoving my kindle into my pants and my money into my bra as I walk home from work every day. I lost my iPod, which was potentially my most-prized possession here in Ecuador. I love music, and I’ve come to realize how much I need it to be happy. Not having access to music makes the thought of running in the mornings far less appealing. It makes bus journeys worse. In general, it just brings down my mood. And I don’t really have the money to spend on a new one right now, with all the costs of moving (3 months rent up front (!), paying my host family, and taking care of Peace Corps preparation (mailing from Ecuador to the US using priority mail services is super caro.) My lack of significant funds has the effect of significantly reducing my opportunities to travel, which is obviously one of the best parts of living in a foreign country. I already cancelled my preliminary plans to go to Colombia for spring break, and I probably won’t be leaving Quito at all in February except for short (cheap) day trips.
These worries are compounded by the fact that the government of Ecuador is not liquid right now. Many government workers aren’t getting paid, and as I work for a public university, I am not getting paid either. This is completely not the fault of the institution I work for–let me make that clear, they have been working hard to advocate for our payments–but it doesn’t change the fact that it is worrisome to not know when you will get paid. And there’s nothing to be done about it, because Ecuador’s economy is suffering and so are all the people who serve the government. Oil engineers, for example, have been told in many cases that they cannot work for periods of a month or more. Here’s are a couple of articles that discuss Ecuador’s economic crisis:
The robbery, in particular, also made me angry with Ecuador. I know that this is kind of ridiculous, but leads into the next point…
The Little Things Adding Up
I reached a point where every little thing was irritating me. The long lines and slow grocery clerks at Santa Maria and Supermaxi. The lack of small change in every tienda everywhere. The bus driver failing to stop when I indicated, taking me several blocks past where I wanted to go. The endless pushing and shoving on Ecuadorian public transit without a word of perdón or gracias. The fact that the post office doesn’t sell envelopes when I had walked several blocks in the pouring rain to mail documents. What kind of post office doesn’t sell envelopes?! The ATM at the bank I’ve always used saying it gave me money but not actually giving me money, making me stranded for the next 24 hours with no cash. The department of criminalística being closed from 1-2 when I got there at 1:20 to get my fingerprints done, and the only coffee shop nearby charging me $4.90 for a tiny “frappucino” that tasted nothing like a frappucino and actually more like a barely-cool milky coffee drink. My shitty Ecua phone not being able to tell the time correctly as it keeps speeding up despite my attempts to reset it. All the little things that, taken individually, might not irritate me too much, but all together, in a time that has already been stressful, just feel much heavier than normal. And finally..
Feeling Like I Haven’t Reached My Full Potential and Realizing the Finiteness of My Time Here
I had all these aspirations for moving abroad. I don’t think anyone who moves abroad can not have big goals and dreams. I would argue that it is the dreamers who move abroad more than anyone else. Approaching the halfway point of an experience abroad has the effect of encouraging reflection. What am I doing here? How am I different than I was when I left? Where am I in relation to the goals I had for myself? What, at the end of my year here, will I have to show for myself?
While I’ve definitely accomplished some of the things I set out for when I moved here–learning how to teach, discovering new places, making new friends, and adjusting and adapting to life in a foreign country/culture (all are still in progress…)–some things I’ve definitely fallen short on. And having received and accepted an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps in January, I know that (providing I pass all legal/medical clearances), I won’t be staying in Ecuador past early August. If I hadn’t gotten an invitation to serve, I probably would have stayed right in Ecuador. Now, I know that I have limited time to reach my goals. One big goal I had and still have is service. I wanted to live abroad to experience a new culture, sure, but equally important was to do community service while there. I was volunteering for a while at a center for the urban poor, but given my schedule this cycle of teaching 4-8 pm, I could no longer do the 8-10 am classes and commute to volunteer 3 mornings per week. It was just too much. I now don’t have volunteering activities, and I miss service. Another goal that I have fallen short of is improving my Spanish. Sure, I’ve increased my Spanish vocabulary. I can understand more spoken Spanish now than I could before. I’ve even picked up some very Ecuadorian words along the way (me cachas?), but that doesn’t change the fact that I wouldn’t consider myself to be “fluent” in Spanish by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t practice nearly enough. My host family and I mostly spoke English, and I don’t have a bunch of Ecuadorian friends. Which leads me to my next point, of not having made enough local friends. It’s particularly hard when you are a.) a woman and b.) only here for 1 year to make local friends. Men mostly just want to be your friend to get in your pants, and women are harder to meet. Also, when I DO meet Ecuadorians, they often want to practice their English with me. I totally understand this, because I always wanted to practice Spanish with native Spanish speakers in the States, but it is a bit irritating nonetheless when I want to develop my Spanish skills. I had the idea of giving Lauren and myself European identities in some obscure country like Macedonia next time someone asked where we were from so we wouldn’t have to speak English. I even gave us Macedonian names (for me, Milena, and Lauren, Bojana). We still haven’t used these..but maybe next time.
These are all things I could be more proactive about. I could read the newspaper in Spanish every day. I could ask my friends to practice Spanish with me. I could put myself in more positions to meet new people, by going to language exchanges or Meetup events. I could watch telenovelas in Spanish. I could go hunting for volunteer opportunities with a more reasonable schedule that are relatively close to my apartment. I could be making more progress towards my goals, but I’ve been lazy and feeling a bit apathetic. Which makes it even worse, because I know I’m holding myself back from what I want to achieve.
And so, I end this post on a reflection and a promise. I have 6 whole months left in this country. I will not waste them. I will not be complacent. Though I can’t travel as much as I would like, though Quito isn’t new and exciting anymore, though there are things beyond my control that cause unwanted stress in my life, I am making a promise to myself to be better this month. To be more engaged. To participate more in local events, both to keep learning about Ecuadorian culture and to put myself in different circumstances. To practice Spanish daily, even if only with my American apartment mates. To look for ways to experience new things every week, in small ways if not big ones. To take advantage of every opportunity before me, because before I know it, I will be back on a plane to San Francisco and missing this difficult, beautiful country that will forever be my second home.