This isn’t exactly what I had in mind. I’d been envisioning “closing off” my year in Ecuador with a nice, 1500-word blog post summing up my experiences there and what I’ve learned from them and how I’m different now etc. I sat down with my laptop and some notes scribbled on the back of an adverbs handout and tried to write it at least seven or eight times. But the words never flowed. And as I’ve been reflecting about why that might be, I think I came to my answer.
Have you ever tried writing a couple thousand words just about the last year of your life? Or reflected immediately after the fact about how some incredibly important experience has changed you? If so, you probably discovered that both tasks are nearly impossible. Herculean, one might say. How can you distill all the experiences of one year into a single reflection? I’m honestly just not far enough away to write in a clear, clean way about these things. I will need a greater distance to give me better perspective, but the problem with this is that I leave for Mozambique in just a couple days. I have the feeling that my time in Ecuador might blur into my time in Africa and it will be hard for me to pull apart the experiences, to pinpoint the moments where something inside me changed. Then again, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be able to write that blog post I’ve been thinking about in a couple months no problem. You never know.
Despite my inability to write a post to capture the essence of my year in Ecuador, I do feel like I can say now with confidence that there is one thing for certain that I have learned over the course of the past year. Basically, it is to enter any experience with minimal expectations. One has to learn to tell the difference between expectations/situations you can control and ones where you have no power. I went to Ecuador with this whole laundry list of things I was hoping/expecting to gain from it. I was expecting to improve my Spanish and speak fluently upon my return. I was expecting to love my host family and learn so much from them and feel like I belonged to their community. I was expecting to do service work in my job and outside it. I was hoping to magically find myself and figure out what type of career I might want. And these are just the big ones.
But in reality, none of these expectations came true, due to both circumstances inside my control and outside of it. For example, my Spanish didn’t improve much. Sure, I learned some fun Ecuadorian words, but most of them were actually derived from the indigenous language spoken throughout the Andes (watchipichai, for example, means “house-warming party” in kitchwa). I was always surrounded by English-speakers at work, my host family wanted me to speak English with them and their kids, my boyfriend spoke perfect English, and even when I befriended my former students we spoke English. I just didn’t need Spanish much to function there. My host family experience was nothing at all like what I imagined. They only really wanted me living there (paying them a large chunk of my stipend for rent) to teach their kids English, which created an uncomfortable dynamic as my sense of justice protested the unfairness of paying to live somewhere while being expected to work daily for the family. So that didn’t work out so well. As for service, well, I thought that since I was working for a non-profit that I would be teaching students who might otherwise not have access to English classes. Turns out that almost all of my students were not university students who receive English classes for free, but paying and decently affluent adults who needed English to advance their professional lives. This wasn’t a bad thing, per say, I still enjoyed my work, but it made me feel more like just cheap labor because the university paid us a lot less than Ecuadorian teachers doing the same work. Lastly, and probably most naively, thinking I would find my calling? Not in the slightest. All I really figured out is that a.) I still wanted to do service work that actually felt like service (hoping that Peace Corps fulfils this), and b.) I like teaching, but probably do not want to teach ESL forever and ever. So there’s that.
As I once told a friend, though, sometimes the best things in life are unexpected. Sure, basically none of my bigger expectations ended up panning out, due to my own faults/laziness and/or other circumstances, but that doesn’t mean my year wasn’t awesome. I had some of the most incredible experiences that I never would have anticipated if you’d talked to me in the month or two before I left. Take, for instance, the fact that I had a less than ideal host family experience. A loving host family was one of the things I was most looking forward to. However, the host family not working out ended up bringing me some wonderful experiences. I got to move into my first-ever OWN apartment. I got to learn how to take care of myself–the first time I had to pay real bills, cook for myself, and take care of my own space. Because I moved out, I got to spend more time with friends, invite people over for chill movie nights or parties, and all-together enjoy a huge degree of independence and freedom that I never would have gotten with a host family. Another example would be potentially the most obvious, for those of you who have been following this blog. I got a boyfriend. I never would have guessed that I’d end up in a relationship with an Ecuadorian while there for just under a year. But falling in love with G helped me learn so much–about what I want and need in a romantic partner, about how I want to be treated and treat someone I love, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about Ecuadorian culture and, somewhat surprisingly to me, how my culture impacts my relationships. I’m still processing everything, but what I gained from that relationship alone will probably reverberate through the rest of my life.
In order: with G, one of my last nights in my classroom looking out at the city, and learning to cook Ecuadorian food.
Those are just a couple of examples. Expectations, while impossible to completely avoid prior to beginning any new stage of your life, often go unmet. Most of the time, you can’t even begin to predict what a new experience will hold for you, and that’s part of what makes it so exciting. That leads me into part two of this blog post, which is about what I’m going into Mozambique having learned from my Ecuadorian experience.
Because of my experiences in Ecuador, I think that my expectations for Mozambique and my goals for my time there will be drastically different than, say, if I had gotten in the first time I applied for Peace Corps and ended up going to Cameroon. What my goals are for Mozambique (aside from my loftier goals outlined in my professional aspiration statement that I wrote several months ago) are simple. The first is discipline. Having all the free time that I had in Ecuador made me realize that I lacked it, sorely. I didn’t have to work until 4 pm, and only worked for four hours. I had the entire day to do whatever I pleased, and yet, most of the time, if you asked what I had done that morning, it would probably be “cook lunch” and not much else. Now granted, I also spent a lot of time with G, but when we weren’t together, I didn’t do much of anything productive in my life. I wanted to get in great shape, but rarely went to work out. I wanted to read more, but only read I think four books during my year there. I wanted to study Spanish and Portuguese, but never could really motivate myself to self-study. Even just watching tv shows in Portuguese just required so much more brain effort that I only did it a few times. I wanted to make local friends, but never put in the energy to go to meet-ups or language exchanges like my roommate did. Basically, I was a lazy bum a lot of the time. That’s not to say I regret my choices–I don’t. I think that part of me really needed a lazy year after the absolute insanity of college-level business. I remember at Cal having to schedule a one or two hour time chunk just to hang out with a friend a week in advance, because of both of our wild schedules. That type of lifestyle isn’t healthy for me long-term, and it sure wore me down. So I think that part of my laziness in Ecuador can be attributed to needing to recover from Berkeley. But part of it isn’t. Laziness is one of my faults (just ask my parents) and though I can and often do push myself and accomplish my goals, I don’t always have the most motivation. In Mozambique, I hope to change that. My goal is to be disciplined, and by that I mean doing things to make myself a better person. From learning a new song on the guitar, to going for a jog, to practicing the language intentionally, to spending time outside to get to know a neighbor, to taking my future cat on a walk, I hope to do at least one thing every single day to improve myself.
The second goal is balance. This is kind of tied into discipline, but it’s slightly different. Let me explain. I think many of my friends might describe me as an intense person (side note: one might even see this fact in my friendships themselves. I prefer a few really close friends to a big group of casual friends). And by that I mean that when I love something, I really love it. I throw myself into it. I can occasionally obsess over things. This sometimes leads to a lack of balance in my life. I can get thrown out of whack a bit. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but I can get lost sometimes. For example, in Ecuador, the first four months I threw myself into exploring/traveling/new experiences. For the last 6 months, I threw my entire self into my relationship. To be clear, I don’t regret it one bit. I loved all the time I spent caring for, loving, and having fun with G. But I also put other things I love to the wayside: like alone time, reading, and friendship. I neglected those things in favor of my relationship. It was my own choice to do so. Again, while I don’t regret it at all, I feel like moving forward I want to strive for a greater sense of balance in my life. Making time for all the things that make me happy and make me grow. To develop a greater sense of harmony within myself. Okay, this is starting to sound a bit hippie, but I think you get where I’m going here.
In creating goals that really exclusively involve my effort instead of just a positive outcome (like getting a really awesome host family), I hope and think I will be much more successful, both in achieving said goals and also in general just being a happier, healthier individual. So here’s an ode to my next adventure:
Let you learn discipline and balance,
Let you be kind to all those you meet,
Let you work hard to serve and understand your community,
Let you open your mind to new knowledge and new experiences,
And let you always remember that the best things in life are unexpected.