I have spent the past 5 or so months preparing myself for Ecuador and yet, no matter how much more time I spent, I don't think I could have ever sufficiently imagined this new reality in which I am living.
One of my biggest concerns starting this year is that I wouldn't be able to adequately explain or describe this place or this experience to people who weren't physically sharing this experience with me. Now that I have been here for two weeks, I know that there will be times where words will fail to adequately portray my life here. However, I hope to use this blog not simply to recount my day-to-day (although surely there will be glimpses of that) but instead, as a forum to relay where I am and to process all that I see and experience.
That being said, these first two weeks have been a whirlwind. The first day we were here I was overwhelmed by all there was to take in - the dusty dirt roads, emaciated stray dogs running around everywhere in the streets, the sight and smell of burning trash, the eager faces of kids and neighbors in windows and doorways shouting hello to us; it was all so new and different. After my first day here, I wrote in my journal: "I am realizing that I have no idea what I have gotten myself into in the best, most positive way, and I have no doubts that these next 12 months are going to change me." As the days have worn on, I continue to see the truth in this statement.
Our first week and a half here was spent with the old volunteers really seeing what life as a volunteer here is like. We visited neighbors with them and learned where to shop for dinner and visited work sites. Visiting work sites and deciding where to work was equally exciting and challenging. As anyone who was around during my post-grad discernment process can recount, the one thing everyone knew I didn't want to do was teach. Although at times I doubted myself for being closed-minded in this regard, I also knew that this was not exactly where my gifts were best suited. So, when I got to Arbolito and found out that of the three morning placements, two were schools and that most of us would be working in an after school program in the afternoons, I was definitely a little anxious and knew that I would be challenged in a new way. In the end, after visiting all of the morning placements, I struggled in realizing that everyone seemed really excited about certain placements while I hadn't felt like I had had that "ah-ha" moment. After bringing this concern to my in-country director, she told me about an opportunity to work with the three Italian missionary priests who are here in our neighborhood. The priests are hoping to start the Caritas program which is a program that looks to strengthen and develop social action in Christian communities. The programs can all look different but it focuses on serving the poor and empowering people to address the needs of their communities. So, to date, I still don't quite exactly know what I'll be doing in the mornings and it will certainly change over the year as the project becomes more established but I am really looking forward to this new opportunity and the chance to better understand the struggles of the communities of Duran.
Also, remember that after school program that I was worried about? After week one, I have found myself feeling more comfortable about it and enjoying it. Rostro runs two after school programs, Semillas de Mostaza (Mustard Seeds) here in Arbolito, and Manos Abiertas (Open Hands) in a neighborhood of Duran called 28 de agosto. I have decided to work at Manos Abiertas which simultaneously brings me joy and breaks my heart. 28 de agosto, like Arbolito, is an invasion community which is a community that is founded by groups of families that will move in and stay on a large area of vacant land and are often not recognized by the government which results in poor communities lacking basic resources. The first thing that struck me when I visited 28 de agosto was the trash. More so than here in Arbolito, there is just lots of trash everywhere on the sides of these dusty, hole-filled dirt roads and the majority of the houses are cane houses. But the most heartbreaking thing for me has been seeing these kids come in everyday, small, and thin with holes in their clothes and their shoes and some with visible lice in their hair. And while this reality has been hard to stomach and has broken my heart, Manos has also brought me joy. Sure, these kids sometimes hit each other, and throw rocks, and say bad words, but the glimpses I see of eagerness and love in their eyes, the hugs they give me, and seeing them running around, laughing, and smiling, and simply being kids, not having to worry about anything beyond those walls - this brings me joy. One week into Manos, it has reminded me why I'm here: to share my love and God's love with the people I meet and, more than anything, those kids make me want to love.
Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. writes in his book Tattoos on the Heart: "I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea." In these two or so weeks I've been here, while I have experienced both blessings and challenges, I understand this anchored belief that this was a good idea, and that I am where I am meant to be.