Just like that, 3 months have come and gone. I have been contemplating for a while whether I wanted to create a blog and finally decided, as the phrase my community commonly says, “vale la pena” (it is worth it). October 24 marks exactly 3 months of being in Ecuador. I live in a community within the city Guayaquil, called Monte Sinai with five other volunteers from Rostro de Cristo (translated as “the face of Christ” in Spanish), Dan, Isabel, Julia, Maggie, and Owen. Monte Sinai is unlike anywhere I have been before with an abundance of dust and burning trash, but people with the most generous hospitality. Monday through Thursday, I work at Casa de Acogida, a shelter for women and children who have experienced domestic violence. Friday through Sunday and after work, my community spends a lot of time visiting our vecinos (neighbors) in Monte Sinai. We have received an overwhelming spirit of welcome from many of our neighbors into their families. In the 3 months of being here, I have built many relationships with neighbors and felt welcomed into their homes and families in a way I did not think possible in only 3 short months. So much has happened in these past three months, and I wish I could share every experience with all of you, but a few areas I would like to take this time to focus on are stepping out of my comfort zone, practicing patience, and seeking gratitude.
Having been to Ecuador for a week as a retreatant in the other community in Duran in March this year, a few months prior to returning as a volunteer for Rostro de Cristo in the Monte Sinai community, I had seen the previous group of volunteers in action, building bridges and lasting relationships with our Ecuadorian neighbors. There were still so many unknowns going into this year of service, but I was up for the challenge. I have been learning Spanish in college and high school for nearly six years and hit a proverbial wall around the intermediate level. My trip to Ecuador in March served as a reminder that I want to be conversational in Spanish, so I can be more versatile in how I communicate with people throughout Spanish-speaking world. In these past three months, I have made a fool of myself more times than I can count on one hand for not understanding something someone said or saying something that did not make sense. One time I called by phone Jessenia, whose number was in my contacts, thinking she was one of our neighbors asking when we can visit, only to find out seven minutes into the conversation, that I called a different Jessenia, who works for Rostro. Had I understood more Spanish, I would have realized much earlier in the conversation that I had called the wrong person, but that is now something we still laugh about. Without mistakes that in the moment may seem embarrassing or shameful, we would never improve. I have challenged myself to speak more Spanish with neighbors and occasionally go on solo visits, so I can continue speaking as much as possible. At this three month mark, Spanish is still a challenge, but I understand a lot, am speaking a lot more and formulating more thoughts, and have successfully read a Nicholas Sparks book, and the first two Harry Potter’s in Spanish. As my community and our neighbors remind us, “poco a poco” (little by little). Another way in which I have had to step out of my comfort zone is dancing. I like dancing every once and a while but am terrible and do not like when people are watching me. Since being here, we have learned different types of dance that are very common in Ecuador, such as bachata, salsa, salsa choke, and cumbia. My community and I have attended many birthday parties in which we have been pressured to dance while mostly everyone else is sitting. For every birthday party we have attended, there is at least one video of my poorly moving hips and lack of rhythm. At first, I was embarrassed that people were taking videos of us dancing, but I eventually embraced that in a simple way, I am bringing joy. While stepping out of my comfort zone has been a constant work in progress, I would like to move on to practicing patience.
I have always struggled with being patient. I like to be on time, have things planned ahead of time, and do not like when people are late. All of that has been tested since I have arrived in Ecuador. Every moment of every day, I am practicing having more patience. Everyone is chronically tardy. It is referred to as “Ecua time”. Three months into being here, I am finally starting to become used to people arriving late, my community going places later than the start time, and understanding that sometimes my day will not go according to plan. My community hosted an event for the youth in our community to share how we are feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually, as well as getting to know one another better. The first person to show up was a half hour late, and we did not start the event until 45 minutes after its original start time. Of course, by now, we knew everyone would be late. Another way in which I have had to practice patience is at my work placement. I do not have much experience working with kids other than as a lifeguard. Some of the kids at Casa, have tested my patience in more ways than I thought possible. One of the girls who is nine would mock my spanish for the first month and a half, when I was trying to help with homework. Now, I receive many hugs from her and she helps me discipline some of the other kids. Another major way in which I have been practicing patience is with myself. I am not perfect, and I make many mistakes, but I have to remind myself that I am enough. Sometimes I feel like a fool trying to search for words to make myself understood in Spanish, or I get extremely frustrated when I cannot understand what a neighbor is telling me, but I remind myself to trust in God and remember to love and be kind to myself.
“It is hard for me to accept that the best I can do is probably not to give but to receive. By receiving in a true and open way, those who give to me can become aware of their own gifts. After all, we come to recognize our own gifts in the eyes of those who receive them gratefully. Gratitude thus becomes the central virtue of a missionary” (Henri Nouwen, Gracias). There is so much I am grateful for that contributes to where I am in the here and now. There are many people, experiences, moments that I am so grateful for. Recently, Father Jim, the founder of Rostro de Cristo visited us in Monte Sinai from the States, and we had a one on one check in. During our meeting, he said to me, “Think what it will take for you, Victoria, to have a grateful heart each day. That will change the way you wake up each morning, take your first sip of coffee, encounter neighbors”. Father Jim put it beautifully. Each day, I do wake up with a grateful heart, to have this incredible experience, to constantly learn new things, to be surrounded by so many people who I see the “face of Christ” through. These three months have had their share of challenges too, but how I get through those challenging moments are by seeking gratitude, even in the smallest of things. I recently had an upsetting and frustrating day at Casa that left me feeling slightly insignificant, but what brought me back to the beauty of this life and that day was watching the sunset as I exercised on our patio and saw the baby mangoes that are growing on our mango tree. The sunset and growth of mangoes brought an overwhelming sense of peace over me. Each day, I experience so much gratitude, and I owe it all to Dios (God).
I am hoping to share a blog post every three months during my year in Ecuador. In a few short weeks, us volunteers in Monte Sinai will be embarking on our three month retreat to Quito with the other Rostro de Cristo volunteers living in Duran. I have grown to love Monte Sinai and call it home, but I also love when we have opportunities to explore other parts of Ecuador. There is so much nature and beauty, all part of God’s wonderful creation. Even as the first three months as a volunteer for Rostro de Cristo in Monte Sinai, Ecuador wrap up, I will continue challenging myself to step outside of my comfort zone, practice more patience, and search for places of simplicity to show gratitude.
Thank you for sharing this experience with me through this blog. Hasta pronto (see you soon)!