Three months feels like a lifetime ago.
April 24th marked 9 months since my community of volunteers began our year of service in Monte Sinai, Ecuador. Unfortunately, we did not quite make it 9 months in Ecuador before the spread of the coronavirus escalated causing us to very suddenly receive the news that we were being sent home before the travel bans were instituted. Before hitting you with the details of how COVID-19 has impacted my community and I, I would like to fill you in on what I have been up to during the last 3 months.
At the end of January, we had our 6-month retreat at the beach. I remember wishing I could stay in Monte Sinai to spend more time with neighbors in the community, but was at the same time looking forward to being with my Arbolito volunteer friends, as well as Manny, Jimmy, and Evan; not to mention spending time on the beach. That retreat ended up being a powerful spiritual cleanse for me. I felt renewed by the beach, the peaceful sounds of the ocean, the feeling of the sand on my feet, being knocked over by powerful waves, collecting over 20 sand dollars, and enjoying many beach walks/talks. We all watched the Super Bowl together and obsessed over the halftime performance with Shakira, JLO, and the special appearances by our favorites, J. Balvin and Bad Bunny.
One of the greatest blessings in the past few months was having my parents visit our community in Ecuador and be introduced to so much of my family in Ecuador. I felt my two worlds coming together. On their first day in Ecuador, we attended a surprise birthday party for Juana planned by her neighbors. It was so special to celebrate such a joyous occasion all together. Juana refers to herself as our Ecuadorian mother, so having her tell my parents that I am one of her children directly (well, indirectly because I had to translate!), meant the world to all of us. The following day, after bringing my parents to mass at our wonderful parish, Bautismo de Jesus, we went with my community mates to drink cocos (coconut water fresh out of the coconuts). I brought my parents to meet David (one of our guards), Monica (David’s wife), and their kids, Mauricio, Angie and Samuel, which was really special. Monica’s birthday was that week, so we brought a cake and shared in great conversation. Again, Monica and David assured my parents that I am loved and cared for by them and many others in Ecuador. After bringing my parents to my worksite, Casa de Acogida, a shelter for women and their children who have faced domestic violence, to show them around and introduce them to the families there, we then headed to Cuenca, which is a beautiful antique town in the Sierras (mountain region). 4 hours east of Monte Sinai. I was so grateful to spend time with my parents, showing them this beautiful country, and most importantly, introducing them to people who mean so much to me. My parents now have an understanding of my experiences in Ecuador having walked the muddy streets of Monte Sinai and received warm loving hugs and hospitality from neighbors. Saying bye to my parents as they left Ecuador was much harder than I expected, but they left saying they were at peace leaving me in Ecuador and told me to lean into my family here.
In the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, Carnaval is celebrated in parts of Latin America. The celebrations differ by location, but in the Guayas region of Ecuador, Carnaval is celebrated by playing with water, paint, and many other things. For three days, we played Carnaval with many neighbors throughout Monte Sinai. We played much dirtier than with just clean water and paint. Some of our neighbors played with eggs (often rotten), flour, mud and more. In Monte Sinai in the rainy season, there are many sitting large puddles of water on the roads, and part of the fun of Carnaval is having your full body thrown into those nasty puddles. Those three days were some of the most fun days of my life, just playing like children with our Ecuadorian family.
Ash Wednesday 2020 is a day I will never forget. While my community and I were at Ash Wednesday mass, there was a monsoon occurring outside, and none of us could have imagined we’d be leaving mass only to journey through flooded streets with water up to our thighs and a current. Then upon returning to our house, we were confronted with a nice thin layer of water and mud caked to the floor. We spent the next few hours and days cleaning our house before welcoming students and faculty from Villanova University as our retreatants. The Villanova retreat group came in the beginning of March, and I had the honor of being their volunteer leader. Throughout the week, I was challenged and inspired by the deep questions they asked neighbors and their insight. I learned new things and felt myself connecting more deeply with neighbors. The biggest challenge I faced during the week was with translating. My Spanish has improved tremendously, but translating for a group of college students throughout the week, some of whom are more advanced in the language than I am sometimes presented challenges and often frustrations. However, I got through the week with much support and encouragement from the group. Shortly after Villanova headed back to the States, COVID-19 was being talked about more regularly.
The day before we received news that we would be sent home to the U.S., we went with Juana, her five daughters and some of their neighbors to Tres Bocas, which is a river people swim in during the rainy season. It was such a fun outing spent in nature. Afterwards, we returned to Juana’s house and ate a delicious meal. Little did we know at the time that the fun day spent with Juana and her girls would be one of our last in Ecuador – at least for the time being.
Have you ever taken an ice bath or participated in a Polar plunge? If so, you most likely felt shock, then maybe pain and numbness. That is how it felt when my community mates and I received the news on Monday, March 16th that we were being sent back home that night to the United States indefinitely until COVID-19 is better managed. After a chaotic day of running around Monte Sinai saying bye to our neighbors and home for the past eight months, we boarded on a plane back to the States.
Many who know me know that I am a morning person. I love mornings! Waking up early, exercising, having a nice cup of coffee and some oatmeal before going out into the community. Well, now that I am back in Bucks County, Pennsylvania living with my parents and two brothers, that motivation has been lacking. This past month and a half, I have stopped setting alarms and wake up much later than I am accustomed, with the mindset of “Well, it’s not like I have anything to do today.” As someone who is highly motivated and finds joy in getting out of bed each morning, I knew I was and am still struggling. And you know, that is okay.
I love discussing self-care and putting it into practice. Self-care does not come easily to people; and I am no exception. It requires taking time to know and love yourself. Even with my struggles in getting out of bed each morning and finding my purpose since returning from Ecuador, I continue to find ways to care for myself and let others care for me. One of Rostro de Cristo’s focuses is on “being” rather than “doing”. This is a tricky concept, which I myself and many others struggle with.
The culture in the U.S. trains us to ask questions like “What can I do to help?”, “What do I need to do to succeed?”. What about being? For those of you who know the love languages exam, quality time is my highest-rated category. I thrive off of intentional face-to-face interactions, which was a big part of my experience in Ecuador, spending intentional moments with neighbors, at my worksite, and in community. Life in quarantine for a month and a half now, has left me thinking a lot about my purpose, not in life, because I know my worth, but in these moments of difficulty. How can I do my part? It has taken a lot or reflection, but I think I finally am beginning to understand my role. While I may not be doing school work or work assignments, I am being there as a daughter, sister, friend, community mate, kind stranger. I want to be a force for good. I recognize now that my purpose is to be – and it is beginning to feel like enough. So for those of you lacking to find purpose, know that you are enough, and you being simply you is purposeful.