A Leaf in our World Book

“In the course of telling our tales, we can discover ourselves by becoming curious about the other struggling human beings with whom we live in the world.”

Sheldon B. Kopp, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!

With each passing second, the clouds are tinted a little more pink and the light flickering on the surface of the water becomes a little more speckled, the sun’s rays now being filtered through the trees at a thin angle. La loma se acuesta y empieza a soñar del día siguiente – the fields are submitting to sleep, dreaming up tomorrow’s day.

Mamita Flora and I are sprawled on the soft bed of grass lining the little stream that marks the edge of our jardín, the little piece of campo left to her upon her parents’ passing. My eyes cast upward, alighting on the eucalyptus leaves dancing in the breeze above.

“There are a lot of eucalyptus where I’m from, too,” I note aloud. Then remembering Mamita’s presence there with me, I add, “but we don’t build houses with them because they’re not strong like the ones here. My mom tells me it’s because they are different species – the ones in North America are too frail.”

“You and your mom are very close?” — it’s posed as a question, but it feels as if she already knows my answer. I turn and meet her eyes, my smiling ones welling warmly with tears.

“I miss her a lot,” I admit. “I’ve missed the feeling of belonging. I’ve been missing love.” Just two days before we found ourselves settled between blades of grass, the sun kissing our cheeks goodnight, I had met and moved in with Flora’s family: her and her three sons. “My past host family was lovely,” I tell my new Mamita Flora, “but we couldn’t find space within our lives and hearts to share with each other. And so I was left feeling quite alone… and my loneliness evolved into a lackluster, sad sort of living.”

I reflect in the silence that follows on how I’m feeling after only two days with my new family and how different it is from how I had felt within my previous family; although still finding my place within my new hogar and learning what it’s like to have three hermanitos, I had immediately connected with Flora’s vivacious, positive, and adventurous spirit and the values she shares with her sons.

Díme, ¿qué tal fue? ¿Qué pasó?” Flora asks me gently. “Tell me, what was it like? What happened?”

And so I commence my tale, though too it is a tale of the world.

From September until January I lived with an indigenous family in the province of Cañar, named the cultural hub of Ecuador for the peoples’ continued practice and celebration of their pre-Incan Cañari culture and civilization. Living there, I not only experienced some of the cultural traditions that have been passed down for centuries, but also the more recent incursion of American culture and effects of globalization – sometimes within incredibly rural, previously untouched communities. In addition to a boom in Internet access over the past 5 years, emigration (to primarily Spain and the United States) has been instrumental in changing Cañari society. As of the 2001 census, 17,625 people born in the province of Cañar had emigrated – 31% of the national total. Many now reside within United States borders, primarily within New York City, Trenton, Chicago, and Miami.

While my previous Cañari host mother still speaks with her mother in Kichwa, the ancient language that unified the Incan empire by way of trade routes, her children and much of their generation now refuse to learn Kichwa and some even renounce their indigenous heritage out of shame. While we roasted cuy (guinea pig, a delicacy) on wood limbs over an open fire for the celebration of Kapak Raymi (the winter solstice), I also worked with our neighbor Lucinda at her salchipapa stand throughout the festivities, vending styrofoam bowls of papas fritas (fries) topped with salchichas (hot dogs) for hours on end. Below abuelita‘s beautiful hand-made poyera skirt, she warms her legs in embroidered polyester socks: “USA” with a multi-colored American flag below.

The parents of my Cañari family, intelligent and driven, both had full time jobs and otherwise heavy schedules, their lives rushing along at a pace and level of exhaustion that felt all too similar to the stressed out, fast-paced culture I intended to distance myself from in coming here. Consequently, they had little time to introduce me to their family and culture, leaving me with the incredibly difficult task of integrating myself into an indigenous community, especially reserved to foreigners – as some propose, a disposition adopted as a consequence of a history full of backstabbing agreements, war, and oppression brought along by outsiders.

Although living with the family in Cañar did not work out, witnessing the manifestation of many Western ideals, as promoted and idealized by the United States’ global empirical presence, weave a thread into the homespun lana of the Cañari people is a learning I will forever cherish and ponder. Talking with so many friends in Cañar, asking their thoughts on migration, I heard that the money brought them bigger, more colorful houses and smart phones and real American-brand clothes, but left their homes empty and broken, often to be pervaded by drugs and alcohol.

My experiences have fostered countless questions. Though a globalized economy connects countries financially and otherwise, does the flux of GDP within central economies justify the toll it takes on billions of lives and families in the supporting peripheral countries? Though I’ve grown up being told, directly and indirectly, that the only way to happiness and success is through always aspiring to the next best thing – a job, a nice car, a well-off future – could that mindset be both what’s plaguing our Western culture with so much depression, anxiety, physical unhealthiness and You Name It as well as perpetuating modern systems of slavery within sweatshops and factories in countless impoverished countries? Would curbing our toxic lust for material wealth and invented conception of infinite economic growth now ultimately curb a greater impending intoxication of the world?

If our consumeristic mindset is driving the global economic system to inadvertently sicken all of life on Earth, then we must rethink and act accordingly. But do each of us, as just one person, have the power to affect positive change? How does one choose to support their family when jobs with oil companies pay 10 times what those in ecotourism do; how does one drink water when given the choice between potable tap water and a plastic water bottle?

Mire, Mamita,” I gasp, “tan bonita está la luna llena.” It is February 3rd, one month from the night I decided that despite the good moments I had experienced in Cañar it would be healthier for me to make an intentional change in my life going forward. I almost left this program and country in January, petrified of taking a leap of faith in joining a new family. But I set aside my fear of uncertainty to challenge myself with what I identified as a “growth choice.”

“Every time we make a choice, it has an impact on the world. It’s just that we often can’t see the impact of our actions, so we think there is none.” – Julia Butterfly Hill *

“How beautiful it is that we are here together now,” Mamita Flora tells me. “You have suffered much, but your spirit had grown strong and your heart stays full of love and curiosity. When I was young, I was unable to grow: protected by my parents and limited by my own fear. You have courage to embark alone to learn about yourself and the world, and you are just 18. I hope for my sons to have the same strength, and I hope that you being here with us will fuel their desire to explore outside of what they have always known; that they may discover the world is full of more opportunity than they can now imagine. Qué ellos sigan adelante.

I see the full moon rising, the growing arc brightening the dusky skies, and my heart is filling up right along with it.


* Julia Butterfly Hill lived for 738 days in a thousand-year old redwood, named Luna “in honor of the full moon that had guided [activists] as they’d built a platform in its branches … In 2002, she was arrested in Ecuador and deported for her participation in protests to save the rain forests from oil pipelines.” To further explore the article featuring her interview with The Sun Magazine, visit: http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/436/the_butterfly_effect

A Letter to my Loved Ones

Hello to those who I care about and who care about me,

I started this blog with hopes of sharing stories and thoughts on a more frequent basis, out of an obligation and interest I felt in doing so. Additionally, I’ve been keeping up with communication on media outlets and in frequent messages to family members.

While all of this is good, I’m writing this to tell you that I intend to heavily cut back on all of this at least for the next month. There are many reasons for this decision, as I will note.

One: It takes away from my developing fluency of Spanish. Every time I communicate in English, I’m not thinking in Spanish. On days after I have a lengthy conversation with someone (for example, my mother, about pertinent medical situations that thankfully are now over) I find that in speaking with my host family afterwards my fluency is delayed. As one of the main goals of my time here is to achieve a fluency past “cualquier gringa” (“the usual gringa,” as my H. family puts it), I want to maximize my learning and development by limiting the interrupting factors.

Two: It takes me away from connecting with and appreciating the people, place, and limited time I have here. At the beginning of this journey I was struggling with the thought of spending 6 WHOLE MONTHS here, but already, one month has passed. As I keep growing within my family and community, my eyes are opened to just how many opportunities there are for me to grow here: a women’s fútbol league that practices on Sundays, a town to explore, crops to grow, patients to whack with bay leaves with my shaman grandmother, and infinite other opportunities.

Three: It puts me in the mentality of having an adventure so that I may share a story, not so that I may have an intimate learning experience just for myself. I want nothing more than to keep sharing stories with those I love, but I feel it taking away from my personal development and the reasons I decided to be on this journey in the first place. To experience situations in raw clarity, realize some of my intrinsic characteristic reactions in given experiences, reflect on those, and direct my growth into a self-sufficient, competent, loving, and empathetic individual ready to embark on a lifetime of adventures with a clearer understanding of myself.

Here’s what I think it boils down to, quoting the book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! (thank you, Mum, for asking me to read it; yet another good idea of yours):

“Each generation of adolescents makes its own sort of search for meaning. The pilgrimage of the young is individual, though it is committed in concert. In each generation, a few make the pilgrimage in depth, devoting themselves to it, having the adventure of their lives.” To paraphrase the remainder, “some lead a halfhearted or misguided search, and some not at all.” I proudly identify myself as the first category, and so it is my wish to follow through, pushing past the difficulty and fear it presents.

And so I ask that you all, my loved ones, permit me my selfishness for the time being, with greatest understanding. I will reach out when I feel it’s right, and of course you can reach out to me at any point as well. But here I terminate my “feed of stories” for the time being, so that I may develop myself here, struggles and all, and come out of it a stronger and more sound individual ready to share stories, opinions, and new beliefs -as they naturally arise from my experiences – at a later time. I ask for your deepest understanding, love, and support as I continue this journey.

Much, much love,



Getting Grounded

This Monday, the 6th of October, marks the beginning of my 6th full week here in Ecuador.

The first 3 weeks in Quito (the capital city) I lived with a host family, attending language school and training seminars, squeezing in bits of exploration as I could. I summitted Volcán Pichincha, at 15,796ft above sea level, pushing the personal limits I thought previously existed a little bit further. I found a little, unassuming coffee shop where the owner, Gladys, imports green beans and roasts them herself in-house; accompanied by her homemade tamales and chocolate cake, it was easy to pass a few hours journaling and people watching in the little window seat, cozily cornered between the bright yellow walls and blue checkered curtains. After picking up some herbs at a natural remedies shop (and chatting with the ladies there for awhile), I passed by a cobbler with beautiful multi-colored hand-made shoes lining the storefront. I popped in to admire them, and walked out 30 minutes later with a great bargain on a beautiful pair of shoes. The other Fellows liked them so much, soon half of the cohort was donning the sweet suede!

On September 21st, the Fellows destined for site placements in the Southern Andes’ regions of Cañar and Azuay (including me) hopped on a bus for a 10ish hour ride South on the Panamérica highway. I was dropped off in Cañar to live with my family for one week (called Immersion Week), to be followed by a Regional Training Seminar (RTS: a reconnect of Fellows within certain regional placement areas to debrief experiences and provide support) in Vilcabamba. Following an un-fun bout of food poisoning and infection during the first week of living in my new family’s home, it was a welcoming time to regain my strength going into a 2-month block living at my site placement until another RTS at Thanksgiving.

I’m living in the community of San Rafael, which I refer to as a farm suburb, nestled in the hills surrounding the large town/small city of Cañar. I am working with a locally-run organization CENAGRAP, an acronym of Centro del Apoyo de la Gestión Rural del Agua Potable (roughly translated: Center for the Support of Rural Management of Potable Water). It was started by farmers in communities local to Cañar who wanted to manage their own sources of potable water, due to the failure of supply by the greater municipal system. It evolved into an official organization that works to help develop and manage community-run water systems, offering the development technology and strategies to local areas. My host father is the director of CENAGRAP; he also serves as my apprenticeship host.

I’ve been invited to become involved in many different sectors within the organization, beginning with participating in community water system site visits and laboratory testing of water quality in the coming week. I am excited to begin to establish my new life and responsibilities here in Cañar, both at home and at my apprenticeship. For now, it is my job to listen, to learn, and to focus on being happy right where I am.