One of our first nights in Ecuador, we were eating dinner with the outgoing volunteers. They shared with us a tradition that they typically do with retreat groups where they each go around and tell an embarrassing story that happened to them during their time in Ecuador. They encouraged us to take chances and to lean into our discomforts, with the ultimate goal being to have stories to tell about our embarrassing, yet formative, moments to illuminate our time in Ecuador. This past week, I think I found my first story. It all started two weeks ago on a Friday. As I was leaving the office for the day, I gave my compañeros an “hasta Lunes,” assuring them that I would see them at the usual time on Monday. Just after that, I heard my boss Carlos say, “Ryan, en Lunes tenemos (really really fast Spanish). ¿Quieres?” Everything I understood from this was, “Ryan, we have (insanely fast Spanish). Want to come?” “Sure,” I said, having absolutely no idea to what I had agreed. They proceeded to tell me that we would meet at la Entrada de la 8, about a 25 minute bus ride from our house, at 7:30 in the morning, and that I should bring a hat and sun block. It is not uncommon for me to travel with my office mates to walk around the sectors, so I figured this is what we would be doing. Monday morning came; I woke up at 6:30, put on my Hogar t-shirt, and packed my Ecua-bag with my hat, water bottle, a notebook, and a pen. I got on the bus shortly after 7am, slightly frustrated at not really understanding where I was going. I arrived to the Entrada shortly after 7:30 and saw my compañero Alexis, who was not wearing a Hogar shirt and had a bag with him. I figured we might be going to a legislative meeting or something, since they usually are not supposed to wear their Hogar shirts when they travel there with community members. I asked him where we were going. His response translated to, “I’m not really sure. I could be close, it could be far.” Leave it to the Ecuadorians to be insanely detailed and descriptive. We met up with our other compañera, Olinda, and walked across the street to where the Hogar de Cristo volunteers live. When we arrived, we found a van filled with other workers from Hogar, as well as Luis, the director of Hogar, who were all without Hogar t-shirts.
We had been driving for about twenty-five minutes, and had just turned onto a highway with which I had not yet been familiar. Olinda looked over at me and asked me what I had brought with me, to which a responded, “A hat and a water bottle.” She then said, “¿no traigaste pantalonetas de bañarse?” After a few moments of trying to figure out why on earth I would need special pants to go to the bathroom, I figured out what she meant and I responded, “No, I didn’t bring a bathing suit…” Much to my surprise, we were going on an office field trip to the beach, and to say the least, I couldn’t have been more unprepared, nervous of how long I would be there, and upset that I didn’t just ask Carlos for clarification that previous Friday when he told me where we were going. Despite all of this, I forced myself to clear my mind of all of these hesitations, and realize that I should be taking advantage of my first travel opportunity in Ecuador. We arrived to the beach town called Las Playas after about an hour and a half. We spent the morning on a Dolphin-watch boat tour, and in the afternoon I borrowed Carlos’s shorts and went swimming in the Pacific Ocean. It was an awesome experience that I had in no way expected. I arrived back at the Sinaí house that night shortly after 7pm. My community mates could not have been more surprised with how I had spent my day.
This past weekend Jessica, David, and I were fortunate enough to go on a retreat with all of the Proyecto Salesiano volunteers of Ecuador. These volunteers, which consist of both extranjeros and internos, volunteer at locations similar to Casa Don Bosco, where Jessica, David, I volunteer. Extranjero refer to volunteers, like Jessica, David, and me, who have come from other countries. Interno, on the other hand, refers to Ecuadorian volunteers who, for the most part, have recently graduated high school and have chosen to volunteer for a year working with the Proyecto Salesiano. The three of us, along with three European volunteers and four interno Ecuadorian volunteers, traveled to Santa Domingo, Ecuador to represent the Guayaquil sector of Proyectos Salesianos. This was the first year that the Rostro de Cristo volunteers were invited to attend one of these retreats, which very much humbled me and made me grateful for the opportunity to attend. The ten volunteers, accompanied by Padre Paco, the director of both the Guayaquil sector of Proyecto Salesiano and all of the Proyectos Salesianos in all of Ecuador, left from Guayaquil around 6pm on Friday night, and arrived in Santa Domingo by midnight. Santa Domingo is on the edge of the Ecuadorian Sierra, which offered us wonderful views of lush green mountains and proved to be a nice change of scenery from the dirt roads and desert terrain that we are used to in Sinaí.
Overall, I found the retreat to be an incredibly rewarding experience. We were fortunate enough to meet volunteers from all over the world who were working in other parts of Ecuador in similar settings. The most rewarding part for me, however, was meeting the Ecuadorian volunteers. I was constantly surprised, impressed, and humbled by how wise they were, how much regard they have for the boys of the streets with whom they work, the bond they have between each other as fellow volunteers, as well as their overall exuberance and enthusiasm for life. Often times I was at a loss for words as a result of these realizations, and all I can do was smile at how incredible they are at such a young age. The spirit that lived within these boys follows the pedagogy of Don Bosco of the Salesianos. Don Bosco exemplified his beliefs that everyone should be treated with love, and that life should be treated as an experience, meaning that one should be intentional in every moment and take advantage of opportunities. This is a mentality that I hope to be able to adopt throughout the rest of my time in Ecuador, as well as every endeavor that the future will bring.
On the last day of the retreat, I was fortunate enough to spend my 22nd birthday with the Proyecto Salesiano community. The first time they sang happy birthday to me was at breakfast, and the second time was at the end of mass, which consisted of Spanish, English, and German versions of the song. The third time they sang happy birthday to me was right after lunch as Padre Paco put a huge cake down on the table in front of me. After rapid encouragement for me to blow out the candles, the celebration continued in true Ecuadorian style with my face [unwillingly] being pushed into the cake…twice (the second was thanks to David). As much as it sucked to have my face and glasses covered with cake and icing, I wouldn’t have wanted my Ecuadorian birthday to be any other way. After lunch, we quickly packed up all of our belongings, and were taken on a paseo (short field trip). We drove deeper into the Sierra, surrounded by jungle and mountains, and eventually arrived at an Ecuadorian version of a swimming club amidst the mountains and jungles. The swimming pools, soccer fields, and tikki style huts were sculpted out of the Sierra terrain that surrounded it, giving the feeling of being on an island in the middle of the mountains. I was such a perfect place to spend an hour swimming and hanging out with the people who I had gotten to know better over this weekend. After this, all of the volunteers left to return to their specific cities, and our Guayaquil group set out for another five hour drive back to Guayaquil. As we arrived into the city, Padre Paco stopped at Pizza Hut (yeah, Pizza Hut) and bought us all pizza – the one thing that I have really been missing and talking about so much in Ecuador – and sang me happy birthday for the fourth time. I literally could not have asked for anything more. But I got it. We arrived at Casa Don Bosco around 10pm, and waited for a few moments for our fellow Sinaí volunteers to pick us up and take us back home. Much to my surprise, Nalleli, Eva, Michele, and Zach drove through the gate in Big Blue (our van), which was decorated on the inside with streamers hanging from the ceiling and a “Feliz Cumpleaños Ryan!” sign in the windows. The four of them opened the door of the van, kicking out balloons, carrying my favorite Ecuadorian cake, and singing. I was insanely spoiled on my birthday, and I loved every moment of it, as much as I tried to make it not a big deal. This has been one of the best birthdays of my life, thanks to the awesome people that make up my Ecuadorian community.
Enjoy las fotos!