As you can imagine, traveling to Ecuador meant being immersed into an entirely different culture with different values, practices and views. Especially in the Alternative Break program, our trip specified that we would be culturally immersed in Latin American culture and living a simple lifestyle, like those we were volunteering with did. I was excited to be experiencing the lifestyle of the people in Ecuador and seeing what they place high value on in their lives. It did come as a bit of a culture shock to me at first, especially coming from America; but after interacting with the students, teachers and parents it reminded me much of my own family lifestyle and my Vietnamese culture.
Although both have their differences, there are very many similarities as well. Being raised a Vietnamese American, I have two different cultures instilled in me. The American lifestyle that I have been born into and raised in, and also my family’s Vietnamese culture that I hold very close to me. It’s been an interesting journey, thus far, identifying myself with two different cultures but it has also taught me a lot. Being in Ecuador, it helped me to constantly keep an open mind about what I was seeing, learning and experiencing. I know I cannot fully understand Ecuadorian culture in its entirety, but from what I did experience, everyone is always welcoming and hospitable. They greet each other with besos (kisses) on both sides of the cheek and embrace them in long, heartfelt abrazos (hugs).
Mentioned above, our lifestyle was supposed to mirror those of the people we were volunteering for. This included a “simple lifestyle” with smaller meals and living at Escuela Semillita (the school). Our group stayed in the dance room, we slept on hammocks and shared one shower for 12 people. It was very difficult in the beginning because the water in Ecuador is not clean, so always having water to drink was hard to come by, toilets did not always flush and while brushing our teeth we had to use our bottled water to rinse our mouths and wash our toothbrushes. It took a lot of getting used to, but it made me appreciate what we have in America so much more. For meals, the director of Escuela Semillita, Senor Loyola, hired someone to come and cook us breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our meals consisted of mainly rice, and differing options on each day of chicken, fish, a vegetables or soup. They were extremely hearty meals that left me feeling more than satisfied. Fish in Guayaquil is delicious! It was always fresh and prepared either lightly fried or baked.
A lesson that really stuck with me through the duration of our trip is how hospitable everyone was to our group. Understanding that we are already very, very spoiled in America, we were continued to be spoiled at Escuela Semillita. The teachers and parents always provided us with the best that they could find, so that we felt comfortable and always taken care of. Even the students that we worked with constantly told us how much they loved having us there. They would surprise each of us with small trinkets or recuerdos (a small memory) so that we would never forget them. The Latin American culture I experienced in Ecuador, placed high value on family life which is very similar to Vietnamese culture. Family was the central unit in which activities were always planned around.
I loved being immersed in an entirely different culture, that pushed me out of my comfort zone in all different ways. It was an amazing learning experience and such an eye opener to be in a country where I didn’t speak the native language (very well) and had trouble communicating with students, teachers, parents, etc. Despite the language barrier, I loved every minute of being thrown out of my comfort zone. It taught me to always keep an open mind whenever I travel to a new area and to continue to push myself out of my comfort box to create connections and learn from others who don’t speak my language.
A belief that I always live by is that everyone has their own story, their own experiences that differ from our own. To learn from them, we must always keep an open mind and heart to understand what they’ve been through to better understand them. That’s how we learn and grow.