Making friends with llamas

Last semester, I filled out never ending piles of paperwork – from frustrating visa applications and international travel documents to personal goal statements and academic profiles – in preparation for a semester in Latin America. I had a general idea of what to expect, and I felt fairly confident that certain aspects of my journey would provide expected challenges as well as great opportunities for personal growth. I am quickly learning, however, that my expectations are basically useless here.

I do not mean that in a negative way, for in most areas of life my expectations have been far surpassed by the reality of Ecuador. I expected beautiful landscapes … This past weekend, I swam beneath a breathtaking waterfall and hiked along the ridge of a volcanic lake. I expected to improve my Spanish ability … My vocabulary is expanding more rapidly than I can even handle at the moment. I expected to meet new people with new perspectives … Each day I seem to encounter individuals with surreal life experiences and enthralling ideologies. In a few less words, this experience has been everything I hoped it would be and more.

I do mean to say, however, that with such opportunities to learn and grow also come some unexpected twists and turns. First, I did not expect to encounter such levels of personal apprehension. I would like to think of myself as the kind of young, adventurous individual who fears no evil and adapts swiftly to other cultures of the world. As nice as that may sound, it simply isn’t true.

At the "cascada"

There are moments in my daily routine when I must admit … I get a little nervous. Heck, simply stepping onto one of the buses here in Quito is a risky move. From an intimidating taxi system to the ever-present threat of pickpockets, I find myself constantly more alert and skeptical of those around me. At first, I felt guilt about this. How could I be so judgmental? Or prejudiced? The reality of the situation, though, is that these dangers are real and very much deserve my attention.

Quito is far from being a violent city, but my daily travel requires that I let go of some of my more idealistic (and sometimes naive) notions of the world around me. 99.9% of the people I passed on the street today are wonderful, very hospitable individuals who have interesting stories and experiences similar to my own. The remaining small percentage are not necessarily “bad” people either, but I have to keep in mind that this country is home to many economic troubles and families who have very little. When this kind of need exists, economic crime naturally follows.

So, what’s the point of this reflection? I promise, I’m not trying to give my mom a heart attack by explaining the various dangers in my new home. For the most part, my life here is relatively safe and I am becoming more and more confident each day. The point of this idea, however, is that my expectation of “education” in Ecuador is quite different than my reality. And I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing.

I am not simply learning a language or learning about political events … I’m learning how to live in a world that is completely different from my own. Sometimes, that means learning to carry only small amounts of cash, figuring out how to judge the legitimacy of a taxi, knowing which areas are safe and which are more risky, etc. But most of the time, it means learning to really look at the lifestyles around me, to see the effects of globalization, development, and international affairs being played out on the street right before my eyes.

I am taking courses on economic development models, political corruption, and climate change – these are not simply theories or discussion topics in a classroom. They are real, pressing concerns for a nation that is trying to compete in a demanding world market while also maintaining its identity as a Latin American country with a rich indigenous past.

Today, I noticed one of my classmates reading a book on socialism in Latin America. I asked her what class required this reading. She stared at me and politely informed me that this was for her own personal enrichment. You know, the whole “don’t let school get in the way of your education” kind of ideology. I was impressed and honestly somewhat convicted. At times, I feel as though I simply learn how to work the education system rather than actually learning how to think and change. I know how to take exams and write lengthy term papers, but I rarely know how to apply my newfound knowledge to a world in desperate need of creative solutions and forward-thinking individuals.

So, this is my education in Ecuador. I’m learning how to learn. And hopefully, I’m learning how to change. There is much to be said for security and safety, but I believe this semester is my chance to push myself into a different type of environment in which the desire to grow and learn is so great that little fears of uncertainty, failure, or discomfort simply cannot deter my efforts.

To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound … the virtue of fortitude protects a person from loving his life in such a way that he loses it.  – Josef Pieper