With 200 calories, five grams of fiber, and 46 grams of sugar the mango packs a potent, sweet gustatory punch. The ovular fruit, which morphs from green to reddish-orange when ripe, also provides 73% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A and 204% of vitamin C, making it a powerful immune-boosting tool. In Ecuador, two types of mangos exist: the normal, recognized version sold around the world, which are produced nearly year-round, and a special, juicier type that only comes out in December and January, and is eaten by cutting the top off and slurping the goopy flesh out from the inside. My academic director Fabian Espinoza, the wisest man I know in Ecuador, let alone across the globe, shared his love for mangos with the group upon our arrival in the country, and the fruit has since stuck with me as a metaphor for this crazy place. Small in size yet bursting with nutrients, Ecuador is achingly sweet and easily overpowering if not consumed in moderation. However, the stringy, pulpy insides not only provide refreshment and stimulation but also sticks to the insides of one’s teeth, leaving a lasting memory after cleaning that, while providing a reminder of the experience, lingers for days without fail, in a confident, omnipresent manner. I was lucky enough to enjoy a few perfect mangos during my three weeks in Ecuador, but in the end it was not my time to fully appreciate this country because just like the special drinking mango, its preferred window of consumption proved elusive by the smallest of margins.
Following orientation week, I was lucky enough to live with an Ecuadorian family for two weeks in Alangasi, a suburb of Quito in the valley of Los Chillos while taking an intensive language course. Classes were useful if uneventful, the highlight being the location, an accompanying kindergarten whose students spoke better Spanish than many of the American college students nearby.
My home stay was certainly an experience, as I was taken into the rambunctious Padilla-Oquendo family. The house was a gorgeous little place with an amazing garden, completely walled off from the surrounding streets. Mother Ana proved to be a small, rotund ball of fury, never ceasing to poke, needle, and prod all members of the family, myself included. Her husband Jose Vicente, a retired architecture professor, certainly enjoys the little things in life, especially mealtimes. The Padillas were easily the most food-centered family I’ve encountered thus far, with Pepe, a cook, Maria Cristina a violinist, and Ana, an engineer, all honing in on three huge daily meals. The children all live at home despite ranging in age from 29 to 35, and the convivial family atmosphere persisted throughout the household. Nicknames are the norm in this house, as in Ecuador, with prepositions and the third person providing a few confusing moments: la Flaca, el Gordo, Jota, la Vieja, mi Madre, la Iguana, el Gringo (me) all being thrown around without hesitation. The three dogs and four cats that inhabited the house certainly kept the housekeeper, a college student named Patricio, busy with all sorts of chores. A large extended family in Quito provided awesome times as well. I awoke every morning before sunrise to a rooster crowing right outside my window, and homemade meals made with love were the highlight of my days.
Family life revolved around the kitchen, because when meals were not being eaten, they were either being prepared extensively or subsequently reviewed. Ecuadorian food was solid if uninspiring, with a highlight being placed on amazing produce, impossibly fresh and ripe fruits and vegetables that, unfortunately, were served as small side dishes. Mushy avocados, mangos, bananas, papayas, and many more unknown fruits were a daily treat. A field trip during class to the market displayed stalls upon stalls filled with great produce. Meals began with a soup, always involved meat, usually chicken, and were carbohydrate and starch-centered: it was not uncommon to have rice, pasta, corn, and potatoes during the same meal in my house. A persistent stomach bug somewhat limited my culinary experience, but I did my best to try everything I possibly could.
During weekend breaks from classes, my family treated me to several excursions throughout the surrounding area. Despite not bringing the good luck I had hoped for, a Super Bowl Sunday hike up to the nearest peak Ilalo resulted in some great views of the valley and of Quito up above. Hikers in jeans and dress shoes and toting two-liter bottles of Pepsi struggled up the surprisingly steep slope to the rounded summit.
The group convened on TGI Friday’s, a surprise gourmet destination in the mall, to watch the debacle that was the Super Bowl.
The following weekend was filled with a trip to some amazing thermal hot springs and a Sunday spent biking around the old Quito airport. Finally, a day trip to the Quito colonial center served as a memorable final day in Ecuador, as the old city, UNESCO’s first World Heritage site, was full of excitement.
The colonial district is filled with narrow streets, large, open squares, amazingly ornate Baroque churches, and the presidential palace, open to the public.
The heat and traffic (never a good combination) did not deter a great day. In summary, my time with my Ecuadorian family proved to be a wonderful experience, and I will carry fond memories from these last few weeks into the future.
In the end, my time in Ecuador will prove to be extremely informative on a personal level. From day one it was clear that despite my best efforts my heart had simply refused to leave home following nearly a year jetting around Alaska and then Europe, leaving my being with little spiritual drive or motivation to persist in a developing country thousands of miles from home. When my condition began to deteriorate, first through digestion, followed by absolute exhaustion, pounding headaches, difficulty sleeping, an inability to keep food down, and worsening and more frequent episodes of anxiety that bordered on panic attacks, I began to rethink my situation. After a few weeks of desperately trying to summon all the courage and verve lying somewhere in my soul, it became clear that in the best interests of my physical and mental well being I needed to come home. It is with great sadness that I will return home to Boulder this weekend, because Ecuador truly is a wonderful country, and my program was filled with amazing people, from our mystical academic director Fabian to the many friends I made and hope to keep in contact with long after this semester is over. However, all is certainly not lost: I am looking forward to slowly building my life back in Boulder again, after taking some time to recover from what has been a severe comprehensive blow to my system. Sometimes the most thoughtful made plans fall through, and it is through creativity, positivity, and patience that adversities are best handled.
I truly feel like this brief aside in Ecuador will prove to be an enlightening experience, and that the loss of the semester is simply a new, exciting challenge to be tackled. I am eternally grateful for all those who made my trip possible, especially my parents and grandparents, and for the support of family and friends, old and new, who were behind me for every second of this struggle. Balance really is the key in life, and when body, mind, and spirit are not in equilibrium the human machine loses a great amount of potency. I am incredibly lucky to have spent a transformative time on the Equator, and remain confident that this will only deepen my resolve for international and intercultural travel, work, and interaction. This crazy country has taught me many lessons, both academic and personal, and above all else reflection has confirmed the need to trust oneself, live intuitively, and make the most out of the daily opportunity of life, without paying too much attention to the opinions of others or simply alternative experiences through which comparisons are not necessary. By taking ownership of one’s being, expectations are neutralized and rendered moot, as the importance lies in personal relationships, experiences of growth, and above all, a joyous contentment that results in a state of peace with one’s self and with the world. As my good friend Fabian told me at the airport while nervously awaiting the arrival of my passport following a communication snafu, one cannot begin to relate to others until he/she feels comfortable with him/herself. The Quechua language contains a word, ayllu, which means both family and community, and is used interchangeably to describe both. For me, the world consists of collective units of individuals, each occupying a personal sliver of the spiritual stratosphere. Together, their shared experiences unite them in a perpetually unifying manner, connecting them in ways both seen and very hidden. I believe in the power of reflection, self-examination, and expansion, and through this process we can firmly tune in to ourselves, our world around us, and find true love in the lives we are so incredibly fortunate to live.
At last, at long long last, I am coming home. Clear head, full heart, can’t lose.