Ecuador Calling

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For a long time after returning from the Peace Corps, I didn’t really want to talk, or even think, about Ecuador. What I wanted was to simply return to the U.S. and snap back into my former American life, to completely forget about my Peace Corps experience for a little while.

I can say for certain, without pretense or hyperbole, that living in Ecuador was a life altering experience. So why was I so eager to forget about it? For more than two years, I was the “cold American,” the gullible gringa offering free help, the one everyone blew off at meetings, the one everyone stared at in the streets (and everywhere else for that matter), the one who could never give, do, or be enough, the “easy” American girl, the rich, dumb tourist, and any number of other preconceived notions. For more than two years, I’d been figuring out how to live, act, and think like an Ecuadorian while also examining and discussing Ecuadorian culture ad nauseam with fellow volunteers. I was exhausted. Simply put, I was ready to do and be something else.

When I finally found myself standing in the St. Louis airport, surrounded by family and friends, the contents of my life stuffed into a backpack and a single suitcase, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how my life was changing.

The next day, I went to my first big family gathering and, naturally, everyone was eager to hear about my experiences. “How was Ecuador?” I heard over and over. It was the question I both anticipated and dreaded. I’d spent the last months of my service contemplating how to answer that question, but I still didn’t know what to say. A short question usually merits a short answer, but I couldn’t articulate the tangled mess of emotions that encompassed my Ecuadorian life in any form, long or short. Less than 24 hours before, I’d moved my entire life from one continent to another in two bags. I’d gone from a world where I only understood half of what anybody was saying to accidentally eaves dropping on conversations without trying. After two years of using a 90s-era Nokia cell phone, I had a mini computer in my hand with full internet capabilities. How could I even begin to address what I’d been through in the past 24 hours much less the past two years?

“It was great,” I replied, that time and every time after that. Everyone seemed more than satisfied with this simple, digestible response.

And with that, I began to put Ecuador away.

At first, Ecuador was inescapable. Every night, it was there in my dreams—the horns blaring in the early morning hours, the viejos sweeping the dusty sidewalks, the heavy feel of suelto in my pocket. Every morning, I’d awake relieved and slightly confused about being in the United States. But, eventually, the dreams stopped. I deleted Ecuadorian acquaintances from Facebook. Unable to reconcile my American life with my Ecuadorian life and craving even more emotional space, I stopped scheduling Skype dates with my Ecuadorian friends for a while. I stopped speaking Spanish, and the Spanglish that was once a staple in my life fell out of my vocabulary completely. With my Peace Corps friends scattered across the country and no daily, concrete reminders of Ecuador, I pushed my Ecuadorian life to the back of my mind until the memories, once fresh and painful and overwhelming, became dull and rusted, easier to handle. Slowly, subtly, Ecuador faded away. As I moved, started a new job, and took on new challenges, the details of my Ecuadorian life fell completely out of focus until my Peace Corps service felt like a dream rather than my once-daily reality.

Lately, though, I can’t stop thinking about Ecuador. As I go about my life in Chicago, moments of my Peace Corps service have been resurfacing in brief, vivid snippets. A man on the bus crosses himself as we pass the Cathedral, and I am transported back to Ecuador, the entire bus crossing themselves twice, practically in unison, as we pass an unassuming chapel on the corner. I stare at parts of the Chicago skyline from my boyfriend’s window and remember the endless afternoons on Joey’s rooftop, chatting over beers while the people of Loja passed on the streets below and the sun streaked through the surrounding mountains. My boss casually snaps, then claps his fist to the palm of his hand, and I recall my Ecuadorian Spanish teacher clasping my hands in his after I completed a similar move, explaining that said gesture is both sexually explicit and offensive in Ecuador. In the past month alone, I’ve stumbled across and recreated recipes from my Peace Corps cookbook and uncovered old emails to friends recounting my every emotion in detail so raw that I can still feel those moments in my gut. At my site mate’s wedding, I reminisced with my closest Peace Corps friends about the hours we whiled away together, eating ice cream, drinking Pilsner, grab-assing, and laughing, in happiness and in sadness, because if we didn’t laugh we would surely cry.

Ecuador is calling, and I can no longer ignore it. I know it’s time to finally put my experiences into words, if only so I have a written record of how and why those two years impacted me so greatly. Even if the resulting pieces are never read by another soul, the details left in my brain need to be recorded so I can finally figure out how to incorporate these two lives: here and there. But I’m scared. As Joan Didion says in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook”:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

Unable to reconcile my Ecuadorian self with the person I was becoming (again? anew?), I packed Ecuador away until I could no longer feel the details. I am no longer on nodding terms with my Ecuador self, and I’m afraid I’ll never snatch her back from the darkness again. As Didion grimly notes in her essay, “You see I still have the scenes, but I no longer perceive myself among those present, no longer could even improvise the dialogue.” I’m scared that I’ll finally try to delve into my experiences and realize that there’s nothing left to delve into but a set of vague memories and feelings. The loss would be profound.

After avoiding Ecuador for so long, I know that the best I can do at this point is try. Ecuador is calling, and now, it’s finally time to listen.

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Gratitude and Struggle

Two Mondays ago, at 2:30am, I awoke to the sound of deep, guttural retching in the apartment below, the sound of someone desperately trying to vacate their stomach. There was cartoonishly loud spitting, then three hard, blunt slams against the wall, so forceful that my bed shook. I rolled over to look at the clock and groaned. My downstairs neighbors had been waking me with their blaring TV or screaming matches at 2:30am like clockwork for the past two months, but this already seemed much more serious than normal. I slid out of bed and quietly, oh so quietly pressed my ear to the floor. “What the hell? What the hell?” my downstairs neighbor shrieked. “You boys,” she said in a motherly tone, then began wailing in a high, oddly tranquil melodious voice. And so it continued—powerful retching, spitting, a series of wall-shaking poundings, and snippets of incoherent babbling—for three more hours.

The saga of my downstairs neighbors began the second week in January. My apartment building had been remarkably quiet before, so much so that my parents marveled at it every time they visited. “I can’t believe it’s so calm around here. I expected a lot more noise, living in the city!” After 13 months of peace that I didn’t even know was a blessing, the shouting began, so loud that I could hear it through my floorboards. At first, it was only the woman who shouted, the only person legally allowed to live in the apartment. I could hear parts of her conversation as if she were standing in my bedroom—”I’m sorry, Aaron!” and “You need to be more tolerant!” and “You can’t control yourself!” Other parts of the conversation, the parts that took place in other areas of their apartment, were more mumbled, but the tone was clear: tense, provocative, dangerous. Then, days after, I could hear both parties shouting. At first, I did nothing. I’d never been in this situation before; I didn’t even know what steps to take. Then, when the fighting became more frequent and the cursing more intense, I called my landlord. He issued a warning and things quieted down for a bit. A week later, their throbbing TV kept me awake again, the bass pulsating in my floor and in my head as I tried to fall asleep.

“Are you sure your apartments aren’t connected somehow?” my boyfriend asked, more than once. “How would our apartments be connected?” I asked. “Maybe there’s a microphone in your floor,” he’d say in jest. Then, more seriously, “Maybe your sinks are connected and sound just travels through there. I don’t know. It’s just…bizarre.”

Bizarre. That was the only way to describe it. I never heard my next door neighbors, yet I could hear my downstairs neighbors as clear and sharp as a violin chord in a silent room. And they weren’t always fighting or shouting. Sometimes they were just talking, about friends, about their days, about their beliefs, albeit strange beliefs about reincarnation and powers from another planet. I pressed my ear to the floor, trying to gauge the true volume of their movements and conversations. Were they really that loud or was I being too sensitive? Is my floor abnormally thin? If I can hear everything they say, can they hear everything I say? This went on for months. Fighting and not, floor vibrating along with their TV or not, odd noises in the middle of the night or not. After months of this, I was tired, crazy, worn raw.

Then the retching happened. I sat in my bed, unmoving. I was scared, and somehow doing nothing seemed like the best option. I desperately did not want to call the police, although my landlord had advised me to do so after multiple nights of noise led to repeated calls to his office. Despite the wall-shaking bangings below, it didn’t seem as if anyone was being hurt. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to believe in the strange darkness of the morning. Finally, after dozing and waking once more to a shaking apartment, I called the police. It was 4:45 am—an unforgivable amount of time after the incident began. Immediately afterwards, I called my boyfriend. He picked up after two rings and was on his way to my house 10 minutes later. He patiently listened to me complain and fret as I packed my things for the week. He let me lay my head on his lap and cry about how tired I was. Then we both got in a cab and I moved to his house for a while.

Sleep deprived and disturbed, I walked into a challenging work week. Every day was grueling, and I finished out the week feeling awful about myself and terrible about my work. I cried no less than three times throughout the course of five days. All in all, it was an atrocious week at the end of three increasingly horrible months.

Yet, despite the onslaught of awfulness, my week was abnormally full of wonderful moments of calm and, more than anything, profound gratitude:

  • V. and I talking about our work days while cooking in his tiny kitchen.
  • A long and adventurous run through the Lincoln Park zoo.
  • Nights full of Chopped marathons.
  • A quiet morning spent sipping coffee and catching up on the long list of essays I’ve been trying to read for months.
  • Listening to seagulls crying from the nearby lake, their calls echoing in a city not quite yet awake.
  • V. making me stir-fry at 7am on Monday morning and packing it up for our lunches.

Ironically, the same Monday that started with awful retching ended with the greatest moment of calm: a leisurely walk, hand-in-hand with V., as the wind of Chicago’s first 70-degree day lightly caressed our skin. As we strolled, we talked about the dark and terrible thing consuming my downstairs neighbor—whether it be drug abuse, domestic abuse, or heartbreak—the peace and safety we both want for her, and how grateful we are to have each other. Then, at 9pm, I changed into my pajamas, crawled between soft sheets, and slept for 9 uninterrupted, quiet hours.