As the air taxi screeched to a halt and I almost dropped my Spanish dictionary, it suddenly hit me that I’d arrived at my new home: Cuenca, Ecuador.
When I’d first landed in Ecuador two weeks earlier in the capital city Quito, I was surprised by how modern everything was. However, once you spend some time in Ecuador, you realize that many old-fashioned traditions are still strong.
Practically every other Ecuadorian woman I saw had a long dark braid and a baby swaddled in an embroidered scarf on her back. Many men carried loads at least twice their size of Alpaca fur sweaters and blankets, hammocks, and anything else that could get a tourist to open their wallet for a tiny relic of one of the few preserved native cultures on Earth.
It is where my host mother spent hours doing laundry outside the house with a washing “machine” made of stone and a garden hose. However, it is also where I passed at least three open-air tiendas advertising shining Whirpool lavadoras as I walked to class. Little Cuenca also boasts a giant “Millennium Plaza” complete with a Hallmark gift shop, a sports bar, and of course, a massive adjoining Kentucky Fried Chicken (although don’t expect to find any cards in English at the Hallmark store). Just a few blocks away, a Supermaxi dominated an entire street corner and offered everything from Mickey Mouse Mac and Cheese to Brita filter water bottles.
Ecuador’s culture is transforming and I often felt like I was right in the middle of some of these changes. Somehow it almost didn’t seem real that these men could exist in the same century as my 24-year-old host brother, who has a slight obsession with the Coca-Cola brand. Like any modern, westernized college student, he also owns an iPhone, wears Ray-Ban prescription glasses everyday, and listens to artists like Adele and Bruno Mars. I stayed in what was my host brother’s room before a shed in the yard became his own private cove. Empty Coke cans, still fire-truck red, dominated every shelf in the room.
In the battle between traditional, conservative Ecuador and the modern Americanized Ecuador, I definitely am rooting for old-school Ecuador. Why does Ecuador, a country so rich species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, need so much influence from a country like the U.S.?
When our group traveled to Cajas National Park, I became convinced that American influence should not be leading people into more malls, movie theatres, and supermarkets that are so separated from Ecuador’s breathtaking natural beauty. In Cajas, the air was so clean it was almost sweet. The wind whispered through long blades of grass and water weaved through stones in creeks scattered throughout the park, producing a symphony of tranquility I hope I never forget.
When we got to Cajas, we had to carry supplies to where we planned to camp that night. I got off the bus, took a deep breath of the sweet mountain air, and looked around for something to help carry. Another student in the program was about to carry a giant cooler filed with food for the whole trip on her own, but I would not let her since I didn’t want her to start out the trip with sore arms. I grabbed one end and when we both struggled to pick the cooler up, I thought it would be a long walk.
However, I was surprised by how even halfway through the walk I still felt energized. It could have been the half of a chocolate bar I’d eaten to help with altitude sickness (according to most native Cancans), however I think I will always believe it was breathing the unpolluted air and seeing the mountains arch and dive around us that allowed us to keep up with those who were carrying much lighter loads.
I feel like walking to the campsite that day was a lot like my entire experience abroad in Ecuador. I had to walk 40 minutes twice a day to my Spanish classes and I often felt burdened by the load of being an American and knowing my society is one of the main influences of expanding strip-malls and shopping plazas. I also often felt hampered by my lack of Spanish just going to the grocery store or interacting with my family in my own home. However, I was really lucky and everyone else from Syracuse and other U.S. universities in the same SU Abroad program (with me in Ecuador) helped me every step of the way so I was able to just take in the incredible experience. Looking back at times it really seemed like a long month, but then again with my friends and host family helping me with all the new experiences, I was also shocked when my Ecuadoran host mom dropped me off at the airport.