Thursday, July 30, 2009

Reflections at the halfway point: Julio 27, 2009

Hola a todos de Ecuador!

From my newfound home in La Garzota, I’ve found my personal cheerleader for my Ecuadorian adventure. A block from the house that Darleen and I have come to call home, is a gym where day-in and day-out, a personal trainer yells “vamos, vamos, vamos, fuerte, fuerte, fuerte!” After long and tiring days in the Guayaquil humidity chock-full of observing, translating, learning, and struggling to take in and integrate this experience, the physical trainer outside our window pushes me onward to the next day, next experience, next new and shocking reality that is this cultural immersion experience in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Today marks our halfway point of our summer in Ecuador, which feels incredibly false on all fronts. It’s not possible that we’ve only been here two and a half weeks—for all that we’ve witnessed, done, and experienced, each day feels like at least a week. And it’s certainly not possible that in two and a half weeks we’ll be boarding a plane back to the US—how ridiculously short that feels! Since we stepped off the plane after 16+ hours of travelling and were greeted with the strong hugs and kisses on the cheek from Marta Lucero, it’s been clear to me that it might take years to fully unpack, integrate, and comprehend this experience. But as today marks the halfway point, it seems like it’s time to stop, reflect, and share some of the amazing stories I now carry with me.

Although there’s always some culture shock when navigating a new culture, our adjustment was smoothly facilitated by Johnny Gonzales of Blue Hill College, who has done an incredible job of orienting us, organizing amazing clinical opportunities for us, providing us with Spanish classes fit to our varying communicative abilities, and does all this with such a smile, with such charm, and such obvious respect and commitment to the Lucero LMH program. From the psychologists in the sites we’re visiting, to our profesoras, to our Ecuadorian familias, and most especially the Lucero family and the folks at the Cynthia Lucero Foundation, everywhere we go we’re received with such warm and welcoming arms. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising from the stories we’ve heard about Cynthia, her warmth, generosity, and spirit. Having learned more about Cynthia through the foundation and her family, I feel so honored to have the opportunity to carry out some of the work she had hoped to do, here in the city she was born in.

Tonight I will write the “highlights version,” as my time is short so I can get some rest before our 6:30am home-visits to observe family therapy with families of children who attend the Fundación Crecer’s school for children who work on the streets. On my list of personal highlights are my first telephone conversation in Spanish, with my Ecuadorian Mami, the experience of trying cow-foot soup, seeing whales and blue footed boobys (birds) in Puerto Lopez, canyoning (rapelling) down a waterfall in the mountains of Baños, and successfully explaining the history of the LMH program in Spanish to my family—something I was not able to do last summer.

While I certainly miss the delicious coffee of Costa Rica and the intensive experience of 6 hours of Spanish class a day, with our time split between volunteer work and classes, I feel I’m getting a much more intimate view of life in Guayaquil. The differences in socio-economic-status are shocking. The majority of us live within a two-minute walk from each other, and I’ve never experienced such a wide range of economic variety from house to house. While this felt striking to me for the first two weeks, Monday I witnessed families living in poverty that I could never imagine. Visiting families this week has really put into perspective the unbelievable privileges I hold. The bedroom that I’m living in here, which is probably half the size of my room in Boston, is slightly smaller than the one-room house that sleeps 13 in one of the homes we visited. The privacy, which I crave here, living with a family again for the second summer in a row, and the second time in my adult life, is simply impossible for the families we visited. After seeing the family situations first-hand, I had a different perspective while meeting with the children this morning. One little boy drew us a picture of his family. He spent a very long time concentrating on making his picture—his Abuelita, Mami, Papi, and 3 hermanos—drawn as small as my littlest fingernail. It was as if he couldn’t allow his family to take up any space. Last week I would have interpreted this solely as being about his lack of self-esteem, possibly pointing to depression. But today I paused and considered what it is like to live in a big world and not physically have room to take up the space one deserves. Big hearts of various colors surrounded the picture, as if to say, “we might be small, but our love is big and strong.” This 10-year-old boy with a hefty trauma history, in his picture, and through his play, communicated his awe-inspiring resiliency.

Monday we visited with a family with three adolescent children, one of whom had run away from home. The home was narrow, at the top of incredibly steep stairs that were almost vertical. Like climbing a ladder, it was impossible to ascend the staircase without the use of the banisters. Once inside, the psychologist proceeded to have an hour-long therapy session with the father who struggles with Alcoholism. The entire family (sans the daughter who ran away) was present for the session—there wasn’t another option. While listening to the conversation, I watched the teenage son march an action figure on the ledge of the stairwell. In slow-motion he walked the action figure on the narrow ledge, occasionally flipping him through the air. The figure landed on his feet—most of the time. After quite some time of listening to his father shrug off responsibility, chastise him for behaving like a normal teenager, and lie to the psychologist about his drinking habits, I watched this young man balance the action figure precariously on the ledge of the stairwell. What a long drop it would be if he fell, I thought. I was thankful that action figure stood steady for the rest of our visit, and long after the young man had walked into the room he shared with his siblings. It was hard to peel my eyes from the figure when it was time to leave the house. I wonder if it still stands there, balancing.

Although I’m learning so much, understanding more each day and able to communicate in Spanish better and better each day, my ability to express myself and fully comprehend in Spanish still fails me on a daily basis. While this is incredibly frustrating for a psychology student for whom expression and complexity of thought are of utmost importance, I’ve found myself less and less conscious of the moments where I am lost in translation while observing and interacting in our volunteer experiences. Over the past two-and-a-half weeks, I’ve rediscovered the power of nonverbal communication, and of symbolic representation. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to spend some time with the families here, and to witness and participate in these moments. Whether it’s with a 5 year-old boy at a Hospital Leon Becerra who came alive through play with his toy helicopter and the lunch-bag puppets we made, the one-year old little girl who followed my eyes with hers for 20 minutes after a painful procedure, or the young man whose action figure communicated more than the situation would allow, it seems clear that despite language barriers, people will find a way to communicate what needs to be heard. Beyond the language barrier, so much can be understood. While it feels hard to know how my presence in these institutions, with these families and children, could possibly be of use in such a short amount of time, I am acutely aware of the ways in which I am affected by the time spent with the children and families I have had the privilege to know.

I’m certainly not a morning person, but I’m looking forward to awakening before the sun tomorrow, to meet three more families. Entonces, porque voy a levantarme muy temprano en la mañana, buenos noches a todos. Espero que todos están felices y seguros en Los Estados Unidos.

Hasta pronto! Aliza

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