Gap Year 10 Things I am Thankful for in Ecuador (and Will Inevitably Miss When I Return to the U.S.)
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September 16, 2019
Jeffrey Fishman, CAS '23
It has been a while since I last posted to my blog, and I don’t really have a good excuse. Honestly, I have just been trying to soak up every moment of my life here in Ecuador, and I lost track of time. Through the good days, and even the bad ones, I try to stay present and to learn. However, as my time remaining in Ecuador begins to dwindle (I’m only here for about two more months!), the things that I will miss and the things that help me get through difficult days have become abundantly clear. As I walk through the streets of Philadelphia next year as a freshman in college, these are the things that I hope to remember with gratitude and affection.
1. My host family
I don’t even like using this term anymore because I feel like they are so much more to me than just “hosts”. I think the term, second family, is more fitting because that is how I feel when I’m around them. From the moment I stepped into their house, they were so welcoming and made me feel like I was a part of the family. As my Spanish has improved, we have only become closer, sharing laughs and stories. I know that my experience in Ecuador would not be the same without them, and I will be forever thankful for their kindness and for the lessons that they have taught me.
2. The kids I get to work with at Fundación Arupo
So much of my joy here in Ecuador is derived from the children that I get to work with everyday at my apprenticeship. When I was first assigned to my job at Fundación Arupo, a therapeutic center for kids with special needs, I was a little nervous. I only had a little experience working with children with special needs, and I had definitely never planned an event on this large of a scale, let alone in a language that I was still learning. Nevertheless, while days at my apprenticeship are often challenging, and sometimes frustrating, they are also incredibly rewarding. Each child has a unique personality, and every breakthrough is so special. I will also never forget the feeling of pride that fills my body, as I watch my hours of hard work culminate in a successful event; my vision becoming a reality. This job has forced me to grow in ways that I could not have even imagined before setting foot in Ecuador, and I know that these newly learned skills will serve me well in the future.
3. The Imbabura Volcano on a clear morning
Waking up to the Ecuadorian Sierra landscape is truly breathtaking, and makes it difficult to have a bad morning. I’ll let the photo do the talking!
4. Time to read
By the time I finished high school, I thought that I didn’t like to read. After taking numerous English classes where I was forced to read books that often did not interest me at a pace that I didn’t get to choose, I viewed reading as a chore. And I simply did not have the free time to read what I wanted to read. However, during my time in Ecuador, I have rediscovered my passion of reading for fun. I remember loving to read when I was a little kid, and I feel that same joy again when I read now. Even though I know my busy schedule will return when I leave Ecuador, I want to make sure that I continue to allot time for activities that I enjoy.
5. Bus rides
Bus rides have definitely transformed for me from a source of anxiety to a source of relaxation. After I managed to tame the Ecuadorian bus system, I realized that the slow-paced trips were a great time to listen to music (I finally have some time to discover new artists!), think, or just look out the window at the world around me. My bus rides to work or to pretty much anywhere have given me a much-needed chance to unwind. I think this realization can be attributed to one common theme: self-care. Upon arriving to Ecuador, I knew I was burnt out from high school, but I didn’t realize the amount of stress I was still holding onto in my body. By finally taking the time to journal or simply to do nothing while processing my thoughts, I feel completely rejuvenated and ready to take on my college adventure. As I reenter a life of high stress as a university student, I hope to continue improving my mental and physical self-awareness through schedule self-care time.
6. Cheap, tasty eats
If I’m being honest, the food in Ecuador often lacks flavor (unless you consider salt flavorful). That’s why you need to know how to find delectable cuisine for a price that doesn’t break the bank. Luckily, Ecuador is filled with cool, little food stands and affordable restaurants that don’t skimp on the flavor! My number-one food stand is in the Ibarra market and combines my two favorite Ecuadorian foods: hornado and llapingachos. Hornado is a whole roasted pig that yields super juicy and succulent pulled pork, while llapingachos are potato patties packed with cheese and butter that are fried until perfectly crispy. The marriage of the two together is truly heavenly! My other favorite Ecuadorian delicacy is bohemios. While there are about a million bakeries in every city in Ecuador, you have to know the right ones to find these sweet treats. I think the best ways to describe a bohemio is to compare it to a chocolate cake pop without the stick. One or two of these decadent desserts, and your chocolate cravings are sure to be satisfied. Lucky for me, I’ve already started to look for some recipes to try out when I return to the States!
7. Reconnecting with nature
For most of my childhood, you could rarely find me inside. I loved running around and playing outdoors. However, throughout middle school and high school, as homework piled up, I found myself spending more and more time indoors. By the time I left for Ecuador, I didn’t even consider myself an outdoorsy person anymore. Fortunately, Ecuador has allowed me to rediscover this side of myself. I’ve had the opportunity to hike crater lakes and volcanoes and to visit waterfalls and national parks. I’ve been everywhere from the beaches of the coast to the mountains of the cloud forest. Ecuador’s natural beauty is truly unparalleled, and I am so thankful that I have gotten to dive into the magnificent landscape of this bio-diverse country.
8. Indigenous Kichwa culture
I didn’t really have any expectations when I found out that I would be living with an indigenous family. All I knew from my limited research was that the Kichwa people were the largest indigenous group in all of the Americas and that they descended directly from the Incas. Nevertheless, this unique culture has given me so much more than I anticipated, including a new language, a new perspective, and new traditions. Recently, I attended the graduation ceremony for a Kichwa class administered by my host family’s Kichwa community, Pueblo Natabuela. This class was intended to help bring back the indigenous language to this group of individuals who lost it many years ago. I was able to dress in the traditional vestiment and sing Kichwa songs with my host family in celebration, making the day unforgettable. Additionally, my host family has brought me to various rituals for both holidays and cleansings. I am so grateful that my host family and Pueblo Natabuela have welcomed me into their community with open arms and introduced me to their culture firsthand because these experiences have made my year significantly more meaningful.
9. Independent travel
I am so lucky to be in a program that gives us time to travel around our respective host countries. I recently got back from an amazing trip with my friends to Cuenca and Salinas. Cuenca is a beautiful city in the South of Ecuador with awe-inspiring cathedrals and quaint, outside cafes while Salinas is a laidback, coastal city with crystal blue ocean views. My program has allowed me to explore so many parts of Ecuador, near and far, and with each location, I learn something unique and different. This has also been my first time truly traveling on my own, and I have definitely acquired some very useful skills and lifelong lessons. My gap year has instilled in me a passion for travel and a desire to explore the world and its diverse cultures.
Here are a few photos from our trip!
10. The people I have met
This one might be the most important to me! I always think about how I never would have met so many amazing people if I had decided not to take a gap year. I now have friends, not just from all over the United States, but from all over the world, thanks to Global Citizen Year. I also have met so many people both in my host community and at my apprenticeship here in Ecuador. I truly feel that each and every one of these people has impacted me in a special way, and I hope that they were able to learn something from me as well. My time in Ecuador has taught me so much about relationships and the importance of deep human connection. As I embark on the next chapter in my life following my gap year, I will cherish the relationships that I have made and will use the lessons that I have learned from them to continue connecting with others.
Each year, Penn students choose to take a gap year, whether as admitted high school seniors prior to matriculating, or between years at Penn. They pursue passions and interests, gain work experience, travel, nurture relationships with family and friends, and more.