After accepting my invitation to join the Peace Corps, almost everyone I knew asked me why. Luckily, I always had the answers to their questions. Why would I leave behind everything from my comfortable life in the United States? Because I wanted to see a new place, experience a new culture, meet new people, and change myself. Why would I turn down three jobs with better pay to be making significantly less? Because I know that money can’t buy happiness. Why would I “give up” my incredible future by choosing to go to some little South American country instead of pursuing graduate school? Because I am actually only improving my future with real world experience in a foreign country and I will always have the option to go to grad school after my service. Why don’t I wait until I’m older? Because I am only going to have more responsibilities tying me down as I age. Why would I choose to go to Ecuador of all places? Because it is a country where I know I can help create better futures for students, even if it is only in the slightest ways.
Once I arrived in Ecuador, I was overwhelmed with emotions but I remember being mostly excited because I wouldn’t need to explain myself to people anymore. While Ecuadorians do ask me what I am doing here, it is solely out of curiosity—for them, they appreciate that I gave up my life in the United States to come here and help them. However, I never could have prepared myself for the times I would ask myself why I am here. I also never expected that I would ask the question so often.
I tend to have a lot more bad luck here in Ecuador than I ever had in the United States. One week ago, I had a drama-filled weekend and wanted to go on a run to relieve some stress (like I always like to do). I had a great run until the last mile while I was on the way back to my house. Up ahead of me, I could see two stray dogs sitting on the side of the road. As I got closer to them, I started to walk because I do not like to run past dogs here in Ecuador (as it can startle them and make them bark and chase me). I passed them without any problem, but after I walked two more houses down I saw two more dogs at the top of a set of stairs. As soon as they saw me, they bolted down the steps charging at me. I quickly crossed the road, but one dog continued to chase me. At first I thought he was just going to keep barking, but then he ran up closer to me and before I could do anything to defend myself, I felt his sharp teeth sink into my left leg. Luckily, I was able to kick him off and get away with only that one bite. Since my arrival in Ecuador, I have heard about how dog bites are one of the most common injuries among Peace Corps Volunteers here. I had pictured it happening to me dozens of times in my head, and I always thought it would be much more painful.
However, that isn’t to say that it was a fun time. Back at home, I was able to clean the wound with the help of my host-sister (who is currently studying medicine in the university). I also live nearby a centro de salud (medical facility), so I was able to get some more cleaning done there. Afterwards, we went back to the area to try to find out if the dog had its vaccinations. However, when we arrived, there were no dogs in sight and the homeowner insisted that it was not her dog because it was chained up all day. So, since I could not find proof of the dog’s vaccinations, I needed to travel to Quito to get the rabies vaccines myself. We received three doses of the vaccine during our training, so there are only two shots for post-exposure. Unfortunately, my bad luck did not stop there; I got pretty sick after receiving the vaccination. Sleeping that night was pretty rough with a sore leg from the dog bite, a sore arm from the rabies shot, and the horrible coughing/nasal congestion combination. As I was teaching the morning after all of this, I was also hit right in the face with a soccer ball. Throughout this week, I found myself constantly asking why I am here in Ecuador. Why did I choose to live in a place where owners train their dogs to be aggressive instead of loyal and friendly? And why do I have to live somewhere with so many dogs on the street? Why did I have to get sick after already having to deal with a dog bite? And to top it all off, why was that not enough? Why did I also have to get hit in the face with a soccer ball?
While I was in Quito for the rabies vaccines, I also had to deal with some other unrelated issues. For some reason, the packages that I was supposed to receive weeks ago still have not arrived. After talking with the people from the post office, which can be a hassle here (especially as a foreigner), I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch in Quito because there are many more “Americanized” restaurants in the capital than in my city of Latacunga. I went to a restaurant called Wok to Walk (which allows you to create your own stir-fry, similar to Mongolian Grill in the US). My meal cost $6, which is probably one of the most expensive meals I’ve had here in Ecuador. (The norm is $2.50, which includes soup, a main dish, juice, and sometimes fruit for dessert.) I attempted to pay with my debit card at the restaurant but the cashier said that the machine was not working with my card. So, I paid in cash and had my amazing lunch. However, once I got back to Latacunga and regained access to Internet, I received emails from my bank that I had been charged FOUR different times for the meal. Not only was it one of my most expensive Ecuadorian meals, but now I had also been charged for it FIVE times (the four times on my card, and the one time that I paid in cash). I am still in the process of talking to the bank and the restaurant about getting refunded, but everyone knows how much of a hassle it can be. Again, I found myself asking, why do all of these unfortunate situations keep happening to me? I also sometimes find myself thinking that maybe I would not be having such bad luck if I was still in the United States.
Fortunately, for every “why?” moment I experience here in this developing country, I am lucky enough to have a few “because” moments. These are the times when I am reminded exactly why I’m here. And anytime I am experiencing a “why?” moment, I think back to all of the “because” moments I have had.
For example, I will always remember my first day helping out the school psychologist. When she found out I studied psychology, she was very excited to ask me for help with her huge workload. I was happy to help, but I was also pretty nervous. How was I going to interview students and have meaningful conversations with them about their problems in Spanish? What if they didn’t want to talk to me? However, as each student opened up to me and we brainstormed solutions to a wide variety of issues, I remember thinking that this is exactly why I left everything to come to Ecuador: because I wanted to help those who are less fortunate.
I also experience a lot of these “because” moments in everyday situations, and sometimes I don’t even realize that they occurred until afterwards. They are the times when I finish teaching a class and am trying to say goodbye, and the students shout “no te vas, licen, no te vas!” (please don’t leave, teacher). They are the moments playing basketball with my students during the recreo (recess). They are the instants when I reach the top of a mountain or volcano after a long hike with friends and look out over the beautiful Ecuadorian countryside—realizing that I am blessed to call this amazing country home. They are the times when I am able to explain a topic in a new way that students finally understand after struggling to comprehend it beforehand. They are the moments when Ecuadorians come to me for help. These are people who trust me to help them paint murals, teach them English, translate poetry, judge science fairs, and confide in about their problems. Why am I here in Ecuador? Mostly because if I had never come here, I never would have met so many amazing people who allow me to help them on a daily basis.
Although life can be challenging at times as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, I know that the difference I am going to make will be worth all of the struggles. I have also realized that if I never asked myself “why?” I would never come up with reasons to explain “because.” For this reason, I am just as thankful for the tough times as I am for the amazing accomplishments and breakthroughs.