During the summer of 2010, 60 teenagers from the US traveled to Ecuador with the Amigos de las Americas program (www.amigoslink.org), which sends teens to rural communities in Latin America to do community service projects. Every one of those teens went home with amazing stories, wonderful memories, and countless pictures, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. I was assigned a community in the province of Cotopaxi called Corralpungo, a beautiful, tiny, potato-farming place located in the wet and cold clouds at 14,000 feet. To get there, my partner Jessica and I took a 2-hour bus ride, and then hiked for 45 minutes up the hill to Corralpungo, carrying our 40-pound backpacks.
â–º Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
Corralpungo was arresting, as was all of Ecuador. On the bus ride from Latacunga, Jessica and I sat, staring out the window, speechless. We were level with the clouds, and, thick, white clouds rolled all the way to the horizon, looking like an otherworldly ocean. All of rural Ecuador was distractingly green. Coming from the desert environment of New Mexico, I was mesmerized by the different shades of green that surrounded me. The farmlands laid out on every hill and mountain gave the appearance of a massive patchwork quilt. It struck me as a precious, wonderful place.
Jessica and I stayed with a host family, and while they were hard to adjust to at first, they welcomed us into their home with their other children and grandchildren. Our host dad’s name was Jose Pallo Pallo, and our host mom’s name was Maria. Don Jose and Doña Maria were generous and joyful people. The indigenous rural people of Ecuador speak Quechua, which is a beautiful and complex language that was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Quechua is the first language of most people in rural communities, and the children learn Spanish in school. Many of the more elderly members of Corralpungo (such as my host grandparents) speak only Quechua and no Spanish. Doña Maria spoke only a little Spanish, so most of the time she would speak to Jessica and me in Quechua. We would nod and smile and look around for one of our many siblings to translate.
The way of life was different from anything I had ever experienced. One of the telltale signs that we were in a different culture was the style of dress. Most indigenous Ecuadorians dressed similarly. Everyone wore fedoras. The girls and women wore a skirt that went just past the knee, a blouse, and brightly colored shawl around their shoulders that was pinned in the front. On their feet they wore oxford-like shoes, and on their heads, a brown or black fedora. The older men wore slacks, a long-sleeve shirt, what looked like dress shoes, and a fedora. The younger men and boys dressed more casually, wearing jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers, and not wearing fedoras as much.
Our host family farmed potatoes, a staple of the rural Ecuadorian diet, as it’s one of the only things that can be grown at such high altitude. Boiled potatoes made up the majority of every meal we had. I hate potatoes. I’ve always hated potatoes. After Ecuador, I hate potatoes even more. The thought of eating them makes me sick. Unsurprisingly, my dietary experience in Ecuador was not enjoyable. But my stay in Ecuador was so rewarding, so revealing, and so much more than potatoes, that in the end, potatoes were the least of my worries.
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