EXCERPTS FROM LETTERS HOME —
The bus trip down from Quito to Guayaquil was like a quick tour of Ecuador. The climate and vegetation changed every few miles during the decent as did the type of housing construction and the physical make up of the people. In the High Sierra, buildings were largely of cement, the population predominantly Indian; half way down the side of the Andes mountains the houses were built of brick, the people looked more Spanish, except for the distinct ethnic group of Colorado Indians and the landscape became green and lush. By the time the bus reached sea level, the tropical heat was oppressive, the bamboo houses with tin roofs gave the landscape a sense of temporariness and the small, dark skinned people spoke a rapid fire Spanish that was undecipherable le to my untuned ears. My emotions went from confident and excited to determined but more than a little fearful. What could I possibly have to offer, and how will I ever be able to communicate in this foreign land?
(my first Christmas away from home)
Santa Elena is the driest place I have ever seen. It is cloudy much of the time during this season, but never rains. There is no grass, no trees, only a bit of scrub vegetation. Flocks of wild parakeets sometimes explode from the bushes like a hand full of confetti tossed into the air, accompanied by musical chatter that always surprises me.
The poor people live in bamboo constructed houses which are amazingly strong and last entirely too long. Being up on stilts, the split bamboo affords good ventilation and cooling from the costal breezes. Animals wander unattended under the houses cleaning up the garbage that is tossed out for their consumption. Some of the people, who are not quite so poor, are able to afford cement block housing, and every little village has at least one or two of these. Sometimes they will have a generator, which provides electricity for a refrigerator and maybe an electric light bulb, but as a rule the coast operates on dawn-to-dusk time. Many of the Volunteers from our group are working on rural electrification projects, which should help change this a bit.
The people here are becoming friendlier every day, though I still don’t feel really at home among them. Their ethnic heritage is a mix of Spanish, Indian and Oriental, with straight black hair, dark eyes and skin and general body structure that is small and delicate. They hardly seem capable of bearing the burdens of poverty and poor health that have fallen to them.
So far, my widest contacts have been with the local kids. Their endless curiosity keeps them coming back for one more look and perhaps a chance to laugh at my clumsy Spanish as I attempt to communicate with them. Without their persistence it would be easy to withdraw into a shell of protective isolation.
The way things look, I am going to be kept pretty busy indefinitely. Sunday afternoons I meet with the ladies co-op group here in Machala; four mornings a week I have art classes at the high school. Two afternoons I go over to Santa Rosa to work with their co-op group and soon I’ll be starting a mother’s club at the local health center. Alternate weeks I also teach English classes. My Spanish has improved considerably and my confidence improves in direct proportion to my communication abilities. Being able to speak the language makes all the difference in the world.
I’m beginning to realize how very much Ecuador has given me during the past year, how much I’ve grown and changed; how little I take for granted.
I made a mobile of butterflies for one of my art classes this week and I felt so happy I wanted to sing out from the rooftops. Instead I sat down and wrote a short essay about it. There’s something about creating that gives an exuberance to everything about you – and I’ve almost forgotten it. It makes all of life take on another dimension, gives it the depth and meaning that it so often lost in everyday mundane events (of which we have our fair share). And I have finally learned how to be happy here, grateful for the opportunity and grateful for the friends, especially the Latin ones – because those I will have to leave behind when it’s time to come home. Now I realize that the biggest mistake I could have made would be to quit too soon, and it seemed the only answer during those first tough months.
I’ve had to wade through a lot of correspondence, saved faithfully for 20 years by my Mom, to glean these few remembrances. Many of my thoughts and feelings never made it home in letters, but were recorded in my mind and my heart. These were the things that really changed my perception of life outside the United States and are a part of my life today.
My Peace Corps experience began as a passionate response to the call given by John Kennedy. I was young, looking for adventure and full of idealism. Two years in Ecuador certainly satisfied my need for adventure, and tempered my idealism with a measure of reality, but it is an experience I have never regretted. Whatever Peace Corps claims to be or do, its effect on America can never fully be measured. It is as much a challenge and an adventure today as it was in the ’60s and I hope it will be an American institution that will invite the best of our people, young and not so young to go out and meet the world, taste and feel and see it, becoming more committed and more compassionate a country than we have ever been.
I know that Kennedy did not single handedly make the Peace Corps happen, that there were many people responsible for this venture. To them, to all who’s dreams for a more equitable and just world have been realized by the efforts of Peace Corps Volunteers, I would like to add my persona “Thanks.”