Peace Corps · Travel · Uncategorized

(Not) Home for the Holidays

In my twenty-two years, this was the first where I spent Christmas away from my family. It’s hard to believe it was nearly a month ago now – the holiday season went by so quickly! After a week of town festivities before Christmas, a week of family festivities with my close Ecuadorian friend and her family, and two weeks exploring Ecuador and hanging out here at home with my boyfriend, I finally have the time to reflect on it all.

Christmas here was an interesting blend of commercialized traditions I recognized – like a night dedicated to each of the local children’s classes singing a different Christmas carol (all translated into Spanish, of course) and the bright colored string lights that were hung on the Main Street storefronts. But they had a distinctly Ecuadorian twist – the Christmas feast featured half a plate of rice alongside the turkey, and the kids all dressed up in full traditional, indigenous dresses and garb to sing their carols. On the Friday before Christmas for the local government’s celebration, we had a talent show where each of the departments competed against one another to show off their skills. We borrowed Otavalan-style indigenous clothing from the local dance studio to perform Whiskicito, Ecuador’s favorite party jam. It was super fun to spend the morning attempting (failing) the traditional dance moves with all of my coworkers, and try on the beautiful Ecuadorian skirts and blouses for the first time.

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My Korean co-volunteer from KOICA and I in our Christmas dance outfits

Another central custom here in Ecuador is giving the kids caramelos, or little candies and sweets, for Christmas. It’s like their Halloween. All of the tiendas show off big bags of mixed candies in their front windows, and the kids are wired on sugar all December long. When I was playing Doctor and Patient with a group of the neighborhood kids one day after work (picture me laying across the sidewalk, surrounded by one bossy seven-year-old and her posse of siblings and cousins, pretending to be pregnant with her blonde doll. It totally counts as reproductive health education), I was hand fed about about a dozen candies as my “medicine.” Another excellent teachable moment. The a good portion of the candy is given out through a partnership with a Chinese oil company that extracts crude oil from underneath the nearby Amazon rainforest, leading to significant environmental damage, and the local government. It definitely felt strange as a community health volunteer helping hand out the bags of candy to children in the indigenous community of Oyacachi, which was my shift to help.

For Christmas proper, I headed to Ambato with my close friend to spend the holidays with her extended family there. Her mom has seven siblings, each with children of their own, so it was exactly the packed, loud, loving Latino family I had imagined spending time with before coming to Ecuador. I brought a deck of Uno and regular cards to play with the kids, and they loved it. We spent hours going around in circles playing Uno and War throughout the entire weekend, especially with my self-declared new four-year-old best friend.

 

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Ecuadorian family photo
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Teaching my friend’s family how to make frosted Christmas cookies
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Christmas dinner with my coworkers – grilled turkey, rice and my now-famous apple pie

New Year’s Eve, on the other hand, was like no other holiday I’d experienced before. It was four days after my boyfriend, Matt, arrived in Ecuador – marking the first time I’d seen him after seven months apart! – and we were on the beach of Salinas, down on the southern end of the country.

The place was wild – all evening long, the beach was absolutely filled with people, usually with a Pilsner in hand, laughing with their family and enjoying the warm night air. Matt and I missed the memo to wear all-white, a Ecuadorian custom that helps you start your new year off fresh, and also didn’t bring our own año viejo. They’re giant paper-mache piñatas (sometimes filled with fireworks, so be careful!) that represent either something you hated about 2017, and want to say goodbye to, or something you loved, and want more of in the upcoming year. I’m not exactly sure how they can all be mixed together in the same bonfire, but Ecuadorians reassure me that it works. Every 100 yards or so along the beachfront, starting at midnight, was a bonfire about 20 feet tall filled with as many año viejos as they could stack on top of one another. Across the waterfront, everyone was lighting up huge fireworks and sending them out over the ocean.

Finally, in my favorite part, the skies were filled with floating lanterns, just like in the movie Tangled. For $2, Matt and I bought our own – only to remember that we didn’t have a lighter, or matches, or any idea how to light off one of the lanterns. Luckily, a friendly family helped us out along the waters’ edge, and we got to watch it drift off as it disappeared out over the ocean. With music and fireworks filling the air, and my first true New Year’s kiss, it was a night I won’t forget.

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Fireworks in the background with años viejos waiting to be burned in the foreground
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Watching the sunset on New Year’s before jumping in for a swim
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We had encebollado, or fish soup, an Ecuadorian hangover cure, on New Year’s morning

So here’s to 2018! I hope you all are as excited for the adventures this year will bring as I am.

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