Postcard from Ecuador: Living Local with Katie Strike

Here I am grinding corn in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the Secoya community. Members of the community painted each of our faces to welcome us as guests for the weekend.

Honors international relations student Katie Strike spent a semester brushing up her Spanish skills in Ecuador, between weekend trips to the Amazon rainforest and the famous Galápagos Islands. A previous trip to Chile whet her appetite for South American culture, but Ecuador was a shockingly different place. Strike spent most of her time in the country’s capital city of Quito, where just under 2 million people live and work, and quickly learned that patience and flexibility are often more valuable than the local currency.

Unlike my first study abroad experience in Chile, I have delayed writing my travel report as long as possible. After the first trip, I began reflecting before I made it home – beginning my report in the Dallas airport en route to Little Rock. This time I am more hesitant to seek closure, as the lessons learned in Ecuador are still unfolding in my mind. Perhaps it is the length of the trip, four months abroad this time, rather than six weeks, or maybe the diminished language barrier, that allowed me to gain deeper knowledge of Ecuador than I have of Chile. Either way, it was the experience of a lifetime.

Ecuador is nothing like Chile. In Ecuador, Spanish is spoken slowly and lyrically. The people are proud of their indigenous roots, and the land is remarkably diverse for such a small country. The potato outshines rice in every meal, and seasonal changes are indicated by a mere fluctuation of five degrees. My semester in Quito, Ecuador, with a program called “Duke in the Andes” gave me four months to delve deeply into a completely new culture. Having previously spent a summer term in Chile, I expected my second trip to South America to echo many of the lessons learned from my first study abroad experience. I knew, at least conceptually, that Ecuador is a less developed nation than Chile, and that the Andean region offers a very different lifestyle than that of the Southern Cone, but it wasn’t until my arrival in Quito late one night in August that the stark contrast between the two regions really set in.

My host home in Quito was less than a hour from the Equator, called Mitad del Mundo by the locals.

While studying in Quito, I had the luxury of sharing stories, news, and experiences with my host family in a much more significant way. I was more confident in my Spanish language skills having already survived a summer of Chilean Spanish, a faster-paced dialect. I was no longer limited to simple questions of what I’d done each day, or what my weekend plans were, but could instead discuss the domestic political climate or the effects a US policy might have on Ecuador. My host family consisted of a father, a mother, and a 22-year-old host brother. These host members were much older than my family in Chile, and offered a very different dynamic. My host dad was Chilean, however, and this gave me something familiar to speak about during the trip. My daily classes taught me a lot, but the nightly dinner conversations I shared with my host family were the most valuable learning opportunities I had during my stay in Quito. I was not only challenged to think critically about a spectrum of topics, but also to express my opinions during our conversation. No topic was off-limits. My host parents were very encouraging, and were more than willing to explain difficult subjects. This was an experience unique to this trip, as my improved Spanish opened the door to a deeper, more integrated learning opportunity.

I spent the majority of my time during the semester in Quito, a city of just under two million residents with a tangled network of streets and a latent crime threat. Needless to say, living in the heart of a city that large was something very new to this Arkansan, but its size was something I quickly learned to appreciate. The ease of either walking or using mass transit to commute almost anywhere during daylight gave me freedom to explore when I wasn’t in class, though I did miss the security of walking around Fayetteville after dark without need of a cab and without fear of using my cell phone in public – a luxury that won’t be taken for granted this spring. Unlike my previous study abroad experience, I refused to be intimidated by the quiteño bus system. I challenged myself to stay busy, even during the school week, instead of heading home immediately after class each day. This allowed me to form closer friendships with the other students in the program, as well as their host families. It was a large group and we each had a very unique home life while in Quito. It was fun and interesting to learn about each family and meet all of the people who are connected to the Duke in the Andes community.

Here I am, happy and freezing, at the second refuge point on Cotopaxi, the second highest summit in Ecuador. This marker is 15,780 feet above sea level!

The diversity within the program created many learning opportunities for me. I was the only student from a public institution, and from the only school located west of the Mississippi River. When I arrived in Ecuador, I was a little intimidated by the credentials of the other students in the group. This fear grew a bit when we assembled for the first time in universally unfamiliar territory. However, we quickly grew to be friends and I enjoyed getting some insight into the diverse array of university experiences that exist here in the United States. The daily routine I established lacked the structure I usually crave in my academic life, and my unpredictable class schedule coupled with fluctuating syllabi continually reinforced the importance of patience and flexibility during my Ecuadorian adventure – two traits of utmost importance within Quito and throughout the country.

Another key element to the program was a rigorous schedule of weekend trips to each of Ecuador’s four regions: the Amazon, the Sierra, the Coast, and the Galápagos. As a part of our “principal course,” which focused on Ecuador’s status as a plurinational, multicultural state (recognized in 2008), we ventured on many a bus ride to see first-hand the diversity that Ecuador boasts, as a nation roughly the size of Colorado. Just eight hours to the east, we found ourselves in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There, our group lived with an indigenous community, where we slept in tents and explored the region with the Secoya people. Eight hours to the west put us on the coast, where we joined an Afro-Ecuadorian community in Esmeraldas and learned about their struggle to preserve a forgotten culture while simultaneously lobbying for their rights as Ecuadorian citizens. We also toured the Galápagos Islands, a pristine and stunningly beautiful territory that is the pride of Ecuador. Each of these regions offered a unique perspective on the country’s history, its plans for the future, and how those goals might be achieved.

This galapagos tortoise lives on the island of Floreana and was more than willing to pose for our photos.

Ecuador and Chile are both beautiful countries that point to the wealth of opportunities to be found in South America for students. I was privileged to spend time in each country and greatly strengthened my Spanish skills while abroad. I was able to invest time in learning about the Latin American region, and bolster my confidence when meeting new people and facing new situations. I will return to campus this spring ready to apply all that I’ve learned abroad in familiar classrooms.

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