Study Abroad Corner: Heidi Helgerson in Quito, Ecuador (Spring 2010)
Hola, my name is Heidi Helgerson, I'm part of the wonderful undergraduate class of 2011 at Soka University of America (SUA), and I have been in Quito, Ecuador for the past 2 months. I came to Quito on the December 31, 2009. I was excited: new year, new country.
As I boarded the plane I was imagining how life in Quito would be. I thought I had an idea through the millions of stories SUA students had shared but as I arrived, I realized that I have to experience everything myself because Quito will be completely different through my own eyes.
My first day in Quito I was lucky enough to experience the festivities of the New Year. The city was full of life: cross-dressing men, called Viudas and effigies, called Anos Viejos, which are representations of people and events of the past year. These viudas were up and down the streets dancing, drinking and chasing after men. Yes, chasing after men, what a relief I thought. I much rather see cross-dressing men dance around other men than coming after women, it was quite funny! I found this interesting since Ecuador is a country with less acceptance of homosexuality than the United States. The story behind these viudas is that they represent the widows who have lost their husbands. However, these widows are not very upset about their husbands' death. They are dressed in skimpy clothes in the middle of the street asking passing cars for money to help pay for their husband's "funeral" which really signifies their New Year's Eve party. In order for these viudas to earn the money they must perform a short dance and given that they are cross-dressers, they must dance on other men all day and night which is quite chistoso (funny). As the New Year approached, the city, full of people and dancing viudas, was pretty much on fire since every street corner had an "Ano Viejo." The ritual is to set fire to each effigy at the stroke of midnight, symbolizing the burning away of the past year and welcoming of the New Year. This introduction into Ecuadorian culture was more than I could ask for. How a country celebrates holidays is culture in a shot glass, everything gets magnified.
After seeing the craziness of New Years Eve, I was still full of excitement, nervousness, and thrill, yet a sense of negativity struck me. I was resenting myself for feeling this way because I wanted positive feelings in the new year, but the city was not as I had imagined. It was a concrete jungle full of pollution and I felt mute, the Spanish language was not spilling out of my mouth. These emotions were magnified as I moved into my host family's house. They seemed like genuinely nice people (which they are, they're amazing) but I was so consumed in my thoughts and lack of Spanish ability that I felt a little bit down and lost. These emotions shocked me; I did not realize how difficult study abroad would be. I was not mentally prepared.
As weeks passed like months, my dwelling difficulties turned into faceable challenges through my realization of what study abroad is for. This realization came about after having a long, tough, awful day. Nothing was going correctly and I was preoccupied with so many things, to top it off, I got on the wrong bus while trying to get home from school. This bus was going to South Quito. I should have known with all the strange looks I was getting while choosing my seat, a gringa (white girl) going to South Quito is a very taboo concept. This area of Quito has a reputation for being dangerous, so it is understandable why I was freaking out a little bit. I was sitting in my seat trying to look calm and act like I knew what I was doing, when really I had no idea. It took an hour; finally we reached the inner city of South Quito. I got enough courage to just get off the bus and find my way. I knew I had to take the Trolly train that goes all the way back to the north, I just had to find it. I quickly did and as I was sitting on the train, which took an hour (Quito is HUGE), I realized how nice the people in the south were. In a way I was thankful for this mistake. I was able to see a part of Quito that I probably would never be able to see and I overcame South Quito's stereotype. This is what I believe study abroad is about, overcoming fears and preconceptions. There would be no room to grow if I felt completely comfortable and had ease with everything I did. Each setback allows you to strengthen your own beliefs and gives you a better understanding of what you strive for in life, turning negativity into inspiration. These challenges also leave room for the millions of adventures that await here in Quito.
Now, I understand why I was not prepared. I don't think that anyone can truly be prepared for what awaits us in our respective study abroad countries. Every semester each country gets reborn through the eyes of every new SUA student and needs to be replenished with curiosity, respect, and exploration; then brought back with our stories.