Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Jan. 24, 2002

A life-changing decision

Last week I received an e-mail from one of my former students. It caused me to reflect on a decision I made many years ago and how it changed my life. Ashley is planning to study in Prague next semester, and she has only a few days before her journey begins. "I'm overwhelmed by excitement and nervousness and sadness and anxiousness and numerous other emotions," she wrote. "At one point I'm feeling sad and the next I'm so excited to just get there and get on with everything I'll be doing there."

I can relate to that jumble of emotions. It was twenty-six years ago this month that I set out on a similar adventure. Six months after my graduation from K-State, I was accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer, assigned to Ecuador. The excitement and anxiety were almost unbearable. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about that South American country.

The fact that I would be living in a foreign country was a dream come true. Then the reality that I would be away from family and friends for two whole years struck. My initial enthusiasm waned. My boyfriend at the time accused me of packing my bags one sock at a time to delay my departure.

My parents, although supportive of my decision, were apprehensive. "Won't you be wasting your education?" Mom asked. "What if there is a military coup?" "What if Grandpa dies while you're down there?" "What if you get sick?"

The only question I could answer with certainty was that I knew I wouldn't be wasting my education.

I had six weeks of training in the capital city of Quito, living with an Ecuadorian family during that time. Laura Montesdeoca - my Ecuadorian "mom" - was as much a worrier as my own Mom. "Qué flaca qué eres - how thin you are!" she would tell me. "You're no bigger than my little finger." And she would hold up her pinky to emphasize her point. Then, she would push more food at me - rice, avocados, bread, papayas, soups, pork, chicken and beef.

My language skills improved dramatically while I was living with the family, since none of them spoke English. We watched Ecuadorian television, including soap operas, which were even more melodramatic than the ones we have here.

After training, I went to the coast, where I worked with a group of other volunteers teaching basic health and nutrition, planting community gardens and building community ovens. My 4-H background definitely came in handy.

Not everything was idyllic. I was shocked by the poverty and the political instability in the country. I got tired of waiting for everything. The idea that "mañana" - tomorrow - was just as good as today to get things done drove me to distraction. The grimy, crime-ridden port city of Guayaquil scared me. I learned what it was like to be a minority - to be stared at, to be a source of curiosity because I didn't speak the language as well as a native speaker, to stand out in a crowd when I didn't particularly want to. I became ill with pneumonia and with parasites and other intestinal problems. I was bitten by a large dog and had to have a series of rabies shots.

But my positive experiences far outweighed the negative ones. I felt that I got so much more than I gave. Living in Ecuador for two years opened my eyes to a new culture, to the nuances of a new language, and to the beauty of the Andes, the tropics and the Pacific Ocean. I learned to appreciate and love the music, the people and the customs of a nation other than my own. I learned Spanish well enough that I could express anger and understand jokes. I even began dreaming in Spanish.

For the most part, the Ecuadorians were generous of spirit and curious about this "gringa" in their midst. When people found out I was from the United States, they would ask if I knew their relatives in Los Angeles or Miami or New York. When I said I was from Kansas, they knowingly nodded and said, "Oh, yes. Dodge City. Matt Dillon." Ah, the power of television!

My decision to join Peace Corps 26 years ago led me to many other adventures - a two-year stint in Costa Rica as a reporter and manager of a small English-language newspaper; marriage to my late husband Jerome; and trips to Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Panama. As I think of Ashley beginning her journey, I can't help but wonder what impact her experiences in a foreign country will have on her life.

1976: With the Montesdeocas -my Quito family.

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