In this series, writer Terry Galvan has volunteered to share their experiences with extended alone time in Ecuador and the things they learned about how to handle isolation. In this installment, they tells us a little bit about what their situation was, and what caused them to essentially shelter in place for a while after arriving there.
Part I: Why were you sheltering in place?
From September 2013 through July 2014, I lived alone in Latacunga, Ecuador. I was a recipient of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant, which funds U.S. students and recent-ish grads to work part-time in English Language departments of public universities in select Fulbright-participating countries. While there, I lived a life strikingly similar to the “shelter-in-place” protocols in place around the world.
Wait, you were living abroad and you sheltered in place?
Essentially! I only went to work at the university, grocery shopping, and running. I did go on trips with friends about once a month, and occasionally joined a coworker at their family dinners. But most nights—and weekends—I spent alone in my apartment.
That sounds horrible!
It does sound horrible, but I actually loved it. I slept regularly for the first and only extended period of my life. My mental health issues all but disappeared. I got in great shape, and miraculously lost the 20+ lbs I had put on in college (not on purpose—more on that later). I outlined a half dozen creative projects I maybe one day will be lucky enough to pitch. I kept a relatively successful niche blog—and inadvertently developed an online brand with a dedicated following. I grew and developed significant personal and professional relationships in Ecuador and back in the States, both virtually and in-person.
I didn’t specifically set out to do any of this. In fact, when I accepted the Fulbright and committed to this lifestyle, I was terrified of many of the things people fear with social distancing and shelter-in-place. I was afraid of being lonely and isolated. I was afraid of my mental health spiraling out of control, yellow-wallpaper style. I was afraid of messing up important relationships. I was afraid of screwing up my job, of not having the personal willpower to see the long, lonely scholarship period through all on my own.
When it came down to it—I was afraid of myself.
How did you get over that?
Eh, how one gets over anything. You prepare as best you can with the knowledge that you have, and you just steel yourself and jump in. You acknowledge your terror, existential and otherwise, hold it in your hands and let it save your life when it’s smart, and tell it to go away when it’s dumb. Easy to say in hindsight, I know.
Why were you staying in so much anyway? I thought Fulbright was about traveling and experiencing new places and people.
It is! I had been to Latin America a couple times before for extended stays, so I had an idea of what to expect socially and culturally. I committed to changing—adapting—“essential” aspects of my personality that turned out to not be so essential after all.
Here’s an incomplete list of things I did NOT do while in Latacunga:
- go to the gym
- hang out with people my age
- go to restaurants or bars
- go out dancing, clubbing, etc
- Backpacking, rock climbing and other adventure sports marketed to foreigners
- Tour organic farms, pet endangered monkeys, and other ecotourism marketed to foreigners
- Voluntourism “reading to the orphans” marketed to foreigners
- Other “eat-pray-love” stuff marketed to foreigners—“yoga on the beach” “ayahuasca in the jungle” etc
But Terry—those are some of your favorite things! How—and why—did you cut that out of your life for so long?
Yes, they’re a lot of my favorite things, but they don’t define me. They certainly aren’t prerequisites to my happiness or contentment or purpose. They’re more like my favorite color, which is purple. Yeah, I like purple a lot, but if I never see that color again I won’t be sad.
I didn’t go to Latacunga to “live my best life” or to “find myself” or to self-actualize; I came to Ecuador to be with Ecuadorians.
Ecuadorians take care of each other with unfathomable dignity. I came back to learn their ways of being a good community member—for shouldering weight when you have the strength, for giving back using your unique skill set, for huddling together when things are bad, and celebrating madly when things are good.
It was really important to me to learn not just by watching, but by doing. Perhaps counterintuitively, being a responsible participant-observer implicated a lot of Staying at Home.
How did staying at home make you a better community member?
I had studied abroad in Quito for a semester just a year previously. I knew a bit about how normal Ecuadorians lived, and how “gringo” tourists were perceived, particularly women who look & act like me. I knew how easily things could be misconstrued. I knew how dramatically different family and dating culture was from the state-school party culture I came from. I had already tried, briefly, the eat-pray-love stuff, the outdoorsy stuff, the dancing and the clubbing—and I wanted nothing more to do with it. I came back to Ecuador to be with Ecuadorians.
Ecuadorians socialize very differently from your average Big Ten grad. More pronounced in Latacunga than in Quito was the extended family as social unit, not unusual outside the U.S. (or in specific communities in the US).
Twenty-somethings rarely, if ever, moved out of their parents’ home, even when they married. Dorms were non-existent. Most had children before they were 25. My students outlined for me the typical trajectory for Latacunguenos: meet your girlfriend or boyfriend around 17 or 18, have a kid or two, raise them with the help of both sets of grandparents while you work a few years; once the kids are older, go to college to hopefully secure a white-collar job. Grandparents still provide primary childcare, but if not mothers just take their babies with them to class or their jobs, and no one really minds. Imagine that!
They couldn’t figure why anyone would put off children til their 30’s. “You need to have your children young, so you have energy to chase after them while they’re running around all the time!” one student chided me. “I’m twenty-six now and too tired, I won’t have anymore kids, that’s for sure.”
Bars certainly existed in Latacunga, but they were nothing like the campustown or hipster bars or dives in Illinois. They were more like saloons out of a Tarantino movie: frequented by lonely cowboys and men who didn’t want to, or couldn’t, go home for some reason. Women who entered alone could easily be confused for sex workers. It wasn’t a place a foreigner could go to ingratiate themselves to the community.
Nightclubs and elite restaurants proliferated throughout Latacunga’s fancier neighborhoods—but they weren’t for single 20-something foreigners. Families went out dancing in massive multigenerational groups for birthdays and graduations. Big public concerts that rivaled Lollapalooza in their sky-shattering lightshows, with all-night throbbing bass and lively crooners took place in public parks regularly, complete with pyrotechnics and truly impressive amounts of Pilsner beer consumed.
But you had to go with your family—your entire family. Yes, your parents, your grandparents, your creepy uncle and your nitpicking aunt.
Living there alone, I did not have a built-in familial social unit—which meant I had no social group whatsover. Sure, I could have gone any of these places on my own—but my light brown hair and blue eyes meant I was basically Paris Hilton. If I wasn’t immediately recognized, I was immediately swarmed by suitors—and closely watched by their female family members.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my presence in certain spaces in Latin America was disruptive, if not downright harmful. After some fumbles, I built out a new set of instincts around a sociocultural Hippocratic oath of do no harm, even very passively. I learned that I should only enter spaces I was specifically invited into. I learned to trust women—that invitations from women were almost always safe. They put a lot of thought into their and my comfort, and understood which spaces were healthy to bring a foreigner into. Invitations from men had to be scrutinized, but I quickly learned how to discern intent and build trust. In retrospect, this wasn’t so different from Chicago.
By the time I moved to Latacunga, I already had a strong working understanding of which spaces were healthy for me to occupy, and how to gracefully accept and decline invitations. I knew I could work to become friends with my coworkers, who welcomed me with open arms into their communities, homes, and families—after I demonstrated I was there to get to know them and contribute to the university on their terms, not mine.
I had to prove that I wasn’t there just to rock climb, or tell them how bad they were for polluting their own river. I had to be especially sure they knew I was not there to use one of their family members as a “Latin lover” to use and cast aside when I was through with them. (A big issue with the Eat-Pray-Love culture, I found out the hard way, but that’s another story).
So I stayed home. A lot. Because it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do for this community I committed a year of my life to learn for and learn from, and give back whatever they asked of me. And nothing in my life has ever been so rewarding.
After a few weeks of laying low and proving that I wasn’t there to use their country as the background for my own self-actualization movie, the invitations came pouring in. I got to hike a famous volcano & bathe in the hotsprings at the top; catch my own trout and eat it fresh-cooked; “party” all night at a local festival with my coworker’s family; march in the culturally-significant “Mama Negra” parade donning traditional costume (at the insistence of my colleagues); visit “haunted” rock formations and significant shrines protecting against volcanic activity; climb waterfalls hidden in the jungle; study one of the indigenous languages, Kichwa, with a preeminent local scholar and activist, alongside a half dozen heritage speakers; and learn about ayahuasca’s proper uses from a lapsed Shamanic student (and receive tons of advice about why white people should NOT try it).
Where were all the twenty-somethings?
Most twenty-somethings I met were deeply ingrained in their family life both socially and economically. They worked several jobs—usually some sort of service job in the family business, student work, and childcare. Many were entrepreneurs on the side, selling homemade food at soccer games on Sundays or working with the community brigades to repair roads and other civil services.
No one had time or space to go drink craft cocktails or party all night. They barely had time to see their own significant others. If they did travel or go out, they wanted to bring their parents and grandparents—who else would help with childcare?
Furthermore, most people already had kids before they even thought about college. College was seen as a second or even third step of adulthood.
So while everyone in Latacunga was working three jobs and having quality family time, what were YOU doing shut up in your house?
All kinds of stuff! Here’s what my schedule was like:
6am – dawn run.
Terry, shut up. You did NOT wake up at dawn to run. Don’t lie to me.
I’m not lying! I told you, I adapted aspects of myself I thought were essential, but weren’t really.
The dawn runs were a cultural accommodation. Unlike Chicago, you don’t see folks out in running gear at literally all hours. In Latacunga, a dedicated bunch of middle aged men and women congregated silently in the city’s central park and ran laps around a little half-mile track. I joined them, silently, and my presence did not seem disruptive to this quiet little group.
It was a glorious experiences. The sun poked through the fog and illuminated the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano with fiery magenta light. The rising moon in the cold blue sky, the whispering palm trees, Florence + the Machine on my iPod. It was an important, centering meditation. I learned the streets of the city really well without the bustle of traffic, and had some quality time with its unique turn of the century architecture. Also—with the rest of my schedule, there was no other time to run!
I went running at dawn, cooked a simple meal with coffee, worked from 10am-9pm, and came home to eat another simple meal and chat with friends abroad on the internet while I worked on classwork.
Meanwhile, three days a week I basically had no structured schedule (Fri-Sunday). It was a relief after the 11 hour days at the university, but it turned out very healthy for me.
Really, most of those days I spent inside my apartment staring out my window, as the popular FB event suggests. And I did pretty well, all things considered.
But you’re an extrovert! How did you survive?
It’s true that I get lots of energy from interacting face-to-face with people, especially if they’re telling a story unique to their own life experience or teaching me in some other way. But I find I also get lots of energy from any project that truly activates my mind.
Anyway it’s a false dichotomy. Everyone’s got a little bit of introvert in them. I’ve seen every single extrovert I know post about how much they love binging Netflix or scrolling through FB.
While the current situation is a little bit different than my situation while in Ecuador, I learned valuable lessons during my time sheltering in place in Ecuador, and I’ll be sharing my “Stay at Home Survival Tips” here on Third Coast Review this week. Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3 later this week!