The concept of a gap year appealed to me initially for a multitude of reasons: the opportunity to travel to foreign countries, make new friends, take a much needed break from the stresses and anxieties of traditional education, have meaningful experiences outside of the classroom, and the list continues. However, the South America Pacific Discovery program sparked my interest primarily for the homestay opportunities. From my experiences, even a few days spent at a home stay, when approached with an open mind and a ready heart, can push one far out of one's comfort zone, thus teaching so many invaluable and rare lessons. One stipulation I had for my gap year plans was that I wanted to keep learning, and passionately so; a homestay makes this particular goal possible.
Before coming to Baños, we participated in a week-long homestay in a rural community called Agato. We lived with host families in pairs of two, and participated in minga (community work) and other activities during the days. Out of the four home stays I have had a taste of throughout this trip, Agato stands out to me the most.
This experience was so touching to me for many reasons, but I think the most important aspect was the essence of the community in Agato. When we arrived, we were greeted by a group of smiley and talkative men and women, including both host families and other community members. The atmosphere of this first encounter was one of warmth and life, and it was immediately clear that we were not tourists, visitors, or a burdensome chore, but community members as well. The vibrant personality of the people was an influential presence throughout our entire stay, making us feel more comfortable and open to taking joy in the culture and experiences alongside our hosts.
My favorite example of the beautiful culture and spirituality was our participation in a bread baking gathering. For an entire month, dough is kneaded, shaped and baked for the entire community. It is a staple food that everyone can enjoy alongside any other family recipe or traditional plate. So, for an entire month, community members gather to make mounds of bread and eat delicious foods together. To be a part of such a longstanding custom was truly an honor. We stood shaping dough alongside the children and sat eating bread alongside the adults. Coming from a Jewish upbringing, such warm and communal holidays have been something a value so much, and this experience brought me back to Jewish holidays at home; everyone eating, laughing and enjoying themselves together. This parallel really highlighted, to me, a universal commonality among peoples and communities; we can all take joy in being together.
While the bread making and eating was an incredible experience on its own, we continued our night with a traditional ceremony for the full moon. The community's "seeker of knowledge" or "man of nature", similar to a shaman, led us in a ritual in which we silently asked for forgiveness for any dishonorable actions and committed to bettering ourselves in the upcoming month. While we reviewed these thoughts one by one, we passed an unlit candle over our bodies and then finally breathed into the wick, as though breathing our energy into it. Participating in this ceremony was so special to me because it was so immersive; we were not just reading or learning about such a ritual but actually partaking in it. I felt that to be welcomed so willingly into a sacred practice, and treated not like foreigners but like community members, was a beautiful example of the truly kind nature of the community.
After a week of working the fields alongside the people of Agato, visiting sacred sites such as a beautiful waterfall and a massive rock, and spending time bonding with our host families, we took part in another celebration. This time, the celebration was one of both pizza-making and traditional clothing, music and dance; it was a true cultural exchange. We each arrived clad in traditional Kichwa outfits, which literally put us into the shoes of the men and women of Agato. I felt a rush of love and happiness as my host mom wrapped me in layers of fabrics, tied my hair back with colorful string, and put heavy jewelry around my neck and wrists. The primping process for women in Agato is just as extensive as in the states :) During the party, each family performed a traditional dance or song, and then we all came together to dance to music played by some of the local men and women. It was a night full of love, beauty and cultural appreciation.
I know that my experience in Agato, though short, will stay with me for a long time. I learned so much about community, culture and life from such beautiful people, and that is a rare and invaluable opportunity that not everyone is able to have. Hopefully I'll one day return to Agato to continue forming connections and learning so much.