As you all know, in March 2020, I was yanked from my beloved Peace Corps Ecuador existence in a matter of hours and I spent the days during the pandemic trying to figure out how I could get back. Last year, with no other opportunities in site, I took a job in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, which I wrote about in my previous post. But over this past winter vacation, I returned to Ibarra, and Ecuador’s embrace. It was a special time to relive every wonderful thing I love about that country and its people. 

To the family Angamarca-Quiñaluisa, I’m affectionally known as Beckycita. Or sometimes, Becky Lu, or Beckycita Wandellcita. I only knew (and lived with this family) for 18 months during my service, but during this time, we created enough memories to last a lifetime. I’ve never met more kind and generous people, true to their word, hardworking for their community, and incredibly passionate for all things fun- especially soccer! Their humble existence, their capacity for laughter, and their crazy energetic lifestyle spoke to me deeply. We were the perfect complement for each other, and after losing both of my parents and so many other relatives before my Peace Corps experience, this “host-family” quickly became my own. 

Now, after spending the past two years apart, they insisted on driving the 2 ½ hours to Quito to pick me up from the airport, and give me lots of love and attention during my stay. This is a big family, and I have made a lot of friends in town, so everyday there was someone new to visit and hug. It was a beautiful welcome, like coming home.  My New Family (2018)

During my stay, we visited family several times in Quito, and headed south to visit Grandfather Simon and Nieves, still living high in the mountain community of Bacún. We drove north into the stunning province of Carchi – a place off limits to me for my safety during my Peace Corps years. And for a few days, we even stayed home in Ibarra, dancing until dawn at a family wedding, climbing into the paramo grasses above town, and surprising Margarita with a baby shower. I spent most mornings with Margarita in the kitchen and a few afternoons with Carmen and her daughters in the family tienda down the street. I played hours of games with my little brother Pablo and watched movies with the oldest brother, Alex. I wandered the mercados piled high with produce, and chatted with vendors who remembered me and wondered where I had gone. I visited the schools where I worked and received a huge welcome from the students, and staff. And I laughed and laughed.

During my visit, I also relished in all the flavors of Ecuador; the traditional soups, the flavorful meats, the tropical fruit and juices. I helped make Christmas a little more special with presents from Colombia, and I brought back the tradition of the Candy House competition for the family. I rang in the New Year with a ritual bathing and danced around the burning manigote until the wee hours of 2022. And ofcourse, there was always a soccer game to attend. It was an amazing whirlwind recap of my former life here in Ecuador!

Read on to relive the highlights of this wonderful experience with me. For my regular readers, this post will remind, and update you, on the life that I once lived. And if you forgot, or want more of the background story, simply click the links in blue to be transported back to an earlier post.

Simon and Nieves

The rural communities above Riobamba, Ecuador

Taking food to relatives around the holidays is a traditional custom in Ecuador, so one day we all loaded in the car and drove for several hours to pay our respects to Grandfather Simon and his wife Nieves, as well as other friends and family scattered around the countryside. Readers will remember that Simon and Nieves live in a mud-concrete house high in the hills with one lightbulb, water by tube from an uphill hand-cut reservoir, and cooking facilities over an open fire. It’s been two years since I visited them, and Simon couldn’t remember my name, but he got so excited to see me again, exclaiming “La Gringita!” with a big, warm hug attached. As we shared the mid-day chicken and potato soup with them, I looked around enough to see that a couple of things had changed. They had a new bed with an actual mattress, and someone had obviously convinced them that refrigeration was here to stay as I saw a mini-fridge tucked into the corner on the dirt floor of the kitchen. It was nice to see them both doing so well. Living in El Campo and Celebrating Carnaval in Bacun, Ecuador (2019) (Note: These posts from 2019 were by far my readers’ most favored posts from Ecuador!)

My “Cousins” Susy, Majorie, Lorena and Johana, showing off the newest granddaughter, Paula Fernanda, to Grandpa Simon.

Margarita’s Family in Quito

This year we spent a lot of time in Quito with Margarita’s mom, Maria Elva, and her brothers. This meant that I got up before 5am to help in the bakery and test out some of my own cookie recipes in the modern baker’s oven.

The bakery also has a giant, traditional brick oven. Margarita’s brothers, Ivan and Luis, helped stoke a fire in the oven for over 24 hours to heat the bricks. Then they pushed aside all the ashes and filled the oven with anything the neighbors paid them to roast. All during Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and again on New Year’s Eve, we marinated and roasted turkeys, chickens, cuy (guinea pigs) and a whole pig!

Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations

On Christmas Eve, Margarita suggested that we teach her side of the family the tradition of Candy Houses using square vanilla cookies, frosting and lots of candy. They loved it and we even had prizes for the winners! Las Casas de Dulces (2018)

My Ecuadorian brothers, they’ve grown up a lot in two years!

Christmas with the family was special this year. Alex asked me for books, Pablo asked me for new soccer shoes, and opening new little-girl baby clothes was fun for all. For Margarita, the greatest part of Christmas was an envelope she received from my sister, Julie. Julie is an artist on Etsy and when she visited me two years ago in Ecuador, she admired many of Margarita’s Christmas crafts. Julie asked Margarita for permission to take some of her inventory back to the US and sell it for her on-line. The plan was then to transfer the money to my Ecuadorian bank account and I could pay Margarita the cash. All agreed to this business deal in February of 2020. We all know what happened next. I left Ecuador, my bank account was closed and Julie still had all of Margarita’s inventory. So, over the past two years, she sold all of the items on Etsy, and I finally was able to take the cash to Margarita. It was a nice chunk of spending money, but more importantly for her future, she now can say that she’s a a bonafied international artist! Christmas, Blending Traditions from Both Americas (2019)

And remember my New Year’s Bathing Ritual? Maria and Margarita made sure there was enough positive energy in the pot of herbs and flowers for the whole family to share! Inviting in a New Decade, A Ritual for a New Beginning (2020)

Climbing High into the Paramo, a Day on Volcán Imbabura

Laguna Culbiche is a day-hike above our town on the flanks of Volcano Imbabura. Many of my family members had never been up there, so I convinced them that a day in the paramo grasses was exactly what they needed! We hiked around the lakes and then had a Pamba-Mesa, or picnic laid out on the earth, to share.

Something New… a Little Girl is on the Way!

The baby shower for the new baby girl!

Baby Showers in Ecuador were a new experience for me. Margarita’s family drove the three hours north to surprise Margarita with decorations, food and cakes for about 40. They even rented a tent and had a professional party coordinator organizing the baby shower games for all. I kept wondering when we were going to open the gifts and it took me a long time to realize that there really wasn’t very many gifts. People just came for the great party! And when the cases of beer made their appearance after dinner, it did turn into an all-night dance party. I laughed at myself for thinking it would be anything else in Ecuador!

Reflections on My Ecuadorian Life

On that first day, when we arrived at the house from the airport, I carried by backpack into the living room and started to put it down. Margarita said that my room was waiting for me. They still called it “Becky’s Room”. Although much of the furniture has been parceled out to other rooms or relatives, one chest of drawers remained. Inside it I found all my books and my lesson plans for my Peace Corps teaching projects. I felt like a kid returning home from college; “Thanks Mom and Dad for saving this for me!”

Other belongings, which I had left behind, have been scattered far and wide. Walking through the house, I spot a flower pot I made in ceramics class, some baking supplies I had bought, my markers from school, my suntan lotion from the US, a sweatshirt I had owned. Those are the tangible things that have seamlessly found their way into their lives. They probably don’t even remember that those things were mine. But there’s also other intangible ways in which our lives will forever be interwoven. For me, for example, after living in Ecuador, I cook differently. I think about beauty, money and patriotism in a different way. I value family more and I worry less about my future. Since leaving this place, I’ve often wondered, “In what ways did I have an affect on this family?” It was during a birthday party for Jose’s father where I got my answer. 

Margarita was holding court with one of her monologues. She was telling all those that would listen how I was the first woman she’s ever met who had dreams and an objective to live beyond their traditional role. (In other conversations, Margarita admitted to me that she’s been dreaming more about her future, perhaps filled with a higher education, and a business of her own.) Over bowls of chicken and rice in the little concrete kitchen, she explained to them how I have a career that I love where I can help children from around the world, but that I’m an independent woman who made my own decision to not have children of my own. The women looked at me for a long time. The fact that I save my money to travel in order to experience and learn from other people and cultures was a fascinating concept for them all. She then went on to explain how kids from Central and South America are sometimes treated in the US and how racism affects the lives of everyone (in essence, a summary of a very key conversation we had on Ecuadorian racism towards Venezolanos more than three years ago!) Fighting Racism, a Peace Corps Moment (2019) She talked about when I lived in Ecuador, I tried to participate in everything and integrate into the culture by watching and learning the unspoken rules. She gushed at how I would eat anything and how I helped her so much around the house. She said that Alex and Pablo learned by watching me, and now they help her out so much more since I’ve left. They’ve also become more independent and willing to try new things. And then she wrapped up the conversation by espousing on my youthfulness due to a healthy diet- lots of salads- and more exercise, especially walking. This was “my secret” to staying young. They all nodded in agreement. They needed to do more of this. 

And that was it. A summary of what I accomplished with this family. As Peace Corps volunteers, we always wonder if we make much of a difference. In this trip, I got my answer. I think this family grounded me in all that is important in life, and I helped them consider a life and perspective beyond their own. I think we made a huge impact on each other, and for that, I’m forever grateful. 

After three weeks of being in their wonderful embrace, I realized that I will always be part of this family. I will always be in contact with them, and will always return to visit. Ecuador will always be in my heart and someday, I may live in Ibarra again. I really do love it there.

So, with that in mind, I feel more ready to open my heart to new countries, to new adventures, and maybe to new families who will trust me, take me in and share their culture, their tradition and their lives with me. This is my wish. Ecuador healed my heart before, and returning here now, has given me new light on what my future can hold. 

Always in my heart; the family of Jose, Alex, Pablo and Margarita Angamarca-Quiñaluisa (and now the newest born in January, Samantha!)