I walked along the crowded street to the bus stop and passed the numerous flower shops that line the sidewalk on the way to my volunteering site. Valentine’s Day is approaching and the colorful roses caught my eye. My host mom, Patricia, had been telling me it was great that we were single for the holiday because, “men are dogs and we don’t have time for them!” I knew I would make friends here but I had no clue how much my host mom would add to my experience. Every day I enter the house I wait for the footsteps to come rushing toward the front door where I am greeted with a hug and many repetitions of, “Hola guapa! Hola mi niña! Mi amor, mi amor!” It is common for Ecuadoreans to use terms of endearment and it is something I absolutely adore about the culture. It brings people immediately closer and never fails to bring a smile to my face. I’ve never been one to be bitter about being single on Valentine’s Day. It can be a day to show love to anyone. So I stopped at one of the shops and paid $9 for 24 pink roses. I came into my house and the usual sound of footsteps approached from the kitchen. When she saw me carrying the roses for her I swear she just about jumped into my arms. She could not have been happier.
Happy is something I have been noticing a lot lately. I volunteer at a place called Fundación Padre Damian. This foundation houses about 50 people with Hansen’s Disease, which some know as leprosy. There is a lot of stigma surrounding this disease especially in a Catholic country. Their families and social circles have turned many of these people away. My friend, Clare, and I go four times a week for three hours each day. We play dominos, do arts and crafts, and just talk with the men and women there. It’s a great way to practice my Spanish but there are bigger lessons they teach me as well. To see people who could be so bitter welcome me with a smile and a hug every day is completely inspiring. Many of them have lost their fingers or cartilage in their faces and even limbs yet I have never seen that stop them. Most days Clare and I are part of some pretty serious domino tournaments with the men who are always making me keel over with laughter.
I have next Monday and Tuesday off of school for Carnaval and am heading to Mancora, Peru early tomorrow morning. As I pack for my trip I realized I’m really going to miss Patricia. When I came down for lunch today she told me in Spanish, “I’m very happy with my flowers. And I’m very happy with you.” It’s in these moments that I realize why people told me going abroad would change my life.