One week ago we flew out of Newark International Airport for our Eighth Grade student exchange trip to Ecuador, and what an amazing adventure it’s been! It was such a thrill to be welcomed by our “old” friends from Colegio Menor, whom we bonded with when they visited our school and stayed with All Saints families in February. Each day has been filled with wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as visiting an indigenous community and helping them plow their fields the old-fashioned way, with a wooden plow pulled by a pair of bulls; visiting the Chapel of Man created by Oswaldo Guyasamin, an indigenous Ecuadorian artist the students learned about in class; and taking a tour through historic Quito, including a Baroque-style church completely covered in gold that was built over a 60-year period ending in 1665.
Yesterday’s adventure began with a trip to Mindo, where we went on a nature hike in a secondary cloud forest. Students enjoyed observing and photographing hummingbirds up close, and learned about a variety of flowers and plants found only in that area of Ecuador. After the walk, we had a personal tour of the El Quetzal Chocolate Factory, where we saw chocolate being made. We learned about each of the steps involved in the process, beginning with the removal of the cacao seeds from the fruit, moving into the fermentation and drying stages, followed by de-hulling, grinding and mixing, and the final stage of adding the sugar to create the sweet taste we love. We got to taste chocolate combined with ginger, hot pepper, coffee, and all by itself without sugar. After a delicious lunch we drove to Mitad del Mundo, where we stood right on the Equator! We watched water go down the drain counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and then, just 10 feet away in the Southern Hemisphere, saw it swirl in the opposite direction down the drain! Some of us earned the title of “Egg Master” by balancing an egg on the head of a nail right on the Equator line. We also learned about many of the indigenous tribes around the equator who long recognized this location as a sacred place and the center of the world – hundreds of years before GPS! One of the displays at the equator museum showed the step-by-step process of shrinking the human head, a tradition followed by the Shuar tribe from the Amazon as a way to proudly display their spoils of war or to memorialize an especially beloved or important person in their tribe. Needless to say, the students were enthralled by the many things they learned in just one day.
Tomorrow’s itinerary includes an overnight excursion to Sangolqui, a small town just 45 minutes outside of Quito. We’ll begin our day with a visit to a rural public school, where our students will distribute half of the 250 pounds of school supplies we collected throughout the year to a school that is frequently forced to make due without the basic supplies that we take for granted, such as paper, pencils and crayons. We’ll also have the opportunity to chat with teachers and students and learn about life for the average child in rural Ecuador. Next, we’ll enjoy a visit to a ranch where the students will get to see and groom the horses, play in the fresh open air surrounded by the beautiful mountains and volcanoes of Ecuador, and enjoy a traditional meal prepared outdoors. Our students will also teach our Ecuadorian friends about Hoboken and New York City, showing them a PowerPoint presentation designed specially for this purpose.
The next morning, we’ll rise at the crack of dawn to visit an open air market that includes merchants from far and wide selling everything from chickens and other livestock, to Ecuadorian handicrafts, kitchen supplies, and the freshest fruits and vegetables you’ll ever see. Before returning to our host families in Quito, we’ll visit our special friends at Amigo Guia, an after school program that provides educational support and child care for children who would otherwise be working on the street selling gum, snacks or other trinkets. Here our students will deliver the remaining school supplies and engage in a number of recreational games and activities to help us understand the similarities and differences of family and home life among the two groups.
This cultural exchange will have a lasting effect on our students. Through these experiences students will gain a broader understanding of culture, geography, language and the world. The cultural fluency they develop will set them up for an ever-broadening perspective about the global community in which we live, and will hopefully awaken in them a desire to know and understand the many different perspectives and ideas represented in our diverse human family. International student exchange programs provide the perfect training ground to develop in students the skills educators and employers know are critical for success in the 21st century. Some benefits of an exchange program such as ours include: acquisition of skills in a second language; analytical and problem-solving skills; the ability to see things from multiple perspectives; self-confidence and self-esteem; maturity; a willingness to tackle new challenges; a sense of accomplishment; independence; and negotiating group dynamics.
Saying goodbye on Friday to our host families and the many friends we have made here will be hard, for sure, but the memories we have made will have found a permanent place in our hearts and minds, and may serve to inspire future adventures to as yet unknown destinations.
Questions? Thoughts? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.