Oh, my…it’s been a while. So, gentle readers (those of you who might still be around), please forgive the random direction this post may take. I’ve kind of lost my knack. Writing is something that grows rusty when one’s out of practice, and I’m indeed far, far out there. It isn’t just the blog…I haven’t written in my journal once since we landed in Ecuador. I’ve written a few emails to very close friends and family, but only sparingly, and that’s been difficult. I’m not sure that not writing has been the best way to cope, but I cannot say we haven’t grown, or that I haven’t learned.
In any kind of humanitarian work, one of the most vital aspects is monitoring and evaluation, or M&E. I have a healthy relationship with this – it’s the part of the work I find the most valuable, and I have applied it to my professional and personal life without exception. Over the years M&E has become, depending on the organization, MEAL (monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning) or PMEL (planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning). The common denominator there, and something I find indispensable, is learning. So let this post serve as my personal lessons learned workshop. You are invited. Coffee will be served.
Lesson #1: Ecuador is magnificent.
Ecuador has been…interesting. Our work here entailed much more than we could have ever foreseen, but that should come as no surprise. But the country is extraordinary. In terms of size, it’s far smaller than many in South America, but it feels gigantic. The hot, humid coastline is parallel to the extraordinary Sierra that surpasses 6000m (12,000 feet) in altitude in some areas. Further east the altitude drops again into the Oriente, which is part of the Amazon. Buses traverse almost the entire country and can take you in a matter of 12-15 hours from north to south, or east to west. Every 20 minutes the landscape changes: from dry browns and yellows to every vibrant green imaginable; from rolling hills and high plateaus to sun-filled or gloomy valleys; from jungles suffocated by trees to the tree line, where only shrubs survive; from seafood and coconut and plantains to corn and quinoa and chochos. There is no way I could qualify all the extraordinary cultures within the national borders…we have been most exposed to the Kañari, as we’ve been based in Azogues and Cuenca throughout most of our time here, but there are so many different indigenous groups, most of whom speak some form of Quechua, not to mention several pockets of Afro-Ecuadorians and Mestizos and many who identify with several of these. The food is decent, and I’m a huge fan of ají and cevichocho, but as is so often the case, there’s been a lot we haven’t been able to sample owing to our dietary restrictions. Music is intoxicating and people are lovely in general. I never feel too terribly comfortable discussing isms as a person of US American birth, but opportunity here, as is the case in many parts of the world, is largely proportional to the quantities of European ancestry in one’s bloodlines. So that’s been tough. Oh – and there are a lot of foreigners here – particularly US Americans. So that’s been weird.
Lesson #2: Young people are amazing.
I’m not talking here about the children and young people living in the home where our work was based – they are amazing as well. But the truth is that in this line of work, anybody over 30 is going to feel kind of old when surrounded by volunteers. The average age of people we’ve come across is 25, and we’ve worked with several people much younger. One of those was G, the woman charged with welcoming us and serving as our support in-country. She absolutely blew my mind. Professional, driven, respectful, capable of holding her own with any and all types she came across. She’s currently working in Palestine/Israel documenting human rights abuses as her tenure came to a close about a month ago. And while she was probably the most exceptional person we met, there were so many. What an honor it has been to meet some of these young people…if the future’s in their hands, I think we’ve got a chance.
Lesson #3: I am a functional workaholic.
I’ve gone through periods in my life where I’ve worked way too much, but those periods have tended to coincide with a state of choicelessness. In my last role in London, for example, the projects I supported were in a terrible state, and so several 60-hour weeks were eventually followed by that magical point where rhythm is found and the systems start functioning well enough to get back to “normal.” At Hogar Para Todos, we lived onsite within a 24-hour service with a lot of issues, and the coordinator was offsite for at least 1/3 of our placement. Professional boundaries are tricky in any scenario, but they were impossible to maintain under those circumstances, and I found myself working 60 and 70 hours a week, not counting the time I spent interacting with and sometimes looking after the kids, because that wasn’t actually part of my role. I’m old enough to know that I’ve got to put boundaries in place to keep my tendency to overwork in check, but in this case there was no space for any of those mechanisms to exist. So sub-lesson #3a: NEVER live onsite in a children’s home.
Lesson #4: I love this work.
For reasons I can’t go into here, things didn’t end as planned with our placement. Having said that, everything went as it should have in terms of my professional responsibilities, and while I’ve been disappointed in some aspects of human nature (I’ll never learn), I was also deeply moved by the courage I saw in one of my colleagues, and with my own personal perseverance in the face of tremendous difficulty. However, after having been so incredibly unfulfilled by my money-making endeavors over the last few years in France, I was completely in my element in my work at HpT. I knew what needed to be done, and how to go about doing it at nearly every step of the way. This work is backbreaking and emotionally charged and frustrating to no end, but it is also an extension of who I am. Coming to the end of my placement feels like being told I won’t be able to walk until I find another role. And the idea of going back to doing what I was doing in France is terrifying.
The painful truth is that, in spite of the fact that I took this role in the hopes that it would make me more hireable, I still haven’t had any luck. I don’t know how long this journey will be, and I’m not getting any younger. While that may sound melodramatic, I’m 36 – at the point where I should be digging my heels in professionally. I’m childless-by-choice at least partly because I wanted to do this work and did not see how motherhood fit in with this lifestyle. Every professional choice I’ve made has been linked to my hope to do this work, and yet it feels like I’m a trapeze artist who keeps missing the bar. And the circus metaphor is quite fitting, because there’s my poor, battered ego to contend with as well…professional failure feels very much on-display, for all to see.
For now, I’ll keep looking. But job-searching is not how I want to spend my 30s.
Lesson #5: Things might not work out.
And I need to be prepared to face that.