Guest contributor, Jordan Smith, shares her experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she served this summer on a missions team with other college students. Above, Jordan swings from Pichincha, a volcano overlooking the city.
When I walked into my Spanish 102 course last fall, I never could have imagined that a life-changing opportunity would come out of my enrollment in the class.
Almost as soon as we sat down and had finished introducing ourselves to the class, our professor started to talk about a trip that he directs every summer—a study abroad and missions trip to Zacapa, Guatemala. He charismatically advertised this trip: we could spend two months immersing ourselves in Spanish and Central American culture, do an internship that would count for six academic credits, and share the gospel with the native people. We would live with a homestay family, and essentially, live as if we were locals.
Exhausted and slightly overwhelmed with a new semester, I barely paid attention. That is, until I found myself with some free time later that month and decided to do the math. How would going on this trip help me to complete my Spanish minor? After calculating the Spanish credits that I still needed to graduate and the credits I could earn through this trip, I realized there was no way that I would be able to complete my minor in time for graduation unless I went to Guatemala.
And thus began the process of officially deciding that I would spend two months—from mid-May to mid-July—in a completely foreign country. My parents, though at first hesitant about the financial side of things, agreed that this would be worth the money and completely beneficial for me. My friends enthusiastically told me to go for it, and supplemented their encouragement with stories of the ways they had been changed by their own missions experiences. My professor showed me how to complete the application to sign up and told me to come to the weekly interest meetings.
Students on the missions team hike up Pichincha, a volcano in Quito, Ecuador.
What I hadn’t realized was that the trip alone cost a certain amount, but taking credits during my time there was an extra cost. Almost defeated, I texted my family the totals of what I would need to raise. It was about $2,800 more than I had originally thought. My family told me that they would help, but if I really wanted to go I would have to come up with the money myself. I really felt that this was something I had to do, and so I prayed, and I felt very at peace about it. I remember telling my family that I knew that God was going to help me raise every dollar I needed.
By the time I decided to go, it was almost winter break, so I spent much of my time at home filling out application documents, signing up for a passport, and drafting and sending support-raising letters to friends and family. Everything went smoothly, and everyone was really excited for me to go.
When I returned to school and we resumed our weekly information meetings for the trip, we were told that we were no longer going to Guatemala. Due to devastating natural disasters and rising COVID cases in the country, the ministry that we usually worked with had no capacity to take on 40 interns. Their facilities had been destroyed and they were really struggling.
Crestfallen, our professor consoled us by saying that plans had changed: now our destination was Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. A study abroad program there had agreed to work with us and promised that they had plenty of room for us this summer. It was an exciting change for me, even though some of my peers were broken hearted over not being able to go to Guatemala. I had no personal ties to either place; I was just excited to go anywhere. The rest of the semester was filled with more support-raising, lots of working out details, and doing pre-departure training to prepare myself for the coming months.
By the grace of God, I was able to raise all the money I needed. In fact, I had more than I needed. I couldn’t see it then, but now I see clearly how He provided everything—my passport, the money, wisdom when I was packing, and so much more.
Four days after I moved out of my dorm to go back home, my family and I drove down to Lynchburg again to join the rest of my group as we boarded a flight to Richmond, then to Atlanta, and then finally to Quito. I felt like I was in a daze that whole day (probably because I only slept for a few hours the night before). It felt unreal that we were finally going to Quito. After almost 20 hours of travel, we finally arrived in the city and were taken to our apartments. When we realized that our apartments had a rooftop view of the city, we all ran up to see, chattering excitedly and loudly. Even though the city was on a nightly lockdown due to the pandemic and it was almost one in the morning, we couldn’t keep quiet. It is still one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen—the city stretched on for miles in every direction.
Jordan with her host sister and host mom.
And thus began my time in Quito. It was a whirlwind of orientation sessions, meeting new people, exploring the city, and seeing the sights before we started our internships and moved into our homestay houses. It is a strange feeling to reminisce on these first two weeks, because I feel like it happened, and simultaneously, was a dream.
Our second Friday there, we went in for orientation with the directors of our internships. I was eager to meet my director and find out more about what I was going to be doing. I knew that I would be working with a ministry, End Slavery Ministries Equador (ESME), that helped women and children coming out of vulnerable situations, such as prostitution and sex trafficking. I learned that I, along with another girl in the study abroad program, was going to be doing media creation and communications for the ministry’s Instagram. It was different from what I was expecting. Nonetheless, I was expectant and excited.
One of the rules our professor had for this trip was that during our time there, except on specific days, we were supposed to speak only Spanish. Though it may seem extreme to some, we all knew about the rule beforehand and understood that it was a part of our “homework” for the classes we were taking. It also is the best way to immerse oneself in a culture and learn a language quickly.
However, the director of my internship had not been informed about this rule, so when I told her, she was quite surprised. Even though she had grown up in Quito and knew Spanish fluently, she admitted that this might be a challenge.
On my first day, I barely spoke, except when spoken to. I was nervous to speak only Spanish and insecure in my ability to hold a conversation in it. Thankfully, I had the most amazing partner, Liz, who, though she was not under the rule herself as she came from a different university, was eager to learn more Spanish too and took it upon herself to speak it with me. It was awkward and frustrating, for sure. But it was a brave step and I almost immediately started learning more than I thought I could.
From my first day as an intern, I had opportunities to meet the women and children ESME works with and for. On my very first day, the coordinator of one of the ministries under ESME took Liz and I to a brothel in the Centro Historico, or the Historical Center of downtown Quito. I would never have imagined that I would have the opportunity to do that, but I am so glad I did. It became clear to me that those women—even though they had done or were doing work that is deemed by many as unmentionable—wanted two things: to be loved and seen. And I saw the ministries of ESME loving and seeing them, no matter where they were. It was, to put it concisely, life-changing.
Though it was life-changing, it was also rough. I can’t lie. I was frustrated and confused by what the director expected out of us, and we were definitely on different pages. I cried when I returned to my apartment on Friday, the last day of my first full week as an intern. My apartment mates consoled me, and I was thankful that we were all in the same boat. Our internships were not shaping out to be what we expected, but we were in it together.
That weekend we moved into our homestay families. I had a host mother and brother, both native Ecuadorians, and a host sister, another student from my school. I was generally excited, if not a bit apprehensive.
A llama stands in front of Quilotoa, a naturally formed crater lake in Ecuador.
It is the strangest feeling in the world to meet someone and be taken to their house, knowing that you’re going to be living there for the next five weeks. It was weird. “Hi! Nice to meet you. I’m living in your house now!” Our Spanish-only rule began 24/7 as soon as we met our host families, with Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons being our days off.
But my host sister and I quickly felt at home with our family, and found out that though our host mom was older, she had all the vigor and vibrance of a young woman. She cooked, cleaned, and ran the household with all the wisdom of someone who had dedicated her life to taking care of her family. I never once saw her complain or grumble. And she wanted to show us around the city, so she took us everywhere. We always had excursions, every single weekend, and most nights were spent exploring different malls and parks and restaurants around the city.
While I stayed in my host home, my internship continued. Things steadily improved and I found myself loving it more and more. Liz and I explored the city and worked on various projects from different cafes and the office of our study abroad program. My Spanish improved and I learned how to manage my time better. I genuinely liked what I was doing.
One of the defining moments came when I had the chance to visit the safe home of the ministry I interned for. The home, called Casa Adalia, took in women and their children (if they had any) who applied to live there. The women came from bad situations, many of them unsafe. Most of the women had children; one of them did not. The kids ranged in age from four to 12 and did their classes in the home due to the pandemic.
We didn’t go to the house every day, so when we did it was a treat—just to spend time with the kids. It was so eye-opening to see how the average child lives in Quito. What they ate, how they behaved, the games they played, and other things like that were of great interest to me. Their lives were simultaneously similar and different from the average American child’s. They were so unpredictable in the way that only kids are, but so easy to love. A smile was always on the faces of those around them.
That was my day-to-day life in Quito: internship, homestay, Spanish. Of course, there were diversions. We went to the jungle for five days and did work projects at a Christian academy there. We stayed in a hostel owned by a believer (she typically hosted many missionaries) and got to hear from teachers and missionaries who worked with the academy. It was wonderful, if not incredibly hot and humid, and good for me to take a break from technology and work with my body.
The academy also hosted its first basketball tournament that weekend, which we were a part of in the sense that we helped set up, run, and tear down the tournament. Every one of us could tell that it meant a lot to the kids and the staff to have this opportunity to show off their basketball skills.
That trip to the jungle marked the halfway point of the trip as a whole. The last four weeks were spent hanging out with my homestay family, celebrating the Fourth of July (we had chicken hotdogs and french fries, made lovingly by our mamá, as we called her), and finishing up various projects for my internship. In all honesty, the time blurs together a little bit.
Jordan poses in front of a mountain view.
What is still clear to me, however, was how the Lord used that time. I learned a lot about myself and God. One phrase kept coming into my mind and my devotional time: God is better. In Spanish, it translates to “Dios es mejor.” I found myself writing it in my quiet time over and over again. It is a simple phrase, but true, and a great encouragement to me as I found myself in situations I didn’t like or that were outside of my comfort zone.
I don’t know if I could fully explain it, but traveling really changes you, and you don’t always realize how badly you need a change of scenery until you actually change the scenery. At least, that is how it was for me. I found myself in constant awe of what was around me—the people, the mountains, the food, the city as a whole. It was definitely the honeymoon phase for a while. Everything was so new and exciting and thrilling and terrifying. It really felt like the world was completely available to me and there was nothing that I couldn’t do. If I had to describe it in a word, I think I would choose “empowering.” I learned how to be so much more independent and brave.
After eight weeks of crazy adventures and nonstop moving around, though, I was ready to go home. I was really excited to see my family and my dog. And I didn’t have the opportunity to fully process all that had happened until I landed in America, as is the case for most things: you don’t process what happens until afterwards.
When people ask me how Ecuador was, I have to quickly decide what to tell them. What adventure should I expound on? There are so, so many stories, good and bad. However, I almost always say that it was the most wonderful time—because it truly was.