At Home: Quito, EC and Grand Rapids, EE. UU.

Hello everyone, from Grand Rapids, MI! It’s been a while since you last heard from Levi and me (Matthew): we’ve journeyed further than you might expect since our last update, and our lives have changed more, too. We left our friends Michael and Abe with sad embraces in the courtyard of Mavel’s home and made our way by bus toward Quito. We reached Lima nearly a week later, after a bout of nasty GI issues for both of us and a series of unfortunate events involving bus travel and Levi’s bike.

In Lima Levi and I settled into an awareness of each other’s presence and of our separation from our friends who were making their way toward Cusco. For each of us the shift involved a different set of feelings. For me, the shift was hard: I felt more homesick than I had the whole trip. Over the course of almost two weeks in Lima first Levi and I, then I alone thought deliberately about what it would mean for me to go home.

The title to the blog was a bit of a spoiler, I’m sure, but I’ll tell you now that I decided to go back to the States. I flew to O’Hare last Thursday, and today am marking the beginning of my second week in this new thing: what I hope can be a continuation of the process of coming home.

There is not one reason in particular above others that I can point to in order to describe quickly why I came home. A way of framing my decision, though, that I’ve found useful in explaining my presence to many surprised friends and family, is this:
I greatly enjoyed myself while I was in South America. I loved learning from my friends and from the people we met, I loved practicing Spanish, and I loved bike touring (oh, my, did taking a bus ever drive that one home). Consistently, though, throughout our time in together traveling from Asuncion, Paraguay to Lima, Peru I felt a deep need for home. I was consistently pointed by the novelty of my experience at the familiarity of what I was not experiencing at home: awareness of place, time with family and friends, consistency and longevity of relationships. I saw myself presented with two goods, then: the good of continuing my learning in South America and the good of returning home, and what I had to tell my friends is that I just wanted to go home.

Here I am, then. I’m in Grand Rapids, because as many of you no doubt suspected another part of my homesickness was missing mi enamorada Talia Sheets (I had to quickly switch to enamorada, which is the Peruvian term for girlfriend. There novia translates as fianceand I found myself having to do lots of explaining when I unintentionally called Talia my fiance. To be clear: we’re not engaged, and that caused some linguistic confusion in Peru and some blogging confusion here in the states! Sorry, Rachel Sheets!) I’ve been spending some time with her, meeting people I didn’t know before, and taking an easy transition before jumping into the full force of explaining why exactly I am where I was not expected to be.

That said, I look forward to seeing very many of you the next time our paths cross. Nos vemos!

-Matthew Helmuth

Hello all! Levi writing here from Quito, Ecuador, my new home for 3 months. I thought I’d add the second piece to this blog post, filling you in on my travels since Lima, Peru.

When I boarded the northbound bus in Lima, leaving Matthew behind, it was a surreal turning point; I was by myself now. First I’d traveled with 3 others, then 1 other, and now, noone. Prior discussions with Matthew served as valuable reflection about both of our lives, and these discussions became reality with Matthew´s departure.  I was honored to be a part of Matthew´s decision to actively pursue home, but his absence was and continues to be hard; my amigo, my mutual sounding-board, my travel companion, is gone. My thoughts, my actions, my life for now are shared by nobody else, so I poured myself into the pursuit of one goal: reaching Quito before my supervisor meeting at MAP Internacional Sección Ecuador.  (And having some adventure along the way)

After around twelve hours on the bus, I found myself in Piura, northern Peru, warmly hosted by the Iglesia Hermanos Menonitas (Mennonite Bretheren Church of Pirua).  I was blessed with the chance to attend their youth night on Saturday, and then go to church the next day.  My Spanish has improved, and I felt then that I could communicate with the church members and young adults.  However, through the joy of sharing and fun, my heart was weighed down by the absence of a travel companion.  Isolation makes for a more immersive experience, yet it also removes the social safety net for self-expression.  I found it difficult to explain my situation: why I was alone, where I was going, why I had a bike but wasn´t biking much of Peru.  I was grieving the loss of Matthew.

Early in the morning on Monday, I threw my bike on a minivan taxi and headed for the border town of Tumbes, Peru.  I arrived at the Peruvian city and started biking the 30 kms to the Ecuadoran border.  It felt great to be on the bike again gaining some ground; to strap onto my saddlebags 5 liters of water, a dozen bananas, and bag of bread.  The Peru exit stamp and Ecuador visa application was a breeze.  With my 90-day visa in hand (which will likely expire before my stay is up), I biked some 20 kms to a truck stop where I hopped on a bus bound for Guayaquil.  I was struck when I handed the conductor a $20 USD bill and for change he gave me a strange combination of US bills, Ecuadoran coins, and Sacagawea dollars.  Looking out the window, the climate began to look tropical:  I saw misty-green hills, huge banana fields (owned by Del Monte), and vendors selling grilled plantains.  Things began to look up in this new country with the promise of new adventures ahead.

In the Guayaquil bus terminal, I had the great fortune to meet Wilson, a bus driver who had just got off work and was headed to his nearby home, where he had an extra bed.  The spontaneous hospitality was a perfect answer to my concerns about an arrival in an unfamiliar city at night.  Wilson lived in his house with his brother, sister, and niece.  His sister was an English teacher, and I spent much of the night helping her with her pronunciation of English words.  English, as I am discovering, is a terribly unforgiving language, phonetically speaking.

The next morning I biked about 30 kms until I was well outside of the city, where I met two young professionals with a truck who were headed to the Pacific coast.  They offered me a ride, and as we drove I had my first (of many more) discussion of Ecuadoran politics.  They told me about Rafael Correa, the current Ecuadoran president, known for his strictness, socialist ideologies, and nationalist support.  At Correa´s hands, and the people´s revolution, Ecuador has been transformed in the past 6 years: there are new roads, communication infrastructure, educational system, social services, and economic investments.  I’ve heard many more of these glowing opinions echoed in the voices of Ecuadoran citizens between there and Quito.

Around midday I began to cycle again on the new and Correa-improved Pacific coastal highway (La Ruta Spondylus) cruising next to the seagulls and sand, swept along with fresh-air tailwind, and encouraged by the baby´s-bottom smooth asphalt.  A cyclist could never ask for better conditions.  I rode about 70 kilometers in 3 hours, enjoying avocado sandwiches along the way. Through my mix of busing, hitching, and biking, I found that there are some precious things about bicycle touring that I would never trade:  the feeling of fulfillment at the top of a hill,  the blood-pumping leg sensations, the smile shared with an old man sticking his head out of a window of a banana shack, the way food tastes as it pours down my gullet in constant streams.

With plenty of time to find a hostel, I rolled in to Montañita, the surfer-bro, touristy, party town.  I´m not sure exactly what I was looking for there; I quickly discovered that Ecuadoran locals in smaller pueblos are kinder and more sociable than the many foreigners populating Montañita.  Plus, I was coming down with a cold, and so went to bed early, only to be greeted by bed bugs.  In my itchy, nose-blowing suffering, I found myself wishing I had stayed in the small town 15 kms back, where I had shared a lovely conversation with several laughing women who had sold me a dozen bananas for $1.

In Puerto Lopez, a fishing village, I impulsively bought a ticket for an overnight bus to Quito.  I felt that it was time.  Before the 7PM departure, I had time to enjoy the city, eat my last bit of seafood and ceviche for a while, and feel the fresh ocean foam between my toes.  After a haircut, and several conversations with locals, I snuggled into my bus seat for a sleepless night of traffic jams, an over-air-conditioned cabin, and loud radio.  When I got to Quito early in the morning, I was happy to just bathe in the Andean sun on a bench in Parque Ejido.  Late in the day on July 18, I finally rolled into the open doors of the house of Cesar and Patricia Moya Urueña.  The two share the work of pastoring Quito Mennonite Church, and have agreed to be my gracious hosts for these next 3 months.  That night, I slept 14 hours straight, concluding my solo travel adventure from Lima.

Keep looking for posts about my time here in Quito, including my internship with MAP Internacional Sección Ecuador.  I´ve already experienced so much, and met so many wonderful folk in this city in the past week and a half.

-Levi Smucker

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2 responses to “At Home: Quito, EC and Grand Rapids, EE. UU.

  1. For Matthew, I have been following your journey in this blog, and it is funny how it brings you to where I am in the States. I live in Lowell, 25 mi. east of Grand Rapids. Hope you enjoy your stay.

  2. Llevi,
    Levi, this is Marjorie Stucky, Abe’ss grandmother. I read that you are in Quita, Ecuador. We have some people there form Eden Mennonite Church in Moundridge. I think she is there. Look for Patricia Goering. Let me know if you find her. Marjorie

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