With so many other stories I wanted to tell (the weirdness of Ecuadorian brake lights, celebrating the summer solstice with the northern indigenous community and perspectives on and treatment of pets, to name a few), it’s hard to write this one: in June, I was medically separated from Peace Corps.
A medical separation, which volunteers call a med-sep, takes place when Peace Corps medical officers (PCMO) decide that they can’t treat a volunteer in-country. The volunteer has to pack everything up, complete an exit process akin to the world’s hardest scavenger hunt, and return home within 72 hours – in my case, after 17 months of service, rather than 27.
Something as common as a bad bout of EBV-mononucleosis can trigger a medical separation. Fortunately, I was better soon after returning home and able to catalogue all of my culture shock. In cars, I still brace myself as I anticipate that other drivers will willfully break the rules of the road, because that’s how Ecuadorians drive. Kirklandites (almost) never do. In the time I’ve been gone, a dozen buildings in my neighborhood have been bulldozed and replaced: overwhelmed by a space 10 times the size of my grocery store in El Tambo, I took 30 minutes to figure out the layout for the new Kirkland Urban QFC. And everything is so expensive!
At the same time, the abundant privileges we have as Americans have been made even clearer to me throughout this transition. Sometimes it’s the little things, like being able to buy kitty litter at the store without having to sit through a two-hour bus ride. Sometimes it’s much bigger. As a millennial, I had forgotten the life-altering convenience of the things we can accomplish online: shopping around to get the best deals, checking a bus schedule to see if it’s on time, accessing and paying bills without walking to each company storefront and counting out the cash. Seattle-area doctors are some of the best in the world; King County Library System is a stunningly powerful resource; and the vibrant creativity and talent showcased by KEXP, the Hugo House and local theaters. as well as the incredible variety of restaurants has bowled me over. Even the summer heat has felt like a welcome home: Here, we have seasons!
Someday soon, I hope to return to Ecuador and see everything I missed: the cloud forest in Mindo, the deep reaches of the Ecuadorian Amazon (so far untouched by the fires) and the unique Galapagos — all three of which are threatened by climate change. Life in Ecuador was precarious in ways that it isn’t here. Two friends I made while there had family members who died in preventable traffic incidents. Life here is perilous in ways that were inconceivable to the Ecuadorians I knew, who asked about gun violence and racism with horror and utter disbelief. It was a privilege to learn in Ecuador, and a privilege to come home to my family, friends and culture.
Writing about Ecuadorian culture for an American audience has been a lot of fun, as a chronicle of the stories I’ve lived and as a way of gaining perspective on my time in Peace Corps and in South America. Saying goodbye to the people I worked, lived, and made friends with – and saying goodbye to this column – is tough, but as an official returned Peace Corps volunteer, I’m looking forward to what comes next now that I’m back on the Eastside.
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.