Are you a potential expat, thinking about making a living or retiring in Ecuador, where you will finally be able to realize your dreams of a worry-free life and have the time to give back to your community?
In this series of articles entitled Making a Difference, Lorell Stewart, a long-time Cuenca resident and host of the successful Spanish Immersion Homestay Program will introduce you to many like-minded North Americans, Europeans and Ecuadorians who will amaze and inspire you!
Some folks are highly visible, contributing ideas and opportunities on a broad scale, while others are quietly engaged in helping in more singular ways. If you can imagine it, you too can make it happen.
Uniting Cultures Across the Americas
with Lorell Stewart
In the second installment to this series, which introduces our readers to an incredible array of individuals who are Making a Difference in Cuenca, Ecuador, it is my considerable honor to present Sarah Hanen Bauer (Sarah HB), a woman whose decision to relocate here from Montana was indeed a calling, and a blessing for those of us who now consider Ecuador to be our home. And while most of us live lives that can be told in a somewhat linear fashion, the telling of Sarahs’ story is considerably more complex, as her life and her calling to Ecuador has taken a bit of what I can only describe as a circular route. And since Sarah wholeheartedly (and laughingly) agrees with my assessment, I am happy to present Sarah, and her circular journey, in her own words.
As for now, please enjoy Part I of Sarahs’ Making a Difference, Uniting Cultures Across the Americas.
LS: Sarah, thank you, in advance, for sharing your stories with me and our readership! So to begin, and as you have so poignantly described…at the age of twenty-nine, you were living a life in Montana that many of us would characterize as the beginning of an ideal start to the “American Dream”, until an unimaginable tragedy struck, with the sudden death of your young husband. I know this must be difficult, but can you share with us a bit of what your life had been like and what then inspired you to completely change your life’s’ direction?
SHB: My life was normal. I had a husband, a toddler, a dog, a cat, and even a station wagon…well it was more of a really awesome Subaru Outback, but you get the idea. My husband and I had a catering company and we were a great team. He was an incredible chef and I was always good at making contacts and chatting it up with the clients. We were happy. Then it all changed at the drop of a hat and I was left with many big decisions to make and hurdles to overcome. And as is the custom, no one ever knows what to do or say when tragedy hits; so many people sent a card with a check inside. And when the moment came when I had to decide what to do with the cards, I figured I had two choices; 1.) The Rational Choice … “Sarah, what you need to do is pay off your debts and start a college fund for your son.” or 2.) The Clear Your Head Choice … “Sarah, you need to get away and remember how to smile.” Well, I chose choice number 2, which, after some plot twists and adventures, lead me to travel, to school, to learn Spanish, and ultimately to Ecuador.
LS: First, on a bit of a whim, you left Montana for an adventure through Western Australia and New Zealand, and made the decision to return to Montana, enrolling at Montana State University, on track to become a grade school teacher. Then, in 2006, you traveled to Costa Rica, and quite unexpectedly fell in love with the Spanish language and Latin culture, inspiring your course once again, as you returned to MSU and changed your major to Spanish. Please tell us a bit about that, and then, how did Ecuador come onto your radar screen?
SHB: I had one of those less than desirable educational experiences that many people have had, so I figured I better do something about it and what better way than becoming a teacher myself. I could kill two birds with one stone, support my family and make a difference! So, at 30 years old, I packed up my Jan Sport and headed to the Montana State University campus to get the ball rolling!
Now, I’ve always been a bit of an idealist, although when life comes smashing into your bubble, realism tends to take a front row seat. That was my mindset when I decided to get my degree in Elementary Education. I knew I wasn’t going to change the world, but I sure as hell was going to change the world for some of my students! While I was in my first semester I became intrigued by a foreign exchange program in Costa Rica and I didn’t hesitate to sign up. My son, who was 5 years old at the time, and I went to San José, Costa Rica for 2 months where I happily fumbled through my Spanish classes. I had three months under my belt when I arrived so my experience was pretty Zen-like…everything was in the now, if you know what I mean! I had no clue how to say anything in the past or future tenses! It was an incredible experience and I fell in love with Spanish, which ultimately lead me to the decision to narrow my focus a bit and become a Spanish teacher. I returned to Montana and changed my college major. And it was then that I decided I would have to study abroad again because, let’s face it, Montana isn’t really a hot spot for immersing oneself in the Spanish language and Latin American culture!
It was at that moment that I literally heard the word Ecuadorin my brain. It was one of those otherworldly, you’d never believe it if it hadn’t happened to you type experiences and, surprisingly enough, I listened. I said, “Okay…Ecuador…. where the hell is that?!” I got out the map and couldn’t believe my eyes…I was going there?! Hahaha! It was both mystical and hilarious. Welcome to the human experience I suppose!
LS: Wow! So…I understand that when you first arrived in Ecuador, you immediately enrolled in an Andean Culture class, taught by Francisco Lojano, an indigenous man from Cumbe, Ecuador. How did that relationship evolve and when did you first recognize the link between your Native American friends in Montana and the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador?
SHB: Although I had arrived in Ecuador as a foreign exchange student, I always knew that wasn’t the real reason I was here. When I walked into my first class, the reason for my being in Ecuador started to become more and more clear. The class was absolutely incredible! I had never been so mentally and spiritually stimulated in a classroom before. I was learning things that really meant something to me and I was learning in an environment that was more concerned with teaching me something rather than keeping me ridiculously busy, tired and stressed out. I was relaxed. I was happy. I was finally having a great educational experience!
About a month into the semester we had a class that really woke me up to what my role in this life was meant to be. We were near Girón (just south of Cuenca), walking to a sacred lagoon to do a ceremony to help our energy start to move again because, as my professor Francisco put it, it’s not that we didn’t have energy, it’s just that it was kind of stuck, which was keeping us from our full potential as human beings. While we were walking to the lagoon, Francisco and I were discussing the nature and the essence of the color yellow (like I said, it was a class unlike any I’d ever experienced before) when, out of the blue, he asked me if I thought Native Americans from Montana would want to come to Ecuador to do a cultural exchange. I told him that I didn’t see why not, however, I didn’t really have any connections to funds nor to any Native Americans (but thought, anything’s possible I suppose!). We left it at that but the seed had already been planted. It was just a matter of time before it started to take root and sprout.
LS: You returned stateside and were soon introduced to Scott Frazier, a Native American from the Santee Sioux and Crow tribes, and began making plans to bring Scott to Ecuador to connect with his Quechua* brethren. Tell us more, por favor…
SHB:So, when the universe tells you something and you decide to listen to the message and then act upon it, everything seems to find a way to fall into place. When Francisco asked me about doing a cultural exchange with his people and the indigenous people of Montana, the fact that I didn’t know anyone or have access to any money never once felt like an obstacle, it was simply a part of the process. I think we both knew it was going to happen, and that it was just a matter of when.
After the first semester of school, my son and I returned to Montana to be with our family and friends. It was a really weird experience for me. I felt completely out of place, awkward, uncomfortable and generally confused. It was the first time I had ever experienced what people call “reverse culture shock”. When I think about it now it’s kind of funny and not at all surprising. At any rate, as a result of this “reverse culture shock” I was able to notice things I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Everywhere I looked I saw signs of Ecuador and the Andes. There was a documentary about a Peruvian family that talked about many of the things I had been learning in my classes with Francisco and watching the film rejuvenated me and reminded me that I was on the right path. I felt like an aspen tree that had laid roots in Montana but had healthy trees springing up all over the world…Australia, New Zealand and now Ecuador. It was time to nurture this Ecuadorian tree that was growing from the same root system that had supported me all of my life.
Then surprisingly, one day I saw an ad for a shamanic workshop with a man from Vilcabamba. I have to laugh now, knowing what I know now and knowing what I didn’t know then… Anyway, I saw this ad and knew I had to go. At the event the man had 7 different ceramic flutes and, according to him, each sound connected with a chakra. We were to play a flute and feel the chakra opening. I played a flute and went on a fun journey. I saw the Andes, I saw Francisco, I saw my family and I heard another message, “The time is now. We are the ones.” I probably sound like I’ll be offering to read your palms in a minute…hahaha! Anyway, the message that really became clear was what Francisco had been teaching me about community or llakta in Kichwa*. I shared with the class what I knew about the llakta and afterward a man came up to me and told me how touched he was by what I had said. I knew then that the time was now, so I told him about Francisco’s request for a cultural exchange between the north and the south. The man said, “I know the perfect person.” This was one week before I was leaving Montana to return to Ecuador and three days before I got on the plane I met this ‘perfect person’, Scott Frazier, and the rest, as they say, is history….even though it’s actually the present and, more importantly, the future!
LS: ‘The Eagle and the Condor’ program has become an important part of your social activism here in Ecuador. Can you tell us more about what has inspired you, how that connects to the Montana non-profit MUYU and its’ Ecuadorian sister organization Colectivo Madre Tierra, and how the Ministry of Culture in Quito got involved?
SHB: After that first trip back to Montana, Scott, Francisco and I got to work. We put together a wonderful cultural exchange program in Ecuador, whereby Scott and Francisco shared ceremony, stories and laughter and it really laid the groundwork for our future endeavors together. While we were putting together the final details of our second Eagle and Condor gathering, I met a woman, Diana Moscoso of Cuenca, who is one of the founders and coordinators of a Cuenca organization called Colectivo Madre Tierra. We realized that we were doing very similar work, so I invited her to be a part of our second cultural and spiritual exchange. She too was deeply touched by the experience and the two of us quickly got together and started planning a way to bring Scott down for a third exchange. Colectivo Madre Tierra was organizing a festival that involved a concert, an arts and crafts fair, and a ceremony with spiritual leaders from all over the Americas to help heal a public plaza that had been deemed the red light district in Cuenca.
For the first two exchanges, Scott, Francisco and I had basically paid for everything out of our own pockets. It was getting expensive and clearly it wasn’t a viable option if we wanted to continue. I had been thinking about starting a non-profit with my sister and good friend for a couple of years but the timing just hadn’t worked out. Well, it was time and MUYU Intercultural Exchange & Education was born. We had yet another serendipitous experience and quickly put together a fundraiser for our part of the exchange with Colectivo Madre Tierra. In Bozeman, Montana my sister and many of our friends and families organized a private house concert and silent auction to raise money for our third Eagle and Condor exchange. It was MUYU’s first event and it was a huge success! That was the first time MUYU and Colectivo Madre Tierra worked together. Since then we have worked on many other projects and have received funds from the United States State Department as well as Ecuador’s Ministry of Culture to help see our visions come to fruition.
LS: You and I have talked at length about breaking down cultural stereotypes, laws for rights of diversity, and Ecuadorian law vs. Ecuadorian movements. What are some of the challenges you have faced in changing the paradigms you have encountered here? Can you give us some examples of how you are breaking down stereotypes?
SHB: With the work we are doing we are breaking down a lot of stereotypes about indigenous people around the world. First of all, many of us see indigenous people as being trapped in time as though their existence is now a museum exhibit rather than an actual, present day experience. We have also helped to break down some stereotypes that all of us “North Americans” are from New York. Guess what, the US has indigenous people too! We are also working really hard to organize and facilitate events that allow the stifled voices in our Ecuadorian society to be heard. Indigenous people, teens, street artists, independent musicians, women, our elders…many of these people don’t usually fit into the societal norms that we are oftentimes forced into experiencing. Sometimes you have to really dig around to find the “weird people” or those who just don’t fit in. But, once you do, you realize how rich and diverse our communities are and that we have so much to learn from these people. This has become my classroom and I’m still the student…it’s absolutely incredible!
LS: Please tell us about some of your most current projects, and how those of us sitting on the sidelines can get involved. Do we need to know how to speak Quechua* or even Spanish to participate?
More to follow. In the meantime, to see Sarahs’ recent Ancestral Technology in Today´s World video, please click the following link, and stay tuned for Part II of her story which explains the video, along with the story of building an incredible mosaic wall in Otorongo Plaza, advice for families moving to Ecuador, and much, much more!
But wait theres more!!
LS: I am happy to report that you have recently created a simple way for those who would like to donate to your non-profit initiatives. Please tell us more about that and please share the link?
SHB:We have finally decided to enter the 21st century and go PayPal! (crowd goes wild in the background)
To donate to the group in Ecuador, Colectivo Madre Tierra, you have two options; Contact me at email@example.com for direct donation information, or go to www.paypal.com and use our email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to thank all of you in advance for first learning a bit about the work I’m doing here. I’d also like to give a big shout-out to those who intend to donate to one or both of these organizations! We intend to keep innovating and being a part of inspiring and thought provoking projects and every little bit of collaboration helps! Muchas gracias!
* Note for inquiring minds: Quechua is a Peruvian language of the Incas. Kichwa is the Ecuadorian dialect of Quechua.
Read about other expats in Cuenca Making a Difference HERE