It all started with a big smile, I had a grin the size of a Cheshire Cat when I received the call to say I was an EIL Explore winner 2019 and that I would be traveling to Ecuador. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be chosen to take part in this amazing experience when I first applied.

However, not long before I was due to travel, things were thrown in doubt when my partners brother passed away and I was unsure about going. My partner insisted that I should go as it would have been what her Brother wanted and from this tragedy, the mantra to get me through was established. You see Johns enthusiasm for life and his words of “get up, dress and show up” stuck with me every day. His infectious smile would enlighten any room and I swore to myself that no matter what was to happen I would follow Johns mantra, so everyday I got up, dressed up and showed up with the biggest smile.

When I first arrived in Ecuador late at night, and my host Humberto had to be awoke from bed to greet me, the first thing I can remember was his smile. This despite our relatively limited language, his English and my Spanish and this smiling would continue to greet me from everyone I met for the next eight weeks.

My Hosts, the Gonzalez family- Humberto, Susy, Humberto Junior and their grandson Julian would make me smile everyday and I can say that I have made lifelong friends. We would help each other day in, day out with language, they learning English and me Spanish. This would bring many smiles and laughter as pronunciation from us all would be hilarious and everyday after dinner the joke would become- “time for Duolingo”. We would share culture, and this would bring many smiles and we learned so much from each other about food, customs and family life, the most hilarious being when some of us men in the house were gripped by the man flu (grippa hombre). Susy as the only woman , I’m sure got the biggest of laughs as she smiled as I introduced the adult men to the joys of a hot whiskey.

Quito, the Ecuadorian Capital, is not that big of a city, yet it contains almost two million people. It reminds me a little of Dublin except that the people seem a little more segregated. There are many migrant refugees here of Columbian and Venezuelan origin and they live mainly in pockets of the city. This is where the United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals and particularly SDG 11-Sustainable Cities and Communities I feel come into play.

I volunteered with a Non-Government Organisation named FUDELA. Their aims include integrating young people of mainly the aforementioned migrant refugees into the community through sport and games, mainly soccer. One of their Directors-Veronica Escobar says:

Football plays a vital role in the lives of people who go beyond borders, countries and institutions. In Latin America and around the world, the football and the field are transformative and integrating elements, through which action can be taken to alleviate the emergency situation, provide hope and generate spaces where the right to recreate, to dream, to play can be restored. It is a great opportunity to demonstrate the power of football in the construction of resilience, reinforcement of solidarity and a tool for inclusion.

Mondays to Fridays I would assist with the kids in the coaching of Soccer. Although my Spanish was very limited, they accepted me straight away.   Through all the smiles they would help me with language. On Fridays we would change things up and I introduced the children to Gaelic Football. They loved learning the new game and again although the language barrier was difficult, their smiles told me that they were enjoying themselves.

Sport in Ecuador is very important, and the government there helps with this, which I feel we could benefit from here in Ireland. The aim here is to reduce the financial burden for those wishing to take up sport. In the centre of Quito lies Parque Carolina and here there is a fantastic set up of numerous football pitches, basketball and volleyball courts. Professional referees are employed here, and games are played every day from sunrise to sunset. Twice per week we would bring our teams from FUDELA to participate in the underage league structure. Also, whilst in Ecuador the government released an initiative to waiver the tax on sports goods. Most weekends I would meet up with Aoife, my fellow EIL Explore winner and we would travel to many parts of this beautiful country together. We would smile and laugh together plenty but the memory that will stick with me is the one we can least laugh the most at now, One weekend we travelled late into the night on a four hour bus trip to Riobamba, Aoife’s Spanish was much better than mine and up until she had organised most of trips at weekends. This weekend was to be my turn. I booked us a hotel, but on the way there the hotel cancelled on us. When we arrived all stressed and tired, I can only say thank god and thank you to Aoife for having the perseverance with her Spanish to get us sorted. Although we were highly stressed, at least the next day we were able to smile and laugh about it as we rolled down the fantastic mountainside on La Nariz del Diablo- the Devils Nose train.

All I can say to conclude is thank you to everyone who helped me smile every day. To the Gonzalez family, everyone I met in Ecuador, everyone I have met through the EIL Network and to my partner Laura we will sigue sonriendo-KEEP SMILING.

-Mark Richmond, Ecuador, 2019