Zebra corporate lawyer Paul Borovay with his host family in Ecuador during his tour with the U.S. Peace Corps
By Paul Borovay | September 14, 2023

"I Feel Bad."

Saying those three words - or, rather, struggling to say them - changed my life. They led a poor, 80-year-old Ecuadorian man to show me what a good life looks like.

We all get advice every day. Some of it’s good. Most of it’s bad. But rarely do we get one piece of advice, at just the right time, by just the right person, that alters the way we think about the world and our place in it. For me, that advice came from an 80-year-old man, outside of a mud-brick hut, in a tiny town in Ecuador.

Between 2006-2008, I was a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Ecuador, working alongside community members on locally prioritized projects, making about $1.50 a day to “sustain” me.  (Though I was paid, the Peace Corps is about as close to “volunteering” as it gets when you’re working in support of the U.S. government.)

The man I mentioned was part of the host family I stayed with in the Northern Andes mountains for the first few months of my tour to help me acclimate to living in Ecuador. This adjustment period is standard practice, as Peace Corps leaders want to ensure the change in culture isn’t too shocking. They want volunteers like me to integrate into the community, to feel comfortable with our surroundings, so we can make the greatest impact while there. The thing is, change takes time, and while 27 months seems like a long time to a 23-year-old, it isn’t a long time to the communities in which we work. So, the real goal in this volunteer role, I quickly realized, is to build relationships with people in these countries and exchange cultures and knowledge.

It’s been more than 15 years since I left Ecuador, but there is still one relationship and cultural exchange that sticks with me. Despite having lived in Ecuador for more than two years, the memory (and the story) that sticks with me came from my first night in the country.

Shortly after arriving in my town, my host family (really, my host mother) taught me how to kill a goat and a dozen-or-so guinea pigs, which they had been raising specifically for this night for more than a year. It was a celebratory welcome meal, at least from their perspective. For me, it was uncomfortable.

While we huddled in the smoke-filled hut, cooking the meat they had just slaughtered, my new family asked me about the United States, about whether I went to college, about where else I had travelled. I told them – or at least I tried to tell them – that I grew up 20-minutes from the beach in California, that I graduated from UC Berkeley (I left out that it had recently been awarded one of the best universities in the world), and that I had traveled throughout Europe, parts of Africa, and a few other countries in South America.

I had never felt more privileged – and bad for it – than I had that night. My host family literally could not leave their town because they need to milk their cows twice a day or they’d die. And here I was, inadvertently touting how great my life had been to the poorest people I had ever met. It was painful, in more ways than one.

While I spoke some Spanish, I wasn’t close to being fluent. Two years would ultimately fix that. But here I was, my first night in the country, trying to bond with my host family and – in my eyes – failing miserably.

Seeing my discomfort, my host grandfather took me by his very callused hand and escorted me outside the hut. He looked me in the face and asked me what was wrong. I told him, “Me siento mal.” – “I feel bad.” But for those of you Spanish speakers, you know that is not really how you say, “I feel bad” – it actually translates to “I feel sick.” I continued to tell him that I just don’t speak Spanish well enough to tell him how guilty I feel, and that it simply wasn’t fair that I had the experiences I had. He slowly lifted his hand, signaling me to stop talking. And that’s when he said:

“Somos pobres, pero no tenemos hambre.”

“We are poor, but we are not hungry.”

He explained that he had never been to school, but his kids went to some school, and that he had already attended his grandchildren’s high school graduations. He told me that…

  • I can’t feel bad about where I came from; that if I wanted to be a good volunteer, I needed to stop focusing on the past and instead should focus on where I want to go in the future.
  • even after I learn to speak the language, I should listen first.
  • growing up in a “developed” country does not mean that I am better off than those growing up in “third world” countries.
  • just because we are poor, doesn’t mean that we can’t provide for our family.

It was an incredible night for me, even if it was a normal Thursday for him. I learned about resiliency. I learned to be humble. I learned to be appreciative. I learned about Ecuadorian culture. I learned to listen. And I learned that some stories are worth telling, over and over, year and after year, because they matter. They change lives. They bring attention to the underserved. And they highlight the importance of words. For me, it was six words, from an 80-year-old man, outside of a mud-brick hut, in a tiny town in Ecuador. For you, it may be more; it may be less. But whatever it is, pay attention. Listen. Because it may just change your life. 

Zebra Senior Counsel, Paul Borovay, with a group of local residents in the Ecuador community he supported during his time in the U.S. Peace Corps


Editor’s Note:

What Paul didn’t mention is that he is also an incredible musician who wrote a song inspired by the smiles he was surrounded by in Ecuador. Check this out:

Paul and another Peace Corps volunteer also led what they called “Hope Camps,” where they worked with kids on self-esteem, music, and just general fun. All their families worked on banana plantations and never had time off. But Paul and the other volunteer worked with the plantation owners to give the parents one lunch off so that they could watch their kids sing.

“I had the kids write down one sentence about anything – ‘I love meatballs,’ ‘Soccer is my favorite sport,’ ‘Edgardo can’t sing’ – and then I took those sentences and turned them into a song that we all sang. So, while the overdub is a song I wrote about the experience, the song where all the kids are laughing and smiling is a song that they wrote,” Paul shared.

What makes this song – and the smiles seen in the video – extra special is that these kids didn’t let their circumstances break their spirits. As Paul explained to me, “Most of the families lived in a community that was built on top of an old dump – those white poles are letting out the methane that builds up under the ground. Yet, the people there could not be nicer. Even when I came around with my camera, people invited me into their homes to eat a cookie, have some water (or a beer if they had it), and spend time with their families. It’s why the program is two years long. You need to build trust in order to be let in. Trust takes time.”

Now you can see why this experience changed Paul’s perspective on life, and what it really means to live a good life.

Corporate Social Responsibility, Inside Zebra Nation,
Paul Borovay
Paul Borovay

Paul is a native Californian who, after spending a few years in Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer and several years in the Midwest as an attorney, appreciates the finer things in life, namely, weather (all types), music (recording and building guitars), writing screenplays (he’s optioned one so far, but he has a few others if you're interested), and intellectual property law (it’s what he does, every day).

Having started in private practice, Zebra was actually a client from his first day as an attorney until he came in house in 2019. Currently, Paul lead’s Zebra global trademark, copyright, and advertising group. He also advises Zebra’s U.S. sales teams on government procurement matters.  

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