Once we were all in Miami waiting for our flight to Quito, Ecuador, I could feel the restlessness jumping inside of me. I wanted my passport stamped and I wanted out of my hiking boots that I was wearing to save space instead of stuffing them into my suitcase.
Although I’ve traveled around the U.S., I’ve never been out of the country, so after our in-flight movie and microwave dinner, customs was going to be cool. Sadly, the mashed potatoes on my plastic plate gave me the worst stomach ache of all the customers of American Airlines, and getting my much-desired stamp was a blur of broken Spanish on my part and some toppling suitcases. But once we were whisked away on a tour bus, through an unseasonably warm night with unfamiliar buildings (but McDonald’s signs nonetheless), I couldn’t grasp that I was somewhere thousands of miles away from where I had woken up that day.
I can’t express the magnificence of waking up in Hotel Quito and rushing to the window to draw back the shade. It was like Christmas Day— rushing to get to the tree. Mist circled the mountains and the lush green of the grass pierced my morning eyes. Breakfast was even better. On the seventh floor we ate our first meal— mine consisted of tamales, fruit, potatoes and some bacon. But the sweetness of the pineapple didn’t compare to the panoramic windows we were sitting right in front of: a view that showed the towering mountains and multitude of houses that make up Quito.
I’ve been in awe of Ecuador since that morning. Now, two weeks later, I’m happily living in Cuenca, the third largest city in the country, and the tranquility of Ecuador has filled me with a sense of calm that I don’t think I’ve felt for at least four years. Everything was “shiny Ecuador” when we first arrived: bellboys at Hotel Quito, a fabulous and serene Hacienda Leito, a tour bus with guides and a busy schedule. But now, with classes in full swing, some frustration has filtered in.
Spanish is hard (At least it is to me). I knew that I wasn’t a pro when I came, but I was surprised at how difficult it was to say – and find the courage to say – simple phrases. Also, you don’t realize just how many little things you need to say in a day or how important words like “almost” and “yet” are until you don’t have them in your arsenal of expressions.
But through the intricacy of “What verb tense should I use” and “Is that a masculine or feminine word,” I feel more connected with U.S. citizens that can’t speak perfect English. It’s humbling to have the roles reverse and be the girl that isn’t understood. And with that, every time I buy a movie or a piece of bread, it’s like I’m painting words on a new white canvas, just hoping to get the colors right and for the picture to tell the right story.
Then there’s my host family. When we first pulled up to my soon-to-be apartment in our taxi, my family helped me with my bags and took me to my room. The yellow bedspread and pine dresser where just as I had imagined them. I couldn’t wait to unpack and cease living out of a suitcase. I even had a towel sitting neatly on my bed; I felt at home and safe.
I’m an only child, so having three siblings is one of the most enjoyable and different experiences I’ve had. My mom loves to dance and laugh, and my 11-year-old brother is always energetic with questions for me about this movie or that one. I also have two younger sisters that are 15 and 17 years old. They are both studying English in school and help me when I get stuck on a phrase or need to figure out what we’re doing that afternoon. As two of the sweetest and fun people, they love when I mess up a word (and I love being able to laugh about it instead of fret) and are always making jokes about what happened at school or singing to the newest Lady Gaga song. Thankfully, laughing is its own language.
I have done something new and adventurous every day for the past two weeks. In a little over a fortnight, I’ve become a new person—I wake up before noon, eat breakfast, have siblings, speak Spanish and look at mountains. I walk through crowds of skirted women, smell the sweetness of fresh bread and feel the burn of a fierce, equatorial sun. But through these experiences, there are of course differences. One of the biggest switches from the U.S. to the Andean mountains is the toilet paper. You can’t flush it. Most of the gas stations we have stopped at don’t even have the white cotton squares that we U.S. citizens take for granted (And some stations we visited didn’t even have a toilet seat).
On to lunch. Lunch in Ecuador is a big deal. It’s the principal meal and consists of soup then the main dish – rice and another starch, usually. With my host family, we pray before and don’t leave the table until everyone has finished their food. Dinner is usually a smaller portion of rice or fruit and sometimes isn’t even served. I already feel healthier from eating less and better quality fruits and vegetables.
It’s enjoyable to be part of a tradition and adapt to something new. Also, the men are a bit more forward. Being gringa is hard. Women have to pay for taxis at night. We have to re-think the length of our skirts. It was nerve racking to walk down the street the first couple of times that I went alone, especially in those afternoons when the sun was starting to set over the mountains. When a few friends and I went out on a Friday, we had so many men talk to us from their car windows – one car even asked us to get in. It’s hard not to yell back. Why should I take this harassment? But it also makes me thankful for harassment laws and the protection I have in the U.S.; I still want to speak out against this discrimination.
Oh, technology. I went a week without texting, some days without scrolling my NewsFeed on Facebook and longer without talking on the phone, and it is beautiful. Not having wireless Internet in my house is a nice break, but when it comes to keeping up with emails and Skype dates, it made me realize how dependent my generation is on our computers. We have wireless at my school, but I’ve run into some problems trying to find an outlet that matches my chord. I did have a couple frustrating days, needless to say.
On the other hand, there are a crazy amount of similarities: the TV show “Glee,” cell phone apps, paintball courses, skinny jeans, the prevalence of U.S. movies and music. Cuenca is very urban with a beautiful central park and is also equipped with street vendors and police officers, dogs and running business people. However, traffic is extreme (pedestrians do not have the right-of-way) and the amount of dog waste in the streets (I’m assuming there’s no “pick it up” law) was a bit shocking. Smoking isn’t banned in public places, like I’ve grown accustom to in Ohio, but such is city life, big and bustling.
And although I’m not a city-dweller, having grown up in the countryside of Southeastern Ohio, I really do feel at home. There’s so much to see and to do and to eat and to figure out how to say en español. And there’s so many things that I haven’t even written about. Time to go dive further into my new home-away-from-home; I think I’m going to go buy some bread down the street.