A Gringa in Ecuador

Cameron Kaufman - Ecuador

March 11, 2011

I recently started working at the Escuela Convalescencia de Cayambe, a mere hour’s ride up a road that can hardly be called “cobblestoned.” After that gentle wake-up call, I have a 15 minute walk up a mudslide, oops, I mean, dirt road. I arrive at school at eight o’clock every morning, where I get a huge welcome from the students. “Buenos dias, Sen᷉orita Cami!” This greeting is then followed by a stampede of kids with what seems like an inexhaustible store of questions; “how do you say ‘watch’ in English?” or “how do you say ‘dog’?” A wave of new smells, sounds, and sights assaults my senses every morning when I arrive at the school that is so foreign to what I’m used to.

[slidepress gallery=’a-gringa-in-ecuador’]

The school could not be more different then what I grew up with in the States; every morning, the kids get into formation outside to sing the national anthem, while the principal yells “attent-ion!,” and “at ease!”; a very strange military display. Next, the principal gives the announcements for the day, which are usually along the lines of “tell your mothers to bring a bag of potatoes or rice by tomorrow for la colada (snack), and I’ll trade them for a bag of granola!,” or “whose mother’s turn is it to cook this week?” Everything is done by word of mouth, very different from the official school forms handed out by the administration to be signed by our parents that I knew. The “snack,” usually a thick, potato-based porridge, infinitely differs from my old high school cafeteria, where one could buy sushi, vitamin water, and/or oreos.

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to be a part of a “minga,” a service, at the school. For a minga, communities get together to do some sort of project; in our case it was reorganizing the garden. “Oh great!” I thought, “this’ll be a fun, productive activity for the kids. It’s kind of like the class community service activities I did in high school.” Well, you’d be hard put to find a school in the States that gives its students free reign over the power tools and a large, conveniently open space in which to wreak havoc. Seemingly directly inspired by Lord of the Flies, the kids were climbing the trees (machetes in hand), while others were sawing away at the trunk (of the same tree, I might add.) And let’s not forget the twenty or so kids with a rope around the tree trunk, trying to pull it down with brute force as opposed to weapons of mass destruction.

At first I was shouting “Cuidado!” (Be careful!) wherever I saw immediate danger (so pretty much everywhere), but then I started to relax and take the example of the other teachers, who remained oblivious to the kids’ crazy antics going on around them. And luckily, no one got (seriously) hurt. This is a perfect example of one of the huger cultural differences between Ecuador and the United States. My upbringing avoided at all cost the sort of situations that in any way resembled the one I was currently witnessing, whereas here it’s basically an everyday occurrence. Throughout this year, I’m learning more and more how to go with the flow and just relax, not worrying if someone is 15 minutes (or two hours) late, or if I might accidentally offend someone with my foreign mannerisms, or even if there are little kids running around me with chainsaws. So I’ve learned my lesson, and am just going to keep taking everything in stride as much as possible until I leave (which, by the way, is much too soon.)

Cameron Kaufman