Anecdotes from the First Week

Charlie Dickerson - Ecuador


September 19, 2019

A little over a week ago, I left the comfort of my fellows and entered the real Ecuadorian world. Bit by bit, our cohorts had been shrinking. Starting as a global cohort of 150, we said our goodbyes after a week at Stanford. After a few days at a monastery in Quito, the Ecuador cohort was split in half, and, along with my southern fellows, I took a 13 hour bus ride down to Cuenca. At the end of that week, the regional cohorts of eight or nine piled into three vans to commence that which we had all been anxiously anticipating: immersion.

Before I share some of the moments I found noteworthy from my first week, I'll give some context as to where my homestay is situated and who lives here. I live in a small, rural community named Sayausí, 30 minutes west of Cuenca proper. My house overlooks a river, so I fall asleep to the sound of rushing water every night. Sayausí sits on the edge of Parque Nacional Cajas, which I have yet to visit, but I anticipate spending many days hiking the unique landscape and taking selfies with the resident alpacas. I have two host sisters, Karen (17) and Johanna (22), a brother, Pablo (19), and two parents, Lourdes and Rodrigo. They all play traditional Andean music in a band at local events. I have yet to meet my host father, for he works as a truck driver transporting oil and is only home eight days every month. So far, though, the family has been incredibly sweet, welcoming, and patient with the language barrier. I am very happy to be where I am. Now the stories…
#1: Fried Fish and Chili Peppers
Alright, so I kind of lied. I did not get dropped off on the first day by a bus full of fellows and my team leader. I, along with my friend, Amelia, live on the opposite side of Cuenca from the rest of the cohort – everyone else lives east. So, after dropping off Amelia at her home across the river, I was left to ride the transporte mixto (a taxi, but in truck form to navigate the dirt roads) with the director of the southern cohort. His name is Davíd. We love Davíd. Anyway, after I got dropped off, Pablo (my host brother) helped me carry my stuff to my room. When he saw that I brought my guitar, he immediately picked it up and started noodling. After an hour or so of jamming, I was already feeling a little anxious about the new environment, and I wished I had the opportunity to get my stuff situated in my room to appease my OCD brain. Then, our mamá called us down for lunch. When I walked downstairs, I found a massive mound of rice, a pile of maíz and peas, and a whole fried fish, head to tail (straight from a lake in Cajas National Park!). I'm not going to lie, I had no idea what to do with that fish. I sat down and waited to see how the others attacked their prey. I expected them to find a knife to filet the meat and peel away the skin, but they all grabbed spoons and dug in. Side note: I'm convinced there isn't a single fork in Ecuador. Not wanting to express any hesitation, I did the same. I'm sure I ingested some fried scales, and maybe there are still some fish bones lodged somewhere in my stomach – I'm basically Aquaman at this point – but it sure was tasty. Now that may sound like I'm a wimp for overthinking trying a new food, but that moment represented something bigger for me. This program is all about putting us in our stretch zone – that place between our comfort zone and our panic zone – because that is where growth occurs. As simple as eating this stupid fish was, I set the precedent for myself to lean into that stretch zone and embrace the discomfort. I feel as though that attitude is something I ought to maintain if I want to get the most out of this experience.
After lunch, Pablo asked if I wanted to head into Cuenca to try to find a distortion effect pedal for his electric guitar. While my brain was screaming at me to say no so that I could unpack and organize my room, my mouth said yes. We charged up my bus card at the local pharmacy, then we hopped on Bus #3 into downtown. After just a few minutes at the music shop, Pablo found the pedal he needed. However, he told me his friend could sell him one for ten dollars cheaper, so he bought a Kurt Cobain guitar pick and we left. I followed him to the bus stop, mentally envisioning how I would organize my new room. About a half hour later, we arrived at our destination. I took one step off the bus and did not recognize my surrounding area. "¿Estamos en Sayausí?" I asked. It turns out we were in a town called Baños, 45 minutes away from home. We were going to buy the pedal from his friend right then. After following him through a quirky, European-style neighborhood, Pablo's 28-year-old, married friend welcomed us into his home. Right next to the front door was a music setup with amplifiers, guitars, and drums. After a brief hello, they got right down to business. No, not the pedal transaction business; the jamming business. Pablo picked up the guitar, and Johnny hopped on the drums. From the first four notes that Pablo played, I knew exactly what song I was about to hear. I really thought the first song I would witness anyone in my host family play would be some cool folk mountain song. Nope. The first song that I – a Californian – heard was "Californication" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All I'll say is that it was legit.
We then took a crowded, sweaty bus ride home, where there was a lady breastfeeding right next to me. It was a solid first day.
#2: Host Mama Bear
The rest of my anecdotes won't be as long; they were simple moments that represented something relatively meaningful.
My second day in Sayausí was a Sunday. I walked with my mom and sisters down to the local church, and we went to mass for twenty minutes or so. Afterwards, we went shopping at the farmers' market just outside. While walking around, I met more vecinos (neighbors) than I could count on both hands. There was one lady in particular who seemed incredibly sweet. She was selling fruit at her stand. My host mom introduced me to her, and I smiled and said "Me llamo Carlitos." After the typical Ecuadorian greeting, a hug and cheek kiss, she started talking to me and my host mom. I was trying to understand, but fast Andean Spanish is not my forte. The one word I was able to catch was "gringo," which she said a handful of times. I was smiling and nodding, thinking in my head, "Hey that's me!" After the fourth or fifth "gringo," my mom interrupted with startling abruptness, and said "No digas eso. Trátalo como si fuera mi hijo." In English, that means "Don't say that. Treat him as though he were my child." All of the sudden, it got very quiet, and I noticed myself start to shuffle behind my mama bear for protection. Not that it did much; I would have had to get on my hands and knees to be fully blocked by my host mom. Or by anyone here in Ecuador. Anyway, we eventually walked away and bought our guavas from someone else. Moral of the story, my host mom's got my back.
#3: The Guinea Pig Killer
That same Sunday, my host brother went horseback riding and hiking with some of his friends and extended family. When he got back, I was asking him about his day. Before I get into this funny moment, I want to apologize to my family for mumbling so much when I speak. I finally got a taste of my own medicine.
Pablo was talking about how tired he was, and I was picking up every other word or so. At one point, he started doing a hand motion that looked like he was strangling something. At the same time, he was saying what sounded to me like "cuyes," which means guinea pigs – a delicacy here in Ecuador. After asking for more clarification and receiving more strangling motions and "cuyes," I began to paint an image in my head of what Pablo's day looked like: he was riding around on a horse all day, capturing and choking guinea pigs to death. When I asked how many he killed with his bare hands, he looked at me all puzzled and told me to stand up. So I did. He told me to cross my arms. So I did. He then hugged me from behind, squeezed me, and picked me up, cracking my back. "¿Entiendes?" he asked. I understood. He was tired and wanted me to "squeeze" him, to crack his back. That was the hand motion I interpreted to be strangling "cuyes."
#4: Zampoña Master
This is a quick one. The other day, my host sister taught me how to play an instrument called the zampoña, a type of Ecuadorian pan flute. I learned how to play a song called "Antonio Mocho," which is a folkloric Kichwa (indigenous language) song. As a result, I fell in love with traditional Ecuadorian music, and I urge you all to give it a listen. Here's a link to a Youtube video for the song I learned: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHBoydjleLI
#5: Spider Sacrifices
I'm not a fan of spiders. I appreciate them for protecting us from other insects, but I wouldn't be devastated if I never saw one again. That being said, I woke up one day last week to a black spider chilling outside my bedroom door. We're not talking about a small, typical spider that we all have seen before. This was a hairy, borderline-tarantula creepy crawler. Upon further inspection, it was dead, and it was even missing a couple limbs. Obviously, I pretended I didn't see it and left it for someone else to deal with. Later that day, my host mom asked if I saw the spider outside my door. Of course not, I said. She then explained that she saw it in the morning before I woke up, trying to crawl underneath my door. So she killed it. And she left it there. And the next morning? It was still there. Want to know what was next to it? Its twin sister. That's right. Not one, but two dead baby tarantulas were killed and left outside of my room, waiting to be stepped on. I'm not sure if it's a respect thing for the spiders, or maybe it's a ritual of some kind, but I have not been sleeping great knowing that these guys have been trying to get under my door. The next day, the spiders were relocated to the trash. Two days later, another one appeared in the same spot. I am grateful for mama bear protecting me yet again, but I am curious as to why they have been left outside my door. I'll keep you guys posted.
#6: My Chanclas
After two weeks of orientation without washing my clothes – don't worry, I had enough clean clothes to last that long – I had quite a mound of dirty clothes to deal with when I got to Sayausí. My host family has a washing machine, but these appliances are incredibly expensive in Ecuador, so we clean our clothes prior to putting them in the washing machine to make sure it lasts. That involves letting them soak in a bucket with detergent for an hour, hand-scrubbing each piece for a minute or two, soaking the white pieces in a bleach solution, then finally putting them in the wash. This process took a solid three hours when my host mom taught it to me. Partially because I had a lot of clothes to clean, but mostly because of my socks. She explained that I needed to have clean socks, free of stains, because we get sick through our feet. So, we spent a solid five minutes on each sock, scrubbing by hand and bleaching when needed. I had ten pairs which I had never cleaned to this extent before, so that took us about an hour and a half. To keep them clean from now on, my family insisted on buying me chanclas (sandals) to wear around the house. They are incredibly fashionable, and I look forward to starting the trend back in the US.
As a side note, I wanted to mention that, when I went to retrieve my clothes from where they were drying outside, there was a spider in one of my pairs of underwear. Talk about stretch zone.
There's a whole lot more I could talk about, but I don't want to bore you guys. I still haven't figured out this whole blog uploading thing yet, but I'm going to try to put in a couple pictures. The first is of my sexy chanclas, and the second is of a lake we went to during our cohort debrief circle the other day. I hope you all enjoyed the post! There will be more of this in the future.
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Charlie Dickerson