In Quito, where the altitude is 10,000 feet, I have learned to breathe more deeply. So I inhale Quito; taking in both the fresh air from the trees that cover the mountains which surround the city and the exhaust expelled by buses and cars that race along its streets. With each exhale I feel myself opening up.
I was worried about the altitude even before I arrived. I usually react to dramatic changes in climate by only taking short, shallow breaths. I figured that when I landed in Quito, I would flop around, gasping for air, like a fish out of water. Yet, what a fish doesn’t realize is that, when thrown upon some foreign shore, it is surrounded by the same oxygen they breathe every day. The air is the same, but one can only absorb it by adjusting the way one breathes it in.
In San Francisco, the air is cool, crisp and filled with fog. In Quito it is hot and dry. I have had to let my lungs be warmed by Quito and find new strategies to keep my throat from drying up. My tongue has had to get used to the flavor of Spanish, with its rolling r’s and rich vowels. My ears have learned to register the sounds “JAH-nee” as my name. My leg muscles are now used to the 30 minute walk along Avenido America to my school. I am no longer surprised to see stray dogs, fast moving cars, or brightly colored buses on the streets. My eyes have adjusted to the muted, yet rich color scheme of Quito. The scent of fresh bread from the many Panaderías has comforting familiarity. I no longer speak as timidly and even try out new phrases that I learned in Spanish class. The words, lo siento, quizás, and usted have been replaced with ¿puedo ayudarte?, sí vamos, and tú. I leave my shoes on when I enter the house and greet my mom, sister and cousin with a kiss on the cheek. My mother, Grace, now calls me mi amor.
So, here in Quito, I have to take deeper breaths. In the past I thought wrapping my arms around my chest would help me hold myself together, keep me safe. But instead I ended up restricting my breathing. Slowly I am learning to open my arms to embrace the new and unfamiliar. I would not say that I feel at home all the time, or that I understand the culture of Quito, or that I never feel anxious, but I am able to breath a bit easier than since I arrived. And, for me, that’s a step.