“Finally,” I think, as I sigh contently at my new apprenticeship in Azogues, Ecuador. I have my own desk and practically my own office since no one works in the same room. The walls are covered in calendars highlighting ecological days throughout the year from the familiar (Earth Day – April 22nd) to the bizarre (National Condor Day – July 7th). All the people at my office are very helpful and friendly, but I have a lot of trouble understanding their particular accents in Spanish – they speak with the tightest of mouth in a sing-songy melody that is both beautiful and dizzying to the non-native ear.
However, I can honestly say that my Spanish is improving quickly since my first day, when my host-mother brought me to Hernando de la Cruz, the street where my language center was located.
“It’s easy to find – you can’t miss it,” I think I hear from my host-mother Olga. But I’m not so sure.
Walking down the street, I see the building on my right: tall, geometric, and neatly fenced off by a bright green gate. A mother, father, and small child approached the gate at the same time as me, carrying groceries and unlocking the door.
My tongue was clumsy and numb from the unfamiliar taste of Spanish. In my first week, I often mixed Spanish with Portuguese in a combination affectionately termed ‘Portiñal.’
“Mmm minha escuela aqui?” I said in no doubt a boggling blend of Spanish and Portuguese, with the inflection of a very lost Valley Girl.
Confused, from my ham-handed stab at their mother tongue I supposed, they shrugged and motioned me inside the building, where I would be learning Spanish for the next week and a half.
As the parents of the girl, who could not have been older than 3, went to the school’s canteen to put up their groceries which was located on the first floor, I made my way toward the stairs to my first class. I was a little late but I assumed that Ecuadorian time – and my new teacher – would be forgiving.
As I ascended the stairs, I began to notice some strange characteristics about my school. Clothing was strewn about the carpets of the second floor, which formed a loose trail towards a half open door. The instant that I opened the door and saw a bedroom, I realized my mistake.
This wasn’t a school – it was someone’s house!
Completely embarrassed, I ran down the stairs – two at a time – towards the front gate in an attempt to escape discreetly and save face. But the gate was locked with no opening to be found. As I turned around to get my bearings and locate the switch, I noticed that the little girl was standing there the whole time, head cocked to one side, brows furrowed, with an expression of absolute befuddlement.
“Hola!” I said in a tone of forced enthusiasm and confidence, trying to graze over the situation smoothly. This was followed by (as any person who has traveled to a country where they don’t speak the language has done) a miming performance enacting unlocking the sturdy gate, which was received by the same blank stare as before.
After several moments of silence thick with awkwardness (incidentally the concept of ‘awkward’ only exists in the English language), her eyes lit up and she skipped over to the switch just out of sight. The lock clicked, the door of the gate swung open, and I marched with purpose out of the premises, right into another Global Citizen Year Fellow.
Just as every person whom I met that day, this Fellow greeted me with the same bemused visage.
“What were you doing?” she asked with genuine curiosity.
“Oh… uh… nothing. Where’s the school?”
As she escorted me to the actual building, I marveled at the trust and openness of the Ecuadorian family who had invited me into their home and allowed me to peruse their house while they prepared lunch below.
Looking back on this story with a new and more insightful perspective of Ecuadorian culture and society, this behavior doesn’t surprise me one bit. Every person I meet invites me to their house and guests are welcomed with bright smiles and delicious food (including the traditional roasted guinea pig!). The warmth and friendliness of the culture continues to surprise and impress me in new ways, and in turn motivates me to ameliorate my Spanish. And now, as I struggle to understand the melodic musings of my coworkers here at Fundación ECOHOMODE, I remember this incident and simultaneously cringe, laugh, and reflect on my progression thus far.