I Can’t Hear You

Sarah Richmond - Ecuador


November 13, 2014

Three days after moving into a small farmhouse perched in the foothills of the Andes in Chimborazo, Ecuador, I descended our spindly dirt driveway in my first attempt to go on a run. I bopped along to the infectious drum line of Paul Simon’s Obvious Child, passing grazing cows, clusters of indigenous women hauling impossibly large bundles of maiz on their backs, and children passing soccer balls among the simple houses with tin roofs that line the winding road. My skin burning under the relentless strength of the Equator’s sun, I felt like I belonged in a montage for the next quirky yet inspiring indie film directed by Michel Gondry.

The rest of the week passed in a similar manner. It was the epitome of youthful adventure, a picturesque human embodiment of wanderlust. Vampire Weekend crooned Ottoman to the swarming crowds as I boarded the bus to Riobamba. I walked along the dew-dusted path of morning mist leading to the school where I teach English to the contemplative melodies of Mariee Sioux. I stepped into the panaderia floating on the wafts of freshly baked bread and the lilting harmonies of The Head and the Heart. Biting back the frigid air of the Andes nights, I counted new constellations and traced the southern cross with my finger along to Blue Moon by Beck.

A week and a half in, I lost my iPod. And things got really, really, quiet.

My daily life took on a different soundtrack; the first track, titled Food Poisoning, featured me dry heaving next to a toilet on a bathroom floor that is perpetually covered in mud tracked in from the farm. While jogging, I bopped along to the gawking stares of my neighbors, the only partially hidden sneers of gringita, and the near incessant barking of the stray dogs who mercilessly chase me through the streets. Playing on repeat, were the conversations I only half-understood, and the laughing that was at me far more often than it was with me as I stumbled over my Spanish in attempts to communicate. Finally, I listened to my own broken breaths as I cried with every bone in my body aching to be home.

I was drastically unplugged from the idealism that had bolstered me through my journey thus far, and facing the reality that my experience in Ecuador would not end with credits and a series of hilarious outtakes in approximately 90 minutes. For the next six months, I am here. And as that seemingly blatant truth dawned on me, I longed to be absolutely anywhere else.

As time progressed in its slow, unbridled, South American manner, I began to notice that there were other sounds that the headphones of my iPod may have been blocking out as well. I began to listen to the music that my age-old surroundings provide for themselves. I wake up to a cascade of rooster caws and am greeted instantly by the eternally enthusiastic smile lines and ¡Buenos dias! of my host father. I can hear the Kichwa murmurings of the women I pass on the street and the static pulsing salsa music that our neighboring farmers blare as they tirelessly pick radish and potatoes from dawn until dusk. I can practically hear my own gratitude as I step into a shower after four days without running water, or as my host sister braids my hair when I have a headache, and brings me aloe for my always sun burnt face.

In the wake of upset stomachs and unbearable loneliness, I’ve begun to find the true essence of where I’m living – something that spans beyond being conveyed to the melodious backdrop of Paul Simon. It’s a constant, stabbing, awful, beautiful, noise, and pausing it, or skipping to the next track, is never an option. As the whir of Spanish begins to take on meaning, as I start laughing at myself along with my host family, and, most importantly, as I master the graceful art of threatening stray dogs with rocks, I find myself wanting to press pause less and less often. I am challenging myself to find the music within the irrepressible noise, and solace with the overwhelming solitude of the silence. And when all else fails, I’m singing aloud in the streets, and embracing the fact that absolutely no one but me can understand the lyrics.

(Note to readers: being the wise and reflective blogger I am, I have transformed the loss of my iPod into a metaphor for my experiences in the last month. However, if you happen to have an old music playing device that you would like to send to south America for me, it actually would be greatly appreciated.)

Sarah Richmond