Note: My apologies to those who’ve asked for hoarding a number of blog entries since I arrived in Ecuador nearly three months ago. Posting, starting now–promise. I wrote this September 21st. Better late than never? 😐 Enjoy!
I’m living in…Ibarra!
I’m working at…the Ecuadorian Red Cross!
I discovered this news on Wednesday, after months of anticipation. Now, after just days in my new community, there is already so much to share…
Ibarra is a small city two and a half hours north of Quito, sprawled across the base of a towering volcano and rolling hills. It’s mother region, Imbabura, is known for its fiestas, helado de paila, or sorbet-esque ice cream, and crystal lakes. With 140,000 residents, the town is a fraction of Ecaudor’s capital city, Quito, offering a gentler rhythm many cite as tranquilo, or tranquil. Consequent of its size, Ibarra lacks the chaos of a city of two million plus, while retaining the resources of a town. It is here that I was destined to call home.
In addition to its luscious mountains, Ibarra also hosts the headquarters for the Ecuadorian Red Cross, Junta Imbabura. This morning, on the way to my first day of work at the Red Cross, I nearly laughed out loud at the number of uncertainties I was plunging into headfirst. In my hand, I held a note with a single name and address that would supposedly lead me to all of the information I would need for my eight-month apprenticeship. Still on convalescence from self-diagnosed OCD and perfectionism in high school, I consider organized, thoughtful planning to be my specialty; certainly not ambiguity. Nonetheless, I love adventure and craved a challenge. Well, I got one.
At the municipal bank where my host mother works, I met the regional coordinator of Imbabura for Global Citizen Year, Nancy, who had agreed to take me to the Red Cross office. Donning bright red earrings and an even brighter smile, she approached on foot with an air of simplicity and an outfit to match. We made small talk on the walk—a short five blocks—where I admitted that yes, indeed, the people of Ibarra were more difficult to understand than the residents of the larger, westernized Quito. People ramble on in rapid-fire Spanish with an undertone that resembles the buzzing of a bee, with every other word carrying an extra rr or ll, Spanish letters that vary greatly in pronunciation across regions and countries.
Our destination was obvious. Set in a cobblestone roundabout that hosts the central monument of Ibarra, a large red cross revealed the building’s identity. We entered into a room teeming with nurses, patients, and receptionists in all stages of a normal morning’s work. One level up, we bumped into a man wearing jeans and casual polo, who greeted both Nancy and me with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek, as is the Ecuadorian custom. Moments later, I learned he was the organization’s president. He led us to a table surrounded by a handful of employees in red and blue uniforms clearly engaged in a meeting. “Here at the Red Cross” he exclaimed, “we are family!”
The next four hours were a blur of nerves, sympathetic Spanglish, and suppressed smiles. It’s just my luck that on the first day of work I sat there conversing with the president of the entire branch that oversees Red Cross efforts across the region of Imbabura. That’s somewhere between 75 employees and 750 volunteers. As it turned out, Dr. Bayardo Bolaños, studied at NYU for three years and operated a successful career as a dentist before taking over the Red Cross. With such status, it’s simply the rule of irony that of all people, it would be in front of him that I would embarrass myself. When he asked my name, I gave him the Spanish name I used throughout my years in grade school Spanish class, since ‘Madi’ is frequently misunderstood as ‘Mary,’ to the Spanish-speaking listener.
“Me llamo Manuela.” My name is Manuela.
Merely chuckles sounded in response. While confused, I appreciated the cheery spirits in the room and politely smiled. Only later did I learn that in the sexualized culture of Ecuador, ‘Manuela’ has a literal meaning—‘manual,’ as in ‘not automatic,’—as well as vulgar one—a sexual act. Strike one. Instead, we adopted the frequent use of diminutives in Spanish and decided on Manuelita. Welcome to the office.
Language, as demonstrated, is both liberating and crippling. Sitting around a round table of young, working professionals with notebooks, pens, and smart phones in hand, I felt quite intimidated. While I can communicate in Spanish, I was embarrassed at my lack of ability to speak the language fluently, and yet equally compelled to learn more. This left me to communicate the best I could with body language, carrying myself confidently, sitting poised and communicating with my attentiveness. Not knowing the proper attire for such an office, I had decided the best presentation of myself would be to dress my usual: casual, but put-together, comfortable with an air of professionalism. A black peplum, dark blue jeans and casual blazer-purse combo completed my look of business-casual. At least thus far I’d been able to present myself.
The body language of those in the room was equally strong in conveying a message. The president’s wingman was a handsome young medic called ‘Black,’ less to my eyes he looked no different in skin color than Dr. Bolaños himself. Certainly neither was Afro-Ecuadorian. Similarly, a young woman nearby was called ‘China,’ the only spec of resemblance to an actual Chinese person, queue stereotype, being her slightly narrower eyes. Despite how little he intervened in the conversation, ‘Black’ was clearly in charge. When he spoke, his voice commanded the attention of everyone in the room: even the candy-crushers in the back stopped to listen. This was a good man. I liked him immediately.
Across from me, sat a woman who I guessed to be the oldest of the group, though she couldn’t have been more than thirty-five. Her presence announced cynicism, contrary to the open-armed welcome I’d received thus far. She shot me an accusatory glance and I imagined her pointing one of her meticulously manicured fingers at me for the inevitable mistakes I was bound to make. In the back sat a younger woman I learned to be twenty-two and a business student at one of the two universities in Ibarra. Her eyes widened so much when she spoke, you could see her entire iris. Further away, lounged three young guys looking entirely bored by the morning’s events. The repetitive scrolling of their thumbs failed to disguise their frequent glances at their phones as important matters of business. One, clearly the jokester of the crew, often made untimely gestures at his co-workers that made me bite my lips to keep from smiling.
Three hours and counting, I did all I could to keep my stomach from growling aloud and my mind at least somewhat focused: my sponge was full. Before we finished the meeting however, Black gave a disciplinary speech. The number of times I heard ‘punctuality’ and ‘discipline’ during the meeting must have exceeded the number of times companies advertise, for it sure stuck with me. There would be no ‘Ecuatime’. He expected us to be at our bests, always; to know the people of the city, for this was how the Red Cross would gain trust and positive reputation; and to perform at a high level. Sir, yes sir. He never looked at me during this speech, indicating that his intentions were to kindly castigate only his employees, but I couldn’t help feeling that it served as a warning for me, as well. I would do my best, I promised silently.
And I will. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the week brings.