When I first I first arrived in La Abundancia, I questioned my decision to be placed in a small community. I walked down the single paved road, peering into the handful of shops and restaurants, and wondered what I would do for the next six months. I couldn’t head over to a library to study, a coffee shop to chat, or a gym for a quick jog. My pale skin, hair, and eyes certainly didn’t blend in with that of the general population. There would be no anonymity here.
The perils and privileges of living in a town of this size came to a head in the Fiestas de Fundación, the parties celebrating the community’s foundation some thirty years ago. I was welcomed into a local youth dance group before the festivities began, and was quickly pulled from the sidelines to jump and twirl to the sound of the pan pipes of “La Sierra,” the mountainous region of Ecuador. My size was an issue for the complicated lifts: at barely five feet, four inches, I was the tallest girl, towering over half of the dance group.
Two weeks later I found myself dressed in furry chaps and a patterned shawl, leading the parade around the town with the rest of the troupe. We presented our dance first, and I felt a hundred eyes on me as I executed the turns and lifts. I could have been an anonymous tourist in the parties for the foundation of Quito or Guayaquil, but I would not have been invited to a local fiesta, much less as an active participant, had I not been living in a town like La Abundancia.
I also wouldn’t have to watch myself so closely. That night I put my new skills to use as I moved to the rhythm of bachata, salsa and merengue at the town dances. I made the mistake of chatting with my partner while his arm was slung across my shoulder, and he was soon “enamoradode mi” and my “novio,” or “boyfriend” in the eyes of my community. I am still slyly asked about him, often followed by, “Are you allowed to get married while you’re here?” In a city like Berkeley, even in a high school of 320, my choice of dance partners was not discussed or analyzed. I certainly wasn’t expected to marry at eighteen!
No cafes have miraculously appeared in La Abundancia, nor has a gym or a library. But how can a latte compare with chilled coconut water sucked straight from the fruit? I now know exactly how many rolling hills I can run before wanting to collapse in the oppressive heat, and I watch telenovelas in the evening when there’s nothing left to read. I’ve added three new dances to my repertoire for upcoming fiestas, and with each new ridiculous costume, with each lift and spin, I’m glad that I said, “ Yes, the smaller the better.”