Maria Eugenia. I obsessively repeatedher name over and over in my head. Maria Eugenia. Evangelical Christian. Works in a clothing store. Likes to volunteer at her church in her spare time and welcome new guests to her home. Maria Eugenia was going to be my first Mama Ecuatoriana. During in-country orientation when I was first handed information about my Quito homestay, thoughts of doubts and fears slowly crept into my head. Sure, I had taken two years of Spanish in middle school and another two at the beginning of high school, but the two years hiatus rendered my studies nearly useless. What if I had to communicate some important information and didn’t have the words? What if I did something culturally offensive and didn’t know it? What if this highly unlikely and hypothetical situation happened and that highly unlikely and hypothetical situation happened? A cascade of unrealistic fears clouded my mind.
Family pick-up day was an especially nerve-racking day. In a period of a little over a week, I had formed strong friendships with many in my country cohort. These people made me feel safe, and more importantly, understood English. I did not feel prepared to leave the warmth of the Fellow’s Nest. All my worries, however, quickly vanished when the time finally came for Mama and me to meet in person.
Mama was the sweetest person in the entire country of Ecuador. She greeted me with a kiss on my cheek and held my hand as we left the hostel. As we entered her small yet comfy condo complex, she apologized that I had to carry my luggage up three flights of stairs because there was no elevator (though it was clearly not her fault). Speechless, partly because I was breathless from the lift and partly because my vocabulary was still horrid, all I could mutter was a sheepish “Si.” Mama took me by the hand when we finally made it into her home, and together we wandered into the kitchen. She opened the fridge and cabinets and assured me that all of this was for her “hijo.” When I had finished unpacking my clothes and settled in, she gave me a hug and happily proclaimed “Bienvenidos a nuestra casa mi amor.” I had never felt more at home away from home.
Over the course of our three weeks together, Mama incorporated me into her daily life. We visited her sister in Northern Quito. A schoolteacher by profession, my host aunt was a lively woman. She joked about giving me marijuana tea, and taught me words that I should not be saying. She owned a bakery named AngeI that I stumbled upon by accident while wandering to the Ministry of Interior Affairs. I liked Tia. She reminded me of Mrs. Wist, a teacher from my high school. On Sunday, Mama and I went to church. As a non-Catholic in a country with a 90% Catholic majority, it came as no surprise that her church was modest in size with simple decor. For instance, they had chairs instead of pews for the church-goers. Her church stood in stark contrast with many of the fancy Catholic churches in the Old Town. What the church lacked in appearance, however, was replaced with exuberant energy. The service started with the youth group band leading what seemed like a massive karaoke-fest. For an hour, we clapped our hands, sang along to the lyrics, and moved our hips to the rhythm. Afterwards, the pastor’s wife led a passionate 2-hour sermon. Though I did not understand a single word of it, it was amazing to see people sobbing and dropping to their knees as the spirit of the Lord overcame them. Our visit to Otavalo’s Artisan Market would forever be another cherished memory. Rule One of Otavalo shopping is that you never pay full price for anything, and Mama was mad killing it with her bargaining skills. I left the market a happy man with 2 llama sweaters, 2 llama ponchos, 1 pair of llama socks, and 2 beautiful scarves in hand, all at non-gringo prices.
As I continue onto my second homestay and apprenticeship, I would like to thank Maria Eugenia for welcoming me with hospitable arms. Thank you for packing my lunch every day before I headed off to Spanish classes. Thank you for enforcing my 10PM curfew for my safety even though I hated it at the time. Thank you for being my first Mama Ecuatoriana. Thank you for everything.
(This blog is dedicated to my biological Mama, whose birthday was on October 1th.)