My ‘exceptional’ first few weeks

Lindsay Saligman - Ecuador

September 12, 2014

If I were to describe my first few weeks in one word that word would be ‘exceptional’. Be careful: By exceptional I don’t mean wonderful or perfect or exceeding my expectations in absolute blow-my-mind-into-a-million-pieces-ness. What I mean by exceptional is, characterized by exceptions: things that are unusual or not as one would expect them to be.

A good intro to exceptions: The equator is the farthest place on Earth away from both poles. It is the closest place on earth to the sun. This being the case, it is fair to expect that places near the equator are hot, right?

Wrong. Here comes the first way in which my trip has been ‘exceptional’. The Andes mountains! The Sierra (mountain region) of Ecuador is cold and the weather is volatile. There are cities that don’t ever have temperatures hotter than 70 degrees.

Exception #2: When I imagined what my quiteño host family would be like, I imagined a small cozy apartment. I imagined my multigenerational household crowding around a little T.V. and watching telenovelas. I imagined a little old grandmother that liked to cook and a host sister that would teach me how to salsa dance. I imagined a host mother who would call me “mija” and say “ayyyy” in that really drawn out nasal way many latina women do. I imagined my family would have a relaxed concept of time. I imagined life would be slower, less busy and less goal oriented.

I was completely wrong.

My quiteño host family is a family of punctual religious evangelist competitive swimmers. The walls of their house (not apartment) are covered in bible verses and they pray before every meal. At breakfast, my quiteño host father preaches to the rest of the family about a bible passage. My three younger host siblings swim from 6-8pm every day and compete both locally and nationally. My three older host siblings are all in higher education institutions across Europe. There is one generation living in my house, and rather than “mija”, my host mother tends to call me either “Luisa” (it’s hard for a lot of Ecuadorians to say Lindsay) or “usted.” My family has breakfast at 6:30 every morning on the dot (I came in at 6:32 one day and they’d started without me) and follows a packed schedule of school, swimming and bible study.

If I’d heard about my quiteño host family from the states I’d probably have written them off. They’re an exception. That isn’t really what Ecuador is like.

Well, actually, I am really in Ecuador, and this is really what it is like. For me.

Noticing that my family was a huge exception has made me more attuned to smaller ones. Some of the other fellows have families a lot like the family I expected, but I invariably hear in their stories something a little different, a little exceptional. So and so’s host father is Muslim. So and so’s mother cooks vegetarian. Things like that.

Another example of exceptions is my experience with the other Fellows. At our orientation in California almost every kid I met was an exception. I met a kid who I saw and immediately dubbed as “typical high school popular” and then I got to know him and found out he read philosophy books in his free time. I met another girl who beforehand I would have probably thought of as a “typical high school theatre kid” but as I got to know her, what I found so much more impressive than her theatrical passion was her kindness. This girl was legitimately one of the most thoughtful empathetic people I have ever met. She was a theater geek, but she was also an exception.

It isn’t that liking philosophy is the exact opposite of ‘popular’, and it isn’t that kindness is the opposite of ‘theater kid’, it is just that there was so much about my host family, my fellow Fellows, and Ecuador itself that has gone beyond and/or defied my expectations. There was so much that has made everything about my experience exceptional.

All this got me thinking.

Maybe everything is an exception. Averages are just the compilations of a million different data points, so when it comes down to it, few things are ever exactly average.

I’m starting to think that the only true exceptions are the rules: the things that are exactly as we’d expect them to be.

Lindsay Saligman