One Step at a Time

Stephanie Dunning - Ecuador

October 3, 2011


I’ll start with the first day and we’ll see how far we get from there.

Saturday was a day filled with anticipation.  Those of us unlucky enough to know just enough Spanish to get by had to go to class for a final cramming-session before loading into buses and heading to our eventual long-term homes for the week.  People placed in the Amazonia region boarded a private bus that would take them right to their doors.  We high-landers made our way to the bus station in south Quito before splitting into Ibarra and Otovalo groups.  No one could say good-bye enough times and all 25 ended up leaving an hour later than planned.

The bus ride from Av. Río Amazonas y Av. Gral. Eloy Alfaro to the station on the other side of the city is about an hour in and of itself.  6 tickets later ($2; exact change, por favor), four trusty amigos and two fearless leaders settle in for the 3 hour ride to Otovalo.  We pop in our headphones and look out our windows to the wonders of the Ecuadorian Andes.

As we get closer, the reality of where I am going starts to seep in.  This ride alone causes my brain to go into over-load:  “The mountains are beautiful; look at that river!” turns into “THAT is a house?!  Oh. Oh, no.  Whatever did I get myself into this time?” and back again.

When we finally turn into the Otovalo bus station, I am one of the last to get off the bus.  My bags are quite difficult to maneuver from under the seat and my hands aren’t exactly cooperating on account of how nervous I am.  When I finally disembark, I realize the huge group of people standing beside the bus is not my fellow passengers, but my new family.  I am greeted by handshakes and kisses on all sides; a flurry of frilly, colorful shirts with long, dark skirts and men with black hats and long braids.  And Spanish.  Lots of Spanish.

I don’t notice until later, but it’s only one or two people speaking.  The rest of my family does nothing more than whisper a few unintelligible things while I am busy looking around at my new surroundings.  A moment later I am whisked away from the only other English-speaker in the group and into the front of a taxi (a small white pick-up truck with the bed covered like an old frontier-wagon) with my new sister, Nancy; the rest of my family piles into the back.  Nancy doesn’t say much on the way to our home.  Only nods in acknowledgement to the driver and answers my simple questions with equally simple, one-word answers.  I am already worried about what my relationship with her will be like.  It doesn’t help that the tennis shoes I tied to my bag keep resting on her skirt.

We stop on the side of the road outside a concrete house.  I am hurried through the front door and to a room on the left.  It is simple, a bed and a commode.   The walls are bare with the exception of four frames lined up above the head of the bed; the floor is concrete as well. Someone hurries in with a red plastic chair, then another. The spokesperson for the group- did he say he was my uncle?- sits in one and gestures for me to sit in the next while asking me if I need some rest.  Although I am tired, I insist I would rather talk than sleep.  And talk we do.

Soon, the man and his wife leave with weak handshakes- more like slight touches ,as is Kichwa custom.  My father, José, takes his place in the chair arranged awkwardly in front of me and gestures to Nancy, who is standing quietly against the wall beside me.  He says something I don’t understand.  His Spanish is laced heavily with a Kichwa accent.  Nancy repeats what he said, but to no avail.  Now is not the time to ask me any sort of question.  My mind is a puddle.  She promptly leaves and another, older sister takes her place.  My new dad soon gives up on me as well, and the young woman takes her turn in the chair.  We sit there for what seems like forever.  She tells me about each of the children as they stop in the room. Two are her sons.  One of the boys runs to get a folder filled with pictures and comes back with my new mom, María Alma.

My sister explains that she is the oldest daughter (24), she has a younger sister who is married with two kids and lives in another community.  Nancy is next, she’s 16 and studies English in Otovalo.  Maybe we can move her bed into this room and we can be roommates?

She turns her attention to the taller of the two young boys now standing against the wall. He is very interested in the conversation- he’s very smart, likes to study.  “Oh, ¿sí? !Que bueno!,” I reply.  His smile stretches across his face.  “Se llama Elvís,” she offers before I have time to ask.

Within time, she offers me a moment to get settled then we go out into the kitchen.  My mom is already there and when we walk in, she puts a blanket on the wooden bench closest to the fire.  I hadn’t realized how cold I actually was until that moment.  I warmed myself by the fire and am soon offered a cup of tea.  Cuy, Kichwa for guinea pigs, run between my feet, squealing excitedly. I am fading fast as we all gather around the fire; my sister notices and I am soon excused.

I got into my room at about eight, so tired I barely wanted to change out of my clothes before going to sleep.

Stephanie Dunning