Only a Foreigner That I Know

Adriana Martinez-Smiley - Ecuador


December 20, 2018

In the Otavalo market, other Americans couldn’t easily identify me as their
own.

For some reason, I make desperate gazes at tourists, hoping that I would
spark some form of fraternity in this foreign land. But alas, they may
shoot me a brisk stare, then continue their banter about how interesting
the indigenous market was.

Thinking back, I don’t know why I was so worried about them being able to
discern me from the rest of the Ecuadorians. It surely isn’t easy. Even
native Ecuadorians see me as their own. They’ll stand before, speak rapidly
in Spanish, and then look dumbfounded when I can only offer a cacophony of
what they can only assume are my attempts at a sentence in their language.
Even though they could quickly tell that I wasn’t Ecuadorian by speaking to
me, their initial reaction is what mattered. Ecuadorians are very welcoming
in that sense; eager to assume someone is like them.

It seems that I’m the only one able to identify myself as an foreigner,
oddly enough.

On one instance during my internship, I was asked to travel to Agato in
order to cover a story about a local business that produces a grain called
Amaranto. On the bus ride back to the radio station, I encountered two
European tourists. Whenever I hear English being spoken in my vicinity, my
ears shoot up. This was my opportunity. I think I was looking at them for
too long, and I suppose I looked friendly enough to them, so they
sheepishly walked over and asked in their broken Spanish, “Where is the bus
going?” Not really understanding their question, in my perfect Midwestern
accent I asked them “Where are you guys off to?” They both revealed a broad
grin and one of them said “We need to go to Ilumán”. I replied, “Well lucky
for you guys, that’s exactly where my colleague and I are going. You guys
can follow us.” A couple of buses followed until one read “Otavalo” on its
windshield, and we hopped on.

On the bus, they kept to themselves. Finally, one of them shot around and
said, “We’re lucky to have found you here.” I smile back warmly. Once we
found our place on the Pana, I tried to strike up conversation, but they
would give me short grins like all the other foreigners. Eventually we
encountered a bus that would take us to Ilumán. On the bus they sat in
front of my colleague and I. I asked them, “what part of Ilumán are you
guys trying to go to?” They still make attempts to speak in Spanish.
“To…the middle,” one of them stumbled out. I consistently reply in
English, trying to get clarity, and then I eventually make out the place
that they want to go. “That’s the place I’m going too! You can get off with
us,” I say cheerfully. We make our way off the Pana and into the community.

They get up a couple of times to get off but I try to assure them we’re not
at the center yet. Finally, they get up one last time and go to the exit of
the bus, at a stop that I know is where they’re not trying to go. I shout
out to them, “you guys want to go to the center, right?” They just reveal
their broad grins and brisk waves as they get off the bus. Looking out the
window, I saw they were puzzled looking at their surroundings. I slumped
back in my seat, frustrated that they made themselves lost when they didn’t
have to.

There are many instances like this that happen. Speaking about me in
English assuming I don’t understand them, saying “wow, you looked like you
were from here!”; not getting even a second glance walking through the city
as other explicitly foreign people get; having to protect my friends from
the “gringo price” at local shops (which is a good thing, of course). My
existence here is never questioned, nor will it ever be.

There’s something unsettling about not being recognized. But perhaps this
is the world giving me an opportunity; an opportunity to truly immerse
myself in my community. I can’t seek refuge with foreigners if they don’t
recognize me. But perhaps I’m not meant to. I’ve realized that I don’t need
to be recognized to still be me; I just need to be conscious of who I am
for it to ring true.

Adriana Martinez-Smiley