While on the way to Misahuallí to start Training Seminar 3 with the other Napo Fellows, I took my seat next to an elderly Ecuadorian woman sound asleep with her head resting against the bus window. A few minutes later, a particularly bumpy section of road jolted her awake and, upon hearing my English conversation with Kirin, Abigail, Sienna, and Joan, she tapped my shoulder and said “Hi! What’s your name?”
Hearing English from someone unheralded is something that I’m sure has thrown the other Fellows off guard as well. (Example: When I was buying a Coca-Cola at a small store in Baeza, the woman at the counter said “50 cents, please,” and I had to ask her to repeat it twice before I actually picked up that she was speaking English.)
This particular woman, whose name is Rosa Victoria, might possibly be the most worldly person I’ve ever met.
She was born in an indigenous community near Coca, Ecuador. An excellent student graduating with near-perfect marks, she was accepted to la Universidad Central de Ecuador, the oldest and one of the most prestigious schools in Ecuador. After studying International Relations and English, she decided to take off and explore the world for “a few years.” This turned into 20 years of travel throughout Europe (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Finland, and Italy), Africa (South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt), North America (Canada and the United States), and Central and South America (Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, and Ecuador). These years earned her near-fluency in Spanish (obviously, her native language), English, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and bits and pieces of a number of Ecuador’s indigenous languages (Kichwa, Huaorani, and Cofán). Her English was crisp and clear, with none of the consonant slurring associated with most Ecuadorian English speakers I’ve met, and I found myself scrambling to write down everything she was saying, utterly enraptured.
After exploring four continents, she returned to Ecuador in the late 60’s, became a teacher and, in the late 90’s, a rainforest tour guide. Her extraordinary language skills made her very popular among tourists in the Misahuallí area, and although she’s lived in Ecuador ever since (save for a brief five years living in New York during her 40’s) and lost fluency in a number of those languages, she is still very conversational in every language she was immersed in for more than two years and often amuses herself by surprising groups of tourists in Misahuallí by greeting them in whatever language they happen to be speaking in.
She’s 83 years old, and at this point she told me she has no new plans to travel or even leave Ecuador for any reason. She lives in Misahuallí and, by her own account, enjoys reading (only in Spanish, she never spent much time learning to read or write in other languages) and making jewelry that she sells to a local vendor in Misahuallí to support herself.
“Está usted casada?” I asked her. Are you married?
“No, los hombres siempre me aburrieron,” she responded. No, men always bored me.
I roared with laughter, and looked up to find that we were arriving in Misahuallí. Before I got off the bus, I asked her one last question.
“Porque usted ya no quiere viajar?” Why don’t you want to travel anymore?
“He visto todo lo que quiero ver, y Ecuador me significa el mundo.” she told me. I’ve seen everything I want to see, and Ecuador means the world to me.