Sneaking Crackers through the Seat Cushion

Samantha Srok - Ecuador


November 13, 2014

I’m sitting on the steps up to my roof, journaling in the 30 minutes I have before I teach my afternoon English class. About five minutes pass before my older sister and her husband, who live across the street, walk up the steps to sit next to me and hand me two mandarins.

“Pai,” I say, which is one of the three Kichwa words I know, and pai means thank you.

My sister laughs from her belly, surprised that I know a word in Kichwa, and while we eat we make small talk. Alone time isn’t very common in Kichwa culture, so whenever I’m journaling or reading (doing a solitary activity in an open area), eventually someone comes to sit next to me, usually with food. Suddenly, my nephew Byron runs from the backyard telling us to look at the gringos walking toward us.

“But I’m sitting right here?” I joke in Spanish.

My sister laughs again and we both turn to see the two other foreigners in the distance. My brother-in-law asks if they are my friends. I don’t know these people at all and am very confused. We are 30 minutes out of Otavalo, the closest city that usually attracts many tourists for it’s famous artisan market. How lost are these people?

They get closer and eventually walk past us. It’s a young couple – a man and a woman. We make eye contact as they pass my sister and me. I realize I might not ever see these people again and without thinking I run down my stairs and walk after them. “I have to talk to these gringos!” I call to my sister as I fly down.

“Hi! Where are you from?” I ask in Spanish, a little out of breath and bemused at how I must appear to these people. The woman shyly points up, and I realize they must be staying at the hostel on the top of the hill that Yambiro lies upon. I’ve had lunch with the owner Frank, a very nice older man from Vermont.

At this point, we are all very confused that this situation is happening. They seem just as surprised to find me in Yambiro as I was to encounter them. Awkwardly I ask them if they speak English: “Ustedes hablan ingles?” To which the man responded with “Oh thank god.”

So, in the middle of the road on the edge of my village, I talk with these people for a good ten minutes. English feels heavy on my tongue although words seem to spill out of my mouth before I can realize what I am actually saying, leading to me probably terrifying these poor tourists who had been traveling in Ecuador for three weeks and would spend their last three days staying in Frank’s hostel.

I explained I was here on a bridge year program and would be here for seven months in total, this being my second week, basically.

The lady nodded and smiled and said, “Wow, you are so brave.”

And, almost involuntarily, I quickly found myself with an episode of “verbal vomit,” “Nah, honestly it’s pretty selfish. Bye Mom, bye Dad, I’m going to Ecuador to find myself”.

Then I laughed but they did not laugh with me so I tried to explain, “I have no professional skills yet, I’m only 18 years old and I decided to come here to carry out an apprenticeship in Yambiro.” They were still silent, so I continued to dig a hole for myself. “I mean, I absolutely love it here. This place is amazing, my family is so nice, and it’s…yeah it’s awesome, you know? Life changing and stuff.” (It’s very important to notice that this is literally an exact quote.)

The man had stopped making eye contact with me about five minutes ago, but the woman smiled and nodded “Yeah.”

I told them where they were heading as they were just walking to explore the community, asked them to tell Frank I said hi, and returned back to my steps. But the interaction as a whole was a pretty good representation of the incredibly topsy-turvy, bizarre, absolutely 100% amazing experience I have had in my three weeks – really more like two and a half – in Yambiro, Ecuador.

I’ve been putting off this blog post for a while because every day my experience becomes a little different and a little more complicated and I really want to explain what’s happening to me in the fullest. I suppose I’ve been waiting for some type of peak where I could then look back and say “Yep, that’s what I’ve accomplished, time to tell my audience.”

But what’s really begun to happen is that life is becoming “normal.” And although basically every day has a new type of adventure, whether it’s a two hour hike that turned into a five hour hike, or my 10 year old sister insisting I watch telenovelas (Spanish language soap operas) with her for hours, I’m still starting to fall into a routine.

But in order to explain how I’ve gotten to this point, I have to start from the beginning.

I would like to say that I’m the type of person who likes to hit the ground running. Although my follow through isn’t always the greatest, my ability to initiate organizations or simply begin something new is an aspect of my leadership style that I take pride in. As such, I was hardwired to be the most open, energetic, amazing host daughter/sibling that ever was. I practiced my introduction to my host family in the mirror in my room in Quito. And when I got off the bus, said bye to my cohort members, introduced myself to my family and we all exchanged hugs, I realized that no one else was smiling and everything felt very, very uncomfortable.

As we walked up a few blocks to get groceries before taking a taxi from Otavalo to Yambiro, I was asked three questions. “What should we call you?” “Where are you from?” “How much did it cost for you to do this program?”

I answered the first two questions strongly and the third question very vaguely and immediately felt that any and all expectations I’d had about where I was going and what I was doing for the next seven months were potentially incorrect.

Thus, I spent the next three days forgetting all of my In-Country-Orientation training and trying not to cry. Sometimes people say that they “dropped the ball”, but I’d like to think I tried to hit the ground running and just dropped myself. Down the mountain that Yambiro lies on, down past Otavalo, down into some weird valley miles and miles away.

On the first night, we went to a wedding ceremony and I was so excited to see what a Kichwa wedding looked like. But, in reality I just sat with my sister Nancy, who is 18, and her friends while they looked at their phones. We sat for fie hours in total, and at 8:00 pm it started to rain. My sister asked me if I wanted to go home, and not really knowing what was culturally appropriate or how even to communicate that I had no idea, I shrugged and said “Me da igual” –  I give equally, I do not have an opinion. Nancy took us home and I collapsed, honestly very exhausted from travelling that morning and the weird mental exertion from meeting all of the new people in my family.

I think the rock bottom for me was day three, a Tuesday afternoon when I had gone into Otavalo with my sister Nancy so I could see the doctor for my stomach issues and we met up with my older sister. As we waited to hale a taxi to get home, I had been rather quiet. In fact, for the past three days I’d been rather quiet, scared that no one understood my Spanish and that by speaking incorrectly people would just think I wasn’t worth talking to. So as we waited in silence, my sister asked me: “Te gusta aqui?” Do you like it here? And without hesitation I answered “Si! Claro! (Yes, of course!)”

And in one of the most difficult moments I’ve ever had, my sister looked at me, looked at her husband, and looked back. Not saying a word, not smiling, and (I felt, perhaps) not believing me. In the taxi ride home I was secretly fuming – angry at myself for not being able to communicate what I was going through and feeling absolutely hopeless that I would be staying in a tiny mountain pueblo for seven months.

When we got home I finally cried, and tried to explain to my sister – through tears and incredibly broken Spanish. “Why can’t you believe that I like it here?” was all I could come up with, which no one understood, especially as she had said her comment about forty minutes beforehand, there was a slim likelihood that it was still relevant in her mind. Finally, as I calmed myself down I simply said, “I just need time to get accustomed.”

“Ok,” said my sister, still very confused, “but…just don’t cry. Try to stop crying.”

And as I sat in my bed, journaling what had happened, I felt for the first time I had control of my brain again. In immediate retrospect, the entire situation was incredibly funny. Putting myself in my family’s shoes, just the sentence: “Sam won’t stop crying,” (which is what I imagined my family might be saying), made me laugh out loud.

In the next three days, two very important things happened.

#1.

I started to take really long walks. Yambiro is a tiny village that basically has one road going through it. It is stone and it goes through Otavalo, but in the opposite direction it continues through a variety of different communities. I’m still not sure where it ends, but on my fourth day I walked outside and told my sister “Quiero caminar arriba por este calle.” I want to walk up this road.

“…por que?” (Why?)

I shrugged. “Quiero caminar” (I want to walk).

“…Quieres alguien para acompanar?” (Want anyone to come with you?)

“No, estoy bien sola” (No, I’m fine alone).

“…?” My sister looked at me.

“Puedo?” (Can I?)

“Si, esta bien” (Yeah it’s fine).

Yambiro is an incredibly beautiful place and the road overlooks the haciendas and other farm land beneath it. Now, every day, rain or shine, I walk my road, usually for an hour and a half, each time getting a little farther. It winds up and down the mountains and my favorite is when I get far enough that I can see my house from the bottom of the hill. Walking is calming and gives me culturally appropriate alone time. While my family still thinks I’m muy gringa for simply walking without a purpose (again, a reflection of the communal and familial customs of Kichwa culture which includes minimized alone time), it remains one of my greatest joys. By having time to decompress, I was gaining a new mentality that allowed me to embrace all of Yambiro. During this process, the second important thing happened.

#2.

One Wednesday afternoon, I was working at the daycare, my apprenticeship, and suddenly I look outside to see Blanca, my supervisor and one of the strongest women I’ve ever met, talking to a man wearing a panama hat and his long hair in a braid, like the Kichwa men do. He entered the daycare as I was holding a baby and politely asked the three other workers in the room if he had permission to talk in English. They of course said yes, and then I began to speak with Frank, who invited me to lunch that Friday.

A traveler at heart, he had left the United States with his wife when they were in their twenties and traveled to Otavalo for its simple way of life. They lived there for close to twenty years before urbanization and tourism made it too developed for their desired way of life. As a result, they moved up to the top of the hill that Yambiro rests on to make a hostel and development foundation, both by the name of Ali Shungu. Frank and his wife have been living there for over ten years, giving him amazing insight and perspective about how the culture had developed over the years – which was exactly what I needed.

We talked about the diminishment of indigenous cultures in Ecuador and he reminded me that in 50 years, manifestations of Kichwa culture were going to be extremely different as the youth of this generation demonstrate a greater desire for more development and urbanization and are less engaged in preserving their Kichwa heritage. We talked about how the community was succeeding in some areas and struggling in others – For example, family life is highly valued in Yambiro but many children in the daycare struggle with malnutrition.

Then I told Frank about my experience at the wedding, how this culture must be a lot quieter than I had imagined, and Frank just laughed. He told me that you have to stay and sit around until nine, that’s part of the tradition, but at nine the old ladies start to bring around the beer and the hard liquor and people really start dancing. We laughed about it and then I realized that maybe a lot of the reasons that I wasn’t seeing this culture as I thought I would was that I was still really scared about how people would perceive me. It’s a lot easier to go read in my room instead of going outside and talking with my sister, and nights get so cold I’d really just rather sleep than watch TV with my family. I told this to Frank and he said the exact thing that I needed to hear: “Lose all inhibitions. Talk to everyone. There is so much you can help with here. Also a lot of people have Spanish as their second language, anyways, so they can relate if you mess up.”

We had eaten and talked for two hours and as he drove me to my house down the bumpy dirt road, he told me they purposely wouldn’t pave it because they wanted to live a simple life. In my house, where my family mostly speaks Kichwa, all my sisters wear the traditional dress, and we do not own a refrigerator –I said that I could relate.

When I got home, I went to Blanca and told her I wanted to start teaching English – a way to start bonding with the local children– in addition to working at the daycare. She set it up for me the next week and I had an afternoon class of twelve children!

I no longer have a fear of speaking in Spanish, even though I know I have a lot to work through, but when I make mistakes I don’t feel embarrassed, I just laugh and make sure not to do it again.

My family is amazing, supportive, and we never run out of things to do, whether that’s bringing up the slop to our pigs that live higher on the mountain or collecting the cows who live at the bottom of the mountain. I’ve gone to pay the water bill with my 13 year old brother, which was an hour long walk just to get to the municipality, while he asked me questions that only a 13 year old would ask, such as “Do you believe in ghosts?” quickly followed by, “Do you really think Iran is building a nuclear bomb?”

My favorite adventure, I believe, occurred just this Tuesday, when my mother told me we were out of rice, and would I like to go to Otavalo with her to buy some more? Knowing that I personally had no idea where the bus terminal was in coordination with the market – as usually I went with them on the weekends, when we had to take a taxi home – and looking forward for some bonding time with my Mom and Dad, I enthusiastically said yes!

At 7:00, we got on the incredibly cramped and bumpy bus ride to Otavalo, where every person got off, except for my mother and me (even though my father also left). My father returned fice minutes later with a bag of rice and another bag of crackers. Then we waited until the bus filled with people returning to Yambiro – even more cramped and even more bumpy as we climbed up the mountain – with my mother, sitting behind me, occasionally whispering my name and sneaking me crackers through the seat cushions.

There was 100% no reason for me to come to Otavalo with them, we did not leave the bus once, but that’s just a great explanation of how inclusive, open, and sharing the Kichwa culture is.

So, now I wake up every morning, do yoga, eat breakfast, teach my morning Spanish classes – which are a little less successful than the afternoon, as I have two children in total – work at the daycare, teach my afternoon Spanish classes, take my afternoon walk and return around 6pm to spend time with my family until I go to bed to do it all over again.

Last Friday my mother was teaching me how to make empanadas, and my father asked me if I was “accustomed, yet?” referring to what I mentioned earlier – crying my eyes out on my third day in Yambiro. And, hands covered in empanada dough, laughing over some silly joke with my sisters, I said “Si. Claro,” and realized that that statement was a lot truer than I’d thought. This life here is very different and sometimes I’m not 100% sure of what I’m doing but I’m honestly having a fantastic time trying to figure it all out. I’m learning about different cultures and rural economic struggles and it’s all so incredibly interesting – although at times it can be somewhat overwhelming. I am safe, I am loved, and although I didn’t hit the ground running, I think I’m starting to jog again.

Samantha Srok