The bell in my school rings. It’s 18:10 h. I smile at my students, pack my things, say “hasta luego” for a thousand times and leave my school. Why am I in such a rush? If I speed walk to my bus stop then I am very likely to get the earlier bus. The earlier and the later bus are physically identical to each other; however, the big difference between them is the number of people. If I take the bus 5 minutes later, then I will probably end up standing at the back of the bus, which is not a position anyone wants to be in, especially not me. Here in Azogues, the town I live in since September, you have to walk up to the bus driver and shout “gracias” for him to stop and let you out. There are no fixed bus stops. Standing at the back of the bus is challenging because I have to push a lot to get to the front of the bus. Whilst I am doing that, the bus driver is driving as if there is no tomorrow and the people are staring at me because I am the only tall and blond person in town. Being the only person that looks different to everyone else is like a crowd watching a TV show and you are the main character of the show. Just that you don’t get paid and if you are a girl, your key fans are men catcalling you.
Although I often manage to get the earlier bus, there are days where it’s just not possible. For example, the bell rings but a couple of students aren’t done with their work or I have to finish marking. Or, on my way out I hear someone shout “Licenciada Carolina espere” (Teacher Caroline wait). This happens at least every other day. Don’t get me wrong, I really like talking to my students. However, after a long day of classes I sometimes just want to walk up the hill quickly and get the earlier Bus.
Now you might be wondering why I am talking about me taking the bus and I can assure you that this is not the most exciting part of my life here. But my bus story illustrates that my life here has become a routine, a topic I want to address in this blog post.
While routine may sound boring, I should stress that I refer to it in a positive sense. When I arrived in Azogues (a town in the Andean mountain range south of Ecuador) in September, everything was quite overwhelming, being all by myself, being stared at most of the time as a different looking alien, with still little Spanish, an unknown family and an assignment as a teacher for students almost my age, in a language which is not my mother tongue. While this is what I had been looking for and though I enjoyed being challenged, I was often in my stretch zone and wondered if life here would ever feel normal. And now, nearly 4 months later, I have found my place in my community. I am amazed by how quickly we can embrace new routines and lifestyles if we want to. And yes, I wanted to.
Let me say a bit about my life here, or what I now call “my routine”. It consists of teaching 4-days a week in a local middle school in Azogues, I go to Cuenca (the closest city nearby) once a week to attend Spanish and Salsa classes and on weekends I hang out with my host family and my friends from the program. I teach about 250 students who are all in eighth, ninth and tenth grade. Having teenagers as students is on the one hand much fun because I can relate to them a lot but at the same time, they can be very exhausting. Also, in some cases, I am only three years older than my students and that makes being a person of authority more challenging. Luckily, I co-teach with two Ecuadorian teachers called Ruth and Maribel. I teach the eighth graders with Maribel, who is actually a Science teacher, but that is a topic for another day, and I teach the ninth and tenth graders with Ruth, a “real” English teacher. Having them makes life a lot easier for me. Having taught now for 4 months, I have understood that being a good teacher requires various skills and experience. Therefore, the combination of Maribel’s and Ruth’s teaching skills with my English skills is working out really well, and, especially in the beginning, I very much appreciated their guidance. Ruth also helped me a lot to befriend the other teachers. Now you can find me every school day at 15:40 h in the teacher’s room, drinking coffee, eating bread and laughing with the other teachers. My laughing part can be fake at times because understanding a joke in a different language can be an extra challenge…
My “family routine” consists of hanging out with my two little host brothers, Juan Carlos and Javier, who are 8 and 10 respectively. In a short amount of time I have grown to love them and they will most probably be the two people who will make leaving Ecuador the most difficult. During the week, I help them with their homework, we watch movies together, play games and – typical for siblings – we just annoy each other. The nice thing is that by now I can even tell them to leave me alone if it gets too much and they don’t get it wrong. There is also my host mum Maria and my host dad Carlos and my four host aunts and my host uncle: They have all been very welcoming from the beginning and they have much assisted in making Azogues a place where I can be in my comfort zone.
Finally, seeing my friends from the program is part of my routine, a very nice one as well. I see them at least once a week at Spanish class, and we tend to meet up on weekends. I appreciate our weekend activities a lot! We visit different communities, go hiking, hang out in a nice café, eat the food we miss etc. Also, it is so nice to be able to share my experience with people who can relate to what I am going through. Before I started the program it did not feel so important to me that there will be other fellows my age in the program. At this point, I couldn’t imagine going through this stay without them. They are an important “support system” for me.
Now, you know a bit about my life in Ecuador, my “new routine”, including my bus rides back from school. As I said, I use the word “routine” in a loving sense as things became routine to me when I had learned how to handle situations that were different to back home. For instance, at first, I felt uncomfortable about the amount of people staring at me, especially men and also them catcalling me aggressively. Now I have learnt to just ignore the looks and comments. Furthermore, I struggled with finding the right balance between being my students’ friend and a person of authority but bit-by-bit I have found a good balance between the two. Reflecting on what by now feels comfortable to me makes me realise how relatively easy we can embrace a new environment if we are ready to. And though Brussels will always stay my home, Azogues is clearly being added to the places I feel at home.
(15 weeks down, 17 more weeks to go)