I can recognize just about everyone in my community of 40 families by face. That said, when someone new comes through, it’s pretty noticeable. So when I was walking down the street yesterday selling raffle tickets for an upcoming fundraiser with some of the younger kids and one of them turned to me and whispered, “Delia, look, they’re speaking English”, as he motioned towards the tiendita (little store) we were walking past, it caught my attention. The tienditas here are small, but they sell almost anything you could want (from bobby pins to peanut butter to diapers), and they also have big TV’s with cable, so they’re frequent hangout spots.
I walked over to the store to check out the deal with these supposed English speakers. I stood in the doorway for a moment just observing. There were three of them, with light complextions and blue eyes, checking out the inventory of the store. There was a group of Ecuadorians with them too, and one of them noticed me. He asked where I was from and I told him the US, “pero vivo aqui“, but I live here. “En este pueblo?” “Sí, este pueblito”. I live in this town. He introduced me to all the new faces, the older gringo was named Stefan (note: name changed), and he and his two kids and his wife (who wasn’t there) are from Sweden and have been living in Quito for the past three years. They were passing through Puerto Rico on the way to visit the waterfall way down the dirt road from here. They offered me a fruit, in typical Ecuadorian fashion, as we shared our stories. I explained to them I was living with a family here and doing volunteer work.
“How old are you?” one of the women asked me. “Eighteen,” I told her. “Wow,” Stefan said in response. “That is so brave of you. What an incredible experience you must be having.” I blushed, “gracias, estoy aprendiendo tanto“, I’m learning so much being here. I told them about Global Citizen Year, they told me about the work they do in Quito, and we discussed the recent US Presidential elections.
I have a lot of conversations everyday, but this one was pretty eye-opening. To meet a Swedish family in my pequeño pueblo of puros Ecuatorianos, we automatically have plenty in common. As any person who has traveled abroad has experienced, seeing another foreigner like yourself can be strange and sometimes a big deal. We share the experience of knowing what it’s like to be looked at like we’re aliens, and the many hardships and rewarding parts that come with living abroad. We have unique backgrounds, but we find our lives brought together by unknown forces.
“You really are brave,” Stefan repeated to me. “And your Spanish is very good.” Sometimes it’s easy to forget what the big picture looks like and what I’m actually doing here when I’m just living day to day. But those words he said to me meant a lot, and I knew Stefan was right. I can have a real, lengthy, thoughtful conversation in fast-paced Spanish. And I’m living a life here very much my own–at eighteen-years-old I feel particularly independent, especially as I’m 3033 miles from where I grew up.
Stefan and his family were also a reminder of how connected we all are. No matter how different our backgrounds may be, no matter where we may end up in the world, we share the human connection, and I think that is the most powerful of all.