One of the many things I have come to realize during my time in Ecuador is how inherently obvious my foreigner-status is to the Kichwas of Alto Tena. I don’t know if it was my look of disbelief when my mother put a plate of chontacuro (most accurately described as maggots) in front of me to eat or simply my distinguishing pale skin and blue eyes that did the trick, but from my arrival and undoubtedly until my departure, I have been and will be known as the Village Gringa.
I have to admit, at first I fought it. I cringed every time someone shouted, “¡Ya viene la gringa, la gringa!” I couldn’t help but turn bright red whenever I entered a room and everyone burst out laughing just because of my very presence. I shied away from the relentless pursuit of the many indigenous men determined to teach me how to dance Kichwa style. But, alas, after many near-death falls into hidden jungle trenches and countless failed attempts at scrubbing stains out of my clothing, the title prevails. Fortunately, I have learned to embrace it and now see that, in fact, it even has its perks.
I smile at how many new and interesting people I have met simply because their curiosity over where I come from and what I’m doing here has driven them to approach me. I’ve shared many a laugh with fellow community members over the fact that my name, pronounced “Cari” here, means man in Kichwa. I am silently amused by the looks of hilarity and disbelief on my siblings’ faces as they watch me zoom away over the river in a cage supported by nothing more than a thin steel line. I am ever-grateful for the steady hands of my mother on my waist, making sure I don’t fall to my doom as we shuffle across streams on slick and shaky logs.
As I’ve been here for longer and longer and as everyone starts to warm up to me, I am beginning to find my place in my community and am even learning to love the laughs directed my way. Even though I will always be the Village Gringa, I now affectionately understand how that status defines my increasingly normal role as a member of Alto Tena.