I’ve been here for over a month and a half now; how the time flies! Living abroad again feels right; and although day by day I am pushed beyond my comfort zone, I have established a comfortable routine and think I’m doing a pretty good job with work/life balance. Some days are always better than others – frustrating days are inevitable as a foreigner; and sometimes I do feel lonely, but that passes quickly when ten minutes later I am being whirled around my kitchen in a salsa dance between tragitos of watermelon liquor.
On a normal day you may see me running after the bus while trying not to spill my coffee, attempting to converse with employees about what size shower curtain I need, carrying my laundry at the movie theater, or biking with my dorky purse/backpack combination complete with my helmet pushed back too far on my head, frantically looking for pinchos (meat kabobs you find on the street), clumsily stopping to ask a women what she has and awkwardly saying “thanks but no thanks” when I find out that it’s tripa which I’m pretty sure is cow intestines. Some mornings I stop at Olga’s for breakfast, a woman who has a comedor a few blocks down from my house to chat with her and drink either super weak or instant coffee and try whatever typical breakfast she has to serve me that day. Often on my bike ride home I am almost stopped in awe at the sheer beauty of the green rolling hills beyond the city, framed by layers of wispy clouds, and sometimes even graced with a rainbow, so stunning it almost doesn’t look real – I almost want to compare it to a beautiful painting. Running errands is much more fun on my bike, too – stopping here and there to pick up various necessities: $7.14 at Camari for oats, granola, plantain flour, a kiwi, a most delicious cookie and a face mask, $1.65 at the fruit stand for a few bananas, avocado and a splurge on grapes (they are twice as expensive here as in Nicaragua), $0.20 at the panaderia for a roll of wheat bread where I allow myself to inquire about the desserts but not to purchase, $0.80 at the spot on the corner near my house for eggs, where the woman kindly asks if I live down the street and what I’m doing here (we’ve since become friends and I can never remember her daughter’s name, Zalome?), then $0.30 at the store one street down for baking powder so I can perfect my pancake recipe in the book that Fercita gifted to Hector and me, “Un mundo de comida con los ingredientes del Ecuador.” Slowly but surely I am cooking more, and becoming better at it! I also went an entire month without shopping at the supermarket where you can find foreign products – is it a coincidence that that’s how long it took me to run out of the snacks I had packed from the States? In all seriousness, the experience of shopping there after having only purchased from local markets and mom’n’pop shops was eye-opening and really made me consider my role as a conscious consumer, intending to purchase only what I really need to from larger corporations (like almond milk, corn tortillas and Nutella). I find that living abroad informs my habits in a much more conscious way, using only the amount of water I truly need and reducing my use of paper and plastic, always reutilizing when possible. It helps that my roommate is also dedicated to this effort and the first rule of our house is that food is never wasted (he also taught me how to wash dishes without using so much water).
In the evenings I am usually busy learning how to cook soup with Fer, chatting with
Wellington in hammocks over tea and incense, or taking the bus back into town for evening power yoga. The first night I went to class happened to be the indigenous New Year, and we celebrated by practicing Chakana hugs and sipping ginger lime juice with excess amounts of sugar. One night I attended Jueves de Pedal, a weekly event where every Thursday a group of 40-80 people get together and bike a pre-determined route for 2.5 hours. It was probably the most time I have ever spent on a bicycle but I did love it, not only for the exercise but for the sense of community, the ability to demand respect from cars, and the chance to have a quiet moment riding along an unlit dirt road next to a field of corn under the starlit night sky, the city twinkling below us. For not only did we bike in the city but up into the hills, along the train tracks, and all of a sudden the first time I’ve ever biked on unpaved terrain was in the dark, with a very weak headlamp, trying not to get passed up by the rest of the group. But despite my lack of proper gear, it was challenging in a very good way and I now understand why some of my friends are enthralled with mountain biking.
The past few weeks I have been traveling a bit less on the weekends and getting to know Riobamba and its outskirts better. Sometimes I have had weekend work visits, but how does it feel like work when an indigenous woman is teaching me how to knit? There’s nothing better than biking to the nearby open-air market on a Saturday morning, navigating the aisles full of fresh goods , and returning home with a basket full of diverse fruits and veggies and a tummy full of maduro asado, especially after spending only $5. I also got to visit Chimborazo for the first time when I helped out with a mountain biking event called Chimborazo Extremo. At least I’d like to think I helped out, even though I couldn’t answer any of the questions people asked me, and the altitude made me slur my words so much that I could barely properly congratulate the participants with their medals as they crossed the finish line. Either way, it was a beautiful day and I can’t wait to go back to Chimbo!
One Sunday I found myself on a hour-long bus ride to Ambato, to meet up with a woman whom I’d only just met for five minutes the day before – what was I getting myself into? But I was comforted immediately as I got off the bus and there she was, waiting for me with a welcoming smile. Victoria paid for my bus passage to her community, telling me about her visits to Arizona, the vegetables and blackberry juice she enjoyed there, that she’s been to Denver, Colorado, that her husband has been working in the U. S. for three years so that their children can go to college. We picked corn together and fed the cuys and pigs and cooked an elaborate Sunday lunch and then she dressed me in their typical clothing. I felt more blessed with every touch, these are the components of the outfits I so admire on passersby. She wraps a belt around my waist, it’s handwoven and costs $150, she tells me. How is it that I’ve gained so much trust already, that after a short conversation and interest in where they live, all of sudden I get to visit their home, share a meal and don such special clothing for a party? That she goes out of her way to cook for me before we visit the parties because she knows my foreign stomach may not handle the food they will serve us? Well, I drank the soup at both parties anyway, for it would be rude to decline it.
Before I knew it we were at an indigenous wedding ceremony, complete with stray dogs, declining a second shot of beer and gifting our soup to the old woman next to us, waiting for the live music to start. When it did, all began to dance in a circle, smiling and laughing and changing directions with no apparent rhyme or rhythm. I tried to make myself invisible, a bit of an impossible feat as I was surely the only foreigner within a 50-mile radius. Despite my efforts, I was pulled into the dance, dressed as them but still ever-conscious of my hair color, my skin color, my clumsy feet. The epitome of being pushed beyond my comfort zone. Yet they were welcoming, and smiled back at me as I danced my own dance among them. When I tired, Victoria took my hand as if I were her own daughter, a smile that reassured me I had no reason to feel uncomfortable. What a unique experience to have, one that floods my memory with color and culminates in walking back along the dirt road during sunset, Tungurahua and Chimborazo towering over us, trying to learn how to say “buenas tardes” in Kichwa.
Hours after that first bus ride, I boarded a new one, assuring Victoria that I could find my way back on my own, as she commanded the bus ayudante to help me get off at the Paso Lateral, wearing the new alpaca hat that she gifted me and almost drawn to weep at how utterly supported and protected I felt in that foreign land on which I had stepped for the first time in my life.
I’m super grateful to have these authentic experiences as part of my normal life here. It amazes me how kind a stranger can be, and at how quickly that person can become so familiar, as if you’ve known them for years of your life. For me, this is accentuated in life abroad – not only because the majority of people in Latin America are so warm, but also because when you meet someone when traveling, you automatically have so much in common with them. And it’s not uncommon that when you meet a fellow estadounidense, minutes later she’s buying your coffee and you are making plans to hang out and saying “see you soon!”
Just another grand thing about living abroad!