For me, one of the best things about living in Latin American countries has always been the convenience of things, and I love that it is perfectly acceptable to devour a chicken kabob walking around the block while waiting for your laundry to be finished, and being able to walk one block to pick up my daily guineos (bananas) or another missing ingredient for breakfast before work. I’ve started making friends in my neighborhood, and it’s a nice feeling to be recognized as part of the community, as I wave to Gladys and Elias at the corner panaderia from my bike on the way home or as I set off on my morning run to the nearby park. Now I can actually only buy eggs or bread there if I have time to have a fifteen minute conversation with them. The family across the street has started to warm up as well, and lately I find several of the kids (there are 7 total) hanging on the gate outside my house waiting to talk to me or potentially be invited inside, I’m not really sure which. Being accepted in the neighborhood means everyone has started calling me “veci,” short for vecina which means neighbor (pronounced beh-see). It is a common salutation here and some use it more than others, but walking into a shop and having someone shout “veci!” to me or the girl across the street saying “Buenos dias veci,” confirms my integration and makes me feel much less like the only foreigner in the neighborhood. Even the street dogs are part of the hood, they flock together and I always see the same dogs on my street or even throughout parts of my route on the way to the office. The best stress relief after a long day of work has been a lesson from Wellington on how to use the newly fixed gears on my bike, with the neighborhood children at his “skirts,” culminating in my trying out a hill a few blocks away and all of the dogs barking and cheering me on.
One day, I was greeted down the street from my house by one of my partners through Global Glimpse, an indigenous man who lives not too far from me. I joined him and his three daughters to walk for a few blocks, and he told me his daughters want to learn English, when am I free? I averted this by suggesting they attend the free classes my students will be giving and politely said goodbye. Then I found myself feeling guilty, should I have invited them inside? This is just one example of something that I struggle with: finding the balance between truly engaging with the community and also respecting my own time. Just because English is my native language, should I be expected to spend my time giving free classes to everyone that wants to learn it? Although I want to have authentic experiences and connect with the people, I just can’t promise that to everyone. My job is time-demanding enough, and it’s not the type of job that ends strictly at 5pm every day – on the weekends I have often spent several hours here and there attending different meetings or events in order to connect more with our partners and learn more about their work. I realize that the more time I put into these relationships, the more I’ll get out of it – and I am dedicated to that. I also acknowledge that a lot of the relationships I am developing through my job do not have to be so black-and-white. I love the fact that on a Saturday I have received calls from several different indigenous women wanting to know where I was and what I was doing. I love visiting Victoria at the market, or going to the campo on a Sunday to help Charrito and Fanny make tortillas (which really means me burning the tortillas and singeing my arm hair). But at some point, I do have to draw the line and respect my personal life and the need for my own time. I realize that part of this is cultural and I’m learning more and more that once you become friendly with someone here, you are expected to keep in touch and spend time with them. After desayunando at a comedor twice it was a while before I returned, and when I did, the woman said “Where have you been? Why haven’t you visited? I thought you had left the country.” It has been sort of a shock for me to comprehend that meeting someone once or twice instantly implies a commitment. But knowing this now, I understand to be careful with my commitments and telling someone I will come when they say “vendrás.”
Overall I think this is a general aspect of cultural differences between Ecuador and the U.S: everyone is just way friendlier, and friendships are more automatic. Every time you see someone or say goodbye you ALWAYS “saludar” with a kiss on the cheek (even if you have never met the person), and when eating a meal in a public place it’s not uncommon to have about five strangers tell you “buen provecho.” It makes our U.S. tendencies feel very awkward, even through conversations with my roommate we have joked that in the States we put everything in the refrigerator, even relationships. Another recurring theme in recent conversations is the vast difference with regards to family – most people live with their family until they get married, and find it odd that we estadounidenses leave the house so early. Although I’d like to think I have a super close relationship with my family, you can note the difference in the general way of life, that down here family is generally valued more. Of course, we have the advantage that we become independent at an earlier age and this permits us to grow into ourselves and be less dependent on our parents – but that we must sacrifice that ride-or-die mentality is a shame. Once again, I feel that finding a balance is important: for me, that means doing my thing, living where I want to live, traveling the world in my 20s and learning from other cultures, but maintaining close contact with my family and truly valuing the limited time that I can spend by their side.
So far on this blog I’ve mostly been keeping time chronologically. It’s sort of hard to write about the last few weeks, because they’ve been all over the place and the energy has been very different. My first inclination is to write about the earthquake in Ecuador assuming that all of my readers are even aware of it – surely you have to be by now – but I am also wary of making assumptions as I’ve realized that not everybody found out right away (or maybe even at all). Which in itself has much to contemplate – for it’s an event that has affected all aspects of life here: so many lives have completely changed, and although
there was no one affected in the area where I live, much has changed here as well. For the first several weeks the general vibes were very low, even as I watched mothers walk their children to school I could feel it. People have begun to return to normal life (at least where I am), but it continues to permeate news stories and daily conversations. I am aware of this because I live in Ecuador; however, I am fairly certain that if I were currently living in the States, I may have very well forgotten about it by now. This natural disaster, as many, is not something that just goes away after the media slows its cover; it is a life-shaking event that will take its toll for years to come. My experience with it has been interesting, and difficult, as I feel that there’s not much I can do to help. Yet it begs me to ponder how common it must be; daily we are hearing news about horrible things that happen in other countries of our world, but ever so often our response is to spend one day lamenting, “oh, that’s a shame,” posting a picture on social media, and moving on with life as we know it. But at the same time – how can we truly feel empathetic if we have no idea what it must feel like? If it truly doesn’t change anything for us personally? I am guilty of this as well, and even living among the anguish, I will admit that after an email cry for donations to my friends and family, my life has proceeded on as planned, despite the weird energy surrounding me. It has caused me guilt, as those close to me had nearly dropped everything to lend their time and helping hands, while I carried on going to the office like any normal day. However, many people’s jobs require them to be involved in relief efforts, while my program is carrying on – my students are still arriving the same day in June, and I must be ready. So, I guess once again the answer lies in a common theme of this life: finding balance. Between being informed and aware of what’s going on around us (near and far), doing what we can to acknowledge and contribute, but also finding a way and recognizing the need to seguir adelante, keep on keeping on. Another ever reminder that the calendar pages will turn no matter what, it’s how we fill them that matters.
Weeks later, and life has gone on, and I’ve even had the chance to find new and undiscovered corners of the world. A wonderful surprise visit from my stepsister Kelsey entailed exploring all the coffee shops of Riobamba, attempting to unite our skills in the kitchen, drinking wine and a grand adventure with a huge bag of snacks. We visited Lake Quilotoa (where I crossed off my 5th Central Sierra “must-see” from my guidebook!), an absolutely breathtaking lagoon with clear turquoise waters among rolling hills. Our loop around the crater will not be detailed here, let’s just say it was the epitome of an adventure. After a chilly night that required us to buy new pants because all of our clothes were soaked, we made our way back to Riobamba with a pit stop in Salinas de Guaranda, a small town that thrives on cooperatives that export different products, the most delicious of which being chocolate and cheese (we sampled lots, as well as llama meat). Several weekends later Fer and I traveled to Cuenca, a most beautiful and charming city in the southern Sierra where I used the phrase “que lindo!” the most times in the shortest period of time, ever. “Que lindo” means “that’s so cute/beautiful” or maybe even “oh my god, that’s soo cute!” and it was in reference to literally everything in Cuenca – the details of the city, its coffee shops and restaurants, flower markets, cobblestone streets reminiscent of Europe, its preserved colonial architecture, or the excitement of finding an art supplies shop. We had a wonderful time visiting for several days and it is certainly on my to-do list to return.
Even weeks have passed since I began writing this post, and things have been super busy with work as we had two weeks of training and a first aid course which was nothing but fun. I now have more compatriot friends here in Riobamba, and whether it’s been laughing over burritos and margaritas or strolling through fields of cilantro and chamomile, it’s been amazing to have people to relate with after two months of being one
of few U.S. citizens in my city. It’s also allowed me to extend my musings about the differences in cultures at a deeper level, and we are always conversing about the funny things in English or Spanish. I am continuing to learn more things about the Spanish language and it will never cease to amaze me how different one language can be depending on where in the world you are. I would blog about such nuances, but it would require all the time that I do not have. My intention is for my accent and vocabulary to flow with my surroundings, and it seems to be a goal I am achieving because I’ve been told that I am losing my Nicaraguan accent (which also makes me sad). If I am wearing my indigenous-evoked outfit, I’d like to think my hair is the only thing stopping someone from believing I’m actually Ecuadorian (not sure how likely this actually is). And of course, there are bad days where I feel like I’m learning Spanish for the first time.
Another thing I’ve been contemplating through conversations with new friends is the
importance of making the most of your circumstances. When living abroad you must adapt to what you have, if the place you are renting doesn’t have a coffee maker, “ni modo” (this is one of my favorite sayings in Spanish which basically means no way out). I feel lucky to have integrated easily into the culture here and easily adapted to my new life – yet it’s also
been a lesson. When I started with Global Glimpse in Nicaragua, I had already lived there for months, I’d visited Matagalpa, and I knew that was exactly where I wanted to be. Yet on my first day in Riobamba, I had already committed to living here for six months – without knowing if I would like it or not. Luckily, me cae super bien, and instead of adjusting to cold showers I’ve had to adjust to using a super nice induction stove that requires certain types of pots and pans only. And certainly, if this environment wasn’t so “agradable” for me, I would stick with it and make the most of it. But I feel like it is a very important lesson to be aware of: it doesn’t matter what circumstances surround you. What matters is how you react to and regard those circumstances.
Life is so crazy – how one moment you can be in DSW, agonizing over which black flats to pack as your professional shoes, and the next, you are sitting in front of the cathedral in Riobamba, watching a live music performance, and your Ecuadorian friend touches that very shoe you once finally chose, turning to you and murmuring “bonitos zapatos.”
Learning, growing, flowing.