Tales from Abroad: Ecuador
The drive out of the airport in Quito, when I first arrived in Ecuador this past January, reminded me of how much I was going to stand out. Like almost every other place that I had traveled to in the past, Ecuadorians had a semi-derogatory label for white foreigners. After a week of orientation and extensive traveling around the Amazon and Andes within Ecuador, we all (about 20 of us) arrived in Cuenca, a smaller city in the southern Andes. I learned that I would have to adjust to every other local shouting “_gringa_” at me as I walked past on my way to school each day. My first instinct was to assume that they were attempting to harass me. For some of them, that may have been true. I would definitely prefer not to turn and see the city buses during rush hour, full of people with eyes glued on me. However, I’ve come to find the staring and calls almost endearing.
Ecuador, unlike many developed countries that I’ve traveled to, is not one to pride itself on its diversity. Television and pop culture from the United States have undoubtedly infiltrated the media there, but the society lacks the everyday melting pot culture that we take for granted at home. To an eight-year-old Cuencana, my pale skin and lighter hair labels me as something out of the movies or a magazine. The staring is more a result of her amazement. I am the diversity that she has never become acclimated to. Must Ecuador rely on its tourists to build a stronger sense of tolerance? I am hesitant to credit any growth within Ecuadorian culture to tourists. However, I have seen how effectively tourists can instill an appreciation for diversity within the eyes of young Ecuadorians.
After living with a host family here for about three months now, I’ve realized how the homogenous state of society has affected its youth and culture. Many Cuencanos have grown up around people who have nearly identical lifestyles, appearances, and religious beliefs. My host nieces and nephews, however, have taught me that I must look past the cookie-cutter culture. They have shown me their eagerness and excitement for other cultures. As I have taught them new games and shown them photos of my friends and family, I have watched as they soak it all in and look up at me, ready with more questions. This thirst for diversity and other culture has reminded me why I decided to study abroad in the first place. By diving into other communities and struggling to learn their languages and customs, we can better understand who we are and gain a wider perspective. Many of my friends from Cuenca and host family members talk about their desire to travel and see the world. I constantly remind myself that, as someone fortunate enough to study in another culture, I should view the opportunity as one too valuable to take for granted.
Since coming to Ecuador, I have been able to travel from between indigenous communities, the Galapagos Islands, coastal towns, the Andes, and the Amazon rainforest. Although I love the excitement that has come from hopping between places, I think I have gotten the most out of the experience of transforming Cuenca into a second home. By living with a host family, I have been able to challenge myself, to say the least. I came to Ecuador in January knowing exactly two Spanish words: huevos (eggs) and mariposa (butterfly). Not to my surprise, my Spanish-speaking friends concluded early on that those words would not get me very far. Starting fresh in Ecuador has been exhilarating, though. I have had to learn how to laugh at myself nearly every time I speak and cope with the frustration that occurs when, no matter how many hand gestures I make, I just cannot be understood.
It is humbling to have been thrown into a fully-developed city where English, for once, cannot get me very far. Although my workload appears to be nearly microscopic compared to that of Carnegie Mellon, I still hit the pillow every night drained of energy. Having to adapt to others and their customs is tiring, yet is an important part of the learning process, and an aspect that cannot be taught in classroom settings. It is an aspect that I will never be able to master or perfect, but something that has made me a more understanding person each time I attempt it.