Settling Into Class – Semester in Ecuador Part 2
I was infected by the travel bug as a junior in college on a study abroad program to Ecuador. The adventure pushed me completely out of my comfort zone and caused me to challenge how and what I thought about the world. I grew up somewhat spoiled as an only child enjoying comforts that most twenty-ones year olds didn’t. Below are excerpts from the journal I kept as my conventions were challenged and upturned. For the most part, these entries are raw and un-edited to show the purity of the transformation I went through. The adventure took place during one of the most challenging times in Ecuador’s history as the country emerged from near civil war the year prior with the overthrow of their president and was soon adopting the US dollar as its official currency.
While this entry may not be as adventurous as the previous, it is filled with emotion. Nobody, no matter how tough they are, can be dropped into a new country, culture, and language without some emotional turmoil. When everything you have ever known is uprooted, you are placed into a new “family”, and you’re ability to communicate is on a kindergartner’s level, life becomes scary. At the same time, the experience is eye-opening and life-altering. To this day, I still speak with my “family”. Andrea “Chio” will always be my sister.
April 12, 2000
Today we arrived in Cuenca where we are living for the next two months. We ended up driving to Cuenca after all. The strikes ended last night clearing the roadblocks that had the city sealed off. The drive was nine hours through the Andes. The scenery was even more beautiful than from Quito to Tungurahua. The mountains appeared bigger and the trees greener We passed many small villages and stopped in a few to see their way of life if just for a moment or two. Still a culture shock, the level poverty everywhere. Where was their money? How did they even build the cities and houses?
The ride itself was terrifying. The Pan American “Highway” as they call it, is anything but a highway. It’s a mud and stone road with no lines that winds up and down mountains on dangerous ledges with no guard rails. There appeared to be no rules to the road either. As there were no lanes, cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles swerved wherever they pleased. At one point, the “highway” was blocked by an avalanche forcing us on a windy detour up the side of a mountain and through a cloud forest. The bus crept along at a snail’s pace clinging to edge of the cliff that the road ran along.
Finally we arrived in Cuenca when Jenn (the program director) told us bluntly, “The next two weeks are going to be the hardest.” Ouch! The butterflies weren’t there before but they were now. Her words made me quite nervous. I was about to meet the family I was going to spend the next 2 months with. What would they think of me? What are they like? Are they understanding? Will they help me? How was I to communicate with them? My Spanish skills were less than adequate.
All of a sudden I felt like I wish I never went on this program. I wished I was at home where I could be safe and sound with people I knew. I longed to be at with my family. I remain confident these feelings will pass though.
We arrived at the school before our families. The whole group nervously awaited their arrival. I could see it in their faces and hear it in the silence. We were all equally as scared. Soon, I was introduced to Señora Valverde (Mom) and Andrea (sister). They were very nice and asked me many questions – immediately easing my fears. We then walked to their house which was about 8 blocks away. Señora Valverde was told by CEDEI about my poor vision. As this was the path I would walk daily to class, she pointed out every pot-hole, sidewalk crack, dirt patch, missing concrete with a board laying over it, bump, etc that could possibly trip me. This caring gesture brought a tear to my eye.
The house was larger than I expected. I met the father, grandfather, and one of the brothers. None of the men were very friendly. Perhaps it was a display of machisimo to the new gringo living in their house? Señora Valverde and Andrea gave me a tour of the house and showed me my room. As I unpacked, Andrea sat with me and I showed her pictures of my friends, family, and life back home. I felt like I was communicating well in Spanish (she, nor anyone else in the family, spoke English), and she appeared to understand me, too.
Right now I am very nervous and hesitant. I hope this trip was the right decision.