Latin America, Travel

Getting to Know My Host Family – Semester in Ecuador Part 5

This was the toughest installation of this series to recall yet as it brought up many food memories and emotions from Ecuador.  I will always remember the family that I was placed with in Ecuador quite fondly.  It was a blessing to be dropped into the midst of the love they all shared for each other and extended to me.  The Valverde-Orellana family is the reason that I had such a positive experience in Ecuador.  I am still waiting for the day that they can visit me so that I can return the favor.  I had the pleasure to meet them all at the end of my first week through the celebration of Chio’s birthday.

 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 exerts from the journal I kept as my conventions were challenged and upturned.  For the most part, these entries are raw and un-edited.  That is on purpose, I think they 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. 

My Ecuadorian Host Family

My Ecuadorian Host Family

April 16, 2000

Cuenca, Ecuador

Where do I even start to begin this entry?  It has been quite a day and a half to say the least, overflowing with cultural experiences.  Last night was Chio’s birthday party.  It was a lot different than what I expected.  Parties here are more social than in the States.  Here, everyone greets each other as they arrive.  The men shake hands, the women kiss on the cheek, and the men and women kiss on the cheek (I liked his part…).  Even strangers go through this protocol.  I have never kissed so many people that I didn’t know in my life!

Everybody sat around talking.  I participated as much as I could with my basic conversation skills.  Then the women started passing around cocktails – Zhumir (a drinkable form of rubbing alcohol) and Coke.  Regular sized glasses are filled about halfway with Zhumir and a splash of Coke to mask the God-awful flavor of Zhumi.  The hostess waits while you shoot it, takes your glass back, and heads to the kitchen for refills.  Since bottles of Zhumir only cost a dollar, the shots never seemed to end.  I paced myself with only two rounds since I was still getting over my dysentery from that morning.

The Birthday Girl (Center) and Her Friends

The Birthday Girl (Center) and Her Friends

After 4 rounds of hooch everyone had the courage to dance.  Not that Ecuadorians need the courage.  It was more like the motivation.  The dancing was very formal.  The man asked the woman to dance.  Then, unless they were dating of dancing to a salsa song, couples did not touch.  I noticed this same formality at the discotecas.  The protocol made dancing seem much more approachable than the drunken bump-and-grind found on the dance floors of the college bars that I was used to.

Midway through the party, Señora Valverde served dinner and cake.  The regular Happy Birthday was sung in English.  I was expecting an Ecuadorian version of the song or at least the Spanish translation of happy birthday.  Everyone finally left around 3am.

Today I got to experience the entire family for the first time – all seven kids, five spouses, nine grandchildren, one grandfather, an aunt, an uncle, and two nieces.  What a beautiful family!  They all came over for Sunday dinner as is their weekly tradition.  The afternoon was filled with laughter, music, conversation, and games.  They took a great interest in me and made me feel part of the family.  Everyone wanted to see pictures of my family, friends, and life in the United States.  They asked all sorts of questions – some quite personal.

I talked a long time to one of the grandchildren, Joanna.  She was fifteen and wanted to practice her English.  I wish I had that kind of initiative to learn Spanish before I left for Ecuador.  She and her father invited me to church with them the following Sunday.  He was the pastor at one of Cuenca’s only non-Catholic churches.  I think I may take them up on the offer.

Birthday Party Dancing

Birthday Party Dancing

One thing that did bother me was the way the women served the men.  They waited on the men hand and foot while the men drank whiskey and played cards.  Not that I don’t like being waited on, but I felt really bad.  The women even ate standing up in the kitchen.  I tried to help but was immediately shooed out of the kitchen when I carried in dirty plates.  I guess this is all part of the machismo culture.

After dinner there was another cake for Chio.  When the cake was finished, we sat in the living room while Giovani played guitar and the others sang.  This really touched me.  They forewent watching TV to do an activity together.  I was reminded of my large extended Italian family back home and Sunday dinners at my grandparents.  But still, something was very different.  A warmth that I’ve never felt before.  When the night was over everyone kissed goodbye.  Once again I kissed way too many people.  What a heartwarming experience it was getting to know this entire family.  I already look forward to next Sunday’s dinner!