The Great Migration: Where I've been

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lost in Translation. But Not Always.

Translated from original Spanish conversation

Taxi driver: "Do you need a hotel? I can take you to a good hotel."

Me: "Actually, I live here."

OK, so I don't really live here. I'm certainly no Ecuatoriana. That much is made clear to me every time I walk down the street, with all of those eyes staring at my oh-so-UN-Ecuadorian haircut, clothes, backpack, walk, accent, expectations... I stick out, for sure. I am Gringa Suprema, and I am all about owning it. But it was cool to be able to say it, anyway.

But I'm not quite a tourist, either. I live with a Ecuadorian family, eat Ecuadorian food, go to an Ecuadorian university, speak the Ecuadorian language (mas or menos). I am one step up from tacky tourist, but haven't quite been initiated into the cult of the truly at home. I'm somewhere in between floundering and perfect, but that's working just fine for me.

The life of an international student is glamourously exciting, and this international student is all about rolling with the punches. Guayaquil is...fascinating. I'm not going to lie (another East Coast or Australian import to my slangbank...we're a very honest group: "I'm going to be honest," "Just putting it out there," "I'm just saying," ¨Let´s talk about it¨ all come up with ridiculous frequency), Guayaquil is not the most beautiful or comfortable city I've ever been in. It's big and dirty and hot and sweaty with a million and a half problems. I have spent the past six weeks trying to find my place in this place that is so not me. I am stepping outside my comfort zone (like my hippie team work terminology?) to make my home here, among all that can be classified oh-so-foreign. Guayaquil is ruled by the rich and conservative. They don´t recycle. I´m working with children. I can´t smile and greet people on the street for fear of my cheerfulness being taken the wrong way. The closest nature is a good 35 minute busride, once I spend 20 minutes getting to the bus station, and hiking is none-existent. I miss my bicycle, I miss the Berkeley hills and their miles of trails, I miss student activism, being able to walk everywhere. Where are my aging hippies? Where are my friendly street vendors? Where is my grass, for god´s sake? (Not THAT kind of grass, folks.) Guayaquil is just not so into beautification through nature.

But what a magnificent challenge! What an opportunity to try something different, be immersed in something that stretches my mind and my life. Makes me really recognize what´s important to me. To learn. It´s a cheesey cliche, but I absolutely LOVE to learn, and learn in exactly this way. Through conversations and traveling and trying things and having things happen to me and making things happen around me. It´s different and just so much freaking fun.

My days look something like this:
1) Monday through Thursday, I spend the morning at my internship with all of the scary children. (See previous entry in all it´s soul-searching glory.)
2) I then return home to hot soup (despite the ridiculously hot weather), pretend to do homework, and fall asleep.
3) At 3:45 I walk 15 minutes to my bus stop to take the private University bus (with air conditioning...aaah, the luxury of the rich) 35 minutes to campus.
4) I have an hour and a half of a rather unstructured Spanish class, and another hour and a half of a rather unstructured History of Ecuador class, where conversation usually disinegrates into debates about the recently passed constitution (oh yes, an exciting time to be in Ecuador indeed...heeeelllllooooo socialism!) and the extranjeros trying to convince the Ecuadorians that gay people are not another species.
5) I go to the University's gym, and watch the Ecuadorian men build up their muscles, look at themselves in the mirror, and do absolutely no cardio. They may be able to knock me out with a punch, but I could outrun them in about two minutes. Just putting it out there.
6) I return home to my host family at around 9:30, reheat excessive amounts of rice and bananas for dinner, and chat with my host mom. Mom and I are mad tight (thanks again to the East Coast slang...I really am the only West Coast representative and my native tongue is just getting stamped out of existence) and she is endlessly patient with my fledgling Spanish.

Fridays, though...Fridays are when things get interesting. Because of my program, I have a special four-hour class called Institutions of Ecuadorian Society--basically four hours of story time with Jorge, our very knowledgable but completely disorganized professor. The existence of this class, far more than it's actual content, brings up an interesting dilemma for me. When are "problems" cultural differences and thus merely different than my hifalutin US standards, and when are they things that should be improved on? Is a lack of structure, something I see both at Fundacion Crecer and my university, a "Latin American Thing" (an LAT, if you will) or something I am legitimately allowed to be annoyed with and do something about? I don´t want to judge everything based on what I´m used to, but I don´t want my experience to suffer because I think it´s cultural, and it´s really particular lackings. It´s a fascinating and difficult problem, and one I´ve spent many hours discussing with my fellow extranjeros.

After this class (read Confessions of an Economic Hitman...absolutely fantastic) a new kind of education begins. I hightail it to the bus terminal with whatever group happens to be traveling that week, and leave for some glorious adventure away from our city. As the bus pulls away from the terminal every week (and never on time...I think that's a LAT) I can feel myself shifting gears from highly-structured Hayley to go-where-the-wind-takes-me Hayley. This is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and explore it is just delicious.

A quick rundown of the past month and a half of adventures, with increasing detail not based on the amount of fun had, but the recentness of the trip, and thus the coolness factor in my mind:

Weekend #1: Salinas, a beach town a couple of hours from Guayaquil. Our gringo group was just getting in the swing of cheap hostals and sketchy beach rentals (running out of gas on that jet ski was a serious possibility), and most importantly, scoping each other out.

Weekend #2: Stayed in Guayaquil. In true Ecuadorian fashion, we watched a futbol (soccer) game, got unfathomably excited about watching good-looking, sweaty men kick a ball around, and went out to celebrate the win of Ecuador's national team against Paraguay. As has become the usual, we were shown a good time by the International Club, one of the only student groups on campus. These folks have decided to create a club who's sole purpose is to befriend the international students and take us out. Sometimes this exotic foreigner thinks the guys' motives are less than innocent, but they are all wonderfully nice, and we are becoming quite good friends. I spent Sunday searching out a tiny bit of nature outside the sprawling metropolis that is Guayaquil, and used the opportunity to clear my head and my lungs of smog.

Weekend #3: Cuenca, a beautiful city in the Sierra (Andes Mountains). Blessedly cool weather, a river running through the center of town, safe, beautiful streets, a gorgeous national park right next door--basically the antithesis of Guayaquil, and about a 6th of the size. I fell so deeply in love, I am considering studying there next semester instead of Quito, as originally planned. But no relationship is simple, and Cuenca brought up some important questions for me. What is it about this city that I liked so much? Is it because it's more like home, more like what I'm used to? It felt like it has more culture than Guayaquil, but is that just because there are more folks wearing traditional garb? I must not fall into the trap of orientalizing the indigenous population, or trying to see them as timeless. Also, Cuenca is a very well-off, well taken-care of city. Besides being far less of a challenge than Guayaquil, would I really get a complete picture of Ecuador studying in such a place? Is if fair to say the rich are not "real Ecuador"? The rich folks in my History of Ecuador class said this themselves...we, as foreigners, need to see the "real Ecuador" by going into poorer parts of the city or talking to the indigenous community. But are they not Ecuadorian? Are they not just as much a part of the "real picture" of this country as the kids at Fundacion Crecer? Either way, after three days of animal markets, eating fried pork right off the pig in the middle of the street with the head still attached (we can get into the morals of my eating habits later), and trying glorious new foods like sugar cane and cuy (guniea pig, just like good ol' Cupid who lived in my sister's room for three years or so), I was ready to apply to the University of Cuenca.

Weekend #4: Montanita. A hippie colony on the beach, and basically a 24-hour party. A necessary stop, because these two streets of party town are just as much a part of Ecuador as Guayaquil, as Cuenca, as my host family. However, once is enough. I got my obligatory surfing in, listened to a reggae concert on the beach, and ate myself into a coma. But I also continued the conversation I've been having for years now about the value of tourism. Tourism can be a fantastic alternative for a community to say, oil exploitation. Or it can be Montanita--where the restaurants and hostals are almost entirely owned by foreigners, and the Ecuadorians scrape what they can from selling jewelry and delicious street food (banana smoothies and egg hamburgers are really the only meal worth having)--not exactly the way I was hoping to spend my time in Ecuador. However, not a minute was wasted. I had an absolute blast, and met six million people from all over the world: Ireland, Ecuador, Argentina, the States... There's no such thing as a wrong move when you travel, except not moving, I think.

Weekend #5: Puerto Lopez, a beach town yet further north on la Ruta del Sol, or the Pacific coast of Ecuador. Everything had a slightly different feeling, because this was the weekend of the vote for the new constitution. According to Ecuadorian law, no alcohol is allowed to be sold for 48 hours before the election, meaning that folks partied at home and not in the bars and discotecas, as is the norm. As is also the norm, enforcement was sketchy, but it did make the streets much more tranquilo than usual. At night, I drank fruit batidos (smoothies) around little fires on the beach, and danced salsa in the sand to the music from some guy's cellphone. During the day, my travel buddies and I caught the tail-end (ha ha) of the whale-watching season, and took a fantastic boat trip out with Wiston Churchill, a nice Puerto Lopez native with the cheapest fares in town. Accompanied by his five year old son who (successfully) called the whales with his well-worn song (Ballenitas!), we felt massively ill, snorkeled at a little unnamed island, and had the absolute best time joking with Wiston, and speculating on the source of his quite interesting name. (Yep, that's Wiston, not Wintson, and he is quite Ecuadorian.) Despite our own unsuccessful whale calls a la Dorey in Finding Nemo (wwwwwwhhhheeeeeeerrrrrrreee aaaarrreeyyyyyoooouuuuuuwwwwhhhaaaaaaaaaallllllesssss???) we were blessed with the most incredible breeching whales imaginable. To watch the calm ocean suddenly explode with a gigantic humpback whale, to be reminded of the world that lives out there, and to see such an incredibly enormous animal get itself completely out of the water is absolutely breathtaking.

On the boat, we met a lovely woman named Christina, a 60-year-old retired nurse from Switzerland who has been traveling for the past two and a half years, and plans to keep traveling until she dies. She has no more plan or structure than to know what continent she's going to be on, and never takes pictures, because all of her memories are in her head. While I can't imagine stopping my chosen profession (that I hopefully love to devote my life to and that is wonderfully beneficial to the world...please don't make me be more specific than that) that young, what a beautiful life. Her kids are grown, her spouse is's just her and her backpack, and doing exactly what she wants to do in any and every city she pleases. Excuse my idealism, but Christina is going on my list. You know, that list of things I want to do in my life that includes the Peace Corps, getting my pilot's license, and doing the entire Appalachian Trail. Don't scoff. Goddamn, I love being 20.

What I loved most about this weekend was how much I felt like I learned. We went to a small community called Agua Blanca that has chosen to cultivate eco-tourism in a very controlled way as their form of development, as opposed to many other, more destructive options. I had a great time grilling our tour guide (for the archeological site and a hike) and got one more picture of Ecuador to add to my list. My buddies and I sat in the back of a camioneta (pickup truck) and bumped along to Manchalilla, a national park with the supposed most beautiful beach in the country. Manchalilla, however, was closed due to the election...but our camioneta driver didn't really care. He seemed quite intent to earn his twenty bucks. He lowered the metal chain blocking our way and spend right into the park, without paying. Soon enough, we were being chased down by the park police, one lone little guy on a motorcycle. We all held our breath in anticipation of being taken away in handcuffs, possibly led in a line behind said motorcycle. All it took was a little finangling, and what ended up being my first South American bribe, and we were on our way to the beach. What we ended up paying our friend Mr. Motorcycle Cop was actually LESS than if we had paid the actual admission to the park. That's definitely an LAT right there.

Well, there are certainly more stories to tell, but I tend to get caught up in details, and I've probably lost half of you by now. I'm super happy here, things are varied and exciting. It's not perfect--but I can't wish for, expect, or even want perfection. I'm learning so much every single day, and I can actually say with some confidence that my Spanish is improving. I have far too many extranjero friends and not enough Ecuadorian friends, I don't watch TV or read enough in Spanish, and my classes aren't exactly inspiring. But I wouldn't go home if you paid me. Life just looks different from this side of the equator.

P.S. Ecuadorian fun fact: Iguanas eat whole bananas, skin and all.


Lisa said...

A lot of those LATs sound a lot like something that would happen here in Barbados too..CTs (Caribbean Things)?. Hiking isn't very big in Barbados either, because it's pretty flat. And there aren't many things to do here that aren't somewhat touristy. Tourism is Barbados's number one money maker. And my classes aren't very inspiring either...but hey...I'm in Barbados...and you're in Ecuador :)

Miss you - Lisa

Ryan said...

Awesome blog! (or blob, as my rather senile nana calls it). I love your analysis of your situation, of "what's Ecuador and what's not," and all the cool stuff you've been doing.

Man I was cracking up when you talked about convincing the Ecuadorians about gay people. That same sentiment exists here unfortunately.

I think in the end what has most helped me here, in living in the moment and enjoying every part of the experience, is to realize I don't always have to be HAPPY here. I think studying abroad is so hyped up, and you only tend to hear the greatest parts, that we study abroaders are surprised to be accompanied by feelings of loneliness from having no close friends, of homesickness, all the things that come along with changing hemispheres etc.

Just like you realized your rich Ecuadorians were as much a part of Ecuador as the poor ones, I realized the tough hard parts of my experience are as legimitate a part of my study abroad experience as my drunken salsa smoke filled club nights!

Hehe, thanks for sharing. Nos vemos amiga! cuidate...