Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Story: The Ecuador Year, Part 2

**This is the next installment of His Story:My Life. To catch up on the first portions of the story, feel free to jump over here.**

The Dream to the Nightmare

I lived with 3 different families for that year in Ecuador, and the first two were in the small coastal town of Portoviejo. My first family had a set of twin girls who were around the same age as me. I cried for the whole first month that I lived in Portoviejo, overwhelmed with homesickness and never being able to understand what was being said to me, or about me. I think that sweet little family thought there was something seriously wrong with me, and when they spoke to me, they would raise their voices a few octaves, just short of shouting at me, as if the lack of comprehension was a hearing problem rather than a language problem. I tried to explain, in my broken, broken Spanish, with several pauses for flipping through my dictionary, that I just didn’t understand the vocabulary yet, and so then they began to speak as if in slow motion. I understood and appreciated the intent, but it really didn’t help, as then everything sounded funny and weird and loud.

After a month or so of living with that first family, it was decided that it just wasn’t a very good fit, and I was moved in with a new family, a little more in town and little less loud. This family had only one daughter who was a year younger than me, and turned out to be a lovely host sister. We became friends quite quickly, and she was determined to help me learn to speak. I think she was very excited to have a sister, and she and I got into lots of trouble together.

When school started, I was taken to the seamstress to have my uniform made, which was a humbling experience altogether. I come from German-Scottish roots, which does not produce fragile people, for the most part. And compared to the smaller frames of Ecuadorians, I was quite the giant. So as I am being measured for my skirt, which was like a turquoise checkered picnic blanket, the seamstress mentioned that I was quite the “gringota” and would require much fabric. Sigh. Gringota.

I was learning the intricacies of the Spanish language, and seeing that you could tack an adjective on to the end of end of any word. So I was often referred to as “gringa,” which simply means “white girl,” but by adding “-ota” onto the end of it, I was now “big white girl.” There were three other Americans living in Portoviejo at the time with the same program that I was in. They were small and cute and were lovingly referred to as “gringitas,” the “-ita” making the white girls small. I liked the term gringita. It sounded dainty and sweet. It sounded like something you would say in a high-pitched voice to a baby, or endearingly to a cute little girl, while gringota sounded like a word that would boom out of the mouth of the giant at the top of the bean stalk. The other girls on the team, they were gringitas, but me, I was gringota. And now a gringota with a turquoise checkered picnic blanket wrapped around my waist. Lovely.

So school started, which was quite a shock to the system. It was an all-girls’ school, each one in her turquoise checkered picnic blanket. The classrooms were lined up next to each other, forming a large square of classrooms with a spacious courtyard in the middle of them all. The courtyard has a grassy area on one half and a basketball court on the other with cracked cement, old wooden backboards and rims with no nets. I wondered about the basketball court, given the apparent lack of height to the overwhelming majority of Ecuadorian girls, but maybe it was just something that was a standard part of schools.

My host sister and I would wander into the courtyard in the morning, waiting for the bell to ring signaling the beginning of class. My host sister was more like a rock star in those days, showing off her gringota, and all the little girls of the school would crowd around and press in with too many questions, their long dark hair pulled back so tightly into ponytails that their eyes were lifted up into Asian accents. They would all giggle as I struggled to comprehend what they were saying, pausing them every few words to thumb through my trusty pocket dictionary with frayed edges and tattered corners. I didn’t understand most of what they said in those days, but they quizzed about my old school, and my family and friends in the states, trying to get a picture of what my home was like.

Then the school bell would ring and squeals would fill the courtyard as chaos ensued and girls ran to their classrooms with no windows and no doors. We stayed in the same classroom all morning long, and sometimes a teacher showed and sometimes no one showed up for hours. So the scene from the courtyard would continue in the classroom right up until a teacher showed up and sent everyone to her own seat.

It was interesting taking classes in a Spanish all-girls’ high school, and most of the classes I had already taken in the states and most of the material I already knew because I was a teacher’s pet. But it was fun to learn that organic chemistry is essentially exactly the same in Spanish as it is in English, and that made it fun, assuming organic chemistry can be considered fun.

So we would spend our morning sitting in our one classroom, waiting and wondering if a teacher was going to show up for this hour, and then we were excused for the day at lunchtime. I really loved this part of their culture. The entire family would arrive at home for a massive lunchtime feast, and then lay down for an afternoon siesta before returning to work.

For us, the end of lunch signaled beach time, so we would hop onto a taxi bus, again with no window and no doors, and make our way to the nearby beach, where we would spend the rest of the day playing in the waves and dumping back cervezas at the local bar called Topless. We would show up at the house briefly in the evening for a light dinner with family and then meet friends in town for more frolicking foolishness.

It really was a pretty good gig for a rebellious teenager, where it seemed we could really do whatever we liked. And right up until the heinous happened, I felt like I was living the high-life. But then there was a night that we went out, and I made the grave mistake of staying behind when my girlfriend said it was time to go. I told her I would be fine, as I was there with friends, and I was sure that they would take me home. And I shot back another swig of Cana Manabita which was more like firewater than anything and burned liked flames to old planks of wood as it traveled down my throat. And she kept asking and urging and I kept telling her that I would be fine because I knew all the guys there and I would be leaving shortly anyway, I just wasn’t ready quite yet.

Oh but if I had been ready. If I had gotten up, set the firewater down and slurred out a goodnight to all there. If I had walked away with my girlfriend that night, rather than staying, continuing to throw back shots of firewater, how different my life would have looked. That night changed everything. 

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