A volunteer trip to Ecuador, journeying down a mountain and through community, customs, and tea.
The frigid, damp air kept my body from truly falling asleep. A repeated knock on our door woke me up, more than the frigid air already had. I rolled onto my side to check the small alarm clock – 5:07 a.m.The pounding resumed – “¡Niῆas, tiempo para desayuno!” Right now? I asked myself.
“How do we ask for more blankets?” Emily groaned at the thought of getting out of her cold bed into the colder air. She slept in two sweatshirts, a pair of sweats, and two pairs of socks. My frozen feet slithered out of bed, tentatively touching the tile. Central heating was non- existent in Ecuador. I willed gratefulness to enter my body as I hurriedly threw warmer clothes on. Shorts and a sweatshirt. I would suffer for a few hours, but when 10 a.m. hit, I would be sweating. Such is Ecuador.
Breakfast was waiting for us when we entered the main house. I didn’t drink tea, but it was offered.
“Te, mijas.” Before we left for Quito, I should’ve looked up the customary way to refuse something without offending anyone. I would have to ask Francisco, the director of the volunteer organization. For now, I sipped my tea. It smelled amazing and tasted like slightly-off water. I wasn’t sure if all tea tasted like this or if it was just Ecuador.
Breakfast was a tomato and cheese sandwich with some sort of watered down, ketchup-like paste on it. Perhaps their ketchup was different. Perhaps I was ignorant of Ecuadorian ketchup tendencies. I had no idea what was in it, but asking seemed rude. Similarly, there was a squash-like thing that had been cut up and was lying on the table to eat.
“¿Que es esto?” At the very least, I knew how to ask “what is this?”
“Es una fruta dulce, granadilla,” Our host mother said. Emily looked to me. Every time they spoke, it was Spanish. Every time we were to speak, it was to be Spanish. Buena practica, my maestra had said to them.
“Sweet fruit,” I said in passing to my two friends, whose Spanish skills were nonexistent. Though, the same could be said for me at 5:12 a.m. What kind of fruit, I had no idea. Could probably kill us. Who knew? Not me.
Our host parents sat at the table, eating and exchanging news they had read in the paper. I caught words here and there –economy, fight, street, politics, economy—but it was too early to piece together.
“What are you doing today?” Annie, our host mother, asked. I quickly translated to my friends.
“Nosotros, uh,” How do you say hike? “Caminará, uh, up, ah–¿una montaña?” I turned to my friends for support. One claimed to know Spanish, or at least, we were in the same class together.
“Use the future tense,” Jayanne said as if it was as easy as toasting bread.
“Right, the -ara?” We sat in collusion, trying to determine the best course of action.
“Nosotros caminara…¿mos?” I forgot how to conjugate the future tense, aside from that first form.
“Si, si, caminaremos,” Annie encouraged us, “¿A donde?”
“Up una montaña,” I said confidently.
“Up? ¿Que es ‘up’”? Annie asked in a gently mocking voice. We were not to get away with any English in her presence.
I went through a list of Spanish prepositions.
“¿Abajo?..no. Desde, ante de, uh, sobre…” Annie’s eyes narrowed slightly, but she smiled, encouraging me.
“¡Arriba!” I yelled.
“¡Si, claro que si, mi amor!” Annie said, clapping excitedly.
At the honk of a horn, we were quickly ushered to the slightly-warmer van, in which several of our friends and our maestra waited. I was glad to be rid of my bland leaf-water, which I left half full on the table.
Our journey to Quito was because of was a volunteer trip. Several classmates, two teachers, and I ventured down to Quito, Ecuador in order to volunteer at a local school for students with visual or hearing impairments. Some of my friends knew American Sign Language, some knew Spanish. I fell into the latter category. Though I would’ve scoffed at the thought of being the primary translator on our trip weeks ago, it turned out to be the case, beginning urgently when we arrived at customs upon landing. Obviously, our Spanish teacher was fluent, but she made me do all the translating work, disguised as practice. Certainly, I practiced patience that week.
I was forced into the role of translator during our drive, butchering long, poetic descriptions of lush nature and rich history with truncated phrases that skipped the poetics and went straight for factual information. If my classmates had paid more attention in Spanish class, they would’ve realized how much information they were missing.
We picked up Francisco and his daughters before getting on our way. Soon during our drive, everyone except Francisco’s young daughters were asleep. They chattered endlessly in Spanish, occasionally looking over to see if I understood. When I laughed along, they glared at me, making it clear that this third and fifth grade gossip was for their ears only. To be fair, their proficiency in the Spanish language also meant that it was for their ears only. I quickly fell asleep.
My head lolled, slamming it against the window, sharply snapping me out of my slumber. We were careening down a winding road. Opposite of us was a cliff that dropped off so suddenly that I doubt you would be able to tell if a car had actually gone over.
Cars carelessly passed by us, nearly wrecking with other cars as they swerved to return to the proper side of the road. Our driver commented that while this was a hard road to drive, Ecuadorians were some of the safest drivers in all of South America. I nodded along, certain I had just misheard her. I laughed, for good measure. San Francisco taxi drivers had never seemed so skilled and safe.
Finally off of the extremely lofty mountainside, we drove through luscious forests and over steep riverbeds. We pulled over unceremoniously on the side of the road. I assumed it was to let more cars pass,, but she maneuvered into a self-created parking spot. Convinced we were just taking a momentary break on this never ending road trip, we all exited the car and stretched out, hugging the side of the road. After a few short minutes, we climbed back into the car, prepared to endure this journey for the long haul.
“Do you not want to hike?” Francisco asked.
“Here?” My friend asked, incredulous that we would simply begin our hike at a random point at the side of the road.
“Yes, yes, just up ahead is the opening to a magnificent waterfall. We will hike down to the base of it.” Francisco says quickly in Spanish, turning to wait for me to translate.
“This is it?” My friend asked, sounding bored of our adventure already.
“This is it!” Francisco exclaimed.
We rounded a thick tree and came upon a broad entrance that was otherwise invisible from the road. My thighs burned as I trotted down the mountainside. Sweat dripped down my back, sticking my white shirt to skin, further exacerbated by the backpack I was carrying. Water bottles slammed against my back, irritating me as we walked down the beaten path. The humid air filled my lungs with a perpetual heat that labored my breathing as we continued toward the waterfall.
Conversation was limited, both because of the noise and because of our breathing. Physical activity at 1,400 meters restricted any excess discussion. As we passed a sign that denoted the new altitude, my brain churned in an attempt to compute the number to feet. What was the conversion rate again? A meter was almost a yard. I tried to create a visual math problem for myself, dividing by three, arriving at four hundred something. My Spanish was better than my math. I contemplated the reasons I decided to come to Ecuador. Waking up at 5 a.m. to sweat profusely wasn’t too high on the list, from my memory.
My brain translated the conversation with Francisco as we walked. Hearing was easy; I could pick up general ideas based on the keywords I heard. When it came to speaking, sounding like an idiot was just as easy. I misconjugated my verbs, denoting the wrong tenses and people involved, causing mass confusion when I spoke. I processed the information. Sweat dripped down my cheek. I summarized the information. My damp shirt stuck to my stomach.
We tramped down stairs that gradually grew wetter as we descended the other side of the mountain. A dull roar saturated the air, matching the intensity of the humidity. We quickly came upon a platform, from which we could hear, see, and feel this magnificent waterfall.
The wooden platform was slick with spray from the cascading falls. We shouted over the waterfall. Take my picture, take our picture, let’s get a group picture.
I could hardly keep my eyes open as water splashed over the railing, covering my body. Water soaked my clothes and droplets rolled off my backpack, onto my legs. My shirt and shorts clung to my body is a sweet, cool relief from the thick air.
Ecuador was a community. At the waterfall, it was in the photos. Whether it was the old ladies in the supermercado or the old men playing chess in el parque, there was always a familial smile, a jovial greeting, and slow, drawling Spanish.
This trip was not about us as tourists. This trip was about us experiencing Ecuador in a hope to understand the why of Ecuador. Despite hardships, there was a sense that they were better off than we were. When asked about not having a home computer, my host mother replied that they had a library that was full of computers, meaning they didn’t need one. They went to the grocery store to restock for longer periods of time, buying primarily nonperishable items. They bought produce from the produce market, they bought bread from the baker down the block, they bought fresh meat from the butcher up the other side of the block. Life in Ecuador was simpler in a manner that we couldn’t grasp. For us, having more was easier. A television in the living room and one in the bedroom, in case one wants to watch in either location. Not sure if you want risotto or couscous? Buy both. But this wasn’t the mindset in Ecuador.
At first, I was under the impression that Francisco spoke slowly to accommodate my lower Spanish skills, yet it became apparent that the people of Ecuador were patient and understanding. Their language reflected that.
“How much?” I asked shyly at a supermercado, trying to blend the words together to hide my mispronunciation.
“Veinticinco y setenta y cinco.” I nodded in understanding. My friend asked what the woman had said. My mind raced to process, as I had not actually understood what she had said. Just like conjugating verbs, numbers above ten were a weakness. I held my hand up slightly, sure to keep it slightly beneath the table as I counted like a grade school girl.
“Twenty, twenty-five,” I kept counting, “Se–uh, seventy?” I looked to my friend.
“Si, setenta y cinco, seventy-five” She confirmed, smiling broadly at me. I blushed in embarrassment. Certainly numbers weren’t difficult. I resolved to practice tonight.
This trip to the waterfall was a day out for many families to enjoy together. They were unaware and uncaring of our existence in their space. We were not special. This humbling piece of nature was special. We were all merely here to experience what nature had given the world. In that, we were equal.
Everyone wanted a photo. First, it was a young family asking us to take one. This turned into them discovering that we were abroad and they said we should all take a photo. For the next twenty minutes, we spent our time discussing our purpose here, both in Ecuador and at the waterfall, randomly joining photos when asked. But there was a sense that this wasn’t because we were American or young or noticeable, it was simply because we came to the waterfall. We stepped into the community that was occurring at the waterfall at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and as such, had to participate.
On the hike back up, Maria, Francisco’s 10-year-old daughter, grew tired from walking. I offered to carry her back up the mountain. She laughed at the silly idea, but silently contemplated it. I traded my backpack with a friend and offered to carry her once more. She climbed onto my back, and we raced to the top of the hill, beating everyone else in our group.
She spent the car ride reiterating how grateful she was, telling her father and anyone else who would listen. If I’m honest, the girl weighed as much as my backpack did. But she giggled. It was a welcomed interruption.
When we returned late that night from our all day excursion, I welcomed the sight of dinner and a cup of tea already sitting on the table. The warm liquid flooded my mouth, heating my throat and stomach as it went down. During the second sip, I noticed the sweet honey taste that accompanied the warm liquid. At home, community was correcting me gently and a cup of tea waiting for you when you got home.