Journals from Semester abroad in Quito, Ecuador
2008-04-06 Life is easy with your eyes closed
Fernando, David, and Alexis: hanging out with these guys has taught me a lot about Ecuador that I didn't notice during my first month or so here.
Hello folks, how is everyone doing? As usual, I've got quite a bit to say, this time about getting lost, learning about food, tolerating the rain, and dealing with racism.
First on the list: don't be afraid to get lost. It's actually kind of fun, and you get to see more of the city. Plus, it really feels like an accomplishment when you finally get home after 4 buses and two hours of travel. As one helpful Ecuadorian once told me on the bus, "Preguntando se llega a Roma" (Asking directions, you can get to Rome). The other day after class I took a green bus at the bus stop outside of the university, just like every other school day for the last three months. I assumed, since many routes are color-coded and it had worked every day for three months, that all green buses at that bus stop went to the station in northern Quito. But no, it turned out that there is one rebel bus that actually goes to the very southern end of Quito.
When the bus turned far before I thought it should, I got a little worried and asked the guy next to me where we were going. He said the name of some place I'd never heard of, and he could tell from the look on my face that it wasn't the answer I was hoping for. He said, "Don't worry, in about twenty minutes we'll get to a bridge, and I get off there. I'll help you catch a bus that will take you back to Quito." So we chatted away and when we got to the bridge, he rattled off a bunch of directions that I didn't really understand and helped me catch the first of several buses I was going to need to take. I got on that bus, looked for a friendly face, and sat down next to a guy about my age. "Um, I'm a little lost Do you know how I can get to the Rio Coca station?" He cheerfully explained that he was going the same direction and was happy to help me out. We got off that bus, and hopped on another one, chatting the whole way. He was very friendly without being flirty, which is a rare combination, and he didn't ask for my phone number or anything, which is also rare among chatty Ecuadorian guys my age. I very much appreciated his help, and eventually made it to the Rio Coca station where I took the last bus in my two-hour Odyssey. I did a little celebration dance when I got home, quite pleased with myself for having made it home from a place I had never heard of and still wasn't quite sure what it was called.
Moral of the story: if you get lost, don't panic. If you stay cheerful and calm, people are more likely to help you and less likely to rob you. Enjoy the trip, chat with the people around you, ask for help, keep track of your stuff and keep your eyes peeled. Read signs, and try to remember a few. Later you might want to find your way back to that place you accidentally ended up in, and if not, at least you got to see somewhere new.
On to the food: I'm never quite sure what I'm supposed to put in my soup. There is some rulebook I've never read that tells you which soups go with cheese (potato locro soup, among others), which go with popcorn (avocado, carrot, and many others), and which go with toasted corn (I dont remember). Today I put cheese in my caldo de patas (I'm still not sure what that's made of; either cows' legs or cows' feet, but it was a weird texture and I didn't really like it), and the whole family gave me strange looks and explained, as if it were obvious, that cheese doesn't go with this soup. Whoops.
I've also gotten a bit confused about how to eat the food. There is a slight difference between lower class relatively rural Honduras and upper class urban Ecuador: in Ecuador, I keep getting my silverware mixed up and forgetting that the little spoon is for the dessert and the big spoon is for the soup. In Honduras, my eight-year-old friend David thought it was funny I kept eating with a fork instead of picking up the food (beans, cheese, eggs mixed with sausage) by pinching it with a piece of tortilla. He kept correcting me while I tried to learn to do it his way, because I was doing it left-handed.
A couple of quick grammar notes:
1) There are a lot of people here who don't use the past subjunctive. Most of you don't care, but for those of you grammar nerds who speak Spanish, I thought I'd mention it. I often hear people say, for example, "Mi mam quera que le compre leche y pan." Sorry, English speakers, I can't really translate this one because this particular grammar distinction doesn't exist in English.
2) Why is there so much t/usted variation between countries, but everyone I've heard uses "t" when they address God and Jesus? It seems to me that if I were religious and I thought someone deserved a bit of respect, it'd be God.
And just a few vocabulary words and phrases:
1) A truck bed in Honduras is a "paila" (which also means "bucket"), but a truck bed in Ecuador is a "cajuela".
2) A los tiempos: It's been a while (people say this a lot when friends or relatives they haven't seen in a couple weeks come over, or when they hear an old song)
3) Amarrarse: It literally means to tie yourself to something, but here college students use it to mean "to officially start dating". For example, "Isabel y Enrique se amarraron hace como dos semanas" (Isabel and Enrique started dating about two weeks ago).
4) pilas: intelligent, though it also means "batteries".
5) chiros: A slang word from the coast meaning broke, out of money. My friends use this word a lot especially the week before payday! People from Quito don't necessarily understand this word.
A quick cultural note: someone stole my host brother's credit card, and the family is trying to iron things out with the bank. When he talked to his mom about it, she said, "A verQuin hay?...Creo que la secretaria del presidente es mi amiga" ("Let's see Who is there?... I think the president's secretary is a friend of mine"). That's how things work around here; if you know the right people, you can work your way through the system quite nicely. If you don't, you're often out of luck. I heard a law student complaining about how they asked a certain lawyer to help them find an archive, and the archive apparently "couldn't be found." After a couple weeks, the student went in to the office and offered the person a couple dollars and poof, the article magically appeared.
Completely changing the subject, the weather has finally cleared up a bit, which is amazing. When I left Seattle in January, it was raining hard. I spent three and a half weeks in Ecuador, where it also rained. All semester, Ecuadorians have been telling me, "It never rains this much, this is crazy!" Then after Oscar's accident I went back to Seattle for two weeks, and it rained there while the sun finally came out in Quito. It was sunny in Seattle the day I left, but the month I spent waiting in Ecuador for the burial in Honduras was quite wet. I kept my hopes up, though, because the Hondurans told me they were in the middle of a very hot summer. Unfortunately, of the seven days I spent there, it was only sunny for two. Everyone was entirely perplexed; they told me, "That's so weird that it's raining, it never rains in the summertime." The day I got back to Quito, it was sunny when my plane landed, but right when the taxi arrived at my host family's house and I was unloading my suitcase, it started to rain. Ridiculous.
Sorry, I'm bad with the transitions today. Here comes another abrupt change. The other day, I saw a very insightful bit of graffiti: "La vida es fcil con los ojos cerrados" (Life is easy with your eyes closed). I entirely agree. My eyes have only recently opened a little wider
Unfortunately, since I started hanging out with a bunch of black soccer players, I've encountered a lot of racism. For example, if I'm with three of my black friends, we can never get a taxi to stop for us, because taxi drivers don't trust a group of three young black guys even if they're with a gringa. They think we're going to rob them, so we always have to take separate taxis and therefore spend twice as much. The other day, I tried to take a taxi with David, and the driver tried to charge us about double what it should have cost. David argued with him, in a calm, friendly sort of way, trying to negotiate a bit and bring the price down like people normally do here. The taxi driver got angry, pulled over after having only driven about three blocks, and told us to get out. At first I thought it was funny, and laughing I asked David what had gotten into that guy. David wasn't so amused, and explained that when taxi drivers see a black guy with a white girl they think he must be "somebody," he must be a famous soccer player or he must have money for some other reason, so they try to overcharge.
I had an interesting conversation the other day with a girl in my bilingual education class. She was telling me about how most women here still don't drive; she hasn't learned, and her mother doesn't drive either. She estimated that only about 1 in 5 women here drive, which from what I've seen is a bit of a low estimate, but makes the point that there certainly is a gender difference in driving habits. I mentioned that both of my parents in the U.S. drive, and that they tend to joke about the difference between New York drivers and Seattle drivers. She laughed and said that yeah, she had spent some time in New York and they were probably the only Americans aggressive enough to survive driving in Ecuador. She said that black New Yorkers were the most aggressive drivers she saw there, and I asked her about Ecuador. She paused, thought for a bit, and said, "Here, they don't really drive." I thought about it too, and now that she mentioned it I couldn't remember seeing any black people driving either. After that I kept an eye out, and after three days, including several hours of fighting traffic during bus and taxi rides back and forth from class and friends' houses, I finally saw one black person driving. I had never noticed how rare it was before that, but come to think of it I've never seen a traditionally dressed indigenous person driving either. I've taken so many taxis and buses in my three months here (several daily, except on Sundays), and I've never seen a black or traditionally dressed indigenous person driving them. Then again, I've never seen a woman driving a taxi or a bus, either, though my friend Araceli says that on her route home she's seen a couple female bus drivers.
One problem I've had lately has been with my host family's maid. She keeps asking about my black friends, then a few minutes afterwards she starts telling me about how some black guys assaulted her friend, or robbed her brother, or attacked her cousin She's told me so many of these stories, and always right after asking about my black friends. The other day, after telling me about how a couple of black guys "almost" assaulted her the other day (how do you "almost" assault someone, anyway?), she said, "That's why I'm afraid of black people." I felt pretty uncomfortable, and thought hard to find a relatively politically correct way to let her know that I didn't agree. I told her that unfortunately a lot of white Americans think that Latinos are all thieves and drug dealers, and that she probably wouldn't like people to think that about her just because she is Latina. She wasn't convinced, and said, "Yeah, but here it's true that almost all of the thieves are black. I'm afraid of them." I shook my head and buried myself in my homework, thinking of all the stories I've heard about exchange students getting robbed and remembering that very few of them said they were robbed by black people. But Rosita is 58 years old and has always lived here, she was raised how she was raised and there's nothing I can do about it. I just keep reminding myself that if I had been born in her situation, I might have similar views. I was raised in Seattle, Washington, by liberal parents, and that has played a large part in shaping who I am. Other than the racism, Rosita is a perfectly nice womanIt's just hard for me to look past the racism.
But let's end with a bit of good news. I read in the newspaper the other day that for the first time in the history of Ecuadorian soccer, a team was fined by a referee because their fans were yelling racist epithets. The newspaper seemed quite surprised about the $2000 fine, because "racist yells are frequent in the stadiums". Ironically, the team that had to pay the fine was Barcelona, an Ecuadorian team from the coast that almost all of my black friends root for I don't really get how fans can hurl racist slurs exclusively at the opposing team, since every professional team that I've seen or heard about here has several black players. Hmm.