The Road Back

1:6-TreeI’m back in the US. I’ve been back for some time, truth be told. I’ve been tearing through books, dog-sitting, running errands and decompressing from the last several months.

A run-down of the trip itself: I took a taxi to the Quito airport, discussing politics and infrastructure with the driver. Resolutely spoke Spanish to the ticket agent, despite attempts to engage me in English. Flew to Panama, flew to LA, flew to Denver. Twenty-four hours later, I was home.

A wise person once told me that planes carry us faster than the body was meant to go; traveling by air cancels distance at such a mind-boggling rate that the spirit gets left behind. She said, “By the time your body gets home, your spirit is probably still hovering somewhere off the coast of Panama.” She was right. If there had been a reliable, safe intercontinental train (ha!) I would’ve boarded it in a heartbeat, just to allow myself to process the true distance of that journey. For the first time in my life, I felt cheated out of the magnitude of my trip. I wanted to pay for those thousands of miles with my time, but paid with money instead.


A study in cognitive dissonance at the Panama airport. Darwin award winners only.

I did not experience heavy culture shock upon return – the worst of it was in the LA airport, where I noticed how tall everyone was, how rude some people seemed, how helpful others were but how I didn’t recognize their communication style, how the money I forked over for a sandwich and juice could’ve lasted me through a day of dining in Ecuador (fourteen dollars?!?), and so on. I curled up on a bench at 1am and waited for the check-in desk to reopen at 3:45. That morning was a low point.

When I got home, it seemed like home. I didn’t imagine a parallel reality (“In Ecuador it would be like this…”) and I didn’t annoy my family with a litany of expectations picked up from a different culture. (Why are the trash cans and cars so big? Why are the mountains so small? Where’s the rice? Why does the sun barely rise? Why aren’t there people selling fruit on the corner and knick-knacks at traffic lights?). I devoured vegetables gleefully and gradually came to accept the small mountains and weak winter sunshine. And paid more attention to my dreams.

Before we all left, our program director advised us to tune in with the sleeping brain, because many South American cultures treat dreams as another facet of reality. That counsel came at the opportune moment, just when I was working malaria medication out of my system; the extra-vivid dreams generated by the pills made it easy to remember episodes from my subconscious.


I made a friend in the Galápagos!

What I didn’t expect was that my entire semester would take on a dreamlike aspect. In the grocery store I find things – guayusa tea, yuca chips – that spark nostalgia, but they’re not enough to break the barrier between my two realities. The person I was in Ecuador is still here, but dormant inside my Spanish brain, and last semester feels like another life. In this state, it becomes all the more important to remember things that are intangible, but still a vital piece of who I am.

I asked a former teacher of mine how I could hold my experiences together, not think of them as disconnected episodes from different worlds. She told me that I shouldn’t try. In class, she liked teaching the theory and practice of syzygy – an astronomy term that she interpreted to mean, “holding two wildly different things together to see what comes out of the tension between them.” In this model, you needn’t try to reconcile different experiences or make them fit together neatly. Instead, you try your best to let each element “dance to its own rhythm,” even when those rhythms are wildly disparate – and see what comes out of it.

So that is my project for the present. Making space in myself for a lot of divergent memories and feelings to dance around. Not trying to craft a neat narrative, and taking my cue from Zadie Smith, who advises, “protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” At times, I have found this to be just as true about changing as writing.

Before we left, we were told, “When you miss Ecuador, remind yourself that life goes on here, with or without you.” It doesn’t do to be completely self-absorbed; somewhere, taxi drivers are still cheating gringas, panaderías are still wafting ambrosial bread smells, and people are still cramming themselves into buses like sardines into a can. This is a source of both wistfulness and consolation.

1:6 Kiba

In Between a Writing Frenzy: wks. 13-14

View from the back of Urban Agriculture Program office

View from the back of Urban Agriculture Program office

I moved out of my host family’s house and to Hostal Macondo during this last week, where I became the strange guest who lurks in the kitchen after hours with only the glow of a computer screen lighting the room. I left occasionally to scout for provisions (read: guava ice cream), but largely confined myself to the hostel. It was a pretty but mundane place, despite the its magical namesake – except for the wooden parrot hanging in the courtyard that never stopped swinging, breeze or no breeze. On the fourth night I finally finished Cien años de soledad, with a sense of fulfilling destiny.

On Wednesday I went to the urban agriculture site for the last time and planted the herbs I’d bought from a local market: rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena, mint and lemon balm. I said my goodbyes to Angel, Fidel and Juan (the workers) and the eleven puppies behind the compost, bought a round of bread for everyone, and left the farm.

That afternoon, I taught the last English class to my small group of municipal employees; there was food, music by Simon and Garfunkel,11:25-LastClass1 lively debates on immigration and the American dream, and the exposition of English swear words that I had promised to give before I left, complete with a few gestures to give my students a well-rounded skill set. When the municipal boss man dropped in to shake my hand, three of us hastily obstructed his view of the whiteboard, giggling. In short, the best class ever.

11:20-BlueDomesFriday was my last day in Cuenca. In between printing and binding my final essay (now a plump 28 pages long), I paid $2 to attend the national orchid exposition behind the cathedral, where I saw an astounding variety of orchids, bonsais and succulents. There was also a man selling honey and bee products, including bee bread (“Take four pieces a day for fifteen days, to correct your nutritional deficiencies”). I struggled not to spend the rest of my money, and eventually left with a little jar of hand cream made with bees’ royal jelly. I already have honey shampoo from the agro-ecological fair, and my collection of apian curiosities grows.


They grow up so fast!

Later, another night bus – but not before I almost stole my room key after checking out of Hostal Macondo. On the way to Quito, the driver’s mild road rage set me a bit on edge (we passed the same van about five times on curvy mountain roads- it wouldn’t surprise me if this conflict had started generations ago). Still, I enjoyed the nighttime scenery. Once I thought we were passing by a glacial lake, until I squinted and saw a valley cloaked in clouds. As we drove into Quito at dawn, Pichincha looked like a cutout on the horizon. I realized again how much I love this city, even though I didn’t expect to. I’m travel-lagged from a near all-nighter, but it almost feels like home.



Less homey: the creepy man in orange who ambled up to me when I got off the bus, started up a one-way conversation, and resolutely ignored the much-friendlier Ecuadorian man on my left. Man in orange said he was Argentinian; I told him I was from Cuenca, declined to name my family, and hoped he would go away. He had a roll of wire and pliers, and as he talked he twisted a small treble clef and broke it off. He stuck the treble around my ear, remarking that this was much easier than getting a real piercing. I declined to pay for the adornment, and he bristled, but said an Argentinian never rescinds his gifts, and finally walked off. I climbed into a taxi, bargained the driver down to a slightly more reasonable price, and was on my way (“¿Me ve cara de gringa? $2.50”).

The sense of déjà vu when I got to the hotel was incredible. I stared into the room where we had all waited for our Quito host families to pick us up three months ago, nervously twisting our fingers. I didn’t realize how far I’d come until then, arriving alone after 280 miles of independence. Leaving the hotel for lunch brought an echo of my first walk in the city, hand clenched over my bag, looking around warily. A lot has changed since then. Buses sped by, packed to the gills with people, and I actually missed riding them.


Cuenca: wks. 11-12


Your brain on field research


It’s ISP season! For those unfamiliar, it’s the Independent Study Project required of all SIT students, for which we travel to separate destinations for four weeks of field study, then complete a 25-30 page essay at the end. It’s not impossible to do gradually, but I personally am not the gradual type. I’m a hare aspiring to be a tortoise. Or maybe just a hare aspiring to be a jackalope, because I imagine the horns slow you down quite a bit.

So I’m halfway through the ISP period, and reaching the point where I need to start writing. It’s the kind of thing you can dance around by doing chunks at a time – acknowledgements, abstract – before making the final investment. Can’t delay for long, though, since I basically need to have it done by the end of this week. Usually students write during the fourth week, but I may be visiting farming families around Cuenca then, so better to do the bulk of it now.

11:10 Cuyes color

Guinea pig: it’s what’s for dinner. (Note: I have not actually eaten guinea pig in Ecuador…yet.)


Vegetables for delivery



In the meantime, this city is fabulous. I see green things every day, and there’s an ice cream shop that’s heavenly. On a normal day I take a bus to the urban agriculture office at 8am, then visit one of the program farms. The primary one, Yanaturo, is where I help with whatever’s happening that day – cutting grass for the guinea pigs (meals, not pets), making compost, planting radishes, etc.

11:2-GraffitiPianoManOn Monday and Wednesday afternoons, I teach English to ten municipal employees; their certified teacher went back to New Mexico, and then they drafted me, so I do my best. I’m going to take this opportunity to implement my personal philosophy of language learning – that no one truly knows a language until they can curse in it. The last day will be a profanity-laced learning adventure.

But it isn’t the last day yet, so we’re learning about grammatical constructions, learning vocabulary and correcting homework errors. Yesterday I took various foods (NUTELLA) to class to teach flavor and texture words. Then my beautiful students took it upon themselves to bring local dishes to class tomorrow. Teaching adults is fabulous.

On a different note, I’m suffering from a touch of the homesickness. Odd, since it hasn’t been a problem for the last two months. I attribute it to the encroaching stress of the ISP (though not as bad as finals at Whitman) and to being without the group I spent the first two months with, sharing our wacky experiences and going on excursions together. To compensate, I ordered books on Amazon that I’ll read during my six-week winter break, and bought a box of crunchy pastries to munch on. Let the essay-writing begin.

Unrelated: I’ve also had many opportunities to expand my “Dogs of Ecuador” series. The following is a small exposition. 11:16-MamaDog2   11:10 TableDogCOLOR11:10-BenchDog11:16-Puppies1