This is a post that I began writing on the plane ride home. I no longer feel quite as sad, but I definitely do miss Ecuador. Without further ado…
Today is April 25th, the day I have been looking forward to since I booked my second round-trip flight in early November (about a week after being in Ecuador). I remember sitting on my bed in Reyna’s house, realizing how hard it was to be away from everything I knew and, instead, be thrown into a world completely different than the one I was used to. I knew that coming to Ecuador was the right thing for me to do, and that I was following my dreams and whatnot, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was living the dream at the time. Somehow, going online and booking the second trip (Kansas to Ecuador in February and Ecuador to Kansas in April) reminded me that I wasn’t going to be in that culturally, linguistically, and generally confusing planet for the rest of my life.
I had no idea how much I would grow and change over the six months. How much I would not only grow to tolerate, but actually love my host family. How much I would learn to not just deal with the language barrier, but overcome it and renew my passion for decoding new languages. How when I exited Ecuador in April, the joy I imagined feeling at finally going home would be blighted with sadness, because I would be leaving a new home.
I’m going to recount the end of my time in Ecuador, one goodbye after the next. Most of why I’m writing this is so that I will feel better. It really bothers me that I’m on a plane, somewhere in between Miami and Chicago, and I don’t feel very happy.
Feelings are so funny. I’ll start my story with last Wednesday. Reyna got crazy mad at me over absolutely nothing. I had made cookies the night before (no-bakes, the most doable kind of cookies to make in a high altitude country/ house that uses its oven as an extra cupboard) and at 5:45 the next morning, when we were sitting down to eat breakfast, she told me I had left the kitchen a complete mess. I don’t want to go into the details of the argument, but I can honestly say that she was making up everything she was saying because I had cleaned the kitchen- washed and dried all the dishes, cleaned the stovetop, cleaned the countertop, put everything away- (she must have just woken up on the wrong side of the bed) and exaggerating (“you are abusive with my house and ungrateful”).
You really don’t want to cross Reyna. Like I’ve hinted at in other posts, she is a special breed of human, definitely not to everyone’s liking. But she has her charm, and when she gives you her love, she really pours it on. I guess there’s just no in-between with her. Anyway, this was the first fight we had had in a couple of months, and I couldn’t believe she was instigating it a week before I left. I remember saying to her over the tense breakfast “Well, it’s a good thing you only have to put up with me abusing your house and annoying you for another week!” Did I mention that I’ve learned how to argue in Spanish, like a Latina? I guess it’s just another thing 6 months in a sometimes volatile Spanish-speaking environment will do to a person.
I talked to a handful of people within the next few days, and told them how much I was dying to just go home. I had had it with living under her roof, teaching in schools that so often put education on the back-burner, and constantly trying to improve an organization that still has such a long way to go. I kept focusing on the fact that I only had one more week. With that in mind, I knew that as much as I was not to blame, I could not let some ridiculous fight ruin my last few days with Reyna, so I did everything I could last Wednesday to make things right. I did not want to leave on a bad note. That night, once things were better between us, I went to one of the small shops near our house that I went to a couple of times each week. I realized that it might be the last time I went there, and since I’m someone who really needs to get closure, I told the shop owner that I was leaving in a week. Her apathetic reaction made me feel really stupid! Haha, that and the fact that I ended up returning another two times before actually leaving. But it was my first goodbye.
Second goodbyes came the next day. My volunteer friend from England, Alice, was leaving right before I was, so we shared our TEV despedida (farewell get-together). Edith, the TEV “boss” took the remaining three volunteers (at our peak, we were six- now there’s only one left) out for dinner and gave Alice and me (HEY MOM AND AUNT BETTY, I almost said “Alice and I,” but corrected myself- maybe there is hope that that grammar lesson will sink in) a couple of Ecuadorian souvenirs. I remembered so vividly the first time I had met Edith in person, and she took Felicia and I out for a typical Ecuadorian dish, llapingacho, and thought about how quickly the time had gone by.
Third goodbye: this one was hard. Friday was my last day teaching English at my elementary school in Guamote. Teaching there was never easy; the teachers were so often absent and it is especially hard to manage a class when students don’t speak your language; classes were canceled for the weirdest reasons; and even on good, productive teaching days, I left the school completely exhausted. Still, it was so rewarding. I was the only English teacher at the school, so I was completely responsible for every word the students learned- and all the words they didn’t.
Then there were the students- as squirmy as they could be and as much as they liked to not pay attention in class just as much as any North American kid, they did have a deep interest in learning English. This was the first time (and may be the only time in my teaching career) that I had students begging me to assign them homework. And they were so friendly. Each day that I walked onto the school grounds, I felt slightly like a celebrity because the children would run up to me, smile, and say “Hello, señorita Patricia!” or excitedly shout “Good morning, teacher!” And as much as the teachers had a tendency to be somewhat slackerish, they were always very warm toward me. Through the number of teacher-only parties, I definitely bonded with many of them. Since this was my last day, during recreo, the teachers threw me a despedida. We gathered into one of the classrooms and ate fried chicken, rice, and salad. The director gave a speech about how much they will miss me, and how much I’ve taught the students. I also said some words. It was really lovely. I’m very glad, however, that this teacher-only function did not last for hours, the way some of the teacher-only meetings have, nor involve alcohol, because I was able to teach all of my classes that day.
I had planned some vocab review games, which the students got really into! In each class, I gave a small speech about it being my last day (after saying this, there were always class-wide groans and voices shouting “No te vayas!” Don’t go!) and how much I had enjoyed working with the students, that they were really special children that had a lot of potential for learning another language (it helps that the majority of them already know two- Spanish and Quichua). I told them that I hoped they would keep using their English books to practice for the rest of the school year, and that they would get another volunteer English teacher in September (what a relief!) When we sang our daily songs, I told them to do it with gusto, because it would be the last time (so sad!)
Click on the “photo” below to watch a video of my kids singing their Hello song!
At the end of the day, I made sure to individually say goodbye to each teacher, and as many students as I could. About half an hour after school let out, I finally left. Walking away, I felt a lump in my throat and decided that sunglasses would be necessary. I really will never forget those students.
Goodbye number four: Since my flight was on Wednesday (today), I had plans to work both Monday and Tuesday. Even though I got a head start on packing Sunday, Monday when I was at school with Reyna, I was telling her how much I still needed to do before leaving Riobamba Tuesday afternoon (the 24th). She said “You don’t have to come tomorrow, you know.” She was right. A nation-wide reading comprehension test was on Wednesday, and the school was in a panic. During Reyna’s classes, the students read quietly, giving reports at the end of class on what they had read. I sat beside Reyna and knit. There really was no longer any reason for me to be there.
She went one step further “You really do have a lot to do. You can go home early if you want.” I didn’t want to leave yet (I think it was around 10:30 when we had this conversation), but my mile-long to-do list was making me anxious. She could see that I was thinking about it and said “Really, it’s fine.” There were students in the class supposedly reading their magazines (comprehension practice) while we were discussing this, but they didn’t hide the fact that they were listening to us, understanding that I might leave them that day. I looked at them, sadly, got up, and began making my rounds to different classes so that I could say goodbye to each teacher and to the students. However, the bell rang after I had only finished in one class. It was recreo. I wandered, dismally, into the office and said something faux-nonchalantly like “Well, I’m going to leave now.” The teachers’ ears perked up: “Today? We thought tomorrow was your last day.” I then explained how much I still had to do. They quickly organized all the teachers into the office, so that I could say goodbye to everyone at the same time.
When all the teachers were gathered in the small room, I started to speak. I could not believe how overcome with emotion I was. Immediately, tears started flowing. I could see my pain reflected in the faces of the teachers listening to me- many of them had tear-rimmed eyes too (Reyna was losing it about as much as I was). I thanked them for accepting me into their institution with such warmth, even when I was that practically mute, perpetually confused gringa. I told them that I really would miss them and think about them. And I promised that one day, some number of years down the road, I would return to Ecuador and visit them. Then, the vice-director spoke (unfortunately, the director wasn’t there that day) and thanked me for my service, said it was a joy to have me, and that they would definitely miss me. I then hugged each one of them, and the siren sounded, ending recreo. I couldn’t believe how sad it was making me to say goodbye to them. I had to collect myself, however, because the students were being filed into the assembly hall so that I could say goodbye to them as well. Fortunately, I made it through my speech to them without crying, though I think they could tell by my weakening-at-times voice that I was close to tears.
I said something like “I remember six months ago, when I was made to speak in front of all of you. I barely knew any Spanish and it was terrifying. Now, here I am, doing the same thing, but it feels so different. I’ve learned so much in my time in Ecuador- another language, how to dance, how to knit, and much more about Ecuadorian culture. I hope that you all have learned from me as well- perhaps you’ve learned a bit more English, especially in regards to the pronunciation. More than that, I hope that you’ve learned that friendships can be formed between people of different cultures and languages, and when they are, both parties learn a lot. I hope that you have more of an interest in English, and also an interest in traveling. I know you may think it’s expensive, and that it is an impossible idea, but being abroad is the best way to learn another language, and the government offers scholarships to students who are driven. If any of you do make it to the United States some day, feel free to contact me through facebook or email [I gave them my information] and I’ll do anything I can to make you feel as welcomed as you’ve made me feel in your community. It’s been such a pleasure knowing you all and teaching you. I wish you all the best.” Then, the vice president spoke again, we hugged, and the assembly was out. A few minutes later, I boarded El Condor, the bus that transports people between Pulingui and Riobamba. Right before it left, the school janitor, a sweet indigenous man with whom I had a couple of language exchanges (Quichua and English) found me on the bus, said goodbye for the second time, and got off. It was a long ride home.
Fifth goodbye: Monday night was my last night in Riobamba, so I had planned on making a nice meal for the family. After tearfully leaving Pulingui, I spent all afternoon running around Riobamba. Finally, I started making spaghetti around 7 pm. At about 7:30, Reyna, Anita Julia, Santiago, Nancy (the woman who helps Anita around the house), David, and I sat down and ate our spaghetti with marinara and garlic bread. After dinner, I gave out the handful of presents I had bought for them, to show them my appreciation for the time they had accepted me into their home. That’s when the crying began. Reyna slowly said “Listen, Tricia. Both Anita and Juan Pablo suggested that we have a despedida for you. I told them that I couldn’t. I couldn’t throw you a party, because it was impossible for me to celebrate something that I was so sad about.” We spent the next 30 minutes or so sitting around the dinner table, making sappy speeches and weeping.
Finally, Reyna and I headed to our house downstairs. Down there, we tried to forget that it was my last night so that it wouldn’t feel so sad. We talked about anything but that. While trying to be cool about it all, I realized her house key was in my jeans pocket. I pulled it out and handed it to her. She shook her head and said “I know you’ve heard me say this before, and you think it’s a joke, but you really are another daughter to me now. This is your home, so you are going to keep that key. That means you have to come back and see me. Promise me that!” Of course, we were both misty-eyed again at that point, and I hugged her and promised her that I would be back. I joked “Well, now that I have the key, you’re going to come home from work one day in a couple of years and find a gringa waiting for you inside!” She said that would be great (I think it sounds like a horror movie).
The final goodbyes came the next day, when I left Riobamba. When my shared taxi for Quito (which I ended up not being able to take because I had too much luggage- though the driver gave me a lift to the bus station) pulled up to the house, Reyna, her grandson Santiago, Nancy, and the shop owner across the street (who had given me her home phone number and offered to host me if I came back to visit! Reyna would be so upset if I took her up on it, but it was really sweet) saw me off.
The most dramatic goodbye was the one with Anita, her husband Marcelo, and, of course, their sweet baby David. They had been out of town all morning, so I didn’t think I’d get to say goodbye to them. However, with the delays caused by the taxi not transporting me and having to get a bus instead, we realized that they would be back in Riobamba as I was leaving. Over the phone, we agreed upon a roundabout the bus would pass, where we could meet for quick hugs. I asked the bus driver, who was fine with it, then sat in the seat next to him (and felt like the queen of the bus) so I could watch for them. When we reached the spot where they were waiting, I jumped out of the bus, and hugged the three of them while tears ran down all of our cheeks (okay, just Anita’s and mine). When I hugged baby David, I seriously lost it. I was probably only with them for 30 seconds before getting back on the bus. I had been friendly and jokey with the driver before. Now I was a bawling disaster, so I mustered a “gracias” and hurried to my seat. All the passengers looked at me with such alarm and concern. The sweet older man who I was sitting next to asked me what had happened. “I just said goodbye to my Ecuadorian family.”
Finally, the very last goodbye… Juan Pablo (Reyna’s son who is my age) and his friends whom I’d met the weekend before in Riobamba took me out for the evening as a sort of despedida. We went on a walk in the beautiful historic center of Quito, then ate gigantic empanadas, then drove to El Panecillo (the giant Mary with wings statue) and enjoyed the view of Quito at night. They were so hospitable and friendly, like true Ecuadorians.
That was it for goodbyes. The next morning (at 6:40), I boarded the plane and left my beloved country. Six months was enough time to make a foreign country feel like home. I’ve now adjusted to being in the US, but I believe a piece of me will always live in Ecuador. I am greatly looking forward to a time when I can return for a visit.
I guess this closes the Ecuador chapter of this blog. Next up: Colorado trip to visit many members of my family, but most importantly, my new (to me) niece, Naomi Jane! Now that’s a statement that makes me happy to not be in Ecuador. As always, thanks for following me in my travels!