It’s amazing that I’ve already been back in the United Statse for a week. As usual, the transition is much faster than I would have imagined. Preoccupations with my Spanish skills and obsession with grabbing a few more interviews have quickly fated, as I shift gears back into ivory tower mode. Some things stay with me, though, so in the absence of good material coming out of Central Oregon, I’ll be writing up a few more thoughts on Ecuador before I head back to that other exotic wilderness where I spend my time, Oxford.
This post I have resisted writing for over a month, because I kind of hate posts like this. It’s a common trope in travel writing: white person travels to poor country and falls in love with how friendly and quaint the natives are. So, before I launch into this, I will say that I know that Latin America is a profoundly unequal and violent place where daily life is, for many, a struggle.
That said, I love Latin America.
I love that I never feel invisible. In Coca, I felt like a had at least five surrogate mothers who were covertly watching over me: the mother at the hotel desk, the mother down the street at the frijoles stand, the mother in the tourism office. They called me “jovencito” and asked, whenever I had been gone for a few days, where I had been. Visibility is something that can be taken too far, of course. In Uganda, I often felt overwhelmed by being the endless attention I got for being white. Here, though, my visibility does not make me feel guilty, because I get the sense people are watching out for me not just because I am a gringo but because I am particularly young and clueless looking gringo.
I love that there is a certain gentleness and courtesy to interactions here. I never tire of hearing people, upon entering a restaurant, wish “buen provecho” to those already eating. I love that strangers will always greet me when they come into a room, even when they are there to see someone else. And, although it always strikes me as somewhat absurd, I love that they will follow up with a formal goodbye, even if they are leaving twenty seconds later. I have a soft spot for greetings that involve a kiss on the cheek, too, even though it feels awkward and I am generally unsure if I am doing it correctly.
I love that people trust me. When we were in Baños, the chain on my rented bicycle snapped. My companions biked on, while I was stranded waiting for a bus in a small highway stop. A shopkeeper came out and offered to lend me his bike. He asked for nothing in return and demanded no assurances that I would bring it back. It’s much the same with the waiters and restaurant owners who assured me that I could come back and pay tomorrow, because they didn’t have change for a five at the moment. However incongruous it is with Ecuador’s skyrocketing crime rate, I see a faith in community and friendship and humanity here that often feels absent in my own country.
I love that people here dance. Not just the youth, but everyone; I love that on a Saturday night, I can see young couples and old married ones, grandparents and grandchildren. Men and women dancing together here leave enough space between them to appease even the chaperones at my high school prom, and yet the dancing here is nonetheless the most sensual thing I have ever seen. I even appreciate the endless attempts people make to teach me to dance, even though both they and I know it’s a hopeless cause. I love that a bottle of beer is always served with multiple glasses, because sharing is simply assumed.
And, to get a bit closer to my thesis, I love that people share their time, too, and their knowledge. I love that a kid who looks like he’s 18, doesn’t know a thing about Latin America, and can barely speak Spanish can still walk into the mayor’s office and get an interview. I love the pride with which people tell me about Ecuador, the way they find nice things to say about even the most remote Amazonian backwater. I appreciate that so many people want to exchange e-mail and skype addresses and telephone numbers. I know that their promises to keep in touch are meant, even though they will almost certainly not be kept. I love that the question people always ask, when they hear about my research, is when I am coming back. And I certainly appreciate that, this time, I am being honest when I say that I will be back.