It began as a joke. Perched on my seat squeezed against the window on the flight home, I pretended that I only knew Spanish. Everyone believed it – my flight attendant, the girl sitting by me, and her mom – until I concluded that the girl and her mom only spoke English, and I wanted to chat. “Oh, I didn’t think you spoke English!” exclaimed the mom. The girl was more interested in querying me about study abroad. She was my age, and thought studying abroad sounded like the best idea in the world. Which, I agreed it might be.
I peered out the grimy window at the sun rising over Mexico. Problems started after the flight attendant, who still thought I only spoke Spanish, handed me the customs form without asking the usual question of which language I prefer. Of course. He doesn’t think I speak English. I was about to request one in English when I convinced myself that it’d be a fun experiment to do it in Spanish. Customs had never given me trouble before – would filling it out in Spanish change that? Sure, it wasn’t a terrible scientific experiment, but I was curious how they would treat me with my form penciled in Spanish.
Bad idea. My new friends who had sat with me on the flight strolled through customs just like I usually do, but the customs guy shot me a tough look. He demanded to know where I was coming from, what I was doing, why I was there. Why would I go somewhere like Ecuador to study abroad? Why would I study abroad in the first place? And how come I filled out my form in Spanish? I couldn’t think of a good answer to that one. I felt like it just didn’t seem like a good response. He sure inquired a lot considering that it was obvious from the start that my bags would be checked. People say that I look Hispanic, and I completed my customs form in Spanish. The moment I decided to do that, I already knew I’d be directed to a special line. The man rummaging through my bags was friendly but asked the same questions all over again. “Quito? And you say that’s in Ecuador?” I couldn’t tell if he actually didn’t know where Quito was, or if he was trying to trip up my elaborate cover story. If that was the case, he should be over in Hollywood instead of LAX. I nodded my head with slight amusement; carrying nothing to hide, I was trying to decipher customs instead of the other way around. After not encountering the nonexistent drugs that they were searching for, I was ushered back into America.
We fled to the beach during our layover. That’s when I got lost. I wasn’t physically lost – I had a map. But leaving the airport, hustling into the city, I became quickly disorientated. Where had the thin mountain air gone? How had the mouthwatering aroma of street food evaporated? Where were the chattering hummingbirds, puffy clouds, and green mosaics of mountainside farms? I craved everything I had left behind. I craved Quito, my host brother, and my Ecuadorian friends.
My bearings were gone. My mind was lingering in Ecuador, and by his silence I judged that Adrian’s was too. He tried talking to the bus driver in Spanish. She repeated condescendingly what she thought he had just asked, finishing her sentence more like a statement. I felt a disappointing inkling that Spanish-speakers are misunderstood here. First in the airport, then on the bus. Probably more white people smuggle drugs across the border and arouse trouble on the bus than Hispanics, but doing anything in Spanish seems to spawn distrust. My experiment had pointed me to the sad truth. The fare machine began bleating after we started dropping coins through the slot. Our driver placed the quarters on her palm to scrutinize them, informing us that we cannot use foreign currency any more than we can get away with speaking a foreign language. Never mind, that there’s nothing un-American about Spanish.
A tattooed guy swaggered onto the bus asking for money. “You got change for a $1 bill bro?” The bus only takes quarters. I mined my pockets for change and shrugged my shoulders in apology. Adrian had some. “Umm… this ain’t real money bro”. He was right. Adrian took the coins back, already realizing what had just happened again. He dropped the Ecuador quarters into his pockets and said sorry. It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t alone in being lost.
Once at the beach my mind was put at ease a little by the warm sand and crashing waves. Tall palm trees cast short shadows under the hot sun, almost as if we were still on the equator. Dolphins splashed offshore, just for fun, like the gulls that were laughing at me.
People tout culture shock as the biggest struggle while traveling. For me, reverse culture shock was a lot worse. For those first few days back in America, I was adrift. Food dissolving in my mouth tasted alien, no matter if it used to be a favorite. My uneventful routine was disorienting. And I was always lost in thought. In the mornings my body would get up expecting hot coffee, ripe fruit, and mouth-watering pineapple juice. Instead there was a cereal box. My mind would arouse wired for Spanish. And my eyes would open anticipating the same views I saw every day riding the simmering bus to school. They would search in vain for eucalyptus trees, far-off volcanoes, and green pastures, and I would be confused, even though I knew I was back in Portland.
The disorientation gradually subsided. My brain has been reconquered by English-speaking mode, even though I still have dreams in Spanish, and struggle with words while my instinct offers a term in Spanish that perfectly paints what I am trying to say. I have re-accustomed to the change of scenery, and the flatly non-exotic sounds and smells wherever I go. I miss my life in Ecuador, but I am slowly getting my bearings back. Part of me remains somewhere in Ecuador though. Or perhaps, part of Ecuador came with. My mind ponders things about myself and others I never considered before. I refuse myself permission to become unhappy because of trivial things. My mind will wander off to South America, where families with the least are the happiest, and where enjoying a futbol match on a hot dusty field is more important than ticking off a to-do list. Once, in the cloud forest, we played futbol with kids in a town plaza. We had never met them before, and would never see them again, yet we played as if we were fierce rivals and best friends all at the same time. It was midnight. We kept score because we could and because we had to, and played until we lost track. We played in the middle of the plaza, around a fountain, under a dark tree with broad leaves that dropped every now and then, swirling like lazy fans to the cold ground. I catch myself daydreaming. I will be imaging where I would have been a month ago, or two.
Perhaps I was whitewater rafting, or joining the crowds at a futbol game with my host brother, or playing futbol myself. Maybe I was testing my physical extremes scrambling up Volcan Pichincha, or trekking to the crazy swing, meeting friendly farmers on our way up the steep cobblestone road. Perhaps I was relaxing on the grass at the park by my house, watching the alpine glow crawl up Mount Cotopaxi in a blushing hue of pink. Often I wish I could turn back the clock and relive those months. There are few regrets, just the sadness of knowing that it’s all over. There were epic moments and even more amazing friendships. There were spectacular sights, thought-provoking ordeals, and every range of emotion.
Living in another place for a semester permanently changed who I am, for the better. I think it even changed my personality. I am more adventurous, broader-minded, and more adaptable to unexpected situations. After everything I learned and all I experienced, however, there is one thing that I did not return prepared for: being lost in America. The first week back was hard, but I know my heartache will pass. I always feel this way when I have to move on from a chapter of my life. I was even sad at the end of eight grade. Still, there are friendships and moments that I wish I could clasp to forever, like the humidity that would not stop gluing to me in my adventures around Ecuador. I find myself remembering my most intensely emotional moments, and re-imagining how I was feeling; trying to smell my favorite aromas as I close my eyes and unleash my weary brain; visualizing the strange sights I saw; and listening in vain for my host mom calling me to dinner. Sadly this will be my last post about Ecuador. Thanks for reading my blog. I promise to write another travel blog pronto, as soon as I get the opportunity to pack my bags and head off on another adventure. . . . . . . .