In the last seven weeks here in Ecuador, I have found myself in many difficult situations. While my knowledge of the Spanish language and Ecuadorian culture is constantly increasing, I still find myself lost at times as a gringo in a Latin American country. (For those of you who don’t know, the term gringo—or gringa for girls—is used by Latinos around the world to simply refer to white people. It is not necessarily an insult; in fact, sometimes it can even be viewed as a term of endearment. Latinos are oftentimes very straightforward with their nicknames. They choose to call people negro (black), gordo (fat), or flaca (skinny), instead of by their real names. It is not meant to be insulting in any way; it is just simply part of the culture.) As a young, white male in Ecuador, I am most commonly referred to as gringo or joven (young)—which happen to be my most unique and defining characteristics here in Ecuador.
Although I inevitably stand out as a white person in South America, I sometimes unfortunately make myself even more noticeable through my mistakes. Over the past month and a half, I have been in the middle of a cancha (fútbol field) with an all-girls league, spent the night in the wrong city, been ankle-deep in mud on the side of the road, and accidentally refused to pay for a bus ride.
Okay, I’ll explain. During a week-long trip to the coastal city of Santo Domingo (it was nowhere near a beach, so don’t get too jealous), my host sister kept asking me if I wanted to play fútbol and I said yes. On my third night there, she asked me if I wanted to come to the cancha during her game. I asked if she was on a team or if she just played for fun, and she said that it was just for fun. Since she had asked me about playing earlier in the week, I assumed we were all going to be playing. When it came time for the game to start, I did not realize in the excitement that she said “vengo” (I’ll be back) and not “vamos” (let’s go). So, I followed her out onto the field. As more of her teammates started to show up, I wondered why there were so many girls. Luckily, I was able to ask my host sister and quickly get off the field once I figured out it was an all-girls league.
My night in the wrong city was a result of my lack of knowledge about the bus schedule, instead of my lack of Spanish. After hiking Quilotoa with my friends, the bus dropped us off on the side of the highway for us to catch a connection. However, by the time we were finally able to take a bus to the Ambato terminal, all of the buses to San Miguel were already gone. So, after a consecutive 13 hours of traveling and hiking, I was still forced to spend the night 2 hours away from where I was supposed to be. Luckily, the city of Riobamba was a beautiful place to stay the night. Once I finally made it to San Miguel, it rained extensively for 2 days. As I was walking from my hotel to the panadería (bakery), I saw a truck coming up the winding mountain road. When I stepped to the side, I ended up in a giant puddle of mud and my shoes completely sank in. When the truck pulled up closer, I realized it was the owner of the hotel. He rolled down the window and could not contain his laughter. Thankfully, he gave me a ride in the truck to a grassy area to clean my shoes, and then he took me to the panadería.
My favorite mistake occurred on one of the many buses we have taken throughout Ecuador. Traveling by bus in this country is very uncomfortable, but I do love that you can travel to the other side of Ecuador (which feels like a whole different world) for just a few dollars. And just 25 cents will take you all the way to the other side of Quito! Normally, you buy a ticket in the terminal or you pay the person sitting at the front of the bus right when you get on. However, when we were traveling to the Mitad del Mundo (the equator), we caught a connecting bus without anybody collecting money in the front. (Usually, if there is nobody collecting money, it means that the connecting bus is free.) We all found our seats and a man got up in front of the bus, pulled out a sound system, and started rapping. Random Ecuadorians love to get on the front of the bus and yell out their stories (usually asking for money) because everyone is forced to listen to them. So, as the man was rapping, we pretended to look out the window to avoid awkward eye contact. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a man holding out his hand to collect money. I simply told him, “Sorry, I don’t have any money” (in Spanish). However, he continued to hold out his hand, so I thought it was rather rude for him to be so persistent. My friend and I turned to look out the window again, and the man eventually continued walking up the rows. When he got to my other friends, I told them that they shouldn’t tip him since the man was being so persistent (and the rapper wasn’t very good anyways). Once they told him “no,” he told us all that we each owed money. As everyone else on the bus was giving him 25 cents, I realized that he was wearing a shirt with the bus company logo. So, we all had to awkwardly pay the bus fee after previously telling him “no, thanks.” (Sorry guys, but it was worth the funny story!)
Aside from these four huge mistakes, I make several other minor ones every day I am here in Ecuador. While I am able to converse using basic Spanish, I still find myself nodding and saying “sí” every time I don’t understand someone. As time goes on, I know that I will get better at understanding the language and the culture here, but for now I have decided to embrace the mistakes. It can be difficult to deal with them, but it is important to remember that everything always happens for a reason. By messing up so much, I have created great memories, strong relationships, and funny stories.
“Mistakes are proof that you are trying.” – Unknown