Archive for July 2010

Who Am I?

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Last week in La Bib, I helped solve a mystery for the volunteers, and perhaps halted an identity crisis for this young man.

Who am I???...Christian!!!

I first met this little guy when he approached me in the children’s library with a huge grin and a counting book on ladybugs. I was immediately enamored with his raspy voice and his silliness. Every few sentences, he stopped me reading to point at something on the page. He started to tell me something in Spanish but soon dissolved into a fit of joyful giggles. I have no idea what he said, but just his laughter cracked me up, and we barely finished the book.

I started hanging out with him a lot in La Bib. He’s the type of child who lets out long, shrill sounds of glee– and I am the type of adult who does the same. We read books together and I tried, with the other kids, to teach him how to play Uno, a hilarious farce that annoyed the other kids but only made me love the little guy more for his joyful disregard for rules. “That guy is like, my new best friend,” I told the other volunteers. Who? They’d ask. “Uhhh… well… I don’t know his name…”

When a kid enters La Bib, they have to grab their name tag from a hook by the door and pin it to their shirt. Most kids do okay at this; once in a while, someone fails to recognize his or her name, and we have to get it for them. The little guy never came to us with such a problem, oh no. Unable to read his name, he simply plucked whichever one he saw first and wore it as his own. That’s how it came to be that for the first day I knew him, I called him David.

The following week, I was reading to a little boy named Carlos when I noticed how much he resembled David. He had shorter hair, but the resemblance was uncanny. “Do you have a brother?” I asked. He told me he had like, seven or eight of them, but they were all older. “When did you get your hair cut?” This weekend, he said. “Hmm,” I said. I went on reading, until little “Carlos” stopped for an all-too-familiar giggle fit.

¨What´s your name?¨ I asked, slowly closing the book and looking suspiciously at the little guy. ¨What´s your real name?¨ He sunk down into the seat, laughing hysterically. Then he got up and ran away to play a game of Sorry!, undoubtedly by his own rules.

The next day, I stopped my young friend, who today was under the guise of Alex R., and told him I needed to make him his own nametag, with his own name. He smiled and let out a big sigh, his shoulders sagging in defeat. ¨So what´s your name?¨ I asked. He made a raspy little mouse sound that I couldn´t understand. ¨What was that?¨ I asked again. ¨CHRISTIAN!¨ he roared. Christian! His true name (I think)! I drew his name in big happy block letters and asked him what his favorite thing in the world is. ¨Perritos!¨ he cried, so I drew little dogs next to his name. We colored it in together, making sure that it would stand out. I told him that even if some days he can´t remember how to read his name, he can remember the little dogs, and know that this tag is his.

The next day, I was walking around La Bib when I saw Christian sitting with his back to me. I tapped him on the shoulder, spun him around, and there it was– HIS name! I squealed in delight (something I thought he could appreciate) and congratulated him for remembering. He rolled his eyes like, ¨Come on, it´s not THAT big of a deal!¨ and then he burst into that raspy laugh I love so much.

Since coming to Ecuador, I feel like I´ve asked myself the question a lot: ¨Who am I?¨ The answer, like the weather in Baños, changes from minute to minute. This is something I talk about often with Pete, another volunteer whose wife, Dalene, returned early to Canada and is adjusting to life in the homeland after almost a year away. There is, I have to say, precious little that I miss about life in the United States. I don´t miss the traffic, the hectic schedules, or laboring in Protestant work conditions where ¨If ya got time to lean, ya got time to clean¨– here, people work hard, too, much harder than people in the U.S. and it´s alright to sit down at work if you´ve got nothing to do. I don´t miss being bombarded with advertisements everywhere I look, or inane conversations about TV shows that I don´t watch, or passing ten different fast food restaurants on my way to school, not to mention the fast food chains within my campus. I don´t miss ¨la hora gringa¨– that is, showing up right on the dot, as opposed to Ecuadorian time, a clock that runs on circumstance rather than obligation. I don´t miss driving to the grocery store and lamenting the fresh fruits and veggies that I can´t buy because they´re too expensive– here, I walk to the market to get fresh produce for the week and I rarely walk out of there spending more than three bucks.

I miss a few things, like fast internet and my friends. I miss almond milk and sushi. I miss my dog. I miss easy access to books in English. I miss… uhh… that´s about it.

Yes, it is challenging to live in a place where no one is speaking your language and where half the time I communicate in grunts and facial expressions. I´ve been the butt of many a Spanish joke that I didn´t understand. Sometimes, my friendly ¨Buenos Dias¨ goes unreturned. But for the most part, I feel at home here, and that is one thing that I think has changed in me the most: my adaptability has increased tenfold.

Back home, I get frustrated over the littlest things– let´s say, for instance, if my can opener stopped working. Back home, I´d probably release a storm of cuss words before throwing the thing across the room and giving up. Here, I grab a knife and calmly stab the top of the can until the hole is big enough for my lentil soup to trickle through. Plans change here, often and without warning. I´m working on my ability to ¨go with the flow,¨ relinquishing the control I feel is so necessary for life in the U.S. and letting things happen as they may.

I also expected a lot more homesickness– I´ve left Tallahassee for long weekends and felt homesick. I expected to be haunting Skype, waiting for a friendly face to log on so I wouldn´t feel so alone. That never happened. I´ve been too busy, too happy, to feel homesick. Like I said, this has started to feel like home. There was one night when I was out with the fellow volunteers and some other friends of ours, a group of girls who volunteer at an organic farm in Baños. Everyone was talking, laughing, rehashing inside jokes and I thought, with no small amount of wonder: ¨These are my friends.¨


It´s amazing how an experience like this one can unite people from unlikely backgrounds. These people aren´t just some folks I was thrown into a program with, forced to make strained small talk with over drinks. They are people I look forward to spending time with, people I can talk to openly and honestly, people who can make me laugh, people who I admire. I never feel lonely.

I´ve always admired people like my fellow volunteer Amy, a Brit who one day bought a one-way ticket to Spain, unable to speak Spanish and uncertain as to whether she´d be able to land a job teaching English. A few days later, she did, and now she is not only a great Spanish speaker, but a great English teacher as well. I´ve admired those people but I always thought, I could never do that. I´d be lonely. I wouldn´t make friends. I need my books around me, I need to be comfortable, I need to have enough grasp of the local language to make people laugh. None of that is true for me anymore. I now feel that I can finally make my dream of teaching English overseas come true. I knew I would love teaching English– and I do. I know that one day I will become a good teacher, and that´s what makes all the blank stares and days when I end class feeling like a failure bearable. I´m going to take the TEFL certification at Florida State University this fall, and by this time next year, I hope to be on my way to Turkey with a job all set. I can say that now without the fear that I´ll get scared and chicken out. All the comfort in the world can´t replace the excitement of an unexplored street, a long chat with a new friend, or moments of profund confusion that dissolve into laughter.

Tiny wonders are tucked into every day here; I simply pull them out, like loose threads from a shirt. Yesterday, walking back from a spectacular waterfall, down a little road lined with modest homes, Pete and I stopped in our tracks as the sound of a synthesizer came straining from a straw hut. ¨Is that– is that Devo?¨ Pete asked, incredulous. ¨Yes, it is,¨ I said, dazed. ¨It´s ´Time Out for Fun.´¨ A fitting anthem, I think, for life in Baños, and a philosophy I hope to carry back with me into my often stressful, serious life back home. Take a little time for some fun, y´all.


We walked back, glancing behind us every few steps at the spectacular view of Mama Tungurahua that the clear and sunny day afforded us. We reminisced about how, just a little over a month ago, we were afraid that she would blow up. I almost left Baños because of my fear. So many terrors– thundering terrors, terrors that shake your windows and keep you up at night– you can rest assured, will never erupt. I am slowly learning how to battle my fears and live for the beautiful day in front of me. I think it works like this: if you can live through your terror, one sunny day in the future, long after the terror has passed, you get to look back over your shoulder at it and say, breathless,

¨Isn´t it beautiful


The story with Christian isn´t over. Yesterday he told me, with regret, that he´d lost his name tag. Someone made him a new one, his name written plainly in black marker. There´s no way he´ll remember it. I suspect he´ll be someone else today. I wonder who he´ll be?


Written by Sam Kelly

July 20, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Baños, a list of lists

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Things I Have Seen While Looking Out My Window:

– About 50 or so police officers, dressed in camouflage, shouting chants as they run down my street. The sound of their combat boots sounds like a herd of wild bison, roaming o´er the plains. It´s a pretty cool display, but I wish they´d wait until after I´ve woken up to do it.

– A man walking three goats on leashes in the misty morning. And a crowd of people, gathered around him, filling their bottles wih goat´s milk straight from the tap.

– Kids from the Biblioteca, who find me leaning on the sill, people-watching, and shout: ¨SAM! SAM!¨ with frantic waves and enormous grins.

– The sun coming up between two green mountains.

Topics Covered in Tutoring Sessions With Daniel, a 23-year-old Baneño:

– Mullets. In Spanish, he says, they´re called ¨partida de nalga¨ which means ¨part of the ass.¨ A good five minutes were devoted to discussing and drawing on the board various types of mullets.

– Punk vs. Salsa: for some reason, before our lesson began on Wednesday, Daniel went to the board and wrote that. Inquiring minds want to know, I guess. I voted punk. He was not pleased.

– Various bad words that I can´t repeat here, in case children are reading.

– How to dance salsa. When I told him I can´t dance salsa, he whipped out his phone and a tinny song began to play. He proceeded to demonstrate the ¨easy steps¨ of salsa which to me happened so fast that all I saw was a mocking blur.

My Favorite New Words in Spanish:

Chevere. Ecuadorian slang for ´cool.´

Vacan. More Ecuadorian slang for ´cool.´ The effect is amplified, usually to comedic effect, when you say vacansisimo.

Muy rico. Rich, usually applied to food. ¨Mmmm! This chocolate is muy rico!¨ I learned the hard way that you have to be careful with it, though. If you stretch out the muy- ¡mmmmmuuuuuyyyyyy rico! it´s kind of like a sexual innuendo, and people start to whisper about you.

Mitimiti. It´s like half & half.

La espera me mata. The wait will kill me!

Mande. People use that here for ¨What?¨ but it literally is a command that means ¨send¨- like ¨Send it again?¨ I always imagine the sound of a fax machine when I hear people use it.

Claro. It´s not new to me, but it´s still my favorite phrase in Spanish. It means ¨clearly¨ and you can use it many different ways. It could be sarcastic/rude: ¨Do you want me to sweep the floor?¨ ¨¡Claro!¨ or sweet: ¨Do you think I´m pretty?¨ ¨¡Claro!¨ or just simply to settled a matter: ¨Does this cost two dollars?¨ ¨Claro.¨ You can also make a lot of jokes just by shouting it out. I just absolutely love it.

Things That Suprised Me About the Children in Baños:

– They´re respectful. They always called me ¨Usted,¨ the polite form of ¨you¨ and at the end of a lesson, they actually thank you for teaching them.

– They´re independent. I saw a kid who couldn´t have been older than three walking back from a corner store, alone, with a little kid-size yogurt at a time of night when most American toddlers have been in bed for hours. And on that same note…

– You can throw ¨child safety¨ out the window. You can throw it out a broken window, three stories above a busy street, like the one I saw two little kids leaning out of to take in the cold night air. And they weren´t wearing hats. You can also let ¨child safety¨ stand up in the back of a pickup truck and send it careening over bumpy mountain roads that I´m not certain even have posted speed limits. You can take ¨child safety¨ and let it play in the street, because kids here, they are smart. They know when a car is coming and they know to get out of the way.

– They´re affectionate. In the United States, while working with children, so much as a pat on a kid´s back could put you in jail. Here, it´s not uncommon for a ten-year-old child to lock his or her arms around your waist and stay there, Siamese-twin style, for five minutes. They´ll play with your hair, they always kiss you on the cheek to say goodbye, and they like to hold hands just about any old time. This tradition of warmth and affection continues into adulthood: it´s not uncommon to see what would be, in the U.S., a sulky teenager prone to screaming ¨I hate you, Mom!¨ walking arm in arm with his or her parents, heads nestled together. Grown men and women walk down the street arm in arm with their friends. That´s another thing I see a lot of, looking out my window: two grown men, walking arm in arm down the sidewalk, smiling. And it´s beautiful.

Written by Sam Kelly

July 2, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized