#TBT Travel Story Edition: Learning Spanish in Ecuador

Once upon a time…just kidding. This is a story about learning Spanish.

In highschool, I decided to take four levels of French, because French seemed like the sexiest language. Due to block scheduling, I was able to squeeze in three levels of Spanish in my last year and half. By the time I graduated though, it all just blended together. In college, I did not have the option of taking a language, ironically, because I took too many credits of it in highschool. So, as a result my foreign language skills slowly dissipated from my brain. I managed to visit France twice on my study abroad sophomore year and used what was left of my french skills. Je voudrais un crepe! was my favorite phrase. As for my Spanish, it didn’t get used until much later and at that point was nothing but mispronunciations and garbled french meant to sound like Spanish. Needless to say, I’d lost all my studies due to lack of use.

Fast forward to 2011…I’m in graduate school in Oregon and preparing to leave for three months in Ecuador to complete my research for my Masters Thesis in Anthropology. My academic adviser, who speaks fluent Spanish, keeps nagging me to work on my language skills before departure. Instead, I waste time shopping for cool gear and clothing, and partying with my friends before summer break. I get a friend to translate all of my interviews from English to Spanish for me, hoping that will prevent me from having to actually improve my Spanish skills.

The time has come and I board my flight for Quito, Ecuador. I have the phone number of my friend, who studied in Corvallis and has now returned to his hometown Quito, written on a piece of paper teared out of my binder. I arrive after a long day of flying and a 12 hour layover in Lima, Peru. The airport in Quito is nothing more than a small warehouse. We file through customs and I find my brand new blue Osprey backpack toggling around the carousel all alone. My sunscreen has already exploded all over the front of the bag and I’m forced to wipe off the white residue in the bathroom.

The arrivals terminal is no bigger than a bus stop. Families greet their loved ones with besos and abrazos (kisses and hugs). I attempt to use every payphone in the waiting room and on the platform outside, to call my friend. I can’t seem to figure out why they won’t work. I wave over an airport attendant and frantically point to the phones and my piece of paper and try to piece together all the Spanish words I have in my arsenal to explain my predicament. After using universal sign language and choppy Spanish, he lends me his cell phone and I get in touch with my friend’s roommate to pick me up. He can’t make it for another two hours, though. I sit in the waiting room. I flip through my Spanish Dictionary. People try to talk to me and I just nod my head and smile. I begin to regret my reluctance to learn Spanish.

I spend two weeks in Quito with my friend, Carlos, and his roommates. They live in an upper class suburb of Quito, called Cumbaya. My friend and his roommates speak English with me, so I don’t get much practice with my Spanish. I venture into the city each day on the bus, trying to navigate a new city where I don’t understand the language. One day, I’m standing in the main plaza staring up at the magnificent cathedral with ornate gold glistening in the sun, and a man approaches me. He asks me for the time. When I respond, he lights up and says, “are you American?” I nod my head. He tells me his name is Juan and he is an English teacher here, but he is Ecuadorian. I tell him my predicament with Spanish and he offers to teach me for one hour every day in the local library. I trust my instincts, and feel he is trustworthy, so we set up a schedule. I meet him in the park at the small library with only glass windows and no walls. He brings his Spanish teaching books and we practice. I feel like Eliza in “My Fair Lady,” trying to turn my harsh English pronunciation into Spanish. He buys me lunch every day after our lesson and forces me to practice speaking with him.

So for two weeks I take notes and study hard. Juan calls me his reina, princessa, amor (queen, princess, love) every day, but luckily makes no moves on me. For once, I feel tall at a mere 5’2, as Juan stares up at me from his small stature and tells me, he thinks I’m ready. My first test comes when I leave Quito and head into my research sites. I spend one week in a small town north of Quito in the Cloud Forest, where my hosts are a family that own an Ecolodge and conservation project. I battle with the father in broken Spanish, as he makes continual advances at me, despite his lovely wife. I am not so lucky on his third attempt to trap me and my lack of Spanish makes it difficult to scream anything other than “no!” This is a whole other story though, and needless to say my Spanish barely improves.

Next stop: Banos de Agua Santa. I spend one month here with another man named Juan and his lovely girlfriend, Diana. They are a better story than my last host. They welcome me in with open arms and treat me like a friend. Juan pushes me to use my Spanish and refuses to speak English with me, unless I’m really struggling. He takes me to a new nature reserve every week to see the work they are doing in conservation. The first week, he and I hike up to the top of the Cloud Forest with his buddy, Manuel.

Then he leaves me behind with Manuel for four days in a lean-to structure in the pouring rain atop a mountain. Due to my lack of Spanish comprehension, I didn’t understand Juan when he explained that he wasn’t staying up here with me and I’d be left alone with a strange man I just met. Luckily, Manuel is the opposite of my host father from my previous project. We trek through the pouring rain rescuing endangered orchids from fallen tree limbs and relocating them onto new branches. We waddle through knee deep mud and creeks. I slip down an incline and soak my clothing up to my shoulders. Manuel laughs and rescues me at the same time. We become best friends. At the campfire at night, I practice my Spanish. I try to form sentences and flip through the yellowed pages of my thrift store dictionary. We piece conversations together like a game of MadLibs. We come to an agreement that when we return to town we will drink whiskey and go dancing, two things we both love.

When it comes to conducting interviews with my new friends, I’m brushed off consistently with a “manana, manana Melissa,” until I finally feel comfortable enough with my Spanish to tell them to sit down and start talking. I get to the point where I can joke along with the men in Spanish and not skip a beat. I visit three more reserves and meet different park guards that help me with my Spanish. By the time I leave Banos, I’m close to fluent in farmer’s Spanish. By this I mean, all the men I learned from were low-income farmers with grammatically poor Spanish.

Nevertheless, I go from the basics of hola, como estas, me llamo Melissa to estoy aqui para hacer mi investigacion de me thesis sobre conservacion en el bosque nublado…. I’m able to serve as a translator for other travelers struggling with Spanish. I gain the respect of the people I’m interviewing. At the beginning, I simply read from my interview questions and quickly went down the list. At the end, I can add-lib extra questions and comments based on their responses. I start to dream in Spanish. I no longer have to translate back to English in my head then translate my response back to Spanish. Learning a language by being forced to speak it day in and day out, is probably the best way to become fluent.

Muchas Gracias!!

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