1. Initial Culture Shock
When I introduce myself as an estudiante de intercambio, recognition floods people’s faces. They nod their heads. Yes, they have met others like me. There is a bin for us in their brains, and they drop me in alongside Dieter from Germany and Akiko from Japan. But the paradox of being a foreign exchange student is that although everyone can connect instantly with what you are, absolutely no one truly understands you. My orientation packet contains a chart showing the stages a foreigner goes through in a new country. After the “initial culture shock”, a “honeymoon period”, and an “adjustment period”, there comes “mental isolation” and the ominous note, “some travelers remain here”.
I have been in Guayaquil, Ecuador for one week, and I have made three friends. My friend Jorge is a politics and government student who hopes to one day be a congressman. He knows my host sister Mariola. My second friend, from what I gather, is employed by the city of Guayaquil to keep the streets in my neighborhood clean. When I met him, he was wearing a shirt that said “Jesus loves me and I am saved” in Spanish. He identified himself as Peecher Pan, and asked me if I was a fellow evangelist. When I said no, he assured me that both he and Jesus loved me anyway, then shouted “I love you!” in English as I walked away. My best friend is Mariola’s three-year-old daughter Melanie. I think she, more than anyone else I’ve met here so far, actually gets me. We can laugh together. She calls me ‘girl’ to my face and ‘the girl’ to her mother and grandmother. We watch TV together sometimes, and she explains all the jokes that I don’t get.
I will be staying with my host family for the next two months while I volunteer at a health clinic in a squatter settlement north of the city. The senora of the house calls me her hijita (daughter), and she feeds me like she expects me to grow in front of her eyes. My host family is very well off by Ecuadorian standards. The family makes money importing high end liquor, the brand name stuff, from the States and Europe. The whole operation is run by a character everyone refers to as el jefe (the boss), who is my host mother’s husband and the father of my host siblings. So far, I haven’t seen el jefe, but he is spoken of only with the greatest reverence. In addition to my host sister, Mariola, and my host niece, Melanie, I have a host brother named Neco. He wears gold jewelry, drives a shiny red pickup truck, and carries around a fat wad of cash.
Every day, I travel to a semi-urban squatter community called Luchadores del Norte. More than half of Guayaquil’s residents live in squatter settlements, without running water or basic sanitation. They get their water from tanqueros, who come by and fill up the big blue tubs that sit in front of every house. The government-run clinic where I volunteer is free to children under 5 and pregnant women. For everyone else, a visit costs 50 centavos. The staff consists of one doctor, several nurses, a dentist, and various student volunteers from the US and Latin America. There is also a pair of physician’s assistant students from Oregon, Lisa and Melissa, who are doing thesis research on parasites. They are a funny pair. They’re both loud and overweight, and when they introduce themselves in Spanish, their names are the equivalent of Pete and Repeat.