Wednesday afternoon in downtown Guayaquil: It’s hot and bustling, as usual. Men in business suits and women in two-tone work uniforms are walking back from their lunch hours, filled up on fish ceviche, rice and fried meat or potato yapingachos. I’m just now going to work myself.
As a Caucasian American teaching English abroad, I am trying to blend in with the packs of Latinos, and though I have on my pissed-off street face (learned back in Brooklyn), my blue eyes betray me. If I were to open my mouth, then all bets would be off, for my Spanish, at the time, was on-par with a preliterate child. I sigh quietly to myself and keep moving.
Weaving between the street vendors who sell small red apples in large plastic bags, lottery tickets and toothpaste to pedestrians and passengers on passing buses, I stop cold on the corner of the street before arriving at the school I teach at. A body is sprawled out in the street, though it’s not garnering much attention from passers-by. A moment’s hesitation: Is this a homeless man or someone who’s had too much to drink? No, there’s a pool of blood forming around his head. No, this is not good.
I lapse into gringo EMT, kick into a sprint—leaving all knowledge of Spanish behind me—and try to explain to the security guard at my school that he needs to call an ambulance. People have seen me running and now they’re curious. I return to the body with a small crowd. As if in a made-for-TV movie, a woman steps forward to help me express myself in Spanish. The bleeding man is becoming conscious again, and he certainly doesn’t like that a comparatively tall white boy is trying to keep him from moving his head and neck.
As I later trudge upstairs to wash my hands and teach class as planned, my adrenaline-induced lucidity morphs into questions like: “Did I do the right thing intervening?” Tap water is flowing over my hands just as when I had returned from other EMS calls in Washington, D.C. I’m still thinking as I watch the water drain in a clockwise direction. “Yes,” I conclude proudly, “but things would have been the same in the U.S., too. And that means I’m not really such an extranjero here after all.”
Jack Kerouac would have been proud of me, as well. As I carved out my year-long adventure of teaching English in Ecuador, I found that some of my most memorable experiences happened on the road. Some, like the hit-and-run victim, were closer to the actual pavement than others.
Guidebooks are wholly correct in pointing out that all of the religious stickers on the front of the buses—ranging from a simple “God shows me the way” to shiny, three-foot tall images of Jesus bleeding on the cross—leave one to wonder if this really should be a place for prayer. Nonetheless, hurdling over mountain roads at three in the morning and travelling between Guayaquil and the capital city of Quito with fog obscuring your view of the lines on the road will leave you with no doubt that it is.
Hopping the turnstile of a city bus, one of my co-workers certainly wasn’t thinking about the bus driver’s questionable safety record. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began in Spanish, like every other vendor who boards buses to hock goods, “please pardon the interruption. I am a teacher and I’d like to tell you about my English class downtown…” He began to pass handbills out to the passengers. Puzzled by this atypical pitch, some people looked up and started asking questions. Our school is a well-known government-run community college with branches throughout the country. To have a gringo speak about it in Spanish must have been quite a shock to them. “My school failed to advertise sufficiently,” he explained, “so I am going out to recruit students on my own.” And it worked. In fact, during his first few weeks of teaching, my comrade had to turn away students due to lack of space. He also had a great story to share with the other volunteer teachers at our end-of-service conference.
One can never predict these vignettes, and there were a number of days when we’d felt like our lives had become a stifling, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary routine. But that’s just it. After some time abroad, we became integrated into Latin American life. Children juggling bottles of sand in the street for money or city-wide political protests and marches didn’t seem all that surprising. When you look back at how far you’ve come in so short an amount of time, the line blurs between roads and classrooms, teaching and learning, home and abroad. All of these little experiences—common and rare—are absorbed into your personal history, and you’ll take them wherever you go next.
Benjamin Silverberg is a second-year graduate student and practicing physician. His biweekly column will begin in the Fall. You can follow Ben on Twitter @hobogeneous.