“Over there, across the trees, are the balconies, bordering the river. Los balcones. If you mention them, people will know where you are.”
We stood at Claudia’s bedroom window, looking out over the view that would belong to me, temporarily, for the next four months. Eva Lucia pointed into the midst of buildings, anxious for me to understand.
“Below the blue domes, the Catedral Nueva, are the thinner stairs. Don’t go up those at night. People cannot see you there and it is dangerous.”
Outside, the sky was starting to dim. Orange street lamps, dotted amongst the trees, shone out against the flickering car headlights that criss crossed the myriad of streets in front of me.
“Behind the Tomebamba river is the old town. I will drive you there, across the bridge, so we can see how it is that the cars go. Then you will learn the city.”
But it’s easier said than done. Cuenca, with its population of five hundred thousand people, with its daily fluctuation in temperature, with its mass of gringos and expat citizens and tourists, is a small enough city to get to grips with – in theory.
The difficulties arise when you’re thrust into an unknown environment and given a multitude of tasks to accomplish, with little explanation as to exactly why you’re doing them. Add a language barrier and the disorientation of high altitude to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a bit of a confusing situation.
And regardless of how beautiful a new city can be, it’s still difficult to navigate until you’ve learned how things work.
Arriving in our new home town
The bus journey from Quito was relaxed enough. Due to the ten-strong size of our motley crew of volunteers, we ended up in a private bus with enough room to stretch out and fall asleep as the mood took us. There were various moments of hysteria, snatches of conversation and a few singalongs, but as we passed the road signs denoting Cuenca in the distance, we eventually all fell silent and watched the red rooftops appear on the horizon.
Driving through the city was nerve-wracking. All of us were thinking the same thing; what were our families going to be like? How good would their English be – and hell, more importantly, how terrible would our Spanish be?
Parking beside a shopping mall with one lone woman standing on the street wasn’t exactly reassuring. After over two weeks of living together, the sudden prospect of parting ways was rather unappealing – a reaction which I hadn’t expected before I left for Ecuador. But it turns out that the other volunteers are such an awesome group of people who I’ve had so much fun with already that I don’t really want to leave them!
Nonetheless, it was destined to happen. Standing like forlorn evacuees on the pavement, surrounded by piles of bags, we were introduced to various Ecuadorian women who beamed brightly at us and indicated when to leave the brood and follow them to waiting cars. Eventually I shouldered my backpack, hung my other few bags from various arms and shoulders, and trotted off behind Eva Lucia, the woman deemed to be my host mother for the next few months.
Her English was basically fluent, and as we drove through the city, she told me about her family; two sons and a daughter, a husband who works for a tyre company, a small dog named Lissy. I looked out at various landmarks, trying to get a grasp on Cuenca in my first ten minutes. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t quite manage it.
Quite apart from being rather exhausted, my head was attempting to understand this new situation; the idea of being placed into a new family, to forge a particular type of bond with people who I hadn’t yet met. It’s a bizarre relationship to throw oneself into, particularly for my familial situation – but for the moment at least, I’m up for the challenge.
When we arrived at Eva Lucia’s house though, I stopped over-thinking, and simply made do with being flabbergasted instead. Turns out my new host family own a six floor apartment building, complete with panoramic views of the entire city; they live on the fifth floor, with other relatives on the first and third, and tenants everywhere else. Except the sixth floor, which is used as a chill out space for my host brothers to entertain their friends…
Their daughter, Claudia, is working in Birmingham for the year with the same volunteer company as me, hence why I’m living in her orange and pink hued room – and if I’m honest, I still feel a bit wary in the apartment, despite being assured by Eva Lucia that I should treat it like my own home. I have a reputation for being a tad clumsy, and coupled with my traveller-type clothes and general non-wealthy demeanour, I don’t really feel like I fit into their lifestyle.
But then again, I haven’t spent much time with the family yet, or been in the house for that long. Not with the amount of issues we’ve been faced with since our arrival.
Difficulty, confusion and a great deal of sunburn
My first few days in Cuenca passed by in a haze. Four people came down with food poisoning, nobody turned up to the right places at the right times, and we drove from office to school to house to orphanage, never knowing which volunteers we’d be reunited with or what was actually going on.
In theory, I visited the two placements I’ll be working at – but in fact, I stepped into and out of a headmasters office, having done little more than shake his hand and look daunted at his speed of Spanish, followed by wandering around a children’s playground while a little girl sat on the toilet with the door open. Although I know I’ll have more than enough time at my placements when I start work, I would’ve enjoyed a bit more introduction.
There was an all encompassing sense of disorganisation about the whole proceedings: the final straw of which came at the immigration office. After the discovery in Quito that border control had stamped me with a three month tourist visa instead of actually looking at my six month working visa, I was worried that there’d be further problems in Cuenca with making the correct visa official.
Four hours later, and I eventually learned that while my initial problem was easily resolved, a bigger, previously unknown one presented itself. Upon entering the country, the guy who stamped my passport and entered my information into the Ecuadorian system spelled my name wrong.
By one measly letter.
So, for the sake of a capital E (because my middle name is Alexandra, not Elexandra), I have to journey to Guayaquil next week to visit a new office and hopefully change their mistake.
Taking matters into my own hands – with a walk
Eventually, I’d had enough of having no control over what I was doing with my time. One of the things I love the most about travelling is the personal challenge involved – but it has to be something I’ve internally agreed to face.
Here, there’s a ton of bureaucracy to wade through, both from Ecuadorian officials and from the volunteer company I’m out here with – and in this situation, with no say in where I’ve been going or even receiving any explanation for what’s been happening, I felt like I was floundering.
So after visiting my placements, I decided to find my own way back to the house, on foot. I was reasonably confident that I knew where I lived, but I figured that even if I got a little lost, it was better to be the one responsible for making that mistake. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to be lost for a while. Particularly if you manage to find yourself again.
Yet somehow, after a good 40 minutes of walking, I had to admit defeat. Standing at a familiar spot that was sadly way past where I was supposed to be, I knew I must have taken a wrong turning. And when I realised how hot the sun was getting, and how I’d completely forgotten to put any suncream on that morning… well, my hood was on and my sleeves were down, and I was absolutely roasting.
Reluctantly, my phone came out, a number was dialled, and I called Eva Lucia to come and find me. I was sweaty, a bit dizzy and ultimately quite annoyed that I hadn’t managed to get it right, despite her assurances that I did very well. And when I realised that I’d taken a left turn off the main road one block too soon and hence walked completely the wrong direction – with my new house behind me – I couldn’t actually believe it.
The benefits of losing yourself
But this morning, as I opened the gate with a new set of keys (more on that later) and stepped out into the Ecuadorian sunshine, I felt different. I knew where I was going.
I recognised more streets and shops and pieces of graffiti that had inadvertently etched themselves into my head; and as I journeyed around the city on a open-topped double decker tour bus with my friends, I was able to name more rivers and monuments and buildings than they’d even heard of in the last three days.
Because I’d allowed myself to get lost, I’d also given myself the opportunity to learn about the city. Sure, there was a bit too much sweat involved for my liking, and my radiant nose still hasn’t forgiven me for the sunburn, but there’s something about striding out with unfounded confidence that is both laughable and admirable.
Losing yourself is the first step to finding something better. And my wanderings around Cuenca, and Ecuador, and South America, are only going to get more exploratory as the months go on. Starting with the immigration office in Guayaquil, on Monday. Which also just so happens to be my birthday. Talk about an Ecuadorian fiesta fiasco…