By: Sierra Cross
Nestled 8,399 feet in the Andes mountains sits the small town of Cuenca, Ecuador. For the next four months, it is my new home, over 3,235 miles from Ames, Iowa.
Cuenca is a small town in southern Ecuador. It is filled with stone streets lined with brick stores, apartment buildings with balconies and houses with red tile roofs. All of the houses have giant water jugs on the roofs to collect the spring water sent from El Cajas National Park which is 30 minutes outside of Cuenca. The city is completely surrounded by mountains as the city is settled in a bowl-shaped valley of the Andes mountain range.
Even though the sun gets very hot in the middle of the day, we are at very high altitudes and experience strong, mountain winds, so it is not a summer climate by any means.
Walking to class, I see the looming Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Ecuador’s largest Cathedral.
Many Ecuadorians earn their living as street vendors. People sell carts full of candy, soda, tall racks of winter coats and small trays of mints. I see people dressed in traditional, indigenous clothing such as a panama hat, colorful skirts and no shoes. Most of the locals dress very conservatively even in the hot, equator sun.
Not only is the scenery a change, but lifestyle as well. This experience is almost as if I went back to high school. Many people are used to leaving high school, moving into their own place and taking care of themselves from there on out. That is an integral aspect of college life that I was used to. Now, I am constantly telling my host mom where I am going and when I will be home. She cooks every meal for me and someone else is responsible for my laundry.
Living in Ecuador these past few months, I realized that not every college experience is like what I and most students in the United States are used to. Here, I usually wake up at 6:30 a.m. for a breakfast of grilled cheese, yogurt, eggs and piece of fruit at 7 a.m. My host mom gets up at about 5 a.m. every morning to get the day started before she left for work.
I then have to hurry and leave to get to the bus stop by 7:30 a.m. Class sizes are extremely small because local students are only there for English classes and students from the U.S. are only there for spanish classes. My fall semester in the Andes consisted of eight students all from different states in the U.S. For some courses, students may even be the only one in the class.
Being early is usually preferred to being right on time. The bus is usually packed completely full by then. No one is on their phones and their devices are completely out of sight— I learned the hard way why that is. My phone was stolen right out of my front pocket on a crowded bus and the thief was out of sight by the time I even realized my phone was gone. When I say crowded, I mean there is no room to walk, and when you need to get off, you say permiso over and over again as you push between people.
Once I get off the bus, it’s another 10 minute walk to the school. On my way there, I pass street vendors setting up their kiosks for the day, people walking around selling food, usually for no more than a dollar, no matter what it is.
I get to class and meet my professor in the classroom, as I am the only student in my 8 a.m. Spanish class. It made learning a new language a lot easier — as if I had my own Spanish tutor for the semester. We have a two hour session and throughout I hear various car alarms, sirens, traffic and construction.
After my morning classes, I take the bus home to where my host mom has prepared a huge lunch. Lunch is considered the bigger meal or “family meal” instead of dinner, so the majority of people have two to three hour lunch breaks in order to get home and make it to eat. Because lunch is such an important meal, not showing up or being late is really inconsiderate and your host family will probably sit around waiting for you before they start eating.
After lunch, I repeat the whole process for my evening classes.
Some adjustments here are not too pleasant. The bathroom situation is strange because you throw your toilet paper in the trash can instead of the toilet, and every family member has their own roll of toilet paper that they keep in their room.
Ami Boring, an interior design major at ISU, who studied in Rome, “There are always people out and restaurants with tables on the streets. You stumble upon amazing sites, like the Pantheon, just walking back home from a store.”
Brian Rivera, a graphic design major, also an Iowa State student who did a semester in Rome, discussed his experience with the change in culture, “People aren’t very orderly when walking. In America, people naturally walk on the right side, but here they are all over the place. They don’t really move over for anyone.”
In Ecuador, this is also prevalent — people tend to walk slowly and zig-zag a lot, so unless you are paying attention, you will most likely run right into someone.
I’ve been told that the only real way to learn a new language and culture is to dive in head-first. I thought my Spanish was sub-par before going, but upon arriving I faced the rude awakening that my Spanish was hardly even at beginner level. Within a few weeks of being there, I already felt like I understood everyone better just by overhearing people talking on the streets and watching the local news every night.
When visiting a new place, try your best to participate to be respectful of other cultures. It will be crucial to how local people view and treat you. Give up your seat on the bus to the elderly, learn and understand their greetings and the proper way to address others and never take a stranger’s photo without asking first. At then end of it, you will have a beautiful new perspective and be so thankful you did it.