A Strange Encounter
It was the picture of Texas on his shirt that gave them away.
I had seen tourists in the markets, identifiable by their floppy sunhats and tendency to follow their English-speaking guides like a row of ducks, but I never expected to see fellow foreigners in this obscure part of Ecuador, especially not ones from Texas like myself.
I jogged up to Texas-shirt and tried to explain our possible connection. I received a blank look, and quickly realized the problem. The rules of my program wouldn’t let me speak any English to this man (The goal is complete Spanish immersion), but he had absolutely no idea what I was saying.
Eventually, Texas-shirt called over the one Spanish-speaking member of his group, and I explained what was going on. We quickly learned that we were from sister cities—I from Dallas and they from Fort Worth. What were the odds?
We were all thrilled, but the language barrier still made things awkward. I had met plenty of people who needed translators in the US, but I had never been on the other side of that equation. The fact that I could understand everything they were saying in English just made things even more odd. I had to stand there and listen to myself be described in third person as the translator promised that, yes, “She can understand what you’re saying.” At the very least, once the group understood they could all talk at me, if not with me, they were a lot more comfortable sharing.
That was when things got interesting. It turned out that this group of Texans were missionaries here in Ecuador to help build houses for those in need. As we talked further, I learned that they had been working in the Valle of Chota—an area of Ecuador largely dominated by Afrodescendientes who descended from escaped and freed slaves—which also happened to be where I had also spent the past few days.
And What It All Means
So, here we had two sets of Texans visiting the Valle of Chota at the exact same time, and yet what we took away from our experiences were incredibly different. We could both describe that same photo of a house without a single similar point between us.
The missionaries emphasized the poverty and conditions of living in the valley. They had come to solve problems and left seeing Chota as full of things needing fixing. Meanwhile, I had visited Chota to study its history, artisanry, and history. I sang songs hundreds of years old, played drums, pet some cows, and admired the high-quality graffiti, but at no point during those activities would I have thought to consider the community as something needing pity.
Which of us would that make the better visitors, then? The missionaries had certainly improved local conditions, and yet my view of Chota wouldn’t allow me to consider myself better or better-off than the people living there. As much as I have considered this question, I’ve come to decide that neither of us were right. Each of our experiences only showed us a single picture of Ecuador, either of poverty or cultural legacy, and neither is complete. Every country faces social inequalities, and yet none are defined by them. It took a meeting like this one to help us, as guests in another country, to get an idea of what we were missing.