12/3/09

Tranquilo! :: A Gringa's Perspective

WorldTeach volunteer Emily Koester is based in Riobamba, Ecuador, located in the Chambo River Valley of the Andes. Having departed in September and completed her orientation, she is now teaching at a university located in the outskirts of town. Here, she shares her reflections about her first weeks at her placement and the contrasting mindsets she has faced as she settles in to a new culture.

A view of Quito, where the WorldTeach orientation is held [photo courtesy of Katie Calvert]

"It’s hard to believe that I’ve been teaching at ESPOCH university for over five weeks now. It seems like only a moment ago that I was facing my students for the first time, smiling with feigned confidence at a classroom of strange Ecuadorians. It turned out there was nothing to be afraid of – my students, a mixture of teenagers and 20-somethings, are all enrolled in the class as an extracurricular activity, and consequently they genuinely want to learn English. They amazingly complete homework on time, seem excited about games, and all wave a friendly goodbye to me before they leave.

Enthusiastic as my students are, convincing them to speak English at all times is a constant battle. I bought a pair of sheep ears at a Halloween shop, and have tried plopping them on the head of any student who dares utter a Spanish word. The method is surprisingly effective as well as entertaining for the other students, but I also can’t run around with sheep ears all hour.

Despite having completed “five weeks” of class, however, none of those has been a full week. Every week there has been some unforeseen obstacle for classes, and hence I have had several unforeseen vacations. The second day of teaching, for example, an Ecuadorian English teacher at ESPOCH stopped by my classroom to say good night. “Oh, and by the way, I told your students not to come tomorrow,” he told me off-handedly as he left. “Wait, what?” I asked him. “Well, there’s the soccer game tomorrow,” he told me, as if the next day were Christmas itself. “They’re missing class for a soccer game?” I asked doubtfully. Apparently, I was playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. “Your students wouldn’t come anyway,” he told me matter-of-factly.

A common phrase in Ecuador is “Tranquilo!” which basically means, “Relax!” So whenever class is canceled, or the lights flicker out in one of Ecuador’s ubiquitous power outages, or when people show up an hour late, or when striking students block the roads with flaming tires, you shrug and say, “Tranquilo!” The utter lack of predictability is pretty antithetical to Americans’ unshakable devotion to punctuality and progress. And things are often a little dysfunctional from so much “tranquilo” – garbage never gets cleaned up and buildings stand unfinished for years. At the same time, people can skip work for an afternoon to get ice cream with a friend, and no one breaks a sweat over running a few minutes late. As an American taking a break from the frenzied pace of life in the States, I can’t say I mind."

Chimborazo volcano, which overlooks Riobamba [photo courtesy of Peter Daniels]

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