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An Ecuadorian welcome

By Steven Barry

"Man, I sure hope they aren't going to make a big deal. Fifteen minutes max and I hope we're out of there." I was talking with my wife about our pending trip to Ecuador. In addition to a week in the Amazon, a place I'd wanted to visit since I was 10, we were planning to visit our current and former "foster daughters." Over the years, girls we'd sponsored through a non-profit agency had become our "foster daughters." Kathleen, my wife, did the lion's share of letter-writing to the girls, and we got yearly photos of them and any variety of family members: mothers, grandmothers, sisters. One girl, Yuleidy, had sent us a photo of herself, along with her father. All the girls’ photos graced our refrigerator and it was a pleasure to see how much they’d grown and matured as we reviewed years' worth of photos.

We'd been to Ecuador 30 years ago, and fell in love with its people, the enormous range and variety of ecosystems, the ease of getting around by bus; but, most of all it was the people. On the day I was discussing, we would be traveling to Yuleidy's school, accompanied by a representative of Plan USA, the organization working with Yuleidy and many hundreds of other girls and boys throughout Ecuador. The organization had a priority on protecting its children, and we would first meet Yuleidy at her school. I strongly suspected there would be some sort of welcome by the students, or staff, and that’s what I was thinking when I whined "Man, I sure hope they aren't going to make a big deal."

We flew to Ecuador. Our visit with Yuleidy was going to happen the first full day we were there. As we arrived at her rural school, it’s construction was similar to other schools we'd seen in Latin America: Large play area surrounded by cinder block or concrete wall and a single gate in the wall through which the kids, the staff, and visitors entered. As we got closer to the gate, I began to have a suspicion we were expected: The younger children saw us and began to get excited, approached us, checked out the visiting gringos and practiced their entire English repertoire: "Hello Mister." That seemed to be it: "Hello Mister." As we entered the grounds, we had our own entourage of young Ecuadorians escorting us toward the school building.

When I mentioned I didn’t want a big deal made over us, I was reminding myself how I don’t like being the center of attention. We were really looking forward to meeting Yuleidy, but I wanted to get to know her and her family in the quieter and more manageable confines of her home.

With the younger school children swarming around us, we inched our way to the waiting teachers and other school staff. Every person greeted us, shook our hands, let us know we were welcome and that the children had been looking forward to us. No, really, I thought, I never would have guessed.

As everyone was greeting everyone, I noticed a group of chairs off to the side of the schoolyard. Chairs lined up, chairs with a makeshift sun shield, a blue plastic tarp strung over the seats. I didn’t really want to notice them because, the more I looked at them, the more I was sure what they represented: A place of honor. We were going to be seated front and center and there was no way out. It was going to happen whether I wanted it or not.

We sat where we were directed, and some teachers had the nearly impossible task of getting those children organized. Lined up by grade, straight rows, quiet mouths, eyes front. Ha! The youngest children, the pre-kindergartners, were closest to us and we were far more interesting than any teacher standing before them, trying gallantly to get their attention. The vice-principal took matters into his own hands. Battery powered, hand-held megaphone to his mouth, he added the voice of authority to the cacophony going on and, eventually, some semblance of order won out. Then the fun began.

Most of the children were wearing clothes which identified their roots, their affiliation, and their clan. A group of girls, probably 4th graders, wore their satiny cheerleader outfits; another group wore matching gym clothes; and others were wearing the beautiful outfits we so associated with Ecuador. Gorgeous red blouses, black fedoras, crisp white slacks reaching only as far as the lower shin. There were sequined adorned blouses which shimmered in the sun. Black, velvety shoes, more like slippers, on many children’s feet. Every group of kids, every grade, performed at least twice for us. Native dances done to rhythmically contagious music. Patterned choreography, done by boys who could be convinced to hold on to their dance partners, but this didn’t mean they had to make eye contact with them. Some dancers locked into a zone, performing their steps with pride and facility; others made even shyer by the size and importance of the event. Some children recited poetry, others sang. One young boy sang in front of the group, while hiding behind his teacher. Yuleidy, who earlier had come to sit by us, played the glockenspiel. I have no idea what it’s called in Spanish, but I knew them as glockenspiels when I was a child.

We loved the entertainment. The welcome, the enthusiasm, the music were delightful and contagious. “Why don’t we dance for the kids,” I asked, leaning close to Kathleen. Much of the dance music came from a large CD player and we agreed a couple numbers would be perfect for dances we knew. When the kids’ performances were done, we were going to express our thanks by dancing for them.

The children had spent a lot of time preparing their welcome. After each dance or song, there were a few minutes of down time as one group would be replaced by the next performers. During these lulls, the vice-principal (he of the megaphone) would direct questions my way. In Spanish, he asked me to introduce Kathleen, whether I’d enjoyed the previous performance, whether we were comfortable. He was having some difficulty hearing my responses. In a moment of insanity I’d decided I would stand next to him so my answers were more audible. As I jumped onto the platform, while I was flying through the air, in that fraction of a second a thought went through my head: Steven, are you crazy? Your Spanish is barely passable. How on earth do you expect to carry on a conversation in Spanish, with all those people looking and listening? It was too late, I realized, as I stood next to the vice-principal.

He was kind as he tossed softball questions my way. “Are you having a good time?” “How do you like the food?” “Where are you from?” When he got to “How do you like our beautiful valley?” as he gestured to the beautiful scenery surrounding the school, I jumped at a chance to give a longer answer. Up to that point my responses had been brief, staying inside my comfort zone, but his question about the beautiful surroundings offered me a chance to say more.

I might have been ready to say more, but I had completely misunderstood the question. To my ears, the Spanish words for valley and dance are hard to distinguish. He’d asked me what I thought of the beautiful valley, and I’d heard “Do you know how to dance the” something-or-other. When I told him “No, we don’t know that dance, but we thought we would do the meringue and cha-cha for the kids,” that would explain the look on the faces of every child and adult in the audience. It’s a look familiar to those of us not fluent in a foreign language, the look that says “What on earth is he talking about?” I’m sure it lasted only seconds, but the awkwardness felt like it went on forever, until this small (and compassionate) teacher came to my side, gently tapped me on the shoulder, and as I bent down to hear her, pointed out “Señor Esteban, that’s valley.”

The valley was gorgeous. The people were friendly. The welcome was beyond my imaginings. And what stays with me, as if it happened barely an hour ago, is the looks on the children’s faces, the amazement and joy, along with a little “Oh my gawd, can you believe it” as Kathleen danced with the vice-principal, and I danced with one of the teachers. We taught them the meringue and we learned one of the folk dances we remembered from an earlier performance, while gaggles of smiling, laughing kids crowded around us, not believing what they were seeing.