It's a question I ask myself a lot as our omnibus approaches our third month of service. In theory our first few months in site are for integrating into our communities and surveying a representative population to gain a feel for what they actually want and need. It's easier said than done, though, in my opinion regarding my unique situation.
It seems the people most interested in me are people older and younger than me. The people my age are spectacularly uninterested in me and seem really shy. So...a feeling of loneliness is, I guess, inevitable. Moo helps as a creature to take care of and talk with, but it's sort of problemmatic that she doesn't talk back. I call my folks once a week for $10 on Saturday, the best day of the week. But my host isn't much of a conversationalist, at least, not around me. If I bring up how I'm feeling (missing home, family, friends...) she instantly weeps about missing her own family, whose members have either died or moved far away.
I get really encouraged, though, when little glimmers of familiarity and friendliness shine. I offered to help with English teaching at the school so I go there Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. The kids are ravingly excited to see me, really, after almost two months they still all leap out of their chairs to shake my hand and say "Good morning!" in Spanish or English. Once I was almost about to shake the teacher's hand when I was tackled and intercepted from below by her kids hugging me. The teachers themselves are also very welcoming, and one told me I could call her any time if I ever needed anything, especially in Riobamba.
And a bus driver refuses to take my $1 fare (the cost of the 1.5 hour ride from my site to Riobamba). I try to pay each time, but each time he shakes his head and says we're friends. His bright 12-year-old daughter is attending school in Riobamba, and comes to my site once a week to visit home. During my first month, she came up to visit me and ask if I could help her with English. Back then I was really leary about giving in and teaching English, but now I've opened up to it. It may not be exactly what I'm here to do, but it sure does help make friends and open dialogue up. So I told her I can help her out on Saturday evenings. We're even doing a language exchange - for the first half of the session, we work on English. And the second half, she switches and helps my Spanish.
Last week, I finally got myself down to the Parque Nacional Sangay technical office, about a kilometer walk up the dirt road, to talk with the guards. On my way I passed the community's secretary, who I said the usual hello to and said I'd like to give a little speech at the next meeting. As I started to go, she said her and the kids are going 'muy, muy arriba' (Alaosian for 'really far away', like lejos) and I could join them in the hike if I wanted. YES! Meet at 9 tomorrow. Except sadly she had a death in the family and had to postpone the hike... perhaps next week.
I was really hoping the guards would tell me what to do, but instead they were asking me for ideas. Sounded like we have a tough job ahead of us, but I felt welcomed by them. Each time I meet them, they say the office is like my home and I'm welcome any time.
And I'm known as 'Cristinita' to most people here, an endearing term that adds an extra syllable to an already long name. I miss being called 'Cris' by my host family in Tumbaco. But my name here is a good indicator about how people feel about me: if my host isn't pleased with me or is feeling not so great herself, I'm 'Cristina' (or when she calls me down, it's 'CristiNAAA'), but when she likes me or is feeling fine, it's Cristinita. I always dread going down to eat when it's the first. Yep, sometimes I'm still called a gringa, or usually a gringita. Once I was buying veggies at a market and a woman next to me told her baby, "Look, a gringita!" Haha. Wow. Yes, I look a little different. Way to make me feel it.
It may be cold, cloudy, and rainy here, but there are hot springs! A couple teachers, students, and parents invited me along to their field trip next Tuesday to swim around in one. Fun!