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The College Magazine - Spring 2000 : Dispatch from the Andes Dispatch from the Andes:
Alumna Kate Gleeson reports on the intelligence she gathered teaching English in Ecuador


Children of Tulcan celebrate the anniversary of the signing of the Human Rights Convention. Ecuador has finally made it into the news. Its 18 hour-coup and economic crisis brought this tiny Andean country, dwarfed between Colombia and Peru, into our national newspapers. My parents are relieved I'm back in the U.S. After spending more than a year scouring the papers for tidbits, they are learning at last about Ecuadorian economics. I certainly learned a lot when I was living there—what it means to live through a two-week national strike, what 67% inflation does to the price of bread, and what the much splattered graffito "ja basta!" meant: Enough already. I first saw that in March 1999. Between then and now the sucre, the national currency, lost another 70% of its value. Daily I had conversations with Ecuadorians about the IMF, World Bank, and dollarization. It was an education I hadn't anticipated and was sad to receive. But those experiences did not detract from the wonderful things I found in Ecuador. The opportunity to learn and to share, to communicate in a common language, opened an entire world for me filled with new perspectives. Yes, communicating directly allowed me to learn about the crisis, to understand what those hard realities meant for the people around me, but that was only one small part of all I learned.

I went to Ecuador in September 1998 as part of a World Teach program. Servicios Ecuadorianos de Capacitacion Profesional (SECAP) sponsors World Teach to bring English teachers to Ecuador. Participants live with local families, and teach English for one year. I lived in Tulcan, a provincial capital on the Colombian border, 9,000 feet in the sky. Tulcan has two volcanoes looming over it; the rest is potato fields. I taught through SECAP, which offers adult education courses in skills as diverse as mechanics, flower arranging, electricity, and hair cutting. I taught basic, intermediate, and advanced English to students between the ages of 16 and 47.

I went to Ecuador knowing next to no Spanish. My host family was wonderful, patiently waiting for me to complete my thoughts. My students were also wonderful, and perhaps even more understanding, as they were struggling with the same problems in my classroom. One advantage, among many, of learning a new language, is that it strengthens your understanding of your own language. With my students, if I asked how to express something using passive voice in Spanish, they understood what I wanted, and how to explain it to me. After all, we had spent two hours last Thursday talking about passive voice in class.

My time outside of class was increasingly filled up with qimbolitos and coffee with students, days on students' farms, and parties. We normally spoke in Spanish, with them teasingly correcting me in the same manner I corrected them in class. It was a great way to learn a language. Even more fun was the true cultural exchange we could have. We were able to explain our world views and perspectives. They asked me to describe snow. I asked them to explain the Day of the Dead. They laughed at my inability to wash my clothes well at the pila, and I teased them about the numbers of potatoes they eat. One of my first exchanges of this sort happened after I'd been teaching for only a couple of weeks. It made me decide I was exactly where I needed to be.

Potatoes, potatoes everywhere: What looks like a construction site is actuall a field where the ubiquitous staple of the Ecuadorian diet is grown and bagged for and bagged for market.
Potatoes, potatoes everywhere: What looks like a construction site is actuall a field where the ubiquitous staple of the Ecuadorian diet is grown and bagged for and bagged for market.

Half of Tulcan was having a power outage, as happened frequently that October and November. My afternoon class had left, and I waited in the quiet dusk for my night class to arrive. They came, a few at a time, trickling in slowly as they usually did. Briefly the lights came on and just as quickly went out. After a shriek and giggles, we gathered in the final glow of twilight and declared class cancelled. Three of my students, Fabian, William, and Milton, offered to escort me home. We set off on the five-block walk down a very steep hill. The power outage had silenced the merengue-blaring radios, and instead filled open doorways with flickering candles, and shadows of families eating together. The street was empty, and the night air brisk. It felt like a peaceful autumn evening to my gringo heart.

"This doesn't happen in North America," Fabian asserted.

"Well, sometimes we have power outages. Sometimes, lightning causes the power to go out."

"What is lightning?" Milton wasn't afraid to ask. Was it my Spanish or the concept he didn't understand?

"Light in the sky, like this." Fabian demonstrated, with sound effects. "We have a lot of rain, but rarely do we have lightning." Now we were on my favorite topic of late, the continuous rain.
"And how do you dry your clothes in the United States, when it rains a lot?"

Oh wow, I thought. Hit me with more of those, I need that. I described the large machines used for the sole purpose of drying gringos' clothes, then went inside for a candlelit dinner with my family, my host parents teaching their 3-year-old and me alike the names of body parts.

Now, back in the U.S., I miss the visible learning and growth I experienced every day in Ecuador. Luckily, I can find opportunities here to use my Spanish, and continue to allow that to open my mind to new perspectives—or to take me back to old new ones. In January, a couple of days before the Ecuadorian president was ousted in a coup, I was in a salsa club, and found myself dancing with an Ecuadorian man. What a thrill to talk about familiar places, for both of us! We shook our heads about the events in Ecuador, and tried to cheer each other up. As it was, after all, a party, I knew the proper way to celebrate.

"Viva Ecuador!" I yelled. He smiled. Then, "Viva!" he properly responded. And spun me around.

Kate Gleeson, BA’97, majored in political science and Germanic studies at IU. Before going to Ecuador with World Teach, she worked for the federal government in Washington, D.C. She is currently living in Bloomington while she charts out a new career path that will incorporate the Spanish (and other things) she learned in South America.



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Last Updated: December 15, 2000
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