Lost in Translation – Quito, Ecuador

Lost in Translation
Quito, Ecuador

The first person I spoke to upon arriving in Quito, Ecuador, was the woman at the tourist desk. I would need to find a hostel for the night and figure out how to get my bike into town - the chain had been hopelessly twisted and torqued on the long flight. The woman was extremely helpful in calling the hostel, booking me into a room, and telling me where I could find a van to transport my now useless bike.

If I had know then that this nice lady would be the last woman I would meet that actually spoke English, I probably would have hung out there with her at the airport for a while, chatting about myself. In my ignorance, however, I headed outside, loaded my stuff into a waiting van, and headed into Quito.

I arrived at the Hostel Varama in the area known as New Town around 9:30 in the evening of May 25th. A guy in his early twenties unlocked the door and showed me to my room - the most expensive one in the place of course (not my choice) at $10 per night. And when I say $10 per night, I mean Ten US Dollars per night. Ecuador had evidently decided a few years back to give up on their own currency and adopt the US dollar as their own. They minted their own special coins, however; thus, instead of Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, for example, you got Juan Montalvo, who, like his American counterpart, must have invented something as timeless as the dumbwaiter.

It wasn’t too late at night when I arrived. In these circumstances, I would usually I would go for a walk or something to stretch my legs; but not in Quito. No, the Lonely Planet had assured me that if I walked out the door in Quito after the sun went down I would immediately be attacked and murdered, and the thief would steal my identity and return to the U.S. to spend Christmas with my family and arrange to meet up with my ex-girlfriends, just a quick drink for old times’s sake, and we sure had some good times, didn’t we? Here, let me get you another tequilia…

I was not anxious to let that happen (though it would sure as hell make for a more interesting blog).

I didn’t mind staying in that evening, as I figured I must be tired after my trip - though to be honest I wasn’t sure. On one hand, I had slept well on the night of May 24th (twice), but I had still been traveling for a day and a half, and was absurdly jet-lagged. I sat down with a pen and paper and I calculated that my body clock was now set to about late June, 2020. I tried going to sleep, but woke up every fifty-five minutes, which is apparently how we sleep in the future.

I woke up early the next day eager to have a look around Quito in the safety of daylight. The first order of business was to move to the $5 room down the hall, the one that was large enough for both the single bed and maybe a handful of peas. I had no peas, and was thus able to spread out a bit.

I informed the young guy running the place of my plan to switch rooms, and quickly discovered that he spoke no English at all. It took some convincing to get him to follow me upstairs so that I could show him what I would be doing and get him to give me the key to the other door. He had a wary look in his eye, and I finally had to physically take his arm and lead him upstairs to show him that I was changing rooms. What he could possibly have been afraid of is beyond me, though it probably didn’t help that I was barking out various combinations of the four Spanish words that I knew like a disturbed parrot. It also probably didn’t help that in seeking the door key to the new room, I used the word “muerta” instead of “puerta”, and that my miming of a turning key may have looked, in context, like I was planning on gutting him like a hog.

In the next hour of wandering around, I quickly discovered that the good people of Quito do not speak English (and why should they?). Now this was interesting - after almost eight months of travel, I had finally reached a place where I would absolutely have to communicate in the local language. I found this to be rather exhilarating, like this was real traveling somehow. If nobody was speaking English in the backpacker quarter in the capital, they certainly wouldn’t in the rest of the country - I really had no choice in the matter but to try to learn some Spanish if I wanted to get fed. And I really wanted to get fed. Right then, in fact. I headed off to find some breakfast.

There was not a whole lot of choice at eight a.m. in Quito, but the neighborhood was quite pleasant, low buildings, more like houses really, so it was not a bad place to wander around in the morning sunshine. A few blocks from my hostel I came across a friendly-looking cafe selling a variety of pastries, most of which looked quite tasty. I wandered in and perused the glass case until a man with a large smile greeted me and probably asked me what I wanted.

This being my first Spanish conversation in Ecuador, aside from the rather unsuccessful one at my hostel, I think it is worth noting here. If I had wandered into a cafe in, say, northern China, the process of buying a pastry would be fairly simple. The man behind the counter would take one look at me, know that I had a better chance of juggling giraffes than speaking Chinese, and would move straight to mime, pointing at things, and I could nod or shake my head as warranted. But this was not China, this was Ecuador, and that completely altered the equation.

Anybody that has taken several years of French in high school then actually went to Quebec and trying to order a muffin will know exactly what I am talking about here. You are utterly lost, but simply cannot bear to admit this to yourself.

In Quito, people assume you must speak Spanish, even if you are American (in fact, especially if you are American), and that confidence is frankly contagious. I just did not to want to let this friendly chap down, and it was inspiring the way he spoke to me as one with equal or superior Spanish to himself. From the first moment, I had myself believing that I knew exactly what he was offering me. And that’s when things started to spiral out of control.

I do not wish to sound as if I am passing judgment on the 330 million people who claim Spanish as their first language, but I would appeal to any etymologists out there to explain how you get “naranja” from “orange”, as they have done in Latin America. Because that’s insane. You know what “orange” is in French? “Orange.” In German? That’s right: “Orange.” How about Swedish? Go on, have a guess….Give up? Well, folks, you can look it up: “Orange.” I’m just sayin’.

Unable to locate anything on the board that resembled “Orange juice,” I took a stab at one of the other word combos up there. I received for my efforts a set of raised eyebrows accompanied by a super thick yogurt drink that tasted remarkably like bean dip.

It also turned out that the thing I thought was an apple danish turned out to be a meat pie, as I discovered with the first bite. And that was irritating, because I am sure I pointed to an apple danish. He must have done some slight of hand. Not to trick me, you understand, but simply because that is probably how the conversation went, which is to say, his end of the conversation. He was speaking a great deal, and I was simply smiling and nodding. Let me paint you a picture, as this was likely to repeat itself for the next several months:

I point at an apple danish, and he says (in indecipherable Spanish), “I see that you are pointing at an apple danish. That certainly makes sense, as it is eight o’clock in the morning. Apple danishes are universally considered breakfast food, even here in Ecuador. There is no other logical choice, to be sure. You are surely going to enjoy this particular pastry - it is one of my personal favorites. You would have to be crazy to order, say, a meat pie at this hour,” he would say, continuing to point at the apple danish. I, in turn, would continue to nod.

“You do not actually want a meat pie, do you?” he would then ask, still nodding inquisitively at me, and I would simply continue to nod. “Wait a minute - perhaps I have unfairly leapt to conclusions. I have been guilty of this in the past, and it has brought pain to those closest to me. I shall not repeat such an error now. Please tell me, sir, are you are saying you do want a meat pie, rather than this delicious danish? This is what you eat in America?” (nod nod) “Well, then meat pie it is. I shall happily serve this to you, if you so desire it. It seems strange to me, but I shall not judge you or your culture. And it might taste rather nice with the bean dip you ordered.”

So I got the goddamn meat pie. And worse, every non-Spanish speaking American who wanders in there for breakfast will now get a meat pie as the default choice, as they nod dumbly. Sorry, Americans!

Ecuador was going to be a bit of a challenge.


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  • Daniel Audet said at 2012-04-13T18:58:43+0000: Hahahaha I love your writing, can't wait to get to Quito now!