New Smells and Old Fears

After 21 hours of travel, I arrived in Guayaquil, exhausted, smelly, and with my nerves buzzing like a fly caught in a window frame.  It has always the little things that stand out to me when I arrive in a new place, the first being the smell. Not if it’s good or bad, and never anything I could describe well or even remember clearly after I leave, but distinctive enough that I immediately recognize it when I smell it again.  Tonga has a smell.  Something about the Pacific Ocean and the ubiquitous coconut trees and flowers maybe.  Maine’s smell is of the Atlantic surf crashing on the stony beaches and fishing boats. When I stepped out of the airport in Ecuador, I paused to breathe it in, and Tonga popped into my head.  Not exactly the same but similar and that similarity immediately put me at ease, which is exactly what I needed.

The journey here had been rough.  From the snow storm, icy roads and tears on the drive to Newark, to the frigid plane ride, to the lonely and sleepless 14 hours in the Panama Airport, it had been a challenge.  While waiting in Panama, the combination of an overactive air-conditioner and excessively harsh florescent lighting made sleep impossible.  After many miserable hours, I wandered outside where I ran in to a group of 5 or 6 policías lounging in and around a jeep by the entrance way.  At first, based on their large guns and dark olive colored fatigues, I assumed they must be military, my heart started beating a little faster.  Before you judge me as a big baby for getting intimidated so easily, you have to realize that my only experiences thus far in Latin America had been walking over the boarder to Juarez from El Paso TX.  You know… Juarez, Mexico … the murder capital of the world …the city that has been torn apart by a war between the drug cartels, corrupt police, and President Calderón’s army, and everyone else getting caught in the crossfire. I had been told over and over again by my vigilant friends and family in El Paso to be very very careful. And not just careful about the normal crimes like muggings etc., but careful with the guys in the uniforms and with the guns who were notoriously corrupt.

As the policías approached me, all the stories my friends told about of bribes being demanded and nights spent in Mexican holding cells began flashing through my mind.  Oh shit. I thought as I steeled myself for fight or flight. Here we go.

“Hola, lady.  ¿Tenga un encendedor?” And thus began my very first stumbling conversation in terrible Spanish.  It turns out wearing a uniform doesn’t make you immune to the boredom of an overnight shift at a quiet airport, and any apprehension was replaced by relief that there was someone around to keep me entertained.  After several hours of pseudo-communication, their superior officer came by to scold them for chatting with me instead of guarding things, or whatever it is that they were supposed to be doing.

When I finally arrived in Ecuador, a calm (or maybe just a exhausted numbness) had overtaken me. After another mimed “conversation” with a hotel desk lady, I settled into my room for the night and was overtaken by loneliness.  A strange new country, a room with no windows, no one to talk to, not that I could speak their language if there was, no internet connection get in touch with friends, not even an outlet to plug in my laptop.  I pushed past the moment of self-pity, and went out to explore the city and practice my Spanglish. It was my very first time traveling solo in a completely foreign country. Despite wishing that I had actually bothered to learn some Spanish before I left, it felt good.

Original version published January 9, 2011, on tumblr as “El Principio Nuevo”.

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