I arrive at the hotel and am greeted with a big fat stereotype. Actually a group of them standing around in a lux open air lobby, looking eager but slightly frightened with their cameras in hand. I don’t have to hear them talk to know they are American. The clothes are the give away. Germans also send a lot of older plump tourists, pockets swollen with cash, sunburnt noses, gawking with both appreciation of their surroundings, and with the judgmental lenses of a people who see the world as being centered on them. But the Americans just look so American.
I duck past before they can see me and look for the manager. Hola Señora, muchos gracias por la propuesta, pero no estoy segura de que mi español es suficiente para esto. ”Nonsense! I hear right now that your Spanish is good enough,” she replys. “You’ll be fine. Please, don’t worry, you can do it, I need you to do it. Jefferson gave me your name and honestly I don’t have anyone else.” She hands me a bag of snacks and water, an envelope of money, gives me a 2 minute description of how to fill out very complicated invoice form, and walks away. The “winging it” begins.
The tourists smell like money. It’s strange, they aren’t wearing designer cloths or carrying fancy cameras, but somehow, living with poor people, and being poor in a poor pueblo in a poor country for over 6 months has given me new olfactory receptors. I ask them were they’re from. Westbury, NY on Long Island (check). I ask them what they do. 1 lawyer, 1 regional head of big medical insurance company, 1 long tenured LI high school teacher (check, check, and check). As I process this information, I’m disgusted with my own mercurial thoughts. Why are you judging these people April? You grew up with these people. You had a pretty privileged childhood, you went to private school, you grew up in New York, you lived on Long Island for the last couple years godssake! My jump to an us-vrs-them view shames me. I overhear the women talking about how the factory she in her husband own in New Jersey hires tons of Ecuadorian laborers and so they understand these people. “Ecuadorians are such hard workers and we help them so much that I just love that we can see where all those people come from.” The rest of the group nods vigorously at this idiotic blanket statement about an entire culture. I think about my friends here and the way that the Ecuadorians that I knew in Long Island lived. I don’t feel guilty anymore.
We all load into two taxis and set out towards Agua Blanca. I ask the driver questions about the the things we pass and translate for the tourists. I know very little tour-guidey information, so I just talk about what I know. I tell them about the recent tsunami and it’s impact, about the shrimp lab nurseries and how they salinize the land to the point of complete destruction so that guilty foreigners can eat seafood that won’t lead to overfishing, about the tuna canneries that dump refuse back into the ocean and the blind eye that the government turns when the villagers beg them to take action. I talk about the lack of social security system or Medicare that leaves old widows in big cities begging for change in the street to survive. I talk about the warm generous culture, the way people look out for eachother, about the way that the Pacific looks at midnight when the sky is full of stars, the horizon dotted with the lights of a hundred fishing boats and the sand sparkling with phosphorescent plankton. I tell them how beautiful it is, and how ugly it can be. They talk about how president Obama being an idiot, liberals being the cause of all poverty, and how high income tax is. I bite my tongue.
They ask over and over again, why I’m here, and I try to explain about the joys of teaching to people who really need and want it, even if it forces me to take a day job translating for tourists. I think maybe the teacher will get it. She doesn’t. They ask me about what TV shows I watch and I tell them I never had TV, even in the States. “I read the New York Times and listened to NPR,” I tell them. “Uh oh guys, she’s one of those,” they say knowingly. “I stopped reading the New York Times when I stopped being able to tell the difference between the news and the op-eds,” says the Health Insurance guy. I try to keep my face expressionless and ask what he prefers. “We watch Fox news.” I cannot hold in a snort and try to pass it off as a cough. It’s too much, I cannot say nothing. “Speaking of not being able to tell between news and opinions,” I say under my breath. He hears me and starts listing off all the wonderful “journalists” that work for Fox news. I realize this person is me, we are from the same country, same socio-economic class, same state, same area of the state even. We went to the same types of colleges. We are both children of immigrants who worked hard for the American dream. But more separates him and me than age, continents, life experiences, and politics. And can I say who is better? After all, isn’t this man successful and wealthy while I’m getting paid to make his vacation a bit more comfortable. But even so, I don’t think I was wrong in sensing a hint of envy on his part. There are worlds between us.
We go to Salangos for lunch and little children run up to the car and knock on the windows and make faces. I laugh and roll down the window. ¿Que quieres chiquito? He giggles shyly and runs away. The woman in the back seat sighs melodramaticly. “It’s so sad, it’s just so sad.” Her husband the insurance guy nods seriously and says “It’s just not a good system.” I’m confused for a moment until I realize that they think the kids were begging for money. They were not. They just thought the chubby white tourists in the cars looked funny and were goofing around. I think about explaining that in these smaller villages, families take care of each other and even if their parents are poor the kids are definitely fine. They are probably getting more love and attention from more people then their own children in America did, and they are definitely not going hungry. The kids didn’t once put a hand out or ask for anything, and I wonder why the two of them would jump to the conclusion that they were beggers. One kid was waving and mashing his nose against the glass the way that kids like to do, clearly playing. How was that not obvious? Then I remember that to a wealthy couple from Westbury it’s possible that any kid in a third world country with bare feet and dusty clothes running around in the street probably looks like he’s from one of those “Save a Child” commercials on TV. I decide to let them think what they want to think. Apparently when I gained those extra olfactory receptors, I lost a certain set of lenses that warp the way people look at the world outside there own.
We get back to their hotel and they all give me big hugs and thank me for everything. The lawyer presses a ridiculously large tip into my hand. I gawk at the money and try to hand 2/3rds of it back to him, saying it was too much for what I did. He insists. After they leave, I smile to myself, feeling the loot in my pocket, until I realize that while based on how much my rent costs, the tip was the equivalent of being handed about $700 in the New York, it was actually just $60. I had been so overwhelmed that I tried to give $40 back to a big shot Long Island lawyer. I think about how quickly I used to earn and spend $60 back the States. The hotel manager hands me my pay for the day and it brings my haul up to $85. I feel rich. “How did things go?” she asks me. I smile and tell her the truth. “Really well,” I say. “I learned a lot. It was a really good day.”
Original published July 14, 2011, on tumblr as “Mundos Diferentes”.