When I was twenty, I spent a summer doing research in Ecuador. My second morning there, my host sister Isleny took me on a walk around the neighborhood. She was several years younger than I was, but trotting after her with a poor grasp of the streets and the language made me feel like a latched-on younger sibling she wanted to shake.
On this particular walk, Isleny tried to tell me how far away our destination, the doctor’s office, was from our house.
“Dos manzanas, Michaela,” she said, gesturing in front of us.
I contemplated this information. Two apples. Were we going to a fruit store instead of the doctors? Did she want me to go get apples? Maybe she was referring to “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Do they have that phrase in Spanish?
“Dos . . . manzanas?” I asked.
“Sí, Michaela. Hay que caminar dos manzanas.” She emphasized the last two words and said them slowly like she was speaking to a child. I was still confused. No shiny red fruit in sight, I asked again. After minutes of patient explanation, I realized that a manzana was not just the Spanish word for the crunchy fruit that grows on trees. In a different context, it means block. Go figure.
Linguistic trials and travails would follow me through most of the summer in Ecuador. Like the time later that week when I asked a taxista to take me to the city’s botanical garden, and I ended up dropped off at the city dump. I spent the afternoon with a young girl whose father worked at the landfill, wandering amidst piles of trash. I’ll never know exactly what went wrong in translation, but it was probably the same mistake that happened the day I was supposed to go white water rafting.
A local river guide I had met when I first got off the plane had promised to take me rafting and had told me to call him later that week. Making good on my promise, I called Fabian on my host family’s phone when I got back one morning after walking many apples around the neighborhood. “Fabian? It’s Michaela.”
“Mee-kai-ay-la.” I said slowly, pronouncing it the Spanish way.
“From the municipio? A few days ago?”
“Oh, yes! Mika! How are you?” Fabian spoke very quickly and was hard for me to understand, especially over the phone. He said something enthusiastically about rafting.
“Yeah, what time?” I asked.
“Get to Macas around one and I will pick you up at the bus terminal. Ciao, Michaela.” He hung up, and I grinned. I had a date.
I rushed to get to the bus on time, afraid I would be late. I hadn’t realized yet that, regardless of what time I arrived, I would never be late in this country. I wore my bathing suit under a big T-shirt and athletic shorts, and brought my small backpack with a change of clothes, a towel, and a water bottle. Typical rafting apparel, though I did look out of place on the bus – most Ecuadorians would rather be caught dead than caught in public dressed in athletic wear. I got off the bus at 1:15. Fabian was nowhere to be seen.
After waiting twenty minutes, I was sure he had forgotten me. I approached a woman who looked to be about my age.
“Excuse me?” I began in Spanish. “I’m supposed to be meeting a friend here, and I don’t have a cellphone yet. Could I possibly use yours to call him?”
She regarded me suspiciously. When I continued staring at her with big, pleading eyes, she sighed and dug around in her purse for her phone.
“Fabian? I am here, at the bus stop,” I said when he answered. It was almost 1:40 at this point, but he seemed confused as to why I was calling. His laughter filled the phone line. “Wait outside, on the street, Michaela. I am coming.”
I thanked the girl profusely and handed her back the phone. Waiting on the street, I peered in every car window that passed and was rewarded for my scrutiny with catcalls and marriage proposals. Finally, an hour after he had told me to be there, Fabian rolled up in a small SUV. There were two older people in the backseat, and he motioned for me to get in.
“Michaela! These are my parents.”
It’s starting to get kind of late to go rafting, I thought as we drove. Are his parents coming rafting with us? Just the four of us?
I sat in silence in the front seat, having not yet mastered small talk. After a few minutes, Fabian stopped the car outside of a restaurant. Maybe we’re dropping them off here to leave and go rafting? But Fabian was the first to get out of the car, so I followed him inside. A pre-rafting snack for sustenance, perhaps?
What appeared to be Fabian’s entire extended family was seated at a long table in the middle of the restaurant. Fabian abandoned me, and I picked a seat between two non-threatening family members. Spanish poured over me like water on an impermeable surface.
I sat quietly for minutes until a man, maybe an uncle, turned to me and introduced himself. “I am Paco.”
Relieved, I returned the introduction. “Hola, Paco. Mucho gusto. Soy Michaela.” He looked confused and shook his head.
“No, Michaela. I am Paco!” he repeated, emphasizing each syllable of his name. He sounded like Isleny saying the word “apple” over and over again.
Thinking that he wanted me to reply in English, I tried again. “Hello Paco. It’s nice to meet you. I am Michaela.” I smiled, sure I had gotten it right this time. Paco grew frustrated, his brow furling.
The young woman on my right touched my arm so that I turned to look at her. She smiled and shook her head. “I am Paco, Michaela.”
“You are Paco?” This was feeling like the manzana situation all over again.
At this point, the table erupted. All of Fabian’s family members turned to look at me, and they started to speak over each over, every single member claiming to be Paco.
“I am Paco, Michaela!” shouted an aunt.
“I am Paco!” nodded a grandparent.
“No, I am Paco!” said Fabian, grinning.
The table fell silent for a moment. I looked at each of them in turn and said, slowly, “I am Michaela?”
Like a chorus, they started again. They clamored over each other for minutes, and I could only hear the phrase “I. Am. Paco.” over and over again as they called it to me. At this point, I became convinced that either everyone in this entire family was named Paco, or they had all gone insane and I was next.
As the chorus quieted, I tried one more time and looked across the table at Fabian’s father. As the other dinner guests continued to tell me they were Paco, I put my hand on my chest and said tentatively, in English, “I am Paco?”
Fabian’s father nodded enthusiastically. The members of Fabian’s family grew calm, exultant. I solemnly accepted my fate. I was to be called Paco. I started wondering what someone named Paco did for a job. Did I have to stay in Ecuador forever now, the humble Paco, living in a family of Pacos?
Everyone was quiet. I pointed to Fabian’s father and then back at myself and confirmed, “Yo soy Paco?” The table had been simmering; it erupted back into a boil. The Pacos were shouting and laughing and the chorus of “I am Paco” continued to ring in my ears.
It felt like an eternity. It might have been one. Fabian’s sister finally quieted everyone down, shouting “Una persona! Una persona!” One person! I nodded emphatically alongside her.
Paco The Original turned to me. “Michaela,” he said very slowly, articulating each word and syllable in Spanish. I was relieved that he did not try to call me Paco. “Ayampaco is a traditional Ecuadorian dish, a specialty of Macas. We are asking if you would like to try it?”
It took a few seconds to absorb this information before realization spread on my face like a sigh of relief. They were not insane after all, and in fact, not a single one of them was named Paco.
I nodded, shaking my head, and before I could put my head in my hands I started to giggle. Softly at first, then as if I had given them permission, the rest of the table started to chuckle too. It built into a raucous hum, every wave of laughter punctuated with someone shouting out a gleeful, strangled, “Ayampaco! Ayampaco!”
. . .
The sky grew dark without a single person mentioning rafting. It turned out that Fabian’s father was running for office, and his campaign strategy was quite simple. Fabian, his parents and I spent the next five hours driving around to the small towns in the mountains of Ecuador. We went to every small town in his district, where he would find a local man of influence by asking around. We would then drive to that person’s house, and Fabian’s father would disappear inside for anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes. Meanwhile, Fabian, his mother, and I, a random gringa who had no business in this business, sat and waited in the car. Rinse, wash, repeat.
The day ended at a political rally with speeches and pool tables. I felt like a child for the umpteenth time that week: helpless, tagging along, out of place with the grown-ups debating things I could not understand. I didn’t even know how to broach the subject of rafting, or how I was to get back to my host family’s house. Finally, late at night, an old woman scolded Fabian into taking me home.
When I walked in the door, my host mother and Isleny were watching TV. “How was rafting?” my host mother asked.
“Well, first we went to this restaurant . . .”
They called me Paco the rest of the summer.
Bio: Michaela Barnett has worked as an international trip leader and as a Spanish teacher at a Swiss boarding school. Over the past four years, her hiking boots have logged over 500 miles on four continents. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she is writing her first novel.