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Lucy: 4 week Standard Course

I was very tired and very nervous, I was on the other side of the world from home and didn’t know a soul. I tried to ring home to let them know I had arrived safely in Quito but the card I had didn’t work. The hotel phone cost me $17.00 to speak to my dad for one minute.

I had just arrived in the country and needed to stop over before getting a connecting flight to Cuenca and my 4 week Spanish language course. My fears had been well fuelled by dad, who prior to the flight had been posting me every report on attacks on foreigners in South America ever since I’d told him I planned to go to Ecuador for the summer, having finished University. That first night was definitely the worst night I spent in Ecuador.

I was entirely ignorant of the continent, let alone Ecuador and had no idea what to expect from the language course in Cuenca, or the two months I had set aside to travel around Ecuador and Peru with a girlfriend. Looking back I can quite honestly say I had one of the best times of my life in South America. I went to refresh my very rusty Spanish and to explore a part of the world friends told me was ‘amazing’.

I had anticipated living in a degree of poverty, probably with a local Indian family, instead I was collected from Cuenca airport by the father of my host family. He was an architect and his wife was a teacher at the college I was studying at. On the surface many professional people lived life much as in the Western world, yet there were always a few oddities. For whilst the family had a washing machine clearly on view, it was covered with ornaments and it’s function was purely decorative. The Indian maid came in each day and did all the washing by hand.

There are huge class divisions in Ecuador; the ethnic Indians are generally very poor (many looked shabby, hungry and worn out as you saw them pass on the street) then there are the bus drivers/shop keepers, followed by the professional classes and, of course, a few super rich. It was strange to see the Indians desperate to sell their produce during the day and then the professionals and super rich of Cuenca at night – beautiful girls dressed to the nines, smart cars and a bitchy elitist atmosphere reminiscent of the most clique ridden of London clubs.

Aside from the social divide the most memorable aspect of my experience has to be the openness of the Ecuadorian people. During my degree I spent a year in France and it took a good 3 months before the French opened up enough to ‘go out’ with me. Yet in Cuenca it took me no more than a week and I am still in touch with most of them now. People always wanted to help and rarely did I ever feel unsafe – despite my father’s dire warnings.

I loved the school. I was impressed by the organisation, the standard of the teachers and the extra curricula activities i.e. cooking classes, regional and Latin American dance classes and full day excursions to craft villages such as Gualaceo and Chordeleg, the Cajas Natural park and a trip up in to mountainous jungle.

Lessons were intensive and concentrated on grammar, oral work and consolidating lessons which tested what we covered that day – we also had homework every night, which was a novelty for a Uni graduate! At the end of the course I had improved way beyond lapsed A-level ability of school days. The combination of teacher enthusiasm, small classes of no more than 5 per class and the range of student nationalities ensured good progress. The fact that I had to speak Spanish with my host family every day was the icing on the cake.

Travel plans for myself and girlfriend, were given a major boost as a network of family and friends of my Cuenca hosts took us under their wing, showed us ‘their’ towns and took us to ‘their’ favourite restaurants. We had the chance to gain an insight into Ecuador at a local level that no guide book, no matter how well researched, can ever offer the back packer.
We moved on to Peru which meant trekking, sand surfing, rafting and ‘doing’ the Inca trail. I adored dancing in El Barranco district in Lima and eating gorgeous doughnuts with fig syrup in a market in Huanchaco however having got under the skin of Ecuador, travelling around Peru made me feel akin to a walking wallet.

I love Ecuador. It is bursting with geography — mountains, jungle and fabulous coast line. I will never forget dancing salsa in La Mesa in Cuenca (and not once being allowed to sit a dance out), fishing for trout in Cajas National Park, playing with a baby monkey in Vilcabaniba and the whole week I spent in the jewel in the crown — the Galapagos islands. The fact that I spoke Spanish and was able to chat to the taxi drivers, book coach tickets and socialise with Ecuadorians, none of whom spoke English, without doubt enhanced every aspect of our travels.

If you’re thinking of going, don’t think, just go!