The First Conversation
The phone rang once, twice, three times. A woman answered, her voice too faint for me to make out what she was saying, even if she had been speaking in English, which she wasn’t. I figured she must have said something like, “Hostal Macondo. How may I help you?” I said, “Hostal Macondo?” Her voice carried more volume now, but I didn’t recognize any of the words she used. This was not going the way I had imagined it in my head.
All I wanted to do was confirm that our hotel reservation was still intact. We had made it several months earlier, via the internet, through a third party that probably handled similar transactions for lots of similar hotels and hostels. I didn’t want us to show up late at night and find we didn’t have a bed to sleep in. Having no idea where we were in the conversation, I nonetheless pushed on.
“?Me gustaría confirmer una reservación?” I was quite proud of myself for getting that one out. I even rolled the r’s. She asked me a question in return, which contained the word “reservacion” but nothing else recognizable. The conversation was definitely going south; no pun intended. I started to explain that my Spanish was limited: “Hablo … ah … solo un poco .. um … espanol. Um — ”
She interrupted. “Do you want to make a reservation? Or confirm a reservation?”
I’m pretty sure I could have gotten through the conversation in Spanish if she had hung in there with me. But she didn’t. Either she had compassion on me, or she didn’t want to spend the rest of her morning figuring out what this gringo wanted. I don’t know if I was relieved or disappointed. A little of both I guess. In any case, the reservation was indeed still in place and confirmed.
This was my first ever conversation with an Ecuadorian. My second one was a few days later.
The Second Conversation
Somewhere along the line, it dawned on us that our flight would arrive in Cuenca at night, and we would need a way to get to the Hostal Macondo. I asked about this on one of the Ecuador Expat forums. They assured me that taking a taxi would be fine as long as we ensured that it was a legitimate one. Several suggested we ask the hostel to send someone to pick us up. The latter made a lot of sense, but I wanted to establish contact with a trustworthy and reliable taxi driver. Several were mentioned by the expats.
It took me a while to figure out how to call his cell phone. What with country codes and an unfamiliar phone number pattern, I wasn’t at all sure what numbers to punch in to get through to him. I eventually reached him.
Emilio speaks excellent English, so I didn’t have to worry about the language barrier. But I did have to worry about the cultural barrier. I explained to Emilio what I wanted, and he expressed enthusiasm and confidence that he could meet us at the airport and take us to our hostel. I started to respond, but he continued talking. So I stopped.
He went on about his business and how we were going to love Cuenca. When he paused, I asked how we would recognize him. He said he would have a sign with our name on it. I thanked him, but he was still talking. Again. Somehow, we got through it all, with me stomping on his end of the conversation several times.
My wife, who had heard my side of the conversation, reminded me that you have to establish relationship before you move on to business. Of course. That was what he was trying to do. He wanted to engage me in a conversation first. And then talk business. I, on the other hand, wanted to get the business transaction wrapped up quickly and efficiently and get on with my day. In retrospect, he must have thought me incredibly rude. Or maybe he deals with enough gringos to expect it. I don’t know. But obviously I need to work on my social skills if I’m going to fit into Ecuadorian culture.
I imagine I will have many opportunities for linguistic and social faux pas during our two-week visit. I’m practicing the phrase, “lo siento,” which I suspect I will find useful.