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2002-10-22 - 10:59 a.m.

I met Cat at an Indian restaurant in Quito on Saturday night. She was eating alone and I was eating alone, and before I knew it, we were eating together and exchanging life stories. She was traveling with a group, but had escaped for a few days to have an adventure with a boy she had fallen in love with traveling with another group. She didnīt say she had fallen in love with him, but she brought up his name every chance she got, and I could tell that she was in love. She was British, and had most recently lived in New Zealand for a year. Now she was traveling in South America, for six months. I told her I was only traveling for six weeks. Six weeks. A lightbulb went off in my head. What was I thinking, only traveling for six weeks? Iīm in South America. When will I ever make it to South America again? In my head, I deferred my grad school admission to September, and came back in January, this time for six months, traveling everywhere and coming back fluent in Spanish. Or maybe I just never left.

Parts of my brain that have been asleep for the past four years are waking up, and I find myself happier and more content than I have been in a while, even as I navigate foreign cities and struggle with the language. This is so easy. How come no one told me how easy this was? How come I couldnīt remember how easy this was?

Did you know there is no time change between Austin, Texas and Quito, Ecuador? That is how easy this is. I didnīt even have to deal with jetlag.

I arrived on Friday night, dazed from the flight and the packing and the running around and the friendliness of my Ecuadorean seatmates on the plane (who gave me their number in Quito, "just in case") and the worry over which line to stand in to get my passport stamped (one was marked Immigration and one was marked Migracion and it wasnīt until sometime the next day that I realized they meant the same thing), and was picked up at the airport by Pablo. I almost fell in love with Pablo right then and there, because he spoke English and was friendly and drove me straight to my hotel so I could get some sleep.

I spent Saturday wandering around the old town of Quito, where I was almost the only tourist. I went into churches and museums (okay, one church and one museum), and walked through the market and sat in the square for a while, and people left me alone and I felt like I was invisible (my preferred state). The only hard part was trying to find lunch - every restaurant I passed had huge pictures of meat out front. I finally found a Chinese restaurant, with four whole vegetarian options on the menu, and I ate my rice and bland pale green vegetables (mostly celery and lettuce) in Chinese juice gratefully.

For dinner, I decided to find an actual vegetarian restaurant (listed in my guidebook). I took a taxi to the new part of Quito (two dollar taxi rides! I feel like a millionaire in Ecuador), and found myself in expatriot central. Coffee shops and cyber cafes on every corner, signs in English...all of a sudden, I felt conspicuous and paranoid. I actually felt more comfortable surrounded by locals. But now, I had to question my status as an expatriot; was I doing it right? Maybe I was doing it wrong. I went into a cybercafe and checked my email and wrote home and tried not to make eye contact with the other gringos. It started to rain while I was looking for the vegetarian restaurant, and so I settled for an Indian restaurant, which is where I met Cat. We talked all during dinner, and during coffee at the expatriot coffee shop, and she helped me find a cab to take me back to the hotel. She also gave me great advice about hiking the Inca Trail (DO: bring a poncho. DONīT: bring a bright pink one, as you will only look like a condom.).

On Sunday, I flew to Cuenca (with two other people doing my program), and was whisked away from the airport by my host "sister," Karina, 29 years old and a vegetarian. She took me to my home for the next month - a nice suburban house with my own room and own bathroom, only a fifteen minute walk away from the school. I met Maria, the mother, and Pablo, Karinaīs brother, 28 years old and a student.

On Monday morning, I was tested for my Spanish proficiency (although I could understand some of the questions on the test, I couldnīt answer a single one), taken on a tour of downtown Cuenca, and started class that afternoon. Even with only one dayīs worth of classes, my Spanish has improved immensely. My teachers are incredibly supportive, and my two classmates (both Swiss) know enough English to chime in when Iīm really confused. I ate dinner with a group of other students last night, mostly European, and they gave me tons of advice about Cuenca, and the school. They also invited me on a weekend trip they were planning. I think weīre climbing a mountain. Or weīre taking a cab to as high as we can go, and climbing the last 1000 meters. Sure, Iīll go, I told them. Why not? Iīll climb a mountain.

My one regret is that Iīd actually taken some time to learn Spanish before coming down. So far, Iīve been able to get by on a few stock phrases: I donīt speak Spanish. Iīm a vegetarian. No, really, I donīt speak any Spanish. Thank you. Thank you very much. You know, you can keep on speaking Spanish, and I still donīt understand a word youīre saying, but Iīll just smile and nod and pretend like I do. Iīm remembering more Italian and French than I ever thought I knew, but that just confuses the matter. Iīll stick to the smile and nod (which works in any language!).

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