On a recent Sunday I was on my usual walk along the Rio Tomebamba when I was stopped by three young people, characteristically nervous. Sure enough, they were college students wanting or, perhaps having to, interview a gringo for a class assignment.
The young woman’s English seemed pretty good so I sat down on a bench with her while one of the men took pictures and the three of them engaged in chatter and smile a lot.
She opened a notebook to a page of questions she had written out in English. Her English was not as good as I first thought and I started responding in Spanish some of the time and we ended up with a mishmash of questions, answers, corrections and languages but, in any event I hope it was as much fun for the students as it was for me. More importantly, I hope they learned something from the interchange.
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Recently, my friend Tom and I were having dinner at Mayu, the restaurant across the river from my apartment which has become a very comfortable place for meals and chats. There were five or six young women in white uniforms and caps going back and forth between the dining area and the kitchen. They were a bit aimless and would gather at a table near us to talk and suddenly disperse. When we asked them, our guess was correct, that they were a class from the University of Cuenca Culinary School learning some of the practicalities of food service.
Then, one appeared at our table and between her rudimentary English and our equally inadequate Spanish we accepted her invitation to move to another table where we would be served. So, with a camera recording everything, one of them came in with a tray holding two desserts high in one hand. We were very carefully and elegantly served, in a stemmed ice cream dish, a delicious dessert of sliced fruits in yogurt, which had been made by them with milk fresh from the cow.
The other students watched, whispering to each other, with lots of smiles, and some, as usual, busy on their cell phones. One of them stayed to talk and tell us of her dream of becoming a world class chef someday.
Tom and I were exhilarated by the experience. It felt good to have been asked to help out in this school activity which, except for the students involved and probably not all of them, was rather mundane. So, for us two old farts to go from our rather cursory, “Sure, we’ll help.” to feeling almost giddy with our usefulness within 15 or 20 minutes was extraordinary.
Why? We were not just gringos observing the friendly natives but were an essential and equal part of one of their important activities.