It’s our first week in Ecuador. Anna, a Swiss traveler who is staying with our same host family, invited us to a dinner with some other exchange students. Anna had been in Ecuador for several weeks and was much more familiar with the culture than we were. She told us, “we will be eating a very traditional Ecuadorian meal tonight, one you will never forget!” She had a mischievous grin on her face when we agreed to join her, but I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
The three of us walked through the coble stone streets to a small restaurant between a beautiful flower shop and an old bakery. The walls were decorated with colorful artwork, animal skins and clay pottery. The paint was a warm yellow and all the furniture was wooden and worn. It was extraordinarily welcoming and comfortable inside.
We walked back into a private room where we were introduced to a dozen or so other travelers from all over the world. Everyone was drinking Pilsner, a typical Ecuadoran beer and telling stories of their adventures so far. We sat down and listened, taking mental notes in our heads about what things to do and what things to avoid in Ecuador. After about twenty minutes two waters approached us, each carrying a large metal tray. They placed the large trays in the center of the table and walked back to the kitchen, coming back shortly with bowls of rice, beans and mota.
While all of the food looked and smelled amazing, I could not take my eyes off the large metal trays. There, just a few inches in front of me, was a small rodent looking creature staring back at me. He had been skinned and fried, turning his flesh dark brown and crisp. His small arms and legs jutted out from beneath him, leaving him flat on the plate. His eyes were open and he was looking right at me. This little creature was known as cuy or, as Americans know them, guinea pig.
I am a strong believer in always trying everything once, especially when I am presented with something that does not come along very often, and cuy was definitely one of those things! I loaded my plate up with beans, rice and mota; all dishes I was very comfortable with and enjoyed. The cuy came last. The others had all began eating theirs and were commenting on what they thought it tasted life, the general consensus was rabbit, or chicken; because, well, everything tastes like chicken!
I was surprised by how little meat was on each cuy, looking back on it, I’m not sure why because it is a guinea pig after all. Once it was cut up and sitting on my plate, I felt a little better. At least now it didn’t look so much like my beloved Winnie, the guinea pig my brother and I had when we were little. I pierced a piece of the meat with my fork and slowly put it into my mouth, carpe diem, I thought over and over in my head! The cuy was very lean and the skin was crisp, the seasoning they had used added a little spice to it as well, which was what I tasted first. I slowly chewed the cuy, letting the flavors spread through my mouth. Well, well, it really wasn’t that bad. In fact, It was actually pretty good!
Eating cuy was one of many firsts for me in Ecuador. I took several giant steps out of my comfort zone in order to experience a very important part of the Ecuadoran culture and I am so glad I did. In a weird way, eating that cuy helped me to become a better Spanish speaker! By taking me out of my comfort zone and helping me to see how rewarding taking those risks can be.
For me, so much of learning Spanish has been like eating cuy for the first time; it’s scary and uncomfortable, but at the same time, so rewarding. Just like with the cuy, I over analyze each new situation and verb conjugation in my head. Second-guessing myself before I even open my mouth. This habit of over thinking is a very tough one to break.
What I have come to learn is sometimes, you just have to dig in! Take a deep breath, relax and trust your instincts. A big goal of mine is to do just this, trust my instincts. After almost ten years of studying Spanish, my instincts know a lot more than I give them credit for. Speaking a language is more than just knowing what word goes where and how and why, it’s about feeling those sounds. Giving ourselves over to the rhythm and fluidity of the language and trusting ourselves enough to get it right. And you know what, chances are, you will get it right. Carpe Diem and arriesgalo!