I have been at my high school in El Tambo, a small town at about 10,000 feet in Cañar province, in the southern sierra region, for a couple months. I’ve been assigned to work here for the next two years, and I’m sitting in one of the three teacher lounges on campus. An English teacher comes in.
“Achachay!”she says. “It’s so cold today!”
“A little,” I agree to be polite, even though it feels no different from yesterday.
“And it’s even colder up where you live, right?” she says.
“I haven’t noticed,” I say with a shrug.
“It’s much colder in the center of town than it is here,” she says definitively.
Another teacher enters. “Hello, hello, isn’t it cold today?”
“Yes, very cold!” agrees the English teacher. I checked the weather on my phone earlier, and it said it would be about 55 degrees Fahrenheit today. That feels about right to me.
“Oh, but you must be used to the cold, coming from the States,” says the second teacher.
“In my area, we have basically the same climate as here — rainy, not too hot, not too cold,” I tell her.
In fact, the sun is much more intense in Ecuador when it comes out, thanks to the bulge near the middle of the Earth that brings us closer to the sun and my high-altitude placement. I joke with the other Peace Corps volunteers in my town that we’re the highest volunteers in the world.
A third teacher comes in. “Good morning,” she says. “Isn’t it cold today?”
This conversation has happened every time someone new comes into a room, every day since I arrived in Cañar. Even when it was cold because of the wind or the rain, no one talked about the wind or the rain. They talked about the cold. The sun usually comes out around noon, but the teachers stay in the chilly lounges when I go out to soak it in.
Ecuadorian interest in temperature carries over from weather into everyday life. For example, the myth that cold weather causes colds is also still very much alive and well here — one of my doctors defended it. It’s also considered strange to walk around barefoot in your own home, because the floors (which tend to be tile or hardwood), are cold. When I got food poisoning in Quito, I was making myself a cup of tea in the kitchen and my host dad told me, “It’s no wonder you’re sick, walking around barefoot like that!”
The next day he made me tea and told me to drink it while it was still bubbling hot, as that would make me well again.
Cuenca, a city of Americans and other expatriates, is the first place I’ve found hot water for showers, in a gym. In every home I’ve visited, the family has said something like “Yes, we heat our water, we like hot showers!” but the reality has been lukewarm at best. In Quito I took bucket baths, and if I didn’t pay attention my host mom would turn off the stove when I was heating up my water, because she thought it was “done” at mildly warm.
The first time I sat down for breakfast with my new host family in Cañar, I took a gulp of juice and almost spat out the unevenly heated liquid. I assumed they had accidentally left the jug too close to the stove, but that night, when I drank cold juice, my host mom fretted: “But you lost your voice last week, it’ll be bad for your throat.” My host mom in Quito said the same when I tried to give her feverish 2-year-old chilled water: “You don’t know this, m’hija; cold things are bad for sick people.”
My response when my host mom tells me to cover up my throat with a scarf so I don’t lose my voice again? “Scientifically, we get sick because of viruses and bacteria. I don’t think a scarf is going to help me with that.”
It doesn’t stop her from offering me her house shoes when I walk around barefoot, or her tiny jacket when I’m ready to go in the morning.
She’s just looking out for me.
“From Kirkland to Quito” chronicles Kirkland native Emma Tremblay’s experiences in Quito, Ecuador, where she is a Peace Corps trainee. Tremblay is a 2012 graduate from International Community School and 2016 graduate from Colgate University.