xenization n. The act of traveling as a stranger.
As the end of our work away agreement approached, we couldn’t exactly say we were sad to be leaving Isinlivi. Between the rising tensions between us and Oliver and just the general discomfort caused by Gladys and Maria’s unplaced disdain for us, we were both feeling that itch to become an anonymous and impermanent fixture on the road once again. Besides, being in such a small village with so little to do, one month was even pushing the edges of the perfect amount of time there. Any longer and I would have gone stir crazy.
There were things, however, we would definitely miss. We would miss the beautiful grounds, the cozy atmosphere, and the ease of hostel life, of having a bedroom and a place to keep our things that wasn’t on our backs.
We would miss the guests, most of whom we adored, the rest of whom we smiled at and tolerated, like the honeymooning couple who had been on their honeymoon for several months and still expected special treatment. Or the person who dropped a note in the hostel suggestion box that read, “Maybe instead of hiring foreigners who are not desperate for cash (I’m presuming it is a workaway type system) hire locals whose income will go to their families. Very disappointing to see fellow backpackers behind the bar when you are based in a community with a low unemployment rate.”
A few problems with this: 1) I think you mean, “employment rate”. A low unemployment rate would be a good thing; 2) Everyone in Isinlivi has a job, even if it’s just on a family farm; 3) How do you know we are not desperate for cash? It takes the quite the privileged traveler to make assumptions that everyone who travels has money. Sure, I might have more money than the locals, but considering how expensive things are in America, I’m really no more affluent; 4) The lovely service you received probably wouldn’t have been so top-notched had it been from someone who couldn’t understand you. Devotion to guest satisfaction is precisely why Llullu Llama employs English speaking volunteers; 5) We aren’t paid anything to work at Llullu Llama. It actually greatly helps the finances of the hostel to work on a housing exchange system rather than have several more people constantly on payroll. Oliver, Ana, Chris, and myself were all extremely discouraged by this comment and nearsightedness of the guest who had written it.
Even with the occasional difficult people, it was nice having consistent English speaking people with which to socialize. Going back on the road meant being probably being the only English speakers again for a while.
We would even miss Melanie, Gladys’ daughter who, unlike her mother, had taken quite a liking to us, especially Chris. Over the school holiday, Melanie had become a fixture at the hostel and she spent those hours clinging to Chris’ leg as he toted her around and running away with his water bottle, proudly proclaiming, “Es mio!” It’s mine. She loved when Chris played along and the two would playfully argue “es mio” back and forth for hours. Towards the end, she became quite the little entrepreneur, declaring Chris must pay her centamos in order to buy back his water bottle. Ecuadorians learn to rip off gringos at quite the young age, it seemed. But despite her clinginess, we did grow strangely fond of Melanie.
Most of all, however, we would miss that big stupid lump of a dog, Baloo. I’m always prone to like dogs more than people and Baloo was no exception. On our second to last day at the hostel, we made sure to take some photos with Baloo to commemorate the real family we felt like we had fostered at the hostel. Baloo was like our very own dog at that point, and we were crushed to have to leave him behind. I told Chris we could probably just throw a saddle on him and ride him out of town before anyone would notice he was gone, but Chris pointed out how that probably wouldn’t work in the long run. Spoil sport.
We spent our last evening relaxing in front of the fire, roasting the marshmallows Farhad and Janine had gifted us for Christmas. I didn’t really drink anymore, but it seemed like an appropriate time to even indulge in a glass of wine. As the fire crackled in the silence of the farmhouse, I reflected on the things I had learned while there. Aside from a general appreciation at the work that goes into running a hostel, working at Llullu Llama had vastly improved my ability o speak Spanish comfortably. People always told me that fluency occurred like a switch. “All of a sudden, it just clicks.” While I couldn’t claim to be fluent by any means, I sort of understood what they meant in terms of understanding others. All of a sudden, I found myself very attuned to everything being said around me. I wasn’t always able to respond very well, but I almost always knew what others were saying. Even though Gladys looked at me disdainfully every time I spoke Spanish to her, my confidence with the language had somehow blossomed as we sat on the edge of once again having to use it to fend for ourselves.
The next morning, the sun rolled over the hills like a golden wave, as if it knew that would be the last time we would ever see them. I was happy that our ride out was a 9am milk truck that didn’t allow much time for long goodbyes, or I could have stayed saying goodbye to each individual roll of earth for hours. Instead, stole some sandwiched for lunch and hoisted up our packs, allowing them to familiarly settle on our backs as if they had never left. Everyone was busy with guest check-out and our departure simply blended in to the usual morning chaos, allowing us to slip away unnoticed. We weren’t the first volunteers to come and go, and we certainly wouldn’t be the last. We were simply one of many that would pass like ghosts from the unremembering wooden walls of Llullu Llama. It was better that way. I’ve never been one for goodbyes.
Working at the hostel hadn’t quite been the idyllic time I had imagined before, but Llullu Llama would always have a part of me, and I’m not referring to my previous St. Christopher’s medal that my late father once gave me that I lost there. Travelers are rarely whole, because we leave parts of ourselves everywhere we go, even places as remote as the little village of Isinlivi. It wasn’t perfect. No home ever is.