My Five-Year-Old Climbed a Volcano. And All I Have to Do Is Learn Spanish.

When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah

LISTEN 9:49

I’m at the “just basic phrases here and there” part of this quote. I know enough to survive. Barely. And maybe not even barely. Maybe just hopefully.

But reading this quote really encouraged me. It’s easy to feel like there’s no hope in learning Spanish — really learning it, that is, which is what I’d like to do. I remind myself, though, to simply keep trying. One basic phrase at a time. Take it day by day.

And maybe start listening to audiobooks en Español. My latest idea is to get the free trial of Audible for a month and listen to as many books in Spanish as possible. I thought I’d start with The Hunger Games. I’ve read it before, it’s easy reading, and it’s fun.

One phrase at a time.

***

Yesterday, we went on a life-changing trip to Quilotoa, a dormant volcano and crater lake. This 820-foot-deep lake is not your typical blue-gray color. Because of dissolved minerals, the water is greenish in color and absolutely gorgeous. But to get to the water, you have to hike down the side of the volcano. It is steep and sandy and at times treacherous — both from the sheer drop-offs and the piles of donkey poop. Standing at the very top looking down, I didn’t really think that my boys (ages 8, 5, and 1) would be able to go all the way down . . . because once we got down, we’d have to climb back up. I should clarify here that the one-year-old would have an easy go of it riding on Daddy’s back in the baby carrier. But the 8- and 5-year-olds? I had serious doubts.

But my husband said that we rode in a bus for three hours to get there, and we were going to hike all the way down that volcano and touch that water.

And then climb all the way back up.

Going down was easy. Well, not so easy on the ol’ knees, but we managed to get down quickly and without slipping and without stepping in poop. (I did almost get trampled by a donkey on its way up, but I survived.)

We dipped our hands in the water, soaked in the nature, and took a family pic. It really was a glorious sight. Looking out over the water, I couldn’t help but think there must be design and intentionality at work here.

And then we turned around to go back up. Let me tell you, holding the hand of a complainy-pants 5-year-old, staring at a trail that goes straight up for 919 feet is not the same tranquil, peaceful feeling as gazing out onto the waters of the crater lake. Bless him, my son Shade started complaining while we were still on the fairly flat part of the trail close to the water.

I knew he wasn’t going to make it.

So when we made our way up the trail just a bit more and came across a man leading a couple of donkeys, I decided we’d pay him and ride up. We were told at the top of the volcano that a donkey ride up was $5. Doable, I thought. I had just a ten in my wallet — perfect! But he informed me that it was actually $10 per person. And he wasn’t going to budge, even when I snagged another $5 from Steve. So on we walked.

And then it started raining.

I kept telling Shade, “One foot in front of the other. We can do this.”

One foot in front of the other.

We took lots of breaks. We hydrated and ate green apple slices for energy. It was tough going, no doubt about it. Shade was very verbal about how much he was not enjoying the experience. I reminded him that each step was a step closer to the top.

On our way, several people from our group passed us on donkeys. I can only imagine how that must have felt to a five-year-old. Here he is, doing something incredibly difficult, watching as people he knows pass him by. He felt demoralized.

He wanted to stop.

I tried my best to keep a positive attitude, even though I was definitely having a tough time, too. But I have something in higher quantity than my son: mental fortitude. Thank you, Los Angeles Marathon and my three natural-birthed babies, for helping with that. One foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. The mantra of our hike up.

At one point, we came upon a young lady slumped against the side of the trail who had just passed out. Steve was there, arm on her shoulder to prevent her from rolling down the trail, while her friends gave her water and fumbled around to find a granola bar.

We kept moving, slowly but surely. Steve and Asher and Memphis (that lucky brat sweet boy in the baby backpack) caught back up to us and passed us.

At several points Shade said he simply couldn’t do it. I gently reminded him that if he stopped, we wouldn’t get to the top, where hot chocolate was waiting for him at the restaurant.

Then we heard a shout. It was Steve. He and the other boys were standing at the highest lookout, waving and yelling, “Muy bien, Shade” and “Fantastico!” It took him a few seconds, but Shade saw them, and I think it gave him the wherewithal to keep going.

And you know what? Eventually, putting one foot in front of the other led us all the way up that trail to the very top.

I am so proud of my Shade.

***

I can’t help but comparing hiking up that trail to learning a new language. One phrase at a time, one phrase at a time, one phrase at a time. What once seems insurmountable can eventually be overcome with perseverance, positive attitudes, and apple slices. And when people pass me by, riding on their just-went-to-language-school donkeys, I wish them well and keep trudging on. And remember whatever the heck I can remember from four years of high school Spanish I took two decades ago. Shout-out to Señora Morris from Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California.

For all our fumble-bumbling with phrases and vocabulary and conjugations, the people here see that Steve and I are trying. We could pretty easily get away with finding people who speak English and coast through our time here. But we don’t want that.

We want to connect to a culture and identity that exists beyond us. We want to see people as human beings, not as strangers with a foreign language barrier between us. In his book, Noah references a poignant quote from Nelson Mandela:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Well here we are, close to the bottom of the mountain, looking up, recognizing the steep climb ahead of us, but acknowledging that it will be worth it. Because we want to connect to people’s hearts.

One phrase at a time.

Look closely, and you can see the winding trail down to the water.
We were cold, wet, and tired. But close to the top at this point!
The balcony of the restaurant where I definitely bought Shade a hot chocolate. I wonder if I’ll get a hot chocolate when I learn Spanish?

This post is dedicated to my good friend Cameron. She made magic happen and got us on this trip. I don’t even really know how. But I thank her for it. It’s a memory I will cherish. It’s a reminder that we can do things, even when we’re five, even when we don’t know a language very well.

When the Snow Globe Settles

We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.

My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers

Listen 6:40

Well lucky for me the people here in Ecuador are anything but mean. The streets, though? They’re pretty mean. Steve and I have learned that even though we have a stroller, it’s actually easier to put the third born in the baby backpack (I swear by the Tula; Steve’s preference is the Ergo Sport). Why? The “sidewalks” here are TREACHEROUS! Huge cracks, broken grates, cliffs-for-curbs — yeah, it’s an adventure every time we go for a walk.

So I’m reading through my mom’s copy of My Utmost for His Highest this year, and I’ll tell ya: this edition is OLD. A couple of days ago it said — and I quote — “ejaculate to Him all the time.” I’m sorry, what? Thank goodness for newer editions.

But this particular quote about being exceptional? Gold. Take even the ordinary things and make them exceptional. I think of my bread baking as pretty ordinary, and yet I am constantly trying to perfect it. At the moment, I’m struggling with a 20-year-old gas stove that doesn’t retain heat well and at the highest gets up to only 450 degrees Fahrenheit. If ever there was an “ordinary” stove, it’s mine.

(I’ve named her Beulah.)

She gets the job done baking my bread, and she’s better than the teeny electric oven in my kitchen. I keep an iron skillet in the bottom to retain the heat a little better, and things are baking along. Even with ordinary Beulah, I try to make exceptional bread. And exceptional bread makes life a whole lot better.

This thing called life certainly forces the issue of the ordinary — have you noticed? We’re always trying to avoid the ordinary, to escape it, to deny it. We want the excitement! The adrenaline! The new shiny thing!

The new oven! The $224.95 Challenger Bread Pan! The fancy bread lame (only $37.50)!

But here’s the gold nugget: even without the new oven and the expensive bread pan and the fancy lame, my bread is exceptionally yummy — it just may not consistently look exceptionally good. From the ordinary, the exceptional(ly-tasting bread) comes. That’s life, isn’t it.

But I don’t let it, let it get me down
’cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin’ around

That’s Life, Frank Sinatra

A fine world, indeed, when we get to eat delicious bread.

Before we moved to Quito, I often thought about how life would be in a new country around new people learning a new language. So much newness and adventure and excitement! And I think that was part of the allure of moving.

I got more views on my Instagram stories than ever when we started our journey — from pulling out of our driveway in Florida to dumping our stuff and collapsing in our new apartment in Quito. The first morning we were here, I documented our apartment, our view, and my taste-testing of all the weird fruits that had been bought for our arrival. I received lots of comments about how people were so excited to follow our adventures in Ecuador.

We felt like we were inside a snow globe that had just been shaken up. We left our comfortable, familiar life behind to start a new life in a different country — with three young kids.

We didn’t know what we were doing.

And that was exciting. And a rush. And a frenzy of whatever the little white pieces inside a snow globe are.

But as life has a habit of doing, it settled.

So here we are living life: baking bread, going on walks, buying groceries, playing Mario Uno, catching the Zoomy Gloomies, and doing otherwise inane activities.

And yet, there’s something very exceptional about this ordinary life of ours. What love we have inside this apartment compound that is surrounded by an electric fence (because let’s face it we live in a dangerous area). What laughs we have together when we breakdance on the floor to the soundtrack of Trolls (because I don’t deny it we bought a smart TV almost as soon as we got here). What embarrassment we have when Quito Pizza Company calls us on the phone to confirm our address (because we definitely don’t know Spanish well enough to understand someone speaking 5000 miles per hour over the phone).

It’s a good, ordinary life.

And you know what? As I live and love and get embarrassed, I realize that sometimes the ordinary remains ordinary and that’s OK.

It’s exceptional even.

I’d like to leave you now with a picture of something very ordinary. But I hope you can see that something we consider ordinary is anything but.

Fruit:

Enjoy your life, people. Make ordinary things exceptional when you can, yes. But remember to embrace the ordinary, too. And remember that sometimes, the ordinary becomes exceptional only with a shift in perspective. Like fruit.

(Mostly I just wanted to show you my fruit haul.)

Pizza, Parks, and the Best Laid Plans — in Quito, Ecuador

There’s a beauty that we never know what the future holds.

“The Wine We Drink,” Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

Listen 6:43

A lot has happened since last we spoke:

We ordered pizza.

At first it seemed so easy. I was able to order completely online, having the luxury of looking up Spanish words and phrases as I bumped along. I put in extra information to help the delivery guy find our apartment (addresses here are at best a COMPLETE SHOT IN THE DARK). I had to put a phone number on the order, so I put Steve’s Ecuadorian number. I was feeling good.

Then Steve’s phone rings.

We knew it was Quito Pizza Company. Steve picks it up, and I — because I am an empathetic and loving wife — immediately start pit-sweating. I pit sweat; Steve laughs. He starts chuckling, and I know things are bad. He speaks in the bits and pieces of Spanish he knows to communicate to the driver that we live in a “casa blanca,” which induces more chuckles, with a “puerta negra.” I am just looking at Steve, with a terrified look on my face, hoping to goodness gracious communication is happening. We decide to open the gate to see if we could locate any confused pizza delivery guy lurking around our ‘hood. No luck.

Steve gets off the phone, and we decide that they must have called because they needed better directions than what I had given online.

Wait, what? I planned for this! I made sure to give our address in addition to fantastic, informative tid-bits! I did not want a phone call in Spanish.

And yet. There’s a beauty that we never know what the delivery guy will do even though you’ve given VERY good directions that even a child could understand.

Steve is still chuckling at this point and says that he could hear people in the background calling him the ever-endearing “gringo.”

Well good. Listen, I am under no illusion that I am going to knit myself into this community seamlessly. One of the reasons Steve and I decided to move to a Spanish-speaking country is to be humbled in life. We both admit that we thought we were getting pretty good at life in the states. It’s weird writing that, but Steve and I both admit that we can be prideful. If you know us, you know.

So we were expecting the gringo call-out. I’m surprised it took so long, actually (though perhaps it had already happened, and we were simply oblivious to it).

Then Steve’s phone rings again. He answers it, and mostly repeats what he had already said before realizing that the pizza guy is here. I run into the house to buzz open the gate, and there he is in all his glory holding a beautiful pizza box. We are very happy-nervous-excited-giggly. We tip the guy, get our pizza, and tell him “chao!”

There’s a beauty that we never know what the future holds. Like last weekend when we *planned* to walk to a local park only to end up walking completely around it looking for any open entrance. This included hiking up part of a mountain, walking next to a busy expressway for about half a mile, and then walking home in the pouring rain. We never made it to the park. Luckily, we did discover another little park en route. The kids got to play, and I got to embarrass myself trying to flip on some gymnastic rings — I did eventually manage to do it with the help of my foot, sloppily hooking onto the right ring to propel my body over. I definitely cheered for myself, and I think onlookers just laughed. BUT I DID IT.

But back to the pizza: I thought I had accounted for all the variables. And maybe it didn’t even matter what I wrote online. Perhaps they would have called either way. In the end, though, there was beauty:

  • A new, albeit terrifying, experience of talking to someone on the phone in Spanish: beauty.
  • Successfully directing the pizza guy to our house: beauty.
  • Eating delicious pizza that we didn’t have to make: BEAUTY.
  • Discovering a local park that we otherwise would have never gone to and flipping on some rings: beauty.

We may be gringos, but, man, what a beautiful gringo life we lead.

So thanks, Drew and Ellie Holcomb, for your wise words that transcend continents. There certainly is a beauty to not knowing what the future holds.

Because even in a different country, struggling against a language barrier, being newbies at everything, getting laughed at, and generally not knowing how to do most things, there’s no one I’d rather not-know-things-with than Steve. Because at the end of the day, he is the one thing that I know.

There’s a beauty that we never know what the future holds.
Beneath the surface we are the calm, we are the storm.
I’m not a sunset or a hurricane or a Vincent Van Gogh.
You are the one thing that I know.

Happy Birthday a little early, Steve. I love you.

Wish him a happy one on October 13. Maybe order a pizza from a local joint.