Do You Speak English?
No other four words put me on the defensive as much as that phrase.
I barely broke stride as a man asked me the most dismissive of questions today, just outside the train station. I'm not exactly sure why I stopped (something I rarely do), but decided to let him throw his pitch at me.
The man told me (in a familiar U.S. accent) that he was the dean at a university in town, and was seeking English speaking travelers to converse for two hours with his international relations class that evening. We chatted for a bit, and he gave me the meeting time and cross-streets before we parted ways.
Hesitant about the idea, I did a walk-by of the location in the afternoon. Yep, the Universidad de San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) was indeed legit place.
I met Jim the Dean a hour or so later at the entrance to the 150 year old building. The Riobamba branch of the university was new, just a year old. Jim, originally from Las Vegas, had been working in Quito for the past seven years, when the university put him in charge of the new location.
Jim said that the USFQ was like the Harvard of Ecuador, and was only one of three universities in Latin America that's accredited in the United States (the other two being in Mexico). Tuition costs US$4,000 per semester. The average income here in US$160 per month.
I met three other travelers inside: An Aussie and a couple from Germany. The four of us were presented to the international relations class, consisting of about 15 students of varying ages (from 12 to 26).
Broken into groups, each of us took a turn rotating between the students, spending about 20 minutes per group. Instructions for the activity were only to converse, but Jim moderated by controlling the language that we spoke in (five minutes in Spanish, then English, then back again). Very interesting.
The students were great. Most had taken trips to the U.S., some for a few weeks, others for up to a year. English was being spoken with much proficiency. A neat experience that I hope other travelers get a chance to experience.
I told Jim that he might want to rephrase his introduction on the streets a little, perhaps introducing himself with his name and job title first. A business card can go a long way towards establishing credibility.
I'm sure plenty of tourists pass through Riobamba for the train ride, and it would be neat to see this type of activity gain some popularity.