Micah Englehart, a West Seattleite and O'Dea High School senior, recently returned from an exchange to Ecuador. Seen here with his host mother, the lights of Quito in the backdrop.
Reporting from Ecuador: West Seattle teen on exchange discovers culture, music, and how to be the man of the house
Micah Englehart, a senior at O’Dea High School and resident of West Seattle, spent six months of his high school career in Ecuador and, as full immersion in a different world tends to go, the experience has left indelible marks.
From August of 2011 until February 1, 2012, Englehart lived with his host family in Quito and attended public high school. Quito, located in the northern reaches of Ecuador, has a population around 1.8 million.
Getting the idea
As a junior, Englehart overheard some seniors in his Spanish class planning a week long trip to Spain: a great idea, he thought, but the cost was extremely high. Knowing his financial limitations but determined to experience life in a Spanish-speaking country after three years of learning the language, he started looking south.
“It was really a process of elimination,” Englehart said.
Spain was too expensive, Mexico was too dangerous, the exchange timing of his third choice, Argentina, conflicted with his brother’s wedding, and so he set his sights on Quito.
Quito and a new family
“(His host family) was a single mom (his host mom), her grandmother and their maid who helped out during the week,” said Englehart. His host mom’s grown daughter lived with her husband and their daughter in an adjoining apartment.
“I was really like the man of the household, so it was good for them and good for me at the same time,” he said.
Englehart ran the errands for daily groceries and supplies, and joined the family on their journeys, “because sometimes South America can be a little dangerous and to have the presence of a guy can be comforting for women.” He learned to make traditional Ecuadorian dishes from his family, and tried his hand at cooking for the crew now and again.
Schooling 4,200 miles away
“It was very, very different (from high school in Seattle),” Englehart said. “I was in a class with 43 people and in Ecuador you stay in one classroom for the entire day and the teachers move.”
If a teacher didn’t show up for the day it meant a free hour of socializing, as there were no substitutes. One other unique experience Englehart noted in his case: There were girls (O’Dea is an all boys’ school).
School was “actually pretty tough,” he said, naming history as a standout because “it was cool to learn about (the subject) from a non-biased perspective, not from United States written textbooks.” It was difficult, however, because there was no textbook – only his ears and a pen to keep up with the lectures in a language he was still working to master.
Speaking of language
The first month in Ecuador, Englehart said he felt like he wasn’t really improving on his Spanish, but by the third month his comprehension had skyrocketed and he started to feel confident in expressing himself.
Five months in, he was nearly native. “I could understand everything I heard on the TV, the radio, I got the inside jokes that I heard and all the little cultural innuendos …”
Music: a bond without boundaries
No stranger to playing music, Englehart had nine years of classical piano experience and four months of guitar lessons under his belt before traveling south, so it was natural to join his Quito school’s indigenous music club.
Several days a week after school they would practice different instruments native to Ecuadorian lands, from string to wind to percussion. On Fridays, the group would get together and practice for shows they would play for the community.
“That was one of the coolest parts of my experience,” he said. “Just learning about the music of a different culture, and getting music in a different language gave me a new perspective on the whole thing.
“It comes from the heart and soul of Ecuadorian people. They have their happy songs that make you kind of want to dance … but then a lot of sad ones about the conflicts of the indigenous people.
“Getting to share American music with them, them sharing their music with me; I was very different from them, but we were able to be connected in one thing we both enjoyed.
“And that was music.”
Englehart brought his new found expertise in a wider array of instruments back to the States, and won O’Dea’s 2012 talent show by ripping it up on the charango, an Andean string instrument of the lute family, in traditional Ecuadorian garb (please see the imbedded YouTube video, or visit YouTube directly).
The big picture
Regarding the cultural chasm between Ecuador and the United States, Englehart said, “Down in Ecuador you would always spend time with your family: the weekends, Sundays, you would always get together at each others’ houses to eat some real good food, talk and laugh.
“Here it is very different,” he said. “It’s more about work, work, work and over there the real focus is on family, laying back and relaxing, and they are a lot more welcoming to other people.”
Englehart is already saving up money to get back, with plans to visit Quito during spring break in 2013. He still keeps in touch with his host family and friends, mostly over the internet.
“We are still very connected and I’ll have them for the rest of my life,” he said.
He also had the opportunity to travel from Quito during his stay, including five days exploring the Galapagos Islands, the stomping grounds of Charles Darwin in the 1830s.
Englehart went to Ecuador through Ayusa, a high school exchange program.