My swimming suit didn\’t have bra cups yet, so I must have been eleven the summer my mother signed me up for swimming lessons at the base of Pichincha, the lively volcano that periodically covered the streets of Quito with a light coat of ash.
It was the rainy season. This meant that every day, shortly after noon, dark clouds would gather overhead, thunder would rumble for a while, and then the heavens would liquefy and fall upon the land.
The class, which met at midday, was composed of plump girls in their late teens who, to me, looked about the same age as my mother. Our teacher, Senor Padilla, a former Olympic swimmer, was short and muscular. He wore a tiny bathing suit, and the rest of his body was covered by a rich pelt of black hair. I didn\’t know why at the time, but being in that class with those plump girls and hairy Senor Padilla made me uncomfortable.
Not as uncomfortable, however, as being in the ice-cold water of the outdoor pool. On the very first day, after a cursory introduction, Senor Padilla blew his whistle and yelled, \”Senoritas, al agua!\” There was nothing for it but to jump in, so I did. I felt every muscle contract and my body turn to stone as the waters closed over my head. I surfaced spluttering, my nasal passages burning from the chlorine, and looked up. The dark heights of Pichincha were slowly disappearing under masses of lead-colored clouds. I looked down at the water and saw that it too had grown dark and threatening, along with the sky. I heard the faraway rumble of thunder.
The class ended just as the downpour began. I went home shivering, and with a violent headache from what must have been chlorine-filled sinuses. The altitude of 9350 feet, to which neither my parents nor I had adjusted, probably added to the discomfort. Needless to say, I begged not to go back to the class. Needless to say, I did go back.
Every day, my embarrassment grew as I watched Senor Padilla enjoying himself as he taught, and especially as my unathletic-looking classmates mastered the crawl and went on to the back stroke, the side stroke, the breast stroke, the butterfly. Meanwhile I, frozen and stiff as a board, hadn\’t even learned to float. If I floated face down, I inhaled chlorine. If I turned onto my back, I saw the dark, leaden, threatening clouds rushing towards Pichincha, and feared I was going to die.
The last day of class finally arrived. Senor Padilla had arranged to exhibit our skills before our loved ones. One by one, my classmates dove in and swam the length of the pool, each in her favorite style. When my turn came, Senor Padilla said that all I had to do was dive and float across the pool.
As I stood shivering at the water\’s edge, I glanced up towards Pichincha and saw the black clouds galloping overhead. I closed my eyes and threw myself in. Eventually I surfaced, sank, surfaced again and was making my way towards dry land when something bumped against my hip. It was Senor Padilla, who, worried that I was drowning right in front of my parents, had jumped in to save me.
Several weeks later, I went to a different swimming pool. The sun was out, the water was warm, and the pool was almost empty. I got in, turned on my back, looked up at the blue sky, and, since nobody was watching, tried the back stroke. I managed not only to stay afloat, but to cross the pool. Then I turned onto my stomach and did the crawl, the breast stroke, the side stroke, and the butterfly. I couldn\’t believe it, but it was true: despite the cold, the terror, and the embarrassment, Senor Padilla really had taught me how to swim.