Somehow, my seven-month adventure in Ecuador is over. My flight back to the U.S. is on Tuesday morning, and a week later I start my new job as a postdoc at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
I left Intag on Wednesday morning. Because I had to bring all my scientific supplies as well as my dog, Moby, back to Quito, I decided to pay my friend Marcelo, who owns a pickup truck, to drive me. Another friend, María, had come up for the Santa Rosa Valentine’s Day party and to help me move out. So María, Marcelo, Marcelo’s five-year-old son Juan Esteban, and I bounced along the muddy roads together, heading toward Otavalo.
On the way out, we stopped to collect one last sample. It was from the Río Blanco, a small, brown river that drains the Selva Alegre cement factory. DECOIN, a local grassroots environmental organization, had asked me to collect the sample before I left, so that they could see how the factory’s discharges were affecting water quality. The water was so turbid we couldn’t filter it, so I collected the unfiltered sample in bottles and let it settle during the rest of the ride home.
We also made a pit stop in Otavalo, where Marcelo picked up a friend’s computer that was being repaired and recharged his cell phone. Meanwhile, I bought a few more alpaca sweaters and fleece-lined hats for my friends and family back home. About half an hour later, in Tabacundo, we stopped for bizcochos (a delightful Ecuadorian pastry that is sort of a cross between a biscuit and a thick slice of pie crust), coffee and queso de hoja, which is a lot like fresh mozzarella. I had never tried it before. It’s always a little strange when you try something for the first time right before you leave a place, especially when you really like the thing in question.
Before I left Intag, I’d had a number of small despedidas, or goodbye parties. The first was at the newspaper’s Valentine’s Day gift exchange. As is customary in Ecuador on such occasions, several members of the newspaper team got up and thanked me in flowery, slightly awkward language. Then we exchanged the gifts and ate lunch, and Carolina, the editor, proofread a reference letter I had written for one of the funding proposals that they have in the pipeline.
The next day, María and I went over to the La Florida ecotourism lodge for a goodbye lunch. There was trout from a farm half an hour’s walk away, which everyone said was delicious, as well as lentils, yucca, salad, fried banana chips and cookies. And then in the evening María and I made samosas with some leftover curry we had lying around, and my neighbor Silvia made llapingachos, these delicious Ecuadorian mashed potato and cheese pancakes. Silvia, María, Pepe and I then played cuarenta, which I think is Ecuador’s national card game. It is a fun mix of luck, simple math, memory and trying to psych out your opponent by acting like you can predict or control what cards they are about to put down. It’s also important to throw the cards down with abandon. María and I had both re-learned cuarenta at the Valentine’s day party, and considering our lack of experience I think we did pretty well. At any rate, it was fun, and also made me wonder why I had waited until my last week in Ecuador to play.
I’ve spent my last few days in Quito, hanging out with María, identifying the insects I collected, assembling all the necessary documents and accessories for Moby’s trip to the US, washing clothes, packing, and so on. On Monday I’m giving a talk at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito about my preliminary results, and there will probably be another minor despedida.
And then, I guess, that’s it. Off with the botas, and onward into my new life in Maryland.
Back in October, my neighbor Pepe asked me if I could chip in to help Santa Rosa’s fútbol – or, as it’s known in the US, soccer – team pay for new uniforms. The total cost of the new uniforms was about $400, and I said I could give him $100. He seemed happy with this, and said that I would also receive a uniform and could play on the team, if I wanted.
I’ve never played soccer, except a few times in high school when my swim team coach decided it would be a good way to cross train. I never really got the hang of running and kicking at the same time. And in October and November I wasn’t around much on Sundays, which was when the games took place. Moreover, it was never quite clear to me how I was supposed to get to the games, which were sometimes in Pucará and sometimes in Peñaherrera, anytime between 9 AM and 3 PM.
The Santa Rosa fútbol team is an interesting social phenomenon. Its official name is the Club 14 de Febrero, because it was founded on Valentine’s Day 15 or 20 years ago. It is officially a social, cultural and sports club, open to men, women and children. Each of these groups has its own fútbol team, although the children’s team is only boys, and some girls as young as 12 play on the women’s team. In addition to playing soccer, the Club 14 de Febrero hosts a yearly Valentine’s Day party in Santa Rosa and helps out at the community’s elementary school in various ways. Its members are also volunteer park rangers, or guardabosques. Every month or so, they patrol local forest reserves in pairs, maintaining trails, picking up trash and keeping an eye out for logging and other prohibited activities.
I’m not sure when the new uniforms arrived, but I finally got mine in early December. They’re good-looking uniforms: maroon with navy, gold and white details, the club’s heart-shaped insignia on the left breast of the jersey, each player’s name and number on the back, matching shorts. Everyone else seemed to have white knee-high soccer socks with maroon stripes, but for reasons that remain unclear I was never issued these.
Once I had the uniform, it seemed like a waste not to use it. Soccer wasn’t that different than Ultimate Frisbee, a sport I actually know how to play, I figured, although my friend Mary Ellen kept pointing out that in soccer you have to use your feet. And I thought that joining the team might help me integrate better into the community and specifically get to know the women better.
So, one morning in mid-December, I bought a new pair of blue fake-Adidas sneakers in the market in Apuela (I’d left my sneakers in Quito, and, besides, they were over five years old and had holes in the back) and sought out the truck heading up to Peñaherrera for the women’s soccer game. The Santa Rosa boys’ team was playing right before us, so we all went up there together, and for an hour or so we sat around in the blazing sun on the edge of the field, watching the boys play. We changed into our uniforms in Peñaherrera’s public bathrooms (for some reason, no one ever wears their uniform to the game), and then, only 30 or 45 minutes late, the game got started.
María, our team captain, put me in during the first half. But only 5 or 10 minutes in, the referee gave me an amarillo, raising his yellow flag to indicate that I had broken the rules. I was confused, because I had barely touched the ball. It turned out that the problem was my carnet, or soccer league ID card. It was missing my photo.
The ref removed me from the game and confiscated the carnet, saying that I would have to pay him a dollar to get it back. This struck me as unfair, since no one had ever asked me for a photo, and María (who had seen the photo-less carnet and who, presumably, knew the regulations) had decided to put me in. When I asked María about it, she said that Pepe was supposed to have asked me for a photo, since he lived right next door. Instead, apparently, he had just laminated the thing with a big white empty space in the middle of it.
I was pretty pissed off at this point, so instead of waiting for the truck I told Pepe I wasn’t paying a dollar to fix a problem that wasn’t my fault, and walked the four kilometers back to Apuela.
The next week, my mom was visiting. Pepe had paid the dollar to get my carnet back, and I had dug up one of the many carnet-sized photos left over from my visa application and carefully affixed to the carnet with transparent packing tape. However, there was a problem: my uniform was in the newspaper office in Apuela. Unlike the swim and Frisbee teams I’ve been on in the US, where you can just wear something that is more or less the right color if you don’t have your uniform, in the Ecuadorian Liga you will get thrown out of the game. Mary Ellen said she was going down to Apuela early and would send the uniform up on the bus, but it never arrived. It turned out that she couldn’t find the shorts because they had fallen behind the shelf. Nonetheless, my mom and I had a pretty good time cheering and filming the game with her flip-cam.
I wasn’t around for the next couple Sundays. But then, in mid-January, I decided to give it another go. I had my uniform. I had my carnet. I handed it to María, asking her if she thought the tape job would go over alright with the referee.
There wasn’t any problem with that, she said. But the carnet said number 12. And wasn’t my uniform number 16?
We checked. Indeed, there was a discrepancy. We then went though the other players’ numbers and discovered that both 12 and 16 were already assigned. I decided to change both the uniform (using a white-out pen) and the carnet (using a black Sharpie still in my backpack from field work) to 18, a number that belonged to no-one. Although both María and Pepe approved of this solution, I didn’t get to play in the game because it was close – we ended up losing 1-0 – and María thought it would be better to put the best players in.
I played in the next game for about 15 minutes. I was by no means great, but I did kick the ball a few times and even head-butted it once. We tied 0-0.
The following week there was no women’s soccer game. However, before the men’s game in Pucará, an impromptu pickup game with men, women and children came together. Since it wasn’t one of our Liga games, I wasn’t worried about messing things up, and it was a good opportunity to practice a little bit.
And then, yesterday, I played in my first full game. The main reason I got so much play time was that there wasn’t anyone else – a lot of the women were working as cooks at the local eco-tourism lodge, which is hosting a group of 20 students this week, or else out of town. I was coming down with a cold, but I had taken a bunch of Sudafed and ibuprofen, which seemed to be helping. It was also pouring rain. After five minutes, everyone’s shoes were soaked through. We had no subs. People kept slipping in the mud. In the end, we lost 1-0 to Plaza Gutiérrez, which was particularly frustrating since, at one point, my neighbor Silvia had set me up for a near-perfect shot on the goal, which I had somehow managed to miss entirely.
Despite all these setbacks, though, fútbol has turned out to be fun. And I do feel a little bit more like a part of the community.
It’s been raining a lot in Intag recently, and the roads are getting worse. For example, to get to the Los Cedros forest reserve, you take the bus to a small town called Chontal, hire a truck to take you half an hour further up to an even smaller town called Magdalena Alto, and then hike or ride a mule another two or three hours further up than that. Today, though, the buses were stopping several miles short of Chontal because the steep part of the road near the bridge was muddy and treacherous. There’s another landslide between Santa Rosa and La Delicia, so the buses are only going as far east as Apuela, and then turning around and going to Otavalo via Selva Alegre. This means you can’t get to Santa Rosa by bus.
Today I was saved the steep, muddy slog home from Apuela because when my bus pulled in a little after three, the entire Periódico INTAG team (except for Mary Ellen, who’s in Quito working as the academic director for a study abroad program) was there, moving the library and the newspaper office into their new home, the Casa Palabra y Pueblo. The literal translation of this would be “People and the Word House”, but it sounds a lot better in Spanish.
The Casa Palabra y Pueblo is one of Mary Ellen’s dreams, one that is slowly but surely coming true. Right now, it has a freshly painted first floor housing the newspaper office, the computer and internet center and the library, as well as a kitchen and a bathroom. The plan is for the library to eventually move to the currently unfinished second floor (making room for a café on the first), which it will share with an early childhood enrichment center. The third floor, which does not exist yet, will have the offices of Radio Intag as well as an apartment for reporters working late into the night, visiting volunteers, or anyone else who might need it.
I joined Carolina, Marcelo, Pepe, Pablo, Jenny, Remigio, Tomás, Elphege and Maria fire-chaining books from shelves into cars that shuttled them two blocks to their new home and moving furniture. We kept at it until after dark. A lot remains to be done tomorrow, but when we left tonight the old library and newspaper office were basically empty, and the Casa Palabra y Pueblo, although still rather disorganized, was getting more and more full.
Back at home, over a late supper of rice, peas, yucca, swiss chard, and (in Pepe’s case) chicken, Pepe told me about a dream he has, to buy the hacienda near Santa Rosa and turn it into a community run tourism and agriculture project. A number of his neighbors – Nelson, Oswaldo, Roberto, Milton, and so on – are interested in forming a cooperative to buy the farm. The project would include about 10 different productive activities: farming fish, making cheese, and operating a hotel and restaurant, to name a few. It would enable people who have left Santa Rosa – people like Pepe’s partner Silvia’s older sister Alba, who according to Pepe is an amazing and eclectic cook – to come back.
On a slightly side note, a lot of people have left Santa Rosa. Walking home last week, I was talking to Pablo, Silvia’s 23-year-old brother, about his elementary school years in Santa Rosa. When he graduated, the school had over 40 students. Now there are 13.
“Do people want to come back?” I asked Pepe.
He said they did, if there was work for them. They didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives in Quito as maids and manual laborers. Hearing him say it, it sounded obvious.
The main obstacle to this dream is money. No one has enough of it. This is where our conversation got a little sticky, at least for me, because Pepe said he wanted me to help them find money to buy the farm. And for the new documentary filmmaking group he’s a part of to make an hour-long film about Intag. And to build the Casa Palabra y Pueblo’s third floor.
The film, apparently, can be produced on a rock-bottom budget of $1500, which doesn’t seem like an unreasonable amount of money to raise. But the farm and the Casa Palabra y Pueblo improvements will require a lot more investment. And although it must seem to Pepe that I have access to all sorts of amazing funding opportunities, the only successful proposal I’ve written so far is the one that got me this Fulbright grant to come to Ecuador. I have no idea how you get money to make movies, build literacy centers or start community tourism projects. I tried to walk the line between being supportive and making promises I might not be able to keep.
I’ll do what I can, I told him. I can help look for grants and translate between Spanish and English. We can keep in touch about it.
This was not really enough, but by that point it was late and we both needed to get to bed. So I washed the dishes with snatches of that Langston Hughes poem – What happens to a dream deferred? – running through my head, and then I trudged up the hill to my house. Although I am more of a doubter myself, I like it that Pepe is a dreamer.
And, well, you never know. The newspaper just celebrated its 10-year birthday. The Casa Palabra y Pueblo is opening for business tomorrow. Pepe and his friends are learning to make documentaries.
Not all dreams are deferred.
One of the saddest and most frustrating things about living abroad, for me anyway, is the realization that no matter how long you live in a place, how well you learn to speak the language, or how many friends you make, you will always be a foreigner. Perhaps this would be less true for Americans located in “developed” countries with a way of life more similar to that in the US. But in my case, in Intag, it seems that I can fit in to a certain extent, but basically I’ll always be a gringuita.
“¿Se enseña aquí?” people ask me all the time. Se enseña means something halfway between liking something and being used to it. Adapting, perhaps. Feeling at home. My neighbor, Don Sergio, asked me this as we were walking back from Santa Rosa the other day. Don Sergio is sixty-two, about my parents’ age. He has ten children, ranging in age from 23 to somewhere in the mid-forties, and the four of them who have stayed in Intag are among my best friends here. His mom gave birth to him at the age of twelve, something he says was not all that uncommon in those days.
“Sí, me enseña aquí,” I answered. Yes, I like it here. This is the absolute truth. I sort of thought, when I came here, that after a few months I would get sick of living in the forest and start craving the comforts of home. But, with a few notable exceptions – my boyfriend Jay, my friends and family, decent Thai food – I don’t miss that many things that much.
Maybe it’s rebound infatuation after six years of grad school. Or maybe it’s the unique status of being a stranger in a strange land. Certainly, my life is not much like the lives of other women my age here in Intag. For one thing, Mary Ellen and I are just about the only women over 20 who don’t have children. Very few people have advanced degrees, or even college degrees for that matter, although that’s slowly beginning to change. There are no other Jews. And then there’s all the typical stuff about being (comparatively) rich and white, growing up in a privileged urban environment.
But still, there are moments. For example, on Saturday I helped my neighbor Silvia carry food out to the minga on the road between where we live and Santa Rosa. Mingas are one of the really neat things about Intag. They’re basically communal work parties, where everyone (at least ideally) chips in to accomplish a common goal, such as building a bridge or patching up the muddy ruts in the road. In this case, the men did the road work, which involved such tasks as carrying rocks and digging a roadside drainage ditch, and the women were in charge of lunch.
Silvia and I arrived a little after noon with a large jug of lemonade, a pot of rice and beans, a bowl of salad and a couple of extra lemons. About eight other women from the community had also brought food – noodles, homemade cheese, yucca, potato pancakes, guacamole, tuna salad, and so on. For a while, we sat around chatting and doing our best to keep the black flies from biting us, waiting for the men to show up. When they did, all the pots were laid out on the path with cloths under them and spoons on the sides. Spoonfuls of one dish were added on top of another, and people sat down and ate straight from the pots with the spoons, or used lids for plates. Meanwhile, a cup of lemonade was filled, drained, refilled and circulated through the group.
“Coma nomás,” Silvia’s sister-in-law Norma told me. Dig in. She passed me the lid of a Tupperware, and I took my place at the potluck, sticking my spoon into various pots, doing my best to avoid the tuna fish.
In simple moments like this – sharing food and drink, understanding and occasionally even cracking jokes, helping out at the newspaper, cheering for our local soccer team – I feel like a part of the community. It’s amazing, in a way, how wonderful it can be to be treated just like anyone else.
And then there are other times that drive home how different my life is from those that my friends lead here. For example, a few weeks ago I went to the oriente, or Ecuadorian Amazon, with Jay and his friend Brian. We spent four days there, seeing monkeys three times a day, observing jewel-colored birds from canopy towers, swimming in the mud-brown Río Tiputini, being eaten alive by various rainforest insects. Almost no one in Intag has been to the Oriente. Nor have they sunbathed on the wide sandy beaches of Esmeraldas or soaked in the mineral baths in Baños. Compared to theirs, my life here – which many Americans would probably consider “roughing it” – is one of adventure, leisure and luxury.
I’ve lived here long enough to enseñarme, to get to know the place well, to fall in love with it. But I can never live here long enough not to be a foreigner. And while I adore living here, I’m not sure I would actually want to be from here.
What does that make me, I wonder?
In the end, I think it’s a question that has to be lived rather than answered.
12/31/2010 – 01/01/2011
Yesterday, my neighbors Pepe and Silvia baptized their son Matías, or Mati for short. Mati turned three in November, but here in Intag it’s fairly common for people to wait a while to baptize their kids. The only day that would work for the godmother, who was traveling from Quito, was New Year’s Eve, so the baptism and post-party were merged with Santa Rosa’s community New Year’s celebration. The time was set for 4 PM on Friday in the church in Santa Rosa.
My mom flew back home last Tuesday morning, and my boyfriend Jay arrived a little before midnight the same day. We spent Wednesday doing touristy things around Quito: eating a luxurious breakfast at the Magic Bean, climbing the Panecillo, and visiting the Mitad del Mundo, where a yellow tiled line indicates the equator. Then Thursday we headed back to Intag via Otavalo.
The last Intag bus out of Otavalo leaves at 3 PM. We got to the terminal at 2:30, at which point all the seats were sold out. Our first thought was to spend the night in Otavalo and head out on one of the early buses the following morning, but it turned out that they were all sold out too. So we sucked it up and stood for the bumpy, two-hour ride. We were in the back, and after a while the lady sitting in the middle back seat took pity on us and moved her backpack so that one of us could sit on the step, which was something of an improvement.
We pulled into Santa Rosa a little after 5. Rainwater was running in thick, muddy streams down the dirt road. Pepe and Silvia had rented an unoccupied house across the street from the church for the party, and various family members were busy cooking giant pots of food and drink, creating music mixes, and so on. Jay and I said hi to everyone, I stashed my shoes in a quiet corner, and then we started the hour-long walk home.
The next day, a little after four, we were back. Pepe had advised us to look “elegant”, so Jay had on a button down shirt and I had on a blouse originally purchased for the Jewish New Year, as well as a turquoise scarf from Otavalo. Luckily, nothing here ever starts on time, so I had time to change shoes and drink a coke before the mass started. I’m not Catholic, and I’ve only been to a handful of masses in my life, but it seemed pretty typical. We alternated between sitting, standing and (somewhat painfully) kneeling. The sermon covered a range of topics, from the importance of giving your children Christian names to the value of moderation in New Year’s Eve festivities. My neighbor Mary Ellen, a lapsed Catholic, arrived about two-thirds of the way in with three of her dogs. One of them, Annie, ran down the aisle and tried to take communion.
After the mass, there was a toast and a dinner in the rented house. Jay and I were specifically mentioned in the toast (along with friends and family, present and otherwise, and the family members of a German volunteer who works with Pepe on the newspaper), which I have to admit filled me with a warm fuzzy feeling. Silvia and various members of her family passed out food like pros, making sure everyone got soup, a main course, dessert, and a steady supply of beer and pineapple canelazo. Marcelo, the husband of newspaper editor Carolina, provided sound equipment, and a group of friends and family members took turns DJing. People danced – with their own spouses and significant others, with other peoples’, with family members, with people of all different ages, even with Junior, a local teenager with Down syndrome. I danced a couple of songs with Junior and he was actually pretty good.
At midnight, a couple of community members read the Old Year’s last will and testament, which was written in verse. This is a way to rehash humorous events from the previous year and poke a bit of fun at your neighbors. Several couples were admonished to get married already, one girl was teased about her lack of a motorcycle license, another about a romance with a bus driver. A lot of it was inside jokes that I didn’t entirely understand. Then, in the middle of the rain-soaked volleyball court, four effigies were placed in a pile and set on fire.
No one had brought gasoline, and as already mentioned, it was damp, so it took a while to get the fire going. Once it did, people went around hugging each other and wishing each other a Feliz Año, or happy new year. The way they hugged each other was amazing. These hugs were not courtesies or formalities. They were real. They were the type of hugs you give when your life has been suddenly spared, or when you are leaving on a long and uncertain voyage, or when you have been secretly in love with someone for years and there is nothing to be done for it but to hug them and then be on your way. Men hugged each other with a depth of feeling you rarely see. People lingered in their embraces, wishing each other well from what really seemed to be the bottom of their hearts.
Jay, who had been in the community for a grand total of one day, basically just looked on. But I hugged a lot of people and wished them a happy year. Although the festivities are much bigger and more exciting in Quito, there was something really special about the community celebration in Santa Rosa, and I felt grateful and happy to be included in it.
The fire burned on, and one by one, people jumped over it. I’m not sure what the fire-jumping is supposed to symbolize, exactly, but there is something beautiful about it. You can see people assess the size of the fire, the risk of getting hurt, figure out whether to run or not, and so on. Some people jump elegantly, some sloppily. Some run. Some don’t. Some people spend long tentative minutes pondering, while others seem to be hit by sudden inspiration.
No one – not me, not Jay, not any of the tipsy-to-drunk people who did it, not even Junior – got burned.
It is a little after six in the morning as I begin to write this entry. Outside my window, a thick gray mixture of mist and rain fills the valley between La Distinguida (the name given, somewhat jokingly, to the cluster of three houses where I live) and Pucará, a small town located on the next ridge over. Pucará is completely invisible.
The steadiest sound is that of the rain. It falls on the ground, on the leaves, on my not-entirely-waterproof tile roof. In addition to the rain falling directly from the sky, water also collects and drips down from saturated leaves and branches. In a cloud forest, this second form of precipitation – which also includes water that condenses from the air and runs down tree trunks, branches and leaves – can be more important than actual rainfall.
Against the background of the rain are the bright, sharp songs of birds and the brash crowing of roosters. Some of the birds here have voices like flutes; others chirp, trill or make rough guttural sounds. The roosters belong to my neighbors, Pepe and Silvia, and run wild all over the property. The cow that occasionally adds its low bellow to this early-morning orchestra is also Pepe and Silvia’s. The other day, the cow disappeared, and Pepe had to get up at five in the morning to look for her before cheering on Silvia and the rest of the Santa Rosa women’s soccer team at 9 AM in Pucará. Luckily, he was able to find her and bring her safely home.
In the evenings, you can hear a lot of insects from my house, but in the mornings not so much.
My mom has been out here in the cloud forest visiting me for the past few days. It’s her first time in Latin America, and, on the whole, she has had a really positive attitude about everything. But she seems to find the lack of modern conveniences fairly shocking. For example: the bathroom. It is located about five meters from the house, in its own separate building, and it’s a composting toilet that doesn’t use running water. You just throw a cup of dirt in it after each use. It doesn’t smell and doesn’t cause pollution, and since it has a regular toilet seat and an electric light it is about as comfortable to use as any other toilet. But the fact remains that you have to go outside to use it.
Another thing that is located outside is the shower. My shower is solar, which, as you can imagine, is basically the same thing as cold during the rainy season. Mary Ellen (in whose guest house I am living) has a gas-powered hot water shower over at her house, so my shower has not gotten much use. Her shower is connected to her house, but it is in a room under the main house, off of the patio, with a separate door. There’s no light in the shower, so if you go in there at night you need to use a candle or a flashlight. The candle actually lends a nice atmosphere. The shower is not luxurious – the water pressure is not great, it’s hard to adjust the temperature, and the room itself is a little dank – but it can be wonderful after a long, rainy day of field work.
In the kitchen at Mary Ellen’s house, which I’ve been using because we have been cooking and eating together, there is no refrigerator. Pepe and Silvia do have a fridge down the hill, which Pepe carried in for over a mile with the help of Silvia’s brother-in-law, Pablo. Since it doesn’t get too hot here, Mary Ellen does not see the need for one. As a result, we have to eat yogurt within a few days of opening it, and after a week or two the carrots start turning black and the cabbages start growing fuzzy mold. The stove and the oven run off a propane tank, and need to be lit by hand whenever you want to use them.
My house here is not particularly well-sealed, and in the evenings a lot of moths get in. Sometimes other types of insects as well. A couple of months ago, I saw a mouse, but since my puppy Moby has been spending more time over here, the mouse seems to have relocated.
The rustic characteristics of my temporary home have not sat that well with my mom, who seems slightly offended that, for example, having to use an outhouse doesn’t really bother me. She thinks that given the choice, any reasonable person would – or should – choose comfort and convenience. To some extent I think she’s right. In the past ten years, people in Intag have finally been able to get electricity and telephones, and almost everyone has taken advantage of these new services. Lots of people (including the little community composed of Mary Ellen, Pepe, Silvia, their son Matías, and, temporarily, me) have washing machines, although almost no one has a dryer. Most houses have a computer, and the internet center in the small public library (added just a few years ago) is very popular.
These things certainly have improved people’s lives, including my own. But I also think that sometimes comfort and convenience come at a price. Sure, you can get around easier in the city, but the sounds of nature are drowned out by car engines, horns, people yelling, and all sorts of beeps and hums. Your clothes stay cleaner, but your lungs have to deal with air pollution. You don’t have to walk for an hour (sometimes in the dark, the rain, or both) to get home, but there’s a much higher incidence of conditions and diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle. The toilet is inside your house, but some rivers are as filthy as toilets.
I’m not saying that cities and suburbs could or should go back to the rural way of life that exists in Intag, or that people in Intag should turn down the advantages that the modern world has to offer. But it seems worthwhile to me to ponder these issues. What do we need to live a healthy, happy life? What do we only want? When we get what we supposedly want, are we healthier and happier, or just more comfortable? What are the local and global effects of our choices?
And so on.
One of the most frustrating, but occasionally sublime, things about working here in the Intag cloud forest has been the simple act of getting places. From my house, which is actually my friend Mary Ellen´s guest house, I can walk to any of three small towns in an hour to an hour and a half. Most frequently, I walk to Apuela, the largest of the three, because that´s where the Sunday market, the newspaper office (where I keep a lot of my scientific equipment), and the headquarters of most local organizations are located. A number of roads branch out from in and near Apuela, so even if I chose to walk to Santa Rosa or Pucará (the other two options) I´d have to go through Apuela by car or motorcycle to get anywhere.
The first 20 minutes of the walk to Apuela are steep and muddy, until finally the path spits you out at the first of two homemade suspension bridges over the Río Toabunchi. Although this bridge — which is relatively wide and flat, and made out of wooden planks — appears to be the more stable of the pair, it has broken twice in the past month, both times because of rotten boards that gave way. After crossing the first bridge, you go up and down through cow pastures parallel to the river for a while before finally coming to the second bridge, which sags much lower in the middle, and is narrow and mostly made of pieces of bamboo lashed together and supported by wire. There´s one part about a third of the way across where the bamboo pieces are sparse and you can see the river surging, brown and turbid, through the holes. But, despite its tenuous appearance, as far as I know this one has yet to actually fail in any way.
The third part of the walk is along the road that connects Plaza Gutiérrez to Apuela. Come to think of it, I also live about an hour and a half from Plaza Gutiérrez, but in the four months I´ve lived here, I´ve never had occasion to walk there.
Once I get to Apuela, I usually have to travel by truck or motorcycle to get to wherever I am collecting samples or giving workshops. With the winter rains, the roads are getting muddier and more pitted every day. Hillslopes fail, depositing rocks ranging in size from cobbles to boulders in the middle of the road. Sudden streams of runoff cut cracks and gulleys in the surface. Puddles expand.
Traveling these roads — which the provincial government is either unable or unwilling to keep in good repair — can be jarring and muddy. The other day, on the way up to Villaflora, the motorcycle slipped out from under Wilian and me, leaving us on our sides in a mud puddle. Luckily we were going about 5 mph, so it was more funny than dangerous. The next day, we headed to Río Verde, about two hours to the west. We managed to stay upright, but after that long on a cheap Chinese motorcycle my knees were so stiff I could hardly walk for a few minutes.
In Río Verde, the community´s president, Carmen Proaño, accompanied us to the sampling site, and on the way back we came across half a guanábana lying in the trail. Carmen pulled off the rotten parts and the three of us stood there, eating the white, tart fruit with our fingers. I had never eaten a guanábana before. It tastes a little like pineapple, but more floral and less citrusy. Carmen also found a seed case about the size of a large grapefruit and shaped like a round, lidded clay pot. Inside was a white and brown seed wrinkled and contorted like a brain. She gave it to me as a gift.
I do not know how to explain it exactly, but the bumps and the mud and the rain make me appreciate everything more. The magic shines through like a sudden shaft of sunlight. It´s harder to take anything for granted.