And the story continues!!
The transition between host families consisted of a 7 hour bus ride and a pit stop to a quirky cow farm/restaurant. So imagine that all happening in a fancy time-lapse video and it goes back to real time with our bedraggled TBB group piling out of the bus into a small schoolroom in El Cabuyal, Ecuador. We meet our families, well identify ourselves to the groups of people holding posters with our names on them, and then stand there awkwardly because we can’t really communicate and the initial small talk is already awkward even when you speak the same language. So after about 30 minutes of awkward standing while the PL’s were talking with the local coordinator and Corolla, the country director for EIL, and a quick snack of plantain and cheese, we headed off on foot with our families to our homes.
I feel like I need to describe El Cabuyal in great detail so you can all picture it as I refer to it. First, imagine a small city, lined with ma and pa shops selling random assortments of clothing and farming equipment as well as a bunch of restaurants all serving the same Ecuadorian dishes and then a few other random shops like internet cafes and bakeries. This is Puerto Quito, which is not where we stayed. Puerto Quito is the largest town near Cabuyal for 45 minutes. Now from Puerto Quito, if you take the one road out heading west, after 12 minutes you stumble on El Cabuyal. The road is lined with trees - jungle-esque trees. However the closer you are to El Cabuyal the more African Palm trees there are. This is bad, but I will explain later. The first views in El Cabuyal are a big red sign that says something in Spanish that I forgot and the school. The school is two rooms. There are not even enclosed walls under the tin roof. There is however a nice concrete soccer field and bathroom structure with running water. Now farther down the road we have the houses. Remember there is one road through the whole town (well actually there is a dirt road running parallel behind the paved road, but I didn’t even know that until 3 weeks in). There are abut 13.75 houses on the road. (I’m not sure if I can count all the structures as houses per-say). On average 5 people live in each house - this average rose by 2.7 people per household when we were there. (The .7 of a person represents all the luggage we had with us, which took up the equivalent space of .7 of a person, oh wait that was just me and my 5 bags..oops). And I can’t forget about the river, which was the heart and soul of this small community. It flowed very quickly, but was not very deep and much cleaner than the good ol’ Mississippi. We, and the rest the community, spent most afternoons sitting in the water to cool off.
So we’re here, and it’s the most rural and probably poorest place all of us have ever lived. I lived with Saoirse and our host mother, Maria Lucia and Wellington, who was the community coordinator. Our roof didn’t connect, we slept with mosquito nets, and the kitchen was outside and there was no sink. But it was awesome and humbling and challenging to learn to live so simply. I adopted some gross habits that I probably shouldn’t mention, but I came to enjoy the grungy lifestyle. The first full day we were there a few of us took an excursion with Wellington and his cousin Byron to Wellington’s Sunday league soccer game. It took us 3 hours to get there and we were so late Wellington had to just walk on the field. Long story short, the soccer game was hilariously pathetic and we were very confused why we travelled so far to watch 40 minutes of this game. We did take some funny pictures with some unconscious drunk men that were slouched over on the ground behind us and saw a pretty cool waterfall and rode in the back of a truck in the pouring rain, so the day wasn’t a complete disaster!
Day two was the first day of work. Oh yeah, I was sick though (better to have the initial orientation to GI issues at the beginning of each host family so you get familiar with the toilet situation - the mosquito net added a new level of difficulty to getting out of bed quickly, but by this point I was on to level two of dealing with stomach issues so it didn’t even hold me back). The group just walked for 3 hours looking at all the sites we would be planting trees at, so I didn’t miss much. Day two, we start the dirty work! We worked with the local government of Puerto Quito and they have a nice process down to plant trees, so we just added some extra hands. The process goes as follows: Stake out a place for a tree with a bamboo stick, machete a circle around the bamboo stick, use the digger thingy to make a hole, plant the tree. So on the first day, besides the fact that I was going to pass out from both heat exhaustion and dehydration, I was not a big fan of this machete. It was easier to yank the weeds and grass out of the ground and I couldn't figure out if it was easier to stand and awkwardly bend down or sit entirely on the ground. Anyhow, I was exhausted and dripping in sweat and ready to be done for the day. Luckily, I got used to manual labor and the job got easier as the days went on. I learned to love those machetes - it’s a great way to get anger out and feel badass simultaneously. We worked all over the community and planted a total of 3000 trees in the month we were there. Admittedly we probably couldn't planted twice that amount, but the government workers were either taking advantage of the fact they could get away with ending early with us or genuinely thought we couldn't handle more work. Overall, the field work was a great experience and we ended up creating a community gathering place down by the river on the last week of work, so I feel that we genuinely had a positive impact on the people.
Let’s see.. Some random/strange/interesting things about this part of Ecuador we stayed in. Cacoa fruit is bomb and very abundant. We visited an organic chocolate farm and learned about the whole process. I made friends with the owner who is a retired infectious disease doctor! I mentioned African Palm was bad earlier, well 50 years ago when people inhabited this area they clear cut it all to start growing these trees as cash crops. The trees are everywhere, which is an issue because they soak up all the soil in the ground and lead the river beds to erode and promote a monoculture of species. However, it provides a stable income and job opportunities to people in the surrounding area. The palm fruit is harvested and sold for its oil, which is actually very bad for people because of the high trans fats. Tricky situation there. Speaking of inhabiting the area, the river I talked about earlier used to divide the houses from the school and people would have to canoe across the river to get to school or Puerto Quito. Remember this is not an easy river to cross, you will float significantly downstream if you try to walk or swim. However, a small bridge was built 10 years ago and then the big paved road and bridge across the river was only built about 3 years ago. This is a perfect example of the challenges of development we discussed all through the program. At first thought, of course a paved street and bridge for cars and trucks to pass over the water is great development, but because of that road and bridge, Cabuyal has become just another pass through town on the bus route. No one stops there anymore because there is no reason to. Before the bridge people used to come to Cabuyal to stay and to interact with the community. It’s easier to get to town to sell products, but that forces people to need to produce cash crops, which as I said are not great for the environment. Everyone leaves the small community now, they go to Puerto Quito and then on to Quito and rarely come back if they don’t have to. Cabuyal does have an incredible sense of community though. Our host mom would more often than not be hosting people from the community or other parts of the country for overnight stays or just a meal or just to chat. She was incredibly generous and always made sure we had enough to eat - even if I really just didn't want more chicken and rice or fried pieces of fat or tuna. A lot of the time, as I was fighting mild GI issues for about a quarter of the time, I honestly just couldn't eat, and she would just laugh at me and think that I didn’t like the food and I would try my best to tell her in Spanish that my stomach hurt and I really couldn't eat. However, we were pampered in this community. We brought money in to fund our stay and that was evident though how we were treated and fed. One night Saoirse and I were having a large piece of chicken and rice and plantains and a boy from the community walks into our house. He and our host mom talked for a little bit and then she gives him a plate full of animal crackers and he sits at the table and eats his ‘dinner’ with us. I immediately lost my appetite. I did not need to be eating that much food and I could most definitely share some with this boy. But I didn’t do anything about it, and that kind of haunts me to this day. Because the roof on our house didn’t connect and when it rained really hard, it would rain right onto my bed and also onto the toilet, a place I was often. These people lived in poverty, possibly extreme poverty by some standards. And at first we glorified this concept of simple living. It was so nice not to have a mirror to look in and critique my skin every morning and it didn't matter if I wore the same clothes everyday. But we quickly realized poverty is not to be glorified. Living simply and sustainably is a great skill to practice but there are things we all need as humans that these people did not have access to. One other point to mention is that there was some inappropriate behavior towards our girls from the local boys. They had not been exposed to many white people, especially young girls living in close proximity to them, probably ever. It is easy to play off the boy’s behaviors because we (women) are so accustomed to believing boys and men have this power over women to objectify and judge us as they please. However, we experienced serious issues with these boys and had many discussions about sexual assault and gender roles and objectification. No matter what the situation is, women should not have to change their behaviors to ward off unwanted men. Unfortunately we have to do this all the time, and all of the TBB girls learned an important lesson that you have to be outwardly mean and aggressive sometimes to get a guy to stop, but even that doesn't always work. In Ecuador especially, the strong machismo culture played into these power abuse roles that formed, but it is unacceptable anywhere. I recommend watching Miss. Representation and then The Mask We Live In, both documentaries explore the issues we dealt with first hand.
Going back to living sustainably, our seminars were continued here and we focused more on how to make already existing practices more sustainable and what that looks like in our globalized and developed world. We watched Food Inc. and I became obsessed with taking down the corn industry. Monsanto, I’m coming for you! I thought about my personal footprint and how many small things I can change in my life that will support suitably living. We have started our compost pile at home and soon I will be getting chickens, but don't tell my family (they can’t say no when the baby chicks are already in the backyard).
Two other fun things from the time in Cabuyal were that I learned to salsa dance, pretty well I might say and for IST a few girls and I went back to Quito and hiked Cotopaxi, which is one of the tallest volcanos in Ecuador. We also rode horses, but I didn't like that (shocker!).
I am going to post once more about the final weeks in Washington D.C, as a wrap-up/accumulation of all my thoughts and experiences for this gap year journey. Thank you to all who have read my blog at some point - it means a lot to have the support. I hope to start a new blog sometime soon, about what - who knows, but I have enjoyed this process of capturing my honest and raw thoughts.
An attempt to document my journey through 5 countries, 3 global issues and billions of people