Places in Ecuador

I am learning how our places teach us how to live— how to feed, how to stay warm or cool, how to stay kind. I have met a series of witnesses who watch their places, who come back. Who know what has changed, and how, and who ask me to imagine. These are the historians, who ply what is now as a tool between what has been and what might be. Like a sharpened tool in an accustomed hand, what exists is at once revered and small.

Falling asleep in the jungle feels like being possessed— the soft pounding constant roil of the river beside, a cacophony of crepuscular lulls, hisses, buzzes, twits. Fist-sized snails emerge towards open spaces, pace of sleep. When it is light, chlorophyll kaleidoscopes enrodean—palms and ferns of dinosaur, thigh-width bamboo, pink-hewed boulders strewn in clear aguas cascading. The sky in the Oriente is quiet colors of water, and the twilight amplitude feels like warmly slowly sinking deeper. We sleep open air in the choza under a white linen Indonesian bug net, as creatures far larger and littler command us to stillness.

Antonio carries a yellow- handled machete everywhere he walks, taking for granted that to move forward is to hack a way. It may be, like the rubber boots, for venomous snakes, but more often meets toxic invasive African snails first brought to Brazil as a delicacy. On the way to the bathroom in the evening I follow his instructions and rampage the purple snails creeping towards the choza, each requiring several blows of a hatchet. Sometimes it gets cold at night here, Antonio warns us, and he has to cover himself with a sheet.

Like winter floods across the Oriente in an age of climate strangeness, this river by Archidona rose three meters on New Years’ Eve and carved a new curved course. In the morning, we take saw and machete to root and stalk to clear debris for perhaps a new beach. It is muggy and buggy and we are small creatures heaving toothpicks of damage flattened in seconds. Only five years ago this plot was a horse corral, now a tended agroforestry project of cacao and plantain. Grazing meals still spring up like weeds and these reminders on the near past insist on being individually pulled up by root. It concerns me to be a transient young adult at a time when our places need us most— as witnesses, makers, caretakers. In these environments, I learn only secondhand how now is unlike then. Places unwitnessed too are changing. 

Passing through Papallacta hotsprings, our journey into the jungle is a descent of over 10,000 ft from the indigenous comuna of San Clemente on the skirts of Volcán Imbabura. On Sunday evening, we meet Roberto at the school and share a plato of boiled potatoes, fried meat and choclo. Keaton’s corralled into a game of volley, as indigenous women traditionally dressed embroider and giggle at the sideline under the single streetlamp. 

The moon is tierna, tender, new, filling and emptying at unfamiliar angles. Roberto’s taita (kichwa for father) Alberto describes to me how at this time of the cambio de fase, tree sap drops towards roots, making wood drier and freer of insects, better for harvest. Likewise, the full moon draws sap towards extremities, the sweetest time for plucking fruits. Monday and Tuesday are therefore spent clambering into the camioneta (pick-up truck) and scouting for carrizo (bamboo) on the edges of properties in Ibarra for the construction of a roof for a new house. When we find a mature patch, we ask the dueño for permission and begin an operation of machete chopping, vine untangling, debranching, peeling, sorting. The madre Laura brings a huge pot of boiled potatoes, a round of queso fresco (the only cheese in Ecuador, always made or bought locally), a jar of aji (a ubiquitous spicy dip of crushed aji peppers, cilantro, vinegar, garlic), and one avocado and mango per each. 

The eighteen families in San Clemente are involved in subsistence farming; cows graze on the edges of dirt roads, chickens roam, cuy (guinea pig) squeak in their shelters, and attached by a frayed rope to a short wooden peg hammered by rock into tierra all throughout Ecuador are llama, alpaca, chanchos (hogs) and sheep. The rhythm of seasons we know is null in a place of constant fruition. Growing now in the mountains are potatoes, carrots, beets, leeks, scallions, zucchini, cabbage, broccoli, and up high, blueberries. Tamia is three and tours us through the huerta plants, telling which cures a cough and finding tiny sweet sprouts of estevia. Before going up to San Clemente we were giddy to shop at our first SuperMaxi, where we could find salty plátano chifles made by Frito- Lay, sugary alfajores, conventional mushrooms in a styrofoam container wrapped in plastic wrap, and 500g sacks to quinoa for 80 cents. Our supermarket finds quickly feel inappropriate here, where in the rafters a year’s supply of quinua hangs drying on the stalk.

When we walk with Alberto through high páramo to Lago Cubilche, the place he sees is heavy and storied. In pine groves, he describes being enrolled as a young adult in a government project to plant pine and eucalyptus tree farms. In return for planting, members of the indigenous community were given food— bottled vegetable oil to replace harvesting oil at home from hog and sheep fat, canned meat over a protein- rich, largely vegetarian diet, white sugar over panela, a natural unrefined sugar product, and white flour for machica, a mixture of local whole grain flours including quinoa and barley. As the scheme drew members of San Clemente down the hill into a market economy to satiate new tastes, the non-native pine and eucalyptus uphill sucked moisture and nutrients from the soil, devastating crop yields in families’ huertas. 

The folks in San Clemente are Caranqui, native to the northern Sierra of Ecuador in a period before Incan, followed by Spanish, conquest. To the north, a glimmering lake is named red for bloodshed incurred by the Inca. Only two generations ago, Alberto’s family was enslaved to huge monocultural haciendas on these hills, and the Freire sons of the hacendados still run an auto business in town. Out of the cloud emerges a ridge opposite, and three days’ walk over the peaks is Manuel de Acosta, a settlement of Alberto’s relatives who escaped hacienda servitude in the middle of the night. 

Hacendados dismantled indigenous communities in the northern sierra with a colonizing tactic ubiquitous across the Americas— separating families, splitting kin through geographic space. It is a means of consolidating economic and social power in the hands of few and it is just as uniquitous today though often disguised as a personal choice. Taking advantage of rapid transportation and the seduction of increasingly ‘comfortable’ lifestyles, many in my generation develop affiliations to corporation or institutions which surpass affiliation to family, civic community, or particular place. I am struck in my Ecuadorian encounters by the way in which stewardship of place demands intent commitment— those places best cared for are places where witnesses and carers have chosen to remain. This kind of attention to a place will never be advantageous to exploitative consumer capitalism, which will always rely on disposability— of stuff, of people, of places, of people in their places. 

Environmental education is a means I have found of beginning to bring people back to places. Keaton and I were invited to give two Spanish talks on environmental education at the Universidad Polytécnica Salesiana in Quito, a gift of articulating our practice and recognizing the importance of sharing about the possibility of outdoor, expeditionary, experiential and place-based forms of education in a setting where such possibilities are far from taken for granted. Jesús organized the talks, a professor of pedagogy and the brother of Rafael, the teacher and Peace Corps host we stayed with in the rural town of Amaguaña, outside Quito. Jesús, Rafael, and their six siblings started a school in Amaguaña, where Jesús worked in the mornings before meeting us at the university, one of many family-centered social projects I was able to witness in Ecuador. The second talk I gave alone to an auditorium of distance students in a bilingual/ intercultural Kichwa- Spanish track, all from indigenous communities south of Quito. I felt conflicted commanding a stage when there was so much I wished to learn from these students, though those who responsed at the end shared a heartening sense of earnest gravity and implicit understanding towards the current importance of nature education.

As it was the end of the semester, I was then invited to a potluck (my name for it) out on the lawn, in gratitude to the professors. The students layed out black trash bags and scattered them with traditional indigenous foods they eat at home. Eating with our hands, we enjoyed boiled potatoes, choclo (crispy corn kernels), mote (enlarged boiled corn), tough corn on the cob, chicha (a bubbly fermented corn drink) and a delicacy reserved for special occasions— cuy (guinea pig). 

Cuy has a rubbery skin, fishy taste, and consistency like dark poultry— the bulk of the meat is found in the thigh. Cuy are often kept for their rich guano, and they are also used medicinally. Most folks in San Clemente use natural remedies for external ailments (headache, stomachache) including warming plants (eg. ginger, aji) and cooling plants (eg. aloe). A limpieza de cuy (cleansing with guinea pig) is used by trained indigenous medics to discover internal ailments— a family cuy is rubbed around the body, and the highly sensitive cuy responds by imitating the symptoms it perceives, like a sonogram. At the least this practice sounds entirely more life-giving and healing than most Western diagnostic treatments! Food is the primary medicine in San Clemente, with the recognition that the consumption of poisons through conventional agriculture leads directly to our buying further into the industrial-pharmaceutical system.  I was nourished in San Clemente by powerful imaginings of this place as it might become. Members of San Clemente are recovering a knowledge of organic local agriculture, a means of alimentation ubiquitous in human society apart from the blip of the past three generations. The availability of California lettuce in New England winter or Ecuadorian plátanos in North America at any time of year began as an unbelievable party trick and luxurious use of resources, not a way of life. Indigenous communities around Ibarra are organizing to teach about organic agriculture and protest against Ministry of Agriculture restrictions on selling pesticide- free food. The Pupiales imagine becoming energy independent through heating methods which take advantage of hog manure, and scheme a community replanting of native aliso, yaual and polylepsis trees to heal the soil. 

In witnessing community projects here, most moving of all is a word I have heard often which specifically denotes work done in common— una minga. On the day we arrived the Pupiales returned home with an enormous basket of mangoes from a strange nearby valley with a warm microclimate, where they had spent the day helping in communal harvest. San Clemente plans mingas every few weeks, to be present for a family for a task an individual could not alone complete, then sharing the fruits. By this exchange, all enjoy food not growing in their own huerta. Antonio suggested we have a minga of four to clear debris from the flood, so I have the sense it matters not so much how many are involved, but the intention that the task at hand can be uniquely achieved in common.

The Dammer brothers welcomed us to Palugo farm, where they live in community with their young families and their parents in homes of their own construction, running an organic farm and outdoor school. Palugo is on the outskirts of Quito, with a view to the stark snowy flanks of Volcán Cotopaxi and in the foreground, a new particle board factory. This year a highway was completed which splits through the farm, breaking the son’ area from their parents’. The commitment of this family to tend to their place, an urban oasis in an area of rapid development, is marked every day as flights vroom low overhead towards the newly constructed international airport nearby. Hills opposite are in the process of clearcut, as Thomas perfects his irrigation channels in the terraced vegetable garden, an unlikely achievement on a hillside of dense volcanic ash soil.

When we arrived, we visited piglets only three days old and Michael gave us a jar of yogurt from their hefty Brown Swiss stock. We were able to use the kitchen and choza constructed by students for students, and in the evenings collected goods from the garden for our fire-cooked meals. With eucalyptus leña, we prepared carrot cake, zucchini bread, oatmeal soda bread with fresh scallions and thyme, quinoa stir fry of fresh carrots, onions, cabbage, zucchini, and beets.

In exchange for our stay, we contibuted in the construction of a new bodega to replace a structure now cut off from the barn by the new highway, for use by students for yoga, sewing, gear storage, and trip planning. Feeling often inept but eager to help, we built window sills, varnished, and sanded, cut and rounded wood. Our witness of so many hand-built structures on this trip has been a moving indication of the human power of creation. In seeing unfinishedness, it is easier to know that this wasn’t always here, this place was different, and, this place can be different.

I expected on this trip to find more of what I determined ‘wilderness’, but it was rather filled with human aliveness, with learning about how to live. Our first excursion was a 4-day hike from the mountain village of Sigchos to Quilotoa crater lake. We followed a route of yellow blazes through mountain farms, river valleys, earth canyons, animal trails, and remote villages. We felt constantly conspicuous, walking in leisure steep routes that campesinos took to work, giving saludos to farmers squinting up into the hot sun while harvesting with machete. On the road into Chugchillán, droves of children walked past staring, pointing and whispering. My expectation was conditioned by my understanding of wilderness in the United States— places purified of culture, returned to a ‘natural’ state. But these places have been purified for certain people, with unequal privilege of access. I visit Yosemite valley without any sense that I am encroaching into the place of a different culture only because the cultivator ancestors of the children who would snicker were removed or murdered. Not without cultural struggle, here cultivation and recreation are entangled in stunning natural space. After gasping up the 2,000ft wall of Toachi Canyon, it provides a different perspective to see children running up on their daily route home from school. There is great opportunity here to prepare educational materials for tourists to pursue this route with an understanding of people and place.

I have had plenty of trouble communicating on this trip in ways that have nothing to do with language but rather with cultural expectations— of time, relationships, money, transport. In fact, many aspects of these travels have been exceedingly difficult and impossible to expect. Travel is really a reminder of the evolutionary miracle of clearly communicating with another human in this world, at times requiring such stubborn patience and tenacity. In moments of frustration and exhaustion, I also realize that there is hardly a more worthwhile task than to keep trying to make sense of each other. It was never going to be easy. I carry this with me back to the United States.

This trip came to be about learning how to live in place— not what we bring home from ‘wilderness’, but how we make that home itself. I left the US burdened with political anxiety and fear, which right now remains for me in the realm of wifi, media, and dream world. At a time of impending facism and incessant fabricated chaos in predominantly placeless realms, I am reminded how it is all the more important to ground myself in place and tactility. In Ecuador, I have found the gift of involvement in projects of creation over reaction, the construction of places and ways of being which insist on greater aliveness.

In Ecuador, many of the individuals I met were connected to Kroka Expeditions, where I will begin work in April. Kroka’s mission statement is: 

‘Kroka is a wilderness expedition school for young people based on a year-round, organic farm in Marlow, New Hampshire. We believe that the consciousness and altruistic will can be brought forward through a living relationship with the natural world and by taking our places within the circle of community.’

Books I have read on these travels and recommend:

David Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, the Environment and the Human Prospect (2004; 1994)

‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.’

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007)

An inspiring and convincing account of a year of local eating in Appalachia; ‘When we began each meal with the question, ‘what do we have plenty of?’ it really became an exercise in gratitude.’

Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (1988)

‘People are the only critical resource needed by people. We ourselves, if we organize our talents, are sufficient to each other.’

Alan Weisman, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (1998)

The story of the unlikely flourishing of an ingenious eco-village in the inhospitable llanos of Colombia.