By Ali Ruxin (Ecuador ’15, Northwestern University)
I glanced up at the projection screen in my Environment and Society class, lifting pen from my notebook paper to see what came next in our lecture on the perils of industrial agriculture. To my surprise, my eyes met two strikingly familiar images: a landscape photograph of the Andes mountains on the left of the screen, and a photograph of women in traditional dress harvesting potatoes was on the right.
During my bridge year, I lived in a rural Ecuadorian community nestled in the Andes mountains, where multiple varieties of potatoes were staple crops and women donned traditional clothing. In my head, there is a spot on the winding dirt road through town, sandwiched between mountains, that matches the lecture photograph exactly.
In Ecuador I had clocked hours slowly peeling potatoes with a knife, scraping the fine skin off the meat in tiny chunks as Abuelita coached me to peel in longer, faster strokes that she had mastered from decades of experience. Countless afternoons were spent scampering after my host brother as he dug potatoes out of the ground, reaching into dry dirt holes to grab the overturned plants, shaking off the dirt and twisting them off their roots before dropping them into re-purposed organic fertilizer sacks. My back still aches a little bit when I recall the afternoon my host sister and I traversed row after row of potato plants, bending over to pick all of the tiny lavender flowers off the tops of their shiny green leaves. There were countless market mornings, when at 5 a.m. my cold fingers were just mobile enough to package papa chauchas in clear plastic bags to sell for a $1.75. My physical strength increased each time I just barely managed to carry sacks of potatoes up hills, past cows that seemed to moo in mockery of my weak muscles. And I ate potatoes, all the time.
The lecture slide of the potato park was simply an example of one place in the world where people attempt to cultivate wild species of potatoes. But to me, it was a wild moment. A year ago I lived in that slide; now I examine it from my seat in an auditorium. Two perspectives colliding, but not crashing, meshing together with enough force to ignite a fierce desire within me to learn more, both through listening and through experiencing.
My bridge year was a year of experiential learning and personal reflection, of friendship and loneliness and everything in between. It propelled me to college with an open-mind brimming with questions for which the process of finding answers excites me. It changed my course of study, uniting topics in a way that speak to what I find meaningful. It opened doors to new opportunities, such as a position as a research assistant for a graduate student’s study about astronomic reasoning of Kichwa women in Ecuador compared to that of NU undergraduates. And it is the constancy of potatoes as a symbol of my year: the hard work and resilience to grow, the meatiness ready to be uncovered from hard-to- peel skin, and the ability to rejoice in good taste.