As I was calmly finishing up my 50 cent lunch at school the other day, which consisted of a small bowl of rice with potatoes, I glanced down to my cellphone to see what time it was.
10:39 They ring the school bell, signaling what I thought was the end of recess. Surprised at their punctuality, I rise to throw my trash away. As I am heading over to the nearest trash can, I hear the gym teacher yell out that there is a fire nearby. Alarmed, I look to where he was pointing and see the smoke rising. He calls for all of the Juniors to follow him to put out the fire. The school is in a momentary frenzy as the momentum of something unusually exciting grows. Surprised, I ask if there is anyway I could help. I was told that everything was fine and that I should probably just stay, and all of the other students were asked to go to class.
10:40 They head out. Coincidentally, the Juniors had English class right after recess. Because the English teacher was out, I was supposed to be in charge. Not knowing what to do, I ask a nearby teacher if they will be alright, or if I should go help them. They reassured me that they would be back soon, that everything was OK. In my mind, I didn’t know what she was talking about. I was sure this would take up their entire English class time, at least.
10:45 The smoke was billowing in the air, engulfing the nearby trees. I was convinced that the fire was getting out of control. How could a single gym teacher and a group of students put out a raging forest fire? And how come nobody was calling the authorities to help out? Concerned and confused, all I could do was take some pictures. I didn’t know how this would end, but I did know that it would make an interesting blog post.
10:50 If anything, the smoke had increased within the last five minutes. I was still patiently waiting at school, thinking of what I would do for the next two hours, since clearly the Juniors were gone. By this point I was fairly alone, sitting outside and occasionally looking up at the smoke. I regretted having stayed at the school. I’ve never put out a forest fire in my life, and this was my chance. But I was comforted by the thought of living in Zuleta; chances are, I will help put out a forest fire by the time my 6 months is up.
10:55 My thoughts continued to wander, and instead of going to find something productive to do I was still sitting in the same spot I had been sitting at since recess. I looked up once more and realized that there was hardly any smoke in the sky. Wait, what? Just five minutes ago it was everywhere. At this point I also realize that I have been checking the time every five minutes and decide to jot down the time and notes on what had happened.
10:58 I started seeing the first of the heroes return. I look down at the time. Wow. Did they seriously just put out that fire in under 20 minutes? It really wasn’t that big of a deal? This to me was news worthy, though to Zuleta and it’s students it was just a little twist to spice up the day.
11:00 The last of my students return back safely and triumphantly. Though we already got along well, I now have a new-found respect for them. I remember way back when, only 20 minutes ago, they were asked to go put out a fire. They didn’t even flinch and just headed out in unison.
Every time I see acts of community like this I am impressed. I think this is one of the reasons why my little town is one of the most progressive and advanced in the group of indigenous communities in this area. They have a history of social organization that has allowed for this now picturesque little town to grow and become a center for international environmental investigation and studies, and it’s even a bit of a tourist hub. Everyone has access to clean running water, electricity, and there are “eco-friendly” (cobblestone) roads throughout. This is much more than what can be said for some of the surrounding indigenous communities.
I don’t know if the sense of community and teamwork that I have seen is what drives the social organization that exists here, and if this is what in turn creates a flourishing community. But I do know that whenever there is a problem here, like a forest fire, there is an immediate response. I also know that Zuleta has the success story that makes it a triumphant community. So, are the two related? I guess only time will tell; time, and a great deal of analysis of what makes indigenous communities in Ecuador successful and what doesn’t. But for now, I will just continue to marvel at the lifestyle here in Zuleta, and enjoy it while I can.