“We are one with our environment. The boundary between our bodies and our environments is not just permeable, but a blur of movement as components from Earth, Air, Water and Fire cycle through us. We partake of, and contribute to, the hydrological cycle, atmospheric circulation, the nutrient cycle and the mineral cycle. We embody, and return to, the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms. We are what we eat, drink and breath, and we share those elements with the rest of the Earth. Even our DNA tells us that we are related to all other species on the planet. The Lakota phrase “all our relatives” becomes a scientific reality when we consider this. And when we think of the world as “relatives” rather than “resources,” we will treat it differently.” –Doug Herman, Smithsonian geographer
Cañar is a mix of my bleak mist and sweeping gazes toward the glorious mountains enveloping our town. Ever since my last blog post, I moved to Cañar, Ecuador about two hours north of Cuenca. I live in a rural community, with a cuy pen, and large extended family consisting of my host mom, Lucinda, host dad, brother, two uncles, and grandpa. My work is different every day of the week, but my primary apprenticeship involves Mushuk Yuyay, an agricultural cooperative and microfinance organization. I mostly help in the seed bank, physically filling bags with delicious quinoa or with the community outreach programs that Lucinda heads. We go to schools and demonstrate modern recipes using traditional seeds, so that the culture is upheld and environmental consequences of importing foreign or genetically modified food is avoided. My co-workers are very proud of their organic produce, and it is rooted far deeper in their lifestyles than trendy concepts with overpriced stickers like in the U.S.
The other day, for example, I jumped into the car with my host mom only knowing that we had a reunion somewhere. I enjoy reunions because they give ample time for practicing my Spanish or zoning out into a book. Typically, Ecuadorian meetings last about seven hours (or so far from what I’ve seen) and they usually include my favorite part: food. I was eager to attend another meeting with other companeros across Ecuador, some coming as far as Quito. This meeting I attended was different, though.
We rocked along the bumpy roads, almost swerving too far left because of passing livestock. The green grass was thick with the morning layer of clouds, and the fields of quinoa stretched before us as we climbed higher into the peaks. We parked near a large field that was steeply inclined.
Our meeting about quinoa had been purposefully placed IN the quinoa fields so we could celebrate this glorious crop right beside its beauty. There was nothing disconnecting us and the environment. We greeted the waving stocks like old friends and the strangers like extended family. People from all over Cañar and surrounding provinces had shown up. Native flute music sweetly cascaded over the picturesque scene as the men pranced about in their traditional ponchos. The women and children sat on the wet grass while they listened to the music, admired the dancing, and gossiped until the presenters began to speak about the benefits of quinoa, particularly Mushuk Yuyay’s.
In America, if we wanted to discuss a plant we would pile ourselves into a boring office. We would forget our connection to the land and how relevant it is for our business, even for our souls. In Ecuador, we journeyed up the mountainsides and hiked past sheep with bread and collada until the meeting site was reached right on the edge of the most important subject. It was almost as if we journeyed to a sacred spot. After the official business ended hours later, we all made our way to the house at the bottom of the hill.
We sat around the burning coals in the detached kitchen made of grass and concrete. My dress was half-hazardously flung onto the dirt floor while I dived into my potatoes, peas, and carrots. The atmosphere in the kitchen was warm and cozy, but vibrant. The four other women wore their best traditional blouses but sat on the dirt floor to dish out platters of mote, cooked chochos, papas, and sopita. Ash from the burning coals drifted about the room like soft snow coating our hairlines and soup bowls. Our faces began to turn a rosy red from the warm fire.
Giant metal tubs of vegetables and mote had been placed on a metal rack over coals burning directly on the ground. If something needed to be tossed away, we could easily sweep it close to the fire. Gone in an instant. I could have felt like I had traveled back in time before microwaves and cook stoves, except one flickering fluorescent bulb swung above me. The only sign of a modern age. The women mumbled soft Spanish mixed with Kichwa, and my ears were having a hard time keeping up with their raspy voices and mixing languages.
Even though I didn’t understand them, they still smiled tranquilly at me. I felt at peace even as an outsider. My bowl was filled numerous times to make sure I felt at home with the dirt floor and walls of Spanish. As I sank back against the cool walls, I noticed a small black and white kitten meandering around the ashes trying to clean itself. This was the first “inside” pet I had seen since arriving in Ecuador. It curled into a ball onto a wooden chair, and I was tempted to do the same.
I felt appeased by the calming heat and friendly atmosphere. Ecuadorian meetings aren’t complete without buckets of food served by hands, and my worries about sanitation had finally fluttered from the mountaintops. The sense of family and acceptance for the current moment washed away any worries or concerns.
This day will remain in my mind vividly for years because it was my first taste of distorted time. While snuggled into this cave kitchen, the outside world could have been 1853. It could have been 1970. It could have been 2024, and their traditions would stay the same. Honestly, I don’t know if I like the fact modern technology has only been implemented the bare minimum. I feel like indoor plumbing just makes life easier, while things like Direct TV and wifi are not necessary. But dealing with these minuscule influences of the globalized world has created a bubble of peace. There are just less distractions. Life has existed in a similar fashion for generations, from the style of cooking on the dirt floors to their rigid meeting schedules.
I have particularly enjoyed finding these dichotomies between tradition and American influences because it applies to Eugene Lang’s course readings, such as the preface of the Rothenburg textbook. I talked about it in my second blog post as well. She says that “education is ultimately learning to see the world through the eyes of many different people” (XVI) and I couldn’t agree more. While sitting on the dirt floor, I had to cast aside any judgment or notions of my kitchen in America. What is right or wrong or easy or better is totally up to the discretion of the moment. Even time itself becomes relative to the culture. Things are slower here. It is more about the moment, cutting alfalfa for the cuy which takes a long process, than it is about eating the cuy. Everyone wakes up for a reason. But here in Ecuador, I am learning to appreciate the act of just getting up….of eating breakfast…of hiking mountains for meetings that last hours…of sitting on the floor just enjoying the women’s company. I hardly know what the next day will bring, partly because of the foggy understanding and partly because nobody lives in the future moments. They live in the ‘now’ where strangers and family and humans and the environment all connect, over bowls of mote or fields of quinoa. There is appreciation for the things most overlooked in the US, such as life. Such as family. Such as the connections between all of us and our single environment.
Herman, Doug. “History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian.”History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Smithsonian, 13 Sept. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.