I live in a relatively small house, made up of three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living/dining room. Four people live here, including me, and my aunt and my grandma share a bed. We live in a neighborhood where many of the houses are still being constructed, so they are currently empty shells of brick and free hanging wires. If you walk ten minutes you can either be well on your way toward “el centro,” the middle of Riobamba, with stores, fruit markets, restaurants and parks, or you can be on a dirt road walking by grazing cows and small farms.
I work with Fundación Utopía, a small organization made up of a few people who are passionate about food sovereignty. They are dedicated to establishing a relationship between the city-dwellers and the farmers who produce their food. Every two weeks, we host a “canasta comunitaria” (community basket). The families who are involved with the organization pay a small fee, and come to the office to pick up a myriad of fruits and vegetables. Half of the products are provided by farmers we work with, who drive in on Saturday mornings with truck loads of bananas and broccoli and other products and get paid by Utopía. This process eliminates the middle-man, ensuring that the farmers get more money for their products. The other half of the food that the farmers either don’t grow, or don’t grow enough of to provide for 60 canastas we assemble, we buy from a large market in Riobamba. The fridays before the canastas, we make our way to the market at the chilly and dark hour of 5 in the morning. We buy cauliflower and artichokes out of the back of trucks straight from the farms. We are trying to increase the amount of products we buy directly from organic farms, but all-in-all the food system is very small, eliminating large grocery stores almost entirely.
One day, my mom and my aunt took me to el Paseo de shopping (the mall) in el centro. It seemed huge to me. The furniture in the stores was luxurious, the clothes expensive, and the food completely unnatural. They asked me if I wanted to eat, and all I could think about was the book I had just read urging people to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” It makes the distinction between foods and edibles. I looked at KFC, and couldn’t see much that could actually be put under the category of food. Imagine eating the organic strawberries picked by your friend on his farm, and then going to Chilis. When we left the mall I felt a great sense of relief, and hoped that I would not return.
A few weeks later, I went to a small, rural community named Las Flores. I wrote about the experience in my previous blog post, Water and Potatoes. A few days after, I went to the mall again with people from my work. We went to a store named Explorer. There were $100 Eddie Bauer jackets and $75 Vibram shoes. After getting used to prices in Ecuador- the average lunch is $2.50 and you can buy 4 perfect avocados for a dollar- this seemed exorbitant. We went to a store sort of like Home Depot. We bought things for the office that I deemed unnecessary, especially because we are so small and having trouble growing. Being in the mall made me feel torn and chaotic. I wondered to myself “how can a community like Las Flores, where women without shoes or teeth walk for an hour each day to get their water, and a mall with an ever-flowing fountain exist only an hour away from each other?” The proximity of the extremes confused me.
But I also began to wonder something else: who am I to make these judgements? The girl who owns the very same camel back that we just passed in Explorer, and who’s shoes look strikingly similar to those adorning the walls. The girl who has an iPhone waiting for her back in the United States. The girl who’s wardrobe costs more than people in some parts of the world make in a year. The girl who is often asked how much her MacBook Air cost. Who am I to say that people should live with less? Who am I to categorize development?
How can everything be so connected and so distant at the same time? How can Las Flores and a Supermaxi exist just an hour from each other? How can I eat organic strawberries picked by the hand of my friend in the morning, and then have the option of eating fried chicken from KFC in the evening? How can some people consider a mall a sign of development, while others consider shortening the food system and bringing producers and consumers face-to-face a sign of the same thing? How can people die of obesity-related diseases, while others starve to death? How do I have so much while others have so little?
These are questions that I find myself wondering in my life here in Ecuador. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t think I will understand the connections and contradictions of the world for a long time still, if ever. But the important thing is that I am asking.