Getting Dirty

John Villanueva - Ecuador


January 14, 2013

When it comes to hygiene, many of us Fellows find it difficult to feel and stay clean throughout the day. I don’t mean to call Ecuador a “dirty” country, but it’s easy get dirty here. Especially for me, staying clean is quite a difficult task. That’s because my apprenticeship at Fundación UTOPIA exemplifies dirtiness. Every two weeks we hold Canastas Comunitarias – “Community Baskets” – where we organize large sacks of organic produce to give to paying customers. I carry heavy sacks of produce caked with mud from the farms they originate from. Then, we sort and weigh the produce into the sacks, on the street, sometimes in the pouring rain. On a good Canasta day I won’t be sneezing from the all the dust. I also work on an organic farm, and one day, I had to spread Abono throughout an entire field of corn by hand. Abono is organic fertilizer, and by organic, I mean that it’s basically manure. The particles of Abono saturated into my clothes and skin. So that day, I came home literally covered in poop. But that’s not the worst of it. Another day, we dealt with actual poop. At the back of the house there’s a courtyard, where the vacas, cerdos, cuyes, and conejos leave their “leftovers”, and we had to shovel all the fecal matter into piles, and wheelbarrow them into the compost (where we made more Abono!) For the most part, the poop we scooped was dry and easy to handle, but there were a few incidences in which my boot would land into fresh caca.

Whenever I was home with my host family, however, the environment was very different. Everything was clean. The rooms. The floors. The tables. I liked living in a clean environment opposite from the messy one I worked in all day. My host mother just had an impeccable affinity to cleanliness and order, and with it came a slew of household rules and responsibilities. Beds always made. No food outside of the kitchen. Lights off at eleven. The toilet seat, bathroom door, and shower curtain closed when not in use. The bathroom sink wiped and dried after use. The shower water swept into the drain after showering. Dirty laundry put into garbage bags and sealed to prevent odor. Floors mopped and vacuumed each Sunday, and shoes always worn at home, not because the floors were dirty, but apparently feet were dirtier than shoes. Leave the front door open in the mornings, and closed at nights, but someone must be awake for the door to be open. And when eating, blue table cloth was placed over white table cloth, and a placemat over the blue cloth, with a napkin under the bread and plate beneath the mug. The stove light should only be used seconds at a time to check the progress of heating. And kitchen chairs must always be tucked in. No slurping hot liquids, and absolutely no touching food with hands.

I tried my best following each rule, though with so many rules in place, I felt a lot of pressure and stress when I would leave the house hoping I remembered each rule. But like a game of jump rope, I was bound to lose. And with no avail, my mother would banter at me for closing the front door, leaving bread crumbs on the table, or using the stove light too long. Maybe I am a little forgetful, but before long, the persistence of my unintentional crimes gave her the impression I was lazy. Initiating conversations proved difficult knowing she was disappointed in me. Yet, my river of determination never ran dry. I talked about my day at the farm, my various trips around Ecuador, or whatever happened that day. I racked my brain trying to think of things to say sometimes. Often she’d simply reply with an apathetic “mhmm”, or comment with a painfully forced sentence or two. Integration clearly wasn’t happening. Eventually, I grew indifferent to her rants, and she grew comfortable pointing out anything I did wrong, even to the point of immaturity and even judging me on my appearance.

That’s when I decided to leave for good. I didn’t fit her standards. But why should I worry? She was out of my life, and my team leader placed me with a wonderful, new family in time for the holidays. Never have I been immersed deeper than I have before. But on December 29, 2012, I received an unexpected surprise. My old host mother decides to text me, accusing me of stealing her towel and says “…What a pity it is to know the type of person that you are”.  Let’s get things straight here. I didn’t steal her towel. What really set me off is that she classified me as “the type of person that I am” based on a relatively dirty house and a missing towel. You have to understand, I use to daydream endlessly of having meaningful conversations with her, and I held it against myself for lacking the social skills and normal human qualities to connect with another person. I wasn’t going to allow her to keep the mindset that she had after I put forth effort and pain to become part of the family. So I texted her back, and said, “I don’t have your towel. But do you want to know a real pity? You don’t know even me. You were more worried about the apartment than anything else. I live with another family now, and here, there’s always dust on the floor, we have a huge dog, and we throw the food on the floor for the dog. Our house is dirty, but I love my new host family. And a family with a dirty house is better than a family with a dirty attitude. Understand that you only looked at all the bad characteristics in me. I’m not a bad person. That’s just what you choose to believe.”

I know the content of my speech is a little taboo, but I don’t mean to show off how much of bad boy I am for verbally retaliating my former host mother, nor do I mean to strip her of the credit she deserves after caring for me for two months. I only mean to illustrate the importance of perspective. If I’m working at UTOPIA, it’s easy to accept that dirt will trash my clothes and give me gripe (the sniffles) when I’m interacting with a friendly community of organic consumers and passionate workers. If I’m working on the farm, it’s easy to accept the copious amounts of poop when your work results in beautiful, organic produce and the company of a second family. Looking past the minor flaws, imperfections, and differences has been the key mechanism of enjoying my time in Ecuador, and has allowed me to connect with many different people. My former host mother failed to understand this, and we never made it past superficial small talk. And this has taught me that a barrier of dirt and grime inhibits our relationships with other people and obscures our impressions of other cultures, and we must take the time to dig deep and get our hands dirty to find what can be a beautiful discovery.

John Villanueva