“Is Your Hair Color Natural?”

Brian Riefler - Ecuador

October 2, 2012

In the United States people describe me as a ginger. In Ecuador I am a gringo (foreigner). I have not had a problem blending in with the swarm of other sojourners in Quito. Outside the city, however, I realized I am a minority: My host mother in the Amazon, where I am living and working for the next six months, asked me (in spanish of course) if my hair color is natural (for the record, yes it is).

Although I traveled less than five hours away, after that short bus ride I entered an entirely different world, leaving behind not only my comrades but the comforts of Quito as well. There were no longer Supermaxis to buy fruits and vegetables; we macheted guayusa and yucca in the jungle. When my stomach hurt from getting accustomed to this new natural food, the preferred cure was not Pepto Bismol but rather medicinal plants. And how about a washing machine for my dirty clothes after harvesting? Try a river instead. Apparently there’s a right way to scrub clothes against the rock because my family was laughing at me…I have a profound respect for the harmony between the Kichwa people and their fincas (farms); Humanity and the environment are not separate but rather inextricably linked. We have forgotten how to live simply. The wilderness can reconnect us back to our ancient roots by teaching us modesty, in which we focus on our needs rather than our wants. The community I live with in Cavernas Jumandy, outside of Tena in the province of Napo, is trying to preserve its indigenous Kichwa culture while also acclimating to modern conveniences; I am not sure what the perfect balance is though to be honest. There is a lot I do not know, and I am excited to learn everything that I can this year.

Once I return to the Oriente next week, I will be assisting Fundacion Ruku Kausay with reforestation, medicinal gardens, and guided trail projects and leading tours in the Jumandy caves. Inspiring people to protect the environment will be hard because if many Ecuadorian people lack rights then how can the environment have them? The 2008 Constitution is a step in the right direction by being the first in the world to hold environmental provisions though it is too soon to notice any impact. One problem however with the Constitution is that it provided for the creation of a National Council for Gender Equality that has yet to be established. I will also be promoting issues pertaining to women, development, and the “girl effect” here in Ecuador (if you are not familiar with The Girl Effect, please watch this video).

Earlier this month I wrote “I receive my apprenticeship later this week, and I hope to make real human connections with the members of my community in order to better understand their needs.” I cannot believe how quickly the time has flown by here. I have to remind myself every day how incredible of a place I am in and how privileged I am to be here. It is difficult for Ecuadorians to obtain visas to come to the United States, and it pains me how many will never have a cross-cultural opportunity like this. I want to make the most out of this experience this year, and I hope to build relationships with my community so that I am no longer just a gringo from the States but also an Ecuadorian in spirit.

Brian Riefler