I apprentice at la Mancomunidad del Pueblo Cañari, an organization that carries out projects to stimulate tourism, aid farmers, and protect natural resources by managing and preserving water resources, improving pasture herbage, implementing agroforesty systems, educating children and adults about the environment and ancestral heritage, managing cooperation agreements between groups, encouraging socioeconomic development by improving agricultural and artisanal production capacities, strengthening food security with sustainable agroecological alternatives, and even more in the local cantons of Suscal, El Tambo, Cañar, and Biblian. As much as I would love to be able to say that I personally work on these things, as an outsider with limited knowledge about these topics and how they specifically pertain to the situations of the communities and people here, I’m unable to offer much assistance in those terms, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not contributing anything or that I’m not taking away new lessons every day.
A few months ago, I took my first trip to the campo with my coworker and a woman in university here. In a camioneta rented for the day, we drove down the Panamericana toward the border of the canton of Cañar, where we turned onto a side road at a sign marked “Chorocopte.” The smooth black pavement quickly turned into dirt, which even farther down turned into an increasingly bumpy grass road, becoming almost indistinguishable from the grassy land attempting to reclaim it.
We arrived after forty-five minutes, to be greeted before we even opened the car doors by the owners of the land we were visiting. After introductions, which differed from usual because of the lack of cheek kissing with the women, we began to hike up the property along the thorny fence lined with newly-planted quinoa plants; I believe we were there to help with the water source of the hundreds of these because I remember being pointed toward the three lakes that surrounded the property. A few of the plants near the entrance were mature, but the rest were merely thin sticks with a few leaves attached, protruding about a foot from newly-cut circles in the ground.
Half way to the top, I heard one of the women hiking behind me call, “Ingeniero… Ingeniero.” I stopped and looked back as she presented a bag of animal crackers and candy, which ended up being presented to me about ten times before the end of the visit, and of which I accepted a piece of candy each time. Ten of us in total hiked straight up the mountain for almost an hour before getting to the very top where the thorny wire made a ninety-degree turn to mark the end of the land in that direction. We walked some along the peak before we stopped at a comfortable place to have a snack and rest until we continued. Plastic cups were passed around as they were filled with Coca-Cola, and after Zhumir. We each had a piece of sweet bread filled with a hard orange custard, and the same woman who first presented me the candy bag gave me a handful of berries she picked as we were walking. As we were resting, I stood up and gazed at the amazing view we had from the top of the hill.
We began to make our way down the hill, even steeper now than it was on the way up. We went through herds of cows grazing, groups of different plants and flowers, one of which was a group of bright yellow flowers illuminating its surroundings in place of the sun, which was blocked by thick clouds this high up, but mostly densely-packed groups of weeds, all the while following the path of quinoa plants. None of these groups intruded on the others, all keeping to themselves in dense clusters separated by patches of grass. The weeds were the hardest to trek through, as they were up to my waist, and I could not tell where the ground was through their thick bristles.
After only twenty minutes, we found another comfortable spot to set up our picnic. Out of the cloth wrapped around the shoulders of one of the women, the same kind of cloth I often see women carrying their babies in, emerged a plastic bag full of popcorn, a bowl of mote, a bowl of cuy, and another plastic bag with the rest of the sweet bread. We sat around the smorgasbord of food with no plates, utensils, or napkins, and dug in. Cups were passed around again, this time with a warm colada. As we picnicked, one of the men told the rest of us about his time in Nueva York, which was sparked by asking me which country I was from. Many of the people I’ve met here have been to New York, have family there, or plan on going someday to earn more money for their families.
After our picnic, we continued down the hill. The two women who worked on that land proceeded to ask me about where I was from, if I had a novia, how old I was, what I was doing here, and all the other questions I am asked day-to-day by new acquaintances. The difference was that I withheld my go-to response at the time of “no hablo mucho español” when I was asked a question I didn’t understand, and I answered instead with what I thought was asked, often pausing to dig for words. I’ve discovered that response only cuts conversation short, but if I try, the conversations to be had lead to different places instead of dead-ends. Through this same attitude, I also began asking more questions, which has served to make conversations two-sided, instead of just feeling like I’m being interrogated. I know I sound silly when I ask questions that have obvious answers or unknowingly respond to questions with non sequiturs, but the opportunity to engage in this exchange of cultures and ideas to gain insights into the lives of others from a completely different background is not one to be passed up for a fear of sounding silly, and each conversation I have goes further and more fluently. These are some of the experiences and lessons that can’t be taught in a class or even in the US for that matter. There is no substitute for first-hand interaction with a place so far from where I am from, and for that reason, I am having an impact and taking away new knowledge just by being here.