Parent Blog: Lessons From Global Citizen Year

The following post comes form Jules Kaufman, father of Charlotte Kaufman (Ecuador ’14).

In early January we visited Charlotte, who is living in a Quichua community 15 minutes on foot from Mesahualli, Ecuador.  We had arranged to meet her in a small town on the Napo River to start our visit with a short stay at the Napo Lodge, deep in the Amazon jungle.  While I unloaded the bags from the pick-up, I saw my wife Ann and my daughter Cameron (Ecuador ‘11) running to embrace Charlotte after four months apart.  There she was – seemingly the same girl, and certainly changed – but how?

It wasn’t the scars on her legs from constant insect bites or her short hair that I first noticed, but rather, that she had gained a quiet confidence and had already adapted to a simpler way of living. She joined us with only a backpack stuffed with dirty clothes, and some fruit that she bought in the local market, plus her camera (which we subsequently lost!) and some treasured insect repellant.

We spent the next three days exploring a tributary of the Napo river, where we were introduced to the indigenous culture in a tourist kind of way and saw caiman, river otters, scorpions, snakes, parrots, 6 species of monkeys and other assorted creatures. For Charlotte, who works in a much simpler and less established Eco lodge called Sinchi Warmi, the trip was both enlightening and annoying.  Enlightening because she learned a few things that could possibly help the lodge, and annoying because it cost what seemed to her a relative fortune compared to the $12/night to stay at Sinchi Warmi. She was extremely worried that someone from Sinchi Warmi would somehow learn that she had been to the Napo Lodge and thus complicate her relationship with her family. When we got to Charlotte’s home, we understood a bit of this, because we realized that while her family fully understood that she was “different”, they could never comprehend the life that Charlotte lived growing up in New York City and Paris, a world apart from the way they live. And over the course of the next few days that we stayed at the lodge, we also realized just how sensitive Charlotte had become, at this stage of her journey, to the impact of her words and actions in relation to the values and culture of her new family and community.

Charlotte lives in a two-room shack in a community of 15 or so families.  She has 12 siblings, eight of whom live in her home. They made a small bedroom for her in a corner of the kitchen/communal room. The outhouse is outside and works by pouring a bucket of water to flush. They shower and wash clothes in the river.  They cook over an outdoor grill and a small two burner electric stove. They have 2 plates and four bowls so they feed the children one or two at a time, bowls of rice with some lentils, or plantains and yucca. Occasionally they kill a chicken and have some protein as well. Sometimes there is not enough food and Charlotte has some bread in her room at night. Fortunately, when she is working in the evening at the lodge, she sometimes has fish and vegetables.

Sinchi Warmi is a very simple lodge set in a beautiful pastoral atmosphere. The bedrooms are basic, with mosquito nets over the beds and the shared bathroom is a toilet seat over a bucket that one fills with sawdust after each use. The water is dispensed from a container filled from the river. Drinking water is purchased and is in another container in the kitchen.

The first night there, we got the tourist treatment and had a great meal of fish fresh out of the pond, rice, and vegetables. The next day we took a hike with the parents and some other family members up to the local cascada (falls) where had a really nice time swimming, talking (in Spanish) and getting to know them a bit. They are kind, loving people and have embraced Charlotte as one of their own. That day we got the idea that it would be nice to give them a treat and take the parents to a local restaurant. Well…this became very complicated as Charlotte debated the implications of buying them dinner for more money than they earn in a week and where one of the family members might be working in the kitchen. (In fact, one night Charlotte’s Quito “mom” came to Sinchi Warmi and took her to dinner at a place where Charlotte’s host mom WAS THERE WASHING DISHES IN THE KITCHEN. Charlotte was mortified and even brought some fish back to the kitchen for her Sinchi Warmi mom, including the head, which is the favored part). So after much back and forth on the way back from the cascada, she insisted that we eat dinner again at Sinchi Warmi with the family. The only problem was that they did not expect us and had nothing for us to eat! I will never forget watching Charlotte bring the Tilapia dinner to the two Mexican backpackers while we ate what we called “stone soup” because it consisted of a light broth with one or two carrots.  At least we were getting a “small taste” of Charlotte’s experience in Ecuador.

The next day we decided we had to take matters into our own hands so we offered to prepare dinner for the family. Fortunately, Charlotte’s aunt, who is the head of Sinchi Warmi, let us use the lodge for the event because after we did the final count, with all the kids, the cousins, grandparents and in-laws, we would be cooking for almost 50 people! We went to the market and with the help of Charlotte’s older sister, bought chickens, vegetables, potatoes and contrived a menu that would be familiar enough but also different enough to be a real treat for the family:  honey mustard chicken, raisin apple salad, garlic mashed potatoes and desert of bananas and strawberries dipped in chocolate. And of course, the beer, which was well appreciated.

It was a fabulous night. We were so impressed by the family in so many ways.  How to describe it? While I worked the grill with the help of some of the Sinchi women and Ann and the girls prepared the sides, the family started arriving. At some point, I noticed that about twenty, 14 and under kids, some as young as 2, sat at a long table waiting for dinner. Quietly, happily…can you see this picture? When was the last time that 20 American kids sat politely and quietly at a table for 45 minutes waiting for dinner? As the adults filtered in, Charlotte instructed me that I had to start pouring the beer, because no one would take any unless it was offered by me. Not one to disappoint, and though no one ever asked for more, I was busy running around keeping glasses filled the rest of the evening.

When the dinner started I gave a little toast thanking everyone for welcoming us to their home and Charlotte’s mom and aunt toasted in return their thanks for having Charlotte in their home. I guess that was when I fully understood one of the great lessons our children take from Global Citizen Year – that despite vast cultural, economic and language differences, good people will bond through shared values of family, friendships, mutual respect, and working, singing, dancing, eating and drinking together.

And we did all that! Without our knowing, the family planned to perform for us the traditional Quitchua songs and dances. All in traditional costumes, with the father, uncles and older boys on drums, guitars and charangas (a traditional stringed instrument), first the older girls danced and sang. And then the children, ages 4 to 12, sang and danced as well. Not only did they dance, but also they just exploded with happiness while they did so. With broad smiles, and giggles they performed each movement with near perfection. They were having so much fun!

So then another lesson from the Global Citizen Year experience is to be content with simple pleasures and to take pleasure from simple things. Our children may bring much to these communities, but if they take away these lessons, they gain much more. By the way, the young kids all did their own dishes as well.

After the dinner, the older boys changed into their jeans and t-shirts and played classic rock songs and sang into the night with Charlotte, Cameron, and the four extremely lucky Argentinian girls who happened to show up at Sinchi Warmi that night with their backpacks. What a night!

After saying goodbye to the family and Charlotte in SW, we ended our trip to Ecuador with a visit to Cayambe, a small city north of Quito where Cameron spent her Global Citizen Year in 2010-11. Her family there is poor but not desperately so. They live in a small home with a bathroom in the courtyard and both parents work, but there is little extra for much beyond the basics. When we arrived, Cameron jumped out of the car, yelling “Mamita” and leapt into her “mother’s” arms.  Imagine.  Three years have passed yet since Cameron’s fellowship, yet this family still thinks of her, and she still feels, as their daughter. We spent the next day with them in the Otavalo market and I don’t think Cameron left the side of her mother or brother for an instant.

When it came time to go, they drove us to our (upscale) hotel in Quito and, now the story comes full circle.  Cameron was mortified that her Cayambe mom would see the hotel and think differently of her.  I heard Cameron say in her Cayambe accented Spanish, “Mamita”, soy la misma Cammie!”  (“I’m still the same Cammie!”).  Like her sister earlier in the week, Cameron was concerned that the awareness of our economic differences would somehow alter her relationship with her family. But as I watched Cameron and her mom hug and cry and plan the next visit, I doubted greatly that any damage was done.

For as we already observed, a third lesson from Global Citizen Year is that not only can the sharing of experiences, with sensitivity, caring and openness on both sides bridge great divides, but it can also build powerful, fulfilling and lasting relationships. What a great gift.