The Glorious Worldview of Clams

Welcome Frye

September 19, 2011

Although I’m currently working on a new blog post, I thought I’d post up one of my journal entries of one of my favorite days so far to give my readers an idea of what I’m up to. This is a massive entry, so consider yourself warned!



My family in Santa Rita, Napo, Ecuador is of a normal size and structure for Quichua people: Patricio (padre), Eva (madre), Javier (hermano, 20), Alicia (hermana, 18), Adelaide (hermanita, 16), Fidel (hermanito, 11), Gilmar (hermanito, 9). I live in a house tucked into the corner of Santa Rita, framed by tropical foliage and a permanent mist. The humidity is utterly incredible… I swear it must be over 90% most of the time. The house is small and is mostly accessible to the natural world. Knowing that Americans prefer to have windows, my family covered my windows with cardboard, but all the others are simply holes in the wall.

The toilet is outside, and the shower has two settings: on and off. It’s ideal to bathe midday, because the water will be slightly warmer than in the morning. However, I don’t bathe every day, because each of my family members bathes only once a week, and I 1) don’t want to be the reason that they run out of water or 2) don’t want to seem like an entitled North American.

Introductions aside, I’ll share what I did today. (Remember, this is a weekend day, so this is very different than a weekly workday.) Breakfast—and every meal, in fact—is based around yuca, a root vegetable that I can only attempt to describe as a cross between a potato and a parsnip. For breakfast, I had guayusa, rice, yuca, and a plethora of green vegetables whose names I don’t yet know. It was incredible.

I walked around the village for about 30 minutes after breakfast. Every time I think I know everything about my village, I discover some new house tucked behind a tree or a tiny path leading somewhere I have yet to explore. When I got back, Patricio said that we were going to harvest yuca, and asked if I wanted to help. I enthusiastically obliged.

We went to a huge field about a quarter mile through the forest outside the village, and I received a crash course in yuca harvesting. The space around each yuca tree (or bush, I don’t yet know the proper connotation) is cleared with a machete, then the plant is yanked out by hand with the support of the machete. The yuca (or “lumo” in Quichua) vary in size, but most are about the size of my forearm. I suppose I should take this moment to make the point that I not only have to know Spanish, but to communicate effectively with some of the citizens of Santa Rita, I need to learn Quichua as well. Santa Rita, according to Patricio, the president of the town, is the largest Quichua settlement in Ecuador, with 510 people. But I digress.

After pulling the plant out of the ground, the yuca spuds (I know that’s a potato term, but I have yet to learn the word for yucas) are de-barked. The de-barking is interesting: the machete splits the outer bark and a groove is chopped along the entire yuca. The bark can then be pulled off by hand without too much trouble and tossed into the huge baskets that the women carry strapped on their forehead. These women have tougher necks than wrestlers.

After harvesting yuca for about an hour, we walked through the rainforest to a stand of trees consisting of every kind of tropical fruit I can imagine. I don’t even remember the names of most of them right now, but I’ll learn them perfectly within a few weeks. I was fed everything from tiny red fruits to massive orange ones that you eat by sucking the sugary film off the seeds. I also had my first fresh banana of my entire life—one of the baby bananas, called “oritas.”

We went up a mountain next to Santa Rita and picked a type of fern (similar to fiddlehead ferns on the Connecticut River where I’m from) and the soft ends were boiled into a fantastic hot salad for lunch. The flavor is hard to describe. It’s musky and pungent, yet savory.

After harvesting food for about two hours in total, we came back to the house. It was already about midday, and I was exhausted, so I took a short nap… which, of course, with the level of mental exhaustion I’ve been experiencing, turned into two hours.

When I woke up, I went with my family to the “estadio” (Spanish for “stadium”), which was, in fact, a huge field torn up, muddy, and shared by a number of creatures. More than once during the game, chickens were shooed off the grass to allow gameplay. It was a match between Archidona (the nearby “centro”) and Santa Rita. I don’t know how the tiny village won, but Santa Rita hammered Archidona thoroughly. Unless I’m terribly mistaken, it was 5-1 by the final whistle.

I was spotted sitting with Patricio and approached by a few people interested in getting to know me better. Jimena, Ciela, Cole, Freddie, Omar, and Jonas invited me to play basketball with a big group of people forming in the village center. I found out later that they simply wanted to know how good I was at basketball, because by Ecuadorian standards, I’m a giant. In the United States, I’m of middling height… however, the Quichua people are VERY short. Most of the men are 5’3” or 5’4”. Although I have yet to meet him, apparently there is only one other person in the village taller than me.

I have one last observation about the soccer field before I digress, and I think it perfectly captures the kind of people the Quichua are. During the middle of the game, an old man needed to cross the field. When he saw that people were playing, he started to walk around. However, the referee blew the whistle, the game was stopped, and one of the players, unbidden, picked up his basket of yuca for him and carried it across while two others escorted him. The game then resumed.

After the game and playing basketball with my new friends, I met a number of the local children. I remember a few of their names, out of the perhaps 25 I was introduced to: Ulysses, Jaison, Gilmar, Fidel, Christian, Eddibello, Julio, and Roberto. They watched me play basketball, and one of them eventually dared to come say hello to me. Although he ran off as soon as I said “buenas tardes” back, his courage prompted another and another and another to introduce themselves. Before I knew it, I was asked to play soccer with them, and within ten minutes I found myself in the middle of an insane soccer match between about 30 village children.

Everybody wanted me to be on their team, so eventually I had to choose a side. I chose the team with my two brothers, Gilmar and Fidel, and nobody got angry at me, so I think it was the right choice. It was a blast, and I ultimately found myself the brunt of an incredible number of practical jokes throughout the game. Every single person would call for the ball when I got it, because they knew I couldn’t yet tell them apart! By the end, they had come up with about five nicknames for me, including “Nacho,” (because Jimena initially mistook my Ecuadorian nickname “Chacho” for “Nacho”) “Watch Out,” (because they watch a lot of American movies with subtitles and “watch out” is a really common phrase) and “Macho” (because I’m one of the tallest people in the village and can beat everyone at basketball).

I was a good sport about all the jokes, and every time all 30 kids burst out laughing at my being unsure at whether or not someone was on my team, I knew I had made another friend. After the game, I was asked to go to the “store” (a house with a window that people can ask for a few different things) to buy Coca-Cola with them, which I did. We sat outside on the picnic tables and they pointed at all the women my age that walked by and asked if I liked them or not. Whenever I said yes, every one of them would burst out laughing and make me snort my Coke through my nose. Utter happiness.

After playing for a while, I started to walk home. I was followed by only about 10 of the kids. The others had to go home and eat dinner. I was flagged down by a group of 15 or so adults and teenagers chatting outside my new neighbor’s house, and was essentially shown off by Patricio and Eva for the next hour.

A few things caught the Quichua villagers’ attention to the point that it’s worth mentioning. The first was when I said that I would be willing to help anyone learn English who wanted to. Not expecting much interest, I was promptly bombarded with head nods and people wanting to know when I was free. In all honesty, I expect to start a community English class within a few weeks for those interested. Ten minutes later, I received two pieces of paper full of Spanish words from people wanting to know how to say colors, clothing, and food in English. I filled out the English counterparts to their questions, and asked Patricio if I could excuse myself to practice my guitar.

Bad choice. Apparently only one other person plays the guitar in Santa Rita, and he’s very shy, so live music is utterly unheard of. They asked me to come play for them, which I did. I thought they would want to hear only a few songs, but they enjoyed hearing the English music so much that I ended up playing for an hour and teaching guitar to several kids for another half hour.

When I said that I was really exhausted and needed to go to sleep, I was bid good night by my dozens of new friends, and I departed for home, about a 15-meter walk away. I came into the kitchen to find my spot filled with fresh “yuca fries”—for lack of a better way to describe them—and guayusa. Dinner is not a large meal in Ecuador. Lunch is considered the prime time to eat the day’s largest meal. I ate my small plate of yuca and promptly went into my room, fixed the cardboard windows to continue blocking the moths, and opened my MacBook. What an interesting sight: a $1900 computer in a house that would probably sell for half as much.

I have yet to wake up and not find interesting insects in bed with me. My pillow is a stack of clothing, and I discovered on the second night that the perfect combination is two pairs of jeans folded, my brown polyester sweater, and my Union College sweatshirt, in that order. My clothes are permanently damp, I am stared at like an alien all the time, and I still don’t have enough of a Spanish or Quichua vocabulary to express my opinions or values very well.

I am happy as a clam. There is a litter of beautiful puppies outside the house that I get to play with every day, my family (incredibly generously) gives me the choicest selection of food at every meal, and I have an entire village that is practically begging me to help them learn English.

All in all, life is good. I think I can officially say that my Global Citizen Year has begun.

Welcome Frye