We Live in the Flicker

Lindsay Saligman - Ecuador


November 24, 2014

Today, my host mom woke up at five in the morning to get on the first bus into town in order to buy food. She wasn’t buying food for my family, but rather, for a group of twelve tourists that was coming for a tour.

Santa Rita doesn’t get many tourists, but about a year ago, some people at the Ecuadorean chocolate company Pacari decided it’d be a nice idea to bring chocolate fanatics to see where, how, and by whom cacao beans are cultivated. So Pacari built some cabins, taught some women (my host mother included) how to cook chocolate mousse, and began offering tours.

The group of tourists that came today were in fact not tourists but rather travel agents. They came from various companies in the United States and Canada and were on a tour of Ecuador as a whole in order to become better informed about the country in order to be able to better promote it to clients.

When they got off the bus, I shook my head incredulously. I remember thinking: these are people from my world. I can tell by the way they carry themselves. These are people who have Internet in their houses and speak English on a daily basis. These are people that take hot water showers and go to movie theaters. These are people that think like me… that live like me… I cannot explain how odd it felt to see these people like that hopping off a white bus onto the muddy drizzly dirt in front of my Santa Rita house.

Talking to the travel agents in a lot of ways was like a breath of fresh air. They knew what a bridge year was, they knew what Jewish was, one of them even lived 20 minutes away from me in Pennsylvania.

The first week I was here, a different group of tourists came, and I remember being repulsed by them. I remember assuming they were condescending neocolonialists and I remember thinking how my host mom looked primitive serving them in her hair net and uniform. I remember turning the whole ordeal into an existential crisis in my journal (The Horror! The Horror!) and feeling depressed and hopeless about interactions between the First and Third worlds.

The funny thing is, the tourists that came the first week were very much like the tourists that came today. The experience they had was also the same. My host mom wore the very same hairnet. There was only one difference between now and then, and the difference was able to convert an existential-crisis-provoking, depressing experience into an inspiring, hopeful one. The difference was my perspective.

Two months ago, I was working off of a dangerous combination of a little bit of knowledge and a lot of judgment. I knew my host family was relatively poor, I knew the tourists relatively weren’t, and the fact that that was all I knew caused me to blow things out of proportion. I wasn’t assuming best intentions, and I wasn’t observing.

Today, it was different. Because the tourists were from my world, I understood them. I understood they felt compassion towards the people of Santa Rita, and I understood that despite their compassion, they, like myself, had a hard time relating to people so radically different than themselves. Because I have spent two months living as one of the people in Santa Rita, I understood them as well (not completely of course, but much better than I did my first week.) I understood that they liked tourism, because it is a fairly enjoyable source of income, and I understood that their keeping their distance from the tourists did not come from lack of interest or resentment but rather from an extreme, characteristically Kichwa shyness.

My new perspective and conscious effort to observe rather than judge allowed me to do something completely awesome.

I saw two groups of people from two different worlds, who, despite their IMMENSE differences shared a mutual curiosity and inability to relate to one another. I thought: what a shame. Isn’t it a horrible shame when everyone wants the same thing but no one is capable of getting it?

Then: an idea.

I sprinted down the hill to where Santa Rita’s teen dance group was practicing.

“Do you want to show the tourists one of your Kichwa dances?” I asked upon entering.

The response: faces lighting up and rapid head nodding, was about the most enthusiastic thing one could hope for from a very shy group of teenagers who had just been asked to do something that fell far out of their comfort zone.

I sprinted up the hill to my house where the tourists were eating artisanal chocolate.

“The local teenage dance group wants to preform for you, would you like to see?”

And so, about ten minutes later, the captain of the dance found herself doing something she’d never done in her life: standing in front of a group of people from another world with nothing but an index card in an exotic language in her hand. “Hello.” She said in shaky English. “My name is Magali. I am 17. We will do a traditional Kichwa dance for you today. Thank you.” She was nervous, but I could it was the thrilling ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’ good kind of nervous.

The group of travel agents clapped to the music, took pictures and observed attentively. When the ordeal was finished, and the kids retreated quickly into a corner in a burst of classic Kichwa shyness, a woman from the group invited them back to take a bow.

Laughing and dragging each other’s arms, the kids came back out.

What happened today isn’t much. It isn’t going to change the fact that while the tourists get to eat artisanal chocolate, some of the kids that danced for them don’t get to eat dinner. What I mean is, what I did isn’t going to cure poverty or make lifelong connections between the First and the Third world, but it was still awesome.

For a moment, just a moment, I was able to bring two worlds together in a way that was completely genuine.

Connecting people from different worlds is hard, and it may ultimately (like almost everything) be futile, but what I learned today is that there are such things as moments, flickers of success, and what I learned today is that those moments should not be underestimated.

The word flicker reminds me of a line from one of my favorite books: “We live in the flicker.”

“We live in the flicker.” We occupy such a small portion of time in space that our existence can hardly be considered significant. “We live in the flicker.” In the flicker that is our lives, we are rarely actually alive. “We live in the flicker.” We live in those flickering fleeting successes that for a moment make us feel a live and make life feel hopeful. “We live in the flicker.” We live for moments, in moments, in flickers, in flickers….

I read one time that if the entire world’s history were condensed into twenty four hours, then the entirety of human history would span fifteen minutes. I’m thinking about my life, and if the entirety of my life were condensed into twenty four hours, than flickers of true hope and success, moments like I had today would probably span about fifteen minutes. When you think of how much darkness there is out there, it is pretty amazing that we get to live in the flicker, isn’t it?

Lindsay Saligman