A few weeks ago, there was the grand opening of some museum in Quito, so naturally, the Ecuadorean government had to invite cute little indigenous children to sing a traditional song in traditional clothing for the opening ceremony. They took the cute little indigenous children from my community, Santa Rita, specifically from the 7th grade class. They needed 15 kids, and there are about 20 in the class, so five kids weren’t selected to go. My 12 year old host sister Sandy was one of them. When her classmates got back with their bags of free goodies from the government and stories about a massive city in the mountains, I could tell my host sister was upset she hadn’t gotten the chance experience it all.
“Don’t worry Sandy, I’ll take you to Quito,” I told her offhandedly.
“Seriously?” Quito is only four hours away, but my host sister had never been. Prior to last week, the biggest city she had ever seen was Tena (36,000 people) and the furthest she’d ever been from home was Loreto, a city smaller than Tena located about an hour and a half away from Santa Rita.
“Yeah, why not?” I imagined Sandy and I walking through the thin streets of the old city in Quito. I imagined showing her a shopping mall, taking her to the movies, playing in the park. In my fantasy, she was wide eyed and ecstatic, eager to take it all in.
“And me?” My 15 year old host sister Kelmy, who is usually to busy being a misunderstood teenager to speak to me, suddenly took an interest in the conversation.
“Yeah, sure.” Word that Luisa was going to Quito spread like wildfire, and before I knew it there were 20+ kids who wanted to come on the trip. Most kids in Santa Rita couldn’t ordinarily afford to make a trip to Quito, but I didn’t want to make this trip a charity case (I don’t believe in charity cases) so I decided that each kid that went on the trip would have to pay $5, the price of a round trip bus ticket, and I’d personally cover the rest (food, activities, sleeping). More than fair.
In the end I only ended up with five girls: three 12 year olds, a 15 year old, and a 9 year old. When it came down to it, most parents a) couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the $5 b) were afraid to send their kids to Quito (they’ll get lost, they’ll get stolen, and they’ll freeze to death were the most popular reasons I got from parents who didn’t want to send their kids).
And so, last Friday, I set off by myself to a mountainous city of two million people with five kichwa girls who had never seen anything but the rainforest before in their lives. More than anything, I was excited to see their reactions. The very first place we went after getting off of the bus was Scala, a luxury shopping mall between Cumbaya and Tumbaco, two of Quito’s most affluent suburbs. I wasn’t trying to give the girls culture shockÛ_ Scala was just where the bus happened to let us off, and they were hungry, so it was where we went for dinner.
Presented with a food court complete with pizza, ice cream, frozen yogurt, Chinese food, and almost anything else you could imagine, four out of the five girls opted to eat what they eat every day back in the Amazon: chicken and potatoes. The fifth girl, a bit adventurous, ordered pizza: she didn’t like it.
After playing in the glass elevator and riding the escalators very hesitantly, we headed to the house of Gabi, an employee of Pacari and friend of my host family who very generously offered to let us spend two nights in her house. The next day, we spent the morning riding cable cars up the Andes with Gabi and walking around the old city.
In the afternoon, I had planned to take the girls to the movies. “I don’t want to go to the movies,” my 15 year old host sister was the only one who had the nerve to say it. “Yeah. I want to go to Gabi’s house,” Sandy chimed in. The other girls silently nodded in agreement. I was a bit taken aback. These girls had never been to a movie theater in their lives. These girls had only two days of their entire lives up to this point to spend in Quito, and all they wanted to do was go back to Gabi’s apartment. I felt like they needed to see the movies, I felt somehow, that they deserved to go to the moviesÛ_ so I assured them that they wouldn’t regret what they were about to experience, and basically forced them to go.
About 45 minutes into a modern french remake of Beauty and the Beast, one of the girls tapped me on the shoulder.
“Luisa, I’m bored. When will this be over?” I ignored her.
After the movie was over, I asked the girls what they wanted to do the next day. We could go to the park, we could go to the shopping mall again, we could play games in Gabi’s houseÛ_. “Let’s wake up tomorrow, and go right on the bus home,” Sandy suggested after a long silence.
At this point I was furious. I took these girls all the way to Quito. I spent MY weekend being their babysitter and dragging them all around the city, literally giving them everything I was able to giveÛ_ Trying to give them a once in a lifetime experienceÛ_ and there they were, not only not thanking me for any of it, but also being straight up RUDE. After the movies, I bought the girls ice cream: blizzards from Baskin Robins, and all of them threw their cups away unfinished.
“It’s too big.” My host cousin explained. “I can’t eat any more.”
“It’s too sweet,” chimed in my other host cousin, who was eating rice she had saved from the previous night’s dinner out of a plastic bag. “Here,” she offered the rice to me. “It takes the sweet away,”
That, I think was when it clicked. Being raised the way I was, I had a hard time adjusting to life in my community. I did (and still do) dream of things like warm water, large portions of ice cream, and a real mattress to sleep on. I wanted these things, and what I mistakenly assumed, was that my host siblings and cousins would want them too. I didn’t realize that they were not raised with these things, and for that reason, rather than glamorous or exciting, most of these things I consider luxuries were to them unpleasant and frightening.
This changed my thinking when it comes to poverty. I spent fivemonths feeling guilty for the things I have in the face of the things people in my community don’t. I felt guilty for living the life I lead because I knew that not everyone had the chance. Well, I gave these girls the chance, for two days, to live my life, my movie going, ice cream eating, city trekking life and after about 24 hours of it, all they wanted was to get back on the bus and return to their poor rural community in the Amazon.
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that poor people are happy and that oh if only we could be simple like them life would be betterÛ_. no. I don’t buy that. I think a lot of people use the ‘well, they’re happy’ argument as an strategy to avoid responsibility when it comes to dealing with extreme povertyÛ_. Frankly, I think that a lot of poor people are unhappy with the quality of their lives, but even if they weren’t, I think there are things that everyone deserves that not everyone has (like safety and enough food not to be hungry) and I refuse to justify my not working to get those things by saying that people can be ‘happy’ without them.
I guess what I learned from the whole Quito experience is this: not everyone wants to be me. The luxury I desire is not a natural human desire, but rather a consequence of my luxurious upbringing. Not every poor person wants my life, and it is silly and a bit egotistical to assume that they would.
I don’t regret taking the girls to Quito though, because I think both my host cousins and I learned a lot from it. Travel is invaluable, and I think those girls will not forget the things they saw on that trip for a long time. I also do think they had fun in the glass elevator at the mall.
The following is a conversation I had with my host cousin on the bus ride back to the Amazon.
Me: So, Mabel, did you like Quito?
Mabel: I am glad I saw that place.
Me: Where do you like it better, in the city or in the rainforest?
Mabel: In the rainforest.
Mabel: Because in the rainforest you can hear the birds sing.