Imagine you’re in Quito. Imagine you’ve just arrived on a plane from wherever you’re from. Imagine getting on a bus and heading East. Imagine driving through the valleys of Cumbaya and Tumbaco as you leave the city, and then imagine climbing the Andes mountains until you get so high nothing grows. Then, very suddenly, you’ll find you aren’t going uphill anymore. Suddenly, you’re going down and you’re going really far down. Suddenly, the yellow grass becomes bushes, and the bushes become trees. The yellow becomes green, and the rivers become bigger. The leaves become bigger. Everything becomes bigger and greener, and suddenly, about 4 hours after leaving Quito, you aren’t going downhill anymore.
You aren’t in the Andes anymore. The place you are in is a lot hotter and considerably more humid. Behind you, you see the mountains, and in front of you you see flat expansive jungle that stretches out in front of you all the way to Brazil, even though you can’t see that far. Welcome to the Ecuadorean Amazon. Driving on the main road you’ll come upon a small town called Archidona. It has approximately 5,000 people. When you pass the gas station, your bus will take a right. It will cross a river and begin to go up a hill. It will drive on a windy dirt road for approximately 10 minutes, and then suddenly, the dirt road will become a paved road and you’ll wonder where it came from. You continue on the paved road for about 5 minutes and at the top of the hill your bus stops. You’ve reached the end of the road.
You see a soccer field and a group of small concrete buildings with zinc roofs. Even if it’s raining, which it is most days, you will see kids playing on the soccer field and you will see adults walking here and there with baskets and machetes. You will see people dressed in nice clothing waiting by the end of the road for the bus to take them into the nearby city.
This place that you see is called Santa Rita, and it is my home for the next seven months.
Santa Rita is a small Kichwa (indigenous) community in the Napo province of the Ecuadorean Amazon. It has 2 soccer fields, a basketball court, a school, a bus stop and a bunch of houses. It is surrounded by chakras, plots of land where the people from the village grow things like cacao, guayusa and yucca, primarily for consumption, but also for sale.
Language in Santa Rita is a complicated thing, and it depends on age. The older people speak Kichwa, the local indigenous language, and usually very little Spanish. The middle aged people, the adults and parents, speak both Spanish and Kichwa. They speak Kichwa amongst themselves and Spanish to their children. The teenagers speak both Spanish and Kichwa, but they speak Spanish amongst themselves. They speak Kichwa to their parents, and to the older people in town. Finally, most of the kids speak only Spanish. They understand Kichwa, and can say basic words, but they usually cannot hold a conversation, and tend to respond in Spanish to questions posed in Kichwa.
Most of the people in Santa Rita have lived there their whole life.
My host father’s name is Bolivar. He is the president of our community which has approximately 500 people. He is forty two years old, aspires to learn english, and loves to joke. His wife, my host mom, Digna, is the first lady of Santa Rita. When she isn’t cooking for her six (seven including me) children, she tends to follow my host dad and help him with his work, whatever that may be. I have four host brothers (ages 7, 16, 18, and 20) and two host sisters (ages 12 and 14). The younger five are in school, and the oldest, Raul, has just begun training in Tena, the nearest city, to become a taxi driver.
Santa Rita is 99.99% Kichwa and .01% gringo. In case you weren’t aware, the gringo is me. In case you were wondering, I don’t fit in, but in case you were wondering, I’m trying really hard, and the little victories I have every day convince me that in time I too will feel at home in this place.