Zuleta: A Small Town With BIG People

Kimberly Nerea Tellez - Ecuador


October 3, 2012

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was told that I had been placed in a small indigenous town which is better known for their artisan embroidery and the grand Hacienda Zuleta. But I won’t be visiting as a tourist; I will be living there for a long six months. However, though it was difficult to set expectations for a town that the internet provided so little information about and which Google Maps could not even conjure an image of, I can honestly say that the subconscious expectations I had formed have far been exceeded.  Let me remind you that, as I write this, I have been in Zuleta for only three short days, though I was convinced of this after only two.

I am perfectly happy.  I have my own bedroom, warm water to bathe in, a stable internet connection (have I even left the states yet?), four sheep, some number of chickens, a rooster, two cows, two rabbits, a llama, a donkey, and a puppy.  But reality only ever sets in when I look around and realize that I am surrounded by the most scenic view I have ever experienced, and a community of Cayambes.  Oh yea, and whenever I have to herd the sheep back inside their pen or whenever I milk the cow.  However, those are not the only reasons for which I rejoice in living in this small town.

But before we get into more detail about my new family, the Cayambe community, and my new found happiness, let me tell you a little bit about Zuleta.  To begin with, Imbabura is a province in Ecuador located in the northern part of the country.  Ibarra is a municipio, and also the capital of Imbabura.  Zuleta, on the other hand, is a small town up in the Andes mountains of a little over 1,200 inhabitants located at about an hour bus ride from Ibarra.  There are about 324 families living in Zuleta (almost all indigenous), and there is in fact a grand and gorgeous hacienda here, located within walking distance of my new home.  There is a Jardin De Ninos, a Escuela, and a Colegio (I will have to write a whole other blog post to explain how education works here in Ecuador).  There are a number of convenience stores (I have counted four), a library, a church, and a community building/room.  Overall, a very organized and functional society.

I appreciate organization, but this is also not the primary source of my happiness.

One of the things that ties this community together (other than their ancestry and traditions), is their commitment to the environment and their view of the community being like a family.  But they are not like a family, they are a family, and they have shown this to me a number of times since I have been here.

For example, the first night I arrived in Zuleta, after receiving a warm welcome and being given the treat of seeing how tostado de dulce is made (now a favorite snack of mine), my new family was asked to help put out a fire that had broken out in the mountains in Zuleta.  This was after I had gone to bed, and it was only until the next morning that I was even told of the event.  My family had gone out to help and did not arrive home until 4am.  I was amazed that they had gone out at all after receiving the phone call, as it gets really cold here at night (we are located in the Northern Sierra/Andes mountains), and I can only imagine how difficult it was to even attempt to go out there and do something to stop a raging forest fire.  But they did, and I was thoroughly impressed.

The morning after that was my first day at my new job here in Zuleta.  I was to be formerly presented to the principal and staff of the Colegio Tecnico Agropecuaro de Zuleta on Monday morning.  First off, I was a little confused when we arrived and all of the students were unattended while all of the staff was in a meeting with the principal in his office.  I was eager, however, to go inside and understand why they were all meeting on a Monday morning even though the school day had already begun.

To my surprise, they had all gotten together in a display of solidarity to the members of the community that had recently passed away and their families.  Because Zuleta is a small town of mainly indigenous people who work the land and don’t make much profit of it, they are generally under privileged.  Many families cannot afford to put together a proper funeral due to their lack of resources.  In the colegio a first year student had recently lost his father and the school was getting together to raise funds for the coffin.  A community member was lost, and they all pitched in to make the loss less burdensome for the family.

Though I first questioned their priorities, I now question my own.

These, along with many other examples (such as the little library, which is run by a local man who volunteers his time to help the children with homework, or the case of my host mom’s family member, who was told that the cure to her illness was to spend more time with people instead of being locked up indoors all day, and who now spends a lot of time with my family who is more than happy to help her out), are the reasons why I am perfectly happy in Zuleta.  I know that I am surrounded by a group of people who will always greet me in the mornings and who are happy to do something that will benefit the community.  I can’t wait to live the process of becoming a part of this big family, and hopefully helping provide solutions to some of the problems that they face.

h, and one last thing.  The tallest of the Cayambe people can’t be more than five feet tall, but they are definitely some of the biggest hearted people I know.  And though I am somewhat of a giant in my community, I often found myself feeling much smaller; this is why I am really looking forward to growing alongside them.

Kimberly Nerea Tellez