This week a lot of cultural aspects of Atahualpa hit me in a way I had not before recognized, partly spurred by seminars and partly by host family meal conversation. One bit about Otavalo I forgot to mention was the presence of beggars in the market- many would hold out their hats or bowls for money, and one even blocked my walking path in an attempt for some coins. I felt awful not giving them anything, but when Mijal offered one woman part of her fruit, she denied. How can you ask for money but not accept food?
Education here in Atahualpa runs the same as in the States, except their days are much shorter. My average school day at home would go from 8:30 until about 3:30, whereas days here go from 7:50 to about 1:30. Almost all half days. Even more interesting was one of the textbooks that my host brother was studying- on top of biology, chemistry, and physics he is also taking a class called Vademecum, which includes a textbook full of medicines and pills for different ailments. I was astonished- such a practical subject taught in high school, yet I never would have thought to even ask to have that in school before now. It makes complete sense.
Over one lunch time question about family here in Atahualpa, my host mom explained that all of her sisters live in Atahualpa, and all of her children live nearby in Quito. Her niece also lives in Atahualpa, so almost all of her family is very close, within driving distance. I felt a bit odd responding that my family is very spread out, some in New Jersey, New York, Florida, and that I visit them only on holidays, and visit some by plane because they live so far away. Family and people mean everything here. Food plays a big role in the town too- all of the food is grown in or around the town, and some is delivered from Quito, but my host mom knows the origin of almost all of their food. Other than maybe Coca Cola, everything is local. I had a hard time thinking that I buy my food from a supermarket, which probably takes countless stops around the world or by plane or bus to get to those shelves. I know where several items of food come from, but do I know how they are grown? Chemicals used? Antibiotics in meat? I have no idea- all I have is that plastic packaging.
The work project has been going very well- recently we have been working on constructing viveros, or greenhouses, for the planting of both medicinal plants and trees for possible reforestation of Atahualpa. Deforestation of palm trees affects the area, so if Atahualpa can successfully plant palms, they can sell the trees to Quito. We take wood and bamboo strands, cut them into table supports, nail three wood sheets as the top, dig some holes in the dirt and finally nail the top down into the supports. The tables are not exceedingly strong- a bit wobbly, but for plant work they work fine. It is really quite amazing that we have built these greenhouses- most of the planning has been done by the Atahualpa locals, but the accomplishment of making a workable table out of wood from their backyard astounds me. Before now, my first thought would have been, “well, I can find a plastic greenhouse”, or “maybe I’ll find a construction worker to help.” A little cutting and hammering and soon enough tables lined the home-constructed greenhouse.
Between media project and seminars, my mind feels at times like silly putty. Every new idea, every new challenge crushes my head and remolds it a bit stronger. But the process is never ending, and this is only the first core country. Our media project took us into the depths of ecotourism, with questions ranging from simply “What is ecotourism” to “Why does ecotourism matter, and to whom?” During one session where we had to come up with our narrative, our driving idea, I had to pace around and moan and groan to come up with these ideas. Such basic but complex ideas, where I didn’t know the destination but had to get there. Ambling and stumbling through ideas that twisted my brain to the point of annihilation, I think we finally came to a consensus. The hardest part about the media project includes that it changes/challenges my assumptions, and there is no right answer. No leader can say if we have reached the end because there is no end. We know there is a beginning, but we have to keep going deeper, simpler but more probing. The media project, unlike any other project I have done, is not a book report. Another seminar about gender roles and he environment reminded me how strong gender roles are. They’re just like advertisements- there are so many examples we don’t even notice them anymore.
Today in work project we got to work with Atahualpa’s upcoming generation, classes of students between the ages of about 6 or 7 to 10 or 11. Fairly little kids, and we presented to them a short presentation about TBB, their nature, and the nature rights in Ecuador’s constitution. Ecuador is the only country in the world with nature rights in its constitution! We interacted with the kids, asked them to draw their favorite aspects of nature, taught them some English nature words, and finally made them repeat a promise to take care of their nature. What did I learn when I was their age? The first environmental science class I took was in 11th grade- these kids live in a sanction of nature, and they already understand partly why they should protect it. Looking at them and hearing their answers- don’t burn the forest, throw trash in the cans, don’t cut down trees, protect species from extinction, made me wonder how many of these things I know but ignore or detach myself from. In one seminar we touched on how despite being modernized, we now deplete our resources and make a bigger negative impact than ever before. Even worse, I feel as though we distance ourselves from nature, so all of the issues are out of sight and out of mind. I thought about how walking through a mall I never think about the petroleum that goes into plastic, or how all of those bottles might end up sitting in landfill for years. I guess that is what TBB is about- bringing us closer to these issues. Slowly I am starting to think more about these issues, slowly I am realizing that just recycling or reusing or reducing might not work long term. Slowly I start to learn that saving the world, saving the environment is no simple task.