4. Ranti-Ranti (generosity + reciprocity).
In Andean cosmovisión (a spiritual world view), one of the principal elements is ranti-ranti (something like generosity + reciprocity in Kichwa). People who have nothing will give you anything and everything; there is no fear that one will go without, because the assumption is always that anyone would do the same for them. Ranti-ranti is not an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” mentality. Instead, it implies that what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine, and it extends to the entire family, and often community. Subsequently, the entire idea of property is different and much more communal, especially when we’re talking about the family, and when we say family, we mean the whole familia – aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, cousins’ cousins, and so on until the entire community is in some way or another part of the same family.
Take the common practice of hosting a fiesta as an example. I was asked to be a godmother to a 5-year old girl for her baptism. I’m not Catholic, but that fact didn’t seem to bother anyone there, so I didn’t let it bother me, either. A fiesta – be it for a baptism, a marriage, a confirmation, whatever – is a HUGE party. There are invitations sent to the most honored guests, but the entire community is invited, and you can feel free to bring your friends. There will be multiple animals slaughtered for the event, huge cauldrons of soup and rice prepared, and gallons of chicha (a fermented corn drink). The women will cook quintales (100 pound bags) of potatoes. There is a tent to be rented, a band to be hired, a mass to be paid for, new clothes to be bought, and the list goes on. In short, it is a very expensive undertaking. At first, I was amazed by the fiestas and couldn’t help but wonder, how was one family paying for all of this? And then I learned about the jocha system.
Jocha is a system of contributing to fiestas in a reciprocal fashion. When someone is going to host a fiesta, they make a list of all of the things the will need. They then identify who already “owes” them something, meaning they have already given something to them in the past. The parents of my goddaughter, for example, asked an uncle to give 30 chickens as jocha because they had given 30 chickens for the uncle’s fiesta a few years earlier. They asked an aunt for 2 quintales of rice, because they had given her the same for her fiesta in 2008. And so on down the list. Once the “debtors” are exhausted, you begin to ask other family and/or community members for jocha. In this case, you will be asked to contribute the same at some unknown date in the future. And so, a fiesta is made
At the fiesta after dinner the priostes, or hosts, sit at a table and accept gifts. In the case of the baptism, the parents of the baptized and the godparents – the compadres (coparents) – are the priostes. Each guest came through the receiving line, giving a gift for the baptized girl to her parents and usually a jaba of Pilsener (a dozen one liter bottles of the national beer) to the parents and another to the godparents. Sometimes, rather than a jaba it was a bottle of liquor. Or money. In thanks, we priostes gave a shot of liquor to each guest. As we received the “gifts,” a family member stood behind us making a list recording what each guest gave us. In the future, when we are invited to fiestas we need to repay each guest by gifting the same thing – a jaba or bottle of liquor or money.
This is just one example of how the entire family and community comes together in a spirit of generosity. Similarly, I never entered a home without being offered food, drink, and a bed. I quickly learned that I also never entered a home without a bag of fresh bread, some meat, cheese, or milk to offer to the family. There is an assumption so deeply ingrained in all that any act of generosity will be repaid that sharing and giving become the norm. What would happen if we all gave openly, willingly, and happily, not worrying about whether we would be repaid, but instead trusting that we will get back everything we put out there, one way or another? I dare you to try!
My experience with poverty – living in poverty in a way that was unfathomable to me before it became my reality – was freeing. This is not to romanticize poverty, nor to say that the conditions in which people are living in Ecuador and throughout the world – including in the US – are acceptable. However, for me, realizing what I was living without – and not missing – opened up an entire world of possibilities. The enlightening recognition that all of those things I thought I “needed” were actually completely superfluous left my body and soul lighter, creating space in me to feel a deep gratitude for the things I actually did need, as well as a deep thankfulness for the opportunities and access to all of those luxuries that I didn’t actually need, but nonetheless enjoyed.
I attended more funerals in my two years in Ecuador than in the rest of my 27 years in the US combined. A lot of the funerals were for older people who had passed away due to natural causes. However, there were also many for younger people who had died tragically – motorcycle accidents, car accidents, drownings, infant deaths, etc. This proximity of everyday life to death was new for me, but something that people in the communities where I spent time were conditioned to. The acceptance of – or resignation to – the fact that life can be short manifested itself in many ways.
At times, it seemed to me that the inevitability, and even imminence, of death meant that people acted without fear. Lack of fear and the resultant ability to live fully in the present moment manifested itself in various ways, most positive, but some negative. For example, alcohol consumption during fiestas quite frankly scared me. But most of the time the ability of people I met to enjoy moments so fully without constantly being anxious about the future left me green with envy. So, I tried it: living in the moment. I let loose the future from my mind’s eye and instead focused on the things I could actually control in any given moment. Quite suddenly, my anxiety dissipated and eventually disappeared.
It was easy to find my gratitude every day while I was in Ecuador. It was simple to be in the present moment with no 3G, no cell phone reception, and no chance to call or text my friends every moment alone. I spent a lot of time alone. I had a lot of opportunity with my thoughts. I was also lonely, filling me with a deeper gratitude for my friends and family. I spent a lot of time in the countryside hiking, admiring the natural beauty and feeling a technicolor high-altitude induced joy at being a part of it.
I was worried that I would forget this feeling of gratitude back in the States. I still had hazy memories of panic attacks, anxiety about the future, and a feeling of pressure to meet “peoples’” expectations. However, I am happy to report that I am still grateful. Of course there are moments – sometimes stretching for entire days – in which I think about the future, and it’s stressful, but it’s not debilitating, and it’s not dominating. There are times I feel like I’m living in “Portlandia” (and I’m sure I am not alone!) and I have to unplug for awhile and find the present moment again through meditation in yoga or a walk in the park. But at the end of the day, I am really, really, really, really, ridiculously, grateful.
2. How to slaughter an animal.
Also known as, try anything and everything. I was a vegetarian for 4 years while in grad school in New York City. For fun, take a moment to peruse menus of restaurants in my stomping grounds in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and you’ll quickly notice that not eating meat is not a problem; there are vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, raw, and other options galore. However, things are quite different in Ecuador. In a country where providing food for your family is often a challenge, being able to provide meat is the ultimate demonstration of wealth and hospitality, especially when offering to a guest. As both a researcher and a volunteer with indigenous organizations, people constantly invited me into their homes and offered home-cooked meals. Inevitably, these meals would contain meat, and there’s nothing more rude than refusing food.
My non-meat eating preference had (and continue to have) a lot to do with the environmental impact of factory farming, as well as concerns for animals (if you haven’t yet, please read Eating Animals). So, I was able to rationalize my eating of Ecuadorian chicken feet knowing that they had lived stomping happily through gardens and courtyards, eating natural foods, and being slaughtered humanely. However, after a while I started to feel like I wasn’t pulling my own weight in the family I spent much time with. The women would often prepare fresh and delicious chicken for me while I was sent to chop onions (I couldn’t even peel potatos with a knife) or played with the kids. Eventually, I decided I needed to learn to slaughter a chicken myself if I wanted to eat the poor birds and also to be able to help out. From the chicken slaughter, I moved on to sheep. Then cow. Then alpaca.
It wasn’t very fun. And I certainly didn’t enjoy watching animals die. In fact, I pretty much hated it. However, I did find an appreciation for the way the women utilized every last bit of the animal to feed their families. The meat was always delicious and much more flavorful than anything I had tasted before; I still have no desire to eat our blah American chicken, even the cage free organic stuff you can find at farmers’ markets. But then there were soups made with the tripe (intestines), bones, and other organs. An Ecuadorian specialty is yaguar locro, a potato soup with cooked blood served on the side as a topping. The animal skins would be cleaned and dried and then used to make gaucho pants for the men to wear while horseback riding.
The magical ability to get use out of every molecule also extended to plants. Did you know, for example, that oregano can be used not only as a spice, but also to make tea to cure tummy aches and diarrhea? Or that you can crush eucalyptus leaves and put them directly in your nostrils when you have a cold? Actually, I found that people never assumed that an item could only be used for one task, instead using ingenuity to find new and creative ways to put everyday products to use. What about using plastic bags to floss your teeth? The old adage, “waste not, want not,” took on an entirely new and full meaning. Which leads me to the next thing I learned…
I have been back in the US since the end of September 2012. I wrote some “lessons learned” in Ecuador on my flight home, but I have no idea where I put those notes. I have finally started to miss Ecuador - its beauty, the people, and even some of the food. So I think it’s good, actually, to begin fresh with this reflection on what I learned in Ecuador. There are ten lessons, and I will start here with numero uno.
Go anywhere and everywhere (but never without toilet paper).
People ask me all the time how I ended up living in Ecuador. Like so many things in my life, I hadn’t planned it out ahead of time, but instead I simply followed my path and there I was. But here’s a bit of backstory.
In the summer of 2008 I went on a backpacking trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru. I was in search of a dissertation topic and wanted to see if my rusty high school Spanish might be good enough to use in the field. After a few days sipping wine and visiting museums in BA, my friend and I embarked our first South American bus adventure. The quality of bus travel in Latin America varies wildly, but everyone had assured as the the Argentine buses are first rate – comfortable, safe, and reliable. The bus ride to the Argentine – Bolivian border was more than 17 hours. They served food on board, astronaut style cardboard sandwiches that could easily have come from a child’s play kitchenette. “No matter,” we thought, “We’ll eat when we get to La Quiaca.”
After one whole night and one whole day of sitting on the upper level of the double-decker bus watching the morphing Argentine countryside fly by, the bus stopped abruptly at 11pm. Not having the slightest idea what was going on, we copied the other passengers and climbed out of the bus into the cold, thin, altiplano (high plain) night air. There was a bonfire blocking the road – really nothing more than a worn dirt track – up ahead. We understood that the indigenous campesinos (peasants) were protesting, although we were unable to understand what or why. Through a combination of hand gestures and Spanish we understood that we were to collect our backpacks and follow the line of passengers walking around the roadblock toward the town, which was still more than 5km ahead.
That was the longest 5km I have ever traveled. It was unimaginably difficult, hauling my large backpack on my back, having consumed nothing but stale white bread and an orange Fanta in the past 24 hours, and having just gone from sea level to more than 11,000ft above sea level. But it was also beautiful. The sky was wide open, the Milky Way swirling above our heads and lighting out path. And there were the campesinos, their laughter and voices tinkling like delicate instruments in the think air. As if in a dream, the women and men in their traditional dress gathered around the bonfire had green glowing screens in their hands – cell phones. Others passed us, walking toward the road block as we left it behind us, and they too had cell phones in their hands. I could hardly process all that was happening in the moment, my senses overloaded and my mind as if I were drugged from a lack of oxygen: “But I had read there were no indigenous in Argentina? How are there cell phones when there are no roads or any signs of electricity? What are they protesting? Aren’t the women’s ankles cold?”
And so, what could have been a miserable night turned into a near euphoric experience – one that also provoked new ideas and questions that resulted in my dissertation and (hopefully) my career. Oh – and the toilet paper? A 5km walk inevitably will mean at least one “pop-a-squat” stop; keep some TP on you at all times, you never know when the trip will take longer than you expected!
The 4th of July is just that here in Ecuador, the fourth day of the month of Julio. There are not hotdogs or hamburgers, no corn on the cob, no strawberries or blueberries, no beer, no fireworks, no parades, and not even a single fire-truck (the upstate New York town where my family celebrates the 4th every year brags upwards of 40 fire trucks every year). It is summer here in Quito, so it’s sunny and hot when one is actually in the sun, but there’s no humidity, no profuse sweating, and no dips in the pool, lake, or river – just a very dry sunburn.
While any holiday away from home is tinged with sadness, for me, the 4th of July is the worst. Why? Exactly because there is no 4th of July in Ecuador. So, there are no other distractions, just a whole day to think about what is going on in the hemisphere to the north while longing for the oppressive heat and sweat rivulets and cold microbrews.
This longing might just be a “me” thing, rather than an “expat” thing, because in our family, the 4th of July is right up there with Thanksgiving. For my entire life, the 4th had very little to do with independence from Great Britain and everything to do with seeing the whole damn fam, together. Some of my happiest childhood memories are at 4th of July festivities at my grandparents house in upstate NY: counting the fire trucks, endless hours of swimming in their backyard pool, knocking over the toilet with my cousins while using it as a vantage point to see the fireworks better, that pine tree that was always blocking the view of the fireworks, the “carnival” and the used glasses we won as prizes, and mostly, seeing family members that, over time, have spread out over New England and beyond.
What’s a girl to do? It seems, nothing. Sure, I’m going to cook some hamburgers and maybe buy some beers. Maybe I’ll go to the park and hang out with some other gringas. My grandma said the family would skype with me (yes, my grandma skypes!). But the key element of the 4th of July – family – cannot be exported, nor bought, nor reinvented.
So, Happy Fourth of July!
I was exhausted, riding home on the bus after a long day at a conference. I had a seat, a lucky thing at 6 pm – the height of Quito’s insane rush hour traffic. The air was heavy and hot; I could have easily slept, only my fear of thieves kept me alert. After a few blocks, a mother and young girl boarded the bus and the daughter took the seat next to me. After a few minutes I became aware that she was staring at me, so I smiled. The smile serving as an invitation, she began to touch my hair. She asked, “why is your hair yellow?” Having been asked this question by who knows how many Ecuadorian children, I simply answered, “I was born this way.” “With all that hair?!” she exclaimed, in a truly Amelia Bedelia fashion. “No, no,” I responded, “when I was a baby there was only a little bit of hair, but it was blonde. And then it grew.”
She thought about this for a moment, then, seemingly satisfied, continued with the interrogation. Where do I live. Where am I from. Do I have children. Am I married. And so we continued through the darkened, traffic filled streets of Quito, chatting and exchanging tidbits of our lives, this nine-year-old girl and I.
However, this endearing little girl with braided pigtails to her waist and wide eyes scared me. That’s right – I was afraid. Not a cold-sweat shaking in my booties kind of fear, but a leery, weary time to put my guard up and be really careful kind of apprehension. Were the girl and her mother actually alone on the bus, or was there a man (or men, or other women) somewhere watching what was happening? Was this little cutie-pie actually just a diversion so that someone could get the chance to snatch my purse (in which was my laptop)? Would someone follow me off the bus to rob me in the street? My brain was split in two – one half of my consciousness making small talk, the other half hyper-alert thinking of all the possible ways in which I could be in danger.
When we were out of Quito’s center and nearing the neighborhood where I live in the northern part of the city, the little girl asked if I would give her my phone number. I couldn’t lie and say I didn’t have a cell phone because I had just received a text-message. Instead, I said I didn’t have any paper to write down my number. Well, she said that was no problem, and to write it on her hand. So, I made up a number and wrote it for her. A few moments later, she decided that the number on her had might smudge, and so she asked her mom for a paper. I had to rewrite the same false number – from memory – on the paper. Sure enough, she closely compared the two to ensure they were the same. It was like giving out a fake number to the creep in the bar that you really never want to call you.
So, we were nearing where I live, and she must have sensed that I was paying closer attention to where the bus was, because she asked me if I was rich. I answered (truthfully) that no, I am not rich. “In fact,” I said, “I don’t have any money. I live here in Ecuador and I work here so I don’t have any money either.” Then she said, “well, can you lend me a tenner?” I’ll pay you back when I call you and you can come to my house.” I said that unfortunately, I didn’t have ten dollars on me, and the bus reached a block from where I normally get off and I jumped off into the street.
I started walking, looking around making sure no one else had gotten off the bus at the same spot. I meandered slowly until the bus was out of sight, then hightailed it to my apartment. I arrived with the most awful feeling, confused, and wondering if I was being overly cautious, untrustworthy, cynical, racist, and who knows what else, or if my trepidation had been the appropriate sentiment. I explained the whole scenario to René, and he assured me that yes I had acted appropriately and that I should have had my guard up. So, I felt mildly better, but then just depressed that this beautiful country can offer such horrible contradictions – a nine-year-old girl, so lively and friendly, that could represent danger and instill fear in the heart of a 28-year-old woman.
Los Ilinizas: January, 2012
Looking for the “Perfect Christmas Gift”? or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, birthdays, anniversaries, “Because I love you,” etc…
Might I suggest an “Adopt a Tree, Save the Páramos” Tshirt? For only $8, you’ll contribute to a great program (see earlier blog or visit our webpage www.fundetecuador.org) AND get a lovely Tshirt with a super cool logo. Please contact me if you’re interested, I’ll be stateside around Christmas and can arrange hand delivery to almost anywhere in the Northeast, and mail deliver in the rest of the US of A.
I’m not Catholic. I don’t even think I’m Christian. But, I’m going to be a Godmother. Or, I guess I already am. I’m not sure.
My Goddaughter, Nicole, is the daughter of the cousin of my compañero Rene. She’s 5 years old, adorable, and lives in Toacaso, a town about 1.5 hours to the south of Quito. Nicole has two older brothers and very sweet parents, William and Nancy. Her grandfather Segundo (Rene’s uncle) lives in Quito and is someone I’ve gotten to know well while living here in Ecuador. But those are just the specs.
I don’t even know how acquiring Godparents works in the United States, but I’m pretty sure it’s not like it is here. Don Segundo and his wife, Elza, first mentioned that they’d like for Rene and I to be Nicole’s Godparents in May. It was during a fiesta and I didn’t think much of it. In August, they mentioned it again but nothing formal.
Come the end of August Don Segundo called Rene to say they were coming to formally ask us to be Godparents one Saturday. We already had a work commitment, so they said Friday evening, and we said, bueno. Rene said, “come early because we have to sleep early in order to leave Quito at 4.30am.” Well, in Ecuador people will ask, “Ecuadorian hour?” when one makes a plan, meaning, will you be on time or will you be in the vicinity of 2-5 hours late? Apparently, “early” in this case was an Ecuadorian early because they arrived around 10pm.
Who, might you be asking, were “they”? The whole damn fam.
Don Segundo and his wife and three of their children and two of the children of their children, Nancy and William and their three children, two of William’s brothers, an uncle, another uncle, a great-aunt, and I don’t know who I’m forgetting but I’m sure I am forgetting. And then there was our group – Rene, his mom, two brothers, a sister-in-law, three nieces, two nephews, two dogs, one cat, and me.
First Don Segundo and Elza talked about how they’d known Rene for years and how he’s grown to be a responsible man that they respect, etc. etc. And then how I am kind and well-educated and caring and the kind of woman they would like their granddaughter to be one day. And would we please be Nicole’s Godparents?
So we, of course, said yes yes thank you what an honor.
I thought that was it, but then came the whole crew (see above) bringing the mediana, boxes of bread and bananas, a trough of potatoes, 6 cuyes (guinea pig), 6 hens, soda, beer, and liquor, all cooked and ready to eat.
Then Rene and I had to baptize Nicole (he the Andean cosmovision adherent and I the I don’t know what non-Christian) with water and the whole 9-yards, right there in the living room. And from that moment, we have a Goddaughter.
Then we ate. And drank a bit. And then slept, because yes, we had to get up at 4.30am.
Now we’re all planning for the big B-Day… el Bautizo. It will be November 26th, you’re cordially invited. In a big white tent in the center of Toacaso there will be a 18 piece band, more food than the 500 guests will be able to dream of eating, and dancing and drinking until at least noon the next day. We’re responsible for the white gown of my hijada, a change of clothes for the party, clothes for William and Nancy, and a gift. Nicole doesn’t have her own bed, so we’re thinking that will be the gift. But, please don’t tell, it’s a surprise!
Hope to see you there…