I spent last weekend feeling closer to the earth than ever before during my suburban, East Coast and generally nature-disconnected life. I took the lead from my new family members in San Clemente, an indigenous community two hours north of Quito that my program lived with for three days.

Quichua, the language of the Incans, is still spoken regularly and Spanish is often barely known by the oldest. However, a lack of bilingual teachers in the local elementary school has precipitated a diminishment of the younger generation’s fluency in its forefathers’ tongue.

Members of the community are proud descendents of the Caranqui, a pre-Incan Andean culture whose fierce resistance against the Inca is still commemorated by the distinctive deep red of San Clemente’s traditionally-worn poncho.

These are men of the earth. They breathe its essence, feel its murmurs, respect its power, and pay it homage with modern songs and ancient ceremonies passed down for centuries. They are irrevocably connected to the earth in a harmonic symbiosis I’d imagine difficult for many Westerners to understand without witnessing it first hand. Community members, and those of other Andean indigenous communities who live autonomously and remote from excessive external influence, live by the life philosophy known as the Andean Cosmovision. This world-view assumes the connection between all things akin to that of Zen, which lies directly at odds with Western philosophy’s emphasis on individuality and subject-object relationships. In San Clemente, man and nature are one.

The community subsists on semi-communal organic farming, and utilizes ancestors’ agricultural practices. Tractors and insecticides cannot be found. To supplement income, the community has started a small-scale tourism service, and outsiders with seeking a different side of Ecuador are now welcome into numerous community homes.

Community members, such as the family with whom three of us stayed, were eager to share their way of life and thinking and dispel the stereotypic notions that indigenous people are dirty, primitive or unintelligent. I did not come in with these assertions, but I certainly left feeling overwhelmed. We were let into their homes as sons and daughters with no preconditions and no expectations. The unjustified generosity of a people so repeatedly persecuted by outsiders will never be forgotten.

My next few posts will describe specific ceremonies in which we had the incredible fortune of participating. Nothing will better demonstrate this communities’ intimacy or devotion to the earth and Cosmovision.

Lastly, I need to congratulate Ecuador on its new constitution’s overwhelming victory on the 28th – the day of going to the voting centers, watching polls and celebrating jubilantly with family and friends was thrilling, and almost as nerve-wracking as this November Forth promises to be. Progressive provisions for the inalienable rights of nature, water, education and health could finally give a voice to the silent, humble majority and hope for a new politics and a new Ecuador. Of course, the constitution is nothing without strong leadership to guide it…

If interested, check out this article on the constitution’s breakthrough on environmental policy. The New York Times’ coverage or the constitution’s passing is ok, but I found this CNN article terribly biased. As of yet, there is little to no evidence that President Correa will follow in Chavez’ footsteps. I’ll be on the lookout for more good English-language articles on the subject.

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In two weeks, Ecuador will hold a constitutional referendum. Every citizen over 18 is obligated to vote. If ratified, the new constitution would be the country’s 20th since 1830. As important as the upcoming US presidential elections might be back home, the long term consequences of September 28’s vote will almost certainly be more dramatic for this country.

The constitution is the project of leftist president Correa. From limited conversations, it seems that those for “Si” generally view it as a victory for social causes, most notably free education and healthcare, while many of those for “No” believe it dangerous as a means for the executive branch to hoard power in the way Chavez has in Venezuela or as an undermining of family values, with same-sex marriage and women’s right to abortion as the primary concerns.

The entire country is caught up in the political firestorm. Debates dominate radio waves and television screens, and propaganda pervades media outlets. Supporters of both sides wave flags and yell through microphones on the corners of crowded intersections. Community constitution readings and support-groups in public parks are the norm. Strong-opinioned arguments can erupt anywhere and almost without notice. From bars to taxis, dinner tables to sidewalks, excitable Ecuadorians plead, shout, and agitate for their side. Any Ecuadorian of voting age can be defined by their alignment por el “Sí” or el “No”.

I have never seen such widespread interest and passion for politics, and this is especially notable given that distrust of the government is so common, and that political instability and unrest have been a staple since the country’s founding. Never before has the population been so included in charting the course for their country, and a huge proportion is taking advantage of this new-found power by becoming informed, engaging in debate, and being vocal for their side.

As debate, anxiety, and political furor reach fever pitch, only one thing will remain certain: The 28th will be an unbelievable day to be in Ecuador, and to be an Ecuadorian.

Two days ago I witnessed an event that can capture the essence of almost any country outside the good ol’ USA – a national soccer game.

This one didn’t disappoint.

Ecuador took on Bolivia in one of their first qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. My host brother Martin lamented the quality of our “Selección” and told me that his Tricolor, as the yellow, red and blue clad squad is lovingly referred, had to capture a win against one of South America’s historically poorer teams to remain in good enough standing to be able to hope for a spot on the world’s largest futból stage.

This was the first time I donned Ecuadorian colors (bright, but badass) after a summer vowing a Guatemalan identity to anyone who would listen. But for a game of this level I had to throw away pretenses and get on the right side – I saw what happened to the few Bolivians who showed up and cheered for their loan goal, and it wasn’t pretty.

“Si se puede”, or “yes you can”, is the go-to cheer after any nice move, and its proliferation throughout the game definitely fixed it as the national team’s motto. As fond as the Ecuadorian fans were of this one, they were just as, if not more ecstatic to chant “hijo de puta, hijo de puta” (translation inappropriate) at the referees after any even marginally questionable call. Bolivians, bad calls and misplayed balls were all to be showered with imaginative and impassioned expletives.

Goals for the Ecuadorian side were magic – and there were three of them. Horn-shrills, high-pitched whistles, beer, arms, toilet paper, and newspaper shreds shot through the air during exceedingly extensive periods of chaos steeped in elated joy and sound.

3-1 Ecuador. I can get used to this.

Today I sat behind two elementary school age boys enjoying popsicles on the bus. First, I noted their cute labcoat attire, and then I watched them both unceremoniously dump stick and wrapper out the window, onto the street and out of mind. No one else on the bus seemed to give it any thought.

 

While I do my best to recycle, especially after section parties left my dorm devastated with crushed cans every Friday morning or so last year, I am no environmentalist. But the ease with which the two boys, at such an innocent age, instinctively threw their trash onto their street took me aback, and made me recall a conversation I’d had with an ex-Peace Corps worker in Guatemala this summer.

 

Guatemala is a beautiful country, but a quick look at almost any mountain pass will tell you that numerous Chapínes treat it otherwise: rivers of trash frequently sprawl down ravines. Streets in pueblos and larger cities are also often full of litter.

 

During a conversation on the matter, the abovementioned Peace Corps vet explained his two-fold theory: first, for hundreds of years before the era of packaged food, Mayans and their descendents ate natural, organic fare that could be thrown over a shoulder without a thought. Today, the same is done with plastic Doritos bags and other extraneous indecomposable packaging, but with many more drastic aesthetic and environmental consequences. While this part of the theory may be no more than an interesting thought, the more concrete part of it is that for whatever reason, many Guatemalans are oblivious to the trash on the streets, or at least conditioned to believe it to be the norm. One problem is lack of proper infrastructure: there are almost no public trashcans to be found; even in larger cities, one must ask a store-owner to use a “basurero” hidden behind the counter.

 

I haven’t seen enough of Ecuador to determine whether the children’s’ actions portray a larger norm here as well, but I’m inclined to believe it. I’d love to know how much environmental-awareness advertising and effort it took for this American to be conscious of his trash, whether such campaigns were privately or publicly sponsored, and how difficult it would be to stage similar drives down here.

I’m extremely serious about becoming as fluent in Spanish as possible and to become as Ecuadorian as I can during the next four months. In terms of accomplishing these goals, my attitude and actions of the past week have not cut it. I’ve spent too much time speaking English to fellow exchange students and too much time connected to email and English websites (damn you, Facebook). I know how much better my Spanish became after two months in Guatemala, but know how much better it would have been had I not spent the majority of each day speaking to American DukeEngage partners about projects in our mother tongue. I’m proficient in Spanish, but I need to start thinking in Español, dreaming in it. Most importantly, I need to shun English and embrace every opportunity to connect with this country and its people.

So I’ve set some concrete rules for myself, aimed to wring the most out of this whole abroad “experience”, with the highest priorities being cultural and lingual immersion. Because let’s face it, far too many American students study abroad and come back with nothing more than stories about crazy parties with other Americans. Many lose out on an incredible amount by remaining within their comfort zones, electing to hang out with a closed group of countrymen who speak the same language. I’ve felt myself come perilously close to falling down this slippery slope since I got here. It’s so much easier to not try, to assume that no Ecuadorian would want to spend time with someone who’s Spanish falters with every other thought. But what a damn shame – with that kind of thinking, I don’t deserve to be here, and I should just book a ticket back to Duke.

Here’s to forgetting English and leaning into discomfort: my personal list of rules for successful immersion in everything Ecuador, to start tomorrow. Any other thoughts on how best to attempt this would be greatly appreciated.

  • I will speak English one day a week, for as little time as possible: Monday-Saturday, everything will be done in Spanish, including cursing, texting and dreaming. This means attempting the awkward and unthinkable: speaking to other Americans in English. This also means holding out on all telephone calls, emails, G-chats, facebooking and blog posts until Sunday. Sorry Mom.
  • I will to try to make sure that at least one Ecuadorian is present at every social event I attend, or at the very least aim every social event begun with only Americans at meeting more Ecuadorians.
  • For the next four months, I will not eat at an American fast-food chain. Thursday night was bad.
  • I will watch only Spanish-language TV, news, and movies, and will read only Spanish literature.
  • I will take every possible moment to get to know locals, including during taxi and bus rides, dog-walks, and the moments during and after class.
  • I will have a notebook with me at all times in order to jot down new words and phrases, and will look them over before going to sleep.
  • I will try not to stress about work, and if excess studying is extremely necessary, it will be done with an Ecuadorian classmate.
  • I will join 1-3 clubs at the university, will regularly attend them, and will learn to Salsa and use it to my advantage.

This country is fanatical about cheese.

Or at least the southern half, where my host-mother and resident chef hails from.

Little did I know when I arrived here that I’d be bombarded by this dairy product with a gusto I’d expect from Switzerland or France, or some other European country with a long and storied tradition of dairy farms and wine and cheese events. More research is needed to find out precisely which culture from the Ecuadorian melting pot is responsible for cheesifying the country’s culinary customs, but no amount of knowledge will change the fact that it’s served with almost every meal and that my cholesterol is skyrocketing with every bite.

Most commonly used in daily cooking is queso fresco, a soft, sweet smelling and tasting cheese made from unpasteurized milk. Queso semi-maduro y maduro (“ripe”, or harder cheese) is more similar to traditional pasteurized European cheeses with mild flavors such as parmesan or provolone, and it usually accompanies pasta, sandwiches or wine.

Among the foods that under no circumstance should be served without a hefty portion of queso fresco are soup, hot chocolate, grains, lentils, corn, fruit desserts (figs, peaches, guava), plantains, humitas (cornmeal), mushrooms, spinach, rice tortillas, and toast. God help the gringo that can’t tolerate queso fresco.

My host father demanded, only somewhat jokingly, an essay to demonstrate his and fellow countryman’s passion for cheese – the way it beautifully oozes and blends with hot cocoa or how the taste of corn can only be truly revealed with a hunk of fresco – and was disappointed to hear I would only be offering an uncompromising list of Ecuadorian foods to be graced by his beloved queso. But I haven’t been here long enough to appreciate it on his zealous level. In a month or two, after gaining some serious love-handles, maybe I’ll be able to give a more impassioned report.

I arrived in Quito, Ecuador last night, and my head has pounded since I woke up this morning. Apparently, Quito is the second-highest capital city in the world, and I’m paying for it. The altitude is a quiet, humbling, and spiteful predator that preys on any tourist unaccustomed to living 10,000 feet in the air. Aside from its ability to produce a brain-splitting headache, it can reduce even the fittest of athletes, of which I am nowhere near, to a sputtering, out-of-breath asthmatic, and it only takes walking up some stairs to feel its power.

But Quito is too damn gorgeous to despise for a second, even in my bitter state. The views from any point in the city are jaw-dropping: impressive mountains that surround the city and a deep blue equatorial sky cast a stunning backdrop to its tallest buildings. Within a week, I should be adjusted to the altitude, but I hope to never get adjusted to walking outside without being overwhelmed by the natural beauty of this place.