I’ve been living in with a host family in the rural Tsa’Chila community of Bua for the past 5 weeks, and it’s been such an amazing experience. My host mother Marlene was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and I was forced to learn Spanish while helping her cook and hanging out with her 15 (now 16) year old son Kevin. The Tsa’Chila are an indigenous tribe that were almost completely isolated until the 1950’s, when trade and other interactions with mestizos nearby began. Most members of the community are fluent in Spanish now, but prefer to speak their native language Tsa’fiki among each other. We were spread out around the community living in pairs with host families, so I was living with Steven and we had two pairs of friends living right next door, which that was super fun. We had awesome block parties for Kristen’s and Kevin’s birthdays, and a third one on our last weekend where we cooked some mac & cheese for our families. During the five weeks we had rice and/or every possible variation of plantain (boiled, fried, deep fried, batter fried, fried with cheese in the middle, mashed, mashed up and fried, plantain chips, plantain chip omelet, The Log, green, yellow, raw, salted, sweetened, in juice, with eggs, with meat, on rice, as a snack…) at every single meal, with some occasional squeaky cheese, canned tuna and popcorn soup. (Also adding mayonnaise to plain rice is the new thing and it’s so yummy and keeps things interesting…. don’t knock it till you try it~) We had a flock of chickens running around our “yard” (except the Tsa’Chila’s traditionally have no concept of land ownership, so who knows) and four pigs in a pen in the back (we may have eaten one……..not entirely sure) and a whole bunch of dogs that just hang out. (read: lots of interesting noises all throughout the night, plus the rain pounding on our tin roof) With our little neighborhood group we bathed and did our laundry in the river every day, and that was a really fun routine to get into and the concept of communal bathing was wonderful. Plus there was always the adrenaline rush from the possibility of deadly water snakes (never spotted) and spiders bigger than my hand (frequently spotted—not sure if they were tarantulas or not but I try not to think about it too much).
We planted around 4000 trees in the first month we were there, and in the last week we painted a health center (donated by a Dutch school!), fixed a bridge, and redid the traditional roofing on two buildings in the community center. We did all our work in the mornings, which was nice because that meant it was usually cooler and more overcast from the rains at night. Most of the trees were fruit trees (to help with both the reforestation and making the community more self-sustainable after the surge of cash crops and slash & burning in the 60’s), but we also planted yucca (similar to potato), some trees for lumber and roofing, and some of achote plants (used for the traditional red dye in men’s hair). Our neighborhood of houses was 15 km from the community center where we met each morning, and then went to work from there. To get there, one family’s truck (different one each day), would come pick us up one house at a time, and we’d ride all together in the bed of the truck. Since the weight of 18 people in the back of these trucks tends to add up, plus the struggle of a stick shift down dirt roads and up muddy hills (oh yeah one day my boot slipped sideways in mud and I landed directly on my face), the truck rides were a new adventure every day! We only actually had a truck break down once, and then we walked through the jungle for 45 minutes and down the main road for about half an hour before we got to hitchhike on a nice human’s similar truck (first hitchhiking experience of many—the people here are so close that everyone that has space is willing to pick up someone walking on the road. Also, there’s only one main road, so that helps).
In the afternoons we’re at the community center, where we have lunch together as a group. Then we had seminars which have been focusing on development & modernization in the world and within this community, environmental responsibility and justice, gender bias, and the definition of poverty. We also worked on Media Projects which were presented at our closing ceremony despodida to members of the community, and then again at the partner organization Yanapuma back in Quito. I worked with three others on a project about the traditional Tsa’Fiki language and its relationship with Spanish in the community of Bua, especially how the two are taught in schools and the different roles of the two. We interviewed different members in the community, and asked someone to write a Tsa’Fiki poem for us which we then translated two different ways into Spanish and then into English, to show the complexity and ambiguity of the language and its traditional interconnection with nature.
On the weekends Steven and I went into Santo Domingo (the nearest city, super industrial and grey, about 35 minute truck ride) with our host family to go grocery shopping, and it’s super interesting to see my host mother so out of her element. We tackled the super market (for oil, milk, rice, dish soap etc) while Kevin and his dad Segundo went to the market, and came back with meat and a huge bag of vegetables. We also crashed a quincenera (super fun) and went to a “baptism after party” which lasted all night (we were actually invited to that one) for 10 year old twins.
On our Independent Student Travel weekend, I went to a teeny beach town called Mompiche (6 hour bus ride from here) with six other girls, and it was super fun. We ate lots of (non-rice) food, went surfing, took naps in hammocks and made friends with some other travelers from Argentina, whose English was as good as our Spanish, so that was a lot of fun/confusion in communication. Apparently Mompiche is a super popular touristy destination in the January/February peak season for surfing since the waves are usually 6 meters high then, but it was super quiet and relaxed when we were there.
On our last day in Bua we had a closing ceremony that demonstrated a lot of the community’s traditions. Our host families dressed us up in the traditional skirts, cape-like shawls, sequined tops for girls (traditionally no one in the community wore shirts), and ribbons. The guys got achote in their hair and we all got lines drawn on our faces and bodies with achote (red—washes off) and wito (black—lasts about two weeks). This was an amazing experience and made me appreciate the culture a lot; however this was not how the community dressed daily. About 100 years ago, all Tsa’Chila people wore traditional clothing, but with mestizo influence the clothing has become much more western. Almost all the women in the community wear the colorful skirts every day (or pants & boots if they’re working on their farms) and some of the elder men in the community wear the achote in their hair regularly, but everyone dressed up for this ceremony and another annual fiesta in April and is super proud of their culture.
Now we’re back in Quito for a few days, and we’re going to the U.S. Embassy tomorrow morning. And then it’s off to the Inca Trail on Saturday!!
more pics are coming!!! Internet is still not my bff