Written by Chris
Cuellaje, Ecuador – Mindy and I have just completed the first week of this phase of our trip. For the next four weeks or so, we will be living with a host family in the mountains of Ecuador. So far, the family we are with has been fantastic to us. They are new to the international cultural exchange program (as are we) so it has been a learning experience. We stay at the home with two parents and their adult son, who is in the process of taking over the duties on their farm, and several grandkids who have been coming and going. They all live in a very rural part of Ecuador (A very bumpy 5.5 hour bus ride from the capital, Quito) that consists mainly of subsistence farmers, but many also make a bit of money selling excess at the markets in the nearby towns. We had three main reasons why we´re giving this a try; cultural exchange to learn about their lives and for them to learn about ours, real-world farming experience on a non-mechanized farm, and, lastly, to learn some Spanish.
It has been a bit of an adjustment for us coming from our always-on culture to the simple way of life here. One interesting thing about being on the equator is that days are about 12 hours long all year round and electricity is not used very extensively. This means that we are up at 6 or 7 each morning, things start to wind down around 5:30 at sunset and we are usually asleep by 8 or so. Life here centers around the farm with the men heading out to work during the day, with a visit back for lunch, and the women spending most of the day preparing food and taking care of the house.
I have enjoyed the food here immensely. The meals are pretty simple but it is almost all food that is picked and prepared fresh the day we eat it. Breakfast is usually small baked or fried rolls of some sort with coffee or tea, lunch is the big meal of the day consisting of a heaping plate with some combination of corn, beans, rice, potatoes, and a bit of vegetable, and dinner is usually a bowl of soup (potato/bean/rice) and some tea or coffee. All meals usually come with a glass of fresh juice from some combination of the tropical fruits that grow everywhere in abundance. I don´t think have have ever had such a consistently wholesome diet.
…Except of the “tea”. This is what they came up with when I told them I don´t like coffee (if ever I was to get into coffee, though, it would be here where it is made fresh from the coffee plant growing right outside the front door!). The tea is made from straight sugar cane juice with a bit of flavoring. Tastes awesome but vicious on the blood sugar.
The world of farming is vastly different from the industrialized style of farming that I am used to back in Indiana. There are no machines and everything from hoeing to planting to harvesting is done by hand. A big reason for this, besides the cost, is that virtually nothing is flat here. This farming community lies in a river valley which is about 1000 feet in depth and all of the farm run up the sides. It is quite amusing to sit on one side of the valley and look across at the grazing cows perched on the wall like mountain goats.
It all seems so haphazard to me, but it somehow all works. The crops are planted in a patchwork wherever there is room at the time and since crops can grow year-round, when one finishes, something else goes in its place. So far at our farm, I have counted 4 separate plots of beans. Also interesting is that parts of the farm are left unused and large parts are covered with native forest. But the best part is all of the wild fruits trees that they let grow all around. When we´re done with a day of work, we can just gather up an armload of oranges or avocados or guava and sample it on the way back home. With the leftovers, we make juice. They even have a few animals here; pigs, cows, a flock of chickens, and even cuy (aka guinea pigs, which are a bit of a culinary delicacy here, yum!).
It is interesting how their whole ecosystem works here with little waste; the cows graze freely on the grass on the uncultivated fields, the chickens roam freely and eat whatever they can find, the pigs eat all the scraps unsuitable for humans like the brown fruit, and the cuy eat the leaves of the sugar cane. Their primary crops are beans, sugar cane, corn and a few fruits we aren´t really familar with in North America; garandillo (grows on a vine, goes from purple to orange when ripe, the inside looks like a pile of fish eggs and tastes fantastic), naranhijo (an orange fruit, with an edible skin that is covered in spiky hairs that you have to brush off), and tree tomatoes (grows on a tree, looks like an elongated tomato, tastes like a mix of tomato and citrus).
Progress on the language front has been more of a challenge. Mindy and I have next to no knowledge of Spanish and our host family certainly doesn´t know English. We have been furiously pouring over our Spanish guides every night to get caught up, but we are not yet to the point where we can communicate well. I think we are both able to communicate our ideas and ask simple questions, but we can in no way keep up with the responses. I think it will take a bit of conditioning to get the family to speak to us using a bit simpler language. If I had it to do over again, I think the total immersion language lesson would be much more effective with a better starting base level. I did, however, have an incredibly stimulating conversation with a 3-year-old about various animals and the state of the world machete market. At least I think that´s what we were talking about…