In a way, the experience was exactly as I expected, but it was also completely different. I knew I was going to be put into a community, and I knew it was going to be two months of new sights, foods, and people, but I had no idea how much two months would change me and impact my life.
I arrived in my community, Patadel on June 22nd, 2012. One of the first things I noticed about this small, agricultural town was the tranquility. For the most part, people are shy. They usually keep to themselves but their reserved nature never gets in the way of their kindness. My host family, along with the rest of the 350-person community, was completely open to my partners and I and eager to help us and support us with whatever we needed. Although I had just arrived in this new and strange place, I felt connected to the people. Connection. That’s what I miss the most.
The connection that is present all over Latin America always provides me with comfort. I missed that feeling the second I came back to the United States. Even in the poorest, most rural communities, there is a sense of unity, a sense of interconnectedness and solidarity, even through war, famine, and drought. Walking around the community, I would never pass a person without receiving a smile and one of three greetings: buenos dias, buenos tardes, or buenas noches. Whenever I walked into a room, every person would say hello, and when first meeting a person, it is not a handshake that is exchanged, but a hug and a kiss on the right cheek. Because I was living in such a small community, everyone knew everyone else, everyone knew me, and there were no such things as secrets. There connectedness made me feel at home right away, and it is one of the main reasons I keep returning to Latin America: to experience unity in a region that is under so much pressure, but refuses to break.
The people of Patadel (or Patashos, as they refer to themselves), though poor, are self-sustainable. The families in the community eat almost every potato, kale, and grain of corn that is grown on their land. The sheep are used for wool, the cows for plowing, and chickens and guinea pigs are eaten frequently. My daily routine consisted of herding sheep, milking cows, planting lettuce and garlic, harvesting potatoes, shucking corn, and cooking and eating dishes like “arroz con frejol”, “mote”, and “caldo de pollo”. As I spent more time in this community, I realized that these Ecuadorians have the same connection they have with their neighbors, with their land. Every bean I ate, and every tomato in the juice I would drink on a daily basis came- not from “some farm” but from “nuestra finca” (our farm). There is a greater joy in eating food that your sweat into preparing, not only because it brings a greater sense of satisfaction, but because it connects us with the land. This connection with the land grounds people, it makes them more whole, it brings a greater sense of knowledge, wisdom, and appreciation for food.
When I first came back from Ecuador, I knew something inside of me was missing. I missed my host family, the laid-back way of life, but there was something else. It wasn’t until the first day of school that I realized what it was. We live in a society that is goal-oriented. Almost everything we do on a daily-basis is focused on the outcome, on the finished product, not on the process of getting there. As I walked around the halls of my school, I was a little surprised by how immersed everyone was in their own world. Everyone was too busy to say hi, to stop and have a conversation with anyone. Everyone was late to something; about to go to something, no one was here. Then I went to lunch. I realized for the first time what I was missing. I was missing togetherness: connection with people through smiles, laughs, greetings, and a link with the land through the corn and potatoes I had harvested that day, on my plate.
When I think of this summer in Ecuador, I look back on all the faces I met, and the connections I made. The people of Patadel, through the love of their land, taught me a greater sense of appreciation, not just of food, but also human relationships.