Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where to Be When Capitalism Collapses (And Other Parts Unknown)

The Southern Ecuadorian highlands. Living with an indigenous family. That's where.

My friends and I had read about and wanted to visit a very small town three hours by bus from Cuenca, in the southern Ecuadorian highlands where the Saraguro live much as they have since they first came to the area.  We had a recommendation for a particular place to stay. After some emailing in Spanish, the little trip was set, but we weren't really sure of the where or what.

When we got out of the bus and into one of the always-waiting taxis, the driver knew exactly where to take us when we said “Doctor José Cartuche’s”. We drove about ten minutes back down the road we had come in on and up a narrow winding road. Out of the cab and standing in front of “Pakari Tampu” (Dawn Home in Quechua) we wondered “Where are we exactly?”

Soon Dr. Catuche, traditional braid, jet black despite his age, long down his back, appeared with a warm greeting and we knew immediately we were in good hands.  José is the local healer and teacher of traditional medicine, hence “Doctor” Jose. He and his wife Juana run this hospedaje.

We ate from their huge garden, had queso fresco made the same day from the neighbor’s cows, fresh eggs, newly-baked bread, fresh squeezed juices and at dinner, one of the chickens. As is usual in Ecuador, breakfast was included with the room. It was $12 a night.

The hills surrounding Saraguro are lush and verdant. People walk into town - even little (literally) (very) old ladies.

It struck me that life at Pakari Tampu is the ultimate “farm to table” that has become so trendy in the U.S. This is what people will pay thousands to have at Canyon Ranch. This old way. The traditional way. Chickens in the back yard by necessity. Food grown in a small farm plot authentically organic as it always has been. Healing with what comes out of your garden.

It also struck me that if capitalism collapsed, these people probably would have what they need. Dr. Cartuche said that prophesies predict a collapse and then chaos. I wanna be at his place when it happens.

Catastrophes aside though, this is not the lifestyle that calls me to return. I have none of the needed knowledge, skills or aptitude. No, what has stuck with me is what I had in Cuenca, an old city with a mix of colonial and modern, traditional and urban, where I lived for two and half weeks. I stayed in the old central city, which is a UNSESCO World Heritage site.
I felt at home fairly quickly. I had been to different parts of Ecuador in 2007, so there was a bit of familiarity. This was the first time I spent over two weeks in the same place, so it was more like just living there. I stayed near my friends who were there for several months and had just the right mix of companionship and independence. I had Spanish school, which gave me a focus.

I walked almost everywhere - to school,  two traditional markets,  restaurants, the panderia that made corn flour cookies in a 400 year old horno oven, shops of all sorts, along the river linear park, to concerts in cathedrals, museums, and pre-Incan ruins. Even to the bus station a bit out of the central city. Took a cab back though. Cabs everywhere and about $2.

Life takes on a different rhythm when living like this. The to-do list is so much more pleasurable. Half a day in school, afternoons to explore, evenings for local events or more wandering, weekends for exploring rural towns. Life is easy and simple. No vehicle to take care of and park, no driving in traffic. The amount of stuff to deal with is contained. Just a limited amount of clothing worn over and over. The apartment I rented for half the time had all the basics. The posada I stayed in the first week had everything I needed considering someone made me breakfast every morning as part of the $16. per night tab. My concept of “expensive” really changed. When I could get a almuerzo de dia (fixed lunch of the day) for $3, including a homemade soup, a main dish of say rice and a piece of broiled chicken, a glass of fresh squeezed juice and a small postre or piece of fruit, spending over $5 on a meal seemed an extravagance.

As I got on the plane for my return flight, I didn't want or need to come home. With no job there was nothing to force me home or to grab me once I got here.

So, I had a hard time re-grounding once I got back. The usual return-from-a-trip existential ennui set in, but this time it had a deeper grip.  For weeks I felt like an expat in my own country. I was in that nether land, that place in-between places – not quite able to let go of the experience of being elsewhere. I was loath to get in my vehicle and out into traffic or force myself into the bustle of a grocery store. And communicating with my friends who were still there probably didn't help – it kept me emotionally connected there. I felt a longing, day-dreaming about whether and how to return for a longer time or where to go next.

Eventually my feet hit the ground and I started to reconnect - with friends, with bill-paying - going  here and there.  Now I’m present again in my life here and the experience of living and being in Ecuador is part of me.

While I don’t fantasize about moving there (I am pretty used to the ease of my American life and I know that places can start to show their rough edges after a while) there are still many places in Ecuador that I want to experience. And the idea of spending a length of time back in Cuenca has an appeal. Now that I’m not working, that is starting to feel possible. I’m not sure how, but I’m  opening up those possibilities, reinventing what my life is and where it is. These are the real “parts unknown”.  And I’m drawing the map myself.