As part of my program, everyone was required to chose anywhere is Ecuador and conduct an independent study project, or ISP. For 4 weeks all my friends and I left Quito to head for the coast, the Amazon, the highlands - or in my case the Galápagos. As sad as I was the leave the group, I headed to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, the capital of the province of Galapagos. Before I left, the topic of my study was unclear and I vaguely knew I wanted to learn about the politics of development and tourism. This was a scary endeavor, flying miles away from the host family and city that had just begun to feel like my home. I had only one contact on the island and I wasn’t unsure how I would conduct interviews or narrow down my topic. But after only a few days on the island, I was confident it would all work out - and having just come back to Quito, I can say for sure that it did.
Throughout my four weeks, I conducted dozens of interviews with politicians, fisherman, people in the tourism industry and activists. One interview lead to the next and I was overwhelmed with the generosity of the community to help me with my research. Soon enough, I began to see patterns within my interviews and common themes that could help me formulate my thesis. I heard from people from various sectors who all felt the same way - that the central and local governments were not representing galapagueños. I learned about how the construction of 5-star hotels, the cruise industry, and the weak migration regime are all threatening the way of the life of the people in San Cristobal and how the clash between development and conservation manifests within the governance structure. My findings were more fascinating and complex than I ever would have thought and turned into 44 pages of information, all in Spanish!
This experience was one I know I will never forget and one that has not only made me confident in my language proficiency but in my ability to connect with strangers and listen to their stories. I feel incredibly honored to have been invited into the homes of so many to hear about their lives and their inspirational tales of activism. Throughout my program, we spoke a lot about the idea of reciprocity. When going into a community outside your own for the purposes of gathering information, the importance of giving back is paramount. I have sent my project to all my key informants in hopes that it can be used as a way for the community to analyze the causes of the major issues galapagueños are facing today. But more than this, I hope to shed light on this issue in my community, whether that be in my home community or at GW. As I finish up my program in the coming weeks, I hope to have more time to reflect on my experiences in the Galápagos and how my time there will affect how I study and learn about development in the future.
It has been a little more than 2 months since I got to Ecuador. I can’t believe how fast its gone by and how little I have felt homesick. I have fallen in love with the all the people in my life here, the city of Quito and all the beautiful nature at my disposal. However, there always comes a point in time when you are living in another country where the magic of it all starts to wear off a little - when you start to become disillusioned with things you once found fascinating or unique. There is something about the halfway mark.
By now, I have established routines, make local friends and connected with my host family and these are the things that have kept me grounded. But now that I am settled, the negative or maybe better said not-as-great aspects of the city have started to get to me. Little things like the never-ending traffic, cat-calling or randomly overpriced products are starting to upset me when they never used to before. I feel like this is an often un-talked about part of being abroad. We are conditioned to act like we love every part of being in the country we are in and if we criticize or do not like certain aspects of life abroad we are being ungrateful or judgmental. But what I am starting to come to terms with is that it’s okay to not be happy all the time. It’s okay to criticize, question or inquire about why things are the way there are.This is why we are here - to learn, to observe, and to begin to understand the context and systems that are at play.
The more I come to know about Ecuador, its history, politics, and people, the more I feel connected to it all. This knowledge has let me start to look deeper into the subtle differences that may sometimes to frustrate me. The traffic I sometimes can’t stand has now turned into research into why the government is investing in extractivism instead of public transport. The cat-calling I often hear has turned into debates on why machismo still permeates today. And those randomly over-priced products I begrudgingly buy has now turned into discussions about Ecuador's struggling economic model. I am learning to channel some of my disillusionments into research, actions, questions, and investigation that I hope will only enhance my knowledge and connection to this country. I truly love Ecuador and I am so grateful to be able live in a country so different from my own that I get to have these internal debates. I hope as I move past this halfway mark of my time here, past the initial honeymoon stage, I can use this curiosity to propel my Independent Study Project (ISP) that I will be beginning in a few weeks. I am excited to start to delve deeper into some of the topics that have surfaced through my experiences and use my observations to contribute to important global discussions surrounding Ecuador today.
One of the main components of my program is experiential learning. Through this pedagogical model, we are forced to get out of our conform zone and traditional classroom setting to experience new people or places that may challenge our beliefs more than through a textbook. One of the main topics we have been focusing on throughout all of my classes has been the “indigenous question” here in Ecuador. Ecuador is home to 14 indigenous nationalities, the largest of which is the Kichwa nationality. We have been studying the effects of development on Kichwa communities as well as their language and their traditional practices. After a few weeks of background information, it was time to travel to the Amazon, or “Oriente” as we say in Ecuador, to see first hand how Kichwa communities live. As we boarded the bus for our 5 day trip to an eco-lodge near the town of Tena on the Arajuno River, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I had always dreamed of going to the Amazon and it was finally coming true. Little did I know how uncomfortable some parts of this trip would make me feel.
On our second day there we boarded a motorized canoe to ride up the Arajuno River to the nearby Kichwa community of Mirador. We had been told that the community had invited us themselves when they heard we were coming to the eco-lodge but I hadn’t thought too much about it before we got there. When we arrived at Mirador, we were led to the community center which consisted of a large open-air shack surrounded by wooden benches. As we took our seats, I noticed the small group of women huddled together wearing what looked like traditional outfits with large, colorful jewelry and painted faces. As I continued to look around, I noticed more and more people coming from their houses to watch as the community center filled with gringos. But these people stood in sharp contrast with the women I noticed earlier. These people, men, women, children, emerged wearing typical “Western” clothing. Jeans, t-shirts, Adidas sneakers, Hollister sweaters.
Our tour guide soon announced that we would be learning about a few traditional practices and then watching a traditional Kichwa dance. The women dressed in ornate clothing began to take center stage, demonstrating how to make chicha (a fermented yuca drink) and showing us their traditional baskets. They then moved into a shamanic demonstration and then into the traditional dance. I tried my hardest to keep my attention focused on the presentation but I couldn’t help me notice the rest of the community huddled around watching us watch the women. The rest of the Mirador community, dressed like any other Quiteño or American, stood around taking videos on their smartphones and even chatting some in Spanish. As naive as it sounds now, it was just becoming clear that this was solely an ecotourism project.
The community of Mirador no longer follows these traditional practices, but merely puts on these presentations to demonstrate what traditional Kichwa communities used to look like. They are attempting to appeal to the Western desire to see “primitive” or “authentic” practices during visits to indigenous communities or developing countries. On one hand, this idea made me highly uncomfortable. I don’t want to be part of an industry that commodifies traditional practices and cultures or plays into new neocolonialist dynamics. But at the same time, this tourism strategy has helped the community build a school and pay for bilingual teachers. The ecotourism scheme has allowed the community to prosper without turning to the oil industry or extractives policies to raise money. In an increasingly globalized world, the idea of ecotourism is ever growing and it is difficult to say what the impacts are. I am still struggling to sort out my own thoughts about this experience and the ecotourism industry overall but I am coming to accept more and more that there are two sides to every coin. As I continue to travel throughout Ecuador, I will carry this experience with me and continue to challenge my beliefs, always being aware of the profound impacts of my actions.
It has been nearly two weeks since President Trump remarkably denounced those from “shithole countries,” publicly and unwittingly shutting the door to an entire continent. From the moment I heard these disgraceful words, I have struggled to put my own thoughts together. How did we get here? Is this really happening? As the nation’s chief diplomat, the level of ignorance is simply astonishing. But what is has disheartened me even more in recent days, a feeling that compelled me to write this post, is that we have almost forgotten. It is hard to say what to attribute this to, is the 24-hour news cycle? Maybe our shortened attention spans? Or possibly (and most disturbingly) are we simply used to this behavior from our commander-in-chief? As Anderson Cooper so thoughtfully reported in a segment reacting to Trumps remarks, he quoted author James Baldwin who said, “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” The ignorance, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism that have always existed in this country on some level seem even more prevalent to me today, as they now hold a seat of power -creating justice’s most ferocious enemy.
As a student studying international development, these are issues that I look at every day. But they often feel far away. Far removed. We study these flaws in other nations, often without looking inward to dissect our own. It is only in recent months that I have almost felt a sense of shame to be an American, to judge others before judging ourselves. As I begin my semester abroad, in a place that Trump may also deem a “shithole country,” I am left wondering how I will become an ambassador of sorts for my country and my culture. How will I defend border walls, discrimination, climate change denial, and reckless diplomacy?
More often that not, it seems that the ‘study’ aspect of studying abroad is considered more secondary to the true experience of immersing yourself in a culture you are unfamiliar with. But, the courses I have been taking through my program have been a beautiful complement to my time in Buenos Aires.
To start off with, I have not taken Spanish prior to coming here. I only have a background in French, which helps tremendously in learning Spanish. Because I am at a beginner level, I have Spanish from Monday to Thursday with two different professors. From the beginning, they only spoke to us in Spanish, which was overwhelming but now I am so glad that they do. It forces me to pay more attention to the vocabulary I learn from class or from my host family and to then connect the dots together to understand what they are saying. Being in Buenos Aires itself while doing this is nothing short of what I needed. I am able to leave the classroom and put the language to use daily, and I see myself picking it up faster and faster each day.
I absolutely love the courses I am taking here. Latin America had always been a component in my previous classes -- never the focus. To be taking three classes that deal with issues areas within the region is what I have looked forward to all last year. One is called “Drugs and Violence in Latin American Literature and the Arts.” I came in with the misconception that it would focus largely on subjective violence -- in essence, people killing people or other acts of physical violence. But, the professor focuses more largely on systemic violence or what causes this subjective violence we see on TV to happen. The other two courses I am taking are centered around Argentina, one dealing with its environment and one with its history. All three of these courses overlap and remain more interesting than the next. There are often field trips to museums or such for these classes, which adds to the experience even more. I am able to really delve into what has been a interest of mine for a while, and being able to discuss what I learn with my host family adds a new perspective each time.
Learning about Latin American in the U.S. compared to learning about it within the region itself has been vastly different and eye opening. Being in Buenos Aires itself gives you further context to the history and politics and literature I learn about in class at IES, which makes for a more deeper understanding. While in the U.S., you can learn about all of these subject areas but the context and the views of the people from the region itself can go missing from time to time. But, what I have learned at GWU has definitely given a solid background for me to expand my interest and knowledge to greater heights.
In the few minutes following, I handed both my cell phone and about fifty dollars over to this man who had, in theory, just wanted a cigarette. I was inconspicuously walking home on a Sunday evening with just a carton of cashew juice in my hands, when a block and a half away from my apartment someone was walking behind my just a little too close for comfort. My mistake was in turning my head to see and initiating eye contact the man who was so close behind me. After indicating he had a weapon tucked in his waistband and me mistaking the gesture to mean that he was hungry, I offered him my carton of juice. Either feeling belittled or mocked (or both), he then forcefully blocked me from walking any further and demanded what I had in my pockets. ...continue reading " A Quick, Fateful Question"
Having been colonized by the Portuguese and chosen as a destination for European emigrants, Brazil has a decently sized white population. So, although my light hair and green eyes may make me stick out a tad, it certainly wouldn’t exclude me from “looking Brazilian.” But, whenever I open my mouth, the obvious becomes, well, obvious: I’m not Brazilian. ...continue reading "You Aren’t Brazilian"
Whenever I arrive to a foreign land, I automatically feel like an outsider, and with good reason. But, I have noticed that, in a way, being gay gives me an automatic “in” to the culture I visit: being gay is sort of this connector, or equalizer, that transcends race, culture, social class. Despite the fact that people who identity as gay can be very different from one another, there is a perceived shared identity, a shared history.
This phenomenon was reinforced upon arriving to Rio de Janeiro. Rio has a sizable LGBT community, and when I reached out, I was warmly welcomed and on my way to making friends. But, as time has progressed, I have seen myself stepping out of the confines of the community because I don’t want to be surrounded by people who are strictly similar to me. Part of going abroad is to step outside your comfort zone, so I found it counterproductive to limit myself to one sector of Brazilian society. ...continue reading "Outsider No More"
Community. It can be a place, group of people, or a feeling that makes you feel like you belong. Having been in Rio for about a month and a half now I've been slowing piecing together my new life and forming part of the community here. Below are some photos to visualize what and whom I am surrounded by.
If I'm not at school or on the street, I'm at home. My roommates are important because they are whom I come home to every night and they are the closest, most immediate resource I have if I ever need anything.
The exchange community here at PUC is ginormous and vibrant. There are about 500 of us here, but I am closest to those who did the Intensive Language course in January. Here we are at the top of the Dois Irmãos mountain. The other exchange students open my eyes to new opportunities in the city and are a great way to gauge how my perspective and experience of Rio is developing over time. ...continue reading "Comunidade"
Insert words like “male,” “Californian,” “student,” “brother,” and “friend” to describe my identity and you’d be off to a pretty good start. And although I’ll be the first to say that my identity isn’t defined by my sexuality, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being gay has very much affected my world view and been a quality of mine that I often contemplate. ...continue reading "Identity & Perception"
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