Ecuadorians divide their country into three distinct regions – el Oriente (the East or the jungle), la Costa (the coast), and la Sierra (the mountains). Each area is not only geographically distinct but culturally as well. In our short time here, we’ve immersed ourselves in the culture where we live, la Sierra. We know the empanadas, the ají, the love of tomate de arbol, the occasional use of the word vos in place of tú, the smooth and easy to understand Spanish accent, the four seasons in a single day, and so much more. We decided that it was time to get our feet wet in a different part of Ecuador so we headed to el Oriente for a couple of days.
Our destination of choice ended up being a mixed bag. If you’d like to read my TripAdvisor review of the lodge we chose, feel free! But, as I write about our trip, you’ll see the problems were not just about a simple lodge but more about the type of tourism being practiced in this corner of Ecuador.
Of the tours offered to us by the lodge, the most interesting included a visit to a local indigenous tribe that lives on one of the islands in the middle of the Napo River. You could tell that the people living there were very used to having tourists come by. We were immediately welcomed by young children who were selling small bracelets and other objects folded origami style from local vegetation. In fact, most of them were folding pieces of grass as they walked alongside one or other of the tourists. They would then hold out the item and if you took one, you were of course expected to give a small coin in return. If you gave one child a quarter, then the others were immediately standing at your side expecting their own sale.
These kids were only following the example set by their elders, who were also selling local handicrafts, though of finer detail and longer lasting materials. But the entire experience felt wrong. I know that I could delve into subjects of white privilege and of child labor and capitalist vs socialist societies, but I honestly don’t know where to start. I do know that I asked all of the kids I gave coins to about school. Some understood my Spanish and I learned that they go to school across the river and that they study Spanish while they speak Quichua at home. But one young lady sticks out in my mind. She would only answer my questions by nodding her head and I began to realize she didn’t understand me at all but she wanted me to believe that she did. And I began to wonder if she actually did go to school. And what kind of future these children would have. Could they live at home and make a living in their own communities? Or would they have to leave in order to find jobs in the city? And how difficult it is to know what the right answer actually is and that the right answer isn’t actually mine to find, but belongs to their parents and their community.
I do have to wonder if the visits from all these tourists are actually helping or hurting this community. These kids obviously see the white people, and we were mostly white, even local Ecuadorian tourists were of the lighter skinned variety, as money. I gladly purchased a handmade necklace and a hand carved gourd after two of the matriarchs had taught us about the making of chicha, a fermented beverage made from plantain and sweet potato. Many of the tourists purchased small blow dart sets that they then learned how to shoot outside the hut where we had all sat learning about Quichua culture. I don’t know if the lodge where we stayed pays for each visit or if the people on this island only make money from their sales. At the time, I didn’t even think to ask. I do know that some money is made from raising cacao and that I learned only because I asked when I saw a cacao tree along the trail. Overall, the interaction felt shallow and somehow unsatisfactory for both sides.
Life on this island has a rhythm, I am sure. And the tourists have become a part of it. But I was much happier to see that some children didn’t find the need to follow us around. I saw kids playing games in the water while a mother looked on as she did the day’s washing. I saw kids playing games under the meeting place roof where two older teenage boys were re-thatching. I saw a young boy fishing in the river. For those people, life felt very normal. For those catering to us tourists, there was an undercurrent of discontent. And yet I still snapped picture after picture wanting to remember the emotions and the feelings after the fact.
As I look back at the photos, I wonder how could this encounter have been different?
In the short term, I have decided that I don’t like visiting local peoples in this way. I feel too much like a part of the problem. I prefer that my tourism dollars provide good, quality jobs or support a culture without having the individuals of that culture perform an act for us. A couple of years back we stayed at an eco-lodge in Northern Argentina where our Spanish/English speaking guide worked in partnership with a local Guarani guide. They worked with small groups of only 8 tourists instead of the huge group I experienced here in Ecuador. Together, they introduced us to the subtropical jungle without ever making us feel like we were taking advantage of the Guarani or their culture. We never visited our Guarani guide’s home but we didn’t need to. He taught us so much about the way the Guarani live merely through his actions and his occasional words that we didn’t need more.
I left that experience wanting to help save his land and I shared what I learned with many others through my writing. I wrote about the jungle itself and about the sustainable harvest of Yerba Mate, the main source of money for the tribe. I left feeling that I could make a difference in an appropriate way. It wasn’t just about handing out coins.