Oral History

My grandpa is out in the garage.  He’s been standing-up for the last four hours, while he refinishes a bench with a power-sander.  I suppose this is not that exceptional, except that he is ninety years old, and—despite having flown half-way across the country unassisted to come visit us—has decided to spend his vacation doing manual labor.  You’d think after twenty-five years of retirement, he’d have figured out how to rest, but apparently not.  I wish my dogs were in such good shape.

He’s also—naturally—still mentally sharp as a tack.  He started telling stories about his time in the Army during World War II the other night, and could still embellish with such details the name and hometown of the staff sergeant with whom he had a three minute conversation sixty-seven years ago about acquiring extra sheets for his platoon’s barracks.  My grandpa never got within a thousand miles of combat, but for me, his stories are still amazing.  Hearing him talk about being the sole white officer for an all-black unit—the military didn’t allow black units to have black officers until it integrated in ’49—had a few cringe-worthy moments for my politically correct soul, but was still mind-blowing.  He was there.  This was his world.

He continued on to tell me about some mysterious cargo he unloaded on a supply convoy to Brazil in 1942.  It’s not exactly the stuff of history books, but I desperately wanted to pull out my tape recorder; in a few minutes, he had moved on, and I can’t help but think that story will never be told again.  When I was little, all my friends’ grandparents had served; indeed, practically every retiree you would see was a vet.  At the rate they are disappearing, though, it occurs to me that my children will probably never meet someone from this “Greatest Generation”—and as a result, the way people like my Grandpa lived and served and died will be no more or less real or relevant than what we read in books about the Civil War or Wild West or Roman Legions.  I suppose for that reason, the idea of having my Grandpa’s voice digitally preserved—even if it’s just a story about a practical joke he played on the Captain during basic training—seems unfathomably value.

And then, of course, there’s the sociologist in me.  I’ve been spending the last three months trying to understand the worldview of people in the Amazonian jungle, some of them indigenous people born before their society even had contact with the outside world.  It’s a puzzle, for sure, but there are times when I wonder if the way my Grandpa sees my own country is any less foreign to me.  We had coffee with a friend of my father’s this week.  On our walk back to the car, my Grandfather asked “What does her husband do?”, at which point my father explained that, well, actually she didn’t have a husband, she has a partner, and the two of them have a child together.  He paused and thought for a bit.  He may have made it through the war, but this was still a new encounter.  Eventually, he said “You know, I’ve seen a lot in my life, and I’ve learned not to judge.  My mother never judged, and I think that’s why she lived so long.”  There is as much to learn from my Grandpa as there is from the Huaorani, I suppose.

I head back to Princeton tomorrow, leaving at 3:30 a.m.  I’m pretty sad to be leaving after only a week.  It’s always too short, no matter where I am.  I guess nomadism is inevitable now that I have people I care about scattered across three distant corners of the country and in three separate continents.  I only realized I needed to pack, unfortunately, at 9:05 p.m., and my Grandpa—who has been going to bed at 9:00 p.m. for the last thirty-thousand days of his life—had already retired to the guest room, where we keep all the duffel bags.  Not wanting to be the guilty party, I sent my mother in to retrieve one.  She told me she found him on his knees, giving thanks to God for his family, for being here, for being alive.

My Grandpa has lived to all his friends pass away and the world as he knew it turned on its head.  And yet, he tells me, any day he gets up is a good day.  He’s still grateful for everything. That is how you live to be 90, and still have power-sanding to show for it.

Hot Latin Romance

It’s amazing that I’ve already been back in the United Statse for a week.  As usual, the transition is much faster than I would have imagined.  Preoccupations with my Spanish skills and obsession with grabbing a few more interviews have quickly fated, as I shift gears back into ivory tower mode.  Some things stay with me, though, so in the absence of good material coming out of Central Oregon, I’ll be writing up a few more thoughts on Ecuador before I head back to that other exotic wilderness where I spend my time, Oxford.

This post I have resisted writing for over a month, because I kind of hate posts like this.  It’s a common trope in travel writing: white person travels to poor country and falls in love with how friendly and quaint the natives are.  So, before I launch into this, I will say that I know that Latin America is a profoundly unequal and violent place where daily life is, for many, a struggle.

That said, I love Latin America.

I love that I never feel invisible.  In Coca, I felt like a had at least five surrogate mothers who were covertly watching over me: the mother at the hotel desk, the mother down the street at the frijoles stand, the mother in the tourism office.  They called me “jovencito” and asked, whenever I had been gone for a few days, where I had been.  Visibility is something that can be taken too far, of course.  In Uganda, I often felt overwhelmed by being the endless attention I got for being white.  Here, though, my visibility does not make me feel guilty, because I get the sense people are watching out for me not just because I am a gringo but because I am particularly young and clueless looking gringo.

I love that there is a certain gentleness and courtesy to interactions here.  I never tire of hearing people, upon entering a restaurant, wish “buen provecho” to those already eating.  I love that strangers will always greet me when they come into a room, even when they are there to see someone else.  And, although it always strikes me as somewhat absurd, I love that they will follow up with a formal goodbye, even if they are leaving twenty seconds later.  I have a soft spot for greetings that involve a kiss on the cheek, too, even though it feels awkward and I am generally unsure if I am doing it correctly.

I love that people trust me.  When we were in Baños, the chain on my rented bicycle snapped.  My companions biked on, while I was stranded waiting for a bus in a small highway stop.  A shopkeeper came out and offered to lend me his bike.  He asked for nothing in return and demanded no assurances that I would bring it back.  It’s much the same with the waiters and restaurant owners who assured me that I could come back and pay tomorrow, because they didn’t have change for a five at the moment.  However incongruous it is with Ecuador’s skyrocketing crime rate, I see a faith in community and friendship and humanity here that often feels absent in my own country.

I love that people here dance.  Not just the youth, but everyone; I love that on a Saturday night, I can see young couples and old married ones, grandparents and grandchildren.  Men and women dancing together here leave enough space between them to appease even the chaperones at my high school prom, and yet the dancing here is nonetheless the most sensual thing I have ever seen.  I even appreciate the endless attempts people make to teach me to dance, even though both they and I know it’s a hopeless cause.  I love that a bottle of beer is always served with multiple glasses, because sharing is simply assumed.

And, to get a bit closer to my thesis, I love that people share their time, too, and their knowledge.  I love that a kid who looks like he’s 18, doesn’t know a thing about Latin America, and can barely speak Spanish can still walk into the mayor’s office and get an interview.  I love the pride with which people tell me about Ecuador, the way they find nice things to say about even the most remote Amazonian backwater.  I appreciate that so many people want to exchange e-mail and skype addresses and telephone numbers.  I know that their promises to keep in touch are meant, even though they will almost certainly not be kept.  I love that the question people always ask, when they hear about my research, is when I am coming back.  And I certainly appreciate that, this time, I am being honest when I say that I will be back.

In My Father’s Shoes

One day in eighth grade, when my mother was out of town, my dad picked me up to school.  At this point in my life, all I wanted to do after 3:30 p.m. was get home and fry my brain with hours and hours of video games (I think it was Starcraft at that point), but when my dad picked me up, there was always something that we had to do first.  Trips to the hardware store, plant nursery, or office were always exciting detours to look forward to.

This particular day, we drove to the outskirts of town, to a strip mine where human ingenuity and modern technology were being used to tear down a volcano.  My dad was looking to pick up some cinders, I think, for some landscaping project on which I would invariably be forced to work on the following Saturday morning (I would, once again, have preferred to be playing Starcraft).  My dad chattered with some sort of a salesman, who walked into his trailer to get a price quote on something.  As we waited, gazing over the desolate moon-scape, I turned to my dad and, in the charming sarcasm of an obnoxious fourteen year old, told him “Dad, I’m so glad we can share these father-son bonding experiences together.”

Our trip that afternoon has earned a place in family lore, but it’s not the only quality time we spent together in my youth.  There were also Boy Scout backpacking trips, in which we together learned such useful skills as tomahawk throwing and spar-pole climbing, as well as sniggered at my Scoutmaster’s lingering anger over Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi (which happened in 1969) and fear that the federal government might restrict his assault rifle ownership.  For a mountain of reasons, though, the last two weeks I have spent with my dad travelling Latin America take the take for the best days I have ever spent with my father (and not just because there are no pit mines or black powder shooting ranges involved).

My dad has a pretty deep connection to Latin America, having spent two years in the Peace Corps in Peru and another year doing conservation work in Costa Rica.  When I was really young, I used to tell me teachers that my had two jobs: one where he sat in an office in Washington D.C., and another where he went to the rainforest to save monkeys.  Precocious as I was, within a few years I figured out that it was actually the same job: director of The Nature Conservancy’s Latin America program.  Still, though, not until this trip did I have any idea how far-reaching—and fascinating—his roots in Latin America were.  Who knew that I spent an entire year backpacking across the continent, anyway?

It seems every place we visited triggered another memory: “Oh, yeah, I think maybe I was involved in the creation of that park.”  Sometimes, though, his footprints were not so larger, but they were always interested; on this trip, he finally opened up and told me tales of hitchhiking through Argentina, or taking wood-powered paddle boats through the Amazon.  The best part of it, though, is the sense that I am starting to trace my father’s footprints.  Long hours spent winding along Andean highways have given me plenty of time to imagine my dad, at the same age, doing the same.  My father, too, arrived in Latin America with only a bit of Spanish and not one bit of experience, and a few decades later retired with a trail of protected areas and national parks in his wake.  Spending time with him makes me realize that I could be very content with my life if only I could do the same.

The End (As Seen From Paradise)

I’m still in Ecuador, but for all intents and purposes my thesis research is over.  Upon coming back from Yasuní, my dad and I returned to Quito, where we immediately were picked up to go to Maquipucuna Lodge, in the liminal zone between the Andes and the Coast.

Decades ago, my dad helped some young and idealistic Ecuadorians buy a nature preserve, which has now turned into a swanky eco-tourism lodge.  My dad called in a favor, in a sense, and now we are relaxing for the next two nights in a cloud-forest paradise.  To offer but one example: we spent the morning trailing the elusive spectacled bear—we heard it and saw scat, but couldn’t catch a glimpse—and returned to a three course vegan lunch!

In one sense, it’s nice to make Maquipucuna my last stop in Ecuador, because it means I will leave on a note of optimism.  As eco-tourist projects go, I couldn’t imagine one more successful.  The preserve protects a fantastic biodiversity hot-spot—6,000 hectares with 10% of Ecuador’s bird species—and is actively reforesting the surrounding areas.  The whole operation is carbon neutral and sustainably built (almost too sustainably built, given how many bugs made it into my cabaña last night).  A few interpreters are employed from the surrounding community, but—probably more importantly—the lodge owners are working with the entire population of the region to develop fair trade and environmentally friendly agriculture.  Maybe this whole tourism thing really will work out for Ecuador, and they will look back on oil as a forty year long mistake.  Ojala que si.

From the perspective of getting anything done, though, Maquipucuna is something of a dead zone, as it is a few hundred miles from Yasuní.  As is always the case with my academic work, I peaked a few weeks before the actual “end”, and I feel like I have coasted to the finish.  At a certain point, I realized that I had a thesis’ worth of data, and stopped constantly begging everyone I met for interviews.  Trips to Yasuní and the Huaorani territory spawned some interesting stories, but my guides never delivered the “dusk till midnight” interviewees they promised.  I’d feel like I had earned a rest upon my return home if the last few days hadn’t also felt an awful lot like I’m already on vacation.

I leave happy, though, not because I’m particularly impressed with what I’ve accomplished, but because I have hope for what I’m going to do in the future.  Tomorrow I’m meeting with the director of a very interesting group of social scientists that work with local governments and civil society organizations—to talk about working there after I graduate.  At the moment, I think it will be hard to pull myself away from more research: my mind is already full of ideas for extensive surveys and comparative studies and behavioral games.  It’s almost de rigeur to tell people when you’re traveling that you can’t wait to come back, but in my case, it’s definitely true.

There and Back Again: A Barnard’s Tale

It’s a little bit absurd to say this, but up until Wednesday of last week, I had never actually seen Yasuní Park.  As my research went on, my understanding of Yasuní-ITT moved from generalizations drawn from the secondary literature and rumors collected in Quito to concrete, firsthand accounts on the ground.  Yasuní itself, however, remained almost a mythical place, the stuff of Discovery Channel documentaries and novels about the “Green Hell” of Amazonia.  With my flight out of the country just one week away, though, I took advantage of the presence of my father (a “walking ATM” as he describes himself) and finally set off for the park itself.

Yasuní is not easy to get to.  Our journey started with a twelve-hour boat ride from Coca—itself, not exactly the center of the universe—to Nueva Roca Fuerte, the closest town to the ITT bloc of the park.  The river was sufficiently low that we occasionally had to hop out and push ourselves off a sand-bank (“Anyone with an open wound or sore needs to stay in the boat,” our guide informed us, “because there are Pirahnas”).  As trips that involve twelve hours of transportation go, though, this one was pretty entertaining, thanks to the fact that we shared our canoe with sixteen unforgettable and fabulous Ecuadorian ecotourism students from Puyo.

Six hours in, I got my first glimpse of Yasuní.  Sadly, I knew we had reached Yasuní not because of a visitor center or a signing declaring “Welcome to the Park.”  Instead, I could tell that we had reached the park—declared “protected” by the Ecuadorian government and a “Reserve of Cultural and Natural Patrimony” by UNESCO—because I could see oil wells belonging to REPSOL, an Italian corporation.  This dispiriting introduction aside, though, as we moved further downstream, the scenery became steadily more spectacular.  The forest was no longer secondary regrowth, but untouched primary canopy.  Signs of humanity diminished; motorized boats were replaced with dugout canoes; thatched roofs appeared in place of corrugated metal ones.

It was dark when we reached Nueva Roca Fuerte.  NRF isn’t nearly as distant or as small as Bameno, the Huaorani community I visited last week, but it felt to me like the ends of the earth, the last gasp of civilization before it is swallowed by the Amazon.  The two thousand residents have one car among them, which functions as the city garbage truck.  Everything comes in by canoe, and is sold at prices two or three times those in Coca.  The water goes off at 9 p.m.; the power at 11 p.m.  What really makes NRF seem abandoned, though, is the sense that it’s moving backwards—or, as my Dad put it, that “The future has come many times, and it has always left.” There used to be a plane that came three times a week; now it comes every fifteen days.  Gradually, the Rio Napo is “eating” the city (to quote some residents); the first two main streets have now eroded away, and number three is set to last only a few more years.

I can’t explain why, but I absolutely loved NRF.  The city is about as isolated as a place can be while still pretending to be a part of modern society.  To me, it showed the universality of human aspiration, even in the most impossible of situations.  There are restaurants and stores and even a discoteca, all of which are tiny and undersupplied, yet still open at regular hours and attended with care by their owners.  As forgotten as the residents seemed to feel, they also appeared to find pride in what their town could offer: “Isn’t it so quiet here?  So peaceful?” I was asked over and over again.

On Wednesday, we left early to go inside the ITT bloc; for me, it was a chance to see if the park was really so spectacular as to merit the $3.5 billion dollars Ecuador has demanded to protect it.  It was nice to see that the entrance was guarded by a well-kept cabin, with a sign that announced in Spanish “Yasuní National Park: Preserving the Amazon, Protecting the World.” The single ancient ranger, though, didn’t seem quite up to the task of fending of Peruvian loggers and local hunters.  Nor did he seem particularly concerned when a few students started fishing under a sign that read—in rather bold font—“No fishing.”

Before I had actually gone into the Amazon, I had an idea for a blog post that would start with something to the tune of: “And on the eight day, God stopped fucking around and created the Amazon.” I got the idea that the Amazon was mighty and fearsome combination of inclement weather, floods, vicious snakes, killer diseases, and a health number of vampire bats.  In reality, though, the forest is much lighter, more open, and much less menacing then I expected.  It’s not as hot as I thought it would be, nor, really, as rainy.  Going through the forest is no safari: the animals are scarce and hidden.  In short, I left Yasuní with an acute sense of how incredibly fragile the place is.  As much as I like to think of the raw power of nature, here is a place that humanity really can destroy—and, sadly, is actively destroying.  Even as far from “civilization” as we were, signs of the depradations of overhunting and colonization were inescable.

On Thursday, I life-listed another country: Peru. In the 1940s, Ecuador lost something to the tune of 40% of its territory in a war with Peru, about which they are still smarting.  Ecuador didn’t accept its new border until 1998, though: apparently, according to my Dad, customs officials used to confiscate any map that didn’t show the border of the lost Amazonian territory as “disputed.” My first look at Peruvians, then, was of some gunners manning a cannon at the border, ready to repel an invasion at any moment.  (Though the Ecuadorian soldiers I’ve seen can’t even put together matching uniforms, so I’m not sure Peru should feel that threatened).  They wouldn’t give me a passport stamp, but I did see some dolphins, so I returned to NRF feeling quite content.

That night was the last of our trip, so we convinced the owners of the NRF discoteca—“The Yellow Shack”—to open up for us.  After a few cheers of “Que viva Yasuní!” we started downing Pilseners Peruvian style, in which one person goes around the group with a large bottle and a single glass.  Our student friends started to dance, and eventually my Dad joined in, which was fantastic to see (although embarrassing from my point of view, given how utterly he showed me up).  At eleven, se fue la luz, but—in a clear show of good priorities—the discoteca has one of NRFs few generators, and the fiesta continued long past midnight.

When we left the discoteca, the night was the darkest I have ever seen in my entire life.  The town had not a single light beyond the blacklights of the dance floor behind us.  We were too far from any city to have any ambient light on the skyline, and thick clouds covered every single star and the moon.  How crazy is it that, at twenty-three, this is where I have come to?

At five a.m., we were back on the boat, motoring back to Coca.  Five weeks ago, Coca felt like the ends of the earth, but now that I’ve actually seen the end of the earth, landing felt like a return to civilization.  I have a really weird sense, though, that I will be back to NRF at some point in my life.