Monday, March 10, 2014

Define "House"

It has been almost a week since I got back to Quito from my viaje de Carnaval, but we've been pretty busy, from class trips, to more birthday parties, to bumming around gringolandia (okay, so I guess that was a non-busy choice), so I'm just now getting to everything I want to say.

Carnaval was a BLAST- I hung out with my good friend Katrina's super fun host family, saw some beautiful beaches, rivers, cute little towns (and bumping Atacames), and lots of gorgeous costal scenery.  The coast is completely different from Quito.  Quito is a sprawling city- I'm sure I haven't seen all of it, or even driven across the entirety of it, yet.  The buildings aren't tall, and I'm still not sure how it fits all of the stores and the people it does.  It is all concrete and pavement, dominated by apartments, houses, and individual tiendas (the bakery, the fruit store, the haircut place). It is usually 75 degrees and it rains nearly every day.

The coast is out of the mountains and therefore hot and tropical and humid and probably what you imagine when I say I am studying on the equator.  We hung out in little towns, with houses made of concrete or wood, often risen because of snakes, surrounded by grass and dirt, far apart from one another.  We spent most of our time in rural areas or tourist-y, happening beach towns.

We stayed the first night with Katrina's host grandparents and the second night with a friend of the family.  The host grandparents live on a finca de arboles (tree farm), and getting there required driving down a path one vehicle could barely fit through (as we were entering, another car was trying to leave, so that was a little adventure).  The friends live on a finca de camarones (a shrimp farm, made of shallow pools)  and the only way to get there is by boat.  We parked our car in the cute little town close by and hopped into the family vehicle, a medium sized motor boat (think super huge canoe mixed with speed boat).

Katrina's grandparents' house was made of wood on stilts a story high, with a concrete bathroom with running water (usually) out back. The family friends lived in a house made of palm and wood, risen a few feet off the ground, with a porch, and a bathroom with running water around the back (but attached to the house).  In reality, both houses were beautiful, in gorgeous areas, especially the one on the shrimp farm- there was a beautiful porch around the entire front of the house (which was also the hallway) where you could look out over the river.  The food was great (and free!) and I'm so grateful to the families for hosting me.  Things were clean and simple.


And hot, and humid, and buggy, and the first day there was no electricity at all which meant no running water because of the way the system works at the grandparents' house.  Openings in the houses, whether windows without glass or simple separations between the boards on which we stood (remember, they are raised and sometimes felt unsturdy) provided the only relief from the heat, while allowing entire extended families of bugs to come in and hang out with us at night.  Decoration was old calendars and posters. (Including the head scratcher in the family friends' kitchen from what looked like a swimsuit magazine featuring a topless woman sitting backwards on a horse, which was proudly displayed above the dining table.)  Entertainment included television (at the house with electricity) and watching the chickens that had free run of the yard in both places (as well as all the beauty that the surrounding nature had to offer, but there were some points in that trip where I did not want to see any more nature).

While I'm not the kind of girl whose life depends on wifi, I'm ashamed to say that I had some problems way out there in the country.  Besides phones and television (which everyone seemed to have nice, newer models of), I felt like I had stepped back in time.  Way back.  I used to read the Little House on the Prairie books.  One of them described in great detail the building of a house made out of finished lumber (which was special, as they usually used logs).  I swear Katrina's grandparents' house was a more colorful version. (The inside walls were painted vibrantly.)  While I was super grateful to be where we were, I could never imagine living there.

At Katrina's grandparents, when we arrived, the electricity had been out for who knows how long.  No one seemed the least bit worried, not even about the food in the refrigerator or accessing running water, much less lights or music or television.  We bathed in the stream that night with one of the girls who lives in the house as if it were routine.  While there, I came face to face with the fact that people don't just do their laundry in a stream in theory, but rather in actual practice.

At the next house, we went to a party with the young people in the family.  I was astounded at how beautiful and made up the daughter about our age got before we went.  I was sweating and covered in insect repellent and I couldn't do my hair with all the tangles from the car and the boat and I couldn't even think about putting on makeup. We were (in my mind) so much camping that appearances couldn't possibly matter.  But we weren't camping.  We were staying in someone's house.  I had to keep reminding myself of that, and not, perhaps, that we were hanging out in the treehouse of my childhood dreams.


(Okay, so while we were staying in someone's house, we were also camping, but I digress.)

But houses keep bugs out, and they always have running water, and they have more furniture than a table and chairs and beds, and you can't see through the floor or the outside walls in houses.  Houses don't have hammocks on the inside.  Houses don't make me feel like I am deeper in the wilderness than I have ever, ever been.  This, most certainly, is not a house, said the Mariah that was sweating and getting eaten alive, somewhere between bathing in a stream for the first time and experiencing a river driveway.

I mostly got that Mariah to shut up and enjoy the beautiful experience, all while reflecting and overanalyzing because I'm pretty sure there is no version of myself that does not do that.

It would be really easy to sit there and say that people living in houses without glass windows who bathe and do laundry in the stream are poor, and that they don't live in houses- more like shacks.  It would be easy to turn up our noses and be judgmental and then take pity on them.  (See the above attitude if you do not believe me.)  However, this would be a huge error.

It has become clear to me with the observation of the fact that I cannot define a house (at least not without turning to a very Western-and in particular, suburban, Minnesotan-perspective) I certainly cannot attempt to define poverty.  However, from what I could gather, the families that lived in these houses were far from poor by any standard.  They had what they needed- and more- and they chose a country lifestyle in a place where it makes sense to build raised houses with cracks in the walls.  The fincas are a family business, being next door neighbors with nature a way of life.  Like many things are (and many things aren't) here, it is just different.

I'm not sure about how poverty came to be defined anyway.  It seems to me that poverty should be when people don't have what they need to live healthfully, but the idea of being poor or not poor is all the sudden wrapped up in having houses that meet a certain definition, in consumption, in a whole bunch of stuff I don't really understand to this day.  And then I am sitting here in my house in Quito, which looks like an old house in St. Paul, and judging and deciding the economic class of my host family based on the things they have that fit my definition of house, of poor, and of not poor.

And when I was on the coast, attempting to fit my new experiences with my old definitions, I discovered that I can't define house, and I can't define poor, and more than that, I have no business to be doing so.

(However, some questions remain.  If money makes the world go round- and it does- then definitions of poverty certainly matter.  What would happen if we all adopted the lifestyle of "buen vivir," living in harmony with each other, ourselves, and nature, consuming only what we need to survive?  I have seen it exist here, in a couple who organic farms.  That, to me, does not equal poor, even though the people I met who live this way only earn $5 to $6 every week.  Is this sustainable?  Can it exist everywhere (you know, if people sucked less)?  Does this render social classes and poverty meaningless?  Certainly not, I do not think.  Even if I have no business defining houses or poverty, being working class, for example, is a huge part of certain people's identities, and even if a social construct, obviously has very real implications.  What about social classes around the world?  I tried to talk to my host mother about this, but did not get very far- in my world, where everyone is "middle class," how could I?- And even though Ecuador has the same currency in the United States and many of the same jobs and expenses, it is even impossible to compare economics this way.  The minimum salary is under $400 per month, but living costs are less, but a toothbrush costs the same, but bread costs next to nothing, and anything with a U.S. brand costs double.  Money makes the world spin around for sure... And also my head.  I'm thankful I've always had a safe place to rest it, whether protected from the cold in Minnesota, in a tent in a house on the Ecuadorian coast, and many places in between.)

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