Saturday, January 10, 2015

Learning the hard way to listen carefully during plant walks

Last Saturday evening, my new friend Ivan took me on a short plant walk and introduced maybe 12-15 plants pretty rapidly and in colloquial Spanish. Being new to plant-based medicine, he used a lot of terms I probably wouldn't have understood even in English without a dictionary. Still, I thought I followed along pretty well, but apparently I screwed up at one point and paid the price later.

Each blob at the end of a twig holds 3 nuts. I thought they were edible, but they were not - they're medicinal!
Here are a few pictures of plants we discussed.

These flowers are apparently used in aroma therapies to treat all manner of issues. The smell is quite strong and pleasant. Ivan forgot the name of the plant, so I call it the bouquet plant since each group of flowers contains a multitude of colors.
This is agave, which is common in the US southwest and is all over Quito. Processed properly, this plant can produce food, clothing, and a famous alcoholic beverage called pulque in Mexico. It looks like the plant is attacking passers-by with its sharp leaves (see below). But given that it's good food, it looks more like it's aggressively offering itself to anyone who appreciates it!

A close-up of the agave plant above. Those spines are as sharp as they look.

On to the story of Saturday night.

I had thought the nuts (first picture) were edible, as Ivan had eaten one and I'd eaten a few with him. After leaving Ivan for the night, I kept eating nuts for another 20 minutes - I guess I probably ate 30 or so before I got distracted by dinner.

About 2 hours later, I started to feel something like motion sickness. Drinking water didn't help, so I went to bed early hoping the illness would dissipate before the next morning's events with Ivan. I didn't know what to blame for the feeling - drinking bad water? Eating unwashed fruit?

I went to bed, and the feeling grew worse and worse until I had to vomit. I rushed to the bathroom, vomited 4-5 times, and then felt totally fine, as if nothing had happened. There was no residual sense of nausea at all. I went back to bed hoping it had passed.

It hadn't.

The same process repeated perhaps 5-7 times over the next 3 hours: I got increasingly nauseous, ran to the bathroom, vomited several times, and then felt perfectly fine. I estimate I vomited maybe 30 times. The next morning I had diarrhea once, and the whole affair was over. I not only felt fine, I had enough energy to tromp up and down steep hills for several hours on my plant walk with Ivan.

It turns out the nuts I thought were edible were actually medicinal - purgatives, specifically, used to 'clean the body out' through vomiting and diarrhea. You're supposed to take 3-5 for the desired effect, and I learned what happens when you take 10x that amount. Interestingly, there weren't any side effects at all: the main effect, vomiting, merely scaled up in proportion with the number of nuts I ate, and I still only had diarrhea once.

All in all, it was a pretty small price to pay for the reminder to be careful with these new plants, especially learning them in a foreign language. With experience they're as safe as any food or medicine can be, but until I've got that experience, I'll have to tread with more caution.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Leap and the Net Will Appear

Leap and the net will appear. - a Zen Saying

I don't know anything about the history of the above saying, but it was one of the first things I saw during my first visit to Earthaven in September 2013, and it's stuck with me: sometimes it's impossible to plan from a great physical or temporal distance; the only way to see what's possible is to jump in and make something happen. Interestingly, this was also the business advice of the CEO of my last company: when people came to him with business plans, he told them, approximately: "Don't show me your business plan; show me the business you started."

What I'm trying to do here in Ecuador - find an indigenous community to integrate with, learn from, and contribute to - demands trust relationships that I knew I couldn't make from afar. I had to get here and try to make them happen. And this past weekend, I had my first stroke of luck!

I was out playing harmonica in the woods, and on the way back into the city I stopped to poke around in some plants by the road to see if I could find any I recognized. A couple walked up and asked what plants I was looking for. Soon they were identifying all the plants in the patch and describing their medicinal and edible properties to me. It turns out the man is a naturopathic doctor who works with the indigenous and poor to bring free/low-cost medical care based on local plant-based medicines.

Then a whole bunch of crazy things happened - I described my goal for my time here (of integrating with an indigenous group to learn that way of life), and the couple recommended a particular community of indigenous down near Cuenca (southern Ecuador), including the names of particular people that could welcome me in. It turns out the wife is a 2nd or 3rd cousin of several families there, and said I should tell them that she sent me! So an indigenous woman just recommended me to her community! Whoa!

Not wanting to lose the connection, I asked if there was any way I could volunteer with them to help gather plants or make medicines, totally for free of course. They asked, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' "Nothing." "Want to meet us at 8:00 and join us in gathering plants?" "Ummm, most definitely!"  At least, I'm pretty sure that they planned to gather plants. I didn't quite understand, but I knew my answer was yes!

We parted, and after about 10 minutes the guy came walking back to change the plan slightly. Again I didn't quite understand the new plan, but it sounded similar and my answer was still yes. He invited me to join him walking towards his house, and on the way we identified another 10-12 plants, including several I could eat right then! Nuts, leaves, berries... We got to his home and the woman brought out a book called Plantas Cultivas, a visual dictionary of edible and medicinal plants of the Ecuador region. He took me through the book for maybe 20 minutes, and I'm excited to get my own copy. Finally we parted again, and I floated all the way back home.

I actually cried twice on the way home as it really sunk in that I'd been invited to live with an indigenous community by a member of that community.

A Day of Plant Walks
The next day, I met the man, Ivan, at his home at 7:30. We walked to a local cathedral which was quite breathtaking.

It wasn't until we got inside that we realized he was atheist and I'm... well, it's a topic for another post, but perhaps 'animast' is close. So we agreed that the Catholic Church was hypocritical for not using the millions of dollars of gold decorating the Church to help the poor as Christ would certainly have done, and then we left.

A Long Plant Walk
Ivan turns out to be a jack of many trades - his only commitment for the day was teaching a rock-climbing class at 10:30, but for 3-4 hours before then he and I hiked up and down mountains, occasionally bushwhacking, and he showed me tons of plants and their medicinal and edible uses, including some that locals heavily rely upon. He's also a mountain-climbing and local plant-guide as well as part time naturopathic doctor, having retired from full time medical work a few years ago.

A view of Quito from the north east. The city continues to roll over many more hills after the one you see.

At 10:30, Ivan and I met his wife and daughter and a dozen other people at the rock climbing spot, and by 12:30 it was time to go.  We passed some more beautiful places on the way out.

You can clearly see a waterfall on the right. If you zoom in, you can also see a bunch of smaller waterfalls in the dark brown area in the center and left of the picture. Far above this big chasm, there's a ledge you can just see in the foreground. It is a nice place to make music away from the noise and smog of the city.
We walked back into Quito and sat at a bus stop together for an hour just getting to know each other better - me, Ivan, Isabel, and their daughter Abigail. After an hour at the bus stop, I realized I was only 30-40 minutes from home and said I felt like walking home. They felt the same, so we left the bus stop together on foot. Eventually we parted and agreed to meet again soon.

I'm both excited and humbled that I may have found an opportunity to integrate with the sort of community I've been seeking. I may have other leads now as well, so I'm not sure where I'll go from here. Still, it's heartening to see theories and fantasies of an indigenous life turn into concrete options.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Seeing An Effective Political Group in Action

I arrived in Quito in mid November, and in early December I decided to seek out volunteer opportunities in Quito with any indigenous groups with offices here. There're tons of crap volunteer-tourist gigs ("Come save the indigenous for a week! And then go home and tell your friends how green you are!"), but I wanted to make meaningful relationships with any indigenous volunteer organizations, and if I could help support a good cause, so much the better. It turns out the indigenous tribes in Ecuador are pretty well self-organized and, although they've been shafted for centuries like indigenous everywhere, they've also had a lot of recent successes.

The group I started volunteering with is called CONAIE - Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador. And this year, they and others have had remarkable success blocking or discouraging the auction of oil leases on indigenous land. And what a coincidence: after 20+ years occupying their offices in Quito, the government has chosen now of all times to evict them, supposedly to make room for a gov't program to treat drug addicted youth.

The eviction notice literally hit the day before I started researching CONAIE, and instantly I knew I wanted to work with them - it was evidence they are effective, though it made volunteering a little more dangerous as a foreigner. Anyway, I rolled into their offices asking to volunteer. They didn't know what to do with me, since I'm guessing they don't get many volunteers. They asked, "What exactly do you think you could do?" I stumbled through a spiel in Spanish about helping with their mostly-empty website and fixing their broken email, and they said sure, come on in! I even got my own desk next in a room with several others whose first language is the dominant indigenous language here, Quichua.

Now, I've been hauling ass learning Spanish, but it's still only been 6-8 weeks total and the teachers at my school all speak reeeaaaallllyyy slooowwwlllyyyy. Well, not as slow as they used to, but they take care to enunciate. These folks at CONAIE, I ask them to slow down, and they only slow down long enough to say, "ok, I'll slow down" - and then they're off to the races again speaking at like warp 9 with a way different accent! Dammit!

It turns out CONAIE was planning a big reunion right before Christmas, inviting people from all over the country and other indigenous groups as well. CONAIE is actually a group-of-groups, formed out of 3-4 regional or indigenous nation-specific political organizations and all of them showed up at the reunion. As far as I can tell, it's 100% indigenous-lead, so there's no capitalist-funding leading them astray.

And I got invited to the reunion! The Friday afternoon before Christmas there was a big speechifying session as folks talked about the government suppression (eviction) attempt. It was neat to watch but I didn't understand much. Their spread was amazing though - this was the second meeting I'd been to in South America where the organizers plus many contributors put a huge spread of food in the middle as a reminder of the common values of the group - healthy abundant sustenance for all. I'd actually bought some strawberries and apples to share with my coworkers, so I was happy to be able to contribute too. After maybe 1.5 hours no one else had anything to say, so we broke into a social/eating period. There was tons of food! All the bread, cheese, and fruit you could want, plus onion-tomato-something else mixes, boiled potatoes, and cups of milk. It's like they planned it specially for me ;)

The Friday before the main event, there was a gathering with many short speeches and this beautiful spread. This gathering had far fewer people than the one the following week.
The Main Event
But the real meeting was the following Monday or Tuesday. The auditorium was packed with 200-300 people, and I learned how communities going back thousands of years work together to confront and solve problems.

Literally, for 3-4 hours starting around noon, there were continuous speeches. There was a much smaller food spread in the middle of the room, and part way through 2 women went to the middle, chopped up for the fruit and bread, and served it to the masses to keep our energy up. It was fascinating - one specially dressed up man kept some wood smoking in the middle, scenting the place. All sorts of people gave speeches. I probably understood 10% of what they said. I felt really bad about this at first, and then I realized many people were starting their speeches in Quichua, which is as non-European a language as it gets. Realizing that didn't help me understand any better, but at least I wasn't hating on my Spanish skillz as much.

And the speeches were fiery! I love fiery speeches, especially from strong women. These people were chin-up, chest-out, table-pounding righteous in their defense of CONAIE and their past successes defending clean, widely available water, preventing ruinous 'free-trade' agreements, and so on. Some speakers were quieter, but it was really inspiring to see their strength and their understanding of their situation - there were no euphemisms (that I could tell), no pulling punches.

And then it got even more interesting. The leadership got to work on a manifesto/declaration to become the reunion's public statement. A woman from the crowd got up and lead the group in a song (I think in Quichua). When they were done writing, she wound up and sat down. Then a woman from the leader's table started reading, and almost immediately a chunk of the crowd started booing! And I mean vociferously.

My first thought was, whoa, that's harsh. Then some guy stood up, seemingly without being called to speak, and launched into this really high-energy, impassioned speech. Now, I'll admit I understood exactly 0% of it, even though I think it was in Spanish. But just observing it was amazing: no one got mad. The leadership looked slightly shell-shocked, but said thanks and went to edit the declaration. Then they read some more, and got a little farther before the booing started again! And then ANOTHER dude got up, seemingly without being called on, and gave an even MORE impassioned speech; this time the crowd started clapping and whooping support for him.  Again, the leadership waited 'til he was done, said thanks, and made more edits. This cycle happened  maybe 4-5 times, and then people started filing out of the room for a big dinner being served outside the auditorium.

Let me be clear about what didn't happen: no one gave or took offense during this. People gave very strong feedback and expressed strong emotions, but there was never in-fighting, bickering, nit-picking, distracting, etc. Speakers didn't hog the spotlight or get carried away, and they sat down when they'd spoken their piece. No one complained that someone was talking too much, or that they hadn't gotten a turn to speak. The degree to which they were united, and to which they trusted each other and worked together, was astounding to me, and I had such respect for them. What an experience to see it in person.

While people filed out, several reporters brought large cameras to the area just in front of the leadership's table, and maybe 30-40 people went to stand behind the leadership table in solidarity. The head of CONAIE gave a speech and then swapped seats with 3-5 other people so they could give speeches. I'm guessing they were presidents or representatives of the regional indigenous groups, but who knows.

A picture of the press conference which came immediately after the group of 200-300 collectively drafted a public statement. I've seen groups 1/10th the size take far longer to draft a public statement like that. The rainbow pattern represents the plurinational, all-inclusive nature of the society CONAIE is pushing for Ecuador.
And then I realized: after 3-4 hours of speechifying, this group of 200-300 had written, edited, and agreed on a public declaration in less than an hour! Holy smokes. That's an efficient group if I ever heard of one.

Eviction Date
The eviction noticed was delivered in early December, and the eviction date was January 6. On January 4th indigenous from all over Ecuador traveled to Quito to protest and prevent the eviction. On January 5th, the government delayed the eviction by 2 months. On January 6th, I went to the building and listened to speeches in the hot mid-day Ecuadorian sun for a few hours. Some pictures:

CONAIE's building in Quito, Ecuador.

A picture of the crowd at the gathering on January 6, 2015.

After the speechifying, a violinist played music from the balcony and there was dancing in the streets. This particular dance wasn't improvisational - you can see the woman crouching in a row on the left as the men walk through towards the right.
The eviction issue has dominated CONAIE's time so much that I really haven't been able to integrate or help very much. Whether I end up being able to contribute materially or not, it's been special seeing the group in action and I'm grateful they've let me play a (small) part.