Uncertain: The Quest for Ecuador's Best Chocobanana and Other Misadventures
“Uncertain” is a key term for Pachaysana students and teachers. The word serves as the perfect response for the questions both logistical and philosophical that arise during a semester of fair-trade, community-based, cultural-exchange education in Ecuador. (Will it rain today? Uncertain. How will the second-round presidential election affect our excursion schedule? Uncertain. How do I navigate my values in conflict with cultural norms?Uncertain. How are you feeling? Uncertain.) The word also encapsulates the Pachaysana mission— “empowering local communities” means following their unpredictably changing needs and goals. And, as Pachaysana director Daniel Bryan often comments, real life is supremely Uncertain, and it’s appropriate our education embrace this reality.
“Uncertain” was also a key term for my trip to Pañacocha. Marcia, Wayra and I took an 8-day trip to Coca and Pañacocha in order to make preparations for a fair trade research project by Pachaysana advisor Belén Noroña. The months-long project would consist of a knowledge/cultural exchange between Tzawata (home of Wayra and Marcia) and Pañacocha, two Amazonian Kichwa communities confronting the forces of globalization and extractive industries. Our 8-day preparatory trip consisted of buying supplies, investigating logistics, obtaining an invitation to the community, and establishing relationships with community members. My role was to act as secretary/contact person for Belén/likable “gringa” (white girl). None of us had ever visited nor met anyone from Pañacocha. Ours was certainly an Uncertain mission.
During our first couple days I slept little and pulled long hours organizing our notes, organizing the completion of our tasks, navigating the interpersonal dynamics of our work, and completing to the best of my ability my Uncertain assignment. Our team zigzagged through central Coca, in search of cell phone chips and mosquito nets and nice hotels and good rice, until we were sure we had walked every street at least twice.
Having searched the city so thoroughly, we could at least say with confidence and dismay that the city of Coca did not sell “chocobananas” (chocolate-covered frozen bananas, a treat I have a reputation for loving in Tzawata). I joked to Wayra, “What’s the chance we’ll find chocobananas in Pañacocha?”
“I have 100% doubt.”
“I’m an optimist,” I told him, “I have 95% doubt.”
Once in Pañacocha, I had much less work. Or, the nature of my work changed. My role shifted from Coordinator to Likeable Gringa, meaning the appropriate leadership style became much more hands-off. My personal motto quickly became: “When in doubt, shut up.”
While we were all first-time visitors to the community, Marcia and Wayra obviously had the best sense for culturally navigating this Amazonian Kichwa community. Their abilities to converse in Kichwa and Spanish and to naturally assume many cultural norms put them in the best position to communicate our project. In addition, it was crucial that they been seen as the leaders in the project, as the success of the project would depend on the authentic leadership of the Kichwa participants.
Already, in Coca, we experienced people assuming I was the leader, likely because (a.) I’m white and (b.) I was holding the money. I proposed Marcia hold the cash and collect the receipts, and I continue my role as secretary/bookkeeper, to demonstrate that (a.) Marcia and Wayra were the leaders and that (b.) Marcia, as the woman, held authority equal to Wayra’s. Having this conversation in Coca also gave us the opportunity to make explicit our intention to introduce me as Marcia and Wayra’s secretary/volunteer.
Therefore, in Pañacocha, I stood back, observed, and did my best to act appropriately. My work included, but was not limited to, drinking a fair amount of “chicha” (a traditional Kichwa fermented drink). At one larger gathering of community members, we were all brought bowls of chicha, and I dutifully worked away on mine, trying to drink at the same pace as Marcia. I soon saw Marcia walk across the room and return her bowl to the hostess, and Wayra later do the same. I had not seen how much chicha remained in their bowls, and I leaned over to Wayra to confirm, “I should drink all the chicha?” He said yes. The remaining chicha was quickly becoming more pulp and fibrous dregs and less appealing.
Still, I swirled and gulped, swirled and gulped, determined to finish gracefully. Finally Marcia leaned over to tell me, “that’s enough.” I walked across the room, set down my bowl, saw the others’ bowls still containing a couple inches of liquid, and saw the shocked faces of our hostesses. As I returned to my seat, one woman quietly exclaimed, “She drank it all!” I cursed Wayra, and we explained what had happened. Everyone laughed at me, including myself.
My week in Pañacocha was full of the unexpected and Uncertain, and my work was fully unconventional. It was uniquely tiring and challenging to be constantly conscious of my social performance in this foreign culture and to try to direct our communications as Belén would wish without over-interfering. But the Uncertain also brings the best surprises.
During one afternoon stroll through our neighborhood of the community, I noticed a small white paper taped below the second-story window of one house. It stopped me in my tracks.
“Wayra. Marcia. You are not going to believe this.”
I indicated the sign. It read, “Chocobananas sold here.”
Group consensus decided this would be an appropriate use of budgeted funds. The bananas were exceptionally sweet and the chocolate was different, likely made fresh with home-grown cacao and sugar cane. We savored our frozen chocolate-covered bananas in the heavy, humid heat of the equatorial Amazon and it was, beyond a doubt, the most delicious chocobanana of my life.