There are children in the world who will cook breakfast for you (scrambled eggs, fried plantains, hearts of palm), drink coffee with the adults in the morning, who take naps on their own in the daytime, and who eat dinner quickly so they can go to sleep. These children will babysit your children for you. I know because I live with these children. I woke up this morning to an 8-year-old girl lighting a heavy-duty gas stove, and an 11-year-old boy slicing plantains. The reason I was amazed was because the one time I tried to light this particular stove I almost blew my face off. (I attributed this to a faulty stove, but apparently it was me, the faulty human.)
I used to consider myself self-sufficient. In the United States I do my own laundry with a machine, I walk or ride the train or drive to get where I need to go, I cook for myself, I pay bills, etc. I now know that none of these means anything. I’m still helpless because I have no survival skills. With a machete, it takes me half an hour to cut down a tree with the diameter of a spool of thread. I don’t know how to catch fish in the river using only my hands, and I don’t know how to weave a net to catch them. I can’t build a house, plant a garden, or find ants hidden in the knot of a tree if I’m starving in the forest. I can’t find the right plants if I need medicine or make my own charcoal for building a fire.
I’ve been reading Neruda’s The Hands of Day. I bought this particular bilingual edition right before leaving town to practice Spanish, and even though he’s a Chilean poet, his words have become very relevant to my experiences in Ecuador. This is an excerpt from the poem, “El Hijo del la Luna” or “Child of the Moon”, translated by William O’Daly:
“Everything is here, living,
without my patient participation…
And because I went so far without grinding
minerals or cutting wood
I feel that the world does not belong to me:
it belongs to those who pounded nails and cut
and raised these buildings,
because if the mortar, which was born
and lasted sustaining the intentions,
was made my others’ hands
caked with mud and blood,
I did not have the right to declare
That I existed: I was a child of the moon.”
I feel somewhat useless here, because my hands are useless in planting and building, and because as is reflected in Neruda’s poetry, the poet feels anxiety about whether the poetry they are writing has value
in a world where working with hands is so important.
A week ago someone killed an opossum around 7pm. The opossum was hung in a tree, and the next morning the belly was split open in preparation for making soup. The opossum was abandoned for other duties, and in about ten minutes two pink hairless babies gave birth to themselves, and began trying to suckle milk from their dead mother. As I admired their struggle for survival, it made me realize how helpless we really are as human beings. When the human body is very ill it can’t sustain itself. Dehydration can happen very rapidly, and weakness and fever can take over, leaving one incapable of caring for oneself. When I was sick I was in bed with a fever for hours, and as soon as someone discovered me alone they brought my temperature back down to normal in less than an hour.
I think the main reason communities (that word alone says a lot) thrive so well in the Amazon is because everyone works together. Everyone works in the garden together, everyone helps when a new house is being built, and everyone is well-fed, because if you don’t have food at your house you go to someone else’s. The children take care of each other, and not to say that they are perfect, but I think a reason they are well-behaved in the household is because they use their hands to help cook, do laundry, take care of smaller children. When they play, they play with natural objects- things with roughness, warmth or coolness, sharp, smooth, aromatic. They build with stones in the river, make telescopes from banana leaves, light small fires in the dirt around tiny houses decorated with pale purple flower petals that glow in the moonlight. In their hands they hold butterflies, tadpoles, fish, beetles, crickets, tiny snakes. They take the heads off of lip-shaped carnivorous plants and hold them in their teeth. They walk barefoot, so that their body knows the landscape, or vice versa, in the words of Neruda, “Ando por el terreno que conoce mis pies”, “I walk over terrain that knows my feet.”