For the next three weeks, I’m living in the Intag cloud forest region of Ecuador. The area is dotted with tiny pueblos which are tucked into valleys and nestled on top of ridges. The roads here are dirt and cobblestone, and they wind up and down hills through a green mosaic of forest and small agricultural plantations. I’m living with a family in Peñaherrera (population about 150 families) and commuting 20 minutes each day by overcrowded bus or motorcycle to Apuela, another small town where the regional newspaper I’m working for is based.
This year, I’ve spent a lot of time in places where life runs a lot slower than my usual mile-a-minute pace. When left to my own devices, I will triple-book myself from 8am-10pm, schedule conversations with friends to make sure I have time to see them, have sixteen windows open on my browser and spend the bulk of my day trying to get as much out of every second as I possibly can (that or watching stuff on Netflix). In Ghana, I got used to waiting for hours for people to show up for interviews in their villages because they were out farming or couldn’t catch a ride or just didn’t feel like showing up on time. Every night, I went home to a house with no TV, no internet and nothing much to do except talk to my dad, attempt to cook, or read. My first two weeks in Ecuador I was on a farm in the middle of nowhere—no Internet, no TV, no radio, no cell reception and nothing to do after work except read and talk to the other volunteers. Now, I’m in a similar situation. It looks like I’ll be getting home around 4pm everyday, and while there are ample TVs here and internet cafés close by, there’s still not really anything to do in the Western sense of the term (no movie theaters, bowling alleys, bars, cultural attractions, etc.) Mostly, it seems like people play volleyball, watch TV and sit around and talk to each other.
Spending time in places like this has made me think about the nature of my friendships. With casual friends, I do many of the same things people seem to do in rural Ecuador. We watch movies together, sit around chatting about what we did today, maybe go shopping or grab a meal. With my closest friends, though, I mostly share ideas with them. Sure, we hang out and waste time together, but my closest friendships are the ones where we stay up until all hours of the night discussing Occupy Wall Street, the border and the socioeconomic factors which create food deserts. Mostly, we talk about the world—what’s going on, what’s wrong with everything and how we might go about fixing it.
In my ideal world, communities would be a lot more local than they are now. People would spend a lot more time interacting with their neighbors, a lot more time doing things like taking care of community gardens and a lot less time online. In some versions of the future, there is no internet—post-gridcrash, we all go back to being people living in the rural Third World, with no power, little connection to the outside world and a radically local lifestyle. This is how humans have lived for thousands of years, for the majority of human history. And it’s occurred to me that in this world, I have no idea what a friendship looks like. If the world were such that there weren’t absurd problems to try and solve, or if I was living so locally and off-grid that I had no idea what was going on on other continents, I have no idea what I would do with my friends.
In many ways, the Ghanaian villages I visited this summer and the Ecuadorian cloud forest where I’m living now seem like a window into this world. Here, people seem to form relationships based more on proximity than anything else. You know the people you grow up near, because they’re close to you. Obviously, there are people you get along with better than others, and you gravitate towards them. People aren’t disconnected from the outside world by any means—Intag is a hotbed of environmental activism on issues ranging from deforestation to water pollution caused by mining. But most people here don’t seem to spend their free time discussing the philisophical implications of Occupy Wall Street imbracing an explicitly nonviolent strategy, for example. They mostly spend it being normal people.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the end of civilization (or at least a transition to a radically localized economy) would look like in economic, political and environmental terms. I’ve thought a lot about big picture things, how we would get food and energy, how democracies would function. But it’s interesting to think about the more personal—not just that my friends might be very different people, but that the entire nature of friendship might change too. I always think of things like types of food or manners of greeting people when asked to describe cultural differences. It’s kind of an exciting notion that something as basic as friendship isn’t a constant either.