NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!


Living on the internet

Last week, while waiting for the bus back home, my host dad William gave one of my brothers (Alexander) a toy gun to play around with. He was shooting tiny yellow balls and laughing and running to recollect them. My dad and I sat on a bench smiling at Alex’s enjoyment, and then my dad leaned in and told me that he’d given Alex the toy because today was Alex’s birthday. I was about to wish him a happy birthday and was feeling bad for not knowing earlier when my dad said, “It’s a surprise. We haven’t told him yet.” When we got back home, we had dinner like normal, and then my parents turned the lights off while my older brother, Richard, brought out a cake for Alex. Alex was delighted, beaming, and thrilled to be presented with a single gift—a battery powered wind-up truck. Sure enough, he’d completely forgotten that it was his birthday.
In the United States, I have a hard time imagining any child past the point of self-awareness not knowing when their own birthday is. Certianly our parents generally make a big deal about it, asking who we want to invite to parties and what gifts we’d like to receive, but once we’re old enough to know that one day a year is our special day, we start keeping track. I’m not sure what makes that different here—maybe rural Ecuadorian children are much less likely to be willing or able to keep precise track of the date, or maybe birthdays just aren’t a huge deal here the way they are back home (I suspect a bit of both). And now with Facebook, the rich and technologically privilged of the world (of which I’m definitely a part) have gone beyond the possibility of not knowing when our own birthdays are. Every time you log in, you’re greeted with a list of friends who are celebrating one more year of life—perhaps you’d like to write on their wall, or send them a digital gift? It’s so easy to keep in touch with people who are thousands of miles away and so easy to keep tabs on every single person you’ve ever run across in your life.
I’ve waffled back and forth with my feelings about the ever-increasing amount of information that’s just a click away from our fingertips. As much as I understand the dangers of digitizing my brain completely, I love having so much available to me. I’m completely addicted to information, and have been for a while. I spend over half of my income on books and magazine subscriptions. I’m constantly reading something. I got into journalism mostly because I realied that it’s a free pass to talk to anyone about anything you want and learn from them. Now, I follow almost 200 people on Twitter, mostly other news sources, and I’m constantly checking my feed for links to interesting articles from the New York Times, Mother Jones, Good, Slate and a million other sources. I love having a real-time idea of what’s happening, love that I can get links to five different commentaries on the same piece of news which all build off of and complement one another. But I’m starting to think that combining the seemingly unlimited potential of the internet with my information-craving brain is like building a meth lab in the basement of an addict. To be fair, information, unlike meth, is good for you in moderate amounts, but I  think there might be a limit to how much it’s healthy to know.
People, especially ones from older genertions, have been lamenting the effects of technology on the brains of our youth for as long as I can remember. As a child, my mom put a weekly limit on my and my brother’s computer time—four hours a week. We kept dilligent paper logs of our time (it would never have occurred to me to lie about it), and while the limit was at times annoying (like when I was just about to beat Pajama Sam for the six-hundredth time), I don’t remember it being a huge burden in my life. I didn’t really start using the computer much until seventh grade, when it became my after-school social life (AOL Instant Messanger and LiveJournal), and then in eigth grade, when I started using it more for research for school. The internet was certianly part of my life, but it wasn’t my main activity or a place where I spent the majority of my time. I read books. I talked to my friends on the phone. I went to movies. I wrote in a journal.
How quaint that notion seems to me today. I still do all of those things—I read a ton, I watch movies, I write in several journals, I talk to my friends. And I do almost all of it online. My hours spent reading books cover to cover have been replaced by my steady stream of online news and downloaded PDFs of books and articles. Sure, I read print a lot too, but nowhere near as much as I used to. I call my friends on the phone occasionally, but mostly, we communicate via Facebook wall posts, email messages, G-chat and Skype. I journal in print when I need to work something out by myself, but I blog much more regularly. And almost all of my media comsumption—TV and movies—takes place through Hulu, Netflix, YouTube or illegally downloaded media that plays right on my computer screen. Sometimes, I feel like my life is bending ever-so-perfectly to fit the narrative Justin Timberlake lays out when he plays Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster, in The Social Network. “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet,” he says, and I see my future laid out before me. And it scares me.
I love technology. I love the convenience, the information flow, the ability to meet, be connected to and stay in touch with people from every corner of the globe. I love the things social networking has enabled, love that the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street probably couldn’t have happened without Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. I love that it’s possible for me to teach myself about anarchist history or edible plants around Seattle or how to can fruit without ever leaving my room. But I’m worried about what it’s doing to me, to my relationship with people, with reality, with hard work, with secrecy, with anonymity.
Because of the internet, I’ve largely lost the ability to be uninformed, to make a conscious choice to not pay attention to current events or world news. Sure, I go hiking or backpacking and I don’t check my email for a week. But if it’s there, if I have the opportunity, I’m always online. If I’m not online, there’s always a to-do list in the back of my head for next time I am—check email, update the blog, come up with a witty Facebook status describing my adventures, check the New York Times to make sure we didn’t experience nuclear winter while I was away. I can’t focus for very long on any one thing—I always have four or five windows open and I switch between them, reading a chuck of each at a time. I do the same thing with books and magazines—I can’t sit down and read something for longer than about ten mintues before I get distracted by something else, even if it’s just another book. Some of that is just the way my brain is wired. I’m always thinking a mile a minute, always planning what I’m going to be doing next. But the internet has definitely accelerated the trend.
Besides just my brain, I’m getting a little unnerved by how much of my life takes place on the servers of Google. I use their search engine any time I need to look something up. This blog is hosted on Blogspot, which Google owns. I frequent YouTube, use Gmail for all of my email, use Chrome to browse the internet, Google translate to help me with Spanish papers and Google Maps anytime I need to get somewhere. Now I even have a profile on G+, their newsish social network. I don’t think Google is an evil empire, and I believe that they’re going to continue to be an absurdly successful company (which is why I surrendered a bit and bought a share of their stock). Google certianly doesn’t know everything about me, but if you add in the information from Facebook and Twitter, you’d probably get a pretty decent picture of my life. And that scares me a little. There’s nothing incriminating about me online as far as I know—no pictures of underage drinking, no nudity, no calls to arms other than occasional references to defending our land against things like the Keystone Pipeline. And it might be a bit hypocritical for me to complain about all of this data being out there when I’m the one who put it there in the first place. I think the pros of visibility—getting to share ideas, meet people, have interesting dicsussions—outweigh the cons, which is why I’m as wired in as I am. But it’s still a bit scary to think of how much of a digital paper trail is out there with my name on it, how much someone could learn about me without even needing to spy on me or hack into my accounts.
I talked to my dad about this over the summer a bit. He frequently warns me that everything I post on my blog will exist forever, and that I need to be careful about what I say so as to not scare off future employers. (I try to bite my lip and not point out that this advice seems a bit forced coming from someone who’s in the middle of starting his second company and hasn’t had a boss since he quit his job at Microsoft in 1997.) At one point, we talked a bit about my LiveJournal, which I used primarily in 8thand 9th grade to be an angsty teenager and talk to my friends about the drama going on in our lives. My dad said he felt sorry for my generation, because we don’t have the capacity to re-invent ourselves; everything’s out there forever. I said sure, maybe, but it’s not like the friends I’ve made at Whitman are going back and reading my blog from middle school and using it to form impressions of the person I am now. No, he said, he didn’t even mean that. He meant that because we have this permanent online record of ourselves, we’ve somewhat lost the capacity to re-invent ourselves in our own minds. Back when he was my age, you could do stupid stuff and forget about it. You could grow into a more mature person and let some of your youthful  angst and adventure fade away in your own mind. But I can’t do that. If I want to, I can recall with painful clarity the conversations I had with my best friends when I was suicidal in 7th grade, because I have our AIM chats saved on my hard drive. I can go back and read my LiveJournal entries where I was whining that no one took me seriously and my family was driving me crazy, see all my friends’ comments and still feel guilty now for being so self-absorbed and needy for so many years. My self-perception has been shaped by my digital archive in ways I probably can’t fully comprehend.
It’s not bad to know yourself. But we’ve gotten increasingly caught up in this idea that pieces of data—discrete points in time—areourselves*. As programmer Jaron Lanier says in his book You Are Not A Machine, data always and necessarily underrepresents reality. My sense of who I was in 7th and 8th grade comes almost exclusively from my print journals, my LiveJournal archive and my saved chat conversations with friends, because my memories of those years of my life are too distant to be clear any more. In other words, my self-perception is based off of a series of points, not a continuous arc. And those point cannot hope to convery the rich complexity of my life. During those years, I was a mess. I was depressed and borderline suicidal for most of a year, and that’s mostly what I wrote about. Looking at the data points I have, I find myself wondering how I survived. But those points aren’t the sum total of my life during those years. I had moments of joy, of laughter, of happiness, of enjoying time with friends. I read books and got new ideas and joked around and thought about things besides the best way to hurt myself. And those barely register in the data I have. It’s like I have a photo album that’s missing a third of its pictures.
And as it does this to the past, I worry that technology is also datafying our present. I am a person. I experience a variety of emotions—crushing lonliness, extreme joy—that cannot be captured online. The other day, I was walking home while the sun was just starting to set. I’m in the middle of a cloud forest, in what I’m pretty sure is the most beautiful place on earth, and the sunset was almost too much for my brain to handle. I was full of so much emotion seeing all of that beauty, I was running and skipping and shaking my head and telling my friend that seeing things like that made me want to sleep with someone or believe in God (he, naturally, told me that I’m ridiculous). And you absolutely cannot have a moment like that on the internet. Data cannot possibly hope to represent something that real or raw.
Because of that, I think I compartmentalize myself. There’s my online identity—someone a little crazy who cares about activism and food politics, who overthinks everything and pretends to be an anarchist every so often when she gets upset with politics. My status updates and tweets and blog posts all fit into this narrative. But that’s not all there is to me. I do the same thing with events. For me, a birthday isn’t just a day when you turn a year older. It’s a family dinner, it’s a thing that will show up on my Facebook friends’ sidebars, it’s an opportunity to create the perfect event page to invite people to my party. It cannot and will never be as simple as it was for my brother here, who didn’t even know it was his special day until his parents told him.
I love the internet and I love technology. On the whole, those things have done far more good in my life than bad. But they’re also changing who I am, who we all are, the range and spectrum of experiences that are possible for us to have. I’m going to keep spending a lot of my time online, because there are tools and information there that I value. But in a completely digital world, Alex’s simple happiness at being presented with a birthday cake is not possible. And that’s why, unlike Sean Parker, I never want to live online.
*This point comes from an amazing article called Generation Why, which deconstructs Facebook and the impact of social networking on our self-perception. You should go read it now.

Friendship in a post-civilization world

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. 

Turtles, time and something like silence

It’s almost one in the morning when I see my first turtle. She’s a leatherback, black and almost six feet long. She moves up the beach in the dark, slowly, as if carrying a great burden. Turning her massive body, back feet now facing us, she begins to dig. There’s sand flying everywhere, and we move to avoid it, trying to be quiet. There are six of us staring at her, but she seems almost oblivious to our presence. She’s focused on the task at hand. With the hole dug, she stands over it and lets her eggs drop in. They come in bursts, slimy and about the size of golf balls, falling into the sand, plopping into the nest she’s made. As she lets them go, tears stream down her face. Locals say that she’s crying at the thought of being separated from her babies. Science says she’s shedding salt from her body. There’s so much gravity in the air, so much at stake that I want to believe she feels what’s going on. In a world where fewer and fewer turtles are able to survive long enough to complete the cycle she’s beginning tonight, her presence here is beautiful, awe-inspiring, a tale of triumph. And yet the odds are stacked against her. I’m thirteen, only in eighth grade, but something in her eyes speaks to a much older part of me. I feel the emergency of the situation, the sad truth that the actions of my species are driving her kind to extinction. I see the same recognition in her tears, not directed at me, but a general sense of weariness, of someone who’s lived too long and watched the world grow less familiar, less safe. I’m afraid to move, afraid to disturb something much older and more profound than I will ever be. We all watch in silence as she covers her progeny in sand and heads back towards the ocean. And then the stillness of the moment is gone. Walkie-talkies crackle, informing others that we’ve got a turtle nest. And our work begins.
This night, I’m at a turtle station in Costa Rica. The station exists because leatherbacks and other sea turtles are under assault on multiple fronts. Habitat loss and pollution are disrupting their lives in the ocean. Human development and construction threaten the beaches where they lay their eggs. Hatchlings are confronted with a loud, confusing world upon their emergence from the safety of an eggshell, and too many of them head towards the glowing lights of civilization instead of into the water they should learn to call home. And as if all this weren’t enough, poaching of nests has become more common, turtle eggs having become a valuable black market delicacy. Our task, on this one stretch of beach, is simple. We find the nests, dig them up, and move the eggs to a fenced-off hatchery where they can be monitored and guarded against poachers. We take away their wildness in exchange for a higher survival rate because right now, the stakes are too high to sit by and let nature take its course. I’m on the late patrol, 12:30-4:30am. Since I’m thirteen, I’ve only stayed up this late once or twice in my life. The feeling that I’m awake well past my bedtime only adds to the gravity of the situation and makes the entire night feel surreal.
That week I spent in Costa Rica awakened something inside of me. I’d always known conservation was important, but that trip put that knowledge right in front of me. It’s so easy to rationalize away extinctions, to shrug and sigh and ask what we could have done differently. But spending a night watching turtles lay their eggs, and you start to see the stakes. You know in your head that their tears are just a process that’s evolved to allow them to live in salt water, but you still feel like you’re being initiated into the process of life and death, like the universe is giving you a glimpse behind the curtain.
Now, I’m in the Galapagos Islands. The air here is pregnant with environmental conflict and scientific importance.  This is where Charles Darwin himself discovered natural selection, for God’s sake. And after centuries of human interference and millions of tourists coming in and out, Galapagos is threatened too. There are introduced species threatening native birds. There’s trash building up from residents and from ever-increasing levels of tourists. I don’t need to see turtles laying eggs in the wee hours of the morning to feel that same imperative, the same sense that very real things are at stake. Today, we hiked around Santiago Island on lava flows, and we saw a species of plant that’s endemic to that island only. This tiny little succulent vine has managed to survive growing between the black cracks in the lava, and it’s found nowhere else on earth. Everywhere we’ve been in Ecuador is ecologically important, and everywhere has endemic species. But something about the Galapagos Island manages to capture that imperative better even than remote corners of the Amazon that are threatened by oil extraction. The blue waters and sun and geologically spectacular islands make me feel like I’ve come to the end of the world, or a close enough approximation to serve as a set for either Planet Earth or Pirates of the Caribbean. There are sea lions and marine iguanas everywhere, plus Darwin’s famous finches. And it’s beautiful. Spectacularly so.
Here too, there are turtles in the water. They’re green sea turtles, smaller than the leatherbacks I saw in Costa Rica, but they look similar enough that I get the same feeling. These are old animals, both individually and evolutionarily. They’re reptiles who would not look out of place alongside the dinosaurs, and each individual lives longer than most humans ever will. The nature writer Craig Childs told me last fall that you should never listen to anyone who tells you not to anthropomorphize animals, because assigning human emotions and motivations to animals is the only way we have to relate, empathize and care for them. So I watch these turtles, the way they move through the water with such slow grace and I think that they must feel the changes in their world. Maybe they’re largely insulated from the effects of civilization since they live in one of the most protected marine reserves on earth. But turtles have been known to migrate extraordinary distances, and I can’t help but think that they must notice the plastic building up in the oceans, the rising temperatures and sea levels, the way more and more two-legged creatures come in boats every year, pointing cameras at them and exclaiming in delight every time one of them sticks its head above the water to breathe. More than noticing, I look at these old sea creatures, and I think they must understand. They have to see how it’s connected, how the increased presence of humans is tied to the trash in their home, to the slow erosion of their slow way of life.
I want someone from the animal kingdom to hold us accountable, and these ancient reptiles seem like appropriate stewards of the place where life began in a primordial stew. Every single species of marine turtle is endangered on a global level, and I worry that this is the only reprimand they’ll give us. Turtles don’t cry out asking to be saved, and they don’t hold the same imperative that seems to come with polar bears and wolves. I worry that their last message will be almost silent, that they won’t warn us. I worry that they will slip away, and their absence will speak louder than the rasping way they take in air, heads just barely above the surface of the water, entering our above-ground world for a second before vanishing back into the blue-green depths of the ocean.

Danger in the forest

Temperate forests train us to be passive. Occasionally, hikers get eaten by bears or cougars, or gored to death by mountain goats. But by and large, the biggest threats you face in a temperate forest are the elements. You’re much more likely to hurt yourself by getting lost, falling off of a cliff, drowning in a raging river or freezing to death. You’re constantly battling the elements when you’re outside–taking off a fleece, putting on a rain jacket. You’re afraid of getting wet, of cold, of the setting sun.
In the tropics, the elements are more or less constant. It might rain, but it’s so warm that it doesn’t really matter. It’s always hot and humid, and so you’re constantly drenched in your own sweat. And yet, walking through a tropical forest, you have to be constantly on guard. Here, all the threats to your existence are living. There are the standard subjects of nature documentaries—anacondas lurking in rivers, poisonous snakes tangled in the vines of a tree, ants whose sting will have you in bed for two days with a fever. But really, the danger is everywhere. Wasp stings become routine, like getting bitten by a mosquito while hiking in the Cascades. You have to re-learn how to walk in an environment where you can’t grab a tree to stop a fall because the trunk is covered in spines, home to a toxic caterpillar, or protected by a group of army ants. You’re constantly vigilant, because everything around you is full of poison—the spines of plants, the insects living on them, the snakes you’ve been afraid of your whole life, the frogs hiding between the leaves. There’s no place for idle daydreaming, for putting your hands on a blind ledge or grabbing a vine without really looking at it.
And yet, here I take risks. I strip naked, wearing nothing but my rain boots, and let wasps sting me in unmentionable places as I bathe in a puddle of water on the forest floor. I run through the forest on a moonless night without a headlamp, where the dark is so total that I can’t see my hand in front of my face. I swim in a river where I’ve seen an anaconda the night before, where there are piranhas and caimans and parasitic fish that will swim up your vagina and have to be surgically removed. I do this for a week, get stung by something large and black that I can’t quite see, and my hand is radiating burning pain past my wrist for an hour. But I’m fine. I survive, largely without incident.
Now, I want to go home and get to know my place better. I’ve never thought to run naked through a temperate forest, partially because I’d probably be close to well-frequented trails, but really because I just haven’t been trying hard enough to actually be outside. I don’t go into Discovery Park at night and run around without a headlamp. I don’t sit nestled between the roots of a hemlock tree and sketch the plants near me or close my eyes and see if I can hear the wind over the sound of my own thoughts. I haven’t even snuck back into Cleveland Memorial Forest, the Seattle School District-owned piece of old-growth where my high school ran outdoor program trips, to run around on the trails that used to be my home almost every weekend during the school year. I’ve been spending too much time reading, as usual, and not enough time getting to know the plants I live near.
When I come home to the US, I’m going to feel very homeless. Since I left for Ecuador, my cousin has moved into my room. My stuff is mostly in boxes in the basement. I have stuff in storage at Whitman, but I’m not moved into my house there either. I need focus and purpose for the month I’m home, or I’m going to drive myself crazy sitting at home and feeling like I don’t quite belong. And so, I want to try to re-learn the forests of my childhood, to connect with them better, to teach myself botany like a scientist and teach myself to see place like a tracker. I want to spend a good portion of a day or two every week in the forests by my house, not hiking, but just sitting and observing things and drawing leaves. So many indigenous people raised in the Amazon are able to walk through their tropical forests with completely confidence, knowing which plants are safe to eat and how to get where they need to go. I’ve been blessed to grow up near a forest that’s safe, a forest where I’m not going to get bitten by a poisonous snake or attacked by a bullet ant. And it’s time for me to start taking advantage of that.

The gay conversation

My host brother, Nico, had one of his friends over last week (they play in a band together), and I was chatting with them about music. My brother’s friend studied in the US for a while and has a gringa girlfriend, so his English is even better than Nico’s (he’s more or less fluent, but you can tell English isn’t his first language). He always wants to speak English with me, so we usually talk in a mixture of the two languages. The boys were discussing songs for their band, and Nico mentioned loving some song by John Mayer. His friend agreed, and I shook my head.
“What?” the friend asked me.
“Nothing, he’s just an asshole and a womanizer,” I responded. We discussed this for a little while—they wanted to know how I knew this (“Have reasons, Rachel,” said Nico). I said I saw stuff about him on supermarket tabloid covers. Eventually, we agreed that his music was one thing, but as a person, he was probably an asshole.
And then Nico’s friend says, “Well, at least he’s not gay.”
Quito as a city looks pretty developed. The more rural areas of Ecuador seem more classically “third world”, but Quito might as well be a major city in the US, at least in many regards. So sometimes I forget how different cultures can be here. But this is one of the most striking differences between the US and the Third World that I’ve noticed. Say what you will about the US’s policies towards gay people, but at least among our urban, well-educated population, being gay has become almost completely normal. Not to say that there isn’t discrimination, but being gay is not the awful, secret thing it was fifty years ago. A friend coming out to me wouldn’t elicit anything more than, “Oh, ok, cool.” I’ve almost gotten to the point where I stop assuming gender when someone mentions having a significant other.
So here I am, radical feminist/ally Rachel, sitting across the table from two nice, well-educated guys who happen to believe that about half of my friends are disgusting. Cultural sensitivity is one thing, but I wasn’t letting that one slide.
“What does that mean?” I asked. Nico’s friend said something I don’t remember about gay people being gross. I said, “You know, like half of my friends at school are gay.”
He countered with, “That’s ok because you’re a girl, though. It’s not weird if they’re lesbian.”
This sentiment, that somehow lesbians are ok, or aren’t really gay, is something I also noticed in Ghana. While I was there, homosexuality was causing quite the controversy in the local papers (this all started when the main government-owned daily paper ran as a front page headline: 8000 HOMOS FOUND IN TWO REGIONS. The deck was, “majority infected with HIV/AIDS”. The actual story was that the UN AIDS program was trying to get people to come forward and get tested for HIV as a public health measure, and some of them happened to be gay.) So the whole time I was there, there were opinion columns and articles debating the ethics of tolerating homosexuals, one of which defined bisexuality as “when someone is married but maintains sexual relations with the same sex.” And yet invariably, every single article would spend paragraphs bashing gay people and then say something to the effect of, “Lesbians are totally cool, though.” I think it’s a pretty common attitude in general. For people threatened by gay-ness, lesbians are much safer. First of all, girls don’t have sex (because we’re all proper and don’t have any libido and are just waiting to be seduced by nice guys). So if someone says they’re lesbian, no one pictures two girls going at it. Also, lesbians come with the possibility of girls making out with each other! Which many straight guys seem to think is the most exciting thing in the world.
Anyway, back in Ecuador, I was shaking my head and trying to figure out what I could say to these guys. I said, “No, they’re not all lesbian, I have guy friends who are gay too.”
And then, Nico’s friend says, “Oh, that’s scary though…” He motions cutting himself and blood dripping, and says, “…and then you’ll get HIV.”
At that point, I just got mad. I said, no, that’s absurd, most gay people do not have HIV. He said, yes they do, because they all have anal sex. I said that not all gay people have anal sex, and anyway, that’s why condoms were invented. He said, no, condoms were invented for guys and girls to use, not for gay people. Clearly, I was not getting anywhere here.
And so he kept talking with Nico, and I thought about straight privilege. It hurts me to hear people talk this way about people I know and love. Two of my best friends from high school are gay. Another one is trans. My roommate freshman year was queer. About half of my friends at Whitman are not straight in some capacity. And yet, as a straight person, I can travel to countries where the prevailing attitude towards gayness is one of disgust and judgment, and I can feel safe. My relationships will never be questioned. I am normal. I fit the mold.
As I’m sitting here, thinking, he asks me what I’m thinking about. I shook my head, not sure how to explain. He says, “You’re thinking about them having sex, aren’t you?” I said no, I was thinking about all the people I know and care about who happen to be gay, but also happen to be people with characteristics other than their sexuality. He laughed and said, “But now you’re thinking about sex.” I said yes, since he brought it up. He said it would just be weird to have gay friends, because they might start liking you. I said, so what, I’ve had guy friends who liked me when I didn’t feel the same way, and it’s weird, but it wouldn’t  be any weirder if it was a girl. He shook his head and employed the standard Latino guy defense. “It’s just because we have a machista culture”, he said. That’s why we’re not ok with the gays.
Machista culture is obviously something I have a hard time with. It’s employed during orientation to tell women that we shouldn’t drink much and need to be extra careful (not that this isn’t true, but I would rather live in a world where we educate men not to rape women, rather than educating women about how not to get raped). It’s the excuse given for the men who whistle at you on the bus and creep on you when you’re walking home. It’s the go-to explanation for behavior that I would label as obsessive, bordering on stalking, when dealing with men my age in Latin America. I’m just worried about you. That’s why I’ve texted you every ten minutes for the past two hours to ask you why you weren’t responding to my first message. It’s probably the reason that when I left the club I was at on Friday night at 2am, a random strange man asked me where I was going, and when I said home, he asked if he could come with me and got offended when I said absolutely not. I can get on board with cultural sensitivity when it’s about the fact that Ecuadorians will tell you a time for something and mean an hour later. Or when it’s about the fact that food=love, so you have to finish everything on your plate lest you gravely offend your host mom. But the machista thing, I don’t buy. Cultural differences are great, but some things need to evolve. Sexism is one of them. Homophobia is another.
And yet, during this conversation with Nico and his friend, I asked them if homosexuality was illegal here. Both of them said no, absolutely not. How could that even be illegal, they asked? I said that gay sex had been illegal in many states in the US until 2003, that it was absolutely illegal in many other countries, especially in Africa, and that in Uganda, it was punishable by death. They looked at me incredulously and said no, we don’t do that here. And both of them seemed to think that the notion of making anyone’s sexual orientation illegal was absurd. I suppose that’s progress of a kind. And given how far the US has come on LGBT issues in the past fifty years, I’m optimistic that the rest of the world will soon follow.

Fútbol in Ecuador

Mostly, I write about ideas and politics on here, but I thought I’d take a break and describe some of the things I’ve actually been doing in Ecuador. Last Friday afternoon, the Ecuadorian national soccer team played the Venezuelan team in the first round of eliminator games for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Naturally, our whole group decided to go. Fútbol is almost more of a religion here than Catholicism is. The stadium was surrounded by people selling team jerseys (which we all bought), people doing face painting, and perhaps most comically, people filling giant bottles (we’re talking gallons) of beer to take into the stadium. Apparently Ecuador hasn’t caught up with the US in terms of concessions monopolies, so you’re absolutely allowed to bring beverages into the stadium. My group elected to buy a bunch of rum, three liters of Coke and some limes before we went in, so we had a great time mixing Cuba Libres on the sidewalk outside of the stadium while trying to look nonchalant when the police walked by. In the end, we were able to walk into the stadium with three liters of rum and Coke without incident.
Seats are not assigned at the stadium, and by the time we got there (an hour before the game started), every single seat was full. I use the term “seat” loosely, since they’re really concrete benches, and everyone’s goal is to squeeze as many people as possible onto them. Somehow, I talked a nice guy into giving me and a friend seats that he’d been saving, so we were able to actually sit down for most of the game.
One of the things about going to a national sporting event (as opposed to say, a baseball game in the US), is that supporting the team boils down to a thinly-disguised fanatic sort of nationalism. It’s like how everyone in the US gets during the Olympics, except when you’re actually watching the game, it’s right next to you and much, much louder. Ecuadorians have a fútbol song, which I’m convinced every single person in the country knows the words to, and people just started singing it all the time before and during the game. The words are, “Vamos, Ecuatorianos, esta noche, tenemos que ganar,”
 which translates to, “Let’s go, Ecuadorians, tonight, we have to win.” (It sounds a lot better when it’s being sung in Spanish). My favorite part of the game was when they announced the Venezuelan team. I didn’t even realize they were announcing anything—the sound system wasn’t much of a match for the noise made by a full stadium of fútbol fans—but as soon as they called the first player’s name, the entire stadium raised their fists in the air and chanted, “¡Hijo de puta!” (son of a whore). All of this, perfectly coordinated, for every single player on the team. I was impressed.
Ecuador won the game (thank god), 2-0. The whole experience made me wish soccer was more of a thing in the US. I’ve always been a baseball girl, though I stopped watching pros when the Mariners started sucking so much. But soccer is so energetic and fast-paced, and it’s so easy to appreciate the athleticism of someone who can head a ball into the goal. Plus, I love the rowdiness of soccer fans, though I think a lot of that has to do with the extremely lax rules about alcohol consumption in the stadium. (The section next to ours had a guy who was repeatedly chugging beers, which prompted the entire crowd to form a circle around him and cheer him on, breaking into applause when he finished.) There were a few minor fights, but nothing serious, probably because almost everyone in attendance was supporting the same team.
I’m always amazed by the unity of sports fans, and sometimes I find myself wondering what would happen if we could get so many people to come together so clearly for something that actually mattered, or if even a fraction of the money and time and energy spent on professional sports franchises were spent on health care or improving education or something socially beneficial. And yet, sports seem to be the great unifier in the world—regardless of country, race, class and increasingly gender, most people can appreciate watching a team, feeling part of something bigger, having common ground with strangers. Marx may have thought religion is the opiate of the masses, but I’m starting to think that it’s soccer. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.