Field Note #6 — Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Kichwa word of the day: mishki = rico / delicious! I use this one a lot.

To start today’s post I am sharing with you this photo of my Papa José.  At first I was just taking photos of the adorable guaguas de pan, shaped like little babies and horses and usually shared on Día de los Difuntos in November.  But then he came over and wanted me to photograph him cradling the guaguas (Kichwa for “baby” or “child”), and how could I refuse such a sweet moment?

Sometimes you can just see the kindness in someone’s eyes.

OK, Day 9, let’s catch up.

I had a couple rough nights in my first week.  I had what I would diagnose as a magnitude 4.6 breakdown recently where I crawled into bed after a long day and opened up my messages and felt the tears getting ready for takeoff as I began writing to my mom.  I wish I could say it was because of the tremendous ethical pressure of ethnographic research or the fatigue from jet lag and corn harvesting but really, it was just that I missed home and the realization that I was going to be 6,000 km away for the next two months crashed down on me all at once as I asked myself,

Do I really want to pursue a profession where I have to leave everything to work alone in an unfamiliar environment for long periods at a time?

I’ve asked myself this question a million times, never to reach a solid answer.  On any given day, rain or shine, I’m likely oscillating between wanting to trek through every crevice of the earth on my own or spend the rest of my life at home as my mom’s personal chauffeur even though I’m not even that good at driving. 

But we’ll get into this topic some other time.

I’m somewhat back on my feet now.  I received some good love & support from friends without whose kind words I would have booked a flight home set for next Tuesday; I got over the sickness after getting cleaned by an egg; I became friends with a girl who works at the picante; I even decided I should go out and run for the first time since the high school mile test even though I am in no shape to handle the altitude or any other aspect of this form of exercise.  It was absolutely excruciating.  I felt my body shutting down as my lungs forgot the mechanics of respiration, and I had to walk most of it because the wheezing made me think I was actually not going to make it home.  But I liked the view so much that I ended up being out for a full hour, and a big chunk of that I spent meditating on a small mound between the quiet, deep ridges.  So I’ll probably go running again, maybe, who knows.

Perdóname for the phone quality but you get the idea.

Yesterday, I helped my host mom and sister cook dinner.  By that I mean I chopped green plátanos (plantains) and carrots and turned a bowl upside down to make things fall into a soup pot.  I like to think of myself as the extra set of hands that is not necessary but is still there so they might as well put it to work.  But my usefulness was definitely put to the test last night.

Enough soup for seven people?  Barely.  After we all got seconds there was almost nothing left in the pot.

Now I’d like to think my knife handling skills are pretty alright.  I’ve done my fair share of julienning in my previous life back when I was nineteen and pulled out of university because I believed it was my destiny to become a professional chef (ten points to whoever can guess how that turned out!).  But the one thing I stay away from is cutting things not with a cutting board but with my hand.  That has never made sense to me, I don’t care if your grandma who’s the best cook in the world does it, my grandma does it and I’m still not a fan.  The only time I found an actual legitimate reason for cutting by hand was when I worked at Subway and got quite good at slicing up avocados in the palm of my left hand, but that was only because they’re paying 75 cents extra for that shit and they deserve a little show.  Other than that, if we have a board meant for cutting, is it not our moral duty to use it as it was intended?  So when I saw Mama Rosita and Mary slicing away at the plátanos in the air, I thought, that’s cool, but I’m gonna go ahead and use this kitchen counter over here.  The end result, after all, is the same.  We’ll both end up with diced plátano verde, everybody wins.  This is a rare case where it is about the destination, and not about the journey.

Is there anything more badass than a lady in the kitchen?  In the back is Mary slamming her hand down on the butt of a knife to remove corn kernels from the cob, and Mama Rosita is risking her entire left dexterity to do the same.  Gnarly.

They quickly caught on that I was taking my time laying down neat little planks to cut into smaller pieces.  “No no, like this,” Mary said as she held the plátano vertically with one hand and began to swiftly slice into it with the other, creating a tic-tac-toe grid on the surface of the fruit.  She tilted the plátano toward the bowl and gently pushed her knife through horizontally.  I watched as perfect cubes elegantly slid off her knife.

“Ohhhh,” I sang with an exaggerated nod, pretending I was doing it wrong because I just hadn’t seen her do it, and not because I was actively trying to avoid amputating my hand today.  But now I felt her eyes watching me—I had to give it a try.  I gulped and made my first incision.  As it turns out, the firm and bulky plátano verde is all talk and no walk—it’s rather elastic and flimsy under pressure.  When I tried to get my knife through it, it just kept following the knife downward, the blade inching its way very close to my fingers, so close that eventually the plátano would likely split in half and so too my thumb.  Holding my breath I slowly sawed my way down, millimeters at a time, before I heard Mary laughing beside me: “You said you’re Japanese, right?  I thought Japanese people were good with knives.”  

There was no way to recover from that.  Good thing I let go of my dream of becoming a professional chef a while ago.  Despite getting roasted I had a wonderful dinner with my family, as always.

Sopita con picuda (barracuda), maíz, yucca, plátano verde, zanahoria

Now, onto big news!  As you may know, a week had gone by in the field site without me collecting a single piece of data from my primary participant, but now we actually have a project!!!!!!!  Samara and I still have not met up in person yet but we have a blossoming online relationship where we discuss research matters, and she has been absolutely wonderful throughout this entire process.  Just yesterday I transcribed, translated, and coded her first audio diary entry!  The diary, in which she records herself talking freely about a prompt that I give her or about any topic of her choosing, is one of my favorite methods I’m using in my ethnography because it’s an intimate yet minimally obtrusive way to look at micro-scale details like word choice, sentence structure, and manner of speaking, as well as macro-level thematic content such as what’s going on in her life, what she’s feeling, what types of things she finds worth talking about, etc., all to illustrate what everyday life looks like for this one girl.

I’m just glad research is starting.  I think I needed this tangible proof that I’m headed somewhere. Granted, we’re facing several more weeks of data collection so hopefully from this point on we see more productivity—not that I don’t absolutely love just sitting on the floor talking to Mama Rosita or going to the nearby city to go shopping with Mary or learning Kichwa from Papa José.  Those are the moments I value most.

As for the question I posed earlier in this post, I’m probably not going to figure it out any time soon.  But if there’s one thing I’ve started to understand since entering my field site, it’s this: Maybe the environment eventually stops being unfamiliar. You find a new family, you build friendships, you rely on the support of those waiting for you at home—and somewhere along the process you realize you’re not working alone at all, that you’re not that far from “home” after all.



Field Note #4 — Being Sick in the Field

Kichwa word of the day: sumak kawsay = buen vivir / good living

Okay Karma, you got me good.  In my previous post I bragged about how I managed to escape the wrath of altitude sickness, and it’s almost as if as soon as I hit “Publish,” my body decided it’s time—bring on the headache, the fatigue, the light-headedness; take away her usually insatiable appetite, and for the love of god, do not let her get any sleep. 

You win this round.  Since getting sick my diet has consisted solely of Airborne tablets, hierba luisa (lemongrass) tea, and sopitas made by my host mom and sisters.  

Sopita de borrego (lamb).  Homecooked meals have a healing property in them, you can fight me on this.

Today, I was supposed to go to Otavalo with my host family for a wedding ceremony; I had been looking forward to it since I got here. But this morning at 5:45 AM I crawled out of bed, tired and frail and snot dripping from my hose, to tell my host mom I was too sick to go with them.

Word spread fast; soon the entire family was standing around me.  Qué te duele?  It was my clogged nose, my stuffy chest, my tired eyes, but mostly my head.  My host sister nodded, handed me a dollar coin, and pointed to my host dad José.  “Give this to him.  He is going to clean you.”  Clean me?  Clean me how?  Clean me where?  I followed José up to the roof; it was still dark out, and I shivered in the thin night air as I stuffed my hands into my pockets and sat myself down on a plastic crate.  I looked up at him.  In his hands were an egg and a lit cigarette.  Closing his eyes, he inhaled—chest heaving in the air—and puffed out a big cloud of smoke onto the egg.

I could describe in vivid detail what happened next, but there’s a sacredness to this ritual that I wouldn’t be able to do justice through my writing.  I don’t feel right writing about it—not so much because it might be a secret performance, which it very well may be, but more so because any attempt to explain it and make sense of it would be futile.  I’m starting to learn that not everything has to be written into my own language, to be analyzed or shared, even though as a researcher it’s tempting to use every experience as data.  But I can tell you that by the end of this cleaning ritual, my headache was gone.

So it looks like today is going to be spent mostly in my bed, and my only task is to just get over this damn illness—delaying the start of my research even more.  It’s hard to find the balance between self-care and productivity.  I know I’m doing what’s best for myself—but still, I’d be lying if I said I felt good about taking the day off.  Prioritizing my wellbeing in the field doesn’t feel good the way a kale smoothie or an hour of cycling does at home; it just feels kind of pathetic, like I’ve come all this way just to lie in bed and go through an entire roll of toilet paper blowing my nose.  

But it was a good few days before the sickness really took over.  The other day my host family taught me how to harvest corn.  

My adorable host family!  We spent a few hours out here, gathering three full bags of corn to be turned into the fermented corn drink chicha.
How to harvest corn:
  1. Create a puncture in the husks from the top, then slice through all the way down.
  2. Pull apart the husks to reveal kernels inside.
  3. Gently twist the ear a couple times to detach.

I had an absolute blast tearing these bad boys open.  Opening up the layers and layers of dry husk to find beautifully packed rows of golden kernels is what I imagine delivering a baby is like.  You don’t know what it’s going to look like but you can feel it in there, waiting for you, and the moment it reveals its face the whole world stops for a minute to watch and you just want to cradle the precious thing in your arms forever.

Qué precioso! Organic native corn, untouched by Monsanto’s grimy corporate hands.

And the scenery, holy moly. Each time I looked up from the stalks towering over me, I was captivated by the sheer beauty of the Andes.  We were tucked deep in the Arias Pamba, surrounded by lakes and farms and the volcán Imbabura.  Nearby was the Parque Cóndor, home to Ecuador’s endangered national bird (today happens to be National Condor Day!). 

Climbing on the back of the pickup truck, Cesar, my host cuñado (brother-in-law), closed his eyes and faced the wind: “The air is so pure here.”  We all took in a big whiff of the mountain breeze and nodded.  Coming from some of the most urban areas in the world (Tokyo, Los Angeles), it is impossible to not be taken aback by how delightful the air tastes and feels when the atmosphere is free of human influence.  

After our morning harvest we visited a brother in Otavalo for more breakfast (this is a family of nine siblings so there’s a lot of family to meet).  He brought out sugary black coffee with beautifully dense croissants and slices of cheese.  He also prepared hard-boiled eggs for us, but I was feeling quite full so I politely declined, only to be peer-pressured by everyone at the table raving about how good these farm fresh eggs were—so of course, eventually I had to take one.  And it was a marvelous egg.  As my advisor Dr. Loyd once told me: say “yes” to everything.  On this day I said “yes” to this hard-boiled egg, and I’m glad I did.

Oh, and remember how I said I was going to make dinner for everyone?  It turned out to not be Taco Night because I couldn’t find tortillas with the right masa and size for tacos at the grocery store—but instead we had Quesadilla Night!  I had a lot of fun running around the kitchen like a madman trying to serve up enough quesadillas for seven people.  They’d never had quesadillas either so they were mesmerized by me laying down the tortilla onto the butter-coated flat iron skillet and piling on handfuls of shredded mozzarella.  I stuffed the quesadillas with chicken and a beef sauté made by my host sister, paired with pico de gallo, sliced avocado, and of course, ají.  I think it was a hit!

As for an update of my research . . . It is Day Five at my field site and I have not yet met up with Samara, my primary participant, because she was out of town and now I am sick.  Still not much progress made.  But if any of my advisors see this, don’t worry, don’t drop me! I set up my data collection timeline for eight weeks, even though I’m here for ten, meaning I have up to two weeks of leeway.  See?  Turns out I do know how to plan in advance.

. . . But if I don’t recover from this illness soon I’m going to lose my mind.


Field Note #3 — Finding a Sense of Family Abroad

Kichwa word of the day: Kayakaman = see you tomorrow!

We made it to the Andes!  It’s my second night at the field site, and aside from the distant barking of stray dogs and the muffled hum of motorcycle engines rushing through these narrow streets, the entire parish is quiet.  “Everyone’s asleep by now,” my host sister told me at about 8:00 PM today as she served me a generous mound of fried potatoes.  “But our family, we don’t sleep.”  

My window view of the neighborhood at daytime.  To the right is the bull ring where they host the annual Fiesta de Toros, mid-July.

I’m adjusting to life here pretty well.  I sleep burrito’d up in a sleeping bag inside my bed with wool blankets because I’m a weenie in the chilly night air, and I have set up a nice little study desk where I get to write for several hours a day and call it “work.”  Luckily I haven’t been stricken with altitude sickness despite being 10k feet up in elevation here, but I did try to go on a walk around the neighborhood this morning and had to come back after just thirty minutes because I couldn’t breathe sufficiently enough to even make it to a panadería and buy an empanada.  Defeated, I settled for eating the banana chips I got on the plane for breakfast.

My study desk.  The sunlight keeps this room so bright and warm, it’s the absolute best place to sit and write and drink instant coffee out of a metal cup.

It’s been a slow start, to be honest.  I thought entering the field would have more flare and drama, that I’d be overwhelmed with that we’re not in Kansas anymore type of feeling.  I imagined my inner Mead would awaken as soon as I set foot in this community and I’d be running around the parish asking all these questions and have two hours of recorded footage to edit by now. 

But instead of being a researcher, it just feels like I’ve been adopted into this Ecuadorian family (they actually use the term hija adoptiva) that sees me as the clueless chinita who’s just trying to navigate her new world, learning how to wash dishes their way and trying to keep up with their banter.  My first two days of being here have consisted of watching telenovelas with my host sisters, crossing the street to buy household necessities like dish soap and 3-in-1 men’s shampoo, and eating lunch and dinner with the family and joining in on their mealtime conversations.

An example from today’s dinner:
Fernandito: Where does your boyfriend live?
Me: I don’t have one.
Fer: You don’t have one?! ((all eyes around the table turn to me; it’s normal for kids here to marry in their teens))
Mary: She’s looking for an Ecuadorian one. ((everyone laughs.  I shrug and laugh along, afraid to contest))
Fer: ((talking about the two sisters and me)) You three are the only ones in the family without a boyfriend.

These family meals are my favorite part of the day.  See, I live upstairs of a small restaurant (called a picante here) run by my host mom and sisters, so these ladies know how to cook.   Food here is simple but so rich and flavorful, consisting of rice and potatoes paired with fresh salad and some type of protein like tilapia or chicken, always seasoned just the right amount. Tonight’s dinner was rice and french fries with tuna-cucumber-tomato salad and ají, the dankest hot sauce known to man.  There’s just something about eating with this family that fills up both my stomach and my heart with pure, unfiltered, 100% organic goodness, so I try my best to be a part of these mealtime interactions.  I’ve taken up the role of washing dishes after each meal—at first they would say, “Just leave it in the sink,” but after insisting enough times I think I’ve finally secured my position as the family dishwasher—and never forget that washing dishes is where Anthony Bourdain started. And when I’m done with the dishes, they tell me siéntate and I join them for more conversation until someone decides it’s time for bed.  No matter how tired I am or how much writing I have left to do, I’ve made a commitment to never lock myself away in my room and miss out on family time.

I took this photo a year ago, not knowing whose kitchen it was.  Now I live upstairs.

Tomorrow, it’s my turn to make dinner for the whole family.  I was telling one of my sisters about Mexico and how I only ate tacos on my trip, and she told me they don’t have tacos around here—so tomorrow’s gonna be Taco Night baby!!!!  I’ve also promised to make them Japanese food, but those ingredients are going to be a little harder to find.  My mom told me to bring Japanese condiments, and I should have listened, you were right ma.

Aside from bonding with the family, I did one research-related thing today! I started learning how to use a stabilizer.

Now you might be thinking, shouldn’t you know how to use your equipment before you show up at your field site?  Fair point.  This thing is pesado as fuck and took up 1/4 of my suitcase space.  I’ve never had luggage only 1 kg short of being too heavy to check-in; you should have seen the look on the guy’s face at the COPA counter when I tried to haul this suitcase onto the scale.  To bring such a big, heavy, expensive piece of equipment without even knowing if I’d actually be able to maneuver it was pretty dang risky.

But listen.  I’m more of a learn-as-I-go kind of gal.  I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to learn, and I’d get acquainted with it just by using it.  I watched a couple of YouTube videos back home and these guys made it seem pretty straightforward.  It’s like a tripod, but you move it around and stuff.  No biggie.

But oh.  Ohhhh no.  This is one ugly mean tripod.  This is like using a tripod that has a dumbbell glued to one end and you’re trying to stabilize it while you’re sitting on one of those pirate ship rides at amusement parks that go back and forth and upside down.  It’s designed so cleverly that it’s stupidly hard to use.  Stabilizers are serious business and I wasn’t prepared for it.

It’s not so much the physics of it that’s giving me a hard time.  If you set it up right—which, for me, currently takes about fifteen minutes—the stabilizer will, you know, stabilize.  But my biggest problem is that the whole rig is just so gosh darn heavy that I can’t film longer than twenty seconds at a time.  My right arm has to hold up and steer this bulky metal rod and the DSLR perched on top of it, while my left hand just gently holds it in place, and from an anatomical standpoint this distribution of weight and muscle labor just does not make sense.  By the time I’m about to hit the button to stop recording, my right forearm is quivering and the footage itself looks like a scene from Cloverfield.  At this point, I’m thinking I’d be better off without it.

But I want those steady shots.  I just have this very particular vision for my ethnographic film and I’m too stubborn to give up because I know these shots could be perfect.  All of the YouTube tutorialists insist that this is a slow process that relies on building muscle memory, and I’m working muscles I’ve never had to use before, so it makes sense that it would take time.  But after about an hour of practice today, I ended up a cramp in my neck, my right shoulder, and my right forearm, so it’s going to be a painful process.  Who knows.  Maybe I’ll get the hang of it and come home super jacked (on my right arm only) at the end of the summer, or maybe I’ll have no luck with it after all.