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.