I’ve been telling everyone that this is my first time in Latin America, but it’s not quite true, since I’ve gone with my family a few times to gringo-filled destinations in Mexico. Without a doubt, our family vacations inevitably found us staying in places with some borderline-catastrophic flaw. There was, for example, the apartment in Zihuatanejo that had a massive wad of frayed power lines within arms reach of our balcony and abutted an all-night discotec. In San Carlos, we stayed in a house where, in the interest of aesthetics, the builders had put a series of highly unconvenient walls and dividers and all manner of concrete blocks. My dad always explained to me that Latin American is characterized by an inevitable pull between good intentions and flawed execution. It’s a generalization, of course, but I can already see some truth in it during my time here.
Take, for example, the house where I am staying. My bedroom is quite large, but most of the space is useless because some designer—perhaps trying to avoid creating a boring old rectangle—threw in a lot of non-functional nooks and jutting walls that eat up most of the floor space. I also have to walk outside to go the bathroom: not really a huge inconvenience, but it’s not entirely clear to me why they put an open air passageway on the third floor. The hot water only functions in the afternoon, even though we have electricity 24/7 and the heater is right next to the shower. No one has anyone been able to explain to me why the door leading to the roof must be left open at all times, thus ensuring that my room is, at all times, filled with cold mountain air.
Perhaps my favorite part of the house, though, is our living room, which has a huge, non-operational fountain in the center. While visually pleasing, I can’t quite figure out why it’s there, because it renders conversation between the couches around the room impossible. It’s also right adjacent to the fireplace, which seems an odd juxtaposition. There are a lot of lights that don’t work—not because their bulbs are burned out, but because they aren’t actually connected to any light switch. Really, the entire downstairs is a bit confusing, with all sorts of interior walls with windows in them, needless one-foot high dividers running across rooms, and inexplicable steps that mean that each story of the house is actually at about six different levels.
None of this, of course, is a big deal, especially since I’m in a place that is safe, clean, and has wifi. Yet it seems to me like these little inexplicable inconveniences are exactly what make so many of the expats I’ve made here incredibly jaded against their adopted home. I asked one of my housemates—who has been here for months—about the bus system, to which she responded “You can’t figure it out. Didn’t you remember to check your common sense at the airport?” It strikes me as something of a strange paradox that the longer westerners stay in the developing world, the more likely they are to throw up their hands and claim that life here is totally random and inexplicable.
Researchers, of course, don’t get that luxury. The whole point—and, I guess for me, appeal—of social science is that it starts from the assumption that there is always a logic behind things, even if its not readily apparent. Human beings—whether waiters in Uganda, dumpster divers in New York, or, I have to believe, bus drivers in Quito—are rule driven creatures, they just don’t necessarily follow the rules that we, or the powers that be, think they should. There is, I am sure, some reason my house is built the way it is, one which follows halfway between the good intentions of the builder and limitations of time and resources that make those intentions inevitably only partially fulfilled.
And, I guess, that’s exactly what I am exploring about Yasuní. The proposal is a product of good intentions and bold thinking—and yet despite all its brilliance, something has held it back and prevented it from carrying through. I have to assume, I suppose, that this “something” is more than just entropy and random chance. And to figure it out I have to swallow my foreigner-induced bitternes at the lack of hot water and functioning electricity and punctuality and accept that all of this makes sense. To somebody.
*Points to anyone who catches the reference and can complete the stanza.