This weekend the train of bread crumbs that took me to Coca ran out, and I faced two days in the city with no one to interview and no meetings to attend. I wasted Saturday watching monkeys. On Sunday a friend who I made by phenomenally random chance at the Francisco de Orellana Anniversary-of-the-Merger-of-Two-Provicial-Directorates Fiesta called me and invited me to Sacha, a nearby pueblo, for an activity on Sunday morning. With fieldwork induced loneliness hitting me in a big way, I wasn’t inclined to say no.
My ability to understand Spanish over the phone, though, is sufficiently limited that I had no idea what it was that we were actually going to be doing. I hopped off the bus and walked to our meeting place, the city plaza, where my friend—Maria de los Angeles—was already waiting with a group of students from her school. After some awkward introductions (I’m still not used to kissing strangers), we flagged down a pick-up-truck-cum-taxi and bounced our way out of town. Our final destination was a stream in the middle of the selva.
Upon arrival, Maria instructed us to take off our shoes and blindfold ourselves. I waited—blind—for a few minute, until Maria took me hand. She instructed me to drop to my knees, and start crawling. Within a few seconds, I realized that I was on a log suspended above the river. Our route continued a bit longer, taking us through a barbed wire fence and, at times, straight through the current. In the absence of sight, my ears were especially attuned to the instructions delivered over and over to me in Spanish, until I finally understood. Eventually, Maria told me to take off my blindfold, and I was face to face with an indescribably beautiful waterfall.
When the others arrived, Maria led us through a series of standard ropes-course trust-building activities, where we talked about our fears and confronted our self-doubts; all very harmless, a la seventh grade. Of course, I had flashes of moments where I wondered if I was being led into the jungle in order to be kidnapped and ransomed by some FARC guerillas, or fed to a jaguar, or sacrificed in some cult mass suicide. In the end, though, my trust got the better of me and followed along.
While I am excessively prone to turning everything into a metaphor, I can’t help but think that our little trust building activity was an apt symbol for the entire process of fieldwork. Whether or not I am blindfolded, I am in a constant state of confusion here in Ecuador. I am surrounded by situations I don’t understand, explained to me in a language I can only barely translate. I am, at all times, at the mercy of others: ranging from informants who may or may not show up for meetings to bus attendants who may or may not tell me when I’ve come to my destination. Maybe all this is good for me, though; to learn how it is to live feeling deaf and blind, and to move beyond my constantly pre-programmed and predictable western existence.