Is Sustainable Tourism Everything It's Cracked Up to Be? I Found Out in Ecuador.

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This wasn’t like any hayride I’d ever been on. I grasped onto the side rail of the pickup truck, as the others were, so as not to fall out. The floor was littered with straw and dark brown shards of shattered beer bottles. The truck bumped along up a steep and potholed dirt road. We left from Tulipe, the nearest town, perhaps only ten minutes ago, but the 6 km ride seemed interminable.

After landing in Ecuador earlier that day, I found myself at the Ofelia bus station in Quito waiting for my 5:30 pm two-hour long bus ride to my stop in the town of Tulipe in the Northwest region of the Pinchincha Province. From Tulipe I’d have to wait for the next truck driving uphill to the remote mountain town of Las Tolas, where I’d be spending the first week of my trip working in sustainable farming.

As a newbie to South America I arrived wary of Quito’s crime-ridden reputation and uncertain of what to expect from my trip. With my backpack strapped in reverse to the front of my chest, I paid my $2 bus fare, tucked the money pouch dangling around my neck back under my shirt, and sat on a designated bench to wait. I would soon discover that globalization’s ever spreading tentacles had already begun to erode the mystique of this so called developing world.

The air was thick with exhaust and smelled of gasoline. A group of men leaned against the bus station building. They passed around swigs from a bottle containing a clear liquid, which I later learned is an Ecuadorian aguardiente called Punta. They seemed to be hanging out with no clear urgency, as if they had nowhere specific to be. They spoke so quickly that, with my rusty Spanish and in my exhausted state, the words sounded like garbled noise.

Women scurried through the wide bus lanes in front of me. They carried woven baskets stuffed with produce and wood-barred crates filled with bock-bocking chickens. These men and women, like the clucking hens and unlike me, seemed to know exactly what to expect from the day.

After finishing my summer-into-senior-year advertising internship in New York City, I was taking advantage of the three weeks before the start of soccer preseason to travel. I chose Ecuador because an Ecuadorian friend I’d made during study abroad in Paris the year before raved nonstop about his country. The way he described it sounded so romantic that I yearned to escape from my presumed monotonous destiny of corporate ladder climbing for a lusher, though perhaps equally uncivilized, jungle. I planned an amazing trip; I would straddle the Equator at La Mitad del Mundo, hike up volcanic Cotopaxi and peruse its foothill Otavalo Market, then head 5 hours south to the town of Baños for a stay in the Amazon with the Huanorani tribe. The grand finale of my trip would end in the unmissable Galapagos Islands. But as I scanned my itinerary something was wrong. It felt too touristy and removed from real life. I’d participated in humanitarian trips in Kenya and Thailand in the past, which had given me rewarding contact and a sense of how people lived in the world outside my bubble, so I searched for similar opportunities in Ecuador. I found a tiny Quito-based travel agency run by an Ecuadorian couple, Juan and Maria. They organized trips for foreigners to work in sustainable farming during weeklong home stays in the Cloud Forest. Bingo.

My harrowing truck ride from Tulipe to the forty-family organic farming community of San José de Las Tolas in the Cloud Forest region of the Andes Mountains ended with an abrupt screech of the brakes. My co-passengers hopped over the rail with their knapsacks slung over their shoulders and disappeared into the night. Now alone and nervous in the chilly darkness, I clambered out of the truck. I had no idea where to go from here. The gibbous moon, nestled in its infinite entourage of stars, glanced down at me with a friendly face that promised everything would be okay.

After a few moments a voice said, “Nola?”

A short, round woman with black hair braided down the length of her back eyed me from her seat on a bench outside of what I took to be the town church. 

Hola,” I replied somewhat tentatively.

Me llamo Teresa,” the woman introduced herself. She told me I would be staying in her family’s home for the week.

We shared the weight of my suitcase and walked side-by-side a quarter mile further up a dirt road towards a rectangular, single-story shack on stilts where she lived with her daughter, Daniela. Her husband, she explained, worked during the week in Quito and came back to San José de Las Tolas on the weekends, so I would meet him later.

The front of Teresa’s home reminded me of a large crate with the planks close together. It had two windows cut out, one on either side of the front door. Around it lay a small expanse of dirt, which fed into the yards of the neighboring homes. As we approached, Daniela ran out of the house to greet me. She was a smaller replica of Teresa, with the same chocolate brown eyes, caramel skin, and infectious smile. I had the distinct impression that this girl was used to strangers living in her house.

Large, white bulbs connected by a single wire were strung across the wood ceiling and illuminated the inside of the home. The space was divided into quadrants: a living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. Daniela had relinquished her bedroom to me and was bunking with her mother. I was grateful that they’d thought to give me the privacy I was used to.

It felt so homey that I barely registered that it was just as cold inside as it was out. In the living room, a pink blanket partially covered the worn couch that faced an ancient television set. The slightly warmer kitchen housed a small breakfast table, sink, gas heater, and stove. Daniela’s crayon drawings covered much of the wooden walls and contributed to the cheerful vibe.

The bathroom was a simple wooden outhouse in the backyard, where I would later spend an entire night after over-indulging in Teresa’s homemade queso blanco empanadas. The planks were shoddily hammered together with eye-sized gaps between them. Inside, the lidless toilet seat was stained brown and eroded in areas. I was, however, surprised to find a working flusher, behind which was a handwritten paper sign indicating not to flush toilet paper down the toilet because there wasn’t enough water pressure. A wastebasket half-filled with crumpled toilet paper was on the ground beside the toilet.

Teresa’s home, like the others in Las Tolas that housed foreigners, delivered the amenities that my travel agents, Juan and Maria, had promised me by email: electricity, flushing toilets, and private sleeping quarters. Though to some it would barely qualify as comfortable, I didn’t mind—I rather liked it.

The next morning, I awoke at 6:30 AM to a knock on the door of the room, which was made, like the rest of the house, of planks that had been crudely nailed together. Teresa came in holding a banana and a kiwi-like granadilla, which she had washed with ozonized water. The fruit did little to satisfy my hunger, but it was time to get to work.

Volunteers from various parts of the western world come to Las Tolas to support the year-round farming program that aims to develop socially and ecologically sound organic practices. For $90 a week, I was paying for accommodation, three meals (if I counted the fruit), and the personal gratification of hard labor. What I didn’t know at the time was that of the $90 I paid to Juan and Maria, aka my Ecuadorian travel agents, only $5 went to the family that was actually hosting and feeding me.

Most of the forty families in Las Tolas owned their homes and worked their own land. Others made commercial handicrafts out of seeds and wood and other natural resources from the forest. Like a microcosm of society, everything Las Tolas produced was shared amongst the village community. The rest was sold in the markets of Quito. 

The Cloud Forest, also known as the Andean Eyebrow, is named for the dense, low hanging clouds that often hover above its verdant mountaintops, like some surrealistic eyebrow on the horizon. I stepped out into the dawn and felt I was walking into a bad science fiction movie’s rendition of a Venusian landscape. The sun heated the low-hung vapor, which drenched me in a humid sweat after just a few minutes. In the background, the grey-white mist cropped the peaks of the forest green mountains. Outside the shack, chickens scuttled around me, frantically pecking at the dirt for morsels of nourishment. A few yards away, at the entrance of the road, grew a large cactus with what looked like eggs sprouting from the tip of each spike.

Daniella danced around me as I walked. “You like our egg tree?” She took my hand and led me to the plant.

I looked at it again. It was a strange plant.

“I put eggs on it! You can say ‘egg’ in Spanish?”

Huevo,” I said, vaguely disappointed that it was manmade. A large part of me wanted to feel that I was, in fact, in some place as alien as Venus, instead of witness to the impoverished lives of hundreds of millions on Earth. Perhaps if Las Tolas had seemed extraterrestrial enough, I could have forgotten the arduous realities of daily life on this planet. But instead the foreignness was an illusion, and, fundamentally, these village dwellers were me and I was them and the main difference was socioeconomic.

Daniella skipped off to school, which was a tin-thatched, unadorned cinder block at the bottom of a forested hill behind Teresa’s house.

The morning fog descended so low on the hilltops that in the distance the clouds consumed the trees. I followed Teresa higher up the mountainside about a mile to a cow pen. It was her friend Pilar’s plot, which she helped maintain. The members of the community of Las Tolas each contributed a specific resource; Pilar’s was milk and beef.

I’d milked cows before on a friend’s farm in the Hamptons by strapping suctions to each teat with a rubber tube dispensing the milk directly into a metal bucket. My main job was to make sure the cow didn’t kick off the apparatus. But here in the Cloud Forest we still milked by hand, sitting on short three-legged stools beside the underbelly of the mooing animal, and working each teat one by one until she was empty. After thirty minutes of yanking, pulling, and doing every other extraction method I could think of, I hadn’t obtained a drop of milk. I felt somewhat sorry for my cow, which mooed patiently (or painfully?) while I failed. After awhile, Teresa came over and showed me the proper way to tug the teat, applying more pressure at the top and pushing gently sideways and down to get a steady stream. The milk jetted out into my bucket, a warm and frothy off-white. Drenched in sweat and fingers cramping, I’d just finished my first cow when Teresa announced we had twenty more to go.

After milking, Teresa handed me a machete and, like early adventurers discovering a new world, we forayed into the lush jungle of her land, hacking down the tall plants that knitted a web of green so tight we moved forward only feet at a time. I was just getting into the proverbial swing of it when the fuzzy black body of a tarantula scampered across my boot. Dropping my pioneering persona, I screamed and, in a fit of arachnophobic paralysis, dropped the machete mere inches from my foot. Teresa’s tinkling laughter cut through my fear-focused brain.

After I’d recovered motor function, we took a short downhill hike into the valley to a waterfall to eat a lunch of chicken and rice and cool off during the hotter hours of the day. The water cascaded from a cloud-shrouded peak into a chest-deep grotto that flowed out in rivulets into the Amarillo and Centarro rivers—tributaries of the larger Patchijal River. Other villagers joined us—the men and children stripping down to the bare necessities as they jumped in. Teresa had come prepared with a large t-shirt and pair of shorts for me to change into. I waded gratefully into the cold water towards the waterfall. The water beat down against my exhausted back muscles, kneading my knots out like a deep tissue massage.

Here was deep poverty, yes, but also a peaceful quality of life and a simple, neighborly moment that we ambitious career chasers, sprinters of the accelerating treadmills of the global economy, no longer had.

The rest of the afternoon passed weeding and planting bulbs in a downhill plot arranged in rows that was owned by another friend of Teresa’s. I made a stop at the Las Tolas School to teach an hour of English before the class let out for an after-school soccer game. Girls and boys six through fourteen swarmed onto the cracked blacktop and set up four old shoes to delineate two goals at either end. The older boys were talented, providing enough competition that I felt I was getting in my thus neglected preseason training. The girls, on the other hand, ran around giggling, every now and then getting serious about playing before losing interest and doing cartwheels on the sidelines.

Drugged on malaria pills and 1,800 meters above sea level, my body ached by evening. I offered to help Teresa cook the broccoli and rice soup with chicken claws, but she insisted I go out and watch the sunset, promising she would show me how to make cheese empanadas from scratch the next night.

Stray dogs growled and followed me a little ways. Though they were small, I eyed them nervously, lest any of them bite my Achilles tendon and ruin my vacation, not to mention possibly my soccer career. I walked up to the peak of the hill and took a seat on a boulder just off the road, my legs dangling over the gradual decline to the next level below. The sun hung low over the horizon and the orange sky seemed to set the hilltops aflame.

A donkey lumbered uphill carrying two buckets of Pilar’s milk balanced on either end of a plank of wood strapped to its back. An old man followed close behind. He waved to me as he passed. I waved back; no exchange of words disturbed the calm. The bright red and blue feathers of macaws flashed as they flew low through the trees, as if on a mission from the setting sun to set the lowlands ablaze.

Sitting on that boulder, the descending clouds soon cocooned me in a seemingly mythical mist. I felt, for a moment, as if the outside world didn’t exist. Tucked in the dense, green, evening fog of the Andean Eyebrow, San José de Las Tolas seemed a place that time forgot. But it isn’t.

Turn back the dial of time a few decades and it would have been a trek to find Las Tolas. Yet that day, sitting on top of the peak, I could practically see the invisible tentacles of the World Wide Web reaching out from Quito towards Las Tolas. The geographic barriers that insulate Las Tolas from the rest of the world are like a natural Berlin wall, doomed soon to fall to the virtual vanguard of global market forces. Las Tolas is tethered to these powerful, invisible strands of the spreading global economy. For better or for worse, it will become another consumer destination—though assuredly not of the Disneyland variety—and this moment will be gone. It will be different.  

Today, San José de Las Tolas is carefully marketed as an “authentic” developing world village. Purposefully left part third world experience, it is also equipped with the amenities western tourists are used to. The organic farming mission is its niche to appeal to western travelers and raises tourism money. Because the residents don’t have Internet, it nearly impossible for people like me to find Las Tolas on our own.  It is still, as economists would say, a very “inefficient” market: where the local, middleman travel agencies extract huge profits by connecting people from the outside world, like myself, to the people of the Andean Eyebrow. In the future it will grow more efficient—more middlemen will be squeezed out, the farmers will get a larger share of western travelers tourism dollar, the price of tourism will fall as more masses arrive—and the situation will change again. But for now, even the exorbitant exploitation that gives farmers only 5% of the tourist fees benefits the town far more than the crops do. By providing certain features like flushing toilets and electricity, the town and its representatives, surely aided by government funds, have created an organized form of capital transfer. As disappointingly manufactured as this whole process may seem, it’s a material win-win for the people of Las Tolas and Ecuador. That’s why it’s unstoppable.

My first day waiting at the bus station in Quito I hadn’t known what lay ahead, but I discovered that globalization had already begun to strip that question away. The world is ever more connected. The developing world is, in fact, developing.

What I began to understand from my trip to Las Tolas was that my seemingly ad hoc decision to “do good” and to experience a purer, untouched corner of the world played directly into the economic strategy of this globalization process. My decision, in one sense, hadn’t been random at all. Yes, in reality, I was not the freethinking rugged traveler I thought I was. I had wanted to come here and so I had come. But at the same time I was also a pawn in the greater marketing scheme called globalization. Nevertheless, nestled on my boulder against the foggy, rolling backdrop of the Cloud Forest, I realized that these endangered moments of Shangri-La are precious.

A week later I traveled to some of the most beautiful locations in Ecuador. I saw a blue-footed booby in the Galapagos, climbed to the snowcapped mountain lodge of Cotopaxi, and slept in a hammock in the Amazon. All were incredibly worthwhile. But the place that left the biggest impact on me was the village community of San José de Las Tolas, high up in the Andean Eyebrow.


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