Tag Archives: Photo Essay

Our Best Revenge: Ecuador’s Feminist Movement & What They’re Up Against

hey folks, I wrote about the feminist movement in Ecuador and Marcha de las Putas, the country’s response to Slut Walk, for Bitch Media:

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click on image to read article in full

and in case you missed it, Everywhere All The Time was profiled in Feministing

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click on image to read article in full

Next time I post, it’ll probably be from my new temporary home, NYC. If you’re there and wanna network or have a drink or something, get at me.

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The Rainforest Is Not a Big Mac (and other lessons learned in Puyo, Ecuador)

The Rainforest Is Not a Big Mac (and other lessons learned in Puyo, Ecuador)

By Bani Amor On July 24, 2013

Originally published on Matador Network. Read, comment, like, share, all of the above mofos!

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MY OLD APARTMENT in the capital of Quito is a rather famous hub for travelers in Ecuador. My roommates and I were active Couchsurfing hosts, and incessant streams of surfers from all walks of life crashed on mattresses around the house.

On a recent return visit to La Casa Equinoccio — named after the street we lived on, Equinox — a bunch of us decided to take my friend Omar up on his open invitation to visit Finca Argentina, his childhood home in the jungle. Even though it costs a dollar an hour to travel by bus in Ecuador (Quito-Puyo: 4 hours, $4), the ultra-budget-travel bros I ended up going with were dead set on hitchhiking, so that’s what we did.

Puyo is the biggest city in the Ecuadorian Amazon — or, as deep as you can get into it on four wheels, making it a crossroads for rivers, roads, and indigenous communities of El Oriente — “The East.” The chronological history of oil exploitation in Ecuador can be traced from north to south, with Puyo sitting symbolically in the middle, like the unexposed inch of film between ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. The northern Oriente is full of devastated oil towns crawling with crude businessmen and a generation coming of age with cancer. Here, at the headwaters of the Amazon, an average of over one oil spill a week occurs. In the south, remote territories continue their now-legendary resistance against that kind of future, under the cover of the rainforest.

Omar

I took Omar’s room when he moved out of La Casa Equinoccio last year, unpacking my zine collection out of crates as he picked classic novels off a wood-and-concrete bookshelf and stacked them lovingly into a leather suitcase, their brown spines strong as the day they were bound. He was struggling through film school at the Visual Arts Institute of Quito and moving into the cheaper place next door with his girlfriend and her brother to save on cash. A conversation on books and films naturally sparked up over our mutual heaps of crap, and never really ended. We’ve been good friends ever since.

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Finca Argentina

He was born and raised on 50 acres of jungle just outside Puyo, in a single-parent household with two brothers and his mom, Guadalupe. When I wasn’t trekking or swimming, I spent most of my time chatting with Lupe at the market or around her kitchen table, half inside and half out. Her father worked there when the land was owned by Germans and inherited it when they moved on to Argentina, naming the farm in honor of their new country. This is one of the cabins the brothers built to accommodate travelers who visit via Couchsurfing and word of mouth.

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Gateway to the wild

Puyo’s exclusive position in the Amazon keeps the wild around it more accessible than it is in most South American countries. You can be dropped in the middle of the city center and wander deep into the jungle within hours. Dive into its rivers’ waters and end up in Peru or Brazil within a few days. Meet folks who live in river villages on the way who don’t speak Spanish, but Shuar, Hoarani, or Kichwa.

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‘The rainforest’

Half the Couchsurfers who Omar invites to Finca Argentina turn him down in one sweeping statement or another, saying “I’ve already been to the jungle – in Nicaragua,” or, “I plan to do that later on in Peru,” as if ‘the rainforest’ were one congruous, consumable destination, like a Big Mac that looks, smells, and tastes the same wherever you buy it in the world. Omar usually responds with, “Oh.”

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Hello, life

A mix of truck beds, tin-can vans, buses, and our own feet took us to a waterfall about 3 hours north of Finca Argentina. A fallen tree trunk sliced cleanly in half and spread open over a tiny tributary separated our party and 555 acres of secondary rainforest at the Hola Vida Ecological Reserve, where the falls waited.

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It’s only sleeping

Crossing the bridge was like walking into a big botanical tent – damp, dark, and quiet on the other side. It was as if everything beneath the jungle canopy had been fast asleep for ages – or just pretending – wrapped in mossy fleece glittered with raindrops and orbited by living particles riding on an absentminded breath, extinguished from the depths of sound dreams.

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Life after death

A regimen of sun, rain, and birdsong keep colors saturated in Reserva Ecologica Hola Vida. Even dead things, like this fallen trunk, show signs of life.

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Suspense

There must be millions of palm-tree bridges or whatever other ambiguous variations of passage over water in the tropical forests of the world, and I’ve carefully inched my way along many of them, single-stepping like a bride. But each one is unique – next time, I could slip through cracks, or end up in a completely unexpected world on the other side. Bridges are the places between places, a title for that transitional space in songs between the beginning and the end. That sensation of suspense, both literal and figurative, is something I like to hold on to, so I photographed each one on our hike. If I jammed all the tenuous, trembling jungle bridges on Earth, or even just in ‘the rainforest,’ into one big box in my head, I would have given up on traveling long ago. Left far behind the group, I got lost in a forest of walking palm trees.

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The walking palm tree

Instead of just one trunk, Socratea exorrhiza, or the “walking palm” tree, has a network of long legs that crawl (over the course of years) toward sunlight and nutrient-rich soil along rainforest beds in Central America and expanses of the Amazon. Their roots sink deep into the earth, getting grounded for a generation or so before dying off at the bottom while younger ones renew the process up top. When a palm walks into a fallen trunk, it just continues growing horizontally until it’s moved a sufficient distance away from its original site of germination, where it then resumes vertical growth.

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Not so much

But as much as I’d like to identify with the vagabond lifestyle of these sol-searching trees, a hard wall of science came down between our romantic metaphor and reality. My later research pointed to arguments relegating the walking palm to myth, while another sizable chunk of evidence still suggests they do walk indeed – just very slowly. I’m not about to sit still in front of one of these with a wooden ruler and a notepad for 60 years, so the walking palms are allowed to drift toward that murky horizon in my mind separating Things I Know For Sure and Not So Much (except that the latter takes up almost all the space).

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Cascada Hola Vida

Starting from 70 feet up, the Hola Vida Waterfall plunges into a warm pool carved from a bed of stones – rose quartz, emerald, and even gold. Like all waterfalls in Ecuador, and in native communities around the world, I expect, Hola Vida possesses a ritual significance. Here, going for a swim is a cultural and spiritual ceremony, one of cleansing.

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After the storm

The name Puyo comes from the Kichwa word for “cloudy” – puyu. It rains about five times a day here, and I mean serious, doomsday-style storms that scrub the flora good and clean before the sun glazes a waxy sheen all over them again. The clouds part and technicolor hues pop up everywhere you look, like this young colca tree that reflects every color of the rainbow in just a few square inches.

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Originally published on Matador Network. Read, comment, like, share, all of the above mofos!

The Revolution Will Not Be Industrialized

Originally published on MatadorNetwork.com Click the link and comment, mofos!

WHILE I WAS traveling north on the Ecuadorian Pacific coast last month, I met a group of local artisans in the town of Súa who work with natural materials and, through their community organization, educate youth on Afro-Ecuadorian culture. They weave, sew, carve, collect, and create traditional instruments from resources that wash onto shore or grow in the mangrove forests surrounding town.

The space they’ve been using for a decade is rustic at best, and without any help from the government, they’re struggling to make ends meet as artists. Due to a chance encounter with the in-country project director for the Heartful Giving Project, an international development organization, the group have been able to launch a crowdfunding campaign that wraps up on August 1. They’re raising money to build a sustainable community art space to work, teach classes in, and use as a showroom to promote positive tourism in Súa. Read more about the campaign at theheartfulgivingproject.com.

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When Spanish conquistadors first landed on Ecuadorian soil, they were so astonished to be greeted by indigenous leaders adorned with precious emeralds that they named the region Esmeraldas. Centuries later, the name still suits it. From its stretch of the Pacific to the dense, endangered mangroves that spread north toward Colombia, and hills feathered by palms and other flora endemic to the Chocó biogeographic region, Esmeraldas is recognized throughout Ecuador as the “Green Province.” But despite its wealth in natural resources, the area remains neglected in terms of basic infrastructure and vastly marginalized at the expense of its 70% Afro-Ecuadorian population, the greatest concentration of blacks in Ecuador.

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Ten years ago, Alphonso ‘Toto’ German and a group of his friends formed Manglares de Súa, the Súa Mangrove Center, and set out to work in this bamboo, wood, and straw space gifted to them from its previous owner. “He gave it to us — not the government or municipality — under the condition that we use it for the people and for the arts. These are traditional handicrafts incorporating natural materials from our Green Province. We want to present a better space to attract positive tourism to Súa.” Their income is seasonal with the (meager) influx of tourists that overflow from the nearby surf and party city Atacames during peak months, but they also sell through the fair-trade company Adonya Imports. From left to right: Ismael, Cesar, Alphonso ‘Toto,’ Antonio, Edwin, and Martin.

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The first thing I noticed upon walking onto the uneven dirt floor of the community art studio were crafts wet from the rainfall of the night before. The roof is made of layered banana leaves punched with huge holes over time, and a slight breeze streams straight through the shelter’s walls. “I’ve made everything. This guitar, by hand. That marimba, by hand. Those maracas too. When it rains, it leaks through the holes in the roof and destroys our work.” Though it’s beautiful and relaxed, the center is clearly no longer suited to meet the artists’ needs.

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Súa is all flip flops softly smacking the dirt road or occasional concrete sidewalk laid out in the pattern of a honeycomb. Black men drive blue taximotos along the seaside promenade, and since it’s Saturday, couples stroll along its cove-like stretch of beach. The water is a translucent green stretching toward a blue band at the top, held at each end by high cliffs where mangroves grow. The trees are seriously threatened due to overproduction of the town’s #1 export: shrimp. I ask Toto what he thinks the new center will do for Súa: “We’re relaxed people, but the situation is bad for the kids. They drink a lot, work hard, then drink. The next day it’s the same. With this [he gestures to the pavilion around us] we can play music and dance. That’s what the people really want.”

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“I’ve always been buena onda with everyone in town. I’ve always wanted to better Súa, and my community in general.” Walking along the beach, it was clear that everyone knew and respected Toto. A young single father of two girls, Toto never set foot in any kind of learning institution and relies on seasonable income to support his family. Throughout our interview, he spoke softly, passionately, and only averted his gaze once. “I’ve never really told anyone that, just now, to you.” It was clear that, though I’d spent most of my life organizing for social change movements, Toto had more spine in his left pinky than most people I’ve met have in their whole bodies.

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The marimba is the xylophone’s great, great African grandmother, made of different materials in the regions it has passed through over time. Most in Ecuador look like this, thick bamboo tubes tied to strips of African palm tree trunk that resonate with a light echo when hit with mallets. Accompanied by shakers, call-and-response singing, and a traditional dance called currulao, the music creates a wandering, joyful ambience. Afro-Ecuadorians descend from the 23 slaves that escaped from a shipwreck in 1533, those who escaped via the Colombian jungle, and those who were brought over from Spain. For many Esmeraldeños, marimba music is the ultimate expression of freedom.

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This is a type of Spondylus, a sign of wealth, sacred power, and a form of currency for the pre-Columbian peoples of what are now parts of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian coasts. The ancient trade route runs through some of South America’s best Pacific beaches, where you can buy shells like this from early-rising collectors.

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Walls are eroding away with the help of a devastating termite infestation.

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Ismael talks to neighbors from the inside of Manglares de Súa’s art center.

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Toto learned to weave coconut tree leaves into all sorts of forms as a kid from his elders. He taught the other members of his organization, but besides them, no one else in town knows how to create traditional dress or make marimbas. With a better space, they hope to host classes for local kids, and stir up a kind of renaissance in Afro-Ecuadorian culture.

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I grew up in a single-parent household in New York City, but as my mother is a music-obsessed Ecuadorian immigrant, the sounds of obscure Afro-Latino bands coming from our stereo and the feel of traditional, handmade instruments became the stuff of the familiar for me. There are a few famous marimberos from Esmeraldas that are known as ‘The Greats’: Papá Roncón, Remberto Escobar, and Escolástico Solís Castillo.

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In May of this year, Súa’s mayor, Freddy Saldarriaga Corral, hired foreign engineers to pave over a lot of wild land and replace it with a concrete park. They were bulldozing trees when Martin (pictured above) and other members of Manglares de Súa began assembling to halt construction, or at least express their discontent over the changes. No one in town was consulted over the park, and the destruction of tropical vegetation right in front of the cultural center came as a complete surprise. Thanks to the organization’s protest, three trees were spared, but that was after police arrested Toto for “disrupting the peace.” Behind the melodic sounds of the marimba in Súa, a concrete mixer can always be heard in the background. Here we see the site wrapped in green plastic.

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I ask Toto if there are any blacks in power in the national (or even local) government to appeal to for the needs of Esmeraldeños. “No. None. No blacks in power. They stomp on us! [He enacts this with his right foot.] We’ve always been marginalized. The government doesn’t help Esmeraldas; they’ve always neglected us. All of these places — Atacames, Muisne, Tonsupa, Esmeraldas, Súa — they’ve abandoned us all. Afro-Ecuadorians just try to survive.”

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I spent a lot of time taking macro photos at the seashell table, fascinated by the itty-bitty galaxies that seemed to gather there. These are the exoskeletons of marine mollusks that drifted onto shore, each one marked by its own exclusive history of waves, sand, and time. It was strange to visit this poor town studded by such beautiful things that just happened to be lying around.

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Toto brings it home as the sun begins to set over Súa: “I don’t do anything industrial. You see the kids selling in Atacames or Montañita — they buy those industrial materials and sell jewelry made with them for more. They’re cheap and rot. These [gesturing to the crafts above] are made by hand from natural materials only found in Súa; each is one-of-a-kind. This is natural, from here and only here. It’s made to last, and made with love.”

Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/change/the-revolution-will-not-be-industrialized-community-art-in-sua-ecuador/#hJ20mv1iyQAZP6VD.99