Study Abroad

Buses, female empowerment, and guinea pigs: internships in Quito

A young man with a long braid and camo pants stands in front of a wall painted with a mural. Two hands hold a small flowering plant in the mural, and below them reads: Pachamama Granja Integral.

We’re lucky enough to have three student bloggers from the Community Internships in Latin America program in Ecuador this semester. You’ll have the chance to hear from all three over the next few months! This week, Maya Swope, a Macalester College student majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography, returns to the blog. You can read Maya’s previous post here.

Buses, female empowerment, and guinea pigs: my internship in Quito

by Maya Swope

Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I leap out of bed when my alarm goes off at 6am. Ok, who am I kidding? I usually stumble out of bed around 6:30am after hitting snooze for a bit. I get ready and run down the hill to make it to the bus stop by 7:05. When it’s a clear day, the walk takes longer because I go slowly to better enjoy the views of snowcapped the volcanoes Cotopaxi, Antisana, and Cayambe. At the bus stop, I make small talk with my new bus-stop friend, Jorge, who works nights in my neighborhood and is just finishing up his shift as I am heading off to my “pasantía” (internship).

Volcan Pichincha and Jose Marti look over me as I wait for the bus.

The bus ride itself is an interesting experience, and in the hour it takes to ride nine miles to the northern part of the city, I see a lot. In the bus, I am an observer walled off from the street outside. The man and woman who wash windshields when traffic is stopped at the light are always joking with each other, laughing as they dart between cars with their bucket and sponges. In the parks, young couples jog and middle-aged women power-walk their way through the smog. Briefcased men run across lanes of traffic to make it to the bus. Morning sounds are punctuated by bus employees yelling out the window where their bus is heading, in hopes of getting more riders, and car horns used so liberally it seems as though everyone if honking at everyone. Though I get annoyed at having to spend so much time on the dirty, crowded bus, I love that I get to witness all these moments, and this city teeming with life.

When I arrive at the farm, I change into my work clothes and put on my big green rubber boots. I’m usually freezing in the morning, so I bundle up with a long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, and rain jacket. The day starts and I help out with whatever needs to be done on the farm; usually this involves planting, weeding, feeding the cuy (guinea pigs) and chickens, and preparing produce to be sold. I especially enjoy Tuesdays and Thursdays–market days–when we (five employees, plus me) spend all morning in the mercado together, washing, cutting, and bagging vegetables, usually with a salsa or reggaeton radio station in the background.

After a few hours, the produce is all packed and ready, so we take a break to talk and share a refrigerio (snack) that usually consists of corn, beans, and cheese. When I talk to any of the women individually, my Spanish is more than sufficient for communication, but when they all speak quickly to each other, I sometimes get lost. Between the quick Spanish that is more accented than that of many of the other people I interact with and the random Kichwa words thrown into the conversation, I only understand two-thirds of what is going on (on a good day). At first, this made me uncomfortable, to sit there and not be able to keep up, but over time I’ve grown more comfortable with it and also improved my listening skills. We then head back to work in the fields, or if it rains, as it does most every afternoon, we find a task inside a greenhouse or chicken coop. Some days, I’m there for as long as nine hours, and the time passes surprisingly fast.

Me among the tomatoes, inside one of the greenhouses.

Most days follow the same structure, but sometimes I’m asked to help with other activities that are particularly memorable. One afternoon, I spent hours chasing lots and lots of mice around the chicken coop and whacking them with a broom to kill them— ackkk, I hated that. Or one morning, I struggled with a wheelbarrow of sawdust five blocks through the streets of Quito, and had a few near misses with pedestrians, taxis, and potholes. Recently, I went to the grocery store with my coworker’s 4-year-old son in tow for many kilos of sugar, which we then used to make rhubarb and tomato jam. Yum!

We're looking into a white brick and plaster outbuilding, with wooden beams in the ceiling and wire mesh cages along the sides. There's a red wheelbarrow at the back of the room, and a row of three windows above it.

Where we keep the cuy… a.k.a. Guinea pig!

Personally, getting to spend my days on the farm has been one of the biggest blessings of this semester. Quito is a crazy city, and by far the biggest and busiest place I have ever lived in. Sometimes the noise, traffic, and intense smog really get to me. It is so wonderful to be able to escape all of that when I am on the farm, surrounded by beautiful greenery and separated from the street by a 12-ft tall wall.

I enjoy my day-to-day work for the most part, and I am especially happy to be working here when I take time to think about how cool this organization is. Granja Integral Pachamama (“mother earth” in Kichwa), was founded 17 years ago by my boss, Lupe Lituma. Originally, it was part of a project in which indigenous women fleeing domestic violence lived in a home together and worked on the farm to gain income. Now the five women who work there are no longer living in the group home, but rather in their own houses. Although the work is hard and the days are long, this job provides an income that is meager but steady enough to help them become economically independent. In the cases of some, the job is a way to earn enough to take their children and leave emotionally or physically abusive husbands. Working together with other women in similar situations also provides a safe space for them to share their experiences, give each other advice on raising their children, and laugh together. Plus, they are growing local, organic food!! It is a really cool place.

A field with neat rows of green veggies stretches out into the distance.

This shows about a 10th of the space we have.

Recently, however, the farm has really been struggling financially. The Italian foundation that previously supported the project can no longer help, due to a financial crisis in Italy. The sale of produce is not nearly enough to cover farm expenses and employee wages, and there looms the possibility that the farm might have to shut down. This would be devastating to the women who rely on these jobs on the farm. Upon hearing of this possibility I began googling grant opportunities– it seemed like there must be someone somewhere in the US interested in helping with indigenous women’s empowerment and urban, organic agriculture in a “developing country.”

My initial search was disappointing. I think it says a lot about the nature of international philanthropy that I found many many organizations interested in teaching women how to do agriculture, teaching them how to feed their families healthy food, and teaching them how to manage their finances. But it proved difficult to find groups willing to finance a project that is already established, with workers who already know what they are doing. The women at the Granja Pachamama don’t need a lesson on how to do their jobs, they need a subsidy that can allow their produce to compete with the subsidized cash crops that saturate the rest of the market. As of now, the search for funds continues.

Despite the uncertainties, the farm still chugs on. My boss Señora Lupe seems confident that they can get by with un poco de plata de aquí, un poco de allá (a little money from here, a little from there). For now, at least, that will have to do. There are beets to plant, chicks to feed, lemons to pick, and five strong and dedicated women to do the work.

More about the Community Internships in Latin America (CILA) program here

More about Granja Integral Pachamama here

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