Student Blogger Study Abroad

Reflections on a Semester in Quito: Art, Connection, and Close-knit Community

Three women sit on a wooden bench in a weaving studio in Otavalo.

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Emily Bruell will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Community Internships in Latin America program this fall semester. Emily is a junior at Carleton College, majoring in English Literature and minoring in Spanish. Click here for Emily’s second post: Mi Sueña Suela.

We’ve entered the last two weeks of the semester, and so I’ve been trying to fill every possible moment with something important — going dancing with friends on the program, tracking down last-minute interviews for my independent study project on immigrant street music, weeding garden beds at the farm where I intern in preparation for seeding new plants, and knitting.

I will admit: this last one is not something I’d thought would be a priority, or even a part of my time in Ecuador. Prior to coming, my yarn handicraft experience consisted of some wobbly friendship bracelets woven at summer camp and a lumpy hackysack crocheted in middle school for a father’s day gift. But it’s been a part of some of my favorite moments here, moments like:

(A) — one day during the after-lunch break at my internship in La Granja Integral Pachamama (an organic farm and wonderful community project —  past student Maya Swope blogged about it here, I sat in the grass with my boss Lupe, two other interns, and seven balls of yarn we’d bought the day before. I hadn’t known before then that there was any natural talent involved in knitting, but I think there must be, because it was immediately evident that I didn’t have it. Muy facil, Lupe assured me, very easy. Chuk, chuk, chuk.

Chuk chuk what? She demonstrated, and demonstrated again, but the movements that looked so simple for her became immediate mysteries when I attempted them. Our struggles attracted the attention of the other women who worked on the farm, and soon Maria Elena attempted to take over teaching me. A moment later, as I was still incapable, Nancy chipped in, and then Alicia. Trying to parse the rapid-fire Spanish of five simultaneous (and differing) sets of directions, not to mention execute the knitting-needle-maneuver they all urged, was nearly impossible. But sitting in the sun laughing with all of them at my utter ineptitude, and celebrating when I at last completed a successful stitch, made all the chaos worth it.

In the days before that, I’d talked with the other women on the farm, but  there was always a bit of hesitancy on both sides — a full consciousness of the differences of situation and perspective (not to mention language) that separated us. And knitting together that day didn’t erase that difference, of course, but something about that moment changed the dynamic. It was the first time we started to feel like a community.

(B) — I’d known that wool work — spinning, knitting and weaving — was a significant part of the indigenous Kichwa culture; this was part of the reason it meant so much that the women of Pachamama taught me to knit. But I didn’t realize the full complexity or artisanship of the process until we had the opportunity to visit a weaving workshop in Otavalo.

In the workshop, a man with over sixty years of experience sat, legs covered in a blanket, as he passed course alpaca wool between two wooden paddles with a velcro-like surface of wire bristles and told us about the process. This particular action, he explained, refined the wool and removed debris. Later, once the wool was soft enough, it was brought downstairs to a massive wooden contraption where — by spinning a certain wheel and maintaining just the right tension on the wool as it passed through the contraption — the wool was spun into yarn. From there, it would be dyed and handwoven into a blanket, scarf, or poncho.

A man wearing a straw hat, with a long braid down his back, sits on a braided mat, weaving fabric.

It’s a long and arduous work, he told us; at times, between maintaining the small family farm and the weaving business, he would only sleep for three hours a night! But the long days were kept interesting by the conversations he’d hold with his wife.

The time of this artisanship may well be coming to an end; his children didn’t want to dedicate their lives to such a time-intensive and relatively low-earning process, and since the passing of his wife, he’s been the only weaver in his family. But it was obvious from the quality of the products we saw at the end of the tour (intricately patterned blankets, ponchos woven tight enough to be almost completely waterproof) that his work will last for ages to come.

(C) — Between the fun of showing off/getting advice on new knitting projects from my coworkers, and seeing in Otavalo how incredibly intricate knit and woven work can be, I’ve taken to knitting whenever I have the free time, which most often includes riding the bus. It’s a fairly unusual sight, I’m sure, the gringa with her massive knitting bamboo knitting needles and half a scarf draped over her knees, so I’ve more or less gotten used to the occasional strange look.  But my seatmate a few days ago — a woman of around seventy — was watching my knitting with an intensity impossible to ignore.

I greeted her, in an attempt to interrupt the force of her stare, but she didn’t take her eyes off my knitting needles as she responded. Que lindo que tejas, she told me. How lovely that you knit.  I agreed, uncomfortably. Had I made a mistake she was judging? Did she want the scarf for herself? Was she concerned about the safety hazard of my needles? Deciding that anything was better than silence, I asked her if she liked to knit, and she told me she’d never learned.

Everything made sense. I asked, a little hesitantly, if she wanted me to teach her, and she smiled and nodded immediately.

This was my second proof that there is, in fact, some natural talent involved in knitting, because she caught on almost immediately. When she completed her first stitch, she beckoned excitedly to her husband (standing a few seats back), and he was clearly at least as proud of the accomplishment as she was. The three of us watched with mounting excitement as she completed  an entire row, and then another, not stopping until the bus pulled into the station. The entire time, I couldn’t stop marveling at the rarity of the encounter: how easy it would have been to spend the entire bus ride sitting in silence, listening to music on my headphones and not knowing that just to my right were two of the most enthusiastic potential knitters I’ve met here.

Now, in these last few weeks, I’ve been knitting frantically in a quest to finish scarves for the women of Pachamama. In our culture, I think we have this idea of strong and beautiful as mutually exclusive ideals, but getting to know Nancy, Maria Elena, Sonia, Alicia, and Marcela has shown me that it’s absolutely possible to be both. So — because I have a weakness for corny and sentimental metaphors — I’m decorating the scarves with things that are strong and beautiful: flowers, ocean waves, etc. They’ll be a thank-you gift for teaching me everything from how to best plant radishes or efficiently shovel compost to how to make a friend feel better after a break-up, and of course, how to knit.

Two scarves - one green with a white border and mirror-image green and white squiggles, and one purple with a pink border and a pink crocheted star.

Progress on the scarf project: 2/5 completed!

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