I ended up in Iyarina, Ecuador this last summer thanks to an invitation by Dr. Tod Swanson, Associate Professor at Arizona State University, after my dear friend Dr. Osvaldo Sala connected us. At the time, I was auditing a Quechua class at NYU and became very interested in the indigenous struggle related to the preservation of their lands. We talked about climate change, ecology, indigenous identity and language. He sent me the link for the Field School that he directs near Tena, capital of the province of Napo, one of the entrances to the Ecuadorian Amazon.
While working on my graduate studies in Arizona State, I was an assistant for different study abroad programs, one in Spain for a couple of trips, as well as one in Mexico. It was through these experiences that I recognized the key role of immersion in any field the student is taking on. Since I teach Spanish as a second language, I am an advocate for these kinds of programs that help improve and solidify one’s previous knowledge.
When I took my plane from New York to Ecuador, I was not really thinking much about the program. Argentina, my home country, was playing the first soccer match for the 2014 World Cup and I was also very busy finalizing my teaching semester at New York University. I got to Iyarina one evening a week after the program started, and what I saw left me speechless. There were more than 30 students, both undergraduate and graduate, from different fields: Anthropology, Linguistics, Philosophy, Law, Psychology, Literature, Geology; 3 professors: Dr. Tod Swanson, Dr. John Frechione and Dr. Samuel St. Clair; and a whole family making the program run as smooth as you can imagine.
I was assigned to one room with a graduate student in linguistic anthropology from the University of Michigan. In the room next door was Dr. John Frechione, Associate Director of CLAS at the University of Pittsburgh. It was a nerd heaven: after a delicious traditional breakfast, we had anthropology classes with Dr. Frechione every morning and. Then, depending on the rain, we would head to the jungle with two Napo Kichwa women to hear them teach us about ecology from their traditional knowledge with Dr. Swanson’s ethnobotany class. After that, we would have lunch, and head to the last class of the day on the Napo Kichwa language. Dr. Samuel St. Clair from BYU was also teaching biology at the same time as Dr. Frechione’s class. I would have loved to take this course, but it was impossible to take all the classes. I would also see his class walk to the jungle and conduct the classes right there, in situ, explaining the beautiful world of nature to his students.
When the first session was over, we had a week off, of which I took full advantage and traveled to Otavalo, in the Andes, and then to Mompiche, a beautiful small beach near the Colombian border. When I came back to Iyarina, some students had left but I met new students that were joining us for the second term of the summer together with other professors: Alana DeLoge, who taught health in the Napo Region, and Dr. Tim Savisky who taught sustainability. Dr. Swanson was also teaching the continuation of his ethnobotany course.
During the entire 8-week program, we made traditional style ceramics, learned how to prepare chicha (a drink made of fermented yuca), we learned how to cultivate and harvest lumu (yuca), we tasted amazing traditional food, and we lived as a “minga” (a collective of people working together) with the family that ran the accommodations for all of us. Some of the highlights of this program were studying together, talking about readings, walking through the jungle with members of the community learning about medicinal plants and, by the end of the 8 weeks program, being able to speak some Kichwa! I am planning on traveling there again this upcoming summer since it is, pretty much, heaven on earth for intellectual nerds. Chita rikangauranchi!
By Marcela Naciff, Visiting Lecturer at NYU