The second two places I visited had my mind working a million miles and hour and jumping around like an Amazonian spider.
Back in January I happened across an interesting Uber driver returning to school from the airport. He was and older man, telling me about how over the past 20 years, he had visited most of the countries of Europe, Asia and several in the Middle East and South America. He saw the Great Wall of China, visited 10 EU countries in 2 weeks, and immersed himself in each culture as much as possible.
Seemed like he was ranting, but one thing he said hit me:
“Nobody has the right to judge another culture. That’s the one thing I’ve learned these past 20 years … to tell people that their way of life is wrong. When I lived in Russia for two years… people from other countries would say they drink too much vodka, or whatever, but that’s not true. Every community does exactly as it’s supposed to as it makes sense to them.”
Now I don’t consider this guy the guru on cultures and their morals, but I will tell you that when you travel to other countries it’s a good idea not to catch a case of “the judgesies.” It may ruin your trip. I took the advice to heart, especially knowing where I was headed. My phrase became “don’t pass judgement.”
On to the trip.
I left Quito in the morning on about a 6 hour bus ride to the Lago Verde, not too deep in the Amazon, rested there for the night. The next morning I woke up bright and early and hopped on a boat down the Napo River. We were the second to last stop on the trip, right before the Peruvian border, deep into the heart of the Amazon.
Over the course of the ride, we got stuck in the mud twice (Napo River is extremely shallow) and all of the passengers had to take small motor boats out of the main boat to lighten the load so the boat could be pushed out.
Twelve hours later and I was in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Nothing you do will quite prepare you to sit on a cramped boat for 12 hours straight as you crawl down an Amazonian river. It certainly will build some character.
And when you get to the end, you’re greeted by bats flying around. In addition to the bats, you have your mosquitoes, large stinging ants, giant moths, big spiders, random rainfall and extreme humidity. You never quite get dry in the Amazon. The moisture in the air clings to your face, you’re probably wearing powerful DEET bug spray that makes your skin sweat, and coupled with the heat and clothes that have to cover your body, you get a recipe for wetness.
When we slept, I kid you not, moths the size of baseballs kept slamming into our little tents.
My initial impression was somewhere along the lines of “how the hell do the people here live like this?” Wait, Gio – stop passing judgement.
Despite all of these conditions, the locals weren’t complaining. And neither would I. To me, to complain would be the same as admitting this way of life was wrong, or worse. And I wasn’t going to be the judge. In fact, I actually started to enjoy the discomfort. It felt good to forget all the things I usually take for granted. I don’t think I ever will again.
And because of that I could see all of the beauty …
After many bug bites, stained shirts, and hikes through the jungle … all of the sudden, it was time to go. A boat ride, a bus ride, and about half a day later I was in Cariacu, a small town in the Andes.
Complete environmental flip – bitter cold, no bugs, no humidity, and a different culture yet again.
We were informed that this town had a lot of problems with domestic violence, violence towards women and alcoholism. The best ways to empower the country would be to abstain from drinking and be very punctual. OK.
The second night in Cariacu there was a huge celebration in the town that they just called the Music Festival. Men at the festival drank heavily. Women at the festival were not allowed to drink. If the women drank, they would be given a lot of trouble. This was the way things ran.
Don’t pass judgement … and yet. The majority of the locals I talked to were very friendly and genuine. In our lectures and study we found out a lot of the alcoholism began after large foreign companies displaced a lot of the natives from their lands and traditional ways of life.
For me, three things happened in the Amazon and the Andes. The first was I learned how to turn off my ability to pass judgement. The second was that my tolerance for discomfort increased tenfold. The third was I learned what true beauty was.
More on that next time. For now enjoy this Andean beauty:
Giovanni Ferrante is a psychology junior. He is travelling to Ecuador this summer on a faculty-led program.
Giovanni, excellent post. It’s so difficult to turn off the judging switch. Acknowledging “this is the way things are done here” without judging “this belief is sexist/racist/inhumane etc. is perhaps one of the most valuable, and difficult lessons one can learn when studying abroad. Here’s a psychology question… when you were at the festival and saw that the women were forbidden to drink, did you have to stifle the urge to get all Susan B. Anthony about it? I’m wondering if during your time abroad if you kept thinking the same way and kept your mouth shut, or did you find that your thoughts actually were becoming less and less judgmental after you practiced (being tolerant) a few times?