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October 22, 2001

A journey to find myself

Nina Vestal is house manager for the Deparment of Music.


I just got off the phone with my husband, and I cannot remember what we were talking about. He had been trying to reach me all day and was finally able to catch me at home.

We are a pretty regular nuclear family, consisting of a mom, a dad and a 10-year-old child. We have a home phone line, a home fax/computer line and two mobile phones. Between the three of us, we have five e-mail addresses. My husband and I both have direct office lines and, of course, fax numbers at work. Several of our phones have multiconferencing and call waiting. We are always available and “in touch,” or so it would seem.

This summer I chose a different path, at least for a brief period of time. My son and I traveled to rural Ecuador for a month. We lived on a farm much like the one where my father was raised. We had no electricity. At night, we read and ate by candlelight. We got up every morning literally with the chickens and gathered eggs. We boiled our milk each day to keep it from spoiling. Water was piped to the house from a creek higher up the mountain; we used a hand-pumped filter and iodine tablets to make it potable. We bathed in the pond out back and washed our clothes by hand. The walk into town, one way, took more than an hour; the desire for “a Coke and a smile” required serious commitment.

I wanted my son to experience a different lifestyle than the fast-paced, instant-gratification society that engulfs our life here in metro Atlanta. My friends all humored me when I told them my plan. They were polite and spoke of my “adventuresome spirit”—they all thought I had lost my mind.
I was certain that I was well prepared for this adventure. I was a Girl Scout for 11 years.
I am currently a Cub Scout leader. I know how to rough it. Many of my childhood summers were highlighted by visiting my grandparents’ farm. I escorted tour groups to Europe during the summers of my 20s. I have always prided myself in speaking Spanish un poco. Along with my home-schooled son, I had done concentrated studies in ecosystems, the rainforest and South America. I was ready.

Still, I am a city girl at heart. We flew into Quito, the largest city in Ecuador—no problem.
I was okay as our bus traced the city’s narrow streets, then into the countryside. When we started up and around and down and over the winding road into the Andes, I fell asleep. Occasionally I would wake momentarily to witness the near miss of an oncoming vehicle or to see the bus barely avoid careening over the sheer drop from the road’s shoulder.

Our destination was Puerto Quito, the closest town to the Suenos farm. Years ago Puerto Quito was the furthest point to which the Indians could maneuver their canoes downstream before making the rest of the journey into Quito on foot.

On arrival, I had a Coke and filled my backpack with necessities: Oreos, Ding Dongs, Crunch bars and crackers. We waited on the main street for an orange truck to come along and haul us and our luggage the 20 minutes up the hill to the farm.

The orange truck finally came along about an hour later. We were truly on Ecuador time: Hurry up and wait.

Forty years ago Suenos was primarily rainforest. It was homesteaded out to pioneers for farming. The house was more upscale than I thought it would be; it didn’t have a thatched roof. The rooms were open air with only shutters on the window openings. The beds were thatched out of some local leaves and covered with sheets. I brought my own linens and mosquito net. During our entire stay I saw only one snake slither through the house, although an occasional chicken, bat, duck or dog would wander indoors.

Each morning we did regular chores: feed the chickens, go for milk, prepare the meal, clean up and take out the compost. The farm is organic; everything gets recycled. Humming-birds would join us in the kitchen for breakfast, then we would plan the day’s work. We harvested coffee, cacao, citrus, herbs and vegetables. We swung machetes to cut the grass and use it as mulch. We planted crops and trees. We shelled beans and made chocolate. We built a new chicken palace.

I did not arrive at the farm free of bug bites; I had a few mosquito bites left over from Cub Scout camp back home. Somewhere along the way, working in the fields, I got a bad case of chiggers. Even my emergency topical Benadryl had little effect on those varmints, but I lived.

The farm is vegetarian. I would like to be, but I am not. Papaya, plantains and yucca are plentiful. The soil is poor for growing most vegetables, and many of the vegetables are bought at a weekly market in Puerto Quito. With no refrigeration, the selection gets pretty slim by the end of the week.

I did okay, but about 10 days into the stay I was offering up to $500 for anyone who would run into Quito and bring me a Whopper with cheese. There is absolutely nothing like carrying a 20-pound bag of potatoes up an unpaved road, high above sea level, at the equator. I got really good at finding the orange truck. My Spanish was magnificent when I explained where I needed to go.

We filled evenings with long dinners and early bedtimes. We often would linger around the table and talk. Neighborhood children would drop by for help with schoolwork or to practice their English. We played games and entertained each other; Scrabble was popular with the neighbors, but I could never tell if their Spanish words were legit. I do know that I never won a game.

Ecuador is a beautiful country. The people are kind. We had some wonderful times and some pretty rough ones, as well. I discovered I only thought I spoke a little Spanish; this was a great overstatement. I cannot decide whether “nothing in my life had prepared me for this trip” or if “everything in my life had prepared me for this trip.”

Many would say farm life is simple. It is not. The choices are limited. Cause and effect is very clear. To be able to eat, you must work and harvest. To have something to drink, you must pump water, squeeze fruit or hike up the hill to fetch the milk.

Mistakes on the farm can be costly. Forget to put the chickens up at night, and they might not come back. Forget to turn the water back on to the fishpond and all the fish die. There is always something to do on a farm. Work is never finished. Everyone on a farm has purpose and contributes. Clarity comes from the routine chores and rituals of farm life.

What I found on the farm was time uninterrupted. I did not have to check e-mails, return calls, put people on hold or answer the phone.

I didn’t feel lost or out of touch. If anything, I felt more in touch. I had time to think, to wonder and to enjoy.

Would I do it again? Call me, and we can talk about it. Better yet, send me an e-mail.


Back to Emory Report October 22, 2001