Brick by brick, visitor by visitor

Carmen and Alfonso welcomed Eva and I into their home and lives in Tunibamba, a couple of hours drive just up on our side from the equator in northern Ecuador.

Carmen and Alfonso welcomed Eva and I into their home and lives in Tunibamba, a couple of hours drive just up on our side from the equator in northern Ecuador. Here Quechua speaking women still wear traditional long dark skirts, embroidered white blouses and folded head cloths. Our stay with this family last month had been organized by Runa Tupari, a tourism business founded by the Union of Rural and Indigenous Organizations of Cotacachi.

Based in Otavalo, the famous market town 2,500 metres up in the Andes, it partners with local indigenous Quechua communities to provide tourists with opportunities to experience life at the village level in a socially responsible, culturally appropriate fashion. Runa Tupari, meaning “encounter with indigenous people” in the Kichwa language, offers income-generating alternatives for those same communities aimed at the goal of sustainable rural development.

After giving us time to settle into our allpa wasy, or earth house, the room built adjacent to their home specifically for visitors like us, their eight-year-old daughter, Jhuly Viviana, together with two cousins, fetched us to go with them to bring the families’ two cows home for the night from a neighbouring hacienda. The fields and pastures previously owned by a large landowner had been purchased by the community as a whole allowing small area farmers like our hosts to add to their income by raising a few animals.

A cloud-capped Imbambura, a volcano rising 4,630 metres, caught the late afternoon light far across the valley to the east as we walked along an intricate series of irrigation channels distributing water from a stream in a deep, narrow ravine or barranca flowing down from the mountains above to farmer’s fields below. The native engineering know-how mastered gradients, tunneled through hillocks, and spread out in a layered web above the rapidly falling streambed out across the landscape.

Along with agriculture, it became apparent that brick making provided a major source of income for the villagers given the number of garage-sized kilns we passed. Local clay deposits offered locals another economic opportunity. Alfonso told me that he could mix and mould around 400 bricks during a 10-hour work day. They are left to dry for several days, then he fired them in his own kiln down in the seven-metre-deep pit slowly being excavated out through the clay level just beyond his house garden.

A thousand baked bricks netted him $50. This together with the animals, garden produce and visitors like us provide with Alfonso and Carmen with enough income to raise their family, even sending a daughter away to study accounting. We met her on her return from school for the weekend. She arrived in western garb, but the next morning she was attired in traditional village clothing.

We joined the family at their dinner table for meals drawing heavily on their garden produce and locally available seasonal fruits like tomate de arbol or tamarillo, which we had never tasted before. Rich but simple food such as their choclo or corn soup filled us. No television intruded into the conversation around the table, which heartened us as well. This family lived a materially simple life by our North American standards but from what we experienced it was certainly an emotionally rich and healthy one.

Our visit showed us that building viable rural communities while fostering vibrant traditional cultures and languages is indeed possible. This demands hard work and creativity for sure, but brick by brick, visitor by visitor they were achieving their goals in a culturally honest fashion.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact