Often when we travel to new countries I try to picture myself living there. I try to imagine shopping in the markets in Tokyo or working in a colonial building in Barcelona or meeting friends for brunch in Geneva. But, no matter how hard I try, I cannot picture myself going about my daily business in South America. The lives of the women here are so completely different from my own life that it’s literally impossible to imagine myself here in any capacity other than tourist.
It’s important that I say right up front that I’m only writing here about Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and I’m only writing about women I’ve seen living in the rural areas and smaller cities. We haven’t been to Chile, Argentina or Brazil yet and I imagine that life is very different in these more modern, well-off countries.
When we were in the Ecuadorian Amazon we spent an afternoon in a local village. Our host was a woman with very few teeth and five children. When we asked we learned that she was exactly my age. Five children!
This woman was not unusual. In fact, she was better off than most. During our visit she showed us how she makes bread from the yucca plant for her family… a labour intensive process that yields flavourless flat breads. She could no more run to the grocery store for a pack of pitta bread than she could go to the moon. Exactly my age, but worlds apart.
From what I’ve observed, the women of South America are never idle. No time for manicures or cocktails with friends or Tivo’d marathons of Glee for these women. They are scrubbing their laundry in the creeks and streams, herding llamas and sheep, plowing fields… their full, ankle-length skirts providing glimpses of colour against the brown soil as we speed past on buses. Even on bus and boat rides these women are knitting and tending to the children secured in blankets on their backs. No rest for the weary…
I admire the women I’ve seen here. They are hard-working. They are devoted to their families. They are quick to smile and laugh with each other. I wonder… if they were freed from the constant work of survival, if they were each given a washing machine and access to a grocery store for example, what else would these clever women be capable of? Would they, in their new free time, change the world? Or would we merely lose the simple and traditional way of life that these women carry forward on their backs?