In a rural town in the coast of Ecuador I had the pleasure of living with a woman. An eccentric woman. Some even said a witch. Witch or not she challenged me to challenge myself and my ecological standing. Here is what I learnt.
The walls of the Secret Garden were embedded with glass shards. Above the wall sat strategically placed barbed wire. The wall stood 10 ft. high communicating something along the lines of “I dare you to even try”. I pictured every shard of glass as a remnant of the woman behind it. Hidden for 8 years by high fences and rumors that she was a witch. From inside she watched the uninterrupted life outside of her icy fortress. A bird that once caged itself and has been trapped ever since.
The Secret Garden was not so aptly named. It was the largest house on the block by at least one whole story. The Secret Garden. I repeated it to myself. The irony tingled on my tongue. My partner Alex held my hand as we entered what was to be home for the next month.
We’ve been here a few days shy of a month and for the most part have caused this eccentric woman a drought. We’ve been showering with a one liter measuring jug. While the locals nearby go to a well, she collects rain water. The roof has pipes fringing the roof which collect in a tank. From there it is pumped upwards into a second tank and then she uses gravity for the last step. Water flows from the highest tank into the taps. She relays to me she’s only had running water for 6 months though she has been collecting rain water for much longer. It’s going to be the second time she calls the truck. She holds my glance as she says this, looking me up and down and reinforcing the message. “The second time!”.
All water is conserved here. There are two buckets in the sink. One for washing and one for rinsing. It works in a cycle. The washing water is thrown out over the garden and replaced by the rinse water. Furthermore any water that goes down the sink or in the shower is collected in another tank.
The water truck comes. She looks defeated. Her statements are witty and passive aggressive as though she knows I was using 2 liters of water for my bucket showers instead of one. In my defense it is the dry season.
Lesson 1: Be conscious of water usage. Water doesn’t just fall from the sky ya know.
Fishy Road Kill and Voodoo Dolls
There was something missing about the house and for the first few days we couldn’t figure it out… and then we went grocery shopping. This woman didn’t own a fridge. Overall, it was a good thing as it meant that all left overs were eaten rather than thrown to the back of the fridge. She tossed us a Styrofoam box filled with brown goo; “just buy ice… oh and give it a wash”. Our seafood, was always bought fresh. Every morning there are fisherman detangling their catch from nets with the patience and precision that only years of practice could bestow. We would wait until lunch to cook our spoils and because of this it always had a thick pasty consistency and fishy road kill flavor. Our broccoli, too, was always expired. I cursed firstly the heat and then the cooler which only offered half a day of solace from the tormenting sun.
But we were not the only ones. She keeps her homemade cat food in a neighbor’s fridge. Two out of three of her cats’ bellies sag so low they sweep the floor. From what I saw this was her favorite neighbor. The man in the blue house down the road. The family behind her think that she is a witch. A label she perpetuates by leaving voodoo dolls over their side of the fence. The family adjacent to her vacated when she told them that she came from a land of devils. A clever play on words for the Tasmanian Devil in Australia. “The locals here are a little superstitious”, she cackles.
Lesson 2: Buy fresh and eat fresh. More walks to the market isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
You Threw THAT away?
Need I say this woman recycled? She owned a series of garbage containers distinguishing intricacies in the material. She was working towards a plastic free home, a feat much more difficult than it sounds. In our room there was a list of rules, one of which was “no plastic bags”. Buying food, if caught without a bag became a game of smuggling. The fruit and vegetable trucks come every other day at random times. And when caught off guard, we would use plastic. As per request, after unpacking we would wash the plastic bags and hang them up to dry, to be reused. This was done in secret to try to avoid a punishing eye about bringing home more plastic bags. More often than not we would walk home with an assortment of items stacked awkwardly against our chest and were greeted with an approving smile or “what’s for dinner?”.
Lesson 3: Everything can be reused, recycled or up cycled.
“This is the bathroom”. Alex and I were getting the grand tour of her house. “It’s a composting toilet so you can throw your toilet paper inside the toilet” “ohhh” “ahhh”. For anyone else who has travelled through Latin America, you know this is kind of a big deal. All you do is chuck some sawdust in afterwards and let nature do its magic. Well, technically less magic from nature and more bugs digesting feces which is then shoveled to be used for compost in the garden. Ta-da! The garden gifted her back fruits, vegetables, herbs and an assortment of goodies she made into cleaning products, mosquito repellent, even gift wrapping.
Lesson 4: Literally, you can recycle anything.
She told us that the government watches her because of her ‘bliss bombs’, a fruity protein ball of shredded coconut, almond meal chia seeds and dates. “If you google ‘bomb’, which I do because of ‘bliss bomb’ then the government puts you on a blacklist”. Once a chef and always an animal rights activist, I was amazed at what much she could make with just vegetables and a few grains. No gluten, no fats, no meat and “no fucking sugar” this was written on a whiteboard in the kitchen and repeated in all of her meals. Her chili sauce, a family recipe, was to die for and made an appearance in different restaurants in the town, in recycled Gatorade bottles she collected along the road.
Lesson 5: You are what you eat. Eat to reflect your ethics.
Admittedly, I’ve never been overly conscious of my waste more than the basic dabble in vegetarianism and using a recycle bin. But, since moving out I’ve seen little differences here and there in my dispositions towards conservation and sustainability in everyday activities. This eco-warrior/ witch/ woman taught me a lot.
Jess Lemire is a traveller, writer and social activist, sometimes simultaneously. I write about the things that I am passionate about and am passionate about what I write. I'm a cultural observer and linguist at heart.
I love good food and am a low key fruit juice enthusiast.