Postcard from Ecuador: Tracking the Tide of Globalization

Each year, one Oxford class spends spring break exploring the Amazon, witnessing shamanic powers, and studying the flip side of immigration.

By Lola Pak

The prospect of spending spring break in class makes most students balk, but for the freshmen and sophomores in Michael McQuaide’s sociology course at Oxford College, it is easily the best part of the semester. After all, what could beat spending it in Ecuador?

Since 1999, students taking Social Change in Developing Countries have spent 10 days in the equatorial nation as part of their curriculum. Through homestays, interviews with local residents, and other activities, they delve into the culture, politics, and social challenges of a developing country facing a competitive global economy. Upon returning to the United States, students reflect on their experiences to compose a research paper on a topic of their choice.

For the 16 students and faculty who took part in this past year’s trip, the focus on globalization and non-Western spirituality took the group to Rio Blanco, a community in the Amazon where shamanic rituals are practiced side by side with gold mining; Cojitambo, a village known for sending many of its able-bodied adults to the United States for work, often without proper documentation; and other cities and sites of archaeological, commercial, and historical importance to Ecuadorians.

“Ecuador clearly illustrates the dynamics and challenges of a developing country in a competitive global economy,” says McQuaide, who launched the program following a sabbatical in the country’s rainforest in 1998. With 25 years of experience teaching at off-campus sites, McQuaide, who specializes in medical sociology, instantly began looking for a way to embed the trip into the curriculum upon his return. “What I was most enthralled by wasn’t the material aspects of their culture, but rather their understanding of the world they lived in.”

With the help of a local guide, the group flew into the capital, Quito, before taking a smaller plane and ground transport to Cojitambo. There, students were provided a homestay and entry into the local community, where they met the mayor, priests, physicians, and other high-level figures. However, it was the interviews with the villagers that provided unparalleled insight into Ecuador’s most pressing immigration issues and economic challenges.

“The biggest thing I learned was how immigration impacted the people,” says Yugenderan Balamohan 13Ox 15C, a business major from Malaysia, who had the opportunity to speak with local scholars and immigration activists. “We always talk about immigration from America’s perspective, but not from other countries. You really see what other factors push people to leave their families.”

Rising unemployment, a lack of natural resources, and the entry of multinational companies to the rainforest are just a few of the factors that have led 10 to 15 percent of Ecuadorians to seek work abroad, primarily in the US and Spain, each year. According to a study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank in 2009, remittances to Ecuador from the United States constituted 5.6 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, or around $643.9 million. For residents of Cojitambo, much of this income goes toward paying back coyotes, or middlemen, who often charge $15,000 per person trafficked to the US border.

“There’s a commodification of consciousness that is a part of globalization as well,” says McQuaide, explaining how the desire to lead an “American” lifestyle leads migrants to send fewer remittances the longer they reside in the US. As a result, some of the families that students met with were living in near-poverty due to having to pay back the original cost of trafficking.

“The longer you work, the further into debt you fall,” says McQuaide, adding that families often become part of the labor force tasked with maintaining what was once their property as an additional form of repayment. “The issue has gradually increased, but it’s full throttle now.”

In spite of these challenges, other parts of Ecuador still remain largely untouched by globalization. In the rainforest, shamanism— the ancient healing practice known for its use of hallucinogens—is actively practiced by a number of village communities, including those along the Napo River, where students stayed for a few days after traversing the jungle. Here, they experience the type of lifestyle that originally inspired McQuaide to make Ecuador a part of the class curriculum, namely through fire-breathing rituals and hiking to Rio Blanco, where many plants and waterfalls maintain deep mythological significance to the local shamans.

“When I began to understand that I had stumbled onto a people whose cosmos was richer and different than my own, that’s when my real fascination kicked in,” McQuaide says, reflecting on his first stay in the Amazon. “The warmth and hospitality of our hosts, the natural beauty of the Andes and Amazon is something that most students are utterly unprepared for.”

Because of this, there is no prerequisite to take the course, although students with background in the social sciences and Spanish language may reap additional benefits from the trip. It also helps to have an interest in something that can be tied to the course’s themes. Sam Schlager 14Ox, who previously had conducted research on the US fishing industry, witnessed similar patterns of globalization in Ecuador’s fishing industry, with its traditional practices now confronting new Western technologies.

“This class gave me the opportunity to pursue that personal interest,” says the San Francisco native. “It gave us the opportunity to explore another part of the world and understand things on a personal level, rather than through a textbook or being told what to understand.”

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