Weeks ago, when my Ecuadorian family informed me that they spend Carnaval each year at the home of their grandparents, I said, “Can I go?”

“Yes, but…. they live in the mountains above Riobamba.”
“Great.  Can I go?”
“Yes, but…. they live in el campo (the countryside).”
“Oh, how beautiful.  Can I go?”
“Yes, but… there’s no beds.  You sleep where you can find a place.”
“No problem.  I backpack.  I have a sleeping bag.  I want to go!”
“Ok, but… it’s really different.  And when other people outside our family have been invited, they didn’t like it.  It caused a problem.”
“Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be fine.  I will be grateful for the experience.”
And that was all I knew.  For years, I’ve traveled around the world searching for a glimpse at how people really survive behind the touristy facade.  In my eagerness to learn more, I moved to Ecuador, a developing country, but truly, my life here is not very rough.  Only when I have traveled to Honduras and Guatemala with Heifer, International, have I ever witnessed real poverty, and even then, it was community success stories that were being promoted.  
So, in my wanderings, I’m still asking: 
How do the impoverished survive on so little?, and What does poverty really look like?  
For Ecuadorians, living in “el campo” often signifies poverty.  For three days, I celebrated Carnaval with my extended family and I lived this “el campo” life.  In this blog post, I want to share my wonderful experience, and I hope to enlighten you, and myself, as to what “poverty” might mean in Ecuador. 
This is Margarita’s grandparent’s home and farm.  Viewed from above, you see the house and barnyard clinging to the mountainside among their crops.  From this view, from left to right is the toilet, the chicken coops, the washing basins and the main roofed part of the stone house which encloses a bedroom, kitchen/ storage room and pen for the cuys.
This is Simon, Margarita’s Grandfather (and Carmen’s father -the store owner in Ibarra who introduced me to this family.)  He is very proud of his animals and his neat little barnyard.  He is standing next to the bathroom to show off his pigs, burro, cuys, chickens, and dogs.  
There are also two cows just to the left of the frame.  
This is Nieves, Margarita’s step-Grandmother, washing Quinoa to eat.  While I was there, 
she spent the vast majority of her time preparing and cooking foods to eat, 
then cleaning the pots to immediately start cooking again. 
This is their kitchen and storage room for all the meat and vegetables they harvest and buy.  
Simple wood shelves provide some storage, but the majority of food sits in bags, 
boxes and buckets on the dirt floor. 

To the left of the above photo is the fireplace.  They burn wood to cook their food.  This is Margarita’s mom, Maria, cooking our mid-day meal.  Maria grew up in this same pueblo, just down the road from this house.  The blackness of this room is due to the ever-rising smoke which has stained the walls and ceiling over time. Because this house sits alongside a main dirt road, it is electrified.  There is one lightbulb that dimly illuminates this room when light is not coming in the open doorway.  As in almost all Ecuadorian houses, there is no heat.  The kitchen has a small bench where they sit, eat, and keep warm on cold evenings.

Since we were such a large group, an outdoor fire was also needed to heat all the food.  Either way, Nieves spends much of her day leaning over an open fire cooking food for her and Simon.

To wash the large pots, Nieves rubs an abrasive grain, such as wheat or barley, through the grease and burnt on food.  Notice how so much of her work is done while kneeling in the dirt.

This is the washing basin.  You will find this structure in every house in Ecuador.  People in the city only use it to wash their clothes or, if they’re lucky enough to have a washing machine, they use it only to wash their delicates.  Simon and Nieves use this basin for all their water needs.  They do not have potable water.  Rainwater and runoff from the mountains is collected in an open community reservoir above their house (see photo below) and gravity fed into this blue tank through plastic tubes.  The water then runs into this basin where they scoop it up in bucketfuls to wash their clothes, wash their food, wash their dishes, brush their teeth, wash their bodies in a bucket bath, or flush the toilet.  It’s very common to have a flushing toilet installed in an out-house without connecting it 
to a water source to actually flush.  If you pour enough water down a toilet, it will eventually carry your waste down the hole.  This is commonly referred to as a bucket toilet.  

On the weekend that we were visiting, there was a clog in the reservoir water tube up the hill and we had to make several trips into town to buy fresh drinking water for cooking, and cleaning.  We also collected water from a community drainage pipe to use for washing dishes and flushing the toilet.  I wonder what Simon and Nieves would have done if we wouldn’t have been there 
with a car and a means to retrieve more water?

The community reservoir
What did we eat, you ask?  Pork.

When we first arrived, Wilo, Carmen’s husband, was slaughtering a pig. 

Then, the women of the family took over to prepare the entrails.  Maria, Johana and Margarita emptied out the stomach while Marjorie washed it in that fresh-from-the-tube reservoir water. 

This is the pig intestines, or tripa.  For each section, we squeezed out the food remains 
and rinsed it clean.  Well, admittedly, I held the camera. 
Day 1 we ate Chicharrones, or fried pig skin.
For Day 2’s breakfast, we ate fried pork with fried bananas. 
For lunch and dinner, Gabriel, Margarita’s father, and I helped stir the Fritadas, or fried pork meat. 

On Day 3 we ate Tripa Soup, with the organs and intestines.  As we were leaving to go home, they were roasting the pig head and the feet
for future meals.

Remember the photo of the kitchen?  There’s no refrigerator.  Raw meat sits in covered buckets around the kitchen floor waiting to get processed or cooked.  Coming from a bacteria-phobic country, this was the most surprising for me.  But I never got sick.  They know what they’re doing with food and the chilly night climate and the cold earth helps keep the containers of raw meat a little cold.  It is believed that in the cool climate of the Sierra Mountains, raw meat can be kept like this for three days. Additionally, they might only slaughter something as large as a pig when they have so many mouths to feed, knowing that it won’t go to waste.  

3 days.  Pork and potatoes at every meal plus one banana and a slice of tomato.

I think it’s possible I ate some cuy too.  There was always a lot of meat on my plate. 
So, as we sat around the fire, watching the food cook and cracking jokes, I started to wonder…. where’s the vegetables?  We’re literally in the middle of miles of farm fields.  What are they growing?
So, I asked for a tour of their land.  And just like in my farm family in Central Illinois, we took an afternoon stroll to wander the fields of their ancestors, inspect the crops, and talk about the weather.  
The patchwork design of the hills and valley was breathtaking. 
In their fields, I saw corn, barley and wheat all growing in small little plots- just enough to 
sustain their family or perhaps sell the extra for other necessary supplies.  I was told that both Simon and Nieves share the work of the planting and harvesting by hand in their fields and if there is any extra, they try to share it with family, or friends, or trade for other foods with their neighbors.    At last resort, Simon loads up his burro and rides it to the market in town where he has to sell it for a low price due to all the competition.  It’s a hard life to be a farmer on this mountainside. 
On our walk, I also saw a lot of lettuce, cabbage, carrots, onion, broccoli, 
cauliflower, beets, garlic and squash in the fields.
The rich volcanic soils and the year-round mild temperatures of the high Sierra allow for a variety of products to be grown such as corn, wheat, barley, quinoa, potatoes, beans, alfalfa, and an edible lupine seed called chochos.  But that doesn’t paint the whole picture until you realize that there are at least 12 different varieties of corn cultivated for different purposes, and at least that many different types of potatoes / tubers, and beans as well.  The heirloom seed variety is incredible and has obviously adapted over centuries to grow in these soils at this elevation.
Most every house also keeps a variety of animals for milk, eggs and protein.  
Further down the valley, you see the white plastic of greenhouses where varieties of 
tomatoes, peppers, radishes, strawberries and cucumbers are grown in close proximity. 
Llamas provide wool, and a little character to the hillsides.
Then, we climbed even higher up the hill to visit the original home of Margarita’s other grandparents.  This is where Maria, her mother, grew up and her parents have since died.  
This house is abandoned, but they rent the land around it to another neighboring farmer.
Margarita is sitting in the earthen pen where her grandfather used to corral his rabbits 
and then yank one up the ledge to kill it for dinner.  She remembers spending a lot of 
school vacations at this home when she was younger.
Where did we sleep, you ask?  Everywhere.

The flattest spots were inside the buildings that serve as their bedroom and kitchen.  All 26 of us laid out tarps and blankets or set up tents inside the house- two to three people per tent. 
 As you can see, we took over their bedroom.  There are two beds in this room, and wood shelves around the perimeter holding clothes in large plastic mesh bags and boxes.  There are no windows in this house, only wood doors to let in light.  A single dim lightbulb illuminates this room as well.

Throughout the weekend, it was common for neighbors to stop by bringing food, or their homemade chicha, to celebrate Carnaval.  I observed that it was the custom for Simon 
to greet them and share their offering.  After a few moments, Nieves often brought out
plates of food for them as well. 

So, after three days with Simon and Nieves in “el campo”, I was able to get a small glimpse into what one example of rural mountain life looks like in Ecuador.  But is this “poverty”?  To learn more, I turned to the Internet for a definition:

A 2016 ranking of the riches to poorest countries according to their GDP per capita, adjusted for relative purchasing power of the citizens, ranks Ecuador the 105th poorest out of 192 countries.

Relative poverty is a term that defines poverty in relation to the economic status of other members of the society: people are poor if they fall below prevailing standards of living in a given societal context. 

Poverty is about not having enough money to meet basic needs including food, clothing and shelter.  However, poverty is much more than not having enough money.
The World Bank Organization describes poverty in this way:
“Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, and living one day at a time.

In addition to a lack of money, poverty is about not being able to participate in recreational activities; not being able to send children on a day trip with their schoolmates or to a birthday party; not being able to pay for medications for an illness.  These are all costs of being poor. People who are barely able to pay for food and shelter simply can’t consider these other expenses.  

Simon and Nieves have resources to meet their basic needs.  They have a home.  They have electricity and a water source that is being sterilized by the sun.  They grow much of their own food for themselves and their animals, and they can sell the extra at a market.  In Ecuador, each life-long subsistence farm family (when they reach retirement age) is given around $100 per month from the government.  This is called an “agriculture pension”.  Carmen also told me that her father, Simon, paid into a Social Security System his whole life in order to receive money back now that he is older.  Therefore, they do have some money to buy other types of food and supplies.  It is true, they do have to pay for electricity and taxes on their land, but because they are senior citizens, both of these bills are 50% of the normal price and are relatively minor.  They also help provide funds for the community needs: to fix up the church, the community center, or help pay for community events.

They are also healthy.  They breathe some of the cleanest air in the world, and walk up and down the mountain trails daily to reach their different fields.  Therefore, their work and lifestyle makes them strong and robust.  Because Ecuador has a universal health care system, they have access to doctors and medicine as they need.  If they do get sick, they first try to use plant and animal-based natural remedies passed down through generations.  When they do have to go to a doctor, their children take them to Quito.  Medicine is not free, but it is subsidized for senior citizens and can be fairly inexpensive.  Additionally, they also have a support system.  They live in a tight-knit community where neighbors are constantly coming and going along the paths next to their house.  And their children are watching out for them too.  Finally, everyone else in their community is living at the same standard.  So, according to the definitions of poverty, they aren’t necessarily poor.

But let’s look at what they don’t have.  The lack of potable water is a precarious problem.  As long as it rains, the reservoir is full, and the tubes carry the water to their house, they are fine.  If something changes, then they would have to spend a lot of money repairing the problem, or buying bottled water and getting it up the mountain to their home.  Also, when it rains too much, there is a lot of turbulence in the water, and the silt clogs their pipes.  Then, they have to wait for the silt to settle out of the water before being able to use it again.  

Living essentially in the dirt, cooking over an open fire and breathing in the smoke daily has probably not helped their health either.  They could have a gas stove, but again, getting gas tanks up the hill could be a problem.  Also, a fire provides ambient heat for their home, which a stove doesn’t do.  Obviously obtaining wood is cheaper.  It also makes it easier to burn the little garbage that they create.

Happy Birthday, Simon!

Education has also been limited, or non-existent for them both.  Simon went to school until the 3rd or 4th grade and he knows how to read and write.  Nieves went to school until the 4th grade, and used to know how to read and write, but hasn’t needed to use these skills for many years.

They also don’t have adequate transportation options.  They rely on walking, riding their burro, paying for a taxi or hitching a ride to get them where they need to go.  Furthermore, they don’t have a television, or access to news sources.  And Simon broke his cell phone, so they don’t have an ability to communicate directly with his six children.

And finally, from everything I saw, they do lack a variety of foods and nutrition in their diet.  The Ecuadorian diet in the Sierra Mountain region is heavy on protein and carbohydrates.  Small amounts of vegetables are often only featured in the mid-day soup.  Fruit is generally a luxury that probably has to be bought at a market and carried up the mountain.

So, are they poor?  Yes.  But not as poor as many people in the world.
Ecuador is a food rich country.  And they have other resources such as health care, and a culture of supporting their own.  They’re safe, seemingly happy and doing pretty well for their mid-80’s.  When I was gathering information for this blog post, their children wanted to make sure I added how proud they are of their parents and grandparents, and proud of their family heritage coming from “el campo” – the countryside, the heartbeat of Ecuador. 

I’m so grateful that Simon and Nieves shared their home and their life with me.  Simon was so proud to host a visitor from another country.  He showed me around, posed for pictures, introduced me to visiting neighbors and told me that his door is always open to me in the future. 

On the last morning, Simon proudly dressed up in a traditional poncho and demonstrated his abilities on the bocina, an instrument made out of a rubber hose and a cow horn.  He asked me to take a video of him so he could see himself.  The tune he played is one that is used as an announcement to neighbors for Carnaval gatherings, mingas (community cleaning parties) or harvest parties.  I really enjoyed my time with him.  He’s a kind and gentle soul, and in many ways, he reminded me 
a lot of my dad.  I hope I get a chance to see him again.