A few summers ago, I found myself in a tiny Ecuadorian village with twenty-five students, two other leaders and a disaster of a situation. It was a challenging time to say the least, but it was also a beautiful and impactful experience. When times are tough like right now (thank you Covid-19), I bust out a picture of María, my Ecuadorian madre, and remind myself of the many lessons I learned. Last week, I posted about how María taught me to find laugher and joy while peeling potatoes all day long. Get the whole backstory and find out what peeling potatoes has to do with living during a pandemic here. Today I share with you the second of three important lessons.
An introduction to dairy farming
I graduated from a small liberal arts college and one of my best friends was a dairy farmer’s daughter (can you tell I went to school in VT?). On a weekend trip up to her house, I had the amazing experience of joining her father for the morning milking. I walked down to the barn at 4:15 a.m. chipper, excited and if I’m being honest, a bit nervous; the rest of my friends were fast asleep, not interested in the slightest in partaking in this magical moment. I stood there fascinated as the cows backed their way into the stalls, were hooked up to electric pumps and their milk began to flow. That was also the day I feel in love with cow 15 who I called Polly, but as it turns out no matter how hard you beg, farmers don’t let you take cows home as pets.
Fast forward seven years and here I was surrounded by dairy farmers once again, although their life couldn’t have been anymore different. Instead of 250 cows, every family had one. Instead of electric pumps, they milked by hand. Instead of selling their milk to a large cooperation, they sold theirs to local markets or neighboring towns.
Learning to milk by hand
During our month log stay we became experts, well more like semi-proficient, on milking cows, carrying buckets without spilling a single drop and making the best fresh cheese you’ve ever tasted. The first time I gave milking by hand a try, I barely filled the bucket a quarter of an inch. I was truly giving it my best effort and as you can guess María was looking over my shoulder, smiling as I struggled. Day after day, I accompanied her and little by little my milking skills improved. I’ll admit they never got good and I always needed María to finish the job (poor Patricia just made so much milk), but I was proud of my progress. When I told her about my experience in Vermont and the electric pumping machines her eyes lit up. She had heard about this; in fact, there was a farm in a neighboring town that someone had told someone that had told someone else that had purchased a couple of pumps.
Field trip anyone?
That night as I lay on the floor, trying to keep warm in my dinky sleeping bag (remember we were living with no heat, no beds, no bathroom), I thought about how cool it would be for María and her farming amigos to see the electric milking pumps in action. Every weekend I organized an excursion for the students, and we were slated to visit Laguna Cuicocha in a few days. Perhaps I could arrange a stop by the town with the electric pumps. It took phone call after phone call, and I felt like a small miracle happened when I finally got Carlos on the phone and he agreed to let us (being my twenty-five students, María and a few other of her amigos and myself) check it out.
Saturday came quickly and I smiled at María as we clambered aboard the local bus. I knew it was stressful for her and her amigos to leave; there was work to be done and animals to be tended to, but she had called in a few favors to make it possible and looked as happy as could be. When the bus driver indicated that we had arrived, we disembarked and began the two-mile trek from the main road to the farm (all thirty plus of us). Carlos stood proudly outside the barn and began the two second tour. I’ll never forget the great disappointment I felt. This was nothing like what I had seen in Vermont. How could I have been so naïve, so silly? How could I have wasted their precious time, tearing them away from their work just to see these two small, insignificant machines that looked like my students could have put together? Where was the modern farm? Right, I was deep in the Andes Mountains. Right, I was in a different world. Right, this is what progress looked like here. As María and her amigos chatted with Carlos, I took the students out to the fields to pet the calves and run around a bit.
After hiking the two miles back to the main road and waiting over an hour, we finally caught the bus. I felt deflated. I had wasted María’s Saturday and the students were tired and grumpy and hungry. I sat down next to her and just as I was about to apologize, she busted out a tiny notebook and began silently flipping through the pages. She had been taking notes? As she sat there studying them, I wondered what she had written down. I felt a sigh of relief; maybe today wasn’t a total waste after all.
These hands were made for milking
When we eventually arrived at our little village, María went straight to our makeshift kitchen to prepare dinner as her son had already taken care of the afternoon milking. I doled out chores to the students (setting the table, tending to the fire that boiled and purified water, folding the laundry that had been drying in the chilly mountain air, and so on) and then went to help María. I was surprised when I didn’t find her perched on an overturned bucket, prepping vegetables; instead she was standing under the dangling light bulb staring at her hands. She held them out in front of her, fingers star-fished, gaze fixed. My heart sank. Here I had just paraded her and her amigos to see something they probably in their lifetime would never be able to have. How dare I! In the shadows of the doorway, I felt the pain of my mistake. These were a people who worked tirelessly every day and could barely make ends meet. How first world of me to think that they needed to see the greener grass.
As I was once again about to apologize, María’s eyes met mine; she hadn’t noticed me at first. I saw the glistening tears as she said softly, almost timidly, “Thank you. Today was a great reminder of how lucky I am.” I stood there silent. Did I misunderstand her? Did I have a Spanish brain fart? I had just shown her a better, easier, more prosperous life and she was feeling lucky? “These hands”, she continued. She had true working hands; they were callous, raw and rough. I thought they were beautiful. “I’m so grateful for them. They were made for milking.” She went on to explain that seeing the future that the children or grandchildren of her village could have was inspiring. It wouldn’t happen overnight she reminded me, and it would never happen without hard work, but she already knew that. Today, she explained, acted as a well needed reminded of how grateful she was to have hands for milking. She thanked me once again as I stood there still not quite absorbing all she was saying, stunned by her humbling perspective and lack of envy. She smiled, turned around, slowly picked up her paring knife and started peeling potatoes.
Start with the small stuff
These past few months I have thought of María often in my never-ending quest to put her teachings into practice. We all know that there is a better, easier, more prosperous life on the other side of this pandemic. Heck, we were living it until early March. Our currently normal is far different and the grass for many isn’t green at all. The good news is that each and every one of us has an inner María, even if some have to dig deeper than others to find her. This woman was so utterly grateful, despite knowing that just a few bus stops away her neighbors were enjoying the good life. As we stay safe at home and continue to socially distance, I hope you can take a page out of María’s book and practice daily gratitude. Try focusing especially on things easily overlooked; María’s wisdom has taught me that they just might be the most important.
I will be posting the third lesson I learned in Ecuador shortly, but first wanted to give you some time to get into the habit of practicing daily gratitude. If you missed the first lesson about finding joy while peeling potatoes, you can find it here. And if you’re interested in other travel stories, you can read about how a trip to Italy taught me all about the power of pesto. Please let me know what you’re grateful for by leaving a comment below. We are all in this together. Hasta pronto!