Life Hack – Tolerance

In spring of 1965, I worked on a project in Ecuador. Discussions in Quito took longer than usual, and I unexpectedly had a free weekend. Earlier, a friend who worked in the District of Columbia for our government’s agency for international development (USAID), suggested I visit one for their projects north of Quito while I was in there.

I’d worked with USAID officials on a few public-private ventures in other locations. I respected their mission and dedication and was curious to see my tax dollars at work in South America. Our Quito embassy arranged the visit, and, on a brisk Saturday morning, a junior attaché from the embassy and I headed north in an open jeep-like car.

In less than an hour, we escaped the confines of Quito and found a lush and fertile landscape surrounded by snow-covered peaks. My guide (I don’t remember his name, so I’ll call him “Fred”} pointed to the bushy fences that glided by our badly paved highway.

“The people here cut branches from the guato tree, stick them in the ground, and have those growing fences in two years,” said Fred. “They control the livestock and mark boundaries. The soil is rich right up to the timberline.”

I looked across dark-green fields and thousand-year-old terraces to the mountains. The view alone was worth the ride.

Fred concentrated on navigating the rutty road, and I enjoyed the scenery until the over two-mile-high altitude caused a knot of pain between my eyes. Fred handed me a bottle of water and suggested I take deep breaths. Gulping down the chilled air helped.

A village of frame and adobe buildings next to an ice-blue lake appeared, and Fred drove to its center square, the church opposing the mayor’s office across a park with paths, flowers and benches where a few villagers sat. Fred said I could stretch my legs while he went into the mayor’s office. He found me on a sunny bench when he returned with a young woman who was a teacher at the USAID school. I was relieved that her English was much better than my Spanish.

Within ten minutes we arrived at a single-story school building of concrete and timbers that resembled the homes in the village and a smaller building that the teacher explained was a clinic and infirmary used by a visiting nurse twice a month. There were no classes on Saturday, but a few children kicked a soccer ball in a playground, and people were at work in the adjoining fields and at the lakeshore. We toured the buildings, and the teacher proudly showed four tidy classrooms with small desks, cabinets, shelves of books, and the children’s art on the walls. Bathrooms, a small kitchen, and a teacher’s meeting room completed the schoolhouse which was powered by a diesel generator standing beside the infirmary.

I was impressed with the quality of construction and the obvious benefit the school provided to the village. I considered my tax dollars well spent.

A small group of villagers gathered near the playground as we left the building, and we walked toward them. I thought they were curious about the gringos examining their school, perhaps wishing to express their gratitude for the new school. A woman stood out from the others. A short brimmed brown fedora covered her glossy black hair, and her wrinkled face was the color of weathered mahogany. Most of her teeth  had found other homes. She wore a checkered gray shawl over a red blouse and a dark blue skirt that swished across the dust at her feet. She angrily pointed a finger and moved toward me and asked something in Spanish. The teacher said, “She wants to know where you are from.”

I knew enough Spanish to answer, “Estados Unidos.”

“Ladrón,” she shouted, reached down to pick up a handful of dirt, and threw it at my face. She stood grimacing at me as I pulled back and tried to brush the dirt away. I was speechless which, in my case, is rare. Some men from the group pulled her away, muttering Spanish deprecations. The teacher handed me a tissue to wipe my face, and I tried to make light of the matter, saying something like, “Well, so much for Ecuadoran gratitude.” Perhaps I laughed a bit.

It was now midafternoon, and Fred offered us a cold beer. We drove to a terraced restaurant in the square.

Beer in hand, Fred said, “It’s not usually that dramatic, but I’m accustomed to what seems like ingratitude for the things USAID does. It took me a while to get it, but I understand that these people have a cultural history of exploitation, and it’s not part of their makeup to believe that any outsiders do nice things out of the goodness of their hearts. Even if they can’t figure out what our angle is, they know we’re gaining a benefit at their expense, so why should they thank us for it?”

“That is true,” said the teacher, “ever since the conquest, when the Spaniards enslaved us, slaughtered us by their cruelty and diseases, and took away our natural bounty, we have been dehumanized and exploited. You Americans haven’t been angels, either. You have invested in mining and timber here, exported raw materials, polluted our waterways, and clear cut our forests. The British did the same. Our people see red-faced people as looters or worse.”

Our conversation turned to other things. We said goodbye to the teacher, and Fred drove us back to my hotel in Quito.

Having a handful of dirt thrown at one’s face stimulates internal conversation, and I had a long talk with myself that evening. No one had so radically challenged one of my core values before. That crone’s action shocked me because, based on my background and culture, one was supposed to be thankful for other’s good deeds, not resentful. I was ashamed of my arrogance in supposing that woman’s thought patterns were the same as mine. And humbled that I didn’t try to understand her motives rather than just brush her off.

My work evolved to help with negotiations between American and foreign businesses. I never forgot that woman and tried my best to put myself into my negotiating partner’s shoes. It took longer to understand the individuals involved, but tolerance had excellent results.

And it turns out that approach works with friends and relatives too.