The rights of nature?

Travel diverts your mind from the predictability of day-to-day routine, creating new tensions across time and space, reviving insight and creativity. This year in particular, travel outside the U.S. provides a welcome respite from the mind-numbing activities and tweets of one Donald J. Trump, although it’s difficult to completely escape him.

Ecuador is one of those intriguing South American countries where American travelers can experience eco-tourism at its finest, accompanied by friendly and gracious workers who exemplify service. It was the first country to specifically recognize the need to protect our planet’s natural resources, boldly incorporating the rights of nature in its Constitution when it was rewritten and ratified by referendum in 2008. The new Constitution includes a chapter on the Rights for Nature, acknowledging that “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”

Of course, putting these ideals into practice is complicated and fraught with problems, much like our own democracy. For example, it was impossible to ignore the flames of the oil rigs along one of the Amazon’s largest tributaries, the Napo River. Ecuador has a state-run oil division, Petroamazonas, which operates much like Nevada’s multi-national mining conglomerates, offering not-so-subtle bribes disguised as charitable offerings to indigenous schools for the right to build access roads on Kichwa lands. But it was refreshing to learn that one community I visited took the new lights for their jungle school but had no problem refusing permission for the roads, at least for now.

After three weeks in Ecuador, a journey I took by plane, boat, canoe, bus and train, I do feel calmer and less apoplectic about our political situation. I was inspired by the people I met and the sheer beauty and diversity of the Amazon rainforest and the volcanoes of the Andes, and deeply appreciated the proud heritage of the Kichwa communities. And random encounters with fellow travelers and Ecuadorians left me with hope I hardly expected.

Europeans were the most likely to bring Trump up in casual conversation around the dinner table, although they were often cautious about broaching the subject. After the first negative Trump comment from our small group of Americans, however, they visibly relaxed, commiserating with our frustration at being led by someone so unqualified, immature and unbalanced. But it was a conversation with a young immigrant from India, who works in a high tech job in New York City, that left me with the sense that we shall overcome this humiliating moment in our history and emerge a stronger nation.

After listening to my litany of complaints about Trump and his Republican sycophants, he told me he drew a different conclusion from my pessimistic assessment of our political morass. He observed that much good can come from this moment in history. The United States now has the opportunity to learn humility from the experience of having diminished in power and standing in the world. He expects Americans to get much more engaged in politics, and he seemed confident that the next four years will restore our national sanity, if only for the emerging strength of 20-somethings like himself.

This calm young immigrant thought I was much too worried about the United States, a country where he eagerly awaits citizenship, ready to dedicate his considerable talent and abilities along with his family’s fate. He encouraged a long view of history, citing India’s experience through British colonialism and the Gandhi years. He still believes that America will live up to its ideals, resisting and ultimately rejecting Trump’s madness. It’s a vacation lesson I’ll keep in mind during the months ahead.