Abolissons les tropiques : An Ethnography of Absent Sensoria

In February 2020, I was invited to join a team studying snow at the Concordia Ethnography Lab. Less than a month later, COVID-19 kicked in, and I had to start my studies not in Montreal but San José, Costa Rica, where I was born and raised. Snow is profoundly alien to me. How am I supposed to understand or explain it if I cannot engage in its sensation?

by Melina Campos Ortiz

“Todo el enigma del trópico latinoamericano se puede reducir a la fragancia de una guayaba podrida”

Gabriel García Márquez 1982, El olor de la guayaba

I sit in a meeting on snow every two weeks. My colleagues talk about snow in Montreal and how it is disruptive. They wonder how snow became waste and talk about their affective engagements with it. They comment on what happens in the parks near them. They talk about how modernity seems to have abolished winter.

I feel unsettled, to say the least.

But what unsettles me if this is the type of work I have always longed to do? Is it the fact of living in Costa Rica while all I do happens in Montreal? Or is it that I don’t feel I deserve to work with snow because of my tropical upbringing? All I know is that I feel a terrible sense of grief, fear of missing out, a whole and complete out-of-placeness.

Is it possible to grieve something you don’t really know?

I don’t want to be here! I want to be in Montreal! Even if it is -20 and all my interactions would happen through Zoom anyway. I want to go out on long winter walks and see how people interact with snow. I am dying to use my macro lens to take close-up photos of snowflakes. I wish I could record the sound of snow falling and people playing with it. I would love to carve a Totoro snowman for my nephew Martin. I imagine him saying “Toto, Toto” on the other end of a choppy video call.

I long for something that feels real, even if it is the most frigid cold.

Snow would give some purpose to my daily walks. Snow would take me away from Barrio Escalante and its cafés that may as well be in Shoreditch or Williamsburg, or the people who come to the park near my house with their French bulldogs acting as if they were in Venice Beach. 

I think of all the times I have experienced snow. I can name them in chronological order: Toulouse, Vancouver Island, New York, Tokyo, Washington DC, Amsterdam, Nuremberg, Prague, Brighton, London, Berlin. I can recall how I felt the Andes’ snowy peaks calling me during a conference in Santiago or how excited I was by landing at Kilimanjaro International Airport on my way to Dar Es Salam.

But the fact that I have encountered snow all around the world does not matter! I don’t know it! I don’t know what it is like to live in a “winter city.”

I need to sense snow to make sense of it.

Snowy morning (Brighton Beach, England, 2018). Photo by Beatriz Machado

What if we were talking about tropical rain?

Would anyone feel as I do if tropical rain were our subject? The funny thing is that I would not. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a North American or European anthropologist talking about tropical rain. I would want to know what they have to say about it. It might validate what I think, sense and feel!

I type “tropical rain ethnography” on Google Scholar. All I find is people talking about the rainforest. And then I wonder: do they know it?

Do people doing fieldwork in the tropics understand rain? Do they know how it is to get used to organizing your life in the morning to avoid rain in the afternoon? Would they understand the concept of escampar? Is there even a translation for a verb that expresses the act of waiting until the rain stops? Would they be able to smell the rain coming? Would they understand what we mean when we say: mañana oscura, tarde segura? Can they relate to the adrenaline of running outside right after lunch to get the clothes from the line before they get soaked?

I love how Geertz proposes ethnography as an imaginative exercise that places “particular we-s among particular they-s, and they-s among we-s” whose ultimate goal is to fight ethnocentrism.[i] And then I find myself not really knowing to which “we” or “they” I belong. All I know is that I would be happy to share everything I have ever experienced about tropical rain for a Canadian anthropologist to theorize. I am convinced I would make a better informant than an ethnographer.

I have to fight with the idea that I am in charge of theorizing ethnographic findings produced in the Global North while sitting in the Global South. I should be thrilled about challenging anthropology´s geopolitics and colonial ethnographic canons, and I find myself struggling with the feeling of not being enough. I don’t deserve to study Canadians. Who am I for that?

I make an effort to take out of my head all the voices that say that in Latin America, we don’t produce thought, only magical realism. I want to silence all the people who said that to become “someone,” I had to leave. I managed to escape, and I found myself trapped.

Snow has shown me how trapped I am.

I am trapped, not in the tropics, but in a non-place where concrete, asphalt, cars, and the neoliberal dream of homogeneity seem to have erased them. Where concrete towers, with their English names and fancy prices, are taking away what is left of the green. Where cafés are bad copies of their northern counterparts and baristas never learned how to use a chorreador. Where people prefer to pay exorbitant prices for a bad I.P.A than be seen drinking Pilsen or Imperial.

Talking about snow has made me realize that abolishing the winter is different from canceling the tropics. Abolissons les tropiques, Arcand would say.[ii]

I don’t miss snow. I miss the tropics despite inhabiting them.

El lote baldío al lado del Hotel Samoa (Golfito, Costa Rica, 2019). Photo by Fabián Hernández

What do the tropics taste like?

It all started with the taste of maracuyá while I was having breakfast before a class on Zoom. I thought to myself: this is how the tropics taste.

I have been paying attention to the tropics and their sensorial manifestations in my daily life in this non-place. I hear the crickets at night when it is already dark, but my roommate has not closed the door yet to avoid letting the chiflón in. I feel the morning sun warming up my skin when I take my coffee on my small balcony. I pay attention to the lively colors and the vegetation in the parks near me. I discover some red heliconias near the riverbank, and I secretly smile behind my mask.

I smell the dry season and miss the rain. Rain disrupts everything but somehow gives me certainty. I long for that certainty.

I go to the University of Costa Rica (UCR) campus, where I studied more than ten years ago. I start to pay attention to its surroundings. I realize how tropical it is with its giant trees full of orquídeas and all sorts of symbiotic relations happening on their branches. I look for the sloth that used to hang out near the river. I remember the rainy days where it was impossible not to get soaked going from building to building. The encounters at the pretil under the mango tree. The coffee afternoons at the Soda de Sociales. The sound of the loudspeakers giving us permission to abandon classes and attend a demonstration. 2007 with its blackouts and our endless conversations that fueled with hope the NO al TLC movement on poorly lit bar tables.

Walking at the UCR, I avoid the Barrio Escalante non-place and find myself on a campus haunted by the spirit of various political mobilizations, particularly the ones in the seventies that gave hope to a whole Latin American generation. I encounter the sense of social struggle that brought my parents together and the spirit of the possible that shaped my political imagination.

I think that I should be walking around on another university, in another latitude, in a completely different setting. I am sad as things have not come out as I imagined a year ago when I received the letter of admission for my Ph.D. I should have migrated to Canada. It would be freezing out, and I would be thrilled about it.

And then I find myself in a place where it does not snow, but it rains. In the neighborhood that has always been un mientras tanto, a meanwhile space in the city that the neoliberal dream has effaced. The site that I am trying to love again.

I realize that the years I was a student on that very campus is the only time in my life I have not been “colonized”: No French Baccalaureat, no job with HQ in Washington DC, no Dutch development gurus, no prohibitive British tuition fees, no Czech timesheets. As I walk it, I reclaim my tropicality, acknowledge my history, and decolonize my way of knowing.

Snow gave me back the tropics.

Maracuyá (San José, Costa Rica, 2021). Photo by the author.


[i] Clifford Geertz. 1986. The Uses of Diversity. Michigan Quarterly Review. 25(1), pp.105-123.

[ii] Bernard Arcand. 1999. Abolissons l’hiver! Montreal: Les Éditions Bóreal.

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