A Life’s Work

Dr. Michael Harris climbs down a rickety ladder, 15 feet above the sandy terrain, on his way to work every day, every summer for the past 10 years. The ladder drops down from a modest two-room cabana, which is as his home in the tiny fishing village of Salango, Ecuador.

Dr. Harris is an anthropologist and the chairperson of the Anthropology Department at FAU. His research takes him, and up to 12 students from universities around the U.S., to this rural stretch of Pacific coastline to focus on the people of the region from an archaeological and ethnological standpoint.

“How do people use their resources over time? How are they using them today and throughout history?” he explains of his work. “We study how people use their environment and we also research the village structure and how it changes over time.”

The students who travel to the village each year have contributed a great deal of research under Dr. Harris’ supervision. Student studies, he notes, have ranged from women’s health, to the roles of young men in the village, to technology, sports, homosexuality, fishing and even prostitutes in the community. All aspects of life in Salango are open for research.

“With me being there and guiding them I am assured of a certain level of quality in the student research. Students have carried out a great deal of work,” he says with pride.

Dr. Harris literally lives in the midst of his research. He shares the stilted bamboo cabana with his wife, Valentina Martinez, and their children Miranda, 11, and Gabo, 10. It is located on a communal compound adjacent to the beach.

The anthropologist, 48, a stocky man with curly red hair and a penchant for always having in hand a coffee mug, a cigarette, or both, has taken quite a circuitous route from his native Wisconsin to the rugged shoreline of South America. The quest really got moving when he scrapped plans for research in the “infertility belt” of Central Africa to join a colleague from Southern Methodist University in Dallas for a chance to examine the population of Bangladesh.

Located in low-lying wetlands northeast of India and on the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh is a human population nightmare. More than 159 million people cram into a country smaller than the U.S. state of Georgia. Even more disturbing is the fact that much of the country floods each year, adding to the displacement of people and allowing disease to fester.

With a colleague, Dr. Harris acquired data in Bangladesh for about four months before returning to the United States. After spending a year in Texas studying the Bangla language and culture, he returned to Bangladesh, alone and determined to carry out successful research. All his preparation and the previous trip helped, but could not fully prepare Dr. Harris for the harsh realities of the Third World.

“The differences are significant. I’ve seen some terrible types of poverty, disfigured beggars, leprosy, people living on the edges of raw sewage ponds,” he recounts from his office, chaotically decorated with artifacts and posters from his travels. “They work hard and die young in Bangladesh.”

Dr. Harris was the only white man for miles around. He had no access to television, radio or current events. Hardly anyone spoke English. His only connection to the Western World was books. Every few months he would venture from the village to Dhaka, the capital city. There he would find expatriate Americans, Canadians and Brits who would lend him books because the stores in Dhaka didn’t have any English ones for sale.

“Loneliness is definitely part of anthropological work,” he says. “I was surrounded by people but there were times when I was psychologically alone.”

He recalls, “There would be music loudly playing, and there were times when it would be so different I would feel totally uncomfortable. I would just sit there alone and have to listen to it. I would go into a trance … But the loneliness was momentary. I didn’t want to go home, but I would have liked to vacation.”

In total, Harris spent about three years in Bangladesh between 1986 and 1997. His final trip was his most difficult. Harris got a job at FAU in 1993 and started a family in South Florida. In 1997 he made his final visit to Bangladesh. At the same time, Valentina was pregnant and in Ecuador with her family.

“I was in Bangladesh, she was in Ecuador. I couldn’t keep the languages straight. I was trying to talk to her mother in Spanish. There was no way I could continue to do it with a kid on the way,” he says as a half-grin spreads across his pink, sun-spotted face.

At that point, with its close proximity to South Florida and his in-laws, Ecuador became the focus of Dr. Harris’ studies abroad.

“He is engaging,” says Victoria Sterk, a freshman in Harris’ Anthropology Through Autobiographical Text class. “It is nice that he is not just reading from a book. He has first hand information, he is a credible source.”

In addition to classes taught in Boca Raton, Dr. Harris founded the Ecuador program which started in 1997 and has been going strong ever since.

“In over a decade I’ve seen kids become adults. I’ve developed a very fine sense of how in a very short period of time, things change,” he reflects as he leans back in his worn leather chair.

In Ecuador, Miranda and Gabo, “bilingual creatures” as Harris proudly describes them, accompany their parents for summers on the beach that sits next to untamed tropical jungle.

“I don’t worry about them, it is safer there than it is here,” Harris says. “Everyone knows everyone else and watches what’s going on.”

His research in Ecuador is ongoing, but Dr. Harris still has a special place in his heart for Bangladesh and one day he would like to return.

“I have had an incredible luxury to do work in South Asia and get a fine familiarity for research in Ecuador. I don’t know too many anthropologists who have had that type of opportunity, to study two cultures that are so different