Saturday, November 24, 2007

I’ve just passed my first month in Ambuqui, my new home here in Ecuador. A rolling stone gathers no moss they say; most of my life has been spent on the move, so I suppose I shouldn’t expect that to stop now, just because I’m in Peace Corps Ecuador. I met a guy just a few years older than me last week, he’s been a Peace Corps volunteer for 18 years – South America, The Pacific Islands, Africa. Sounds pretty good to me.

I will spare all the details of my need for a site change, if any one just has to know send me an email and I’ll spill the beans. Very briefly, it was just a matter of my counterpart organization falling apart at the seams, racked by internal strife and major changes in direction. The farm has been put on the market for sale. Gilberto, Suzanne and the kids have moved to a tiny rented house in Milagro, and their life has all of a sudden become more difficult and precarious, if that’s possible. Jobs are scarce, Gilberto has no skills except as a farm laborer, and he swears he will never do farm work again, unless he has his own place, which is a virtual impossibility for him. Suzanne will earn some money cleaning offices and doing other people’s laundry, but it won’t be much. The job situation is so bad here that some estimate almost 1/5 of the population has left the country, legally or not, to seek work in the US or Spain. Almost any one I encounter here has at least one family member working abroad. Ecuador’s economy is shaky at best, and it will be years and years and years, if ever, before there is any amount of change. Global trade policies, and especially US sponsored trade initiatives do no favors to Ecuador; but after spending 9 months here and watching and learning and interacting, it is impossible to pin all the blame on outside influences, as much as I would generally like to. I’m no economist, or political scientist, so I have to be careful not to get in over my head here, but it is quite apparent that so many of Ecuador’s problems are internal – from the lack of interest in running the corner tienda in anything even remotely resembling an efficient manner, to the interminable meetings tying up the time of 40 – 50 people while EVERY late comer loudly interrupts the proceedings to wish a good day to EVERYONE, or where an hour is spent deciding if a good price for carrots is 8 centavos cada libro, or 9 centavos cada libro. A country where almost every transaction,including buying a stamp for a postcard, has to be documented and usually signed for. I have a ping pong table at the farm which I have offered free of charge to the local authorities for community use. With help from the local librarian, I tracked down the proper people, and several lengthy discussions followed. Ultimately, we had to write a letter, in triplicate, explaining all the virtues of the ping pong table, and then have it signed by all parties involved in order to seal the deal. And let’s not talk about “ya mismo” which I referred to in an earlier entry. Friends of mine who have traveled or worked extensively in Ecuador’s neighboring countries Peru and Colombia assure me that neither country shares these irksome traits. Yes, in some ways it’s all very charming, but the shine wears off pretty fast once you start connecting the dots and seeing how the culture of inefficiency and indifference keeps so many people buried in the darkest depths of poverty, hunger, and hopelessness. As a Peace Corps volunteer, someone who is supposed to be “helping”, it’s especially frustrating, because in so many cases the poorest of the poor are so far outside of the system that frequently we can not reach them – or, especially in the case of many of the indigenous – the fear and suspicion of outsiders is so strong that most, if not all approaches are rebuffed. Sure, we generally work with a poor population, but almost everyone I work with has a pair or two of shoes and can get to Ibarra from time to time. There are many out there who have not and can not.

Right. Not sure what that bunch of generalizations has to do with my site change, but there they are.

Ambuqui is fantastic, a hot and dry climate, and a warm and friendly bunch of people. About 800 people live in town, about 8000 in the whole paroquial, which is rather large and diverse both in culture and geography. Ambuqui is one of the very few places in Ecuador where you will find Afro, mestizo, and indigenous all living and working shoulder to shoulder. I’m working with an Ecuadorean foundation called AGRECO, and I am busy. Crazy busy. We have 2 major projects right now, both well funded by the Inter America Foundation and the European Union, with lesser amounts made available by the Republic of Ecuador and the provincia of Imbabura. The larger project is focused on food security – just a fancy way of saying people need enough to eat. I am very active in this one, working with farmers in several communities in the valley and several others in the mountains to try and diversify the crop base and minimize the use of herbicides and pesticides. Some of this work involves grain and bean farmers, some involves families just trying to get some food on the table. Another volunteer, specializing in health and nutrition, would be an asset here, but in the meantime I am incorporating those aspects into all of my “charlas”. The other is a reforestation project, and part of my role in this one is to educate about and encourage the use of pasture land and livestock enclosures. There are thousands of domesticated goats in the highlands, and the damage they do to the flora is mind boggling. It is impossible at this point to plant tree seedlings in any significant number – they would be eaten in days. I am not well informed about animals and pasture, so this is a big challenge for me.

More about Ambuqui next post.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

High altitude shepherds
Originally uploaded by rdlurie

So here I’ve let another month pass between entries. How the time flies. I’ll try and catch up as succinctly as possible.

Lori and Colin Gatland from way out in the western edges of Ohio came for a weeklong visit at the end of September. I had met Colin several years ago in Spanish 101 at Sinclair C.C., in Dayton. He and Lori are always off on some kind of adventure or another, more often than not in Central or South America, so a weeklong trek to Ecuador was not highly unusual for them. We had a great time, and despite our abbreviated schedule we took in some pretty interesting and varied terrain. One of the highlights was our 3 nights at Hostal Cloud Forest up in Chugchilan, high in the Sierras, especially the hike from Quilotoa Laguna back to Chugchilan. Quilotoa is a dead volcano (3900 mt.), and its crater is filled with almost 800 ft. of brackish water with no known inlet or outlet. It’s quite a sight to approach the crater edge and to all of a sudden encounter the expanse of emerald blue water. All around the crater the wind was howling and it was quite chilly. The hike to Chugchilan took us about 6 hours, although it can be done in less time. We were lucky, and encountered along the trail a young (11) indigenous boy named Cleber who agreed to guide us as far as Guayama for 5 dollars. We were glad to have him, and he was great company. Parts of the hike are strenuous, especially the climb back up the valley to Chugchilan. The scenery was spectacular, but that’s the case throughout this entire country. We got back to the Cloud Forest in late afternoon, the day had grown quite warm; we dropped our packs, took off our shoes and enjoyed a couple of very cold Pilseners.

The day before, Colin and Lori had rented some horses and went way up into the bosque and the paramo. Since riding doesn’t suit my back, I opted for a long hike down into the valley to the river. About 2 hours down, and 4 hours up. On my way back, I passed a small mud house which had a few cola bottles perched on the ledge of its single window. I stopped to have a drink, and when I stepped in the door I found a woman and her daughter hard at work at a treadle powered sewing machine. Behind them were several dozen uniforms, which are required for most of the schools here in Ecuador. We talked for awhile, and I learned that they made a pretty decent living from the uniform business, usually about 140 dollars a month, sometimes a little more. There are plenty of places here where families get by somehow on only 60 or 70 dollars each month.

We left Chugchilan in the back of a milk truck, along with 2 new friends from Switzerland, whom we had actually met several days before, in Quito. It was a beautiful day, and a great ride, all the way to Sigchos. In Sigchos we had hoped to hop on a bus to Latacunga, but it was Election Day and the busses were jam packed until very late in the day. So the five of us pooled our resources and we found a truck driver who would take us the 2 hours plus to Latacunga. We piled in, ready for another pleasant trip through the Andes – the sun was strong, the air was hot. Within an hour, we had climbed thousands of feet and we were all freezing! The only thing that kept us from hypothermia was the fact that our driver picked up about 15 more people en route to Latacunga, and we all huddled together as the driver flew down the road. The weather stayed cold, even as we descended back to the Pan American Hiway, and we were all relieved to finally get out of the truck and into the relative warmth of the next bus. Our friends were headed for Ambato, and we were passing through on our way to Puyo, in the Oriente.

In Puyo, we mostly laid low for two nights, played cards, and took walks around town. Puyo, a hot and humid place, affords ample opportunities to go “el dentro” into the Selva, but we had neither the time or energy. We relaxed, for the most part, but we did visit Parque Omaere, a protected refuge of rainforest plant species. We lit out the next day for Tena, stashed our gear in a hostal, and went straight down to the little town of Misahualli. We met up with a boat owner named Freddie down by the Rio Napo and climbed into his canoe, the “King Kong”. In a moment, his family had climbed in as well, and we had a nice float for a few hours up and down the river. We encountered families panning for gold along the banks, families doing their laundry, and at one point downriver we stopped for a couple and their load of cargo which they had to get up to the mainland. I think the three of us would have liked to have had a little more time around the river, but Colin and Lori had a plane to catch back in Quito – so the next morning we were on an early bus out of Tena. We got back to Quito about mid-day, and then spent a few hours straddling the equator at the “Mitad del Mundo” park west and north of Quito. That evening we had dinner with some Peace Corps friends in Quito, and the next morning brought (for Lori and Colin) a 4 AM departure for the airport. All in all, a good trip.

Colin has created a nice link to Hostal Cloud Forest, listed over to the right - check it out.

OK, not very succinct, I admit. So I will close here, and very soon will post again about my recent site change and my new home here in Ambuqui, in the Valle de Chota.