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.