Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ah, Ecuador

Well it´s been one of those days. I suppose these kind of days can happen anywhere, but perhaps the odds are just a little better here. For the past 6 weeks or so I have been coming into Ibarra most Monday mornings for a couple of hours of language exchange with my friends Wilma and Miguel. Wilma teaches English at one of the local Universities, so we usually spend one hour working on my Spanish, and another hour working on her English, which by the way, is somewhat better than my Spanish. (They own the internet cafe where I am sitting right now, and Miguels´ mom runs the hotel upstairs where I ocassionally spend a night like tonight - cable TV, warm bed, and hot water once in a while, all for 7.50 cada noche). Since I was unable to come to Ibarra yesterday, I came today, Tuesday. We had a particularly long session today, almost 4 hours, so I did not leave the house until almost 2 PM. I walked the 10 blocks back to the center of Ibarra, made a long phone call to my daughters, and then went to pick up some groceries. I loaded up my basket with the usual supply of stuff, then remembered I was falta toothpaste back at home. The "toothpaste section" was in a separate part of the store, behind a long glass counter. An attentive young woman asked how she could help me, and I said I wanted a tube of toothpaste, whatever was the cheapest brand. She grabbed a bright yellow tube of "Kolynos" (.60 centavos) from the shelf and proceeded to write a very long code on a slip of paper. I was instructed to use the slip of paper in order to pay for the tube of toothpaste, and then after paying, I could stand in another line at another window and there I would be able to pick up my 60 cent tube of toothpaste. Weird, I thought. Right next door to the "toothpaste section" is the "booze section". Realizing I was running low on this valuable commodity back at home, I decided to buy a bottle of Ron Abuelo, which IMHO is the best 6 dollar bottle of rum on the planet (trust me, I have done the research.) I made my selection, served by the same young woman, and fully expected to be handed a slip of paper, just as I had been for the toothpaste. But no, she simply handed me the rum, and said "tenga un buen dia", and that was that. Weird, I thought.

I think Ibarra is a wonderful city, it is large enough to have everything from soup to nuts, there is great food on nearly every street corner, the women are pretty and the men are handsome. There are several beautiful parks, and always something new to discover. So, seeing as it was already past 3 PM, I decided to wander the city a little bit before heading back to the bus terminal to return to Ambuqui. I eventually wandered into the terminal just past 5 PM. and was shocked to find a line of at least 150 people waiting for the busses that pass by Ambuqui. Most busses hold 38 to 40 people, and they load up every 15 -20 minutes, the last bus comes at 6:45; so as I did the math things were not looking too good. Nevertheless, I decided to stick it out, after all it would be nice to get home, and I have a full day of work tomorrow. At 6:40, the last bus came, and by this time there were another 40 people behind me. As the bus pulled into it´s slot, everyone broke rank and there was a mad rush to the door. I looked at that mob scene and thought, "someone is going to die in this mess!" I thought for one moment about joining in, and then decided against it. I considered my options, and here I am at Hotel El Ejecutivo. I willcatch a very early bus to Ambuqui in the morning, and am keeping my fingers crossed that the hot water is working here tonight. A hot shower would be a nice treat.

I asked several people in the long line about what was going on, why were there so many people?? Some said "no se" (to hear an Ecuadorean speak the words "no se" is a thing of beauty, because usually they will tell you nearly anyting just to avoid looking as if they do not know). I asked others, and they said " because it´s December 30th", and that seemed as plausible an explanation as any.

Happy New Year all.
(the photo is Anita at the Escuela de Cuba in Caldera dishing out the morning snack of "colada"- a creamy oatmeal drink ¡Que rico!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Loco por la navidad

The whole of Ecuador is going crazy with Christmas celebrations. In almost every town there are processions full of Josephs, Marys, and Baby Jesus`, complete with burros, wise men, and all the trimmings. The costumes range from the ridiculous to the stunning - our procession here in Ambuqui was closer to stunning, while the one I witnessed yesterday while working up in Mira was somewhat less so, although both did have the requisite burros.

In Ambuqui there has been a 2 week long frenzy of “limpiando” - tidying up the town so all looks good when the procession passes by. Every day, las amas de casa (housewives) are out sweeping the dirt in front of their houses, while the normally shiftless maridos (husbands) are fixing broken windows and touching up a little paint here and there. Piles of dirt, bricks, and stone are moved from one place to another, mangers are built, and here and there in the richer households a few lights are strung. It`s 80+ degrees, dry as a bone and the sun bakes every speck of soil, but somehow it`s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Indoors, many families have taken up what is already a very minimal living space with elaborate representations of Belén (Bethlehem). Packed away in boxes or pots for most of the year, these small models of mangers, the usual cast of holy characters, sheep, cattle and a mossy lichen suddenly appear one day in a prominent part of the house. In some households the traditional Christmas figurines are augmented by plastic racecars, model airplanes, old Barbie dolls and brightly colored fire trucks.

I will likely spend La Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) here in Ambuqui with my friends the Gutierez family. I have decided to install a lock on their front door as a Christmas present. They had a new front door put on the house several months ago, but have not been able to afford the cost of a lock and installation. I bought a lock last week, and will borrow a drill from someone and put it in on the 24th. I think they will like it.

On the 25th I`ll bus down to Puyo to visit a few days with Jeremy and Susan King and other PC friends. As our 27 months of Peace Corps service winds down, we will have precious few opportunities for such gatherings before we all disperse to whatever it is that comes next.


The school gardens are coming together nicely. I am especially pleased with how things are going now in Piquiucho, where we have had a rocky start. I have started showing up after normal school hours (schools here close about noon) and have been surprised and pleased as anywhere from 3 to 10 kids fall in beside me asking if we are going to work in the garden. I feel a little like the Pied Piper, wandering through town with my tools slung over one shoulder and with a box of plants in hand, a trail of kids clutching at my pants leg or belt loop. Once in the garden, anything can happen, but it`s usually good. Earlier this week I was with a handful of the usual kids and a young woman who I did not know showed up. Little Ariana, who is 11, shouted out “that`s Karin, my cousin; she`s pregnant!!” Karin is 14. We stopped gardening, I grabbed a few cookies and mangos to share from my backpack, and we all sat in the little shade we could find and chatted about sex, pregnancy, and babies. It was one of those moments that you never expect, never plan for, yet could be the most useful 30 minutes I have spent here if one or two of those younger kids take heed of Karins` situation and realize they will be better off to avoid a similar fate. Hopefully Karin will have a healthy baby, and without a doubt her family will help her take care of it. More than likely her 19 year old boyfriend will provide little, if any, assistance. I hope she will wait another 10 years or so before having another baby.

In Caldera at la escuela de Cuba I almost always work during school hours, which means catching an early bus that leaves Ibarra at 5:45 and passes by the road to Ambuqui about 6:30. If I miss this bus it normally means an hour and a half of walking, unless I get lucky and hitch a ride on a passing camionetta. The garden here is doing well, but I have decided that it is still too big, so we are going to eliminate about a third of the gardening beds, to make room for some more fruit trees. I like the idea of a huge garden, but in hopes of leaving a more sustainable project I think it is sensible to downsize from the original vision. If the garden succeeds, it can always be enlarged in the future. In January we will have a community meeting to encourage more parental participation, and to lay out a plan for marketing some of the excess produce.

I never imagined at the start of my Peace Corps service that I would become involved in school gardening, but I`m glad I have. It`s a great way to get to know a community, and it opens doors to other opportunities. I have been invited by several fathers to visit their little fincas and to talk with them about farming practices; I get to give impromptu English and science classes in the gardens; with some of the women I get to show how to cook a new dish; and as noted above I occasionally have the opportunity to share a little advice with some of the kids. I head home after each day in the schools pretty happy.


Our Close of Service conference is scheduled for the middle of January in Quito, although our commitment keeps my particular group here until March/April. I may request a short two or three month extension in order to finish out the school year in Caldera and Piquiucho, but have not decided for sure. Some good friends of mine are getting married in Wilmington NC in May, and I would like to be able to be there with them (the food is gonna be great!), and to visit some of my NC relations as well. My daughter Tia will be traveling in South America this spring and early summer, and I want to spend a month or two on the road with her. I am looking at possibilities for staying in Ecuador for a good while, perhaps working with another foundation, o tal vez even buying a small farm. Of course there are aspects of life back in the States that I miss, and I often find myself particularly missing remodeling and construction work. Some gringos I know here have figured out a nice schedule of spending 3 or 4 months in the States, the rest of the year here. I`ll have to look into that a little bit, I suppose . . .

Monday, November 24, 2008


I sometimes get up to a small village called San Blas, above Urcuqui, to work with a farmer named Manuel Diaz. This is somewhat outside of my normal territory, but I had met Manuel on a bus to Quito one day some months ago and he was really interested in getting some help to improve his crops while minimizing chemical use. My first visit occurred just after Manuel had planted all of his land (one hectare, about 2.5 acres) to “tomate de arbol” (tree tomato), a fairly common crop here, popular for juices and sauces. We spent a short while out in the field, but spent most of the morning in the small mud shed where he kept all his seeds, supplies, tools and chemicals (not to mention a very large Beatles poster, circa 1965 - He did not know who the Beatles were, or where the poster had come from.)

The array of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides, nematacides and other goodies was astonishing. I asked Manuel why he had so many bags of the same type of product, but from so many different manufacturers. “This is what the vendedores (salesmen) tell me I need”, he replied. Unlike many farmers his age (50) Manuel can read, but it turns out he can not see to read the very small print on the package labels. We spent the morning sorting out the products, I explained the uses of each one, and we put the duplicate products in groups. I used some notebook paper and a marker to write down proper dosages and application procedures, in big letters. Several times we had to go over the concept of “more is not better” when it comes to chemical use. This is a common misconception here, I`ve seen it back in the states as well. We talked for a while about the basics of integrated pest management (IPM) When all was in order, Manuel said he didn`t think he needed to buy any more chemicals or fertilizers for the next year; I agreed and added “dos, tal vez”.

We walked over the farm a little more and I asked Manuel if he had seen other farmers intercropping beans with their tomate de arbol. He said he had seen it, but was worried that the beans would bring pests to the field. I told him this was unlikely, and that the beans would provide income while he was waiting for the tomate de arbol harvest, and that they can add organic matter and a little nitrogen to the soil.

A month later I went back up to see him. His tree tomatoes were looking great, and Manuel proudly showed me the 4 inch tall beans sprouting between the rows of trees. We walked around some and looked for problems, but there were none, except a minor infestastion of slugs along the field edges who were eating the beans closest to them. We talked about some remedies for that, and moved on. We were both happy, and soon walked down to the tienda for a couple of Fantas and some pan de maiz. As we sat talking on the stoop of the tienda the snow covered peak of Cotacachi appeared directly in front of us, and over our left shoulders we could see the dead volcano of Imbabura, which on this beautiful day was also snow covered, a very rare occurence.


I caught the bus back down to Urcuqui, and made a quick dash to the bathroom before continuing on to Ibarra. As I climbed back on the bus and got into a seat I was surprised to hear a voice “ Señor Royer! Señor Royer!” following me. I turned around and saw a vaguely familiar looking older (my age, probably) woman, smiling and holding a piece of bread slathered with jam. Thanks, I said, but who are you? ···· You don`t remember me? Im Mirellas grandmother!! ···· Oh yes I remember, we met on the bus to Pimampiro . . . you were taking Mirella up to her fathers house . . .

Mirella is nine, and she speaks a little bit of english , which is kind of rare around here. On our bus ride up to Pimampiro (back in March) she was very bold and asked me if I spoke english, and if so could I talk with her for a little while. So we chatted, and a little later her grandmother invited me to Mirellas birthday party which was coming up. I was unable to go to the party, but was able to get up to Urcuqui the following week with a small gift for Mirella. Her mom was there at the house, but not her grandma. I stayed just long enough to leave the gift and not be rude, uninvited as I was that day.

Well it turns out that Mirellas grandmother runs a little panaderia (bakery) outside of the small bus terminal in Urcuqui. I was surprised she recognized me, but on the other hand not too many 6 foot bearded gringos pass through Urcuqui, so maybe not. She chastised me for not visiting the house while I was there in Urcuqui, I promised her that I would come by next time I was up, and I will. Just before the bus took off, Mirella herself jumped on board and said, in English . . . goodafternoonhowareyoufinethankyou . . . all at once. Shes a cute kid.


In the Escuela de Cuba in Caldera last week one of the kids I was working with asked me how old I was. Fifty three, I said ···· so you have about 10 more years to live, right? ···· Well, I hope maybe a little more than that, my dad was eighty four when he died ···· ¡¿!eighty four?!? no way, nobody lives that long . . .


I often get asked who I live with. Soy soltero, vivo solo ···· you live alone? How strange! Where does your wife live? ···· I don`t have a wife, I am divorced ···· Yeah, but where does your wife live? ···· OK, my ex wife lives in the United States ···· wow, that`s pretty far away. So you don`t see her often? ···· No, I don`t, were divorced! ···· Oh, so what about your mother, why don`t you live with her? ···· Well, I am 53 years old, and besides, my mother and father both died a few years ago ···· ¡Que lastima! So you are an orphan? ···· Yes, I suppose I am ···· ¡que triste! (how sad!)

I swear I have this conversation at least twice every week.


The school garden project in Caldera is going great. We have built 24 smaller planting beds, and 2 larger ones. 12 of the smaller beds are planted to vegetables, and 12 are planted to cover crops; alfalfa, oats, and various local varieties of legumes. We`ve planted 10 mandarina trees, 6 tomate de arbol, and several types of herbs and medicinals. The kids and staff are great, and the Director has given me keys to the school entrance and the storage shed so I can come and go as I please, which is really great. It`s gratifying to show up after school hours and have 5 or 6 kids drift in to help. Thanks for the donations, having some cash on hand to buy tools and plant materials makes all the difference in the world. Next week, after a break for Thanksgiving (I`m going to Baeza “the whitewater capital of Ecuador” to have turkey dinner with other PC friends, and to enjoy a change of scenery) we will plant avocados, mangos, and taxos.

I have started a second school garden project down in Piquiucho, not far from Caldera. This is a much smaller project, yet somewhat more challenging. The student population here is unruly, discipline is nonexistent, and anarchy seems to be the rule of the day. The teaching staff here spends most of the day huddled in the directors` office, and they seem to think that the garden project is a way to slough the kids off on someone else for a while. Nevertheless, I think things will improve as time goes on, anyway I sure hope so!


Caldera and Piquiucho are both AfroEcuadorean communities, and since the US Presidential election I am bombarded with questions -- Do you know Barack Obama?? (no, not personally) --- Does this mean there is no more racism in your country?? (no, but it means we are learning and that we are maybe a little less racist than before) --- Do you think a black person will ever be president of Ecuador?? (yes, someday, and maybe it will be you, or you, or you) You never know.

Enjoy Thanksgiving with your friends and loved ones and be sure to think a moment about all those in the world who have a little less. . .

Monday, November 3, 2008


I´ve been thinking about this entry for a long time. Peace Corps asks (demands) of us a certain cultural sensitivity when we post to our blogs, send letters home, post film clips to you-tube or what have you. If I had written of the following two or three months ago, immediately after the incident I´m about to describe, all of my anger and frustration would have come spilling out, and any ¨cultural sensitivity¨ that I may possess would have gone by the wayside. In that I am one who can be quite quick to judge, it has been good for me to take some time and to think about my role in this story, and more importantly to determine if I am learning anything, anything at all, while I am here in Ambuqui, Ecuador.
A few months ago, I was invited by friends to dinner and to celebrate the birthday of one of their daughters, who was turning 30 something. I arrived about 7PM, and was surprised that no one else was there. ¨Where are Juanita (the b´day girl), and Miguel (her husband) y los niños¨ I asked. Marina, Juanitas´ mother, replied ¨they went down to their house to get sharp knives to butcher the cow.¨ I was a bit dismayed by this, thinking that this meant we would not eat until midnight or later. ¨Did one of the cows die?¨, I asked. ¨Si, the cow died, and we will butcher it and sell the meat; it´s not for tonight.¨ This family had 3 milk cows, and eked out a small living selling the milk door to door from an old pot. Knowing that the loss of a cow would impact their income I was sad to hear that one had died, and at the same time relieved to know that I could eat soon, stay a short while at the party, and then get home to bed at a reasonable time.
Everyone turned up soon, we had chicken, potatoes and rice (big surprise) for dinner, and as we were cleaning up my little amiga Anita grabbed my arm and said, ¨come outside and look at the cow!¨
¨Why should I go outside to look at a dead cow¨ I asked,
¨No, silly, the cow is not dead, the cow´s baby is dead!!¨, Anita countered, looking at me like I was completely stupid.
We stepped out the back door, and not 10 feet away is a pitiful, but alive, milk cow tied to a tree, looking lost and confused, with half a dead calf hanging from its backside.
I ran into the house, livid, and shouted - ¨what the hell is this!?! Here we are eating and partying and your cow is in big trouble!!¨
- Yes, we know the cow has a problem. That is why we are going to butcher it.
- But why kill the mother – we need to get the dead calf out!!
- Oh no, the calf will not come out, it has been that way since early this morning
- Early this morning!! More than 12 hours! Why didn´t you call the veterinarian – or you could have come to get me!!
- Oh, do you know about cows??
- Almost nothing, but I could have called someone who knows more than me.
- Well, now it is done. The calf will not come out, and we will butcher the cow and sell the meat.
- No no no. We are going to get the calf out and try to save your cow. You have had cows all your lives! You have had 2 Peace Corps volunteers who specialize in animals before I came here! Why do you not know how to get the calf out when the mother has trouble?
- Because it is very rare for the mother to have problems. If she has problems she is of no worth.
- Well we are going to try to help her. I will need some soap and some cooking oil.
At this point I am fuming. The cow has no water to drink, has not had any for the entire day. (Oh, cows like water?) My request for some cooking oil for lubrication is met by blank stares – my friends think cooking oil is too expensive to be foolishly wasted in this manner.
The next hour and a half is spent fruitlessly trying to extract the calf. It was born with the left leg and the head presenting. I washed up and lubricated the mother, and tried to get the leg back inside in order to make room to work and bring out both forelegs along with the head. This turned out to be impossible, because rigor mortis had set in and the calves limbs are stiff as 2 by 4s. I managed to get one of my arms up inside the mother, but was unable to budge the other foreleg. I am wearing my best shirt, which is now ruined with sweat, blood, and cooking oil. I ask for a hacksaw – we need to cut off the protruding foreleg at the shoulder, and perhaps then we can bring out the other, and then the whole calf will come. A saw is brought, and as I hack off the limb the dogs stare hungrily, knowing that they are about to feast. There is surprisingly little blood, and the job is done in a couple of moments. To no avail. I really have no idea what I am doing, yet it all seems to make sense in a dream like sort of way. I am working hard, aided by Miguel while the rest of the family either watches or goes on with the party preparations. We are unable to get any part of the calf back inside the mother. Someone fetches a rope and we tie it around the head and sawed off leg stump of the calf. Five people pull on the rope, we succeed only in dragging the mother 2 or 3 meters through the dirt. She has been wonderfully patient – apparently resigned to her fate – but willing to humor this gringo who thinks he is going to perform some kind of miracle. Her attitude mirrors that of my friends. They are humoring me; they are resigned to the loss of the calf and to the loss of the milk cow as well. There is nothing else to do; my friends, bored and eager to get the party started, pat me on the back, tell me it was a good try, and they are sorry about my ruined shirt. We go back in the house, eat some cake while a few people dance to some cumbia music, and later I walk home, exhausted and dejected. I have suffered several failures in my work here, but this one seems huge and hurts more than all the others combined. The next morning, the cow is gone – a hired butcher has come, performed a C-section to remove the calf, and hauled away the carcass in the back of his truck. My friends have received about 160 dollars for the meat value – a good new milk cow will cost them twice that.
It is this sense of resignation, of utter acceptance, that gnaws at me. It is completely foreign to me. I simply don`t understand it. Is this what comes of neverending poverty; or is this what comes of the belief that everything is in the hands of god? Or is this just part of being South American, or more specifically, Ecuadorean? I do not know – and probably never will. I have been poor in my life, and by many standards still am, but never have I been impoverished or without options. I do not believe in god, but I believe in free will and believe as well that we are all ultimately responsible for what happens to us in our lives. And of course I am neither South American nor Ecuadorean, and never will be, no matter how long I may stay here.
So where do I come off, with virtually no animal experience, thinking that I can waltz in and save the day? This is what I am trying to figure out, and I think that the events of that night caused me to rethink everything, at least as much as I am able. Since that night I have learned to think a little more before reacting; to watch the people around me and to gauge their view of a given situation. Pretty elementary stuff, really, but a new found skill for me. I have, by necessity, become somewhat more patient, and accepted that I am not going to change habits and customs that have been prevalent for generations. I have learned that some people in this world have nothing but time, therefore the passing of time means little, harms almost nothing and yet heals almost everything. Yesterday is gone, and who knows if tomorrow will ever come? Who knows what people are thinking in a culture where one can be greeted with “a los tiempos!” whether the last time one was seen was one day or one month or one year ago? In a blog post here some months or more ago I talked about the frustrations of “ya mismo”, but recently I have come to embrace the concept. Yes, it, or he or she or they or them, or the bus or the camionetta or what have you will be here eventually. When? Who knows . . . and does it really matter?
Since that night I have read every book, pamphlet, or magazine that I could get my hands on about animal health and especially birthing. I hope I never face the same situation again, but if I do, I will be ready with information, but only if someone asks for it. I now believe I was wrong to impose my will on my friends and on that animal that night, and I hope I have learned enough not to ever do it again.

My friends borrowed some money, at an exorbitant interest rate, to buy a new cow. She is a beauty, and she and her mates get led out to pasture on the scrub every day, and then are brought in at night where they eat fresh cut canegrass and have all the fresh water they can drink. My friends have noted that the cows are giving more milk since they have a good supply of water every night. I smile and say “si, es un milagro, no?”.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Huerto Caldera

Well, we finally have a new project off the ground - or maybe I should say in the ground. After months of talking and planning with officials, my Peace Corps friend Chrystal Smith and I have broken ground at the Escuela de Cuba in Caldera. Caldera is an Afro Ecuadorean community about midway between Ambuqui, where I live, and Pueblo Nuevo, where Chrystal lives. There are 139 students in the school, from grades 1 - 6. We will be working mainly with the 5th and 6th graders, harvests from the garden will be used to prepare mid day meals for all the students, and extra produce will be sold in the community to provide future funding for the project. We have almost 6000sf available - for this season we are building beds on one half of that, and later we will plant fruit trees and cover crops. The staff at the school are energetic and supportive, the students enthusiastic. At this point the parents are wary, but as we proceed, and hopefully have some success, we will bring them in to the project.

So, for the handful of persons who read this blog, I would like to ask for a little help. A small cash donation, a box full of seeds, a care package of twine and rope, or what have you. If you are interested, contact me for details at rdlurie@yahoo.com. Cash donations will be used to buy tools, ornamental and medicinal plants, fruit trees and fencing materials. The school has a limited amount of funding for this project - but an unlimited supply of energy and workers.

Once this project is well underway, I will be looking at smaller but similar school projects in nearby communities. Meanwhile, my other work, with my demonstration garden and with local farmers in the North of Ecuador continues.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gone and back again

I went to the United States for three weeks. It was great. I slept alot, drove alot, ate and drank alot, and gained ten pounds - at least. Visited my wonderful kids, in New York City and Yellow Springs, Ohio, my wonderful brothers in Baltimore, and my good good friends wherever I could find them, but especially in Ohio and West Virginia. Watched both the democratic and republican conventions (Go Barack), watched plenty of football and baseball, played pool, and pingpong, got a sausage biscuit at McDonald's and bought socks at WalMart and a new pair of sneakers at Target. I visited my old dog Nico, and sweated through some horrendous heat and humidity in the east and the midwest. It was truly a great trip, everything was perfect - yet everyday I was thinking about Ecuador. On my last day in the States, all fat and happy, I could not wait to get on the plane, and when I landed in Quito I am sure I had a grin from ear to ear. And to top it all off, the perfect end to a perfect trip, I got through customs in Ecuador without a hitch - walked right through.

So now, getting past the jet lag and the culture shock (which culture, I'm not sure) I am looking forward to getting back to work and eventually having something useful to report on this blog. Til then, ciao. (The photo is of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, in NYC, across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Devine)

Friday, August 1, 2008


Worked hard for a few hours this morning, came home hungry and made a great lunch of red beans and rice and then took a very satisfying nap. Life is good. Now I am killing some time ´til the sun gets a little less brutal, and then I´ll get a few more hours in of barely keeping the garden alive – between the lack of water and a whole host of merciless insects, not to mention the chickens – it is quite a challenge. My hosts are quite amused as I explain for the millionth time why I am not using chemicals to control the gusanos and the plagas, and they really get a kick out of my spraying hot pepper sauce on the tomatoes and broccoli to keep the chickens away. ¨These types of chickens love aji y pimientos picante, they are watching you and licking their chops¨. Well, I´m at least as stubborn as the chickens are hungry, and we will see about that.
I traveled to the south of Ecuador for the better part of 2 weeks in early July. I had not previously traveled further south than Riobamba, so I found some time to do so. I opted to fly down to Loja, or rather the airport at Catamoya, an hour away, which serves Loja and the south. A bus from Ibarra to Loja would have been 16 hours or more – the flight was less than one hour; well worth the extra cost. From Catamoya I hopped on a bus to visit a Peace Corps friend, Akul Nishawala in Catacocha. I stayed only one day and a night, I hope to go back sometime for a longer visit. Akul made a great red curry for dinner and we watched Ecuadors´ LIGA club team beat Brazils´ team for the championship. Despite being thoroughly outplayed LIGA won the game on penalty kicks – some vagary of the rules of soccer tournaments that I still do not understand. Anyway, it was pretty exciting, and after the victory most everyone who owns a car or truck in Catacocha started driving through the streets blowing their horns. Amazingly, the next morning (the game had ended around midnight) the town was awash in banners proclaiming LIGA´s prowess and hailing the new champions of South American futbol.
I left Catacocha on a 10 AM bus, having planned to meet some other PC friends in Loja that afternoon. It was 4th of July weekend and some of us were heading down to Vilcabamba, one of Ecuadors´ most popular tourist destinations, for some hiking and what-not. I traveled down to Vilca with Shawn Stokes and his wife Maria Ellis, and we stayed 2 nights at a fairly outstanding hostal called Izhcayluma. Our plans for hiking were thwarted by rain and hangovers, but we did visit with some other PC volunteers in the area and looked in on some of their projects. We ate a lot of great food as well, Izhcayluma does a great job with the vittles. Vilcabamba itself left me cold, and a little perplexed as to how it gained its reputation as a hot tourist destination. In my opinion the scenery up here in the North is just as spectacular, and the weather is a damned site better. I was also a little put off by the dreadlocked hippies wandering around or sitting on the steps of the iglesia chanting or playing wooden flutes – and even more put off by the rich Europeans and American expats who were buying up property and sending land prices soaring. I was shocked to see that Vilcabamba will soon have a gated community, populated by wealthy and paranoid gringos. That doesn´t seem right to me. I left Vilcabamba thinking it was best to keep the tourists down there in the South – don´t want too many of them fouling the nest up here in the North! I also left feeling very happy that I was not here in Ecuador as a tourist, that I was actually living here, and imbued with some vague purpose for being here, as well. How will I reconcile this concern the next time I am traveling as a tourist? Haven´t the faintest idea.
Maria, Shawn, and I headed back to Loja to pick up groceries and other supplies before heading out to their site, Fundachamba, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. Perched on the western edge of the cordillera, the climate is just right for coffee growing, and harvest was in full swing. Unfortunately, there were very few pickers, since a misguided town official had had all the Peruvian laborers arrested and thrown into jail in Loja, 4 hours away. Peruvians provide the bulk of labor in harvesting the coffee crop, and are absolutely essential in towns like Fundachamba where the younger folks are leaving for new lives in Quito, España, or Nueva York. Despite the shortage of hands, there was coffee everywhere, drying in the sun on rooftops, in the streets, on balconies - every flat surface was covered with beans. Almost all of the coffee is sold in Loja at wholesale for ridiculously low prices – Shawn is working with the local co-op to roast and package coffee to help increase incomes in the area.
The three of us spent a day building a wall made of cob – a mixture of clay soil, sand, and any type of straw that can be found locally. A labor intensive process, to be sure, but materials costs are nearly nothing. A gringo friend of Shawn´s has built a spectacular cob house outside of Matacuya, I will post a few photos at the flickr link. It´s a funny thing that so many old-style cheap and renewable technologies which are coming into vogue with us westerners are seen almost as insults by many Ecuadoreans – there are cement block fabricators on almost every corner and isn´t it so much easier and faster just to lay up block? I like the possibilities of cob building, but can´t argue with the other point of view.
I walked 45 minutes down the mountain to hit the main road where I could catch a ride back to Loja, and there I jumped on a northbound bus headed to San Felipe de Oña where I stayed the night with another PC friend. I got up early to catch the 7am bus to Cuenca, but it never showed up, nor did the 8am bus. I read some chapters of whatever book I was carrying for such eventualities, and chatted with the locals for awhile. Finally around 9 a bus rolled into town, and I was on my way to Cuenca. I have noted a time or two in this blog particular bus adventures, but this trip put all the others to shame. (A close second is the trip to Chugchilan when we all had to leave the bus while the driver and helper had to hack out the side of a mountain to gain enough roadbed to make up for the portion that had collapsed into the canyon the night before).
The fun began when our driver decided to ignore a desvio (detour) sign, and continued along the same portion of road, which was under construction. At the top of the hill we encountered roadworkers and machinery, and they told the driver he had to turn back, which meant backing downhill about 500 meters to a turn out. The road was only about 2 inches wider than the bus, and when the (pissed off) driver threw her into reverse gasps and muffled screams escaped from the lips of some of the passengers. When we hit the wide spot the driver skillfully made a 3 point turn, but not before half the passengers had left the bus, sure that it was about to plunge backwards, into the abyss. I stayed aboard, figuring there are worse ways to go. Anyway, we successfully made the turn, and headed back down the hill to the desvio, which put us out of the frying pan and into the fire. Our alternate ¨road¨ was the camino antigua which means it was essentially built to carry donkey carts and foot traffic. On this day it was carrying two way traffic detoured from the major North-South highway in Ecuador, and there was not a policeman or traffic controller anywhere in sight. Our ayudante, the drivers helper, ran several hundred feet ahead of the bus to make sure we would not run headlong into southbound traffic, and at one point, one hapless driver was forced to back up for 10 minutes, on a single track road, while our driver stayed on his front bumper and very neatly kept the 2 left wheels of the bus on the edge of the very precarious roadbed. By this time, people on the bus are freaking out, many were on cell phones calling loved ones, others were crying, some were on the verge of fainting. There were also a few diehards who simply slept through the whole thing. After a very long time, we finally hit pavement, but only after the driver negotiated an impossible turn in a small pueblo, where the right side of the bus actually scraped the full length of a stone wall while trying to avoid the overhanging eaves of the house protruding from the left. Our driver received a hearty round of applause for that maneuver, and later when we took a bathroom and lunch break I bought both the driver and the ayudante a beer, and told them ¨bien hecho, maestros¨. (Well done, experts)
It may seem that I give too much attention to bus travel – but it is such an integral part of daily life for PC volunteers and locals alike that it becomes impossible to avoid the subject. A few days ago I was on a bus with an Ecuadorian friend and we agreed that those who never travel by bus (the rich) are missing out on a great slice of life. But even on the busses life is changing – the drivers are becoming less inclined to allow large animals like goats or sheep into the passenger area, such are now stowed on top of the bus, tied by the ankles, or in the luggage compartment, stuffed into sacks and tossed around like bags of rice. Of course, chickens, cuyes, cats and small dogs still get smuggled into the ¨people part¨.
In an effort to alleviate traffic congestion, many cities in Ecuador, including Ibarra and Otavalo have introduced new laws requiring that buses stop now at designated paradas only, instead of every 20 or 30 ft. as has been the custom. Traffic inspectors now tape the doors shut, and they can only be opened at the next official stop. The more clever drivers have gotten around this inconvenience by rigging one or two of the curbside windows to open fully, enabling passengers to climb in and out wherever they please. Not all passengers can take advantage of this feature, of course, but for those who can it is worth the trouble. A driver told me it´s not against the law, because there is no law written about passengers entering and leaving the bus through the windows. Makes sense to me.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Adentro (part 2)

(Continued from entry of June 17, below)
{note: as I write this, about 630 AM, with a hot cup of coffee at hand, I see that it has rained overnight, a great boon for me in that I planted a large garden yesterday with a family here in Ambuqui – and had been anticipating spending most of the morning hauling water up to the site and sprinkling all the beds and rows by hand. Outside my window, several radio stations are blasting, one with romantic ballads, another with latin rock, and a third, more distant, is tossing out the occasional ¨ave maria¨. The construction of an enormous home (owned by Columbianos, who are some of the richest people in Ecuador) continues next door, every day brings slightly more height to the building and less of a view to the mountains for me. Last but not least, half the dogs in Ambuqui seem to be in heat at the moment, with the other half in hot pursuit. Thus ensues a melee of barking, fighting, howling and canine gang banging that annoys the hell out of me but seems to be a great source of amusement for almost everyone else.}
A light drizzle was still falling when we arrived at Tepapare, but the sky was breaking and there were hints of a sunny rest of the day. Our motoristas threw some rope up the hill where everyone was waiting, and we were tied off. We stumbled out, and along with the villagers formed a ragged human chain to haul our stunning array of gear, food, supplies, and tools up the muddy and steep embankment. Two open air cabins, one larger and one smaller, had been constructed some years ago, either by missionaries or the oil company. The Duke students laid claim to the schoolhouse, the larger of the 2, and the rest of us landed next door, in the cozy cabin that housed the one or two schoolteachers who might show up, someday, ya mismo. We carried our gear to the cabins, where we again set up tents, netting, pads and bags. Later, we carried food and cooking gear to the communal house of the Tepapare, a place where all cooking and most socializing was done, and where we would spend quite a lot of time in the coming week.
Tepapare is a small settlement, consisting of about 15 families, mostly blood relations, and is accessed only by canoe or by long hours of arduous hiking. About half live here, where we are, and the rest live just a little ways downriver. There has been talk of leaving this site and moving the whole community to a new place, but for now the people remain here. From our cabin I can see 3 small thatched huts, located on the edges of the village, a larger hut in the center, and the casa communal, overlooking the river. There are several unfinished buildings as well, basically just posts in the ground with occasional crosspieces placed here and there. The village is compact, clean, and quiet. Amazingly enough, there are no barking dogs, and since there is no electricity, there are no blaring boomboxes, radios, or televisions. Bien tranquilo.
After setting up the sleeping arrangements, the next order of business is lunch. Cooking requires water, which must be hauled up in buckets from a small stream a few hundred yards from the casa communal. The river is much closer, but the stream water is cleaner. Once brought to the casa, the water is boiled – always for us gringos, not necessarily so for the Huaroni. All cooking, boiling, roasting, etc. is done over an open wood fire at the edge of the hut, so food preparation takes a lot of time. The Huaroni generally eat when they are hungry, (which is often) so a fire, or at least a coalbed, is kept going almost all of the time. A ¨meal-plan¨ had been set up so that 3 gringos would be responsible for each meal, and we would cook for ourselves and for our hosts, meaning food for 35 - 40 people at each meal. Surprisingly, we ate well on our limited resources – most meals being a variation of eggs (hardboiled or scrambled), beans, avocados, rice, platano, tomatos, fideos, and canned tuna. The Huaroni brought a few catfish from the river, and several times they treated us to some fried platano chifles, which went great with the guacamole that Jeremy made almost every day. (Like most PC volunteers, I could go on all day about food.) I know that we were all relieved that no monkeys were killed and offered up for meat. A roasted monkey corpse looks way too much like a roasted human corpse.
So, here we are. 5 Peace Corps volunteers. 9 students from Duke University. A freelance photographer from the U.S., and Mary Fifield from Global Pediatric Alliance. In Tepapare, in Huaroni territory, in the Amazon, in Ecuador. In one long paragraph I will try to describe what the hell we are trying to do. The PC volunteers, besides Susan, are here to build a ¨dry toilet¨ (look it up on the internet – see links at right) and to help the Huaroni build a vivero (tree nursery). We are also here to relax, and to enjoy some time away from our regular sites. Oh, and Jeremy, Kris, and Jeff are here to carry hundreds of gallons of water from the stream to the cocina. Pleading old age, I managed to avoid most of the water hauling. The Duke students are here to build, with our assistance, a water catchment system, which if viable, will provide the villagers with a source of water closer, and cleaner, than the stream. (Once constructed, the system proves to be a success.) The Dukies are also here to assess the community´s interest in generating electricity from solar panels. This is a little tricky, because having enough juice to power a radio (for emergencies) or a few light bulbs is a very different thing than having enough to power televisions, refrigerators, and computers. The Duke students will return next year, with solar panels and batteries donated by some huge oil company. How many KWs will be available is unknown at this time. The freelance photog, Elizabeth Saul, is here to provide a photo collage of the Huaroni for the Academy of Science (or something like that) building in San Francisco. Mary F. is here because part of her job with GPA is working with indigenous communities who lack water systems, and she is knowledgeable about both dry toilets and catchment systems. Susan is here to keep us moving and to hold everything together, a job she does admirably, with only a touch of hysteria.
Susan´s job was complicated when one of the Duke students fell ill, and she had to accompany him, first in a canoe, then in a camioneta, then in a bus, to the regional hospital in Shell. Two days later, after hours and hours of traveling, she returned, without the Duke student, who turned out to be only slightly ill, and laden with a bottle of whiskey, chocolates, and cookies. We were glad to see her, and extra glad for the treats.
For the most part all the work went well during the week. There were a few communication breakdowns with the Huaroni concerning construction materials for the dry toilet. We were hoping to use some of the milled posts and lumber left over from the school construction years ago, but the Huaroni insisted we use tree posts, both old and freshly cut. Because of the confusion we had to re-start construction several times. We had wanted to use bamboo but there was no agreement as to its´ longevity (as posts) without being treated or dried beforehand. Eventually the Huaroni decided we knew what we were doing, and they offered us the nice milled lumber, but by then it was too late. Our project was in the final stages of construction, and we were out of time. We were frustrated at times, but we tried to stay aware of the very real differences between the Huaroni point of view and our own gringo-style point of view. In the end, we were all satisfied with how things went, and we learned a good lesson for future projects – the somewhat obvious need for knowing who will supply what materials, and knowing where those materials will come from. Obvious, yet surprisingly difficult, considering language and cultural barriers.
The Huaroni were, for the most part, always in a good humor, always patient. They traditionally live in the moment, and they make the best of it, taking each hour, each day as it comes, with little concern about the future. This mindset of course has both its good and bad points, and is certainly becoming less prevalent as more and more westerners come into their lives. Nonetheless, it is a charming quality, and it is epitomized in the word ¨waponi¨ (or huaponi). The Huaroni speak a language called Wao, and most linguists agree that it is an isolated language, meaning it is unrelated to any other known language. The word Huaroni means ¨the people¨ - anyone who is not Huaroni is called ¨cowode¨ - roughly meaning non-human, or cannibal. Waponi is an all purpose term for ¨good¨, or ¨well¨, or ¨beautiful¨, etc. It is appended to all sorts of other terms to mean anything from good morning; we live well; the hunting was good, etc. If you listen closely almost all Huaroni conversations are peppered with ¨waponi¨. It´s a lovely word.
As always, the sun disappeared about 630 PM. After finishing dinner and cleaning up most of us would turn in about 9PM, and in the morning we would crawl up off the floor around 6. The Huaroni, however, kept to an entirely different schedule. They would stay up late, til 11 or midnight, chatting, joking, eating. Then they would fall silent, til 2 or 3 in the morning, when all of a sudden, they would be up and about – chanting, or singing, talking, joking and cooking. In the morning, once the sun was up, we would straggle into the casa communal to prepare breakfast or to eat, and the Huaroni were all there – up for hours, bright eyed and bushy tailed, stuffed on platano and catfish, but always ready to eat again, even if it was only comidas de los gringos – hardboiled eggs, coffee, and oatmeal.
The weather was spectacular in Tepapare, at least for the first days. I had been expecting a full frontal assault of heat and humidity, kind of like Ohio in August, except worse. Instead, we had 4 or 5 days of pleasant temperatures and dry weather, and clear starry nights. The sun, of course was blistering, if one was daft enough to stand out in it – but in the shade of the jungle the temps dropped 10 degrees and a slight breeze moved the air just enough to keep things comfortable. And there was always the stream, or the river, to jump into for a quick cooldown if the heat got a little too intense. On our next to last night, all hell broke loose, and it rained, and rained, and rained. And then it really started raining. Our tin roof made it sound much worse than it was, nevertheless, it was quite something. The next morning, the river was up, way up, and we worried for the Duke students who had planes to catch in 2 days time. That day, the rain eased up and we put the finishing touches on all our projects, but in the night we had a repeat performance, and if anything it rained even harder than the previous night.
Also on our last night we had another type of performance as the Huaronis stripped down to tribal costumes (tipica) and danced and chanted. The three female Duke students had been coerced into dancing as well, in a sort of tribal bikini outfit, and they graciously participated in the fun. I don´t think I have ever seen 3 pretty, engaging, and bright girls look more out of place in my entire life. Their tall, lean, and white bodies contrasted sharply with the short, stout, strong and brown bodies of the Huaroni women, who ranged in age from around 20 to around 70.
The men, and the other women of our group were enjoying themselves immensely, and all of us guys felt pretty confident that we would be onlookers only, not participants. No such luck. Two of the bolder Huaroni women started clamoring for the men to dance, and as we slowly and timidly made our way to the center of the hut, they further demanded that we remove our shirts. Six scrawny Duke students, 3 well built PC Volunteers, and one old man – all of us pasty white, covered with insect bites, and 10 of the worst dancers ever assembled in one place – it was not pretty. 2 of the Huaroni men, lean and strong and the color of cacao, led us in our steps and we dutifully followed behind, blowing into our one note flutes and trying to hide behind one another. After the first number, those same bold women demanded that we lose the pants, but we held the line at upper body nudity only – my god, there were children (mostly naked) present! One of the Huaroni men did drop his swimtrunks to display his tied up penis – (Huaroni men traditionally wear a string around their waist which drops below the navel and to which they fasten their foreskin in order to keep the penis from flopping around while they run through the jungle – the balls, however, are left hanging) - and this act of flashing brought hoots and howls from all the women, gringas included. We stumbled through a few more dances, and finally, it was over. One of the women in our group later noted that it was the least erotic semi-nude male revue she had ever witnessed.
We woke up on our departure day to a steady drizzle, and were surprised and relieved to see that the river, somehow, had not risen anymore despite the overnight deluge. We were to pack out in 2 canoes, but one of them had a damaged motor and left only half full. We tried to cram the rest of our bodies and gear into the second canoe, but it was dangerously overloaded. Although us gringos had shed a lot of gear weight during the week, the Huaroni had loaded the boat with produce (manioc and platano, I think) to sell at market, thus the extra weight. Prudently, 5 of us stepped out of the canoe, grabbed a few rations and said we would wait in the village, for a few hours, or until the next day, until one of the canoes could return. Most of the Duke students had planes to catch in Quito and they had to get out with time to spare. It turned out to be a good move, because the first canoe totally lost its motor and was unable to travel upstream, meaning the second canoe had to carry its load as well. Those of us who remained behind were surprised when 4 or 5 hours later we heard the motorized canoe coming back downriver – one thing about a high river – travel downstream is super fast. By then the day had cleared, it was warm and beautiful, and we loaded up and motored towards Menapare, towing the disabled canoe behind. Everyone was waiting, along with the small bus that would take us all back to Puyo. We climbed in and settled down for the long drive back. It had been a fantastic week, certainly one of my best experiences here in Ecuador. And that´s saying something.
After returning to Puyo for a very late celebratory dinner with some of the Huaroni and the Duke students, and then way too much drinking, Kris P. and I traveled back up to Tena the next day, where we were going to see some more PC friends in Archidona, and to help on some other dry toilet projects with Mary F. and Jason Kaminsky, another PC volunteer. It was another good week, Tena is a cool place to work and relax, lots of good restaurants (filet mignon in red wine sauce – 5.50, sloth living in the thatched roof overhead – priceless), and a great riverside bar called Araña (spider). The indigenous Kichwa community, Cuya Loma, in which we worked was pilas (energized) and full of great people, and the climate was just about perfect. My camera disappeared for a few days, but Jason took plenty of pics, and when he passes them along I will post a few to the Flickr page.
As anyone can imagine, it is difficult to relate every experience, and every nuance of experience, in a written account, especially a public blog. However, the intensity, the joy, and the satisfaction of these 2 weeks is the kind of thing that makes me wonder ¨how many years will I stay in Ecuador?¨ or ¨Why would I ever leave this incredible place¨? Of course, as of now, nothing is decided, and I have plenty of reasons in friends and family for returning to the States. Nevertheless, the seed has been planted . . . we´ll see how it grows.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Adentro (pt.1)

(this post has turned into a ridiculous length, so I am splitting it into 2, or maybe 3, parts.)

I passed the last week of May and the first week of June in El Oriente, invited by my Peace Corps friends Jeremy and Susan King who live and work in Puyo. Most of Susans´ work is with the Huaroni tribe (these are the Indians depicted in the movie ¨End of the Spear¨ as well as the subject of a great book by Joe Kane titled ¨Savages¨) Like all natives in the Ecuadorian Amazon the Huaroni have been impacted by 50 years of oil exploration and extraction, illegal logging, and a steady stream of missionaries. More info about the Huaroni people and history can be found at Wikipedia, or amazingly enough, at http://www.huaroni.com/. Although the Huaroni have a long history of violence against outsiders and against neighboring clans the people we encountered in Menapare and Tepapare were anything but ¨violent savages¨.
Our trip adentro began in Puyo, where Susan, Jeremy and I met up with another PC friend, Kris Pedings. The four of us had trained together in La Esperanza, so it was a nice reunion – although I was dismayed that my Spanish lagged far behind theirs! In the morning we went to the offices of AMWAE, the agency Susan works with, to pick up supplies and to meet the 9 students from Duke University who were here to construct a water collection system and also to determine the community´s interest in solar derived electricity. With a grant from somewhere, AMWAE had recently purchased a brand new Yamaha 40HP outboard motor for one of its dugout canoes – we all watched in awe as one of the Huaroni men carried it down the stairs from the office and loaded it into the back of the chartered bus. This was only the first of many outrageous feats of strength that we would witness in the coming week. As the morning wore on, Duke students straggled in as did the Huaroni who were heading back to their villages. Our scheduled departure time became a distant memory as we gathered food and water, loaded bags and gear, and waited for something to happen. Ya mismo.
All of a sudden, the driver fired up the bus – it was packed to the gills with people and stuff, a gigantic water tank tied to the roof along with metal roofing, tubing and other various and sundry work related supplies; bags of cement, tanks of gasoline, and the 40 horse outboard all stashed in the compartments below. That the bus even moved was somewhat a shock. We had a beautiful and uneventful drive to Puerto Napo, where we took on 2 more passengers – Jeff Brown, another PC volunteer from up in Chaco, and Mary Fifield, who lives and works in Tena. She is affiliated with Global Pediatric Alliance and a friend of Jeremy and Susan´s. We then made a short stop in Misahualli where we had to track down a component of the outboard motor that was vital to its operation, namely, the key. A key was located, and as we left town crossing the rather suspect bridge over the Rio Napo, our driver forgot about the water tank strapped to the roof and inadvertently pulled down an electric wire. Thus, to cross the bridge we had to remove the tank, then walk across the bridge as it had been determined that the bus along with passengers would be too much of a load. We all waited on the other side with our breath held as the bus lolled over the bridge and made it safely to the other side, where we repacked the water tank and went on our merry way.
Our next stop would be Menapare, about 2 hours away and the end of the road. Along the way we passed settlements of colonistas, people who work for ¨The Company¨ (the oil companies). We passed parts of the pipeline, and at least one compound where supplies for oil extracting were piled up, waiting to be utilized. Towards the end of the road we came across a guarded checkpoint – we were about to enter Huaroni territory – and we wondered if the suspicious guard would allow this overloaded bus with its motley crew of gringos to pass. He did, and we cruised on in to Menapare.
We were staying only one night in Menapare, in the morning we would be traveling 2 -3 hours by canoe downriver to Tepapare. We unloaded the bus, and reloaded all work related supplies (including the gigantic water tank) into a dugout canoe waiting below the bridge, to be taken to Tepapare. The canoe would return for us in the morning. There had been rain, and the river was muddy and fast. There were some concerns that if it rained more during the night that we would have to wait to continue on, but as it turned out the night passed clear and quiet; we set up our tents and mosquito netting, prepared dinner for ourselves and the villagers, told stories and sang songs, and later crawled into our bags.
In the morning we woke to find that one of the Huaroni men had killed a small caiman with a machete blow across the skull, and that it was being roasted over a fire at another hut as part of breakfast. Hard boiled eggs, oatmeal, coffee and crocodile – the breakfast of champions! The meat was tender and tasty, much more palatable than I had expected.
After eating and washing up we broke down camp and started loading canoes. It was a short hike from the village to the river, and everything was carried down. We packed out 2 canoes – both appeared overladen, with only 4 – 6 inches of gunwale visible above the waterline. A light drizzle was falling, and as we left for Tepapare I noticed I was cold – something I never would have expected in the Amazon. The river was still up, but not dangerously so. As I looked around, at the river, at the jungle, at the water sloshing around my feet in the canoe, and at the people I was with, I had another of those moments of recognition where I just grin a little and say to myself ¨holy shit, I´m in Ecuador¨.
I would like to report that during the two hour cruise down to Tepapare that I saw great stands of primary jungle and thousands of exotic birds, butterflies, and flowers, not to mention some rare example of one endangered creature or another, but I can´t. Although far from Tena, we were still too close to civilization and its´ effects – oil extraction, colonization, illegal logging and hunting. Nevertheless, it was beautiful, and quiet (when the outboards were turned off), and I was thrilled to be there. We floated and motored downriver, and as we made a wide turn in the river we were greeted by 20 or 30 souls standing on a muddy bank, the people of Tepapare.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

la lluvia

May 25 2008

It´s been raining more than usual in Ambuqui these past few weeks; the locals don´t know what to make of it. Normally this is the start of a very dry season in a very dry region. But things are different this year, everyone says so; no one knows why. Along with the rains have come chillier temperatures, though nothing compared to the damp piercing cold of places set in higher altitudes, places like San Gabriel, La Paz, or Tulcan. Especially Tulcan. Nevertheless the people of Ambuqui walk about, (or huddle under awnings, depending on the rain) in sweaters and shawls, muttering phrases like ¨Aychaychay¨ (Quichua for cold), and ¨bien frio hoy¨ which in loosely translated Spanish means ¨damn it´s cold today.¨ Luckily for us, here in the valley, the rain and cooler temps do not usually stay long; they are often bracketed by glorious days of bright hot sunshine, blue skies and windblown clouds, wispy remnants of the rainmakers still active up in the mountains.
The rain in the mountains has been another matter altogether. Dry quebradas flood with rushing waters, cutting pueblos off from one another, from markets, from communications. Soils and rock erode unchecked from steep hillsides and either block, or cause the collapse of, the dirt tracks that pass for roads in the less inhabited parts of the province. The mud is so deep and so slippery that it is all but impossible to walk any path; rubber farm boots with deeply lugged soles are the preferred footwear for those who can afford such a luxury. Others go barefoot, toes curled, calves and thighs tensed against the inevitable slipping and sliding. Roofs leak, crops are ruined, chickens die. The people wait for the rains to end, but when?
This afternoon, in the misty rain falling in Ambuqui, I was sitting on my stoop, watching the neighborhood kids play a very complex version of marbles and eating my lunch. Juanita, the mother of one of the boys, passed by in a full run and called out ¨come, come to the quebrada!¨ There were other words as well, but I did not understand. The boys stopped their game, leaving their marbles in the street, and ran off behind her. ¨What´s happening,¨ I shouted, and Jerald, the son, turned and said ¨cerdos! En la quebrada! Venga! - ¨Pigs, in the waterway, come!¨
By the time I reached the quebrada, the pigs, if there had been pigs, were long gone. The volume of water and the speed at which it flowed was mind boggling. If pigs had indeed been caught up in that torrent they would never survive. Nothing would. It was a remarkable sight, matched only by the crushing sound of rushing water. Black, muddy, angry water. I scanned the viewable length of the quebrada – and was startled to see a hundred or more people lining the banks, standing and watching. Watching for pigs? Probably not. More likely they were looking only at the water, and no doubt some were wondering why, with so much water, was there not enough for irrigation; others perhaps wondering why, with so much water, was there not enough for cooking and bathing and washing?
Somewhat later I caught up with Juanita, and I asked her about the pigs. ¨Yes there were pigs¨, she said, ¨three, but all were dead, because of the water. The owners have found them, on the rocks below the bridge, and will take them home for butchering.¨

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

aqui, no mas

I bought a used Dell laptop in Quito two months ago, and it´s been a pleasure to have around, for writing and preparing work reports and charlas, for photo storage and music trading, and for watching a movie every now and again. Decent quality pirated DVDs can be bought all over for a 1.50, and somehow some movies are available here before they make their big screen debuts in LosEstadosUnidos, otherwise known as ¨allᨠ(there). I recently watched ¨Into the Wild¨ and the Michelangelo Antonioni classic ¨La Aventura¨. (preferred ¨Into the Wild¨) It gets dark here reliably each night at 6:30, and while I often entertain myself with sitting in the park and chatting for a while, or reading at home, it is nice to chill with a good movie now and again before crawling in around 9 PM.
Anyway, I thought that my computer might make me a better, more reliable blogger, but as the dates between posts indicates, that has not been the case. I am just as lazy as ever, or maybe just as boring. Life has settled into a very comfortable pattern, interrupted only occasionally by the spectacle of a truck plummeting down a cliff (driver lived) or a bad case of the shits brought on by some yummy smelling unidentified meat on any street corner. I was laid up for four days during Carnaval with such a condition, and I missed everything – all the dancing, all the drinking, all the debauchery. Well, there´s always next year.
Basically, there is work, which is challenging and ever-changing, and then there is all the other stuff. Like cooking, washing clothes, bathing (occasionally), and housecleaning (more occasionally). I cook a small breakfast every morning, coffee and a local type of oatmeal made with quinoa. I usually dump a ton of panela and cinnamon on top – panela is a type of brown sugar made in the local cane plantations. I don´t have a refrigerator, so my fresh ingredient list is limited to whatever I can buy here in Ambuqui and keep in the kitchen for a day or two. I always have a few mangos and avocados lying around, and lemons for lemonade are free for the picking. Occassionally the local tienda will have some good ¨carne de vaca¨ (meat of the cow), and I will cook up some rice and a bunch of veggies for a small feast. I cook all my meals on a little 3 burner stove top, which is attached to a tank of gas which sits in my kitchen. Propane is subsidized here, a tankful of cooking gas (minus deposit) costs 2.50, I have had the same tank for 10 months. For most families, who cook for many people every day a tank will last a month or so. Then there are the many households that do not use gas for cooking, but for various reasons continue to cook over wood fires, inside the home. This custom persists despite the relative lack of available wood, the low price of propane, and the ever present coughs and throat ailments of the residents.
We often have running water, but it is never a sure thing, so my clothes washing schedule is based on first checking to see if there´s water. If so, I put all my clothes in a big blue bucket, go outside, fill with water and detergent, and then let it sit for a few hours. Later I will swoosh the clothes around a little, dump out the old water, and fill with new water and swoosh around again. When I think that I have most of the soap out, I wring each piece and hang it on the line to dry. Here in Ambuqui clothes dry in a few hours, but in some places like Cayambe, Runipamba, or Urcuqui, it can take days. My meager cooking and laundering routines are nothing compared to the arduous housekeeping activities of the women. Entire days, or weekends, can be spent washing, rinsing, and hanging to dry. Some families who have no water wash their clothes and dishes in the irrigation ditches or in the river. They lay their clothes out on river rocks to dry.
Preparing food – a never ending task of shelling beans, shucking corn, cooking rice, killing and plucking chickens, washing and peeling potatos, boiling pots all day long for soups, etc. Somehow these women have enough energy to go to health charlas or community bank meetings in the evenings, meanwhile the menfolk are continuing their normal day of drinking, gambling, and carousing. And it´s a common enough fact that I won´t apologize for the generalization.
I do have a shower, cold water only, and many´s the time I´ve been stranded all lathered up when the water quits. So I keep a 20 gallon bucket of water in the shower stall so I can finish up, and also it provides a back up supply of water for flushing the toilet. Most people in town have a shower, but some still bathe in the ditches, the river, or out by the laundry tank. On the occasions when we go without water for 4 or 5 days many more can be found washing up outdoors. All this in a town where I am sitting in the biblioteca connected to wireless internet. Some forms of progress are easier and cheaper than others, I suppose.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Ambuqui kids

Ambuqui kids
Originally uploaded by rdlurie
Recently we were forwarded a New York Times op-ed piece written by former PCV and later country director Robert L. Strauss. I, along with hundreds of other PCV´s wrote a reply to his comments. At the end of my comments I have posted the link, if anyone cares to read the original piece. Any comments on content or grammar are welcome!


I read with interest the recent op-ed pieces regarding the Peace Corps. I would like to make a few comments, from the point of view of a 52 year old volunteer with many years of agricultural and community organizing experience.

1 – Regarding the question of bringing in more volunteers over the age of 50 – it´s a great idea. Older volunteers walk into a community and for the most part have instant credibility, irregardless of credentials. Most of us have, or have had, spouses, children, or businesses, and have experienced all the ups and downs associated. Most of the people we work with will have had similar experiences, certainly with regards to children and families. Even teaching volunteers will have plenty of interaction with other adults, administrators, teachers, and parents. They will all be curious about the older volunteers life – why did you decide to come here, where are your children, where is your spouse, how is life different here than in the U.S. – the questions will be sincere, and limitless. Younger volunteers are often seen (sometimes unfairly) more as adventurers, looking for a little fun and experience before starting a life back in the US.

One caveat – pay special attention to language acquisition for older volunteers! During training the older volunteer should be offered full days and weeks of language immersion – it is likely safe to assume that he or she has extensive, or at least sufficient, technical expertise.

2 – Specialists vs Generalists: This question is as old as Peace Corps itself! There is really only one answer, which is of course, both. There are no guarantees that a specialist can adequately teach, adapt to a new culture and a somewhat lower standard of living, or adapt to the realities of lowered expectations. Conversely, there is no reason to expect that a generalist, fresh out of college, can not apply themselves and quickly learn pertinent skills that will ultimately assist their communities. The most important skill of any volunteer is flexibility – the dogma of specialization rarely has a place in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

A successful PCV will be a multitasker par excellence, for the reality is that in any given month (say, for an AG volunteer, like myself) we may speak to a group of 40 to 50 about food security and nutrition; a group of 14 or 15 about specific pest problems on specific crops; we may spend an hour or two once a week teaching English to whoever shows up. We may be asked by the local health center to prepare a talk about domestic violence, or birth control. We may spend a grueling day, or week, digging fish ponds or building terraces on hillsides way too steep for conventional farming. We may spend an evening talking with a local women’s group about community banks, or about the best way to market the delicious jam they create from local fruits. And of course, many of us will take gulps of time for continued language training, either in the privacy of our quarters, or, even better, on a street corner sharing a cerveza or a platter of horno.

However, the most important work we will do is to share our humanity, our common bonds. To rejoice in small successes, and to flounder a little over our failures. To take a short walk along the coast with a neighbor, or hike in the mountains with a group of children who are thrilled beyond belief that you agreed to go with them. To admit to our new friends our fears and our questions, and our concerns, and to soothe them when they admit theirs, to us. Not a week goes by when I don’t wonder at least once – what the hell am I doing here? And without fail, I receive 10 or 15 affirmative reasons, every single week.

Former volunteer, recruiter, and country director Robert L. Strauss is, very surprisingly, looking at Peace Corps through a very small lens, if one is to be guided by his recently published opinions. Without a doubt, Peace Corps, like all agencies, should be in a constant state of examination and retooling. Also, without a doubt, Peace Corps is an incredibly successful concept and organization, by any standard of measurement. And it cannot be ignored that the ENTIRE annual budget of Peace Corps worldwide amounts to less than 2 days of war expenditures in Iraq. Let’s have some serious conversations about the real problems in America’s foreign policies – and less carping about Peace Corps, one of the best tools America has ever had to improve its image in a world that simultaneously grows smaller yet farther apart.