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 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.¨