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?”.