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. . .


Tatiana said...

great post. i miss you.

Joey said...

I love the conversations I can picture them! -Joey

mama bear said...

poignant...beautiful writing....i think this may be my favorite ecuadorian blog that i've read. i cant wait to read the next one! steph