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 . . .