Friday, January 23, 2009

Dia a dia

January 20 - It`s a great feeling to walk out the door in the morning with 2 dollars and 90 cents in your pocket knowing that you not only have enough plata for transportation to and from your work but also enough for a great lunch at El Rincon de Sabor in Juncal. Today I got extra lucky and hitched rides both in and out of Caldera, thereby saving 50 centavos in bus fare. Lunch at the Rincon was super-rico today, a sancoche (soup with yucca, platano, and meat - delicious) and pollo en jugo (chicken stew, sort of, on a bed of rice with chopped up beets and half an avocado), for the main plate. Top it off with a glass of fresh tomate de arbol juice, and you got yourself a meal.
It felt good to get back to work today after a grueling (that`s a joke) 6 day trek to various beaches with my friends Shawn Stokes and Maria Ellis. We met in Quito last week for the Peace Corps “Close of Service” conference, a mind numbing day of preparation for entry back into life post PC. PC did treat us all to a very good meal at a fancy restaurant in Quito, and we got to meet our new Country Director, Kathleen Sifer, who seems very honest and very competent. Everyone in my group wishes she had shown up about 2 years ago. It was great to hang out with those of us who remain (we started in Feb 07 with 47 people, we leave in April 09 with 29, I think). On Sunday we hung out as a group in the Mariscal district of Quito, drinking beer, playing pool and cards and watching football playoffs, eating Indian food (at the aptly named “Great Indian Restaurant”) and carousing. On Monday night, after our fancy dinner, we simply hung out at the hotel, chatted, drank beer (the recurring theme) played cards, and generally just enjoyed what will surely be the last time many of us will see one another. I have never been inclined to join very many groups, but I will always be proud to say I was part of Omnibus 97 Peace Corps Ecuador.
Maria, Shawn, and I got out of Quito around noon Tuesday, headed north to Ibarra and Lita. We spent the night in a 3 dollar hostal in Lita, then caught busses (the two busses we took to Rio Verde were the most tranquilo I have ridden in Ecuador – half empty, music not rattling the sheetmetal, and almost all the windows open) to the coast via Calderon and Borbon, places that are way off the Gringo Trail. We arrived at Hostal Pura Vida that afternoon, just outside of Rio Verde, and immediately walked down to the big wide beach. The day was beautiful, and the good weather stayed with us as we meandered down the coast. Next day we were in Sua, with PC friends Kat and Damon, and they took us to a secluded beach that I thought surely must be the most beautiful in Ecuador. Make that one of the most beautiful, because the next day we traveled off the beaten path into Punta Galera to visit another PCV, and she took us to the beach at Tongorachi which required a sweaty and muddy hour long slog to reach but was spectacular and well worth the effort. While there we ran into a local family who had just returned from harvesting sea cucumbers. Sea cucumbers are endangered, and I believe their harvest is illegal in the Galapagos, but I am not sure about the mainland. Nevertheless, we later encountered the same family selling their catch out on the road to a middleman, who we caught a ride with. As we drove away (with a large crate full of sea cucumbers) an official looking truck with official looking people in it pulled in behind us and we started imagining the headlines – “Peace Corps Volunteers arrested, caught redhanded with illegal sea cucumbers”- but apparently there is a system at work here that we are ignorant of (nothing new there) and the official looking truck passed us by with a friendly wave from its official looking occupants.
We stayed that night back up the coast in a seedy hotel in Atacames. I loathe Atacames and hope to never see it again except in passing on my way to somewhere better, which is pretty much anywhere. I do not understand why Rough Guides and Lonely Planet and other travel guides give one drop of ink to a place like Atacames - it is a shit hole that amplifies all that is wrong with Ecuador and all that is wrong with beach towns and beach culture in general. Yuck. Feo. Enough said.
We grabbed an early bus out of purgatory and stop by excruciating stop made our way to Mompiche, the end of the line and our final destination. Mompiche is tiny, a muddy and raw collection of bamboo hostales, concrete bunker-like restaurants, a little peligroso at night, and absolutely beautiful. We had only two nights, and on our second day we walked about an hour to a black sand beach that we all agreed was the most spectacular of them all. We stayed for hours, burned ourselves in the sun, swam in the most crystal clear ocean water I have ever seen, and covered ourselves in the black sand which was cool and soothing. As we walked back to Mompiche we were all hatching ideas about how to buy a few hectares of land adjacent to this incredible beach. On the bus back to civilization the next day I met a French woman who said that 30 years ago Atacames was just like Mompiche is now. I hope as Mompiche grows, as it surely will, it can avoid a similar fate.
We left Mompiche on the early bus, all wishing we could stay a day, a month, a year longer. Shawn and Maria caught a bus for the long trip back down to Fundachamba, which will take forever – or about twenty hours that will seem like forever. I retraced our route back up through Rio Verde, Rocafuerte, Borbon and Lita, and as usual was stunned and awestruck by the diversity and beauty of this tiny little country.
January 21 – I caught the early bus up to Caldera today because tomorrow is the casa abierta (open house) at the school and I wanted to have all day to work in the garden to tidy it up. I had also promised Anita, the school cook, that I would prepare an ensalada de culantro, rabano y zuqini, (cilantro, radish, and zuchinni salad)all harvested yesterday from the garden. I worked with a few student helpers from 7 `til 9, then went down to the cocina to make the salad, which took me the better part of an hour, since it had to go on 100 plates along with the delicious tuna-noodle-rice thing Anita had whipped up. It is a rare thing to see a man in the kitchen around these parts, so I had to endure some banter from some of the male staff and as well some exaggerated fawning over by several of the women – “ ¿quiere a trabajar in mi cocina, gringo?” - (“hey gringo, wanna come work in my kitchen?”). I think the salad was a hit, all the kids I asked said they liked it – “¡que rico!” – but then again that`s what they say when they smell my arms after I slather bug repellant all over them.
Yesterday the school director told me he would like me to be a calificador during todays election of the schools reinas. I did not know what a calificador was, had no idea what he was talking about, but happily agreed to do so. It turns out that a calificador is a judge, and I was to be one of three for the annual selection of la Reina de la Escuela Cuba, (Queen of the Cuba School) and a couple of less lofty positions along the lines of Miss Most Friendly, Miss Most Sincere, etc. I thought all this had been decided at a different fiesta last month, but no, that was the election for class presidents and officers. (Ecuadoreans frequently joke that the major reason for their countries` poverty and disorganization is the inordinate amount of days given over to fiestas, marches, parades and the like.)
So, I sat down at a plastic table in the middle of the concrete square with my fellow judges, in front of a full house of parents and students, accompanied by last years` school reina as well as the reina of the Canton, and some other reina I was unable to identify. (Ecuador is serious about it`s reinas). With the sun beating down and the moisture from an early drizzle steaming up from the concrete we waited in anticipation as the candidatas finished their preparations. A very large speaker directly behind us blared out a mix of technocumbia and the pop music of Aventura, a NYC based bachatta band idolized throughout Latin America. Suddenly the music switched to some lilting new age instrumental and as if on cue the crowd fell silent. As the candidatas were escorted out by boys half their size I was struck not only by their beauty and bearing, but as well by their fancy dresses. All of the 6 candidates wore exotic creations that must have cost at least a weeks` salary. All the girls did a little dance step, provided correct answers to the “interview questions” and any one of them would have been a great choice to be this years` reina. Yet we had to choose, which was difficult because we knew that 5 girls would be disappointed, and 3 of those 5 would be very disappointed, having won nothing at all. We discussed our options, made our selections, and then I was informed that I would take the microphone and announce the winners. I tried my best to squirm out of this task, to no avail. Mustering up my best Spanish and a little enthusiasm, I announced the second and third place finishers, and then Alishya, one of the other judges, (seeing that I was faltering), came to my rescue, relieving me of the duty to announce the winner. Alishya was way more enthusiastic than I was, and I think the crowd actually understood her local Spanish much better than my stammering gibberish.
After all the hoopla, I looked up at a bulletin board containing 6 student illustrations of the Escuela Cuba. Much to my surprise, and most pleasing to me, one of them contained a representation of the new school garden. That just about made my day, even more than getting to judge the beauty contest.
January 22 - The casa abierta was a success for the school, but a bit of a letdown for me. Only one parent made the short hike up the hill to visit the garden, and Fabian, the school director and all around great guy neglected to mention it during his introductory speech about the days` activities. I am certain this was simply an oversight, not at all intended, but frustrating nonetheless because I had hoped to use this day to secure some parental commitments in helping to maintain the garden, both now and in the future, after I have gone. I mentioned this later to Fabian and he was chagrined and apologetic, and promised me we could arrange another day in February to bring attention to the “huerto escolar”. I have no doubt that he will make it happen, and in the meanwhile the students and I have more time to bring it into tip top shape. Works for me.
On a brighter note, I finally contacted Viviana, a woman in Caldera who raises cuyes – cuyes are guinea pigs that are raised for meat, and are very seldom raised here in this part of the Sierras. They are usually favored by the indigenous and mestizo populations living in higher and cooler climates. Guinea pigs happen to produce some very rich poop, and since I am growing a few beds of alfalfa as a soil improver at the school, I was able to arrange a trade – cuy shit for alfalfa. Viviana is thrilled because alfalfa is great feed for cuyes, and I am happy because animal abono is almost impossible to come by in the Valle de Chota.
Waiting for a ride out of Caldera later today I joined a group of girls playing “jacks”, with 12 pebbles and an old ping pong ball. The game they were playing had some nuances of form and rule that differed from those my Mom taught me, but I asked if I could join them and pretty soon I more or less had the hang of it. We played on a rough concrete surface and there was no telling where the ball may bounce, but that was part of the challenge. We managed about a half an hour of close competition before a truck passed; and as I rode off I was full of thoughts about my late mother, Maitland, who died a few years ago at 69 years of age; and I was also filled with admiration for these kids who have almost nothing, who never complain, and who are always smiling.


Anonymous said...

Great post my friend! We are looking forward to seeing you again. Won't be long now and some good pilsner and cheap rum should help to hold back the disbelief as Lori kicks our asses yet again at cards...

Nos Vemos...

Anonymous said...

a new country director??? i hope i can hear the whole story about this! mama b

Anonymous said...

se que escribes tus experiencias vividas en Ecuador, se que te gusta mucho tambien, pues sigue adelante con tus sueños y siempre has lo que te gusta ok
te vere pronto