Thursday, February 26, 2009

It´s a Cultural Thing

Carnaval is over, and not a moment too soon. Four days of drinking, dancing, water balloons, buckets of water, buckets of mud, bomba, and did I mention drinking and dancing? Today almost the entire country is either in bed with a hangover or pneumonia. I have never been anywhere else where Carnaval is celebrated, so I wonder if this mode of celebration is typical – or just Ecuadorean insanity? I have been told that Colombia, just miles to the north, celebrates Carnaval, but with a little more restraint and minus the miserable soakings that are inflicted upon passers-by, whether they want it or not.
Of course I am an old fart, and actually even when I was younger this type of event would not have been my cup of tea. (Maybe I have always been an old fart.) But my younger PC friends who came up to the Valle de Chota for Carnaval all had a pretty good time, and it was a pleasure to host them in my little casita here in Ambuqui. They all crowded into my few square feet of floor space on a couple of extra mattresses, we made some great meals together, and enjoyed a hike up into the hills. I skipped most of the Carnaval partying, but the kids made the most of it. For most of them it was their first trip to the north of Ecuador, and they deemed it totally unlike any other part of the country – a different world. I tend to agree with them.
Every party comes to an end, and as I passed through Juncal on my way to work this morning I was saddened to see much of the trash and debris from the weekend being bulldozed into the river. I would have been shocked, but in many communities this is SOP. I sometimes have to remind myself that in the US it was not so many years ago when trash disposal meant finding the closest stream or river. Probably still happens.

I stopped in at Piqiuicho to visit my friend Pedro Borja, who runs a little tienda. 10 years my senior, Pedro was griping today about being tied down to the tienda – he said he was bored, tired of waiting on customers (“sell me 2 cigarettes” – “gimme one platano” – “dos caramellos”, etc.) and all he wants to do is go down to work in his fields. But his wife is sick, and she has been spending most of her days in Quito, unable to help run the tienda. I suggest to Don Pedro that he hire a helper, but he says his wife forbids it. “She is afraid I will like my helper more than her, and forget about her down in Quito.” When I suggest he hire a male helper he gives me an odd look and says that he wants only a pretty young girl helper, so perhaps his wife has a point . . .
This Saturday Pedro will have a chance to get down to his farm; we are going to graft 25 of his avocado trees. We consulted the lunar calendar and Saturday looks to be a good day – and every farmer in these parts swears by the power of the moon. I have always been skeptical, but am quite willing to be shown otherwise. Don Pedro has agreed to let me graft his 25 trees on Saturday, and then I get to graft 5 others on a day that is not in accord with the moon. We will wait and see what the results are.

I wandered over to the school garden in Piqiuicho and found a large crowd of people in front of the school gate. In the middle were 2 grown women, fighting – pummeling each other with sticks of wood. Anyone who stepped in to intervene, including children, were thrown to the ground. I shook my head in despair – the level of violence in this culture is hard to fathom. Physical, verbal, emotional, it`s all here. Shouting and hitting are a part of normal everyday life and here it was being played out in full view of every adult and every child in town, some of whom bore the brunt of the blows when crying out to stop it. I tried to find out what was happening, but I did not dare intervene – my head would have been smashed in without a second thought. Apparently both women had been drinking heavily during Carnaval, there was an episode over a man, perhaps a husband. This was a battle for honor. I could not stand to watch, or even to stay in town any longer. I left without even checking on the garden.

I went on up to Caldera and thankfully there was no hand to hand combat. But an unfortunate episode occurred in the garden when several of the older boys stripped the tomato plants bare of all the still green fruits. I was livid, and entirely fed up with the culture of “dame, regalame, dame” (give me, gift me, give me). I lectured them long and hard on their selfishness and inability to work or share together. I reminded them that the produce from the garden is not for any one person, it is for the school, collectively. I called out every bad word in Spanish I could think of and by the end of my tirade 2 of the boys were crying. I was not ashamed of my outburst, not in the least. In a final dramatic flourish I took the green fruits and smashed them on the concrete, to drive home my point – if we can`t all enjoy them, then none of us will. Oh, it was quite a performance. Word quickly spread to the director that “el señor es bien enojado” (the gringo is really pissed off) and as he approached me he smiled and shook my hand, saying something along the lines of “welcome to my world”. He said a few words to the boys, I rubbed a few heads in affection, and went back to work, with helpers. The irony of my own somewhat violent outburst on the heels of the fight in Piqiuicho was not lost on me. I decided not to think about it too much.

I ran into PC friend Chrystal Smith in Ibarra the other day, and as we were waiting for busses back to our sites we started a list of “phrases we will probably not utter in the US”. Here are a few of them, explanations follow:
1. Hey, get me the cho-cho lady!
2. Sorry, I can`t, I have to stay home and sharpen my machete today.
3. What color was your shit this week?
4. What consistency was your shit this week?
5. I spent 26 dollars this month.
6. Excuse me do you know at what time the bus drivers strike is supposed to be over?
7. It rained last night, do you think the road will be open?
8. This bus has 60 people in it, yet it is exactly the same size as the Gemini space capsule.
9. Well, it`s 60 miles away, so I should be there in about 4 hours.
10. The hell with it, I`m riding on the roof (of the bus)
11. Do you think this chi-cha has been spit in?
12. I`ll have the soup, but please leave out the feet.
13. I`ll have the soup, but please leave out the brains and also the eyes.
14. I wonder how long the newest Constitution will last?
15. 18 avocados for one dollar, not bad.

1. At most bus stops a parade of vendors come tromping aboard selling fritada, pollo seco, mandarinas, and the like. Cho-chos are a favorite snack of toasted corn and beans with lime and salt.
2. Many of us have purchased and learned to use machetes, and a sharp one is very useful. It is amazing what you can do with a machete.
3 & 4. 2 years ago, our first day of PC training, we were warned that our bodily functions would become a major topic of conversation. They weren`t kidding.
5. Rare, but possible.
6. Strikes, especially in the transportation sector, are not uncommon
7. Rain often triggers landslides which close roads
8. Local busses are tiny and crowded, usually SRO. Long distance busses are usually larger and semi-comfortable.
9. Not always the case, but often enough.
10. Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
11. Chi-cha is a liquid refreshment, and in some locales the yucca or whatever else is being used to make it is chewed up and spit back into the pot, the saliva causes it to ferment and gain alcoholic content
12 &13. 2 years later and I still cannot eat soup with miscellaneous body parts floating around in it.
14. Sad, but true. Instability in government is a big reason for many of Ecuadors` ills.
15. Or 30 mandarinas for 1 dollar, or 20 mangos, or 50 bananas . . .

Sunday, February 1, 2009

days like this

31 Enero - A long stretch of very good days and weeks came to an abrupt end today. I should have seen it coming; yesterday was just too good, too many things went right.

Yesterday I finally found and bought a dozen mango trees for the school gardens. For a region that grows so many mangos, the trees are surprisingly hard to come by. I had heard rumors of mango trees for sale up in Pimampiro, but had struck out on all my previous visits. Yesterday I decided to try one more time, and as I wandered more or less aimlessly through town I rounded a corner and there before me, sitting on the sidewalk, were 2 boxes of beautiful mango trees – ingertos (grafted) – exactly what I was looking for. I located the owner of the trees and we walked down the street to his little vivero (nursery) tucked away in a courtyard. He had hundreds and hundreds of trees - mangos, avocados, mandarins and more. I asked the price of the grafted mangos, hoping for 3 dollars apiece, and when the owner told me the cost was 4 dollars cada uno I groaned a little but agreed to the deal. I had spent way too much time looking for these trees, quibbling over 12 dollars was not worth it. I normally don`t carry more than a few dollars with me each day, but today had 50 bucks tucked away just in case I got lucky. So I paid the man, and we went off to find someone with a pickup truck who we could hire to haul me and the trees to Piqiuicho and Caldera. The camionetta drivers in Pimampiro are a hard bunch, and the best price we found was 8 dollars, which was still highway robbery. So I hired a guy with a 2 wheeled cart attached to a bicycle and he charged me .50 centavos to carry the load to the bus stop, about 4 blocks away. A bus came in a few minutes, and I loaded the trees (each about 30 inches tall) into a compartment and we headed to Juncal, about 20 minutes down the hill. I met Alexis, one of the older kids from the Piqiuicho school, on the bus, and he agreed to help me unload the trees from our bus and onto the Caldera bus, if one came by. This was the big gamble, because I did not know when or if a bus up to Caldera would show up.

A small crowd gathered as we waited in Juncal, because people here are always curious when they see a gringo carting around a load of trees or plants. As I was explaining about the school gardens, and the donations which enabled me to buy the trees, and all that, I looked up to see a Monte Olivo bus, bound for both Piqiuicho and Caldera, come to a screeching halt to discharge some passengers. I motioned to the ayudante (bus helper) that we needed to load the trees, and in the blink of an eye we were on our way. In Piqiuicho Alexis jumped off and grabbed 3 trees, which is all we have space for in the garden there. I continued up to Caldera, absolutely amazed at how well this was all working out, and congratulating myself for not throwing away 8 bucks on the camionetta. The bus fares came to a grand total of .50 centavos. In Caldera I dropped off the 9 remaining trees at the Escuela de Cuba. Seven of the tress were going to the garden, and I gave the other 2 to Don Homero, the school janitor, to plant in his huerto down the road. I felt a little guilty about the bribe, but Don Homero has been a constant source of help and advice to me, and two mango trees seemed a small price to pay for his assistance and encouragement.

I stayed in Caldera long enough to water the garden, and by the time I was ready to leave the last bus back down to Juncal had already passed. I started hiking out of town, but in just a few minutes a truck loaded with peppers and onions slowed down enough for me to jump on and off we went. Once again, I could not believe my luck.

That was yesterday. Today was a clusterfuck of missed busses and missed connections, a nasty encounter with an unfriendly person, and a day in which my Spanish decided to go on vacation. I will spare all the details, but by 2PM I had had enough, and headed home to take a long nap. I woke up at about 4, made some coffee and poured some honey over an arepa (kind of like corn bread). I was still peeved about the events of earlier in the day, and decided to get out for a short hike up into the mountains, literally just steps outside my door. I had about 2 hours of daylight, so took my binoculars, a book, and a bottle of water. Within 30 minutes I was high above Ambuqui, I sat on a rock for a few minutes and gazed at my little town far below. It seemed so quiet, and so tranquilo, yet all I could think about were all the dramas that were played out here every day, just as they are in small towns everywhere. I thought of other small towns I have lived in, Yellow Springs, Ohio; White Salmon, Washington; Longmont, Colorado, just to name a few, and they all blended into one. One town where people loved, where people fought, where people succeeded or failed, where people drank the day away in public, or more discreetly took a pull every now and again from the bottle hidden in the cupboard. I thought about Edgar Lee Masters` “Spoon River Anthology” and how the scandals and tragedies, the tales of lust and love and of hatred and friendship described in the headstones of the deceased residents could cross cultures and all be applicable here in Ambuqui, one hundred years later and thousands of miles away.

I moved on up into the mountains, and came to a stopping point where the quebrada climbed almost a hundred feet straight up. If I were a bunch of years younger, I might have tried to make my way up, and I may yet try to do so, but not by myself. I found another rock, with another view of the now more distant Ambuqui. I was carrying my current read, “Dead Man`s Walk”, by Larry McMurtry, and ripped off a chapter as the daylight began to fade. It was easy to imagine myself in the shoes of the characters in the novel, there in the dry quebrada with the towering hills covered in cactus and sagebrush. I looked up at the fat crescent moon and though it best to head back down before the light was completely gone. I was happy with my little adventure, and had mostly forgotten about the day`s bad start. On my way down I met an indigenous woman bringing her 3 cows back into town from a day of grazing. She was surprised to see me, and asked where I had been, what had I been doing. I told her I`d just been up in the quebrada, just taking a walk for the fun of it. She shook her head and looked at me like I was crazy. I suppose she trudges up and down these goat trails nearly every day of her life and likely sees no fun in it at all.

Books. “Dead Man`s Walk” will bring me up to 100 novels read during my 2 years of Peace Corps. We are lucky here to have a great network of book trading, so it is pretty easy to keep a fresh supply of books around. Most of my reading is done at night, in the few hours between sunset and bedtime, and some is done on busses, or while waiting for busses. And once in a great while, I will stay home and read the entire day, which is a luxury I think everyone should grant themselves from time to time.

I have read two very good books with a “do-gooder” theme, and would recommend them to anyone who wants to believe that yes, individuals can make a difference in this world of ours. One is “City of Joy” by Dominique LaPierre, which is a story of Calcutta, India; and the other is “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin, a contemporary story of one guy`s mission to build schools in the far reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan. For more Peace Corps related themes, “Living Poor” by Moritz Thomsen is a classic, and his story still rings true, 40 years later. “The Bold Experiment” by Gerard T. Rice is the story of Peace Corps` creation and first few decades, and is very well researched and written.

Tomorrow is the Super Bowl, and although I normally go with the Steelers I have to go this time with Arizona as the sentimental underdog choice. And because Kurt Warner is way too old to be playing as well as he is. I will enjoy the game with some friends in Ibarra, drinking 80 cent Pilseners and eating empanadas, can`t wait.

Well now it seems that today may not have been so bad after all. Just not quite so good as the days before.