Friday, October 30, 2009

It dawned on me that some portion of the 3.67 readers of this blog might be wondering how I am passing the time here in Ecuador, now that I am no longer trying to save the world as a Peace Corps Volunteer. So the following is an attempt to show how I fill the hours – that is, those not spent reading, sleeping, or checking sports scores and random air-fares on the internet. Oh yeah, and the half my life I spend on busses. And the hours spent wandering aimlessly around Ibarra.

Actually, I am not even sure where to begin – but maybe August 15 is as good a date as any, that being the date I flew back into Quito after spending 2 months in the US. I`ll try to be brief, but will likely fail. Listo?

That night, August 15, I camped out on the spare mattress in the very small Quito apartment of Peace Corps friend Mary Ollenberger, better known as Mo. Mo has extended for a third year and is kind enough to make her place available every now and again. During my 2 month absence the entire transportation system through Quito was overhauled, and over coffee and oatmeal the next morning Mo was kind enough to explain the changes and new terminal locations to me. “It`s a pain in the ass”, she said, but actually it`s not all that bad. I thanked her for the hospitality, grabbed my gear and found my way to the new north Quito terminal, where I caught a bus to Ibarra, then from there to Ambuqui. Arriving back in Ambuqui was a pleasure, and entering my humble abode I was thinking, home again! I fell on my bed and slept for the next 10 hours.

During the next several weeks I was occupied on several fronts. They were (1) Despite the warm fuzzies I had felt returning to my little casita in Ambuqui the truth is I was ready for a change and had plans to find a place in Ibarra. (2) I needed and wanted to find a job – pretty much any job, so long as it could get me an extension on my 6 month visa. (3) I had to make several trips back to Quito to register my visa and to get an identification card. This was way more difficult than it sounds. First of all, none of the offices I had to visit were where they were supposed to be, according to the information I had been given. After hours afoot in Quito, I finally found the first office, and after an hour wait I turned over my passport (scary) and was told to return in 48 hours. I bussed back to Ambuqui, and 2 days later bussed back to Quito. I picked up my passport, relieved and amazed not to hear “it`s been misplaced, come back again tomorrow”. Thinking for once, I checked with the official as to the whereabouts of the next place I had to go to, to get my ID card, and of course it was not where I had been told it would be. But at least I knew, and headed off on foot, not in any particular hurry. It was a pleasant morning and my route took me through Parque Carolina, a nice place to walk – but not at night. I find the office easily, and am told that I need to have a large manila envelope and a couple of paper clips, or something like that. So I go next door to the conveniently located office supply shop, get what I need, and return. My number comes up, I sit at a desk manned by a very pleasant police officer who takes my picture, he starts to make the card, and all of a sudden he says –“there`s a problem”. Oh, shit.

Turns out that the idiot – I am not ashamed of describing him thus – at the previous office has stamped my passport and visa as valid until 15 FEBRERO 2009 – when of course it should have been stamped 15 FEBRERO 2010. And I, too, am an idiot, because I did not take 5 seconds to check my passport when I received it back from the first idiot. “I am sorry”, said the police officer, “you`ll have to go back and have them correct it”. “Don`t worry about getting a number when you come back, just come straight to my desk”. Wow, this guy was great, truly breaking the mold of immigration officials worldwide. I rush outside, jump in a taxi. Back at the first office, there is an armed guard, private, not military, at the door. I ask to enter, explaining my situation, and he says the office is closed, they are moving everything to a new location. “But I was just here an hour or two ago, and everything was normal” I reply. “Lo siento, no puede entrar – sorry, you can`t go in.” “I`m going in” I say, and I brush past him and his machine gun and go in. The place is a mess. Papers everywhere, cardboard boxes turned on their side, a real clusterfuck. I find my guy amidst the chaos, hand him my passport and say “fix this please.” He looks at me, looks at the passport, and without a word whites out 2009 and writes in 2010. I make him stamp it again so it doesn’t look like I did it myself, which I had thought of doing. He hands me back my passport, he has not said a word. I say thanks for not shooting me to the guard as I leave, and he laughs. Back at the desk of the nice official, I get my card and think “honestly, it could have been a lot worse.”

As you can see, I am failing at keeping this brief, as I predicted. But it`s Thursday night, (party night in Ambuqui), and I have some fresh squeezed orange juice, a bottle of rum, and all the time in the world. So what the hell.
Days and weeks go by, I spend lots of time in Ibarra house hunting, but ultimately decide to stay awhile longer here in Ambuqui. It`s cheap, a nice place, and I got tired of pounding the pavement and knocking on doors. Meanwhile, my friend Jay Smith has suggested I try to get a job teaching English at the place where he works, a place called “inlingua”. I arrange an interview, which goes well, then another, with someone else. Then they send me to Quito to interview there, which also goes well. A final interview in Ibarra, where I am told, “OK, looks great, and we have work for you - in January.” The date is September something. January is a long way away.

I go for a short trip down to Riobamba and Guaranda, where I have some friends. I take a side trip to Salinas de Guaranda, a mountain community which is well known for its chocolates and cheeses – produced under the guidance of a Catholic priest from Italy who came here 30 years and has organized the community into a giant cooperative – not without its problems but pretty impressive all in all. The chocolate is exported all over the world, there is a composting facility, wool production, etc. A Peace Corps volunteer introduces me to the padre and I am tentatively offered a job helping coordinate a new greenhouse project they are contemplating. I am intrigued, and next week I am heading back down that way for a few weeks to get the details and to see if I can stand the weather, which is cold and rainy. There is a small salary, but more importantly they can get me a 2 year (missionary!) work visa.

Meanwhile, back in Ibarra and Ambuqui, I have been keeping busy. Although I had hoped to get back to my school garden projects, the prolonged teachers strike put an end to that idea. The prolonged drought has not helped either, in that it is useless to plant until some steady rain comes. If it comes. “Keeping busy” of course is a relative term – in this context it means I sleep or read or hike or socialize whenever I want – and in the hours that remain I try to make myself useful somehow.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet Robert and Kit Frank, from upstate New York. Bob builds prosthetic limbs and does consultation and therapy. Kit is a therapist as well. They have been coming to Ecuador for many years to help provide free or affordable prosthetics and care to those who otherwise would go without. They work with several Ecuadorean technicians, one of whom started a clinic in Ibarra. I had actually been to this clinic back in March, along with friends from Ohio Colin and Lori Gatland. Lori is a Rotarian and she had wanted to attend a meeting in Ibarra, and it turns out that the clinic is located on land adjacent to and owned by the Ibarra Rotary Club. Having nothing but a fair amount of free time, and being a little bored, I offered to Bob and Kit a helping hand, doing anything. So I have spent some time there – carving balsa wood arms and hands which will be later coated in polyresins and turned into usable limbs; troubleshooting some electrical problems; and sometimes just getting in the way. This past week I went to Quito to locate a firm who might be able to copy some molds in order to build artificial knees at the clinic.

As you might well imagine an hour or two, or a week or two, spent at a prosthetics clinic will bring with it some incredible sights and stories. Very young children, born without one, or two, or three limbs. Laborers, who have lost an arm or leg due to a work accident (electrical burns are one of the most common reasons for amputation) Most tragically, there are those who are the victims of violence. Two weeks ago I walked into the clinic on a Monday morning, and met a woman, 40 something, who was waiting for treatment. Some 2 or 3 years ago her husband attacked her with a machete – she lost both hands and her face and arms are covered in deep scars. We talked for a while, but she was timid and quiet. Stoic. A few days later I returned, and she had just been fitted with 2 new hands, basically flesh colored claws, and she was practicing how to open, close, and otherwise manipulate them with the harness fitted over her shoulders and back. Her face was shining, with her eyes bright and a huge smile which filled the room. She was drinking from a plastic water bottle, then transferring it from one hand to the other - pull to open, push to close, pull to open, push to close. She was working so hard, and she was so incredibly happy. Bob says he is always amazed by the patients he sees here in Ecuador – no bitterness, no complaining. Happy, despite everything.

Bob and Kit have returned to the US, but will come back to Ecuador in January. Meanwhile, I stop in from time to time to see if I can do anything – anything at all. It is a pleasure to be there, with all those tragic, yet somehow happy people.
So, that`s it. There`s more of course, including some very nice trips up to Tumbabiro, Cahuasqui, etc. but I am tired and will spare you, at least for now. Oh, I have been chasing down some leads on some properties here and there, and I have a fairly solid marriage offer “just to help you get your residency visa”. But, oh god, I am so not ready to go there.

The photo above was taken in Pimampiro, where I spent last Saturday helping put a roof on a crumbling old house. The construction was suspect enough that I refused to climb up on the roof, but the Ecuadoreans are fearless and clambered over the ridge pole and rafters like goats. I was happy to be the ground man, cutting rafters, making shims, and jokingly calling out from time to time “mas rapido, muchachos! Vayase!”